Of trying to stay ‘unstained’

A sermon by John A. Bolt
Sugar Grove Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, West Virginia
Sept 02, 2018

James 1:17-27: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-22

Good morning. It’s good to be with you again and I bring you greetings not only from up the road at First church in Morgantown – where we are pleased to have recently installed the Rev. Zac Morton as our new pastor, but also from the Presbytery of West Virginia and the Synod of the Trinity, of which I’m honored to serve as moderator.

I am fortunate to be able to experience our denomination at all levels – from local, small congregations such as this one to the largest assemblage we have: the General Assembly. I can tell you that, despite what you may hear in some quarters, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a prophetic voice to the world and is doing many things in God’s name in many places. It is perhaps more engaged now than in more than 50 years.

Lord knows, it’s kinda’ hard to be a Christian these days, as some of those who profess to be Christians certainly don’t seem to be setting an example of which Christ would be proud.

So just what is it that we Christians should be about? You here  from James the familiar instructions: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Seems simple enough, but how do we stay unstained in this rough and tumble world?

Jesus talked about that in Mark, chapter 7, selected verses from 17-27. Listen now for the word of God to the church today.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me;in vain do they worship me,teaching human precepts as doctrines.’You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”


For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

Please join me in prayer: Oh, Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight. Oh Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

What a world we have to deal with today. Our divisions are on display hourly. We can’t even seem to agree on the weather anymore. And we’re supposed to stay “unstained.”

Yes. And not only unstained, but as we were commanded in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So we are not to remove ourselves from this world, but be active in it while remaining “unstained.” And that brings to mind another saying: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”

But here’s the thing, it has never been more important for us Christians to stand up and say, “Enough.”

Fair warning, I suspect there will be those among you may take issue with some of what I’m going to say and imply. But it is the job of the preacher to “proclaim the Word,” and where I’m headed is where I firmly believe the Word is leading.

Let’s back up a few decades to the “good old days,” which we can probably all agree look better in the rearview mirror than they actually were. In the 40s, 50s and early 60s, going to church – as opposed somewhat to being a Christian – was essentially a given. It was expected; it was what almost everyone did.

Oh, sure, there were some Jews around, and whether we knew it or not, Muslims. (Remember, both religions have been present in this land since before the Revolutionary War.)

But, by and large, “church” was virtually mandatory if you expected to be an accepted part of the community, and have any standing.

Then came the 60s, my generation. “Don’t trust anybody over 30!” we said, which has conveniently fallen by the wayside (thank goodness). “Respect is earned, not given,” we said. Well, I said anyway.

And we asked “why” an awful lot. We explored, we experimented, we questioned, we challenged.

Perhaps as a result, faith itself began to be questioned and over time, we have arrived at a place where being Christian is no longer considered the norm.

Surveys still show a large majority of Americans – just over 70 percent — still profess to be Christian and only about 23 percent to be atheist or agnostic. In West Virginia, not surprisingly, the number is somewhat higher: 78 percent, with only 18 percent “nones.”

But a new Pew survey out just yesterday says only 50 percent identify as somewhat or very religious.

Dig a little deeper and you find some interesting things: only 53 percent say religion is very important, only 36 percent attend services at least once a week and another 33 percent “once or twice a month or a few times a year.” There does seem to be a disconnect between those who saythey are Christian, and those who actas if they are.

Here’s another quote you’ve probably heard; it’s from Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Amen to that. And it’s gotten worse since Gandhi’s observation.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus and the Pharisees are not really talking about good health practices or dietary restrictions. As Charles Cousar says:

“The Pharisees argued that the practice of eating with undefiled hands was an obligation … on all Jewish people who sought to be the holy nation that they had been called to be. To heed a stipulation of the oral law (‘the tradition of the elders’) like this was not to escape into trivialization but to demonstrate how seriously the law of God is to be taken.” (Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B)

This tradition, in their eyes, is a “fence around the law.”

But Jesus challenges that God’s law needs any protection, any human-made fence.

