Preaching in the opening worship of the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, Council of Bishops President Bishop Kenneth H. Carter today called on United Methodists to make every effort to maintain unity for the sake of God’s mission as the denomination’s top legislative body began its work in St. Louis, Missouri. “Remember,” he said, “you are the people of the cross and the flame.”
A sermon for the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., President, Council of Bishops on February 24,
Ephesians 2. 13-16; 3. 20-21; 4. 1-3
You are here because your people respect you. They have entrusted something very important to you—the discernment of a way forward for this beloved church. You brought with you enough luggage for a few
And you come to this moment with a story. It could be a story of pain or hope. It could be the story of your salvation, or how God has used you to offer Christ to others, or how you have been a reconciling person in your community. It could be the story of an opportunity that God made possible for you, through this church.
If you look
The good news is that God has a story too. I want to enter into God’s story through the language of the Apostle Paul. It is a story of divided peoples, and the power of God to include what we have excluded, to make clean what we have called profane, to salvage what we had discarded.
It is a creation story. We think we are here to divide something, or to dismantle something. That may be our story. God’s story is about creation,
We can be honest. We come to this in our divisions. Our languages divide us. Our life experiences divide us. Our opinions divide us.
Over the last three years, since Portland, I was asked by the church to watch and listen. To watch and listen for the good in conservatives, progressives, centrists. To hear their testimonies and honor the work of the Holy Spirit in them. To assume the best about them. It was not unlike the work I had done earlier, over twenty-eight years, as a pastor. Some of the most conservative and progressive people in my experience inhabited the churches I served, sang in the same choirs, studied the Bible together, spent the night with the homeless, mentored youth.
I learned to watch and listen for the faith underneath the surface. It motivated them to be in those local churches and, yes, to be United Methodists.
I learned to watch and listen for the connections between them. When illness or death came, they prayed for each other. When an economic crisis crippled a city, they wrote checks and collected food. When they disagreed about how to interpret scripture, they imagined they were still learning and growing as disciples and had not arrived.
The Commission on a Way Forward was a process of watching and listening. It was not an interruption to the work of God. It was and is the work. It was not an argument that distracted us from the mission. It was and is the mission. Now the work and the mission is in your hands.
If you watch and listen for the good in conservatives, centrists
Make us one!
Unity is for the sake of the mission. Where you see the mission of God, you will see people connected to each other, for this very purpose.
The divisions are easy to see. What would it be like for us to watch and listen for the connections?
What connects us? It is not our stories. It is God’s story. We hear a fragment of God’s story from the apostle Paul. It helps to remember how radical was his life and ministry.
- Ananias was sent to
Paul,and embraced him (the enemy) as "brother" (Acts 9).
- Paul remembered his "call" story and constantly shared it (Acts 22).
- Paul followed Jesus, which meant traveling the way of the cross (Galatians 2).
- Paul confessed his sin and struggles (Romans 7).
- Paul was willing to resolve conflict with other leaders, for the sake of the mission (Acts 15, Galatians 1).
- Paul led teams of women and
men,and developed an understanding of diverse spiritual gifts (Romans 12 and 16; I Corinthians 12 and 14).
- Paul planted churches in strategic crossroads where the gospel engaged many diverse cultures (I and II Corinthians, Ephesians).
- Paul was a passionate advocate for the unity of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4).
- Paul knew the difference between church and empire, koinonia and colonialism (Romans 12; Acts 17).
Because God has done all of this—more than we can ask or imagine—-are we bold to believe that God could do this again?
It is as if Paul is saying, to the Ephesians, there are these two groups and God abolished the dividing wall of hostility between them, praise God, and now we sing the doxology to this One God, and, and…..God can do it again.
John Wesley wrote, in The Scripture Way of Salvation, and I paraphrase:
It is a divine evidence and conviction…that what God has promised he is able to perform. We admit that with us it is impossible, to make something clean from the unclean, to purify our hearts from sin, and to till the ground of our hearts with holiness. Yet with
God is able.
Think of your own life, your own journey. What God has made possible. How Jesus has walked with you. How the Spirit came like wind or fire or a still small voice. It is your story. It is God’s new creation in you.
Say a prayer of thanksgiving in your own heart language, right here, right now, for all
that God has done through you. Yes, through it all, there are these dividing walls.
We come to St. Louis pretty equally divided. I am no stranger to the speculations or the surveys!
But could these three days be a time when Jesus might reconcile both “groups” (and all our associated tribes) into one body?
And, if I could be permitted to be theological for a moment, could it be that Jesus has
already done this? Could it be that Jesus has already broken down the dividing wall of hostility that is between us and made peace through the blood of the cross?
The cross, what God has done for us. And the flame, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, love and joy and peace and patience.
Patience. Evangelism and Doxology create something new and that is a people who are in connection with each other. That is you and me, that’s us. That is the people of the cross and the flame.
So we have been called, in humility, which means we allow our story to become a part of God’s greater story, and we are gentle with each other, which means we do no harm, because every person with whom you share this space is created in the image of God, and we are patient, we bear with one another in love—that is sanctification—we bear witness to the world that we love each other because God first loved us, and, and…. we make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
I am convicted by these words from the Rule of Taize:
Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians who so readily profess love for their neighbor and yet remain divided. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern.
It is an echo of the scripture:
Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
And this leads to a series of uncomfortable questions. Have we made every effort? Can we allow our stories to become a part of a much bigger story? What if we imagined that this means more to God than it does to us? What if, in our life together, we became an outward and visible sign of the cross and the flame?
What if we sought to hold together an evangelical orthodoxy with
What if we admitted that, in a post-Christian culture, when we speak of holiness the world hears judgment? What if holiness is experienced in the unexpected encounter with God (Isaiah 6) and in small circles of trust with each other, which we once called class and band meetings, or, to coin a phrase, “Christian conferencing”?
What if separation is never the path to holiness,
What if searching for the exits is easier but less faithful, more aligned with our preferences but less reflective of the One who never gives up on us?
What if there
“So free, so infinite his grace. Tis mercy all, immense and free. Jesus thou are all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art!”
What if, like our Lord, we were to ‘empty ourselves of all but love”?
Sisters and brothers, in these three days, make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern. Remember: you are the people of the cross and the flame.
Imagine that you and I are still learning and growing as disciples and we have not arrived, and so we say, in these days, “finish
Sisters and brothers what if God is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or imagine?
Hear the good news:
What God has promised he is able to perform. God is able!