These thoughts were offered at Franklin United Methodist Church on Sunday, February 24, 2019. This message was based upon a reading from Psalm 133:1; John 13:34-35, 14:15, 23-24; Matthew 5:38-43. This message is part of a series, responding to the 2019 special called General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here.
As the live-stream began, I teared up. In his opening remarks to the 2019 special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, Bishop Al Gwinn remarked that “we’ve never done this before.” Now to be fair, he was talking about setting a day apart for prayer as the General Conference before General Conference. But, his observation is poignant and true on a larger scale. The United Methodist Church is in a position and a place it has never been before.
For starters there has only ever been, in its 50-year history, one other special called General Conference. That session was called by the 1968 General Conference to finalize the merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church. It met April 20-24, 1970, in St. Louis, Missouri. 49 years later, the United Methodist Church is again gathered in St. Louis, but this time we are on the brink of tearing ourselves apart over our disagreements regarding human sexuality and the inclusion of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, at all levels of our common life.
I have friends and family who paint the spectrum of belief on inclusion; and, I must admit that for the last several months I have prayed hard that the Church might stay united. It is a blessed and “good thing,” writes the Psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1, New Revised Standard Version). It seems to me that we are at such a point—our hearts and our minds are far from each other—that the only way we might find unity is with a powerful in breaking of the Holy Spirit.
But like desolate sailors waiting for the wind to blow, the wind of the Spirit has not, it seems to me, budged those entrenched on either side of the argument.
Within the United Methodist Church I fall into a group that have taken on the rather unsexy name of centrist. I don’t really like that term. I think it denotes a lack of clarity that simply isn’t true. I don’t stand between traditionalists and progressives.
I would instead describe myself as a liberal United Methodist; and, I use that word intentionally, in its truest sense. Liberality, as a relational term, can be defined as people who are open and welcoming of all persons regardless of who they are and what they might believe. I think the church should be open to all; and, when I say that I mean it. I don’t think we all have to be at the same place on the journey. I don’t think we all have to hold the same opinions or viewpoints. I think the church should be open to all who truly seek to live at peace with God and neighbor regardless of who they are and who others claim they might be.
I seek to be a part of a church that welcomes and includes all persons at every level of our common life, regardless of who they are and how they identify.
I seek to be part of a church that casts a big tent where all are given the safety and shelter to nurture a relationship with Christ and the world God so loved and came to save.
And, so I’ve prayed and wrestled with God, pleading that unity might come; that people might find the courage to cling tighter to God and each other than to their opinions and interpretations of Scripture.
I have prayed.
The divisions remain.
As I watched the rhetoric amp up in the days leading up to the Special Called General Conference, my prayers began to change. I am no longer praying for unity; instead, my prayer is that love might prevail.
In what has become known as “the final discourse” in the Gospel of John, Jesus prays. He prays for the unity of his disciples: “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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:21-23a, New Revised Standard Version).
What is striking as I reread that passage yesterday and this morning is that Jesus pleads for the unity of his followers as a sign and symbol of Love. Jesus prays that we might be one and find unity, “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23b, New Revised Standard Version). Jesus’final prayer isn’t that the disciples become a monolith of belief but that they allow the love that has been shared with them and among them to be the uniting force that proves and becomes a living witness to the gospel.
Unity comes through love, not agreement on our opinions and how we think faith should be lived out. And, so I find myself in the midst of this conference not praying for unity as much as I am praying for love.
Love, not unity, is to be the defining mark of the church. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, The New Revised Standard Version). This love knows no bounds. It is to be extended not only to siblings in Christ, but also to the enemy, to those who persecute us, and to those who harass us. “Just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone,” commands Jesus, “so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:48, Common English Bible), perfect in showing love to all (cf. Matthew 5:48, New Revised Standard Version).
The truth we need to confess is that all too often our love fails. We need to be honest and clear here. Confessing our failure to love should not be used as an excuse for not daring to love as fully and freely as God. Our confession must call us to deeper depths of love.
In her opening prayer for General Conference, Bishop Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference offered the prayer I had been trying to find the words for:
We confess that we have not followed you more excellently.
We have not followed your excellent way.
We are able to speak in many different languages but to those who disagree with us we have become as sounding brass and clanging symbol.
We claim to be prophetic and that we are able to discern all of your mysteries and have all knowledge; we see ourselves as having the faith to move mountains, but many times, we don’t have the faith to find a way to love one another. Hence, we’ve become nothing.
We’re so proud of our ministries, all that we give, all that we sacrifice. We feel like martyrs sometimes; but we still have not found the courage to let go, and simply love each other. Because of that, we’ve become powerless.
Our love is often not patient and not kind. Our expression of love is diminished by our pride and bluster. Our actions at times are unseemly, self-serving, and it grieves the Holy Spirit.
We have seen only the wrong in those we oppose and not your presence. We have often rejoiced in the injustice done to others and ignored the truth found in the story of their lives.
Remind us that love never fails. Our interpretations of scriptures will fail us. Our language will fail us. Our knowledge will fail us. Because all that is limited. We know so little and we understand even less. But when we open our hearts to the fullness of your presence, we will finally understand the futility of our battles.
In many ways we still behave as children unwilling to move on to deeper understandings of what it means to love one another and to love you. Now our speech our actions our very thoughts are immature. Help us to grow up and move away from our childish ways.
The reality we see now is hazy at best, but in the time to come we will see more clearly. For right now our knowledge is partial, but in time we will know more fully just as we are fully known by you.
What we need to give each other are these three things: our faith, our hope, and our love. These three. And the greatest gift we can give is love.
Give us the grace to pursue your perfect love, to be zealous for your Spirit, and open to your leading.
This we pray in the name of Jesus.
Amen.“Praying Our Way Forward,” Bishop Peggy Johnson, February 23, 2019, prayed with the 2019 session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church
I don’t know what the next few days will hold for The United Methodist Church. Our divisions are deep. Our differences of opinion and scriptural interpretations seem irreconcilable, but this I know. Love can bridge any chasm. It can scale any height. Love can overcome any obstacle so long as we will allow it to guide us along the Way. And so, I’m not praying for unity in The United Methodist Church; instead, I pray that Love might prevail. For in the end, Love is the only thing that can truly hold us, beautiful and diverse as we are, together and see us into eternity.
Amen? What do you think? Do you have questions about the Conference?