I Confess: A Place Called Belhar, We Are One.
I was surprised how many off-color Confession jokes I found this week
while working on this sermon.
Shame on us.
But here’s one, maybe the cleanest one I could find:
Its about Joe, who was from a tradition that practiced regular confession
and so Joe went up at the appointed time
and he entered the confessional and met with his priest.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
I have been wonton with my affection for women. Many women.
“Oh no” says the Priest.
Thinking about how to counsel the young man.
“Tell me, son” he says “Was it with Marie Brown”?
I’d rather not say, Father.
“Well, was it with Betsy Smith?”
I’m sorry Father. I don’t want to besmirch their reputations.
So the Priest offers him absolution and sends him on his way.
Joe leaves, and runs into a good friend as he turns the corner away from the parish.
Hey Joe: how’d it go? Did you receive absolution for your sins?
Why yes, yes I did. And two very, very good leads….
Perhaps the most popular use of the word Confession in our common history
by that I mean the History of the Christian Faith,
its weaving through time, its ups and its downs,
perhaps the most popular use of that word Confession was by Saint Augustine.
Augustine was a giant figure of the early church.
He was born in Northern Africa, near modern day Algeria, in the fourth century,
and he became, perhaps, the most influential scholar of early Christianity.
He wrote about Politics in The City of God.
He explored topics such as the Trinity, Original Sin, and Just War Theory.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Augustine
is that he is the patron saint of
“brewers, printers, theologians, and the alleviation of sore-eyes.”
–That sort of saint could be helpful.
The book he wrote, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, is the best seller of the bunch.
It was largely autobiography.
It told the story of Augustine’s wild and turbulent childhood
his experience of temptation, fall, and Grace
and then his overwhelming experience of the care and compassion of God.
Like many who write autobiography
perhaps Augustine did so to craft the narrative about him
or to get some things off his chest
or to remind people that he is just as human as the next guy
this thinker, who would become bishop and heavyweight theologian.
To Confess, for Augustine
wasn’t really to make a list of wrongs done
though it had that structure, along with prayers and pleas for atonement.
Confession, for Augustine, was more than that.
To Confess was to speak the truth.
It was to testify to what he knew, what he experienced,
and through that testimony, to share with all who would listen
something about God, about the world, and about what it means
to follow Christ throughout our life.
To Confess is to bear witness to the truth.
What do you think about when we talk about Confession?
Do you think Confession is a good thing?
Many people today hear the word Confession and
think of this first use of the word:
an admission of guilt, a catalogue of sins
an expression of a contrite heart.
We use the word that way ourselves, every Sunday,
when we together offer a prayer of Confession, Reflection, and Renewal
when we lift up our silent prayers of Confession to God.
We do this, even if its not enjoyable to note our failings and our missteps,
because we believe it is important for us to reflect, regularly,
on how we fail to live up to the possibilities and the standards
of life in Christ.
While our tradition doesn’t observe personal confession with a priest
as part of our regular piety—because we believe that confession
happens rightly and regularly between the individual and God,
we still hold to the importance of a collective expression of regret for wrongs.
And for us, that expression of regret, of contrition,
is always followed by an affirmation of forgiveness
of noting how God has and continues to put our failures back together
through the care and the love of Christ himself.
That is one sense of the word Confession, perhaps the one we’re most used to.
But this other use of the word Confession is what I want us to reflect about
over the next couple of weeks.
Confession as testimony
Confession as expression of what we know to be true.
Confession as honest speech,
particularly about difficult subjects and deep human need.
The Presbyterian Church, our church,
is a confessional church.
What we mean by that is that we have a collection of twelve writings
going all the way back to the Apostles’ Creed
that help shape our faith and our life together.
The Confessions of our church are testimony.
We call our collection of confessions The Book of Confessions.
These writings state our faith.
They bear witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and they declare to our members and to the world
who and what the church is
what it believes
what we resolve to do.
They are meant to identify the church as a community of people
known by its convictions as well as by its actions,
to guide our study and interpretation of the Scriptures.
Some of them, like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed
date back to around the time of Augustine,
and help connect us with Christians around the world
of every nationality and culture and structure
churches large and small and in between
who share a common faith and a common calling.
We celebrate that in particular on a day like today,
on World Communion Sunday
where believers from around the world
affirm that, regardless of our different perspectives and points of view
we are all loved and cherished by God
we are all called to serve and love others in Jesus’ name.
Other confessions, though, begin to articulate our unique perspective in the world.
In our unity with other believers,
we know that not everyone does Church the same way,
nor do we understand the faith the same.
So we have a number of confessions from the Protestant Reformation
that articulate a uniquely protestant point of view.
There are six of these protestant Confessions
from the Scots Confession to the Westminster Standards
and they lift up particular affirmations
that make us who we are.
And then there are what we call modern Confessions,
expressions of faith from more recent times,
exploring contemporary challenges and opportunities.
One was written in 1930s Germany by Christians deeply concerned with
Germany’s descent into the Nazi state
and CONFESSED the need for the church to withstand political actors
who tried to use the church for its evil ends.
Another one was written in 1967 as a statement of hope and witness
during the turbulent 50’s and 60s’
a time of perpetual war, racial tensions, and civil unrest.
In that time and place, the Confession of ’67
told the church that its job, its mission, its reason for being
was to help people who-are-divided find reconciliation with each other
because that is what Christ has done for each of us.
And then there is the Brief Statement of Faith, adopted in 1983.
This might be my favorite of the bunch,
an eloquent summation of the theology of our church.
We adopted it, in part, because of what it meant for us.
