I am moved by your theme for this Triennial, “A Great People to be Gathered: in Christ, in Community, for Mission.” This theme, of course, draws from that wonderful experience when George Fox climbed Pendle Hill, with “much ado” as he put it, and there on the top of Pendle Hill looking out across the British countryside; he saw “A great people to be gathered.”
What a wonderful vision God gave to George Fox on that day! And it did indeed result in a mighty gathering of the people of God . . . Is it even right for us to hope for such a thing? I’m not sure.
One thing I do know for sure: you and I cannot cause such a new gathering to happen. This is a work of the Spirit, pure and simple. We are utterly dependent upon the mighty hand of God for any great new gathering of the people of God today. What we can do and what I would like us to do tonight is to consider several elements that would be central for a new Quaker renaissance to emerge in our day . . .
What is needed for a Quaker renaissance today? We will need a great, new experience of Jesus as our ever-present Teacher. We are all acquainted with the passage in Fox’s Journal where he declared, “When my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”
This vivid experience of Jesus as present Teacher is at the very core of the Quaker witness. Let me say as clearly as I possibly can, Jesus Christ is alive and here to teach his people himself. He has not contracted laryngitis. His voice is not hard to hear. His vocabulary is not difficult to understand.
• Jesus is our Savior to forgive us.
• Jesus is our Teacher to guide us.
• Jesus is our Lord to rule us.
• Jesus is our Friend to come alongside us.
Try this query on for size: Do I long with all my being for this experiential intimacy? Do I hunger and thirst for the living Christ to be truly present and active among us?
The great Quaker leader Francis Howgill witnessed, “The Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement, and great admiration. And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord. We met together in the unity of the Spirit and of the bond of peace. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord
and mightily did the Word of God grow among us, and the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord.”
That was Howgill’s experience of Christ as the Prophet living and acting among his people. And what about us? Oh, we weave erudite speeches about whether the cosmic Christ is the same as the historical Jesus. We debate whether our meetings should be “programmed” or “un-programmed.” And for those who do have programmed meetings we worry about whether the “open worship” should be fully open or semi-open or just be certain that it is kept to seven and a half minutes! May God forgive us!
Please understand, I am not saying that such issues are unimportant, but I am saying that they are wholly secondary next to the great reality of Jesus living among us, teaching us, healing us, guiding us, rebuking us when we go astray and giving us his life and love and joy for all the vicissitudes of life . . .
The early Quaker evangelists declared that Jesus is the eternal Logos of God: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” They proclaimed Jesus as “the true Light that enlightens every person coming into the world” so often and so vigorously that John 1:9 became thought of as the Quaker verse . . .
The author of Hebrews tells us that in days past God spoke through the prophets of old but that now he is speaking through his Son. Historically, Friends have taken this conviction of Jesus speaking and teaching with absolute seriousness . . .
How is it that Quakers in the 17th century were on the forefront of literally every social movement of their day? They weren’t smarter than other groups. They didn’t have deeper insights into the social movements of their day. They had no greater understanding of social ethics. No. This came about because when they gathered in the power of the Lord and listened for Jesus, the Christ, their ever-living Prophet and ever-present Teacher, they received the guidance they were seeking. Jesus taught them and guided them and empowered them to speak and witness in ways unheard of in that day.
If we are to have a genuine impact on our world today we too will seek to go deeper into the subterranean sanctuary of the soul.
• We will seek to become a freely gathered people who will know in our day the life and powers of the kingdom of God.
• We will seek to become a people of cross and crown, of courageous action and sacrificial love.
• We will seek to combine evangelism with social action, the transcendent Lordship of Jesus with the suffering servant Messiah.
• We will seek to be buoyed up by the vision of Christ’s everlasting rule, not only imminent on the horizon, but already bursting forth in our midst . . .
Then, too, we need to work toward the highest possible Christology — to use a theological term. Three days after his crucifixion Jesus rose from the dead demonstrating that his divine Zoé life is indestructible and that this Zoé life of his is available to you and to me. Here. Now. And this makes all the difference in the world . . .
What is needed for a Quaker renaissance today? We will need a great, new vision of life together. We are the people of God together: “praying together, learning together, obeying together, suffering together,” as Lewis Benson often said. It is Jesus, our eschatological heavenly Prophet, who gathers us together into a community of faith. He teaches us what is right and what is wrong and gives us the power to do the right and reject the wrong.
Jesus himself is the builder of this new community, this ecclesia. We live by the direct conversational relationship with God’s heavenly Prophet. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7). Gathered together by the living word of Jesus, we learn together, we pray together, we obey together, we suffer together.
As God’s gathered community the key question is not: Are we in the direct line of Apostolic Succession? No, the key question is: Are we living in the life and power in which the Apostles lived?
The key issues are not to be sure we have the proper number of sacraments and the proper administration of them. The key issues are for us to be learning to be baptized daily into the Trinitarian life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; learning to feed daily on the whole wheat bread of Life; learning to drink daily from him who is the water of Life; learning to experience him as our daily strength in our businesses, in our homes, with our neighbors and friends . . . and, yes, with our enemies.
So, the gathered Christian community does not come about by us building up human-made religious organizations but by our responding to the call of our heavenly Prophet who brings us into a loving conversational relationship with him. It is a relationship of care and intimacy. We do indeed become the friends of Jesus. “You are my friends,” says Jesus, “If you do what I command you.”
It is also a Master-disciple relationship. Jesus is our Master for he truly is the Maestro of all of life. He is speaking and teaching: we are hearing and obeying. For the gathered community Jesus is in reality our Lord, our Shepherd, our Bishop and our King.
