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Jesus' Work of Forgiveness


In chapter 7 the gospel narrative describes for us the time Jesus spent at the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast that was celebrated in the nation to commemorate the years of wandering in the wilderness. Some of the ceremonies that were conducted at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles pointed especially to the miracle of water from the rock by which God cared for the thirst of His people and their cattle, and it is to that miracle that Jesus refers in verses 37 and 38 where we began our reading.

If you would read John 8:2-11 in one of the translations of the Bible other than the King James, you would discover that this passage is included in brackets or parenthesis with a note on the bottom that this passage does not really belong in the Holy Scriptures because it is not found in the oldest and best manuscripts. I am not going to get into that question this morning. The fact is that it belongs in Scripture, and it is wrong to take it out. This is the only place in the entire gospel of John where one of the great truths, emphasized so strongly in the other gospels, is set forth. That truth is put in different ways in the other gospel narratives. Sometimes it is put like this: "I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." Or, as the Lord explains in connection with the incident of Zaccheus the publican, "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." 

You must understand that this is the heart of Jesus' calling as the Christ, the Son of the living God. It was because he associated with publicans and sinners that the Pharisees and Scribes concluded that He could not possibly be the Christ. But Jesus throws that accusation back in their faces by saying, "That I associate with publicans and sinners and harlots is the proof that I am the Christ the Son of the living God." 

John concludes his gospel by telling us the purpose of his writing: "All these things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." This belongs to those things which are written.

The Lord is called to judge a woman taken in adultery. But you must remember that these are not circumstances that are thrust on the Lord unexpectedly, to which the Lord is called to react. It is not as if the Lord had no control over the things that transpired in the course of His life. The Lord brought this adulterous woman to Him. The Lord is seeking and saving this lost woman caught in adultery. He brings her to Himself. But, and that is the marvelous and forceful part of this text, He brings this woman to Him by means of the Scribes and Pharisees. He does that in order that both may stand before Him, each with his own sin. The woman in the nakedness of her adultery, but the Scribes and Pharisees in the horror of their self righteousness. 

And so the text contrasts adultery and self-righteousness, and to that I want to call your attention.

Our theme is, JESUS' WORK OF FORGIVENESS: FOR SELF-RIGHTEOUS? NO; FOR ADULTERERS? YES! I call your attention to that theme by emphasizing these three points.


The woman had committed adultery. There wasn't any question about whether or not she was guilty, she had been caught in the very act. She herself never pleaded innocence. 

Now, Jesus uses a woman taken in adultery for a very specific reason. That reason is, that among the Jews adultery was considered the worst possible sin which a person could commit. Adultery is the sin of fornication committed by someone who is married. It was a violation of the marriage bond of which she was guilty. Before the mind of the Jews that was the worst possible sin. Whether that's true or not, I don't know and I'm not interested in debating that question. Jesus' point is very clearly that in the nation of Israel there was no sin as bad as adultery. 

Now lets be clear on it: adultery was and is a dreadful sin. It is such a terrible sin especially when it is committed within the church. It is bad enough when adultery is a sin committed in the world. It is much worse when it is committed in the church. It is in the church, after all, that marriage is a picture of the relationship in which the church lives to Christ. And believers celebrate their marriages as a joyful picture of their own relationship to Jesus Christ their Savior. And so when adultery is committed within the church it is a slap in the face of Christ. It is to say, "I don't want any part of living in a marriage relationship with Jesus Christ." That makes it awful and Jesus wants that point to be very clearly understood. 

That was true already in the Old Testament. The prophet Hosea, for example, had very clearly explained to Israel that the relationship in which they stood to God was a marriage relationship. Ezekiel had done the same. The woman knew that. She knew the Old Testament Scriptures.
Besides, adultery is such a terrible sin because it is a violation of the most intimate relationship in which two people can live. And because it is that, adultery leaves desolation and destruction in it's wake. Adultery destroys marriages. Adultery destroys families. Adultery destroys children. Adultery brings havoc into the congregation. It leaves a wake of desolation and misery, trouble and anguish behind it. A person who is intent on satisfying his own lusts in the enjoyment of a moment, touches, by that momentary satisfaction of his lusts, the lives of countless others, and destroys their lives, wrecking havoc by what he does. 

