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November 1, 2010

“CPR” Exodus 20:1-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 1:1-14, 16-18 © October 31, 2010 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My family goes back for at least four generations in the Presbyterian Church, in its old Southern stream. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed at eight years old. Despite some detours in college into the Baptist and Alliance churches, I’ve always said I’m a Presbyterian. Good thing, since I’ve taken some rather serious vows to follow our confessions and way of church government. But I have a secret.

I’m really catholic.

And so are you.

That’s right. We can’t be Protestant or Reformed unless we are first catholic. I’m not even sure we can claim to be Christian.

Let me explain. By “catholic,” I don’t mean a denomination, the Roman Catholic Church. I’m talking about the word in its root sense of “universal, worldwide, comprehensive.” We have sisters and brothers in faith who are Roman Catholic, but you and I are Reformed Protestant Catholics. Every church, in fact, is catholic, whether its members acknowledge it or not or act like it or not. We’re all part of something larger. We’re members of one body of Christ that spans time and space, culture and race, gender and lifestyle, church government and worship. We are one with the faithful through the ages and today who have died. We are joined in faith with generations yet unborn. We are one because Jesus Christ is one. He is the head and heart of the church, holding us together in the bond of his love.

So we’re not alone as we walk our pilgrimage. There are many believers of all colors, both genders, speaking many tongues that go with us. We don’t all look or think or act the same. We don’t have the same standard of living or level of freedom. But still there are some beliefs we hold in common.

That’s also what it means to be catholic. All Christians affirm two basic doctrines. One is that God is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Or if you prefer, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” or “Creator, Christ, and Comforter.” That is our belief in God as three-in-one, the Trinity.

We also say that this God who has perfect fellowship within himself chose to become a human being. The Creator of the universe, our Maker, took flesh in Jesus Christ. We call that wonderful fact “the incarnation.”

The twin mysteries of the Trinity and the incarnation lie at the heart of the two classic catholic creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. These statements came from the early centuries of the church. All Christians share them, though we use them in different ways and disagree about their meaning. But for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, they remain fine summaries of the very basics of our faith.

We Presbyterians have affirmed our connection with other Christians by including the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds in our Book of Confessions. We place them at the very beginning, as if to say that the Reformed emphasis of the rest of the documents has its foundation in a three-in-one God made known in a real person, Jesus of Nazareth. We are reminded by our standards that when we become haughty and arrogant in our thinking about God or begin to believe we have a corner on truth, there is mystery at the heart of our faith, an awesome wonder before which every believer must fall silent. And in the end it’s this mystery that unites us as the church catholic. It’s this wonder beyond ourselves that sends us out in mission, to work for the common good and the coming of God’s kingdom.

But if we are connected with the church catholic, we have parted ways with the Catholic Church, capital “c,” on a number of issues. Relationships have improved, of course, since the days of the Reformation in the 16th century, but we still disagree on the three issues made into slogans and given to us by Martin Luther. We remain Protestants, those who protest certain viewpoints and doctrines.

Luther, out of his personal crisis of faith and his academic study of the Bible, which intersected, taught that the only source for our doctrine is Scripture—sola scriptura—not the tradition of the church or human reason. As a result of his pondering night after night on Paul in Romans, Luther discovered his doctrine of justification by faith—sola fides—which is the gift of the grace of God alone—sola gratia. These are the three great watchwords of the Protestant tradition: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fides.

The first, sola scriptura—Scripture alone—is the conviction that doctrines and practice aren’t and can’t be based on popular and conventional wisdom. They may not and do not come from the latest study or from best-sellers in the self-help, spirituality or any other section in the bookstore. Belief and action do not and may not properly arise from prejudice or suspicion or cultural bias. Their source is not what you or I grew up with or what some tradition or story holds to be true. Their parent is not science or reason or common sense or the law of the land or the teaching of the church.

That’s not to say Protestants don’t respect traditions or employ reason or enter into conversation with science and government. It’s not to claim there is no value in self-help books or works of popular spirituality or fiction. It’s not to disparage the teaching or example of your parents and mine. In fact, there is often great and valuable insight to be found in all these sources. But they are secondary, derivative.

My point is that, as Protestants, we claim that a faith that sustains us has but one primary source: the Bible. The Scriptures alone are “able to instruct [us] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” as 2 Timothy says. The Confession of 1967 insisted: “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” Not too long after that, another Reformed document put it this way: “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are necessary, sufficient, and reliable as witnesses to Jesus Christ, the living Word. We must test any word that comes to us from church, world, or inner experience by the Word of God in Scripture. We subject to its judgment all our understanding of doctrine and practice…” (A Declaration of Faith).

The Bible is important not so much for historical or scientific or cultural information, but because it tells us about a person named Jesus. Because it reveals to us God’s love, a love so great that God sent his Son to save us by dying on a cross and give us new life by rising from the dead. The Scriptures are the gift of God by the Spirit to teach us about Jesus, to lead us to Jesus, to help us live like Jesus.

But if the Scriptures tell us about the gift of salvation, the grace of God actually grants it. Luther’s insight was such a gift came directly from God, not through the ministrations and sacraments of the church. It was unaccompanied by good works, as if any good work could make us worthy before God.

