Watch the full interview here:
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Friends,
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Reconciler.
We write to you as former Moderators of the General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor churches, as disciples of Jesus Christ committed to the Gospel’s witness and promise of reconciliation, and as agents of God’s transformative justice in the church and in the world.
The brazen march of white nationalist supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12, 2017, and President Donald Trump’s subsequent responses that equivocated on clearly identifying, denouncing and condemning those same groups as instigators of hatred and violence brought the spotlight upon the deeply embedded and pernicious poison of racism and white supremacy so endemic in society and, we dare say, in the church. We are increasingly alarmed when notions of nationalism and racial superiority are masked and clothed in terms of the Christian faith, or confused with the Gospel, or somehow supersede the clear exhortation of sacred Scripture to love your neighbor as Christ loved the Church, or when the Christian faith is used to inspire and organize hatred and bigotry.
We are wisely instructed by the struggles of our faith forebearers when fascism in the form of Nazism was on the rise in the 1930s, resulting in the Theological Declaration of Barmen, which categorically and emphatically denounced the effects of Nazism in the church and in society: “. . .we may and must speak with one voice in this matter today. Precisely because we want to be and to remain faithful to our various Confessions, we may not keep silent, since we believe that we have been given a common message to utter in a time of common need and temptation.” Then again, nearly four decades ago, our South African sisters and brothers stood courageously against the white governmental policy of apartheid and the theologies that undergirded and rationalized that sinful regime. The Belhar Confession stated: “. . .we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.”
In so doing, we join with our Stated Clerk, General Assembly Co-Moderators, and Presbyterian Mission Agency Interim Executive Director in calling the church to confess and repent of the ways in which we have been complicit and failed to disrupt, challenge, and undo white supremacy and racism. (see their pastoral letter:
As our concerns, sadness and anger have increased over the state of affairs we find ourselves as a nation, we are also equally determined and committed to active prayer and prayerful action, as we know so many of you are doing in thousands of churches, in counter-protests in streets across the country, in letter writing to and visits with elected officials, in mobilizing through social media, in face-to-face/neighbor-to-neighbor conversations. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in summarizing the 19th century abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, exhorted: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
May we, as the present-future generation of God’s people in this time and for this time, work and pray for the reconciliation of all of God’s children, and may the Lord grant us grace and courage for the facing of this hour.
Yours in the service of Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, 214th General Assembly (2002), PC(USA)
Elder (Dr.) Thelma C. Davidson Adair, 188th General Assembly (1976), UPCUSA
The Rev. Dr. Susan R. Andrews, 215th General Assembly (2003), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Bohl, 206th General Assembly (1994), PC(USA)
Elder Patricia Brown, 209th General Assembly (1997), PC(USA)
The Rev. John M. Buchanan, 208th General Assembly (1996), PC(USA)
The Rev. David Lee Dobler, 205th General Assembly (1993), PC(USA)
The Rev. John M. Fife, 204th General Assembly (1992), PC(USA)
Elder Price Gwynn III, 202nd General Assembly (1990), PC(USA)
The Rev. Charles A. Hammond, 192nd General Assembly (1980), UPCUSA
The Rev. Robert Lamar, 186th General Assembly (1974), UPCUSA
The Rev. Harriet Nelson, 196th General Assembly (1984), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Neal D. Presa, 220th General Assembly (2012), PC(USA)
Elder (Dr.) Heath Rada, 221st General Assembly (2014), PC(USA)
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, 218th General Assembly (2008), PC(USA)
Elder Rick Ufford-Chase, 216th General Assembly (2004), PC(USA)
The Rev. Dr. Herbert D. Valentine, 203rd General Assembly (1991), PC(USA)
Elder William H. Wilson, 197th General Assembly (1985), PC(USA)
103 Q. What is God’s will for you
in the fourth commandment?
that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,^1
and that, especially on the festive day of rest,
I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people^2
to learn what God’s Word teaches,^3
to participate in the sacraments,^4
to pray to God publicly,^5
and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.^6
that every day of my life
I rest from my evil ways,
let the Lord work in me through his Spirit,
and so begin in this life
the eternal Sabbath.^7
^1 Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 3[:1]; 4:13; 5:17; 1 Cor. 9:11, 13-14; 2 Tim. 2:2; 3:15
^2 Ps. 68:27; 40:10-11; Acts :42, 46
^3 1 Cor. 14:19, 29, 31
^4 1 Cor. 11:33
^5 1 Tim. 2:1-3,8-9; 1 Cor. 14:16
^6 1 Cor. 16:2
^7 Isa. 66:23
LORD’S DAY 38 (Q/A 103)
“Always a Pacific Guy”
In an ordination service for a teaching elder/minister of Word and Sacrament, there is a moment where there is a giving of the symbols of office (the so-called traditio symboli instrumentorum). This time involves immediate family members or a close friend giving the newly ordained minister a liturgical stole, a cross, a Bible, and, almost always, a liturgical robe. The investing of these symbols of office collectively express that the ordinand is now ready to function as teaching elder, carrying with her the blessing and prayers of the community, and expressing upon him the community’s confirmation of God’s calling.
On the occasion of my ordination, my parents and parents in-law placed a black Genevan gown on me. This was then followed by words from a dear friend of mine and a ministry colleague who exhorted me to never forget that underneath my ministerial garb and the trappings of the ordained office, I am a man, a Pacific guy, a boy from the islands. (I was born in Guam if you didn’t know) His was a necessary reminder then, and everyday since then, that my core identity is as a child of God who entered this world at that little island in the Pacific.
When I reflect upon Q/A 103, I’m brought to the Pacific islands from whence I came. The fast-paced urbanites of New York City or Los Angeles will wax impatience in Guam or any tropical island for that matter because there’s an easy-go-lucky, “Qué sera, sera” (whatever will be, will be) posture towards life; in my Filipino culture, we call it “bahala na” (loosely translated, “let it be.”)
Things in the island get done….eventually. Don’t sweat it, we’ll get to it. Stop looking at the clock, pull out a chair, grab a Styrofoam plate, go to the feast table, get some food, some drink, and enjoy your family, friends, and neighbors. No need to drive 60 or 70 mph to get to your destination..not that you could anyway, it’s too small of an island. Cruise at 30 mph, you’ll get there. Don’t sweat it. Bahala na.
