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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Joyous Calling
August 14, 2014

Our Book of Order opens by stating the Foundations of the church’s life. The section entitled “The Calling of the Church” (F-1.03) reminds us of the Reformed understanding of the church’s identity and its mission – what the church is and what it does.

More than a century ago, the United Presbyterian Church adopted a church mission statement that has found a permanent niche in our Book of Order. Entitled “The Great Ends of the Church” (F-1.0304), it completes the section on the church’s calling, reminding us that the church is always stretching to extend further the mission of Jesus Christ.

These great ends can never be separated from humanity’s “chief end and purpose” to glorify and fully enjoy God forever. (Westminster Catechism, Question 1) The “Great Ends” are nothing other than a blueprint for a community committed to glorifying and enjoying God together. When the church’s mission withers into mere fulfilment of obligations, it loses its inherent character as the mission of Jesus himself. Jesus’ mission is never joyless.

In his great final discourse and prayer with his disciples on the night of his arrest, Jesus returns to two themes repeatedly: 1. That his disciples be inseparably united just as he and the Father are one; and 2. That his joy would permeate our life and work together. Unity and joy in the Lord are impossible to embrace separately from each other.

Alas, joylessness runs all too rampant among us, beloved. It gets expressed in countless ways. One way is through fixation on the church’s defects and woes, whether our congregation, presbytery, denomination, or the whole church. We ought not be surprised, according to Jesus, if the world speaks ill of us; but for his own disciples to turn against each other with accusation, scorn, judgment, or dismissal is utterly unnatural. It sucks the life right out of us! Such fault-finding inevitably divides us rather than uniting us. Joylessness and discord are inseparable soul-mates.

As we pursue the great ends of the church, it is critical that we keep Jesus’ joy and Jesus’ mission bound together. And so I propose that we consider our reach toward each of these grand goals as expressions of joy, not just fulfillment of expectations:

  1. Proclamation – To preach the gospel is to announce the most joyous news of all: God saves! God salvages what has been trashed, raising beauty from ashes, joy from mourning, songs of praise from spirits of heaviness. (Isaiah 61:3)

  2. Shelter – In the apostolic community, nurturing wholeness within and between God’s people elicits great gladness among all. (Acts 2:43-47)

  3. Worship – The psalmist exults, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1) It is a supreme joy to accord all honor to the One to whom it rightly belongs!

  4. Truth-telling – Nothing is more freeing than knowing and telling the truth! No more need to hide, no more need to run. (John 8:32)

  5. Justice – When we view and treat others as God does, we discover the joy of the Creator who celebrates all creation as truly good. (Genesis 1)

  6. God’s Reign – The church is the place in this world where God’s rule is acknowledged and honored. The kingdom is not a desperate future wish, but present already. The One who is good all the time orders and rules our community, even when we are least aware of it. Gracious goodness! Joy unspeakable!

Well-meaning people often express sympathy to me and my presbytery colleagues on account of all the church struggles we regularly engage. A typical line: “I don’t know how you do it, but I sure am praying for you!” I respond with gratitude for their prayers, and appreciation for their sympathy – but I usually add this: I knew coming in to this work all the struggles it would present, but I had no idea about all the joys it would entail. So rejoice with me!

Joyless ministry is impossible to sustain for long. Nehemiah reminds us that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10); that is just as true for the church in mission as it is for personal living.

The greatest enemy of joy is complaint. And of course there is plenty in the church about which we might legitimately complain. So every day in our life together we face the choice of whether to focus on things about which we might complain (of which there are many), or things about which we can rejoice (of which there are many more!). Would you join me in committing to the discipline of rejoicing always? Always! (1 Thessalonians 5:16)

In the Lord’s joy,

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

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