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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Great Ends of the Church, Part III: Nurturing the Flock, Honoring the Shepherd
March 23, 2017

Last week I noted that the first of the “Great Ends” of the Church, which our Book of Order sets forth as foundational to our life together, is outward-focused. The church begins to live into its purpose by proclaiming the good news publicly, just as Jesus commanded his disciples as he left them. (Matthew 28:16-20)

While the other Gospel writers record Jesus’ final words as a commission to “go out” with the good news, the Gospel of John ends with Jesus’ call to Peter: “feed my lambs, …tend my sheep, …feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17) This inward focus on the Shepherd’s flock corresponds to the second of the Great Ends: “The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” (Book of Order F-1.0304).

We see this dual focus in Jesus himself. He is at the same time a bold public witness to the reign of God, and a tender shepherd that cares intimately for the welfare of each of his sheep.

Once, as a candidate for a pastoral position, I asked each member of the search committee what they considered the most important priority for their new pastor. I discovered that to make even this small group happy, their pastor would need to be available in the office daily, out in the community with various civic groups, visiting regularly in hospitals and in the homes of shut-ins and prospective members, a brilliant scholar and riveting teacher of Scripture, a dynamic preacher of the Gospel, someone who is quick to forgive others’ mistakes while embodying the highest standards of personal excellence, and so on. I withdrew from the search.

“The Great Ends of the Church” are not the pastor’s job description, but the vocation of the entire community. Christ’s call to proclaim the Gospel boldly and nurture the saints tenderly is a calling to the saints together. Some of them will excel in public ministry, others more in caring for one another. The pastor cannot do it all.

Each of three facets of the second Great End bears distinctive obligations:

Shelter – the church is a place of safety and refuge for all who seek it, no exceptions.
Nurture – the church cares for the needy among them, and assures that those in its care grow in faith and grace, especially its children.
Spiritual fellowship – not mere friendship, but sharing life in community, giving to and receiving from each other joyfully, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

The third Great End of the church is “the maintenance of divine worship.” This certainly includes the responsibility to hold regular public services of worship that inspire the community to love and serve God faithfully, thus serving both the outward and inward dimensions of church life. It falls first on the session to assure that the congregation is well served by strong regular ministry of prayer, word, and sacrament. The pastor may lead the church’s worship, but the session is responsible to assure that the church’s worship needs are being met, something made concrete in its mandate to approve celebrations of the church’s sacraments. (For more detail on the specific roles of sessions and of pastors in directing the church’s worship, see Book of Order sections G-3.0201 and W-1.4000.)

But more is at stake than simply assuring that the congregation has sound, vibrant public worship services. “Maintaining divine worship” means honoring God and God’s ways first. Always. It means vigilant resistance to all other idolatrous claims of ultimate loyalty – wealth, nation, race, privilege, ideology. It means, in short, following the way of Jesus in how we relate not only to God, but also to money, power, and politics.

Jesus is especially concerned about our tendency to worship wealth, to honor and protect above all else that which we consider “our” property. He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” than for the rich to enter the kingdom. (Mark 10:25) Again, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13) These texts are especially significant warnings to Presbyterians, who are on average the wealthiest among America’s denominations (having recently overtaken the Episcopalians in that dubious distinction).

How do we assure, in our presbytery as well as in our congregation, that we are more committed to honoring God rightly than to protecting our wealth?

Yours for the sake of God’s reign,

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

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