On Unity


Do the actions of a few United Methodists threaten the entire denomination?

 

(A note to my readers: I have recently been engaging in quite a bit of debate with another United Methodist brother and blogger, Joel Watts, at unsettledchristianity.com over many of the events taking place in the UMC. After a protracted conversation over our first posts carried out on Facebook, we agreed to each write a post on “unity” and what that entails. I often say to Joel that I am not the theologian that he is. I am a pastor first and my theology grows from that work as a pastor. Like I say in the introduction to my blog, “Grace leads and I stumble along.”)

 

We can read about it in both national news and denominational resources. The United Methodist Church is struggling in the midst of learning how to be in ministry with people who are already in our fellowship. I refuse to say that we are struggling with the issues surrounding LGBTQ people because in my heart that reduces people to an issue. People are never an issue. People are children of God. As a church that affirms the sacred value of all persons, we recognize LGBTQ Christians as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

At the very same time, during a period when our denomination prepares for our quadrennial global gathering to work
on church doctrine and polity (re-write our Book of Discipline), there are events taking place among our churches, and by our clergy and bishops that some believe threaten the very unity of the church. In the last decade, a growing number of churches have become Reconciling Congregations. Lay people and pastors, such as myself, are joining support groups to understand how to best minister with this new community of believers and to become fully inclusive in our ministry. Some Clergy and Bishops are going against church polity by performing same gender weddings.[1] In other places, entire Boards of Ordained Ministries are ignoring the prohibition in our shared Book of Discipline prohibiting the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” In recent days, fifteen current or soon to be ordained clergy have proclaimed that they are homosexual and seeking continued appointment with the United Methodist Church.[2] Some Bishops and episcopal candidates are saying in “somewhat nuanced” ways that they are not going to uphold the Discipline in all cases.[3]

I have proba
bly not even come close to listing all the recent developments in our denomination concerning our relationships with LGBTQ people. But it gives us a place to start.

Some people believe that all of these actions, actions which some claim belittle our Book of Discipline and break the very vows that certain people made to uphold said Discipline, show that we are far from the “United” Methodist Church. A better name for us could be the Untied Methodist Church.

I graciously disagree.

Maintaining ou
r vows before God at baptism, confirmation, holy matrimony and/or ordination are an extremely important part of living our lives as Christians. However, I am yet to meet one Christian – even in the mirror – who has managed to keep those vows perfectly and without fail.

Does the parent who fails to bring up their baptized infant in the church show such brokenness that the unity of the church is called into question? Does the young adult who lays aside their vow to reject evil in all forms while they buy a pair of tennis shoes made with child labor show such brokenness in our Discipline and vow keeping that the entire unity of the Church is called into question? Does an adulterer who divorces one spouse and marries another so disgrace the body with their broken vow that our church lo longer hosts the presence of Christ? Does an Elder who lays aside the vow to keep the Discipline of the Church in order to pastorally proclaim Good News to a same sex couple sow such brokenness into the body of Christ that our very existence as a church is called into question?

No. No. No. And, no again – with all the grace I can muster.

I think we are better served to look at what it is that unites us in the first place – our first love, Jesus Christ. If you like the book of Revelation, read the letter to the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). This congregation was in danger of losing the very presence of Christ from their midst because they forgot their first love – the grace that Jesus had given them. Sure, they were facing terrible persecution at the hands of the Romans and could easily survive by “turning coats.” This historical church in Asia Minor gives us a great hint as to what it takes to completely lose the light of Christ within a body of believers. It is not lack of discipline, the loss of a Temple, broken vows, or even smashed tablets of stones. It is forgetting what unites us in the first place – Jesus!

Rev. Wesley, one of the founders of our movement known as United Methodism, said in his sermon “Cathol
ic Spirit”:

Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.[4]

Rev. Wesley realized that we may never be of one opinion despite the fact that he worked hard to make sure that the “people called Methodist” shared in some common doctrine, polity, and worship even as they existed in the break-away or shunned Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. He provided this group with “The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America” which included Rev. Wesley’s “revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, ‘rectified’ and reduced to twenty-four in number.”[5] Did Rev. Wesley somehow break his vow as an Anglican Priest by providing these “rectified” Articles to the new congregations forming apart from the Church of England? That argument could be made, however, it would not reduce for one moment what truly made the Methodists in the North America a body of unity. That was due to the love and presence of Christ in their midst and in the midst of the Church of England. Rev. Wesley’s ability to maintain his Church of England ordination and help establish this new denomination shows that shared “discipline” has little to do with the unity of the body of Christ.

