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
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!
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2018, Pentecost 5B
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.
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
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 3, 2018, Pentecost 2B
The Confessions: Apostles’ Creed – In the Fullness of Time
“Once upon a time…”
When you hear those words you are almost automatically conditioned to hear a story, and a particular type of story at that. Such a story might likely involve kings and queens and princes and princesses, but won’t necessarily tell you what country they are king or queen or prince or princess of. There might be other kinds of creatures in there besides humans, too – elves or fairies or dragons, who knows. It’s quite possible somebody will end up in distress (probably the princess, since these are usually old stories), and quite possibly the prince will be the one to rescue her from that distress.
In other words, you expect a fairy tale, or something very similar to a fairy tale. It’s fanciful, it’s going to have a happy ending, and it’s emphatically notgoing to be “real.” It won’t be a history. It won’t be “factual.” It may well have some hidden kernel of truth in its telling, a “moral of the story” or some similar lesson to be learned, it’s true. But it won’t be something you find in the history books.
Nowadays you can find a similar opening line with similar effects, in movie theaters: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” It’s again a sign of a particular kind of story, one that takes place in space and across many planets. It does have a princess or two (until one of them became a general, at least), and characters in distress and people needing to be rescued, thrilling battles and in most cases, a happy ending, even if you have to wait through three movies to get to it. And again, aside from “a long time ago…” it’s not a history; it didn’t really happen, although some folks act as if it did.
A large part of the reason the Apostles’ Creed came into existence was to remind the church, through regular repetition and instruction, that the story of Jesus was exactly not that kind of story, even if some of the stories about how the Creed itself was made sound a bit like fairy tales. For centuries the official take was that the statement really was compiled by the twelve apostles, maybe at Pentecost, each of the twelve (right down to Matthias, the substitute apostle) contributing a phrase until it was done. It sounds lovely, to be sure, but that’s not how it happened. The apostles were too busy preaching that day.
Unlike any of the other documents collected in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions, we can’t in fact pinpoint exactly how the Apostles’ Creed came into being. It was finalized during the ninth century, again because an emperor (Charlemagne in this case) wanted the church to get its act together so he could use the church to unify his empire. We don’t, however, know how it got to that place, even though there are predecessors to the Apostles’ Creed – previous statements that ended up part of it – traceable as far back as the second century, even before the Nicene Creed.
Speaking of that statement, the Apostles’ Creed does share some traits with its fourth-century predecessor; it is organized largely around the Trinity, for example. What is clearly different is that while the Nicene Creed spends a certain amount of time speaking of each person of the Trinity, the Apostles’ Creed is clearly much more focused on one member, God the Son, Jesus Christ.
God is simply “the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, in the older translation in which it is most known) is mentioned – “I believe in the Holy Ghost” – but that is all. By contrast, the litany of what the Creed has to say about Jesus is pretty extensive, and much of what is included is about getting the facts straight.
Jesus is God’s only Son, first of all, and “our Lord” reinforcing the unity of being between the two. The next pair of statements address the divinity and humanness of Jesus: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit” marks Jesus as divine, while “born of the Virgin Mary” marks Jesus as human, “born of a woman” as Paul says in Galatians. (While later readers have obsessed on the “virgin” part to read that statement as somehow also emphasizing Jesus’s divinity, that’s not how ancient readers heard the statement.) “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried” also reiterates the facts of Jesus’s life, while tying his life to a historical figure (Pilate) as a refutation to those who would wave away the historicity of Jesus.
“He descended into hell” is perhaps the most problematic for us moderns, if for no other reason than it isn’t exactly clear what that’s supposed to mean. But “on the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God” takes us directly back to telling the story of this life that the church claims as its salvation.
