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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

No Commas, Part 3
February 25, 2010

In recent weeks I have been writing about what makes the church believable (see part 1 and part 2), and have pointed out that the Nicene Creed says, “We believe the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The church that exhibits this full range of characteristics, without commas separating them, is a credible witness to the Gospel.

Today we consider that the believable church is “one holy” church. Both/and, not either/or; no commas separate the two.

A few years ago the PCUSA commissioned a blue ribbon panel to investigate possible new solutions to disagreements that have proven intractable in the church over the past 30 years, most notably over the relationship of sexual practices to qualification for ordination. The panel came to be known as the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force. The task force was comprised of people from across the theological spectrum, and it became clear quickly that beneath the questions about ordination and sexual practice were symptoms of a deeper divide between people who prize peace/unity as the ultimate value and those who advocate for holiness as the bottom line for church authenticity. The church is struggling with a huge comma that has wedged its way between “one” and “holy.”

Before we enter this minefield, it would be good to ask what we mean by unity and holiness. “Unity” is not about agreement, but about relationship – relationship with Jesus Christ. In being united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, the Westminster Confession teaches, we are inevitably united with one another.  (Book of Confessions 6.054) This unity is no uniformity; in fact, it is characterized by differentiation. Just as our bodies are comprised of very different parts, so it is with the Body of Christ. The church’s unity rests not on natural affinity or homogeneity, but on being united to Christ.

This church’s unity is lived out in its “holiness.” By “holy” we signify that the church is God’s chosen possession, set apart to reveal God’s glory to the world. Each day on the way to the office I cross “Sanctus Street” in the West End – “Sanctus” is the Latin word for “holy,” so I guess it must be a very special street, all two blocks of it. It is the root word for “sanctify,” the process of becoming a saint. John Calvin teaches that this is one of the Holy Spirit’s primary tasks, to turn us into saints. Sanctification, we call it – our lifelong process of spiritual growth into the image of Christ.

And so the same Spirit is at work in the church to do both things – unite us to Christ (and thereby to one another) and sanctify us unto God. Promoting one without the other is to divide the very Spirit of God – Paul calls it “killing” or “quenching” the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

One way to put this might be: The church’s unity is marked by holiness, and its holiness is marked by unity.  More on that in the weeks ahead.

Yours in the One Spirit,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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