Sunday, May 26, 2013

Remembering: Just Because. . .

Remembering: Just Because
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 26, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Samuel 8: 4-17
1 Corinthians 3: 16-23 

Let us pray, 

Almighty God fill our hearts with a desire for your will, fill our minds with thoughts of others, and fill our wills with your ways. As the scriptures are read and proclaimed may they bring us closer to You O God. In Christ, Amen. 

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20     and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. [1]

This morning is one of those fun times in the life of the church where we commemorate two things at once, a special church occasion and a secular holiday, for today we celebrate Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, thus Tim MacLeod is here with his bagpipes, we remember our roots in the Church of Scotland, we remember our history. And also this weekend as a nation we celebrate Memorial Day, we take a look back again and remember the heroes that have fallen protecting and serving the God given freedoms that this nation strives to secure for us.  I can't think of a more appropriate combination, for the Presbyterian heritage and history is closely tied to the American ideals we claim to believe in, and Presbyterian Philosophy is intertwined with the  foundational philosophy of this nation, even our Presbyterian system provided the framework for the American Constitution, James Madison having been trained and taught in his youth by Presbyterian educators at Princeton so long ago. This morning I want to shed a little light on that story so that we can remember who we've been and hopefully inspire us to be more than we are. And I want to tell the story just because it is my favorite story, my favorite sequence of historical events, other than of course the event that makes these possible, important, and real. . . The life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story of Reformation and its connection to the ideals of the United States on her best day. I hope that it inspires us both as Presbyterians and as Americans to live up to our historic values.  
After Jesus' resurrection and ascension, and then the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the birthday of the church, the disciples tried to do their best to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, but over the course of the next 300 plus years they went through periods of oppression, the type of oppression where people were often killed for being Christian, yet Christianity did spread, and many people became faithful martyrs, dying in witness for the truth of the gospel in horrific scenes of cruelty and violence. Then Christianity had spread so much, that it became part of the framework of the Roman Empire, so much so that the Emperor Constantine decided to convert. Constantine has a famous vision of seeing a Cross in a dream, hearing a voice say you will conquer under this sign, and Christianity becomes indelibly linked for the first time to real earthly temporal power, but it's hard to tell whether Constantine sees Christianity as a new religion or just a new pagan religion, does Constantine know Christ, or is Christ just another god, much like Zeus or Jupiter, just more powerful, nevertheless, Christianity takes a very strong turn, and Christendom is created. Christianity goes from being a faith, a religion, a philosophy, a world view, a relationship with God through Christ into being a realm. It becomes tied to politics and for the next 1900 plus years kings will use it to consolidate their wealth and power. It was soon after the fall of the Roman empire in the 600's when the first of the germanic tribal chiefs, the Frankish chief Clovis, became Baptized by the Pope, converting to Christianity and then having the Pope crown him king. All of a sudden the church again is tied to those secular powers, or still, but I've often asked the question of history, was Clovis a true convert, coming to know Christ, having a personal relationship with Christ, for his actions are far from those described in the sermon on the mount, they actually are more similar to the description from 1 Samuel 8, just like Constantine, it's hard to tell the difference between them before with their pagan beliefs and after with their so called Christian beliefs, can we judge them based on their fruits?
And kings aren't the only ones. Popes, Bishops, Priests, Monks, Friars, they also used Christianity to consolidate their wealth and power. They change doctrine, they conceal parts of the Bible, they promise salvation in exchange for all types of things, from money, to military service, to trading of church offices, and political favors, they do what they want, when they want, while manipulating by preaching restriction and fear and obedience. It is almost as if the powers that be were more effective in squelching the true teachings of Christ by adopting them than they ever were at open persecution and executions, but that very truth is biblical, sometimes the "easy, safe, secure way" is not the best. Look at our Old Testament lesson. The Israelites want a king, basically for two reasons, 1. everybody else has one and 2. he would offer us greater security from outside. But Samuel warns them saying:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.[2]  

Sometimes what you want is not what you get. Christianity is saved, it grows, it is protected, but in so many ways it becomes exploited just like Samuel says the Israelites will be. Power is a dangerous thing, even for a religion, or maybe especially for a religion. We still are paying the price for it today.
In my World Literature class, we talk about how the Medieval Catholic Church, in Western Europe anyway, the old western Roman Empire now fallen, had a monopoly on the teachings of Christ. That there was no way of getting to Jesus except through the church, there were no other options. People could not divide the two, even in their minds, there just is no concept of God, no concept of Jesus outside the big "C" Church. It is not until the Renaissance that this monopoly is challenged. As education, literacy, and translations of the Bible begin being made available to people, this monopoly on the teachings get challenged on the biblical authenticity of the teachings that dominate the middle ages. I'm not saying that there are not faithful exceptions, but there is no denying the secular aspects of Christianity during the late empire and throughout the middle ages and their detriment to authentic Biblical representations of Christ. In the Renaissance, writers like Dante and Chaucer and Boccaccio begin to describe a difference between the Church, and its corruption, and God incorruptible. The monopoly begins to fall apart, but it happens slowly. (To be honest many of our protestant denominational differences have to do with how slowly these layers fall apart, or which ones should go and which ones must not go, what is the baby and what is the bath water, that old saying is often used).
From the seeds of the Renaissance and the thought that just possibly there could exist a Christ, and that the Church may be wrong in its teachings about him, comes the Reformation. And from the Reformation Presbyterianism. I want to look at two of the historic principles of the church in the light of the history I have just laid out for us. I printed them in the bulletin. These are very much my favorite and have so much to do with why I am Presbyterian, but how often do we talk about them?

