A Good Conversation

A Good Conversation

On this 300th anniversary of the oldest Presbyterian Synod in the United States (our Synod, the Synod of the Trinity), it seems appropriate to preach the oldest Presbyterian sermon that we could find on this side of the Atlantic.

It was written by Francis Makemie – who is considered to be the “Father of American Presbyterianism”.

He served churches in Delaware, Virginia, and Barbados.  He organized the first Presbytery in America – at Philadelphia in 1706.  He is also considered to have struck the first blow for freedom of religion in the colonies.

As a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, he clashed with the Anglican Governor of New York and New Jersey. He was not the first person who found himself at odds with the dominant faith community in a particular colony.  But he was the first to fight and win.

Roger Williams was a Puritan in Massachusetts until he became a Reformed Baptist and was thrown out.

He founded Rhode Island on the principle of religious freedom.

George Calvert – who lost favor with the British Court because he came out as a Roman Catholic – moved from England to Newfoundland and then settled what is now Maryland, creating a place for fellow Catholics to live in peace.

William Penn – who was imprisoned several times in England because he was a Quaker – settled Pennsylvania as a haven for persecuted religious minorities.

Unlike the others, Makemie did not move out of New York.  He stayed and fought a court battle with the Colonial Governor – Lord Cornbury – who was the cousin of Queen Anne.

Since the Colonial Governor was appointed by the British monarch – who was also the head of the Anglican Church – Cornbury had a vested interest in protecting the Anglican Church from competition.

He had been removing Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed pastors from their churches and installing Anglican priests.  Then he refused to issue a license to preach to Makemie, even though he had a license from the Colonial Governor of Virginia.

Being a typical combative Presbyterian, Makemie organized a worship service in a private home in Manhattan in 1707.  Even though it was January 19th, the doors were left open so passersby could listen in the street or come in.  About ten people attended, and Makemie also baptized an infant.

The following Wednesday, he joined another Presbyterian pastor on Long Island for a service.  The next morning, Lord Corbury had them arrested for preaching without a license.

After 46 days in the custody of the sheriff, they were released – but Makemie was indicted and had to face trial three months later.  He had three able attorneys to defend him – but he argued much of the case himself.  Makemie was something of an amateur lawyer, having read many law books in addition to the theological ones.

The jury found him NOT guilty in a landmark trial. However, the presiding judge ordered Makemie to pay the costs of his imprisonment and trial.  That amounted to more than four years’ salary.  The injustice created such a public outcry that the Colonial Assembly made it illegal to force an innocent person to pay those costs.

Lord Cornbury continued to harass Makemie, but Queen Anne eventually removed him from his position.  Francis Makemie stood his ground, and in doing so, laid the groundwork for our most precious freedom.

A plaque in a little park on Wall Street in Manhattan marks the spot where Makemie preached the sermon, from which I am preaching today.  I will not read the entire sermon to you, because that would take at least an hour and a half: it has been cut down to 10-percent of its original length.  I will not read any of it with Makemie’s Scots-Irish brogue – as entertaining as that might be.  And since the sermon was written in early 18th-century English,  I have translated it for you.

So here is the Reader’s Digest version of the sermon that sowed the seed of religious liberty in America:

“A Good Conversation”.  Here is the first sentence as Makemie wrote it:

The Christian religion has so full, so complete, and perfect a rule, or canon for its guide and direction, that there is nothing deficient that is necessary for the Christians counsel, and for advancing his accomplishment, in every state and condition, in every station, capacity, or relation, men may be placed in of God, in the world; whither for instructing blinded and dead sinners, what glory and  perfection they were originally created in, and willfully forfeited and lost, by Adams apostasy; or for detecting the enormities and irregularities, both of heart and life, as a clear looking-glass, wherein we view both the inward and outward man.

If Makemie deserved to go to jail for anything – it was that run-on sentence.  What he was saying in so many words was:

The Christian faith has so full, so complete, and perfect a rule and guide – that is, the Bible – that it lacks nothing necessary for leading the Christian, and for making growth possible in every way and in every situation in which God may place us in the world – whether it’s calling sinners to repentance or detecting our own sin.

God’s Word points out to unbelievers the true way of life and salvation, while also instructing us how to think, how to speak, and how to act – both toward God and one another.

Specifically today, we have our text from Psalm 50:23: “To him who orders his way rightly, I will show the salvation of God.”

