A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
Spirit-Power Part One
October 4, 2012
Over the past few months we have been walking through Pittsburgh Presbytery’s 2012 mission statement, and finally we come to its closing phrase. What does it mean for us to be living and working “in the power of the Holy Spirit” anyway? This deceptively brief phrase requires close and careful consideration, as it makes all the difference in whether our mission prospers.
Presbyterians are renowned for many things, but being a “Holy Spirit” captivated church is not typically at the top of that list. Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches are often named for the Holy Spirit, and Pentecostal churches are distinguished by their emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But Presbyterians? Not so much. Frankly, Spirit-talk makes us nervous. We’d much rather focus on what we can understand and control, than open our church to that which we “do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (as Jesus characterizes the work of the Spirit in John 3:8).
Paul closes his great discourse on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, in all its manifold variety and power, with a verse that could well be taken as the official Presbyterian motto: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40 KJV) Nothing gladdens the staunch Presbyterian heart more than this splendid sentence of holy writ! Yet I remember well a sermon I heard years ago that focused on how it begins, “Let all things be done…” None of the manifestations of the Spirit is excluded – everything that God blesses belongs in church. This is not carte blanche “anything goes,” but it does commit us to the hard work of spiritual discernment rather than simply relying on rules about what may or may not belong in church.
In their intriguingly entitled book The Holy Spirit: The Shy Member of the Trinity, Dale Bruner and William Hordern highlight Jesus’ claim that the Holy Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,” because it is the Spirit’s mission “to testify on my behalf.” (John 15:26; 16:13) The Holy Spirit is not self-promoting, but points the way to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Since the Spirit is not self-referential, Bruner and Hordern call the Holy Spirit “shy.” It’s hardly a biblical term, but it does elicit our attention.
Alas, it has too often been the case that movements focused on the church’s recovery of manifestations of the Holy Spirit have divided the church. This ought not be so. The Westminster Confession teaches us that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to unite – to unite us to Christ, and thereby to unite us to each other (Book of Confessions 6.054). When the Spirit of God is truly at work, there will be nothing of the sort of division whereby some folk count themselves more “spiritual” or “Spirit-filled” than others. If the Holy Spirit is not self-referential, those who are filled with that Spirit will not point to their own ministry or spirituality or wisdom as superior to that of others.
One of the primary marks of “spirituality” run amok is a propensity to distinguish those who are more saintly from those who are less. Every act or word that divides Christians into strata of authenticity is an act or word that runs contrary to the ministry of the uniting Spirit. A church that lives and works “in the power of the Holy Spirit” will be a church that gathers and integrates the members of Christ’s body, different as they may be.
Only a community whose inner life is marked by the uniting work of the Spirit can effectively proclaim the Gospel outwardly in the power of the Spirit. Is Pittsburgh Presbytery that sort of community? By the grace of God, in many respects it is already so; by the same grace, let it become increasingly so as we embrace the Spirit’s work to bind us more closely to our Lord, and thereby to one another.
Yours in the bonds of the Spirit,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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