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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

I Have a Dream
August 12, 2010

In a broken and fearful world Pittsburgh Presbytery glorifies God by joining in covenant life to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God’s unquenchable love for the world…

The great agreement among the Reformers of the sixteenth century was the conviction that Scripture, rather than the church, is the final authority for governing Christian faith and practice. The great difference between Reformers concerns the place and role of the Christian in the world. All would agree with the phrase I add today to my vision statement for Pittsburgh Presbytery - …for the world… - but they would disagree significantly on what that means. Presbyterian forebears in Geneva staked a claim that the church lives not in separation from, but with and for the world in which it has been planted.

John Calvin was as deeply engaged in civic affairs as he was in church ministry. For instance, he instituted what became small claims court as a project conducted in civil society by the church. It was controlled not by clergy, but by lay persons. Calvin kept his own office in city hall; we don’t know where he lived or where he was buried, but we do know where he conducted his daily labors.

Calvin’s great treatise on Christian faith and life, Institutes of the Christian Religion,begins with an extended discussion of creation, which he considers good even if marred by the fall. He extols human arts and sciences as great achievements in which we reflect the glory of the One who created us. The final book of the Institutes is all about the church’s life, and he brings the entire project to a close with a lengthy discussion on the nature of civil society ordered according to God’s reign. In his vision, the Gospel creates a world that lives in a way that fully glorifies and enjoys God. God’s purpose in the drama of salvation is realized not merely by a church, but by a world set right.

It is in this sense that I speak of God’s love for the world. God became flesh, John says, because “God so loved the world.” The church is not the Gospel’s end product, but a means to the end that the world may be transformed. Our Book of Order considers the church to be “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity.” (G-3.0200) God’s purposes are world-encompassing, not merely church-bound.

The French priest Alfred Loisy observed a century ago that “Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but what arrived was the church.” He was stating somewhat cynically a point that needs always to be reinforced – the church exists for the sake of God’s mission in the world. It is not an end in itself. Our vision must always rise above and beyond getting the church in good order, because the world is the horizon of God’s mission. God’s purpose is that the knowledge of the Lord fill the whole earth, just as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

When teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, John Calvin asks, who is the “us” implied in “our” Father? With whom do we offer up our prayers? Whom do we count as siblings with which we share the relationship to God as “our” Father? Calvin answers in essence that we cannot know those whom God has chosen as the Elect, so we ought to assume the best of everyone, regardless of exterior appearances. Thus, we pray in hope that all people everywhere are our brothers and sisters, beloved children of the One whom we call Father.

It is impossible for us to proclaim God’s love without extending our own love to that which we say God loves. When we tell the good news that God loves the world, we too must love the world.  I dream of a presbytery marked by profound, visible love for the local community and broader world in which it lives. It seeks by all means possible to bring God’s light, love and justice into every corner of human society and the world it inhabits. What would that look like as the rule of life for Pittsburgh Presbytery?

Working and praying for the common good,

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

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