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 24, we considered The Heidelberg Catechism and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 19:7-14 and Acts 2:42-47.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
So, here’s how we began our 2019-2020 Confirmation Class last Sunday evening. In addition to the young people who were there beginning their journey towards church membership, we once again had an older teen who is volunteering as assistant teacher. When we were going around the circle introducing ourselves, Maddy said, “Well, when I did this five years ago, Carly was here to help Dave, and that was important to me. I think that sometimes it’s helpful to have someone, you know, younger, who can explain things differently than Dave.”
Ouch! But it’s a fair statement. The circle is always better when it’s more inclusive.
And we are not the first church where this has happened. As we continue in our discussion of the creeds that have shaped our faith, I’d like to take you back to 1559. Frederick III has just become an Elector – a sort of regional governor – of Germany. No sooner had he taken office, though, when he had a ringside seat to a full-blown church fight. Here’s the story.
In this corner, we have Tileman Heshusius. He’s a professor of preaching at Heidelberg University and is also the preacher at the local church. Heshusius is a staunch Lutheran – one of the most important aspects of theology, in his mind, is what one believes happens during the Lord’s Supper. He believed, taught, and preached that the actual body and blood of Jesus was present in the sacrament. Anything else, thought Heshusius, was nonsense.
And in the other corner, we have Wilhelm Klebitz (I tried, but could not find a picture of this fellow). He’s a student at the university, and a Deacon in the congregation. He advocated, very forcefully, that while every believer has access to the real and substantial presence of the risen Christ while taking the sacrament, there is no literal body or blood.
If I were to say that this was a heated debate, you wouldn’t get the full impact of what happened. While Heshusius was out of town, the other professors awarded Klebitz his degree. When Heshusius returned, he was furious, and in a sermon he called that act a “hellish, devlish, cursed, cruel, and terrible thing” and said that Klebitz was a devil from the pit of hell. The next week, when these two men were together at the communion table leading worship, Heshusius literally wrestled the cup of wine out of Klebitz’ hands. The congregation watched, dumbfounded, as the two pastors fought in the chancel. Finally, Frederick had had enough and he kicked them both out of Heidelberg. But then he had another problem: he needed someone to preach at his church and he needed a professor for the university. More than that, he was concerned that the church argument between the previous folks had turned off the young people. He wrote that his problems were many:
Therefore, we also have ascertained, that, by no means the least defect of our system, is found in the fact that our blooming youth is disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine… The consequence has ensued that they have, in too many instances, grown up without the fear of God and the knowledge of his Word, having enjoyed no profitable instruction, or otherwise have been perplexed with irrelevant and needless questions, and at times have been burdened by unsound doctrines.
But what to do? How to get the kids to pay attention to religion, and learn the faith? Frederick had just the ticket: he went out and hired Zacharias Ursinus, age 28, to be the professor of preaching at the university, and a 26 year old named Caspar Olivianus to be the preacher at the local church. I’m not sure whether these young whippersnappers had goatees, or played the guitar, or know all the right slang words, but I do know that Frederick asked them to come up with a means by which young people might be instructed in the path of Christian discipleship. Moreover, Frederick asked them to do it in such a way as to bring people together, rather than driving them further apart.
In January of 1563, then, these men published the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers covering the depths of human sinfulness, the profundity of God’s redemptive love, and the importance of our gratitude for that redemption. It is a remarkable document in many ways.
It is, first of all, deeply personal. This is not a sweeping series of broad theological statements requiring intellectual assent, but rather a string of heartfelt questions addressed to the individual. For instance, this is how the catechism begins:
- What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Do you hear how different that is from our previous statements like the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds or the Scots Confession? It’s just lovely!
In addition, it is conciliatory in tone. The authors deliberately sought to find areas of agreement in Jesus Christ. There is little trace of the controversy that birthed the catechism within it.
And it is remarkable in its emphasis on the positive aspects that flow from a life of discipleship in Jesus. If you read it, you’ll discover an echo of the 19th Psalm focusing on the beauty of God’s law, one that stresses the goodness that can come from walking in the path of obedience.
Too often, the Christian faith is presented as a caricature. God is depicted as a grumpy old man who is really mad at you because you’re such a miserable sinner. Maybe you grew up in a church that defined faithful living as all the stuff we’re not supposed to do: no swearing, no lying, no cheating, no dancing, no card playing… In some churches, the message seems to be this: If you want to make God happy, then straighten up and fly right, Buster. Stop doing all that stuff that ticks God off, and then maybe God will have mercy on your pathetic little soul…
But the Heidelberg Catechism is beautiful in the way that it treats the laws of God. In fact, the discussion of the commandments is located in the section of the Catechism dealing with gratitude because Christian living is not primarily about avoiding the negative and unpleasant realities of sin, but rather embracing the positive and joyful aspects of daily life. I’d like to look at two sections of the Catechism by way of illustration.