In this sense the Apostles’ Creed has much in common with parts of scripture. The Book of Acts contains many sermons by Peter and the other apostles, which are largely recorded as accounts of this very story, given in the face of disbelieving religious authorities. Paul turns to these facts from the life of Jesus in teaching his readers in various cities, as here in Galatians when using the phrase “in the fullness of time” to mark his witness as being rooted in time, in history, rather than in some misty undefined unknown like the gods of the Greeks and Romans that surrounded them.
The Old Testament is, of course, full of the history of the people of Israel. It is also full, as the brief reading from Exodus demonstrates, of reminders that those people of Israel were instructed to rememberthose stories, and to perform acts specifically to remember those events in their history; in this case a vigil, to be kept by all generations to come, to remember their departing from Egypt. Remembering what happened, what was done in their history was constantly urged upon the people of Israel, and the early Christian church also needed to learn that lesson as well.
We modern Christians aren’t always that good at remembering the story, but there are some things we do that are part of that. Indeed, the very pattern of scripture and worship that we typically follow in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is structured in such a way that we at least somewhat tell the story; the progress from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, to Lent and Easter and Ascension and Pentecost, is at root a way to tell the story of the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the story that is really the only reason for us to be here as a church.
It’s not surprising that we want to tell stories; it’s a trait that’s pretty hard-wired into humanity. But which stories we tell is so key, so crucial. And this story, a story of unyielding divine love and grace, is our story, rooted in history – in the “fullness of time” and echoing through all of eternity – is the story of life itself; life in Christ, life with one another that makes life possible and worthwhile and more than just a thing to be endured.
Tell the story. Say what we believe. Remember.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (fromGlory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #481, I Believe in God the Father; #462, I Love to Tell the Story
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 27, 2018, Trinity B
The Confessions: Nicene Creed – God in Three Persons
I suspect that you don’t necessarily have the experience of being at dinner with neighbors or friends and spending the whole evening in lively discussion and questioning about points of church doctrine. I went to seminary (twice!) and can’t say that such was really part of my experience. Scripture, maybe; the work of the church – what’s going on or what the church is doing, sure. Not so much on church doctrine. Nor do we see it much discussed in public discussion places; about the most exciting such public discussion of religion at all we have had of late was of Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry using the occasion of the recent royal wedding sermon to (gasp!) preach the gospel, which somehow seemed to surprise a lot of folks.
When Christianity was still relatively new, however, public discussion or questions about Christian teaching was certainly more frequent, if only because people weren’t really sure what these Christians actually thought or believed. And one such issue of doctrine that provoked its share of confusion was “how can Christians claim to be monotheistic” – worshipers of one God – “when they talk about this Father, but then also the Son, and then this Holy Spirit too? Sounds like three gods to me.”
While perhaps oversimplified, this was something that really did provoke discussion and disagreement, not just with those outside the church, but those within as well. How exactly do we explain One God, but the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It was pretty easy in some cases to say what the church did not believe – no, the three are not hierarchical; each one is fully God – than to articulate the what or how or what the church did believe. Not surprisingly, this led to a fair amount of confusion both within the church and without.
Part of the problem was that even scripture itself wasn’t terribly helpful at explaining something like the Trinity; scripture simply talks about the Trinity, or uses the language of Trinity as more or less settled fact. In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Roman church, for example, we read of being led in life by the Spirit, crying out to the Father, and being “joint-heirs” with Christ, the Son, all within these few verses. Paul doesn’t stop to give a theological explanation of these things; he simply speaks of them and their work in and among and through and for us.
Similarly, in today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus first of the work of the Spirit and its sheer uncontrollability, comparing it to the wind that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it blows.” Then the Son of Man becomes the subject, as the one who must be “lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God the Father, the one sending his only Son, completes the Trinity, which again is not explained but simply presented as fact, as what is when one speaks of the nature and work of God.
