Your Reign Is An Everlasting Reign

The Disciples are very much the result of the deep desire among our founders to be God’s church in faithful response to God’s will revealed in scripture, and not in submission to “traditions of men.” [1] But that desire was nourished in the soil of a young, newly independent America, and in that respect our founders’ call to restoration of the New Testament church was closely tied to the American revolution. So allow me to speak about independence for a moment.

On May 27, 1776, the town of Malden, Massachusetts, responding to a request from the Massachusetts House of Representatives that all towns in the state declare their views on independence, had met in town meeting and unanimously declared,

The time was (…) when we loved the king and the people of Great Britain with an affection truly filial; we felt ourselves interested in their glory; we shared in their joys and sorrows; we cheerfully poured the fruit of all our labours into the lap of our mother country, and without reluctance expended our blood and our treasure in their cause. These were our sentiments toward Great Britain while she continued to act the part of a parent state; we felt ourselves happy in our connection with her, nor wished it to be dissolved; but our sentiments are altered, it is now the ardent wish of our soul that America may become a free and independent state.(…) We long entertained hope that the spirit of the British nation would once more induce them to assert their own and our rights, and bring to condign punishment the elevated villains who have trampled upon the sacred rights of men and affronted the majesty of the people. We hoped in vain; (…) we therefore renounce with disdain our connexion with a kingdom of slaves; we bid a final adieu to Britain. [2]

Several weeks later, John Adams wrote in a letter to his dear Abigail,

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. [3]

John Adams was off only by a couple of days because the Continental Congress declared the united colonies free and independent states two days before the debate on the exact wording of the Declaration of Independence had ended; but his description of our celebrations remains accurate to this day: the only things missing from his list are flags, hot-dogs and ice-cream. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was publicly proclaimed, and that day became a milestone in the long struggle for freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Tyrants and their minions who trample upon the sacred rights of men [and women] and affront the majesty of the people can no longer sleep comfortably in their king-size beds and dream imperial dreams because in the summer of 1776, free citizens renounced their connexion with a kingdom of slaves and threw off the yoke of oppression.

For the generation shaped by the experience of the Revolutionary War, throwing off the yoke of oppression also redefined their notion of religious freedom. Before the war, religious freedom was simply exercised by attending the church of one’s choice. After the war, “it came to mean that individuals possessed the right to ignore traditional and institutional authority in religious matters. (…) Religious freedom came to mean ‘power should be surrendered to the people.’” [4]

Mark Toulouse tells the story of Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, to illustrate the powerful cultural trend toward individualism following the Revolutionary War.

[She] attended numerous churches of various denominations and finally concluded that none of them taught the truth. She sought and found a minister who would baptize her as a solitary Christian with no connection to any established church. [5]

Lucy Mack Smith embraced the spirit of independence so fervently and threw off the yoke of authority so completely that she ended up the sole member of the Church of Lucy.

As Disciples we affirm that reading and interpreting scripture is every believer’s right and responsibility, but we also affirm that in order to read scripture rightly we must read it together.

Within the universal church,
we receive the gift of ministry
and the light of scripture.

Our ministry is not the sum-total of our individual ministries, but rather our sharing in the common ministry of the whole church – the shared ministry which we together offer to God, to the world, and to one another. [6] Our response to God’s call is always personal, profoundly personal, but never private. Likewise, the Bible is not a book placed in our hands to be read solitarily and interpreted privately.

The Bible is the church’s book, and to read it is to enter a conversation that began long before we first opened its pages, and that extends far beyond our particular place and culture. The Bible is an ecumenical book, and to read it rightly we must read it ecumenically: before we make up our own individual minds, we need to listen to those who have gone before us and those who read scripture in contexts different from our own. [7] We must master the art of listening for the Word of God among the voices of God’s many witnesses.

The Bible is the church’s book, but because the primary mode of receiving the light of scripture is listening, the Bible is also not the church’s book: scripture will always stand as a witness overagainst the church and all its traditions, including our own. To receive the light of scripture means to read and be read, to interpret and be interpreted, to make judgments about the meaning of a text and to be judged by it.

On July 4 Americans celebrate our independence from the dominion of King George III and all tyrants. Freedom is the battle cry; some, but not all chains are broken; some, but not all shackels have been thrown into the deepest sea; and the yoke has been removed from the shoulders of many. Yet on this very day, we hear Jesus who calls out, “Take my yoke upon you.” Our ears still ringing with the music of John Phillip Sousa, we hear an affirmation that speaks of bonds, of yielding, and of servanthood in a kingdom.

In the bonds of Christian faith
we yield ourselves to God
that we may serve the One
whose kingdom has no end.

Those who accept the yoke of Christ yield themselves to God alone; they put off the yoke of earthly rulers and the yoke of worldly care. Yoked together with Christ, they are free and subject to none, and at the same time they are servants of all and subject to every one. [8] As those who strive first for the kingdom of God and don’t worry about food and drink and clothes for tomorrow, disciples are free and independent. [9] As those who submit to one another in love and dedicate themselves to Christ’s mission, disciples are free and mutually dependent – bound together by God’s love and mercy.

Jesus sharply criticizes religious leaders who turn the yoke of freedom into yet another burdensome system of oppression, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” [10] Jesus sharply criticizes such leaders, little tyrants building their own little kingdoms, and he brings freedom to the oppressed: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [11]

The yoke of the kingdom is easy because it is the law of God fulfilled in love. [12] The yoke of the kingdom is light because it is shared among God’s servants. “Take my yoke, learn from me,” Jesus calls all who are weary and burdened. You who carry more than you can handle, come to me. You who are worn out by too many demands and overwhelmed by ever growing expectations, come to me. You who are trapped in the unending cycles of work-and-spend, come to me. You who long for freedom and hunger for justice, come to me. I will give you rest.

Rest, he says, not respite. Rest is not just a break for those traveling down life’s weary road, it’s the end of that weary road. Rest is the word that speaks of creation’s completion.

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. [13]

Rest is the kingdom without end.
Rest is the peace of God permeating all of creation.
Rest is the music of heaven filling every nook and cranny of the earth: Blessing, glory, and honor to God, forever.

In the end, our affirmation is not a text of some 170 words.
In the end, our affirmation is our whole being translated into praise:
Blessing, glory, and honor be to God forever. Amen.

[1] See Mark 7:8
[2] Instructions from the Town of Malden, Massachusetts, for a Declaration of Independence
[3] Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration...” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.
[4] See Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, p. 37
[5] Ibd., pp. 37-38
[6] See Osborn, Faith We Affirm, p. 75
[7] Ibd., p. 21
[8] “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty
[9] Matthew 6:25-34
[10] Matthew 23:4
[11] Matthew 11:28-30
[12] See Romans 13:8-10
[13] Genesis 2:2