Grace Presbyterian Church
July 15, 2018, Pentecost 8B
Second Helvetic Confession – Holding the Church Together
Are you familiar with “News of the Weird”?
“News of the Weird” is a column that appears weekly in newspapers around the country, including the Gainesville Sun(print edition only, as far as I know), typically in the “Scene” section on Thursdays. Drawn from around the world, the stories in this column are not headline-makers, but incidents with something of the strange, eccentric, or downright weird about them or their human participants. For example, in this week’s column came word of a reckless car careening through Des Moines, Iowa, that turned out to be driven by a nine-year-old, with a seven-year-old riding shotgun. Another featured a man walking through downtown Burlington, Vermont, wearing nothing but his birthday suit (but carrying a lime-green tote bag). When asked why he was wearing no clothes out in public, the man’s answer was “It’s very hot.” (If he’s that hot there don’t let him move to Florida.)
It’s not as if Florida needs any help with eccentricity; between the average Dave Barry newspaper column or Carl Hiaasen mystery novel or frequent appearances in “News of the Weird” or similar columns, Florida has plenty of reputation for eccentricity or weirdness. Put up a story of something strange or goofy or plain dumb that happens in the state on social media, label the post #Florida, and the whole world knows what’s going on.
I guess it’s cute, up to a certain point, or maybe harmless. Until it isn’t.
The folks in those “News of the Weird” stories don’t always survive their escapades. We have this terrible habit of describing certain members of society as “eccentric,” or maybe “weird,” or maybe “a loner,” until they show up at a church or a school with multiple semiautomatic weapons. Then it’s not harmless anymore. It’s disorder. It’s chaos.
The New Testament writers weren’t pleased when the churches with which they worked descended into chaos or disorder. The epistle reading from Ephesians today echoes the instruction in other epistles (the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, for example) that the church and individuals within it were given specific, diverse gifts in order that the church might function well and in an efficient and orderly fashion. Not everyone is a preacher, thank goodness. Not everyone is an evangelist. Not everyone is a teacher. Not everyone has the gift of whipping up a mean casserole. But those who do have particular gifts, use them for the life and flourishing of the church, and the church works. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it might be possible that our church works better when I preach than when, say, Karen Russ or Julie Woodward preaches. I don’t know, but maybe. I know darn well the church works better when, say, Karen or Julie provides food for a reception or dinner than when I do.
Besides urging order, the New Testament writers also have harsh things to say about disorder. Paul condemns it in writing to Corinth, insisting that God is not a god of disorder, and the apostle James is also harsh, saying in 3:16 of his epistle “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Outside of some children’s activities, chaos isn’t a welcome representation of the world or the church.
This was also a concern in the days following from the Protestant Reformation, the time we have been exploring in studying the confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Once Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the cathedral, or John Calvin took up leadership of the church in Geneva, that didn’t mean things immediately went smoothly and all the newly separate parties got along. For one thing, there were other separate groups that were less inclined to get along. Anabaptist groups largely influenced by the reformer Ulrich Zwingli were more adamant in some of their austere doctrinal stances, and came to condemn not only Catholicism but other Protestant groups as “unchristian.’ Eccentric theological stances were one thing, but disorder and violence were quite another, and when Anabaptist extremists took up arms against their foes, that was a bridge too far.
Enter Heinrich Bullinger.
A Swiss pastor, Bullinger was something of a protégé of Zwingli, but was also well-familiar with Luther’s work and the teaching of Calvin. Perhaps this well-read intellect was exactly what was needed at a time when disagreement among Protestants threatened the integrity of the whole movement. Bullinger’s response was this document, the Second Helvetic Confession, in which he laid out (echoing the New Testament writers noted above) how the church works together, how different gifts are woven together for the good of the whole body, and how the church – no matter how much disagreement it experienced – was still unified in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a highly ecumenical confession in an extremely fractious time.
The Second Helvetic Confession spreads oil on troubled waters. Concerning the troublesome doctrine of predestination Bullinger has this to say: “It is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected” (Book of Confessions5.059) – a far cry from interpretations of the doctrine that held that even the most faithful might be predestined to eternal torment. Earlier in the confession Bullinger writes “we are to have a good hope for all. And although God knows who are his, and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate” (5.055). While there are still polemical moments to be found in the confession, it is far less harsh and far more reconciling in tone than previous Reformation-era confessions.
Within itself, the church is called to be, as we Presbyterians like to say, “decent and in order.” But be careful of making too much of this: the order of the church itself can neverbe used as an excuse for docility or complicity in the evils done outside the church in the name of “order.” Injustice is alwaysdisorder, no matter where it is centered, and the church is neverallowed or ordained to be complicit in injustice. Do not confuse the orderly working of the church with the church’s comportment toward the world. Jesus himself, after all, flipped over a few tables in the temple in the face of corrupt authority.
If you’re thinking that our Presbyterian concern for orderliness and decency finds a lot of support in the Second Helvetic Confession, you’re right. But beyond that, the idea of order, decency, and basic goodnessin our relationship with one another is also deeply embedded in the confession. In a time of deep division, Bullinger found a way to argue for unity despite disagreement. That is a particular kind of genius not readily found today. And given the positions taken in some corners of the church today, it may be neither possible nor even desirable. Not all Protestants of the 1560s were in agreement with Bullinger’s confession, but many were. Can such unity in diversity be found today?
For those who see the place where we are joined in Christ, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song