Trusting the Sovereignty of God

Trusting the Sovereignty of God

Address to the Commissioner Convocation Dinner

213th General Assembly
Louisville, KY
June 8, 2001
Sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

 The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg
Immediate Past President
Columbia Theological Seminary
Moderator of the 210th General Assembly

Excerpts from this address appear in Covenant Connection Vol. 4, #3.

In one of the Covenant Network newsletters, this dinner was listed as one of the “mood-setting” events for this General Assembly. Such a description reminds me of soft music, which I haven’t heard yet, and glowing, romantic candles, which I haven’t yet seen.

I would rather think of this event as a “tone-setting” event, for “tone” speaks more to me of attitude and perspective than of an emotional mood. And I do believe that all of us, commissioners and visitors alike, should adopt a particular tone, a particular attitude as we approach this Assembly, a tone and attitude that comes from our basic Christian convictions about the sovereignty of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the sinfulness and fallibility of all human beings.

Let me illustrate. If we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, which of course we do, that only God is absolute, then we must never allow anything to become absolute in our life and insist that everything is open to reformation. If we are obedient to the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me,” then we must never allow anything, any creed, any theological affirmation, any Church, any position of the General Assembly, to become absolute, including G-60106.

Robert McAfee Brown called this “the spirit of Protestantism” and Paul Tillich called it “the Protestant principle.” It is the insistence that no object of partial loyalty may be transformed into an object of ultimate loyalty, because only God is sovereign.

I want to suggest that this Protestant principle is the fundamental perspective and perch and spirit, the underlying principle, the deep conviction that influences the way we should look at everything. It provides the basis for our being a Church that is “Reformed but always being reformed,” and it should help set the tone of this Assembly.

This same tone, this same sort of principle is also found in our theological affirmation that Jesus is Lord. All of us affirm that with deep conviction. To acknowledge Jesus is Lord is to acknowledge that He alone is supreme and occupies a place that no one else, no book, no doctrine, no church, no nation, nothing else can occupy. To Him alone is full allegiance and obedience to be given.

Now, you will hear at this General Assembly, that the Church is tired of talking about issues of sexuality and inclusiveness, and that is no doubt true. Aren’t we all? But the question before this Assembly is not what the Church out there would rather talk about, but what does it mean to be obedient to Jesus Christ as Lord? That is the issue. It is not what everyone is tired of talking about, but what does it mean for us, for this Assembly, to be faithful to Jesus as Lord.

Of course another source of this tone, this spirit, this perspective as we approach this Assembly is our recognition of the sinfulness and fallibility of all humankind, including our own. We need to be reminded over and over again, that only God is God. We are not God. The General Assembly is not God. We are only conditional human beings, earthen vessels limited in knowledge and insight and fallible, finite, sinful human beings.

We also need to be reminded, that history is filled with evidence that over and over again, conscientious, committed, Bible-believing, praying, devout Christians have been dead wrong.

Now, what does all this say about the tone we should have as we approach this General Assembly? Let me share with you what it means to me as a Reformed Christian.

It means for me that we will live with a deep assurance about God, combined with a modesty and humility concerning all the statements we make about God and God’s will for humankind.

It means for me trusting in God utterly and, at the same time, never absolutely trusting any human account of God, including our own.

It means living totally committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and yet recognizing that all our statements about that commitment must always be somewhat tentative.

It means for me the assurance of an ultimate security in God’s additional love for all, and the likelihood of always living with a continual, immediate insecurity.

It means working for what we believe to be right and just and God’s will for the Church, taking a stand, making a decision, casting a vote, but never, never, never being too categorical or dogmatic or arrogant about the place we stand or the vote we cast.

It means to have convictions, yes, to be sure, but to hold them with a healthy degree of humility. It means an eagerness and a willingness to share our own convictions and commitments with others, but also an eagerness to listen to others for correctives and insights that may come from the most unusual sources.

It means living constantly with a degree of ambiguity, never absolutely sure, always struggling, wondering, questioning, always, always, though, rooted, rooted deeply in the ultimate security of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ.

