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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

“I Have a Dream,” Part 7
June 17, 2010

In a broken and fearful world Pittsburgh Presbytery glorifies God by joining in covenant life…

This week I add a new phrase to my vision statement for Pittsburgh Presbytery: “…joining in covenant life…” Sometimes we talk about being a “connectional” church, but I much prefer the language of “covenant” to that of “connection.” After all, chain-gang members live connectionally, but are hardly covenant partners. Connection can be as easily an oppressive yoke as a bond of strength. “Covenant” is the language by which the Bible describes the nature of our life-giving relationship to God and to one another.

In legal-speak, “covenant” is synonymous with “contract.” Two parties enter into a mutual accord by which they agree to be bound to each other. This sort of covenant is valid only insofar as it is honored by both sides. The relationship may be ended by either side. One common form of “covenant” in this sense is a sales agreement – buyer and seller agree to complete a purchase pending the fulfillment of obligations on the part of both parties. Another is the civil marriage contract – it is an agreement “till death do us part” (unless one or both eventually decide otherwise, at which point it can be made null and void).

Theologically, “covenant” is something quite different. It is not a contract between equals that can be vacated by either party, but a self-binding commitment God makes to us. The Westminster Confession characterizes it as the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ. Westminster teaches that thereby God also unites us to one another. We cannot be united to Christ except that we are also united to one another. (Book of Confessions 6.054)

This is the essence of our covenant life – God has united us to Christ, and thereby we are inextricably bound to one another. For us to be joined in covenant life is not a matter of our mutually agreeing to walk together, but of our living together in a way that displays the reality that God has already initiated. We are bound together not by cords of our own making or choosing, but by the bonds of the Holy Spirit who unites us to Jesus Christ. In our theology, the church is not a voluntary association, but a covenant community.

“…Pittsburgh Presbytery glorifies God by joining in covenant life…” Frankly, I’m not fully comfortable with that way of putting it, as it could suggest that it’s up to us to form the covenant. I’m trying to find a short and sweet way to say this: We glorify God by living together in a way that faithfully exhibits the nature of God’s covenant claim on us. We display publicly our God-given unity with Christ and with each other, thus testifying that it really is true – through the work of Christ we are reconciled to God, something that we prove by living in visible reconciliation with one another.

This cuts against the tide of a culture that is increasingly polarized over every issue imaginable. Never has the church had a more golden opportunity to show the world the difference that Christ makes! In a world where people are increasingly hostile to those with whom they differ, we engage a way life of that unites rather than divides, that brings together rather than separates, where we embrace the hard work of loving one another amid our differences rather than sliding down the easy path of demonizing those who are different from us.  By this the watching world knows that Jesus Christ does save us – by the way we embrace and display our covenant life together.

Yours in covenant bonds,

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

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