Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Colossians 1:16
Old Testament: Jeremiah 23:1-6
One of America’s hallmarks is the separation of Church and state. It’s derived from the Constitution’s First Amendment. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are the origins of Church/state separation.
Our Presbyterian identity began in this spiritual conviction about Church freedom from state control. Civil government is not the head of the Church. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. The Church answers only to Jesus Christ.
This was first declared in the 1649 Westminster Confession. Chapter 22 of the Confession is, “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.” It states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from doctrines and command-ments of men that are contrary to God’s Word in matters of faith or worship.”
Chapter 25 of the Confession states, “Civil leaders may not assume administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith.”
Presbyterians declared this in the colony of Virginia at the onset to the American Revolution, in 1776. Hanover Presbytery sent a memorial to the Virginia General Assembly complaining it had no right legislating Presbyterians to pay a tax to support Anglican schools under the King of England.
The Church of England was the colonial establishment in Virginia. Presbyterians protested the King’s rule over their conscience by forcing them to fund Virginia’s Anglican schools that taught religious allegiance to the King.
Presbyterians were joined by Baptists who also protested Virginia’s Anglican establishment. They were following an example set by the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims were driven from northeastern England to Plymouth Rock by government persecution of their Christian separatism. Thanksgiving, at its root, is about Christian freedom from government control. In 1621, Christ the King Sunday fell the Sunday after the Pilgrims had their feast we call Thanksgiving.
The day of the feast was chosen by the Pilgrims to show Christ is the King to whom the Pilgrims were thankful. Each year America’s Thanksgiving subliminally reminds the Church to remember Christ is Lord of our conscience. Yet across America, Thanksgiving is not taught as Christian separatism from the government, or its date chosen because of Christ the King Sunday and Advent.
Thanksgiving is sanitized of the religious persecution that drove the Pilgrims to America. It’s homogenized by secular textbook writers into a non-religious meal between Pilgrims and Native Americans to remind us we were founded as an inclusive nation. We were. But there’s more to it than that.
What’s not taught is the Pilgrims’ faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ. It led their consciences to include Native Americans at a banquet table their Lord Christ had prepared for His covenant people who were waiting for His return.
The Thanksgiving table at Plimouth anticipated Jesus Christ’s second coming at Advent. The Pilgrims left England believing Christ’s return was near. Two years earlier they had seen a comet they interpreted as God’s sign the New Age had arrived. They came to America to build a community that was purified of England’s sin to welcome Jesus Christ upon His return.
The Pilgrims’ survival in New England was a sign of God’s blessing as they waited for Him. They suffered much from their belief in Christ’s Lordship. They were originally from England’s region of Nottinghamshire. They remembered over 300 martyrs burned at the stake 50 years earlier by Mary, Queen of Scots.
These 102 brave separatists on the Mayflower accepted losing their homes and the breakup of their families to come to America. They endured nine-weeks of storms on the Atlantic. They arrived off Cape Cod, to face a wilderness with starvation, disease, and a harsh winter without help from England.
They did this because they believed the sin and corruption of their nation would bring Christ’s judgment upon England when He returned. They wanted to be ready for Christ’s return in a new society dedicated to living by His teachings. This is the Thanksgiving story that’s untold.
We live in a land today where religious freedom is a license used by fellow Americans to declare we ought to be a society without God, or belief in God. Secularism is the religion of our age. The deep Christian faith that drove the Pilgrims to this land is buried in Church history that’s rarely taught publicly.
The sincere Christian faith of Roman Catholics who founded the colony of Maryland, Anglicans who founded New York and Virginia, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Presbyterians who settled in New Jersey and North Carolina is forgotten. These great Christian migrations heard Christ saying, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” His voice inspired Constitutional convention delegates to write the First Amendment.
Christ is the one who separated Church and state in John 18:36 when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, my disciples would fight. But my kingdom is not of this world.”
This is the wisdom from the Lord of the Christian conscience. These are the words that declare the independence of Christian faith from any power on earth. No earthly government can do by force what Christ’s disciples do by faith, hope, and love. Christ’s disciples create a community by faith freely given to God.
Being “a city set upon a hill,” inspired Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians to leave behind the Old World. We built together a faithful society of gratitude to God in anticipation of Jesus Christ’s return. This is the Thanksgiving we’re to remember at the family tables we set on Thursday.
Every initiative we take to elevate a new world from the old world of conflict and sin is motivated by our submission to Jesus Christ as the Lord of our conscience. Every call we make for moderation and temperance through love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, serves Jesus Christ. We are the inheritors of faithfulness to God and fearless courage before earthly leaders that founded this great land!
It takes courage and fearlessness to give up everything we hold near and dear in anticipation that Jesus Christ is returning to judge the world. This is the part of Thanksgiving that’s missing in our textbooks. Anticipating Christ’s return brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. And He is still yet to come. There is much to be done by Christ’s pilgrims in this New World to prepare for His coming.
We are a generation being called by God to defend Christ’ communion table so all men, women, and children are welcome who are willing to eat together in peace by His name! We’re a generation being called to act out our faith with the same conviction and thankfulness of our Pilgrim forbearers.
It has been 395 years since that first Thanksgiving. As long as Christ’s pilgrims are preparing our land for His return, there will be a table that unites our families with those invited by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to eat with us in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. It’s Christ’s table, set apart from the state’s legislation, to give honor and glory to God.
May your expectation of Christ’s return bless your Thanksgiving Day! Amen.