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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

The Ministry of Good Cheer
May 31, 2012

When I was young we had something in our home called a “promise box.” It was like a deck of business cards, each bearing a verse of the Bible that contained some promise of blessing. We’d pick one card out at random, and it became our word of good cheer for the day. We used to sing a gospel song, “Standing on the Promises,” which I first heard in my child’s ear as “Standing on the promise box of God.” (Commercial alert – this gospel song is making its first appearance in a Presbyterian hymnal in the soon-to-be-published Glory to God.) Especially during hard times, the verses in those promise boxes afforded hope that God’s good promises us to us would yet be fulfilled, despite all contrary current evidence.

As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he offers them a number of promises, including the promise that they will encounter distress. “In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33, KJV) Now that’s a promise that was not in our promise box. Jesus was saying, in effect, “Don’t be surprised if you get treated the way I’ve been treated.” And he was saying this just hours before his arrest and crucifixion.

But that’s not the end of his promise. It’s a promise in two parts: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Expect trouble – but know that it is only a temporary condition. What enables us to remain “of good cheer” in times of distress is the knowledge that Jesus is still with us, and that in the end he wins.

The church has never stayed untroubled for any length of time. Either from without or within, it is always encountering forces that seek to sidetrack, distract, terrify, or stymie its forward progress. Its hope has always rested not on its sense of well-being, but on its certainty that the Lord Jesus, the One who has overcome the world, is among us.

We are always tempted to look back through the rosy glasses of retrospect to see how much better things used to be. It’s one of the great narrative themes of many American churches today. It’s a narrative often tinged with wistfulness over better days in the past, or more darkly with disappointment or even bitterness regarding today’s church that has fallen so far from its earlier heights. If Jesus’ promise is right, we will know we are on the right track, not when all is going along swimmingly, but when we are locked in struggle. Mark well his promise: In this world his followers will have tribulation.

But that’s not the end of the story; rather, it is “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” The task of those who lead the church is always at least this – to minister good cheer to a church that is going through distress. Good cheer!

Not, “cheeriness” or “cheerleading.” No, those things have no place in Gospel ministry, because they all too often smack of denial. I’ll never forget sitting in the stands watching my college football team being drubbed (perennial bottom-dwellers in their division), while incongruously our cheerleaders kept dancing and chanting, “We’re number 1! We’re number 1!” Give me a break.

We’re not called to a ministry of denial, or of plastic pretend smiles. No, we’re called to something far deeper, far more serious, far more game-changing – to spread good cheer among the people of God whatever our time or place, because we know that no matter how difficult our situation, our distress is not the last word.

The source of good cheer is always and only this – the Lord is with us. And that is enough. It is far more than enough! Whatever struggle we may be having as a presbytery during times of downsizing and mission shift, Be of good cheer! Whatever challenges are facing our denomination as it gathers in General Assembly, Be of good cheer! Whatever difficulties we may be facing in keeping our congregations moving forward, Be of good cheer! The One who has overcome the world is with us, and will remain with us always, through to the end. (Matthew 28:20) Yes!

In Christ’s joy,

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

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