This month, we celebrate a uniquely Moravian event as we gather for Holy Communion in Celebration of August 13th, the time in 1727 when a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit swept through the congregation at Berthelsdorf, Germany. The experience was so profound that it was likened to the experience of the disciples at Pentecost, and it marked a new era of God’s work among the Moravians.
A lesser-known part of this experience was the Children’s Revival that followed. A few days after the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation among the adults, a number of children at the village school felt called to prayer, and began to organize their own prayer groups. The adults were so inspired by the spirit of the children that it reinforced their own experience and helped to drive the famed Prayer Watch that went on continuously for the next hundred years; and there is no doubt that it was out of the prayer and study that followed that the seeds of the mission movement came.
This month, we have the remarkable opportunity to have the Rev. Dr. Riddick Weber visit to lead two Sunday School workshops about the Moravian movement. Brother Weber is professor of Pastoral Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, and is one of our leading experts on the revolutionary social systems that Moravian communities engineered. He can speak with great authority about the intriguing ideas that they employed that made those communities work and witness! I hope that you will take the time to come out for these Sunday School workshops this month. Brother Weber will also officiate over Communion on August 11th while I am away directing the next segment of the movie “But Now I See,” and will bring a meditation about the August 13th experience and its meaning for us today that is well-informed and inspiring.
This past week the liturgical calendar recognized the Conversion of Paul on Friday, January 25th. Of course, like most stuff on the liturgical calendar, we don’t actually know the date on which Paul was converted, it’s just the date that traditionally has been used to remember the event – and an important event it was in Christian history, especially for those of us that are Gentiles!
Saul, as he was originally known, was a tradesman, a tentmaker from the town of Tarsus, a city in southern Turkey. Because of his residency, he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, something that would be important later in his life. Saul was a very religious man, a member of the Pharisees, a Jew of impeccable religious practice and credentials.
In fact, Paul was absolutely sure of his Phariseeical Jewish faith – of every bit of it, so sure that he was willing to participate in the stoning of Stephen without a moment’s hesitation – just as the torturers of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the 15th century – usually referred to as “The Spanish Inquisition” – were absolutely sure they were doing right as they twisted you on the rack. It was for your own good, for your ultimate salvation that they burned you with hot pokers. They tortured with absolute calmness of spirit, certain of the rightness of their religion. The only problem is that they were WRONG.
I know Christians today so perfectly assured that they are right, right about every doctrine, understanding, and detail, so right that they would not hesitate a moment to stand with Saul holding the coats, throwing the stones, or turning the wheel on the rack. They have confused their certainty about their personal beliefs with TRUTH, and confused their certainty about their own sense of being right with GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS. They are not the same thing. In fact, there are ways in which they are diametrically opposed!
This confusion between “I am right” and truth, between “my understanding” and God’s understanding, is one of the fundamental problems of religion through the centuries. The fact is that human religion is really based on “I am right,” rather than on “God is right” – even when they confuse the issue by whacking you on the forehead with a King James Bible. True faith derives from an encounter with the living God, not from a list of precepts.
It was an encounter with the risen Christ that changed Saul’s life and transformed him from a murderer of Christians to a believer himself. Like 007, he set off to Damascus with a “License to Kill” in his pocket, breathing “threats and murder” against those who followed “The Way.” But along the road to Damascus, he stumbled onto “The Way” himself when he met the risen Savior.
I don’t know exactly what happened or how it happened, but Paul’s experience was that of a bright, blinding light and a voice: “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul was knocked off his feet, he had the rug pulled out from under him. He went from an absolutely self-assured raging crusader to a blinded, helpless man whose world had been turned upside-down. But that’s what an encounter with the living God does to people! It turns their world upside-down, turns their certainties into doubts, and makes them sure of only one thing – that there is indeed a God, and they are not Him!
From this experience, Saul had to completely rebuild his life, had to turn 180 degrees and reverse the entire direction of his being. But the amazing thing is that God lets us take such U-turns, in fact He often makes them happen! Conversions do happen, they are real, and when they happen like this they are very fundamental in nature.
Paul, as he came to be known rebuilt his life on a new foundation – not the foundation of a list of religious beliefs, but the foundation of actual experience, an actual relationship with the very Savior he had once doubted with complete certainty. His new life was built on faith, not dogma.
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” — Galileo Galilei
And this brings up an important point about faith – one that I often discuss with members and friends that experience times of doubt or pain of challenge. “Faith” is an abused and misused word!
