Out with the Old! In with the New!

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 12, 2020

Perhaps from this title a reader would expect that I am addressing the stalled presidential transition. But I am referring first of all to the fact that this coming Sunday is the final day of the Church Year. The following Sunday we begin a new year with Advent. Out with the old year, in with the new!

New Year’s Eve celebrations like Pittsburgh’s First Night are on ice this year, due to COVID. Similarly, churches are wondering how they can celebrate Christmas this year, with physical contact severely limited by the virus’s burgeoning spread. Many have already canceled their traditional Christmas Eve celebrations, which ordinarily feature the intimacy of worshiping throngs holding candles, sharing communion, and singing the wonder of the Child of Bethlehem. This year, crowds and singing and sharing are way too risky.

This coming Sunday, the last before Advent, the church marks the festival of the Reign of Christ, sometimes called “Christ the King Sunday.” This culminates the Jesus story that began with Advent, continued through Christmas, Epiphany, his baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the capstone of Pentecost. What began with yearnings for God’s Messiah concludes with him reigning over the Cosmos. All creation cries out together, “He is King of kings, he is Lord of lords!” We celebrate universally what we witness every day personally – anyone in Christ is a new creation; the old has passed, all is now new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

What if we thought of the Reign of Christ as not the end of the Jesus story, but its beginning? The apostles testify that Christ has reigned over all things from the beginning of time. He is Lord of all – before creation, through creation, in creation, and beyond creation. (See, for example, Colossians 1:15-20.)

John declares that Jesus was able to humble himself to reach us in our most earthy needs because he knew “that he had come from God and was going to God.” (John 13:3-4) Advent does not make Christ’s glory possible; Christ’s glory makes Advent possible.

The world’s way is for power to be flexed, asserted, aggrandized, defended, and clutched at all costs. Jesus told his disciples that this way of worldly rulers is antithetical to the kingdom that he rules. Under the rule of Christ the King, we are free to serve rather than to be served, to be last rather than first, to lose rather than to win. (Jesus said this in response to some of his disciples trying to make a power grab for the top seats in his kingdom.)

Jesus not only taught this – he lived it. He gave up everything that was rightly his as King of kings in order to heal the wounds of sin in our world. Jesus reveals that God exercises might, not with a great show of strength, but by bowing low in humility.

I was recently sent a survey on behalf of a search committee for the President of a Christian institution. It asked about the background, abilities, and qualities that I thought the new leader needs to bring to the organization. One question was about leadership style, and a long list of options was presented, including “decisive,” “collaborative,” “inspirational,” and so on. I chose “servant leader” as my top priority, because there is no other kind of leadership that is fitting for those who claim to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.

King Jesus expresses his authority through willingness to yield, to suffer, and even to die, so others might live. This is what true authority looks like. Tyrants and despots cling to every shred of power they can, but in Jesus’ kingdom servants prevail.

Fittingly, the Gospel passage assigned for Reign of Christ Sunday reveals that those who share in King Jesus’ glorious rule get there by serving others with no thought of reward. Feeding the hungry. Giving drink to the thirsty. Clothing the naked. Caring for the sick. Sitting with the captive. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Nothing is more un-Christlike than would-be leaders trying desperately to claim or salvage power and control over others. Leadership in Jesus’ name is never about playing power politics, either on offense or defense. In the world it may be otherwise. For now. But the Reign of Christ testifies that the Machiavellian assertion of power is sure to lose in the end. It is part of the old way that is passing away. Acting in Jesus’ way aligns us with his new way that shall ultimately prevail, not only in the church, but in the whole of creation.

Yours in welcoming Jesus’ reign,

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