Sermon Series: Heidelberg Catechism

You Have Been Delivered

June 15, 2017 - June 18, 2017

1 John 4:7-10

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Elizabeth Shen O'Connor

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Summer is underway in all its glory. And our summer series on the Heidelberg Catechism continues. The word “catechism” may seem intimidating to you. Many have mentioned this in passing as we previewed and introduced this sermon series. Many have been discussing this very thing on Sunday mornings at 10am in the Community Room, where a good group of us are gathering to go deeper. Some have even said outright: “What is a catechism anyway?” It sounds intimidating. I get that. We don’t pick up creeds and confessions and catechisms like we do the newspaper on a daily basis. We don’t go online and check out the day’s catechetical question like we do the day’s weather report. But that doesn’t mean that even a sixteenth century document can’t be of use to us believers today. In fact, one of the reasons for this sermon series is to demystify this catechism. So let’s start to do that work by helping you understand what exactly a catechism is. The word itself, at its root, means to instruct. It’s a teaching tool. That’s it. It’s that simple. It’s a Middle Ages teaching tool. Last week, Henry explained some of its particular history. It was distributed to not just churches, but also schools, and any other organization that could benefit from its use. As I study and learn more about the Heidelberg, I’m always grateful for how the writers were intentional about making it personal and accessible to the believer. That’s why it’s still relevant to us today. It’s not some abstract, antiquated document. It’s not ancient history. It’s for us, at any point in our faith journey. To help ground us in the basics of what we believe. 

 

In particular, today’s question – question two of the catechism – breaks down all the content of our faith to the essentials. Let’s read through it together:

 

Q. 2. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?

A. Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.

 

Why can’t the answers to all of life’s questions be so simple? Questions like, what must I know to raise a healthy, responsible, and respectful kid? Or, what must I know to get the job of my dreams? Or, what must I know to be well-set for retirement? If the answers were summed up in three easy points, the trip through life would be a breeze, right?

 

While life isn’t ever simple in that way, our faith can be! This isn’t to say that faith is easy. That there won’t curiosities or questions or angst when worldly temptations rub up against our faith resolutions. What it is to say is that what it means to be a Christian comes down to three very basic things. In its most simple form, it comes down to sin, salvation, and gratitude. That is, in fact, the outline the Heidelberg follows in its progression of questions. It begins with sin. Goes on to discuss salvation. And ends with gratitude. That outline is the shape of the catechism because it is the shape of our faith.

 

 

The first thing we must know has to do with sin. It’s about knowing that sin runs deep in all of us. In you and in me. Sin is at the very beginning of our story as God’s people. The story, at the front, is quite rosy. There’s a beautiful garden. It’s lush and plentiful. There’s a man and a woman in paradise. Sounds good so far, right? But sin creeps into the picture right from the start. The man and woman disobey God’s direct command. As a result, their relationship is strained and they are banished from paradise. Genesis goes on to describe how this sin of Adam and Eve runs its course through the whole human race. How it intensified and led to the radical disruption of the divine-human relationship. Not because of God, but because of humankind’s disobedience and waywardness, we entered into what New Testament writers call our slavery to the devil or our slavery to death. Rather than life – God-breathed life – there was only the enormity of our sin and death. It was a pretty hopeless picture.

 

We can’t escape from the misery that is slavery to sin. Not by ourselves at least. But we can mask it. That’s been a talent of humankind throughout history and is true for us today. I would even say we’re more creative about it today. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we avoid facing up to our real situation. Is this or has this been true for you? We mask our unhappiness with other things – with drugs or alcohol, things that numb us; with social media, television, gaming – with things that distract us; consuming beyond our need in order to feel “satisfied.” We also mask our unhappiness with other people – forming unhealthy relationships, even against our better judgment. Most of these things in and of themselves aren’t harmful, but when we use them to bypass the misery our sin causes us, then they become toxic to us.

 

We are so good at smoke and mirrors, fooling ourselves. And so, I don’t believe the challenge is so much about being unwilling to admit our sin, but rather about recognizing our sin. You can’t save a man who doesn’t know he’s drowning. You can stand on the deck of a boat all you want, life ring in hand, but if the person doesn’t even recognize the need to take hold of it, there’s no saving him. One of the things that Scripture becomes for us, is a mirror – a mirror that reveals our true reflection, the truth of our spiritual state, the condition of our relationship with God. It is only until we can see ourselves for how we truly are – our sin and its effect on us – that we can start to understand our need for something more.

 

One of my mentors once said: “You can’t leave a place you’ve never been.” We can’t leave the place of sin and slavery, the place of fear, the place of grief and hopelessness until we stand there with eyes wide open. Acknowledging our real situation is crucial for everything else that follows in the journey of a believer.

