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Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Jan. 4, 2009.

Matthew 22:37-40; 10:37-39; Hebrews 10:24-25

As we begin a new year, we may be making our usual New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, save money, read more books and watch less television. In addition to my personal resolutions, I’ve made one regarding our church. As your pastor, I want our church to have a clearer understanding of our identity, of who we are at FBC.

Recently, our pastoral staff sat with one of our Sunday School classes to discuss a variety of issues. The conversation eventually led to this question of identity, and the members of the class asked some very valid, very appropriate questions about who FBC is. We acknowledged that our identity is somewhat muddy, in part because Baptist churches that value the priesthood of the believer and diversity of opinion are always hard to neatly categorize, in part because we probably haven’t done a good job regularly reminding ourselves of who we are and what we stand for.

So, during the month of January, I intend to speak to this very question of who we are, hoping I will spark a congregational conversation about our identity. And on this Sunday when we celebrate our first communion of the year, I want to start a new tradition practiced by many churches of all denominations ”reciting our church covenant when we celebrate communion.

Actually, what we’ll be doing today is reciting one-fourth of our church covenant (you’ll find it printed on the last page of our worship folder). The truth is, our current church covenant is too long to read at one time, which is one reason we use it so sparingly. So we’ll be reading roughly a fourth of the covenant at a time over the four Sunday morning communion services of 2009, and I’ll be basing my sermons those Sundays on the portion of the covenant we read. And look for me down the road to ask our church to revise our covenant so it will be briefer in length.

Before we launch into the content of our covenant, let me answer a basic question that begs to be asked ”what exactly is a church covenant? In his book, Baptist Church Covenants, Baptist historian Charles W. DeWeese writes: A church covenant is a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.

The simplest way to think of a covenant is as a collection of vows or promises we make to God and to each other about what we will do and how we will do it. Covenants in Baptist churches have historically had less to do with beliefs and more to do with practice. Not all Baptists agree that church covenants are helpful, or even biblical. But many Baptist churches have found them to be helpful summaries of what is expected.

Notice, by the way, that like most church covenants our covenant is not lifted from any particular scripture but it is based generally on the Bible. And notice that our covenant is not for our guests, but for those who have been baptized into the faith and are members of our church.

A final word about our covenant in general. It was drafted during the interim before I came to be your pastor in 1991. This was a difficult period in the life of our church, and my impression is that this covenant was an attempt to move our church out of struggle and conflict by resolving to set the bar very high in how we relate to God and one another, and conduct our business.

It should come as no surprise that our covenant begins with the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 22:37-40. New Testament scholars call these two commands the Summary Commands of Jesus because they summarize not only the commands and laws of the Old Testament, but all of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants to be very clear that while religious rituals and church practices are important, they all pale in comparison to our two chief responsibilities in life: to love God with every fiber of our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus says everything in the Bible hangs on, revolves around, revolves from these two commands. I might add that everything in our church covenant springs from these two commands. And not coincidentally, so does everything in our church blueprint and vision that we’ll be discussing later this month.

In the second paragraph of the introduction to the covenant, we are reminded that God always makes the first move to initiate an intimate, loving relationship with us. God, through the Holy Spirit, draws us to Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior. What happens next is up to us. We can respond to God’s invitation with love, joy, and passion in lifelong commitment to Jesus. Or we can respond with halfhearted complacency or wholehearted rebellion. God respects our freedom to say yes or no to him, which by the way, is why we must also be respectful of the freedom of others to accept or reject Jesus.

The first two articles of our church covenant make clear our two primary responsibilities as church members. We are to love Christ above everything else in this world, and love the Body of Christ even more than our own flesh and blood. Again, everything else in this covenant flows from these foundational beliefs.

Someone has said that Jesus is the most divisive person in history. That’s a strange way to describe the Prince of Peace. But in Matthew 10, Jesus says he did not come to bring peace to this earth, but a sword. What does that mean? It means Jesus forces us to make a decision where he is concerned.

Jesus will not allow us the option of making him one of many competing priorities. You’re either for him or against him. You either love him more than anyone or anything else in this world, or you don’t love him at all. This doesn’t mean we must love Jesus perfectly from day one to be a Christian. Our covenant says we grow into discipleship over the course of our lives. But make no mistake ”our goal is to live as though Jesus is the supreme commitment of our lives.

But that’s not all ”we’re called to love the Body of Christ with the same passion as we love Jesus. In fact, you can’t separate our love for Jesus from our love for the Body of Christ, though we try to do it all the time. You can’t be devoted to Christ and casual about the Body of Christ.

Nobody is more grateful than Baptists, given our history of persecution by other church bodies, that church attendance is voluntary rather than required by the state. We Baptists have historically maintained that citizens of America ought never be required to set foot in a church if they don’t want to.

But true Christians will want to be with other Christians. They’ll physically attend church if they’re able because they understand you cannot be a Christian alone, and not even watching worship services on television substitutes for close contact with other believers.

Why does the author of Hebrews urge us to meet together regularly? Because the act of meeting with other Christians creates spiritual combustion, spiritual energy that results in spiritual growth and good works. Engaging in corporate worship, and Bible study, and small groups, and service with other Christians is absolutely vital to being a follower of Jesus. And if you’ve been halfhearted about being with us regularly, now is the time to change that pattern.

So, before we participate in that sacred practice of the Body of Christ called communion, let’s renew our vows, our promises to God and each other about what it means to follow Christ in this place.

FBC Church Covenant

Jesus said, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Believing that God, through His Spirit, has drawn me to believe in Jesus Christ as His Son and my Savior, I declare my commitment to Him as my Master and Lord, the One who shows me how to live now and how to be assured of life eternal. Having been baptized, as Jesus asked me to be, as an outward symbol of the burial of my old self, raised up to walk in newness of life, I join wholeheartedly with my fellow members in Christ in the fellowship of His church. (Mark 8:34; Romans 6:3-6; Philippians 3:7-14)

Priority Of Christ
I pledge myself to make it my goal to place Christ above all other loyalties and to learn to love Him above all else. I recognize that as I allow his grace to help me, I will grow in this supreme devotion to Him through the years. (Luke 16: 13; Mark 12:30; Matthew 10:37-39)

Church Attendance
Mindful that attendance at His services of worship, study, training and missionary activity should be voluntary, I will attend because I like to, not just because I feel I ought to. In this spirit, I will strive to attend and participate in the worship services of this church, unless prevented by good cause, such as absence from the city, ill health, family duties or imperative work. (Hebrews 10:24-25; Psalms 122:1; Acts 2:46-47)

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