Breathing Again

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, September 30, 2021

Breathing Again

The horror of covid is that it robs its victims of their ability to breathe. The pandemic has created a corporate breathing problem for the church as well. As the church looks ahead to life beyond the pandemic, it is critical that it’s breathing be made fully whole.

Let’s be honest – as we seek to recover from the pandemic, most of our worship gatherings have not yet regained the vitality for which we long. They may never again look like they did pre-pandemic, but whatever shape they take in the future, they need to be palpably Spirit-filled. Vitality in worship is a sine qua non for a thriving church.

The Hebrew and Greek words for “Spirit” mean literally “breath.” Jesus likens the work of the Spirit to the coming and going of the wind. When the Spirit is poured out on Pentecost it is accompanied by “a sound like a rush of violent wind.” (Acts 2:2)

A Spirit-filled church exhibits the recurring pattern of inhale-exhale. We gather to worship, then scatter to serve. Our serving is informed, infused, and inspired by our worship, while our worship reflects, recounts, and renews our service.

The pandemic adversely affected the church’s breathing patterns. We may have tried gamely to keep doing the work of mission without gathering for worship, but the fuel for such service soon runs low. We tried new ways of gathering, whether in person with social distancing, or electronically with social media. Either way is better than not gathering at all, but neither is a full substitute for the Pentecost pattern of being “all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1)

Our Book of Order sets forth the foundations of our life together, something I have been unpacking in this weekly letter for the past few months. Most recently, we have been looking at how the “Great Ends of the Church” might be lived out in a post-pandemic church. The Great Ends are primarily about the church’s mission, its “exhale.” They answer the question, “What is the church called to do?”

Yet before listing the church’s “Great Ends,” the Book of Order sets forth what it calls the “Notes of the Reformed Church.” (Book of Order F-1.0303) While the Great Ends focus on what the church does, the Notes answer the question, “What is the church?”

The Notes derive from a question that lay at the heart of the Reformation, and I believe is critical again today: How do we know that a gathered body that claims to be a “church” is truly the Church of Jesus?

The Reformers were raised in a milieu in which a congregation was deemed authentically “Christian” if it was under the control of one of Rome’s bishops. When the Reformers rejected Roman control, how could they claim that their worshiping communities were truly churches? Just because a group claims to be the church does not make it genuinely so.

One way Rome sought to delegitimize the Reformed churches was by disallowing them to display the cross publicly. Rome considered the cross a trademark of the church; wherever it was displayed, a duly authorized true church was present. So Reformed churches took to topping their steeples with a Bethlehem star. These stars adorn many Reformed churches across Europe to this day, such as this one on a Hungarian Reformed church. (Most churches, and the stars atop their steeples, are much humbler than this example.)

John Calvin sought to redefine the “true” church in terms of its inner life, rather than outer connections. He concluded, “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.9)

Our Book of Order adopts these two Notes from Calvin – sincere preaching (“true” is the modifier chosen by the Scots’ Confession, and adopted by our Book of Order, but I prefer Calvin’s word “sincere” for reasons I’ll detail in a subsequent post), and rightly-administered sacraments. Then, following the Scots’ Confession, it adds to them a third Note, upright discipline. When these core church identifiers are present, we truly have a Christian church.

The church’s ability to do what it is called to do requires that it be what it is called to be. How will these “Notes” be displayed in a vital post-pandemic church? We will look at this question in the weeks to come.

Yours in serving our Lord’s church,


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