A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Whatever It Takes
April 28, 2016
Over the forty days between his resurrection and ascension, we see Jesus doing whatever it takes to get his disciples ready to embrace their apostolic calling. During this season Jesus does what he has all along declined to do – he proves himself to skeptics this way and that.
Prior to his death, he consistently refuses to acquiesce to demands that he prove himself. Even as he hangs to die, his enemies taunt him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Then they turn to each other, “He saved others, he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:39-42)
But after his resurrection, he shows his piercings to doubting Thomas, and follows with “many convincing proofs” to those still struggling to believe. (Acts 1:3) He eats with them to establish that he is not a mere ghost. Jesus is not anxious about whether his disciples are fully prepared to carry his mission forward – according to Matthew, some of them still doubt as he prepares to leave them, and Luke shows them still getting his mission wrong at the time of his ascension. (Matthew 28:17; Acts 1:6-7) None of this stops him from leaving them. Still, he does all he can to demonstrate that he is indeed risen.
Many years later, Paul declares similarly, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Both Jesus and Paul are willing to do whatever it takes to advance the good news of God’s redeeming love for the world.
During Easter we celebrate the One who offered “many convincing proofs” of his identity to those who loved him, yet had their reservations. He did so, not because he was inclined to prove himself to skeptics, but because he loved his followers enough that he was ready to give them whatever they needed in order to fulfill their calling.
Sometimes I wonder whether we are more likely to reach out to people who are willing to become like us, than to adjust ourselves to those who are different from us in order to reach them with the Gospel. It may be something as simple as dress codes. Or more subtly, we may have social or cultural expectations to which we expect compliance. Back in my pastoral days, I loved dearly my sister on the worship committee who said, “Well, if they want that in their worship, they can go down the street to another church. This is how we worship.” As much as I loved her, I grieved that she was unwilling to adjust “our” ways to meet “their” needs.
Several years ago one of our congregations reported a dramatic shift in their understanding of their relationship with their neighbors who frequented their food and clothing pantry. They used to speak of those folk as “them” – outsiders to whom they extended a helping hand. But they learned that it was crucial to welcome them as part of their church community. I called it “ussing” those to whom we are reaching out. They are not “them,” but “us.”
We may be eager to welcome those different from us – so long as they are ready to accommodate their ways to ours. But are we willing to change our ways when the situation requires, just as Jesus, after his resurrection, changed his pattern of resisting all requests for signs to prove himself? Are we prepared like Paul to accommodate ourselves to others in order to reach them with the Gospel?
After the church council in Jerusalem declared that God did not require Gentiles to be circumcised (Acts 15:1-19), Paul traveled widely to communicate this decision abroad. Along the way, he encountered a bright young Gentile believer named Timothy, whom he invited to join his entourage. Even though the purpose of the trip was to communicate the apostles’ decision that circumcision is no longer necessary, Paul decided to circumcise Timothy in order to pave the way for their outreach among the Jews. (Acts 16:1-5) Similarly, Paul was later willing to undergo a ceremonial purification ritual in order that he might have access to the religious community that otherwise would shun him. (Acts 21:17-26)
Where have we been willing to go beyond our comfort zones, historic norms, and theological affinities to reach out for the sake of the Gospel? I would love to hear if you have stretched in such ways for our Lord’s sake. Let’s encourage one another in this demanding task of being true to the call of our Risen Lord!
Your partner in whatever it takes,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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