Acts 15:1-11 – Sermon – Church History

Acts 15:1-11
Christianity 101:The Basics
Church History

I am currently only into the beginning stages of a year long trip through the Bible. It is something I’ve always wanted to do and now there is great little app for my phone that allows me to do it. I have attempted to do this before and have given up about at this point. Somewhere in the middle of Genesis I start to glaze over. The begat sections can be nap inducing at times. The “Begat Sections” are the places in the Old Testament that list the offspring of people. Like in Genesis chapter 5 you have (in the King James Version) “And Jared lived an hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch: And Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.” These are usually the places my eyes start to twitch and get heavy and I find myself fading away in the early days of my Bible in a Year quest.

My Covenant Group went through the book of Nehemiah and when we got to chapter ten we all did a collective groan. In this chapter there is a list of everyone who signed the covenant between the people and God. There is a long list of people who signed it and then another list of people who were at the dedication of the city wall a couple of chapters later. Now we, a group of ministers, did a collective groaned as we attempted to read off all these people’s names but then we ended up saying “and all these people listed.” I think some ministerial guilt was laid upon us because after we did this we asked ourselves why. These were real people and for some reason it was important to have them named in these holy scriptures that were then passed down through the generations and through thousands of years to get to us.

What struck us was that these were people’s family members. Four generations after this covenant was signed, people would remember that their great-grandfather signed this covenant between God and his chosen people. That has to be meaningful and sends down a great sense of confidence and pride to future generations. My grandmother was the first to be born in the United States. Her family came over from Greece in 1910. What was neat is that I have been able to go onto the website for Ellis Island and the ship manifest my great-great grandfather was on when they arrived in the US. I never knew these people because they died well before I was born but to see that handwritten information and the few stats of when they arrived, is really cool.

Finding out about our heritage, our history is very important because like traditions, it gives us a sense of who we are and where we have come from. This got me thinking, how did we get here? How did we here to worship in this space and with this name for our church? As I thought about this sermon I thought I would start at Pentecost and work our way forward to present time, but I’m thinking that instead, we should start with today and go backwards, just like we were doing our own Family Tree research. You start with what you know and go backwards from there.

Here we are, Trinity United Methodist Church at 609 Liberty Dr. in Thomasville, NC. The building we are currently in was finished in 1962 and was supposed to be the fellowship hall/gym. The large section of grass out those doors was to hold a new sanctuary but over the last fifty years, we never got there. On September 30, 1962 the first service was held in this sanctuary. The membership was 276 at that time and the congregation walked from the old church to this new one. Please stand if you were there on that day. On that first service this wasn’t called Trinity United Methodist Church, it was only Trinity Methodist Church. Six years after our first worship service in this building a merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church happened and formed a new denomination called the United Methodist Church.

These two denominations came together because they shared the same Wesleyan heritage and did many cooperative ministries together all over the world. What is also interesting is this merger brought to light a lot of issues within the denomination that were fixed during this merger. The Evangelical United Brethren was a denomination made after the merger of the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren. When this merger happened ordained women of the United Brethren lost their ordination because women were not ordained in the Evangelical Church. Women received full clergy rights in the Methodist Church in 1956 and in 1968 merger they granted women full clergy rights.

The Methodist Church also disbanded the Central Jurisdiction in this merger. The Central Jurisdiction was Black Methodist Church’s jurisdiction. When Trinity Methodist Church moved from Blair Rd to Liberty Dr., Central MC here in Thomasville was part of the Central Jurisdiction and was not seen as part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction like Trinity. The only reason was because Central is a black congregation and Trinity was white. In 1968 they decided to get rid of the problem of this racism and abolished the Central Jurisdiction.

Now if we take a step back further, on the first Sunday of May in 1922 East Thomasville Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had their first church service. Later the church would be renamed Trinity by Rev. Newell. The church had a membership of 25 when they started and was on a charge with Bethel. What is unique not only that we didn’t get the name Trinity for a while but was also the Methodist Episcopal Church South part. In 1939 three parts of the Methodist church came back together to form the Methodist Church. Until then there was the Methodist Episcopal Church North, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. The Methodist Episcopal Church split in 1844 over the issue of slavery. Similar to the nation which was deepening and firming up the Mason Dixon Line, the church split of the slavery issue. In the General Conference of 1844 a big controversy when they learned that Bishop James O Andrew had acquired slaves through marriage. After a long debate on the Conference floor it was decided that Bishop Andrews would be suspended from this Episcopal office “so long as he could not, or would not, free his slaves.” A few days after this vote a Plan of Separation was drafted and those Methodist Episcopal Churches in slaveholding states were allowed to form their own ecclesiastical structure.

North Carolina was a slaveholding state and because of that when Trinity was created in 1922 it was named a Methodist Episcopal Church South. In 1939, the MEC North and South and the Methodist Protestant Church came together to form the Methodist Church. During the negations over this union six Jurisdictions were created. Five of them were geographical which is similar to the five jurisdictions we have currently. We are in the Southeast Jurisdiction but there is also the Northeast, North Central, South Central and Western Jurisdictions. The sixth Jurisdiction was built on racial lines, not geographical. In this merger is when the Central Jurisdiction was created which put all African-American Congregations all over the US in on Jurisdiction.

