Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: The Confessions: Confession of Belhar – Against Unjust Authority

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 12, 2018, Pentecost 12B

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Luke 4:16-21

The Confessions:

Confession of Belhar – Against Unjust Authority

A woman of tremendous historical and theological significance in the life of the Presbyterian church died this past week. Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon became in 1974 the first African-American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (USA), the merged branch that issued the Confession of 1967 that we spoke of last week and one of the branches that subsequently merged to form our PC(USA). Besides that historical moment, Cannon, who taught at my alma mater Union Presbyterian Seminary, was a pioneer in the field of womanist theology and ethics. (Regrettably, I never had a class with her.)

Womanist theology is a field that brings the truly unheard forward, hearing the voices of women of color in theological study. For centuries theology was a field dominated, frankly, by old white men (I mean older than me, even). In the 1950s and 60s both women and African-Americans became more prominent, pointing towards the ways that traditional theology had been anything from indifferent to downright abusive to both (the use of theology to justify slavery being one glaring example). But black theology and feminist theology, as they came to be called, shared the same blind spot: women of color. It was this blind spot that Dr. Cannon, in her characteristic gentle but firm way, called out, challenging both of those theologies that noted the neglect of their own to realize that, in some way, they could also be neglectful of others.

Dr. Cannon was – in a far more gentle and encouraging way – a counterpart to the prophet Amos, whose words are heard in our Old Testament reading today. Unlike most of the prophets whose words or deeds are recorded in scripture, Amos came from nowhere. In fact, he was a practitioner of one of the lowest possible jobs of all in Israelite society: he was a shepherd. From this much-scored role Amos was called forth by God to deliver some of the most blistering prophetic utterance Israel had ever heard. Seriously, look at verse 21 again: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” That is strong language, to say the least. But notice how that call ends: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Anything that impedes that free-flowing justice, no matter how benign or explicit, and especially what impedes that justice flowing to the ones any society deems least important or most disposable: any such thing must be called out and opposed by the people of God, whether in Amos’s flaming rhetoric or Dr. Cannon’s gentler but still firm teaching or any way of saying “no” to the injustices of the world.

This is, in many ways, why the Confession of Belhar might be, after all, the most important of the statements in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.

The history that led to the creation of the Belhar Confession is an overwhelming one, inextricable from the dark and bloody history of apartheid in South Africa. Enacted after elections in 1948 installed an Afrikaaner-dominated National Party in power, apartheid was a system of laws designed to keep that Dutch-descended white minority (by a substantial margin) in power over a large nonwhite majority.

Perhaps more disturbing was the enthusiastic embrace of apartheid in many of the churches of South Africa. It should not be a surprise, given the prior historical examples of the German Christians’ acquiescence to Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s and even the splits over slavery that occurred in US denominations in the mid-19thcentury (including Presbyterianism). The degree to which South African churches participated in apartheid is striking, nonetheless.

Take the Dutch Reformed Church, for example. Clearly under apartheid blacks could not be allowed; hence the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa was formed as a segregated denomination. But apartheid was also strict enough that blacks were not to share with “coloreds,” or mixed-race persons; hence the Dutch Reformed Mission Church was formed as well. Finally, due to an influx of immigration from India, the Reformed Church in Africa was created to keep that population separate as well.

The international community, and churches around the world as well, were only goaded to react after violence against blacks at a protest in Sharpsville in 1960, and again at Soweto township in 1976. Even then, the impetus came not from the outside, but from within the nonwhite South African churches, particularly the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, which challenged world Reformed bodies to call apartheid, a system that denied the possibility of reconciliation between peoples, for what it was: heresy. The argument was simple: the good news of the gospel cannot be separated from the divine drive to reconcile all peoples unto Christ. Confronted with this argument from the DRMC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had to agree, and as a result it was the white DRC that was excluded from that communion in 1982.