 

It becomes crucial because our sin situation is so dire that there is absolutely nothing we can do to save ourselves. In fact, there is only one cure to our particular ailment. And that is the second thing we must know in order to enjoy the blessedness of God’s comfort. Only one person who was able to address our need, our sin sick condition. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was exactly what humanity needed.

 

The writer of Hebrews describes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in this way: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

 

Think of it in this way. Imagine being stung by a bee and going into anaphylactic shock. The last thing that you need at that moment is a pastor. In that moment, you want a first responder. You want a nurse or doctor. You want someone who knows how to use an epi-pen. A pastor of mine relayed a story once of how he was at a church picnic when a bee stung him on his tongue. All of his pastoral colleagues gathered around him, asked him to stick out his tongue, examined him as if they were experts, and even gave him their “expert” advice. That was the last thing he needed. He needed a medical professional, not a pastor, because his crisis was a medical crisis.

 

We were in spiritual crisis – the endpoint of which was physical, eternal death –but a spiritual crisis fundamentally. And Jesus Christ was the only one who could be humanity’s spiritual cure. In Jesus Christ, we acknowledge our real salvation is from God. And rather than deprive ourselves of this cure, of this freedom, of this life, we take hold of it through our belief in him. G.I. Williamson writes on the matter, saying: “So the misery of man is great. But the work of Jesus Christ is still greater.”

 

You’ve already heard this word “comfort” used in these first two questions of the catechism. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort? The word “comfort” here isn’t necessarily about being pacified, like we pacify a crying baby. It’s not about God soothing us, as much as it is about God saving us. Edward A. Dowey, Jr. suggests that the Heidelberg uses “comfort” much like it would use the word “salvation.” God’s comfort has everything to do with God saving us from a life of misery and death.

 

For that we respond in thanks, which is the third and final necessary. The saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” even though a cliché, often proves true in our everyday lives. We don’t always realize what a blessing someone has been to us until they’re gone. We don’t always realize the large and little things they did for us. It isn’t until we acknowledge our real situation – how far our sin has taken us from God, the efforts God has made to reach us in Christ – that we are even able to grasp the full magnitude of God’s salvation. This takes us right back to that first thing we must know – to the greatness of our sin. John Calvin, a theologian around the time of the Heidelberg, suggested that it isn’t until our minds are “first struck and overwhelmed by the fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death” that we can ever hope to come to gratitude.

 

How can we go about thanking God for our gift of life in Jesus Christ?

 

Once again, we can’t by our own efforts. This is where that Holy Spirit from the first question comes in and helps us to be wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for [God]. Titus puts it this way: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

 

Biblically speaking, gratitude an attitude, but it’s also an action word. It’s more than just lip service. It goes beyond. In fact, it’s intentional that the Heidelberg’s study of the Ten Commandments comes in the section on gratitude. Gratitude is thanksgiving to God through changed behavior. Behavior, in particular, that honors God and honors others.

 

We began this sermon with a reading from 1 John. It is not wholly outside of our reflections today. Fundamentally, love was the motivation for God saving us. The God who is love extended love to us through his one and only Son. We did not and never will deserve it. Yet, as Calvin wrote, “out of his own kindness [God] still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us unto grace.” Even as unrecognizable as we are in our sin, God still chooses to see that small part that is loveable, that is him. In response, in gratitude, as the writer of First John says, we are to “love one another” (1 John 4:7). For in doing so, all of God’s original intentions, all of God’s good, the life that only God can give, is made real in us.

 

It’s that basic. It’s Christianity 101. We can easily overcomplicate it. We’re good at that – another one of those talents we have. Even so, what it means to be a Christian comes down to three simple, three profound things: acknowledging how real sin is in our lives, acknowledging that only Jesus Christ can break that sin and set us free, acknowledging our gratitude through acts of love to God’s glory. Sin. Salvation. Gratitude. 

 

Karl Barth was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. He spent much of his career in Germany and was one of many pastors and scholars who stood against Hitler’s regime. There is a story that has gone around in Christian circles about a time when he came to America for a lecture tour. At the University of Chicago, a student stood and ask Barth to sum up his life’s work. The story goes that his response was this: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” A mind of such complexity. A man who had devoted his life to understanding and writing about God’s word. A man who lived out the gospel wholly and completely. For him to come to such a simple statement says much about how we are to think of our own faith.

 

I am a sinner. I am loved by Jesus beyond my deserving. I am to be thankful my whole life long.

 

 

To contact Elizabeth Shen O'Connor about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180