“This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me;in vain do they worship me,teaching human precepts as doctrines.’You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Now, some think it’s OK to separate children from their parents as a deterrent to people coming to this country to seek a better life. Many of those children end up abused or even dead at the hands of their jailers – and yes, I chose that word deliberately.

And some want to build walls around land that is not ours to begin with, but God’s, to keep them out.

Laws are passed that enrich the already rich among us, all the while removing any protections for those on the other end of the scale, struggling every day just to make it through life.

We forget that troublesome Golden Rule – “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Instead it is more like, “I got mine, you worry about yours,” or maybe even better, the punchline has become reality: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”

Hate groups with their angry, violent beliefs are defended as “some good people.”

We forget that when Cain suggested he was not his brother’s keeper, God responded: “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

What has happened to us?

Renowned theologian Phyllis Tickle suggests it is time for another Reformation. In her book The Great Emergence, she notes that about every 500 years or so, Christianity holds a “rummage sale.” Well, it’s been almost 501 years now since The Protestant Reformation, so perhaps it’s time for that sale – indeed she suggests it’s under way.

Looping back to the status of faith in days gone by, it took nothing, really, to be a Christian because it was the norm. But since those days, I would suggest starting with the rise of right wing, fundamental Christianity – incorrectly labeled “evangelical,” by the way – that has pushed a judgmental, white male-dominated agenda, we have seen the status of Christianity decline.

The reaction to this has been that, in the popular mind, Christianity is viewed as being an angry, judgmental religion that has long since outlived its usefulness.

We’re to the point where, as the Pew Survey released yesterday found, 21 percent of Americans say religion does more harm than good and 23 percent say it makes no difference at all.

So today, you don’t have to go to church, in fact many look at you askance if you do. What that means, then, is that those who are left in church on Sunday are more likely to be there because they want to be, not because they need to be.

Is this part of Tickle’s rummage sale, leaving a cleaner, neater church that is somewhat freer from “the traditions of the elders?”

Last week, columnist Colbert King, writing in The Washington Post, said: “Religious leaders, among their biblically mandated duties, have a responsibility to speak out about criminality, abuse of authority, and immorality, including serial lying by America’s moral leader, the president of the United States.”

He closes his plea with this: “In the name of all that is ethical and moral, call him out, and from the pulpits.”

Christ’s indictment of the Pharisees and scribes sounds very applicable today:

“This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me;in vain do they worship me,teaching human precepts as doctrines.’You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Human tradition: Take care of myself.

God’s commandment: Love thy neighbor (and we’re all neighbors).

Human tradition: Get off my lawn.

God’s commandment: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Human tradition: I’m right, you’re wrong.

God’s commandment: Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

John Calvin said it this way: “Whenever we are so eager to keep the laws of [humans] as to bestow less care and attention on keeping the law of God itself, we are held as transgressing it.” (Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Vol. 2, John Calvin, Page 212)

While I acknowledge that there is much room for interpretation in the Bible, there are some things that are pretty clear. For me, it’s pretty clear where Christians should stand in the present circumstances.

We should stand for truth. We should stand for love. We should stand for compassion. We should stand for honor. We should stand for forgiveness. We should stand for charity. We should stand for each other. We should stand for God.

We should not stand for exclusion. We should not stand for hate. We should not stand for the ends justifying the means. We should not stand for hypocrisy. We should not stand for evil.

If you believe I’ve gone too far, been too explicit, been too political, I hope you will forgive me, but I do believe we are in extraordinary times and faced with decisions that go to the heart of our faith.

Not to equate myself at all with Martin Luther, but in a smaller sense I must say what he is reported to have said: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

To God alone be the glory.

