"Jesus is Lord"

by Cynthia A. Jarvis

Pastor, The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(Text of the sermon for the Stated Meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, April 15, 1997)


II Samuel 6

Romans 10:5-17

"For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved."

 

"A Christian confession," writes John Leith who is, for me, one of the living masters on this subject of the church's confessions, "is the wisdom that makes sense out of life. It is the insight that enables us to put the disparate facts of human experience together in a coherent whole, in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ."

The first Christian confession was, of course, the sparest of confessions and, therefore, I do believe, the most profound and powerful. "Jesus is Lord." It was not a pious cry of the saved in the face of the unsaved back in the first century. It was not a triumphant cry of the moral elite over the unwashed masses. It was rather a declaration of what will forever be the most threatening fact to any humanly established order, be it political or social or even religious. In a word, the community or individual who confesses Jesus alone as Lord announces, in the same breath, that there is no power over that one or that many, save the power of this One who died for us all and so set us all free.

It was what the earliest of Christians cried as they were fed to the lions. It is what Christians continue to proclaim in response to so many voices which would claim the loyalty of our minds and our hearts and our spirits for lesser gods. And so it is that the lives of confessing Christians, throughout the ages, have been marked by a radical obedience...which is a radical freedom... for we would be those who bow the knee alone to Jesus Christ.

Since that earliest of creeds, the church's confessions - which are legion - have been used in the life of the Christian community for a multitude of ends. Hence, we must begin by acknowledging that the only true end of confession is as the act of confessing our faith helps us fulfill our chief end: to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Confession is almost synonymous with praise, and takes its place in the public worship of God as believers, in the presence of other believers and before the world, speak a word affirming ultimate loyalty to the Living God. In fact you could say, as it has been said, that the "main concern in [the church's] whole existence, and therefore its assembling too, is with this affirmation and confession." [Barth, Dogmatics, IV/3 II, p.866]

Yet because the praise and glory of God is the only true end of our confession of faith, all other uses of confession must be judged, in light of this one end, as suspect. "The peculiarity of all human activity Godwards," writes Karl Barth in his Dogmatics, under the heading of our freedom before God, "is that if man's action [in confessing] is to be right, it can be concerned only with God and not with a detour round God or the attainment of ends even in the name of God. What particularly marks our confession is that man may and must temporarily step out of the sphere of purpose, intentions and pursuits."

In other words, the confessions are not to be used as a test of theological orthodoxy, as they were in the 1920's...nor are they to be used as a test of moral rectitude as they are about to be used in our day. In this regard, I think of Bullinger and Judae's comment as they signed the First Helvetic Confession: "We wish in no way to prescribe for all the church through these articles a single rule of faith. For we acknowledge no other rule of faith than Holy Scripture. We agree with whoever agrees with this although he uses different expressions from our confession. For we should have regard for the fact itself and for the truth, not for the words...."

The incredible paradox which the act of confession holds in solution is that there must be a word spoken which claims everything for Jesus Christ and nothing for the one who thus confesses his name. "A confessor," continues Barth, "is one who is not ashamed to do something quite useless in a world of serious purposes. Confession," he says, "is not even for the purpose of sincerity, or the proof of moral courage, or the attainment of the release and liberation by the heartfelt declaration of a strong religious experience or emotion....Nor are we confessors in so far as by confessing we want to teach, instruct, convince and win others. This is a laudable intention," says Barth, "but its realization depends absolutely on its springing from a confession which has nothing whatever to do with aims, but is a free word of a free [human being] and not that of a psychologist, pedagogue, pastor or preacher."

Confession, in the first and only place, is praise of the Living God and, as such, is useless in a world which takes itself too seriously. In fact, the delightful underside of confession is that, because of its freedom from purpose, "it has more the nature of a game or song than of work or warfare. For this reason," Barth finally pushes us to conclude, "confession will always cause head shaking among serious people who do not know the particular seriousness of confession," who do not know the delight which comes from enjoying God forever. We are a church full of head-shaking Michals in this day, unable to abide the playfulness of David's useless praise, and thus we just may be a church which will be barren until most of us lie to die...partisans for our own theological ends - be they to the right or to the left - invoking the confessions as well as scripture to suit our purposes - but a people who have forgotten the reckless abandon of praising God together, confessing Jesus as Lord.

Which leads us to a second and seemingly opposite word concerning the act of confessing Jesus as Lord in the world and even in the church. For as confession is purely praise of the Living God, the context in which that praise must be spoken makes of confession a "protest." In the midst of an utterly secular society, in contrast to a culture pitiably vulnerable to superstition, in the muddle of a church which has eschewed theological substance for psychological banalities, slick techniques, and political agendas from every side, confession is heard as the positive protest of faith.

