Sunday’s sermon: Begin at the Beginning

christian unity

Texts used – Isaiah 43:5-13; Romans 10:8-15

  • Once again, we find ourselves in the season of Lent.
    • Very often a season in which people give up something
      • Food items: chocolate, meat, soda, daily fancy coffee, etc.
      • Bad habits: complaining, negative self-talk, etc.
      • Popular one among younger generations: social media
      • Giving things up = form of fasting → purpose:
        • Symbolically mirror the fasting that Christ did as he wandered in the wilderness for 40 days/nights being tempted by Satan[1]
        • Demonstration of penance → way to turn away from distractions and turn our hearts and minds back toward God
    • But there are other ways to return to God as well. And this is what we’ll be doing with our Lenten sermon series this year. We’ll be turning back to God by taking a closer look at some of the confessional documents of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
      • Installing elders and deacon during annual mtg. last Sun. – constitutional question: 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 expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?[2]  → Here’s the thing: I know not all of us grew up Presbyterian. In fact, more people have come to this congregation by way of at least one other denomination or tradition if not more than that. And yet here we are in the Presbyterian Church of Oronoco. There are confessional documents that are an important part of the way we understand and interpret our faith – so important that we ask everyone serving in a leadership position to affirm those confessions. So throughout Lent, we’re going to explore some of them – what they are, where they came from, and how they continue to turn our hearts and our minds back to God.
  • Necessary place to start: why the confessions are important
    • Presbyterianism = part of what’s called the “Reformed tradition”
      • Grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century when Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church
      • Reformed tradition started in Switzerland roughly a generation after Luther with a number of reformers who “desired to reform all of life, in the church and in the world, and were willing to retain only those elements of doctrine, worship, and life-style for which they believed there was a positive basis in the Scriptures.”[3]
      • Reformers’ motto: “The church reformed, always reforming.” → This means that there are always new possibilities for our faith –new things to learn, new ways to interpret – because we believe that our God is a living God who continues to work in the world and do new things. But it’s a motto that also ties us back to our history because that history shows us how we have reformed in the past.
        • Book of Heb. (NT): So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.[4]
          • “cloud of witnesses” = all those brothers and sisters of the faith, past and present and even future, who speak to our faith
          • Reformed tradition: confessions provide a voice for that “cloud of witnesses”
    • Late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: If we are to be one church, we must learn to discuss theology, to say clearly what we believe. To do that, we must know where we have come from, who we are today, and where we mean to go in the future. … The Book of Order declares that the creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[5]
  • So that’s why Presbyterians put so much stock in the confessions. → basics:
    • 10 confessions affirmed and upheld by the PC(USA) → But fear not! We’re not going to tackle all 10 during Lent. Today, we’re going to start at the beginning with the oldest confession – the Nicene Creed. Then, starting next week, we’ll jump ahead to the confessions that were written in the 20th
      • Curious about the other confessions that we won’t be tackling? I’d be happy to loan you my Book of Confessions so you can read the rest of them.
      • Part of this series = the text of each confession will be included in your bulletin along with a space for taking notes and some questions that you can wrestle with at home  The church reformed, always reforming. 
  • Today’s confession: the Nicene Creed
    • Historical context:
      • 1st creed/confessional document ever written
      • Comes out of the work of 2 councils in the Early Church – the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE  councils = attempt by Emperor Constantine to bring unity to all parts of the Roman Empire, including the church which was incredibly divided at the time
        • Think about it. Christianity was a brand new thing at the time. There were still all sorts of people both coming up with their own theologies and perpetuating other’s theologies of who Jesus was, how he was or wasn’t the Son of God, what that meant, how the Holy Spirit factored into the equation, and so on. All of these different ideas and doctrines were making things in the Early Church pretty conflicted and divisive which, in turn, was making things pretty difficult for Emperor Constantine. So he called the councils together to sort things out – to separate the accepted doctrine from the heresies.
      • Purposes of the Nicene Creed:
        • Help the Early Church define what they believed about the Trinity – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit  who the individual persons were, their origins, and how they were divine and worthy of worship
        • Stake their claim on the importance of the Hebrew Scripture (today: OT) and their authority in interpreting it differently than that Jews did  a way to differentiate themselves as Christians instead of just another Jewish sect, even though they were using the same Scripture
    • Today = remains the most universally accepted creed by Christians