The woman had done that. She was a sinner, the worst possible sinner one could find in the nation and she had been too stupid to commit her sin in secret. She had been caught in the very act. Now she was brought to Jesus. 

Well, she really wasn't quite brought to Jesus. These Scribes and Pharisees were dragging her along and shamelessly bringing her to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, because the Sanhedrin had to judge her case and pronounce on her the death sentence. The Sanhedrin met in the temple. And so as the Scribes and Pharisees were bringing the woman to the meeting room of the Sanhedrin, they saw Jesus in the midst of a huge throng of people. Suddenly the thought dawns on them that they ought to ask Jesus about it. Not because there was any point of law at stake, so that they needed His interpretation of a difficult point of law. Not because the evidence was not sufficiently strong to condemn her. But because, as the text tells us, they tempted Him. 

And so Jesus, who is the Sovereign of all the circumstances of His own life, brings this woman before Him by the instrumentality of these Scribes and Pharisees, so that both might be standing there and so that Jesus might make clear the sharpest of contrasts between this miserable, wretched, adulterous woman, who shamelessly turned her back on her husband and her children, and these Scribes and Pharisees who never for a moment would violate a point of the law. There they stood.

If you didn't know the story and if you hadn't been taught from childhood what happened, whose side do you think you would have been on? If you had been sitting in that throng of people that surrounded Jesus in the temple and had witnessed what the Pharisees did and what they said to Jesus, who would have had your sympathy? Would you not sympathize with the Scribes and Pharisees who were the elders and ministers in the congregation of Israel? Or would you have cast your lot with a home-wrecker who had been caught in the very act? After all, she committed adultery, didn't she? You can't have that in the church.

But Jesus sovereignly determined these circumstances because there is another issue at stake here. And that is not only the issue of the adultery of this woman, but it is the issue of the self-righteousness of the leaders of the Jews.

That they brought her to Jesus in their self-righteousness is clear. It is clear, in the first place, from the fact that they brought her to Him tempting Him, that they might have reason to accuse him. They wanted to catch him in a trap. 

Now there are some commentators who say that the trap in which they wanted to catch Jesus was a trap which set the law of Moses over against the law of Rome. Rome which ruled in the land, had forbidden the Israelites to perform executions. Although they could pass a sentence of capital punishment upon a criminal or an adulteress, they were not permitted to execute anyone. Rome reserved that power to itself. So, these commentators say, the trap they wanted to put Jesus in is this: "The law requires that the woman be stoned, what do you say?" And they thought to themselves, "Now if Jesus says she ought to be stoned then we will be able to say, 'You don't recognize the rule of Rome, do you? You won't submit to those in authority.' But if Jesus, on the other hand, should say, 'No, let her go,' then we will be able to say, 'You are opposed to Moses aren't you? That is what we thought all along already. You don't want Moses.'" That's the conclusion of most commentaries. 

But I don't think that is correct. I don't think that was the problem here or the nature of the trap. It seems to me that these miserable, self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees were bringing this woman to Jesus in order to strike at the very heart of Jesus' calling as the Christ. This took place, after all, very near the end of Jesus' ministry. This was in the fall of the year and the next spring, about a half a year later, He would be crucified. They knew that Jesus associated with publicans and sinners. They knew that all too well. And they knew too that Jesus insisted that this was the explanation of His being the Christ. "I come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." That is at the heart of His calling as the Christ. And so they thought to themselves, "Now we'll catch Him. Here is one of those harlots with whom He is so fond of associating. There is no question of her guilt. She was caught in the act. We'll see once whether He takes her side or not. And if He won't dare to take her side then all of that pious talk that He gave us about coming to seek the lost is so much hypocrisy, because now when He is confronted with it, He won't take the side of this woman." 