Please join me in prayer:

Good and gracious God, we profess faith in you and in your Son, Jesus the Christ. We live in a day when that faith is challenged on many fronts. We must each make our own decision on how to respond to those challenges. Give us strength and wisdom as we make those decisions, and help us to recognize misguided “traditions of the elders” and adhere to Your commandments. We pray in the name of Your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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Of the Synod of the Trinity #synodtrinity300

A sermon by John A. Bolt
First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, West Virginia
Sept 17, 2017

Good morning and again welcome to First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown. My name is John Bolt and I’m one of the elders here, and for those visitors – while we are without a permanent pastor we are taking advantage of hearing from a variety of guest pastors. And for members, as chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee, let me just report that we are continuing our work and are confident in finding the person whom God has called to fill out pulpit. But it is on God’s time, not ours.

Our New Testament lesson comes from the Letter to the Hebrews; it’s only the first two verses in Chapter 12. Listen for God’s word to the gathered today:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Today I am going to step outside my usual process, and not follow the Lectionary passages for today, but instead spend the time in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the Synod of the Trinity.

Please join me in prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.

Three hundred years. In the overall scheme of things, it’s really a blip – not even a blip. Pretty much everyone elsewhere in the world scoffs at our American timeline. Three hundred? How ’bout 3,000?

There have been humans on what we call the North American continent for 13,000, maybe even 50,000, maybe even 130,000 years.[1] So, what’s so cool about a 300-year-old institution on this continent?

Well, I guess the answer is because it’s OUR 300-year-old institution, and in a day and age when anything older than about five years is considered obsolete, it’s something to celebrate.

Here’s an illustration from my son’s time as a youth director in Bend, Oregon. At youth group one night – and it’s been a good five years or more ago, actually – some of the kids were bemoaning the fact that they didn’t sing any of the old songs any more. Now Greg isn’t as hide-bound about music as I might be, but he does have an appreciation for the old hymns, you know, like “The Church’s One Foundation,” written in the 1860s, or “For All The Saints,” words from 1864 put to Ralph Vaughn Williams great hymn tune in 1906.

So, he was pleased and surprised. Until, that is, the young person said, “You know, like ‘Our God is an Awesome God,” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” both vintage late 1980s. [Sound of balloon bursting!]

For us, then, 300 years is a big deal.

Sept. 17, 1717 – 300 years to the day – what is now the Synod of the Trinity was established at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia – 59 years before Philadelphia was also the site of the founding of this nation.

Permit me some history lessons – it was my major after all.

I think we often forget that we Presbyterians are engulfed in that “great cloud of witnesses” that stretches back way more than 300 years, through Scotland, through Geneva, yes even through Rome, back to the beginning of our faith. Even our name, Presbyterian, comes straight out of the Bible: “presbyteros,” Greek for elder or senior.

And in a little over a month, we’ll be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – which Jean Cauvin (known to us in English as John Calvin) helped to feed along with, of course, Martin Luther who hammered a nail – so to speak – in the split that was already happening when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

Calvin in Geneva first published his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 starting our strand of Christian faith that was taken to Scotland by John Knox who founded the Church of Scotland, essentially the mother church of American Presbyterianism.

There were Presbyterians up and down the East Coast, indeed as hard as it may be to believe today, Presbyterians were once one of, if not the largest, denomination in the colonies. Our influence on the creation of our national government was profound.

As us presbygeeks, or presbynerds, like to trot out every July 4, many Tories in the Colonies and in England called the American Revolution “a Presbyterian War.” In his monograph “The Presbyterian Rebellion,” published in Journal of the American Revolution, historian Richard Gardiner quotes a royal advisor as telling King George III in 1776, “this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning…”[2] In another place, Gardiner says one royalist in Pennsylvania blamed it on “Presbyterian hotheads.”[3] Imagine that, us decent and orderly folks called “hotheads.” Will wonders never cease?

Anyway, I digress.

As Presbyterians grew in and around Philadelphia and the East Coast – remember Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies at that point, presbyteries were formed and when it reached four, it was decided a synod needed to be created.

