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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Word of God Truly Preached
July 11, 2013

“Where Christ is, there is the true Church.” (Book of Order F-1.0303) Notably, our Book of Order does not identify the “true Church” by a particular brand name (Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.), or by membership in some association of churches (Pittsburgh Presbytery, National Association of Evangelicals, World Council of Churches, etc.). The true Church is marked not by its genealogy, distinctive buildings, style of worship, or pastors with degrees from approved seminaries or membership on official ministerial rosters. Rather, it is constituted solely by the living presence of Jesus Christ.

So, how does Jesus become present in the Church? Most simply, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus declares, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.” He refers back to this later on when he tells his disciples, as he prepares to ascend to the Father, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus’ presence cannot be miraculously invoked simply by incanting his name, as the sons of Sceva traumatically discovered. (Acts 19:13-15) Rather, it is in the gathering of people that proclaim his Word in speech and action that Jesus becomes present.

The Book of Order specifies this as one of the “notes” of the Reformed Church: “Wherever the Word of God is truly preached and heard,” there exists the true Church of Jesus Christ. (F-1.0303) This is not the only criterion for being an authentic Christian Church – but it is the foundational one. It is worth noting that you can’t have both preaching and hearing without a community being present.

The sticky point for us heirs of the Reformers is the little word “truly” – not just any inane blather claiming to be “preaching” is truly a proclamation of God’s Word. That is why we require that our pastors are deeply immersed in the languages and exegesis of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Yet the Reformers refuse to insist on the purity of either the person or the proclamation of the preacher. John Calvin holds that even though “fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church.” (Institutes 4.1.12)

In his own formulation of this first “note” of the church, Calvin says, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard,” the Church of Christ truly exists. (Institutes 4.1.9) The Latin word translated “purely” is syncere, the root of our word “sincerely.” What matters for Calvin is less the perfection of doctrine, and more the preacher’s diligence in proclaiming the Word. The apostle Paul grants even further latitude: “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. … [Whether] out of love … [or] out of selfish ambition, … what does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15-18)

The fruitfulness of the ministry of Word and Sacrament depends not on the perfection of the life or preaching of the minister, but on God’s grace to which Word and Sacrament bear witness. With both Word and Sacrament, Calvin holds that their efficacy rests entirely in the One to whom they point. (See Institutes 4.1.19 and 4.15.16.)

We do not determine a Church’s authenticity by whether its preaching or preachers are “pure.” The issue is much more basic – is the Christian Gospel, revealed in the life, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, being proclaimed in word and deed, or not?

The Reformers inherited a church where the Word of God was preached regularly – in Latin, a dead language that folk in the pew did not understand. The people sometimes latched onto little pockets of Latin they heard in church, attributing to them wild meanings. For instance, they heard the priest repeatedly recite at the Eucharist the Latin hoc est corpus meum, Jesus’ words meaning “This is my body.” Knowing no Latin, but recognizing that this happened at just the time the bread was said to turn miraculously into the body of Jesus, they bent the Latin into “hocus pocus,” thereby referring to a magical transformative incantation. The point is this – in the church inherited by the Reformers, the Word was being proclaimed, but it wasn’t being heard. If the Reformation can be said to be about just one thing, this could well be it.

Our tradition points to the necessity of the Word being sincerely preached and heard, requiring that the preacher speak the language of the people. A hallmark of the Reformation was the move to reading Scripture and preaching the Gospel in the vernacular. Next week we’ll look more closely at how the Church’s essential identity is marked by people genuinely hearing the Word of God.

That the Word may truly live among us,

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

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