On the other hand, if He took the side of the woman and said to the Scribes and Pharisees, "No, she must not be put to death," then they could say, "You won't do what the law of Moses requires. Because the law is clear. Moses commanded us that such should be stoned." So they thought they had Him at a point which involved the very heart of His calling. That was their hypocrisy; their self-righteousness.

In the second place, their self-righteousness becomes manifest in this: they dragged the woman to Jesus, right through the crowds. You can almost picture the scene. This poor woman filled which shame, callously dragged through the court of the temple for all to see as the Scribes and Pharisees pushed their way through the crowds to bring her to Jesus. And there they set the poor woman up for everybody to look at. And they are quick to tell Jesus with obvious glee, "We caught the woman in adultery, and in the very act. And the law says she must die." So everyone could see and everyone could shake their heads and say, "What a miserable woman. Look what she did to her husband. And look what she did to her children. And look at the shame and the disgrace she brings upon the church." That's the manifestation of self-righteousness. 

That doesn't mean of course that in the church of Jesus Christ, when one becomes guilty of a sin, a public sin especially, that that must not be brought to the Consistory. Of course it must be brought to the Consistory. But in the church of Jesus Christ, when sin is brought to the Consistory, the one who is directly involved does everything he possibly can to keep the sin secret. He doesn't want anyone to know. He wants to spare the sinner. He would much rather that no one would know. But when on the contrary, sin is publicly broadcasted in the congregation, that is self-righteousness. 

The Pharisees wanted everyone to see how zealous they were in maintaining God's law. You and I never talk about the sin of anyone else, except we do so in order to imply, "But I would never do anything like this. Shame on such a person. I'm not guilty of that sin." That is why our tongues wag. We want to promote ourselves and show ourselves to be upright keepers of the law. 

And that is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is a terrible sin and I want to be at some pains to point out to you how terrible it is. Self-righteousness is rooted in the idea that we can earn heaven by our own works. That is what the Pharisees literally taught. It was their theology you see that there was a reserved seat in heaven for them and that they climbed to their reserved seat on the ladder of their own good works. And when finally by their own good works they arrived at the doors of heaven, Gabriel and the host of angels would be waiting for them to pat them on the back and commend them for their outstanding life and usher them with all the throngs of heaven, clapping their hands, to their own reserved seat which they had earned. That was their theology. 

Now you and I, who are in the Reformed tradition, don't have that kind of a theology, and we look askance at anyone who would say that salvation is earned by works. We would be quick to say, "Arminianism. Arminianism. Salvation is by grace alone." And that's a correct and biblical theology. But when that theology must be put into practice in our own lives in relationship to one another and those outside, we are often hypocritical and self-righteous people. We are. That self-righteousness manifests itself in this, that we have the notion in our heads that after all, for some reason or another, there is good reason why God chose to save us and not somebody else. Aren't we Dutch? Aren't we white? Weren't we born in the church? Weren't we baptized? Don't we have covenant parents? It's a whole lot easier to save a white Dutchman, born in the church than it is a colored man out in the slums. There you've got problems. If you try to save a man like that, you've got problems on your hands. But we are the kind of people that are relatively easy to save. It's no wonder that God has saved us, because God, in searching for people who were susceptible to the work of salvation, happened to find us, who after all, are people that are easily saved. It doesn't require nearly as much effort, because there is something in us which makes us particularly salvable. We've got that notion in our heads. What-self righteousness that is!

That manifests itself, too, in the church. It manifests itself in the church when we look askance at the sins of others. Just as soon as we learn that someone has fallen into sin in the congregation, we are on the phone: "Did you hear about this? Did you hear about that?" And every time we say that, what we mean to say is, (of course, we don't say that in so many words because we're skillful enough and hypocritical enough so that we don't let others see it) but what we mean to say is, "What a terrible thing. I would never do that. I wouldn't." And so we climb the ladder of our own good works by standing on the heads of other people. 

One of the most difficult things in the church for each saint to do, is to live as Paul instructs us to live in Philippians 2. "Let each esteem another better than himself." How often do you do that? How often do you in the church, esteem every other person in the church, no matter who it is, better than yourself? If you do not, that is self-righteousness.

