Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century? In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus. On November 17, we considered The Scots Confession of 1560 and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 68:1-10 and Matthew 18:15-20
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
This month, we’ve been using this part of our worship to look at some of the ancient and historic documents, called “creeds”, that are a part of the church’s story. Maybe you remember that the oldest of these start with the words “I believe”, and the Latin word for that is “Credo”. The creeds provide a helpful means for us to look back at where we’ve been as the people of God. When I speak with the confirmation class, I tell them that the Bible is like a birth certificate: it tells us who we are, and where we came from. The Creeds are like a family album: they tell us what we looked like at a particular point in time. Like most photo albums, some of what is here is more flattering than the rest of it, but they are accurate depictions of where we were, what was important to us, and – in a manner of speaking – what we were fighting about at that time.
In the fourth century, the church argued about who Jesus was in relationship to God the Creator. The Nicene Creed emerged from that controversy.
The Apostles’ Creed, as we discussed last week, was a response to a series of conflicts relating to the possibility of forgiveness, the meaning of Christ’s death, and an understanding of who could be included in the church.
About 800 years following the completion of the Apostles’ Creed, the winds of change were blowing through Europe and much of the world. There was an explosion of learning and culture that we call “the Renaissance” that led to the reshaping of political boundaries and allegiances as well as a burst of energy within the church. A movement we know as “the Reformation” was ignited by men like Martin Luther and later John Calvin. These folks saw some glaring problems within the church, and they tried to get the church to fix them – to re-form itself. Instead, by and large the church tended to kick people like this out, and the fact that they were protesting something they saw as wrong led them to be called Protestants.
Across the church, in congregation after congregation, people were asking questions like, “How do we worship?”, “Who’s in charge of worship?”, and “Which of these is the ‘true’ church?”
In the mid-16th century, the nation of Scotland had just emerged from a bloody civil war. The political unrest and conflict had led to a determination to reform not just the government, but the entire ethos of the country, including the church.
In the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds we have documents that resulted from long periods of deliberation involving dozens, if not hundreds of people, written apart from or even in opposition to the government. In the Scots Confession, however, we find a statement that was written in haste by six men so that it might be presented to the Scottish Parliament, thereby making the realm of Scotland officially “Protestant territory”.
The world of the Scots Confession is vastly different from that of the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds. The church is no longer hunted or persecuted – in fact, it is virtually synonymous with the government in nation after nation across Europe. In most countries, there is very little distinction between the offices of the church and state, between ecclesial polity and national strategy. When Scotland emerged from a civil war, then, it seemed logical to them that they’d want a new form of the church – which meant breaking away from the Catholics in France as well as the Church of England.
And so for four days in August of 1560, John Knox and five other men named John wrote what we have come to call The Scots Confession. It followed, essentially, the teachings of a Presbyterian theologian in Switzerland whose name was John Calvin. At the end of the week, it was submitted to Parliament, ratified, and the Church of Scotland as we know it was born.
If we were to read the entire document – which we shall not – we’d think it to be quite dated. It is tied to its time and place in many respects. Yet one key – and perhaps this is the reason that the Presbyterian Church USA has retained this confession in our own Book of Confessions – is the emphasis it places on the local church.
Using the Scottish dialect, the confession describes that there is one true Kirk – or Church – and yet we can only know the one Kirk in and through specific congregations in particular places.
I have to interject and say that when I speak of the one true Kirk, I’m not trying to discuss the merits of William Shatner or Christopher Pine. Rather, I’m joining John Knox and the other five Johns in affirming that the one Kirk is comprised of many parts.
For centuries, the question “which is the right church?” was not problematic. Fundamentally, there was a single church, headquartered in Rome, led by the Pope and his Cardinals and Bishops. If you were to say, “Which is the true church?” to many folks, that would be like asking “How long is the television program ’60 Minutes’?” It was a no-brainer.
And yet as the Reformation and Renaissance splintered and fragmented society, new churches and theologies sprang up. Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others, began to teach that there was a way to discern where the “true church” could be found. They said that the presence of Christ was found in any congregation wherein the Word of God was preached and the sacraments were rightly administered. As long as when you went to church you could find someone speaking your language teaching the Bible and offering baptism and communion to those who requested it, you could count yourself as “home”.
And yet Knox and the others thought that this did not go far enough. In their experience, the church was often led by unsavory characters. It was not uncommon to find authoritative and powerful church leaders who were corrupt, murderous, or totally lacking in integrity. For instance, the Cardinal overseeing that part of Europe at the time was widely known to have fathered at least eight children with several women. Knox and his contemporaries advocated for a higher moral standard within the church, and so the Scots Confession offers a third key definitive aspect to the church: in addition to proclaiming the Word of God and administering the sacraments, the true church is marked by “ecclesiastical discipline whereby vice is repressed and virtue is nourished.”
The framers of the Scots confession said, essentially, “Look, we live together in covenant community. How we treat each other matters!”
