A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Great Ends of the Church, Part II: Going Public
March 16, 2017
As we examine the Great Ends of the Church, which our Book of Order considers foundational to our life together (F-1.0304), we begin by noticing that some of them make claims on how we live within the fellowship of the church, and some specify the way we live and speak in relation to the world around us.
The first of the six Great Ends is outward-directed. The church exists first of all for “Proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.” It reflects Jesus’ “great commission” to his disciples as he prepares to leave them. (Matthew 28:16-20)
Some of us come from places where “evangelism” and “revivals” are virtually synonymous. The call to repent and believe the good news is aimed first at those already within the circle of the church, but whose fervency of commitment to Jesus has waned. “Getting right with God” is preached first to the saints. And often it goes little further.
Proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind is an activity to be pursued beyond the walls of the church. It is only partly a matter of sharing words; it is at least as importantly a matter of actions.
Some actions speak so fully that words are not necessary. An old saying that some attribute to Saint Francis counsels us, “Always preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.”
When our actions say something different from our words, our witness loses its credibility. When we declare that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that we have been given this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-20), but we relate to others who trust in Jesus with contempt or dismissal, our actions speak louder than our words. When we proclaim a Savior who is merciful but don’t show mercy to people whose lives are all messed up, our actions speak louder than our words.
“Gospel” is our translation of a Greek word that means literally “good news.” Is our public proclamation a declaration of good news to those who have known all too much bad news in their lives, or do we jump on the bad news bandwagon ourselves? We don’t need to tell the world how lost it is, how far it falls short of God’s intention, or how disordered its relationships are. It already knows all is not well. The Good News is that we can be set on new life-giving pathways amid a death-dealing world by the grace of God revealed in Jesus. We can start over, we can begin anew, no matter how long and far we have strayed. No matter how badly off track we are, we can be set right by Jesus! This is the literal meaning of repentance – setting our course in a new direction.
What is the “salvation” we proclaim? Etymology provides some clues. The root word of “salvation” is “salve,” the balm that heals. It is making whole the broken, lifting up the downtrodden, rescuing the losers and the lost. Another version of the word is “salvage” – I like to think of salvation as God’s salvage operation. God takes that which has been discarded as rubbish, and grants it new worth and dignity. We are God’s artwork, says Paul (Ephesians 2:10, New Jerusalem Bible). God is like an artist that collects trash from the landfill and refashions it into sculptures that become prized for their beauty. The life of Jesus is a constant testimony that the Gospel is all about taking those who have been discarded, disowned, or shut down, and granting them a new dignity and loveliness – lepers, Gentiles, women, tax collectors, Samaritans, children, ruffians, thieves, adulterers, and the list goes on.
Is the news we proclaim publicly in word and deed truly good? Does it offer salve to the wounded, and salvage to rejects? Does it proclaim faithfully that, with Jesus, a change in course is always possible, no matter how far we have wandered? The church is called first to be a place of refuge for those who are on the run, rather than a fortress to protect those already within. God’s reign is near! Renovation of broken lives and of a broken world is already underway! Declaring this boldly and joyfully is foundational to the church’s identity and calling.
Rejoicing in Good News,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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