The Difference Jesus Makes in a Polarized World

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, October 1, 2020

What difference does it make to follow Jesus? As a child I was taught (whether intentionally or not): “It’ll save you from going to hell when you die.” Soon that answer wore thin for me. While Jesus’ life and message certainly point beyond the grave, most of what he says and does addresses life this side of death. The great themes of his words and ways relate to how we live here and now: Justice. Mercy. Peacemaking. Healing. Equity. Dignity. Humility. Generosity.

As he prepares to leave his disciples, Jesus prays that they and their successors (you and I) would be united with each other, even as he and the Father are one. Talk about setting the bar high for the level of our unity! Even though he teaches against repetitive prayers, he repeats this request three times in succession. Why? Because it is such a big ask, so contrary to the way humans have behaved toward each other ever since Cain and Abel. Moreover, it is critical to our being effective witnesses to the Gospel.

Our world is currently more politically polarized than at any time in recent history. This enmity is manifest in many nations, but it is especially virulent among Americans. Antagonism is sure to intensify through the upcoming weeks of wrangling over a Supreme Court nominee and a presidential election. (Note: I wrote this letter before Tuesday night’s presidential debate. It put this raging antagonism on full display at the highest level of government. God help us! I will respond to issues raised by that debate more fully in days to come.)

What difference does following Jesus make for how we engage those with whom we differ economically, socially, racially, and politically, at such a time as this?

As Jesus’ followers, we have no choice but to seek to understand and embrace fellow believers who differ from us. That is, if Jesus’ prayer for our unity has any force among us. We must treat with respect those on “the other side,” no matter who wins contested votes.

Does Jesus get what he prays for? Is the unity among his followers for which he pleads impossible, or is it inevitable? I believe that unity is our destiny, because Jesus prays for it. Every effort to divide his followers is contrary to Jesus’ will, and is thereby doomed eventually to fail.

One of the biggest differences Jesus makes for his followers is that they stay united across all political, social, racial, and economic divides when the surrounding world is fragmented by them. They refuse to conform to the world’s ways of war because they have been transformed to embrace the mind of Christ. (Romans 12:2, Philippians 2:5)

In 1970 regional Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox judicatory leaders banded together to form “Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.” It was the first instance anywhere in our nation of these three great streams of Christianity joining in a formal united witness to the Gospel. 2020 marks the “jubilee” 50th anniversary of this partnership, which remains strong to this day.

An online jubilee festival took place yesterday evening. I encourage you to watch the video of this celebration at the Christian Associates’ website. The service included the choral premiere of the winning entry in the jubilee hymn-writing contest sponsored by Christian Associates. Penned by the Rev. Dr. John Dalles, Interim Pastor of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, the hymn is entitled “In Christ the Church is Ever One.”

Pittsburgh Presbytery, together with other presbyteries in southwest Pennsylvania, has been at the forefront of supporting the work of Christian Associates. It is in our bones as Presbyterians to seek unity with all who confess Jesus as Lord, regardless of our differences.

We bear witness to the difference Jesus makes not only in our relationships with other denominations, but also in the difference it makes among fellow-Presbyterians. Can we demonstrate a better way of treating each other across political, social, racial, and economic divides that have become so rancorous in “civil” society?

Not only can we. We must.

We show the difference Jesus makes by refusing to disparage believers who differ from us. They too are members of Christ’s body. We may look different and see the world differently, but that gives us no license to judge or demean. Let that be so especially among fellow-Presbyterians. Our greatest public witness to the difference Jesus makes may be our ability to love each other even when the differences that fragment the wider society are present also among us.

As a sign of our commitment to unity across our differences, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus is sponsoring a virtual Unity Service to mark World Communion Sunday this coming Sunday, October 4, at 4:00 p.m. Whites and Blacks, all are welcome! You may sign on to the Zoom program at passcode 533509, or observe it being live-streamed on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s YouTube page or on Facebook live from our Facebook page.  The live stream will become active and accessible as soon as the service begins on October 4th. I hope to “see” you there!

Yours in unity for Jesus’ sake,

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