This is a lot to happen to a denomination within their first 150 year. But even our start was founded in controversy. This main controversy was that the founders of our denomination, John and Charles Wesley never wanted to start a new denomination. They simply wanted to reform the Anglican Church. In 1776 a little thing called the American Revolution happened. We broke ties with England and became a free and sovereign nation. The Methodists in the Colonies had a meeting in Philadelphia in 1773 and pledged their allegiance to Wesley’s leadership. The Methodist movement here in America started through the laity but then two ministers from England were sent over to help things along, Richard Wright and Francis Asbury. After 1776 Wesley recognized that changes would have to be made. He sent Thomas Coke to help Asbury out. Through them and some other ministers Wesley had ordained it freed the Methodist movement to start here in America as an independent church.

In 1784 at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore, MA at Lovely Lane Chapel most of the American preachers attended this meeting and planned out the organization of this new denomination. Interestingly the conference took a strong and forceful stand against slavery. Out of this meeting the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed. At this same time two other denominations were being formed. In the German-speaking heavens of the world experienced a great growth and in 1800 they formed the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. At this same time the Evangelical Association was being formed by a Lutheran farmer and tilemaker in eastern Pennsylvania who had been converted and nurtured by the Methodist’s teachings. These three churches are the ones who came back together almost 200 years later to form the United Methodist Church.

That is our story but the truth is it doesn’t stop there. There is more. Methodism was birthed of the Church of England or as it is also known the Anglican Church or as we call it here in America, the Episcopal Church. This denomination started because someone really wanted a divorce. If you remember in your history books, Henry the VIII really wanted to have a son and all of children born to Catherine of Aragon had died in infancy. Henry wanted to divorce Catherine and marry Anne but the Pope would not have it. King Henry tried many different things to change the Pope’s mind but Rome wouldn’t not do it. Finally in 1954 he pronounced himself as the supreme head of the Church of England and broke ties with the Catholic Church. The denomination that came out of this, the Anglican Church, is the one that the Wesley’s were both priests of and what they hoped to reform.

The idea of being able to shuffle off the ties to Rome and the great Roman Catholic Church was an idea unheard of until 1517. It was then that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, German. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, had had enough of the Catholic church or at least Johann Tetzel who was pushing hard the selling of indulgences to help rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgences were was you could pay your way out of sin. If you had a loved one who was caught in purgatory, the place between death and heaven where sinners waited. Tetzel catch phrase for this time was, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” This actually went against what the Catholic church believes but thousands of people were giving their coin to Tetzel hoping their loved ones were freed from purgatory and sent to be with God in heaven. Martin Luther questioned this theology and started to question even more about the Catholic Church in General.

After he nailed the 95 Theses on the church doors a movement started to happen. Some called it the Protestant Revolt, others the Reformation. But a new way of look at church started. This new movement claimed that every person had the ability to be in contact with God and talk directly to him. Until then the local Catholic Priest was who you had to go through to get to God. They also shook off all the Catholic traditions and teaching and stated that only scripture was necessary, Sola Scriptura. Through this reformation more denominations and theologians came out. John Calvin was a great theologian and built a firm reformed dogmatic. There were those who believed that the way the Catholic Church was doing baptism was all wrong and that one needed to believe first and then be baptized. Soon you say the Lutheran Church, Presbyterians, and the Anabaptists (known now as Baptist) denominations start and spread. This all happened out of the Reformation or the break from the Roman Catholic Church.

But this wasn’t the first time a great split happened though. In 1054 the Great Schism happened in the church. In the turn of the first millennium there was great debate over which area had the authority over the church. Was it in Rome or was it in Constantinople. The two Popes (for a lack of a better word) were feuding over who had the authority and even what language to go with Greek or Latin. Finally it came to a head and Pope Leon IX sent delegates to the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I and basically said, honor Rome as the authority and mother Church or you are out. Michael I countered with, honor Constantinople as the main authority and the Mother Church or you are out. They ended up excommunicating themselves from each other’s churches in the Great Schism. In 1054 you had the birth of two churches or two main Christian denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox.

Before then there was just the Christian church which was started in or around the year 33AD after Pentecost and opened up to the all in and around 49 AD at the Council of Jerusalem. The minutes of that first Church Council is the scripture we read today. Because of Paul and Barnabas were going out to the Gentiles and proclaiming God’s love for them, other people were getting upset because they thought these Gentiles were supposed to become Jewish first and then Christian. People were wanting them to obey the Jewish law and customs and to be circumcised. So the Apostles, those who had not been killed yet, all gathered in Jerusalem and heard testimony from Paul and Barnabas. They listened to James and Peter and then they decided that the grace and love that was shown through God’s son Jesus Christ on the cross and at his resurrection was open to all of humanity.

This decision started the church, started the creeds, lead to disagreements and reformations. It lead to splits, schisms, mergers and unifications. It is the road that was traveled by Christians from the birth of the church to where we stand now in this sanctuary. All of these changes are not necessarily bad but speaks to the ever changing and constant search to understand God better and how to be a better church in this world. We can learn from our mistakes and we can look back at our heritage with shame and pride, promising to live up to our ancestors and in places do better. But we can look at our history and know that God has been, is and will forever be at work in our world.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

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