by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
The Church is the primary place where we encounter Jesus and grow in grace.
There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother (church) conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. John Calvin, Institutes IV.1.4
Second Helvetic Confession
I actually had to look that up. Helvetic is the Latin name for Switzerland, which was the center of the Reformed, or Presbyterian, tradition. As I said last week, Luther was up in Germany. John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli were the two leading Reformed theologians. Both lived in Switzerland. The Lutheran and Reformed beliefs came together in Southern Germany, in an area called the Palatinate. Heidelberg, which we talked about last week, was one of the leading cities. Frederick III, who ruled that area, wanted to find a common faith that both Lutherans and Presbyterians could agree on. The First Helvetic Confession, written in 1536, was one of the early attempts to resolve their differences. The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563, was one of the later attempts.
I won’t go into all the details but trying to satisfy the Lutherans and the Presbyterians didn’t work. They still disagreed and fought with each other. Frederick gradually became more Reformed in his beliefs. He wanted a confession that expressed his Reformed theology. In 1566 he asked Heinrich Bullinger, the pastor of the church in Zurich, to write an exposition of the Reformed faith. Bullinger had actually written one for himself about four years earlier. He sent his own statement of faith to Frederick and to the rest of the Swiss churches. With a few modifications, Frederick and the Swiss church, accepted what is now known as the Second Helvetic Confession.
Let’s take a look at the banner. The cross divides the banner into four sections. The Confession talks about the salvation that is ours through Jesus’ death on the cross.
In the top-left quadrant there is a hand holding a burning heart. This is the symbol that John Calvin used for his life and faith and ministry. Usually people think of Luther as the heart of the Reformation and Calvin as the brains. But Calvin’s goal was not to help people think correctly, but to help people have a heart on fire for Christ. The hand is God’s hand. Our heart, our life, is in God’s hand.
The lamp in the top right quadrant stands for knowledge and discipline, two themes that stand out in the Second Helvetic Confession. To live the Christian life we need to know what we believe and we need to be disciplined in what we do.
The bottom left quadrant has the shepherd’s Crook and a pasture. This is a symbol of living within the church, as sheep in the flock, with Jesus as our shepherd.
In the bottom right corner we have the chalice and the waves. These point to the two sacraments, Holy Communion and Baptism.
The Second Helvetic Confession is thirty chapters long. It is the longest of our confessions. The seventeenth chapter is about the Church. During the Reformation there were many disagreements about the nature of the church. Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians had different ideas of what the Church is and how we are to live our faith within the church.
That shouldn’t surprise us. The apostle Paul used many different images to talk about the church is. In the passage from 1 Corinthians he used the image of a building, a temple, to talk about the church. The foundation is Jesus. He is the one who holds us up and keeps the church from collapsing. Then there are a variety of stones and other materials that are used to build the structure on top of that foundation. In Colossians Paul used the body to talk about the church. There are different parts to the body and Jesus is the head.
In the section of the Second Helvetic Confession that we will recite at the end of the sermon, Heinrich Bullinger used a variety of other images that are drawn from the Bible. The church is an assembly of people who gather to worship. We are citizens of a city and people who have relationships with each other. The church is “a virgin and the Bride of Christ.” The church is a flock of sheep with Jesus as the shepherd. In the Bible, and in the Confessions, no single image is adequate to describe the church.
There is no way in one sermon I could say everything there is to say about the church. What I want to do is share with you one sentence about the church, and then unpack the meaning of that sentence.
The church is the primary place where we encounter Jesus and grow in grace.
The Christian life starts with an encounter with Jesus. For some people it is a dramatic encounter – like Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. For those of us who were brought up in the church it may not have been a dramatic encounter. We grew up learning the stories and knowing about Jesus. However, at some point in time everyone needs to have an encounter of some sort. Everyone needs to decide that the faith of the church, the faith of his or her parents, is their own faith. It may be dramatic or quiet, but everyone needs to meet Jesus. He breaks in to our lives, breaks in to our consciousness, and we proclaim not that Jesus is the Lord. We proclaim that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior.
However, that moment when we encounter Jesus and confess our faith, is just the beginning . We need to grow in grace. We grow in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and to follow Christ. We learn the Bible. We learn how to pray. We grow in our relationship with Christ and in our relationships with other Christians. This process of growing in grace lasts as long as we are alive.
The church is the primary place where we encounter Jesus and grow in grace. In saying that the church is the primary place I’m suggesting that it isn’t the only place. God can come to us anywhere and anytime. God can and does break into our lives in unexpected places, in ways that we never imagined. You can meet God hiking in the mountains, filled with awe at the majestic beauty of God’s creation. You can meet God walking along the beach, filled with wonder at the relentless power of the waves and rejoicing in a beautiful sunrise. God can come to us on a golf course, at the grocery store or driving in our car.
