Unity with the Presbyterians

John 17:20-26

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

We have spent a total of five weeks reading this passage of scripture, studying Jesus’ prayer for unity, and seeking to better understand other denominations and our common center in Jesus Christ. If you get nothing else out of these teachings, remember that what unites us is greater than what pushes us away from one another. If you can remember two things, remember that we need to understand one another before we critique. Otherwise we will just keep pushing one another further and further away.

This past week a friend noted his frustration with Sojourners, a Christian organization that advocates for issues of peace and justice. Sojourners took a few sound bites from individuals that disagreed with Sojourners’ position on immigration, quoted them out of context, and attempted to rally support – finances – for their cause. My friend mentioned that this is just what politicians do: they misquote and misrepresent one another to strengthen their argument.

I do love politicians, but I simply want to echo my friend and say that we as Christians can do better.

I’ve been guilty of misrepresenting other Christians to strengthen my arguments, to make myself look more intelligent and godly. I’ve surely even done this in our current sermon series. But this does not strengthen the body of Christ and it does not help us to work together for unity. Misrepresenting and misunderstanding other Christians causes separation.

Our peer-reviewed denomination for this concluding Sunday is the Presbyterian Church. There are many different Presbyterian denominations, much like there are many different Mennonite denominations, with the largest being Presbyterian Church USA, or PC USA. The name “Presbyterian” refers to a style of church government, with the name coming from the Greek word for elder. A presbyter in the New Testament was an elder in the church and is similar to the word for “old man.”

The Presbyterians trace their history back to the Protestant Reformation and a man by the name of John Calvin. Calvin is one of the main figures behind what we call Reformed Theology, and has a specific branch of reformed theology named after him: Calvinism.

One man who was strongly influenced by the teachings of Calvin was John Knox. Knox was from Scotland and studied with Calvin in Switzerland. When Knox returned to Scotland, he introduced the nation to Calvinism and in 1560 produced the First Book of Discipline, which was a document that laid out what would become the governing system for a new church of Scotland. This church became known for its elder-centered form of church government and became known as the Presbyterian Church.

The first presbytery in the United States was established in Philadelphia in 1706, which was actually 70 years before there was a United States. In 1804 the 1st Presbyterian church was established in the city of Staunton Virginia on E. Fredrick St. It was appropriately named First Presbyterian Church. Later a 2nd and 3rd Presbyterian Church were added with Second Presbyterian Church just a little more than a block away. Obviously, this denomination had an impact in our region, as can be seen today in the 27 PC USA congregations within a 15 mile radius of our church, as well as many other Presbyterian churches of other denominations.

In 1842 First Presbyterian Church helped to begin one of the first female seminaries in the nation just across Fredrick St. This women’s seminary developed into a women’s college and is now called Mary Baldwin College. One more fun fact for you all: In 1856, when the Reverend Joseph Wilson was the pastor of First Presbyterian in Staunton, the good reverend was blessed with a baby boy, whom they named Thomas. That boy would later be known by his middle name, Woodrow.

Theologically, the Presbyterian Church continues to be influenced by the teachings of John Calvin as interpreted by John Knox. In the spirit of unity I am going to try to not say anything too negative about what Calvinism has become, but instead I will try to practice what I preach and present this information in a neutral way to understand what Presbyterians believe before we critique any particular belief or practice. And to understand Calvinism, we need to begin with an acronym that is often used to help people remember the Five Points of Calvinism. That acronym is TULIP.

The T in TULIP stands for “Total Depravity.” Quoting The Calvinist Corner website, Total Depravity means that “sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful.”

The U stands for “Unconditional Election.” Unconditional Election is often referred to as predestination. Also from the Calvinist Corner: “God does not base His election on anything He sees in the individual. He chooses the elect according to the kind intention of His will without any consideration of merit within the individual. Nor does God look into the future to see who would pick Him. Also, as some are elected into salvation, others are not.”

The L comes from the phrase “Limited Atonement.” Limited Atonement means that Jesus did not die for everyone, but only for a select few. This goes hand-in-hand with predestination because if God already knew who he would save, why die for all of the world?

