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October 2, 2012, 4:54 AM

Sermon Text


September 30, 2012. The State of the Church, Part II "Here I Stand" by Cameron Smith

Your Word is Truth

I want to open this morning with a historical note from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  The reason for this illustration being that the message I need to deliver to you is somewhat akin to Martin Luther’s experience when he appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521.

In the four years preceding the Diet, Luther found fame and notoriety for taking on a number of practices within the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther had penned the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg castle questioning the practice of selling indulgences.  He wrote popular, but controversial books:  He called for the abolition of celibacy in the priesthood.  He thought it an abomination to hold a mass for the dead.  He argued that monks and nuns ought to be freed from their vows which were made under public duress.  He railed against the practice of withholding the cup from the people in the Eucharist.  He rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation in that he denied that the communion elements actually became in substance the body and blood of Christ during mass.  He claimed that the mass itself was a re-sacrifice of Jesus Christ all over again and need not be done.  And of course, as he grasped anew Romans and Galatians, began to articulate the great Reformation understanding of justification by faith alone.  It didn't help Luther's case at all that he called out the pope as the anti-Christ!

So, on Wednesday, April 17, 1521 at 4:00 pm, Luther was lead to the "green room" just off the main room at the Diet of Worms.  He was kept waiting for two whole hours before he could meet with the Holy Roman Emperor to answer for his books.  At 6:00 pm, he was lead into a large, dimly lit, smoky room.  There were Spanish soldiers, spears in hand, stationed along each wall.  Before him was a table in the middle of the room with all of his books.  High above him sat the Emperor, Charles V.  The pope's imperial prosecutor, Johann von Eck, then addressed Luther.  He points to Luther's books on the table and asks, "Are these your books?"  "Yes."  "Will you recant?"

Luther replies nervously, "Can I have 24 hours to think about it?"  He seeks comfort in the Scriptures and asks himself agonizingly, "Am I alone?  "Are 1500 years of wrong?"  He concludes that he's right.  The next day before the emperor, the same questions again from Dr. von Eck:  "Are these your books?"  "Will you recant?"

Luther replies, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures...for my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything....I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand, may God help me."

Luther understood that the Church, while filled with fine, well-meaning people desiring to follow Jesus Christ, nevertheless, had gone off the track at some point.  The Church seemed fueled by imagination and innovation rather than the will of God expressed in Scripture.

I present this historical sketch because I think it fits so well within our own present historical context.  I want to speak frankly this morning about the denomination to which this church belongs, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Let me state at the outset that this is not about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.  Us vs. Them.  Christian vs. Non-Christian.  This is about attending to the seriousness of Paul's words we heard a few moments ago.  He said. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.... (1 Cor. 15:3-4 ESV).  Do we believe that?  Do we cherish that?  Every Sunday at communion we hear these words, For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.... (1 Cor. 11:23 ESV).  What we receive from the Lord -- his Word -- is what we take forward faithfully.  Are we willing to do that?

It is our call as the ongoing expression of the Church of Jesus Christ to place ourselves under the Word of God.  To be taught by it.  To be corrected by it.  This must be our posture no matter how unpopular or naive this might be to the skeptical inquisitors that surround us.

Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, our Presbyterian Church, the northern stream of it to be exact -- had a crisis in the presbytery of New York.  During the examination of three candidates for the ministry, they refused to affirm the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.  At the next General Assembly in 1910, the Assembly refused to over-rule their ordinations, but did instruct the Committee on Bills and Overtures to draft a statement that would spell out the required bar of belief for future ministerial candidates.

The Committee came up with what became known as the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  It set out five articles of faith judged to be "essential and necessary."  Now they recognized that the faith wasn't defined solely by these five, and this is why they appended the five with the phrase that "others are equally so...."  These five basic tenets formed a solid baseline of belief for those who would assume a Presbyterian pulpit.

These then were the five held up for our candidates:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  This is perhaps better understood in these days as the authority of Scripture.  This is God's expressed will written.  This doesn't require us to approach the Bible as a science text book.  It doesn't demand that we come to the Bible as if it was a magic lantern that needed to be rubbed for three wishes.

The authority of Scripture means recognizing that this book is the record of God's involvement with the world.  It is the sure revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  It is the way we know how to please God.  It is the way we know what does not please God.  It is the way that we know that this life isn't just one darn thing after another.  When we reject or wear lightly the authority of Scripture or try to dissect it like a pithed frog, we are bound to knock ourselves off the path.

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  Seems like an insignificant detail here; surely not essential.  However, behind this cherished belief is the reality that God condescended to wrap himself in human flesh.  He became one of us, and yet, as the incredible circumstances of his birth display, he was yet still God.  Lose the virgin birth and you lose the awe and mystery of Immanuel.  Jesus was not merely a good man.  He was not merely a good teacher.  He was not merely an extraordinary prophet.  He was not merely a wise philosopher.  He was certainly all of those things!  But he was so much more.  The long promised messiah of God's people.  The long expected son of David.  God in human flesh.  The virgin birth is the exclamation point of this great truth.