Grace really is a gift of supreme freedom. We are free from the oppressive quest to save ourselves, to measure up to our standards or those of others or of a demanding God. We are able to treat others with acceptance and mercy because we know that they, too, stand in need of grace just as we do.

Nothing else but the grace of God can save us, make us right with him. Not church attendance or serving as an officer or giving your money. Not treating your spouse with respect and love or teaching your children the difference between right and wrong. Not being a good citizen or serving the poor. As good as all those things are, they do not lift us out of the mire of sin, they do not fundamentally change our nature, they do not reconcile us to God. It is only the generous and undeserved gift of God in Jesus Christ that will lift us up, change us, reconcile us. It is only grace that will bring us back to God.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do. But it’s not exactly what we think of as “doing” something. I mean faith—faith alone, sola fides. The way we receive the grace of God is simply to accept it. It’s not about believing the right doctrine or getting baptized or saying a certain prayer. Faith is gratitude. Faith is clinging like mad to the One who will not let us go. It’s operative when it’s as small as a mustard seed or as seemingly insignificant as touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. It’s swallowing our pride and our arrogance and giving up our insistence on our own way. Faith is the hand reaching out in thanksgiving to take God’s hand, it’s the heart open to his love, it’s the head thinking new thoughts. And it’s faith alone, says the Protestant take on things, that is the means by which we receive the grace of God.

So, sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fides. But a fourth great Protestant doctrine is the priesthood of believers. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us that you and are a “royal priesthood” as the people of God. In baptism, we are all of us ordained as priests and called to participate in the ministry of Christ. The Reformers reclaimed the church for the people. Now no one needed to go to a priest to confess sins or to have a prayer said for some need. I could go directly to God with my confession; you could pray for me. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent near the end of the 16th century reacted strongly against this Protestant belief, and made the laity subservient to the clergy, the priesthood, for hundreds of years. Fortunately Vatican II saw that indeed all God’s people are in some sense priests, and for Catholics today, that is expressed in prayers of the people and through daily work.

We are all of us priests, standing before God on behalf of ourselves, each other, the world. Unfortunately, the Presbyterian Church has never really lived out the implications of that doctrine. As you know, our standards still say that only ordained persons, usually ministers, can celebrate the sacraments. Elders with special training and permission can do so. We’re told in our constitution that the reason for that is “order.” But truly, if we believed and practiced the priesthood of believers in the Presbyterian Church, anyone could baptize; anyone could preside at the Lord’s Table. Why isn’t that the case? Because our need for order trumps our ardor, our passion; our preference for head knowledge over heart knowledge and relationships becomes very clear. True, our standards say the ministry of all of us arises from the ministry of Christ, and that the ordained differ only in function. So we chart a middle course, but in this case, the middle is a muddle doctrinally. That’s not likely to change anytime soon in any significant way, and my complaining really doesn’t make any difference. So, let’s simply be priests to each other and for each other in any way we possibly can under our polity.

With that, it’s time to move on to how we are Reformed. I want to note in passing here that “Presbyterian” and “Reformed” usually go together, but they are not the same thing. “Presbyterian” refers to a kind of church government, by presbyters or elders. Any church, whatever its doctrine, could be presbyterian. “Reformed” is especially associated with the viewpoints of John Calvin and his successors down to the present day. It’s a doctrinal system, and can be compatible with any form of church government.

So what does it mean to say we are “Reformed” Christians? We’ve already noticed in past weeks a couple of the great emphases of Reformed faith, namely, the sovereignty of a free and loving God and faithful stewardship in response to the gifts of that God. So I’m not going to go over that same ground again.

Today instead I want to talk for a minute about the Reformed concern for a covenant community marked by accountability and everyday holiness. Our Book of order tells us that related to the theme of the sovereignty of God are the following: (1) the election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation; (2) covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God; (3) a faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; (4) the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.

Notice how incarnational all these are. Reformed folk do not go out of the world to be faithful. They are true to their heritage as they serve God by loving their neighbors. As they care for the planet, the creation. As they join together in covenant community, accountable to and responsible for each other. As they live in disciplined freedom, like that described in the Ten Commandments. As they speak out and act against tyranny in government and the church and society, and idolatry in all those areas, too. To be Reformed is to be not world-denying, but world-loving, world-engaging, world-wise. It’s to bring to bear the insights of the Scriptures on the problems that continually confront us in society, it’s to call the church to be “Reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. It’s to live simply, humbly, profoundly in reverence for the Sovereign of all.

It’s no secret that the PC(USA) and other formerly mainline churches are dying. In fact, one prediction says there will be no PC(USA) by 2050. If we want to resuscitate a dying church, maybe what we need to do is learn and practice CPR: live as Catholic, Protestant, Reformed. That will make us doctrinally robust, intimately connected with others, and mission-minded as we love the world God made. It will make us disciples of the Christ who is God with us, giving us his grace, and calling us to faith, hope, and love. We will be heralds of the good news our neighbors long to hear.

CPR. Catholic. Protestant. Reformed.


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