      • Only creed affirmed by the 3 major branches of the Christian church: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox Church
        • Affirmed by a wide number of Protestant traditions: Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Episcopalians, some Baptists, etc.
        • Not affirmed by most Pentecostal and non-denom churches
  • So how does the Nicene Creed – these words written more than 1600 years ago! – speak to our faith today?  a couple of key elements
    • Speaks to many of the key tenets of our faith
      • Declares belief in God, in Jesus as the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit
      • Names God as creator “of all that is, seen and unseen”
      • Speaks to the death and resurrection of Christ “for us and for our salvation”
      • I think we can agree that these are all pretty important things for Christians to believe.
    • Another crucial element of the Nicene Creed = speaks to the unity of Christianity  the Church (universal) as one body, one voice, one confession
      • “We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  That phrase “holy catholic and apostolic Church” can be confusing. The Nicene Creed isn’t holding up the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today above any other branch of Christianity. In this context, “catholic” simply means “universal.” That’s why, if you look at that sentence, the “c” in “catholic” is lower case while the “C” in “Church” is capitalized. This creed is declaring the importance of the unity of the body.
        • Notice that everything in the Nicene Creed is “We believe …”: “We believe in one God … We believe in Jesus Christ … We believe in the Holy Spirit … We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church …”  differs from the Apostle’s Creed in that way (Apostle’s Creed = all “I”)
  • Scripture readings this morning also speak to the crucial nature of that unity when it comes to faith
    • OT passage = all about reunification  comes out of that time of Babylonian exile when the best and brightest Israelites were captured by the Babylonians and taken from Jerusalem to live in Babylon for generations
      • Isaiah’s word from God to God’s scattered people: Don’t fear, I am with you. From the east I’ll bring your children; from the west I’ll gather you. I’ll say to the north, “Give them back!” and to the south, “Don’t detain them.” … All the nations are gathered together; the peoples are assembled.[6]   speaks reassurance of God bringing the people back together after their long and devastating separation
      • Also speaks to God’s unequivocal power and authority – reassures that God is the one who can do this incredible thing: I, I am the Lord, and there is no savior beside me. I announced, I saved, I proclaimed, not some stranger among you. You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God. From the dawn of time, I am the one. No one can escape my power. I act, and who can undo it?[7]   combats those hopeless, helpless feelings that can come when we feel like things are out of our control
        • Israelites had been conquered by invading Babylonian army and were forced away from their beloved Jerusalem
          • Families were separated
          • Priests and scholars were torn from the Temple, their holiest place of worship and learning
          • Entire culture was thrown into chaos
          • And yet through the prophet Isaiah, God is reassuring the people that nothing is stronger, more powerful, more influential than God. And God will reunite the people once again.
    • NT passage
      • Speaks to the importance of one body in Christ: The scripture says, All who have faith in [Christ Jesus] won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.[8]   All who have faith … all who call on the Lord’s name. There is no distinction … no matter how many barriers and dividers and qualifiers we may try to set down as broken human beings, God is the Lord of all.
        • One body, one voice, one confession
      • Also speaks to the importance of confession: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart … Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. … All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved. So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.[9]   This is probably my favorite series of questions in the Bible because it just makes so much sense. “How can people call on someone if they don’t have faith? How can they have faith if they haven’t heard? How can they hear if there is no preacher? And how can there be a preacher if no one is sent?” So often, we have a tendency to complicate everything – complicate the message, how we word it, how it’s delivered, and on and on and on. But this makes things so thoroughly uncomplicated. All they need to do is hear. All we need to do is announce the good news and let God do the rest.
        • This is what the confessions do for us – announce the good news of the grace of God and the salvation we find in Christ
          • Do so from a variety of times and places and contexts throughout history
          • Do so so we can hear and have faith and return to and call on our God once again  Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13.

[2] Book of Occasional Services: A Liturgical Resource Supplementing the Book of Common Worship, 1993. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1999), 24 (emphasis added).

[3] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 20.

[4] Heb 12:1-2a.

[5] Rogers, 19, 23.

[6] Is 43:5-6a, 9a.

[7] Is 43:11-13.

[8] Rom 10:11-13.

[9] Rom 10:8b, 9-10, 13-15.

2 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: Begin at the Beginning

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: God Above All | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Rebuilding the Ruins | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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