What matters in the island is God’s beautiful creation around you (the blue skies, the coconut treets, the white sands, the warm breeze, the blue water, the multichrome flowers and birds, the green gecko on your ceiling) and God’s beautiful image-bearers around you – your parents, your siblings, your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, extended family, godparents, next door neighbors, their friends,…and anyone in the island who wishes to join the party. The people matter, you matter. God matters.
Q/A 103 and its description of what the fourth commandment is about tells us that – the people matter. You matter. God matters above all else. When we want all of the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed, when we want all of our ducks in a nice neat row, when we stress, and our overly anxious hearts want our life and the world around us to be perfectly on-time, perfectly planned, and perfectly controlled, the Lord of the Sabbath says, “Cool it.” There’s a time for work, but you weren’t made for just work. The Sabbath is a welcome gift from God, our Creator who knows our limitations, even when we are erratic and want to transcend our God-given limits; pay attention to physiological/physical signs of stress, the emotional and mental evidence, and the pangs of the soul.
When the Sabbath is lived into, we find a restful freedom to let go and let God. It’s a comfort and consolation that even when we are sleeping and slumbering, the God of the Sabbath neither slumbers nor sleeps. We are creatures, not the Creator. And as such, we honor and express our love and thanksgiving to God by being still and believing/trusting that God is God and we are not.
In the Sabbath rest, the assembling together of God’s people in corporate worship is the primary place that our hearts and minds are kindled to this divine awareness of our limitations and God’s limitless love and care for us and the entire creation. In Word and in Sacrament, in prayer and with praise, the people of God are recalibrated and refreshed, to let go, and let God.
Yes, worship is like being ordained and being re-ordained, all over again. Gathering in worship is being confirmed in our God-given calling that began in the waters of baptism, where letting go and letting God was the only thing we could do.
That’s where our lives need to be – a continually calling that let’s go, that lives as we do in the Pacific islands. Bahala na.
101 Q. But may we swear an oath in God’s name
if we do it reverently?
A. Yes, when the government demands it,
or when necessity requires it,
in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness
for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.
Such oaths are grounded in God’s Word^1
and were rightly used by the people of God
in the Old and New Testaments.^2
^1 Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Isa. 48:1; Heb. 6:16
^2 Gen. 21:24; 31:53; Josh. 9:15, 19; 1 Sam.24:[21-22]; 2 Sam. 3:35; 1 Kings 1:29; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23
102 Q. May we also swear by saints or other creatures?
A legitimate oath means calling upon God
as the only one who knows my heart
to witness to my truthfulness
and to punish me if I swear falsely.^1
No creature is worthy of such honor.^2
^1 2Cor. 1:23
^2 Matt. 5:34-36; James 5:12
LORD’S DAY 37 (Q/A 101-102)
“You are my witness”
Read the story of the patriarch Jacob (Abraham’s son) and how he labored many years to win the hand of Rachel, Laban’s daughter. I’m struck by how Jacob toiled beyond the agreed upon time, with no textual indication that he resisted or justified himself towards Laban. Only after Laban cheats him for the Nth time does Jacob tell Laban how terrible he had been treated. (Genesis 31:1-8ff)
Fast forward to Jacob’s son, Joseph, the one sold to Midianite traders. Upon being entrusted in a leadership post in Potiphar’s (a captain of Pharaoh’s guard) household, Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. Joseph resisted but Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph and he was summarily imprisoned. The text said, “But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love” (Genesis 39:21a)
We cast our common lot with politicians in wanting to self-justify ourselves and try our best to protect our integrity and reputation. Having a well-documented paper-trail is a key to corporate risk management; in other words, make sure your butt is covered at all times and in every way.
Q/A 101-102 speaks to us about keeping our word, living lives of integrity when others aren’t looking, and who will be our witness and guard our integrity and passion.
This is not to say that we don’t keep the paper trail; we do, we should and we must. We have to be wise with the threads of communication we have – emails, text messages, faxes, recordings, archived testimonies.
But there’s something to be said about making our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No.”
We can prove ourselves to be right, but relationships aren’t built and deepened by who is right, or justification of right-ness and the proof of another’s wrong-ness. Can you imagine being in a friendship or any relationship where it was about proving yourself to be right to win an argument or proving the other person to be wrong.
We can heap all of the paper trail and electronic evidence, but what we’ll end up being is a church, community, nation, and world of individuals who seek self-protection, self-justification, in which everyone walks on egg shells.
I think of the thousands who have been wrongly accused, wrong imprisoned, and for some, wrongly placed on death row, and later to be released after decades behind bars. When heaps of evidence were brought before courts decades prior to shuttle them to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, they were left to languish in prison, with the Lord as their witness. Only in time was their innocence confirmed; our mass incarceration and death penalty systems are needing drastic and comprehensive reforms. The great, late Nelson Mandela comes to our mind, whose 25 year imprisonment galvanized his resolve against apartheid and strengthened a movement to free South Africa of that pernicious evil.
To whom do we entrust our reputations, our integrity, our best or worst face?
Q/A 101-102 is a reminder to us that God alone is trustworthy and true. The best we can do, by God’s grace, is to live lives and speak words that are as trustworthy and true, with God as our witness. These two sections evoke thanksgiving in us because it kindles in us the trust that God does have our back, that when we make our “Yes,” “Yes” and our “No,” “No” the pieces will come into place somehow. Therein lies our freedom – we can be free from constant self-justification, we are set free from incessantly proving ourselves right, or winning the argument, or spinning the truth to put our best face or foot forward; we are unshackled from finding the politically-safe angle. We are free to just be.
For God to be our witness, and no one else (not even the smartest, most holy person you can think of), is to confess that the Lord has always and will forever be trustworthy and true; the Lord’s track record of being honest, of being true to who He is, to what He says He will do…every single time, God has shown Himself to be true.
God doesn’t pummel us with being right; we would plead no-contest before the Almighty.
What God does do, because this is a real relationship after all, is call us to trust in Him, to love Him, as He demonstrates again and again His true and trustworthy love for us; God has us covered through and through.
If there was anyone who should have and certainly could have justified and protected himself – Jesus Christ was the One. In Matthew 4, he had the opportunity in the wilderness as Satan presented three chances to prove himself. At the ultimate place of proof, Jesus could have avoided death and called upon the angels to rescue him from the cross.
