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October 31, 2016

“CPR” Exodus 20:1-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 1:1-14, 16-18 © October 30, 2016 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, then 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, 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, one-in-three: 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’ and the Nicene. These statements came from the first thousand years of the church, with the Nicene finished first, in the 300s, and the Apostles’ finally gaining its present form somewhat later, but going back to ancient baptismal formulas. 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 practices 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 either the online or the brick-and-mortar 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. Of course we do. 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 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 the late first century document 2 Timothy says. Our 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).

Of course, the Bible must be interpreted thoughtfully and responsibly. It’s a collection of books written over a period of hundreds of years a very long time ago in and for cultures whose customs and viewpoints differed quite a bit from our own and whose level of knowledge of the world and the universe was far inferior to ours.. The Bible is neither a book of science or history nor is it a guide for social mores or politics. It’s important and authoritative not for such things, 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. Anytime we read Scripture, we should do so through the lens of God’s loving revelation of himself to us in Jesus.

But if the scriptures tell us about the gift of salvation, the grace of God actually grants it. Luther’s insight was that 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, as we noticed last week. Not church attendance or serving on the session 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 and commendable 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’s 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 when we are alienated from him.

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. As Paul Tillich put it, we accept that we are accepted. Contrary to what we hear from some believers and churches, faith is not about believing the right doctrine or getting baptized or saying a certain prayer to invite Jesus to be the center of your life. 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.

With that, it’s time to move on to how we are not merely Protestant, but 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? You have heard me talk about a couple of the great emphases of Reformed faith over and over. These are 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: the election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation; covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God; a faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; 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 (F-2.05).

Notice how incarnational all these are. We Reformed folk do not go out of the world to be faithful. We are true to our heritage as we serve God by loving our neighbors. As we care for the planet, the creation. As we join together in covenant community, accountable to and responsible for each other. As we live in disciplined freedom, like that described in the Ten Commandments. As we 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), like other formerly mainline churches, is dying. Our new national stated clerk last summer tried to soften that fact a bit by saying that we were not dying, but reforming ( ). Whether we’re trying to resuscitate or just renew the church, maybe what we need to do is learn and practice CPR: live as Catholic, Protestant, Reformed. And under that broad umbrella, we could think of other words those initials stand for: courage, perseverance, renewal; compassion, patience, reconciliation; creativity, playfulness, receptivity. Practicing CPR, whatever we mean by the acronym, 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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