The Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is underway in Atlanta.
Hundreds[Update: 16,000 are registered here for NBC] gathered at the Georgia World Dome this evening for the first plenary session of a historic Baptist event. Hopes and dreams abound among organizers and attendees as we seek unity among Baptists throughout North America. As several older leaders shared their dedication and commitment to making this covenant a reality, I imagine there is a mixture of emotions. Obviously, there is excitement and hope regarding a potential new day for Baptists. It is a new beginning. Yet, a beginning means just that. A beginning. We are setting out on a new journey. A journey made possible by the hard work and faithfulness of a group of older and wiser Baptists. As a younger person in attendance, I am aware that the hard work of staying the course set this week will depend on us. Out of years of fighting and division, our elders are determine to set a new course for the next generation of Baptists. They are doing everything they can to shape a healthy and blessed Baptist future. But they will not be able to see it through. I imagine that there are times when they ache for this to have started years ago and are sad that they will not see the fruit of their labor. Nevertheless, they are faithful. A great mantle is being passed on to the next generation of Baptists. I am hopeful that out of all the harm we have witnessed as a result of Christian brothers and sisters at war among themselves, the next generations will be committed to harmony, humility, and unity.
Tonight’s session was an outstanding beginning with a powerful greeting given by Dr. William Underwood, President of Mercer University and Co-Chair of the New Baptist Covenant. Worship and responses to worship were diverse and inspiring – the very picture of what the covenant is about. The highlight for me was the preaching of William Shaw, Pastor at White Rock Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA. He was powerful, funny, relational and prophetic as he spoke about peace with justice. Shaw’s exegetical work on the Luke 4 passage of Jesus’s claim of the fulfillment of the Isaiah passage was so refreshing and rich. He reminded us that Jesus was not about charity. He was about change. Jesus was not about relief. He was about reversal. There is a common challenge throughout this gathering regarding the command by God of God’s people to preach good news to the poor. To proclaim freedom and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19) This cannot be done by writing checks from a distance (physically or emotionally) nor can it be accomplished with divisiveness among believers. As Shaw stated at the beginning of his sermon quoting the wisdom of Scripture – our oneness will bear witness to the gospel. Shaw also spoke powerfully about the fact that there can be no peace without justice. There can be (and often is) calm without justice but there is never peace without justice. One of the great exegetical truths that Shaw brought to the group was based on the phrase by the Jewish gatherers in the synagogue who stated to Jesus "We be born of Abraham" as a claim of fame. How often we use a similar claim to avoid listening to God, Shaw stated. "We be born white; We be born of America; We be born of Baptists; etc." All are claims of privilege that are used as excused to not hear the Spirit of God. You can view Shaw’s message here.
Jimmy Carter also spoke this evening and was greeted with a standing ovation. Carter spoke spoke candidly about why we are gathered in this new venture together and what is at stake. Divisions have been "a cancer metastasizing in the body of Christ." These divisions are nothing new as Paul must address them in his letters to the early church. Carter did a honest summation of some of the major issues that cause divisions among believers today – issues of women leadership in the church, homosexuality, abortion, separation of church and state, etc. – and acknowledged the significance of these issues. But he challenged us to remember what is essential and to unify around these things – the grace of God and the sharing of the Gospel. Do not let the deeply felt differences divide us or surpass the message of Christ. View Carter’s speech here.
The Covenant is about being bound together in Christ in the spirit of peace, love, and the spirit of common purpose.
The next two days will be focused more on that common purpose and the call to action.