Every year it's the same thing. Newly elected ruling elders and deacons gather on Tuesday nights at University Presbyterian Church to be trained by their pastor (me) and Christian educator in preparation for ordination. This group of people, many of whom have not been Presbyterian for long, give me a kind of bug-eyed look when I hand them a shiny new blue Book of Confessions and ask them to dive into it throughout the week. They look at me like they are not sure they will come out on the other side!
Then they get curious --most of them--and decide to read more than we have asked them, taking notes and wondering where these ideas came from. They are amazed at the wisdom of the confessions, confused by the vitriol, and surprised by the words of grace. They ask for help understanding and they look for permission to argue and they find reasons to celebrate a history they had not paid attention to before.
Which always reminds ME of the great stuff that can be found in the confessions of the church. (If you are not Presbyterian and are listening in jealously, you can download a free copy of the Book of Confessions on the pcusa.org website).
Here is something challenging and inspiring from each of the confessions......
1. The Nicene Creed (4th century)
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Do we look for the dead to rise? Or do we expect what is severed, broken, lost, unreconciled, to stay that way? Perhaps hope is always being on the lookout for resurrection.
2. The Apostles' Creed (2nd through 8th centuries)
I believe.......in the forgiveness of sins....
I'm working on this one. Some days I can't shake the fact that I am part of the hurt that others experience in the world. Other days I am crushed by the heartlessness that others display around me.
3. The Scots Confession (16th century)
This confession speaks of "good works" as two kinds: One is done to honor God, the other for the profit of our neighbor......To honor father, mother, princes, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, to support them, to obey their orders if they are not contrary to the commands of God, to save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, to keep our bodies clean and holy, to live in soberness and temperance, to deal justly with all [people] in word and deed, and finally, to repress any desire to harm our neighbor, are the good works of the second kind.
In other words, the world, our bodies, our relationships, are all the realm of the work of the Spirit. Words matter, but only inasmuch as they express themselves in how we live.
4. The Heidelberg Catechism (16th century)
Under the heading "Thankfulness" this confession goes through the 10 Commandments and suggest deep and wide meaning for each of them. Here's a great example:
Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment [You shall not steal.]?
A. He forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but God also labels as theft all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor's goods, whether by force or under the pretext of right, such as false weights and measures, deceptive advertising or merchandising, counterfeit money, exorbitant interest, or any other means forbidden by God. He also forbids all greed and misuse and waste of his gifts.
Lots of 21st century relevance here! Ouch. Think about credit card interest and payday lending!
5. The Second Helvetic Confession (again, 16th century)
So much in this one! Okay, sticking to one thing.......
....the Gospel is properly called glad and joyous news...........
A great reminder in the flurry of words and complications of our theologies. May we stay rooted in this proclamation!
6. The Westminster Confession of Faith (17th century with edits beyond this time)
The remarriage of divorced persons may be sanctioned by the church, in keeping with the redemptive gospel of Christ, when sufficient penitence for sin and failure is evident, and a firm purpose of and endeavor after Christian marriage is manifested.
This section acknowledges the reality of deep human brokenness and celebrates that God can work in us and through us in new relationships, while reminding us of the need to see our part in the failures of our relationships. Thanks be to God!
7. The Shorter Catechism (based on the Westminster Confession, same era)
Question 1. What is the chief end of [humanity]?
Answer: [Humanity's] chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.
8. The Larger Catechism
see "Shorter Catechism"
9. The Theological Declaration of Barmen (20th century)
This courageous confession, written in the shadow of Adolph Hitler, professes faith in Christ above all powers and principalities of the world. The authors speak strongly of the dangers of the merger of church and state power:
We reject the false doctrine, as thought the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.
The church loses its unique witness and identity if it is subsumed by the state. As tempting as it might be to us to be affirmed by the state, Barmen urges us to see that the church's mission is in great danger if we are too "cozy" with political power.
10. The Confession of 1967 (well, 1967!)
This confession acknowledges both the blessings and challenges of the tumultuous change seeping across the nation and globe in this time in history. In a time of the rising power of the United States in the world, the confession cautions:
Although nations may serve God's purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.
11. A Brief Statement of Faith (20th century)
In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing....
That prayer takes courage is an idea that lingers and makes me wonder if my life of prayer is deep enough, courageous enough, hopeful enough. With my brothers and sisters, I will keep praying......
12. Will there be a 12th? The Belhar Confession from South Africa will be considered for inclusion at this summer's General Assembly. Powerful words about unity, justice and reconciliation in Christ. Stay tuned.............