There it was, adultery versus self-righteousness, in the sharpest possible outlines, with no mistaking the contrast. All the pious holiness of the Scribes and Pharisees who not only kept the law but went beyond the precepts of the law, and this poor, wretched, miserable woman, who sold her body for lust. There the two stand. There they are, before Christ.

What does Christ do? He stoops down and writes in the ground. And when they badger Him about the problem and try to get Him to say something, He gets up and says, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." And then He stoops down again and continues writing. 

When I was preparing a sermon on this passage and looking at commentators to learn what they had to say about this matter of Jesus stooping down and writing on the ground, I discovered that there were all kinds of answers to that question. Some commentators say, He stooped down to write on the ground because He was infuriated at their hypocrisy. He stooped down and doodled in the dust in order to get a hold of Himself before He spoke to them once again. Others say, no, their hypocrisy disgusted Him and stooping down was just a gesture of disgust. Others say, it was almost as if He were hiding a secret smile. He stooped down, because of their ineffectual efforts to trap Him. It was like a fly trying to trap a man. And almost in laughter at their stupidity He stooped down to write on the ground, to hide His amusement. Well, how are we going to tell? 

As I was studying this, I thought to myself, "Probably the best thing to do is not to say anything at all about it. The Bible doesn't explain to us why He stooped down. The Bible doesn't tell us what He wrote on the ground. So perhaps it's better if we just keep silent about it and say nothing at all. That was very tempting. 

The difficulty in doing that, however, was that the thought kept nagging, "Why does the Holy Spirit tell us?" That the Lord did it is one thing, but the Holy Spirit didn't have to tell us He did it unless He wanted us to know why. And the Holy Spirit makes such a point of it: He stooped down with His finger and wrote on the ground as though He hadn't even heard them. And then He stooped down again and wrote on the ground again. It's almost as if the Holy Spirit Who calls us all to witness this event says to us, "Notice this. This is an important part of it. This is something you must understand if you are to understand the narrative."

Well, that may be; but how are we going to find out? The best rule to follow, always, when we face problems like this is to follow that great rule of Biblical interpretation which has come down to us from the Reformation. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. 

So the question is, Where in the Bible is something like this referred to which will perhaps help us to understand this strange conduct of the Lord? The answer to that is, surprisingly enough, in the prophecy of Jeremiah. I'd like to have you take your Bibles out and look at that prophecy with me a moment. Jeremiah 17:13. Let's read the text first and then we'll take a look at why it was this text which Jesus wrote on the ground. 

By the way, I think the first time He wrote on the ground, He wrote the words of this text. But those Scribes and Pharisees thought to themselves, "He is just trying to get out of it." So they didn't pay any attention to what He was writing. But then when He got up and said, "Let him who is among you without sin cast the first stone," and then stooped down to write again, He began to write their names. Then they looked and then they saw the text and they saw their names there. 

Listen to what this passage says. "O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters."

Now there are four reasons why it seems to me that this was the text that Jesus was writing. The first is, that in the gospel according to John you will find time and time again references to the Old Testament which are not specific, but which are implied. And as an example of this, I refer to that call of Jesus, "If any man thirst let him come unto me and drink." The reference was to that rock at Rephidim which Moses hit and from which came water. Jesus is saying, "I am that rock." 

You will find the gospel according to John, filled with those references to the Old Testament. You always have that in John. The difficulty is that John does not tell us. He assumes that his readers know the Old Testament Scriptures so well that they will immediately know to what reference is being made. They will not have to be told. So it's not surprising that there is no specific mention of Jeremiah 17 in the text.

In the second place, I call your attention to the fact that Jeremiah 17:13 speaks of Jehovah as the Hope of Israel. That means that Christ is saying, by writing this passage in the dirt, "I am the Hope of Israel. I am Jesus, Jehovah Salvation. And you miserable, hypocritical, smuggly self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees prate about the fact that you are waiting for the Hope of Israel - that that is characteristic of your whole life. Here is the Hope of Israel and you don't want any part of Me. That is your self-righteousness. Talk as you will in your own smug conceit, you don't want the Hope of Israel."

