A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
February 28, 2019
Scriptures of both Testaments contain numerous passages underscoring human responsibility to obey God’s decrees, with the warning that failure to do so will cut us off from God. This thread stands in tension with the parallel biblical narrative of God’s covenant being an unconditional sovereign claim on us.
Last week I discussed the difference between biblical covenants and bilateral agreements. God sovereignly claims a people as God’s own, before they even know it – something dramatically signified by the visible sign of the covenant being administered to infants incapable of choosing God themselves. Yet time and again God warns that failure to keep divine commandments leads God’s people to destruction.
Scripture repeatedly contrasts the blessings lavished on the righteous from the curses cast upon the wicked. (See, for example, Psalm 1 and Luke 6:20-26) The classic expression of the difference our obedience to God’s covenant makes is Moses’ challenge to Israel recorded in Deuteronomy 27-28. Blessings are promised to the obedient, and curses to the disobedient, as they enter the Promised Land. They all receive the land of promise, but what they do there will lead to life or death. Moses’ warnings of curses greatly outweigh the promises of blessing. In the New Revised Standard Version, the blessings run 352 words, while the curses are spread over 1793 words.
Yet the overarching story of the Bible is that God persists in claiming us despite all our failures. Ancient Israel fails miserably to live up to God’s covenant, and they suffer greatly for their disobedience. Prophets cry out against their waywardness, promising destruction to those who depart from the Lord’s way. Yet as dire as their judgment may be, God relents again and again from executing it. God simply refuses to give up on them, no matter how grievously they fail to live according to God’s covenant.
After promising destruction to God’s faithless people, Hosea hears God speak a word that resonates with the closing sections of many Old Testament prophecies of divine judgment. No matter how great their disobedience, no matter how abundantly they deserve doom, God cannot discard them. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? …. My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
In the end, God cannot abandon us, no matter how faithless we may be. God’s love is even more tenacious than our waywardness, something powerfully dramatized in Francis Thompson’s classic poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” The Hebrew word describing God’s unquenchable love for us is one of the most important words in Holy Scripture: Chesed, most often translated “steadfast love.”
The ancient Prayer of Great Thanksgiving that gathers God’s people to the Lord’s Table includes a rehearsal of the many ways God has called us to repent and believe the Good News, first through the long line of prophets and finally through God’s only Son, Jesus. The prayer continues by acknowledging that we have turned away from God’s messengers, even to the point of killing them. Yet God keeps returning to us, never ceasing to give another chance to heed the invitation to trust in God rather than ourselves. God’s patient persistence in offering us opportunity to make things right knows no bounds.
We may give up on God, we may give up on ourselves, but God never gives up on us. This is what we underscore as Presbyterians when we choose as our central, distinctive theological hallmark the affirmation of God’s sovereign, holy love for us. (Book of Order F-2.05) It leads us in turn to live with each other in a way that reflects the same love. We love one another with holy tenacity because that is how God loves us. (1 John 4:11)
This does not mean we always live in blissful harmony. But it does mean that we commit ourselves to sticking together, no matter our differences. It leads us to grant every member equal opportunity to contribute to the welfare and mission of the church. Because of God’s sovereign, tenacious love for each and all of us, we hold that all members of the church are accorded equal dignity and voice in shaping the church’s life and witness. This is sometimes mistaken as simply a democratic polity. However, understood theologically, it is how people live together when they know that each of them is there only by virtue of God’s sovereign, tenacious call.
Yours in God’s grip,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister