One, and Only One

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, March 10, 2022

One, and Only One

Paul is flabbergasted about what’s happening at the beloved faith community he helped found in Corinth. Evidence suggests that he stayed there for eighteen months to get its foundation well established – much longer than his average tenure in places where he planted churches. As a major commercial center, Corinth was strategically located as a home base for a missionary church. Getting it right there mattered greatly to Paul.

So when he hears that the church is fragmenting into groups that follow one leader vs. another, he is distraught. For him, church division is tantamount to dividing Christ in pieces. In his view, it is unthinkable, indeed impossible, for the church to be both faithfully Christian and divided.

Jesus prays repeatedly in his final hours that his followers be united, even as he and the Father are one. Why does he repeat this petition?

Jesus’ repetition of this petition is perhaps a signal that visible disunity will be his followers’ persistent nemesis. He has seen it already among his closest disciples. His promise is that the coming of the Spirit upon the church will correct this defect.

John Calvin argues that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to unite us with Christ, who alone is the source of all we need for today and forever. The Spirit’s work of empowering us, gifting us, and bearing fruit in us is nothing more or less than the life of Christ coursing in and through us.

The Westminster Confession points out only the obvious when it states that all who are united by the Spirit to Christ are thereby unavoidably united to each other. (Book of Confessions 6.054) The church is one by its very constitution as the Body of Christ.

The scandal of the church’s visible disunity is that it is a lie. It’s a lie that the church itself too often believes. And when the church believes and practices the lie, the church is no longer believable.

Believability matters. If we are not believable, the good news we proclaim will not be heard for what it truly is.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this series on “the marks of the church” (Book of Order F-1.0302), the Nicene Creed is properly read as making claims about the church’s credibility: “I believe the one holy catholic and apostolic church” rather than “I believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Ancient versions of the creed omit the word “in.” Calvin argues that only God is the object of faith, thus the church is to be believed, rather than to be believed “in.”

The church truly is one, even if it doesn’t know it or acknowledge it. It should know and do better. Its visible unity is a public manifestation of what God intends for all creation.

One important way to move toward that public manifestation is for the church to affirm its connection to people other than those within its immediate fellowship. Last Sunday’s community service of prayer for Ukraine affirmed our solidarity not only with people on the other side of the globe, but with those with whom we joined in prayer right here in Pittsburgh – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim. We may not be one in confession or profession of faith, but we are ultimately one people created by one God. (News accounts of that prayer gathering are published here and here and here, and the full service can be seen here.)

Sometimes it’s hardest to affirm our unity with those closest to us. We know their defects all too well, as they do ours. In order to be believable, we need to display our unity first of all with those within our own community of faith. And that is no easy task.

Strangely, it gets easier to affirm my love for my near neighbor when I make an effort to reach out to my more distant neighbor. I become a better Christian, and a better Presbyterian, when I join hands and strength with those beyond the world of my congregation, presbytery, and denomination.

When the church is truly apostolic, catholic, and holy, its unity will inevitably be visible. May it be so among us in our congregations and in our presbytery!

One with you in Christ,

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