In the third place, Jesus speaks of the fact that these people, who have forsaken the Hope of Israel, have forsaken the Lord Who is the fountain of living waters. And Jesus had just finished saying that the day before. "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink and out of his belly shall flow fountains of living waters." They had heard that, they knew that He claimed Himself to be the fountain of living waters, and they turned their backs on Him. They would have nothing of Him. They hated Him. They sought every means at their disposal to destroy Him. And finally Jesus says, "Those that forsake the Hope of Israel and the fountain of living waters shall be written in the earth." That means that their names will be engraved in the dust, which blows away. And they will go to hell. 

So Jesus wrote those words first of all. And when they were delighted because they thought they had Jesus trapped, and they began to badger Him - "Come on tell us. What are we supposed to do. What do you say?" - Jesus got up and said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast the stone at her." And then He stooped down again and began to write their names, to show that they were the ones who were fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah. Not the woman, but these smuggly self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees were the ones who had forsaken the law. 


When Jesus said to them, "He that is without sin among you, let Him cast the first stone at her," Jesus gave a powerful answer. It was powerful in the first place, because this also was the law. The law indeed said that adulterers and adulteresses had to stoned. But the law also said that the witnesses had to throw the first stone. So Jesus is saying to these Scribes and Pharisees, "All right, you have caught her in the very act. The witnesses are among you. This is what the law says. You are the witnesses. Throw the stones. But only if you are, yourself, without sin. Then you may cast the stone." 

Now Jesus doesn't mean to say, without sin in general, as if they had to say, "I never in all my life committed one sin." No. He means to say, much more specifically, "You who are without the sin of adultery. Anyone of you who now accuses this woman and are screaming for her to be stoned, go ahead. Keep the law. Stone her. And let this part of the law be kept too, that the witnesses throw the first stones. But those witnesses had better be sure that they have never, never committed the sin of adultery." Jesus means to say, not only the sin of adultery in their outward conduct for everybody to see, but in their hearts, or they were as worthy to be stoned as she.

And so, by means of this, Jesus strips the mask of their self-righteousness from their faces and says, "Look at yourself. Look at your own hearts, you smuggly self-righteous hypocrites. Look at your heart. Are you any better than the woman?" 

Maybe we better do the same, don't you think? Look at your heart, you who are so ready to condemn others. You are so ready to find sins in everybody else. Look in your own hearts. Look now, for just this one sin - not any sin - just this sin of adultery. Has anyone here not committed in his heart the sin of adultery, that most dreadful of all sins? Does anyone want to say, "I'm innocent. I've never done it. I've never had one thought, one desire in my heart that was adulterous in any respect?"

Then you are in a position to throw stones at others. But not before. And if you condemn those who sin, that's only because of that wretched, hypocritical, self-righteousness that destroys you, and destroys others.

Jesus has a way of ripping those masks off. And He forced, by His reference to Jeremiah 17, each one of those miserable Jews to look into their own hearts. They didn't do it because they were saved; even then their self-righteousness blinded them. But even an unsaved person can have, by the words of Christ, his conscience so pricked, that he sees himself momentarily, with a flash of horror, as the kind of person he really is. And that is what happened to these Jews. 

When they saw their own hearts, there wasn't a one who dared to lift up a stone to throw it. They slunk away, trying to hide themselves in the crowds, hiding their faces, lest anyone should see them, because Jesus had exposed before the whole multitude what kind of people they really were. And as they slunk away, they went from the oldest to the youngest, because the sin of adultery is a sin from which we never escape, as old as we get. So when the oldest looked at their lives and had that momentary glimpse into that deep pit filled with vipers and asps, they saw the magnitude of it, the horror of their own many, innumerable adulteries and they snuck away as quickly as they could go. But only to hide their adulteries behind their masks once again. Their masks had been pulled off. They had to go away so that they could quickly put their masks back on and adjust them and brush off their clothes and get their garments arrayed and once again appear before the eyes of many as without sin.