The I is for “Irresistible Grace,” which simply means that if God has predestined you for salvation, you cannot resist his grace.

Finally, the P stands for the “Perseverance of the Saints,” which means that the elect cannot lose their salvation. Again, this makes perfectly good sense when you begin with predestination. If God has predestined someone for salvation and they cannot resist his grace, then it only makes sense that they cannot lose their salvation. If you can’t resist God’s grace, you can’t lose your salvation.

Again, I am trying to keep an open mind and understand Calvinism. And though it goes against much of what I believe, I can follow the logic. TULIP stands up to scrutiny if you believe in predestination. If not, the U, L, and I topple like a house of cards and the P needs to be redefined slightly as is often done in other denominations.

When I was trying to decide what we could offer the Presbyterian Church, I was really tempted to try to tackle predestination. But that seems a little bit big for our discussion today. And if we are to be honest, these debates have been going on for almost 500 years, and neither side has caved yet. So let’s not go there. And since we are being honest, I will simply quote my seminary advisor who once said, “The problem with predestination is that it is biblical.”

You can make a good case for predestination in the Bible. You can also make a good argument for freewill by using the same book. That’s what makes theology so much fun! However, our focus today is on the Presbyterian Church, and not the Five Points of Calvinism. And it is my understanding that not all Presbyterians are strict adherents to the Five Points of Calvinism, which will come into play when we look at what we can learn from Presbyterians.

What I think we can teach the Presbyterians is a different way to read The Fall and the T in TULIP. From the PCA Historical website (http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/believe.html) we find this statement:

In the view of Presbyterians human nature is not neutral: it is not free to move upward or downward depending on circumstance, environment or education. Neither is human nature good; capable of infinite development in goodness, needing only to be left alone or “brought out” to achieve perfection. Human nature is rather sinful and “inclined to evil as the sparks fly upward.” We see undesirable behavior and sinful tendencies in the smallest infant, and we observe that without discipline and restraint human beings inevitably live selfishly.

There is much in that statement that I can affirm. Without discipline and restraint, human beings often live selfishly, looking out for number one. We are indeed inclined to do that which is wrong. But to say that humans are by nature bad and that we have no ability to make improvements in our lives and in the lives of those around us is simply wrong and seems to not take into account much of history.

This week many people across this country will take mark an event that took place 50 years ago. On August 28, 1963 thousands of people from every background, nationality, color and creed took to the streets of Washington, D.C. as a demonstration against the injustices of segregation. It was on that day that The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.

I see racism today – overt, in your face racism. It ticks me off, that’s for sure. But when I hear stories from 50 years ago, I am amazed at the level of hate and separation depicted in newspapers, television, and the movies.

Just this weekend we saw the movie “42,” which is the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. I am awestruck by the fact that people of color couldn’t use certain bathrooms. I am dumbfounded that Jackie’s entire baseball team was denied a place to stay at a hotel because they associated with him. And I can’t even begin to comprehend that Jackie had to wait until his teammates were done in the shower before he could clean up after a game. The things I see and hear about from the 1960’s and the attitude of some people toward people of other races is as close to total depravity as I can imagine.

My friends, we have a long way to go until we reach the point where I can say that Dr. King’s dream has come true. But don’t tell me that we as human beings have not made progress. Don’t tell me that we do not have within us the ability to make good choices. Certainly it is true that we can make bad choices, and often we do. But every now and then some good people come to our attention and restores my hope in humanity.

I would say that we as Anabaptist/Mennonites can offer a nuanced approach toward humanity and the human condition that better captures the biblical witness of The Fall and Original Sin.

Though we don’t have a specific doctrine, position statement, or article of faith on the matter, we in the Mennonite Church approach the human condition in a way that emphasizes a different aspect of the Creation and Fall narratives. In Genesis 1 we find the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. On the final day God creates man and woman in God’s own image and calls them good. In fact, God calls them “very good.”

