A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
August 30, 2012
Last week, I offered this meditation at our presbytery meeting, which was called to conduct a first reading of our proposed congregational dismissal policy. Since we will be voting on the policy at our September 15 meeting, it seems good to share it with all of you. I follow below with some further comments:
You have heard me tirelessly promote the unity of the church, and you know well how deeply I am grieved at the prospect of our parting ways in our God-given ministry. Rather than rehash that sermon, I’ll offer some words about parting company well. The bottom line is this – should we come to the place of parting company, let us do so in such a way that nothing we say or do brings shame to Jesus, nothing we say or do discredits his power to reconcile us to one another and to God through his death on the cross, and nothing we say or do makes it impossible for us to be joined together again soon.
Paul and Barnabas had a deep disagreement over whether to let Mark continue on their ministry team – Barnabas wanted to keep him, but Paul wanted to fire him. Their dispute was sharp enough that it broke their ministry team apart. But evidently their parting was conducted in such a way that some years later Paul was able to renew his ministry companionship with Mark, noting that Mark had proven to be of great value to him at a time when many had abandoned him (see Acts 15:39; 2 Timothy 4:11). Their parting was only a temporary thing.
Indeed, any parting of the ways between followers of Jesus is only temporary. Whether we continue in serving our Lord together or go our separate ways at this juncture, our destiny is to be together in the end. At our hour of separation, will we behave in such a way that demonstrates our conviction that the Gospel of reconciliation is the Word that endures, and that the ingathering of all God’s people in the kingdom is our final destiny? Will our actions at the time of parting company be in keeping with the prayer we carry on our lips, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?
We know well that, from God’s perspective, we are inextricably knit together in Christ, and that visible unity in the kingdom of God is our sure destiny. Therefore, should we part ways temporarily, let us take great care that our words and actions do not militate against the work of the Gospel to unite us forever in Christ. Especially during times so difficult that we see no way to continue walking together, let our words and actions reflect our sure hope that soon – yes very soon – we shall be visibly, inseparably united in the kingdom of God.
One of you pointed out to me following the meeting that we may find instructive another biblical story of parting that turned out to be only temporary – the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The point is not that those who seek dismissal from the denomination are prodigals, but that the father’s farewell to his son was so gracious that the son was later able to rejoin the household he had earlier determined to leave. The father had every right to dismiss his son with nothing, but he gave him his share of the estate instead. What would it be like for us to have the spirit of the father in us when we part company?
Getting the family back together was a top priority for the father in how he handled his son’s departure. But the older brother felt otherwise disposed. Indeed, the story is as much about what both brothers teach us concerning how not to behave as it is about the mercy of the father. The younger brother discounts the value of his household, while the older one resents the younger even after his heartfelt repentance. Both of them demonstrate more concern for grasping what they feel is rightfully their own than for the welfare of the other. Amazingly, the father still treats them both generously.
The story doesn’t end with “and they all lived happily ever after.” We are left with brothers at a table still struggling to live together well. Whether we stay together today or go our separate ways, we will eventually sit together again at the one Table of our Lord, because our Lord will most certainly outwait our resistance to his will that we be one, even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11, 22). Whether we do it now or later, sitting together at his table will demand much of us. Let us hold no illusion on this – belonging to our Lord requires that eventually we sit at table with brothers and sisters we find difficult to bear with. Blessedly, we know that our own place at the table depends not on our worthiness to be there, but on the mercy of the one who dares to adopt us and by grace continues to claim us, in spite of ourselves. Thanks be to God!
Your difficult brother,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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