However, the place where we are most likely to meet God is in the church. As John Calvin said, “The whole world is a theater for the display of the goodness, wisdom, justice, and power of God, but the church is the orchestra – the most conspicuous part of it.” To put it in more contemporary terms – you can eat a Big Mac at Taco Bell, but it is more likely to happen at McDonald’s. Jesus promises that whenever two or three gather together in his name, he is there. The primary place we meet Jesus, the most likely place, is in the church. That is why being part of a church, participating in its life and ministry, is essential for the Christian life.
In the last 10-15 years there has been a growing group of people that describe themselves as SBNR. Does anyone know what that acronym stands for? Spiritual But Not Religious. People who fit into this group describe themselves as spiritual. They are interested in God. They are open to the transcendent, to the mystery beyond us. They may pray and meditate. They claim to believe in God, or in some sort of divine being, even if their understanding of God is different than ours.
However, SBNR’s also claim that they are not religious. They don’t reject God but they reject the church. Or, at least they have no interest in participating in “organized religion.” (Whoever coined that phrase has no idea how chaotic most churches really are!)
In 2012 20% of Americans said that they were not religious. 7% of our population described themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious. My guess is that today it is an even higher percentage, 10-15%. One of the reasons that many people have rejected religion is the individualism of our culture. People want to define their faith on their own. It’s much easier and safer to invent our own god, who doesn’t make any demands on us or challenge us to change.
But if we are honest, part of the reason that so many people have turned away from religion is that the church has not been what God created it to be. All too often the church has been a place that has not encouraged people to explore their faith. The church has had scandals and conflicts that have turned people away.
Those of you who have been part of the Sharon Church for more than a couple of years know that all too well. I’ve also experienced that in my life. The church I was born into went through a conflict. I was too young to know what was going on, but my parents left that church and it broke their hearts. The church we joined, which was the church I was confirmed in, had a conflict between two pastors. It divided the congregation. Eventually they were both asked to leave.
In my first church I was an associate pastor. There had been a major fight in the church several years before we got there. It had mostly healed but there were still a few people who carried some anger and hurt. After a couple of years the senior pastor left and the interim who came caused all sorts of conflict. In my second church I was a solo pastor. We had some conflict. We worked through it and had eight wonderful years there, but it was not easy. I moved to Ohio next as a head of staff at a church. There were major problems there and I resigned before I had another call. At that point I thought my career as a pastor was over. After eight months without a job I accepted the position of associate pastor at Beulah Presbyterian Church, in the eastern suburbs. I had nine and a half wonderful years there, but there was conflict. Thankfully I wasn’t part of it but there were shouting matches between other staff members. There were members who cursed each other at meetings, and an interim who was terrible. When I was interviewing for my first interim job I told them that I didn’t have any experience as an interim. Then I changed that and said that I knew how not to do interim work.
I tell you all of this to let you know that I have seen the church at its worst. I know how much pain the church can cause. I know how hard it is to be the church. Yet there is nowhere else I would rather be. The church is the primary place where we meet Jesus and the primary place where we grow in grace.
Let me close by telling you a story that Anne Lamott told. There was a seven year-old girl who got lost in her city. She was out playing and wandered into an area that she didn’t know. She started walking down streets looking for something familiar. Then she ran up and down streets but couldn’t find a landmark that she recognized. Nothing looked familiar. She started to panic until a policeman saw her and stopped to help. He put her in his car and drove around, looking for something that she recognized. Finally, she saw her church and said to the policeman, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”
The church helps us find our home. The church, even with all its imperfections and struggles, is the primary place we meet Jesus and grow in grace.
Confession of Faith: Second Helvetic Confession: 5.135, 130, 131 (insert)
The Church is an assembly of the faithful, called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints, namely, of those who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God in Christ the Savior, by the Word and Holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all benefits which are freely offered through Christ. They are all citizens of the one city, living under the same Lord, under the same laws, and in the same fellowship of all good things.
This holy Church of God is called the temple of the living God, built of living and spiritual stones and founded upon a firm rock, upon a foundation which no other can lay. It is called “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” This Church is also called a virgin and the Bride of Christ, and even the only Beloved. The Church is called a flock of sheep under the one shepherd, Christ. The Church is also called the body of Christ because the faithful are living members of Christ under Christ the Head.
Christ is the sole head of the church. It is the head which has the preeminence in the body, and from it the whole body receives life; by its spirit the body is governed in all things; from it, also, the body receives increase, that it may grow up. Also, there is one head of the body, and it is suited to the body. Therefore the Church cannot have any other head besides Christ. For as the Church is a spiritual body, so it must also have a spiritual head in harmony with itself. Neither can it be governed by any other spirit than by the Spirit of Christ.