Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Stayed on Jesus and Freedom

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  John 8.31-36; Ephesians 3:20-21


On Tuesday night, I was in Binghamton.  Some of you were there.  Some of our FOCUS community members were there and others from Albany.  We were in a Presbyterian sanctuary that looked a lot like this sanctuary.  It still had pews and every pew was filled, even the ones in the balcony.  Shortly after I arrived, we sang “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” 

Vincent Harding was a teacher, historian, theologian and activist. He died in 2014 at the age of 82.   You might know him as a man who wrote some of Dr. King’s speeches.  I did not know that fact about him until I had been reading his writing for a long time.   In his book, Hope and History, he wrote, “The churches are challenged to their best life when we hear the cry of the oppressed as a siren deep within our bones, when we risk our lives to respond, when we discover that there is no fundamental contradiction between waking up with our minds stayed on Jesus and stayed on freedom. Both songs belong to us. Both open us to the morning light.”[1] 

This year and particularly this month, churches around the world are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  It was in 1517 that a monk named Martin Luther compiled a list of 95 concerns with the church that he wanted to discuss in an academic setting.  There were other reformers decades before Luther, but legend says that he posted his agenda on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany on Halloween, 1517 and that event is now marked as the starting point for the Protestant Reformation.

So today, I invite us to think about Jesus and freedom, and to do so through the lens of Reformation. 

In our reading from John 8, we heard Jesus say, “the truth shall set you free.”  Jesus also said that he was the truth.  The truth of God embodied in Jesus will set us free.  That’s one central message of this text. 

Unfortunately, other messages have been taken from this chapter, messages of anti-Semitism, some of which were delivered by Martin Luther himself.  So it is important that we understand the context.  What we have in John’s gospel is a window into first century Judaism which is undergoing its own reformation.  Just like the time of the Protestant Reformation, there are a lot of factors coming together in time.  One is the teaching of a Jewish rabbi named Jesus.  Another is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  By the time John’s gospel is written down, decades after Jesus’ lifetime, scripture has replaced the temple as the center point around which faith is focused.  Jewish Christians differed with other Jews on questions of interpretation of scripture and on who could claim God’s promises and claim the status of being God’s people.   

The people for whom John’s gospel was written were the ones displaced from their own faith community.  They were outcasts, the ones excluded from the spiritual centers that had once helped to define their religious and communal identity.[2]  We might see a parallel in Luther, whose spirituality and faith were completely wrapped up in the Church, but who was excommunicated for his attempts to reform it from within.  

What we get glimpses of in John’s gospel is an internal fight within Judaism.  The language is harsh.  It is the only tool available to this minority who are protesting their marginalization in the strongest possible terms.  Similarly, the Protestant Reformation begins as an internal fight within Catholicism.  This pattern repeats itself through human history. We define ourselves against our enemies;  we are not like those people, even though they used to be our closest friends, and in doing so, sometimes we lose the truth that we sought in the first place.  There has been much reconciliation and healing in Jewish-Christian relationships and in Catholic-Protestant relationships in recent decades, but surely it breaks God’s heart that there was ever such wounding in the first place. 

About a hundred years after Luther, a second wave of Reformation occurred, called the Radical Reformation.  Radical, in sense of trying to get back to the root, to the origin of Christianity, and radical because they felt that Luther and Calvin and those folks had not gone far enough.  The first Baptists came into being within the Radical Reformation, as part of a group known as Anabaptists. 

Baptist fun fact – the first Baptist church in the world began in a bakery.  (That might explain a few things.)  The first Baptist church in the world met in the East India Bakehouse in Amsterdam in the early 1600’s.  Its members were British who had separated from the Church of England.  Some of their group got on a ship you might have heard of, called the Mayflower.  The others fled to Amsterdam under the leadership of two men – John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.  In 1609,  they became convinced that the church should be composed only of adult believers who were baptized on the basis of their personal faith decision.  They believed that infants could not make such decisions and therefore infant baptism was not legitimate baptism.  This was truly radical.  Their own records say this:  Pastor and deacons laid down their office, the church disbanded or avowed itself no church, and stood as private individuals, unbaptized.  All being equal, Smyth proposed that Helwys their social leader should baptize them, but Helwys deferred to his spiritual leader.”[3]

So John Smyth baptized himself, then Helwys and then the others. The first Baptist church ever was born.[4]

The reaction to Smyth’s self-baptism by other Christians was horror.   They had dissolved themselves as a church beforehand, so how could they justify a baptism outside the church?  Initially Smyth responded that the church had gone so far off course that there was no longer any true church which required the radical act of self-baptism in order to begin again.

But then Smyth began to doubt.  He turned to the Dutch Mennonites who had been practicing believers baptism for at least a generation.  He petitioned them for membership, but died of consumption in 1612 before he could be admitted into their fellowship. 

