Knowing where you are in time—Martin Luther King’s allegiance to the empire of eternity

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

January 16, 2020

Among the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are able to read many of his sermons in note form. From November 1954, we read this powerful line: “Remember Christian friends we are now in the colony of time, but our ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity.”

The sermon notes are dated November 1954. Archivists speculate the sermon may have been given on the same day, or a Sunday around the time when King was installed formally as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Experts also point to further development of this sermon’s themes in King’s later writings and thought. Without a doubt, this line certainly would be identifiable even to a novice reader of King as “part of the MLK canon.”  

In this sermon, King is informed implicitly by the ability to differentiate time as it was understood in the Greek of the New Testament. On one hand, we have the chronos type of time reckoned in minutes, hours and days. Yet the Gospel writers also drew upon the word Kairos, speaking of a reckoning of time that is specific, urgent, and cannot be missed for its importance.  Kairos, not chronos, guides the Kingdom/Reign of God, even if we struggle to see moments of that better world in-breaking as such.

In 1950s Montgomery, King and the Dexter Avenue faithful would put Kairos to the test by working hard to overturn the chronos of Jim Crow-era Montgomery. The story of the bus boycott, Rosa Parks, and this promising young minister following in his father’s footsteps have become part of the national narrative. I grieve greatly that such sacrifice and courage is diluted, if not dismissed, when we look at the headlines over the intervening sixty-six years since King stood in the Dexter Avenue pulpit. 

That day in November 1954, King called out those who knew segregation’s sinfulness yet hid away from the public witness and engagement its decrying and dismantling required.

Even the Christian church has often been afraid to stand up for what is right because the majority didn’t sanction it. As King preached at Dexter Avenue, “The church has too often been an institution serving to crystalize and conserve the patterns of the crowd.”

In this sermon, King left very little doubt that the non-conformist would be the only one who could conform to the Gospel’s call. He began his admonition with Romans 12:2, stressing its call to avoid conforming to the world, citing Philippians 3:20’s reference to Christians as “a colony of heaven.” King called out those who would hew close to the current status quo, deeply entrenched in a social and religious worldview that kept many inferior and a few dominant. 

Steeped in racist ideology, 1950s Montgomery was to be a place where the pervasive ways would be disrupted and eventually dismantled, taken down by a seamstress willing to sit where she chose, conspicuous signage be damned, and folks who connected their faith with their feet, hands, hearts and minds.

We should be careful not to ignore how these lessons also bear witness to the racism still intertwined with today’s politics and society. The church is still weak-kneed and tentative in addressing social ills and pervasive discrimination and exclusionary practices. King’s words to Dexter Avenue and its congregants still sing out and sting the conscience of any American reader who is aware of the headlines in the years since and just this morning.

As he prepared to be installed in his first pastorate, King said to his faithful flock, “Remember Christian friends we are now in the colony of time, but our ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity.”

As he prepared to be installed in his first pastorate, Martin Luther King said to his faithful flock, “Remember Christian friends we are now in the colony of time, but our ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity.”  

He wrote these words as part of his notes for a sermon. He wrote these words painfully aware of the long years before and still ahead of his people and this nation, trapped in a “colony of time” in need of serious decolonization.    

Yet King stood up in the pulpit and increasingly his non-conformist appeal would sting and galvanize an entire world’s conscience, a herald of the Reign of God, where a beloved community would find its truest form, even as the struggle in the here and now continues in our long and faithful march toward freedom, justice, and the peace only God will provide and prevail.

Rev Jerrod H. Hugenot is Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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