Sunday, October 31, 2021

Guest Liturgy: Reformation Sunday 2022

 The following worship service was adapted from one written and graciously offered for free use by the Rev. Carol Holbrook Pritchett. I've copied and pasted the portions of our Confessions and the historical context for those who may not have caught it all during worship!


Today is Reformation Day, a day when we celebrate how the church has grown and changed as it seeks to be Christ's body on earth. This is only the 5th time that Reformation Day has fallen on a Sunday during my lifetime. So to honor this special occasion, I’ve adapted a worship service written by Rev. Carol Holbrook Prickett (who preached here for us this past August).

We stand on the shoulders of countless generations who have sought to love and serve God, interpret the scriptures, and work out their faith in their particular day and time. This service celebrates their legacy by taking a journey through the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. Some of you are very familiar with the confessions, and some of you may know nothing about them. The confessions are, simply, statements of faith; the efforts of various people at various times to make some kind of coherent summary of what Christianity calls us to say and do. These confessions are part of our constitution as Presbyterians, meaning they guide and shape our life together. Pastors and elders vow to be guided by them. They are not scripture, and we do not believe or follow every word they say; but they do witness to the journey our ancestors have taken in gifting us with the church we know today.

Let’s begin by setting the scene for today’s call to worship: In 381 AD, the emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the one true unified religion of the Roman Empire—but found that Christianity was anything but unified. He had already convened one council to try to bring some order to this unruly young religion, but Christians with different perspectives on the divinity of Jesus continued to fight it out— sometimes with their pens, and sometimes with their fists! And so, in 381, another council came together, and adopted the Nicene Creed, which shares much language with the Apostles’ Creed, and is used by creedal Christians in diverse traditions across the world. Please join me in the responsive Call to Worship. 

[Nicene Creed]

People: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,

Leader: Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

People: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

Leader: Eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

People: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

Leader: Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.

People: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Leader: We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


For nearly 1500 years, that Catholic church grew and spread across the globe, and while it underwent change and transformation, it managed to mostly hang together until it was shaken up by the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517—five hundred and four years ago today—Martin Luther nailed 97 complaints to a church door in Wittenberg, sparking debate and controversy that would eventually lead to new and even more diverse ways of being the church....

Next up in our confessional journey is The Scots Confession. It was written in Scotland, of course, in 1560, in the course of just four days. In a time of political turbulence, it declares God’s everlasting power over the Kirk— the Scottish word for church—and indeed the whole world. This is what our ancestors proclaimed:

[Scots Confession] 

“As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so we firmly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one Kirk, that is to say, one company and multitude of people chosen by God, who rightly worship and embrace him by true faith in Christ Jesus, who is the only Head of the Kirk, even as it is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus. This Kirk is catholic, that is, universal, because it contains the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jews or be they of the Gentiles, who have communion and society with God the Father, and with his Son, Christ Jesus, through the sanctification of his Holy Spirit. It is therefore called the communion, not of profane persons, but of saints, who, as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, have the fruit of inestimable benefits, one God, one Lord Jesus, one faith, and one baptism.”


Over on the mainland, Lutherans and Reformed Christians—what we know now as Presbyterians—were fighting over communion. And so theologians from each camp sat down together in Germany to create a statement they could all agree with, to find words of unity and peace, and to remember that despite faithful disagreements, they ultimately all belonged to Christ. They wrote their confession as a series of questions, formally called a catechism. A catechism is an old technique people use to help them learn important things. These questions teach us how to proclaim for ourselves the trust we have in Christ. 

[Heidelberg Catechism]

The first question in this confession is: What is your only comfort in life and in death? The answer is:

“That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of evil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”


Our final confession from the Reformation era was written by a Swiss pastor in 1561, designed as a practical guide for his congregation in living out their renewed faith. It emphasizes the Reformation conviction that faith is not a result of human insight or action, but a pure gift from God. Therefore, we are not saved by our faith, but by God’s grace, which we come to know and feel and experience through the faith God gives us. Listen for the words of our ancestors:

[Second Helvetic Confession]

“Christian faith is not an opinion or human conviction, but a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles’ Creed, and thus also of God himself, the greatest good, and especially of God’s promise and of Christ who is the fulfilment of all promises. But this faith is a pure gift of God, which God alone of his grace gives to his elect according to his measure when, to whom and to the degree he wills. And he does this by the Holy Spirit by means of the preaching of the Gospel and steadfast prayer.”


A generation after the Reformation, a group of English theologians gathered to create a new confession. Over the course of more than a thousand meetings (how Presbyterian!), they created the Westminster Confession. In addition, this period produced two catechisms, one for preachers by a professor of divinity, the other for children by a professor of mathematics. Using the words printed in your bulletin insert, let us proclaim our own faith by asking the same questions our ancestors asked. 

[Westminster Confession]

“People: What is the chief and highest end of humanity? Leader: Humanity’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

People: What is justification? Leader: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

People: What is adoption? Leader: Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all privileges, of the children of God.

People: What is sanctification? Leader: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole person after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

People: What are the benefits which in this life accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification? Leader: Assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.”


Historians talk about the Reformation as a closed era in the past, but we who tell God’s story know that God is always forming and re-forming the church. Our modern confessions are the Church’s attempt to wrestle with faith in a changing world.

In 1934, the Nazi Party was on the rise in Germany, initiating a reign of cruelty, hate, and terror. Most German Christians found no problem with Hitler’s actions, declaring that their faith and their patriotism went hand in hand, and that Hitler’s rule was God’s will. A few Christians, however, resisted. Representatives from the Reformed, Lutheran, and United churches gathered to create a confession of faith to send to their fellow German Christians, urging them to display their freedom in Christ by standing firm against Hitler’s designs for Germany.

While our situation is not theirs, we confess the eternal truth that the church was not meant to be co-opted by political forces but clings only to Christ. Listen to these words of our ancestors:

[Barmen Declaration]

“The Christian Church is the congregation of the people in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”


There are only three more Confessions in the PCUSA Constitution—and for some of you, they were all written during your lifetime! In the midst of the many cultural tensions and conflicts in the 1960s, the northern Presbyterian Church adopted a new confession based around the idea that in Christ, the whole world is reconciled to God. Listen to the words of our ancestors:

[Confession of 1967]

“God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of humanity’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes humanity’s natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation. Biblical visions and images of the rule of Christ, such as a heavenly city, a father’s house, a new heaven and earth, a marriage feast, and an unending day culminate in the image of the kingdom. The kingdom represents the triumph of God over all that resists his will and disrupts his creation. Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in people and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption. With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.”


In 1986, life in South Africa was structured around apartheid, a system segregating and discriminating against people based on race. Some white Christians used scripture to justify this system, and so the Dutch Reformed Church wrote the Belhar Confession in protest, insisting that God’s vision for humanity was one of liberation, equality, unity, and communion. Let us listen to the words of our ancestors, translated to English from the original Afrikaans.

[Belhar Confession]

“We believe

• that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

• that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

• that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

• that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

• that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;

• that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;

• that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;

• that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;

• that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”


As we go forth to carry on the legacy of our ancestors, and to write a new chapter in God’s story, let us use the words of our ancestors as today’s charge. For those of you who were Presbyterian in 1983, you may remember when the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches in America reunited. Presbyterians celebrated this new church and its future with a new confession, written for use in worship.

The Brief Statement of Faith reminds us that the church is not meant to be a hiding place from the world, but a blessing to the world. And so, take these words to heart as you go forth:

[Brief Statement of Faith]

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit 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. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’”

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