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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Gathered and Scattered
April 19, 2018

As we continue to dwell in the Easter stories, we see two themes emerge simultaneously. First, we notice the urge to gather. That was the disciples’ first instinct after Jesus’ crucifixion, as they huddled together in a locked room to comfort each other and to protect themselves. Together they found strength to carry on at a time when none of them could go it alone. According to Luke, Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples as he prepared to ascend into heaven was the command to remain gathered as they awaited the Spirit’s outpouring. (Acts 1:4, 12-14)

Yet there is a second post-Easter theme that runs in the opposite direction. Their gathering was not their final destiny. Jesus said that as his disciples gathered in Jerusalem, they would become filled with the Spirit to propel them to bear witness to him in their city, region, and worldwide. Matthew confirms this movement when he records Jesus directing his disciples to gather in Galilee, from where he sends them worldwide with his “great commission.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Jesus had already established this pattern of gathering and scattering during his days of ministry with them. He gathered the twelve “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message.” (Mark 3:14) When he sent out seventy disciples to proclaim his message and perform his works, they returned to report to him all that had transpired. (Luke 10:1-12, 17-20) Gather. Send. Gather. Send. This is the rhythm of Easter ministry.

Paul and his colleagues maintain this pattern, gathering in Jerusalem and Antioch to be strengthened in their faith, then being sent out around the world to bear witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Each time they return home to report on their journeys, to be strengthened through the mutual encouragement of apostolic fellowship, then they are sent out again.

Here is the point. The church of Jesus is always at the same time a body of local believers gathered for mutual encouragement and admonition, and a mission agency reaching out to neighborhood, region, and beyond to bear public witness in Jesus’ name. The church that gathers in Jesus’ name is the same one as the church that sends out in his name. We are called to be part of one another just as surely when we are following Christ’s call far away from each other, as when we are gathered in the same room.

For the church of the risen Lord, there is no such thing as “out of sight, out of mind.” We are as substantively joined in bonds of fellowship and service when we are in different time zones as we are when we are all under one roof. Local members of the body of Christ cannot say of others in the room, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:20-26) By the same token, congregations cannot say that of each other, and local faith communities cannot say that of regional or national bodies of which they are part.

Whether we are gathered together in worship and mutual nurture as a congregation or presbytery, or scattered in mission regionally, nationally, or internationally, we are all bound in one body, with one ministry, serving one Lord, united in one Spirit, with one hope, committed to one purpose.

We must relentlessly resist the tendency to splinter into separate, isolated congregational communities. The church that seeks to be faithful and fruitful in Christ’s mission must own its need to work together with other arms of the church, even as it seeks to bear effective witness in its particular location.

In two weeks, our presbytery is gathering to worship and work together, so we may scatter to serve our Lord better in our various congregations. Will you be there? I hope so! (You can reserve your dinner spot here.) Then, the following month our General Assembly meets in St. Louis. Again, the church will gather together so it can be more effective in ministry when it scatters back to its home settings.

Whether or not we are gathered together in presbytery or synod or General Assembly, we remain vitally linked to one another. Whether absent or present, we need each other more than we know. It is only from a place of unity that we can move effectively into a divided world with the Gospel message that transforms the world with the power of the Spirit.

Yours in Easter transformation,

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

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