When I was being interviewed for this possibility, and when I was consecrated as a bishop and when I was installed, and it does all seem to be a blur, I continued to hear a few recurring phrases that are within our Books of Discipline and Worship.
“A bishop is called to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church.”
In one moment along the way I was asked, in front of a large group of committed, invested, diverse, faithful and, yes, exhausted Christian people,
Will you accept the call to this ministry as a bishop and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?
And I responded,
“I will, by the grace of God.”
In preparing for this morning, I chose a passage of scripture that I have come to connect with this work-in-progress that is a Christian life and the assumption of the role of Bishop:
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God, not the result of works, lest anyone should boast.
That verse, Ephesians 2. 8, written either by Paul or someone who wrote, thought, and sounded very much like Paul, summarizes an extended argument about the journey from the old life to the new:
Do you remember the old phrase?
“I’m not what I want to be,
I’m not what I am going to be,
but thank God I’m not what I used to be!”
All of us once lived in these destructive ways, Paul says, and then there is the turning point, in verse four:
But God…(if this was an African-American church somebody would say “Amen”!
It is a clue to leave the past behind and focus on the future. Since this is a day that is overshadowed to some extent by politics, at least in this country, I recalled watching a televised conversation with the pundit William Bennett, who was campaigning for Dan Quayle. Bennett had been deeply critical of Dan Quayle in an earlier time but had come around, and so the commentator was asking how all of this could have happened. Bennett reflected for a moment and then responded:
“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
All of us used to act like most people in the world do. We followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power.
Yes, every saint has a past, that keeps us humble, but every sinner has a future. And that is all about the grace of God, who is rich in mercy. It is God who raised us from the dead to live in Christ. We are saved by grace, through faith and all of this is a gift.
This is the faith we confess. And so what would it be like to have a movement within our church that was a confessing movement? I simply pose the question. We would depend on the grace of God that saves us. We would be honest about our flaws and confident about the One who heals us. And so in this work I was asked to teach and preach the truth of the gospel to all God’s people. It is a profoundly important calling. I love it.
We could end there, but the scripture does not end there, and our work does not end there. I made a promise that I would guard the faith and seek the unity. Paul goes forward to describe this faith not only at a personal level, but from a corporate perspective.
Well, there are these two divisions. In life there are often two divisions. You can pick most any New Testament letter: Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians. We find ourselves in Ephesians.
There are often, in life, two groups. Today, we think about the two groups, streaming to the voting booths. My first appointment was to a four point charge, I was sent there by my district superintendent, Lawrence McCleskey. Two of the churches, located in sight of each other, were Prospect and New Home. New Home was actually the “New Home” of Prospect. They had divided after the Civil War, although no one could remember the actual reason. I do remember asking how they were distinct from each other. “Oh”, one of matriarchs said, “Prospect is a democrat church, and New Home is a republican church”.
There remain these dividing walls of hostility---choose your style of worship, the color of your state, or your tribal tradition. I love the descriptive phrase of Parker Palmer, in his Healing the Heart of Democracy: we have our “issue silos”. It goes back a long way, even in the family of God. And so Paul could not conclude with the glorious good news of our personal salvation….there was unfinished business. He had to remind these two groups that they were one in Christ. He had to seek the unity.
This remains our unfinished business. The words are fresh in my memory, because I can recall saying them, just a few short weeks ago: I will not only guard the faith, I will seek the unity.
I know this goes against the grain. It is counter-cultural. I know it would be possible to preach a sermon on unity from a partisan spirit, or to hear a sermon on unity and take it in a divisive direction. A recent article in the United Methodist Reporter, written by an elder from my own annual conference, teaching at one of our theological schools in another jurisdiction, comes to the conclusion that “Breaking Up is Hard, But the Right Thing for the United Methodist Church.”
I read the article, which is clearly argued and somewhat persuasive. And yet something stirs within me to seek something else. I served those two rural churches within sight of each other. I have sat in the body of the General Conference a few times. I know about issue silos.
But what if there were not only a confessing movement within our church. What if there was a reconciling movement? And what would be the basis of that reconciliation?
