Sola Scriptura: A Baptismal Defense

A talk presented to a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on History and The Presbyterian College – as part of ongoing celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Still in somewhat rough form, but clear enough to follow.

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Some days you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw. And let me confess that I feel a bit that way about this line-up of five events over five years, with each year dedicated to one of the famous Solas of the Reformation tradition.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

Sola Fide –Faith Alone

Solus Christus – Christ alone

Soli Deo Gloria – For God’s Glory Alone

And our sola for today, of course, is Sola Scriptura – by Scripture Alone.

I’ve got to say that when I thought of this line-up of topics, I said to myself: “Grace alone. That’s such a beautiful and compelling theme of the Reformation – that our lives are gift and grace – that new life in Christ is grace upon grace. Grace Alone is a beautiful and is such an uncontested theme of Christian life and faith. Who wouldn’t want to offer reflections on that topic?” Continue reading

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saying goodbye – with grace in Christ

How do you sign off your emails? How do you say good-bye in the age of electronic communication?

It’s a surprisingly complicated question.

Traditionally, of course, when you write a letter by hand to someone, you might sign off by saying “sincerely,” or perhaps by saying “with love.” Ending a letter with those words was almost like ending a prayer with the word “Amen” – it was intended to show that we are invested in the words we have written or spoken.

But in the world of email – in the world of back-and-forth electronic communication – it’s complicated. Ending an email by saying “sincerely” feels too heavy and formal – saying “with love” would often be way too substantial.

Some people will sign off an email with the light sounding “cheers.” And in a way that word works because it’s quick and light – it matches the not-too-significant nature of most of our emails. But on the other hand, if you’re not the kind of person who would say “cheers” in everyday conversation, it may feel odd to sign off an email that way. Continue reading

division, baptism, unity — or, who we are

Let me begin this morning by reading again just a few words from 1 Corinthians chapter 1. For me these particular words are more than a little odd – they almost stick out like a sore thumb – and for that reason I want to start with them. Paul writes these words to the church in Corinth: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Aren’t these curious words? “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

These words become astonishing when we realize that Paul is the one who founded the church in Corinth. These words come from the apostle who went to that city and who debated in its marketplace and synagogue, with the result that women and men came to faith and were baptized. These words come from the pen of someone who lived with the Corinthian church for 18 months – leading them and caring for them and teaching about their new life in Christ.

To this church, to this group of people with whom he has had such a significant and personal relationship, Paul writes: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Strong and strange words. Continue reading

“may I have a word” — confession and correction #sermon

Has anyone every pulled you aside and said: “You know, what you are doing is really not a great idea.”

Has anyone ever pulled you aside and said: “You know, you better stop and think about what you’re saying.”

When someone pulls you aside it’s generally because they care about you – they want to put the brakes on something you’re doing or saying before you get carried away. They care about you, and so instead of speaking to you publicly in a way that might make you look back or shame you – they gently pull you aside to have private word with you. Continue reading

change in the church – free to experiment

Presbyterian Record cover June 1964An article printed in this month’s Presbyterian Record, based on a blog post from a year ago. [The image to the right is of the cover of The Presbyterian Record from 50 years ago!!]

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Change has been in the air at Kensington, Montreal, over the past six years as the congregation has adopted global and contemporary songs in Sunday worship. While we still sing many traditional hymns, there are new melodies, harmonies and rhythms rising into the air from sounding board, vocal cords and even the djembe.

Change has also been in the walls and in the ground and in the pews and in the programs and in the financial outlook. So here’s just a sampling of changes made in our congregation’s life over these past years, beyond the embrace of new musical expressions. Changes made in a spirit, I would say, of faithful common sense.

We have moved our worship from a traditional worship space (a beautiful sanctuary that seated 700) to a bright and simple church hall that will easily and comfortably accommodate our 65 – 70 Sunday worshippers. That traditional sanctuary is up for sale.

We are incorporating audio/visual elements within Sunday worship—images and visual liturgy that are appropriate to the aesthetic sensibilities of the congregation (and wider community) and also true to our faith in the God who has created and reconciled the world in Christ. Continue reading

Congregational Aesthetics – beyONd our walls (3/3)

In this short blog series I’ve been exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation. Otherwise put: What do the artwork and architecture and liturgical accoutrements of your congregation reveal about its faith and identity? And how do they shape your faith and discipleship?

