“We never see Jesus until we see him in every face,” said Julie Pennington-Russell, who preached during the Thursday evening session of the New Baptist Covenant celebration.

Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., said the diverse gathering of Baptists at the New Baptist Covenant celebration was a real gift. “We want to bless each other tonight and this week and give each other the best gifts straight from the heart,” she said.

Noting the broad racial, economic, geographic, cultural, and theological differences present, Pennington-Russell said “We are practicing the Baptist tradition of respecting each other’s differences.”

“Respectfulness” is a good gift, she said, but “is this really the gift we came so far to give this week?”

Respect alone “has no power to change something that is broken between you and me,” said: “only love can do that.”

Respectfulness is not a bad gift, “but it runs out of steam at the fifty-yard line,” she said. “But love, like Forrest Gump, runs all the way down the field, through the end zone, and into the parking lot.”

We have the ability to be respectful of others while still holding them at arm’s length, Pennington-Russell said, but “love doesn’t let us get away with that.”

“Jesus is the face of love,” she said, the one “who showed us what the power of real love could do through us in this world.”

Following Jesus in that path is not easy, she acknowledged. “Let’s not pretend we’re any good at this, but above all, let’s never doubt that Jesus Christ through us has the power to change the world.”

Pennington-Russell recalled a recent lightning strike that destroyed two trees, blew a hole in the ground, and damaged her family’s cars and home.

“There is a power just as free and just as frightening running through the church and through your heart and mind,” she said: “the power of love wants to blow a hole in all the separations we have contrived.”

Jesus came reaching out to us, “and in light of such a love, maybe it’s time for you and me to do some reaching, too,” she said, challenging participants to think of someone they have difficulty loving.

“Let love take you by the hand and lead you like a child to a new way of seeing that brother or sister, and look for Jesus in the face of that person,” she said.

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