This is from the minutes of the meeting:

It having pleased Divine Providence so to increase our number, as that, after much deliberation, we judge it may be more serviceable to the interest of religion, to divide ourselves into subordinate meetings or Presbyteries, constituting one annually as a synod, to meet in Philadelphia, or elsewhere to consist of all the members of each subordinate Presbytery or meeting for this year at least.[4]

Admittedly is was a different day and time, but the Synod was of such stature in the early days of our nation that its meeting was even noted on the front page of The New York Times: On Monday, Oct. 17, 1881, this brief notice appeared:

The Synod of Philadelphia [as it was then known] will convene in the First Presbyterian Church of (Wilkes Barre, PA) on Thursday evening next. The Rev. Wallace Radcliff, of Reading, will preach the opening sermon. The Synod embraces all the Presbyterian ministers and churches within 19 counties of the State [i.e., Pennsylvania] and of portion of West Africa, as well as the city of Philadelphia. In view of the importance of the coming meeting, it is expected that not less than 400 delegates will be in attendance.[5]

I just wish it had included what that “importance” was about.

The boundaries, and even the formal name, shifted over the years and as The Times noted, at one time even included New York and part of Africa, but with 1983’s reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the northern stream (and the lineage of this congregation), and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the southern stream which was dominate – but not exclusive – in much of the rest of the state, the current Synod of the Trinity was formed. It now comprises all of Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia, except the churches in the Eastern Panhandle, and a few counties in Ohio.

Sixteen presbyteries make up the Synod, which serve 1,094 churches and 160,509 Presbyterians, making the Synod of the Trinity one of the largest in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is also safe to say that the Synod of the Trinity is one of the strongest of the 16 that currently make up the denomination, and much of that is also because of our history and the commitment of that great cloud of witnesses over three centuries.

This congregation has supported the Synod not only with its treasure but its time. Through its recent history, First Morgantown members have served as commissioners to the Synod from the Presbytery of West Virginia – a role I’m currently honored to have. Mavis Grant Lilley has served as well. George Lilley has served on various personnel committees, Bill Riley on finance committees. I’m sure there are others through time that I am missing, and I apologize – any of you out there want to raise your hand?

The role of the Synod has shifted through the years in response to many impetuses – some financial, some numerical, some generational. Those who have been around for a while can recall the days of a Synod School, a once- or twice-a year gathering for fellowship and education. That has gone by the wayside here, but in some synods remains a vital gathering.

It occurs to me about now that many of you are asking – maybe have been since I started talking – just what is a synod anyway? That’s a fair question, and one that has been debated by the denomination a lot in recent years. Do we still need them, and what purpose to they serve?

A synod is one of the expressions of our connectional church. The Presbyterian form of government is a middle way between the episcopal system – think Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal – and the congregational system – think Baptists, and of course Congregationalists. We govern ourselves through a representative system – remember what I said about Presbyterians being influential in the formation of the U.S. government?

It starts at the session of a local church, which sends commissioners (not delegates, but that explanation is for another time) to a presbytery. Presbyteries gather together in synods. While the presbytery’s job is to support congregations as well as do ministry that one church can’t accomplish alone, the synod’s job in many ways is to support ministries that presbyteries can’t do alone.

The highest governing body is the General Assembly, but it is also made up of commissioners from presbyteries; synods are not in that chain – although they are certainly present and play an important role at Assemblies.

According to the Book of Order:

A “Synod is responsible for the life and mission of the church throughout its region and for supporting the ministry and mission of its presbyteries as they seek to support the witness of congregations, to the end that the church throughout its region becomes a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.”[6]

For that reason, one of the very visible expressions of this responsibility has been Synod support of campus ministry. The Westminster Foundation, for example, was for a long time a ministry of the Synod and even though it is – in theory at least – a stand alone organization, the Synod remains the largest single funder – and the Foundation’s other connections with the presbyteries of West Virginia, Shenandoah and Upper Ohio Valley are its life blood.

Through the Westminster Foundation, the Synod helps support campus ministries here at WVU, at Marshall – both of which are full-time Presbyterian pastors – and at other campus ministry programs at Fairmont State/Pierpont Community and Technical College, Shepherd University and West Liberty University. In Pennsylvania, support goes to 10 campus ministries, including Penn State and various of its campuses

Another key historical activity of the Synod, in West Virginia at least, was missions in the Southern coalfields.