Questions 110 and 111 deal with the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not steal”. If the only possible interpretation of “stealing” was breaking into my home or robbing me on the subway, well then it’s easy to have a simple prohibition. But the Catechism suggests that the commandment addresses a more pervasive human condition, that of greed. The answer to question 110 indicates that the eighth commandment “forbids not only the theft and robbery which civil authorities punish, but.. also… all wicked tricks and schemes by which we seek to get for ourselves our neighbor’s goods…”
It’s fair to include in this definition, then, deliberate attempts to underpay workers or to cheat the poor. This is particularly relevant during the Christmas season, when we are so pressured to buy more and more stuff for loved ones, colleagues, and, of course, ourselves. The Catechism reminds us that the Law of God is concerned with who is getting the money for these products. Are those shoes that look so great being crafted in subhuman conditions by 13 year-olds? Is that furniture that looks so amazing in my den the result of deforestation in a country that desperately needs a rain forest?
You see, our economics can never simply be about saying “I paid for this, and so it’s mine.” Who did you pay, and who got paid? Who else made that bargain possible? In your purchase, did you somehow support, enrich, or encourage someone who truly needs that income? That is the law of love applied to the eighth commandment.
Similarly, question 112 deals with the ninth commandment which forbids false witness. We are cautioned, of course, to avoid outright deception and deceit that come straight from the pit of Hell. And we are also reminded that human speech is a glorious gift. How dare we abuse that gift by contorting it into falsehood? In addition to refraining from lying, I am forbidden to take your words and meaning and twist them into something else entirely, implying that you are saying something altogether different than that which you meant. The Catechism warns us against slander and gossip.
Wow, is that relevant in the age of social media and electronic communication, or what? Between Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and Email and Texting, it is so easy to yield to the first impulse and to launch an attack, spread a falsehood, perpetuate a rumor, or join in a group smear campaign against someone else. The Catechism says, “In judicial and all other matters I am to love the truth, and to speak and confess it honestly.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, a contemporary theologian and philosopher, puts it this way: “Thou must not take cheap shots. Thou must earn thy right to disagree… the point being it is much more difficult (I don’t say impossible) to dishonor someone to his face.”
The Catechism goes on to instruct us that the ninth commandment calls us to defend and promote our neighbor’s good name.
I want to pause there and remind you that we’re talking about a document that was written as a result of a church fight. Frederick III asked for a way through a conflicted time, and the resultant catechism affirms that we are called to build up our neighbor in what we say about her or him even when, or perhaps especially when, we are angry.
That might be timely for you this morning. Maybe you’re irritated with a fellow member of this congregation; perhaps you’re preparing yourself for another holiday meal with your “idiot” brother-in-law whose politics you cannot stand; or maybe you’re enraged by the current state of affairs in Washington DC. The question is the same: in what you say about or to people, are you, to the best of your ability, promoting their good name? Are you loving your neighbor in your speech? Is the world a better place because of what you say and how you say it? That is keeping the commandment!
Acts chapter two describes the first Christian community. I know we are the “First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights,” but this passage is about First Church of Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. It describes their gatherings… day by day – that is to say, they are normal, and unremarkable. They met – how? With “glad and generous hearts”. When they looked at each other, and spoke to and about each other – they did so with generosity of spirit. The result was that they enjoyed the good will of all the people.
Beloved in the Lord, the scripture is plain: God’s law is a gift. It is designed to lead us to embrace what is best.
May we be known as people who are quick to encourage and affirm; as those who are reluctant to profit from another’s misery or misfortune; as people whose hearts, minds, and spirits are indeed glad and generous. Thanks be to God! Amen.
We concluded the message by affirming our faith using
questions 1, 2, 110, 111, and 112 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
- Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
- Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.
110. Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment (concerning theft)?
God forbids not only outright theft and robbery but also such wicked schemes and devices as false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury; we must not defraud our neighbor in any way, whether by force or by show of right. In addition God forbids all greed and all abuse or squandering of His gifts.
111. Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
I must promote my neighbor’s good wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would like others to deal with me, and work faithfully so that I may be able to give to those in need.
112. Q. What is required in the ninth commandment (concerning false witness)?
I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard. Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil’s own works, under penalty of God’s heavy wrath. In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbor’s honor and reputation.
 From the original preface to the Catechism in 1563. Available in its entirety here: http://heidelberg-catechism.s3.amazonaws.com/Original%20Preface%20of%20Heidelberg%20Catechism%20(1563).pdf
 Quoted in Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Heart and Mind, edited by Douglas Huffman (Kregel Academic and Professional Press, 2012), pp 88-89.