The Spirit Gives Us Courage


image by Jason Edwards, click image to link

“Religious persecution of Christians is rampant worldwide,” says a columnist for USA Today.[1] Nowhere does it seem more so than on the African continent to which Philip brought the good news of Jesus, through the servant of the Ethiopian queen. If you’ve been paying attention to international news, then you know about ISIS terrorists beheading Christians in Libya, shooting Christians in Kenya, and drowning Christians in the Mediterranean Sea. I’m sad about these events, and disturbed that western nations seem unable to say or do anything that might reverse this trend. The columnist may be right when she says, “Western leaders … will be remembered for their near silence as this human rights tragedy unfolded.”

Perhaps more personally disturbing to us is the fact that the potential for such persecution is not confined to Africa and the Middle East. More and more, we are hearing stories about young people like the Boston Marathon bombers drawn into the sphere of influence of al-Qaeda, ISIS and similar groups. A news report says more 150 U.S. residents have traveled to Syria to join, forty have returned to the U.S., and while most have been arrested, an estimated one-dozen are under surveillance.[2] More than ever before, violence against Christians seems like a possibility, an expression of religious persecution stemming from a Fundamentalist mindset.

The Fundamentalist mindset, whether in Islam or Christianity, is one in which an inflexible belief system becomes the ultimate religious authority. Fundamentalists confuse part of human tradition with the totality of God’s voice.   Often, they take the religious expressions of one time and culture, and lift them up as authoritative for all times and culture. They draw sharp boundaries inside of which they feel protected and pure with those who are like-minded. Those boundaries exclude those who make them uncomfortable, who tend to be viewed with intolerance and hostility.

How different is the work of God as recorded by Luke, the physician who spent much of his life supporting the ministry of Paul. In his gospel, Luke tells the story of God who, in Jesus Christ, begins to break down barriers that have existed for ages. The spirit of exclusivity and intolerance is challenged in Jesus’ parables in which a despised Samaritan is found a better neighbor than a priest and a Levite (Luke 10:25 ff.), and a hated tax collector more righteous than a Pharisee (Luke 18:8 ff.).

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke continues the story that he began to tell in his gospel. In chapter eight, we read about the unpredictable and restless Spirit of God bringing down another barrier. An angel commands Philip to get up move in a new direction (Acts 8:26 ff.). As we reflect upon the events that follow, we will realize that there is nothing reasonable about traveling down a wilderness road to the desert. It is not normal for the lowly disciple of a crucified zealot to climb into the chariot of a foreign dignitary.[3] The Holy Spirit gives Philip courage to move beyond familiar boundaries.

During the month of May, Presbyterians often celebrate a “Heritage Sunday.” We do it in remembrance of the first General Assembly of the PC (USA) held in Philadelphia in May, 1789. As we look back over our history, we see how the Spirit has given Presbyterians courage to challenge the Fundamentalist mindset.

In the 1830’s, Presbyterians tended to fall into one of two camps. The “Old School” Presbyterians remained isolated and theologically rigid. Their theological inspiration came not so much discernment of the Spirit’s present work, but from the old Westminster theology of the 1640’s. The Bible, they said, supports slavery, and no talk about justice or emancipation would convince them that slavery was anything but God’s appointed order.

The “New School” Presbyterians cooperated with others in frontier mission efforts and worked to abolish slavery. New School Presbyterians were key members of the Underground Railroad that moved slaves to freedom in the north. When a Presbyterian named Elizabeth Smith living in our area petitioned the General Assembly, New School Presbyterians cooperated with Congregationalists to recruit the Rev. Salmon Giddings, who traveled here from New England to found this congregation in 1819.

Think about this fact: If the Old School Presbyterians had won the day, had the Fundamentalist mindset prevailed, then there would be no First Presbyterian Church Edwardsville.