It is, I believe, grounded in the same realities of grace and gift.
We stand in a tradition with a deep and abiding sense of grace, because our God is rich in mercy. There is…
- God’s prevenient grace: that we are created in the image of God, every one of us, and that sin mars this image but never destroys it.
- God’s justifying grace: that we are saved by grace through faith, that the ground is level at the foot of the cross and we kneel there with open hands and hearts to receive the gift--even remembering the language of Paul in Galatians 2. 20, I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. We say yes to the gift, but we must continue to say yes daily.
- God’s sanctifying Grace: once we have claimed a common dignity toward each other, and once we have embraced a common humility within ourselves, before God, we are moved to continue the journey, toward holiness, perfection, the restoration of the image of God. This holiness, we know is personal (not impersonal) and social (not antisocial).
At our worst we always want to divide the gift, as if we could, as if this were an option, to create a personal holiness camp and a social holiness club, a right wing and a left wing, a republican church and a democrat church, a confessing movement and a reconciling movement. And so some talk about truth and unity, as if they could be divided, and most often as if unity is the step-child of truth.
But what if the fullness of the gospel is confessing and reconciling? What if the fullness of the gospel is my own personal experience of a grace that saves me and takes me from the old life to the new life (Ephesians 2.8) and my inescapable participation (Ephesians 2. 14) in the breaking down of the dividing wall of hospitality that separates me from my brother and my sister?
This is more than “let’s just get along”, it is more than tolerance, it is even more than inclusivity. It is the fullness of the gospel, it is the fullness of grace. And in the call of the church, to serve as a bishop, I was asked to work on this unfinished business. I know this, because it happened only a few weeks ago. I remember saying the words, in public. It is the same work I began to do, back there in rural Western North Carolina with Prospect and New Home, and it continues now in a conference (Florida) that possesses an almost dizzying diversity: Anglo and Cuban and Haitian, native African Americans and transplanted African Americans, very large churches and very small churches, and some of the most liberal and conservative, connectional and congregational people I have ever met in my life. And they are all United Methodists!
And many of them are saying, in their own way, “Breaking up is hard to do, but it is the right thing for the United Methodist Church. Don’t you think that is where we are headed, Bishop?”
Sometimes I wonder. And then I remember the words I often find myself saying each morning, words found in the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross
that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace:
So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love,
may bring those who do not know you
to the knowledge and love of you;
for the honor of your Name.
So, why are we going to guard the faith and seek the unity of the church? Yes, because we have made that promise and there is integrity to inhabiting the role. And because of who we are and what the church has asked us to do there are days we find ourselves stretching out our arms of love, on the hard wood of some cross, leadership taking the shape of a cruciform life, in the words of one of my teachers in divinity school.
So we remember our callings. In one way or another, through the providence of God and the will of the church, we were asked or called or persuaded to do it. This is who we are, and this is where we find ourselves.
But it surely goes deeper than that, it is not only the current climate of church and culture, and not only a decision that flows out of a electing body of a conference; it is grounded in the nature of God who is One, it is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples in John 17, it is the plea we make each time we say the epiclesis:
Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
Is there a future with hope? In ourselves? Maybe not. In our issue silos? Surely not.
By grace you have been saved through faith,
And this is the gift of God, not the result of works,
lest anyone should boast.
In Christ Jesus you who were once far off
have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace;
in his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall,
That is, the hostility that is between us.
He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,
That he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two,
Thus making peace,
And might reconcile both groups into one body
through the cross.
(Notes: In preparing this sermon I was mindful of those who served as my bishops in this journey: L. Scott Allen, Bevel Jones, Charlene Kammerer, Lawrence McCleskey, and Larry Goodpaster. I am grateful to the Prospect and New Home United Methodist Churches, who formed me as a pastor and I quickly add that churches of all shapes and sizes exhibit divisions. I would recommend, for further reflection, In One Body Through The Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, edited by Carl Braatan and Robert Jenson (Eerdmans). And I also note that this sermon was preached on the day of the United States President Election, but to a Council of Bishops that is global in composition.)