Grace Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2023
This church, as I’m guessing most of you know, is a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What you may not know or remember is that, as a denominational organization, PC(USA) is fairly young in the grand scheme of things. PC(USA) was officially formed only in 1983, at a special General Assembly that summer, in the reunion of two Presbyterian groups, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) (sometimes called the “northern” church) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS, frequently the “southern” church).
Such an act of reunion should not be taken lightly. The groups in question traced their origins to a common body that first split in the United States in the years before the Civil War. Presbyterians were hardly the only religious entity in the US to split in that contentious time; almost every Protestant denomination experienced some form of schism in the period in which the practice of enslaving Black persons became the issue provoking contentious division, political secession, and ultimately armed conflict. Some of those denominations have never re-united (there’s a reason the large Baptist group is called the Southern Baptist Convention), and there were splits and reunions amongst a number of smaller bodies over many decades, but for Presbyterians the act of reunion gained momentum in the 1970s and was completed with the 1983 General Assembly.
As a marker of the reunion, that assembly established a commission to create a new theological statement of faith to become a part of the new denomination’s Book of Confessions. As you all know, Presbyterians are a deliberate bunch. Everything is done, as the old saying goes, “decently and in order,” and nothing is rushed. Combine that with the fact that theological confessions or affirmations of faith are not easy to create, and it was 1991 before that statement was completed, reviewed, revised, and finally affirmed and added to the Book of Confessions. While the Confession of Belhar is the statement most recently added to the BoC it was in fact completed earlier, so the Brief Statement of Faith remains the “newest” such statement in our Book of Confessions.
Creating a statement that could be agreed upon by two church bodies that had been divided for more than one hundred years was no small task. One part of the process was to consider and examine the confessional statements already in use between the two groups. This was an area of some difference between the two, as the PCUS had no statement later than the Westminster Confession and its two catechisms of the 1600s, while the UPCUSA had taken in the Theological Declaration of Barmen from the 1930s and had created the Confession of 1967. The work of finding theological and confessional common ground was, despite the time it took to complete, an act of reaffirmation of the reunion between the two previously separated bodies.
That work was matched with extremely detailed examination of scripture. I wish I could show you just how extensive the scriptural annotations are for the various sections of the statement. In some cases you can find six or seven or eight or more scriptural references for a single phrase of the statement, much less sentence or paragraph. I want to point to three particular scriptures; one that is key to the statement’s preface, one to its conclusion, and one to the organization of the statement itself.
The very first sentence of the Statement points to the Reformed heritage of theological statements: it is a very close echo of the beginning of the old Heidelberg Catechism, which (in its question-and-answer format) begins:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
A Brief Statement of Faith condenses this to “In life and in death we belong to God.” There are eight scriptures listed in support of that sentence. The preface continues with five more lines. We’ll get to 2-4 later, but the fifth and sixth lines take us to Deuteronomy. We heard what is known as the Shema, with its inescapable call reminding us that the Lord, and only the Lord, is our God. Statement lines 5-6 place that assertion directly next to the triune formula of lines 2-4 with the declaration of trust in “the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.” (We’ll get back to lines 2-4 momentarily.)
At the end of the statement, lines 77-79 should sound at least familiar after the day’s reading from Romans:
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.
Paul certainly goes through a longer list of things that can’t separate us from that love of God, but his point is retained and made explicitly clear. This makes as strong a conclusion as you could want for a statement of faith, too.
But let’s go back to the beginning again, and notice something about lines 2-4. How do we trust in the Holy One of Israel? We do so “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit“. You can hear the echo of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians very clearly here (and some of you are noticing that this formula is how I tend to pronounce the benediction at the end of the service).
This might seem like an unusual formula. We’re accustomed to invoking the Trinity in a different order, traditionally something like “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit“, yes?
On one level this is no big deal; the Triune God is the Triune God, yes? And yet it can be discombobulating when you get locked into the old way. It’s also worth noticing that the oldest confessional statements we use – the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed – proceed in that traditional order. They may give most of their words to God the Son, but God the Father is invoked first. So why the difference? Why does Paul phrase the Triune God in this order?
You might remember how Paul came to be Paul; the dramatic, blinding encounter on the road to Damascus. Who was it that Paul saw and heard in that encounter? Nothing less than Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. Paul interpreted that saving encounter with Jesus with how the human heart first encounters God most directly through Jesus’s earthly intervention and salvation.
Taking this cue, the Statement addresses Christ first, then God, “whom Jesus called his father,” and finally the Holy Spirit. We will address these individual portions of the Statement these next three weeks. Understand here, though, that this ordering of the Trinity seeks to recount how we first come to experience God, not necessarily how we hear about God. Certainly not all will agree.
What is shown in this document, with the rigorous application of scripture and Presbyterian theological heritage that went into its creation, is that the act of reunion that provoked its creation was no mere sentimental gesture or public relations flourish. The foundation of that reunion could not be anywhere but the scriptural heritage that both denominations held. Even more, that unity could only be founded in the God, the Holy One of Israel, the Triune God, to which those scriptures bore witness.
No such act of church unity could flourish otherwise. If our foundation is in anyone or anything other than the Holy One, the Triune One, then we’re faking it and will inevitably come apart and be unmasked as a fraud, with nothing of Christ about us. May it never be so.
For the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One In Mission; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #—, In life, in death, we are God’s own