But it wasn’t about proving himself, nor about proving the rightness of the argument. If it were, it would have ended long before, and Pilate would not have had his way.
Thanks be to God! We can place our trust and confidences in God. God is our witness. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No.
99 Q. What is the aim of the third commandment?
A. That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God
by cursing, perjury,^1 or unnecessary oaths,^2
nor share in such horrible sins
by being silent bystanders.
we should use the holy name of God
only with reverence and awe,^3
so that we may properly
pray to God,^5
and glorify God in all our words and works.^6
^1 Lev. 24:11[-16];19:12
^2 Matt. 5:37; James 5:12
^3 Isa. 45:23
^4 Matt. 10:32
^5 1 Tim. 2:8
^6 Rom. 2:24; 1 Tim. 6:1; Col. 3:16
100 Q. Is blasphemy of God’s name by swearing and cursing
really such serious sin
that God is angry also with those
who do not do all they can
to help prevent and forbid it?
A. Yes, indeed.^1
No sin is greater
or provokes God’s wrath more
than blaspheming his name.
That is why God commanded it to be punished with death.^2
^1 Lev. 5:1
^2 Lev. 24:15-16
LORD’S DAY 36 (Q/A 99-100)
“What’s In A Name?”
The naming of someone or something takes special care. My mom intentionally spelled my name with an “a” not the usual “i” to set me apart from the same ol’, same ol’. She also chose my name because “Neal” means “champion.” (Unfortunately, that term doesn’t apply to my athletic prowess, or lack thereof, as evidenced by the fact that I was usually the last one chosen in the class line-up at recess throughout my growing-up years. Even to this day, I throw an occasional football spiral and my sons throw faster baseball pitches.) The second part of my first name, “Leon” is the reverse of my father’s name, “Noel.” My middle name, “Dionida” is my mother’s maiden name. And my last name means one of three things in Spanish: water dam, strawberry, female servant. (I prefer water dam, if you want to know).
The same care went into the naming of our two sons and their particular Korean names. In fact, both of our sons’ Korean names were given to them by their late paternal grandaunt in South Korea. We don’t know if it involved tea leaves or white smoke but it is shrouded in mystery that to this day, we aren’t certain how she came up with their names.
The naming of places, such as “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” designated memorial markers for some decisive or phenomenal event, an encounter with God, a battle won or lost; it was for remembrance.
Names are given for remembrance. But not just mere memory. Names are given to re-member; that is they have a reconstituting effect. Names bring us back to origins, to when that decisive moment happened, or back to our birth.
My parents have a term of endearment for me, “Nilo.” (pronounced, “Nee-lo.”) This name was one they used when I was a child, in those instances when they wanted to call my immediate attention; my mom often used it in combination with her widened eyes and pursed lips when I needed to be disciplined. In high school and college, when my smart-alecky side conflicted with my parents, that name “Nilo” was a quick reminder that no matter my age, no matter my educational degrees or job positions, I was and always will be their child.
God’s name is a sacred one, so set apart and holy that one of the ten commandments is about honoring God’s name and keeping it holy. The so-called tetragrammaton, the Lord’s name in Hebrew letters Latinized as “YHWH,” took such extra significance that when readers of the ancient manuscripts came across the Hebrew name of God, because its pronunciation was unknown and should not be spoken because of its set apart-ness, the tetragrammaton would be called “Adonai” (translated “Lord). Later, as vowels were added to the Hebrew letters, we get the modern rendition, “Yahweh.” (Even Hollywood cinematography and popular literature comprehend this notion of special nomenclature as shown through the Harry Potter series and the prohibition to not say “the Name,” in reference to Harry Potter’s and Dumbledore’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort.)
The Lord’s name is an expression of God’s character, of God’s essence, of God’s self-revelation, and God’s self-giving. God has no parent, God has no origin. There was no time in which God was not. He is the I AM, the subject and object, the One who has no predicate. God is.
That is what is at stake in Q/A 99 and 100.
The revealing of the Lord’s name to us human beings is a gift – we have been let in on a special, sacred part of God. Attached to the Lord’s name is who God is, what God does, what God promises. In sum, contained in the Lord’s name is God’s very covenant with us. God’s name is an outward expression of God’s inward disposition to be for us, to be with us.
As with our birth name and the reconstituting/ re-membering function, the name of God calls us back to the One who is our Creator, the One to whom we belong in life and in death and in the life to come.
There was a time when I forgot my ID at the airport security line. I was sweating bullets, trying not to miss my flight, all the while trying to convince the TSA security that I was Neal Presa and no one else. Our identification is very precious. Hackers use all sorts of tricks and methods to gain access to our identity for their own gain. In a technology age where every electronic device is a portal into our privacy and identity, we do our best to guard that which is precious to us – our name. With our name and the identity markers that go with it (Social Security numbers, email passwords, credit reporting bureaus), we also guard our integrity, our reputation, our name and our family name. Hijacked identities make us vulnerable and invaded.
Do we honor the name, integrity and reputation of the Lord of the universe, the One who created us, who as Jesus Christ, redeemed us, and who as the Holy Spirit, seals His love upon us?
This is the section of the Catechism on gratitude. As such, do we live lives worthy of the calling to be which we have been called, namely, as the holy people of God for whom and to whom the triune God gives and reveals of Himself?
In contrast to Batman’s sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, who repeatedly exclaimed:
“Holy this and holy that….”
The God of Abraham, Sarah, Ruth, David, who has come as Jesus Christ, and through whom the Holy Spirit is given – He alone is the Holy One. This means that we, who are called holy, saints – we are set apart for the purpose of living lives that are set apart for God’s purposes. The covenantal command is operative, “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” says the Lord.
Calling upon the name of the Lord, and honoring the Lord’s name in speech, in work, and in heart, is to be continually reconstituted and re-membered as a child of God, a calling back to the One who claims us, whose Name directs us to the fullness of God’s self and the God who by virtue of His holiness, His set apart-ness, has reserved Himself for us and for the life of the world. Honoring the Lord’s Name is honoring the Lord Himself, loving Him and seeing that others likewise honor and love the One to whom is due the same.
96 Q. What is God’s will for us
in the second commandment?
