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 January 26, we considered The Second Helvetic Confession, written in Switzerland in the mid-1500’s. We centered our worship on selected verses from I Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:19-25.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
This morning we are going to return to a theme that we left off before Christmas: we are looking at some of the great creeds of the church. You may remember that nearly all of these statements came out of a church fight somewhere or other. There are a dozen such documents in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions, and we are in the process of touching each of them.
I hope you remember the last time we considered this topic: we were in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1559 where there was, quite literally, a church fight. Do you remember how the senior pastor, Tileman Heshusius, and his associate, Wilhelm Klebitz, exchanged punches during communion while leading worship in Heidelberg? And how the regional governor, Frederick III, Elector of Germany, sent them both packing and brought in a couple of young guys to write a statement that would be more accessible to the youth in the church? We call that statement The Heidelberg Catechism.
I know that this might shock you, but, well, it turns out that not everyone was happy with the fact that their church was changing. Can you believe it?
Sure, Frederick III thought that he’d settled the matter and went on doing whatever it is that “Electors” do in their spare time. And everything was great… until… dah dah dah…
Someone took it upon themselves to write a snooty letter to Maximilian II, who was the Archduke of Austria, the King of Bohemia, Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, and the Holy Roman Emperor. He was kind of a big deal, and he was Frederick’s boss. Maximilian was a Catholic, but he supported freedom of religion as long as the religion we were talking about was Christianity.
On January 14, 1566, Maximilian called for the Imperial Diet to convene (This may be the reason that even now, 450 years later, everyone starts a diet in January). The Diet was the deliberative body of the Holy Roman Empire. The reason for this gathering, according to Maximilian, was to determine whether Frederick III was a heretic. He’d been accused of betraying the Gospel and by supporting a new statement of faith, leading the people of Germany astray. The Diet would convene to consider that charge, and if so, what punishment might be leveled. Should Frederick be removed from office? Banned from the Empire? Imprisoned? Even killed?
I know, I know, it’s crazy to think that a group of people would be critical of their government, and want to hold their leaders to account, and investigate charges against a head of state, but evidently, it happens some times…
Anyway, Frederick gets a letter from Maximilian indicating the charges against him and telling him he’d better come up with a defense and prove that he was not a filthy heretic, or worse, a Lutheran.
Frederick panicked, and reached out to a friend, a Swiss church leader named Heinrich Bullinger. “Heinrich”, he said, “I need a statement! I need something that will clear my name and show that the things I’ve said are consistent with the faith… and I need it fast! The Emperor is expecting me in less than four months!”
Heinrich Bullinger, at the time, was 62 years old. He was nearing the end of a stellar career in which he’d been an eyewitness to church history: he had been a close associate of Ulrich Zwingli, a colleague of John Calvin, and a mentor of sorts to John Knox of Scotland. A couple of years previous, there had been an outbreak of the plague in Switzerland, and Bullinger had spent months and months tending to the sick and burying the dead. He knew that his days were numbered, and when he returned to his home each evening, he worked to write a personal memoir. He completed it in 1564 and set it in an envelope, along with his will, so that it might be shared as a testimony to his personal faith upon his death. He did not intend the document to be a public statement, at least in his lifetime.
But now he had to make a choice: his friend was in trouble, and there was no time to draft a new creed. Could he share his personal reflections with Frederick III? Would that be enough to satisfy Maximilian and the Diet? Could Bullinger’s statement save Frederick from banishment, imprisonment, or even death?
At the end of the day, Bullinger sent a copy of his statement to Frederick, who was so impressed with it that he had it published in March of 1566. It was accepted by Emperor Maximilian and became the new standard for Reformed confessions of faith.
Bullinger’s document has become known as The Second Helvetic Confession. “Helvetic” means “Swiss”, so if you want to impress the folks at the deli next time, ask for a ham and Helvetic sandwich… see what happens…
At any rate, this was not a short statement. The Second Helvetic Confession contains 30 chapters. The first sixteen of them deal with matters of scripture, theology, and church doctrine, while the second half consider the ordering of church life. There are chapters on church leadership, the sacraments, worship, holy days, confirmation, funerals, and marriage. The Confession is deeply personal, and is in the first person voice: affirmations begin with the word “we”. The central emphasis, I think, is the notion that what “we”, the church, do – well, it matters.