A further look into Rev. Wesley’s life and advice to the Methodists under his care in England gives to me the hope I think we need to weather the storm that we are in right now. Throughout England there were priests who were so hopelessly corrupt and such terrible preachers that Wesley would often recommend that they be avoided – except when it came to receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

…people should not hesitate to take the Sacrament, even if administered by a wicked minister. He pointed out, from a practical point of view, that many (if not most) of the minister
s in his acquaintance for the last half century did not measure up to his basic criteria; they had ‘not been eminent either in knowledge or piety’ (Sermons, 3:471). But his principle in the matter is clear: ‘The unworthiness of the minister doth not hinder the efficacy of God’s ordinance. The reason is plain; because the efficacy is derived, not from him (sic) that administers, but from him that ordains it” (Sermons, 3:475). This statement was not only in keeping with Article XXVI of his own Church, but also had been fixed in Western Christendom as early as Augustine’s response to the Donatists.[6]

The presenc71761641_e5f3a60973e of Christ unites us. And that has not left the building, the gathering of delegates at General Conference in Portland or the denomination that is known as United Methodist. The one who ordained the Sacrament of Holy Communion still presents His body in one
piece and then offers it to us, broken, just as we are broken. Does the fact that we all receive just a part of this offering destroy the unity of the symbol of Christ’s Body that is presented in the Eucharist? No.

And neither does the brokenness that embodies the congregations called United Methodist. We will continue to receive the grace of Jesus and offer that grace to others just as scandalously as it has been given to me, to you, to all who have received Christ.

[1] I think it is important to note that our current Discipline prohibits our clergy from participating in ceremonies that celebrate same-sex unions or holding such ceremonies in our churches. However, this prohibition says nothing of weddings and marriages between same-sex couples. Some may think this is “splitting hairs,” however, many believe that there are great differences between the two.

[2] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/15-united-methodist-clergy-candidates-come-out-as-gay1

[3] http://revjameshowell.blogspot.com/2016/04/our-united-methodist-book-of-discipline.html

[4] “Catholic Spirit” by Rev. John Wesley as found in John Wesley’s Sermons, An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, page 301.

[5] Wesley and the People Called Methodist, Richard P. Heitzenrater, proof copy, Abingdon Press, 1993, page 289.

[6] Ibid, pp. 296-297.

 

A Cross Between Two Thieves

Not my will, but yours…

    I know that I have heard these words hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life in the church. They are words of Jesus as he prays before being arrested. They are words of Jesus as his closest disciples fall asleep. However, most of the time that these words hammer through the noise of my brain, I hear them as words of surrender and resignation on the part of Jesus. Today, for whatever reason, I heard the deep seated struggle of will that is inherit in these words.

    Jesus, really, really struggled to let go of his own will and follow the will of God.

I am thinking about this not so much because of some struggle of will that I have in my personal life as a member of the Jesus Revolution. I have those struggles and I probably always will but they don’t upset me all that much. Today I was struck with these words as they described the relationship between two parts of the Triune God and what that could mean for Christian unity today. In my mind, there are few things more broken in our world than the idea of Christian unity. We simply suck at getting along with one another.

I get the sense from so many people that “being one, as the Father and I are one” – the very prayer Jesus had for his followers – is something that should be simple and easy for us to accomplish. I get that sense from those who say, “Just follow the Bible and we can have unity” as well as from those who say, “Just love like Jesus loved” and we will have the unity for which Jesus prayed. I think both groups – and I can be found lurking around in either from time to time – totally miss the real struggle the Son had with the Father over this picture of unity.

What if the unity found between Father and Son, between Jesus and the God-Head, is more akin to struggle than it is to a sense of peace. (Images of Jacob wrestling in the night for a blessing come to mind.) I know that we all want peace, but that is not what Jesus infers in the Garden, on the cross or even to us. Yes, he leaves us a “peace that is not like the world gives” but perhaps that peace is what we find when we allow grace to abound with ourselves (as we struggle in ourselves) and what we find when we allow grace to abound amidst the struggles we have with those whose idea of God’s will bumps up against a difference in our hearts.

Listen…I know that this is not a completely fleshed out, well-thought bit of theology I am espousing today. It is a start to say the very least. Perhaps you can add to the discussion. Perhaps I can capture it better in another use of language too:

 

The battle of will
is a thumping of the heart,
a throbbing of the mind,
and a bleeding of the soul.

Or so it seems. Or so it seems.

It is a battle, a battle among thieves:
One who steals freedom in the name of holiness
And
One who steals holiness in the name of freedom.

But maybe, perhaps maybe…
On those days when the battle wages
within and without
with an intensity that hurls invective and certainty
like arrows into the always soft flesh of the gut –
Perhaps, just maybe,
There is another war cry
A cry that is heard
among the wounded,
the stilted,
and even on the lips on the silent
as they breath with Spirit Sound
the truest cry of unity.

Grace.

Grace for self. Grace for others.
Grace like that offered by a Savior,
A Savior between two thieves.

 

©2014, Scott Sears