Sermon delivered by Charles Poole, senior pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on Feb. 17, 2009.
Charles Poole is senior pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss.
Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5’I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ (Acts 11:1-18 NRSV)
All this talk about painful and true prophetic preaching calls to mind Ernest Campbell’s memorable observation, “The truth will make you free, but before it makes you free it will make you mad.” That’s the hard reality of prophetic preaching. Prophetic preaching confronts us with new light, and new light, once seen, can be bothersome: Do we follow the new light or resist it? Could we, perhaps, just pretend we didn’t see it? The problem with new light is that if we follow it, we may not be able to keep thinking what we’ve always thought or keep saying what we’ve always been taught. New light often requires us to change. Little wonder we are often troubled by the sight of new light and angered at the ones who have brought it to our attention. After all, who wants to rethink things we once thought were settled, certain and sure? Reverend Campbell’s adage is accurate: “The truth will make you free, but before it makes you free, it will make you mad.”
The idea that the same truth which one day makes you angry might someday set you free has been the story of my life, theologically speaking. I grew up in a strongly fundamentalist world. My life in that world was formed by very fine people who loved me and taught me and to whom I will forever be indebted, but the version of the faith they gave me was a rather intense variety of fundamentalism. All of that intensity was deepened in my life by two things: One, I was an incurably religious kid who was extremely in love with and afraid of God, and, two, I was identified early on, by the folks back home, as the next Billy Graham. (Nobody bothered to tell me every other Baptist church in the South also had the next Billy Graham in their youth group.) By fifteen, I was preaching in youth revivals. By seventeen, I was singing in a gospel quartet that traveled far and wide in matching dark brown double-knit leisure suits and floral print shirts. (Think Hawaii Five-O meets UPS driver). My first encounter with new light came when I went to college at Mercer University, where I heard for the first time that Moses may not have written Genesis and the four gospels were not written by people who were following Jesus around taking notes. Needless to say, these revelations and others like them sent me marching up to President Rufus Harris’s office to lodge my protest against the liberalism that had corrupted the campus. After enduring my tirade, Dr. Harris, who apparently was unaware that he was matching wits with the next Billy Graham, asked me if I knew how old Jesus was when he started preaching. I fired back, “Thirty” and he fired back, “Then perhaps you might want to consider waiting until you’re at least that old, too.” One day, the truth would make me free, but not that day. That day it only made me mad.
A few years later I found myself at Southeastern Seminary. Because I had been sent off to seminary to a chorus of “Don’t let ’em ruin you,” I was determined to graduate without learning anything. But then I fell under the influence of people like Ben Philbeck who challenged the logic of my ardent inerrancy and John Carlton who quietly indicted my firmly entrenched opposition to women in ministry and Randall Lolley and Cecil Sherman and a host of others who told me truth that made me mad and showed me light that made me blink. In the face of that new light I became a very angry young man. But, slowly, slowly, little by little, something started moving inside my soul. My mind began to open. My heart began to stretch. New wine was pushing against the small walls of old skins. Needless to say, I fought back. I actually did exactly what Peter did when he had that vision about which we read a few moments ago in Acts chapter eleven. When God said, “Rise and eat.” Peter said, “No way Lord. Not me,” and then he started quoting scripture, to God, reminding God that Leviticus 11:44 says we shouldn’t eat the treats he saw in the streets. (What was he thinking? You don’t want to get into a Bible drill with God.) But when it was my turn, I did the same thing. When the Spirit of God started telling me these people around me were right, God does call women and men without regard for whether they happen to be women or men, God does not exclude people from ministry because they’ve suffered the grief of divorce, God did not dictate every word of the Bible, when all that light started breaking on my soul, I started quoting scripture. To God: But God, what about “women be silent,” and what about “husband of one wife,” and what about “all scripture is inspired”… I got mad. I fought back. I became angry at the people who had shown me new light. And I quoted scripture, to God, who was remarkably unmoved by my impressive command of Bible verses. So the Spirit kept stirring and God kept calling and light kept dawning and I kept changing until, finally, I stopped fighting. At long last, I acknowledged, deep down in my soul, the truth I had come to see. And then, you know what I did? I got up late one night after everyone was asleep, grabbed a shovel, slipped quietly out behind the house and, while no one was looking, I dug a deep, deep hole in the yard, and buried what I had learned. I took my new light about the Bible and women in ministry and salvation and eschatology and all those very important things and I buried it, because I was afraid. I was afraid that if I spoke the truth about what I had come to believe that would make me seem disloyal to my roots and unfaithful to my past. So I just didn’t let on. I buried my new way of believing and continued my old way of talking, even though I knew better in my soul, because I didn’t know how to follow the new light without disowning my past.
And then one night at, of all things, a revival, where the evangelist was, of all people, Walter Shurden, it all sort of came together. Buddy preached a sermon that night called “Flight of the Dove, Ascent of the Mountain”, a sermon in which he spoke kindly and lovingly about the tent revival that touched and changed his parents’ lives one night long ago back in Mississippi, and for reasons I will never fully understand, hearing someone like him speak kindly about something like that opened a window in my soul. Something about that sermon turned on a light. I went home that night knowing that I did not have to scorn my past in order to embrace my future, that I could bless what was behind me with one hand and take hold of what was before me with the other. That night, now twenty-five years ago, was the beginning of the end of that awful battle I had been fighting my entire adult life. Slowly, slowly I began to come clean. Little by little, I began to speak the truth. Agonizing inch by agonizing inch, the truth that had originally made me mad was finally making me free.
I don’t tell you all that because I think my story is especially interesting or unique. Rather, I offer it to you as a real-life demonstration of the fact that sometimes the most prophetic and bothersome words we have to say can also eventually turn out to be the most pastoral and healing gifts we have to give. If someone had not gone to the trouble and taken the risk to tell me the truth that made me mad way back then, I might still not be free. As it turns out, those disturbing prophetic words that once felt so harsh to me were actually the dearest pastoral gifts I’ve ever been given. It just took a while for those prophetic words of challenge to become pastoral gifts of healing. But, eventually, that is exactly what they became.
So, don’t be afraid to be that prophetic preacher. Don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Your labor is not in vain. Today’s painful and true prophetic words might someday become healing and redeeming pastoral gifts. It can happen. Just remember, though, “When you have something to say that is both painful and true, try to say it softly.”