Still, that doesn’t stop people from trying to explain. One such explanation was that God existed in three modes – the Father “mode,” the Son “mode,” and the Holy Spirit “mode,” shifting from one to another. That didn’t pass the smell text, and “modalism” became the name for a heresy about the Trinity. From another direction, popularized by a teacher named Arius, came the idea that God, the Supreme High Being, could not maintain true holiness and perfection if in fact God got caught up in the messy and imperfect affairs of humanity; therefore Jesus, the human manifestation, could not really be same Supreme High God after all but a kind of divine agent on earth. For that Arius became the namesake of another heresy, Arianism. (These of course are highly simplified descriptions).
In seeking to answer Arius and others, the church came together in a council at the city of Nicaea in the year 325 to try and answer these questions. The emperor Constantine, who sponsored the council, only wanted a church that had its act together so that he could use it to unify his empire; nonetheless the result was this statement that to this day remains the most widely used and shared confessional statement in the church, the Nicene Creed. (You can find the Nicene Creed on p. 34 of Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal), or p. 43 if you’re using the large-print hymnal)
You can see clearly in the words of the Nicene Creed how the statement is arranged around the idea of Trinity. Each “person” is identified, and attributes of each member of the Trinity are spelled out. Those attributes can also be seen as answering some of the claims about the nature of God raised by the likes of Arius; Jesus is identified as “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” – all language meant to make it unmistakably clear that Jesus is not some secondary character in the story, and that it really was God who “became truly human.”
Similarly, the Holy Spirit is no less than “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – again, not some secondary being, but of the very same being with the other members of the Trinity. (Note: much of this language was added at a later council, in 381 in Constantinople, called to clear up some of the questions raised by the initial statement.) With minimal revision, the statement has remained in use ever since.
And now time for the big question: so what? Why does a statement written over 1,600 years ago still matter enough to be used in congregations even now, much less be part of our denomination’s official governance?
One of the effective things about this statement is that while it strives mightily to answer the questions it was meant to answer, it really doesn’t try to do more. It doesn’t try to explain or “pin down” the Trinity, even as it asserts that the Trinity is. In short, there is still mystery, and if we’re going to be worshiping the One Triune God, Three in One and One in Three, we’d better be able to cope with mystery. We are required to know the limits of our own understanding by such a teaching, something that does not easily come to us with our advanced learning and philosophy and sophisticated science and technology. And yet there it is: a Triune God who is One.
It also makes a difference, if we take the Trinity seriously, how we function as a church. A Trinitarian God is necessarily in relationship. All three “persons” of the Godhead, to borrow the word from today’s final hymn, exist in relationship to one another. How, then, can we as the church headed by that “God in three persons” even begin to think that our choices, our actions, our direction can be at all conceived as somehow separate or apart from the world in which we live? We as a church are not autonomous, we as a church are not an island, because we worship and serve a relational God and cannot help but be in relationship to the world that God has made and redeemed and sustained. And clearly, we in the church cannot possibly think we can somehow not be in relationship with one another.
It makes a difference in our worship. We worship God in three persons; the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer, and all three are inherently involved in our worship – it isn’t just God the Father: the Spirit drives us and draws us to worship God (whether we actually respond to that driving and drawing is a different question), and the Son is the one whose redeeming love facilitates and shapes our worship. All Three of the One are involved.
It also makes a difference in our reading of scripture. When we try to separate any part of the Word of God from the witness to Jesus found in that word, or read without the guidance and leading of the Spirit, we might as well be reading something else. Seriously, a good novel would probably be better and more enlightening to read than scripture – the Word of God the Father – without the witness of the Son and the leadership of the Spirit.
It matters, this Trinity thing, whether or not we understand it, and the Nicene Creed still bears witness to this difficult but needful doctrine. We are shaped by it, and our lives are formed by this God-in-three-persons whether we comprehend it or not. When these words appear as our Affirmation of Faith, we are brought again to remember that the God we serve and worship is not bound to our understanding, but exists and relates to us from a place of relation we can’t quite comprehend, which calls us to live in relationship as well. Whatever else we do or don’t comprehend, let us never forget that.
