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We Belong to God

October 25, 2010

“We Belong to God” Deuteronomy 7:6-11; Romans 14:7-9; John 10:11-18, 27-30 © 10/24/10 by Tom Cheatham @ First Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A few years ago on a weekend visit with family in Alabama, I was looking through the religion section of The Birmingham News when an ad for a Baptist Church caught my eye. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about that. There are many Baptist churches in Birmingham, and a number of them run ads regularly. But the copy in this piece was far from the typical listing of services and information. I believe I would have been less surprised if the preacher had said he was going to handle snakes or that a local witch was being invited to speak. But that wasn’t his pitch; instead, he wanted everyone to know that he proclaimed “total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.” The first letter of the first word of each phrase was highlighted, making an acronym: T-U-L-I-P. “Tulip.”

Well, well, I said, what a blast from the past. I hadn’t seen that particular theological memory device in years and years. Nor had I given it much thought. But here was a Southern Baptist who believed the old 17th century Dutch Calvinist formula was still relevant for our day.

I know now that the church was either a part of or a precursor to the current movement known as “the new Calvinism,” which was identified by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the ten ideas changing the world. These new Reformed folks now find a home in Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches and in very conservative denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America. A blog describing the movement features a You Tube video from Reformed Seminary with Ligon Duncan, the pastor of First Presbyterian in Jackson, as the speaker.

According to the blog “Parchment and Pen,” the new Calvinists believe all five points of Calvinism. They focus on a big God who is an antidote to the sweet fuzzy Jesus is my homeboy theology of some Evangelicalism of past years. These believers are doctrinally robust and apparently are attracting a good many twenty-somethings, like to the big Passion conferences for college students. They love not only Calvin but Jonathan Edwards, the minister who preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And they are double-predestinarian. More on that on November 14.

I once thought “TULIP” was where it’s at theologically. Or maybe more accurately, I had a love-hate relationship with it during my first seminary experience down in Jackson at Reformed Seminary. I joined many of the students there in believing that if you adhered to the doctrines summarized in the formula, you were “truly Reformed,” “TR.” And we wanted very much to be “TR.” The Dutch students from the Christian Reformed Church knew better and told us so. Being Reformed—following in the footsteps of Calvin and Knox and Beza, honoring that heritage—meant more than assenting to propositions and mouthing a formula.

They were right. I’m more convinced of that every day, the success of the new Calvinists notwithstanding. But if not “TULIP” or predestination or some other set of doctrines, what is it to be Reformed? And perhaps more importantly, is there a message that we can proclaim to a troubled and broken world? Can we mainline Presbyterians reclaim and recover the best of our heritage without the mean harshness of the dour Calvinism of yesteryear? Is there something we can say that makes sense, that brings hope and healing in a time when the old certainties are passing away, even gone? Indeed, is there a word from God which can give meaning to life in the midst of the mundane, something that brings comfort in our trouble and challenge in our ability and affluence?

To ask such questions about relevance and the practical value of ideas is itself “truly Reformed.” Our tradition has many finely crafted doctrinal statements, but at our best we have never been satisfied with merely repeating them and leaving it at that. We have wanted to know their meaning for living. The learner trying to master the Heidelberg Catechism back in the 1500s faced that sort of inquiry every Lord’s Day. The preacher who taught the young person was constantly asking what advantage comes from this or what good is that or what benefit derives from thus and so. Theology is for living. If it doesn’t impact life, it’s just academic discussion, a lot of high sounding, pretty rhetoric.

Quite often we speak of the heart of Reformed theology as the sovereignty of God. And that’s true. It’s also true that we can speak of the authority and rule and power of the Lord in a number of ways. We can write long, philosophical paragraphs a la the Westminster Confession, filled with references to the eternal decrees of a passionless God who saves some and condemns all the rest. We can heap up adjectives trying to define exactly when and where and why and how God is sovereign. We can say that he micromanages every detail of our lives and that of the whole planet, even the bad things, like having your house foreclosed on (actual example I saw). And I suppose when people worried about and relied greatly on authority, logic, and precision, that approach was appropriate and necessary. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of our world that makes the new Calvinism so popular.

But there is another way to speak of the sovereignty of God which is also honored in our confessions. It is to put the matter in a profoundly simple way. We say with the Heidelberg Catechism: “…I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” We boldly state with the Barmen Declaration of the 1930s: “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords….” Or we confess with A Brief Statement of Faith from the late 20th century: “In life and in death, we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

“I belong to God.” “We belong to God.” I believe that wrapped up in such brief sentences is the essence of Reformed faith, indeed, of biblical faith. Another formula, like TULIP? Maybe. But if the power and truth of a theological statement is in the living of it, then this one has great promise.

