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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Urgent Need for (and trouble with) Companions
March 8, 2018

Jesus’ journey to the cross, which we seek consciously to join during Lent, is anything but a solo affair. He offers his followers plenty of opportunity to retreat to safety. He will have nothing of their attempts to dissuade him from pressing on, to the point that he responds to Peter by calling him “Satan” for doing so. (Mark 8:33) Yet, while offering them the option of leaving him, he depends greatly on them to strengthen him for his journey.

Mark tells us that Jesus’ first purpose in calling the Twelve was simply “to be with him.” (Mark 3:14) He needed holy companions, people on whom he could count to be there for him and with him day in and day out. He had many followers other than the Twelve, but the Twelve formed his core cadre. He drew strength from them, even as he transformed them. Their transformation took time – it wasn’t really complete until after he left them – but their companionship strengthened him even when their transformation lagged.

If Jesus needed companions on his journey, how much more do we? As he came closer to the cross, his need for their company increased, as he pled with them repeatedly to keep watch with him on the night of his arrest. Eventually, he had to stand alone before the religious and secular authorities in what passed for a trial. But nowhere along his journey to that day do we see him alone, except on the instances when he went off on his own to pray.

Having company is not always a bed of roses. Sometimes Jesus must have thought, in effect, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” They tried to thwart his determination to embrace the cross. They bickered among themselves. They sought to protect him from the people he came to serve. They offer us a rich portrait of both sublime sainthood and shared sinfulness. Being in company with Jesus did not guarantee their sanctity, and being in company with each other sometimes only amplified their defects.

In his classic treatise Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr observes that being in company with each other can lead otherwise noble individuals into immorality they would never engage on their own. Human relations confirm this again and again, from the complicity of entire nations in monstrous horrors (e.g. Germans and the Holocaust; Americans and Slavery), to the tragedy of fraternity hazing rituals that lead pledges to their deaths. There is a dark possibility in every companionship pact.

It was Jesus’ companions that betrayed and denied him in the end. The cry of the psalmist came to full crescendo for Jesus in his final hours: “It’s bad enough for my enemies to oppose me; but you, my best friend, turned against me!” (Psalm 55:12-14, my paraphrase) To engage companionship is to risk betrayal. What we need desperately for our strength can be the very thing that tries us the hardest.

Jesus knew all of this on the day he chose the Twelve. Yet he plunged on ahead. The rewards were greater than the risks. He knew it is more dangerous to be alone than to risk betrayal. In the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson in his epic poem In Memoriam, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

As we walk this Lenten journey together with our companions, we must confess that we have sinned both against our Lord and against each other. We have not always been a source of strength and aid to one another. We have abandoned each other over trivial matters. We have downtrodden the least among us rather than lifting them up. God have mercy on us!

Now hear our Lord’s almost incomprehensible words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He doesn’t give up on his own, but loves them to the end, knowing full well they will abandon him in his final, darkest hour. For them he prays, “Father, forgive them.” For us, in all the ways we sin against each other and form unholy compacts with one another, abandoning him in the process, he prays, “Father, forgive them.” With Jesus, grace never quits. Come to the foot of the cross, beloved ones. Come and hear him praying. For you. For me. For us. Forever.

Yours in holy wonder,

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

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