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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

In Praise of “And-ing”
November 20, 2014

The longer I walk with the Lord in the fellowship of the church, the more I realize how much I need the wisdom and gifts of folk who are different from me in style, social location, and perspective. The way of the world is to sequester ourselves into polarized homogeneous clusters, in which we enjoy unfettered affirmation of our already-established inclinations. In the realm where Jesus is King, we are joined with folk bearing gifts and passions very different from our own. What the world considers incompatible his kingdom deems inseparable. Here people come from east and west, north and south, to sit together at the royal banquet table. (Luke 13:29)

While the world organizes itself by the conjunction or, the kingdom of God is shaped by and. In the vision of John the Revelator, hordes stream to the throne of God from “every tribe and people and land and nation.” (Revelation 5:9) Ephesians 2:13-14 powerfully declares that the world’s divisions are healed through the work of the crucified Lord. We can well imagine the outstretched hands of the crucified one inviting all who are separated to come together in the reconciling power of God revealed in Jesus. I call it the Gospel work of “and-ing.”

This has a host of practical implications for how God’s people relate to each other across lines of difference – be they social, theological, ethnic, economic, cultural, or political. In Jesus, God is at work to unite us, while the way of the world is to divide us. The separation implicit in the call to holiness is not a separation between factions of God’s people, but a distinction between the world that insists on “or-ing” us and the kingdom that seeks always to “and” us.

One of the great controversies among the first Christians was whether allegiance to their Lord Jesus strengthened or severed their ties to their Jewish roots. Was Christianity an “and” or an “or” movement? The question was sometimes very earthy – should Gentile Christians be circumcised? May Christians eat food offered to idols? Sometimes it ran to the heart of treasured tradition: Should Christians keep Sabbath, or are all days the same in the Christian economy? Answers in the New Testament seem mixed at best – in Acts 15, food offered to idols is forbidden, but in 1 Corinthians 8 it is not. In Romans 14, both those who honor all days equally and those who honor the Sabbath are praised, so long as their practice is grounded in good faith. The coming of Jesus has rendered the easy comforts of either/or solutions inadmissible.

What does “and-ing” look like for us today? One of the chief benefits of following the lectionary is that it helps us “and” our reading of Holy Scripture. My early ministry was formed in non-lectionary liturgical settings, where most of the preaching was based in the pastor’s preferred biblical texts, and the New Testament was heard far more robustly than the Old. In my subsequent ministry, following the lectionary has helped liberate me from my captivity to reading one testament at the expense of the other.

Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150), provides the oldest detailed description of early Christian liturgy. He reports that the worshiping community read both the “writings of the prophets” (what we now call the Old Testament) and the “memoirs of the apostles” (our New Testament), which were then interpreted by “the president” of the gathering.

In following a lectionary that includes readings from both testaments, we practice the virtue of “and-ing” our biblical formation. We learn the ways of God best by hearing the full chorus of biblical witnesses, rather than focusing only on isolated voices. When our hearing of Scripture fails to include robust attention to the Hebrew Scripture, we are not engaging Scripture in a truly Christian way.

This coming Sunday is celebrated in the ecumenical church as “Reign of Christ” Sunday, the final in a series of annual church festivals that mark the various decisive moments in the life and work of Jesus. Alas, we tend all too easily to become people who focus mainly on one or two aspects of Jesus’ life and work, at the expense of the rest. Many Christians are captivated first and foremost by the incarnation, revealing God’s unconditional love reaching out to redeem humanity. Some stress following the one whose ministries of healing and justice lead our way. Others who specially emphasize personal salvation from the guilt of sin focus on Christ’s atonement made on the cross. Those captivated by the theme of Christian triumph look especially to his resurrection as the core of their hope, while others give primary attention to the coming reign of Christ over the whole world. Celebrating all the festivals of the Christian year is one very helpful way of “and-ing” our engagement with Jesus in all of who he is and says and does – incarnate God, prophetic teacher, compassionate healer, dying Savior, risen Lord, and cosmic King.

Yours in Christ’s reign,

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

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