For the Triune God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2, Come, Thou Almighty King; #8, Eternal Father, Strong to Save; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud; #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2018, Pentecost B
Can These Bones Live?
I did not get up to watch the royal wedding yesterday. Being awake and functional for an 11:00 service on a Sunday morning is enough of a challenge for me; being up at 5:00 a.m. to pay attention to a wedding is quite beyond me.
There was, however, a certain amount of this particular wedding that actually was of interest to me, something that is not typically true of royal weddings and me. Normally when these things happen I am about equally frustrated with those who pay all sorts of fawning attention to the event and those who complain and gripe loudly about all the attention paid to the event. Both are equally frustrating, if you get my drift, where royal weddings are concerned.
But this year, I wanted to hear that sermon, and thanks be to the internet, I was able to do that yesterday without getting up that early.
Partly it was professional interest to be sure – I’m pretty sure this is the first such wedding to take place since I started this path into the ministry. Mostly, though, I wanted to hear and see what happened when The Right Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the United States, preached the wedding sermon before the royal family and a large swath of the British upper class – the stiffest of stiff upper lips, you might say.
Bishop Curry did not disappoint: he did what any preacher is charged to do in such a situation. In the presence of God and of the congregation, rooted in the scripture and led by the Spirit, the bishop brought the good news, with a little fire.
Fire, of course, plays prominently in the reading from Acts, the story behind the festival of Pentecost we celebrate today. First the disciples were touched with it, so to speak, and then they preached with it. That fire is represented, just a little bit, in what you see in the sanctuary today, the red of the paraments and the red in my vestments and the red you see around the sanctuary, a suggestion of those tongues, like fire, that touched the disciples and sent them to the windows to preach a message that would be heard in more tongues than any of them knew.
And that’s how we typically mark Pentecost in churches like ours. We turn things in the sanctuary red for the day, we might do something interesting in the reading of that Acts scripture in some years, we sing songs that make reference to the Holy Spirit. Then we put away the red for another year.
I wonder if we might need to hear another message, though. Not just us in this one church, although maybe we do, but maybe all of us in churches like ours, where things are quieter, more sedate maybe, than in some other churches. Maybe we need to hear the word from the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel had something of a traumatic life, preaching as he did in a time of conquest and exile for the people of Israel. In one of those sieges against Israel, Ezekiel’s own wife was killed. His prophetic career was not against the backdrop of any kind of comfort or official support (but then most prophetic careers, or at least most real ones, aren’t). And he was the one to whom God seemed to give the strangest prophetic messages – that “wheel within a wheel” vision found in the very first chapter, and then this grotesque, almost macabre account of the valley of dry bones.
I don’t care how much stiff upper lip you attribute to the British, even that congregation at yesterday’s wedding was livelier and more alive than this “congregation” to which Ezekiel gets called to prophesy.
Brought out to the valley by the “spirit of the Lord” (you didn’t think I was going to forget this is Pentecost, did you?), Ezekiel is confronted with this … well, a valley full of bones. Human bones, to be sure. It’s the kind of thing that a Hollywood director of a particular sort might have a field day with. Ezekiel makes sure to let us know that the bones were “very dry.” They’re not just dry, they’re very dry, presumably dead a very long time, and exposed to the harsh elements of a desert valley a very long time.
And before this dead, desiccated valley, the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
What a question.
It’s no shock that Ezekiel’s answer is what it is; in fact, in the Hebrew, the answer is much more emphatic, almost as if Ezekiel is repeating himself for emphasis – “You, Lord, you, you, you know,” with the emphatic if unspoken “NOT ME” left hanging in the air.
The Lord doesn’t bother explaining; instead he gives Ezekiel a command: “Prophecy.” (We’d use the word “preach” in this spot.) God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones, these dried-up bones in this dried-up valley, preach to them that they will live, will be restored, will be given flesh and sinew and skin and all the good stuff of the human body. Ezekiel preaches, and in a scene that Hollywood directors must absolutely freak out at the thought of preaching, exactly that happens. Sinew, flesh, skin; all of the bones come together – “foot bone connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the leg bone” like the old spiritual sings – and now instead of preaching to a valley full of dried-up bones, Ezekiel is preaching to … a valley full of lifeless bodies.
