Ordinary Christianity in Extraordinary Times

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 5, 2020

Charles Dickens famously begins his Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Today we are caught in a temporary stalemate between two parties and two presidential candidates, wondering whether our side will experience the “best of times” or “worst of times” over the coming four years. I believe that regardless of who is eventually declared victor, we all will continue to be immersed in the “worst of times” – broad mistrust, scorn, and even hatred across party lines; unchecked racial bigotry and violence; a public health pandemic whose victim count continues to accelerate unabated; soaring job losses in service industries; fraying of our social fabric as our ability to gather remains impeded; and so much more.

Yet, for God’s people, all times are hallowed – something the church marks through its annual cycles of worship and remembrance, much as ancient Israel did with its holy days and festival seasons. We have been living the past several months in what the church calls “Ordinary Time” – the season between Pentecost and Advent. Yet these times have been anything but ordinary in the world around us.

The church lives always “between the times” – between the “already” of Christ’s victory manifest in his death and resurrection, and the “not yet” of the full manifestation of his reign in, among, and around us. Likewise, our country is in a “twilight zone” as we await final word of who will be our next president. It will take a while, and all we can do is wait.

One of the primary marks of “ordinary” life in the church is a regular rhythm of corporate prayer. It involves both gathering for weekly worship and the practice of daily prayer.

Never have we needed to pray together more than at this juncture, yet we are curtailed in our ability to gather for worship. Even among churches that have opened their doors, attendance is a fraction of what it was a year ago. This means that praying together requires more intentionality than ever. Praying together is the “ordinary” way for Jesus’ followers to deal with “extraordinary” circumstances. The congregation with which I worshiped online last Sunday listed multiple midweek opportunities for Zoom prayer gatherings – may their tribe increase!

Prayer acknowledges that we are not in control. Not the Democrats. Not the Republicans. God alone is sovereign.

Prayer puts us all on the same footing – children at the feet and mercy of the One whom, with Jesus, we know as our heavenly Father whose love for us is boundless. At the prayer altar there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek, rich nor poor, red nor blue.

Prayer with and for each other puts us in lockstep with Jesus, who always intercedes for us. (Hebrews 7:25)

Prayer leads us to the prophetic ministry of repairing the breach. (Isaiah 58:12)

Here is the church’s great public opportunity at this time of deep national divide – we can show that what unites us as God’s people is greater than everything that divides the world around us. To the extent the church counter-demonstrates its unity in Christ visibly, the church publicly proclaims the difference Jesus truly makes for the world.

Being united in Christ is utterly ordinary for people who follow Jesus. Division is not natural for us, even though it has always been our nemesis. “Has Christ been divided?” Paul thunders incredulously as he watches believers try to separate themselves from each other by loyalty to different leaders and ideas. Respect, interdependence, mutual care, thinking the best of each other, looking to each other’s interests ahead of our own – these are ordinary, natural dispositions for followers of Jesus. How have we been doing with that?

Followers of Jesus have the high, holy, and sobering responsibility of continuing his ministry. The essence of Jesus’ ministry is reconciliation – reconciliation with God expressed in our reconciliation with each other. And he has given us the privileged commission to announce and embody his work of reconciliation in our world. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Sadly, the church has not only failed in this ministry – it exhibits within its own ranks the alienation rampant in the surrounding world. A recent Pew Research study found that 42% of Biden supporters and 39% of Trump supporters have “no friends” who support the other candidate. That we live in such echo chambers of like-mindedness is tragic for the civic good, but it is abominably shameful for the church. The church is called to demonstrate the reign of God by being the place where all hostilities are laid aside, where the wolf lies with the lamb.

If we do not know anyone, or hardly anyone who voted for the other presidential candidate, shame on us. We are not being the church. Let the church be the church in this extraordinary time by being its ordinary self – a place where people who disagree on many important things none the less prostrate themselves together in prayer, acknowledging that before holy God and a watching world we are truly and visibly united by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)

Yours in counter-cultural Christianity,

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