Becoming What We Are

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, September 9, 2021

Becoming What We Are

It’s called “sanctification” – the process of becoming the saints we already are. Paul tells the believers in Colossae, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Our old sinful self is dead, thanks be to God! But wait – hardly has Paul declared us dead to sin and he follows with, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.” (Colossians 3:1-5) Throughout our earthly journey we are called to become more and more like the saints we already are, in God’s eyes.

Just as each one of us is on a journey to becoming who we are, so it is collectively with the church. It already lives “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind… holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:27-28) As such, the church beautifully fulfills its sixth Great End: “Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (Book of Order F-1.0304)

If, as Paul says elsewhere, “our citizenship is in heaven,” the way we live together ought naturally exhibit the “righteousness and peace and joy” that are the essential marks of heaven’s kingdom. (Romans 14:17) The church that is true to its identity has no room for contrary forces: injustice, discord, and woe.

So how are we doing with that?

I believe that this is the most challenging of the church’s six Great Ends. It calls us to practice amongst ourselves what we preach as God’s intention for all humanity. When our relationships with each other fail to live up to the message of reconciliation that we proclaim, we lose our credibility.

But rather than chastise us for all the ways we are not faithful to our calling, might we take a leaf from Paul’s pastoral notebook and begin instead by first declaring and celebrating who we are? Our challenge is to become who we are, rather than to be something other than who we are.

Righteousness. When the church exhibits the kingdom of heaven, justice prevails within its precincts. Nobody is excluded from full opportunity in the church due to who they are or what their condition may be. Decisions are made transparently, with no agenda of gain for some at the expense of others. Its example of justice within its company leads it to advocate for justice similarly for all people in society. Racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, exclusivism, nativism – none have a place within the church’s life or message. This is who we are.

In a time of pandemic, this means that all have equal access to employment, aid, health care, education, protection, and opportunity. We are on a level playing field in confronting the virus and defeating its spread.

Peace. When the church exhibits the kingdom of heaven, it refuses to engage the rhetoric of antipathy that polarizes people in the surrounding culture. It refuses to judge or cast contempt on those whose convictions are different from our own. It is a place where everyone is both free to speak honestly and bound to bless rather than to curse those who are of a different opinion.

In a time of pandemic, this means that we refuse to cast aspersion on those who see our public health challenges and obligations differently from how we do. When we disagree, we express our disagreements openly, seeking to persuade each other rather than demonize each other. We refuse to cut each other off, to deride each other or to question each other’s integrity. According to Romans 14, we must neither judge nor despise each other, even as we speak honestly about our differing convictions.

Joy. When the church exhibits the kingdom of heaven, its central message is joy to the world, not woe. The church does not manipulate by stoking fear, even though it knows that fear is one of the most powerful human motivators. It lifts up the abundant life that Jesus provides, rather than declaring judgment on those who see things otherwise. It demonstrates in its internal life that, in Christ, mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)

In a time of pandemic, this means that the church has no place for doomsday declarations and dystopian conspiracy theories. Its message to the world is one of welcome. It follows its Master by making its home within the world, rather than rejecting it. It advocates for healing in all it says and does. Its members seek and express their joy not by serving their own interests, but by thinking and acting first on the behalf of others.

Are we ready to be who we truly are, as the church of Jesus Christ? In a time of pandemic, the world needs that from us more than ever. May we rise to the challenge, for the sake of the world and to the glory of God!

Your fellow saint-in-progress,

 

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