Later today I was scheduled to go to Charlottesville to make a presentation on The Book of Confessions. I delighted to help out some of my fellow ministers in their officer training and looked forward to having a meaningful discussion on both the historical setting and theological significance of the eleven statements of faith found in this document. Then I got an email asking if I might switch topics. Instead of The Book of Confessions, I have been asked to explain the Essential Tenets of the Reform Faith.
Anyone who has been elected to the office of elder might remember the series of questions posed at their ordination. The one I find most troubling and the one to which I am to speak about tonight is, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expectations of what scripture leads us to believe and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”
I would hope before anyone would answer this question they might ask, “What are the essential tenets of the reformed faith?” In this intelligent and diverse congregation the answer I receive would be quite different than my experience this evening. This congregation celebrates a variety of religious experiences and doctrines. This has helped us listen to an assortment of truths, some which are spelled with a capital T and others which are no less important but might not be universally held. The creedal statements we find in our Book of Confessions include declarations from six different denominations written over a period of 1700 years. While the Hammurabi Code, The Magna Charta, and the Declaration of Independence each agree on the importance of the human experiment, each differently defines the essential concept of human liberty. So why should we be surprised that a religion 2,000 old might differ on which tenets/critical beliefs should be held as truth?
As a Christians we share with all other Christian denominations our belief in God. But just mention the word Trinity and the sparks begin to fly. Do I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or Creator, Reconciler and Sustainer? How did the concept of trinity come about? What does it mean? Do we believe in one God or three? Regardless of our answers, gratefully it does not lessen our faith in the mysterious ways in which God reveals God’s self.
Second, and perhaps more universally, we celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. We are not alone. God, Emmanuel, is with us.
But then a great divide begins as we try to discern the actions of this mysterious God. As Protestants, we acknowledge we are justified by Grace. We cannot save ourselves but are dependent on God’s love in Jesus Christ to draw us back to God and fulfill God’s command to love God and others nearly as much as we love ourselves.
Second, Protestants claim the authority of scripture. That can really cause the sparks to fly. Here at Rockfish I think we see The Bible as the lens through which we know God and discover ourselves. The Bible points us to truth. All that is well and good, but even as I have tried to carefully craft those words there are folks here who wished I would have made stronger statements concerning God, incarnation, salvation and the Bible. Others of you might have felt the language chosen was much too definitive and left no room for disagreement or discussion. Such is the nature of the beast when we choose to talk about something we believe but can’t prove.
As you might have guessed, each of the denominations from which we originate has definitive statements which further define the essence of what we believe. Those statements are both significant and debatable. Hopefully each of us is open to the Holy Spirit in determining what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
Like our ancestors, who came by different streams and trails to claim citizenship within this great nation, we each have traveled a distinctive theological road. Some crave discussions concerning transubstantiation, the trinity or atonement. Most of us are more interested in how God expects us to live together. Sometimes you just have to set Books of Order and creedal statements aside and return to the Bible.
This week our text peeps in on a church in the town of Philippi. Discussions within this congregation centered on the identities of God and Jesus. They argued over interpreting the Torah and how a Hebrew document could speak to a Greek congregation. Most of all they disagreed over who would take Paul’s place.
Paul wasn’t coming back. It was up to the members of the church in Philippi to develop their own leadership. They were attempting to establish faith statements which would both drive and inform their discussions. They did not have a copy of The Book of Confessions. The New Testament had not yet been written. All they had was what they had heard from Paul and the early Apostles.
As Paul sat down to write, he knew the tension in this little congregation was about to explode. Each discussion burst into a passionate debate ending in anger and accusations. These were friends being torn apart by multiple versions of what each considered to be the truth.
Paul could have ended his letter when some great theological statement telling them to get their house in order. Instead he wrote these words:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Let your gentleness be known. Turn to God in prayer. God will hear your supplications. Know that the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.
My friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, do these things and the God of peace will be with you. Greet each others as saints in Christ Jesus knowing that the grace of God is with you.”
Tonight in Charlottesville folks aren’t going to ask me questions. They will make declarations concerning the church and accusations concerning the church’s loss of belief. There will be allegations directed at the Presbytery of the James and beyond. Each will range from sincere to sanctimonious. Thank goodness there is a time limit on the meeting or it would never end. I already look forward to the moment when the moderator closes with a prayer. I know some will linger but at some point I will excuse myself and head to the parking lot. Then, in the privacy of my car, before I turn on my radio to hear some soothing jazz, I will give thanks to God for allowing me to serve Rockfish Presbyterian Church, a diverse and complex people, who love each other, respect each other, argue with one another, listen to each other, but most of all, sing praises to God for bringing us all together.
Thank-you for always letting your gentleness always be known. Please don’t ever change. Amen.