The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, offered a stirring message on the Jesus Movement and how we can play a role in reviving the mainline churches to follow the Way of Jesus today.
The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South and the 9th Bishop of Atlanta, introduces Bishop Curry.
Watch his unforgettable message now! And feel free to share it.
Bishop Michael Curry: "We Need Some Witnesses to the Way of Jesus!"
September 6, 2018, Day1 Benefit (Edited)
It's really good to be with you and Peter Wallace and members of the board of Day1 and all who are involved in and supportive of this work and ministry-it is a blessing and a privilege, it really is, to be able to be with you this day.
This is the first time after surgery, after being at home recuperating and watching Judge Judy with my wife and Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless. You have no idea how glad I am to be with you! I really do have a particular reason for that. I'll say a few things about this, but I am convinced that we in the mainline traditions, all Christians really but I'm part of the mainline tradition, that we really may be being called into a vocation of taking Jesus of Nazareth not only seriously but deeply, and at the very center of our lives and the life of our church and in the life of the world. And I think that is critical; not only do I think it's critical, it may well reflect the seeds of a new reformation. And the last time we had one of those, the world was turned upside down and changed, I think for the good. Not perfect but changed for the good. Every once in a while, as Phyllis Tickle says in her great book The Great Emergence quoting Bishop Mark Dyers, about every 500 years if you look at the history of the Christian church, it seems that the church goes and cleans out the attic, like it's accumulated a whole lot of stuff over the 500 years from its living in the culture and in the world, and it kind of cleans out the attic and gets down to what really matters and what its core and essence is. And whenever the church does that, or better yet whenever the Holy Spirit leads the church in doing that, it is a revolution and a reformation that leads us back to who Jesus of Nazareth called us to be in the first place. And that's a revolution! And I really do pray for a Jesus revolution in the mainline tradition, because there I believe we will find our soul anew, and there I believe we will have a witness and a message for the world in which we live.
I'm not going to talk long - of course you know the definition of an optimist is somebody who believes the preacher when he says, "And in conclusion..." - I'm not going to talk long, but the truth is that there is a sense in which - this has some antecedents to be sure in my background and all of that - but I can remember one conscious awakening to this back in the 1970s, could have been 1978-79, I was serving as a young, newly ordained priest in Winston-Salem, NC. I was at St. Steven's Church there and actually met my wife in Winston-Salem. I used to drive to church for the early service and about 7:15 a.m. on WSJS radio in Winston-Salem on Sunday morning, there was what was then "The Protestant Hour." There were great preachers who preached, I remember Dr. David H. C. Reed from Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, what a great preacher with a Scottish brogue and I wanted to have a Scottish brogue so bad! Just incredible preachers were on it and the denominations would rotate it.
I remember specifically when it came time for the Episcopalians to come on that a guy named John Stone Jenkins - some of you may remember him; he's retired in Mississippi now; I got a letter from him about a year ago - he was on and he did a series entitled "What Think Ye of Jesus?" And it blew my mind. I used to listen to it in the car going to the church for the early service. "What Think Ye of Jesus?" And I remember him saying in one of the talks that the first followers of Jesus gathered around him. They became a community with him and they actually listened to and learned from what he actually was teaching. And they listened to and learned from the actual example of his life that they actually saw living with him, and they listened to and learned from and imbibed his very spirit, the Spirit of God that made Jesus, Jesus. And they started drinking from that same Spirit and listening to his teachings, and daring to emulate his example. They found themselves doing more than they ever dreamed they ever could do by doing that. And he asked, "Now, what think ye of Jesus?"
I said, "First of all, it's pretty awesome having an Episcopalian preaching like this!" That got my attention right there! But that really was an awakening, kind of a clarifying, that there is something about this Jesus of Nazareth. And I'm not talking about the cultural Christ now. You remember in the movie "Talladega Nights"? I'm not talking about the Christmas Jesus! Everybody loves the Christmas Jesus! Somebody said, "But that baby grew up and that baby had something to say! Pay attention to what he had to say." That there is something about this Jesus of Nazareth, and the recovery of this Jesus of Nazareth, that helps to lead us to the proclamation that this is the Son of God. But it's this teaching of Jesus, the example of Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, that therein is the actual soul of Christianity. That it was a community of people who gathered around him, who took seriously what he taught them, who dared to emulate his example to live in his spirit that over time they became more than they ever could have become on their own.
