Summer Sermon Series: Say It Like You Mean It – Confessing our Faith
Romans 3:21-26 and Matthew 26:26-29
This morning we continue our summer sermon series: “Say It Like You Mean It” our study of the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. Last week we discussed the ancient creeds that we share with the Roman Catholic Church and even one, the Nicene Creed, that we also share with our Eastern Orthodox friends. This Sunday we head into what will be two weeks on the Reformation. Creeds from the period of Reformation by far take up the majority of our Book of Confessions.
I mentioned last week that the importance of this sermon series was for us to become more aware of the church of which we are a part. If we are to call ourselves the church, than it is imperative that we know just who the church is. Being part of the Presbyterian Church means that we are a part of the Reformed tradition. Understanding the Reformation movement and our roots within it is an integral part of understanding the church that we call our home.
We begin with the Scots Confession which is the first Reformed confession. Presbyterians trace their roots to Scotland and John Knox who wrote this confession so this one, of all the Reformed confessions, is what we might think of as “ours”. While reading the Scots Confession may be a bit boring, the story surrounding its creation certainly is not!
Europe in the 1500’s was an unstable place. There was a lot of political intrigue as royalty of France, Spain, England, and Scotland battled for power. Religion was one of the tools used in battle. The Catholic Church was known for deep corruption in Scotland. Positions in the church were often granted to the idle sons of wealthy nobles who paid handsomely for them. Consequently, many of the Catholic clergy were illiterate, rarely preached, and were generally un-interested in the church or the religion.
The writings of Martin Luther were being smuggled into Scotland and the Reformation movement began to catch fire there. Of course, it literally caught fire, when people started preaching Reformation openly. Several prominent leaders in the movement were charged with heresy, and burnt at the stake in an attempt to quiet down the revolution. As often happens when one tries to set an example with violence, the resulting backlash against the Catholic Church only added to the growth and fervor of those demanding Reformation. Reformers started getting even by murdering cardinals, and before long the whole movement was running wild.
Unrest became revolt and it is into this environment that John Knox comes on the scene. Knox began his life as a Catholic priest but soon fell in love with Protestant theology. Avoiding the threat of violence, Knox fled to Geneva where he studied with John Calvin and spent time on some of his own writings. Trapped under the power of Mary of Guise, ruler of Scotland and Catholic supporter, Knox penned a famous treatise titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”. (You gotta’ love that!) It was only after he realized that he would need the help of Queen Elizabeth to secure Scotland, that he decided that that particular work might need some revision.
Eventually English troops marched into Scotland, and with the help of Scottish rebels they overturned the government. The time was right for a Reformed Scottish Church and it was to this cause that the Scots Confession was written. In four days and with the help of several friends, John Knox penned the Scots Confession and it was adopted by the Scottish Parliament as well as the Scottish Reformed Church in 1560.
One issue of Protestant theology, of who the church is, that is significant in the Scots Confession is the issue of election. This is where all that tricky language about pre-destination starts seeping into our church. The general idea of election is that God is the one who saves us. The thought is that there is nothing a person can do to earn their salvation, their grace, before God. Rather, it is the spirit of God, moving through the person that draws them to faith and eventually to salvation.
I chose the reading from Romans in connection with this idea. Paul writes that apart from the law, we are justified by grace as a gift. If grace is a gift from God, then there is no way it can be bought or earned. When one thinks of the corruption of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation, this begins to make sense. We have heard stories of the role money often played in the absolution of sins. Plus the Catholic doctrine that declares you must attend mass to be saved, also plays into this. The Protestants were seeking to strip the church of that power by declaring that salvation was a gift from God alone, and could not be bestowed upon anyone by the clergy or the church.
The second Reformed confession I want talk about today is the Heidelberg Catechism. Written in 1563, just 3 years after the Scots Confession, this document too was composed in the crucible of the reformation. Coincidently, this is the first reformed confession in America, as Dutch settlers brought the document with them to New Amsterdam in 1609.
This confession comes from the Reformation movement in Germany and was orchestrated by Frederick III, who served as Elector of the Palatinate in Heidelberg. This time the issue isn’t Catholics vs. Protestants, but Protestants vs. each other. (Sound familiar?)
The conflict was all about communion, and how we understand the presence of Christ at the table. Protestants agreed that no one liked the Catholic idea of the literal presence of the body and blood of Christ at the meal. Catholic theology at the time centered around the re-sacrificing of Christ for the sins of the people at every mass and Protestants simply weren’t having that. But then, what did they think was going on? This became a major issue of difference. It became such an issue that when Protestants of differing views tried to worship together, there were actual skirmishes between the pastors at the communion table as they tried to grab the elements out of each other’s hands. Imagine that on Sunday morning!
I chose the reading from Matthew because that is where this all comes from. Jesus says “Take eat; this is my body.” But what does that really mean? Followers of Luther thought that the body of Christ was still physically present at the table. Luther took, “this is my body” literally and believed therefore that Christ’s body could be literally everywhere at the same time. “This IS my body.”
Followers of Zwingli, another famous reformer disagreed. Zwingli takes the language as a metaphor. Objects can only be in one place at one time. Jesus was physically present at the Lord’s Supper, so the bread there couldn’t be his literal body. Therefore Jesus meant, “This will be my body, this bread will symbolize my body.” Communion is a meal remembering the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is a memorial remembering what Christ has done for us.
Followers of Calvin (this is where we Presbyterians line up) believed that Christ was spiritually present at the meal. Calvin agreed with Zwingli that the body can only be in one place at one time, but he loved the idea of the presence of Christ at the table. Therefore, he put forward the idea that Christ is spiritually present with us in a real and tangible way when we celebrate at the table. It is more than just a memorial; it is the spiritual presence of Christ.
The Heidelberg Catechism lifts up not only the Reformed doctrine of justification by grace through faith. It also cements the Calvinist Reformed understanding of what happens at Communion. Already the Reformers were beginning to split along denominational lines as Reformation churches in Switzerland supported the Catechism but followers of Luther and the High-Lutheran Church did not.
So, why do I care? Just like last week’s sermon, the issues that folks were arguing about during the Reformation are still issues in our modern lives. Communion is an easy one to approach, since I would wager that there are several folks among us who aren’t sure just what they believe about what happens at the table. When we gather at the table is Christ physically present, spiritually present, or just present in memory? I’ll leave that for you to decide as an individual, but the church of which we are a part has certainly battled to have its view known, Christ is spiritually present at the table.
Another issue that remains relevant in our day is that of election. Does God save us or do we save ourselves? We live in a culture that highly values the freedom of the individual. We see ourselves as being free agents, able to choose our own paths and make our own way in the world. It is not long before that cultural idea bleeds into our faith. I am saved because I go to church on Sunday. I am saved because I believe and do the right things. Before we know it we have wandered into justification by works. The idea that God alone acts for our salvation, that God alone moves us to God is a challenge to this way of thinking. No one can save me but God alone, and only God can move me to God. What does that say about me . . . and perhaps more troubling, what does that say about my friends who don’t go to church? Definitely something to think about.
That’s more than enough for one day so we will stop here. Next week we will continue with the Reformation confessions and then we will journey on into the 20th century. We close with a Declaration of Faith from the Heidelberg Catechism which you will find on your bulletin insert. Remember this isn’t your confession, and it isn’t mine. This is the confession of the church of which we are a part; a church with a long and varied heritage. Let us stand together and “say it like you mean it!”