That is the English Standard Version.  The King James – which Makemie was working with – reads: “To him that ordereth his conversation aright, will I shew the salvation of God.”  Hence the name of the sermon: “A Good Conversation”.

In this Psalm, God sharply criticizes his people for their hypocrisy and their formalism – believing that their rituals and sacrifices will save them.  In verse 22, God threatens them: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!”

But God follows this threat immediately with a promise: “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

The word show has a number of meanings in English: to discover (to be shown), to teach (to show how to do something), to illustrate (to show what something is like), to direct (to show someone what to do), to give (to show mercy).

In this verse, God is promising to do all these things: enabling us to discover His salvation, to show us how to experience His salvation, to show us what His salvation is like, to show us the way to His salvation, and to give us His salvation.

God may show us His salvation in a particularly difficult situation – as He did with the Israelites at the edge of the Sea, or show us His salvation in the form of our daily walk with Him, as well as showing us His eternal salvation.

And God shows us His salvation by opening our eyes – the eyes of faith needed to see our salvation in Him.  This is His salvation that grows in us as we mature in the faith.  I dare say most of us trust Jesus more and more as the experience of His eternal salvation draws closer.  You know what that means …

His eternal salvation will be fully shown on the Last Day, when Jesus returns, the dead are raised, and at the Judgement we are told, “Come, you who are blessed of my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

But His salvation is not promised to all; rather, it is promised to those “who order their way rightly.”  Do not confuse this with the concept of “Works Righteousness” – which tells people that they can earn their way into the Kingdom of God.  It is, however, a “Way to the Kingdom” – as Makemie called it, “The Only Map to Eternal Salvation.”

People are – because they are fallen – naturally disorderly.  They have wandered off, following their own desires and the temptations of Satan.  But God has given us His Word to lead us in the path He wants us to follow.  Our own words condemn us, because the way we talk is evidence that we have failed to stay on the path of righteousness.

Those whose hearts have been transformed by God’s grace should find their way back onto the path – and their speech should reflect that.  Again, this is why the sermon is entitled “A Good Conversation”.

Makemie would never suggest that our good words buy our salvation; rather, they are evidence of our salvation.  With regenerated hearts, the fruits of the Spirit show in our lives – and flow from our mouths: words of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  As Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”  It is only a short distance from the heart to the lips.

God – who is the source of order – has called people to different positions, duties, and ranks in the world.  This is where Makemie takes a shot at Lord Cornbury by declaring, “All Christians would excel the whole world if they would but live as becomes their General and Special Callings, and Vocations.”  Many who have high positions in the Church lack obedience, holiness, and a well-ordered life – while many humble Christians are far more sincere and faithful in their behavior.

The answer to the problem is true and sincere repentance, openness to instruction in God’s Word, meditation on our mortality and the judgment to come, church discipline, and – in another shot at Makemie’s nemesis – godliness among the civil authorities.

Yet we face a number of obstructions to the well-ordered life: ignorance, a lack of religious formation – especially in the home – and public examples of evil.  Here he fires another salvo at Lord Cornbury: “When rulers and magistrates give evil example, who by their office and power should be a terror only to evil-doers, it is no wonder to see people trace their evil steps.”

The next obstruction is looseness in principles and opinion – a carelessness about what is important in our faith.  Finally, the failure to resist sin early can lead to sin becoming a habit – one which can destroy our lives.

So our following the rites and rituals of the Church, our positions and our accomplishments for God are meaningless unless our lives show God’s gifts and grace.  We must, therefore, make a well-ordered life – one of obedience, holy living, keeping covenant with God and each other, and good conversation with God and others. Then – as death draws nearer, we will have the comfort that comes from a clear conscience.

Even the best of us are stained by sin, but – and this is a direct quote from Makemie’s sermon – “whatever imperfections and irregularities cleave to the saints while here, they are hastening to a state of life above, where they shall be eternally free from the least stain of sin, or inclination to err or go astray; yea, delivered from all possibility of sinning or suffering, or being tempted to sin.  Here is joy unspeakable and full of glory.  The Lord bless what you have heard, to whose Name be glory and praise forever.  Amen.”

This is a summary of the sermon for which Makemie went to trial.  It doesn’t seem all that different from what the Anglican pastors would have preached three hundred years ago – although you won’t hear many sermons like it today.

But this sermon was the means which God used to give us the freedom we have to be here – or in any other place of worship today.  Thanks be to God!

And – as Francis Makemie ended his sermon, “The Lord bless what you have heard, to whose Name be glory and praise forever.  Amen!”