F-3.0101 God Is Lord of the Conscience

a. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” 

Look at what is addressed, the historical problems addressed with that statement, and what it means. Freedom  of thought is important. There is no monopoly on truth, other than scripture. The foundations of truth are not found in an institution, but in God's Holy Word, not in human wisdom, but in divine record, not in the human beings, but in Christ, as the head of the church.
Now look at the next one, part b:

b. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others. 

These private judgment rights are to be universal and unalienable, and should not be aided by any civil power. No longer can the church be held up by the secular powers, because they had seen the damage possible there, that though the name Christendom grew when tied to those civil powers, at such a devastating cost. Christianity was spread, but seemingly with an altered watered down, dare I say, Pagan version of Christ.
And now the last historic principle I include: mutual forbearance. . .

F-3.0105 Mutual Forbearance

That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also 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.

Not only is there not to be a monopoly on human versions of truth, but we will accept the fact that people will understand things differently and agree to be united with them anyway, that two people can be "sound in the faith," but may differ in their understandings. Throughout the middle ages, people were forced to agree, the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind, but we are dedicated to the proposition that people can think for themselves, and do not need to conform to institutional standards, but rather to conform to Christ's standards himself as interpreted from his Holy Word. There is the distinct possibility that the majority popular opinion is wrong and that the minority is in the right, and therefore should be respected, the prophets of the Old Testament come to mind. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and many others were like John the Baptist, lone voices, wild voices, but God's voices and they were crying out from the wilderness of minority opinion, very important, Christ himself often was preaching against groups who were opposed to his way of thinking, and many of them the established religious leaders of the day. Thus the doctrine of mutual forbearance itself like the others comes directly from God's Holy Word.
So on Memorial Day we bring up this important history. I think the parallels are self evident. Religious Freedom, no official established civic support for a religion, freedom of thought, expression, etc., these are shared values between our church and our nation. The beauty of the connection is that they are parallel and not connected. It is the harder way, but history, both biblical and in our Christian Era show that it is the right way. People's minds are their own and as such gifts to them by God. Jefferson states in his Statutes on Religious Freedom for Virginia:

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone;

Obviously there are some differences, but the sentiment is the same. This is but one of the connections between Presbyterianism and the philosophy of the United States. There are many more, and the very governing principles of Republicanism and Democracy, the separation of powers, checks and balances, because no one person has a monopoly on truth, no king and no religious leader, on and on, and let us not forget that both of these ideas are relatively new, Presbyterianism and the Americanism, and both are rare in the world, many would call both foolish and wisdom would say impractical and destined to fail, people can't be free, they will make the wrong decision, and destroy themselves, it doesn't seem that God thinks so, being all powerful, and fully sovereign and giving freedom, since love demands it. Wisdom would say it is a foolish experiment. Wisdom would say, power wins the day, not love, not freedom.  
Listen again to Paul's words to the church in Corinth:

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20     and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. [3]

 But so what. Why is this important to know? Many people believe that it is important to know history lest ye be doomed to repeat it. I think there is truth to that, but more than that it is important to know history to know what we are capable of, both good and bad, and to know something about what humans are and should be. Two things are absolutely critical for Presbyterianism to work, and because of the similarities, for the American Republic to work. They are two of the most important aspects of Presbyterian Calvinism. The first is providence, Christ as the head of the church leading us, working in our world, actively leading us along the path according to His sovereign perfect will, and the other is that we need to care. We need to care about each other, we need to care about what is going on, we need to care.
In the Reformation, when Presbyterians got their start, they cared, and cared deeply because they knew the darkness of the night of living without the chance, when the thoughts of people didn't matter. Read the Declaration of Independence, it is written by people who cared too, and knew the oppression of Kingly singular rule, by the whims of one or few, rather than all having a voice, a mind, and a say. But we do not know that darkness first hand, at least not traditionally, both as a church and as a nation, our thoughts have always mattered, but just like the book of Judges shows, and many other evidence from history, that darkness is sometimes only a generation away. Those who came before us who we remember on this day, and this weekend, according to God's will, have protected us from that darkness, so we don't know it, and since they cared they set up a system based on the fact that people would care, care enough because their thoughts matter to think, care enough to put those ideas to work and serve as officers, care enough to support those officers, care enough to serve faithfully and honestly in elected positions, care enough to vote on whose gifts and talents can be best used for the service of Christ and His church, care enough about things not being right, that they would stand up and work to make them right, care enough that even though someone may disagree with you, that you stand up for the right for their disagreement because their thoughts matter, too. These are true of the church, and they are true of the nation. May each mutually inspire us to be better citizens and better Christians. We thank the cloud of witnesses who have protected and handed the legacy to us, may we with full reliance on the providence of God, do our best to live up to it. And remember, just because. . . we care and it matters.

May it be so.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 3:16-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Sa 8:11-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 3:16-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.