Most often I hear the term “FAITH” used in a way that means “thoughtless belief without doubt in the impossible or contradictory or simply silly.” Many Christians behave as if willfully believing a certain list of propositions, no matter how silly or contradicted by reason or science, is what God wants us to do. No, I love the comment by Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
And the comment by our Moravian Bishop Edwin Sawyer: “The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”
“The door of the church ought never be so low you have to leave your brains outside.”
– The Right Rev. Edwin Sawyer
But when we use FAITH in a normal sentence – such as “I have faith that Joe will do the right thing,” or “I have faith in you.” Do we mean that we are stubbornly and blindly believing against all evidence that Joe, who is a crack addict in and out of jail who abandoned his family, embezzled from his employer, and has destroyed pretty much every relationship in his life will, because of our belief, suddenly turn around and behave completely out of character? NO! We mean that even in a new situation that we’ve never experienced, we expect that the reliable, good, solid person that we have watched in other situations over the years, will do the right thing – because that’s what Joe does. Our faith is based on our experience with Joe, in our relationship with Joe.
FAITH is based on experience – on relationship, not on willfully believing a list of particular silly things.
It is when we know another person that we are confident of what that person will do in any situation. One of my favorite bits from Count Zinzendorf is actually a footnote to a sermon on one of Paul’s letters, about a comment that is a little ambiguous and hard to translate. In the footnote, the good Count wrote: “I am sometimes confused about what Paul means here, but I am saved from error because I know the One about Whom he is speaking.” I know the One about Whom he is speaking!
Again, on the road to Damascus, Paul went from being absolutely confident of his own rightness, of being 100% unshakably certain that everything on his list of litmus tests for Jewish orthodoxy were RIGHT to a blind, shaky confused man who had actually experienced the presence of the Savior. He had to rebuild his life on that RELATIONSHIP and ACTUAL EXPERIENCE of the Savior now rather than on a list of proposition.
There are Christians, in fact many Christians, who will tell you that you are not a “good” Christian if you believe in evolution or the big Bang or that the Earth was not created on 23 Oct, 4004 BC (as Bishop James Ussher confidently decreed) or some other date picked out of a hat by another fundamentalist based on some other Rube Goldberg contraption of contrived logic. BALONEY. The True Christian life is based on a real relationship with the Savior, EXPERIENCE of God of Creation. As a result, the growing faithful Christian will often have periods of doubt and questions as he or she grows, as his self-assured beliefs are challenged by a Damasucs Road experience, as her childish beliefs have to fall by the wayside in the experience of grown-up situations that call for grown up courage and grown up faith in a grown-up God!
“Faith” is not pulling up your socks and turning off your brain and willfully believing in something silly or magical or contradictory. It’s not believing the impossible, as in my favorite bit from Alice in Wonderland:
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Now, the fact of the matter is that as we grow in faith – that being again a living relationship with a living Savior, not some superficial belief in a set of propositions – we will wrestle with new and deeper spiritual issues and questions. We will never be at the same spot on the journey of faith as someone else; and so inevitably some will see further down the road than others, one standing at the top of a hill will see beyond the valley that another is in. Both are on the same journey, following the same Savior, but at different points. And such differences in perspective inevitably cause differences in opinion and perception. How could it be otherwise? But the true test of those who are part of the Kingdom is that they are called to be One even when experiencing such differences in perspective.
This is nothing new! Paul ran into this sort of thing right away with Peter, who after all felt that he was the proper head of the Church – and who at this point believed that the message was only for Jews, not for Gentiles. They had quite a wrestling match over this, in fact Paul’s calling to preach to the Gentiles nearly cost him his relationship with the Church in Jerusalem – and this tension was only resolved through Peter’s visionary experience, another intervention of the divine not unlike Paul’s Damascus Road experience.
Our Moravian Church has experienced such differences and struggles over the centuries, and will continue to struggle with these issues as surely as God made little green apples. If we stop having these struggles, that will be the time to feel for the pulse, shake the head sadly, and pull the sheet up – for we will be dead. Turmoil, differences, and struggle are not signs of weakness, they are signs of life.
So in all of this the question that I would leave you with is this: HOW DO YOU EXPERIENCE THE SAVIOR?
