Dan McCoig's Sermons

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. — John Calvin

The Belhar Confession: A Protest Against Racism

Belhar Confession:  A Protest Against the Sin of Racism

Galatians 3:27-29 | 22 August 2021 | Dan McCoig

Galatians 3:27-29 | Common English Bible

27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

1.

Apartheid.  Can you remember when you first heard that word.  It’s not an English word.  It’s an Afrikaans word.  Afrikaans is one of the many languages spoken in South Africa, especially by those who descended from the earliest Dutch colonial settlers who arrived in southern Africa in the 17th century.

Apartheid means “apartness”.  In 1948, the all white, minority National Party in South Africa gained power and began to enact an apartheid system of legislation that legally formalized segregationist policies against all non-white South Africans.

I believe I first heard the word in a college classroom.  But then I heard it again in my first church right out of seminary.  Bill Bowdler, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, was a member of the congregation.  The congregation was in eastern Virginia.

When Lisa and I were in eastern Virginia in the 1980s, the area was still highly segregated by race.  Everyone who lived on the road parallel to the river was White.  Nearly everyone who lived on the road leading through the pine woods back to river was Black.  Ambassador Bowdler, he insisted I call him Bill [he had become a gentleman farmer in his retirement], commented to me one day, “We don’t call it apartheid in the United States, but that’s what it is.  Here, it’s called the way things are and it’s wrong.”   

2.

For six Sundays this summer, we have explored six different Reformed Christian confessions.  Reformed Christians, like Presbyterians, believe words matter.  We use them to declare what we affirm and what we reject.  We use them to say what is in our minds and hearts.  We use to the say how we will behave.  We use them to describe our dreams and aspirations.  More importantly, we use them to describe God’s dreams and aspirations.

The six confessions we have explored were the Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Barmen Declaration, and the Confession of 1967.  The Apostles’ Creed came out of the church in its infancy and pre-dates the canonization by the church of the Christian New Testament.  Christianity, a reform movement within Judaism, was beginning to distinguish itself from Judaism, even though nearly all of the first generation of Christians were Jewish.  The Scots, Heidelberg, and Second Helvetic belong to the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe, namely Scotland, Germany, and Switzerland.  Protestant Christianity was finding its footing and charting its path independent of Roman Catholic Christianity and its hierarchy.

The Barmen Declaration grew out of the German Confessing Church and its abhorrence of the German Christian Movement that was closely allied with Hitler’s National Socialist Party.  The Nazi’s feigned compatibility with Christianity for political expediency.  The Barmen Declaration called upon the church to listen to and follow one voice, Christ’s, and reject voices, like Hitler’s and idolatrous, race-based political ideologies, that were incompatible with the Christian faith.

We learned the phrase status confessionis, which is Latin for a moment of crises when something must be said, something must be done.  Silence or inaction are no longer a possibility for the faithful.  The church declares a status confessionis when the truth of the gospel is at stake.  Hitler’s Aryan paragraph and the Reich Church Administration assaulted the truth of the gospel.  The German Resistance spoke and acted and paid with their lives.

Today, we explore the seventh and final confession in our summer sermon series, This We Believe.  The confession is another status confessionis confession.  It’s the Belhar Confession, which was first drafted in Afrikaans in 1982 by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa.  The Presbyterian Church adopted the Belhar Confession after a four year long process involving two General Assemblies and two rounds of voting by the presbyteries.  The Belhar Confession was included in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions in 2016 on the 30th anniversary of its formal adoption in South Africa in 1986.

3.

The Belhar Confession is a document that emerged in South Africa during the years of apartheid.  Apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s.

The confession is named for the Western Cape city in South Africa where it was first adopted.  It focuses on three themes:  Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice.  Each of these were in short supply in South Africa.  I would go so far as to say they are in short supply in far too many parts of the world, including our own nation.  Though we have our shining moments, we also have our dark moments as well.

Here’s one dimension of apartheid.  In South Africa, by law under apartheid, Christians of different races could not worship together.  They could not commune together at the Lord’s Table.  This was an issue in the earliest church as well.  The churches in Galatia to whom Paul was writing were segregated by race and ethnicity, by social status and gender.  They were behaving as if Christ and his uniting and reconciling work were not a reality for them.  Today’s lesson has Paul saying unequivocally that in Christ all of our divides are erased and that in Christ we are one.

4.

Belhar’s primary theme is the lordship of Christ and the unity of the church.  If you haven’t read the confession, I encourage you to do so.  It’s linked our on church’s website and is quite brief.

Belhar begins by affirming with the church in every age believers’ experience of God as Trinity — God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer and Transformer of all life.  Belhar concludes with an affirmation of Jesus as Lord.

The confession’s call for unity is a response to Jesus’ prayer for unity in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus’ prayer is that everyone be united, that all would be one.  Our unity is how the world will know that we are reconciled to God and one another in and through Christ.  Our disunity is a deep wound to our witness.

In the 2010s, when the Presbyterian Church was deliberating whether to include the Belhar Confession in our Book of Confession as a standard for faith and practice one question that emerged was “Why should 21st century North American Christians care about a confession from another century addressed to a people and a situation seemingly far removed from our own?  That’s a fair question.

Listen to how the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar addressed this question.  They wrote:

“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is again facing a critical time in its history.  We are rent apart by division and schism, we have yet to directly confront and confess the racism that has been a significant force in our own history, and we have shown a failure of resolve to make courageous stands for justice.  We believe the Confession of Belhar, a profound statement on unity, reconciliation, and justice in the church, comes to us as a word from God for this particular time and place . . .

“We understand confession as both the church’s response to human sin and as a witness to our faith.  Confession by the church is necessary because sin is present in social injustice and our conscious or unconscious participation in human suffering.  Confession is not a way to cast aspersion or any way denigrate, castigate, or delimit any person or group of persons.  We the church are called to confess sin because the Word of God as revealed in and through the life of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures call us to bear witness to a just, love, and compassionate Creator.”

5.

Take away time.  The Belhar Confession calls us to unite with and be in communion with all God’s children and not just some of God’s children.  It’s easy to see God in faces and lives that look like ours.  But what about faces and lives that look nothing like ours — faces and lives that may be destitute or poor or wronged; faces and lives that may be black or brown or red or yellow; faces that may gay or lesbian.  Apartheid, that is apartness, is no way to organize society and certainly no way to organize a church.  Apartheid, apartness, always leads to enmity and hatred.  It’s too easy to misunderstand or fear persons we don’t know and aren’t in relationship with, persons from whom we are apart.  Reconciliation, however, makes possible a different way, a new way, a way friendship and love, Christ’s way.

You may have learned more about seven of our Reformed confessions than you ever really wanted to.  I hope so.  But more importantly, I hope you have come away inspired — inspired to follow Christ more nearly and love Christ more dearly by the saints who have gone before us and whose light in dark times provides us with a beacon for our path in our time.

 Amen.

The Confession of 1967: Reconciliation, the Heart of the Gospel

The Confession of 1967:

Reconciliation, the Heart of the Gospel

2 Corinthians 5:17-19 | 15 August 2021 | Dan McCoig

2 Corinthians 5:17-19 | Common English Bible

17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

1.

Presbyterians have a tendency to take our sweet time in doing things.  We like to get it right.  Precision is preferable to haste.  Additional study and thought and prayer are all good things.  The world may be in a hurry, but we are not.

This can bug the heck out of some folks, including me sometimes.  For example, prior to the Confession of 1967 the Reformed churches had not written and adopted a confession of faith since the mid-1600s, namely the Westminster Confession of Faith, that’s 300 years. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646 by British churchmen, is easily the most influential document in Reformed Protestant Christianity.  It is a systematic exposition of the theology of John Calvin.  It was the theological standard for Presbyterian Christianity in Britain and the British colonies.  It would become the theological standard for Presbyterian Christianity in the newly formed United States of America after the American Revolution.

In the 19th century, however, two things were going on in the United States as well as much of Europe that planted the seeds of The Confession of 1967.  The first was heated discussions about scripture.

What was scripture and why was scripture authoritative?  The Westminster Confession of Faith presented scripture as a collection of divinely-revealed, timeless truths that transcended culture and time and place.  But, more and more biblical scholars began to apply literary and historical critical analysis to biblical texts in much the same way they applied them to other texts.  Other, contextualized and nuanced, views of scripture developed.  For example, these contextualized views of scripture gave birth to the abolition of slavery movement.  Scripture was now viewed as historical documents that reflect particular circumstances and ways of thinking of ancient cultures.  Scripture still had theological truths to teach us about God and humanity but those truths had to be understood in their original context and then applied to our current context.  Scripture is not authoritative because a church pastor or church hierarchy or confession said so.  Scripture is authoritative because of its capacity and power by the Holy Spirit to invite persons into life in Christ.  This is the view of scripture in The Confession of 1967.

The other thing that was going on was the world-wide missionary movement.  Churches and Christian organizations of every color and flavor sought to evangelize the entire world before the turn of the century in 1900.  Some of this evangelization and in some cases most of it came in the form of colonization and Westernization with questionable results.

The Westminster Confession of Faith threw something of a monkey wrench into the movement for Reformed Christians.  According to the the Westminster Confession of Faith, God’s salvation was for the elect only and not the reprobate.  In other words, God’s salvation was for some but not all.

The Westminster Confession of Faith has a very high doctrine of God’s sovereignty.  Nothing happens without God’s say-so, especially when it comes to salvation.  Salvation is Gods doing, period.  Reformed Christians in the 19th century rethought the WCF’s take on salvation being for the elect alone and concluded it couldn’t be fully squared with the gospel in the New Testament.  Salvation they concluded was available to anyone and everyone.  Salvation’s offer was universal.  Salvation was available to all.  This is the position of The Confession of 1967.