Later, in the 1920’s, old tensions took a new form. A Princeton Seminary professor named J. Gresham Machen defined for Presbyterian ministers “the essential and necessary articles” for ordination, eventually narrowed to five “fundamentals.” It is therefore historically correct to say that the first “Fundamentalist” was a Presbyterian! The “Fundamentalists,” like Old School Presbyterians before them, were theologically rigid. Their theological inspiration came not so much from discernment of the Spirit’s present work, but from the old Westminster theology of the 1640’s. The Bible, they said, prohibits women from leadership in the Church.

The so-called “Modernist” Presbyterians were at the forefront of the movement that achieved full inclusion of women in the life of the Church. In 1926 and 1927, the Fundamentalists were defeated in their efforts to wrestle control of the denomination away from the Modernists. When the Fundamentalist leadership withdrew to establish a schismatic denomination, the old PCUSA approved the ordination of women as elders in 1930. Think about this fact: had the Fundamentalist Presbyterians won the day, there would be no female officers or leaders in First Presbyterian Church Edwardsville.

When we examine our biblical past and Presbyterian heritage – Jewish Christian vs. Gentile Christian, Old School vs. New School, Fundamentalist vs. Modernist –  we see a competition between two religious emphases. One idealizes a particular theological model, a particular faith system, and sets it up as a static theological model for all people, all time, everywhere. The other acknowledges that all theological models are provisional, that they are working theories about the faith we seek to understand, and proclaims that God is dynamic, continuing to reveal Godself in new ways in a changing world.

As Pastor Theresa Cho says in the Theocademy video we will view at the end of this service, “We are surrounded by new technologies …. And I just find it really fascinating that we don’t think about … people constantly improving and working out the bugs in systems and apps we are using. … We do not gripe about having to constantly hit ‘update all’ on our iPhone or iPads. But we don’t go through updating our own faith system. When life is changing all around us, we are constantly working on a belief system from maybe even when we were a child. But what we’re finding is that it doesn’t work for us anymore. And because then it doesn’t work for us anymore, we are that much quicker to abandon it or leave it, when really maybe what we just need is to re-engage and update our faith system .… ”[4]

Landon Whitsitt goes on to comment on the constant presence of change in our lives. “Our lives change. Our circumstances change. Our relationships change. Our understanding of the world changes. Presbyterians are a people who embrace this reality, in the full confidence that the God who does not change will guide us through whatever we face. But we have to do our part. We must come to understand that being a faithful disciple means being a growing disciple. And only by updating our faith system will that be possible.”[5]

It’s not comfortable to stand against the dangers of Fundamentalism, either the brand of Islamic fundamentalism that threatens us externally, or even the brand of Christian Fundamentalism that threatens the Church internally. I’m not sure any of us could bear to be in the spotlight of debate or crosshairs of persecution for very long. But I suppose it wasn’t all that comfortable for the once timid Phillip to travel down the desert road, for this humble disciple to climb into the chariot of a foreign dignitary, and challenge a lifetime of beliefs. I suppose it wasn’t all that comfortable for Presbyterians of former generations to stand against slavery and stand for the full inclusion of women. And so we must pray and trust that God will offer us grace to live and serve through uncomfortable times. The Spirit gives us courage to meet change as God’s ambassadors of reconciliation and peace; the Spirit gives us courage to weather the storm.

[1] Kirsten Powers, “Why is Obama mute on persecuted Christians?” USA Today, 22 April 2015, 7A.

[2] Kevin Johnson, “Race to stop ISIL in USA: Terrorist group effectively pursues fighters from West,” USA Today, 27 April 2015, 1A.

[3] William H. Willimon, “Acts,” Interpretation Commentary Series, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988, pp. 71-72.

[4] Theresa Cho, “Foundations of Presbyterian Discipleship 4: Update Your Faith System,”

[5] Landon Whitsitt, “Foundations of Presbyterian Discipleship 4: Update Your Faith System,”


~ by JohnH1962 on May 3, 2015.

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