Grace Presbyterian Church
July 1, 2018, Pentecost 6B
Heidelberg Catechism – Teach One Another
In the decades of and immediately following the events collectively known as the Protestant Reformation on the European continent, one of the main points that virtually nobody really talks about is that by and large, the average person had only a limited amount of control over whether their village or region remained Catholic or became Protestant, or whether it followed the Reformation path of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, or other reformers. The theological debates took place among bishops and pastors and scholars and others, and individual rulers – emperors, princes, dukes, regents, electors and so forth – chose their church, and when they chose, all of the residents of their empire or kingdom or dukedom or regency or so forth went with them, whether they liked it (or even knew it) or not.
What was one week a regular ordinary church might suddenly be a Lutheran church, or following after a Reformed pattern of worship. While changes might not be evident in the regular order of worship quite so quickly, before long folk were experiencing new patterns of worship, new teachings, new patterns for observing the sacraments (and the disappearance of five sacraments in some cases), and more changes great and small. Clearly, something needed to be done to help folks catch up.
Enter the catechism.
Catechism was hardly a new idea; the catechism, a question-and-answer format of study designed to instill learning by rote, had been around as a teaching mechanism for quite some time. In the early days of the Protestant Reformation catechism took on new life as a means of training the folk in their newly-developing orders of worship, sacrament, prayer, and study. While catechetical instruction might have been directed primarily at children or new converts in the past, in this case it was for everybody, because in a sense everybody was a “new convert” in these still-developing Lutheran and Reformed traditions.
By far the most widespread of these Protestant catechisms in the 1500s was the Heidelberg Catechism. Originating in the German city in its name, the Heidelberg Catechism represented a middle-way approach by one ruler in a German palatinate – a Lutheran region – who nonetheless found Reformed teaching and practice amenable, and sought to placate both sides. The document became widely popular among Reformed (or Calvinist) churches in Germany, as well as Hungary and Holland. The latter connection resulted in the catechism’s arrival on the North American continent at a very early date, as Dutch explorers brought the Heidelberg Catechism with them in claiming the island of Manhattan for Holland in 1609.
As a teaching document the Heidelberg Catechism is less concerned with the strenuous argument over particular theological disputes than with making clear those theological points for the uneducated (and frequently illiterate) person in the congregation. Still, it is carefully annotated with copious scripture references to reinforce its claims, and is most meticulous in its explanation of the church’s beliefs and practices.
It is uniquely organized in that its question-and-answer sets are broken up in fifty-two parts; it is designed to be studied and taught over the course of a year, in other words, and started again with a new year. Also quite distinctive is that among its contents for study are the full Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, all of which the catechumen was expected to learn by heart.
But what does it say? It speaks scripture widely, with its numerous notes and annotations from the Bible; it is both a personal statement, with “I” being the most prominent pronoun, and yet it is thoroughly corporate, meant to be studied and learned in the community of believers. The instruction given in today’s reading from Colossians is exactly what this catechism is designed to do; to be an aid and guide by which we might “teach and admonish one another” to grow in the Spirit and in the knowledge of God and Christ. It is quite a bit more ecumenical than many confessions, finding common ground between Reformed and Lutheran traditions, reflecting those circumstances in which it was created.
Perhaps the most important statement from this catechism, though, is the very first one. The catechism calls it our “only comfort” to know, as we shall say together in a few moments, that “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” So simple a statement, yet so powerful. One could launch into a lengthy discourse on the sovereignty of God, or evoke John’s gospel of Jesus as “the way, and the truth, and the life,” but here it is made so simple: “I … belong … to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
How much more do we need to say, really? What more is there that encapsulates the gospel – the good news – so effectively and evocatively?
Here is a statement to take to heart. Here is a statement to which to cling, both in life and in death, that whatever may come, whatever may beset us, we belong to Christ. It’s a challenge, too – we aren’t always very good at livingas though we belong to Christ. Maybe hanging on to that thought might help with that, sometimes.
“I belong to Christ.” Try to live into that statement this week.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #331, God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand; #707, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ; #269, Lead On, O King Eternal!