A. That we in no way make any image of God^1
nor worship him in any other way
than has been commanded in God’s Word.^2
^1 Deut. 4:15[-19]; Isa. 40:18; Rom. 1:23; Acts 17:29
^2 1 Sam. 15:23; Deut. 12:30; Matt. 15:9
97 Q. May we then not make
any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not
be visibly portrayed in any way.
Although creatures may be portrayed,
yet God forbids making or having such images
if one’s intention is to worship them
or to serve God through them.^1
^1 Exod. 23:24; 34:13; Num. 33:52; Deut. 7:5; 12:3; 16:22; 2 Kings 18:4
98 Q. But may not images be permitted in churches
in place of books for the unlearned?
A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God.
God wants the Christian community instructed
by the living preaching of his Word—^1
not by idols that cannot even talk.^2
^1 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19
^2 Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18-19
LORD’S DAY 35 (Q/A 96-98)
Sweat equity is where you contribute your time and labor for the restoration or upbuilding of something, usually as a means to substitute using money (financial equity).
As with most anything, sweat equity has a positive and negative aspect. On the positive side, as with the model that Habitat for Humanity uses, sweat equity enables low-income families to contribute themselves to a building project, to participate in the construction of their homes and the homes of others. Sweat equity opens up possibilities and opportunities for ownership where a financial lender may not take the risk, or where a family simply doesn’t have the funds to contribute.
In our human nature, the negative aspect rears its head. Our human nature is that after a job well-done, we can become self-congratulatory, or mold the outcome to our own liking, our own image. I’ve been to several Little League games where some fathers have lost their cool with other fathers, seeing their sons as the outward embodiment of themselves, their hopes, perhaps…their sweat equity of investment of time, dropping off at practices, purchasing sporting equipment. Consider the mixture of cultural fascination and cultural critique of Honey Boo Boo as the cultural image of youthfulness gone wild with parental encouragement.
But we don’t even have to turn to outward images, to external expressions of idolatry, societal images. The potential and, in fact, common practice of idolatry is lived out daily in our hearts. Pride is our killer, and pride emerges again and again with our sweat equity – anything we have achieved, anything we have done, anything we have invested time, energy, money…we extend our image, our illusion and vision of what should be. What retirement might be like. What this career might be like in this or that place.
Don’t get me wrong. Strategic planning, casting our nets wide, setting goals are all good things. But the Lord knows our human natures and the inclinations of our hearts….unchecked and unrestrained, our sweat equity quickly translates into image of ourselves, idolatries of ourselves cast upon others.
What are our modern-day, lived-for idols and images that are counterfeit gods? What are yours? What are mine?
The worship of God is comprehensive; it’s not primarily on a Sunday morning…the worship of God is Sunday through Saturday, all the days of our lives.
Where are the altars that we bow to?
The Holy Spirit has given us the trifecta gifts of faith, hope, and love. These three gifts enable us to live in such a way that we are propelled by that which we cannot see, an utter dependence on God’s leading and direction, receiving and giving love.
Idols and images have a way of being placeholders for our hopes and our fears, the deep anxieties of the heart. The fascination with cultural icons or the next “American Idol” exhibits our anxieties of what we wish to be. Idols and images are expressions of gratifying/satisfying the anxiety by providing a ready placeholder for past-present-future hopes and fears.
Faith, hope and love don’t work on such a timetable. Faith, hope, and love are given by God, and deepen over time, through experiences of trial and travail, through prayer, through patiently waiting upon God, through the hearing and receiving of Scripture, through the sacraments, through deep friendships as gifts from God for the people of God.
When we are tempted to see in our sweat equity that we have crafted our present, that we have planned our future, that we are dealing with our anxieties, Q/A 96-99 knocks on our hearts. We show our gratitude to God, in delighting in Him, casting our hopes and fears of all the years upon Jesus the Christ:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20, NRSV)
The Reformed theological tradition holds to the dual nature of God’s covenant with us as being both a covenant of grace and a covenant of works: we receive and understand God’s reconciling love in Christ as a covenant of grace – we are the beneficiaries of God’s love not because of what we’ve done nor of who we are, but solely from God’s desire to be with us and for us; that is grace.
Yet, what we receive as a covenant of grace, from the perspective of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the work of salvation as effected in the incarnation, the life of servant ministry, His death, His resurrection – that was work, that was sweat equity…the sweat equity of the Son of God, the Son of Man…for the daughters and sons of God. For you. For me. For us.
The one who is the very image of the invisible God, restores us and restores our identities as ones whom God has created in His image. May you reflect the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, whose sweat equity was given for you for the life of the world.
92 Q. What is God’s law?
A. God spoke all these words:
THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.”
THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
“You shall not make for yourself an idol,
whether in form of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is on the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them;
for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,
punishing children for the iniquity of parents,
to the third and fourth generation
of those who reject me,
but showing love to the thousandth generation of those
who love me and keep my commandments.”
THE THIRD COMMANDMENT
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,
for the Lord will not acquit anyone
who misuses his name.”
THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God;
you shall not do any work—
you, your son or your daughter,
your male or female slave,
or the alien resident in your towns.
For in six days the Lord made
the heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day
and consecrated it.”
THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT
“Honor your father and your mother,
so that your days may be long
in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.”
THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not murder.”
THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not commit adultery.”
THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not steal.”
THE NINTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbor.”
THE TENTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
or male or female slave,
or ox, or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”^1
^1 Exod. 20[:1-17]; Deut. 5[:6-21]
93 Q. How are these commandments divided?
A. Into two tables.^1
The first has four commandments,
teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God.
The second has six commandments,
teaching us what we owe our neighbor.^2
^1 Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:3-4
^2 Matt. 22:37-39
94 Q. What does the Lord require
in the first commandment?
