The Church on Public Display

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
June 11, 2020

The church of Jesus Christ is on public display, whether we recognize it or not. The church has led the way in some recent local demonstrations and rallies for racial justice, and for that I praise God. Yet that is just one manifestation of our public presence.

Sometimes we manifest a different public face, catering to and siding with the well-off at the expense of the downtrodden. Too often we actively or passively perpetuate systems that have dismissed or trampled on people who don’t look like us. Some congregations look disconnected and isolated from their neighborhoods.

Jim Wallis has called racism “America’s Original Sin.” The sin of racism did not originate in America, but it has held public sway here for centuries, and is deeply embedded in our identity. As sin, it demands of us repentance, rather than defensiveness or excuse, as though “That’s someone else’s problem, not mine.”

If racism is America’s besetting sin, individualism is its besetting heresy. American Christianity has worked hard for centuries to cloak both racism and individualism in virtuous garb. But both are antagonistic to our prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” How, then, can the church be faithful to its sixth Great End, living as an “exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world?” (Book of Order F-1.0304)

Christians believe that the triune God in whose image we are made is an inseparable union of three Persons in perfect fellowship. Our true humanity is realized when we are likewise in relationships of mutual self-emptying love. “Me first,” whether expressed individually or corporately or nationally, is heresy because it denies the essence of God’s nature and image implanted in us.

Both testaments testify that one of the fundamental characteristics of God’s realm is that the parts of creation that have long been “naturally” hostile to each other come to dwell in harmony with each other. Lambs lie down with wolves, lions with calves, leopards with kids. (Isaiah 11:6) Predatory relationships give way to peace and mutual blessing.

Jesus’ mission was to break down all walls of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14) In Christ, we are reconciled to God and to each other. We cannot be right with God while we are wrong with each other. (2 Corinthians 5:17-211 John 4:20-21)

Racism sharpens divisions, while righteousness heals them. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that Sunday 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America. That has not substantively changed over the ensuing 50 years. Small wonder that the church is often publicly perceived as a bastion of racism rather than reconciliation.

Yet each congregation can and should have singular family characteristics. No two are going to be alike. Each worships and works and proclaims the Gospel in distinctive ways. Every congregation should reflect its neighborhood. As long as neighborhoods manifest social or linguistic or ethnic distinctives, churches in those neighborhoods can and should reflect those neighborhood traits. The Gospel must be proclaimed in the language of the community in which the congregation is embedded, if it is to be faithful to Pentecost. (Acts 2:5-11)

God has seen fit to create each of us a unique person, and each of our neighborhoods likewise has its individual stamp. That’s one of the things I love about Pittsburgh! Celebration of our individualities, in all their diversity, is a celebration of the wondrous array of God’s creation. But the gift of individuality becomes the heresy of individualism when we say to others from different backgrounds, values, and neighborhoods, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

As long as neighborhoods bear differing demographic characteristics, the congregations within their precincts will rightly do the same. The unity of the church as a reconciled community is put on public display – or not – in how we relate to congregations from other neighborhoods, with contrasting demographics, economics, values, and worship styles. To put it another way, the church will have a public identity as an anti-racist community only to the extent that congregations of differing racial constituencies work together publicly for racial reconciliation and justice.

Do our relationships with congregations that look and pray different from us display the kingdom of God? This challenge is bigger than simply getting along with other congregations of our own denomination. It is ecumenical and international in scope. Yet our denomination gives us a place to start, to begin practicing the public exhibition of God’s reign, as congregations that are as different from each other as the neighborhoods they inhabit work and witness and worship together joyfully.

Is the way our congregations live and work together as a presbytery an authentic public witness to the kingdom of Heaven?

Seeking first God’s kingdom,

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