1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
A young Catholic man enters the confessional booth one day and says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I have committed the sin of vanity. Twice a day I gaze at myself in the mirror and tell myself how good looking I am.”
The priest opens the window, takes a good look at the young man and says, “My son, I have good news. That isn’t a sin. It’s simply a mistake.”
I tell this joke because here in El Paso, when we hear the word “confession,” that’s probably the first kind that comes to mind. There’s also the deathbed confession, the courtroom confession, and our very own prayer of confession that begins our Sunday morning worship services.
All of these kinds of confession have in common that they involve admitting, or acknowledging out loud, wrongdoing of some kind. I confess! I did it! I’m BAD!
But there’s another definition of confession, one that is important to today’s message: In Romans Chapter 10, the Apostle Paul writes that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
To confess that Jesus is Lord is not to admit wrongdoing. In the church, to confess can also mean to state clearly and concisely what you believe to be true. And so a “confession of faith” is a statement of belief. Those of you who have been Presbyterians for awhile, or those of you who have served as elected officers in the Presbyterian Church, know that we have an entire book of confessions, called, “The Book of Confessions” (so we’re not exactly the most creative people!).
The Book of Confessions begins with the two most ancient confessions of faith, dating back to the 4th century: The Nicene Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed, which we say together in worship every Sunday after the offering.
Next, in the Book of Confessions, you’ll find the Scots, the Heidelberg, the Helvetic, and the Westminster Confessions of faith—they are all statements of faith from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the protestant churches of the Reformation broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and felt a profound need to define exactly what it was that they stood for.
In World War II era Germany, when the majority of German Christian churches bowed down to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, a small group of Reformed churches took a brave stand against their government—some at the cost of their lives—and published the Barmen Confession of Faith. It is the ninth confession in our Book of Confessions. Sometimes we boldly confess our faith in order to clarify what we stand against.
The last two confessions in our book are the Confession of 1967, published in…1967 (of course!) and the Brief Statement of Faith, published in 1983 when the Northern and Southern branches of the Presbyterian Church merged to form the Presbyterian Church USA (what we are now). Both of these confessions are uniquely “American” Confessions, and attempt to forge an identity for our denomination in the 20th century.
As you can see, some confessions are born out of longstanding tradition, some originate in a time of crisis or change, but all Confessions attempt to interpret the scriptures faithfully, and answer the questions, “What is the church called to BE and DO in this time and place?” I like to think that when collected together, the confessions are like our Presbyterian family photo album. They are snapshots of who we were and what was important to us, long ago, and not so long ago—here at home and also in far away places, too.
And until this summer, there were eleven confessions in our Book of Confessions. Now, there is a 12th. It is the first “new” confession adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in over two decades, and it’s called the Confession of Belhar. Since this is such a momentous occasion in the life of the church, we’re going to spend this Sunday and the next examining and talking about our newest confession.
But first, what is it, and how did it come to be our newest confession?
Belhar is a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, where the confession was written. Like us, the Dutch Reformed Churches of South Africa had their own book of confessions, all from the 16th and 17th centuries. These confessions (like ours) stressed the idea that Protestant Christians should be good citizens and obey the laws of the land.
Unfortunately, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the South African church used those confessions (per Rev. Jack Rogers) “to justify obedience to a government that imposed strict separation of the races and domination by members of the white race. The system was called by its Afrikaans name, Apartheid.” The confession of Belhar was written as a protest against the system of apartheid, and as a corrective to the notion that “good citizenship” means tacit support for unjust and oppressive laws, policies, not just within the government, but within the church.
As many of you probably remember, with pressure from other nations, with the leadership of people like Nelson Mandela and Willem De Klerk, and with the influence of statements like the Belhar Confession, eventually the apartheid system crumbled and fell in the 1990s. The Belhar Confession of Faith has since been adopted by churches in South Africa, Europe, and America as a statement of what Christians believe our scriptures teach about unity, reconciliation, and justice. Unity, reconciliation, and justice—values that are much needed in our communities right now. And last month, we adopted this confession too.
As she shared with you a few weeks ago, our very own Katherine Mullings was there in Portland, Oregon at our General Assembly where the confession was officially adopted. Katherine was elected by the people of our Presbytery (that’s our regional governing body for West Texas) to represent us. But that’s not the only connection the Confession of Belhar has with First Presbyterian Church. Before a General Assembly can vote to adopt a new confession, it also has to have the affirmative vote of 2/3rds of ALL the Presbyteries. Our Presbytery, Tres Rios Presbytery, met last summer in this very building, with elected representatives (both pastors and congregation members) from each of the Presbyterian churches in El Paso and West Texas, and we as a Presbytery voted in favor of adopting this confession. History was made right here in this place.
I wish I had time in the sermon to read the entire confession to you. In any case, copies of it are available here in the church, as well as online with a quick Google search. And in just a little while, I will close by reading you a few excerpts from the first section, then a few more next week.
The first and foremost of Belhar’s three great themes is Unity. It takes it’s inspiration from today’s scripture reading in Ephesians, which begs its readers to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” just as there is “one body and one Spirit,” … “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…who is above all and through all and in all.”
Or, to borrow a paraphrase from a famous Irish rock band, “One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should. One life, with each other, sisters, brothers. One life, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other. One.
Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for separateness, literally “Apart-hood.” The idea that we can exist, function, get along just fine, separately, with different rules for different categories of people. What’s the opposite of apart-ness? One-ness. Unity.
The Confession of Belhar begins with the unity of God:
“We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
Next it moves to 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: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain; that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.”
“Therefore, we reject any doctrine…which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.”
“We reject any doctrine which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.”
“We believe…that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are…opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.”
“We believe…that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.”
“We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ…”
Here at First Presbyterian Church, one of the places we have the opportunity to experience that kind of unity every month, is when we gather around this table. There is one table, because we are one people. And in the spirit of Belhar, we make no distinctions among those who gather around this table: Whether you are black or white, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, gay or straight, Catholic or Protestant, believer or skeptic…whoever or whatever you are, you are welcome at this table. And at this table, we are one people, united in love for each other. So lay down your grievances, lay down your burdens, lay down your fears and your frustrations, lay down all the things that isolate and separate us, and come…come to the table of the Lord.