As I have written before, President Jimmy Carter has initiated a number of other Baptist leaders from across the theological and political spectrum to begin what is being called a New Baptist Covenant. The hope is that the New Baptist Covenant will serve as a venue for Baptists in North America to join together in affirming traditional Baptist principles. In January Atlanta will play host to a convocation for Baptists from around the world to come and celebrate the new covenant.
I am excited about the prospect of Baptists coming together to witness to what I hope is a budding culture of grace and goodwill, as opposed to the culture of rancor which has defined Baptists in the public eye for too long. On the night Jesus was betrayed he prayed that his disciples might all be one. I do not know if we will see that prayer answered in our lifetime. But I do know that January’s meeting will mark the closest we Baptists have come since before the Civil War. If, as the old preachers used to say, "the Lord is willin’ and the creek don’t rise," I will be truly delighted to be there in Atlanta.
It is interesting to note how many of the Baptist denominations which will be represented at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in January have names that derive from either geographical or nationalistic sources. Just a cursory glance at the participating organizations reveals all sorts of place names: American Baptists Churches, USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention), Canadian Baptist Ministries, National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., Progressive Baptist National Convention. In addition to these officially participating organizations there looks to be a heavy contingency of Southern Baptist participants as well.
These fixed place names contrast markedly with the Biblical text the New Baptist Covenant has chosen as the key scripture for the convocation. In the Luke 4 story Jesus has come home to visit the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He opens the scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures and reads from the book of Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, and declare deliverance to the captives, to let the prisoners go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The text is unique in that it does not talk about the blessing of geographical place, which is exclusionary. Rather the text refers to the blessing of a time, which is liberally expansive and all-inclusive. The year of the Lord’s is the time acceptable to the Lord when no one is left out. When Jesus comes to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor he comes to baptize all geographies and nationalities into the flaming fire of the all-consuming Holy Spirit.
It is really quite a magnanimous statement and the people receive it with much cheerfulness. Jesus is unimpressed by their enthusiasm however. Immediately he goes into a story about Elijah who, though there were many widows in Israel at the time, went instead to minister outside of Israel at Zeraphath in Sidon. “No doubt about it,” he tells the crowd, “you are going to say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” The inference is clear. Jesus is going to do what Elijah did. Suddenly the cheers turned to jeers. The idolatry of a particular place and people over all others was the original sin that caused the people at Nazareth to reject Jesus.
Next Wednesday most of the members of my church will stand outside on the front yard and wave and watch as a throng of cars and floats make their way down Main St here in the heart of Colchester Village. It will be a great day just like last year. And just like last year I will be decked out in red, white and blue. Yet in the back of my mind I will do my best to remember that though my country ’tis of thee, but it is not Thee.
At the very core of the Baptist identity is what is in every generation the radical notion that one simply cannot equate church and state. I applaud the many participating organizations listed above, and a dozen or so others, which have recognized that geographic and nationalistic identities must all be subsumed under the Lordship of the anointed Christ.
Jesus has come to inaugurate the year of the Lord’s favor. And all nations shall, in the end, bow down in the fullness, wonder and magnanimity of that time and be blessed.