In response to this international affirmation of their plight, the DRMC at its synod later that year drafted the Confession of Belhar, a response to the practice of apartheid and an affirmation of the hope of reconciliation in Christ. The DRMC submitted it to its member churches for four years of consideration, and it was formally approved in 1986.

The Confession of Belhar is deliberately and consciously modeled on the Barmen Declaration; a citation of scripture, an affirmation of the faith, and a rejection of false doctrine for each portion of the confession. It is divided into three parts, significantly ordered Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice. That order is indeed significant. The church desires unity in Christ, but unity cannot happen without reconciliation. The church desires reconciliation in Christ, but reconciliation cannot happen without justice – “justice rolling down like waters,” to echo Amos’s words. And the confession concludes with the unswerving resolve that the church must pursue these things, no matter how much state or even church authority persecutes them; a simple affirmation that “Jesus is Lord,” with its equal implied affirmation that no one else is; and finally a Trinitarian benediction. And the word “apartheid” appears not at all in the confession, though it is thoroughly repudiated throughout.

Hear these affirmations on justice from the third section of Belhar:

  • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
  • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged;
  • that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

 

One could argue, and some did during the PC(USA)’s debate on adoption of Belhar, that the themes articulated in Belhar are similar enough to themes in the Confession of 1967that the later confession was somehow unnecessary or redundant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Belhar speaks without reservation. There is no accommodating, trying to please differing parties. It is unequivocal in its denunciation of racial separation, particularly when practiced or enforced as somehow “holy” or sanctified by God. And it speaks these words not from a committee of white onlookers, but directly from those whose faces had met the boot heel of state enforcement of apartheid far too many times.

And this is why Belhar may be the most important confession in our book. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created and sanctioned by emperors. The Reformation-era confessions also enjoyed the patronage of kings and princes. The Confession of 1967 was a product of a denomination with national reach and a rather high general level of affluence among its membership. And while the Barmen Declaration spoke out against wrongful church submission to state power in a way that Belhar’s framers deliberately echoed, none of its creators were in danger of the gas chambers or concentration camps.

For the first time, churches in the Reformed tradition listened to the persecuted, took their words to heart, and recognized them as inspired and meaningful for the whole church. Those churches also took a dramatic step towards recognizing the truly global scope of the church – rejecting a model that only listened to European and North American voices and hearing from a church from the global South, rather than dictating theological terms to it.

This confession matters, a lot. Clearly the world, not to mention this country, has not successfully negotiated the true enactment of justice for all, reconciliation in Christ, and unity with God and one another that the confession calls for. We have a lot of work to do, to be sure. But Amos still thunders at us, reminding us that short of insistently pursuing that justice, all else we do is in vain.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #806, I’ll Praise My Maker (Psalm 146); #757, Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples; #379, We Shall Overcome

Note: featured image is of an old Dutch Reformed Mission Church building in the Western Cape Province of South Africa


Sermon: The Confessions: Confession of 1967 – All Together

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 5, 2018, Pentecost 11B

Luke 10:25-37

The Confessions:

Confession of 1967 – All Together

It’s one of the most familiar of the parables Jesus tells in the gospels, and – as with so many of these most well-known passages of scripture – it opens up multiple lessons to the serious reader the more times it is read. Still and always significant, though, is the most elemental meaning, the one that answers the second, slightly desperate question asked by the lawyer whose encounter with Jesus sets this story in motion.

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner once tried to imagine exactly what was going on in the mind of the lawyer, and exactly what he was seeking:

He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”

Instead, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.

 

Of course, the flip side of such a definition might be that you are a neighbor to anyone who you need, and that often causes more trouble for people who think of themselves as self-reliant, or who just don’t like, you know, those people – like the Samaritans in Jesus’s parable.