In my first post I explored how we might respond to the artistic heritage passed down to us from earlier generations. In the second post I considered the importance of contemporary, artistic expressions of faith in our IMG_2868worship and community spaces. Now in this final post I want to push us out of the church building, into the wider community.

Too often the church has thought of itself in terms of a fairly strict separation from the world. The church has failed to identify with the world – it has failed to live for the world, in the world.

While we have to think about these issues carefully (theologically speaking), I’m of the view that we can and must conceive a much more porous boundary between church and world. This doesn’t mean watering down faith convictions, but it will require transforming mindsets and structures and programs – and in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Such transformations must be defined precisely by our life for the world and in the world, since this is the only life that we can possibly embody in faithfulness to the one who is our life – Jesus Christ.

Continue reading

congregational aesthetics: a LIVING faith (2/3)

In this short blog series I’m exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

Every congregation has an aesthetic profile, a profile that emerges out of the architecture, memorials, artwork, and liturgical accoutrements that make up the worship space or community space of a particular church. This aesthetic profile says something about who we are and about the nature of our faith.

In the first blog post of this series (here) I reflected on the weight of history – the question of how we might respond to the aesthetic tradition that has been handed down to us in our particular congregations. In this post I want to move beyond the historical, to the contemporary.

memorialOne realization I have made is that in many congregations – including the one I serve – most of the aesthetic elements are at least two or three generations old. Memorials or paintings or photographs give expression to the lives, faith, culture, and aesthetics of earlier generations. Which is to say that, very often, there are no contemporary aesthetic expressions of faith within our buildings or worship spaces. Which is also to say that in many congregations there are very few (or none at all!) ways in which we express our living and contemporary faith in Jesus Christ through paint or woodworking or weaving – through our creative capacities as women and men and kids. Continue reading

congregational aesthetics: the weight of history (1/3)

What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

When you think about the artwork or memorials or liturgical accoutrements of your congregation, what kind of profile emerges? More importantly, perhaps, what does this aesthetic profile say about the identity of your congregation. It’s an interesting and compelling question (and a multi-faceted one) when we stop to ask it.

For many congregations the question of aesthetics is one that hangs only vaguely in the background of church life. In such cases, a congregation receives its building with furnishings and artwork from a previous generation and accept that these have defined, and shall define (!), the aesthetic space within which worship and Christian friendship shall be expressed.

Of course there are some congregations that are profoundly aware of the aesthetic dimension of their congregational life. These aesthetically aware congregations could perhaps be subdivided into two categories: (i) those preoccupied with how nice things look, where niceness is defined by a sense of tidiness and welcome, and (ii) those pushing to think about how our faith is expressed or shaped by the aesthetic spaces we inhabit as congregations.

214The congregation I serve has had such questions thrust upon it. This is because we are in the process of subdividing our property/buildings, and selling our beautiful 700-seat sanctuary. Not only this, but for various reasons our large sanctuary had become home to a number of significant items of historical and ecclesial significance: including those from historic St. Gabriel Street Church, the first Presbyterian congregation in Montreal. Continue reading

6 reasons pastors shouldn’t focus on church growth

Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Community Church in Barrie, has written a blog post on 8 reasons most churches never break the 200 attendance mark. I thought I’d offer a reply, though in truth I’m not really interested in how congregations might break that apparently important threshold – or why they don’t. I’m more interested in the preoccupation itself – the preoccupation with breaking the 200 threshold.

Nieuwhof is by no means the first writer/blogger to focus on that magic number. I’ve come across it elsewhere, in passing. And one can only presume that there is a wealth of religious and sociological literature out there that explains and defends the importance of the all-important 200 attendance mark.

Before getting to my 8 reasons (actually, I only have 6) for this preoccupation with the 200 threshold, it is important to know that this is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Otherwise put, this focus on achieving and surpassing a numeric level finds its home in modernism – philosophically and culturally speaking. There is nothing timeless or essential about it. For 2000 years the church has not lived its intention to ‘reach people for Christ ‘ in such terms – only in the modern period has such thinking and acting become possible.

I’m not saying that the church has never talked about numbers (just read Acts and you’ll see otherwise), but the church for the vast majority of its history did not talk about numbers in this way. Continue reading