These two conversations went on into the 1950s when the northern stream of the Presbyterian Church appointed a committee of 15 to resolve matters.  Should the church set aside the WCF?  Should the church re-affirm the WCF as the church’s sole confessional standard?  Should the church affirm the WCF but write a new confession for a new century?  The committee took this latter path.

The Presbyterian Church decided to supplement the WCF with what would become The Confession of 1967.  The confession was finally written in 1965 and 1966 and adopted by 90% of the denomination’s presbyteries in 1967.  The deliberations and decisions concerning the confession were covered in the New York Times and Time Magazine.  The church was confessing its faith for a new era.  This was news.  Now, if the church draws media attention it’s because we have said or done something scandalous.

2.

Think with me about the 1960s in the United States.  American journalist Milton Viorst entitled his history of the 1960s “Fire in the Streets.”  That’s a fair descriptor.  The 1960s were fraught with polarization and divisiveness, which many times turn violent.  As a nation we were becoming more aware of looming environmental disaster [think Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”; income inequalities and inequities [think Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America”]; the burden and cost of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and President Eisenhower’s cautionary words about the military-industrial complex; racial disparities in education, employment, housing, and voting; stark differences in positions regarding the U.S.’s military activities in Southeast Asia, namely the Vietnam War.

Our own generation knows a thing or two about polarization and divisiveness.  We have allowed a public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, to be politicized.  If I am not mistaken, this is a first in our history.  During previous public health crisis, we pulled together.  During this public crisis, we are pulling apart.  At the cost of people’s health and even their lives, disinformation and misinformation have been given a platform comparable to education, experience, and expertise.

We have also allowed ourselves to be divided into us and them, the good guys and the bad guys, the red and the blue, Republicans and Democrats, maskers and non-maskers, pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination.  When did we stop seeing each other as fellow children of God, fellow citizens of the same nation, even fellow Christians who are loved by and follow Jesus as our Savior?  It has to break God’s heart.

The writers of the Confession of 1967 asked the theological question — what message does the church have for such a polarized culture and society?  What word can the church speak into the divide, into the breach.  They decided that that word was reconciliation.

The writers of the confession read and studied the Swiss Calvinist theologian Karl Barth.  We met him a couple of weeks ago in my sermon on the Barmen Declaration of 1934.  He was the principal writer.  Barth’s fourth and final volume of his Church Dogmatics is entitled Reconciliation.  In that volume, Barth describes God as a god of grace, who promises to forgive our sin.  But forgiveness of sin is more than words.  Forgiveness of sin opens a new way of life.  Forgiveness of sin reconciles people to one another.  Forgiveness of sin restores community.

3.

The Confession of 1967 has three sections and three movements.  The sections are:  1.  God and God’s work of reconciliation; 2. The Church’s ministry of reconciliation as a joyful response to God’s gracious activity in Christ; and 3. The hope of God’s coming kingdom.  The confession’s three movements are:  1.  Theology — this is what we believe; 2.  Ethics — this is what we are called to do; and 3.  Eschatology — this is God’s vision for humanity.

The confession is shaped by St. Paul’s trinitarian blessing — The grace of Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.  It’s the confession’s way of saying that we come to know God in Christ as attested to in scripture.  The God we come to know in Christ made all things to serve God’s loving purpose of creating and renewing the church as a community reconciled to God and to one another by the power of the  Holy Spirit.

In other Reformed confessions, the marks of the church are preaching and the sacraments and sometimes church discipline.  The Confession of 1967 identifies the mark of the church as mission.  And, at the heart of the church’s mission is a message to the world to be spoken and enacted, namely that in Christ God is reconciling humanity to God and to one another.

Central to the church’s mission is worship.  In worship, God’s people gather as a public witness to God’s reconciling work in Christ through the church by the power of the  Holy Spirit.  We may gather for the sermon, we may gather for the music, we may gather for the beauty of the worship space, we may gather because it’s where our friends are, we may gather because the time best suits our schedule.  That’s okay.  But, what’s most important is that we gather, whether personally or virtually in this seemingly never ending pandemic, as a witness to God and God’s work of reconciliation.

Not only is our worship a witness.  It’s a demonstration of community to the world.  It is also where we are nurtured by one another’s presence and the presence of the Holy Spirit to undertake our work as ambassador’s of God’s reconciliation.

4.

Take away time.  Please read the confession.  It’s linked on our website.  It’s relatively brief.

And, it’s bold.  It challenges the church to pursue reconciliation even at the risk of losing its own life.  In other words, saying or doing what’s necessary for the sake of reconciliation is more important than institutional survival.

The confession challenges the church to do its part to reconcile the many divides in our culture and society — racial, ethnic, economic, gender — even if it costs the church its life.  As Christians, we are to be our society’s reconcilers, bridge builders, menders.  According to the Confession of 1967, that is our reason to be.  Each time we speak or act, as Christians we are to ask, “Is this going to draw people to God or push them away?  Is this going to draw people together or push them apart?”

Next Sunday:  The Belhar Confession from the Church in South Africa and the heresy of racism.  Amen.

The Barmen Declaration of 1934: A Call to Resistance

The Barmen Declaration of 1934:  A Call to Resistance

Galatians 5:1 | 1 August 2021 | Dan McCoig

Galatians 5:1 | Common English Bible

Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

1.

When was the last time you said enough is enough about something and took action?  You read something in the news or saw something on television and you knew keeping silent or not taking action was no longer an option.

I believe Jesus had such a moment when he went to the temple after entering Jerusalem.  Instead of a place of worship, he saw a marketplace.  And, boy, did he have something to say.  And, boy, did he take action.

In systematic theology, such moments are called status confessionis, that is a dire situation in which enough is enough and action is unavoidable.

This summer I have been exploring with you the confessions of the Reformed Christian tradition to which Presbyterian Christianity belongs.  So far, we have looked at the Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Second Helvetic Confession.  Today, we are looking at the Barmen Declaration of 1934.

The Barmen Declaration grew out of a conference of delegates representing Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches from throughout Germany.  The conference met in the town of Barmen in western Germany, north of Cologne near the border with the Netherlands.  The delegates reaffirmed their common faith in Jesus Christ and contested the imposition of Adolph Hitler’s National Socialists’ agenda on the churches of Germany.

From the perspective of 2021, the delegates at Barmen are considered prescient and courageous, even heroic.  But, from the perspective of 1934 and many of their fellow German citizens, the delegates were considered foolish and unpatriotic.  All Germans were expected to be loyal to the fuhrer and his Nazi Party.  The social pressure to conform was strong.  There was no greater sin than disloyalty to the leader.  Disloyalty risked livelihood and life.  Germans who were not loyal were ostracized and considered treasonous.

2.

In order to understand the Barmen Declaration, it’s helpful to know a few dates, people, and policies.  

The first date we need to know is January 30, 1933.  Germany’s National Socialist Party’s candidate, Adolph Hitler, was elected Reich Chancellor of Germany.  During Hitler’s campaign, he and his party feigned compatibility with Christianity in order to garner enough votes from Christians for victory.  The Nazis cultivated ardent supporters in Christian congregations throughout the nation.  These supporters belonged to the German Christian movement, which was a peculiar amalgam of Christianity and nationalism.

The German Christian movement officially organized on June 6, 1932.  They championed racial purity, asserted the racial superiority of the German people, and fiercely, often times violently, opposed Marxists and Jews.  The German Christian movement was popular among many regular German citizens but was also popular among some of Germany’s leading intellectuals, such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Once in power, the Nazis intervened in every aspect of German life, including church life.  The Nazis enacted many notorious laws.  The most notorious was the Aryan paragraph.  The Aryan paragraph was officially formulated and enacted as law in the spring of 1933.  It excluded Jews, Russians, Poles, Serbs, and Slavs from every aspect of public life, including Christian congregations.  In other words, the Nazis made race a direct criterion for church membership.  Only “real” Germans could be Christians.

Many Christian leaders and Christian congregations went along with the paragraph.  But, as you might well imagine, some did not.  Pastor Martin Niemoller called for a free and confessing church and organized the Pastors’ Emergency League.  You may recognize Niemoller’s name.  Niemoller famously wrote:  

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The league was a resistance movement that attracted thousands of church leaders.  Niemoller was arrested and held in solitary confinement as Hitler’s personal prisoner for seven years, first in Sachsenhausen and later in Dachau.

After Niemoller’s formation of the league, a group of Lutheran pastors led by Hans Asmussen drafted and distributed the Altona declaration after Nazis moved into the streets of Altona in the name of law and order to terrorize any and all opposition to the fuhrer and his party.  The Altona declaration said essentially that when secular authorities violate their mandate to seek the common good of civil society, then Christians, in turn, must make a decision whether to cast their obedience to human authorities or to God.  A similar statement, the Bethel Confession, was drafted by a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later be hanged for his plot to assassinate Hitler.

This brings us to Barmen.  Karl Barth, a theologian in the resistance movement, was the principal author.  In Barth’s words, he drafted the declaration “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars.”

There’s the historical sketch of how the declaration came to be.  Now, its contents.

3.

The Barmen Declaration is very short.  I encourage you to read it.  There is a link on our webpage.

There are two parts.  The first part is “An Appeal to the Evangelical Congregations and Christians in Germany.”  Part one states the purpose of the declaration, which is “[to unite] the church in obedience to the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The second part is “Theological Declaration Concerning the Present Situation of the German Evangelical Church.”  Part two insists  that the church’s unity was imperiled by alien principles being advanced by the German Christian movement whose loyalty lay with the fuhrer and the Nazi Party, namely racial purity.