And it’s that ultimate security that enables us to be free from the fear and threat of diversity, a fear that makes us defensive and creates so much destructive conflict. It gives us the freedom to celebrate it, to embrace it, to rejoice in it, to see it as an asset, not a liability, to welcome it, learn from it, grow from it, and to use it for the enrichment of all.

What does it mean? It means for me to do whatever we can to maintain the unity of the Church; it means obedience to Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one. It means to focus, yes, on those things we have in common rather than becoming too preoccupied with those things that divide us.

It means that we are called to love one another, even those who are most difficult to love, even those with whom we have big disagreements, those we find sometimes so unlovable, in obedience to Jesus’ command to love as He has loved us.

It means to practice what Jack Stotts called “polarity thinking” as opposed to polarized thinking — “both/and” thinking rather than “either/or” thinking; evangelism and justice, purity and peace of the Church, spirituality and social ministries.

It means to recognize that while some convictions can never be reconciled, the people who hold conflicting convictions can be reconciled in Jesus Christ.

It means that we will strive, to use Jack Rogers’ words, “to balance conviction with civility,” to balance Martin Luther’s “Here I stand” with Oliver Cromwell’s “I beseech you, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

It means to practice what our German forebears practiced: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

It means that the authority of Scripture is subordinate to the authority of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus is Lord. And that means that we should interpret all of Scripture, especially those passages in Scripture that cause such deep conflict, in light of God’s supreme revelation in Jesus Christ, the One who was always reaching out to those who were marginalized, who felt left out.

It means, as the statement on interpreting Scripture put it, that “No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons within or outside the Church.”

One story: While I was Moderator, a young Presbyterian pastor came up to me after I had made my presentation before his presbytery. We’ll call him John. He asked me in a rather desperate manner if he could drive me to the airport. The presbytery had already made other arrangements, but finally he convinced them that he needed to talk to the Moderator. When we got in the car, John wanted to share with me a “conversion experience.” Those are his words. He said that theologically, he was to the right of the Presbyterian Layman, particularly as it related to the issues of homosexuality. He had preached on all the six passages. Everybody in his family and his presbytery knew how he felt; he had led the efforts to pass amendment B.

And then he got a phone call one day from his mother, who said that his younger brother was ill, critically ill, and dying in the hospital with AIDS. He said to me, “Suddenly it occurred to me that my brother was gay.” He went on: “I immediately caught the next plane, went to the city where he lived and went to the hospital.” His brother could hardly speak; his brother motioned to the pastor to bend over so he could hear what he had to say. And his brother said to him as he bent over his body, “Johnny, am I going to hell?”

That was a conversion moment for him. He said, “Believe me, Doug, I never intended to communicate that to my brother, but that’s what he had heard in my strong support of amendment B. Somehow, he had gotten the message from me that he was outside God’s grace. He said, “God have mercy on my soul, however unintentional it was, that I communicated that to my dear brother.”

And I say to you friends, God have mercy on the soul of the Presbyterian Church for whatever we have done to communicate that to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

What does it mean? What tone should we set as Reformed Christians?

I believe it means that we will combine an immediate and passionate involvement in the affairs of the Church with an ultimate nonchalance, because we know the Church is finally safe in God’s hands and not ours.

It means to take the sinfulness of humankind seriously, but to take even more seriously the power of a living, loving, sovereign God who keeps the future open.,open to the serendipitous, open to be surprised,. It means to believe that God has some unexpected surprises out there in store for us, maybe, maybe, maybe, let’s pray, even at this General Assembly.

And it means even in the midst of discouragement, to maintain hope which is ultimate confidence that finally God’s power will transform the Church to become what it was intended to be: a provisional demonstration of what God intends for the whole world.

The poet Seamus Heaney expressed it this way:

History says don’t hope on this side of the grave.
But then once in a lifetime that longed-for tidal wave of justice
Can rise up, and history and hope rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change;
Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

We keep hoping and praying and working for a great sea-change in the Presbyterian Church, for miracles and cures and healing wells, because we worship the living, loving, sovereign God. A great sea-change, miracles, healing wells: O God, let it begin with this General Assembly!

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