A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
July 17, 2014
The opening section of our Book of Order outlines the foundations of our life together. The first chapter, “The Mission of the Church,” anchors the church’s mission in God’s mission to, in, and for the world. (F-1.01) We have no mission but God’s mission; this is foundational to who we are and what we do.
Christians believe that the essence of God’s mission is a person – Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of God, sent by God in the fullness of time to cleanse the world of sin and restore it to its God-ordained purpose. In the supreme act of love, God was willing to die that the world might live. That is precisely the church’s foundational mission – to give itself for the life of the world.
This foundational mission is not something abstract. It is as concrete as the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. The church does not invent its mission, a fact sometimes lost on churches that seek to revitalize themselves by coming up with new mission statements. There is nothing wrong with such statements, as long as they are nothing else than an attempt to highlight in new ways the mission of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Not only does God’s mission through Jesus Christ determine the church’s mission – the risen Lord is himself both foundation and head of this church. (F-1.02) The church is his, and his alone. It does not belong to denominations, to hierarchies, to congregations, or even to presbyteries! Church leaders are but stewards of that which belongs entirely to our Lord. The church is not ours to manage, to grow, to maintain, or even to kill. None of us can do any of that.
Our task is not to create the church we believe most effective, most relevant, most devout, most prophetic, most evangelistic, or any other superlative we’d like to see the church achieve. Rather, our task is to steward well the church’s mission that begins with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What Jesus says and does, the church is to say and do.
Notice, I do not refer to Jesus in the past tense. His mission is revealed first of all in his life and ministry two thousand years ago, which we know through the word of witnesses from the community in which he lived. But that all was just the beginning of his mission. He promised that he would continue to abide with his followers through the presence of the Holy Spirit; that promise and presence continue with us today. Luke characterizes the mission of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as all that Jesus began to do and teach. (Acts 1:1, NIV) Thus we do not simply look back to the Book to learn his mission; rather, we take the Book with us into prayerful engagement with our own world, seeking to discern where Jesus is at work and what he is saying by the Spirit today. Looking up “chapter and verse” is never irrelevant, but neither is it sufficient for fully understanding his mission today.
Some years ago a popular campaign for Christian morality invited us to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Soon WWJD bracelets, stationery, billboards, and media spots were everywhere, reminding us that we don’t make up Christian morality on our own. But the more important question is, “What IS Jesus doing?” WIJD? It’s relatively easy to extrapolate from Jesus stories recorded in the Bible to determine WWJD (even if we get it wrong, extrapolation is an easy art). WIJD is both more difficult and more crucial. Knowing what Jesus said and did is important for “testing the spirits” (1 John 4:1-3), but discerning his mission today requires us to hear anew the voice of Jesus and to see anew the work of Jesus by the Spirit. It requires of us prayerful attentiveness to the world around us every bit as much as careful attention to the canon of Scripture.
Perhaps the foundational Christian claim about Jesus is precisely this: He lives! He is still at work in the world. This continuing work is captured in the paragraph headings of section F-1.02 in our Book of Order: 1. Christ calls and equips the church. 2. Christ gives the church its life. 3. Christ is the church’s hope. 4. Christ is the foundation of the church. It’s all present tense.
Because he lives, the church lives. In this, and only in this, lies our sure hope for the church’s welfare. The church lives and thrives not because its leaders get everything right, or because its doctrine, worship, polity, and discipline are all in perfect order, but because it is united with the Lord of life himself. Thanks be to God!
Yours in His mission,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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