The heart of the Barmen Declaration is the six theses enumerated in part two.  They are all important but I am going to focus only on the first thesis.  Each thesis includes a quote or quotations from scripture, reminding the reader that the church’s confessions are always an explication and an application of scripture in a particular historical context.

Each thesis includes both an affirmation — this we believe — and a denial — this we reject.  It’s the declaration’s way of saying that every time we say “yes” to something because of the Christian gospel, it also involves saying “no” to something else because of the Christian gospel.  The Barmen Declaration is very clear in saying that there are certain beliefs that stand outside of Christian faith and action.

So, the first thesis.  It is the affirmation by which the Christian church stands or fall, lives or dies.  Here it is:  Jesus Christ is the one source of the church’s proclamation.  Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus Christ is the one Word to whom alone the church must listen, the one Word to whom alone the church owes obedience.

In this first thesis the declaration captures the essence of Europe’s 16th Protestant Reformation:  solus Christus [Christ alone], sola scriptura [scripture alone], sola gratis [grace alone], and sola fide [faith alone].  Jesus Christ — true divinity and true humanity, God’s Word made flesh — gives birth to the church’s faith.  Scripture bears essential and unparalleled witness to who Jesus Christ is.  And, it is only through God’s grace in Jesus Christ as attested to in scripture, which is received by faith, that gospel obedience is born in the church.

The first thesis’ denial is this — the declaration rejects the false doctrine that there are “still other events and powers, figures and truths” that qualify as God’s revelation other than  the one Word, Jesus Christ.  Barmen recognizes that Christians can, do, and indeed listen to many words spoken in their culture.  However, Barmen denies that any of these other words can in themselves rise to the level of a revelation of God and become a source of gospel declaration.

4.

Take away time.  Barmen was written less than a century ago, 87 years ago to be exact.  The declaration was adopted by the PCUSA in 1967.

Barmen was written when Germany went from a democratic republic that allowed its citizens and organizations like Christian congregations their freedoms to an authoritarian dictatorship that reached into every aspect of public and private life and constrained freedoms according to the whims of Adolph Hitler and the ideology of his Nazi Party.  Hitler’s terror, which included the Holocaust, would go onto to extend beyond Germany and engulf all of Europe and eventually the entire world in war.

The Nazi Party’s action to co-opt the Christian church as an instrument of its political ideology required the active cooperation or at least the passive acquiescence of the Christian hierarchy as well as the general membership.  But some Christians, namely the Confessing Church movement, would do neither, actively cooperate or passively acquiesce — the Niemollers, the Asmussens, the Bonhoeffers, the Barths, and countless others.  The German Confessing Church movement and the Barmen Declaration have left the church a legacy of resistance to evil.  They embolden Christians to identify evil in their times and speak against it and stand against it and reaffirm once again God’s truth in Christ.

The Barmen Declaration calls us to discern if, whether, and when the Christian gospel is at stake.  Barmen was invoked by Christian activists in the 1950s as the U.S. and Russian built their nuclear arsenals and their citizens embraced the arms race as normative.  Killing everyone and everything on the planet could not be squared with the Christian gospel.  Barmen was invoked by Christian activists in South Africa to confront apartheid.  Organizing civil society along racial lines could not be squared with the Christian gospel. 

In the words of one scholar, “Barmen’s legacy [is] to remind Christian believers that no human being or institution can usurp the place of the living God.”

Our challenge is to affirm our commitment to Jesus Christ as our way, our truth, and our life and to identify what can’t be square with the Christ’s way and speak the necessary words and take the necessary actions to counter it.  What are our status confessionis moments, our enough is enough moments?  May we speak Christ into those moments.  May we embody Christ in those moments. 

In two weeks:  The Confession of 1967:  Reconciliation, the Heart of the Gospel.

Amen.

The Second Helvetic Confession: Getting Personal with the Faith

The Second Helvetic Confession:  Getting Personal with the Faith

1 John 3:18-20 | 4 July 2021 | Dan McCoig

1 John 3:18-20 | Common English Bible

18 Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. 20 Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.

1.

I was a day dreamer as a boy.  I could read a sentence in a book or hear a lyric in a song or see a picture and off my mind would go into a new and different world I had begun to imagine.  This was especially true when I read history.  I wanted to know what people felt and thought during their times.  What did they see and hear, touch and taste, smell?  What made them happy?  What worried them?

Here’s why I am telling you this about myself.  Today’s confession, the Second Helvetic Confession [Helvetia in Latin means Swiss], more so than any of the other Reformed Protestant Christian confessions, gives us a very personal and intimate look at what the Christian life and congregational life was like in the 16th century.  We don’t have to do too much imagining because the writer gives us a fair amount of information.

The writer, Heinrich Bullinger, was more of a pastor than a theologian.  He was more interested in the practical aspects of being a Christian and living the Christian life than in theological speculation about the historical doctrines of the faith.

It’s difficult to separate the Second Helvetic Confession from its author.  So, let’s talk a little about Bullinger.

Bullinger was a student of Ulrich Zwingli.  Zwingli was the father of the Reformation in Switzerland.  Zwingli was to Switzerland what Martin Luther was to Germany.

Bullinger was the pastor of the cathedral church in Zurich for 44 years.  Bullinger was pastor in Zurich for much longer than John Calvin was pastor of St. Pierre Church in Geneva.  Bullinger was an advisor to three generations of Swiss reformers.  He corresponded with Luther and Calvin as well as reformers in the British Isles.  Bullinger’s sermons were distributed throughout Europe and had a broad readership.

Bullinger wrote the confession as a personal document.  He wanted it to be his personal legacy to the church in Zurich.  But, he published it in 1566 with the hope that it would reconcile Lutheran Christians and Reformed Christians in Germany.  The confession was enthusiastically embraced across Europe.  It was adopted as an authoritative statement of faith by Reformed churches in Switzerland, Scotland, France, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.  The confession would go onto to have a major influence on English Puritans as well as Presbyterians in the United States by way of Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. 

Bullinger’s main concern as he wrote the confession was to relate the interpretation of scripture and the teachings of the Christian faith to the everyday life of Christians and the church.  Bullinger was convinced if the church was ever going to realize its unity it would be through the everyday practice of the faith and not so much in agreement over doctrinal formulations of what Christians should believe or not believe.

2.

So, let’s dig into the confession, shall we?  

Many of our confessions begin with affirmations regarding the authority of scripture and the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation.  The Second Helvetic doesn’t.  It begins with the role of preaching in the life of the church.  Bullinger tells us that the same God who spoke through the prophets and the apostles continues to speak through preachers.  Bullinger writes:  “The preaching of the Word of God [Christ] is the Word of God.  Wherefore this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed and received by the faithful.”

Did you notice the caveat?  “Lawfully called.”  For the reformers, “lawfully called” meant a preacher had to demonstrate to his or her governing ecclesial body — the presbytery — that he or she has been called to preach.  The presbytery then either confirms the call or rejects the call.  If the call is confirmed, then the called preacher’s training in university and theological school begins.  More than 450 years later, Presbyterians are still doing it the same way.  There is the internal call, an external confirmation of the call, and the necessary training and supervision in order to fulfill the call faithfully.

Bullinger didn’t want to debate the origin of scripture or theories regarding scriptural authority.  He wanted to lay out who publicly interprets scripture in the life of the church from the pulpit and how that person comes to do so and is authorized to do so.  This is all in the first chapter of the confession.

3.

One issue that was debated, sometimes heatedly, during the 16th century Reformation was the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom and responsibility.  Some reformers emphasized God’s sovereignty so much that it left one wondering whether there was any room for humans to exercise their free will and take responsibility for their words and actions.  Other reformers emphasized human free will so much that it left one wondering whether God was indeed all that sovereign.

Bullinger, in Chapter VI, in his discussion of God’s providence doesn’t really talk so much about God’s power over humanity.  Instead, he talks about God’s care for humanity.  And, he doesn’t so much talk about our freedom.  Instead, he talks about our responsibility.  He calls upon the faithful to use what God has given to us to care for others and ourselves.  In other words, our freedom is to be used for the sake of others.

4.

There was a time that I seldom told people what I did for a living in social settings.  There was a reason for this.  Apparently whenever people heard the words “Presbyterian minister” they immediately wanted to spend the rest of the conversation talking about predestination.  Somehow Presbyterianism and predestination became synonymous.

Bullinger’s discussion of predestination is probably the finest in all of Christendom.  In Chapter X of the confession, Bullinger grounds his doctrine of predestination in the good news of God in Jesus Christ and not on any speculation about God’s eternal decree as to who is chosen by God and who is not.  Bullinger writes:  “Let Christ, therefore, be the looking glass, in whom we may contemplate our predestination . . . It is to be held beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected . . . 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 person to be a reprobate.”  “We must hope well of all” is my favorite phrase in the entire confession.

In other words, start from the place that God has saved all of humanity in Christ and loves all of humanity.  How each person responds or doesn’t is between them and God.  Our role is to treat everyone as one of God’s beloved, one of God’s elect, one of God’s predestined.

5.

Bullinger’s chapter in the confession on the church, Chapter XVII, is Bullinger at his most practical.  These are the words of a man who served as pastor of one congregation for 44 years.  He provides counsel on  how to maintain order and resolve contentious matters without dissension and strife.

Bullinger tells his readers to expect contentious matters to arise.  The church, after all, is a gathering of humans and humans have their issues, God knows.  Bullinger’s challenge is for us to use our differences, our disagreements as a means for growth.  What can we learn from a good argument.  What can we teach in a good argument.  And, in the end, how will we honor God with our resolution.

