Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Words of Faith: Sermon, January 29, 2012

The LORD your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. That’s exactly what you requested from the LORD your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the LORD my God’s voice anymore or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!”

The LORD said to me: What they’ve said is right. I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.

- Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Common English Bible

Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts. Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

“Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

- Mark 1:21-28, Common English Bible

Both of our readings today are about authority. God tells Moses that a new prophet will be raised up, and this prophet will have the authority of speaking for God, because God will put words in his mouth. And Jesus amazes people with his teaching and healing, and they say to each other, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority!”

And reading these passages makes me think about how we give authority to prophecy and teaching in the church. Now, the Bible has been our authority as Christians since the days of the first churches when followers of Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures and began to write down the stories about Jesus and keep the letters they had received. The Bible is the witness of the church and to the church, the story of God’s revelation to humanity, to Israel and in Jesus Christ.

But of course, while we read parts of the Bible in worship each Sunday, we’re not going to be able to cover the whole story of salvation every week. I’m on a plan to read the entire New Testament in 90 days, two or three chapters a day, and even that is too long to read and discuss in our worship service. So, again from the church’s early days, we have used creeds to sum up the story told to us in the Bible. We said the Apostles’ Creed last week, which is very old. These creeds are important for us in our faith based on God being revealed to us in history, because they answer the questions we have about how, when, where, and why this revelation took place.

And today in our worship we’re using parts of the statements of faith written specifically for the United Church of Canada. The official one we have is the Articles of Faith in the Basis of Union, which is the constitution of the church. The Basis of Union is the founding document from 1925, when the United Church was formed, and it spells out how congregations and Presbyteries and Conferences and the General Council are made up and how they govern. The Basis of Union includes 20 articles that were agreed upon by the Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists coming together to become the United Church, setting out their common faith in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and what their faith led them to believe about God’s purpose, sin, salvation, the Christian life, and the church.

So this is our formal statement of faith, printed in every copy of the Manual of the United Church, although we’re not a denomination that requires people to sign off on these articles to join. In fact, most of us have probably never read the articles of faith.

But soon after union in 1925, some people felt that because the articles were basically what the three churches coming together could agree on, they didn’t take the problems of the day into account. So the 1940 Statement of Faith was written. It says that the good news of Jesus is eternal and unchanging, but each new generation must state the good news in terms of the thought and emphasis of their own age. This statement was used quite a bit in adult education in the United Church from the 1940s through the 60s. And then, when new worship resources were being developed, A New Creed was written as a modern creed in modern language. Some folks here may remember the original New Creed, from 1968, which began “man is not alone, he lives in God’s world.” Today United Church congregations say the latest version together, dating from 1994.

And, finally, as we entered this new century, the General Council of the church asked for a new statement of faith, and the result was A Song of Faith, composed as a long poem. We did a worship service on it last year and are using parts of it today.

The General Council is the gathering every three years of elected commissioners from across the country. The last one, in Kelowna BC, voted to send a remit on whether to include these faith statements in the Basis of Union. A remit is a vote on whether to change the Basis of Union. Usually remits just go to Presbyteries to make minor changes to the Basis, but larger issues require a remit to Presbyteries and congregational Sessions. So before May 15 every Presbytery and every Session in the United Church will have to vote on whether to add the 1940 Statement of Faith, A New Creed, and A Song of Faith to the 20 articles of faith in the Basis of Union.

There are a few points I want to make here. One is that this is not rare in churches like ours that are in the Protestant Reformed tradition; we’re actually unusual in that we haven’t added anything to the doctrine part of the Basis of Union in 87 years. Other Reformed churches have added new statements to their original doctrine over time.

Another is that the remit is to add these statements of faith as what are called “subordinate standards” to Scripture. The United Church, like other Reformed churches, holds that the Bible is as the second of the 1925 articles of faith says, the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s revelation, and the witness of Christ. Faith statements are important, but can only ever be summaries. They cannot express the entire truth about God. They are never the last word. And these statements are always products of the time when they were written. We can see this if we compare the language in these different statements. For instance, God in the articles of faith and the 1940 Statement of Faith is always masculine.

And there are separate remit votes. A Presbytery or Session may vote to add one, or two, or three statements of faith to the Basis of Union. And the 1925 articles of faith stay in the Basis of Union no matter what. They, and anything added, are our formal declaration of doctrine.

Now, this can seem very inside baseball. People in congregations have said to me, “Who cares? We will believe whatever we want. Let’s just vote and get this over with.” But I think this is important. It may not make a big difference to our worship if we formally adopt faith statements and place them in the Basis of Union – the 1940 Statement of Faith and A New Creed and A Song of Faith were adopted by General Councils and are part of our church life whether or not they are formally placed in the Basis of Union – but there are times and places when we refer to our official doctrine. When ministers are ordained or commissioned they are required to answer a question about whether they are in essential agreement with the Basis of Union, which right now means the 20 articles from 1925. And most of us don’t know this, but the deed under which the trustees hold this building requires that its use comply with the doctrine of the United Church. And folks inside and outside the church do want to know what it is the church believes, even if this may not be the same as what each and every person in the church believes. If our doctrine remains unchanging, this sends one message about how we see ourselves as a church; if our doctrine is a living document which we add onto as times change, this sends a different message about being a church that is reformed and always reforming.

And even though statements of faith can seem dry, they are summaries of the good news that God is acting to save us. And that can get people excited, particularly if they change. Someone stood up at a church near here the other week and said that they heard there would be a vote in the United Church on taking Jesus out of the Basis of Union. So rumours are starting. Now I think I’ve explained that isn’t what this vote is at all. In fact, if these three other faith statements were all added to the Basis of Union, the number of references to Jesus would probably more than double.

So in the spring the Elders here are going to study these faith statements, and look at questions about whether each one reflects continuity with the Bible and with the articles of faith, whether each one reflects the practice of the church today, and whether each one is an authentic expression of our faith here in Newington and Ingleside. And everyone, not just members of the Session, can do this with us. And then the Sessions will vote.

We don’t require that members of our church sign off on any of these statements of faith, but they all have authority, just as God’s prophets had authority, just as Jesus taught with authority. When we say with A New Creed, “we are not alone, we live in God’s world,” that has authority. When we say with the 1940 Statement of Faith that in the greatness of God’s love Christ opened up for us a way deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, that has authority. When we say with A Song of Faith that we are called together as a community of broken but hopeful believers, loving what Jesus loved, living what Jesus taught, striving to be faithful servants of God in our time and place, this has authority. These have authority even though they may not be identical to the beliefs of every individual believer. They hold faith together, despite and even because of our differences. This is who we are. This is our faith. We are being called to decide how formal to make these expressions of our faith, but they remain authoritative, cherished, and honoured.

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