Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Common story, community, and Christian higher education

(The following are my prepared remarks delivered as a devotion for the President's Prayer Breakfast at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina on September 2, 2015.)

The one unalterable date on our family’s summer calendar is the third week in July. That’s when Duraleigh Presbyterian Church in Raleigh hosts Camp Moo Gung Hwa each year. Named for the national flower of South Korea, Camp Moo Gung Hwa is a Korean Culture Camp for Korean adoptees and their families. It’s become one of the most important things our son Timothy, my wife Kheresa, and I do together for our family life.

When we first arrived at Camp Moo Gung Hwa three years ago, we didn’t know anyone. But that first day as our children played with kids who looked like themselves and who had parents who looked like their parents, and as we parents began talking with each other, we had the most profound experience of instant community we’ve ever known.

We lived in different parts of the country. We had different levels of education, widely varying professional lives, diverse religious commitments, and for all we knew divergent political inclinations. But we bonded immediately because for all our differences we knew that we shared a common story: struggles with infertility for many of us, the long roller coaster ride of the adoption process, the joy of our children and our pride in them, the challenges of being transracial families, the hope that we might help our children embrace their Korean heritage and grow into confident Korean-American adults.

Not all of us were Christian. But when Kheresa and I debriefed that first experience of Korean Culture Camp, we both said out loud, simultaneously, “That was like church.”

It was like church, because the church too is a diverse community bound together by a common story that relativizes all the other things that make us different. The Apostle Paul wrote about that in Galatians chapter 3, verses 28 and 27:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (NRSV).

In my church circles we often quote that text in support of the full equality of women and men in church, family, and society. I think that’s a good and proper application of the text. But in context Paul’s main point is that our baptism creates a new reality, a new basis for community in which all the ways the world categorizes people are no longer our primary identities. In baptism the story of the Triune God, made known to us by the story of Christ, becomes our story. The ancient baptismal confessions of faith were brief recitations of that story. All of us who have been baptized into Christ share that story in common, however different our individual stories may be. It’s what makes us church. “All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

A Christian university like Gardner-Webb isn’t a church, strictly speaking. Gardner-Webb is not a baptizing community, but it is a community of the baptized. And in the Baptist understanding of the essence of church as happening wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, we can recognize that something church-like happens when the baptized gather in a Christian university to engage in learning “for God and humanity.”

All of us who engage in learning for God and humanity—faculty, staff, and students—are different. In our differences, we’re going to disagree. And that’s a good thing—unless we earnestly contest our disagreements, our movement toward God’s truth is hindered. We can embrace our differences and debate our disagreements without demeaning each other when we remember that we share a common story—the story we claim and that claims us in our baptism, the story that makes us all one in Christ Jesus. May God help us remember that in this new academic year, through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Loving God, who desires to draw the world to share in your love: may your Spirit empower our work of fostering learning and leadership for God and humanity, so that division is overcome and true community established, on our campus, in your church, and in your world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This resonates deeply for me as I prepare a children's sermon for September 6 - a Sunday that the AME Church has asked for other Christian denominations to join: Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday. Thank you for this timely sharing, Dr. Harmon!