The truth of the matter is - and I don't want to dwell too long on this because this is an after dinner talk and I don't want you to have indigestion - the truth of the matter is, if you look at the New Testament carefully you will quickly discover that this first group of disciples, the first collection of followers of Jesus, this was not the "A Team" of apostolic discipleship that we're dealing with. Now I'm an Episcopalian, I honor the saints, I get that, I honor our apostolic ancestors, but this is not the "A Team" that we are really dealing with. And the New Testament actually tells the truth, it doesn't cover it up.
Think about it, in the New Testament there are these wonderful stories, and if you read between the lines and listen to what's going on in terms of human dynamics, you can begin to see it. For example, there's this one story where James and John, two of the disciples, in one version - I think it's Mark's version - they go to Jesus when the other disciples are not around and they say, "Now, Master, we know that you've been talking about this Kingdom of God." Because they assumed that the Kingdom of God means this is what happens when the Democrats take over from the Republicans! And so they say, "We know you've been talking about this Kingdom of God, so when this kingdom comes into power, my brother and I really want good jobs in the new administration. And we've got a cousin who's good with numbers and we think he can be the secretary of the treasury." That's the level on which they're really coming at Jesus. It makes you wonder how Jesus didn't pull his hair out. But anyway, the other disciples hit the roof when they find out that these two guys have done this. In Matthew's version, in another version - you have parallel versions in Matthew and Mark in particular - in the other version, it's not James and John who go to Jesus to ask this political favor, they send their mother. Now that is about as low down as you can go, to get your mama to do your dirty work! This is not the "A Team" of apostolic discipleship that we're dealing with.
And if you look in the New Testament very carefully, in the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, most of the original disciples, not all of them but most of them, at least certainly the first four - Peter, Andrew, James and John - the first four that he called - you know what they did for a living - they were fishermen. These guys were professional fishermen, this is what they did for a living. I defy you to find any example in the canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John - where these professional fishermen ever catch a fish on their own without Jesus telling them how to do it. I'm telling you, I think the Bible's trying to tell us this is not the "A Team" of apostolic discipleship! And, Lord knows, you get to the Last Supper and they're all confused at what's going on and there's tension throughout the entire room and Jesus is filled with anxiety, trying to figure out what should he do and what the Father's will means, and there's tension in the room. And finally, Jesus says, "I'm going to be betrayed tonight and we've got hard times ahead." And Simon Peter says, "Lord, don't you worry about a thing. I got your back!" Let me tell you, if you know a Simon Peter who's got your back, you better walk backwards. This is not the "A Team" of apostolic discipleship.
And the truth of the matter is, virtually they all abandoned him at the cross save the one beloved disciple, one guy, and all the women, the rest of them abandoned him. They ran for their lives because to be too closely identified with someone who was being executed by the power of the Roman state was to align yourself with their cause and make you potentially subject to the same punishment. So, I understand why they abandoned him. But you know what? Jesus was smart. That's why he's the Lord. God is no fool and God is no respecter of persons. And God understands that the Spirit dispenses the Spirit's gifts equally to all and does not discriminate against any. And so, Jesus very wisely included in the apostolic band not just males, but males and females. And the truth is, it's a good thing he did, because on that resurrection morning, on that Easter morning, all the brothers were still asleep. It was only the women who got up and went to the tomb. That's how we know he rose!
And yet, when you look at the unfolding pattern of the rest of the New Testament and move into the Acts of the Apostles, which is the story of what happened to this group after the Resurrection, after the Spirit of Jesus was poured out and dispensed in a fullness and a strange new way, what happened? You discover this same group of people doing incredible things. The 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles says that they shared everything that they had in common. And because they did that, there were no poor folk among them. They made poverty history. You want to know how they did it? They dared to follow the way of Jesus until his way became their way.
