Scripture | 1st Corinthians 11:17-26 | John 6:25-35
I had a couple of young Mormon missionaries come by my house the other day. They’re always such nice young men – I even had a pair of women come once; that’s a new thing in the Mormon Church, to let women serve as missionaries. I’m always struck by how firmly they believe in their faith; so important is their belief that young people often go on two-year missions before they even go to work or college. What better way to cement your faith than to spend two years trying to teach other people what you believe? What better way to cement your beliefs than trying to share them with an audience that’s often at best disinterested and sometimes even hostile?
One of the challenges for modern Mainline Protestant churches is that we don’t often define our faith that clearly or defend our faith that strongly. We tend to put a lot more emphasis on how to think about faith and less on what we should think. It’s not that we don’t teach the faith – we have classes for Confirmation and for adults joining the church.
But beyond the affirmation that we trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we don’t require people to have a certain theological conviction in order to become church members. We don’t test people on their orthodoxy or excommunicate people for heresy anymore.
There’s a lot to be said for that openness – we offer a wide welcome, we support each other even with our differences, we let our own thinking be challenged, and we avoid the pitfalls of being judgmental or splitting theological hairs. There’s a lot to be celebrated.
But there’s a downside, too. The greatest threat is the illusion that what we believe doesn’t matter. We water down the faith so much that it becomes trite and meaningless. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas once quipped, the entire heritage of our faith comes down to “God is nice; you be nice, too.” If that’s all we have to say, why bother?
We are a Confessional Church. That is to say Presbyterians have Confessions of Faith about what we believe, and they say a lot more than “be nice.” It’s because we’re convinced that we believe does matter. In our Book of Order, the Historic Principles remind us,
Truth is in order to goodness… and… no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are…
We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
The great Confessions of our faith are our forebears’ attempts to articulate the truth. Each of the Confessions was born of a particular time and place by a particular people engaged in particular struggles. These statements of belief are not the Gospel. But they can help us find words to name our own faith. Because what we believe does matter.
The confession we’re lifting up this morning, the Heidelberg Catechism, was written during the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a complicated time, lasting decades; an age of extraordinary change in every sphere of life: political power shifting away from royalty towards democracy all over Europe; scientific discoveries like Galileo’s challenging long-held beliefs, new economic systems emerging, with a rising professional class; a renaissance in music and the arts; exploration and conquest of whole new worlds thanks to advances in ship-building. How could religion be untouched in such a tumultuous time?
It’s a mistake to think of the Protestant Reformation as one united front. In fact there were different movements springing up all over Europe. Our own Confessions reflect that complex world: the Heidelberg Catechism from Germany, the Second Helvetic Confession from France, the Scots Confession, and eventually the great English Westminster Confession of Faith. All were borne of people of faith trying to wrestle down the truth in order to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in a world where almost nothing could be taken for granted any more. Everything was on the table.
One of the biggest changes came in how people understood the sacraments. The Heidelberg catechism defines sacraments as “visible, holy signs and seals… instituted by God so ….he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise.”
In the Roman Catholic Church – which was virtually the only church in Europe pre-Reformation – there were seven different sacraments. Many were rites of passage like marriage and ordination. It was Martin Luther who insisted that a ritual could only be considered a sacrament if Jesus told us to do it. The only rituals instituted by Jesus in the Gospels were baptism and the Lord’s Supper, so those were the only sacraments in the Protestant church. So for starters, the number of sacraments was challenged.
But the meaning and practice of the sacraments were re-examined, too. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” what did “is” mean? In communion, did the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus, or were they meant to be symbolic? The new Protestants were all over the map about this, and the disagreements got heated. As our Book of Confessions describes it, “Tension between Lutherans and Reformed Christians was intense. Because the Reformed did not believe in the real, bodily presence of Christ in the bread and wine, Lutherans believed that they were desecrating the Lord’s Supper.”
The Heidelberg Catechism was an attempt to write something acceptable to both sides. What was important to both Lutherans and Calvinists was that this sacrament wasn’t just a memorial of something Jesus did for us long ago. We are remembering Jesus, to be sure, but there is a whole lot more going on than that. In communion we are united with Christ and with each other. In communion, Jesus is nourishing us, body and soul, in a way nothing else can. In communion, we are one body, with one spirit, empowered with the Spirit of Jesus himself. We are, as the Catechism says, “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.”
Now let’s go back to my original question. Does it make any difference if we believe that? What difference does it make if it’s true? Is this “truth in order to goodness” or is just church-speak that makes your eyes glaze over?
I think it makes a huge difference. In fact I think it makes all the difference in the world. I think it has everything to do with identity, and purpose, and meaning. Here’s why.
We live in a starkly individualistic time. In our society we see people first and foremost as individuals. This is so pervasive that we don’t even think about it; it’s just the air we breathe. Our kids are encouraged to follow their own dreams, to pursue their passions, to see themselves as unique and special. Our identity isn’t supposed to be limited by class or race or gender; who we are is supposed to come from what we make of ourselves. It is a compliment to call someone a “self-made man.” Our purpose in life is to fulfill our potential and be happy.
But then we come here and affirm something completely different.
Here, at Christ’s table, we affirm that we are not self-made. Here we belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ. We are made in his image. Our highest aspiration isn’t success but to be like him. Our identity isn’t something we create but something given by grace in our baptism. Here we aren’t individuals but a small part of something much, much greater, the body of Christ.
Our goal isn’t to be special, but to be one with him. And because we are one with him, we are inextricably bound to each other. And that’s not a burden but a blessing.
These beliefs aren’t just words; they affect everything about us. If we belong to our Lord Jesus, then we keep nothing hidden from him, or apart from our devotion to him. How we see ourselves, and each other. The way we love, the way we forgive, what we do with our gifts and our power. How we spend our time and how we spend our money. What we value and what we let go. What we long for and what grieves our hearts.
And the reason we celebrate this sacrament over and over again is that it is so, so hard to remember this truth. It’s hard to hold onto this faith. It’s hard to remember even our deepest, most life-giving beliefs. So we come here to practice, again and again.
When we take this bread we are fed by Christ’s own hand, and we remember that he is the bread of life, the source of our strength.
When we drink this cup, we remind each other that we are children of grace.
When we go out in the world we carry with us this different reality with us.
Receive this bread. Share this cup. Say the words of our faith. Hold onto the truth, the truth that makes all the difference in the world.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church