It was this dynamic reality of life together that kept the early Quakers from the craziness of many of the other purification movements during the 17th century . . .
However, Quakers (for the most part) escaped these excesses because for them all personal revelation was to be confirmed by the community of faith. There were no solitary Quakers. Friends were to bring their individual guidance to the Christian fellowship as a whole for their discernment. Individual guidance needed to be affirmed by the guidance of the fellowship. They believed that Christ was among them and as they waited together they received the guidance for which they sought. Jesus was the leader of their worship, of their business, of all that they were and of all that they were about.
So, my plea is that as the community of faith gathered by Christ himself, we recognize how much we need each other, how much we depend upon each other, how deeply connected we are to one another.
Now, I am keenly aware that various ones of you seated here have experienced the bitter sting of division and are likely feeling that this Quaker ideal has broken down in significant ways. And perhaps it has.
But, as someone watching what has been going on among you at a distance, let me speak a word of encouragement to you. It may well be that Christ, your living Teacher, is leading you forward in ways you could not have imagined even a few years ago. Remember the constant refrain of George Fox that, “the power of the Lord is over all.” There are many different ways for us to organize our life together . . .
Further, as the community of faith may we always have a prophetic witness. Quakers are a minority . . . we all know that. But, frankly, majorities are highly overrated in our day. So, if we are a minority, let’s be a prophetic minority! Always calling the status quo into question. Always evaluating everything on this earth in light of the transcendent Lordship of Jesus Christ . . .
One more thing. Can I urge among us a deeper catholicity of spirit? Quakerism, as you know, originated as one of the great purifying movements that have arisen in Christian history, and while purifying movements do many good things, they also have a tendency to become cultic and separatist.
So, while we want to maintain the vigor of the purifying concern, we also want to confess our solidarity with all those who have sought to be faithful to Jesus Christ all through Christian history. (On this point, in my opinion, George Fox was simply wrong in believing that the Church had been in complete apostasy since the time of the apostles.)
We need to seek a new appreciation for the wisdom and devotion of the early church fathers and mothers. We can revel in the deep spiritual experiences of Augustine of Hippo and Catherine of Sienna, of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, of Julian of Norwich and Bernard of Clairvaux, of Martin Luther and John Calvin, of Jeremy Taylor and William Law and many others.
Now, some people complain that I include too many in my lists of the devotional masters. But my lists are nothing compared to what William Penn included in No Cross, No Crown. As you perhaps know, Penn devoted the entire second half of his book to a huge parade of witnesses from antiquity to the fact that Jesus, who is the True Light, has been shining into the hearts of women and men of all sorts. Penn gives testimony after testimony of people who have been faithful to the Light of Christ in their lives even before the incarnation of the Son occurred.
The great devotional writings throughout Christian history are for all the people of God. May we with humility of heart learn from this great treasury of Christian witness and faith. Who knows, it just might engender a new Quaker renaissance.
What is needed for a Quaker renaissance today? We need a great, new understanding and experience of the growth of the soul. Specifically I am talking about the spiritual formation of the human personality until increasingly we are enabled to take on the likeness of Jesus Christ. This begins as a genuine God-shaped work in the human heart and results in deep interior habits of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.
The old word for what I am trying to describe is “holiness.” But this word has been so damaged in our day that we need to find other ways for talking about this whole-life transformative reality. Jesus, our present Teacher, will teach us how to live our life as he would live our life if he were we. In daily experience his Holy Spirit instructs us in how to live life well:
• How to love our spouse well.
• How to raise our children well.
• How to study well.
• How to face adversity well.
• How to run our businesses well.
• How to form community life well.
• How to reach out to those on the margins well.
And Quakers can lead the way in this. We have a long history of personal integrity in daily life: in simplicity, in peace efforts, in honest speech and more.
But we can do more and we need to do more, much more. We need a whole-life theology of the spiritual disciplines for training the body, mind and spirit in “righteous, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And we personally need to become practiced in spiritual disciplines like fasting and solitude, silence and prayer, study and simplicity, service and confession, meditation and guidance, worship and celebration, and more . . .
In addition, we need sterling examples of exactly how this life looks and behaves. By that I mean that we need saints today, which we can look to and learn from. The old term was “weighty Friends.” Quakers whose lives demonstrate a steady unshakableness of life orientation; Quakers who have both impeccable integrity and friendly approachability; Quakers who will shine like bright lights in the midst of the deep darkness of our world. . . Today the world looks at church people around them and asks, “What kind of life am I to be converted to?” It is only as we ourselves become formed and transformed into shining examples of integrity and joy and hope and love that people will be drawn into this life for themselves. And this will surely produce a new renaissance of spiritual life and vitality. May it be so!
I hope you have noticed that I have been working on all three aspects of the FUM theme: Christ, Community, and Mission. But, now, I have one more thing I want to share with you. However, to share it with you, it is important for you simply to forget everything I have said up to this point . . . or, at least, to let what I have said up to this point to fade into the background of your thinking.
So, here is my final point — and in an important sense my primary point: If we are truly looking for a renaissance of the life with God within the human family, I recommend that we begin first of all by getting to know our neighbors . . . our “nigh-bors,” those who are near us. I mean quite literally our children and our spouse and our work associates and those who are living next door to us and the people we encounter in the course of our everyday lives. This is where we begin.
Let’s take an interest in what they think about and what they care about. What is important to them? What are their passions and their joys? What are their fears and their anxieties? What are their hopes and their dreams?
In other words, let’s become their friend. Not with any alterative motive, just to be their friend, pure and simple. In doing this perhaps they will become our friend as well. And, who knows — who knows — they just might also become the friends of Jesus! And that would be renaissance enough for me.