There is the alternative. When that blinding flash of insight into the depravity of our hearts comes through the penetrating words of Christ, we see ourselves as we truly are. We see that we are the vilest of sinners. We see that we really ought not to throw stones at the woman, but stand alongside of her. For then too, we see that we need Christ. We need the Hope of Israel. We need the fountain of living waters.

But there stood the woman. Her reaction was quite different. I know the text does not make a point of it, that she was truly sorry for her sin. That isn't on the foreground in the text, and the text does not mean to concentrate on that fact. But nevertheless there is that one word in her response to Jesus which shows her own profound sorrow. When Jesus says to her, "Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?" she said, "No man, Lord." That one word - that gives it away, doesn't it? I think of what Paul writes to the Corinthians, "No man can call Jesus, Lord, except by the Holy Spirit." And I think of Thomas, doubting Thomas, standing there before the risen Lord when the Lord showed him the holes in His hands and His feet, crying out with all the passion of his soul, "My Lord, and my God." 

And so also the woman. There is something hesitant about what she says, something wondering, something that conveys infinite questions in her own soul as if she means to say, "O, He is Lord, but is He mine? Is He my Lord? Can I say it? Though no man any longer accuses me, I have only one before whom I have to stand, whose accusation alone means anything." "Where are all thy accusers, does no man accuse thee?" "No man, Lord. But what about You? That's what I have to know. Do You accuse me, You who are Lord?"

And the answer is, "Woman, neither do I accuse thee. Go and sin no more." 


Now you understand the point, do you not? The point is precisely this, that every sin under the face of the heavens is forgiven by the wonder and power of the cross of Jesus Christ - except one. And that is the sin of self-righteousness. The sin of self-righteousness cannot be forgiven. O, I know it is possible for us also to repent of our self-righteousness. That is possible. And if we repent of our self-righteousness we will be saved too, I don't mean to deny that. We ought to repent of it. But the sin of self-righteousness is of such a kind that that sin itself cannot be forgiven. And that is true because of the fact that the self-righteous man doesn't go to the cross. He won't go. He doesn't need to go. There is no point in going. You see, he has no sin. Why should he go? The cross is for sinners. Not for righteous people. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. I die for sinners. Righteous people need no forgiveness and they won't go to the cross to find it." 

And that is the point Jesus is driving home, also to you and to me. If you are self-righteous, you don't need the cross. If someone goes to you and says, "We must go to the cross," you say, "Why? Why should I? I haven't committed that sin. I'm not guilty." And so there is no forgiveness. 

But if you go to the cross, it's a pretty motley bunch of folk there at the foot of the cross. Read the narratives of history and of Scripture. It's a miserable, wretched throng that's gathered there. There are thieves there. And there are murderers there. And there are bums and beggars and prostitutes there. People that are dragged out of the alleys and bi-ways of life are there at the cross. The wretches, the outcasts of society. They are all there. And if you want to go to the cross, you better join with those. And if you don't want to be a part of those, all right then, go your way. Wrap your righteous robes around you and join the company of the Scribes and Pharisees. But the cross is no place for you to go, because at the cross you will only find sinners. And sinners who have no time to think about anybody else and about anybody else's sins, because each one of them in that motley, wretched host of sinners at the cross, is crying out from the depths of his soul, "Of all sinners, I am the chief."

Then, if you go to the cross, you will hear the words of Christ. I can't think of any sweeter words or any words in all of life that I would rather hear, "Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more." That's all that counts. I don't care what you say about me and I don't care what anybody else says about me, if only I may hear what the Lord says and if only the words of the Lord are ringing in the depths of my soul, "Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more." No work of ours can bring those words from the Lord's lips. Those words you will hear only from Calvary and only from the crucified Christ.

"All these things are written that ye may believe that Jesus Christ is the Christ, the Son of God. and that believing ye may have life in His name." Amen.

Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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