In his chapter on the church, Bullinger provides counsel concerning public worship, the Christian education of youth and visitation of the sick, funeral, attitudes toward dying and death, and the proper use of the church’s money.  He also goes into what he calls “the true ornamentation of sanctuaries”.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformation in Germany, the Second Helvetic Confession and the Reformation in Switzerland was suspicious of ostentation and pomp.  Here are Bullinger’s words:  “Therefore all luxurious attire, all pride, and everything unbecoming to Christian humility, discipline, and modesty are to be banished from the sanctuaries and places of prayer for Christians.  For the true ornamentation of churches does not consist in ivory, gold, and precious stones, but in frugality, piety, and virtues of those who are in the church.”

6.

Since the Second Helvetic Confession is the longest of the Reformed confessions, I could say more, but won’t.  Because,  Bullinger even has something to say about that.  In worship, he counsels leaders not to weary the congregation to the point where they get up and leave or are so exhausted they don’t come back.

I’ll end with where I have issues with the confession and our takeaway.  One, the confession, like all the others, is bound to a particular place and time.  So, some of its attitudes are not surprising.  For example, the confession prohibits women from leadership in the church.  Thank goodness we worked through and beyond this prohibition.  God’s kingdom is the better for it.

And, two, government.  The confession assumes one form of government and one form only — a monarchy.  It’s all that Bullinger or any of his contemporaries knew.

Civil society is by divine appointment to be governed by a king and his princes.  Today is the 245th anniversary of our nation’s declaration of independence from Great Britain’s monarch.  So, we have certainly changed our thinking on forms of government.   There were no constitutional republics in the 16th century.  Thank God for ours, which is the world’s oldest.

Takeaway time.  The Second Helvetic, like the Scots Confession, ends with a prayer.  Listen:  “We beseech God, our most merciful Father in heaven, that he will bless the rulers of the people, and us, and his whole people, through Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior; to whom be praise and glory and thanksgiving, for all ages.  Amen.”

The blessing Bullinger is invoking grows out of the confession and is for a commitment to the common good, social justice, reconciliation, and peace.

When I preach next, we will go back to Germany but jump forward in time to the 20th century.  We will explore The Barmen Declaration of 1934.  I’ve entitled my sermon “A Call to Resistance”.  The confession calls the church to resist being co-opted and nationalized by Hitler’s Nazi Party and the party’s insidious notions of the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of non-white races as a matter of governmental policy.  Amen.

The Heidelberg Catchism: Christianity’s FAQs

The Heidelberg Catechism:  Christianity’s FAQs

Romans 14:8 | 27 June 2021 | Dan McCoig

Romans 14:8 | Common English Bible

If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.

1.

F.  A.  Q.  s.  I can’t recall the number of times I read the acronym FAQs before I knew what it stood for.  It stands for Frequently Asked Questions.  It was first used in 1983 by Eugene Miya, a NASA researcher as he prepared historical documents related to the U.S. space program.

My summer sermon series is on the Reformed Protestant Confessions in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions.  In all we will explore ten of them.  So far, we’ve explored the Apostles’ Creed and the Scots Confession of 1560.  Today, we are looking at the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.  I entitled this sermon Christianity’s FAQs.  The catechism is 129 questions arranged in 52 groups, a group of questions for each Sunday of the year beginning with the first Sunday of the Christian year — the First Sunday of Advent.

The Heidelberg Catechism asks and humbly answers the big questions of life.  Am I worth anything?  Does God love me?  How can I find peace and wholeness?  How shall I live in this world?

2.

Let’s start with some history.  First, how did the catechism come about.  It came about through the hottest debate going in the Palatinate of the Holy Roman Empire, the most influential German province.  Heidelberg was the capital of the Palatinate. 

The controversy under debate was how Christ was present in the sacrament of communion.  Twenty-first century Christians don’t get worked up over this sort of question much anymore, we get worked up over other questions.  There were three sides of the debate.  One, transubstantiation — that is, the bread and wine of the communion literally become the body and blood of Christ.  How is Christ present?  He is in the elements.  He is the elements.  This is the Roman Catholic understanding.

Two, there is consubstantiation — that is, Christ is really present in and with and under the bread and wine but the bread and wine remain bread and wine.  This is the Lutheran and Anglican understanding.  And, three, the sacrament is a memorial meal only.  Communion celebrated the memory of Christ’s presence, but not Christ’s presence.  This is the Baptist understanding.

Actually, there is a fourth side.  The Calvinists, that would be us — the Presbyterians, maintained that in the sacrament of communion we have a real and spiritually nourishing communion with Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s our riff on consubstantiation.

Frederick III, the Elector of the Palatinate, who was raised a Catholic but converted to Protestantism when he married Princess Maira of Brandenburg in 1537, wanted to resolve the controversy once and for all.  He read the Bible daily and studied theology.  He would become known as Frederick the Pious. 

Frederick consulted with Philip Melancthon, Martin Luther’s friend and successor in the German Reformation.  Melancthon advised Frederick:  “In all things seek peace and moderation.  This is done best by holding carefully to a fixed doctrinal position as regards the Lord’s Supper and all other matters of the faith.”

Sounds like good advice to me.  But, for Protestant Christians there was no episcopacy to tell them which fixed doctrinal positions should be used.  This occurred to Frederick as well.  So, in 1562 he appointed to young Reformed theologians, Kaspar Olevianus and Zacharias Ursinus to write a catechism to order the life of the church and educate people “according to the pure and consistent doctrine of the holy gospel.”  Frederick decided that theological disputes would be resolved by appealing not to ancient councils or an episcopal hierarchy but to the Bible as interpreted in community with the best learning available and in reliance on the Holy Spirit. 

Frederick III intended the catechism to bring peace to the church.  Sadly, it only produced further conflict and debate.  Frederick III was accused of supplanting the authority of Luther’s Augsburg Confession, which sparked another debate entirely.

3.

Now, the structure of the catechism.  There are three main sections.  I.  The misery of humanity.  II.  Human redemption.  And, III.  Thankfulness.  Some theologians have described these themes as the three G’s — guilt, grace, and gratitude.  

The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism sought to capture the Christian journey.  The journey begins when we first become aware of our sinfulness, our brokenness, and that we are unable to save ourselves.  Then, we become aware that we are saved by the love of God in Jesus Christ.  This awareness results in living a life of obedience and service out of gratitude to God for our salvation.

4.

As to themes, there are several that I want to explore this morning.

First, the catechism is rooted in scripture.  Thankfully, it doesn’t proof text as in “I believe this and here’s the scripture text that proves it’s so”.  Rather, the catechism captures the character of what the Bible says about the Christian life — a life of gratitude for God’s grace.

Second, it’s ecumenical.  Frederick the Pious had high hopes for the catechism — ecclesial and civil peace.  His aspirations may have been unrealistic.  Europe’s 16th century religious wars raged on.  But the catechism makes earnest attempts at identifying common ground among Christians and avoiding divisive doctrinal issues.  As a rule, the catechism says “this is what Christians are for” instead of grousing that “this is what Christians are against.”

Third, the catechism’s central focus is first, last, and always on salvation in Jesus Christ.  The catechism explores whether and how humanity can be saved from itself.  That was a profoundly relevant question in the 16th century amidst so much violence and cruelty.  It’s no less relevant in our century.  The catechism resolves the matter by affirming with the apostle Paul that while we are sinners God’s love in Christ seeks us out and offers us new and abundant life.  God loves us into a relationship with God.

Fourth, the catechism is very personal.  The questions are addressed to “you”, second person singular and plural.  The answers begin with “I”, first person singular, or with “we”, first person plural.  The catechism speaks to the reader about what it means to be Christian and how to live as a Christian.  It tells us that our worth as a child of God is inestimable.  God loves us.  In God, we can find peace and  wholeness.  Live in this world by always leading with love.

The catechism is a pastoral document.  It consoles us.  It inspires us.

Fifth, the catechism is practical.  Frederick III instructed the writers to address an audience of all people, young and old alike.  The catechism has a unique take on the Ten Commandments.  The commandments offer a window into the heart of God and how one is to live in relation to God and neighbor.  They also show us the ways we fall short of God’s desires for us.  But, and here is what is unique about the catechism, they provide us a way to order our lives and the life of the world as we give thanks to God for God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  The Reformers sought not only the reformation of each individual in light of the Spirit of Christ, they also sought the reformation of the whole of society in light of the Spirit of Christ.

Sixth, the catechism is devotional in nature.  The language and tone are reverential.  The writers seek to evoke a sense of awe and wonder in us about the mystery of God’s love for all of creation, including humanity.  One commentator noted that much of the catechism “seems to have been written from bended knees”.  In the words of James Moffatt, a New Testament scholar, the Heidelberg Catechism is the pinnacle of devotional literature of the Reformation.

5.

Take away time.  Is there a message from 1563 for 2021 in the catechism?  Personally, yes, there is.

A couple of caveats.  The catechism is bound by its time and place.  It’s too puritanical in places for me.  For example, question 98 prohibits pictures and images in churches.  I find a great deal of value in the visual arts and am thankful the church has discovered that the visual arts have a place in the Christian life and benefit the Christian life in untold ways.  I also have issues with the catechism’s narrow and constrained take on human sexuality.  But, that’s the beauty of the Presbyterian way of being Christian, we get to disagree while remaining bound to Christ and one another.

If you remember nothing else about this confession, remember this.  It tells us from whence our comfort comes — we belong, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.  We are never alone and we always belong.  We belong.

Next week:  The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 from the Swiss Reformation.

 Amen.

The Scots Confession of 1560: A New Confession for a New Church

The Scots Confession of 1560:

A New Confession for a New Church

13 June 2021 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 16:17-19 | Common English Bible

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter.  And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.”

1.