A. That I, not wanting to endanger my own salvation,
avoid and shun
all idolatry,^1 sorcery, superstitious rites,^2
and prayer to saints or to other creatures.^3
That I rightly know the only true God,^4
trust him alone,^5
and look to God for every good thing^6
humbly^7 and patiently,^8
and love,^9 fear,^10 and honor^11 God
with all my heart.
that I give up anything
rather than go against God’s will in any way.^12
^1 1 Cor. 6:9-10;10:7,14
^2 Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:11
^3 Matt. 4:10; Rev. 19:10; 22:-9
^4 John 17:3
^5 Jer. 17:5
^6 Ps. 104: 27-30; Isa. 45:7; James 1:17
^7 1 Pet. 5:5-6
^8 Heb. 10:36; Col. 1:11; Rom. 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:14
^9 Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37
^10 Deut. 6:2; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Matt. 10:28
^11 Matt. 4:10; Deut. 10:20
^12 Matt. 5:29-30; 10:37; Acts 5:29
95 Q. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is
having or inventing something in which one trusts
in place of or alongside of the only true God,
who has revealed himself in the Word.^1
^1 Eph. 5:5; 1 Chron. 16:26; Phil. 3:19; Gal. 4:8; Eph. 2:12; 1 John 2:23; 2 John 9; John 5:23
LORD’S DAY 34 (Q/A 92-95)
“Where is your heart?”
The ancient church prepared catechumens (candidates for baptism) by traditioning them (yes, the verb of “tradition”). From the Latin “traditio” meaning to pass on or pass to, traditioning exhibited dynamic, living faith. The opposite is traditionalism – stagnant, unreflective state of being and doing for the sake of itself.
Traditioning involved the elements of belonging, behavior, belief. (see Alan Kreider’s The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom). The sequencing of those elements showed the theological emphasis of a particular community. Those who placed belief first placed doctrinal apprehension as a primary criteria for whether you belonged. Placing belonging first expressed to baptismal candidates that they already belonged to the community, and that the process of preparation was a way to learn doctrine and live it out in your life (behavior).
In any case, whatever sequence there was, there was overlapping of each and all. One can never carefully delineate when one has moved from one stage to the next. Is behavior learned as baptismal candidates observe worship, participate in it, and serve alongside community members in mission? And/or does theological discourse and learning shape behavior and critique behavior.
What framed the traditioning process was the so-called “rule of faith” (Latin regula fidei). The rule of faith, like the measuring rod of a ruler, provided the basic foundation for what is traditioned. The rule of faith was composed of:
-The Apostles’ Creed
-The Ten Commandments
-The Lord’s Prayer
Each of these were to be memorized. The community took care to teach the meaning of these articles of the faith. Culminating on Holy Saturday at the Great Prayer Vigil of Easter, regarded as the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, baptismal candidates would “return” (Latin redditio) the faith by reciting the Apostles’ Creed, essentially giving back what they had received.
The Apostles’ Creed as we’ve seen in prior sections of the Catechism is a summary of the Gospel. The Creed is about the triune God, it’s a very brief biography of what the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has revealed and given to us as attested to by the Scriptures. The Gospel is the Good News that the triune God has self-given and self-revealed as the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
The Lord’s Prayer is love language – we are apprenticed to pray with the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself continually joins with us and who intercedes for us, “Our Father…”
The Lord’s Prayer, too, is Gospel. Jesus Christ teaches His disciples to commune with the heavenly Father, with words that He Himself prays. The Lord’s Prayer brings us into the community of the triune God.
The Ten Commandments express the ethics of the kingdom, the way of being in the family of God and in the community of believers. The Ten Commandments show what matters, both in the positive and negative aspects. In living out both the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Ten Commandments, we express the new life we have been given in Christ. Note that the Ten Commandments are in the section on gratitude in the Catechism. In some worship liturgies in the Reformed traditions, the gathered worshipping assembly recites the Ten Commandments as a means to be drawn to the realization that we are unable and unwilling to follow the Ten Commandments, that we break them all the time, leading the gathered people to a time of prayer of confession, receiving the assurance that in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we have been forgiven and set free to love and serve. In these instances, the Ten Commandments act as a “tutor” or “schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24), showing our inability to follow God’s desires and God’s will, and needing Christ to set us free to live and to love.
But the Ten Commandments are also the Good News, but put into statutes and ordinances, at first glance, appearing as legislative language. I can hear my parents and grandparents say adamantly in my youthful days of being hard-headed and stubborn, “I’m telling you because I love you.”
That’s what the Ten Commandments are – they are God’s words as Q/A 92 says.
Q/A 93 speaks of the double commandments of loving God and loving neighbor, the so-called vertical and horizontal relationships; to love God necessarily means one must love neighbor, and loving neighbor is an expression of loving God. Q/A 94 and 95 says what it’s all about – it’s about regarding God above all else; note, it’s not putting God first, as if God were some primus inter pares (first among equals), or at the top of the list, or first-seed. God is par excellence, there is no one and nothing else but God and God alone. God has the preeminent place…or at least God ought to.
This means in every aspect and facet of our lives, in every part of our decision-making, our relationships…on the micro- and macro- levels.
The Ten Commandments are the Good News in that they come from the very heart of God. The Ten Commandments are direct expressions of God’s own character: God’s truthfulness, trustworthiness, passionate love for us and the world, seeking wholeness in our relating to God and to one another where far too often they are fraught with brokenness, hurt and woundedness.
God spoke them to and through ancient prophets and communities. That almighty God would care to speak to us, would impart His heart, His desire to us…that’s the self-revealing and self-giving of God.
No wonder, then, that the biggest chapter in the Scriptures is Psalm 119 – the sung poetry of 176 verses praising the Lord God Almighty for His statutes, ordinances, testimonies, commandments and law.
As we are traditioned and traditioning, offer and receive the Ten Commandments.
In it, receive God’s own heart as the Holy Spirit causes the Commandments to metabolize into your heart and soul, and where your life pulsates after the very heart of God.
88 Q. What is involved
in genuine repentance or conversion?
A. Two things:
the dying-away of the old self,^1
and the rising-to-life of the new.
