What Makes Presbyterians Distinct? Part I

Psalm 100, Romans 8:26-30, August 13, 2017


Several of you have requested sermons on what makes Presbyterians distinct from other faith traditions. And these requests are more urgent because there are two new Presbyterian churches starting in our community. There’s an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Church in America putting down roots in Oshkosh. I’ve been in touch with both of the founding pastors of these new Presbyterian worshipping communities. Next week, I’ll explain how our brand of Presbyterianism, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is different from the others.

For 18 years I have introduced myself as “The Presbyterian Minister in Town.” And I’ve often said that you are the smartest, nicest, best, etc. Presbyterian Church in town. I’ve stopped saying that. It was only funny when we were the only Presbyterian church in town. Now I say, “I’m pastor of First Presbyterian church.”

Often guests at Community Breakfast ask what Presbyterian believe. How are you guys different from the church down the street? Broadly speaking, there are two areas that make us distinct: how we govern ourselves and how we understand the Lord’s Supper.

I am a cradle Presbyterian. Two of my earliest memories are from Vacation Bible School in the fellowship hall of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, wrapping myself up in the curtains on the stage, imagining they formed a teepee over my head, then eating sandwiches made with white bread, mayonnaise and a Kraft cheese slice for lunch, and staying in the nursery during worship at the same church. Mrs. Olds was in charge of the preschoolers. She always had a ready supply of Nabisco saltines to keep the youngsters occupied. She took a Sunday off in 1991 to attend my ordination, upstairs in the sanctuary.

If you doubt my Presbyterian identity, I’ll simply point out that my earliest memories of the Presbyterian church both involve food.

I cannot remember a time when I was not part of a Presbyterian church. I went to Presbyterian church camp, went on Presbyterian work camps (we call them Mission Trips.), led workamps, I became a candidate for the ministry of word and sacrament in 1987, I took my ordination exams…the only thing that I did that wasn’t Presbyterian was that I went to a divinity school, as opposed to a Presbyterian seminary. Divinity schools are not affiliated with a specific denomination, though mine was founded by Baptists, it was open to and included students of many different traditions. Today there is even a cohort of Islamic students among the people in the Masters of Divinity program.

When I met with the Preparation Committee at the very beginning of my candidacy, one of the members asked why I was planning to attend a non-Presbyterian school. I replied, “I’ve spent my whole life around you people, I figure it’s time for a break.”

The silence that followed was, shall we say, uncomfortable. It worked out very well, though. I was able to take courses at the nearby Presbyterian seminary, so I could show that I was sufficiently orthodox. Because I had such a firm grounding in more than 20 years of Presbyterian activity I was able to get a lot out of encountering other denominations and religions. My entering class included a broad spectrum of faiths from Roman Catholic to Quaker. My classmates helped me understand my own tradition better.

I’ll never forget the Monday when I went to class and learned that my United Methodist classmate, Sally, had flown home to Alabama over the weekend and came back ordained. For Presbyterians ordination is a big event; it’s the end of a lengthy ordeal. When I was ordained two years after Sally, the party my church threw was like a wedding reception. I was insulted that Sally hadn’t invited me to hers. I learned that United Methodists have a two-tiered ordination process. Usually during seminary they are ordained as Deacons, which allows them to serve as student pastors. A few years later most are ordained as Elders, which is a more significant achievement.

The request to understand what makes us distinct is very well-timed. Last month I attended Synod School and took a class on the Reformation. Historians date the start of the Reformation at 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg. It’s the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, came about a generation after Luther. The two led very different movements. Luther tried to make changes to the Roman Catholic Church and kept much of their governing structure and worship liturgy the same. Even today, the worship services of Lutherans and Roman Catholics in Oshkosh are very similar. John Calvin made a more profound break from the established church. This was a time of stunning change in Europe.

One way to illustrate the difference is that Luther looked into the drawer and removed a couple items and added a couple more. Calvin dumped everything out, and only put back the elements that he deemed essential.

Calvin was trained as a lawyer in France. He worked with groups of refugees fleeing France due to persecution of Protestants in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvinism spread to the Netherlands, where its churches were called Reformed and also to Scotland, where John Knox was a passionate leader.

Humanism was just getting started in Europe when the Reformation started. The ancient philosophical texts by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were becoming influential. An important difference between humanists and the reformers was over a basic understanding about the nature of God.

The Greek philosophers understand God as being “impassable,” that is, remote, untouched and unaffected by human beings. This is not an image of God that appears in the Bible. The Reformers imagined a different kind of god; one that is in the business of blessing all people. I love that phrase: God is in the business of blessing you. Calvin thought of God as the wellspring and source of all good. The doxology we sing is profoundly Calvinist: praise God from whom all blessings flow…

Calvin was famous, perhaps notorious for the doctrine of predestination. The fact that one has faith at all is because God put faith in you in the first place, so you were predestined to know and have faith in God. He said, when your faith is weak, look in the mirror and see Christ. When a believer thinks he’s not worthy of God’s love, realize that merely asking that question is an indication of the faith that is already inside you. This should lead to deep gratitude, and also humility. Realize that God sees Christ in your efforts. God is great, sovereign, loving and kind.