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up "himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God."  This is about the atonement of Jesus on the cross.  That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.  Jesus was not some sort of tragic martyr who became an unwitting victim of Roman justice.  He didn't die so that we might only see the depth of sacrificial love.  This was a self-offering.  This was deal sealing offering.  This was the once for all time, never to be repeated offering for the sin of the world.  When we look at the cross, we are reminded of the great cost of our sin.  The deadliness of our sin.  The seriousness of our sin.  The atonement drives home our great need and how God answered that great need.

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that "on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession."  This is about resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus.  Ultimately our own resurrection and the renewal of all creation.  Listen to the way Paul describes the importance of resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.  ...If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised....And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:13-15, 17-19 ESV).

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles. This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  This tenet, I want to strongly suggest to you is about more than miracles.  It is saturated with the flavor of God really and truly coming in Jesus Christ.  You see, the world is -- as should be evidentially obvious to any with two eyes and two ears fully functioning -- fallen.  The creation groans for the day of redemption.  We sin.  We get sick.  We fail in all aspects of human personal interaction.  We die.  In all of these things, the miracles of Jesus are God's mighty interventions to give a preview; a foretaste of the life that he brings and will bring.  A down-payment.  That all of creation will be renewed from its current state of fallen-ness.  Sin will be reversed.  The lame will walk.  The blind will see.  The dead will rise.  That's what the miracles are all about -- not some cheesy display of heavenly shock and awe, or Jesus saying for the heck of it, "Hey y'all, look at me!"  The miracles are the touch from the Master's Hand.

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It is sobering to realize that these basics in the Faith -- things that were considered no brainers from my own youth, were controversial in the Presbyterian Church of the day.  They were severely contested and finally dropped at the 1927 General Assembly.  It's not that the Presbyterian Church (USA) denied these five beliefs; it's just that they wanted to be more open to other possible ways to understand the Faith.  More inclusive.  More tolerant.  As a result, the Presbyterian Church (USA) states officially that there are indeed essential beliefs in the Church - - we just don't know what they are because they have never been identified.  (And never will be.)

As we look at the last 85 years of Presbyterian history, it has been one of incessantly pushing the proverbial envelope.  It has been one of stretching the theological boundaries as far as they will go, sometimes dropping all pretense to obedience in some cases.  In a dance with a culture that desperately needs the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have been content to follow the lead of culture instead of leading that culture.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) that we inhabit today is, I would suggest, the fruit of seeds planted long ago.  When you deny the most basic, foundational truths of Christianity, then it is only a matter of time when you lose it altogether.

When I decided to come back to the Presbyterian Church of my youth back in 1997, there was a high tide of hope that renewal could happen in our Church.  The General Assembly of that year had miraculously passed what became known as the "Fidelity and Chastity" amendment for the officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It said, Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.  Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

However, like the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910, which was contentiously in effect for 17 years, "Fidelity and Chastity" lasted merely 14 years.  It was dropped by the General Assembly in 2010 and sealed by a majority of presbyteries in July 2011.

The latest issue in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is now the battle over the meaning of marriage.  Our Church is on a trajectory to replace the language of marriage in our Directory for Worship.  It is currently read as a civil contract between a man and a woman.  The proposed language would be a civil contract between two people.

This has not happened...yet.  Last summer's General Assembly was bitterly divided.  As a mediating measure, they settled on instructing the presbyteries to study the issue of marriage.  For many in our Church, this is a gray area.

Please understand that the controversy before us in the Presbyterian Church today is not just about sex.  On a wider level, you simply cannot take it for granted anymore that the Presbyterian minister in the pulpit on a given Sunday will affirm the most basic truths so clear in Scripture.  We have many ministers who deny the authority of Scripture and at the same time see no conflict of interest in preaching week in and week out.  We have ministers who think of Jesus as no more than a good, inspiring man; but still a dead man.  We have ministers who scoff at the atonement as a relic of a barbaric past.  We have ministers who deny the reality of miracles and yet still mouth the words to the Apostles' Creed each Sunday.

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't unequivocally name all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman for the sin that it is?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't define the meaning of marriage to a morally confused world?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't say "Jesus is Lord" without at the same time being fearful that someone, somewhere, somehow will take offense?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can take up every sort of political and social cause with great gusto while simultaneously downgrading our church planting missionary presence in the world?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today is hemorrhaging congregations and individual members by the thousands each year?

My dear friends, I feel like Luther at Worms.  I must stand before you today and nervously and fearfully say to you, I can't go where our Church is going.

I want to invite you in on a conversation that your Session has been having since early February of this year.  We are struggling.  We are reluctant.  We are at great pains and saddened that it is even necessary to talk about a future outside of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We have been in a season of discernment together.  We have prayed.  We have studied.  We have discussed the issues among ourselves.  We do not know where all this will lead, but we want to be faithful and we want to join our hearts with you as we discern together what we should do.

With Luther, I say to you "I am bound  by the Scriptures...for my conscience is captive to the Word of God....I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand, may God help me."

Amen.


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