What Makes Presbyterians Distinct, Part

 

I Corinthians 11:17-22 & 27-35, I Timothy 2:8-15 August 20, 2017

 

Last week I talked about how Presbyterians are distinct from other Christians with a lengthy history lesson about the Reformation.  The Reformation is going to be in the news a lot this year because historians date the start of the Reformation in 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther, nailed a set of 95 theses, propositions that Luther intended for the church to discuss.

Presbyterians came along a generation later and broke much more radically from the church of the status quo.  The innovations that John Calvin brought to the Christians in Geneva, Switzerland, which spread to Scotland and the Netherlands, where they were very influential, and other places in western Europe, but less dramatically, set modern Presbyterians on a different path than Lutherans, Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions. 

I want to make some terminology very clear at this point.  Our religion is Christianity; our denomination is Presbyterian.  So we are part of the same religion as the other 47 Christian churches whose names appear in the Yellow Pages.  And as I said last week, until a few months ago we were the only church in Oshkosh that calls itself Presbyterian.

The way we govern ourselves, the structure of organization, decision-making and leadership were the differences that I covered last week.  This week I’ll explain the different ways Christians approach the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the differences that made the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America different from our kind of Presbyterian: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

All Christians celebrate two sacraments: baptism and communion, or eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.  Some kinds of Christians recognize other actions as sacraments, such as marriage or ordination.  We celebrate those, and other events, but do not consider them sacraments.  We understand sacraments as things Christ specifically told his followers to do: Remember him when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and go into the world and baptize…those words come at the end of Matthew’s gospel. 

The first lesson Harriet read this morning is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, giving them instruction in how they should celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.  The verses that were skipped are what we call the words of institution.  They are recited every time we celebrate communion…On the night when Jesus was betrayed…You probably know them by heart.  Paul is addressing a church that is not being faithful, not working to include every Christian in their life together.  The Corinthians gathered on the first day of the week, Sunday, in the evening, after the work day had ended. They had either picnics or potlucks when they gathered. It appears that some Christians got to church early and started eating before anyone else got there.  And they had more food, and better food, than the ones who came later.  Those who came later probably had to work longer hours; they were probably poorer.  So Paul addressed this divide along class lines in the Corinthian church.  Paul’s words were written in a specific moment to address a real and serious problem.  And the stakes are very high. 

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 11:27, NRSV) 

Paul is saying, “If you do it wrong, you’re guilty of killing Christ.  So it’s really, really important that we do it right.

Then, a verse later, Paul’s writes words that have been in dispute since they were first written, about 1,950 years ago.

“For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” I Cor.11:29, NRSV)

That word “body” has two interpretations.  I believe the body that Paul writes about is the church, which we call the Body of Christ, so one who eats without recognizing the community of other believers—as the wealthy Corinthians do—are answerable for the body and blood of Christ, and drink judgment on themselves.

Other Christians, followers of the same religion as us, read “body” to mean the physical body of Jesus Christ.  This is also a faithful interpretation of this text.  Let me explain the depth of this division.

Some Christians believe in transubstantiation; that is the belief that the bread and wine or juice used at communion change substance and by a mysterious miracle become the actual, physical, real flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.  Other Christians use the words “trans-elementation,” or “change” to indicate the same idea.  Still others say there is a sacramental union or real presence in the bread and wine or juice. There are other Christians who believe that celebrating the Lord’s Supper is only a memorial, a remembering of Christ’s life and death. 

There is a wide variety of different perspectives and approaches to understanding the significance of the Lord’s Supper.  Not just across denominational lines, but within congregations. 

I have heard from lots of our members how offended, even insulted, you have been when attending a wedding or funeral in another church and being barred from receiving the Lord’s Supper.  Here we make it clear that everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome.  But if you understand that the host and the wine are literally the body and blood of Christ, serving them to someone who did not believe that would mean they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves.  It is an act of profound caring and protection for them to keep you from making such a grave error.

For the record, here’s what Presbyterians believe.  It comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the statements in our Book of Confessions.

Q: What is the Lord's Supper?

A: The Lord's supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

In short, Presbyterians believe that Christ is somehow present when we gather in worship and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  The bread we eat and the juice/wine we drink help us remember, and to grow in faith. 

I mentioned last week that I had a wide array of classmates in seminary.  And talking about their traditions helped me understand my own better.  For example, once my Episcopal classmate mentioned “the elevation.”  That was a term I was not familiar with.  He explained that after the communion host is consecrated, the officiant raises it very high so all the worshippers can see it.  I said, “Oh we do that too.  We say, “This is bread.  This will always be bread.  No matter what I say this is bread.  Now have some.”

The two new Presbyterian churches in town are of different denominations.  We are Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), another is of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the third is Presbyterian Church in America.  Ours in the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  From my vantage point I’ll talk about the other two Presbyterian denominations leaving our brand of Presbyterianism.  They would likely counter that they are the ones who have remained faithful and we are the one who left.  I am certain that what I will say in the next few minutes is shaped by a lifetime of Presbyterian identity.  I will try to remain fair in my descriptions of our history, but know I am likely to fall short of that goal. 

