The only way I ever walked into a hospital room to visit the sick, or a home to meet with a bereaved family, or a pulpit to preach after a tragedy in community or country is thanks to theology. I love Jesus. I trust the promises of God. I count on the presence of the Holy Spirit. I read my Bible every day. But if I didn’t have Reformed theology and a Book of Confessions and all the tradition that comes alongside it, I would have had little of any value to say about the Triune God I follow. Theology matters. This may border on heresy, but loving Jesus isn’t enough. Articulating what you believe about Jesus is critical to bearing witness to the One we seek to glorify and enjoy forever.
The first person I ever walked with to the grave was a middle-aged woman dying of AIDS. She wasn’t Presbyterian. She grew up in another tradition. That tradition’s theology espoused that AIDS was a punishment from God, so when she could no longer hide the nature of her illness her family looked elsewhere for support. I wasn’t even out of seminary when someone pointed her in my direction. I didn’t know much, but I did know that her disease was not a result of her sin. I did know that in life and death we belong to God. I could say with confidence that God did not reject her but walked with her through the valley of the shadow of death. I was able to tell her heartbroken father at her funeral that we can cry out in lament and wait on God to supply our needs and bring healing and comfort (Study Catechism, question 24).
When a woman in her 80s whispered to me at the door of the sanctuary, “My son is gay,” I called her the next day to find out what had prompted her comment. She said some people in the Bible study at her community center say homosexuality is an abomination. She said, “I am afraid to tell them my son is gay. He is my sweetest child and I love him. Don’t you think God loves him, too?” Yes, I do. “Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still” (A Brief Statement of Faith). “Yes,” I said, “God loves your son.”
Those many times when debate got heated in session meetings — when someone said the church had no business in politics, shouldn’t get involved in ordinances that made it a crime to sleep on a bench, shouldn’t get things churned up around payday loans, ought to stick to spiritual matters, ought not worry about the conditions of the workers in the plant owned by the biggest giver to the church — someone in the room knew the Great Ends of the Church. Always there was a voice or two that spoke up and said a word about promoting social righteousness. Without fail there was a heartfelt plea to “participate in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceful rule in the world” (Book of Order, F-1.0302d).
Then there was that time when the young couple soon to be married asked with sincere hope, “Can we have our college fight song played as the recessional?” They asked: What could be more personal? More memorable? More them? I had to inform them that, alas, it was not possible. With gratitude, I pulled out the wedding policy carefully crafted by the session, the one that quoted the Directory for Worship, “Music suitable for the marriage service directs attention to God and expresses the faith of the church” (W-2.1004). It would have to wait for the reception.
It isn’t enough to love Jesus. We have to be able to articulate what we believe is true about the Triune God because what we believe shapes how we behave. Theology matters.
Grace and peace,