Sermon delivered by Dr. Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on May 17, 2009.
Meditation Text: “I, if I be lifted up!” There is energy there to redeem us all. There is energy there to lift us out of the cold prisonhouse of guilt, out of the cruel tyranny of sin, out of the bitterness of death. “I will draw!” No one else can do it.
–John H. Jowett
You will find a link on the church’s website to a digital version of a roll of 16 millimeter color film that was stored in the archives. It is from 1958 and is a film of construction workers placing the very top part of the steeple on the church. You can watch it being lifted high up. You can look up and see the construction workers up there where they are so small. I don’t know how high it is, but it is a lot higher than I want to go. You can even see the old church. The church that this sanctuary replaced was still in place at that time. The very top, the Spire, is a very prominent part of downtown Rome. If you have never noticed, it is the second highest structure downtown next to the Clocktower. If you can get a good angle from Myrtle Hill Cemetery, you can see that.
Not all churches any more have steeples but the tradition of the steeple and the spire comes, I think, from Europe and the time when most people lived in villages and hamlets. The church was the center of the village. It was at the physical center as a symbol of being at the center of the lives of the people. The spire was the tallest point so that when people looked up and saw it, it pointed them heavenward. It pointed beyond itself to God. If you have not done so, I suggest that you look at www.fbcrome.org and find that link and see the placement of our Spire.
Another thing that is important to us is our bell. The bell also comes from that European village tradition. There was a time when people did not have wristwatches and not everyone had a clock. How could you keep time in the village, town or hamlet? The answer was the bell in the spire. The bell would ring the hour and people would know what time it was. Particularly on Sunday, it would ring and call people to worship. When the right hour came on Sunday, people knew they were supposed to go to church to worship.
This was brought home last year for a group of us who went on the river cruise for the senior adults. Every time we would come around a bend in the river, the first thing you would see of the town ahead was the spire above the trees, embankment, hill or whatever it was. On a Sunday morning in a town in Germany as we were leaving the boat, just as we were in one of those narrow streets, all of a sudden, the bells in the church ahead started to peal for all they were worth and they rang and rang and rang. You could not hear yourself talk to the person next to you. The bells in the spire pointing heavenward to God were calling people to worship.
Our bell chimed the hour for us this morning. The bell in this steeple was given by the women of the church in 1855. It was transferred to the spire in the former sanctuary in 1883. The spire was struck by lightning in 1907 and the bell was stored until the present sanctuary was constructed in 1958. The bell was brought back out of storage and placed in our steeple.
Do you realize that for over 100 of this congregation’s 175 years, that bell has mourned the dead; it has rung for joy; and it has called generations of people, back even before the Civil War, to worship the Eternal? If you are some place in town where you can see it, it is not just about a part of the building but it is a part of that tradition in which churches point heavenward to remind people of God. If you happen to be downtown sometime and you hear the bell from 1855, it is not just ringing to say, “Hey, there’s a church under here,” it is ringing to call us and others to worship the Holy.
That prepares us for the passage from John 12. We begin with verse 20. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the week in which he was betrayed and crucified. A lot of people came to Jerusalem for the Passover. There was a group of Greek-speaking people who heard about him. They went to the disciples and said, “We would see Jesus.” We want to see Jesus. As the conversation went on and there was this voice from heaven—some people said it sounded like thunder, another said an angel spoke—Jesus came to that moment where he said, “If I am lifted up,” if people can see me, if people can hear about me, if people can know me, “I will draw everyone to myself.” This was actually the second time he said this in John’s Gospel. “If I am lifted up, if you can just get me in a position where people can see me, people will come to me.”
As we begin this anniversary year, I think it is good for us to remember that the best witness is not a formula that we might tell someone. It is certainly not to try to shame someone or scare someone into believing in Christ, but it is to let people see Jesus. Let people see Jesus, and Jesus does his own work.