Also in 1612, Thomas Helwys led his group back to England where they founded the first Baptist church on English soil near London.  These Baptists observed baptism and the Lord’s Supper and also, they practiced laying on of hands not only for pastors and deacons, but for everyone who was baptized.  This was their way of affirming that all Christians are ordained for ministry by virtue of our baptism. 

We call it the priesthood of all believers, and it was not unique to Baptists, by the way.  It was an idea which Luther had also championed.

However, these Baptists went beyond Luther in calling for religious liberty for everyone.  Thomas Helwys wrote a document called “A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity” which said that earthly rulers have no authority to judge religion.  If people choose to be heretics or atheists, they are accountable only to God, not to kings or magistrates.  For his boldness, he was put in Newgate Prison until his death in 1616. [5]

What strikes me is how much the truth mattered to them.  Smyth was first a priest in the Church of England, then a Separatist, then a Baptist and finally a wannabe Mennonite.  Such was his search for truth.  He so fervently wanted to get it right about faith and practice, especially baptism.  When we can’t quite imagine that mattering so much, we need to remember that our Baptist and Anabaptist ancestors were killed, often by drowning, for baptizing by immersion.   And Helwys found a truth that had him challenging the very highest power in his time, a truth that endures to this day, but for which he ended up giving his life in prison. 

Surely these and others were among those described in our reading to the Ephesians, the ones in whom the power of God was at work to accomplish abundantly more than they could ever ask or imagine.  God worked powerfully in them because they took their faith so seriously.  It mattered.  Does anything matter like that to Christians today?

Back to John 8, verse 31-32, “To those who had believed him, Jesus said ‘if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” Those who believed him – the Greek word for belief there means something more than just an intellectual proposition. It means something you trust with your life, something you commit your whole self to.

For Anabaptists, the distinctive concept of discipleship was following.  The early reformers had developed the concept of salvation by grace, which was good, but did not go quite far enough.  The radical reformers insisted on lives of obedience to the Kingdom of God as a clear and decisive alternative to the kingdoms of this world.  Their practices, like the first century Christians, were characterized by concrete actions of mercy and compassion, by economic sharing, and by their refusal to bear arms in defense of earthly powers. 

Following Christ was their insistent refrain.  The trueness of a belief about God was tested in the way that it transforms the shape of our lives, by the way it operates in all our personal and collective decisions.[6]

That concept is one which we need to hear again.  Faith in Jesus is not just a private internal matter, a personal relationship with God.  Neither is it just a matter of public good works which embody the reign of God on earth and maybe earn us a place in heaven.  True discipleship is both.   It means receiving God’s grace in our personal brokenness AND working for social change.  It means walking humbly with God AND practicing kindness AND seeking justice.  The truth that will set us free is to be found putting our lives on the line as we seek to live like Jesus did.

Martin Luther said, “If you preach the gospel in all its aspects with the exception of the issues that deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all.”  Remember that Luther believed in the priesthood of all believers, so that preaching the gospel is not limited to the ordained, but something we all do as followers of Jesus.

The Reformers became known as protesters, Protestants, because they preached about the issues of their time.  The issues of their time involved corruption, the misuse and abuse of religious power and economic power and governmental authority against the common people.  Maybe some of that sounds familiar in our time?

In Binghamton on Tuesday, we heard the powerful speech of a contemporary reformer.  The Rev. Dr. William Barber is one leader of what he calls a Moral Revival, a Poor People’s Campaign, which identifies five issues specific to our time on which the gospel can be brought to bear.  The issues they name are:  systemic racism, systemic poverty, environmental degradation, militarism, and the heresy of Christian nationalism.  These are issues where the truth matters, where following Jesus will require us to put our faith on the line, to demonstrate our true allegiance.  You can probably think of others, perhaps some that are making costly demands of you personally.

Sisters and brothers, may we be inspired for the living of these days by those who have gone ahead of us, those who put their faith on the line because it really mattered, who knew the truth that sets us free.    

As Dr. Harding said, "We are challenged to our best life when we hear the cry of the oppressed as a siren deep within our bones, when we risk our lives to respond, when we discover that there is no fundamental contradiction between waking up with our minds stayed on Jesus and stayed on freedom.  Both songs belong to us.  Both open us to the morning light."  May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.


[1] Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1990), p. 169

[2]Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IX,  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995),  p. 648. 

[3] A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (London:  The Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, 1970), p. 37.

[4] Bill J. Leonard, Word of God Across the Ages, (Greenville, SC:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1990), pp. 88-89.

[5] Bill Leonard, p. 90.

[6] This summary of Anabaptist practice is taken from Ken Sehested’s wonderful essay Trust and Obey  http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/articles-essays-sermons/2017/10/17/trust-and-obey.2881455