The Confession of 1967, a product of the reunion of two branches of Presbyterian churches in 1958 (creating what was for some years known as the “northern” church), confronted (among other things) the very kind of divide exemplified in the parable, one with close to three centuries’ worth of history at the time of its writing. The divide between black and white is not unique to the United States (next week’s confession will remind us of this fact), but it has played out with particular violence and vitriol at many points in US history, not least of which is right now. While many tensions did break out across the decade of the 1960s as the confession was being written, the release of the statement and its unswerving emphasis on reconciliation among peoples – any race, any gender, any nationality, anyone – must have seemed especially perceptive, even prophetic, in the turbulent year of 1968 that followed.

In addition to its strong focus on reconciliation, the confession also serves as a kind of “catching up”  to the twentieth century on the part of Presbyterians, catching up with a world that was dramatically different than the one in which the Westminster Standards – still the only confession acknowledged in many Presbyterian traditions – was written. The Westminster Confession could not comprehend a world in which such racism featured front and center in the society of the most powerful nation on earth. It also couldn’t comprehend a world in which scientific inquiry had advanced as dramatically as to put human beings on the moon, an event not long in the future in 1967; in which research and scholarship had uncovered numerous biblical manuscripts unknown to the writers of the King James Bible and developed scholarly methods to plumb the depths of scripture more fully and with greater intellectual integrity; and which contemplated (however imperfectly) the – astonishing! – possibility that women were not the inferiors of men.

To be fair, C67 (as it is commonly and informally known) doesn’t contemplate all these things perfectly. It may not be quite as understanding of racism, as opposed to straightforward prejudice, as it aspires to be. To seek reconciliation without reparation – without undoing and removing the injustices and abuse that create the breach – is frankly worse than no reconciliation at all, and C67 may not be firm enough on that. Also, it’s all fine and good to contemplate the equality of women and men, but doing so in a document that speaks of humanity exclusively in masculine language somehow undercuts the effect. (In this one way C67 is entirely consistent with its Reformed confessional forbearers.) Still, contemplating these questions and bringing reconciliation to the forefront of the newly-formed denomination’s conversation at that place and time in history is a dramatic step forward for the church, one whose significance should never be underestimated.

Ultimately approved, despite the ferocious resistance of some Westminster diehards, C67 officially became part of the church in cohort with a host of previous confessional statements (including Westminster), giving the church its first book of confessions – the predecessor to the book we have today. In so doing (as well as by the very specifically dated title it was given), the Confession of 1967 made the point that had been previously made by other statements that these human– hopefully inspired but still human – statements were not meant to be fixed and immovable, as Westminster had become. Our responsibility is still to see the world and all its evils and speak to them directly. That did not end with the Westminster divines, nor the “confessing church” of Barmen, nor the commissioners of C67, and it does not end even now. We are still called to speak, and to act, and maybe even live up to the aims of the Confession of 1967 at long last.

For the timely application of timeless faith, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #327, From All That Dwell Below The Skies; #772, Live Into Hope; #754, Help Us Accept Each Other; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing

 

Image from a plenary sesson of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Portland, 1967, at which the Confession of 1967 was approved.


Sermon: The Confessions: Barmen Declaration – Church Against State

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 29, 2018, Pentecost 10B

John 10:1-10

The Confessions:

Barmen Declaration – Church Against State

This passage is what I call “second-hand familiar.” In this case it’s right next to a very familiar scripture – verse 11, “I am the good shepherd” – and it even contains one of Jesus’s famous “I am” sayings in verse 7. All the talk about sheep sounds famiiar. But it’s not quite the passage we think it is.

As is so often the case in this particular gospel, Jesus is warning his disciples against the Pharisees, a particular segment of the religious leadership of the time. In this case he uses that familiar sheep talk to speak of those who are not the shepherd of the sheep, but – as he calls such – a “bandit” or a “thief.” By verse 10 Jesus has quite harsh words for such persons: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Despite Jesus’s best efforts to explain these things to his disciples, they seem to have had difficulty when he spoke of these things, particularly in parables. Sad to say that the generations of disciples that have followed across the nearly two millennia of the church’s history haven’t always done much better; false leaders, especially within the church, have far too often succeeded in leading the church, particularly or collectively, down wrong and hurtful paths, and the church has been an agent for harm more than for God’s kingdom.

