A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
April 25, 2013
Over the past two weeks we have been inundated with news of destruction and calamity – the Boston Marathon bombings, the Texas factory explosion, and Midwest flooding wreaked devastation in several places across our land. We know well that our world is subject to turmoil and catastrophe, but rarely do we see it happening at once in so many places within our borders. Alas, this story of humanity is also the story of the church, something captured well by hymn writer Samuel Stone: “Though with a scornful wonder this world sees her (the church) oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed…mid toil and tribulation and tumult of her war, she waits the consummation of peace forevermore.” (The Church’s One Foundation) Like the world in which it lives, the church yearns for a peace that lies yet beyond its grasp.
In their seventh ordination vow, church officers promise to further the church’s peace -- that is, to do all within their power to promote the peace Jesus promised his disciples, when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27) They pledge to follow the apostle’s injunction to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
The Hebrew word shalom, the primary biblical word meaning “peace,” signifies far more than absence of conflict. It denotes wholeness, welfare in its richest sense. When we promise to further the peace of the church, we’re promising not to repress conflict, but to promote wholeness rather than fragmentation. We commit to build up, rather than to tear down the church. We don’t turn a blind eye to the church’s shortcomings, but we respond to them by laboring for the church’s wholeness rather than by shunning the church for its brokenness.
The psalmist urges us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the corporate center of God’s people. (Psalm 122:6) Prophets point out repeatedly the failures and faithlessness of those who run Jerusalem (both civic and religious leaders), yet the people of God continue to pray for its wholeness. Jeremiah instructs those taken into captivity by godless conquerors to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7 -- the word “welfare” is shalom in the Hebrew) If God’s people are urged to pray for the shalom of Jerusalem despite its faithlessness, and for the cities of Babylon despite their violence, how much more should we seek the welfare of the church in which God has placed us!
When we promote the wholeness of others, we inherit wholeness ourselves. According to James, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18) Jesus proclaims blessing on those who make peace. (Matthew 5:9) In the passage cited above, Jeremiah points out that our personal welfare is directly affected by our community’s welfare. That applies just as much to the church as it does to cities.
Do my words and actions seek to build up my sister or brother, or do they tear down? Church officers promise to build up the body of Christ. Such a promise entails intentional restraint from casting aspersion against the integrity of others. We don’t need to tear down others in order to establish our own integrity. In fact, doing so weakens us, rather than strengthening us. More seriously, it presumes that we know what’s in the heart of others, when only God knows the heart.
As an officer of the church, I promise to bless others rather than curse them, even when I respectfully disagree with them. When I speak truth to my sisters and brothers – especially hard truth – I am bound by covenant to do so with genuine love. (Ephesians 4:15) I promise to look first to the welfare of others rather than to my own welfare, to think and speak the best of others. (Philippians 2:3-4) Tall orders, aren’t they? But nothing less is becoming for the one who bears an office of leadership in the church.
Seeking to bless,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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