I’ve often fantasized that if I ever opened a brewery I would name it Six Johns Brewing.  That should get people’s attention.  The same goes with starting a bluegrass band.  I would call it the Six Johns String Band.

Why, you might ask.  That’s a fair question.  Because of the six authors of the Scots Confession of 1560.  All of their first names were John — John Douglas, John Knox, John Row, John Spottiswood, John Willock, and John Winram.  It makes me wonder if every boy born in Scotland in the 16th century was named John.  The most influential of the six Johns and the chief writer was John Knox who was mentored by John Calvin, another John, while exiled in Geneva during the Swiss Reformation.

2.

As a rule, change comes as the result of turbulent times, especially significant and rapid change.  When we are content with everything just as it is, that’s the way we leave things — just as they are.   However, should we become restless or discontent or our world is disrupted [say, by a pandemic], the way things are won’t necessarily do anymore.  Something has to give.  Something has to change.  A new way has to be charted.  A new way has to be discovered.

Today’s sermon is sermon two in my summer series on our creeds and confessions.  I entitled the series “This We Believe.”  Last Sunday, we explored the Apostles’ Creed.  Today we are moving forward in time about 1400 years to the Scots Confession of 1560.

The Scots Confession grew out of the Scottish Reformation and is the charter document of the Church of Scotland, the mother church of much of American Presbyterianism.  Sixteenth century Scotland was a time of a great deal of political and religious turmoil — turmoil that too often turned violent.  Blood was shed and lives were lost.

The Scottish nobles and Mary Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland, allied with the papal hierarchy in Rome to counter the interests of King Henry VIII of England and the newly formed Church of England, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority.  In this atmosphere, on December 3, 1557 a group of Scottish Protestants emerged and entered into a covenant with one another to “nourish and defend the whole congregation of Christ.”  These Protestants would become known as covenanters.  They gained the support of reform-minded English Protestants.

On  July 8, 1560 in Edinburgh, the Protestant reformers and the Roman Catholic Queen Mary entered a peace treaty.  One provision of the treaty was that the Scottish Parliament should meet on August 1 to commission a statement of Protestant Christian faith — an affirmation of faith for a new Scottish church in a new historical moment.  The commission was the six Johns.

The statement, according to John Knox, was written in four days and was adopted by the Scottish Parliament.  Queen Mary remained in Paris and withheld her approval.  The statement, the Scots Confession, wasn’t ratified by the monarchy until Mary’s son James VI, became king in 1567 after Mary’s death.  This is the same James who would become James I, King of England and Scotland in 1603 and who commissioned the King James Version of the Bible, which was published in 1611.  Virginia’s Jamestown bears his name.

4.

Thanks for letting me indulge my love of history for a few moments.  I think it’s called geeking out.  

Now, to the meat of the Scots confession.  What does it say?  First, if you haven’t read it, you may wish to.  It’s linked on our website.  It’s not that long, only 25 chapters.  Its literary style is polemical.  The statement tells you what it is against and why.  Its literary style is simple and direct.  Fair warning — its also anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Semitic.  Thankfully, Protestant Christians have evolved and most no longer harbor some of the convictions of the Six Johns and the Scots Confessions.

The most significant contribution of the Scots Confession to Reformed Protestant Christian theology is what it has to say about the Kirk, that is the  Scottish word for the church.  The confession’s writers tell us that “God preserved, instructed, multiplied, honored, adorned, and called from life to death his Kirk in all ages . . .”

In other words, the Kirk [the Church] is a community of God’s promise.  Who we are and all that we are is God’s work — our preservation, our instruction, our multiplication, our honor, our adornment, our vocation, our reinvigoration.  All of it.  It’s God’s doing.

This is a unique way to think about and look at church life.  We live in an age and an era that ascribes most things to either human ingenuity or good old fashioned luck — right time, right place.  If things are going well in life in general or the church in particular, we are tempted to say, “Gee, look how brilliant we are, how clever and hard working.”  The same goes for when things aren’t going so well, we are tempted to say, “Boy, we are dense, we got that wrong; how thick and misguided could we have been.”  Granted, we have a significant role to play, but the confession reminds us of the church’s origins as well as the church’s sustenance — God.

The middle of the 16th century was an anxious time in Europe.  Religious reforms resulted in devastating violence, in one instance a decades long war.  Catholics killing Protestants did not look Christlike.  Protestants killing Catholics did not look Christlike.  Christians persecuting Jews and Muslims did not look Christlike.

Scotland experienced its share of religious as well as political violence.  The Reformed Protestant  Christians vowed to nurture the whole congregation of Christ.  Out of this vow, with biblical foundations, grew the affirmation that the church is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, with one expression true and the other false.  Rather there was one true church, known alone to God.

The six Johns reached back into antiquity to draw on the fifth century writings of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.    Augustine observed that Christian virtues could be found among non-Christian persons beyond the Christian community and that Christian virtues were lacking among Christian persons within the Christian community.  He concluded that there was a visible church with its buildings and membership rolls and congregational ministries.  And, there was an invisible church of people going quietly about their work, advancing God’s kingdom both within the visible church but also beyond the visible church.

Everyone could see the visible church which may or may not be the true church.  But, God alone could see the invisible church which is the true church and lives within the visible church as well as beyond the visible church.  The Scots Confessions declares that the invisible church is made up of those God has called to love and serve him.  

The writers of the Scots Confession then set out to identify marks to aid in identifying the true visible church as best as possible.  The first two marks they borrowed from the Genevan reformer John Calvin.  They are “the true preaching of the Word of God” and the “right administration of the sacraments” of baptism and communion.  The six Johns, however, added a third mark:  ecclesiastical discipline [and these are their words] “whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.”

The section in the Scots Confession on discipline is hard to read.  It’s polemical.  It’s anti-Semitic.  As I said earlier, thankfully we as Christians have evolved, have become more enlightened, and adjusted our theological thinking accordingly.  We don’t refer to synagogues as pestilent or filthy.  Quite the contrary, we condemn those who do.  We don’t refer to the pope as a horrible harlot.  Quite the contrary, we condemn those who do.

The goal of discipline in the church is first and always restoration and is to be exercised from a place of love and with love.  Discipline begins with ourselves.  To use Jesus’ words, we have to remove the log from our own eye before we address the speck in our neighbor’s eye.

5.

Another significant contribution of the Scots Confession to Reformed Protestant Christian theology is what it has to say regarding the relationship between Christians, the church, and civil authority.  The 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe sought to reform all of culture and society.  The starting place for Reformed social ethics was and remains the sovereignty of God.  God is sovereign over everyone and all things, including civil authorities.  Everyone and all things are subject to God — the king, the pope, parliaments, church councils, pastors.

Along with the apostle Paul, the Scots Confession spells out that the civil authorities are divinely appointed to support and advance God’s coming kingdom on earth.  That’s what governments are for.

The Scots Confession regards holding public office and engaging politically as citizens as high and worthy callings.  This may be why 5% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 13% of the U.S. Senate are Presbyterian when Presbyterians make up less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population.  Presbyterian Christians when it comes to influencing the world for good have always punched above our weight.

The Scots Confession also makes a case for legitimate resistance.  The confession talks about governmental powers acting in their own spheres and vigilantly fulfilling their office.  A failure to do so obligates the Christian to resist.  This theology influenced U.S. revolutionary era leaders like George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison more than 200 years later in the 18th century.  It’s why George III called the American Revolution “that presbyterian rebellion.”

6.

Takeaway time.  If you remember nothing else about The Scots Confession, remember this it is an expression of Christian faith borne of struggle and is saturated with an evangelical urgency to make the world anew according to God’s vision for humanity as expressed in scripture.   As we emerge from the pandemic and enter a post-pandemic world, may we rediscover some of the evangelical urgency to make the world anew according to God’s vision for humanity.

We may need a new confession for a new season in the life of the church.  American author Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story is six words.  He did:  For sale:  Baby shoes.  Never worn.

I challenged myself to write a Christian confession in six words and challenge you to do likewise.  Here’s mine:  God loves you. Everybody belongs.  Always.

The Scots Confession ends with a prayer that we could just as easily utter in 2021 as it was uttered in 1560.  The prayer calls upon God to confound God’s enemies, to empower true servants to proclaim God’s Word, and turn every nation toward the truth.

The Scots Confession stands as and remains the first confessional standard of Presbyterianism.  Next up, we’re headed to Germany, the German Reformation, and the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.

Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed: So, This is Christianity?

The Apostles’ Creed:  So, This is Christianity?

6 June 2021 | Dan McCoig

1.

It has been 450 days since our nation’s president declared a covid-19 related national public health emergency.  What have we learned in those 450 days as people of faith?  If we were to put into words a pandemic-related affirmation of faith, what would we say.

Putting into words what we believe and why is a good exercise.  It helps us to clarify for ourselves as well as others our beliefs – truths in which we place our ultimate trust.

On the Sundays I am preaching this summer, I will be preaching on one of the ten confessions of our church’s Book of Confessions, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed which dates to the second century and ending with the Belhar Confession of 1986.  The confessions will be linked on our website and our social media pages.  

Presbyterianism belongs to the Reformed Tradition of Protestant Christianity and is therefore confessional.  That means that there have been critical moments in history when we felt compelled to declare our faith anew for the church and for the world.  Confessions have a “Here I stand” quality to them, a “This we believe” quality to them.  They challenge others to consider where they might stand and what they believe in response to the matters take up by the confession.