In about 1893, the Synod sent a Sunday school teacher to Colcord, at the time – and in many ways still – one of the most isolated places in West Virginia. Eventually the Colcord Presbyterian Church was built, and still stands and serves the people of that part of Raleigh County. It is also the site of one of the camps of the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps – an important ministry of the Presbytery of West Virginia which also receives significant support from the Synod.

Camps historically were also Synod operations, and today there are 11 camp and conference centers within the bounds of the Synod. While the responsibility of running these centers has been assumed by presbyteries, Synod continues to support them financially.

One more key historical ministry: higher education. As you are probably aware education has been an extremely important and high-profile emphasis of the Presbyterian Church since the days of John Calvin. If you couldn’t read, you couldn’t read the Bible, so education really comes before understanding.

Much of that support was carried out through Synods, and today there are six colleges and universities within the bounds: Davis and Elkins College, in Elkins, WV; and in Pennsylvania, Westminster College, New Wilmington; Wilson College, Chambersberg; Grove City College, Grove City; Arcadia University, Glenside; and Waynesburg University, just up the road in Waynesburg

There are many, many more ways the Synod has fulfilled its calling throughout its 300-year history, but as is the nature of its place in the Presbyterian universe, many of those are behind the scenes and more directly linked to its work with presbytery leadership – whether through judicial activities, providing advice and training, helping in the search for presbytery leadership, and so forth.

Before I move on from history to the present and future (which are in many ways linked), I want to reinforce why I’ve taken such time on the history of our Synod.

At a time when institutions are under attack, at a time when community and connections are at worst dismissed or at best overlooked and ignored, I think it’s important to realize and know about our heritage. We didn’t get to where we are – for good or ill — by happenstance. It’s not longing for the old days, but it IS understanding where and whose we are; where we fit in that great cloud of witnesses.

As for today – and the future. The Synod has been taking a hard look at itself over the past several years, and how it will move responsibly into the future, in terms of governance, relationships and stewardship.

While the Synod is strong financially, perhaps the strongest financially and certainly stronger than all but perhaps one or two others, it does not have unlimited resources. Also, in many ways the culture of the church has become more focused on congregationally-based missions rather than corporate missions by higher councils. And that’s a good thing, because the two initiatives are not mutually exclusive and can support each other.

One result of that self-examination has been to adopt a system of operation called “policy governance.” I won’t try to explain that in detail – in many ways because it’s taken us two or three years to sort this out.

But as part of that model, we have established what’s called a Primary End (sounds vaguely reminiscent of the “Great Ends of the Church,” no?), and Secondary Ends. You might call it a mission statement, I guess.

As a body, the Synod has set its primary end as:

  • As part of the body of Christ, the Synod, through the responsible use of shared resources, supports and challenges member presbyteries to be vital, innovative and faithful in their collaborative and distinctive callings.

The secondary ends are:

  • Connecting presbytery leadership for coordination, spiritual support and sharing best practices.
  • Encouraging innovation in, between and among presbyteries through the use of human, programmatic and financial resources.
  • Providing services of education and nurture as requested by member presbyteries.
  • Extending partnership of member presbyteries in joint and shared mission and ministry.
  • Nurturing relationships within the larger church for the purpose of greater witness.
  • Fostering conversation and action for the promotion of social righteousness.

You can hear in all those that the Synod’s primary connecting is through the presbyteries, but another part of the policy governance process is to identify “owners,” and that group is clearly you, those in the pews of the churches in the presbyteries.

For example, each year the Synod provides hundreds of thousands of dollars to presbyteries and churches through a variety of grants: peacemaking, mission travel, innovation grants, network grants, study grants, self-development of people, small churches.

So as the Synod of the Trinity sets sail on its fourth century, remember that it has served churches from First Church in Philadelphia to Colcord Presbyterian Church to First Church in Morgantown, helping strengthen that great cloud of witnesses which stretches back millennia to the present and future, building “a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.”

