Sermon from July 11: Seal of Our Faith
Seal of Our Faith
Pentecost VII; July 11, 2021
To be honest, I’m not really preaching on this text; I’m using it as a pretext. That is, Jesus’ comment that lights are meant for shining, not hiding, is giving me permission to talk about something that proclaims who we are and what we are about.
We have a new addition to our Commons: a beautiful wood rendition of the Seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was commissioned by our Aesthetics Committee and crafted by Steve Melotz from walnut and bloodwood. The Seal of the Church tells the world who we are and what is important to us, and so for today’s sermon I want to talk about the elements of the seal of our faith.
After the Presbyterian Church reunited in 1983 – after more than 120 years of separation between North and South – it was important to create a seal for the Church that would represent our faith. The seal was designed by Malcolm Grear, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and who died in 2016. The design is intentionally steeped in the symbolism of our faith, while not being busy. It was enthusiastically adopted by the General Assembly of our Church in 1985.
There are eight elements to the seal that I want to highlight for you briefly. The center is, of course, the Cross. The Cross means so much to us, which is a rather strange assertion. In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was a form of execution that was reserved for slaves and for enemies of the State. It combined torture, humiliation, and death. When we use the Cross as a symbol of our faith, we remember that our Lord was executed as a political prisoner, an enemy of the State. So, the Cross demonstrates the depth and breadth of what God is willing to do to reach out to a rebellious humanity. I heard a minister say that he would not have a Cross in the front of his church because that would be like hanging an electric chair in the front of the church. He’s right; it would be. It is a constant reminder that our Lord was willing to be crucified and therefore a reminder of the sort of attitude we too should have.
When I was a teenager, my home church was debating whether to hang a Cross in the front of the Sanctuary. You may be surprised, but it was rather controversial. I remember one man loudly protesting, “We’re becoming as bad as those Catholics, with all these symbols.” I was only a teen, but I wondered why it was alright to have a United States flag in the Sanctuary but not alright to have a Cross. Anyway, one lady said to me that the Church she grew up in had a Cross in the front, and she appreciated it. She said that whenever the minister didn’t do a very good job preaching, she could look at the Cross and still get a good sermon.
The second element is the descending dove at the top of the seal. The dove is a universal symbol of peace, deriving from the story of Noah. After the flood, Noah sent out a dove, which returned with an olive branch in its beak. Thus the dove and the olive branch both make us think of peace between God and the creation, as well as peace among us. But even more to the point is what happened when Jesus was baptized: the Holy Spirit descended on him, taking on the appearance of a dove. And so the dove reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God which creates the Church, gives life to the Church, and leads us in our mission in the world.
Now, if you remove the wings of the dove and leave in your mind only the body in the center, you have our third element: the fish. You have probably seen people with fish symbols on their cars; it is an ancient sign that Christians used to recognize each other. It is appropriate that the fish is hidden in our seal, because Christians used it as a secret sign. When it was dangerous to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, followers of Jesus would use the sign of the fish to recognize each other. The fish reminds us that Peter and Andrew, James and John were fishermen, and Jesus called them, saying, “From now on you’ll fish for people.” Also, the Greek word for fish, ichthus ICQUS, can be an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior: I is the first letter of Jesus; C for Christ; QU for “God’s Son;” and S for Savior. That’s why you see it on people’s cars, I think. It isn’t so secret anymore, but it also isn’t as well-known as the Cross.
The next element to point out is the book. The main body of the Cross is made of three lines; the line at the top of the cross-piece is shaped to look like a book. We Presbyterians are sometimes called “people of the Book” because of our dedication to reading and understanding the Bible. It is no accident that the program we are using – the Year of the Bible – was created in a Presbyterian Church and is published by our publishing house. Now, we are not fundamentalists, in that we do not impose on the Bible a set of criteria – called “fundamentals” – that the Bible must conform to. We allow the Bible to speak in all its many voices, even though that sometimes causes difficulty, because the Bible itself is more important than anything we say about it.
I will add this, too, even if it was not part of the designer’s intention: as a people of the Book we are devoted to learning. Everywhere Presbyterians have done mission work, we have made education a priority. We are among the foundation of numerous institutions of higher education, including our own University of Nebraska Omaha. We require our ministers to learn to read Hebrew and Greek, in order to help our congregations understand the Bible better. One reason we have always been and always will be smaller than many other churches is that we care about the life of the mind, which isn’t popular in society. We want people to study, to learn, and to think about God and the world in which we live. In that sense, too, we are people of the book.