It’s easy to think of individual examples – the infamous Westboro Baptist “Church” out in Kansas comes to mind. But today’s confession leads us to an example of a church being misled not locally, but on a national scale.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen (the full official title was even longer) was created at a moment in the history of the church in Germany when, possibly to a degree not seen in ages, the church faced a particularly intense and focused kind of pressure to conform to the desires and commands of a particular government and its ruler, or to find itself replaced. Furthermore, even as early as 1934 it was becoming clear that the government of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (or Nazi) party was serious when it spoke of Jews in the most vile terms possible and insisted that the “purification of the race” was the only answer to achieving German greatness. As early as 1932 the theologian Paul Tillich had warned that a church, “to the extent that it justifies nationalism and an ideology of blood and race by a doctrine of divine orders of creation, … surrenders its prophetic basis in favor of a new manifest or veiled paganism and betrays its commission to be a witness for the one God and the one mankind.”

By 1933, the situation in Germany and in the German church had become dire enough that a group of twenty-one pastors gathered in the city of Altona to issue a declaration in reaction to the “German Christians” movement that explicitly tied their Christianity to extreme German nationalism. When the government later that year moved to form an official “Reich church,” and moved against those pastors who opposed that formation, events came to a head with plans for a synod of pastors in the city of Barmen in late may 1934. Commissioned to prepare a statement for the synod to approve were three theological leaders: Thomas Breit, Hans Asmussen, and Karl Barth. They were charged to work from scripture and the confessions we’ve been studying the past few weeks in their writing.

The final product was mostly written by Barth, with additions and editing by Asmussen and then by the full synod. In Barth’s view the purpose of the document was not to create some kind of unified church, but for three churches to confess their faith on the basis of scripture and ancient confessions in the face of current compelling error. Thus this document stands apart from those earlier confessions as focused on a particular moment and issue, rather than serving as an educational or constitutional work.

While the Barmen Declaration certainly opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler, that was not necessarily its primary focus. You might remember a brief mention of a much longer title? That title was “Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church.” (emphasis mine) Those churches that had chosen to align themselves to Hitler and the Nazi regime and to, in effect, take their orders from him and them, were the targets of this confession.

The declaration is structured, after its introductory material, according to the pattern of: a statement from scripture, a theological declaration drawn from that scripture, and a rejection of the false doctrine that had been embraced by the German Christian Church that stood against that scripture and theological declaration. While reading the whole, relatively brief document is recommended, one gets a pretty strong sense of the tone and intent of the document by reading those rejections:

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

-We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give to itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers (that is, given from outside the church).

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

-We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

Nothing soft about any of those statements, is there? This declaration is firm in its charges against the German Christians, pointing out errors in giving over authority to the State and taking unto itself characteristics and authority given by the State rather than any church authority (much less God).

So, how relevant can this document be today? More than would be wished.

While certain religious leaders have shown unseemly devotion to the current president and administration, it is not the case that any churches have en masse attached themselves to this or any government in any way. Still, though, undue attachment or pressure for any church to conform to presidential or governmental authority is to be interrogated firmly and called out relentlessly, from scripture and from the tradition of the church, in our case as identified in the confessions like this one. In particular, attempts to equate the current or any president to some kind of biblical deliverer figure, as if this nation had any business equating itself with the biblical kingdom of Israel, are grotesque at best, blasphemous at worst, and too close to those German Christians for comfort, and must not be allowed to stand.

This can be awfully uncomfortable for us. We’re pretty accustomed to thinking of Our Country as “special” to God, when you get right down to it. Maybe even “chosen,” despite the fact that we somehow aren’t in the Bible. It’s a slippery slope from such presumed privilege to wholesale appropriation, and from the Savior to all-too-human saviors and all-too-human errors.

