A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
October 22, 2015
We are amid a series exploring the ways in which presbytery plays a critical role in the church’s capacity to carry out its mission faithfully and fruitfully. We began by looking to the “Great Ends of the Church” (Book of Order F-1.0304) as a working summary of the church’s mission, and followed with conversations about presbytery’s critical role in the church’s work of proclaiming the gospel authentically, assuring the welfare of God’s people, and working cooperatively to glorify God rightly. Today we move to the fourth of the “great ends” – preservation of the truth.
Presbytery is a learning community where we encourage one another to stay the course with what matters most in our heritage, yet provoke one another beyond our comfort zones of established ideas and practices. Presbytery is a collegial community in which we urge each other both to hang on to what anchors us and to let go of what holds us back.
To preserve the truth is first to guard the deposit we have inherited from our forebears in faith (see 2 Timothy 1:14). This obligation lies especially strongly upon those of us who are charged to interpret Scripture for the church – our task is not just to proclaim what biblical passages say to us, but to do so in light of what the great company of learned saints across space and time has heard the Spirit saying through these sacred writings. Biblical interpretation is subject to every kind of distortion and mayhem if it is sundered from the testimony of the cloud of witnesses who have proven faithful and fruitful in the work of the Lord. Presbytery embeds us in relationships that protect us from becoming idiosyncratic exegetes. Being part of an inter-congregational community of interpreters keeps us honest to the tradition we have inherited.
Yet preserving the truth doesn’t lock us down to sheer repetition of received orthodoxies. As Umberto Eco reminds us powerfully in his grand novel The Name of the Rose, church teaching is far more than “recapitulation, glorious recapitulation.” There is always a fresh wind of the Spirit blowing in both church and world, something that we can all too easily miss if we become isolated from each other. God is still working and speaking among us, challenging us to hear and see new things through ancient texts we have encountered numberless times. We need partners in ministry who alert us to new winds of the Spirit that we may otherwise never notice.
The truth of our faith needs to be preserved as much from stubborn calcification as it does from arbitrary reinvention. It is alive with ferment, even as it remains anchored to the strong foundation of a biblically grounded tradition. Left to our own lights, most of us tend toward one or the other of these poles – we are either traditionalists or innovators, either conservationists or experimentalists. Presbytery as a learning community assures that none of us leaning toward one pole or the other gets comfortable there without being challenged toward course correction, for the sake of the vitality of the church’s Gospel witness.
Keeping faith with the truth of the Gospel requires us, just as it did the apostles, both to remain firmly anchored in our biblical roots and to open ourselves to new movements of God’s Spirit, who is always doing things we never expected. For the first Christians, it meant staying true to the Lord of their forebears whose Unspeakable Name was embodied in the Messiah who declared himself “I AM,” while opening themselves to a new way of living that upended the ceremonial, dietary, and Sabbatarian commands enshrined in their Law.
Jesus shamelessly revealed himself as “the Truth” to his disciples. (John 14:6) The church’s call to preserve the truth is nothing less or more than a charge to keep faith with Jesus. Keeping faith with Jesus required that his disciples maintain apostolic community. Isolated from each other, none of them could keep faith with Jesus any better than Peter did when he stood alone in the high priest’s courtyard, repeatedly denying his Lord. (Matthew 26:69-75) What got Peter back on track is that he returned to the community of disciples, unlike his colleague Judas who died tragically in self-imposed isolation. (Matthew 27:3-5) In returning to his “presbytery” Peter found the resources he needed to remain faithful to his calling. If Peter needed his community to help him keep faith for the long haul, how much more do you and I need to be embedded in our own apostolic community if we are to keep faith with the Truth for which we are called to live and die?
Keeping the faith with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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