The Congregational Way, Heritage Sunday Sermon November 18, 2018

“A Simple Path,” Matthew 18:20

Gaius Glenn Atkins, then Pastor at First Congregational Church of Detroit, said this while commenting on I Corinthians 13, Sunday November 14, 1909:

Paul summons all great human spiritual endeavors to the judgement seat “… and one by one he dismisses them with this sentence: Thou too shalt pass away. “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. Partial and incomplete, they have no abiding city. What then is permanent, Paul? And he gravely makes answer: Now abideth faith.”[1]

Ours is a grand heritage as followers of Christ in close connection to the historic Congregational Way. But why? Because The Congregational Way, when properly understood and practiced, is a way consistent with those early followers of The Way of Jesus! It is a way of pilgrimage; life together.

W.B. Selbie, in his 1927 account of Congregationalism gives a more robust treatment of our way when he wrote.

“Many of the so-called heresies of the Middle Ages were simply attempts to get back to the primitive conception of the Church and of Christianity. Albigenses and Waldensians, Beghards and Free Brethren, like Wyclif and the Lollards later on, all sought to rebuild the Church on the foundation of a literal interpretation of the New Testament, and to exclude from its usage all customs, ceremonies and institutions that were not found in the Christian Scriptures. These men set up their own little communities, sent out preachers, and suffered lay folk to administer the sacraments. Many of them sold their goods and sought to have all things in common, and in others ways tried to give literal obedience to the precepts of the Bible.”[2]

For generations the fuel for Reformation had been gathered like so much faith in the form of wood for the burning. Martin Luther sparked the fires of Reformation in 1517 with his 95 thesis. A Century later in England, many puritans gave up their battle to purify the Church of England of false doctrine and extra biblical practices. They separated from the Anglican Church. Thus, the Separatists established truly free independent churches and Congregationalism was born.

Many of these Congregationalists came to the New World. We know them as the Pilgrims. Their history is too vast and varied to discuss with any reasonableness. Rather than concern ourselves with the details of our spiritual forefathers today, I’d like to pass the torch of their way. We’re not curators of the Pilgrims. We are carriers of the fiery flames of lived faith!

Ours is a simple way. Ours is a biblical way. Ours is a covenantal-life on life- together way. Ours is a pilgrim way. Writing in 1868, Henry M. Dexter illuminated the heartbeat of our way when he wrote, “Congregationalism has no ritual, no ceremonies, no book of discipline – nothing but the Bible in hand, the Spirit in the heart, and Christ overhead.”[3] Ours is a lived way!

Heritage Sunday isn’t about the past. It’s about a present expression of the way that got us here, leads us now, and will carry us on together in Christ!
Even as the early Church was born of martyrs, so too, the rediscover of the simple path, the free church, following Christ with only an open Bible, fueled by the Holy Spirit; we too have our saintly martyrs; Puritan Separatists, Congregationalists, who were persecuted. Henry Martin records several in his 1880 work.“The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years.” I’ll mention just this one. 

“It is a little remarkable that we must come over the sea from the marshes and moors of Norfolk to the pine woods of Plymouth, and the patient and conscientious pen of the second Governor of the Old Colony, to gain the single, yet sufficient, sentence by which, so far as I have observed, in all history in the English tongue, William Dennis is commended to our grateful remembrance. Bradford says, in the paragraph following… “For Mr. Dennis, he was a godly man, and faithful in his place.” Beyond this, and that he was of Thetford [England], and was publicly executed [in the days before the Pilgrims came to the New World in 1620] as a Separatist, we have no particulars.”[4]

The Early Church suffered persecution from pagan empires. Congregationalists – Puritan Separatists – suffered persecution from pagan church institutions. Their crime? They wanted to get back to the Bible.

So should we! That is a crime we should all be willing to commit! Wretchedly, the crime that most modern pilgrims are guilty of is criminal neglect, not criminal love of, the Word of God, the sweet leading of the Holy Spirit, and life as a pilgrim follower of Jesus Christ! Let’s get back to the Bible! Let’s get back to simplicity of following Jesus no matter the cost and wherever He leads us! That is our heritage! That is the Pilgrim way.

Ours is a pilgrim path. It is a potentially treacherous way that we travel together, our souls flooded with the Holy Spirit, our courage fueled by the power of God’s Word; our hearts safe from anxiety because of the presence of fellow travelers along the path of following after Jesus. The Christian life is strapping on our sandals, picking up our walking stick, and following after while imitating the Master of Mercy, the Lord of Glory; Jesus Christ alone.

Listen again to the wise musings of Atkins as he delivered the sermon at First Congregational Church of Detroit on November 14, 1909.

“If faith is the last word of knowledge, it is also the ultimate word of experience, concrete, personal and flaming. We who try to live come soon to know that we cannot live in our own strength. Life in its lift and depth, its aspiration, its strife of higher and lower passion, its temporal and eternal aspects, is too vast, too complex to rest in the present, or to be lived out without God-given comradeships, reinforcements, compensations, redemptions and eternal expectations.”[5]

I want to encourage you today not to think about our Congregational heritage as something that happened in the past. Rather, it is a lived way. It is life together. It is covenant community gathered around an open Bible with hearts filled with the Holy Spirit with hands ready to be the hands of Jesus and sandal strapped feet prepared to follow Him wherever He leads.

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20 NIV84) He is here! We are His! We are the people of God; a complete representation of the Church under the headship of Christ. Ours is a simple path. Let’s walk it out together to His glory alone. Amen.

[1] Things That Remain, Gaius Glenn Atkins, First Congregational Church Detroit, 1910, pg. 11. (Held at UM Ann Arbor)
[2] Congregationalism, W.B. Selbie, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1927 , pg. 7.
[3] Congregationalism, H.M. Dexter, Nichols and Noyes, Boston, 1868, pg. 257.
[4] Congregationalism, pg. 208.
[5] Things That Remain, Atkins, pg. 19.