The “Confessing Church” that gathered around the Barmen Declaration warns us against that. Only one God. Only one Savior. Only one Spirit. Only one Word. Ours is to call out leaders and governments, not to sell out to them. Whenever we confuse the two, we are no longer any church of Jesus Christ.

For the call to faithfulness and resistance, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #49, The God of Abraham Praise; #335, The Foolish in Their Hearts Deny (Psalm 14); #365, God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #383, Dream On, Dream On

 

Note about the featured image: created for the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration, the sculpture (more information here) features, seen from one face (below), a crowd of figures giving the too-familiar one-armed Nazi salute: from the opposite face (above), figures are seen not saluting, but looking towards the church where the Barmen Declaration was signed. 

Barmen sculpture


Sermon: The Confessions: Westminster Standards – The Last Word?

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 22, 2018, Pentecost 9B

Hebrews 10:19-25

The Confessions:

Westminster Standards – The Last Word?

It is possible that, for a certain generation of Presbyterians, the confessional statements we reach today contain the most famous or widely-recognized words in their religious upbringing. Contained in this set of three documents collectively known as the Westminster Standards are two different catechisms, Shorter and Larger, both of which start with the same question-and-answer introduction (with slight variation; this is the Shorter Catechism form):

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

For those generations of Presbyterians for whom the Westminster Shorter Catechism was a principal means of instruction in the faith, that Q&A is probably a reflex, something that triggers an automatic reaction. So formative is it that even one of the churches Julia and I used to attend had as its motto or slogan a slightly altered version of that answer, claiming that to “glorify God and to enjoy God forever” was the purpose and calling of that church.

One hears echoes in that formulation of the reading from Hebrews just read, with its invocation of confidence in the “great high priest” that allows us to approach with a true heart, a cleansed conscience, and a sure confession of our hope. Indeed, the tenor of the Westminster Confession (the principal confessional statement, accompanied by the Shorter and Larger catechisms) is one in which assurance of God’s sovereignty, the work of the Holy Spirit in our reading and interpreting of scripture, and the glorification of God through our obedience shine through, when read with fresh eyes.

Unfortunately, through two different accidents of history, it has been impossible for many in the Reformed tradition to read the Westminster Standards with anything like “fresh eyes.” Both the circumstances of their creation and the particular condition of their adoption in this country have caused these confessional and catechetical statements to take on meanings far from what their content would suggest. With the possible exception of the Apostles’ Creed, no confessional statement has “hardened” more in its use in the church than the Westminster Standards.

The period in which these statements were written coincided with the approach and ultimately fighting of the English Civil War, in which the English monarchy was deposed and Oliver Cromwell established as ruler of England. Those English Protestants who had hoped first for a Presbyterian-style governance of the Church of England, then for an establishment of such a governance in a monarchy-free England, were disappointed in both cases. Cromwell refused any church establishment under his protectorate, and the restored monarchy also restored the governance of bishops and monarchy that had characterized the Church of England before the war. Thus a document that had been hoped for as a confessional statement unifying England and Presbyterian Scotland was instead adopted by the latter but largely ignored in the former. The Scottish embrace of the document, even over and above the Scots Confession, did lead to its widespread acceptance and installation among English-speaking Reformed churches, however. Perhaps more distressingly, it was the last such statement to be adopted in those churches, and remains the last one even today in some cases, as if somehow time had stopped for the church in 1660.

This widespread adoption included the Presbyterian churches that took root in the United States, as well as the first Presbyterian seminary to be founded in this country, in Princeton, NJ. (My alma mater was founded later that same year, 1812.) In the hands of the “Princeton theology,” the Westminster Standards became the basis for a strict literalism and even fundamentalism of biblical interpretation and scholarship that has had repercussions throughout not just Presbyterian but all of Protestant theology in this country for two centuries. The confidence in a sovereign God expressed by the confession curdled into a theological code of enforcement, supplanting faith inspired by the Holy Spirit with human-induced certainty.

