Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: The Confessions: A Brief Statement of Faith – What We Believe

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 19, 2018, Pentecost 13B

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 8:12-17

The Confessions:

A Brief Statement of Faith – What We Believe

The year 1983 was momentous for Presbyterianism in the United States, as it marked the formation of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The United Presbyterian Church in the USA, which we have noted a couple of times, finally and formally merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in a joint General Assembly in Atlanta.

Not unlike those predecessors of the UPCUSA, the new denomination found itself called to develop a confessional statement for the new body; like the Confession of 1967, the new statement took years of development and that Presbyterian staple, committee work, to be ready for approval in 1990. Upon its completion and approval A Brief Statement of Faith was constituted as a part of the Book of Confessions, where it remained the last confession added to the book until the recent inclusion of the Confession of Belhar.

A Brief Statement of Faith differs from its fellow twentieth-century documents (Barmen Declaration, Confession of 1967, and Confession of Belhar) in that it is less focused on a contemporary issue or situation than it is in expressing what the church believes – but remember, we’re talking about a newly-created church that had been two separate churches only a few years before.  Given that even at our best Presbyterians are adept at disagreeing to the degree that a group of five Presbyterians can produce eight different opinions on a given subject, finding points of unity wasn’t necessarily going to be that easy.

The document that finally emerged from the committee and assembly work is one that both evokes the Reformed confessional tradition in structure and content and is also decidedly contemporary in outlook and language.

The very first sentence of A Brief Statement is a direct evocation of the opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. What was expressed with:

  1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
  2. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul,in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

is now expressed simply as “In life and in death we belong to God.” The same basic trust, a reference to Romans 8:31-39, is reiterated at the end of the document: “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Brief Statement also echoes other themes from earlier confessions such as the sovereignty of God, human sinfulness, and the pervasive need for salvation. It does, however, differ from those ancient confessions in revealing ways. While it is organized around the Trinity, like the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, that Trinity is ordered differently. Christ is addressed first, as the One by whom we most clearly and truthfully know and see God (and an echo of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians – “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit…”). Furthermore, Jesus’s life and teaching are included as well, in contrast to the Apostles’ Creed in which Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary” and then immediately “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The life and teaching of Jesus matter, and A Brief Statement makes this clear. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit (a full-fledged member of the Trinity, after all) receives much more extensive description and treatment than in either of those two ancient creeds, so effectively that you can probably count on that portion of A Brief Statement appearing as our Affirmation of Faith at Pentecost on a pretty consistent basis. What has been entwined in our faith and tangled in our words at least as long as Paul used the Trinitarian imagery he does in Romans 8 is expressed here about as clearly as you could hope.

Other differences are more deliberate. In contrast to those earlier confessions, A Brief Statement is explicit about the role of women as equal and mutual partners in the church. Where earlier statements are virtually universal in their gender-exclusive language for humanity (even the otherwise-enlightened Confession of 1967), A Brief Statement is consistent to speak of “women and men” or of “humanity” (as the near-contemporary Confession of Belhar also does) and states unequivocally that the Spirit “calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.” Older confessions (such as the Scots Confession) explicitly forbade women from ministry, but having (for example) read enough times in Acts and Romans about the evangelist Prisca, the deacon Phoebe, and the Apostle Junia, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Spirit through scripture says otherwise.

As for language about God, the statement does use the long-standing Trinitarian language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in its closing doxology, and makes note of the intimate language of relationship Jesus used in speaking to “Abba, Father.” But the statement also taps into scripture’s habit of dropping in feminine imagery for God as well, in lines 49-51:

Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,

like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,

God is faithful still.

One is reminded of today’s reading from the book of Proverbs, in which “wisdom” is extensively personified as female. In wisdom literature such as Proverbs, “wisdom” is a very thinly veiled reference to the Holy Spirit – remember, still a full member of the Trinity.

This evocation of wisdom in Proverbs seems particularly apt for this final sermon on our PC(USA) confessions. There she is, out at the crossroads or on the way, calling out and entreating all to listen. That spirit of wisdom is evoked as ancient, there at the very Creation itself, from the very beginning with God. It seems right to evoke wisdom, because it is wisdom – practical, scriptural, spiritual wisdom – that is in effect what these confessions seek to bear for those for whom they are part of the teaching of the church. Immersed in scripture, hearing the voices of confessions long past, and always seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit, peoples of faith come together to seek and understand wisdom, and apply it to the life and teaching of the church.

A Brief Statement of Faith is still relatively young, twenty-seven years since its official adoption into the Book of Confessions. It would be folly, however, to expect A Brief Statement to be the last word any more than it was appropriate to expect the Westminster Standards to be sufficient as the last word of the Reformed tradition. The church continues to live in, at the least, interesting times. The most basic tenets of our faith are routinely, it seems, trampled over by governments (sometimes including our own), undermined by self-professing religious leaders, and increasingly ignored by the population at large (we aren’t the only church or denomination that is shrinking, and those that are growing often do so by means that are, shall we say, faithfully dubious at best). Scandals plague various corners of the church, as recent revelations about sexual abuse and Catholic priests in Pennsylvania painfully remind us. The church (let’s not sugarcoat this) is getting older.

Indeed, confessions continue to be created. NEXT Church, an organization within PC(USA), created the Sarasota Statement a couple of years ago as a response to the state of the church and the world, and to encourage churches each individually to reflect upon their condition, to turn to scripture and the tradition of the church (as reflected in the confessions), and to create their own statements or confessions of faith. In a different vein, an ecumenical group of scholars released the Boston Declaration as a response to ongoing trends of racism and tolerance of sexual abuse in American Christianity. And there are probably more I don’t know about.

So, what do we do? Why are we here?

We speak these confessions to remember who God is, what God is, and why we are. When A Brief Statement of Faith reminds us of Jesus’s life and teaching, we are reminded of the one true model we have for how to live Christianly. When it leads us to speak of God’s love for all people, equally created of God, we are reminded how we are to share God’s love for all people. When it charges us to remember the Spirit’s leading in our lives, we are reminded of our call, our charge, our challenge every day, in every part of our lives. At the last, we are charged to be Christly to one another. We are called to love one another. We are challenged to lift one another up and to be about that work of lifting one another up daily.

Frederick Buechner’s novel Brendan features a sixth-century monk-turned-navigator, who undertakes an epic ocean voyage to see fantastical places and unimaginable sights. Even so, though, for all of the wonders Brendan sees, he is still bound by one unshakeable learning, one insight that still compels him:

To lend each other a hand when we’re falling…perhaps that’s the only thing that matters in the end.

Indeed, after all our contemplation and reflection and study and meditation, needful and commanded as it is, we still come round to this same truth, the same lesson we learn from Matthew 25’s sheep-and-goats story and countless other gospel stories; what matters in the end is how we live with one another, how we love one another, how we lift each other up when we’re falling.

Maybe that’s our confession, where all our confessions lead us.

For maps to the faith that leads us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!; #44, Like a Mother Who Has Borne Us; #324, For All the Faithful Women; #309, Come, Great God of All the Ages

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