A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Grace & Gratitude, Part I: In Any Case
February 12, 2015
Over the past year, our denomination’s Theology, Worship, and Education program area has been promoting a fresh emphasis on “Grace and Gratitude” as the core of Reformed faith and mission. They are preparing this year to replace the PCUSA’s “We Believe” core curriculum that has been in place for fifteen years with a new one, “Growing in Grace and Gratitude.” In recent months they have been leading up to this with a monthly blog that explores various dimensions of grace and gratitude.
This way of casting Reformed identity is not new. Brian Gerrish’s widely-praised 2002 book Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin contends not only that grace and gratitude form the core of our tradition’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, but lie at the heart of our entire theology.
I spent many years earning diplomas that certified me first as a Master, then as a Doctor of the science called “Theology.” More ink and blood have been spilled over the centuries in relation to this science than to any other. Every theological question seems eminently momentous, because it has to do with understanding the One who lies before, beneath, and beyond all that exists. We sweat theological details because we believe God matters more than anything or anyone else.
Yet for all its breadth, depth, detail, and gravitas, theology is ultimately a simple affair. It is our sustained effort to answer three basic questions:
Who is God?
What has God done for us?
What is our due response?
Sometimes I like to boil it down even further to just one question: “Where is God in our picture?” The church’s chief theological calling is to discern God’s presence in each and every situation it faces, and the pastor’s primary task is to lead the church faithfully in that discernment.
In seeking to understand how God is at work in and around us, we turn to the guidance of Holy Scripture. There on the sacred pages we learn how holy men and women experienced and understood the mysteries of God and of God’s expectations of us. There we encounter the One whom our faith ancestors came to know as God with us in person, “the Word made flesh.” (John 1:14) In Jesus of Nazareth we see God’s very self. In Jesus’ activity we encounter God at work. And in his call to discipleship we learn definitively what God asks also of us.
Scripture reveals to us a God who creates us, considers us “good” (!!), and longs for our companionship; who makes covenant with us, lifts up the downtrodden, expects holiness from us, disciplines us when we stray, and loves us beyond comprehension. To draw us back from our willful, sinful ways, God sends prophets to warn and to entreat, to judge and to announce God’s reign. We respond by running away from God’s call, like Jonah of old and countless others.
Finally, “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4), the Father reaches out to us by sending his only begotten Son, whom we reject and put to death. But God vindicates him and his message by raising him from death, and seating him in glory to intercede for us. This beloved Son will one day restore fully all that our sin has ravaged.
This is a familiar story, of course. Perhaps by now your eyes have glazed over as you hear this grand salvation narrative summarized yet once again. It is rehearsed publicly in worship whenever the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is offered at the Lord’s Table. It becomes common-place to us so very easily. But think about it -- it is, through and through, a story of grace. Of lavish gifts that were never earned. Of God’s favor poured out on the undeserving. Of God doing for us and through us what we could never achieve on our own.
It is the story of love triumphing over death, of God’s patience and mercy outlasting all our rebellion. We may know God’s attributes only dimly, yet we know this certainly: God is gracious to us. The Bible is nothing if not a story of God’s grace that is ultimately triumphant over all human resistance and self-serving.
Truth told, we hope for the triumph of grace like a drowning person clinging to a life preserver. Without God’s grace, we are without hope. Christian worship offers us tangible signs of God’s amazing grace lavished on us regardless of our histories and merits: In any case, we hear and receive and are renewed by the Word as it is proclaimed. In any case, we receive the washing of baptism’s waters and the nourishment of the Lord’s Table, regardless of what we might deserve. In any case, we receive the benefits of prayer as God’s people join our Master in interceding on our behalf. Word. Sacrament. Prayer. These tangible means of divine grace are simply there – gifts offered freely to all. To you. To me. This is the essence of who God is and how God acts toward us.
Amazed by grace,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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