In the very next chapter we find that these first human beings are tricked into disobeying God’s direct command to not eat the fruit of a specific tree. Their punishment includes having children and jobs, as well as being removed from Eden.

The language in Genesis chapter three suggests that Adam and Eve’s offspring will have to deal with the effects of Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, and that is obvious as we continue to have children and jobs and to not live in Eden. But where does it say that because of their disobedience humanity is totally depraved, that there is no capacity in human beings to do or be good? I’ll give you a hint: Judaism does not hold the doctrine of Original Sin or Total Depravity. That comes along in Romans 5:18, which I would say that if you read it as referring to what we often call Original Sin, you must also be a Christian Universalist: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” I can’t see how one can believe in Total Depravity and Limited Atonement at the same time. But that’s just me.

We have a choice. Do we see people as totally depraved or do we see them as created in the image of God, yet marred by sin?

I believe the reason that people are able to do good is because they were created in the image of a God who is good. Even some who don’t believe in God or don’t know what they believe have done great things for others. I would say these individuals help others because in each of us is this pull to make things right with other people created in God’s image and to set the world right. We have the capacity to do good, even if we don’t know why we do good.

One’s view on Total Depravity affects how they see and treat other people. If you see others as if they have absolutely no good within them, you treat them like trash. If you see someone as created in the image of God, you treat them as if they are the offspring of the God you love and serve.

So what can we learn from the Presbyterians? I hesitate to suggest this, because I don’t want to paint a picture that is rosier than real life. But I think we can learn from the Presbyterians how to exist as a denomination in the middle of strong political and theological differences.

If you have ever read a Mennonite periodical, particularly the letters to the editor, you surely know that we in MC USA are a diverse group. And we are being torn apart by it. But let me give you a little bit of background on the Presbyterian Church to illustrate their diversity over the last 100 years.

In 1910 at the Niagara Bible Conference, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church agreed upon a statement of faith known as the Five Fundamentals of the Christian faith. These fundamental beliefs were: The inerrancy of scripture, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus’ death, His physical resurrection, and the historicity of miracles. Those that adhered to these fundamentals were called “The Fundamentalists.”

One of the core beliefs coming out of the first point of the Fundamentalists was that God created the world in a literal period of six, 24 hour days. Please note that this was a heated time in US history with the ongoing debates between the creationists and the modernists. It was in 1925 when the life-long Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution against Thomas Scopes and his attorney, Clarence Darrow, in what has been called “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” Fundamentalism has its roots in the Presbyterian Church.

On the other side of the political and theological spectrum, the Presbyterians have been very vocal over the years on issues such as women’s rights (Remember that Presbyterian seminary for women?), racial reconciliation, and the ordination of women and LGBT clergy. And they have, so far, managed to keep together a denomination of about 2 million people.

I read through a five-part post from a Presbyterian who was addressing the question of why he has not and does not plan to leave the Presbyterian Church, even though he finds himself at a different place than many others in his denomination. And one of the things that struck me was the way he pointed out that there is no perfect denomination. There isn’t a church that one could go to that isn’t facing some issue that is pulling its members apart.

He wrote about a friend that had left PC USA over the issue of ordaining gay clergy to join a more conservative congregation in a different denomination. What he found in that new denomination was that even though they were all of the same mind on the issue of ordaining LGBT clergy, people were arguing at lengths during their annual conference over a literal six-day creation. Now he found himself to be the liberal one in the group! You cannot find a denomination that isn’t struggling with some issue.

There is a slogan in the Presbyterian Church: Theology divides, mission unites. If you know me, you know that I both like and dislike that phrase at the same time. Theology is important as it is the backbone to how we live out our faithfulness. But when theology becomes divisive, it holds the potential to become an idol.

As I think about those first disciples of Jesus, he didn’t teach them everything they were ever going to want to know, and our Bibles don’t clearly articulate everything I want to know. But we know enough to work together for a greater cause, to bring God’s shalom back to this place; to undo that first act of disobedience committed in a garden and restore God’s good creation. I hope we can learn from the Presbyterians what it looks like to work together, in spite of our differences, for that common goal.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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