You see, one thing was still missing: the breath, and Ezekiel is now commanded to preach to the breath itself, to come in from the four winds, and bring these bodies to life.
Here’s where it’s useful to know one thing about the Hebrew in this passage; the words we read as “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” (or capital-S “Spirit”) are all rendered with the same Hebrew word: “rua’h.” Breath, wind, and spirit, all linguistically intertwined. The wind, the breath, the Spirit…
And the lifeless bodies indeed live.
One hopes the obvious available metaphor doesn’t have to be hammered home too hard here. The breath – the wind, the Spirit – is going to breathe into us, if we’d just open up our mouths. Even the most lifeless of bones will live. As God promised through Ezekiel to raise up the crushed, exiled, lifeless people of Israel, to put his Spirit within them and see them live, so the Spirit breathes through us and into us, bringing us to life.
But do we recognize it, though? Or do we trust it?
Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, asks that very pungently important question, wondering if indeed we do trust the Spirit to show up and be the Spirit in our worship, or in preaching or song, or if we’ve:
gotten to a place — in our churches, in our church institutions, where we assume control over the Spirit. Where our longing for the Spirit’s imagination has turned into impatience. Where our hope in having the Spirit show up has turned into attempts to manage the Spirit’s presence with secular and indistinct demands of its manifestation. Where our yearning for the Spirit’s surprise has devolved into certainty of the Spirit’s core characteristics, core traits, core ways of being in the world.
Dr. Lewis continues:
As a result, with earthly and irreligious spiritual solutions meant to be relevant, substituting “creative” with “innovative,” “eschatology” with “forward-thinking,” and “inspiration” with “methodologies” and “taxonomies,” I wonder if the church would truly recognize an appearance of the Spirit. Rather, I suspect the church would shrug off a pneumatological apocalypse as too far outside the boundaries it has built, the stipulations it has constructed, the expectations it has erected.[i]
In short, would we know the Holy Spirit if it kicked us in the posterior? There’s a reason we get called the “frozen chosen” sometimes. We choke ourselves to avoid the breath of the Spirit rushing through us, whether lighting those tongues of fire upon us, or simply breathing through us, keeping us spiritually alive. Would we know an outbreak of the Spirit if we saw it, heard it, felt it? The church these days partakes of so many potential substitutes for the Spirit – big-time preaching, new and “exciting” music, special events – that we are numbed even to the possibility of the for-real Spirit moving among us, breathing through us. We make ourselves into dry bones.
Christian, can these bones live? God, only God, can know. And God says yes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #282, Come Down, O Love Divine; #292, As the Wind Song; #286, Breathe on Me, Breath of God; #66, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit
[i]Karoline Lewis, “A True Pentecost,” from Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5154, accessed 5/19/18
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2018, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
What Are You Looking At?
“What are you looking at?”
You can hear that in the voice of someone trying to keep something a secret, annoyed at being caught in the act; maybe in the voice of a stereotypical tough-guy movie or TV character (though a Robert DeNiro or Joe Pesci character might turn it around to say “you lookin’ at me?”); or a more causul, “hey, what are you looking at?” It’s a pretty flexible phrase.
You don’t expect to hear it as angelic proclamation, though.
But the end of the Acts account here features “two men in white robes” who suddenly appear beside the disciples (that’s a pretty characteristic way of the gospels describing angelic appearances) uttering a much more formal query: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” But really, they’re asking “What are you looking at?” Seriously, you have to wonder if one of the disciples was fighting the urge to turn on the two men in white and exclaim “are you kidding me? Did you not just see what happened here? People don’t just pick up and float off into the sky, you know…”
If one of the disciples did that (my money would have been on Thomas, with his snarky sense of humor), Luke did not record it. Instead, the men in white issue a promise; the Jesus they just saw lifting up into the sky would, and will, return one day in the same fashion. Something to hold on to, I guess, in the now-inarguable absence of Jesus from his followers.
