Hebrews 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18
Reformed and always reforming. Last week we looked at the “Reformed” part of this phrase, the historical events of the Reformation that will be 500 years old on Tuesday! A lot has happened in the last 500 years which the Reformers could never have imagined. But they set us on a path, which people of faith have walked. And even today, it does not stop. Even today, we are always reforming and being reformed.
The author of Hebrews has the same vision: with the great cloud of witnesses, all of whom had to wrestle with faithfulness in their own context, let us set our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Too often we understand this phrase, “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” to mean that Jesus gave us a perfect set of beliefs. But Jesus never focused on right belief. Instead, what the author suggests is that Jesus is the perfecter of our attempts at faithfulness. Jesus perfects our faithfulness! Imagine that! Isn’t that grace? When we act in faithfulness, Jesus shapes, perfects, completes the effort. Sometimes that means sending the Holy Spirit to correct our mistakes. Sometimes it means filling us with the breath of courage to do what has not been done. In all these lives of faithfulness listed in Hebrews 11 and down to today, Jesus perfects their faithfulness.
A few weeks ago, in preparation for the installation service, I reviewed the questions I would be asked to answer. Every time I read these questions, whether I am answering or asking them of a new elder, deacon, pastor, or commissioned leader, I have to pause at this one:
“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?”
Does this mean I have to say I believe the same things that the reformers believed 500 years ago? Gulp!
To help me out here, I rely on one of my seminary professors for wisdom. Professor Jack Rogers was one of the central voices in helping me to understand the Reformed faith, and to be able to enter it with a simple “yes.” He describes the essential tenets of the Reformed faith this way: “An essential, or confessional standard, is a core belief that already has the assent of the overwhelming majority of the community. Essentials are not things that we are fighting over, but things over which we no longer fight” [Rogers, Jack, A Quick Guide to Essential Tenets, www.drjackrogers.com,] The Reformation did not bring an end to theological debate and division. Nor will our own erudite age!
Just look at our confessional changes in the last hundred years or so. In the early 20th century, in America, the Presbyterian Church, both its northern and southern expressions, added a declaratory statement to the Westminster Confession that created a balanced view of God’s love and judgment. We no longer are in conflict over predestination. They were “perfecting” the faith, amending one of the most Presbyterian of all confessions – still second only to the Bible in Scotland!
The Theological Declaration of Barmen (born out of the trauma of Hitler’s Germany in World War II), affirmed another movement of reform. Karl Barth, one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration popularized our motto: “Reformed and always reforming.” He attributed it to Augustine in the 4th century. Barth knew that the church was still being asked to reform itself and its culture – this time, to stand up against the state, rather than obey its oppression. Being Reformed is not a static thing, a place where we arrive. Instead it is an attitude of humility before God and the Word, to change according to how God is guiding us now. In every “now.”
The Confession of ‘67 was birthed in the wake of the Viet Nam War and was adopted 50 years ago at the General Assembly meeting in Portland. It speaks powerfully of peacemaking and justice. It is not that difficult to follow the path from the Declaration of Barmen to the Confession of ‘67. But this is a more uniquely American statement.
In these painful times, the expectation that we do justice and love mercy, and walk humbly with God, have caused people of faith to re-examine their beliefs. And it is often the actions which come first. The need to resist the government, led to an examination of Scripture and belief. The need for peace among humankind, sent us searching the Scriptures for understanding.
Next came the Brief Statement of Faith, written in 1983 as an act of reunion for the Presbyterian Church when it buried its Civil War division of north and south. I happened to be visiting at Fuller Seminary when the Brief Statement of Faith was being “crowd-tested,” so to speak. In a seminar, Jack Rogers, one of the writers of that statement, was struggling with what social voice it was responding to. I felt like he was almost too close to it to see how radical is its non-sexist language and its embrace of our call to earth care.
As many of you know, the PC(USA) in 2011 affirmed the freedom of churches and presbyteries to ordain and call as pastors, elders, deacons, trustees, or any other officer of the church, people of all sexual orientations. In other words, sexual orientation would no longer be used as a test of one’s call to serve. After decades of debate, our faithfulness again needed perfecting. Our love brought us to reform again.
This was a big decision, causing huge upheavals in our denomination! Some churches celebrated the decision, others chose to leave the denomination. Others simply chose to love the brothers and sisters they have grown up with and learn to live together in peace, to learn about each other in love. This is part of the pioneering and perfecting of faithfulness in the way of Jesus.
And now, we have a new confession as of the summer of 2016. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Portland again, we adopted a twelfth confession to add to our book of confessions. It is called the Confession of Belhar. This confession was written in Afrikaans in 1982, occasioned by the reunification of the Reformed Church in South Africa. It resounds with that country’s pain over apartheid. In particular, it speaks to unity, that we are all one as God’s people. According to the confession, individual, racial and social segregation is sin, and all forms of segregation always lead to enmity and hatred.
Do I sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith? Good question! I think this comes down to following the great cloud of witnesses who have wrestled with the way of Jesus in their cultural contexts, have turned to Word and Spirit to seek guidance and have acted in their best faithfulness, trusting Jesus to perfect or complete their faithfulness.
So, now we have twelve confessions of faith in our book of confessions. And, they are not of a uniform voice. On the face of it, they disagree pretty dramatically. How can all twelve stand together?
Rogers observes that the term “essential tenets” keeps us focused on the center, knowing that in peripheral things we will always struggle and disagree. But what is the center? The essential tenets can be visualized as a set of concentric circles. It all centers around Jesus. That is what makes us Christian and faithfulness to Jesus is shared with all Christians everywhere. It is through Jesus that we meet the triune God. For Protestants, the next layer of our core values are a belief in Scripture and justification by grace through faith. A third layer is made up of the characteristically Reformed concepts of sovereignty, election, covenant, stewardship, sin, and obedience. The circles continue outward, as we try to understand all of God’s ways. But we are most sure we are dealing with essentials when we are looking at the way and words of Jesus.
Again, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” So, the ordination vow keeps our attention fixed on the center of the circle, Jesus, the essential, center of our faith, rather than on matters on the periphery. This approach to theology, crafted through two centuries of theological debate, allows Presbyterians to be united around a core set of values while permitting individuals, sessions, and presbyteries the right to exercise their own freedom of conscience on emerging theological issues. [Rogers, Jack, A Quick Guide to Essential Tenets, www.drjackrogers.com]
And so, yes, I can sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, knowing that it is not set in cement. Knowing that the faithfulness we follow will always be in the process of reformation.
I describe our denomination as a “big tent” denomination now. We are called to provide a safe shelter for all who would come in. I am reminded of our circus church this past summer. We were all there under a big tent – young and old, long-timer and new-comer, big red noses, or not – all laughing together, finding shelter with the same God. It can look a little bit eccentric to those on the outside. But when we listen to our stories, accept our differences, we let Jesus perfect our faithfulness, even if we fall down in our big clown shoes.
I wonder what confessions of faith will come out of our era – the 21st century. Don’t you? Might it be the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee people of America’s first nations? Will it be something the American nations write together? What about something that is a collaboration between the three Abrahamic faiths? Truly Big Tent confessions those would be! What will be the next call to debate nailed to our doors…? No need to fear. Instead, trust that Jesus is our pioneer, going before us, and perfecting our faithfulness. Instead, may we welcome the movement of the Spirit, as best we can, and be ready to catch the wind. This is what it means to be reformed and always reforming.
In the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians: All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. Glory be to God!