Two hundred years ago in the panhandle of what was to become West Virginia, a minister and his congregation prepared a statement to their denominational leadership explaining their vision for ministry in this frontier region of the nation.
The minister’s son, newly arrived from overseas, read and endorsed his father’s words. On August 17, 1809 the congregation in Buffaloe, VA declared their intention to form a new religious association composed of people from various denominations centered upon the priesthood of all believers, the practice of believer’s baptism and the open and free Table of the Lord. They called the document the Declaration and Address. It is one of our founding documents.
One hundred years ago in Pittsburg, PA, about an hour from Bethany, WV (formerly known as Buffaloe, VA), Disciples gathered from all around the country to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this document. On July 29-Aug. 2, Disciples will gather from around the world in Indianapolis, IN to mark not only the General Assembly of our denomination, but also to celebrate 200 years of our history since the Declaration and Address was read.
In those early days, the first Disciples of Christ wanted to celebrate and worship together without all the divisions that existed for Christians of different faith backgrounds. In a world where education played second string to forging a life on the frontier in order to survive, necessity dictated less distinction between those who were educated and those who were not and our founders believed in educating people so that they could better understand and read the Bible for themselves and thus become better Christians as citizens of this nation. They welcomed all believers to the table and even though they practiced baptism by immersion, they did not demean any other form of baptism. They strove for simplicity in the practice of the faith so that more people would feel welcome. All of this was built around the centrality of Communion open to everybody without tests or requirements.
Was the world simpler then? Were there fewer complications and distractions then? Why do we seem to get so caught up in the demands and pressures of our world that we build walls for our own protection and in the process push others away?
Surely, with all the threats faced by those living on America’s frontiers, they knew fear from threats to life and health. They knew people who were dangerous and strange. Yet the call of our church founders was for welcome, acceptance, and sharing of the promises they had discovered in the life of a Disciple of Christ. I grant that they had some problems with acceptance of African Americans as equals, and Native peoples as potential friends rather than savages, but the words that have passed through time to each of us need to speak anew and afresh in our hearts and minds. We need to apply them to our decisions and our fears. We need to trust that God’s word is indeed for everyone and that God’s love is also to be shared with everyone.
We are called to be witnesses to the love of God that knows no boundaries. A love that is visible in the weekly practice of communion. A love that is offered instead of judgment and the assessment of guilt. In Christ we have been set free and challenged to show that freedom to others and invite them to discover it for themselves and rejoice. It isn’t rocket science; it is love poured out for all who seek to receive it. Come to the table, taste, and see how Great God is.