A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
June 21, 2012
Jack was one of my favorite elders – unfailingly cheerful, wise, helpful, and resourceful. One day when I was at his home he pulled out a small fireproof safe that harbored some of his prized treasures, and proudly showed me the church bulletin for the day of his confirmation, back in the 1930s. I was immediately struck by the fact that the liturgy was nearly identical to what we still used some sixty years later. We still sang the same hymns, had the same responses, and so on. When I noted that to Jack, he just beamed – “I know! That’s why I love this church so much!”
Jack showed off some new treasures too – recent photos of his grandchildren, his brand spanking new golf clubs built with the latest space age technology, and so on. But when it came to church, he was resolute in his philosophy – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to a householder that treasures things both old and new. (Matthew 13:52) His own ministry displayed that balance, as he anchored his message in the words of the ancient prophets, while seeking to hear and apply their teachings in radical new ways.
When Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ eyes, Peter wanted to freeze things right there – let’s build a permanent home here at the pinnacle of Jesus’ glory, he urged. Mark editorializes that Peter had no idea what he was talking about. (Mark 9:6) Jesus had no interest in building an institution – he was devoted rather to launching a movement, and so he kept on moving, descending the mountain into the valley where evil still held people in its deadly grip.
Despite our claim to be “Reformed and always being Reformed,” we Presbyterians are more like Peter the builder than like Paul the itinerant. When something works, we want to bottle it, conserve it, institutionalize it, and memorialize it. Jesus was always on the move during his ministry – and by the Spirit he continues to be on the move today. In terms of our mission statement, the “ongoing life and ministry of Jesus Christ” is still seeking out new places to reach and new folk to heal. He is still taking the Gospel into situations where people have known only bad news. His ministry adapts itself to each particular context, as Paul did by seeking to “become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Like Jesus, Paul kept his message constant, while he adjusted its presentation constantly.
Our Book of Common Worship includes a prayer for the members of a General Assembly that contains the following petition: “Help them to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.” (Book of Common Worship, 805) It is a plea that we might join the new things the Lord is doing in the world. We don’t seek novelty for its own sake, but strive to stay in step with the Lord who is always doing a new thing. (Isaiah 43:19)
We pray both for the courage and discernment to join the Lord Jesus in the new things he is doing, and for the grace and constancy to honor that which the Lord keeps using. To use loaded political language, Christ’s ministry is at once both progressive and conservative. I’m glad he is conservative when it comes to equipping and sending disciples to continue his ministry – he keeps those whom he calls, even when their fidelity fails, as happened often and egregiously with his first disciples. And I’m glad he’s progressive when it comes to doing whatever it takes to reach the lost sheep – especially when I am that sheep!
One of the great challenges of the General Assembly is to keep what our Lord keeps, while welcoming and blessing the new things he is doing in the church and in the world. And so we pray for wisdom, discernment, and courage for GA to join together faithfully in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus Christ – and for us as a presbytery to make that our continuing commitment long after GA is but a distant memory. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days!”
Holding fast and letting go,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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