Take the confession’s statements on scripture. Repeatedly the confession ties our confidence to the Word of God – speaking not only of scripture but of Christ, identified in scripture as “the Word” (John 1:1). To speak of the Word of God is to speak both of “the Word” – Christ – and the scripture that unfolds “the Word” to us, in the thought of the confession. That written Word, however, is not authority all of its own, or independent of any other; as is stated in the confession’s Chapter I (6.006 in the Book of Confessions), “…we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word…” (emphasis mine). The Bible, read without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is far too often more damaging than edifying or enlightening.

And yet this has happened across the years many times, often under the unwise interpretation of this confession. Its talk of the “authority” of scripture, devoid of any mention of the Holy Spirit’s role in that authority, became the means for enforcing a biblical literalism the scriptures themselves want nothing to do with. For example, where the Westminster divines wanted nothing to do with reading the Bible as a science textbook, as we might say, the confession’s later defenders attempted to use it to advocate exactly that – insisting on its “reliability” on all things, even those it does not directly address.

Such later interpretations or uses of this confession make sense only if (a) you consider yourself an infallible interpreter of scripture, and/or (b) you believe the Holy Spirit is dead. Personally, I believe neither.

With the confession itself came not one, but two catechisms, the Shorter Catechism conceived as an aid for younger Christians and the Larger Catechism as an aid for pastors. The Shorter Catechism, which was intended to be memorized, contained 107 question-and-answer pairs plus the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed; the Larger Catechism included 196 Q&A pairs, with those three elements woven into the document. This complex of three documents, written for that hoped-for church unification in England and Scotland in the mid-seventeenth century, ended up being a fixed star in that Reformed tradition – the only recognized confession in those traditions, particularly in the United States, for about four hundred years, not even edited or revised before the twentieth century.

This is a problem. Confessions are human documents, intended as a supplement to or an aid in the study of scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Their authority, such as it is, is both provisional andtemporary– subject to revision and correction – because they are precisely human documents, subject to the fallen and sinful nature of humanity and to the fallenness of the churches or the societies that produce them. As the Westminster Confession itself notes, “all synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help in both.” (BoC6.175) To reduce any confession, even Westminster, to a fixed, inviolable rule is to misinterpret their very nature and purpose. Again, the Holy Spirit is not dead.

Next week we move to the first of four twentieth-century statements found in our Book of Confessions. These statements are hardly meant as replacements to Westminster and earlier confessions; on the contrary, the newer declarations and confessions draw deliberately upon these historical documents to bring the witness of the church to bear on a world in crisis, continuing their witness while recognizing the prompting and urging of the Holy Spirit – still living, still prompting – in the face of particular threats to the integrity of the church and the world, still calling us to go forward in confidence – not certainty, but confidence – because we know we have that “great high priest” of which Hebrews speaks.

These historical confessions, in short, remain an important word to the church, an aid and guide to us even today, but they are not the final word. To quote the Henry Longfellow poem turned into a Christmas carol, “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” The Spirit still moves, still agitates, and still challenges the church even today. With such an unending power of inspiration and enlightenment, no confession, not even Westminster, can ever claim to be the last word.

For the unquenchable inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness; #45, I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes; #840, When Peace Like a River; #846, Fight the Good Fight

(Note: take a look at who published that American edition in the featured image…)


Sermon: The Confessions: Second Helvetic Confession – Holding the Church Together

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 15, 2018, Pentecost 8B

Ephesians 4:1-16

The Confessions:

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

 


Sermon: The Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism – Teach One Another

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 1, 2018, Pentecost 6B

Psalm 25:1-10; Isaiah 2:2-4Colossians 3:12-17

The Confessions:

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!

 


Sermon: The Confessions: Scots Confession — Born in Conflict

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 24, 2018, Pentecost 5B

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Romans 13:8-101 Corinthians 1:10-25

The Confessions:Scots Confession – Born in Conflict

I don’t remember when it was precisely, but it was sometime when I was in college. I was home for the weekend, and we awoke on Saturday morning to find a flyer inserted in our front door. This wasn’t uncommon itself, but the flyer was distinctive, to say the least. It was from a local Baptist church. I can’t honestly remember what particular flavor of Baptist it was, but it wasn’t Southern Baptist (which my family was when I was growing up).