This month marks the 285th anniversary of a very important event in the history of the Moravian Church – an event that is often overlooked in our emphasis on August 13th and Christ the Chief Elder celebrations. That event was the adoption of the “First Statutes of Herrnhut,” later known as the “Brotherly Agreement” and today as the “Moravian Covenant for Christian Living.”
After months of bitter division and infighting, the Herrnhutters had spent a period in intense Bible study and prayer. Out of that experience, they became convinced that their behavior had been inherently unchristian – that Christians were called to unity and love, not to division and anger. On May 12, 1727, they gathered to sign what were essentially two documents: the Manorial Injunctions, a set of civil laws that were pretty much dictated by Count Zinzendorf, and the Bruderlische Vertrag, the Brotherly Agreement. The Injunctions were not optional – if you wanted to live in Herrnhut, you had to agree to abide by them. But the second part, outlining principles of Christian living, were voluntary. Every resident agreed to sign them.
The signing of the Brotherly Agreement, essentially an agreement to behave in a loving manner consistent with the call of Christ, was a turning point that set the stage for the dynamic renewal that happened on August 13th. That “Moravian Pentecost” could not have happened without the signing of the Agreement. The amazing renewal that marks the beginning of the Moravian mission movement was a direct outgrowth from the Herrnhutters’ intentional modification of their behavior, and a renewed commitment to prayer and discipleship. As a result, ours is the only denomination that asks new members to agree to a certain standard of behavior rather than assenting to a set of beliefs.
This month, as a very intentional part of the leadup to our Centennial Celebration, we will be taking a look at the Moravian Covenant during our worship services, reviewing the very idea of the Covenant and the specific demands that the collected Biblical injunctions place on us as we live out our faith in the real world. Sermons this month will each originate from different aspects of the Covenant, and will explore ways the Covenant helps us to live out the call of Christ – that we might be known by our love!
- Pastor John
The current updated Moravian Covenant for Christian Living
For those interested, here are some of the historical examples of the Agreement:
1762 Brotherly Agreement Enacted in Bethlehem, PA - Thanks to the Digital Bethlehem Project
The 1727 Brüderlisch Vertrag as adopted in Herrnhut, Germany – thanks to the Moravian Archives, Southern Province.
Statutes of the Congregation at Herrnhut, in the year 1727.
1. It shall be for ever remembered by the inhabitants of Herrnhut, that it was built on the Grace of the living God, that it is a work of His own hand, yet not properly intended to be a new town, but only an establishment erected for Brethren and for the Brethren’s sake.
2. Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all Children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions—they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly towards any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity and grace.
3. The following are the characteristics of a true member of Christ’s body, and these we, the inhabitants of Herrnhut, who simply adhere to the foundation built on the Word of God, deem to be the most sure. Whosoever does not confess that he owes his awakening and salvation exclusively to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and that he cannot exist without it for one moment of his life, that the greatest perfection in life (were it possible to attain to it, without the intercession of the Mediator, urged by the plea of His blood and merit) would be of no avail in the sight of God, while it is made acceptable in the Beloved ; and whoever does not daily prove it by his whole conversation, that it is his full determination to be delivered from sin, through the merits of Jesus, and to follow daily more after holiness, to grow in the likeness of his Lord, to be cleansed from all spiritual idolatry, vanity and self-will, to walk as Jesus did, and to bear his reproach and shame : such an one is not a genuine Brother. But whosoever has this disposition of heart, though he maintain sectarian, fanatical, or at least defective opinions, shall not on that account be despised among us, nor in case of his even separating himself from us, will we immediately forsake him, but we will rather follow him in his wanderings, and spare him, and bear with him in the spirit of love, patience, and meekness. But whosoever is not fully established on the above-named fundamental principles, though he do not wholly forsake them, shall be considered as a halting and wavering Brother, and be reclaimed in the spirit of meekness.
4. It is laudable in itself for the Congregation to devote certain days to the special remembrance of the faithful leading of our God, celebrating them with fasting and prayer, or thanks and praise. Such days, for instance, as that of the emigration of the first Brethren on the 1 zth of May, on which day in different years many remarkable events have taken place. In like manner every individual may consecrate those days, which to him are the most memorable, to the Lord, spending them as above with his intimate Brethren and Friends. But in both cases care must be taken that this appropriation of certain days do not degenerate into mere lifeless custom.