At the time, we were celebrating the merger
of the two largest branches of our tradition
the so-called Northern Presbyterian Church and the so-called Southern Church
the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
and the Presbyterian Church in the United States,
two denominations which split from each other during the Civil War
more than a hundred years earlier.
To a church that had been broken and hurt
kept apart for a century by our legacy
of slavery and enmity and cultural suspicion
our union back together in 1983 was a very big deal.
And to celebrate it, we adopted the Brief Statement of Faith
which reminds us that
The Spirit [of God] gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
These statements are witnesses to the truth of God moving in our world.
The Confessions of our Church are Testimony.
Can you hear it?
They tell the world what our Church believes, what we resolve to do.
They are a part of who and what we are, what we are all about.
That we are a people who stand up to injustice and evil and brokenness
because we follow a savior who does these things
and a Lord who tells us we can too.
I wanted to tell you all of this,
as a way for us to begin to understand how important it was
that our church adopted a new confession this summer.
Now, there are hundreds and hundreds of confessions floating around out there.
Some of them are beautiful. Some of them are even important.
But not all of those confessions are OUR confessions.
We tend to be very careful about which confessions we make our confessions.
And the process for doing so is deliberately time-consuming and reflective.
It takes at least 8 years of study and reflection and voting and more study
and more votes before we adopt a confession.
So when we do so, its kinda a big deal
something that is worth stopping and exploring just a little bit
even as it will shape our faith and our practice for years to come.
The new confession was written in 1982 in a little suburb of Cape Town, South Africa
a place called Belhar.
South Africa in the 1980s was deeply divided by race and class
the formal system of separation and division called Apartheid.
It was a time where every institution was separated
including the church, where white churches argued
that it was natural and good for people of different races and cultures
to live in separate communities.
Into that context, the Confession of Belhar TESTIFIED
to what we read today in Galatians
it TESTIFIED to our unity in Christ, no matter external differences.
It spoke a word of FAITH and TRUTH
that in a divided time, we believe that we are one
that the promises of God are the same for all of us
no matter the color of our skin
or the condition of our birth
or anything else.
The Confession of Belhar challenges our boundaries and borders,
our lines in the sand, if you will,
and reminds us that we are no longer Jew or Greek
slave or free
or even male or female; We are all ONE in Christ Jesus.
God does not want us to be separate.
In fact, God loves each of us, unique and different though we are
God loves us all and wants us to be together.
My pastor friend, Eric, put it this way:
“We are no longer rich or poor,
white or brown,
American or Mexican,
straight or gay,
for we are all ONE in Christ Jesus.
We are ONE Church, one human family,
and we are called to stand together against any attempt
to divide us with bigger walls or the exploitation of fears.”[i]
And, more than that,
the church has to live as if we BELIEVE that
so that any structure that keeps us apart
any failure to stand with the hurting and the oppressed and the wrong
any missed witness to the humanity of my brother and my sister
to my neighbor who is hurting in the street
is wrong, is sin, is something we should not do.
It is a powerful confession.
Man, it is powerful.
The Confession of Belhar articulated three major themes:
Our Unity in Christ
Our Calling to work for Reconciliation because of Christ
and our need to make Justice for all our cause,
because it is Christ’s cause.
After that testimony, this confession started convicting the heart and the consciences
of many Christians in South Africa and around the world.
Many of us still remember the racism and the violence of Apartheid South Africa
and how, through international pressure
leadership from Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Willem De Klerk,
and through influence of statements like the Confession of Belhar
eventually the system of apartheid crumbled and was swept away in the 1990s.
There isn’t time in a sermon to read the confession.
Some of you just checked your watch, and you’re grateful for that.
Its too long, and a bit wordy as we’ve translated it
from the original Afrikaans into English.
You can find it with a quick google search,
or I have copies available at the welcome center.
But the Confession of Belhar is our newest confession.
Like the Barmen Declaration—that statement about Nazi Germany
we didn’t adopt the Confession of Belhar because we think Apartheid is our reality,
but because we recognize the truth it speaks not just to South Africa
but to us, and to the whole world.
The confession stresses the unity of God, and the unity of the church:
“We believe in one holy, universal Christian church,
the communion of saints called from the ENTIRE human family.
We believe that unity is, therefore,
both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ;
that through the working of God’s Spirit,
it is a binding force,
yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought.”
We are called to be a church without any barriers, without any walls
one that affirms that you are my neighbor, and I am your neighbor
and that all of God’s children are our neighbors.
We are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We live in a time where we are feeling rather divided.
That’s certainly true among racial lines
and this confession speaks to that
but its also true among other categories as well
What do you think the church should do about it?
Should we sit on the sidelines,
go about our business
speak a word or two to uplift our spirits
and then have everyone go our merry way
or should we work to find ways to demonstrate that these qualities
we use to classify ourselves as insiders and outsiders
don’t really matter?
We at the Kirk are really blessed to have all sorts of people under this roof
people from many countries
with many experiences and histories
men and women
conservative and liberal
able bodied and not so
rich and poor
and everything in between.
Do we celebrate that diversity?
Do we see it as something that is both a Gift from God
and something that must be earnestly sought?
THAT is the TESTIMONY of our faith.
That the God who makes all things new
has made us ONE in Christ.
All of that, witnessed to us from A Place Called Belhar.
May we, as we celebrate communion along side Christians of every
race, creed, and background
THIS MEAL of our unity in Christ
may we be fed, be strengthened, and be sent from here
ready to listen for ways we can help heal divisions in our world
and strengthen the church as a place were all, and I mean all,
have a home.
May it be so.
Image Credit: “Love One Another” by Laura James (www.laurajamesart.com).
[i] From his sermon “Reflections on the Church: The Confession of Belhar” preached at University Presbyterian Church of Tempe, Arizona, August 14, 2016.