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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Postures of Approach
October 10, 2013

Wherever God in Christ is rightly worshiped, there we have the true church – so has the Reformed tradition taught throughout its history.

Our first act of worship as God’s people is to gather together in God’s presence. As we do so, immediately we run into the fundamental problem of fallen humanity – we cannot rightly recognize God because we think too highly of ourselves. Conversely, we cannot see ourselves for who we really are because we diminish the glory of God’s majesty. We think too highly of ourselves and too little of God.

Indeed, John Calvin says, this double misjudgment is a conundrum we cannot escape except by the help of the Holy Spirit. This is the act of God that changes everything for us: the Spirit opens our eyes and hearts to both the depth of our sin and the height of God’s grandeur. This is revealed to us supremely at the cross of Jesus, as evocatively expressed in the hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”:

And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess:
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.

While failure to grasp the gravity of our need and the expanse of God’s glory are inseparable, we ordinarily experience God’s work of conversion first as a revelation that we need God’s help more than we had ever dreamed. In telling his own conversion story, Calvin says that God, by a sudden conversion, subdued his heart to become teachable. He instantly realized that he had placed far too much stock in his own capacity to understand God and to secure his place in God’s household.

In worship we re-enact the drama of salvation. Just as our conversion involves a double work of the Spirit to reveal to us the depth of our need and the height of God’s goodness, so the Reformed order for Lord’s Day worship begins with our tandem acknowledgement of our sin and magnification of God’s glory. As we gather in worship, we both prostrate ourselves in confession and lift up our heads in praise. In fact, Calvin began the Sunday service with the confession of sin, even before the hymn of praise.

I did not grow up Presbyterian, but early in my adult life I began to worship at a Presbyterian church, and was captivated by the confession of sin in its liturgy. In my church background we did not confess sin corporately in worship, so this was something new to me – but what made it stand out most to me was not the prayer, but the posture of the worshipers. For at the time of confession, everyone in that congregation knelt at their pews. This was a classic Presbyterian sanctuary – wooden floors, no kneelers. Knobby knees on hardwood is not a comfortable position. But of course, neither is confession of sin a comfortable thing. When we then stood to lift up our heads and let voices ring in praise to God, the stark contrast between what we are and all that God is was no longer some abstract notion – it was as real as the relief of pulling ourselves up from sore knees and stretching ourselves heavenward.

God calls us to humble ourselves so that God may be exalted in us. When we gather for worship, we do just that. Of course, it takes a lifetime for us truly to “get” it. We struggle at every turn, still too full of ourselves and too dismissive of God. And the way this gets expressed most often is that we think more highly of ourselves than we do of our brother and sister. The way we relate to our brother and sister, who bear God’s image, is inseparable from our relation to God. When we insist on things being done in the church the way we believe they should be done, rather than how others might prefer, we are demonstrating the very problem that Calvin has underscored as the heart of our sinfulness.

Paul exhorts us, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4) In doing so, he continues, we are exhibiting the mind of Christ, who gave up everything that rightly belonged to him for our sake who deserved nothing.

The way we relate to each other – do we defer to or make demands of one another? – is the practical demonstration of whether we are bowing ourselves before holy God and living truly to the praise of God’s matchless glory. This is why after our opening hymn of praise and confession of sin, we move directly to extending peace to each other.

So our postures as we gather are critically important – bowing our knees in contrition, lifting our heads in praise, and extending our hands in love and service.

Your servant in Christ’s bonds,

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

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