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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Covenant Bonds
September 25, 2014

While it is descriptively accurate to define Presbyterian life in terms of three C’s – it is constitutional, confessional, and connectional – I believe that we express our sense of calling better with another three C’s statement: Presbyterians are a collaborative covenant community seeking to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ. Last week we discussed what it means to be “collaborative,” and this week we consider what it means to be in “covenant” together.

In Scripture, a “covenant” is less a contract than a promise. Contracts are bilateral agreements that may be set aside by either party. Promises, however, remain effective regardless of how their recipients respond. Covenants may be honored and kept, or dishonored and spurned, but they persist regardless.

The church is a community of people chosen by God for salvation and service (see Book of Order F-2.05), so that God may be glorified in them and the reign of God advanced through them. God claims them regardless of whether they deserve salvation’s blessings. When God puts a baptismal claim on us – “This is my beloved one!” (see Mark 1:11) – we receive nothing less than a love promise from God.

As people who were welcomed into the faith community by virtue of God’s love-promise, we make promises ourselves. First we promise to love and serve Jesus as our only Master. Second, we promise to participate in the community of the baptized. We are a covenant community both by virtue of being claimed by God’s promises, and by making promises to serve God in the communion of saints.

But the core promise that undergirds our life together is neither our promise to God nor our promise to each other; rather, it is God’s promise to and claim upon us. We are able to live and work together only because God has claimed us to do so. We collaborate not because of natural affinity with each other, but because God has made us co-laborers by claiming us unilaterally to be on “God’s team.” We work together for one reason alone – God has claimed us to work together, and promises to give us everything we need to be able to accomplish our commission. We are not only recipients of God’s promises, but also part of the fulfillment of God’s promises to each other. God’s promise to equip me with everything I need to accomplish my vocation is fulfilled, in part, through what you uniquely have to offer me.

It is unthinkable that we could accomplish God’s will apart from those God has given us as companions in mission. And truth told, we need those less like us even more than we need those more like us, if the whole body is to work to maximum fruitfulness to God’s glory.

Just as vital congregations display the marvelous reality that the whole of our witness is greater than the sum of its parts, so it is for us as a presbytery – working together as those whom God has chosen to bear witness to the Kingdom in this region, we accomplish far more than we could separately. And it is especially in our variety – our differences – that God has sovereignly equipped us to be more than we could ever be if left to ourselves, or to coalitions of those who see things the same way we do.

To affirm that we are a covenant community is to own that we have been claimed by God to walk together in fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ. Walking together is our concrete embrace of God’s promise to give us all we need to fulfill our calling precisely by giving us as partners to each other in the journey of faith and service. You are the fulfillment of God’s promise to me, namely, that I will have everything I need in order to be able to serve God’s purpose for me.

This may be easier for me to swallow when you and I agree on everything; but it is even truer when you see my blind spots, which happens only when you see things from a viewpoint that differs from mine. Being a covenant community, then, is something very different from being a self-selected community that gathers around shared commitments. Being a covenant people entails our glad reception of and partnership with the neighbors God has given us in fulfilling the mission to which the Spirit has called us.

Your covenant partner,

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

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