Sam Calian, president of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary, preached this sermon at the February 15, 2004 installation service of Dr. M. Craig Barnes as pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Scripture for the sermon was I Corinthians 12:27-31; 13:1-3, 8-10, 13.
It seems that not a week goes by without a call from a search committee looking for the "perfect" pastor. I also hear regularly from pastors in search of "perfect" congregations. Over time and experience, I have discovered there are no perfect pastors or congregations, and yet there persists within us this yearning to be the Ideal Church. And thank God for this! Otherwise, we would be complacent with the status quo.
The Ideal Church starts when we worship together and is reinforced when we practice forgiving love in the name of Christ. The Ideal Church takes shape when we shift the emphasis from talking about our faith to practicing it.
Cross bearing is at the heart of true discipleship; Christianity is forgiveness freely given but costly to practice. Authentic forgiveness addresses unhealed wounds of the past. The often heard "forgive and forget" cliches are hollow. As humans, we aren't expected to forget. Instead, God urges us to forgive without forgetting the hurts of the past. Entering into the dynamics of the forgiving process is, to say the least, difficult and risky. However, to avoid the risk leaves broken relationships broken.
The cross of Christ acknowledges our real pain. Christian forgiveness forgives in spite of being unable to forget. Such a realistic assessment enables us to enter into a healing process that restores our souls. Love that forgives without forgetting is the key to healthier relationships with those who have offended us. The Ideal Church is the church that aspires to be the House of Forgiveness.
How we envision reality and human nature makes all the difference in the world. My own reality picture rooted in Scripture is the following: We are all imperfect persons who make imperfect decisions in an imperfect world. The miraculous thing is that we are able through the acceptance and practice of forgiving love to transcend our faulty circumstances and expect more of one another.
As people empowered by the grace of God to transform and renew ourselves through the power of forgiveness, we begin to be the Ideal Church.
We all know by now that the essence of health (physical, mental, and spiritual) resides in our relationships with God and with one another. When these relationships are broken or embedded in suspicion, we dehumanize ourselves, hiding behind a protective arrogance that spells nothing but alienation for us.
In contrast, those of us who recognize forgiveness thrive on the humble reality that we are not perfect. We are relieved! And, by the miracle of God's grace, we are now bonded together into that forgiving embrace centered in the One who became "forgiveness in the Flesh" for our sake.
The Ideal Church as the House of Forgiveness completes her transformation when she also sees herself as the School of the Holy Spirit, called upon to instruct, interpret, and empower God's people to deepen their faith as hearers and doers of the Word.
The spiritual foundation of the Ideal Church is buttressed by a twofold reality -- namely, that the church that forgives together stays together; and the corollary, the church that studies together and prays together in the Spirit grows together.
The Ideal Church in its dual capacity as the House of Forgiveness and the School of the Holy Spirit actually operates day to day as a seminary -- an educational greenhouse where we are raised on Scripture, worship, prayer, and sacraments to become faithful followers of Christ. The word "seminary" comes from the Latin seminarium, meaning seed plot, a place where something is bred, grown, or developed. In other words, churches and seminaries are places of greening and ripening spiritually so that we can serve others and proclaim the Gospel of Christ knowledgeably, wherever and whenever the occasion presents itself.
Pittsburgh Seminary called Craig Barnes from Washington, D.C., to become our Robert Meneilly Professor of Leadership and Ministry. He holds this faculty chair as well as becoming the Senior Pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church. This deeper partnership between us has been made possible not only because Dr. Barnes is talented, experienced, and visionary.
It is possible also because you as a congregation, the seminary's faculty and trustees, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery have all been willing to be flexible to create something truly bigger than either Shadyside or the seminary had envisioned earlier -- namely, to have a practicing professor serve also as a practicing pastor, to remind us of the obvious but often overlooked fact that the Ideal Church is also a seminary and the Ideal Seminary is also a church. What a creative linkage and model for seminaries and churches across the country to emulate in various forms!
Pittsburgh Seminary's classroom and Shadyside's pulpit have been joined together for the mutual benefit not only of our students, but for the edification of this congregation in our common ministry to the glory of God.
The church as seminary and the seminary as church now can through their mutual synergy be an even greater team. Dr. Barnes, your pastor and our professor, is demonstrating to us that the Ideal Church is a teaching church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church and the seminary have become one extended campus -- we are all enrolled in the School of the Holy Spirit, where the Bible is taught, interpreted, proclaimed, and practiced.
Our mission at Shadyside Church and Pittsburgh Seminary is not only for us to be spiritually nurtured, but to increase the number of healthy churches and pastors who can be motivated to envision in their locale the Ideal Church where parishioners are empowered to become leaders and clergy are challenged to be lifelong learners in the faith. Dr. Barnes has a foot planted in each institution, to remind us that the church is also a seminary and the seminary is also the church for the mutual strengthening of our respective ministries.
This new partnership between Shadyside Presbyterian Church and Pittsburgh Seminary is a major step toward the Ideal Church and the Ideal Seminary. But we are not there yet, until we are both practicing communities of forgiveness motivated by faith, hope, and love; knowing that the greatest of these is forgiving, accepting love.