And I suspect that even if there are those of you in the room who found the account of the church fight in Heidelberg and the accusations against Frederick to be mildly interesting, at least for church, that right about now your eyes might be glazing over and you’re sighing, “So what? That booklet is more than 450 years old, written in another era to a different people. What does it have to do with us?”
If I had the time, I’d suggest that any number of those 30 chapters might be worth the church’s consideration in 2020, but let me offer you two “C’s” that seem to stand out in the Second Helvetic Confession.
The first is the notion of covenant. We, the church of Jesus Christ in the 21stcentury are here, just as were our siblings in the 17th century, participating in a journey towards faith that is, in large part, given to us. God has invited us to participate in the drama of history, and we are called to play a role in world events as they occur.
On the one hand, this is a great freedom, and it means that we are not in a position where we have to make stuff up. Our identity is given to us. We are told that we are made, fearfully and wonderfully, to be in God’s own image. We are included in a body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church – that is sent out into the world as agents of what God is doing in that world. We, though many, are called into one body to be an expression of the love of Jesus in the places where we are sent. Do you see? We don’t have to invent ourselves or our church out of thin air! We accept what is given to us, and we seek to live into it with authenticity and integrity.
And while we don’t have to make stuff up, we don’t get to make stuff up, either. The Apostle Paul was writing to a church in Corinth where a few folks had decided that they were the ones to call the shots, deciding what things God could tolerate and which were simply beyond the pale, and in so doing they came up with a list of things of which God approved. Paul had to remind that congregation, in chapter 13 of that letter, that our first obligation is always to love; in the context of that love, Paul wrote, we could do things “decently and in order” – but we had to accept the notion that God, not us, is the One who puts things in order.
When we say, with the Second Helvetic Confession, that we are a “covenantal” body, we are saying that we must allow God the freedom to be God. We affirm our willingness to accept the fact that we are made in the Divine image, even though it’s often so much easier to imagine that God is in our image, and therefore hates all the same people that I hate and is really, really fussy about all the things that just so happen to irritate me, too. The call to participate in a covenant is a call to grow in our understandings of what it means to be faithful to the God who calls us, rather than simply more entrenched in our own ideas and practices.
The second “C” I’d like to highlight from this confession is the notion of community. In spending so much time and energy outlining practices such as local church leadership and marriage and baptism and funerals, the Second Helvetic Confession stands against the notion that the Christian Faith is fundamentally the ability to say “yes” to a certain number of theological propositions or intellectual ideals. Far from it! We are, together, the body of Christ, and we are gathered into local congregations. Each of these gatherings consists of individual people – people who have names, and stories, and hopes, and fears, and dreams, and failures. We are not an idea – we are a people. We are us. We are who we are. And we are God’s.
And we – us – this particular congregation of named people who gather at a particular time in a specific place – we are called to live the lives that we’ve been given in such a way that people might see in those lives something of the Holy One. The ways that we come together in this community, and practice the faith that we’ve been given in the covenant, ought to point others to the Giver of all good gifts and the Author of every story. In this context of this congregational community, we commit to loving each other.
Listen, I’m here to tell you that the Second Helvetic Confession can be tedious reading. I get that. But in giving 14 chapters to the ordering of congregational life, this document establishes the truth that the ways that we treat each other in common interactions like birth and marriage and death and community – that the ways that we treat each other reflect whether or not we have truly “gotten it” in terms of being agents of the Divine Love in the world.
As a community, then, we gather not to carp or criticize, not to elevate ourselves at the expense of another, but rather (as it says in the letter to the Hebrews), to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” We gather, not in order to show the world how holy we are, or how God is especially pleased with the ways that we happen to run things, but because each day, each of us needs to be encouraged to be more loving and more generous in heart, mind, and spirit.
God forbid that we come in here and assert that because we have some particular corner on the truth that our marriages are stronger, our baptisms more valid, or our funeral luncheons are more delicious! The only reason the church is called to be together is so that our love for one another might somehow reflect the love of God for the world and that our neighbors might therefore be more likely to recognize the blessings of community, justice, and shalom that God intends for all of creation. The way we point to that big thing, says Bullinger in this confession, is by doing the little things with integrity and honor.
So let us keep on, saints! Not because we alone know the truth, or because we are always right, or because the songs that we like are the only ones worth singing. Let us keep on so that we ourselves might be formed more fully into a covenant community that reflects the Divine Intention of love in the world all day, every day, to everybody. Thanks be to God for this church fight that led us closer to living the truth. Amen.