^1 Rom. 6:4-6; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:5-10; 1 Cor. 5:7
89 Q. What is the dying-away of the old self?
A. To be genuinely sorry for sin
and more and more to hate
and run away from it.^1
^1 Rom. 8:13; Joel 2:13
90 Q. What is the rising-to-life of the new self?
A. Wholehearted joy in God through Christ^1
and a love and delight to live
according to the will of God
by doing every kind of good work.^2
^1 Rom. 5:1; 14:17; Isa. 57:15
^2 Rom. 6:10-11; Gal. 2:20
91 Q. What are good works?
A. Only those which
are done out of true faith,^1
conform to God’s law,^2
and are done for God’s glory;^3
and not those based
on our own opinion
or human tradition.^4
^1 Rom. 14:23
^2 1 Sam. 11; 1 Sam. :22; Eph. 2:10
^3 1 Cor. 10:31
^4 Deut. 12:32; Ezek. 20:18-19;Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:9
LORD’S DAY 33 (Q/A 88-91):
Eleven years ago when I first moved to the East Coast United States from California, I had to quickly learn the seasonal rhythms of life. The approach of winter means stocking up on bags of rock salt, and when snow comes, it means shoveling within 24 hours after the snow stops so that the snow doesn’t freeze as a giant glacier on your driveway, sidewalk and walkways. Spring meant stocking upon on antihistamines for seasonal allergies, changing the air filters in the vents, prepping the pool, aerating the soil and planting seeds. Summer meant stocking up on propane gas for the barbecue, keeping the pool filter on, and pulling out the patio furniture from storage. Autumn meant closing the pool, raking the beautiful and plentiful leaves, and stocking up the pantry with chicken stock.
As a Pacific, West Coast guy, it took several years of being apprenticed into my new environment. It wasn’t California living. It required adjustment, being re-orientated to the new. It required learning, being apprenticed by my father in-law, neighbors, church members – those who had more experience, those who tried and failed in the past and who could impart those lessons to me.
To live a life continually marked and pulsing with gratitude towards God in Christ requires spiritual apprenticeship. The Holy Spirit apprentices us by what the Protestant Reformers called the dual work of mortification (dying to self) and vivification (revitalized living).
Q/A 88-90 is about the emerging life that is being unlocked, like the spring bud that is latent underground, awaiting for the winter snow to thaw so that it can emerge as a beautiful tulip. Q/A 88 describes the new life that emerges as “rising-to-life.”
Do you want to be fully alive, alive for God in Christ?
This is not something we could conjure up or muster with our strength, strategies, and savvy. Spiritual apprenticeship requires the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, through the difficult but necessary work of “genuine repentance” and “conversion.”
When my wife and I were preparing for marriage, our premarital counselor, who then officiated our wedding, exhorted us how important it is to learn how to say sorry to each other, to mean it when we say it, and to forgive each other. I still remember when on our wedding day he held our wedding rings, and pointing to it, he said how these perfectly round, polished rings will get nicks and scratches over the years, but they will remain beautiful. So it is with living into marriage – the nicks and scratches will be through the rough and tumble, the joys and the struggles of living deeper into our married life.
Our new life in Christ that is “rising-to-life” is our living into the marriage that we have with our Lord Jesus Christ, so to speak. Our relationship with Him is a real one, and, as with any real relationship, there’s a butting of heads. When we butt heads with Christ, it’s in every single moment of our life when we are confronted with our sin by Christ’s Spirit, when our hearts try to fend off what the Spirit tells us through His Word, when we argue with God, when we insist on our way. Then the Spirit of Jesus Christ prods our hearts to prayer, intrudes on our pride, uses the Scriptures to transform our mind, uses a fellow believer to speak to us…all the many ways that the Spirit of Christ brings death to our old self, causing our new life, our “rising-to-life” to emerge, living into resurrection life and power.
Q/A 91 prompts us to good works, underscoring what is good. The proof-text in footnote 2 is problematic at first and second glance, the passage from 1 Samuel 15. Samuel the prophet confronts king Saul because Saul didn’t follow God’s commandments exactly. God commanded that Saul kill all the Amalekites, including all their animals. Saul and his army save Agag and the best of the livestock, thinking that by saving them, he can then offer the best sacrifices.
This is not a proof-text about God approving the killing of Amalekites.
The prophet Samuel’s conversation with the Lord Almighty showed the thrust of this passage. The Lord regretted calling Saul as Israel’s king as Saul’s heart and actions showed he was not so much interested in following God, nor listening to Samuel.
Even Saul’s attempt to offer the best sacrifice to God was tainted with self-interest at its best even though the outcome was a sacrifice being done.
When we can only see the outcome, we don’t realize what is underneath the outcome and the process that precedes it. I’m not a handy Home Depot guy. Home improvements don’t come easy for me, but I can hold my own…eventually. Several years ago, one of our neighbors renovated our bathroom, and in the process of that, he found some other trouble spots. Changing a toilet in the renovated bathroom, led to him showing me how to change the toilet in the master bathroom and the guest bathroom. By the time we worked on the third bathroom, I had become a pro at unbolting the toilet, removing the old wax ring, checking the flange, that when, a few years later, one of the toilets had a leak, I single-handedly diagnosed the problem and fixed it. I thank Jeff for taking me under his wing, his patience, his instruction, the numerous runs to Home Depot, his encouragement, and, at times, taking the tools from my hand to show me how to do the job so I can do it on the next toilet.
The outcome and process are both key. Saul was more interested in the outcome. He thought that the offering of sacrifices was the worship God desired. While that outcome was important, that gradual, heart-rending, hard process of unfastening our hands from the driver’s wheel and doing things God’s way – that’s the hard part, but that’s the essential part of our apprenticeship.
Living our lives God’s way, making decisions that are pleasing to God, caring about what God cares about — herein lies our lifelong marriage relationship with God. Thanks be to God, that God gives Himself in the Holy Spirit to apprentice us all our lives long.
86 Q. Since we have been delivered
from our misery
by grace through Christ
without any merit of our own,
why then should we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood,
is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image,
so that with our whole lives
we may show that we are thankful to God
for his benefits,^1
so that he may be praised through us,^2
so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,^3
and so that by our godly living
our neighbors may be won over to Christ.^4
^1 Rom. 6:13; 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:5-10; 1 Cor. 6:20
^2 Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12
^3 1 Pet. 1:[6-]10; Matt. 7:17; Gal. 5:6, 22
^4 1 Pet. 3:1-2; Rom. 14:19
87 Q. Can those be saved
who do not turn to God
from their ungrateful
and unrepentant ways?