There was a profound change in the study of the Bible beginning in the mid-to-late 19th century.  Literary scholars started to use different ways to approach and interpret scripture.  One of many examples is that they argued that the first five books of the Bible, called Torah by Jews and the Books of Moses by many Christians—actually revealed the presence of several different styles of writing—this was especially true of the different names used for God.  Some passages referred to God as Elohim, others as Yahweh.  Scholars also isolated a Priestly source of writing, like all the recipes for incense and the instructions for offered a proper sacrifice.  The widely accepted idea that Moses had written all those books did not stand up to serious scholars.  And these scholars became increasingly prominent in North American seminaries.  By the 1920s there was a movement in the Presbyterian Church to resist what was called Higher Criticism.  You can think of this movement as a sort of rear-guard action, defending what had been conventional, accepted doctrine for a long time. People from many different denominations opposed this sort of scholarship and instead held to five fundamental concepts that they argued were essential for correct belief and practice of Christianity.  Here they are

The Fundamentals

Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture as a result of this

Virgin birth of Jesus

Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin

Bodily resurrection of Jesus

Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

None of these is especially shocking to us, even today.  In fact, if we were to take a vote in worship today I expect all five of these ideas would be accepted by most people here.  Through the 1920s a group of professors from Princeton led a movement in the Presbyterian Church to require that ministers affirm these five fundamentals.  They never prevailed.  The denomination did not reject the concepts themselves so much as that all clergy be bound by them.  We have a long history of letting all believers being true to their consciences.

By the mid-30s the Fundamentalists in the Presbyterian Church had had enough and left, forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The Presbyterian Church in America is of more recent origin.  Initially it was confined to the South, but it has spread to all 50 states.  The precipitating issue for the PCA was the ordination of women.  And the PCA got something of a boost in 1975, when a candidate for ministry named Wynn Kenyon, an honor student, graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary, was denied ordination in a Presbyterian Church because he said he would not participate in the ordination of a woman.  He was willing to serve a congregation where women had been ordained, but he would not have a part in ordaining a woman.  A number of churches in Ohio and Pennsylvania left to join the Presbyterian Church in America. 

I have to say I was offended, perhaps I could say I was insulted, when I learned that there were two new Presbyterian churches starting in Oshkosh and neither one contacted me or this church prior to moving to town.  Then I realized that they are hardly competition for this congregation.  Both the OPC and PCA do not ordain women to serve as Deacons, Ruling Elders or Teaching Elders.  In fairness to them, however I hasten to point out that they are on very sound Biblical ground with this position.  The words that Paul wrote to Timothy about how women should participate in church are shocking to us.  But the other Presbyterian churches in town can certainly defend this practice on Biblical grounds, and frankly may wonder what place the Bible holds for us because we do not adhere to the simple meaning of the text. 

I mentioned earlier that what drove the Fundamentalists out was the idea that these five ideas be required of all clergy.  Freedom of conscience is central to Presbyterians, as in the concept of mutual forbearance.  Which is described this way in our Book of Order:

We….believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. Mutual forbearance means accepting differences and continuing to work together. Unity is of paramount importance. Not Fear! The Bible is not constricting but liberating. (BoO F-3.1015) 

We believe strongly that it’s all right for people to disagree with us and with each other.  And disagreement does not necessarily mean we cannot remain together in community.

And we certainly believe that people are free, as Americans to practice their faith any way they feel led to practice it.  So two new Presbyterian churches in town is fine with me.  And I expect that once our members realize that one of the things that separates us is that we believe all people can be called by God to serve the church. 

But I want to go a little farther with what separates us from other Christians this morning.  This hit me quite clearly the day after having lunch with one of my new Presbyterian colleagues.

Many of you know I am passionate about connecting with people of all faiths.  I have organized the Interfaith Festival of Gratitude at the Grand Opera House since 2010.  A few months after the first festival I met a follower of a different religion and she suggested that there should be more interfaith connection than one event a year.  So since early in 2011 I have hosted a meeting for a beverage and conversation at a local coffee shop for anyone who identifies as a faith leader and is willing to meet people of different faith traditions.

Last Tuesday 20 faith leaders met for coffee and conversation at Planet Perk; we represented six religions.

Oshkosh is unusual for cities this size because there is not a church council or ministerial association.  This congregation joins other Protestant churches for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship, but there is not much else in the way of working together. 

Ten years ago I went to a clergy breakfast at BASICS bookstore.  It has since closed.  BASIC stood for Brothers & Sisters in Christ.  In all honesty I went because they offered a free breakfast.  There were 40 people at the breakfast.  And I did not know a single other person.  39 other people doing the same job I’m doing, in the same city and I didn’t know any one else.

There is a deep divide in this country, among Christians.  This community is no exception.  To put it in simple and in imprecise terms, the division is between liberal and conservative believers.  That was the divide I saw in no uncertain terms at breakfast ten years ago.  When we meet for coffee each month, it is a Jewish lady who points out that the conservative Christians do not come to these gatherings.  It’s sad and it’s embarrassing.

Once I met one of my conservative colleagues in a parking lot and asked whether he was getting my invitations to coffee.  He had, but chose not to attend.  I asked why.

He said, “what if they try to convert me?”

“That would be rude,” I said.  “And you shouldn’t try to convert them.  Could you have a cup of coffee and make a friend?”

“No.”

I continued to invite him, and he never attended.

Earlier this year, in an email exchange with one of the new Presbyterian pastors, I received this sentence: “Christ does not permit me to pray with non-Christians or implicitly communicate a religion of moralism to others.”

Both of these men could not associate with people of other faiths.  Partly out of fear, perhaps, but also because they did not want to covey the idea that a non-Christian faith could be in some valid.

That’s what separates, more than anything else, in my opinion, liberal and conservative Christians.  Liberals believe that other faiths can be valid, and are not threatened by them.  Conservatives, on the other hand, will not risk meeting someone from a different religion.

When it does not make me angry; it makes me sad. In the wake of the increased presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, I am certain that it will take believers of all types of faith, to demonstrate against, oppose and resist their hateful, hate-filled creeds.  Because it is un-American, un-Islamic, un-Jewish, un-Bahai, un-Quaker, un-Eckist…and un-Christian. My friends, we need each other. Amen.