Early on as a seminary student, I read a quotation that said, “Proper preaching is like holding a shiny red apple in front of a hungry individual. When they hear the word, it is like seeing an apple when you are hungry and there is nothing better to do than to reach out and take it.” Who cannot help but to respond to Jesus when he is held out there for people to see?
Do you realize that the forgiveness that Christ offers is so changing that it is like being as dirty as you can imagine and getting a bath or shower and coming out clean. It is truth so fair and appealing that it is like being blind before and now being able to see. What are the words from that hymn, “I would rather have Jesus than silver or gold”? God’s love in Christ is so real that when people see the love of God in Jesus Christ they can do nothing but to love God back.
The meditation text today is from a great 19th Century preacher, John Henry Jowett. In the history of preaching, he has one of the more famous sermons on this passage. It is called The Magnetic Christ. It is about how Jesus is like a magnet. Hold him up and let people see what Christ stands for and what Christ offers, and like a magnet, he will draw everyone to him.
It is very easy to take the 175th anniversary of this church and, as a church, take undue pride, but if we take our covenant seriously, it is really what God has done in us. It is what God’s spirit does through us. It would be very easy to look at the spire on this beautiful facility and think it is somehow drawing attention to itself, but we need to remember that it is pointing people heavenward to Christ.
I think the story of the bell is one of the most remarkable stories. It was put on the church, then was stored, and now it is back. When you think about how many years this goes back and how many people have been linked by the sound of that bell, it is easy to focus on the bell itself, but it calls us to worship Jesus Christ in this place.
As we enter this 175th year, we remind ourselves quickly and strongly that it is not about us, but it is about Jesus Christ being lifted up through service, ministry, acts of compassion that we do in the community, through the ministry of your own hands which are Christ’s hands, and through the testimony of words to neighbors and invitations to strangers. Many people have come to this church just on the invitation from a casual meeting in the grocery story, the bookstore, and on the street. Just that word of making Christ known, “Come and see because Christ is in this place,” that is why we celebrate.
The image of The Magnetic Christ and Jowett’s sermon on that is one that as I prepared the message I could not help but think about, having studied it many years ago. It reminded me of a book that I read recently, The Electric Universe. It is the history of electricity. I know that sounds like I must have a boring life to be reading the history of electricity, but it is really a fascinating book. In the 1830’s, just about the time this church was founded, there was an old parlor trick. When you could not listen to the radio, watch TV, look at the internet, work with an iPod or whatever, there were parlor games and parlor tricks. Doesn’t this really sound fascinating? They would take a sheet of paper, put a magnet underneath it, drop iron filings on the paper, and mystify everyone by moving the magnet underneath the paper and the iron filings would move. We have come a long way, haven’t we? The magnetic force would actually draw lines with the filings. You could see the force field of the magnet in the iron filings on top of the paper.
Michael Faraday looked at that and thought, “If you can see the lines in the filings, what is there in space? What’s making those lines? There has to be some power.” He was a scientist and he did a number of experiments. I always wonder how scientists decide that they are going to do. He took a coil of copper wire and put a magnet in the middle of it. He found out that whenever he moved the magnet he created electric current. By taking a magnet and putting it in the center and moving it, he could create power. Those force fields that he had seen and the iron filings on top of the paper were somehow turned into electricity. I will tell you that the vast majority of electricity that any of us has consumed in our lifetimes was made by generators that operate off the exact same principle that Michael Faraday discovered. He discovered that the magnet in there was what gave it power.
You can see where I am going with this. Jesus is that magnetic power of God. If people are just allowed to see him, he draws people. As long as that magnetic power of Christ is at the center of what we do, there is power in this place. Take the magnet away, there is no generator. Take Christ away, what is there to draw anybody to a congregation? It is always about Jesus. It is never about us.
As we begin this 175th year, we dedicate ourselves to the cause of holding Christ up knowing that if we will just do that, Christ will do his own work. We might be amazed who might be drawn to him—someone, some people, some group we might never have imagined—but who can resist Christ when he is seen in his fullness?