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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Death of the Church
March 24, 2016

It is Holy Week. We know Jesus is soon to die. We who live on the other side of Easter are able to take his death in stride, horrifying and shameful as it is. Knowing what happens at the end of the week helps us get through it without sinking into pits of despair.

Not only did Jesus die on this fateful week some 2000 years ago; so did his church. Sometimes Christians call Pentecost the birth of his church, but that puts it too late. The word ecclesia, which we translate “church,” means “called out.” When Jesus called his first followers, he founded his church. Peter. James. John. Nathanael. Judas. Levi. And so on. He called them to be his companions, and they became his church.

They stuck with him through thick and thin. That is, until the night of his arrest. Then his church crumbled. It had already been in decline, because his teachings were too hard to bear. (John 6:66) There was an uptick after he raised Lazarus, and an explosive revival on Palm Sunday. It proved ephemeral. No wonder Jesus wept that day – he knew that he couldn’t really count on this crowd to stick with him when the going got tough. He would be on his own, even though his closest followers swore they would never leave him.

Whether out of fear, grief, weariness, or disillusion, the major plot line of his church’s story during Holy Week is decay. At the hour he needs his church most, it disintegrates. None of its members are there to assist him in carrying his cross, so a stranger is conscripted to do what his church should be doing. God still uses strangers to do much that Jesus’ followers have abdicated.

Where is his church when he is crucified? They “stood at a distance, watching these things.” (Luke 23:49) They are no longer with him. The church has died.

Sometimes a church’s death is obvious – we close a congregation, we sell a building, we take its name off our rolls. But sometimes its death goes unnoticed. Some people are still there, but they have quit investing themselves in mission. They are standing at a distance from their missionary Master, even if they are physically together. They are watching, rather than doing.

Jesus’ death was not the end, though his disciples did not know that as it transpired. Nor was the death of his church along the Via Dolorosa its end. The disciples gathered again after he died – huddled in fear, doors locked, trying just to survive in a climate of hostility. They gathered not in answer to the Master’s call, but simply to take care of themselves.

When was Christ’s church reborn? On the road to Emmaus, Easter afternoon, when two of his followers once again heard his call, and left their home to run and tell others. As would be the case ever after, the first meeting of the “church reborn” was marked by Scripture, Table, and Prayer. And it shot its members out like a cannon, on a mission to rearrange the world with Jesus.

I see and hear much anxiety and fear when church rolls dwindle. We huddle in fear, like the disciples on the day after Jesus’ death. Our survival becomes our all-consuming priority. And Jesus restarts the church on “the road to Emmaus,” a street leading away from us.

Jesus let his church die 2000 years ago, just as he let himself die. Could it be that he was driven by the same conviction for his church as what he had for his own self, that death would not be the end, but the beginning of something far greater than anyone lining the road to Golgotha could imagine?

We worry far too much about the church’s death. We compare our current sorry state with our former glory, and wail our grief for all the world to hear and see. (And we wonder why the world doesn’t find our church attractive.) We who know the story of Easter ought to know better, one might think.

Resurrection happens. To Jesus and to his church alike. It happens because the Spirit of God is still moving across the face of the earth, calling forth something from nothing, snatching life out of the jaws of death. The last thing in the world that the church needs to fear is its death.

But right now, in Holy Week, all we see is the shrinking and the dying. It feels like it must be the end of the story. But is it? Really? Thank God, no!

Called by the Master,

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

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