Learning about Jesus and Baptists (I was happy to help)

A bunch of people recently learned a little bit about Baptists and Jesus. I was happy to help.

I write a column for Baptist News Global every 4 weeks. On April 14, 2015, they published my article entitled, "What 'religious freedom' used to mean." In my mind, there was nothing ground-shattering about it. I'm one of many Baptists who know our heritage when it comes to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. My article compared the original context of the fight for religious freedom to the current day climate of Christians using "religious freedom" as a way of securing extra trump cards.

A few days after the column ran, I was scrolling through Facebook and happened to see that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had posted my column to their Facebook page. It must have struck a chord.

Although it's never a good idea to scroll through internet comments, the ones under my article were actually largely positive and non-trollish. What was most striking to me was the number of people who expressed disbelief that a Baptist minister would write such an article. A few examples:

I knew Baptists had a PR problem, but I suppose this was one of my few opportunities to see it all in one place. The above comments are only a small sample.

It is unfortunate that so many people don't know about the historic Baptist commitment to the separation of church and state (including, of course, many Baptists). One of my sources for the article was William M. Pinson, Jr.'s book Baptists and Religious Liberty. There are many such sources on this subject, but Pinson's book is one of the more digestible ones. 

I suppose if I were a Southern Baptist I would represent the tiny minority that people suppose, but especially within my denomination, American Baptist Churches - USA, there is a widespread commitment to what Walter B. Shurden calls the "four fragile freedoms": soul freedom, church freedom, Bible freedom, and religious freedom.

But it has also been a reminder that there are so many people out there who have only encountered the type of Christian who lives with great fear and resentment instead of trying to exemplify the grace-filled life that Jesus lived. The current "religious freedom" debate has revealed how many Christians walk through life blinded by a false narrative of persecution and who show no interest in how to serve and love their neighbor. Jesus did not command us to love our neighbor only when things are as we want them to be. In fact, he preached radical, impossible-seeming commands like "love your enemies" and told his followers to go the extra mile when forced by Roman soldiers to carry their equipment. 

Hyper-individualism, in which people use all means necessary to put up protective fences, has sadly infiltrated a faith that is supposed to be about joining "prostitutes and tax collectors" at the banquet table.

Gandhi's famous quote looms large: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."


"I Thirst"

On April 3, 2015, I was invited to be one of several guest preachers at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Good Friday service. Each guest preacher was asked to speak briefly on one of Jesus' seven "sayings from the cross." I was assigned the phrase, "I Thirst." This is the text of my meditation.


John 19:28 - “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’”

Grand Canyon by Helicopter from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Tony Kent, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
On August 1, 1975, a nurse named Linda Forney was vacationing at the Grand Canyon. She decided to go on a hike by herself—a long and sun-exposed hike that she started at high noon even though rangers strongly urge visitors to start it before dawn. Under the intense Arizona sun, she became disoriented, and took a wrong turn off the trail. Hours turned into days, and she was not able to find her way back to the trail. She had a few snacks with her and one canteen of water. She was sweltering hot during the day, and shivering cold at night.

When she ran out of food and water, it became a desperate attempt at survival. The human body can go for several weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Linda finally found a crevice in a rock that provided shade from the sun and had a slight trickle of water. She placed her canteen under the trickle but it took most of a day to get enough to drink. She had no food. A few times she thought she heard the sounds of people and aircraft, but she could never attract anyone’s attention. 

20 days after she had gone missing, she was found...sun-burned, barely conscious, and out of water. She was quickly taken to a hospital, where she recovered.

When you’re thirsty, you can’t think about anything else. When you’re thirsty, you are going to preoccupied with getting to that which can quench your thirst.

Thirst is a painful wanting. An eager longing-for.

In the original New Testament Greek of this quote from Jesus, it’s just one word. “Dipso.” “I thirst.” The word appears 15 other times in the New Testament, mostly in the gospels. Here are a few of the other occurrences:

Matthew 5:6 - “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Matthew 25:35 - “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”

John 4:13-14 - “‘Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.’ ‘Please sir,’ the woman said, ‘Please give me this water.’”

And here’s what’s interesting about this word from the cross in the Gospel of John. Listen to what else the verse says: “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’” Jesus had just about wrapped up his job. Jesus had done what he came to do. Yet, even before he died and was resurrected, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Because even though Jesus had finished his work on earth, the world was not healed. After all, it was the sinfulness of the world that put him there in the first place. From that very moment, Jesus was thirsty for a healed and redeemed world. 

But...we ourselves also come...thirsty.

Thirst is a painful wanting, an eager longing-for. When you’re thirsty, everything else gets blocked out. Your need is desperate. But it's as if Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, ‘When it comes to righteousness, I want you to be like Linda Forney in the blazing sun of the Grand Canyon.’ Jesus says that we should want righteousness so badly hat it consumes our life...every decision we make, every word we speak, every dollar we spend...consumed with our thirst for righteousness. What would that look like?

In the face of our violent world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for peace. In the face of our politically and racially divided world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for reconciliation. In the face of vast corporate greed and corruption and special interests, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for justice. In the face of individualism, lone rangers, and every man for himself, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for community. In the face of sin, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for righteousness.  

By the way, I told you that Linda Forney survived getting lost in the Grand Canyon. I told you she was eventually found. But I didn’t tell you who found her. She was finally found by a Native American tribe who lived in the area. She was finally found by people who knew their way around the canyon. She was not found by rangers who looked and called from a safe distance. She was not found by search teams flying high overhead. She was found by those who know what it’s like to live in the canyon.

And you and I, brothers and sisters, can only bring the living water of Christ to those who hunger and thirst when we ourselves bear their burdens and meet them where they are.