You keep reading even further and they have a problem. Because all of them, the original followers, they were all Jewish. But all of a sudden, they discover that these folk who weren't Jewish - there were some folk who weren't Jewish who were getting religion, too, like my grandma would say. And they started to say, "Wait a minute, looks like the Holy Spirit is falling on them the same way it has on us. You mean, this isn't just our exclusive possession? You mean God is actually an inclusive God? Wow! What an idea!" Well, they didn't come to it by intellectual dissertation. They had to figure out, "How are we going to do this?" And so, the Jerusalem party, which was sort of the institutional church, I like to say it's the early form of the institutional church - don't worry, I don't have anything against the institutional church, I've got a pension, I'm tied into this thing - but the Jerusalem party said, "Okay. It's okay for a Gentile to become a Christian, but they gotta become Jewish like us. They gotta observe the Law, they gotta do everything we do in order to become a follower of Jesus."
And there was a rabblerouser named Paul of Tarsus who said, "No. All that detail is not necessary, we need to stay with the core, the essence. And if Gentiles follow the essence, then they're alright with Jesus." Jerusalem church said, "No, no. They got to go through all the hoops." Paul said, "No, they don't." And so, they organized what we were taught in seminary, what became the first ecumenical council of the Church. There were several ecumenical councils, Chalcedon, Nicaea, Ephesus, there were several of them. I've been out of seminary too long. I don't remember what they did, but I remember where they happened. These ecumenical councils were where the great bishops and fathers of the Church gathered and had learned discourse and decided a variety of things.
Now, that's what I heard in seminary. Now that I've been ordained a good while and been a bishop a long time and have been in those councils, I now know you only call a church council when you are having a church fight. You pretty it up by calling it a council, but it's really a time of, how do we settle a church fight? And that's what was going on in Jerusalem. It was a down and dirty church fight. How are we going to admit these people who are Gentiles, non-Jews, into this Christian movement? And so, they had to organize a council and it's recorded in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. They had to fight it out, they had to work it out, because the problem - and I don't mean to disturb your meal - the problem was, it wasn't that hard to become Jewish if you were a Gentile woman. Are you with me now? It was a little more complicated, well it wasn't more complicated just more problematic if you were a Gentile male. Are you all with me? Because it required circumcision.
The truth is, it seems to me that was the dividing line. Are we going to require all these guys to get circumcised - the Gentiles wouldn't have been circumcised - to get circumcised in order to follow Jesus? Now let me tell you something. You think we're having a hard time getting men in church now? You can just forget it! I remember when I was a little boy, my grandma used to always watch Billy Graham rallies - she just loved to watch the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham on TV. They were always in Manitoba in Canada and I said, "Grandma is there a lot of sin up there in Manitoba? Why are they always up there?" I have this image of the old style Billy Graham rally crusade and, you know, how Billy used to always invite folks down, "Come on down and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Choir, I need to hear it! Just as I am without one plea.... Come down and accept Jesus, hold those buses, close those doors!" And folks would come on down, remarkable! Imagine if Paul had not won the debate about how you become a Christian if you are Gentile! Imagine Billy Graham, "Come on down and get circumcised!" It's a little midrash on what's actually in the Bible, but that's what it's really saying.
And yet, the incredible thing is that these mortal, fallible, sinful, normal human beings figured out a way and realized that it's the core of a faith in Jesus Christ, in God. It's that core faith in God that is the circumcision of the heart, that is the key to the new person. And they realized that God was trying to tell them something new. God was trying to tell them that anyone who would come to me and accept me is acceptable by me. "Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavyladen and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, learn from me, for I am gentle and kind and I will show you the way to life." They realized it and they discovered it and they actually found themselves creating a community of Jews and Gentiles.
But more than that, Paul, when you look at him in Galatians in the 3rd chapter, he then said that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come. And then he says all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. And he says there is no more slave or free, there is no more Jew or Gentile, there is no male or female, for all are one in Christ. My brothers and sisters, because they drew close to this Jesus and listened to his teachings, they began a revolution. They created a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-human whatever, before Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; they did it before the Declaration of Independence, they did it before the Declaration of Human Rights and the French Revolution, they did it before the Magna Carta. They discovered a way to human freedom, human equality, human decency, human dignity for all of God's children. They discovered it because they dared to listen to the teachings of Jesus and follow his example and live in his spirit.