To God alone be the glory, Amen.

[1] Carl Zimmer. “Humans Lived in North America 130,000 Years Ago, Study Claims.” The New York Times. April 26, 2017

[2] Richard Gardiner. “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 5, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. https://archive.org/stream/recordsofpresbyt170600pres#page/45/mode/1up.

[5] “The Synod of Philadelphia.” The New York Times. Oct. 17, 1881.) https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1881/10/17/98569549.html.

[6] Office of the General Assembly. 2015. “Book of Order 2015-2017” The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part II. G.3.0401.

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Of confessions and the church today

A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, WV
September 3, 2017

Good morning again. It is an honor to be able to lead this congregation in worship this morning. But it is more daunting that usual for several reasons, not the least of which is being among “my own” brings with it a significant amount of apprehension. But even more so leading any worship service in the midst of all that is going on outside these walls. So I’m glad we’ve got this new pulpit up here so you can’t see my knees shaking.

One of the things this congregation has come to expect from its preachers is that they follow the Lectionary – now that’s not a requirement, indeed can’t be – but it is a good model to follow as it keeps preachers from only addressing the comfortable texts, or their favorites. I’m one of those who does typically follow the lectionary when I have the opportunity to lead worship. But that doesn’t mean one has to be bound by those four or so pieces of scripture a group of theologians laid out many years ago.

What is amazing to me, however, is that so often the lectionary opens up a door to helping interpret current events, and this week is no different. Now, I will acknowledge that perhaps what’s been on my mind lately has played a part in the way I see the words in the Bible this week – but that is always the case. It’s why you hear the phrase, “You don’t read the Bible, the Bible reads you.”

So with that in mind, let’s hear the New Testament lesson from today’s suggested readings. It’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12, Verses 9-21. This section is subtitled in many versions: Marks of the True Christian. Listen for the Word of the Lord to the followers of Christ this day:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.

Please join me in prayer:

O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

You may have heard it said that the Presbyterian church is a confessional church. And you may realize that we have a Book of Confessions, and that is it part one of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s constitution. (Not, I note, the Book of Order, which is part two and to which we sometimes pay more attention than the Book of Confessions.)

And you know that we often say a creed in our worship service, usually The Apostle’s Creed. (I’ll digress, I think we should ALWAYS say one of our creeds or confessions during worship, but some have disagreed with me on that point.)

But what does all this really mean, and what difference does it make? Isn’t the Bible sufficient. Well, yes, of course, but there’s more to it than that and the Bible is always supreme; confessions do not rise to that level. Nevertheless they are important to our way of understanding faith.

A document entitled “The Confessional Nature of the Church” was prepared for the denomination in the early 80s as the church was considering adopting The Brief Statement of Faith. It says in part: “(A) confession of faith is an officially adopted statement that spells out a church’s understanding of the meaning and implications of the one basic confession of the lordship of Christ. … A confession of faith may be defined more precisely as a public declaration before God and the world of what a church believes.”[1]

Our Book of Confessions has 12 entries, arranged chronologically: The Nicene Creed, the oldest of our creeds and which we’ll say later as it is traditionally used when communion is part of a service; The Apostle’s Creed, which was written about 180 AD, years after all the apostles had died; The Scots Confession; The Heidelberg Catechism; The Second Helvetic Confession; The Westminster Confession of Faith; The Shorter Catechism; The Larger Catechism; The Theological Declaration of Barmen; The Confession of 1967; The Confession of Belhar; and A Brief Statement of Faith.

While each of these documents is worth deep study – and I had to restrain myself a bit in just listing their names without a bit of explanation — there are two of these confessions I want to talk a bit more about today. The Theological Declaration of Barmen, and the newest addition to the Book, the Confession of Belhar. (Note that it’s not last in the list I just went through because it was written before the Brief Statement, but was only added to our book a couple of years ago. More about that in a minute.)

