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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Why the Church?
October 28, 2010

Word and Table Together

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. In this series, I am exploring what it might mean for our presbytery to be purposeful in working toward these “great ends.” Today we continue to explore the third item on the list, “the maintenance of divine worship.” What would presbytery meetings look like if maintenance of divine worship were one of the major purposes of our life as a presbytery?

One of the things I love about Pittsburgh Presbytery meetings is that worship is more than a brief nod in God’s direction before we get down to the real business of our gathering. We constitute ourselves as a church community by giving ourselves to worshiping God together before we do any other business.

As we recalled two weeks ago, “being church” in our tradition has at its core – at least in theory – both verbal proclamation of the Word and the sacramental receiving of the Word. We diminish the second part of that formulation to our peril.

Many claim that they get all the worship they need by watching good church programs on TV. The preachers and musicians they hear on TV are often far more accomplished than the staff of their real-life congregations. If worship were only about good music and preaching, TV programs could meet our needs very nicely.

But worship is more than just the preaching and music. You can get that on TV, but you can’t receive the nourishment of the Lord’s Table. There is only one way to benefit from the family meal – you have to show up at the family table.

“Maintenance of divine worship” means that we will be sure that both Word and Table are regularly present in the life of the congregation. Such assurance is as significant for presbytery life as it is for local churches.

John Calvin repeatedly urged that the church prepare the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day. To his dismay, the elders in Geneva demurred, finding it too much trouble to prepare the table each Sunday. Soon other “justifications” for infrequent communion emerged: It wouldn’t be so special if celebrated too often. People wouldn’t have enough time to prepare themselves properly for communion. These and other reasons were brought forth for rejecting Calvin’s request. And such objections arise among us still. While the arguments in favor of infrequent communion are more practical than theological, beneath them lies the theological conviction that the pulpit is necessary to Christian nurture, but the Table is optional.

Calvin understood a critical function of the Table: It is a healing place, where our brokenness – relationally as well as personally – is made whole as we are united to Christ through sharing the bread and the cup. Each week Calvin and several elders met with people who had grievances against one another, in what amounted to small claims court – domestic disputes, slander, dishonest business dealings, and the like. At the end of each hearing the court rendered judgment and prescribed a way that offenders could make appropriate restitution and broken relationships could be rehabilitated. In most cases the court stipulated the following remedy for both the offender and the aggrieved: Attend the preaching of the Word and go to the Table of the Lord. Just as the Word illuminates and transforms our living, the Lord’s Table affords healing to the broken.

How do we nurture healing between those who have grown at odds in our presbytery? Do we debate or vote our way to healing, or is our gathering under the Word and around the Table more significant to our being made whole? In a time when differences between us threaten to tear us apart and thereby to cripple the credibility of our Gospel witness in the world, perhaps more than ever it is incumbent upon us to be a people among whom, by the work of the Holy Spirit, Word and Table together exercise their healing graces. As with the local congregation, we can’t receive the healing benefit of Word and Table from a distance; we need to show up. What would it be like for presbytery meetings to be known not just as places for business deliberations and mission promotions, but also as healing places?

That we may be whole in Christ,

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

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