A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
November 5, 2015
We have been exploring how 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, working cooperatively to glorify God rightly, keeping faith with the One who is Truth itself, and collaborating for social justice. Today we move to the final of the “great ends” – exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.
What exactly is this kingdom that the church is called to exhibit? From the visions of Isaiah to those of John the Revelator, biblical prophets consistently witness that God’s reign is marked first and foremost by unexpected manifestations of shalom: Wolves lie down with lambs. (Isaiah 11:6) It is manifest by cessation of hostilities, as swords are beaten into plowshares. (Micah 4:3) There is abundance for all people, not just for some: “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6) All social and economic stratifications melt: “They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.” (Jeremiah 31:34) Tears are forever dried. (Revelation 21:4)
Artists have long sought to depict this world, perhaps most famously the noted 19th-century Pennsylvania artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks. These portrayals usually feel utterly phantasmal, because the biblical vision is so far from our real-world experience of economic disparity, racism and sexism, warmongering, violation of the innocent, bullying, and disparagement of those who differ from us. The world as we know it seems almost the diametric opposite of the kingdom of heaven as declared by prophets and imagined by artists.
Take a close look at the most celebrated Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom” painting. Everything is wrong. Colonists and native peoples open arms to each other with tokens of peace, yet they continue to maintain their distinctive ways and appearance. Children frolic with leopards and tigers and goats and calves. A cow and a bear share a stalk of corn, a wolf protects a lamb. Each of the figures remains true to its identity, each has all it needs, without any need to vanquish the other.
When we accept and exhibit mutual behaviors characteristic of the kingdoms of this world as “normal” for the church, rather than living in the ways of the kingdom of heaven, we betray the Gospel we proclaim. When we cast aspersion on members of our community whose opinions differ from ours, we betray the Gospel we proclaim. When we shun the strangers who dwell or seek to dwell among us, we betray the Gospel we proclaim. When we turn a blind eye toward ongoing racism and sexism among us, we betray the Gospel we proclaim. When we hoard rather than share the abundance God has given us, we betray the Gospel we proclaim.
Individual congregations are voluntary associations, primarily comprising people who are more alike than not. Congregations tend to be affinity groups. We cluster with those most like us – in race, in economics, in politics, in theology, and so on. We Presbyterians take pride in considering ourselves champions of shalom-amid-diversity, yet most of our congregations remain largely homogeneous.
Presbytery, as a covenant community of congregations that differ significantly from each other, gives us opportunity to exhibit publicly the kingdom of heaven in ways that a homogeneous congregation simply cannot. When congregations very unlike each other can still worship together and work together in mission across all the lines that polarize the world, we demonstrate the truth of our claim that God in Christ reconciles us – both to God, and to each other, especially those with whom we are least likely to lie down or sit at table. It is precisely because we are so different from each other that we have opportunity to exhibit most authentically the kingdom of heaven. Alas, we have often responded to our differences by questioning or even attacking the integrity of congregations or presbyters who differ from us. We have even sometimes broken fellowship over such differences, thereby greatly diminishing our public credibility as Gospel witnesses.
Presbytery is not an impediment to our free proclamation of the Gospel, but a gift that can enhance greatly the authenticity and power of our witness. When we love each other amid our differences as presbyters and congregations, when we pray and work together across the polarities that divide and paralyze the world around us, we exhibit publicly the kingdom of heaven far more compellingly than we could ever do as single congregations. For the sake of our Lord Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, may it be truly so!
Grateful that we’re in this together,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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