A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
March 29, 2012
The Corinthians tried to pit them against each other – Paul, Apollos, and Peter. It was the beginning of Christian “denominations” – or at least, that’s what those seeking to divide into these “camps” wanted. What could it matter, so long as everyone was clear that they still were following Jesus? It bothered Paul enough that it topped his agenda as he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in response to a set of questions they had sent him – before he began addressing their concerns about food offered to idols, sexual relationships, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection, he felt compelled to tackle this most urgent matter of their incipient divisions (about which, interestingly, they had not raised any questions). Not only did he begin his letter by attacking this problem in chapter 1; he returned to it at length again in chapter 3, and it framed all of chapter 12.
As well as identifying particular religious constituencies, we speak of “denominations” to denote various levels of financial currency. Thus, we ask the bank teller to cash our check in “mixed denominations,” meaning some fives, tens, twenties, and so on. A nation’s currency denominations, for all their variety, share a single standard – so much per ounce of gold.
Denominations have come to mean something rather different in current religious parlance. We think of them more as being discontinuous, based on differing standards. Paul knew full well that dividing around competing emphases and loyalties would work ultimately to undermine, rather than to strengthen the church’s unity and its mission.
And so he united what folk were trying to divide – “We [Paul, Apollos, Peter] are God’s servants, working together,” he insisted. (1 Corinthians 3:9) Our various styles and emphases do not need to divide us; rather, they make us all the more formidable as partners in Christ’s ministry. This verse became a key text for our Mission Study Team as it considered the question of God’s mission for Pittsburgh Presbytery at this juncture in our life. We are called, in all our variety, to be “God’s servants, working together.”
The text underscores that the ground of our shared labors is that we are not our own – we are God’s servants, united by God in common purpose to join our varying gifts and passions. Indeed, God’s servants cannot but work together!
We are currently in the midst of “March Madness,” thought by many to be the apex of American collegiate sports competition. College basketball teams are vying for the national championship, with each game throughout the month-long playoffs being “winner takes all.” Lose just a single game, and you’re out. The most important ingredient of a championship team is its capacity to work every day together, rather than to exploit the individual talents of its players.
As much as we might base our identity on the particularity of our convictions or of our congregations, we cannot rise to the level of true champions for Christ without working together with all who share in his identity and mission.
One of my great joys in Pittsburgh is that the leaders of various Christian denominations work closely together to offer a shared witness to the Gospel. I gather monthly with a dozen local leaders of the various Christian communions for a shared meal, Bible study, prayer, and mutual encouragement. Moreover, many denominations in the region send representatives monthly to the meeting of Christian Associates, a local interdenominational cooperative agency that represents over 1 million Christians working together in Southwest Pennsylvania.
I sometimes wonder why we Presbyterians, often in the forefront of such ecumenical partnerships, often find it so much easier to walk with folk from other denominations than to work well together with our own family. One of the primary reasons we believe God calls us to be a presbytery, and not just congregations sharing a denominational logo, is just this – to give us a concrete place to live into our family partnership in the Gospel. If we are not “God’s servants working together,” are we really an apostolic church at all?
Your fellow-servant of God,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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