5. Those who, with an unfettered conscience, acquiesce in the present external regulations of the Church, will not hesitate to declare the ground of their acquiescence, to wit, that they do not consider human regulations and customs as an unalterable part of divine worship, but make use of them, agreeably to the dictates of Christian liberty, in a spirit of meekness, love and obedience, till the Lord himself brings about a change. Should in aftertimes any particular order of things be introduced among us, in respect to the outward form of devotional rites, simplicity and edification must be aimed at exclusively.
6. Whoever has not been used to auricular confession, or has conscientious objections in his mind against it, shall not be forced to submit to it at Berthelsdorf; yet no one shall be permitted to go to the Holy Communion without the previous knowledge of the Minister at Berthelsdorf, in order that all confusion and levity may be prevented.
7. No one is to enter into confidential intercourse with people that are notoriously wicked, or altogether worldly-minded, lest offence should thereby be given ; yet it is proper that such people should be treated as much as possible in an equitable and unassuming manner, and none should allow themselves in any vehemences against them.
8. Everyone should be careful to comprehend the true foundation of the saving doctrine on which we are all agreed ; that so we may be able to give an answer to all our adversaries in meekness, yet with wisdom and power, and all may mutually defend and support one another.
9. When any traces of a good work begin to show themselves in one soul or another, no premature judgment concerning them should be formed ; but it is expedient to wait with patience till the fruits begin to appear, while we must feel thankful to God for the good beginning which is to be traced, and promote their welfare as much as lies in our power.
10. In general, we consider it an abominable practice for any one to judge and condemn his neighbour rashly, and without clear and full evidence, and without previously using all the acknowledged and Scriptural degrees of brotherly correction. Whoever, therefore, is guilty of this unjustifiable proceeding subjects himself to well-merited censure.
11. Ministers, Labourers, and all whose official incumbency it is to care for and watch over the souls of others, must be at full liberty to hold frequent and full intercourse with one or the other, and no suspicion is to be cast on them on that account.
12. As the conversion of souls is the chief object of most of the present inhabitants of Herrnhut, everyone must be permitted to choose those with whom he would, for the time being, be more intimately connected, than he could be with others; and to alter his choice according to circumstances without fearing to give offence.
The intercourse between single persons of both sexes must have its restrictions, and the Elders are empowered to prevent it whenever in any case scruples arise in their minds against such intercourse, though the apparent aim of it might be ever so laudable.
13. Envy, suspicion, and unfounded prejudice against the Brethren must be most carefully guarded against. As everyone is at liberty to cultivate an intercourse with others, no one ought to take it amiss if another should appear more familiarly acquainted with the Elders than he. For the sake of the weak, no light conversation is to be allowed concerning God and spiritual things, but such subjects ought always to be treated with the greatest reverence.
15. Agreeably to the practice of the Primitive Church, the Brethren are called upon to exert themselves in every possible way for the benefit of those who are of the same household of faith; and to all others they are to do as they would wish that others should do unto them.
16. Whosoever has received the needful gift for it is to speak, the others to judge.
17. Those who seem to be best suited one to the other may, without hesitation, live in the habit of close familiarity, join in prayer, and act in all respects as intimate friendship requires; yet such preference given to any individual must by no means be to the prejudice of cordial brotherly love towards all others ; and it becomes the duty of those who are particularly acquainted one with the other to lend each other a helping hand as it regards doctrine, admonition, reproof, direction, yea, their * whole spiritual course.
18. No Brother is to enrol himself as a member of any particular trading or handicraft association without first acquainting the others of his design. And no business carried on among us is to be looked upon as in itself mean and despicable.
19. No one shall, even in the smallest way, overreach his neighbour, much less defraud him. zo. No marriage is to be contracted without the knowledge and approbation of the Elders, and no promise of marriage is to be given and received, except in their presence, and with their consent.
21. No son shall require his father or mother to move from his house as long as they have a mind to continue there in peace and quietness.
22. All superstitious notions and practices are inconsistent with the character of true Brethren; and idle tales of apparitions, omens, etc., must be looked upon as foolish and hurtful.
23. As there are those who more particularly stand in need of daily admonitions—there shall be daily opportunities given for exhortation and edification at Herrnhut; yet no one can be considered as obliged to attend on these occasions, unless the whole Congregation should be expressly called to assemble together.
24. If anyone should be overtaken in a fault, he must not consider it as disgraceful to be spoken to on the subject; or to receive admonition or reproof. He ought to take it in good part, and not allow himself to retort, much less think himself warranted on that account to withdraw from the fellowship of the Brethren. All matters “of this kind should be judged and decided exclusively by those whose official incumbency requires their interference.
