A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
“Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community….”~ Pittsburgh Presbytery Mission Statement
Last year during a preaching visit at a local congregation I was privileged to spend a few minutes with its confirmation class. The pastor invited me to ask the class a hard question about the faith, and so I put to them, “What does ‘covenant’ mean in the Bible?” One of the class members immediately shot back, “It’s a promise God makes to us.” This was one well-taught confirmation class!
Theologically, “covenant” is God’s self-binding to us through divine promises. For instance, God’s promises to Noah not to destroy the earth, and to Abraham to bless the world through his offspring, are both termed “covenants” in the Bible. In ancient societies, covenant-making was a blood-sealed act signifying the binding together of two parties in family relationship. The Hebrew word for “covenant” is related to “cutting,” and is the same word translated “circumcision.” Jesus defines God’s “new covenant” as something enacted “in my blood.” In sharing his body and blood we are joined to Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, incorporated into the family of the Father. Those so united in covenant community are no longer separate parties joined by ink, but one family in blood relation.
In business and law, “covenant” has come to mean “contract” – a bilateral agreement that can be broken by the act of either party. In Scripture, however, “covenant” refers to God’s irrevocable claim on us – not because of anything we have done to deserve it, but simply because God has chosen to own us.
“Community” is something more than a group formed by free association – it is being “in communion” with each other. For Christians, “communion” and “covenant” join together in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, where we enter a communion with Christ that is the basis of our “community.” And it’s not just community with him – we are joined with each other in the covenant sealed in his blood. We are made family with God and with one another by being in Christ’s communion.
Thus, to be a “covenant community” is far more than agreeing to be associated with each other. It is acknowledging that God has made a claim on us, sealed in the blood of Christ through which we are forever bound to God and thereby to one another. By embracing our identity as a “covenant community,” we acknowledge that we are in communion with God and with one another in Christ. It’s not that we should be in such communion – we are in it! It’s not ours to create, although we can certainly obscure it. We are in a relation with each other as congregations and ministers of the Gospel that is much more like a family of blood relatives than a free association of agreeable individuals and congregations.
Even the deepest familial love does not lead its members always to agree. As with a family, so it is with us when we are a healthy covenant community – disagreements and misbehaviors do not lead us to disown each other, but neither do they go ignored.
From its very beginning, the Christian church knew instinctively that as a covenant community claimed by God, it had to nurture its life through four critical shared practices – prayers, fellowship, teaching, and breaking bread. (Acts 2:42) These are the practices that sustain our life and make us flourish as a covenant community. We let them wither to our great peril.
After having described the contours of healthy corporate worship, Paul asks the Corinthians, “How is it when you come together?” (1 Corinthians 14:26) As we chart our way forward as the covenant community called “Pittsburgh Presbytery,” we do well likewise to ask ourselves, “How is it when we come together?” Do we engage richly in the practices that nurture our health as a covenant community, to the glory of God? My hope and prayer is that as we augment the plenary meetings of presbytery with regional smaller-scale gatherings that focus on these practices – prayer, fellowship, breaking bread, and teaching – we will more fully own and display our identity as a covenant community united in Christ. To the extent that we do so, our public witness to God’s reconciling love revealed in and through Jesus grows leaps and bounds in credibility.
Yours in family bonds,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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