For example, the Apostles’ Creed, one of the church’s oldest confessions and certainly its most ecumenical, began as a baptismal formula.  Converts to the faith were instructed in the essentials of the faith and affirmed those essentials, usually on Easter Sunday at the time of their baptism, as they turned from former allegiances and loyalties to a new allegiance and loyalty to God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer of everyone and everything.  And the other confession I mentioned, the Belhar Confession [which is where we will end our journey through the confessions], is a statement of the Dutch Mission Reformed Church in South Africa that articulates the ways in which the practice of apartheid was racist and therefore a heresy of the Christian faith.  The Belhar Confession declares in no uncertain terms that structuring a society where races are separated and some races are advantaged while others are disadvantaged is incompatible with Christianity and God’s vision for humanity.

2.

Religion poses some of the most essential questions of the human experience, namely what is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds?  To whom or to what should we dedicate ourselves?  We are here for such a short period of time.  To what should we give ourselves?  What matters?

Our congregation’s monthly book study group, Faith Stretchers, read in May Dr. James Smith’s You Are What You Love:  The Spiritual Power of Habit.  The book is in our church’s library.

In the book, Smith distinguishes secular liturgies and sacred liturgies.  Secular liturgies turn us from God and neighbor and from our most authentic selves.  Consumerism, for example, is a secular liturgy.  It suggests contentment is found in acquiring and owning things.  Distorted political ideologies are another example.  They suggest that contentment is found in pursuing and holding power for its own sake.

Sacred liturgies, by contrast, turn us toward God and neighbor.  To use Smith’s word, they “re-story” us.  The Apostles’ Creed “re-stories” us.

The Apostles’ Creed shows up as a baptismal formula in the second century when Christianity was still in its infancy.  Its current form dates from the 8th century.  Converts to the faith in the earliest decades of the faith came from Judaism as well as various pantheistic and paganistic faiths throughout the ancient world.

Christianity was born in Jerusalem among Jesus’ earliest followers, nearly all of whom were Jewish.  Their experience of God was through the law of Moses and the prophets.  Their identity was formed by the exodus.  Once they were slaves in Egypt.  Now they were free people in a promised land.  This is the story they told every year at Passover.  God heard their cries and set them free and they never forgot it.  It was their sacred liturgy.

Jesus was a Jew.  His followers experienced in him a revelation of God on the order of the law and prophets, the exodus.  Just as God was healing the world through God’s covenant with God’s chosen people and their history, God in Christ Jesus was saving the world.

3.

Imagine yourself as a catechumen in the second century.  A catechumen is someone who has said he or she wishes to become a Jesus follower, a Christian.  As a catechumen, you and other catechumens would have undergone a year of instruction in the faith.  The instruction tool that the catechist, that would be your teacher, used would be what will become the Apostles’ Creed.

The catechist would have framed your instructional time using the Socratic Method.  A question would be asked.  Answers would be given.  Those answers would be refined and then memorized by the catechumens.

There would have been three primary questions which correspond to the three paragraphs of the Apostles’ Creed.  One, what do you believe about God?  Two, what do you believe about Jesus Christ?  And three, what do you believe about the Holy Spirit?  Three questions, three answering paragraphs, and three persons in one God.  All very Trinitarian.

The Apostles’ Creed was and is revolutionary.  Affirming that God is the maker of everything and everyone and God alone possesses the power to create on such a scale countered many other narratives that described where we came from and how we got here.

If you were wondering, the first paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed doesn’t conflict with science.  Remember, religion answers the big, overarching queries.  Religion is in the business of why.  Science provides us with the details regarding how it all works.  Science is in the business of what and how.  

The Apostles’ Creed tell us where we came from – God.  Science details our journey.  God can work through a Big Bang.  God can work through evolutionary processes of adaptation and mutation described by Charles Darwin.

The second paragraph is the longest.  It’s a thumbnail, biographical sketch of Jesus.  There is a remarkable amount of detail here.  The important takeaway is that Jesus was a human person who did all the kinds of things every other human person did and does.  He was conceived.  He was born.  He suffered.  He died.

But there are some things he did that went beyond human experience, things that suggest his divinity.  Things that will remain a mystery to us.  He went to hell.  God resurrected him.  He ascended into heaven.  He abides with God in heaven, from which he judges the world and from which he will return to earth at history’s end.

The third paragraph is the second longest.  It’s devoted to the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit.  The creed tells us it is the Spirit who gathers the church from all peoples.  The church is catholic, an archaic word that means universal.  The Spirit binds believers to God and to one another across time and space.  The Spirit forgives our sins so that we can begin anew over and over again.  The Spirit raises us from the dead and secures our place with God in heaven at this life’s end.

4.

Several takeaways about the Apostles’ Creed.  It reminds us that Christianity is a historical faith at whose heart is a historical person, Jesus.  The early church didn’t make this stuff up.  The modern church didn’t make this stuff up.  It happened.

And the name Apostles’ Creed tells us that these words emerged from the witness of Jesus’ original followers, words that made their way into the Christian New Testament.  Jesus’ first followers told others about Jesus and how he changed their lives.  People responded in faith and said they wanted to follow Jesus, too.  Their journey began with learning Jesus’ story, committing themselves to the story, and being baptized into the community that bears Jesus name and continues his work in the world, the church.

Jesus is worthy of the best efforts of our hearts and minds.  Jesus is worthy of our love.  When we speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we affirm.  This is what we declare.  He is the one we love.  His love is the love that shapes us more than anyone or anything else.

Next week:  The Scots Confession of 1560:  A New Confession for a New Church.

Amen.

Regrouping

Regrouping | 16 May 2021 | Dan McCoig

Psalm 1 | Common English Bible

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed.

Acts 1:1-15, 21-26 | Common English Bible

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son— 14 all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

15 During this time, the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons. Peter stood among them and said,

21 “Therefore, we must select one of those who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus lived among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken from us. This person must become along with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 So they nominated two: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.

24 They prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s deepest thoughts and desires. Show us clearly which one you have chosen from among these two 25 to take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” 26 When they cast lots, the lot fell on Matthias. He was added to the eleven apostles.

1.

Nostalgia is a powerful force.  It’s tempting to believe that yesterday was better than today and the day before yesterday was better still.  Nostalgia is suspicious of the future.  Nostalgia lives in the past.

Nostalgia takes so little effort, really.  Living in a sepia-toned past where everyone was mythically nicer and everything was mythically better asks nothing of us.  Living in the present, however, involves dealing with people as they are – when they are at their best and when they are at their worst – and the world as it is – when it is glorious and when it is atrocious.

The Book of Acts is the story of the early Jesus movement at one of its most critical junctures.  The movement could have disbanded, folded, fizzled.  After all, its leader was executed like a common criminal.  But, as the movement’s followers experienced, Jesus was resurrected, appeared to them for more than a month, and ascended to heaven.

The Jesus movement may have been tempted to pack it in for fear of meeting the same fate as their leader and many did.  But they also had good reason to move forward – a risen Jesus, an ascended Jesus.  Their challenge now was how go on when their leader was no longer physically available to preach and teach and guide and provide counsel and a vision, but was spiritually present?  Jesus was their glue.  He was the force around which they gravitated.  

2.

Did you notice that the very first thing Jesus’ followers did after Jesus’ ascension?  The very first thing they did as they regrouped?  They waited, which is what Jesus told them to do.  They waited to receive God’s Spirit who would provide them with everything they needed to continue Jesus’ ministry.

Most of the people I know are lousy at waiting.  I’m pretty lousy at waiting.  We want to make things happen and make them happen immediately.  We want others to make things happen and to make them happen immediately.  Everything is urgent.  Nothing can wait.  The reality is closer to few things are urgent and most things can wait.

The pandemic has reintroduced us to waiting – waiting for a vaccine, waiting to see loved ones again, waiting to return to something that looks and feels like normal.  Waiting is one of those things we may not like and over which we often have little or no control but we have to do it anyway.

“Let’s wait and see” are usually words people don’t like to hear.  I believe people much prefer to hear that here’s the plan, let’s roll.  Plans are good, but only if they are the result of good information and careful thought.  Plans are disastrous when based on partial information and rushed.

Presbyterian pastor and author Tod Bolsinger wrote a helpful book on organizational leadership a few years ago.  The book is entitled, “Canoeing the Mountains.”  He uses Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and their search for a northwest passage from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean as a metaphor for adaptive leadership.

Lewis and Clark were skilled watermen.  They followed the Missouri River to its headwaters.  Their maps told them that once at the headwaters it would be smooth paddling to the Pacific Ocean.  Their maps were wrong.  Their maps did not account for 300 miles of the Rocky Mountains, desert, and another 100 miles of the Cascade Mountains.

There are three key actions of leadership exercised by Lewis and Clark – observation, interpretation, and intervention.  In other words – look, seek to make sense of what you see and consult with others as to the sense they are making of things, and then make a plan to do something.

Lewis and Clark could see that their maps were wrong and their tools, namely canoes, were ill suited to what lay ahead.  They were now in uncharted territory.  There was no map.

They had to chart a new course and discover as they went along.  In other words, they had to learn a lot of things they didn’t know.  Rather than carry their canoes across the rugged terrain before them, they had to trade their boats for horses with the help of their Shoshone guide, Sacagewea.                   

In the first chapter of Acts, the followers of Jesus, about 120 persons the writer tells, are waiting.  They are in uncharted territory.  In this pandemic and as we move toward post-pandemic, we are in uncharted territory.

I don’t know how the 120 Jesus followers felt about waiting.  In a group of 120 persons, I bet there were some who wanted to get things going while others wanted to go home.

I have never thought of waiting as a spiritual practice.  But it is.  The word for waiting is throughout our scriptures.  The psalmist in Psalm 31 declares, “All you who wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.”  Waiting is associated with strength and courage of heart.  The prophet Isaiah tells Israel, “I will wait for the Lord . . . I will hope in God.”  Waiting and hoping are closely related.

