“Christian Discipleship’s Influence on Colonial Ancestors”

“Christian Discipleship’s Influence on Colonial Ancestors”

Year B. Mark 6:1-13,

Sermon to Pohick July 4, 2021

Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi, Rector

Happy Independence Day! We associate this day with flag waving, hotdogs, fireworks, and patriotic music. With gusto, we celebrate America’s declaration of freedom in 1776. And it is right and a good thing to be happy and to have fun on this day!

Suppose we were a little more thoughtful about its meaning. Let’s take a moment to ponder the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, and those who helped craft its immortal words.

Do you ever wonder about who or what influenced that powerful document? As many of you know, colonial ancestors like George Washington and George Mason worshipped here at Pohick Church most of their lives. This means that they, and other patriots and their families, were spiritually formed right here!

How did their spiritual formation influence their words and actions? What moved them so profoundly that they crafted much of the language in the Declaration? What inspired them to boldly proclaim its good news that would shape an entire country:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We tend to glide over these familiar words, yet they have a basis in the words of Jesus Christ himself. Words that our founding fathers and mothers heard again and again:

Life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Liberty. Jesus also says: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Happiness. Instructing his disciples to remain grounded in his words, Jesus explains why: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made complete.”

Immersed in God’s Word, our patriot forebears deeply believed that God’s greatest desire is our happiness, our joy. Formed in Christ’s paschal mystery, they also knew that resurrection joy and true freedom comes with the price of suffering and even death.

How did they come to believe this so deeply? How were they formed? I suggest three key influences. They were:

  • Formed within a community of prayer and in prayerful families.
  • Immersed in the ethos of our church, the Anglican “via media,” or middle way.
  • Like the first disciples, they were disciples of Jesus. They were sent to proclaim by word and deed God’s Kingdom on earth.

We catch a glimpse of Jesus forming and equipping his original disciples in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. Watch for the way our spiritual ancestors were formed, and consider the way we are formed.

Picture Jesus in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus says, but he does say Jesus’ listeners are astounded at his words. They can’t believe a local boy could speak with such authority.

Then, when they realize that Jesus’ words are meant for all people, not just Jews but all Gentiles as well, they take great offense. Jesus is a little too tolerant of other people and religious beliefs for their taste!

Luke’s Gospel tells this same story but expands on it, including the actual words Jesus says that offend his listeners. His words emphasize freedom for all God’s people. In Luke’s version, Jesus stands and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, proclaiming this as his own mission:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me

To bring good news to the afflicted;

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

Proclaim liberty to the captives,

And freedom to prisoners.”

We know the rest of the story: Jesus’ listeners reject him.

But rejection and unbelief don’t faze Jesus. He is in hot pursuit of our happiness and joy, freedom and salvation. He is relentless in that pursuit.

Mark says Jesus immediately goes out among other villages teaching. He calls twelve disciples who do believe, gives them authority, and sends them out to heal.

This, then is the three-fold model of Jesus’ discipleship: faith, authority and responsibility.

  • Faith. Jesus teaches and models prayerful obedience: listening to God’s word.
  • Authority. Jesus confers on the disciples his authority to proclaim liberty and to heal.
  • Responsibility. Jesus sends his disciples out in the power of his Spirit to complete his mission.

Our spiritual ancestors at Pohick were surely formed in the same three-fold model of discipleship.

  • They listened, prayed, and internalized the Word of God.
  • They recognized and embraced their internal authority to carry out the mission Jesus proclaimed, of freedom, healing, and reconciliation.
  • They carried out that mission, dusting off their feet in the face of rejection and defeat, laying down lives, and persevering to the end.  

Based on their discipleship and a spirituality formed in part here at Pohick, these colonial-era disciples helped craft the language of the Declaration of Independence.

As many of you know, Washington and Mason were not only parishioners but also longtime friends. Washington was a member of Pohick’s vestry for 23 years, and his family sat in that front pew. Mason – there he is! – sat with his family in the pew to the right.

Until the Revolutionary War, Pohick was part of the Church of England. To this day, the American Episcopal Church is still affiliated with the English church as a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Washington’s writings indicate that he embraced the Anglican “latitudinarian” theology of the day, according to religion historian Mary Thompson, who wrote In the Hands of a Good Providence.

Latitudinarians espoused a moderate, via-media ethos that emphasized reason, moderation, and a “both-and” instead of a dualistic “either-or” mentality. It sought unity and tolerated other religions. This broad-church spirituality may well have influenced the colonists’ passionate support of religious and other freedoms.

We see evidence of moderation, reason, and tolerance in the language of a very influential document. On July 18, 1774 – the very same year this “new” church building was completed – Washington and Mason together wrote The Fairfax Resolves. It proclaimed God-given rights and freedoms, and called for an association of colonies to protest oppressive British actions.The Fairfax Resolves were read to the community for the first time here at Pohick Church.

Based on those Resolves, Mason would write the Virginia Resolves, a precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson would borrow much of the language of The Fairfax Resolves as well,in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

After this service, we will hear the Declaration of Independence read on the steps of Pohick Church. We believe it was read here in the summer of 1776 to the community. As we listen today, consider the discipleship and formation of those who first articulated our nation’s spiritual foundation.

Surely we will be convicted anew to embrace the tenets of Christian discipleship: faith, authority, and responsibility. We will be reminded of the importance of balance, civility, and tolerance.

Even as we prayerfully listen to God’s word and receive the power of Christ’s love, we are being sent out into a world and a nation torn by the demons of extremism and intolerance. But take heart!

Grounded in prayer and in Christ’s healing love, we can confidently proclaim and embody our Lord’s spirit of reconciliation, unity and peace. Discipled in the Christian spirituality of our colonial forebears, we can embrace an ethos of moderation, tolerance and freedom as well. Amen.


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