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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part III: Faith, Hope & Love – Cornerstones for the Church
January 19, 2017

Foundational to the church’s life and witness is that it lives and works not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world to the glory of God. In fact, according to the Foundations of our life together that are explicated at the beginning of our Book of Order, it does so “even at the risk of losing its own life.” (F-1.0301) “Staying alive” may be a catchy pop song, and it may be a core quest in the Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest. But it is not a measure of success for followers of the One who says that only in dying do we become truly fruitful. (John 12:24)

When a congregation’s survival becomes its primary goal, it ceases being the church as our Lord ordained it. Staying alive at all costs, regardless of quality of life, is an option that few of us choose when it comes to our advance directives for our personal health care. Yet sometimes congregations use every means available just to stay alive at all costs.

Down to a small handful of members, one of our congregations voted to sell their building and distribute the proceeds to mission work in their community, especially focusing on ministry to children in poverty. Once they had given away everything in their bank account to worthy causes, they determined that it was time to dissolve. They spent their remaining resources, not on prolonging their congregation’s survival (they could have afforded pulpit supply for years to come), but on meeting their community’s needs.

Jesus’ call to lay down our lives, for his sake and that of the Gospel, is more than a personal call to us individually. It applies to us collectively. Embracing the invitation to die for the sake of that which truly lasts is a corporate challenge, not merely an individual one. The church is called to be a “community of faith” in this precise sense – a community that trusts its very life into the hands of the One who is Lord over death and life alike. It is willing to take risks, even to the point of laying down its life.

Because it has such bold faith, the church can be a beacon of hope in the midst of all circumstances, a manifestation of love that conquers all estrangements, and a clarion witness to a Word that transforms humanity no matter how stubborn we may be. This is the essence of the church’s foundational calling, according to our Book of Order. (F-1.0301)

“Faith, hope, and love; …and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) We know the formula well, and affirm it regularly as the gold standard of personal Christian living. But it’s not just personal. In fact, it is not first of all personal, but corporate. Personal commitments to faith, hope, and love are rooted and nurtured in a community that is so ordered corporately. 1 Corinthians 13 is situated in the heart of a longer discourse (1 Corinthians 12-14) that is all about how the church lives, worships, and reaches out in mission together.

Regrettably, Christian appeal to the norm of “faith, hope, and love” has become formulaic. The power of that commitment gets glossed over, its revolutionary reality obscured. So I propose synonyms that sharpen our sense of what we are being called to embrace:

Living in this way before God is foundational for personal spiritual integrity. And living in this way vis-à-vis one another is foundational for being a healthy Christian church. Do we trust one another, exhibiting confidence in each other’s good will? Do we live more for the benefit of one another and for those in our wider community than for ourselves? To the extent that we can honestly reply “Yes!” the church rests on a solid foundation.

Yours in faith, hope, and love,

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

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