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?

Plenty.

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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