Pastor at Decatur United Methodist
Just a couple of weeks ago I was at annual conference. For United Methodist pastors annual conference is a mandatory meeting where all of the pastors and many lay leaders gather to discuss the business of the conference on a yearly basis. We are part of the Holston Conference of The United Methodist Church. So each year we get together to reconnect, to hear reports about ministry, to plan for the future, and to conduct the business of the annual conference.
If you talked we me prior to annual conference you might have gotten the impression that I wasn’t looking forward to conference. I am always eager to go to conference to reconnect with colleagues and friends that I only once or twice a year. But this year, I wasn’t really looking forward to going to the conference. The main reason for this is that I feared we would have long and divisive debates about the plans of the annual conference. It’s not that I mind difficult discussions; in fact, I welcome difficult discussions if they are carried on in an atmosphere of love, respect, and mutual understanding. But since annual conference acts more like a legislative body than a conversation, an atmosphere of love and respect can often disintegrate rather quickly.
Maybe there is something to that old saying of “if you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.” While my expectations for the conference were very low, I came away from the conference with a renewed spirit and a bit of measured optimism for the mission of the church. My bad attitude about the conference began to change during our opening service of worship when our bishop, Mary Virginia Taylor was preaching. I don’t remember everything about her message, but one of the things that stands out the most to me is that she used a video from a sermon that was preached 50 years earlier.
Bishop Taylor shared about the forming of The United Methodist Church. You might have heard a bit of the story about the forming of Methodism. Of how John Wesley led a revival within the Church of England that later came to be known as the Methodist Church. This happened in the later 1700s. Just prior to the Civil War in America the Methodist Church split as a result of sin and accommodation to the evils of slavery.
Then during the early 20th century various branches that had split were reunified. Then in 1968 The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church, two churches that shared similar roots, formed a merger plan to birth one new church, a church known as The United Methodist Church.
In 1968 at what is known at the Uniting Conference these two denominations and traditions responded to the God’s calling of Unity became one church in service to the world. At this conference the Rev. Albert Outler preached a sermon to cast a vision for this unity. He said, “Here we are this morning, gathered together from all over the world and from all sorts and conditions of men to celebrate a birthday, our birthday, as the United Methodist Church. The aura of every newborn thing is an aura of hope.” Then he asks, “What will it take to turn this beginning into the reality of its promise and of our hopes?”
These thoughts from our Bishop and from Rev. Outler about unity and the uniting of two different churches into one changed my attitude about our conference and gave me a new hope. And it reminds me of what God wants and desires from creation. Last week we began looking at the Book of Ephesians, which is really a letter, written by Paul to a church in the city of Ephesus. In what we explored last week, we learned that God’s ultimate plan in Jesus Christ is to reunify all reality and that God is already doing this in the life of the church.
In an even more dramatic union than what happened at the founding of The United Methodist Church, Paul tells us in Ephesians, that God brought a new unity when God created the church between two very different people groups. This is what Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 2:11
11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God.
In this Paul is addressing non Jewish believers in Jesus. Basically, he is addressing people like us. What he lays out here is saying that since you weren’t Jews you were without God. When Paul talks about being without God, we tend to think that he is talking about people just not believing in God. But really, it goes much deeper than that. The Jews referred to theses Gentiles as being without God, but it was really an insult that basically labeled them as anarchists or barbarians, people that threatened the cohesion of society. Paul is saying at one time you were people that were worth nothing, because you threatened society and kind of lived lives that were based on destroying things. This is much worse than just not believing.
There are the Jews who are God’s covenant people and then there are the Gentiles who are actively working to destroy everything God is trying to do. In a very real way the Gentiles are seen as enemies. Then Paul says, something that changes this. Paul says in verse 13:
3 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
You were once enemies, Paul says, you were once far away from God and far away from God’s covenant people, but now you have been brought near through Jesus. Not only have we been brought near, Paul says that God has brought unity. In verse 14:
14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.
17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
Talk about a merger, talk about a unification. This is a bigger deal that the unification of The United Methodist Church in 1968. Paul says that those who were far away from God and those who were near to God have brought together through Jesus. Unity has been created.
The next question that we must ask is what kind of unity is God creating. Does unity mean that we all have think the same, look the same, believe the same? Is the unity of God like one of those dystopian science fiction movies where the society is built upon uniformity? Does this unity mean that we need to get diversity and get rid of everything that makes us different?
The good news is that we don’t have to guess that Paul and God means by unity. The unity that God creates is not uniformity. The unity that God creates is peace, Paul writes in verse 14, “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group.” When we think about unity, we don’t have to try to define what unity means, God has already defined it for us. The unity to which all Christians are called is the unity of Christ.
What this means is that when we practice the faith of Jesus we are practicing the unity of God. And the thing about practicing the faith of Jesus is that people do it differently. And when I say people do it differently, I mean people really do it differently. There are about 33,000 different Christian denominations worldwide. And within these 33,000 different denominations there are a range of various practices and beliefs. Even within The United Methodist Church if were to visit different congregations around the county you would find that people and churches practice their faith differently. That’s only within one of those 33,000 different denominations.
Then there are Baptists. Each Baptist church sets its own beliefs and practices. If you visit a Roman Catholic Church you will notice that they do things very differently than we do. They even believe differently then we do. Then there is the Seventh Day Adventist Church down the street, we don’t even worship on the same day. Pentecostal Churches believe that believe in a second baptism by the Spirit where believers are given specific spiritual gifts and people pray in tongues other than their first language.
Amongst all of these groups there are faith leaders that believe strongly that their faith guides them to support liberal social and political causes. At the same time there are faith leaders who believe just as strongly that their guides them to support conservative social and political causes.
This diversity of belief and practice bothers some people, because they believe unity in God means uniformity in practice and belief. But Paul tells us that uniformity is not the goal, Jesus is the goal. Perhaps instead of looking around and comparing or judging your faith to someone else, keep your eyes on Jesus and practice your faith alongside others who are also looking to Jesus even if you practice it a little bit differently.
About this, I’m reminded of an old saying that has been attributed to different individuals throughout history. Today it is the slogan of the Moravian Church in North America, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.” In the essential things, such as the Lordship of Jesus we are unity with Christians of all different practices and beliefs, but in the nonessentials there can be liberty because we should all be looking to Jesus and practicing the faith of Jesus.
So as we go about our lives, let us keep our eyes on Jesus and practice our faith. Let us worship, and study, and pray, and help others, and tell others about Jesus. Doing all of this looking to Jesus and not comparing our beliefs or practices against someone else. In this way, we will find true unity through Christ and in Christ.
Today we will practice this unity by coming to receive the gift of Holy Communion.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.