Unshakable Foundations

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, February 11, 2021

God is shaking everything! So said the ancient Hebrew prophets to God’s people, as well as to the surrounding nations. Haggai considers this shaking a precursor to new blessings from God. Hebrews picks up this ancient metaphor to describe the way Jesus changes the world – through him, everything gets shaken, “so that which cannot be shaken may remain.”

Over the past year our world has been thoroughly shaken. Climate change contributed to an unprecedented spate of natural calamities worldwide. Political unrest led to an attempted takeover of our Capitol by angry Americans. The specter of systemic racism in our country reared its ugly head afresh. The persisting COVID-19 pandemic bereaved countless millions of people whose loved ones’ lives were snuffed out by the disease – and the toll continues to rise alarmingly. Attempts to control the virus’s spread wreaked havoc with all forms of public gathering, resulting in great economic distress for millions whose livelihoods are tied to them.

The church has also been shaken by these traumas. As a community constituted by God’s reconciling work in Jesus, the church’s heightened awareness of the racism that persists within its own precincts is damning. Moreover, the church is called is to gather God’s people to worship, mobilize for mission, and support one another – all of which have been curtailed by the pandemic.

The world has been shaken. The nation has been shaken. The church has been shaken. What remains unshakable for us after everything else has been shaken out?

In last week’s letter I noted that we have little idea where we are headed next or when we will find our “new normal,” given all the disruption we have endured. I suggested that perhaps we might turn to our ordination promises as reminders of what ministry in Jesus’ name will require of us, whatever emerges as our destination.

When we are ordained, we promise to follow Christ faithfully, acknowledge and embrace Scripture as God’s Word to us, and be guided by our Confessions in how we interpret Scripture. (Book of Order W-4.0404) These foundations will remain solid, no matter what changes we must make as we move forward. Strengthening them will help us navigate better the unknown seas that lie ahead.

I want to highlight one word from our ordination promises: continually. “Will you … be continually guided by our confessions?”

We promise in all times, in every place, to be guided by the wisdom of our forbears and counselors in the faith. Continually.

We cannot be guided continually by that which we know only marginally. Our first order of business is actually to read our confessions. To study them together. To be instructed by them, and to push back against them. But never to ignore them.

Several of our confessions arose amid situations when the church’s future was anything but clear. If we find ourselves today in uncertain times, these confessions can be instructive companions.

The Reformation was barely underway, with little sense of where it was headed, when the “Scots Confession” and the “Second Helvetic Confession” were formulated.

The “Barmen Declaration” arose amid the crisis of the German Church following the siren call of National Socialism. Nobody knew where the church’s future lay when the Barmen assembly adopted its declaration of opposition to the strong tide carrying the church to a place of fatal compromise.

Our church prepared and adopted the “Confession of 1967” in response to the social, political, and military turmoil of the 1960s. Amid a torrent of battles in which opposing sides believed they had nothing in common, it reminded the church that we are first and foremost a community of reconciliation.

The “Belhar Confession” emerged from the South African struggle against apartheid, a system long endorsed by the churches, despite its contrariness to the Gospel.

Each of these documents [i] is an exhibit of what it means to follow Jesus when we don’t know what lies ahead. Each commits us to follow the Word of Scripture, as it bears witness to Jesus, no matter what the world around us may be shouting. Each leaves the shoreline of safety in order to be in the boat with Jesus, whatever storms may come.

And so at our ordination we are asked, in effect, “Will we be continually guided by these witnesses, as we seek to be faithful to our Lord in our own place and time?” We may quickly respond, “I will.” But will we? Are we ready to do the hard work of being guided by our confessions continually?

Navigating the storm with you,

Sheldon


[i] A free download of our “Book of Confessions” is available here.


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