When we hear the word “discipline”, particularly in church, we can have a negative connotation. We’ve heard of groups that use their particular version of the truth to shun others, to marginalize smaller groups, or to bring shame and pain to particular people. In the 21st century, we don’t think about “church discipline” often. We don’t want to offend people; we don’t want to sound as though we are trying to be “holier than thou”, and nobody wants to be the person pointing fingers at anyone else. It’s uncomfortable: I’ve sat in a lot of rooms around the world wherein people with power use the church courts to marginalize, ostracize, and shame someone else.
The Scots Confession points out that discipline is not a dirty word, but rather an essential tool used by individual Christians and local Kirks so that each of us would be better able to follow Jesus and glorify God. They sought to reclaim the teaching of Jesus that an authentic and helpful understanding of discipline was a liberating thing. When I talked to the kids about exercising during the Children’s Sermon, I hope I indicated that I don’t exercise because I like laying on the floor with my dumbbells – I exercise because that’s the best way to become the person I think I’m supposed to be in the world. Each of us in the Kirk commits ourselves to seeking to act uprightly and with integrity, and we covenant with others to hold ourselves and each other accountable. In this light, discipline is not a weapon, but a resource that can be used to help us be our best selves.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus outlines a simple plan for individual uprightness and corporate accountability. If you sense that someone in the fellowship has wounded you or acted in a manner that is contrary to the Good News of Jesus, you are obliged to speak to that person about it.
Do you think that Jesus knew how uncomfortable these conversations would be? When he said this, did his followers avoid eye contact and stammer, “Um, yeah, well, you see, Jesus, nobody really wants to be ‘that guy’ in this kind of a thing…”
One of my best friends in the whole world is a person who makes me a better human being each time we speak. Often she will sit me down and say, “Look, this isn’t easy, but I’m not really your friend if I don’t tell you this…” and then she names some hard truth about myself that I need to hear but very few people are willing to tell me honestly. Stephanie holds me accountable in a way that reflects love and grace and reminds me to be my best self.
I’d invite you to go home and re-read the passage from Matthew. You’ll note that Jesus did not say, “If you see a sister in sin, make sure that you post it on Facebook, #prayforthispatheticloser.” He doesn’t say, “If your brother sins against you, make sure that everyone at the office knows what a jerk he is.”
No, the prescription that Jesus offers is simple. One on one, go and ask. Inquire. Expect the best from this person who is a sibling in Christ with you. If you are not heard, and you remain convinced that there’s a problem – go back. You take the initiative and bring one or two more people along in the expectation that things can be made right.
I know – this is an idealistic scenario. It presumes that trust, integrity, humility, and interdependence are shared values, and that change is possible. But it is what Jesus expects from those of us who follow him.
But what if there is no change? What if the poor behavior continues? “Well,” said Jesus, “at that point, then treat this person as you would a tax collector or a sinner.”
Ahh, so NOW we can gripe on Facebook and gossip at the coffee shop, right?
Except… how did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? How many people did Jesus publicly marginalize or shame?
Listen: we are never free to publicly humiliate or denigrate someone else. Can we disagree? Of course. Are there times when we need to remove ourselves from the conversation? You better believe it. Shall we launch an attack, or smear someone, or return bad behavior for bad behavior? That is simply not of God.
The goal of all discipline – in my own life and in that of the Kirk – is self-discipline. If I hurt or offend you, then you offer me feedback as to what I have done that has harmed you. Eventually, we hope, I’ll get it right. I’ll learn, I’ll remember, and I’ll stop doing it. And if I don’t? Then you may need to step away from me for a while, until I learn how best to be the person God longs for me to be.
The Scots confession ends with a powerful allusion to Psalm 68, which Anna read for you earlier today. It is a prayer for the people of God – the Kirk – to be bold in speaking the truth and in living with integrity so that all creation might see the true nature of God. The confession and the Psalm both indicate that all we do in our lives and in the Kirk ought to point to the powerful acts and loving character of the One who created us.
The Psalm is a plea that we are not those who are known for who we hate, but for how we love; we are not renowned for the ways in which we attack others, but for our willingness to defend those who have no other recourse; the Kirk of God is defined not by our willingness to exclude others, but rather to lay siege to the fortresses of loneliness and isolation.
Like every other document produced by human hands, the Scots Confession is a mixed bag – there are some parts that make me cringe as I read them, and some paragraphs that resound with truth and grace. Today, let us claim the truth that is here: that none of us can do this alone. We are each members of the Body of Christ, but together we are the Kirk of God. We need the Kirk – we need each other – to help us, to equip us, to correct us, and to motivate us to be our best selves so that we display the love of Jesus in all we do. Thanks be to God for that! Amen.
[Following the sermon, the congregation rose and used these words from the Scots Confession to affirm our faith and our commitment to follow the rule of love.]
The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be:
- first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us…
- secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus…
- and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.
Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time…is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. This is not that universal Kirk of which we have spoken before, but particular Kirks, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and other places where the ministry was planted by Paul and which he himself called Kirks of God.
Such Kirks, we the inhabitants of the realm of Scotland confessing Christ Jesus, do claim to have in our cities, towns, and reformed districts…
The interpretation of Scripture, we confess, does not belong to any private or public person, nor yet to any Kirk for pre-eminence or precedence, personal or local, which it has above others, but pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written…
We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love.