In life we belong to God. To God and not to the state or the culture. That was courageously made clear by a faithful group of Christians in Nazi Germany. The majority in the churches believed that the purposes of God and the German nation were one and the same, that “race, nationality, and the nation are orders of life granted and entrusted to us by God,” as one Nazi document said. Indeed, for the “German Christians” who supported him, Hitler was the messenger of God.

But delegates gathered in the little town of Barmen in 1934 said: “no.” The question of the day was: In whom do we hear the word of God? Hitler’s theological spin doctors said it came through the voice of the state. And Karl Barth, a prominent thinker in the Barmen group, admitted that God could speak through “a flowering shrub or a dead dog.” But the delegates agreed that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Courageous things to say with the Gestapo looking over your shoulder. They would be very happy to help you to trust Jesus in death.

There’s a reason Barmen is included in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. It serves as a reminder and even a warning. Here is its message for today in a nutshell: there are many people, causes, and activities that rightly claim even a large measure of our time, our energy, our devotion. But there is only One who can ask of us ultimate, unconditional allegiance and adoration, and who rightly deserves such allegiance and devotion. Barmen and our entire tradition remind us that we belong to God and no other lord. To nothing else, no one else, may be given our ultimate loyalty.

We belong to God. And not to ourselves. In America and in the Presbyterian tradition, we rightly value individual choice and conscience. And along with making choices and exercising a free conscience, we also need to encourage and welcome individual creativity and imagination, vision and courage, especially among youth and young adults. Those qualities and the actions that come from them can and will transform the church and the nation.

But what I’m talking about this morning is not any of these wonderful aspects of individual freedom. Rather, I am pointing to the dark side of individualism that we’ve all witnessed and experienced. Those people in restaurants and theaters who talk on cell phones during the meal or the movie. Drivers who are laws unto themselves, blithely ignoring stop signs or drinking or texting as they drive. The selfish spouse or sibling who thinks only of himself or herself, who lords it over the family. The controlling person in the workplace or in the church who believes he or she is more equal than others, that his or her opinion should carry more weight.

It was that sort of idolatry of the self that Paul confronted in the Roman church. There were those who did not care if their actions hurt others, if their exercise of Christian freedom actually destroyed the faith of a new convert who was vulnerable and confused. What counted was to have what I want when I want it.

But the apostle said “no.” Your life is not your own. You belong to God—the God who made you, called you his own in baptism, redeemed you with the life of his Son. You belong to a God like that, who loves you as his own special treasure, a God whose purpose for you will never fail, whose strength is always yours to lean upon. And when you realize that, you no longer have to secure your position in the community or family by asserting privilege or flaunting faith. You are not driven to accumulate goods or exert power over others. Those who know they are held in the hand of God are free to let go of their clutching and grasping, their fear and their fighting. They can open themselves to others in love and service. They know a new freedom, the liberty of being possessed by God and not by others or by oneself.

We belong to God and to God alone. In life. And in death. Our own passing and that of our loved ones. In the times when we experience living death, when life keeps screaming “no” over and over again like an enraged two year old. We belong to a God who comforts and heals, embraces us with loving arms and even weeps with us in our sorrow. We belong to a God who protects us as his prized possession and indeed, more than that, as his partners and his children.

If our faith offered solace and strength in life, we might still follow Christ and find what he promises valuable and worthwhile. But as theologian William Placher reminds us, that would not be quite good enough, even for the living of these days. He writes: “Every day we face forces of death, powers that could kill us by deliberate plan or random whim. If our faith in the triune God does not somehow transcend even death, then we would have to find ways of placating those forces, and the triune God could not be the One whom alone we worship and serve.”

But in fact, we do belong to God in life and in death. Nothing, not even death and death-dealing forces, indeed, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Jesus said: “No one will snatch [my sheep] out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one will snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” We belong to God, and God will not let us go, will never give us up.

In life and in death we belong to God. Our theological forebear John Calvin has some eloquent thoughts on that theme, which seem fitting to close our reflection. Five hundred years ago, he wrote: “We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: insofar as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

“Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal….”

Celebrate it. Wonder at it. Live it. Die in the assurance of it. We belong to God.

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