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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part VII: Where Jesus Is
February 16, 2017

The presence of Christ is essential to the church’s existence. In setting forth the foundations of our life together, the Book of Order declares that “Where Christ is, there is the true Church.” (F-1.0303)

A congregation may have great programs to meet the needs of its members – but apart from the presence of Jesus Christ, those programs are not truly church ministries. A denomination may have excellent social policies – but apart from the presence of Jesus Christ, they are not truly church declarations. A presbytery may engage in robust outreach to the needy within its bounds – but apart from the presence of Jesus Christ, it is not truly church mission.

What makes our programs, policies, and mission truly “church” work is the living presence of Jesus Christ, directing and shaping and sustaining them through the Holy Spirit. How does the church remain vitally connected to the living presence of Jesus? First and foremost, it does so through the means of Word and Sacrament. When the Word of God is sincerely preached and heard, Jesus is present. When the Sacraments are rightly celebrated, Jesus is present. Only then are we truly the church. The Book of Order teaches that Word and Sacrament are two foundational “notes” of the Reformed church. (Ibid)
Word and Sacrament lead us to and ground us in the same thing, namely, the presence of Jesus. He is the eternal Word of God made personal. (John 1:1-14) We participate in his life, death, and resurrection in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

In addition to the central place of Word and Sacrament, the Book of Order lists a third essential “note” of the church – ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered. This linkage of Word, Sacrament, and discipline echoes the Scots Confession. (Book of Confessions 3.18) While John Calvin was certainly in favor of church discipline, his statement about the essential identity of the true church includes just the first two notes: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.9, tr. Henry Beveridge)

One of the most challenging questions Calvin and his colleagues faced at the beginning of the Reformation was how their communities could claim to be truly “church” when they were disconnected from the existing international church centered in Rome. Surely it was at the least a “patent violation” to claim a name that was already wholly owned by someone else. We can’t adopt even a website domain name that has already been claimed by someone else – how much more audacious to claim to be the “church” when the “church” already exists, and it disowns you to boot!

The Reformers contended that the true church’s existence inheres not in the presence of duly ordained ministers, nor in congregations attached to such ministers, nor in the organization that authorizes them, but in the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And how does he become present in the church today? By the Spirit, through Word and Sacrament. “Ecclesiastical discipline” is a supportive rather than primary feature of the true church. It does not itself present Jesus, but it keeps open the space, in the covenant fellowship of the saints, for the Word of God to be truly heard and the Sacraments to be rightly administered.

Calvin cautions that the church can to be too harsh as well as too lenient in its discipline, counsel his followers have not always heeded. He warns “against willful excess in demanding church discipline,” citing the ancient father Cyprian’s pastoral advice to church leaders in dealing with sin: “Let a man [that is, a church leader] mercifully correct what he can; let him patiently bear what he cannot correct, and groan and sorrow over it with love.” (Ibid 4.12.11, tr. Ford Lewis Battles)

The church’s identity is marked only secondarily by what it excludes by way of its discipline. Its essential character is rooted in what it includes whenever it gathers – the personal presence of Jesus, through the hearing of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, in the power of the Spirit.

Yours in the Spirit of Jesus,

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

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