A. By no means.
Scripture tells us that
no unchaste person,
no idolater, adulterer, thief,
no covetous person,
no drunkard, slanderer, robber,
or the like
will inherit the kingdom of God.^1
^1 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5-6; 1 John 3:14
LORD’S DAY 32 (Q/A 86-87)
“Signed, Sealed, and Being Delivered”
The ancient office of herald (Greek “kerux”) had the exclusive responsibility of serving the Sovereign. His role was to run from the battlefield to the awaiting city to proclaim that their Sovereign had been victorious. As a witness of the battle, the herald was to tell a faithful account of what he had seen and heard, of what the Sovereign had done in battle to secure the freedom of the city. That was good news for the citizens of the kingdom: their Sovereign protected them, was for them. As a result, they are free citizens of the kingdom and as citizens, they are to live lives worthy of the calling, worthy of the freedom won and secured. They are to live and comport themselves in such a way that exhibits this citizenship.
The Good News of God is that our Sovereign, King Jesus, the Prince of Peace, has decisively freed us from the captivity of sin, death, and evil. By his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, salvation has been secured. For us, we receive it as a covenant of grace.. a gift. For Jesus Christ, it was and is a covenant of works. He works, so that what we receive is gift.
Such amazing grace, such awesome grace is deserving and worthy of our whole lives.
Q/A 86-87 begins the third part of the Catechism called “gratitude.” We do good works not to gain more favor from God, or to prove that we are worth being citizens of the kingdom. There is nothing to prove, nothing we can add to what God has done, nothing to prove to anyone nor to ourselves.
To love God and to love neighbor in the myriad of ways that that takes shape has a four-fold purpose described by Q/A 86:
-to express our thanksgiving to God for the benefits we receive from Christ’s work;
-so that God would be praised through our lives;
-so that good works as fruits of faith can assure us of the gift of faith, proof of faith;
-as outward witness so that others may be drawn to Christ
The main thrust of good works is God – that God would be praised, that God would be thanked, that others would be drawn to Christ; even works as a means to assure us of faith is anchored in God’s own work through us (see Galatians 5:22 as a proof-text in footnote 3). Even as we respond to God’s work in Christ with our own good works, the aim of the work is God, and the power and enabler of all good things is God. This is not to say we are robots. What has become of our old spirit in the new life in Christ is that our wills have been unleashed to live for God, freed to see what honors the triune God and what doesn’t, and the will to seek God, to pray to God.
Does this mean that we will always follow God in our lives? No. We are not consistent. Even with our best intentions, we know our motives are never perfect, always tainted with some self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizement, or a prideful eye for acceptance and acknowledgment by others; that’s who we are. Here’s the paradox that is a significant confession of the 16th century Protestant Reformation: simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful. We affirm that and live it every single day – as we respond with gratitude to God’s work in Christ, we are fully redeemed, while being fully sinful.
Here’s the key: the answer to Q. 86 says that Christ, who not only redeemed us by his blood, is “restoring us by his Spirit into his image.” Christ’s work continues through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s signature on our heart, sealing the sure promises of God in Christ, and delivering the benefits of God’s work in our lives.
And that’s how we understand Q/A 87. Are we thieves? Are we adulterers? Do we covet? Yes. Yes. Yes. James 2:10 humbles us – when we stumble in one part of the law, we break them all. Think of the Ten Commandments. Break any one of them, you knock off all others like a domino. Covet your neighbor’s nicely furnished, decorated house, you replace the truth of God’s sufficient provision for the lie of being content with what your neighbor has. When you fall into temptation of coveting, you dishonor your parents, or do something that would dishonor them. Coveting in the heart can breed a form of hate, which is a form of murder. Finding discontent with what you already have means that you have forgotten your Creator God, the God of the Sabbath. You, as a child of God, dishonor God’s own name by coveting. Your covetous heart has made your selfish desire, the object of our heart, your neighbor’s house as an idol.
And on and on it goes. We find this spiraling cycle in our lives every single day.
Q/A 87 points us to hearts that are “ungrateful” and “unrepentant.” It’s not saying that no one who is unchaste, or an adulterer , etc. will not inherit the kingdom of God; otherwise, no one would be inheritors – we all fall short of the glory of God; you break one part of the law, you break them all.
This section is about gratitude. Q/A 86 was about Christ who works by the Holy Spirit to conform us to his image throughout our lives. We find an increasing and more frequent desire to seek and do the will of God in Christ as we mature in faith. As the triune God causes us to delight in Him, those works, motives, deeds, works which we do that does not delight God and which blurs the image of Christ in our lives, will be revealed to us for what they are. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives illuminates those spaces and places of our lives that don’t honor God and which God does not delight in. The Holy Spirit prompts us to recognize it as such, to seek God, to confess, and to repent. How can it be otherwise? As freed citizens in God’s kingdom, we want to delight in God, offering our lives of gratitude for what He has done in Christ.
Q/A 87 is not so much a section about saying who’s in or who’s out; connected to Q/A 86 and this section of the Catechism on gratitude, it’s to direct us to holiness and righteousness. In reviewing the three proof-texts of answer 87 – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ephesians 5:5-6, 1 John 3:14 – those verses in their chapter contexts prompt the community to live more in love with God and with one another; the apostolic exhortations in each of those sections is calling the community to rid themselves of immoral living, to live lives of godliness; it’s not questioning their salvation – that’s already been given in Christ. Each of those letters, as like a sovereign herald, is calling the community to live lives worthy of their calling.
And so it is with us. Let us examine our lives – personally and communally. Let us seek the ways of Jesus Christ. If there be any way in us and among us that God does not delight in…let’s pray that the Spirit of Jesus Christ remove it from us, cleanse our hearts, turn our will and our ways toward God, enabling us to live the way of Christ. And may the Spirit of Christ grant us peace, who signs, seals, and delivers the work of God in Christ for us.
80* Q. How does the Lord’s Supper
differ from the Roman Catholic Mass?
A. The Lord’s Supper declares to us
that all our sins are completely forgiven
through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ,
which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all.^1
It also declares to us
that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ,^2
who with his true body
is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father^3
where he wants us to worship him.^4
But the Mass teaches
that the living and the dead
do not have their sins forgiven
through the suffering of Christ
unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests.
It also teaches
that Christ is bodily present
under the form of bread and wine
where Christ is therefore to be worshiped.
Thus the Mass is basically
nothing but a denial
of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ
and a condemnable idolatry.