The fifth element of the seal: the pulpit with an open Bible on it. It comprises the base and crosspiece of the main body. Although we Calvinists celebrate only two sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – John Calvin did say that the preaching of the Gospel is sacramental: it actually conveys the grace of God to God’s people. Ordinarily, the sermon is not merely an encouraging talk by a motivational speaker, but a proclamation of the Word of God, built from the Bible, that points people to Jesus Christ. One of our confessions goes so far as to say, “The preaching of the of the Word of God is the Word of God” (Second Helvetic Confession 5.004). When we think about that, though, it is important to notice that the pulpit is below the descending dove. The preaching of the Word of God becomes the Word of God only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes one of you will say, “When you said (whatever) in your sermon, it really spoke to me.” If I say, “I never said that,” you reply, “But I heard that.” Yes, you did; the Holy Spirit did her work. Preaching becomes the Word of God to you not because of my words but because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
If you look at the center line of the base of the pulpit, you see the shape of a cup, our sixth element. This cup is intended to encourage us to think of the Lord’s Supper, both the bread and the cup. As the Word of God is spoken in preaching, the Word of God is given flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Since yesterday was John Calvin’s 512th birthday, let me say something about what our Father in Christ taught about the Lord’s Supper. He protested against the Catholic practice of reserving the Lord’s Supper only for the priests; he said the Supper should be offered to all God’s people every day, or at minimum every Sunday. And he said that the Catholics were wrong in claiming something literal about the words “This is my body; this is my blood;” he argued against the doctrine of transubstantiation. I was going to say more, but decided not to get lost in the weeds. But he also argued against Zwingli’s teaching that the bread and wine were mere empty symbols, intended to make us think about Jesus but with no real power of their own. Calvin taught the doctrine of Real Presence; somewhere he wrote, “As bread and wine are truly present to the senses of the believer, so the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present to the faith of the believer.”
Jesus referred to his suffering as both “his cup” and “his baptism,” so the cup can also make us think of Holy Baptism. It even looks a little like a baptismal font. At any rate, this part of the seal reminds us that we do not live by our own efforts, but by the grace of God. I frequently need that reminder, because I somehow naturally feel that unless I am producing something useful, I have no business taking up space on this planet. Our society reinforces that view, that your value is in what you produce. But God says to us that the value of our life is not in what we produce; the value of our life is that we have been baptized into the life and death of Jesus and are nourished at the Table of Jesus. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you.”
Now the last element that is obvious are the flames at the base of the Seal. I could easily do a whole sermon on fire – and I have – so I’ll instead be brief. The flames remind us especially of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples as tongues of fire. It is helpful when we look at the dove at the top of the Seal and think of the comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit that we also look at the flames at the base of the Seal and think of the Spirit’s fire. Fire is for burning; fire is energy; fire is for movement. The Holy Spirit is not only to comfort and encourage us, but also to kick us in the butt and get us moving on the mission of God.
The eighth element also is hidden unless you back up and look at the Seal as a whole. The base of the Cross and the sides of the flames make a triangle. The triangle is our ancient symbol for the Holy Trinity, God Who is Three-in-One. Traditionally we speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but there are other ways of speaking of the Trinity. The important thing to keep in mind is that God is both singular and plural: God is One, yet it is the nature of God to be diverse and multiple. This is a mystery beyond this brief mention in a sermon, but it is worth mentioning that when the design for the Seal was commissioned, it was made clear that it was to include a triangle, because God as Trinity is foundational to what we believe and who we are. We are diverse, but we are one. As many grains of wheat become one loaf of bread, and three persons express the reality of one God, so the Church of God is a rainbow of people: both diverse and one.
It is the nature of art that you diminish it by talking about it. If you see other elements than the eight I have mentioned, then I affirm that you are seeing well; they are there. The designer himself may not have known they are there, but a good work of art is always more than even the artist knows. The Seal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is simple, elegant, and beautiful. A former Moderator of our Church has a tattoo of the Seal on one arm; that’s farther than I would go. But I rejoice that the Seal of our Faith hangs in the Commons of our Church, reminding us every time we come here who we are, what we believe, and to Whom we belong.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Much of the information in this sermon is from John M. Mulder, Sealed in Christ: The Symbolism of the Seal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbyterian Publishing House, 1991.