25. Whosoever spreads any unfounded report against another is bound to declare to the elders the reason of his allegations, and afterwards to recant the report, whether required to do so in consequence of the complaint of the person injured thereby or not.
26. Whenever in public companies anything is said to the disadvantage of anyone not then present, everyone is authorised to acquaint the person alluded to of it, yet without naming the offender.
27. It is the special duty of some Brethren to visit, from motives of self-denying charity and love, those fellow-members of the Congregation who are afflicted with sickness and ailments, and to attend to their wants. And as long as we shall be favoured to have a physician who is one of us, every inhabitant of Herrnhut should speak to him and ask his advice about any ailments or illness of his before he seeks counsel from others. No one who is not properly qualified for it should venture to undertake the cure of others.
28. The names and circumstances of the patients are to be immediately mentioned to the sick-waiters of both sexes; and the prescriptions of the physicians, as well as the directions of the sick-waiters themselves, ought to be carefully observed both by the patients themselves and by those who are about them.
29. Everyone must conscientiously keep to himself what has been confidently, and as a secret, entrusted to him.
30. No one is to harbour anything in his mind against another, but rather immediately, and in a friendly and becoming manner, mention what may have offended him, without respect of persons. Complaints which have been purposely suffered to accumulate must not even be listened to, but quarrels, envy and wilful dissensions ought to be abominated by all, and those who are guilty of these things be looked upon as unbelivers.
31. A mechanic or tradesman ought to be most punctual in fulfilling the promises he has made; and in case circumstances should prevent his doing so, it is his duty to mention, in due time, the cause of his not being able to act according to his promise.
32. All judicial interference is to be grounded in the plain commandments of God, on these Statutes, and on natural equity and justice.
33- Every effort shall be made to reclaim the erring by friendly reproof and discipline, but should this fail the offender is expected and required to leave the place.
34. The Elders shall hold a conference every Saturday, and if any be cited to appear before that conference he is to obey the summons, and in case of reiterated and obstinate refusal he must leave the place.
35. The Watchers are to sing a verse from a suitable hymn, at the change of the successive hours in the night, with a view to encourage and edify the Congregation.
36. The doctrine and example of Jesus and His Apostles shall be the general and special rule of all our ministry and instruction.
37. Whosoever perseveres in an open course of levity and sin, though often before warned and admonished, shall be excluded from our Brotherly fellowship, nor can he be re-admitted till he has given sufficient proofs of his being an altered character.
38. All the young people at Herrnhut who shall confess their faith in Christ are to be Confirmed, after which these Statutes are to be given them for their consideration.
39. No magisterial person, Minister, Elder, or Warden, nor anyone else who may in this or the other respect have authority over others, shall use the power possessed by him, otherwise than to be a helper of the joy of those over whom he is placed, and to comfort them in sufferings, trials, and wants.
40. All who are influenced by the love of God must keep up a friendly and cordial fellowship with all who are like-minded, making in this respect no exceptions.
41. Everyone shall be at liberty in love to admonish and rebuke his Brother, whether there be ground for it or not. But this must be done with great modesty, and all vehemence on either side be carefully avoided. If an explanation or exculpation be offered, the person who gave the admonition ought either to be satisfied with it or refer the case to other Brethren.
42. Should we be called to suffer persecutions, everyone should consider them as precious and most useful exercises; love those that persecute us, treat them respectfully, answer their questions with modesty and simplicity, and cheerfully submit to what may befall us, according to the confession we make before God and man.
Besides these Statutes, which were intended to regulate the relative behaviour of the inhabitants of Herrnhut, as members of a Congregation of Jesus, and which were entitled “ Brotherly Agreement of the Brethren from Bohemia and Moravia and others, binding them to walk according to the apostolic rule,” others were drawn up, and received the title, “Injunctions and Prohibitions, etc.” These had a chief reference to that moral order and well-regulated police, which are suited to a congregation of Christians. All the inhabitants of Herrnhut, without any exception, were expected to signify their willingness to conform to these last-mentioned Statutes by adding their signature to them. The subscription to the former was, in the following year, no longer insisted on, because the Brethren had been accused, in consequence of having drawn up these Statutes, of having adopted a separate Confession of Faith and thereby laid the foundation for a new system of religion.