^1 Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26-28; 10:10, 12-14; John 19:30; Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:19-20
^2 1 Cor. 6:17; 10:16; 12:13
^3 Heb. 1:3; 8:1
^4 John 4:21-23; 20:17; Luke 24:52; Acts 7:55-56; Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 1:10
*Question and Answer 80 reflects the polemical debates of the Reformation and was added in the second German edition of 1563. The second and fourth sentences of the Answer, as well as the concluding phrase, were added in the third German edition of 1563. After the fourth sentence, the third German and Latin texts have a note to the section on consecration in the Canon of the Mass.
As detailed in the preface to the Book of Confessions, these condemnations and characterizations of the Catholic Church are not the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and are not applicable to current relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Catholic Church.
81 Q. Who should come
to the Lord’s table?
A. Those who are displeased with themselves
because of their sins,
but who nevertheless trust
that their sins are pardoned
and that their remaining weakness is covered
by the suffering and death of Christ,
and who also desire more and more
to strengthen their faith
and to lead a better life.
Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however,
eat and drink judgment on themselves.^1
^1 1 Cor. 10:21; 11:28[-29]
82 Q. Should those be admitted
to the Lord’s Supper
who show by what they profess and how they live
that they are unbelieving and ungodly?
A. No, that would dishonor God’s covenant
and bring down God’s wrath upon the entire congregation.^1
Therefore, according to the instruction of Christ
and his apostles,
the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such people,
by the official use of the keys of the kingdom,
until they reform their lives.
^1 1 Cor. 11:20, 34; Isa. 1:11; 66:3; Jer. 7:21[-26]; Ps. 50:16
LORD’S DAY 30 (Q/A 80-82)
For autobiographical disclosure, I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Exact location? The Black Construction Camp Chapel in the city of Harmon on the island of Guam. The date? October 3, in the year of my birth (you’ll have to guess my age). My father’s family is Roman Catholic, my mother’s family is from the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). Both of my grandmothers were passionate about the particular faith traditions and emphases: my paternal grandmother had her statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus, her rosary beads and candles; my maternal grandmother had her Bible, notepad and pen, jotting down insights for next Sunday’s older adult Bible study class and to record prayer concerns for family and friends.
It wasn’t until later in college I became Presbyterian. And it wasn’t until I prepared for the ordained ministry that I encountered the various strands of the Reformed faith, Presbyterianism, and beyond that, the various kinds of Protestantism, the variety of worship practices, and the Eastern Orthodox side of the Christian community. Graduate studies in liturgical theology and ecumenical theology, combined with worldwide travel further expanded my encounter with and appreciation for being “catholic.”
When I became pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in central New Jersey, were it not for the lawn sign that indicated this community of faith belonged to the part of the body of Christ called the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), this congregation would have been non-denominational. It was no wonder, then, that when we moved to weekly celebration of the Lord’s Table, some in the congregation called it “becoming Catholic.” When we started to use the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, this was called “Catholic.” And when the term “Eucharist” was used, that was seen, by a few, as “too Catholic.” As a compromise, the worship bulletins described the sacrament as “The Lord’s Table-Eucharist-Communion;” note the em-dash. This descriptor was a way to include all those meanings, education and appreciation by expansion.
Seven years later, the same objectors now look forward to our weekly celebration. The word “Eucharist” is used interchangeably with “Communion.” The children of the congregation, including our own, are accustomed to the Sursum Corda (The Lord be with you/And also with you/Lift up your hearts…) as well as the pattern and words of the Great Prayer.
That’s being “catholic.” Note the upper-case and lower-case “c.”
When we confess the Creed every week, and say “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church,” that statement hinges on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
The expansiveness of the Church of Jesus Christ, with all its diversity, its variety, is expressive of the expansive ministry of the triune God through the Holy Spirit, who transcends time and space.
Part of the wonder of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is this dynamic relationship between local-global, particular-universal, unique-catholic.
Q/A 80-82 speaks to our Reformed tradition’s grappling with what is being done, what is being expressed, what is being effected at the Lord’s Table-Eucharist-Communion.
Theologian George Hunsinger in his book, Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge University Press, 2008), states that the enduring theological arguments about the Table have been centered on the twin issues of the real presence of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Where is Christ? How is Christ’s presence known? How is Christ’s work on the cross efficacious? How does the Church receive the benefits of the cross?
Being “catholic” in faith necessarily means expansiveness, comprehensiveness, but tethered to particular communities, tethered to certain practices. It is humanly impossible to fully understand as we are fully known by God.
Q/A 80 highlights the cross and the one, efficacious, decisive death of Christ. But even then, that’s not the whole story. For our dying to our lives of sin and our living into the new life in Christ are not just accomplished on the cross. The cross was connected to Christ’s ministry of 30 years, which was connected to his taking on flesh and blood (incarnation). The cross presumed the resurrection three days later, which presumed his ascending to heaven, and through him the Holy Spirit would be sent; which presumed his return. Our salvation, our reconciliation, our deliverance by God through Christ in the Holy Spirit – the expansiveness and comprehensiveness of it all – is effected in:
incarnation-Christ’s 30 year ministry-death-resurrection-ascension-return
Note the em-dash. We need the em-dash because otherwise God could have parachuted Jesus Christ directly to the cross, accomplish our forgiveness in nine hours, and be done with it. The expansiveness and comprehensiveness of God’s work of salvation are not isolated to one event, even as the event of the cross is decisive, radical, essential and constitutive to the overall work of salvation and reconciliation.
Which is why when we approach Q/A 81 and 82, the sections that ask “Who should come?” and what about the “unbelieving and the ungodly?”, the same principle applies. The comprehensiveness and expansiveness of the person and work of the Holy Spirit are beyond what we comprehend. The responsibility of the Church has been, is, and always will be to proclaim the Gospel, to testify of the Good News, trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in the lives of a whole cast of characters within and outside the Church catholic.
So, yes, I am “catholic.” We all are. Not in the sense that we belong to the once-undivided Church, if there ever was one. We are catholic because in the comprehensiveness and expansiveness of our wrestling, of our grappling with what it means to be people of God, followers of Jesus Christ…there, here, accompanying us, beneath us, above us, inside us, beyond us, among us…is the person of the triune God, who, in His Son, through the Holy Spirit, numbers us among the entire human community, and calls us, and calls so many others, too numerous to count, too large to fathom, and makes us worthy to feast at the Table which the Lord has prepared.