It is positive because still it is primarily praise of God whose grace is exercised even in judgment. It is positive because the only purpose of confession still remains God's glory. But it is protest because its very content is contrary to the shallowness, the emptiness, the emotional outbursts, the rank subjectivity, the wrongheadedness of a society or culture or church or period in history bowed down before lesser gods. It is protest because it threatens all the easier answers, or all the attractive promises, all the rote beliefs, all the academic fads which have exchanged faith's substance for a sham.

Hence the dialectic word to speak is that confession is a serious matter incumbent upon the church in times when the church would rather retreat into the recovery of religious ceremonies, say, or would be more comfortable embracing the prevailing winds of spirituality. Historically, we have been the part of Christ's church which equipped ourselves to do business with the substance of the faith for the sake of the church and the world. God's purposes in history have been the peculiar focus of our Reformed theological turn, meaning we confessed the church's faith often in contradiction to popular religion, tracing God's grace through the rigor of human reason, as the service of God with our minds led us anew to Jesus Christ.

My friends in Christ, our seminaries are barely preparing their graduates for such a witness, nor are we equipping our congregations, in turn, with the sort of biblical and theological understanding which led Reformed Christians, in the past, to discern what was really at stake...assuming there might be something at stake other than our bedroom practices...in this time and this place of our Christian witness. I do not know where we get ahold of it again: all I know is that we are in danger of losing a remarkable, reasonable, thoughtful witness to Jesus Christ which has been the Presbyterian Church...all I know is that I will not be reconciled to nor will I be bound by this mindless use of our confessional heritage.

Which brings us to the danger which lies ahead of us all. For where confession is primarily understood as protest, 'Here we uncover a sickness which is present in [what would otherwise be] healthy, joyful and serious confession. [For] though it wants to give honour to God, the [act of confessing takes on] a strangely bitter, sharp, scornful and quarrelsome [air] because the confessor forgets that the God whose partisan he [or she] may and must be is the gracious God. [The confessor] thus confesses in a friend-enemy relationship, as God's detective, policeman and bailiff, against various things in the world and the church, and, if [we are] sincere, supremely against [ourselves].' "In these circumstances," notes Barth, "the well-meant word of faith receives a very definite flavour of pepper, and in certain cases this may for a time make it seem extremely refreshing, courageous, spirited, or even witty, and its 'disturbing opposition' against all things human may look like confirmation that it is indeed from God. From God because it is against all things human? What a misunderstanding! As if God were not for all that He created and therefore for everything truly human!"

Even when our confession would seem to pit us, as Christ's church, against that sinful, corrupt and shallow world out there, we must remember that if it is the Living God we are confessing, and not our own take on the issues of our day, our eye will be upon Jesus Christ alone: his judgment which is his grace and his mercy and his love for all people. That is the content of this positive protest against all in this world that seeks to destroy and denigrate and deny the goodness of God's creation and the truth of God's Word which is Jesus Christ.

Which brings us back to the place where we began, to the simplest of confessions, to the early church's cry which has echoed down the ages: "Jesus is Lord." The Word we have been given to confess is neither a set of propositions nor a list of values; is not a program nor a document of principles by which to live; is not a set of rules nor a movement for moral rearmament. It is a person who is alive and goes before us. He belongs to none of us and it is time we began anew to confess, together, that for all of our differences and deep, deep disagreements, we belong to him alone. His grace, my friends, is the test put to all of our confessing, not our confessing a test put to our obviously, and without exception, broken lives!

"The one infallible test whether confession springs [from a hearing of Jesus Christ through the whole of Scripture as he speaks to us afresh and with fresh openness],...and is thus the confession of the faith of the community and genuine Christian confession," Barth finally reminds us, "will always consist in whether and to what extent it is concerned with what Scripture sets before us as its all-controlling theme," [rather than its dots and iota], "and therefore [whether our confession has to do] with Jesus Christ, with the covenant fulfilled in him, with the reconciliation accomplished in Him, with his lordship as exclusive lordship, with His unity with God and therefore with the source of all good. This is what the community has to hear, learn, proclaim, repeat and propagate."

If Christian confession is "the wisdom that makes sense out of life...the insight that enables us to put the disparate facts of human experience together in a coherent whole, in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ," then let us for Christ's sake, and by his grace alone, get on with the confession of his name: with the useless praise and positive protest we alone have to speak to a world longing to hear something of substance, once again, from this part of Christ's church.


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