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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Always Present
May 1, 2014

The Gospels’ accounts of the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion are jam-packed with detail. The nearer he gets to the cross, the more closely the Gospel writers recount his words and deeds. Then their rushing story-stream comes abruptly to a halt as he breathes his last and is unceremoniously buried in a grave not his own.

The miracle of Easter bursts into each of their narratives early Sunday morning on the heels of their solemn Saturday silence. Then… little more is said. Jesus’ days with his disciples following Easter are largely bypassed by the Gospel writers. Only Luke and John record more than a few words from Jesus, and there is but one miracle in these post-resurrection narratives, when Jesus anonymously directs his disciples to a mighty haul of fish (John 21:4-8). The forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension are notable precisely because of how little the Evangelists note what happens during this period.

Easter marks a decisive turning point in Jesus’ way with his followers. Before Easter he engages them in lengthy discourses about God’s kingdom, supporting his teachings with mighty deeds demonstrating that God’s reign is indeed breaking into our world. After Easter we hear few of his words, and see even less of his works. And when he does appear, as often as not he is unrecognized.

What should we make of these sudden post-Easter shifts? Apparently Jesus was training his followers in how to carry his mission forward without a clear sense of his nearby presence. I have discovered that most ministry requires me to stick with my calling without palpable awareness of Jesus accompanying me each step of the way.

In Matthew, Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his ascension are, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20) Surely they are meant to remind us of what he said shortly before his crucifixion, that he would be present to us in the person of the needy we encounter every day. (Matthew 25:40)

Most of our ministry as his ambassadors takes place in ordinary daily life when we are largely unaware of his presence. The Easter season testifies that regardless of whether his followers are aware of it, he is closer to them than they know.

I often hear narratives of despair in the church: “Our rolls are shrinking. We cannot pay our bills. Our facilities are crumbling. We can’t find the pastor we need. Our faith is wavering.” It may seem Jesus has abandoned us, but is it not possible that precisely here, in our hour of greatest need, he is more fully present than we could dream? If Matthew 25 and 28 are to be trusted, we should never imagine that a season of poverty signals his absence. The same is true for the extended church as well – let us never assume that a season of difficulty signals that the church in a larger region or as manifest in a particular denomination is dying.

The Easter story challenges us to stay the course when we have precious little sense of how Jesus is at work among us. The reason is simple – the resurrected One is in fact present whether we sense him with us or not.

Happily, the Easter stories also testify that even though his followers don’t always recognize his presence at first, the risen Lord doesn’t stay incognito forever. The disciples on the road to Emmaus do finally recognize him when he breaks the bread. Mary eventually does recognize the one she supposed to be the gardener as her Teacher. The disciples on the boat do eventually discern that the stranger on the shore with the great fishing advice is none other than Jesus.

Two things, then: First, Jesus is present even when we aren’t aware of it. And when Jesus is present, we can rest assured that he will feed the hungry throngs, calm the storm-tossed sea, heal those broken in body and spirit, and bring the lost sheep safely to the fold. Second, when we engage our situation as though Jesus is indeed present regardless of apparent evidence, we can trust that his presence will eventually become manifest. Others will see him among us sometimes when we ourselves are unaware of it.

Fear not, Easter people. The risen One is with us! And because of that, we can say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Yours in Easter hope,

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

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