Two items topped the agenda of Friday morning’s virtual Polity, Benefits, and Mission Conference: a Bible study of Hebrews II and a presentation about the Matthew 25 invitation, a Presbyterian Mission Agency-led effort now in its 30th month.
Sponsors for the Polity, Benefits, and Mission Conference included the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), Board of Pensions, and Office of the General Assembly. The conference was designed specifically for administrative, ecclesial and programmatic leaders of mid councils.
The Bible study examined language throughout Hebrews 11, from which next summer’s General Assembly 225 theme is drawn (“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”). It also laid the groundwork for the coming discussion of Matthew 25.
After a conference welcome by Kerry Rice, Deputy Stated Clerk of the Office of the General Assembly, Dr. Raj Nadella led the Bible study and reflection.
Nadella, Samuel A. Cartledge Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, said that Hebrews 11 deals with social alienation in troubled times. Throughout his analysis he connected the conditions of the early church when Hebrews was written with today, when social injustice, poverty and pandemic have shaken many communities.
His exegesis highlighted the Greek word “hypostasis” from Hebrews 11:10 as meaning “the foundation of a temple.”
“The author of Hebrews was asking readers not to be wary, but to be brave and hopeful” — in other words, to have the faith to build new things.
Hebrews reflects back to history the way we do today, referencing times when Biblical ancestors “saw possibilities in the midst of crisis,” Nadella said.
“And they undertook bold actions and reinvented themselves in the process.”
Nadella also focused on the repeated use in Hebrews 11 of “ancestors,” which connects to the Greek “presbyteroi.”
“What are some bold steps we need to take as Presbyterians to transform the church for the 21st century?
“What is the hypostasis — infrastructure — needed for us to get there?”
One structural opportunity is the Matthew 25 invitation which the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, PMA President and Executive Director, discussed at length with the conference.
After being introduced by the Rev. Rosemary Mitchell, PMA Senior Director for Mission Engagement and Support, Moffett reviewed the history of Matthew 25, including the invitation’s roots in a GA 223 overture by Cascades Presbytery in 2016. She later linked Matthew 25 to the PC(USA) Book of Order and church confessional standards, including the Barmen Confession and Confession of 1967.
Rev. Moffett looked closely at Matthew 25’s three core goals — to “eradicate systemic poverty, dismantle structural racism, and build congregational vitality” — and spoke about ways each goal was being pursued through the Matthew 25 vision.
Matthew 25’s biblical grounding was also examined, with Moffett providing her own mini-Bible study focusing on the sheep and the goats passage: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”
Moffett said, “We can help strengthen each other when there's a rallying around the gospel to say that we want to see our congregations strong and vital, we want to see our communities transform, we want to deal with systemic poverty and racism.
“God has called us to love our neighbor as ourselves. ... We've got to deal with issues of racism [and] of poverty, because throughout the Bible that is the focus of Jesus’ ministry.”
Moffett thanked those groups that had already accepted the invitation to become a Matthew 25 worshipping community.
She said that 894 congregations (10% of all PC[USA] congregations), 10 synods (63%), 70 presbyteries (42%), and 49 other groups have accepted the invitation so far. Those numbers show that mid councils are key supporters of the initiative.
“We partner with mid councils as a primary form of contact,” Moffett said.
Beyond type of worshipping community, Moffett said that “Matthew 25 fits us” — with “us” being the entire PC(USA).
Before conference attendees discussed Matthew 25 in small groups, Moffett introduced the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Associate Director of PMA’s Offices of Compassion, Peace and Justice and Director of PMA’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Kraus said she was excited to work closely with the poverty initiative aspects of Matthew 25.
Moffett also introduced two leaders of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Executive Presbyter, and the Rev. Kevin Porter, Stated Clerk.
Santana-Grace and Porter discussed their mid council’s process of considering the invitation to become a Matthew 25 mid council.
“We joined Matthew 25 very quickly,” Santana-Grace said. “But we did it in our own way”
She said that Matthew 25 invites mid councils to join the national church’s work “while building on our [presbytery’s] own gospel DNA, building on the focus of what we already believe ourselves to be.”
Porter discussed ways Philadelphia-area congregations have responded to the Matthew 25 movement. He and Santana-Grace specifically mentioned the examples of Bethel Presbyterian Church and Doylestown Presbyterian Church, with Porter sharing quotations from the Doylestown church’s website that show the congregation embracing the Matthew 25 invitation's spirit.
In closing remarks, Moffett invited conference attendees to share their own Matthew 25 stories and to learn more about the Matthew 25 experiences of other worshipping communities.
One place to start is the Matthew 25 web page, where Matthew 25 stories are shared directly.
Those wishing to hear more about Matthew 25’s “Focus on Education” can gather virtually at 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday. Register for that Zoom discussion here.