Two-Handed Theology

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, April 21, 2022

Two-Handed Theology

Margaret Buchanan’s octogenarian eyes twinkled as she recounted to me one of her favorite children’s sermon stories from her days as our church’s educator. She was explaining the Creed to the children, and one of them piped up, “But why is Jesus sitting on God’s hand?”

The “right hand” signifies power in the Bible. God’s right hand and powerful arm are victorious over evil, exults the psalmist.

The “left hand” is mentioned much less often in the Bible. It is associated with intimacy in the Song of Songs.

Ambidexterity is prized by David in his choice of warriors, and Paul characterizes his ministry as a battle requiring the use of both right and left hands.

One of the earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, contended that the Son and the Holy Spirit are the two hands of God. Through them, God created all things. The Son is God’s right hand of power, and the Spirit is God’s left hand of tenderness.

Karl Barth famously characterized preaching as a two-handed affair. The preacher always has the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. They are not equal – the Bible interprets the newspaper, not vice versa, he cautioned. But you can’t preach rightly while ignoring either.

Nowhere has the discord between the newspaper and the Bible been more glaring than it was this past Easter Sunday. Early Easter morning, while most of us still slept, a gunfight erupted at a party on the North Side, not far from our presbytery office, in which ten teens were shot, two of them fatally. As I write, the identities and motives of the shooters are yet unknown. As we were reading the Easter story in worship just a few hours later, the dissonance was deafening.

How can we proclaim resurrection when death rains down among us? Our North Side tragedy was but one of three mass shootings in the United States over Easter weekend. Soon our nation will surpass one million deaths from COVID. The barrage of deadly fire on civilians and military alike in Ukraine continues unabated. Images of devastation in that great land are utterly horrifying.

Still, we dare to proclaim a Savior who is victorious over death. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? Easter shouts out that death is forever vanquished through the resurrection of Jesus.

The only way for Jesus to get to Easter was through great suffering that led to his death. Easter does not promise that we won’t suffer and die. Rather, it declares that suffering and death are not the end for us.

We dare not take that to mean that inflicting suffering and putting to death are therefore no big deal. They are enemies that must be resisted, with all that we can muster. Easter people cannot sit idly by while suffering and death run rampant around us. We must stand against evil more resolutely, not less. Easter doesn’t let us off that hook.

Easter sermons that don’t acknowledge the suffering and death that yet prevail around us do the church no favors. Easter girds us for the journey through suffering and death, rather than promising escape from it.

Easter invites us to two-handed theology. Bible and newspaper together. Might and tenderness together. Suffering and comfort together. Grief and hope together.

If Easter doesn’t touch us where we are suffering right now – individually, as a community, nationally, and globally – it has not yet taken root in us. When could we possibly need Easter more than on the morning that our news feeds declare yet another mass shooting in our midst?

The world is suffering.

Christ is risen!

Both are true. Taken together, they constitute our hope and our mission. We dare not lose sight of either.

In Easter joy,

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