Read John 8:31-38

As it was in the first century, the institution of slavery in America created complex domestic relationships. Owners and slaves sometimes inhabited the same house, but the areas inhabited by the slaves were distinctly marked out. Slaves may have been intimately connected with the household and their master’s family, yet as slaves they could never fully assert their autonomy.

A vivid reminder of how slaves and their masters were, as one writer puts it, “intimate strangers,” may be seen at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Paris, Kentucky.

The Cane Ridge Meeting House is a sort of historic landmark for all of us. It is part of our American heritage. It was built in 1791 and served as the meeting place for Scots-Irish Presbyterians. This was a little church house on the wild western frontier. In 1801, the minister, Barton Stone, organized what came to be known as “The Great Revival.” As many as 20,000 or more gathered at the camp meeting for nine days of worship. Stone and his colleague were so moved by the spirit of unity and the outpouring of the spirit that they began to call for the unity of all Christians. This is one of the deep roots of the Restoration Movement in America – the effort to restore simple New Testament Christianity. Stone and his colleagues wrote the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery in 1804. Thereafter they strove simply to be Christians.

Yet, for a people so filled with the Holy Spirit and so close to God’s Word, there is evidence of a way in which they were still bound to the spirit of their culture rather than the spirit of God. The Cane Ridge Meeting House was built with a “slave gallery.” This is the upper balcony where the “intimate strangers” would gather for worship. How could a people who were striving to be freed by the spirit of God from the boundaries that separated them, regard their brothers and sisters as less free than they were? How could a people who resolved to simply follow the word of God rather than the traditions of men build the institution of slavery into their community? (Especially when such distinctions in worship are discussed in James 2? Think for a moment – who are the slaves in the Cane Ridge Meeting House? Those in the gallery? Or those enslaved to the sin and they don’t even acknowledge it?

Let’s consider this, but let’s resist the temptation to be critical of the Christians at Cane Ridge or the Jews who followed Jesus without some self-examination. Yes, both these groups thought of themselves as free without realizing how they were enslaved to the powers of sin deeply embedded in their culture, customs, and tradition. Yes, they read the Scriptures of God and considered themselves blessed because they had access to the house of God. But their access to the house was limited. They read like slaves rather than children who will inherit the house. But enough said of those groups ...

Although I should mention and we ought to commend the Cane Ridge congregation. Some years after the Revival and their pledge to simply be Christians, the slaves’ gallery was removed from the meeting house and taken to a barn in another county where it was used as a hay loft for over a hundred years. The gallery was reinstalled during a renovation project in 1932.
How do we read God’s word? Do we read it as ancient instructions left to us from long ago by an absentee landlord who we’ve never met? How do we live in the household of God? As slaves who remain in the house part of the time but then we return to our different yet separate ways? Do we hear God’s word as the instructions of a demanding master or a serious boss?
When this is the case, we may think ourselves free but we are still enslaved to sin. Slaves and captives often lose the ability to imagine that there can be another way of living. In American slavery there are many stories of slaves who could be legally set free yet they opted to remain slaves because they were unable to imagine any other sort of life. That is the way of slavery. It erodes humanity and hope. That is the case with slavery in the first century, the nineteenth, and the twenty-first. (And yes, the institution of slavery still exists in the world today).

In order to be free, slaves and captives often have to draw from another the ability to re-imagine what it means to live as free indeed ... In “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller tells a story he heard: A group of Navy SEALS were performing a covert operation to rescue hostages from a compound where they had been imprisoned for months. They stormed the room and found the hostages. The room was filthy and dark. The hostages gasped in fear when the SEALS broke open the door. They huddled in the corner in fear. Even though the SEALS stood at the open door and called to the hostages to come to them and reassured them that they were Americans, the hostages were too afraid to move. They kept their heads down afraid to look up. The hostages had been so mistreated that they were not sure if they could believe the men at the door.

The SEALS were at a loss as to what they should do. Finally, one of them took off his helmet and put down his weapon. He huddled up in the midst of the hostages. He put his arms around them and did everything he could to act as if he were one of the hostages. (The hostage takers would never had done this). While he was in the midst of them, some of the hostages looked up at him. Their eyes met his eyes. The soldier whispered to them that he and his team were Americans. They were sent to rescue them. “Will you follow us?” he asked. After a moment, the rescuer stood up and one of the hostages stood up with him. Then another until they were all standing and they all followed their rescuers to safety.

Remember what the elder John said at the beginning of his gospel ... 1:12 – “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This is why the word became flesh and dwelled among us. He huddled up in our midst and put his arms around us and whispered the truth to us so that we might finally stand on our feet and follow him.

“If you remain in my word, then truly you are my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will free you.”

Do we simply read God word, or do we remain in it? When we go to the word “on occasion” to make sure we are not transgressing a rule that will get us “thrown out of the house” then we are living like slaves, not as children. But when we “remain” in the word, then we are living like children. The Word became Flesh dwells in us and among us and the word is not just something we have heard, but as John says in his first letter – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Going back to the Gospel of John, Jesus describes it from his perspective like this ...

That which I myself see with (by the side of) the Father I speak; but then that which you have heard from the Father you do.
Slaves take orders, but children speak with their Father. Christ is ruling by the Father’s side. Jesus has an inside track with the Father. This is the difference that makes us free indeed. This is the truth that sets us free.

Here at the West-Ark meeting house, we have emblazoned a statement of freedom on our upper gallery. “Making Disciples for Jesus Who are Eager to Serve Others.” Making disciples means being a disciple. So the disciples we are making are also you and me.

“If you remain in my words, then truly you are my disciples. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus invites us into the “house” so that we can live as children, not as slaves.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 22 January 2006

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