A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Witnesses to the Resurrection
April 26, 2018
For several years I was privileged to read the exams of candidates seeking ordination. This was long before technology permitted candidates to take and readers to grade examinations online. Regional teams of presbytery-appointed representatives holed up for a week in a hotel to read exams, coached by grading pros and consulting with each other often. One of the ordination exams is always on “Worship and Sacraments,” and usually there is at least one question related to the conduct of funerals. We were coached to look first for the candidate to note that, for Presbyterians, the funeral or memorial service is named a “Service of Witness to the Resurrection.” Failure to make that explicit immediately downgraded the candidate’s essay.
It can seem ironic that we mark death with witness to resurrection. One might reasonably expect that the message of the living Lord applies better to those who are alive than to those who are dead. Yet, in Jesus’ economy, it is precisely in death that the seed of resurrection is sown. In foretelling the necessity of his own death and resurrection, Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Only through death is his promise of new life is unleashed.
The New Testament speaks of many who bore eyewitness that Jesus had risen from the dead. Five hundred in one place, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. Easter narratives tell of other witnesses: Women who sought to anoint his body. Disciples who huddled in fear, or dejectedly walked the long road home. Those who saw him eat, who testified to seeing the scars from his mortal wounds. All were eyewitnesses to his resurrection. Yet their stories of seeing the risen Lord are granted precious little ink in apostolic memoirs.
Instead, apostolic writings go to great length recounting the apostles’ sermons about the resurrection. They considered the message of what Jesus’ resurrection means for us far more important than precise documentation of Jesus’ words and deeds during the days after Easter.
Easter’s primary significance is the difference it makes for believers who never saw the risen Lord, and who have only fragmentary eyewitness testimony from those present at his post-resurrection appearances. Don’t you wish they had said more about what happened between Easter and Pentecost? Jesus says that there is even more blessing for those who trust the resurrection without seeing the risen Lord than there was for those who saw him with their own eyes. (John 20:29)
The most important witness to the resurrection is the transformation of those who trust that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells also in them. (Romans 8:11) They demonstrate that trust more by how they live in the face of death than by how they live when life is good. The word “martyr” is a Greek word that literally means “witness.”
This is as true for the church collectively as for Christians individually. When Paul speaks of the resurrecting Spirit dwelling “in you” in Romans 8:11, “you” is plural, signifying that the resurrecting Spirit quickens the whole body of believers, not just isolated individuals.
Churches are always on the road to their own death. No congregation is immortal. No matter how robust it seems, there is never any guarantee of its future. And when expenses outrun income, and losses exceed gains, a narrative of decline emerges and can quickly escalate. Precisely then, its witness to the resurrection can and should be at its strongest.
While no congregation or denomination is immortal, Jesus says that the church as a whole will never die. The gates of hell, the portal of death, cannot swallow it. (Matthew 16:18)
Truly Christian witness to the resurrection regards mortal life and death as far less significant than unquenchable trust in the power of the resurrected Lord. Like Paul, it cares little for whether we live or die, because in either case, we belong to the risen Lord. (Romans 14:8) This is as true for congregations and denominations as it is for each individual believer.
In my work, I encounter many congregations anxious about their survival. The good part about that is that their congregations mean a great deal to them. They have nurtured them, comforted them, encouraged them, and so much more. I sympathize with them greatly, and seek with them pathways of survival. Yet I also encourage them that their witness to the resurrection can and will continue regardless of whether their congregation needs to shutter its doors. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the risen Lord. In his resurrection lies our own sure hope of resurrection. Death is not the final word, thanks be to God!
In resurrection hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters and sermons.