It’s been a while since I’ve posted here (life’s been very busy). But as the General Conference begins its work today after yesterday’s day of prayer, it feels time to post a sermon I shared with my District during this past fall’s church conference season.
John 17:20-26 (NRSV) “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. 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, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
I want you to look around this afternoon. Look around the room. Who do you see? Do you see a lot of Republicans, some Democrats, and a maybe a few stubborn Independents just to make life interesting? Is there a D, R, or an I branded on our foreheads? Do you see only Traditionalists, Moderates, and Progressives? That’s what our denomination has been talking about a lot with the three plans. And it seems like we are all trying to fit ourselves into a few boxes. Right? But what else do you see when you look around? I think I spot some ranchers and some farmers, some teachers, maybe an attorney or two, and some retirees who are glad those labels are behind them. Who do you see? Who do you see when you look up here at me?
If I was to describe myself to church folk: I’m a theologically orthodox, socially progressive, politically independent, high Christology, liturgical, sacramental pastor from a small Arkansas town in the Bible-belt who loves the United Methodist Church in all its expressions, especially that small, conservative church that raised me and blessed me and sent me on many years ago to be ordained. I use all those words not to impress you with my vocabulary but to make a point. In any discussion, debate, argument, issue, whatever… there is always – always – ALWAYS – more than just one side.
I didn’t always have all these labels of course. I was made who I am along the way — in Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, with a few stops in Australia, Dominican Republic, Israel, Egypt, France, England, Ireland, just to mention a few places. What connected them all?… The United Methodist Church.
Within these churches and places, I met people who were very different from those I knew in my small town; I experienced ways of reading the bible, seeing the world, and being church very different from that small church in the bible belt. And now I – we – finds ourselves serving in Wyoming in a time where there is concern about the future of the United Methodist Church I – we, I hope – love.
Why I Support The One Church Plan
So why do I share my story? Today we’ve been talking about what our denomination faces at the called General Conference in February 2019. You’ve heard about the 3 plans, and you see the title of this message, “Why I support the One Church Plan” — one of the plans, the one supported by a majority of the Council of Bishops. I do support the One Church Plan because I see the blessings in the many expressions of Methodism today and I believe we need them all, together. It has been the meeting of unlike beliefs and people of different experiences within my church that has led me to be the person of faith I am today.
Now you may say, “But Jeff, I don’t want to be like you; I don’t want to follow your path – take the journey you’ve described.” Of course you don’t; I don’t want you to either. God has set before you your own journey of faith. I support the One Church Plan not because I want you to be or think like me but because in spite of our differences, because of our differences, I believe we need each other. The Commission on the Way Forward and General Conference 2019 is about human sexuality, but it’s also about something deeper. The decisions we make will speak a lot to how we as a church live together.
Scriptural Call To Unity
Did you know there are no less than 50 scriptural calls for the people of God to live in unity. The Psalmist declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Paul’s letters are full of calls to unity. And obviously it’s not because everyone agreed in Paul’s day. Today we are in the midst of a deep argument. So were the Corinthians, arguing over which spiritual expressions were best; Jewish Christians arguing with Gentile Christians over which laws should be followed; Paul arguing with Peter, Barnabus, Apollos, over… well, sometimes I’m not sure. There were lots of arguments, and yet in the midst of them all, Paul kept calling the people to find a way to live together, serve together, love together, to “be of one mind, the same mind as Christ Jesus.”
And, of course, there is this prayer we hear today from Jesus. His ministry is about done and Jesus knows it. He is preparing himself and his disciples for his death on a cross. And so he prays. And who and what does Jesus pray for. He prays for us. He prays for unity. He prays, “on behalf of those who will believe in me through [the original disciples’] word, that they may all be one. 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.” May they all be one… so that the world may believe. The world believes in Jesus when the world sees the followers of Jesus united. Our unity is our greatest witness. Pulling together the diversity and different among us is our witness, uniquely as United Methodists.
John Wesley’s story
I’ve been a United Methodist my whole life. Yet it wasn’t until I went to Duke Divinity School that I learned why. There, I fell in love with this crazy Anglican priest named John Wesley who stood in the middle of all the divisions of his day, holding it all together. Wesley was thought too radical by the Church of England; and not radical enough by the Puritans. He was considered an enthusiast (and that was not a good thing!) by the academics; and a little stuffy by the common people. He cared about people’s souls in the afterlife urging them to find faith and flee the wrath to come. And yet he cared about their bodies, their homes, their education, their welfare in this life. He demanded we have faith according to the words Paul but live that faith according to the words of James.
He insisted that we not be satisfied with the minimum daily requirements of faith but that we reach for perfection; and at the time of his death, he had helped start a movement that changed not just the religious ferment but also the very social and economic landscape of his country, and by extension, that strange new land across the sea. We are part of a movement that proved one can live in the middle and hold the differences and be one, even today.
Our Witness Today
Can we be united even when we disagree? I believe we can because I’ve seen it serving across Wyoming in our churches and communities. The interesting thing about small towns… you can’t really avoid your neighbors, right? Might as well learn how to love them as Jesus commanded. I support the One Church Plan because I believe it holds the best opportunity for us to remain one as Jesus prayed for us to be, as Paul pleaded for us to be. Now, I’m not naïve. The One Church Plan does not guarantee that we will stay together as a denomination. It does not guarantee that we will all stay as individuals or as churches. Some may choose to leave. But One Church is the plan, I believe, that allows us all to remain one as Jesus prayed if we so choose. It’s a plan that doesn’t demand those that disagree to leave. This One Church Plan is not a silver bullet. No, we’re not getting out of this mess we’re in with the One Church Plan alone, but my dad gave me some good advice once: “If you find yourself in a hole you don’t know how to get out of, the first, most important, step is to quit digging.” I think in some ways, OCP is the ‘quit digging’ step.
May We All Be One
May they all be one so that the world will believe, Jesus prayed. There is a powerful witness in unity. A witness I think looks something like this. <I invite you to follow this link and watch video I showed now.> Look around the room. Who do you see? When I look out at you, I see a people called Methodists who love their church (otherwise why would you be here today). More importantly, I see the hands and the feet, the eyes and the ears, the knees and elbows of the One I love and have pledged my life to — you are the very body of Christ. Jesus prayed that we may all be one. May that be our prayer as well.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.