What Is A Quaker?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/12/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  John 1:1-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I don’t go around shouting from the rooftops, telling people: “Hey, look at me! I’m a Quaker!” But sometimes, it does come up. Maybe they’ll ask me what I did over the weekend, and maybe I’ll mention something interesting that happened at church. And then maybe the person will ask me, “what kind of church do you attend?” And so I’ll tell them: It’s a little Quaker church in Berkeley. And often at this point, the person I’m talking with will ask me, “Wait. What’s a Quaker?”

I have to be honest: I dread this question.

I shouldn’t. I should be excited. It’s a chance to share my faith with someone who has asked out of curiosity. But the truth is, explaining what a Quaker is, is hard.

It can be hard in a few ways. One is that some people already have ideas about what a Quaker is supposed to be. Whether it’s the man on the Quaker Oats box, or their ideas of things that Quakers have done historically, or that Quaker meeting they visited one time and no one ever said anything! Quite a few people know just enough about Quakers to make things confusing.

Another reason it can be hard to explain Quakerism is that our faith has a lot of history and tradition. It’s always annoyed me how Quaker promotional materials often begin with a long historical statement about early Quakers in 17th-century England, and maybe William Penn founding a British colony in America. It’s all true, but what does that have to do with what the Quaker faith is about today?

Yet I understand why we do this. Because there really is a lot of background that is required, a lot of depth that you need to be aware of, if you really want to understand what Quakerism is all about.

And many of our friends, family, and co-workers today – they may not just be missing this Quaker background. There was a time when the United States was a country where pretty much everyone had a baseline knowledge about Christianity, but that is certainly not the case now. And so for me, as a Christian in the Quaker tradition, I don’t know how I can explain Quakerism without first explaining Christianity in general.

Berkeley Friends Church is an orthodox Quaker church. We’re a Christian body, and that means we agree with most other Christians about many, many things. The places where we differ are important, but we’ve really got a lot in common with Baptists and Mennonites and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. We all share the same core scriptures – the Hebrew and Greek bibles. We all are trying to follow Jesus as best we know how, and believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us, one way or another. We all believe that God loves each human being more than we can possibly imagine, and we all have hope that one day Christ will bring complete transformation to our world: An end to war, suffering, hatred, and falsehood.

So, to this person who asks me what Quakers are, first of all, they need to be aware of this. And then we can talk about the things that make us different from other types of Christians.

We do need to talk about that. Because these differences are important. There are special gifts that orthodox Quakers bring to the church. There is a unique perspective and way of being in the world that has made the Quaker path an attractive one for us here at Berkeley Friends Church.

What is this unique perspective? It begins with our experience of who Jesus is. We heard this morning the words of the Gospel of John, who tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” All things came into being through this Word, and this Word is the light of all people. This Word is, as John puts it, “the true light, which enlightens everyone…”

Everyone. This word “everyone” is really crucial, because Quakers believe that the Word of God is available to every single person who ever has, does, or will live. This is what we Quakers mean when we talk about the Inner Light – we’re talking about the light from the Gospel of John – the true light which enlightens everyone.

And who is this true light, who enlightens everyone? According to John, it is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Word from the beginning. He is the light who enlightens everyone. The Word of God made flesh is Jesus.

This is extremely important for Quakers, this revelation about who the Word of God is and that he is creating, guiding, and enlightening the life of every man, woman, and child. This revelation is the foundation of the Quaker faith. We know who the Word of God is, and his name is Jesus. We know him, because he is the light in our hearts, present within us and among us, leading us directly.

The Quaker perspective on this makes us a little different from some other groups of Christians. Some have said that Quakers are a “third way” in Western Christianity, beyond Catholic and Protestant expressions. It’s about where our sense of authority comes from. 

For the Roman Catholic Church, authority flows through the institution of the church, especially the hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops, all the way up to the Pope. From the Catholic perspective, we know who God is because the Church tells us – through the Bible, through tradition, and through the teaching and sacraments of the authorized clergy. We receive the Word of God mediated through the church, through the institution.

For many Protestants, the source of authority is different. Most Protestants locate their ultimate authority in the texts of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Many Protestants will insist that the Bible itself is the Word of God, despite the fact that the scriptures never say this of themselves. You may have heard Protestants talking about the “infallibility” of the Bible. There’s a reason Protestants are concerned about this: This is the exact language that Roman Catholics use to talk about the teaching authority of the Roman Church: Infallible.

For Roman Catholics, the institution of the church provides an infallible foundation for the Christian life. For Protestants, it is the Bible that does this. Both Catholics and Protestants have located an infallible authority that can adjudicate disputes and provide certainty.

Quakers have a different source of authority, based on our understanding of the apostles’ words in scripture, including in this passage from John. Quakers are insistent that the church is important – crucial, even. But the Word of God was in the beginning, creating all things that exist, and cannot be contained by any human institution. As for the scriptures, Quakers are adamant that they are inspired. The Bible is valuable for instructing us in the faith and full of wisdom. But we are equally insistent that the written texts of scripture are not the Word of God. The Bible itself declares that the Word of God is the person of Jesus.

Above all, the Quaker message is that Jesus is the Word, the light that John talks about: “The true light which enlightens everyone.” For Quakers, Jesus is not an abstraction. He is not a distant savior, far from us in heaven. He is here. He is present within us – in our hearts to guide us. He is present among us, in our midst to lead us. We can make decisions based on his leading. We can live our lives according to his will – not just because the church told us, and not only because we read about it in the Bible – but because Jesus himself is guiding and strengthening us.

The foundational Quaker message, as expressed by one of the most important early Quaker apostles, George Fox, is this: “Christ is here to teach his people himself.” This is not a new doctrine. Quakers are not a new religion. This is basic Gospel of John stuff. This is mere Christianity.

But I have to be honest, I understand why most Christians are not interested in this teaching. I understand why most Christians insist on the infallibility of the church or the Bible. Because those infallible institutions and texts provide a sense of certainty. And this is something that Quakerism simply does not offer. 

In a church where the ultimate authority is the presence of Christ in our midst and in our hearts, there is always room for doubt. We are fallible human beings, and our community is a fallible human one. We can and do misunderstand what God is doing among us. And yet the true light is working among us, and Quakers have developed a set of practices that help us to listen more carefully. We gather together as a church to listen to the voice of Jesus in the silence. We support one another in discerning what we have heard, and in carrying out the mission that God has spoken to us.

At Berkeley Friends Church, there is always room for doubt. There is always room for questions. There is always room for the messiness and ambiguity that is real life. There is room for you. There is room for all of us, even when life doesn’t make any sense and God feels like a fairy tale. The Quaker way of being a Christian says, “Life is dark, and it can be hard to see the way – but the true light that enlightens everyone is coming into the world.” The Quaker community doesn’t say, “Believe us, we have the answer”; we say, “Come seek Jesus with us. Let’s encounter him together.”

I mentioned that Quakers have developed a set of practices that help us listen more carefully to the light of God within. This morning, I’d like to invite you to explore one of our core practices called waiting worship, which helps us learn to discern the presence of God among us, and even to allow God to speak through us. 

I’d like to invite Steve to come up and help us prepare to engage in this traditional Quaker practice together. Holy Spirit, come.