Fist-fights at the altar! Jesus always lands on the side of grace and peace (irenic versus polemic)

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IMG_0395Jesus – “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35)

This week’s focus in my Adult-ed discipleship class is The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 – it’s one of the key documents in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions, and one of my favorites.

(To place this in Reformation History, Luther’s protest in Germany started in 1517; Henry VIII initiated England’s political reformation in 1531; Calvin first published his Institutes in 1536; John Knox penned the Scots Confession in 1560…)

The Heidelberg Catechism has a lot to commend it, but the key characteristic for me is its overwhelmingly irenic approach to dialogue concerning the essential elements of Christian faith.

  • Irenic, according to Merriam-Webster, means “Favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation.” A more concise definition is, “aiming or aimed at peace.”
  • The alternative – polemic – is a concept all too familiar in today’s contentious religious climate. Polemic means “An aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another.”

IRONIC: The occasion for writing the Heidelberg Catechism – just a few decades into the Protestant Reformation – was a growing conflict between the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Roman church. Things came to a head when the leading Lutheran in Heidelberg started excommunicating those who did not share his exact views vis-a-vis the Lord’s Supper.

Such an approach to disagreement (then or today) is not just polemic, but ironic, considering the central message of the practice of communion, and the exact words Jesus shared after he first served the bread and the wine: “Now I am giving you a new commandment,” the Master said, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”John 13:34-35

In consequence there was a fist-fight, an all-out brawl, at the altar of The Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg on Easter Sunday, 1562. It was this debacle that motivated Frederick III, the newly installed “Elector of the Palatinate,” to assign two young theologians the task of preparing a catechism upon which all sides could agree.

Ergo the irenic nature of the document.

heidelberg_catechism_originalJESUS-FOLLOWER: Frederick was highly educated, intellectually gifted, a devout Christian, eager to learn as much as he could about faith, well-respected, conversant with all the key theological arguments, and committed to peace. He lived a simple life in order to free up his wealth to promote education, and to advance faith.

Such commitments to the Way of Jesus naturally lead to irenic discourse.

So this is my simple, straightforward word for all of us this fine Sunday morning, another supremely beautiful Spring day here in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The substance of the catechism Frederick III commissioned was as follows: There are three things, the authors concluded, that we must understand…

  1. First, the completeness of our sin and our separation from God.
  2. Second, how Jesus frees us from the devastating consequences of that separation.
  3. Third (and here I can do not better than quote exactly), “What gratitude I owe to God for such redemption!”

And there we have it. Grace and Gratitude. Not only is the catechism irenic; but it’s something we really can all agree on.

Peace – and I really mean that – DEREK


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