by Rob Weingartner
In less than two weeks I will be in Oryol, Russia, serving as one of the teachers in a training program for Baptist pastors. In Russia, The Outreach Foundation works with partners in both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches. Because we remember Jesus’ prayer in John 17, Outreach often finds itself working across denominational boundaries and barriers. Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
The focus of my teaching with the pastors will be the manner in which Paul used his letters to help shape witnessing communities whose purpose was to continue the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that brought the communities into existence in the first place. Unfortunately, in a society in which we are constantly invited to focus on our own comfort and convenience, congregations too often lose sight of the fact that we don’t exist for the sake of ourselves.
Each of Paul’s letters, at one point or another, comes to the point where he pivots from describing the Gospel to describing its implications for the community that is called to bear witness to Jesus. In Romans, Paul’s exposition moves from 1) The Sin of Humankind to 2) the Grace of God, and then we encounter in Romans 12 the pivot when Paul writes therefore, and then 3) the Christian Ethic.
Paul has this unshakeable conviction that our lives will be different if we belong to Christ and thereby to each other, and that that difference is the first expression of our witness to others. For Presbyterians this reality is expressed in the last of what are called the Great Ends of the Church – “The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” Throughout Paul’s letters he focuses on how the gospel is at work in the relationships of the community, encouraging them “to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” (Col 1:10).
Part of what the world notices is how the members of the church act towards each other, how we speak of each other and treat one another. One of Paul’s concerns in writing to the Philippians was a public disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know what their issue was, but they are forever remembered for not being of the same mind! Paul exhorts the communities to which he writes to “shine like stars in the world.” (Phil 2:15). This is not for their own sake, but for the integrity of their witness to Jesus, the One who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
What does the world see when it looks at my congregation? What does it see when it looks at my life and my relationships? By God’s grace may it increasingly be oneness, love and living for the sake of others.