The main distinguishing feature of the flyer was a diagram offering a … uniqueillustration of the various branches of the Christian church, one which by using various arrows and curves purported to illustrate just how far the churches included had strayed from the “one, true church.” Catholics were the farthest-strayed, but Episcopalians and Lutherans were also pretty far from the mark. I wasn’t a Presbyterian yet but I do remember noticing that they didn’t do to well, either. Methodists weren’t super-far from the “truth,” but they were strayed still. And you’ll not be surprised, given the source, that the “one, true church” in the particular religious galaxy of this flyer, was the Baptist church.

What may blow your mind was whythis was held to be so. You see, while all these other denominations had departed from the “one, true church” at various points in history, the Baptist church could (again, according to this diagram) claim a direct and uninterrupted line of descent from (not Jesus, but) John the Baptist.

Yes, somehow, John the Baptist founded the Baptist church. (If you wonder why more modern translations tend to refer to him as John the Baptizer, this kind of silliness is at least a small part of the reason why.) In case it’s not clear from my tone of voice or facial expression, there is no biblical student or scholar worth anything who would support such a claim.

In this ongoing reflection on the ten confessions that are found in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions, we have reached the series of four confessional documents that have their origins to some degree in the heady and challenging days following the Protestant Reformation. The Scots Confession, as its name suggests, was born in Scotland, a founding statement of what became the Church of Scotland, an ancestor and still-colleague church of the Presbyterian Church to which we belong. Among other things, the very structures and ways of business that give us the name “Presbyterian” – including the gathering in councils ranging from our church’s own session meeting Monday night to the church-wide General Assembly that just concluded in St. Louis yesterday – has its roots in the church that came into being in the formation of this confession. These are our roots, or at least a major part of them.

The making of confessional statements, far from being a random thing, is quite rooted in scripture. Our reading from Deuteronomy includes one of the first great confessional statements of scripture – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” You can note that the great thematic statement is followed by instruction – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” – that would be echoed by Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then by direction on making that statement (known as the Shemafor the Hebrew word with which it begins) a core tenet of your life and a principal point of instruction to your children – a part of your identity, so to speak.

So no, with such scriptural foundation it’s not uncommon for churches descended from one of the Reformation traditions to put forth declarations of their faith that served both as confessions or statements of faith and as documents for organization and instruction in the teachings and ways of that particular tradition. The newly-forming Protestant church in Scotland, still technically under the rule of a Catholic queen-in-absentia, put together the Scots Confession to provide both foundation and direction for their fledgling church. It was never used alone; such continental statements as the Geneva Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism and Second Helvetic Confession also held official status in the Church of Scotland. (The latter two are the next two statements in our PC(USA) Book of Confessions.)

The Scots Confession has much to recommend it. It places a great emphasis on the church’s obligation to the right study and interpretation of scripture, for example, is so significant as to be called one of the “marks of the true kirk” (Scottish for “church”), along with right administration of the sacraments and proper church discipline. Its instruction on the sacraments speaks beautifully and movingly of the grace of God by which we are able to partake in that sign of Christ’s gift to us. It even has the self-awareness, in its preface, to acknowledge that, as any human endeavor, it might be wrong, and to invite those who read it to examine it for error.

But…

There’s a lot about the Scots Confession that simply doesn’t hold water anymore. There are statements in this confession you will never catch us reading as part of an Affirmation of Faith. There are elements that serve as eloquent reminders that for all the value it does have, the Scots Confession, or any other confession of this period, is too much of its time and context to be fully and unreservedly transferable to our time. There’s a reason we continue to make confessions, in other words.

