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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Who Are You?
August 31, 2017

In my first church, where I served as a pastoral assistant, there was a standard practice of introducing new members to the congregation at the end of worship by asking them to tells us their names, where they lived, and how they were employed. I was appalled the first time I witnessed this, as a group of new members went down the line introducing themselves. One was a physician here, another a professor there, still another a lawyer with this firm, etc. All were white collar, highly-educated professionals living in expensive neighborhoods – until the last one, a landscaper living in the inner city. He appeared to shrink before our very eyes as he mumbled what he did and where he lived.

Sometimes congregations similarly identify themselves by what they do, or where they do it. “A vibrant suburban community supporting families of busy professionals.” “An inner-city church committed to relieve the plight of the poor and oppressed.” “A missionary center proclaiming boldly the light of the Gospel to a darkened world.” “A congregation that advocates for justice for those marginalized by family status, ethnic background, or sexual orientation.”

All of these are good and worthy foci. They are integral to our mission. But they are not our identity. Confusing between who we are and what we do as the church of Jesus Christ is a perennial challenge.

Function flows from identity. We learn this from the God of Israel, who is revealed to Moses at the burning bush not in terms of what God does, but of who God is. YHWH. (Exodus 3:14-15) God’s name is the essence of God’s identity. It is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” that can be roughly translated, “Who was, Who is, and Who always shall be.” It is the identity of Jesus recorded in Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ …the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The Name, YHWH, is sometimes appended with particular functions: healing (Exodus 15:26), standard-bearing (Exodus 17:15), watch-keeping (Genesis 16:13), to name just a few. But as important as these various functions may be, they are all rooted in the Lord’s identity – the One always present to us and for us, no matter what we may do or what may happen to us.

So who are we, as a congregation? As a presbytery? As a denomination? Who we are is even more basic than what we do. What we do flows out of who we are.

Let me suggest some very basic identity markers for us as the church of Jesus Christ:

  1. We are God’s beloved, chosen by God before the foundation of the world to be a community of holiness and love. (Ephesians 1:4)

  2. We are God’s children, heirs of heaven’s riches. (Romans 8:16-17)

  3. We are God’s artwork, fashioned to bring glory to God by our work for the healing of the world around us. (Ephesians 2:10, New Jerusalem Bible)

  4. We are God’s own; we do not belong to ourselves. (1 Corinthians 6:19)

When I became pastor at another church, I determined that we would introduce new members not with their professional identity, but with their Christian identity. Toward that end, I asked each to tell us their name, where they were baptized, and their previous congregation of membership. That was enough. It is enough for all of us.

“What do you do?” It may be an appropriate ice-breaking question at a party. But it says little about who we really are. Imagine a church in which all that mattered is our identity – God’s beloved, God’s children, God’s artwork, God’s own. Everything else flows from that. Can we be such a church? With God’s help, we can. Indeed, we must.

Yours in our shared identity,

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

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