At my first church I led a program called, “Sampling our Ecumenical Buffet.” Four different Christian congregations participated. At 7:00 the Presbyterians and United Methodists welcomed people into their sanctuaries and explained what they believe. At 8:00 the Baptists and Roman Catholics hosted similar groups. I gave a brief tour of the building and gathered the whole group into the sanctuary, which is very similar to ours. Originally, our pulpit was in the center of the chancel, the focus of the worshippers’ attention. This reflects John Calvin’s conviction that scripture should be at the center of everything we do in worship. When I took questions at the end of the tour, the Roman Catholic priest asked whether I agreed that John Calvin was the most dangerous theologian in Christian history. This is a provocative question. I replied, “Yes, for those who fear the democratic rule of the people under God, Calvin’s thought was very dangerous.”

No one in the audience realized what had happened. 500 years of misunderstanding and distrust were reflected in the exchange between the Roman Catholic priest and the Presbyterian minister.

For the rest of my time this morning, I’m going to explain four of the changes, or you might think of them as innovations, that Calvin alone introduced.

First, as I said just a minute ago, Calvin put scripture at the center of worship, just as we do today. The part we call “We Hear God’s Word” is the bull’s eye of the hour we spend in worship each week. Calvin stressed reading the whole Bible, and he used the psalms in worship. Our Call to Worship this morning and the Old Testament lesson are based on psalms, as is the hymn we’ll sing right after my sermon. The churches in Geneva sang psalms every week.

Second, Calvin’s idea of ordained elders and deacons was completely novel. Calvin further believed that Christians can be called to all kinds of work, not just calls to serve as priests, brothers or nuns. This had the effect of making clergy less powerful. Calvin believed that God sees Christ in everyone’s efforts, not just those who have been ordained as priests, or submitted to holy orders. [At this point there were only priests, because Presbyteriansn had not completely broken with the Roman Catholic Church.] Yes, other kinds of Christians find it odd that we have ordained lay people; for most Christians that’s a contradiction in terms. One is either a lay person or a clergy person. Presbyterians recognize the priesthood of all believers, an idea that is rooted in Paul’s first letter to Peter.

A third innovation of Calvin is the belief that people should elect their own pastors. Presbyterians do not have bishops, who oversee the congregations in a given territory and move clergy from pulpit to pulpit. In fact, Presbyterians are not part of what is known as Apostolic Succession.

Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians believe that their traditions are rooted in the very beginnings of the Christian Church. In 440, Christians—and there were no denominations at the point—declared that the Apostle Peter was effectively the first Pope; and declared that Rome was the effective capital of Christianity. This goes back to when Jesus said to Peter [Matthew 16:19] “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That’s why in all those jokes about people getting admitted to heaven at the Pearly Gates, it’s St. Peter who’s deciding who’ in and who’s out. Jesus gave Peter special authority. So every tradition that originated from Peter’s status has an unbroken connection through the ages to the present day. That includes Roman Catholics, Lutheran—because Martin Luther was ordained as a priest—and also the Anglican, or Episcopal Church. They all have bishops. All this history wasn’t important to Calvin. He was trained as a lawyer and was never ordained as a priest. Presbyterians do not claim to be continuously connected with Peter or the Roman Church.

Calvin’s final innovation was the separation of civil and church affairs. To people who have grown up in the United States, the concept of a separation between church and state seems natural. In Calvin’s time the religious authorities were the governing authorities.

More than any other leader of the Reformation, Calvin was concerned with how the church should be a force for the common good. Geneva was a city that was getting overcrowded with refugees from France. It faced problems with sanitation, they needed better streets and sewers; they needed water that was safe to drink. Geneva needed to find a way to educate the children who were moving in. Calvin recognized the importance of what we now call city planning. Really.

City planning was the career path that I did not take. I love cities. When I first met with the Session of my home church beginning the candidacy process to become a minister, someone on noted my background in urban studies and asked what I would do if I were called to a rural church. I said that I’d go where I believed the Holy Spirit was calling me. The questioner asked, Doesn’t the world need Christian city planners?” I replied, “yes, but that is not the call that I was feeling.”

All these years later, it was affirming to learn that Presbyterians have a commitment not just to preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also to be good faithful citizens of whatever community we find ourselves in.

I’ll close by calling attention to something in the New Testament reading that my teacher at Synod School helped me see. There’s that mention of predestination, but to me the really important part is that we are able to pray because the Holy Spirit is already in us, even when we can’t come up with the right words, God is inside us, searching our hearts and knowing our minds. God in Christ is at work in us, calling, justifying and glorifying. It ends with glory. Calvin was a man of his time, he understood the depth and magnitude of human sin…but he also understood God to be a loving God. The God Calvin proclaimed is in love with Creation. God is in love with human kind. And the challenge of faith is to really believe and trust the depth of God’s love. Amen.