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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Offices of the Church, Part IV
August 9, 2018

In recent weeks we have explored how the “offices of Christ” are exercised also by the Church. We attribute to Jesus the offices of “Prophet, Priest, and King.” Our study has focused on the ways in which the Church, the living body of Christ on earth, participates in those forms of Christly ministry. Having earlier considered the Church’s prophetic office and priestly office, we turn now to the significance of claiming a “royal office” for the Church.

It is noteworthy that, in his earthly ministry, Jesus is called neither the “son of Moses” nor the “son of Aaron,” who were respectively the archetypes of prophetic and priestly ministry for the people of Israel. Instead, Jesus is called the “son of David,” signifying his royal ministry as being supremely significant to the people of his time.

More than once, Jesus’ followers try to crown him king, something he adamantly resists. (John 6:15; 12:13) Only at his trial on the eve of his execution does he acknowledge his identity as “king,” leading Pilate to affix to his cross a sign inscribed “King of the Jews.” His purported royalty is mocked by his crucifiers, who affix to his head a “crown” of thorns and clothe him with a “royal” purple tunic, bow to him in mocked homage, then taunt him as he hangs on the cross. (Mark 15:18-19; Luke 23:36-37; John 19:19)

The nature of Jesus’ kingship is the absolute inverse of the ordinary exercise of royal power. It is a power to serve, rather than being served. It is a power marked by laying down his life for others, rather than by demanding that others lay down their lives for him. It is a power to live unencumbered by worldly trappings rather than aggregating wealth. It is a power that locates its throne on a cross rather than in a palace. And it is an exercise of power that he charges his followers to emulate. When the Church embodies Jesus’ royal office, it will likewise exercise that office in ways that are utterly contrary to worldly ways of wielding power. (Mark 10:42-45)

Yet, for all its difference from worldly rule, Christ’s kingship achieves fully what worldly rule strives to achieve unsuccessfully. That is, the primary task of rulers is to provide for the vibrant welfare of their entire domain. Shelter from harm. Sufficient provision for all material needs. Welcome to strangers. Comfort for the wounded and grieving. Genuine equity for all.

A Church that fulfills its Christ-like royal office will be a community that displays these traits within its precincts. Church will be a safe place, a welcoming place, a just place, a nurturing place, a comforting place.

Jesus’ royal invitation to those who seek his succor never grows old: “Come! Come all you weary, all you burdened. With me you will find gentleness, rest, and new purpose. You will be free to cease all your striving.” (Matthew 11:28-30, my rendering)

The Church’s royal office is to offer the same invitation to the world – to members, neighbors, and strangers alike. It fulfills its royal office when it provides rest for the weary, harbor for the storm-tossed, freedom to the burdened, and direction to the aimless. Whether by locking people out or burning people out, the Church ceases to bear its royal office when participation in its fellowship becomes more of a burden than a blessing, when it sets more obstacles than it opens pathways.

Theologian Alfred Loisy famously quipped in 1902, “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” He was suggesting that while Jesus came to found a movement, his followers formed instead an institution. When the Church ceases being part of Jesus’ royal ministry to the weary and burdened, it becomes a human institution like any other, focused more on its own preservation than upon its mission of emancipation. How is it for us in our congregation? Our presbytery? Our denomination?

Yours in following King Jesus,

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

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