The followers of Jesus were waiting for a movement of God’s Spirit – a movement that would unite them, a movement that would crystallize and clarify their mission, a movement that would fill them with the spirit of Jesus and empower them to continue God’s work of saving the world.

3.

As the Jesus followers waited, they chose to complete the inner circle and restore their number to 12.  The average contemporary Christian doesn’t make a big fuss over the significance of certain numbers.  But in the biblical world, numerology was a big deal.  For example, the number 12 signified God’s authority, perfection, and power.  Jacob had 12 sons.  Israel had 12 tribes.  Jesus had 12 disciples.  The first words of Jesus recorded in the gospels are words he spoke in the Temple when he was 12 years old.  The new Jerusalem in heaven has 12 gates and there are 12 angels, with an angel attending each gate.  

So, it wouldn’t do that there would be eleven apostles.  There should be twelve.  Judas had to be replaced but by whom?  Apparently, there were 120 followers who qualified.  The field was narrowed to two – Justus and Matthias.  The decision making process is, once again, strange to us. 

The prayer part we get.  God, who are you calling so that we may choose rightly?  That’s the way Presbyterian nominating committees work.  But then, there’s the casting of lots.  This is an ancient practice that would not have seemed strange to Peter and his colleagues.  My guess, however, is that pulling out a die to cast at a nominating committee with the person who gets the high number becoming the nominee wouldn’t go over so well.

I’ve thought long and hard over what we might learn by this practice of lot casting.  Ours is a culture where we value thoughtful deliberation, reason, the weighing of information, each person casting his or her vote.  I value all these things and don’t want to lose any of them.

But what if the deliberation, the discernment, the reason, the voting are inordinate control mechanisms that shut out the Spirit of God, that limit the Spirit of God, that attempt to constrain or even manipulate the Spirit of God [as if any of this is really possible?] instead of supplement the activity of the Spirit of God or are pursued in tandem with the Spirit of God or are employed to follow the lead of the Spirit of God or practiced as means through which the Spirit of God acts.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not suggesting we return to lot casting as a decision making model.  But I do think that underlying lot casting is a fundamental trust that God holds the past and present and future in God’s hands and we are to know and trust God’s prescience in our bones.

It’s tempting to overly romanticize the earliest Jesus movement.  The reality is the early church had issues.  It was frail.  It endured failures.  And the writer of Acts didn’t sugar coat those frailties and failures.

Consider today’s passage from Acts.  It has one betrayer of Jesus, Peter, calling on followers to select a replacement for another betrayer of Jesus, Judas.  But the early church held at its center the Holy Spirit of Jesus and sought the Spirit’s presence, guidance, and power as it undertook its work and mission.  And, not as an afterthought but as a forethought.  I believe that is our challenge, too – to hold at our center Jesus and his presence.  He is the one who called us here.  He is the one who binds us together.  He is the one who accompanies us on our journey.  He is the one who will see us through today and into the future.

Amen.

Astonishing, Scandalous, or Both

Astonishing, Scandalous, or Both | 9 May 2021 | Dan McCoig

Psalm 98 | Common English Bible

Sing to the Lord a new song
    because he has done wonderful things!
His own strong hand and his own holy arm
    have won the victory!
The Lord has made his salvation widely known;
    he has revealed his righteousness
    in the eyes of all the nations.
God has remembered his loyal love
    and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
    every corner of the earth has seen our God’s salvation.

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
    Be happy!
    Rejoice out loud!
    Sing your praises!
Sing your praises to the Lord with the lyre—
    with the lyre and the sound of music.
With trumpets and a horn blast,
    shout triumphantly before the Lord, the king!
Let the sea and everything in it roar;
    the world and all its inhabitants too.
Let all the rivers clap their hands;
    let the mountains rejoice out loud altogether before the Lord
    because he is coming to establish justice on the earth!
He will establish justice in the world rightly;
    he will establish justice among all people fairly.

Acts 10:44-48 Common English Bible

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, 47 “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” 48 He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days.

1.

Homeostasis.  What an intriguing word?  Unless you are a science teacher or student, you probably didn’t use the word once in the past week or more.  Homeostasis is the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.  In other words, organisms like equilibrium, the status quo, and work hard to maintain it.  The more things stay the same the better; the less things change the better – this is a prevailing tendency of organisms.

Today’s lesson from Acts is a story not of homeostasis but of profound change and how that profound change came about.  It’s a story of change in the face of the way things were for centuries and still are in some cases.

There are three main characters Peter, Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit.  Our lesson is a summary of what has happened in the passages preceding it.   Hopefully, everyone is reading the Book of Acts in its entirety for Eastertide.

First, there’s Peter.  We know Peter.  He was a fisherman.  He was Jewish.  He lived in Roman occupied Palestine.  He knew his place in an economically, religiously, politically, and socially stratified society.  Things were pretty much the same as they had always been and would pretty much remain that way.  That’s the way status quos work.  They give the allusion that they are the way the world is meant to be and are best left alone.  The world stays the same until it doesn’t.

I suspect Peter presumed that he would live out his days on the shores and the waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Each morning he would arise before dawn, launch his boat, and make his way to promising fishing grounds.  Each day he would cast and monitor his nets.  Each evening he would haul in his nets – some days they were full and some days they were empty – and set a course for the shore.

Fishing is what Peter did.  A fisherman was who Peter was.  It provided his identity and his livelihood.  It fed and sheltered his family.

Peter’s encounter with an itinerant Galilean rabbi changed everything.  The rabbi’s name was Jesus.  He told Peter that God’s kingdom was at hand.  He invited Peter to follow him.  Astonishingly, Peter did.  Peter was the very first follower Jesus called.

Peter followed Jesus throughout Jesus’ public ministry.  He was there for everything Jesus said and did.  The teaching, the preaching, the miracles.  The arrest and the trial and the execution.  The resurrection, too.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus when asked if he was a follower.  He told people he didn’t know Jesus and that they were mistaken.  The thought that he did such a thing still stung despite the fact that Jesus forgave and restored Peter to his community of followers.

At Pentecost, in Jerusalem, Peter received Jesus’ Spirit and told the pilgrims from throughout the region about Jesus and God’s work in him to save the world.  Peter was now an apostle – one sent by God; Peter was now a preacher – one who proclaims God’s salvation.  Everything changed because of Peter’s encounter with Jesus.

2.

Cornelius was as different from Peter as we can imagine.  He was not Jewish.  He was not Galilean.  He was not a member of the laboring classes.  Cornelius was a high ranking Roman official.  He commanded people and money.  He was an occupier rather than one of the occupied.  The line between Cornelius’ world and Peter’s world was stark and clear.  It was a boundary that was to be maintained at all costs and never to be crossed.

Cornelius was what was known as a God-fearer.  Though not a Jew, he studied the tenets of Judaism.  Though not Jew, he practiced aspects of Judaism, such as daily prayer and the giving of alms to the poor.  As a Gentile, he knew his place.  He was never to move beyond the court of the Gentiles of the Temple.  The inner court was reserved for Jews.  They were God’s people and he wasn’t.

Cornelius and Peter meet.  How the meeting came to be is both astonishing and scandalous.  The meeting resulted in Cornelius’ and his family’s baptism into the way of Jesus, a shared meal between Cornelius’ family and Peter’s companions, and many Gentiles receiving Jesus’ Spirit after Peter preached.

This encounter between Cornelius and Peter begins with a vision.  I think this is true of nearly all profound change.  Someone has to dream it first and then share their dream with others.  

Peter is praying.  As he prayed, he saw a spread of food forbidden to devout Jews.  And he heard a voice tell him, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”

This confuses Peter.  All his life he observed the Jewish law, dietary and otherwise.  And now, there is this shift in what is unclean and what is pure.  In the vision, Peter learns that to God everything is pure and nothing is unclean.  God does not divide the world into Jews and Gentiles, the pure and the unclean, and neither should Peter and other followers of Jesus.  A barrier has been taken down.  A boundary has been crossed.

Cornelius is praying, too.  He hears God telling him to invite a man named Peter to visit him and his family.  This is something Gentiles didn’t do and if they did Jews would never accept the invitation.  But, astonishingly Cornelius invites.  And astonishingly, Peter accepts.  Another barrier is taken down.  Another boundary is crossed.

3.

The change in the story is that the religion of Jesus becomes radically universal.  There are no more lines between who is in and who is out.  No one gets to determine who receives God’s Spirit and who doesn’t other than God and God is pretty clear where God stands.  Everyone is included and everyone belongs.

And the change occurs because two very different persons prayed and in their prayers they listened to and for God and when they heard what God had to show and tell them they obeyed.  All of this was God’s doing in and through the Holy Spirit.  That’s the prevailing theme of the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is one of the more dangerous books of the Bible.  It is a threat to the way things are.  It tells story after story of how God’s Spirit transforms everyone and everything.  It tells stories of how visions and prayers and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit initiate new things, different things, things that bless and build rather than curse and tear down.  It’s a book that takes seriously the visions of the faithful, the prayers of the faithful, and movements of God’s Spirit.

4.

Think with me about boundaries.  There are a lot of them in our world.  I certainly grew up with a lot of them.  It’s taken years to overcome them.  In my childhood, boys did boy things and girls did girl things with the rare exception.  White people lived in one part of town and black people lived in another part of town.  White children went to one school and black children went to another.  Rich people lived in one part of town and poor people lived in another part of town.  A lot of this persists.  As a boy, I got the impression that this was the way things were supposed to be.

Sadly, I learned all the slurs for people who were different from me and people like me – slurs for people of color, slurs for girls, slurs for poor people, slurs for people whose sexuality or gender identity wasn’t heteronormative, slurs for people who were neuro-diverse.  I used them, too, because it was normative.  It was awful, absolutely awful.

