Today we shout, “Happy Sixtieth Birthday, United Church of Christ!” We could also shout, “Happy Sixtieth Anniversary, UCC!” for today, June 25th, marks the moment when two different Protestant denominations were united in marriage and a brand new church came into being: a wedding and a birth, all in one.
Howard and I were married 24 days earlier. He had just been graduated from Millersville University and was on his way to Lancaster Seminary where I had just completed my Junior year. That summer we worked in 16 small churches in the Pioneer Larger Parish, in southeast Ohio’s rural and small town Monroe County, then called the second most depressed area in America.
On June 25th we decided to witness history-in-the-making and drove the length of Ohio, from Clarington to Cleveland, where we stepped out of the elevator to hear the marriage-birth announcement being made in the auditorium of the hotel where delegates from both denominations were meeting. Spontaneously everyone burst into singing:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Amen” Sixty years ago, today!
Now we celebrating in worship with a Gospel word from Jesus that is
His ominous description of “foes” in “one’s own household,”
His demand to love Him more than one’s own family,
and take up a cross and follow Him and find life by losing it!
As harsh as those words sound, they are the vows two denominations made 60 years ago, and, at the same time, birthed a new church,
named after Jesus’ prayer: “that they may all be one.”
The English Congregational Christians, from New England’s stock of Pilgrims and Puritans, dating from 1620;
the German Reformed Church from the Rhine Valley and Switzerland, coming mainly to Pennsylvania from 1720 on, later joined by immigrants from Hungary and other countries;
Christian Churches, from the late 1700 to the early 1800’s in reaction to the beliefs and ordered church life of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists of that time;
and the Evangelical Synod of North America, traced back to Germany and 1817 when the Lutheran Church and Reformed Church merged to become the Evangelical Church of Germany, with immigrants coming to America in the mid-1800’s and settling around Missouri.
Earlier marriages reduced the four to two:
In 1931 the Congregationalists and the Christians agreed to become the Congregational Christian Churches,
and in 1934 the Reformed and Evangelical merged to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
Note the difference in titles “Churches” and “Church” and in verbs “agreed” and “merged.”
The DNA each brought to the marriage and their offspring – which means you and I and all who are members of this family called the “United Church of Christ” – bear the genetic markers identified as:
Christian, Reformed, Congregational, Evangelical;
which, as odd as it may at first seem, make today’s Gospel words the perfect message for a greeting card coming to us from Jesus for this 60th birthday-anniversary Sunday.
Jesus’ reminder of “foes” in “one’s own household,” stands behind the word CHRISTIAN:
“foes” who diminish or deny our identify as living members of the body of Christ, committed to Jesus’ charge: “Love one another as I have loved you” – loving unconditionally, totally; the love that marks us as “Christian” –
like Christ, belonging to Christ!
A family that was a conglomeration of personalities and conflicting political convictions sat in a restaurant celebrating a Thanksgiving dinner together. A neighbor watched from a nearby table, waiting for someone to turn the conversation in a direction that would explode into controversy; but it didn’t happen.
Curiosity got the best of the observer who finally asked, “How do you hold it all together?” and a family member answered,
“We let the love of Christ control us.”
The genetic mark of “Christian”!
It is the same love that stands behind the word REFORMED marking Christ’s family, Christ’s body, Christ’s Church as a people:
who are nurtured and sustained by the bread of Scripture, - the Word
who let Christ set us free from sin and guilt, making us a “priesthood of all believers,”
who receive His presence at His table, and daily rejoice as we remember our Baptism into new life in Christ, and Sacraments;
who, through Word and Sacrament are formed into His likeness.
The genetic mark of being “reformed”!
“Reformed” to be CONGREGATIONAL – like the early Christians gathered together where they lived, where they let Christ’s Spirit govern them, in their midst, and not a hierarchy of humans handling down edicts from above.
2017 is the 500th anniversary of the movement to call the church back to being “reformed” to Christ’s intention, and the “Trappe 300” is when we pick up the voice of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, coming in 1742 from Halle, Germany to scattered congregations struggling to survive charlatans and internal dissension, to say “the church must be planted;” pastors must be sent to shepherd a congregation into being an on-site community of Christians growing into the likeness of Christ.
The genetic mark of being “congregational.”
Christian, Reformed, Congregational…and EVANGELICAL, the word behind and in Jesus’ strong charge to take up His life and follow Him, to give up our self-focused, self-centered life for the joy of the life centered in Him, an “evangelical” life from the Greek for the Old English word Gospel which means God’s Good News in Jesus
which we lift up and celebrate in worship and carry into the world where we become living witnesses of the Baptismal vow that calls us to the “work and word of Jesus Christ,” a Gospel life.
Incidentally, the Reformation’s 500th anniversary and Trappe’s 300th anniversary is also the 200th anniversary of Germany’s Lutheran and Reformed Churches coming together to be a God’s Good News in Jesus church; a living the Gospel people, it’s in our DNA.
The genetic mark of being “evangelical.”
When the sending word is given at the end of each service, look up and see the cross that is raised above us, the empty cross of the Easter Jesus, let loose to live His life through us, making us:
Christian, Reformed, Congregational, Evangelical;
the United Church of Christ wedded and birthed on June 25, 1957!