A Brief Statement of Faith
John 1:1-13, Romans 14:7-9, July 17, 2016
Today is the second in a series of sermons on the Book of Confessions. This sermon is based on A Brief Statement of Faith. Now, our history is that in 1983, the two largest Presbyterian denominations reunited. We’d split more than 130 years before over whether Presbyterian elders should be able to own slaves.
1983 was a joyous time when we had this wonderful reunion. I heard about the reunion at General Assembly last month. Both Presbyterian denominations were meeting in Houston at the time, and when the second voted for reunion, hundreds of people from the other branch flooded into the hall where General Assembly was meeting. In 1984, a commission was established by people: men and women, European-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, a very diverse group of people, somewhere between the ages of 30 and the 70s. These people gathered together to compose a brief statement of faith, which was designed to be a contemporary expression of what it means to be a Christian today. They worked for five years and in 1989 they had written a statement which they presented to Presbyteries across the nation. And Presbyterians spent two years revising it and tinkering with it. And finally in 1991 they agreed on presenting a document which they brought to general assembly. And it was overwhelmingly adopted.
1991 is the year I was ordained and so at the end of this process, when A Brief Statement of Faith was being reviewed, I was trying to find my first call. There are some parallels between the two of these. Any of the committees I met with, or talked with, asked me about this new statement. One committee in particular did a phone interview with me. I was sitting in my apartment in Chicago talking over long distance wires to a speaker phone in some distant place. And they asked me what I thought about A Brief Statement of Faith which was about to be adopted. Now when you’re looking for a job, it’s not good to be too negative. You don’t want to be too critical, so I found something good to say about A Brief Statement of Faith, and that is that I like the way it begins: “In life and in death we belong to God.” I think that’s a wonderful, clear, concise statement that gives us hope; that helps us remember whom we have put our trust in. And I really like that. And then I went on to say that I wasn’t that happy with the rest of the statement. It’s too long to memorize—it doesn’t have the punch of the Apostles’ Creed. But it’s not long enough to get into any depth, so it doesn’t have the prophetic voice of the Confession of 1967, which I preached on two weeks ago. So I wasn’t all that thrilled with it.
Seven months later I got a note from someone who had been on the other end of that speaker phone. And I didn’t know this at the time, but two weeks before that interview over the phone, her husband had died suddenly. And when she heard these words: “In life and death we belong to God,” she felt great peace. And so she wrote me this note to tell me that. And it made me see that God had to have been working in that, because I didn’t like the statement of faith then. I’d found the one thing about it that I could affirm and somehow, through the working of the Spirit, that was what she most needed to hear. And so ever since then, the statement adopted in 1991 has gone up in my esteem and it has a warm place in my heart. And I think it’s a good statement.
A couple of years ago I was at a science museum and the theme of the exhibit I was at was about flight. They were talking about how planes fly, how birds fly and it all comes down to Bernoulli’s Principle. Which has something to do with low pressure—that’s all I know. But I’m not talking about flight. At the demonstration there was a man who had an owl. And he had the owl fly around the auditorium to demonstrate different aspects of flight, how the different sized feathers in the owl’s wings helped it to turn and how it could soar and bank and fly. Well, afterwards I went up to this guy and said, “That bird looks healthy to me. Is there something wrong with it that keeps it from being returned to the wild?”
And the guy kind of smiled at me and said, “My owl has an identity crisis.” What he meant was that it was a human imprint, this owl had spent so much time around people--it didn’t know how to behave like an owl. And so even though it was perfectly healthy he couldn’t release this owl back to the wild because either it would starve or it would be attacked by other owls and killed.
I think in some ways we have an identity crisis of our own in the church today. And that’s why this statement adopted 25 years ago is so strong. It starts off with a clear sense of who we are: “In life and death we belong to God.” And then it goes on to describe exactly what that means. Now our church is changing and our society is changing and our nation is changing. For more than 20 years Americans have spent more money on salsa than we do on ketchup. When I got married, 22 years ago I didn’t know what salsa was and now even at the Willadsen household we use more salsa than ketchup. Our society is changing and that’s one tiny example of how we’re changing.
Another way we’re changing is that we don’t quite have a common language anymore. 50 years ago when we talked about God the Father, as they did in the Confession of 1967, people knew who that was. And when that statement mentions “man” it meant “mankind” or “humanity.” But times have changed. And the way we use language to talk about ourselves and to talk about God is different. And there is greater variety in how we talk about God. Now there is an inclusive language version of the Confession of 1967. That’s the one I use. Some people insist on holding on to God the Father, a masculine image. And some people say we should alternate, and in one sentence we should refer to God masculinely and in the next femininely. And some people think we should talk about God without mentioning gender, because God is beyond the gender divisions that we have in our society. There’s confusion about how we even talk about God today. And there is a national conversation going on right now about gender. Which is a very practical conversation, who can use which public restroom. A conversation no one even imagined 50 years ago.
In the Brief Statement of Faith, gendered images for God the Creator are balanced. Instead of using masculine-only, or feminine-only language, about God. And this is why it’s confusing, you have theology, which is how we speak about God, you have tradition, which is how we have spoken about God and then you have grammar which is how we can speak about God and there’s tension and conflict among all three of those and there isn’t a clear way that we can agree about how to speak about God—
This Brief Statement of Faith does a brilliant thing, I think, instead of saying “God is a father” or “God is a mother” this is what it says:
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.
You see, the statement went back to scripture and it uses Biblical images for God that are both feminine and masculine. And it helps us unpack some of the awesomeness of God, even though words alone can’t describe God fully. So I think that it was a smart move in helping us to see that there is variety and diversity and in finding a way for Presbyterians in 1991 or 2016 to be diverse without being divisive. That was a brilliant move on their part.
And finally, the confession begins and ends with a strong statement of who we are. It reminds us of our identity and our common task. It begins “In life and death we belong to God” and it ends with “believers in every time and place we rejoice that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is no power on earth that can divide us. Even our disagreement in how we talk about God, even an increasing presence of different ethnic groups in our church and in our society. Even as those threaten our unity this confession brings us back to what’s truly important—or leads us to understand that God now offers us a different kind of unity. Amen.