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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Great Ends of the Church, Part V: The Church’s Public Face
April 6, 2017

The final two of the six “Great Ends” of the church that are foundational to our life together (Book of Order F-1.0304) are:

As we discussed earlier, some of these Great Ends focus outward, while others focus inward. Promotion of social righteousness is primarily about outward action, while exhibition of the Kingdom points inward first, then outward.  

Of the six Great Ends, our denomination is especially devoted to number five, promotion of social righteousness. We care deeply about justice, whether at home or across the globe. Be it with Palestinians cut off from access to their homes and human services, migrant harvesters receiving little for backbreaking labor, racial profiling, discrimination against sexual minorities, or exploitation of tribal lands by profiteers (and the list goes on), Presbyterians are quick to rally against public injustice.

Alas, we have much greater difficulty with the final Great End, exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Let’s be honest – we have failed it miserably. When the world looks at the church, it should see evidence that here God’s will is being done, on earth as in heaven.

As a holy thought experiment, I invite us to imagine ourselves as the church that fulfills this final, summative Great End….

Our life together exhibits the righteousness, peace, and joy that characterize God’s realm. (Romans 14:17) Our instinct to promote public justice reflects the prevailing righteousness within our own house. Our public peacemaking is an outward extension of the shalom that suffuses our fellowship. Our gatherings are so full of the joy of the Lord that our members revel in every opportunity to be together.

We are reconciled to each other because we have been reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Walls of hostility that divide people in the world are shattered by the cross; there is no such thing as a “red church” versus a “blue church.” The unity that Jesus prays for prevails among us; we do not let differences of preference or opinion cause us to separate. (2 Corinthians 5:11-21; Ephesians 2:13-18; John 17:20-24; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

We are confident in our Lord’s forgiveness because we have already forgiven each other. (The New Revised Standard Version gets it right: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”) We love one another as Jesus loved us, with a love that believes the best of each other, is never envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. (John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

A photo of our gatherings visibly demonstrates that all are welcome and treasured in our fellowship. People of all ages and ethnicities and abilities are present and active among us. The only condition for membership is confession of Jesus as Lord. That confession is tangibly evident in our family photo, which looks very much like the picture of those who surrounded Jesus in his lifetime. Here the outcast of the world find sanctuary, dignity, and wholeness amid its movers and shakers.

The world can’t figure us out. We don’t hoard things to ourselves, but share them gladly with each other. The love we profess for God and neighbor is tangibly demonstrated by not only tolerating, but welcoming and honoring people whose politics and ideologies differ from our own. We trust one another with our very lives. The cynicism and anger that run rampant around us find no root among us. In a world haunted and ruled by fear, we are free from anxiety. We know that God cares for us in life and in death, because we experience that care from one another.

Just imagine the world-transforming possibilities of such a church! In fact, we don’t have to leave it only to the imagination, because this was indeed the public face of the church in the ancient Roman world, and it turned that world upside down. How did we get to where we are from there? What would it take for the church to regain that public face in today’s world?

We hang on to our status quo far too tightly. Our attachments make it impossible live in the way of this Kingdom. Jesus was right about this – those with much to lose find it hard to enter the Kingdom. We might cry out with the Twelve, “Then who can be saved?” For mortals it is impossible, Jesus replies. For churches marked more by mortal things than godly things, it is impossible to exhibit the kingdom. Impossible, that is, but for God. Jesus continues, “For God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:23-27)

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh upon us!

For the sake of God’s reign,

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

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