Already Jesus had left this little band with plenty of instruction, and also a reprimand in the bargain. Luke’s account of the Ascension here at the beginning of Acts is a bit more expansive than that at the end of the gospel that bears his name, and there’s at least one really logical possible explanation for that: Luke learned more. At the beginning of the gospel we call Luke the author admits very frankly that the gospel is not an eyewitness account. Luke advises his recipient, “most excellent Theophilus,” that he has set out to gather the best information he could to pass on an “orderly account” of the evens of Jesus’s life. The end of Luke’s gospel sounds frankly a lot like the end of Matthew, with an account of the Ascension thrown in.
But by the time Luke started into the book we call Acts, he has a few things to add to the Ascension story. For one thing, we learn he was around for forty days, which the Luke account doesn’t really suggest. For another, there is more instruction included here. The disciples aren’t to rush off, but to return to Jerusalem and wait for the “promise of the Father,” wait to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” before too many days have gone by. It turned out to be ten days, until the event called Pentecost lit a fire in the disciples (almost literally) and initiated the work of the church on earth in a way that, quite frankly, none of the disciples could have anticipated.
As for the rebuke, one of the disciples (this could have been Thomas too) had to ask, as Jesus drew his remarks to a close, the most oblivious possible question in the context: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at the very end somebody is trying to press Jesus about when he’s going to Make Israel Great Again.
Jesus answers with one of the most ignored (and outright violated) scriptures in the whole book: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” All these so-called ministers or biblical authorities spitting directly in the face of Jesus trying to work out some code or clue that tells them exactly when Jesus is gonna come back. It’s written right here, in Jesus’s own words: THAT’S NOT YOUR JOB. That’s not your place.
Your job is this:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
That’s the disciples’ job; wait for the Holy Spirit, and then go! Go all over the world, says Jesus. And the church, in fits and starts, sometimes ruinously and sometimes beautifully, has been doing that ever since.
But what about the Ascension itself? What’s the point of this story with Jesus lifting off like a slow moving rocket and being taken from the disciples’ sight? One of the best explanations in scripture is actually found in this passage from the letter to the church at Ephesus. Towards the end of today’s reading we get the rundown of why Christ’s ascension matters; the same Jesus who walked the earth with his followers now is at God’s side, above – “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” not just now but for all time, with all authority over the church and everything else under his feet. To be short about it, we have no business – at all – giving our allegiance to any authority but Christ. None. (For all we talk about wanting to be followers of Jesus, we sure do skip over a lot that scripture instructs us what to do to be about that very business. Seriously, Christ’s church isn’t nearly radical enough.)
Still, though, you have to feel for the disciples, at least for those ten days. They’ve been told to go back to Jerusalem and … wait. What do you do when you wait for the Holy Spirit to overtake you (whatever that means)?
You have to figure there was some remembering what Jesus said and did, maybe some arguments about those things, some impatience to be sure. You have to wonder if they gathered around a table for a meal at times (they needed to eat, after all) and were reminded again, and again, and again of that last meal with Jesus, the bread and the cup; or the encounter on the Emmaus Road, or back in Jerusalem; you have to wonder if picking up that loaf and that cup could possibly have ever been the same for them, especially now, with their Teacher and Lord physically gone for good.
This meal is handed to us even today, to remember; to take to heart and to rememberthe words and deeds of Jesus in our very beings. With the church in every age, from Ascension to now, we take this bread and this cup and show to the world the Lord’s saving death until, like the men in white promised, he returns that very same way, to be with us and us with him for all time.
For Jesus who departed, and will return, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’s Name!; #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies ; #521, In Remembrance of Me; #265; Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun