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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Notes of the Reformed Church
June 27, 2013

The Reformers faced a serious patent problem – Rome had a lock on the trademark “Church” across Western Europe. And so one of the Reformers’ main questions was: What constitutes the authentic Christian Church, and what identifies a “knock-off” – something that pretends to be the real thing, but isn’t? Walk the streets of any major city, and some street vendor will try to sell you a Rolex watch, Mont Blanc pen, or Gucci shoes for a fraction of their commercial value. Wise consumers know they are imposters, claiming to be the real thing just because they have the right label and look. Take them home, and soon they crumble.

I have visited the Reformed Churches of Eastern Europe, and found their steeples topped with an odd ornament that looked rather like a dandelion gone to seed. I learned it is a Bethlehem Star – a church-topper used by Reformed Churches that were refused the right to erect a cross, because that would be the equivalent of patent infringement on the “true” church.

What constitutes a “real” church, when the trappings of “church” as we have come to know it are stripped away? Is a “real” church marked by pews and robed ministers and beautiful stained glass windows? In the age of the first Reformers, westerners considered the “real” church to be constituted by the presence of bishops and priests in communion with the Pope. So when Reformers were forced to form new churches by virtue of being excommunicated by those bishops, they faced a formidable challenge in establishing the authenticity of their so-called churches.

Fortunately, our forebears were well aware that the critical feature marking an authentic church is neither the symbol adorning the steeple nor the status of its ministers’ club membership. Rather, what marks a church as authentic and true is the presence of Jesus Christ in the midst.

Our Book of Order has a section on “The Notes of the Reformed Church.” (F-1.0303) The word “notes” itself is a bit ambiguous – it’s not about “notes” in the sense of scribbled memos, or “notes” like the figures on a music staff. Rather, it’s about “notes” as markers of authenticity. The Book of Order establishes the church’s first and foremost such marker as precisely this: “Where Christ is, there is the true Church.”

I travel to visit a different congregation almost every week. Some use hymnals to assist in congregational song, while others rely on bulletins or slide projections. Some have communion each Sunday, while others do so only occasionally. Some have choirs and ministers in robes, while others have rock bands and ministers in blue jeans. Some follow the ecumenical lectionary in their sermon texts, while others choose their own passages and topics. Even though we constitute a single church family, we have much variety of expression from congregation to congregation.

When I visit congregations, I don’t look for how prominently our denomination’s seal is displayed, though I’m quite fond of it. I don’t count how many times the word “Presbyterian” appears in bulletins, newsletters, or church signs, though I own our identity with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) unapologetically. I don’t think about how much money a church has given to presbytery mission or per capita assessments. Really!! What I look for is just this – is Jesus Christ being proclaimed? Is he at the center of all a congregation says and does?

As much as I love to preach in our congregations, I love also to hear each church’s pastor. And I always hold this measuring standard up first and foremost: Is Jesus Christ being lifted up? Is the Gospel being preached? That is what constitutes the true church, more than anything else.

I believe loyalty to the fellowship of believers matters. I count precious the commitment that good and faithful Presbyterians have to our particular fellowship known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Yet as much as I love that, I am far more interested in this question: Are we proclaiming Jesus? I happen to think that proclaiming Jesus authentically and being loyal to his church go hand in in glove, but I hope never to substitute the latter for the former.

First and foremost, the true church of Jesus is notable for being a place where his living presence matters more than anything. We can’t conjure his presence, we can’t invoke it – we can only recognize it and receive it as a gift of grace. Still, we bear great responsibility for nurturing our awareness of his presence. What do you do to keep attentive to the presence of Jesus whenever your congregation gathers?

Keeping watch for Jesus,

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

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