This was the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 27 April 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2: 2, and John 20: 19 – 31.
This was also Heritage Sunday. For those that don’t know, I came to the United Methodist Church through the Evangelical United Brethren Church, so this day has some history for me as well.
The significance of this day is perhaps of greater importance to me than it is to any of you but that is because my heritage, how I came to be a member of the United Methodist Church, is a little bit different than your heritage. For the church in which I was confirmed in and was a member during my high school years was an Evangelical United Brethren church.
Like so many others, I attended the church closest to home and when we lived in Aurora, CO, that church was the 1st EUB of Aurora. Now that was its official title but to tell you the truth, it was the only EUB church. There were other EUB churches in Colorado and throughout the country but all were small congregations in a relatively small denomination.
The Evangelical United Brethren church was itself the merger of two smaller denominations, the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren Church. Both denominations began in the 18th century as spiritual renewal movements in rural Pennsylvania. Inspired by the Methodists revival, the United Brethren and Evangelical Churches held to the centrality of biblical authority, justification by faith, the church as a nurturing body, sanctification, and the application of Christianity to the social context. With so much in common with Methodists, these two churches were often called “German Methodists.”
Born in a time of great spiritual renewal, the early Evangelical and United Brethren Churches did what very few of the early American churches, including the early Methodist Episcopal churches, were not doing, that is, addressing the needs of German immigrants for spiritual renewal and a renewed vision. Like the early church of Acts, there was a need for a community, a place where one could find friendship and help and a place where one’s own spiritual needs could be ministered. The heritage of the two churches, like the early Methodist church, came from the simple yet profound faith of ardent seekers after God. Those who made the early churches such a powerful spiritual force in this world turned their backs on the ways of the world to serve with a full will. They were persons of integrity, and the holiness of their lives imparted to them the compelling strength of quiet power.
As we celebrate our heritage of over two hundred years, we are faced with a challenge. In a world where outward strategies and institutional forms can and should change, how do we maintain the values expressed by the church of Acts and repeated by the early churches of America?
We see what the early church did, gathering together as a community of faith in order to care for each other. The gathering of the first bible study group led by John and Charles Wesley, the Holy Club at Oxford University, was an attempt to maintain that sense of community expressed in Acts. The founding of churches in this country, from the very beginning, was to give those a sense of stability and spiritual growth to the immigrants of the country.
But, as much as this was done for community, it was also done in the name of faith. It was done so that the faith of the early church members, both of the New Testament and in our own American history, could be shared with others seeking peace in a world of turmoil. It was the faith of the early church founders, not the works; it was the faith of Philip William Otterbein, Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm and the Wesley brothers and not their works that produced the denomination that we have today. And it will be faith that carries the church into the coming years. That is the central point Jesus made to Thomas.
Thomas needed confirmation that the resurrection was indeed true. But, as Jesus pointed out, there would be countless others whose belief in the resurrection and in Christ would come through faith alone. Nothing that is done in the present will help anyone come to know Christ unless it is done in the name of faith. As John said in his first letter, it was the fellowship of faith that brought people together in communion with Christ. But without the fellowship of faith, it would be impossible for others to share in the true knowledge of the Christ.
And that is the challenge we face today. For if we forget that we are here today because of the faith of others, it will be very difficult for others to be here in the future. It is right and proper to remember the heritage that we have, but if all we remember is our heritage, we will forget why we are here. The noted American anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, once said,
“The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.” (Loren Eiseley, American anthropologist (1907 – 1977) – quoted in the “today in History” newsletter for 24 April 2003.)
I speak with pride of my heritage as a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church, for through that church in Aurora I came to know Jesus Christ as my own personal savior. I came to know the fellowship of the brethren, even well beyond the days I lived in Colorado. When I started school in Kirksville back in 1966, I could have attended Faith EUB. But it was too far to walk on a Sunday morning and without ready transportation I chose to walk to 1st Methodist Church. Thirty years later, I did get a chance to attend and preach at Faith Church and I related to them why I did not come back in 1966. Afterwards, one member of the church came up to me and said, “You should have called. We would have come and gotten you.”
I cannot speak to the demise of the Evangelical United Brethren church as a denomination. Even as I was a teenager working on my confirmation assignments, it was a dying denomination. Merger with the Methodists was perhaps the only way that many small churches would remain open. But I know today that there was opposition to the merger. Those in opposition feared that the merger would cause them to lose the traditions of the old church.
In one sense then, I should be glad that the merger took place. For one of the traditions in some of the old EUB churches was that once a year the pastor give a sermon in German. And though I have a German heritage I cannot speak German and I would have a difficult time meeting that requirement. Fortunately for me, First Church in Aurora did not hold to that tradition. And even my family, though they still cannot understand why I do not like sauerkraut, have forgiven my forgetting of the old ways.
But failing to hold on to the old ways would have kept me from the ministry. And when one holds on to the old ways, holds on to the past, it is impossible to move forward. Just as I speak proudly of my EUB heritage, you know that I speak with pride of my Southern heritage. But I do so knowing that part of that heritage should be forgotten or left alone. If I am proud of what was, I would be blind to what occurred and my pride would be superficial. John made a point of speaking about those whose pride took the place of humility. “If,” John said, “we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1: 8) He further added, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him (speaking of Christ) out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1 John 1: 10)
As we look back in pride to what we have, we must somehow look forward to where we are going. There are those who come to church today seeking the support present in the early communities of faith. But they do not find it in many churches because the churches are more concerned with the maintenance of what they once were or what they are now. It goes a long way to explaining why the more fundamental or charismatic and Pentecostal type churches show a growth in membership while the more main-line denominations, including the United Methodists, show a decline. In those churches where membership is growing, there is a clear and demonstrated expression of one’s faith, one perhaps not easily seen in the churches with declining memberships.
John, in his letter, spoke of walking in the light. He spoke of the members of the church knowing what had happened on Easter Sunday so many years before and how the people of that day passed that knowledge on to others through their words and their actions. His was a statement that it was the participation of all in the expression of faith that brought people closer to Christ.
We have come together today to celebrate the heritage of those who walked the same path that we do and in whose victories in life we celebrate. But we cannot simply stop the walk, for we have an obligation to make sure that others will be able to walk along the way as well. It may be a terrible cliché but we do hold the key to tomorrow. John Newton wrote that it was grace that “brought me safe thus far and it will be grace that lead me home.” The grace given to us is given to us because of our faith, not what we own or where we live or where we worship. And so it is that the key to tomorrow will be the same as it was for those who walked before us, our faith.
Our celebration today is the celebration of the faith of others, who believed that Christ died for their sins and who believed that they should work hard and be faithful so that others would come to know that most fundamental of truths. Our celebration today is also a celebration of the faith of those who are yet to come, who will come to know the same truth because we have worked as hard and as faithfully as those before us. We stand before the door of tomorrow, holding the key that opens it. It is the call of Christ to open our hearts that will unlock the door and it is a call today that we are asked to answer.