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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Why the Church?
September 30, 2010

The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind

Our Book of Order lists six “great ends” of the church, in a formula adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America more than 100 years ago. While our context has changed immensely over the past century, the purposes of the church remain unchanged, even as the ways of realizing them is in constant flux. In this series, I am exploring what it might mean for our presbytery to be purposeful in working toward these “great ends” in our life and ministry.

The listing is not in order of importance. Still, the first item seems foundational to the rest: “The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” First, proclamation. There is a public character to the term – it is something done in places and ways that cannot go unnoticed by the world. It can be verbal, but it can also take non-verbal forms. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on the power of action to proclaim, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” The world is at least as interested in how we live together as it is in what we say together. Does the way we live together proclaim Christ and his reconciling work, or does it tell a tale different from the words we speak?

The gospel. The Greek word for “gospel” is euangellion, which means literally “good news.” Is the news we speak with our lips and proclaim by our manner of life truly “good?” Does it point humanity to a better way, a better world? Is it news of hope or despair? It is truly “good” only to the extent that it points the way to the One who has revealed to us the infinite goodness of God, that is, Jesus Christ. Fault-finding is always easier than gospel-telling, and often more fun. Fault-finding with others – whether the “other” is the foreigner, my employer, the government, the institutional church, a follower of a different faith, or someone whose politics or theology differs from mine – holds great appeal, because by putting someone else down, I lift myself up. And all of us like to look and feel good! But those in the gospel enterprise lay aside the gratification that comes from slamming others, in search of the greater reward of knowing that we have represented well the good news of God’s unquenchable love for all revealed in Jesus Christ.

Salvation. I remember well my struggle one day as a kid between feeling proper offence and great amusement over what I found carved into a picnic table. Someone had scratched in the slogan “Jesus saves” to which some wag added “baseball cards.” I had no experience of being adrift or abducted or lost, so what could I know of what it means to be “saved” anyway? In my adult life I have come to understand “salvation” as shorthand for “salvage operation.” Jesus salvages people who have been misdirected and discarded, whose lives have gone to waste. Ultimately, that includes every one of us – all of our lives are wasted in some profound ways, if not in every way. The good news is that, in Jesus Christ, God reaches out to salvage people whose lives have been trashed, both through their own bad choices and by the rejection of others.

Humankind. George Beverly Shea wrote and sang a song made popular in Billy Graham crusades, in which the signature line goes, “Oh, the wonder of it all, just to think that God loves me!” The true wonder is that this is equally true for every “me” in the world. God loves the world so much as to send Jesus to salvage us. Each and every one of us. This is the good news we proclaim – the message of salvation through Jesus is for everyone on planet earth.

This good news of salvation for humankind is not merely a slogan to declare or a platitude to repeat. It is far more than empty words. It is our speech and our living joining to manifest God’s power to transform rejects into a world-renovating reclamation force. May we be that reclamation force in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and around the world, as ambassadors of the great Reclaimer, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Proclaiming truly Good News,

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

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