Many Manhattan hotels boast of luxurious rooms, world-class dining facilities, and breathtaking views, but the Salisbury Hotel on West Fifty-Seventh Street offers something rather different: Calvary Baptist Church is on the hotel’s ground floor. On the last Sunday in January, worshippers pressed quickly through the church’s doors for Calvary’s 11 a.m. Traditional Worship Service. The warmth—of both the church interior and the congregants’ greetings for one another—were a welcome change from the biting cold outside. The pews of Calvary Baptist filled with a mix of churchgoers young and old, of varied ethnic and, it appeared, economic backgrounds. As senior pastor David Epstein boasted in his sermon, “the wonderful diversity of this congregation . . . reflects what heaven will look like one day.”

Calvary traces its origin to Hope Chapel, an independent Baptist church founded in 1847. After a short stay on lower Broadway and a more extended stay on Twenty-Third Street, Calvary took up it its current residence in 1931. Above the doors, within a delicately Gothic-styled archway, the words “We Preach Christ Crucified, Risen, and Coming Again” are hewn in stone; above that entrance, the sixteen-story, brick-and-stone hotel rises like the spire of a modern cathedral.

The interior of Calvary reflects Baptist beliefs in its lecture hall–style layout. The ambo stands front and center in the sanctuary; before it, a small altar holds only a Bible. This arrangement emphasizes the belief, set forth in Calvary’s Articles of Faith, that the Bible is “the supreme standard and final authority for all conduct, faith, and doctrine.” A baptistery also stands at the front of the church; it is, again in accordance with the church’s Articles of Faith, an immersion pool.

The service began with the reception of thirty-five new members into the congregation. In rapid succession, the congregants were led through prayer, several hymns, and a reading from Romans, chapter eight, to arrive at the heart of the service: the pastor’s forty-five-minute sermon. Pastor Epstein came to Calvary twelve years ago, from a pastorate in Ontario, Canada. Interestingly, he is the brother of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford. In addition to leading services, he hosts a radio program, Tell It from Calvary , that airs six days a week. As he made his way to the ambo, members of the congregation reached for pens and for the copies of the New International Version of the Bible that could be found in each pew. The sermon—on the inspiration of Scripture—was the third in a series of sermons on the topic “The Good Book.”

“Turn to Isaiah 53 for a moment,” Pastor Epstein began, and his congregants dutifully—and speedily—flipped to the passage, in which the prophet tells of the man of sorrows, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb.” To illustrate the power this text wields over time and space, Pastor Epstein leaped seven hundred years and several hundred pages forward to the Acts of the Apostles, in which the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch contemplating this very passage from Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks the eunuch. “How can I,” the eunuch replies, “unless someone guides me?” Quickly passing over this passage in Acts—a passage that some might take as an indication that while Scripture may be authoritative, there needs to be an authority to interpret it—Pastor Epstein wondered at the power of the passage in Isaiah that ultimately led to the eunuch’s baptism. The power of Scripture, Epstein continued, points to its author: God.

“Did Isaiah believe he, himself, was the author of the book he wrote?” Pastor Epstein asked his congregation. “No,” they chorused. The pastor then went on: “Did he believe that he was a prophet that God used to write the book? Absolutely . . . . Do you believe that Isaiah believed that God allowed him to use his own mind, his own education, his own knowledge of the culture, his own burdens, his own personality to be reflected in everything he wrote? Yes, he did.”

But, still, Pastor Epstein reminded his listeners, these are God’s words, not ours. The prophets wrote the Scriptures through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The pastor offered as examples a slew of biblical citations, including 1 Peter 1:10–12; 2 Peter 1:19–20; and 2 Timothy 3:16. The Bible, said Pastor Epstein, is the word of God breathed out through the prophets. The pastor peppered his sermon with exclamations of “Amen!” and “Glory to God!” and spoke with an enthusiasm particularly impressive for a man who had just delivered the same sermon at Calvary’s 9:30 a.m. Contemporary Worship Service.

As the sermon ended, organ music filled the church and the congregation affirmed what they had heard with the hymn “How Sure the Scriptures Are!” Then, after nearly two hours of practicing, as Pastor Epstein put it, “spiritual breathing”—inhaling the word of God and exhaling prayer—the congregation was dismissed with Aaron’s benediction for Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you: The lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” After the service, worshippers chatted amiably in the crowded vestibule as they rewrapped themselves in coats, scarves, and gloves, bracing themselves for the cold outside.

Information:
City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Columbus Circle
Address: 123 West 57th Street
Phone: 212-975-0170
Web Address: www.cbcnyc.org
Religion: Christian
Denomination: Baptist
Main Service: 9:30 a.m. Contemporary Worship; 11:00 a.m. Traditional Worship
Pastor/Chief Liturgist: David Epstein

Rating:
Physical Aesthetics of the Church: 6 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 5 (out of 10)
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 7 (out of 10)
Music: 6 (out of 10)

Articles by Meghan Duke

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