One of the most important things to realize about the confessions is that they are firmly rooted in the time and place in which they are written. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism was written to try to bring the early Lutherans and Calvinists together. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t negate its value to us today. Ask Shelly about the Heidelberg as she served on a denominational task force that reviewed it and recommended a new, more accurate, translation because of the way the Catechism was being used to support injustice.

The Westminster Confession was written in the wake of the Church of England’s split with Roman Catholicism and was an attempt to “[(settle] the government and liturgy of the Church of England (in a manner) most agreeable to God’s Holy Word and most apt to procure the peace of the church at home and nearer abroad.”[2]

That is one of the key purposes of confessions: to speak to the church in the particular time and place, usually about a specific issue or issues.

So what do The Barmen Declaration and the Belhar Confession have to tell us today?


Barmen came be in 1934 as the power and control of Hitler’s Third Reich had spread to the church, with even the support of some German theological leaders. The church was in essence subordinated to the state, and went so far, in what was called the Aryan Paragraph, as to exclude from the church anyone with Jewish ancestry.[3]

Enough is enough, said other church leaders, including Karl Barth – a Reformed theologian considered one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Barth was the primary author of Barmen, but it was adopted by an assembly of 139 delegates to a synod of Lutheran, Reformed and United churches.

After laying out the reasons for its existence, Barmen goes on to attack the idea that the state has any power over the church, and that when such power is exercised, the church must resist.

Citing two scripture references from John, Barmen declares:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. 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.[4]

Through five more declarations and rejections, Barmen goes on to assert that the state, although God does give it some authority to advance peace and justice, must be challenged when it oversteps its role – and also that the church cannot become the state.

In its final declaration, Barmen says:

The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. 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.[5]

And how is this related to today’s passage from Romans?

We are living at a time in which it feels to me – and I’ll only speak for me – that we are battling for the soul of our nation. Many, but certainly not all, people in power are acting in diametrically opposite ways to what our scripture teaches in what, recall, is labeled “Marks of the true Christian:”

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Let anyone with ears to hear listen.

The Belhar Confession is a bit of a different animal. First, it is the only confession in our Book of Confessions that is not of Western European or U.S. origin. It dates to the early 1980s from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, created by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa for “coloured,” that is bi-racial, people in the country’s apartheid structure. It was added to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions in 2016.

Asserting that Christians are part of “one holy, universal Church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family,” Belhar says this unity “must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:”

  • in that we love one another;
  • that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another;
  • that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;
  • that we share one faith, have one calling,
  • are of one soul and one mind;
  • have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope;
  • together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;
  • together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;
  • together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ;
  • that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; (and)
  • that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;”[6]

There is more, but the Belhar ends with:

We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence. Jesus is Lord. To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.

As our Book of Order reminds us:

In these statements, the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do. These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers. (F-2.01).

So at a time when gun-toting Nazis have freely walked our streets;

So at a time when some on the fringes of both sides are advocating violence;


So at a time when hate-mongers come to college campuses to spread their bile;

So at a time when the needs of the least among us are ignored or help for them is imperiled;

So at a time when some in our government want to split up families, based solely on their birthplace;

So at a time when availability of healthcare is being made a function of the size of your wallet;

So at a time such as this, let us remember that, indeed, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), together with First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown, is a confessional church and that our confessions give clear guidance as to what our response and stance should be.

To God alone be the glory, amen.

Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, these days are hard. There is little agreement and each side demonizes the other. Yet You have given us a steady, continuing beacon of love, of caring, of peace. Help us as a congregation, as a town, as a state, as a nation, as a world to come together again – even when we disagree on some of the details – to love genuinely, to hate evil, to hold fast to what is good and to love one another with mutual affection. Amen


[1] Book of Confessions, Page VI.

[2] Ibid, Page 146.

[3] Book of Confessions, Study Edition, Page 303.

[4] Book of Confessions, 8.11-8.12.

[5] Ibid, 8.26-8.27.

[6] Ibid, 10.3

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