Remember, the Scots Confession was created in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in the year 1560. One of the things we don’t talk about on Reformation Sunday is the amount of conflict, even violence, which happened after the Reformation; armies in battle, peasants’ revolts, and even outright assassinations. Scotland was not immune; the murder of a supporter of Reformation was answered by the murder of a loyalist Catholic cleric.

In short, the establishment of Protestantism in Scotland was anything but peaceful, and the Scots Confession reflects that in its vituperative sentiments expressed against the Catholilc Church, vitriol far beyond that appropriate for condemnation of the abuses that had become established in the Church at that time.

Even the one most striking element of the Scots Confession is at least somewhat tainted by this viciousness. Remember how Chapter XVIII of the confession speaks of “notes of the True Kirk”; the Word rightly preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and proper church discipline? These notes, as striking and effective as they are, are couched within some of the most vicious language against the Catholic Church, and a round of anti-Semitism as well. Such a pattern is found throughout; strong, even brilliant instruction and formation of the church mixed among bitter and violent lashing out against those not part of this “true kirk.”

It’s not as if division is new in Christianity. As we are reminded in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, even the early church fell into division. We see those who boast about having been baptized or converted by Paul, and those who brag about their conversion by Apollos, a preacher/evangelist who helped lead the Corinthian church in Paul’s absence. Then there are those, the really smug and self-righteous ones, who see others squabbling and place themselves above the fray by boasting that their onlyleader is Christ. You know that kind, right?

Division in the church wasn’t new at the Reformation, and it didn’t end there. Division continues to plague the church, especially its Protestant realms, and that division can be quite vicious at times, with one church quite willing and ready to brand another as being not even Christian. We can’t be that. We have fought and battled and called each other names to the utter ruin of any witness we might have in the world. We can’t be that in this age or any age. If that kind of thing is something in which you engage or sympathize, stop it. STOP. IT.

Another difficult aspect of the Scots Confession, one less made explicit than thoroughly implied in its creation, is the degree to which the Confession expects a church that is more or less an arm of the state. The Scots Confession expects a Scotland that will claim it as its own and support it fully. It expects to be, in every way, TheChurch of Scotland.

Clearly this should be something we do not understand as applying to us, living as we do in a nation in which the First Amendment to the Constitution explicitly prohibits that kind of state support for any religion. And yet, it sure seems like some of our Protestant brothers imagine themselves as a church with special power in this particular nation, one in which an attorney general makes free to cite scripture badly to support a particularly oppressive or punitive policy action. (If you’re going to cite Romans 13, you’d better be ready to explain how verses 8-10 fit into your detention scheme. Better yet, don’t cite scripture to explain your detention scheme.)

Being an official “state church,” however, isn’t the only way a church can fall into the trap of relying too much on the establishment. It’s possible to be too comfortable with other power structures, like industry or finance, not just the state itself. And that kind of dependency limits a church. It becomes too afraid of losing what it has. It cannot speak a prophetic word or take a needed stand against injustice or oppression or exploitation or the ruination of God’s created world for fear of old pastors’ pensions being ruined. That’s a church that is every bit as compromised as one beholden to a king or emperor.

We can’t be that church. We must not be imprisoned by our desire to remain respectable, to wield influence, to keep a “seat at the table” of those who see the world as merely something to exploit, and God’s children as merely cogs in their machines.

When we give away our ability to bear witness against these schemes, whether of government or industry of any kind, we might as well quit and go home. There’s really no point in our pretending to be a church of Jesus Christ any more.

Some of the lessons these confessions teach us are lessons in what not to do, and the Scots Confession offers more than a few. But it does also offer a glimpse into what the church should look like; a structure that sustains the church even today; a beautiful course of instruction on the sacraments and on the continuing power of scripture read under the Holy Spirit. May we always be able to engage in the challenging work of discerning what our ancestors in the faith have to teach us, both for the good and for the … not as good.

For lessons of both kinds, Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #378, We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom; #695, Change My Heart, O God

Image is of John Knox, principal driver of Scottish Reformation and of the Scots Confession