The Light of the World

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, December 17, 2020

Advent is nothing if not the season of lights. Our Jewish siblings call Hannukah their “Festival of Lights.” Celebrants of Kwanzaa similarly light candles to celebrate liberty. We light the candles in our Advent wreath, and festoon our homes with lights on trees, windows, doors, and roof lines. Anywhere lights can be strung, we do so.

This year’s holiday season is like none other, thanks to COVID. Family gatherings are risky. Children can’t sit on Santa’s lap (not that they ever really wanted to…). Christmas Eve services are heavily attenuated by health concerns, if we have them at all. Perhaps in reaction to all these COVID strictures, some households are putting up lights and decorating their homes more lavishly this year than ever before.

The human urge to celebrate deliverance – whether through Advent/Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hannukah – is primal and powerful. So let the lights blaze!

As Christians we celebrate in this holy season the coming of Jesus, “the light of the world.” (John 8:12) Every time our office staff gathers for weekly worship, we begin by lighting the Christ candle at the center of our circle, reminding ourselves that everything we do is made possible only by his light. Many of our churches similarly begin their Sunday services by lighting candles. It is fitting that we choose to mark our devotion to Jesus with light.

Yes, Jesus enters the world as its one true light. Yet Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14) Those who follow Jesus have the holy privilege of participating in his work, his influence, his very identity.

As people of the light, Jesus calls his disciples a “city on a hill.” His followers have always been on public display, regardless of whether they seek it out. Jesus came to us as “the Light of the world” and now we are that light.

Light reveals what is truly present. Deception and deceit are exposed for what they are when they lose the cover of darkness. Light reveals truth.

Science always seeks truth rigorously. Followers of Jesus – the one who himself is Truth (John 14:6) – should thus be science’s most natural allies. Scientific pursuit has historically arisen first among religious communities. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths have for centuries nourished science in their bosoms, even when some elements of their communities have railed against it.

Science and faith are natural partners rather than antagonists. Both seek truth. Fully. Relentlessly. And in so doing, they welcome light. Indeed, they acknowledge that they are utterly dependent on light if they are to fulfill their vocation.

What does it mean for us to be light for the world in our current place and time?

One of our challenges as people of light is to stand with the best of science in supporting its fight against the ravages of the COVID pandemic. Surveys suggest that nearly one-half of Americans view COVID vaccines suspiciously. One of our tasks is to tell the truth about the reliability and necessity of these vaccines in turning the tide of the pandemic back. Dr. Francis Collins, chief of the National Institutes of Health and a deeply committed Presbyterian, contends in an interview this week that faith leaders play a critical role in shining light on the question of whether people of faith should welcome COVID vaccines.

All truth is one. God’s truth and scientific truth are never truly at odds. This claim is foundational to our Reformed heritage. Light is light, whether for theology, epidemiology, or immunology.

When Jesus told his disciples “You are the light of the world,” the text uses the plural “you.” We might translate, “Together, you are the light of the world.” Likewise, the metaphor of a city set on a hill implies many constituents. Shining Christ’s light is inherently a community project, something for the church to address, not just individual believers.

Our Advent calling is to be people of Light. But it goes beyond Advent. How will we bear witness to the light of Jesus throughout 2021? What will we do and say to demonstrate that all light belongs to Jesus, whether the light of revelation or the light of science?

Because it belongs to Jesus, true Light belongs also to us. Let us live as people of the Light, in Advent, Christmas, and beyond.

In Christ’s light,

Sheldon

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