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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Fellowship of Those Who Fall Short
January 24, 2013

As we have noted recently, Christian baptism is first of all an acknowledgment of God’s claim on us, and only secondarily a declaration of our own claims before God. In response to the glad news that God has adopted us unconditionally, we reject evil, declare faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and proclaim our intention to live as his disciples in company with the others who follow him.

The Gospel stories of Jesus and his disciples are more notable for the failures of his followers than for their successes in keeping faith with him. Peter is the poster child for broken commitments to Jesus. He and his companions all promise to follow him faithfully, yet despite their resolve they fail early and often. The Gospels paint them as fickle, fearful, and feeble in their walk with Jesus, their bold declarations of faith in him notwithstanding.

I, for one, find this mighty encouraging! I know all too well those places where I have failed to live up to my commitments as a follower of Jesus, so I am supremely grateful to learn that Jesus does not disown his disciples when they prove themselves faithless, self-absorbed, and even treacherous.

Over the coming weeks I will be unpacking in this space the particular promises we make upon ordination to service in the church. Ministry in the church is “ordered” – that is, it has a specific set of expectations we call “orders,” to which we pledge adherence. This week we witnessed our president and vice-president swearing to the orders of their offices, and we expect them to live up to those pledges. In many ways church orders carry a similar expectation on the church’s part – the church expects its ordained officers to live by their promises.

But ordered service in the kingdom of God is profoundly different from military or governmental orders in at least one critical respect – in God’s realm, the accomplishment of our mission is anchored not in making good on our promises to God, but in embracing God’s claim upon us. Paul declares that he is able to stay the course of his calling only because God has already claimed him for that ministry (Philippians 3:12). It is for us as it was for Jesus - it all begins with baptism, where Jesus’ ministry is launched not by his declaration of resolve but by the Father’s declaration of ownership: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Soon after receiving this heavenly declaration, Jesus selects a motley crew of unlikely suspects as his work partners. They promise much but deliver little during their years of walking together the hills and shores of Galilee and Judea. In fact, what they say and what they do are often quite at odds. Surely they deserve richly the sobriquet that Jesus casts often at the religious elite – “Hypocrites!” You say one thing, but do another.

Here is the difference – no matter how far they fall short of their commitment to uphold his cause, his disciples stick with him and with each other. When we go back to the first account of Jesus calling the Twelve, we see that their foundational calling is simply “to be with him.” (Mark 3:14) Their calling to do things for him is secondary; the first is simply to be with him.

In fulfilling their most fundamental calling – to stay with him no matter what – they thereby stick close to each other as well. They rise sometimes to great heights of understanding and effectiveness in ministry, and fall sometimes to great depths of failure in keeping true to their commitments. Jesus’ place for them in his program them does not rise or fall according to how well they keep their promises. Rather, it depends simply on whether or not they stick with him. And sticking with him is impossible to separate from sticking with one another.

Staying together was far from easy for them. They assailed each other’s motives; still, they stuck together. They contended with each other for the position closest to Jesus; still, they stuck together. They even found fault with Jesus from time to time; still, they stuck together.

In the weeks ahead, as we consider the ordination vows that we make before our Lord to his church, let us never forget that the most important thing is not how impeccably we stay true to those lofty promises, but whether we stick with each other in the Lord regardless. As we walk together in fellowship with our Lord, we discover that everything needed to fulfill our calling is given by the Spirit through the many gifts supplied through the members of the body to whom our Lord has knit us – even (and perhaps especially) when we ourselves fall short. While each of us will surely fail from time to time, in the power of the Spirit we can and will prevail in fulfilling our Lord’s calling, so long as we stick together.

Yours in our Lord’s company,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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