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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Treasure-House of Mysteries
July 25, 2013

According to the Book of Order, “Wherever … the sacraments are rightly administered” there exists the “true Church of Jesus Christ.” (F-1.0303) The Reformed tradition understands the church’s authenticity to be marked neither by its doctrines (though they matter) nor by its genealogy (though our connection to the saints, prophets, and apostles of all times and places is organic to our identity), but by its practices. While what we do when we are sent into the world is also critically important, what fundamentally constitutes us as a true church is not what we do in the world but what we do when we worship. Of course, if we rightly worship God when we gather, we will fully engage in God’s mission to the world when we scatter.

The Shorter Catechism begins by stating that our chief end and purpose as human beings is to glorify God joyfully. (Book of Confessions 7.001) If that’s why we were put on planet Earth, then it makes sense that we are truly being “church” when we do just that in our gathering. Authentic church happens where worship is anchored in two specific practices – proclamation of the Word and administration of the Sacraments. Wherever these practices take place – so our tradition teaches – there we have a true church.

It’s not the qualifications or gifts or authorization of the worship leader that render Word and Sacrament “church-forming.” The power of Word and Sacrament lies not in where or how or by whom they are led, but in the One whom they present – Jesus. The ministry of the Word and the ministry of Sacraments do the same thing: they give us Jesus.

How do words or water or bread or wine become the Word, Fountain, Food, and Drink of everlasting life? By “grace,” we say – by virtue of what God does through them, rather than by what we make of them. Only by God’s amazing grace do these very worldly actions become heaven’s actions for us and our salvation. The biblical Greek word to describe this “more than what meets the eye” character of these earthly means of heaven’s grace is mysterion. In Latin, this word is translated sacramentum.

With proclamation of the Word, we can easily confuse the power of the preacher with the power of the Word. An especially captivating sermon can seem to be a powerful Word from God – and perhaps it is just that. But it is possible for an eloquent and moving sermon to be more the word of the preacher than the Word of God. But with sacrament, there can be no mistake as to the source of the power – the little bit of water, bread, or wine cannot possibly offer us full cleansing or life-giving bodily sustenance. They can never accomplish their purpose by virtue of the actions themselves, but only by the transforming power of God through the Holy Spirit. Truthfully, the same is true for the Word – the preacher is utterly dependent on God to transform his or her human words into a divine Word.

The Reformed tradition pairs Word and Sacrament as the co-markers of the authentic church – yet we have in practice diminished Sacrament to secondary status, and are poorer for it. We reveal our esteem of Word over Sacrament by requiring that the Word be proclaimed each Lord’s Day, while the Sacrament need be celebrated only four times a year. (See Book of Order W-2.4012 and W-3.3.3100) John Calvin thought this a travesty, and tried in vain all his life to restore the ancient church practice of Word and Sacrament being offered together at each Lord’s Day service.

Paul considers ministers of the Gospel “stewards of God’s mysteries.” (2 Corinthians 4:1) Their work is simply setting the things of God – no matter how dimly we may yet understand them – before God’s people. Word, water, bread, wine – all ordinary things, yet when they point to the God who has reconciled us to himself and to one another through our Lord Jesus, they become far more than mere human words or earthly elements. They become “means of grace” through which God nourishes abundant life in us.

Proclamation of the Word is crucially important, yet it is not enough by itself to constitute the true “church.” Yes, God’s grace needs to be spoken and heard – but it also needs to be applied to us just as water covers us in baptism, and it needs to lodge within us just as the bread and the wine become part of our bodies. The mystery is just this – in receiving these tangible gifts of water, bread, and wine, we receive the invisible fullness of God’s transforming grace to which the proclamation of the Word has pointed us. It’s more than something we hear about or even that we agree to – we take it in, and it becomes part of our very being. When this happens, “church” is undeniably present!

Amazed at God’s mysteries,


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

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