My brothers and sisters, I want to suggest that there's a revolution in the making - a revolution, a reformation in the mainline churches that, if we take the teachings of this Jesus of Nazareth seriously, I'm talking about the teachings, I'm talking about what the brother said in the Sermon on the Mount. Oh, we've got to get close to that again. Matthew chapter 5 and 6, Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that God's righteous justice might prevail in all the earth. Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who despitefully use you.
We need to recover that Jesus, the Jesus who met that lawyer. Any lawyers in the room here today? Jesus liked lawyers, he had a lot of conversations with lawyers. That Jesus who, when a lawyer came up to him and said, "Great teacher, what is the greatest teaching in the entire legal edifice of Moses?" Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is just like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the prophets." Do you know what Jesus was saying there? Everything the Bible is trying to say, everything the scripture is pointing to and sometimes straining to get us to see, everything that the prophets were thundering about, everything that Moses was trying to get at, everything that Jesus stood for, everything about what it means to be a Christian is summed up in these words: Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. And while you're at it, love yourself. Because that is the kingdom.
Now I want to submit, I'm gonna stop now, that that is the foundation of a reformation of the Christian faith and a revolution in American society and in the global community. That's what I want to submit. And that's why, when I was able to say a word at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they are now, I went back to Atlanta's Martin Luther King to a quote not often known, but a quote that says, "We must discover the power of love - the very redemptive power of love. When we discover that, we will make of this old world a new world." Because there's power in love, in Christians, but not just Christian folk, people of any religious tradition, people of goodwill and human decency.
When we discover the power of love, now I'm not talking about sweet, soft, and sentimental love, I'm talking about unselfish, sacrificial, the way of love that seeks the good and the welfare and the wellbeing of the other before my own unenlightened self-interest. I'm talking about that kind of love. That's what Dr. King was teaching us about. That's what Jesus was getting at. He talked to that lawyer about love while Jesus was on his way to the cross. You know that was Holy Week? That kind of love has the power and the capacity to lift us all up, to transform, as Dr. King said, our jangling discords into a beautiful symphony of hope. The truth is that way of love is the heart and soul of what Jesus was teaching us. And it's the heart and soul of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The closer you get to your real heart and soul, you'll find your life anew and begin.
Three years ago, and with this I will sit down, I was making a pastoral visit to one of our Dioceses in the Episcopal Church and was at their Annual Council, and I spoke over the course of the days, and there was a banquet and I spoke at the end of the banquet and I was greeting people and doing selfies after the banquet, God bless whoever invented selfies, God bless 'em. Anyway, I was greeting people and people were coming up and so we were talking and taking pictures and that kind of thing and I noticed a guy, a big guy - a football player kind of guy - I mean a really big guy, the kind of guy I would run behind on the football field hoping he would keep the other people on his side away from me. This is a big guy, a white guy who had overalls on, if I remember correctly, and he had a beard and, to be honest, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He looked a little menacing, he wasn't smiling. Anyway, I could see him and he was waiting in line with other people and I was just aware of him as I was greeting people. And finally, he came up to me, looked me dead in the eyes with the beard, kind of looked down. And I'm thinking, "O Lord, have mercy. I sure hope you're a nice person."
And then, I could see tears welling up in his eyes and he said, "I want to thank you for being here. And I want to thank you for this church." He was referring to the Episcopal Church, but I want you to hear this as message to the mainline. He said, "I want to thank you for this church. You see, I was born and I was raised in a family who were active in and high up in the Ku Klux Klan. And I was born and I was raised in hatred and bigotry for black people, Jews, Catholics. That's how I was raised. And I went off to school and I allied myself with people who agreed with me and shared my views. When I left school, I moved to a small community (I believe it was in Arkansas). On one Sunday morning I went into a little bitty church that had about ten people in it - this little Episcopal Church." And he said, "Those folk just took me in." And he said, "They actually loved me. Even when I told them who I was, they took me and loved me. They helped me understand who Jesus is. They gave me my life again. And I just want to thank you for being my Bishop and thank you for this church."
My brothers and sisters, do not underestimate the power of redemptive, unselfish, sacrificial love. It has changed the world before and it can change the world again. Maybe even for the day when elephants and donkeys - help me, Jesus - maybe for the day when we in America will overcome our divisions and join hands together as brothers and sisters, children of God, and find a better way.
God bless you, God keep you, and Day1, keep on preaching the love of God. God bless you!