But, thankfully, I learned better because of my Christian faith and the Christian faith of those I admired.  In the Christian community, among Jesus’ followers, I discovered that there was no room for any –ism that segregated one child of God from another – racism, sexism, ableism, classism . . .

In today’s lesson, the Holy Spirit gives Peter and Cornelius a vision of the ever-expanding scope of God’s grace.  God’s grace knows no bounds, breaks down every barrier, crosses every boundary.

The Holy Spirit helped Peter and Cornelius see the world differently.  The new world they saw was astonishing to some and scandalous to others.  It was surely welcomed by some but resisted and even despised by others.

My takeaway from today’s passage is this.  Pray.  Things happen when we pray and one of them might be that we get a glimpse of God’s dream for our world.

Look and listen.  See what God shows us.  Hear what God tells us.

Follow.  Go where God calls us.  Like Cornelius it may be risking an invitation across a long-standing barrier to someone beyond our circle on the other side of a boundary.  Like Peter it may be risking saying yes to an invitation and breaching a barrier, crossing boundaries, expanding circles.

I don’t know if Peter and Cornelius became fast friends.  They may have.  I hope so.  They spent several days together under one roof, sharing numerous meals, telling stories no doubt of the work of the Spirit in their lives.  I’m certainly aware that they were going against a lot of societal and cultural tides.  Remember homeostasis – keep things as they are, change nothing.  Maintain the barriers, observe the boundaries.  But, their meeting, the baptism, the shared lodging and meals across significant boundaries was a start and it began with prayer and a vision and a yes to the Spirit’s movement.

Like Peter, as followers of Jesus, we take prayer seriously, too.  We take visions seriously as well.  We encourage saying yes to God’s Spirit, a Spirit who has already crossed every boundary humans have erected and is calling us as partners on the journey.

Amen.

Peter, John, and the Holy Spirit

Peter, John, and the Holy Spirit | 25 April 2021

Dan McCoig

Psalm 23 | Common English Bible

A psalm of David.

23 The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live[b] in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.

Acts 4:5-12 | Common English Bible

The next day the leaders, elders, and legal experts gathered in Jerusalem, along with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and others from the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and asked, “By what power or in what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? 10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! 12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

1.

Let me tell you a story.

Yosef was thankful for his friends and neighbors.  Every day they would place him on a makeshift carry made of two poles and sail cloth and take him to one the most used Temple gates before afternoon prayers.  There, at the gate called Beautiful, he would beg from those entering the temple to pray.  This was his life.  This was his livelihood.  Without the kindness of strangers he would have no shelter.  Without the kindness of strangers he would have no food.

Some days he would get enough money to eat.  Other days he would not.  His stomach would growl with a hunger about which he could do nothing.  Yosef’s pain was not in his stomach alone.  It was also in his heart.

Yosef had not been able to walk since birth.  He learned how and where to beg since he was a little boy.  As a rule, people on their way to afternoon prayers were generous but not always and sometimes not at all.

Yosef noticed who would look at him and who would turn away and who would look right through him.  He noticed who slowed their pace to place a few coins in his basket.  He noticed who quickened their pace to get by him as quickly as possible.

Yosef had a lot of time to think as he sat in the afternoon sun, begging.  Yosef thought of the man named Jesus who entered Jerusalem on top of a donkey.  There was a lot of commotion that day.  Shouts of hosanna.  The waving of palm branches.  Some said the man was God’s anointed.  This Jesus had come to save not only Israel but the whole world.  This Jesus made time for everyone – children, women, Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, widows, orphans, the poor, and people like himself who could not walk.  

Yosef thought of the man’s arrest, trial, and execution.  Jesus’ followers were now telling people that God raised him from the dead and that Jesus’ spirit was alive in them, in all who trusted him, in the world.  Yosef didn’t know what to make of this so-called Jesus movement.  But it was spreading.  People’s live were being changed.  Jesus’ followers were becoming known for their hopefulness and boldness, their compassion and kindness, their passion for justice, their radical embrace of anyone and everyone.  Was Jesus God’s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ?  Was his spirit really now alive and loose and at work?  Yosef didn’t know.  He certainly hoped so.  He certainly hoped so.

That one particular afternoon was typical.  It was no different from so many other afternoons.  Hot and dry, monotonous.  The dust from passersby irritated Yosef’s eyes and throat.  He was looking away and rubbing his eyes when suddenly two men stopped at the place where he was sitting.  People seldom went so far as to stop.  Yosef hoped they would be as generous with their money as they were with their time.

Yosef looked up and noticed that the two men were looking right at him.  Eye contact was unusual for Yosef.  People normally would glance at him and look away quickly.  But these men gazed at him.  They really saw him.  And then they spoke to him.  This never happened.

The men told him that they were poor, too.  They had no money to give him.  Then one of them, Yosef learned that his name was Peter, took Yosef’s hand, invoked Jesus’ name and power, and bid Yosef to walk.  At first this angered Yosef.  Yosef had dreamt of walking all his life.  He also knew that the likelihood of doing so was pretty slim.  He had heard tales of healers and miracle workers.  But the tales were usually untrue, almost always a ruse to separate people from their money.

But Yosef arose.  Yosef stood.  Yosef walked.  Yosef’s anger turned to hope and joy and gratitude.  He was so happy he wept.  Who was this man who healed him?  Who was this man that took his broken body and made it whole?  Yosef shouted his praises.  Yosef walked back and forth excitedly.  He even danced.

2.

The Book of Acts in the Christian New Testament is the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the earliest Jesus movement, what we call the apostolic church.  Today’s lesson is the end result of Peter healing a man at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate before afternoon prayers.

The leaders of the Temple arrested both Peter and John and questioned them.  The leaders did not authorize Peter and John to heal in God’s name.  The leaders did not authorize Peter and John to proclaim their message that God was in Jesus saving the world.  Jesus was dead.  There is no such thing as resurrection.  End of story.

For the leaders of the Temple, Peter and John’s story of Jesus’ resurrection was wishful thinking at best and rabble rousing at worst.  The religious leaders were in charge of all things religious and one of those things was maintaining things as they were so as not to garner any unwanted attention of the Roman occupiers.  Plus, the religious leadership had grown accustomed to their place and position and prestige, all of which Jesus threatened.  Now his followers were threatening it likewise.

Peter and John tell the council their story.  Everything was God in Jesus’ doing, the Holy Spirit’s doing.  Their stopping.  Their seeing the man.  Their speaking with the man.  The man’s healing.  All of it.  God’s doing by the Holy Spirit through them.

3.

If you haven’t read the Book of Acts in one sitting in a while, I encourage you to do so this Eastertide.  The Book of Acts is the very first chapter in the story of the church.  It’s a story that is still being written in you and me.

The church’s birth is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s mission is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s boldness and faithfulness is the Holy Spirit’s doing.  The church’s call to discipleship and call for justice is the Holy Spirit’s doing.

The story of the church is the story of a movement that begins with Jesus Christ – what he said, what he did, what troubled him, what he came to put to rights.  When we declare ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, we say the kind of things he said; we do the kinds of things he did; what troubled him troubles us; what he came to put to rights we seek to put to rights.

Today’s Hebrew Bible lesson, Psalm 23, is usually associated as a reading reserved for funerals.  It is perfectly suited to that setting.  But it also is suited for every day discipleship.  It’s all in there. God as our shepherd, Christ as our shepherd, the Holy Spirit as our shepherd provides us with everything we need when we need it and how we need it – rest for our weariness; comfort and strength amidst our fears; goodness and mercy for every step of the journey, including death.

I see the Holy Spirit shepherding Peter and John.  When they healed the man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple; when they proclaimed the gospel to the Temple’s religious leadership.

Our lesson from Acts is a timely one.  I believe it pushes us to attune our lives and the life of our congregation more and more to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  I see the Holy Spirit shepherding us.

The apostolic church had to sort out how to relate to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  They were accustomed to relating to a physical Jesus Christ, someone like themselves.  But now, things were different, very different.  Sorting out how to relate to the Spirit of Jesus Christ called upon them to reinvigorate their prayer life, their worship life, their discipleship life.  It called upon them to rediscover a depth of trust in God they may have never known before.

Last year and this year have been tough.  The pandemic has been disruptive and that is putting it mildly.  It has laid bare things that we perhaps have had the luxury or privilege of not seeing – inequalities and inequities in income and education and health care and internet access – the list goes on; political polarization that pits neighbor against neighbor; racism; climate change; gun violence.

When Jesus looked at his world, he knew there was work to do.  It looked nothing like what his God had in mind.  When Jesus’ first followers looked at their world, they knew there was work to do.  It looked nothing like what Jesus had in mind.  When we look at our world, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to see; what is the Holy Spirit calling us say; what is the Holy Spirit calling us do in God’s name?

The Holy Spirit told Peter and John to see the man at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate because no one else would.  The Holy Spirit has a way of helping us see what we wouldn’t see if it were not for the Spirit and what too many too often won’t see.  The Holy Spirit called them to be instruments in making the man whole.  I believe the Holy Spirit is doing exactly that right here and right now.  The Holy Spirit is calling us to open our eyes to see what is before us – not to turn away, not to walk past – but to see and once we have seen to be the Spirit’s instruments in bringing a measure of the goodness and mercy God has shown us in Christ to the matter.  And the matter may be inequality or inequity; it may be climate change; it may be political polarization; it may be racism; it may be gun violence.

Here’s what I know.  Just as the Spirit counted on Peter and John and Peter and John counted on the Spirit and a man was made whole, the Spirit is counting on us and we can count on the Spirit and things can change and will change for the better and in God’s name; things can be made whole.

Amen.