In May of 2020, the United Methodist Church General Conference will bring together delegates representing the 136 countries that are a part of our worldwide denominational communion. Our own, Rev. Marie King is one of those delegates. Jacob Vaughan, Jefferson Furtado, Linda Furtado and I will be alternates there as well. The gathering will consider legislation that may dissolve the denomination or divide it into 2 or 3 or even 4 churches. On this World Communion Sunday, it seems appropriate to ask: how do we deal with divisions inside institutions, communities, and families we love?
Our 2019 disagreements are not as deep as those inside the early church. In Lystra, the crowd shouted “The gods have taken human form and come down to visit us” as they brought bulls and wreaths in order to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabus, who they called Hermes and Zeus (Acts 14) In Ephesus, new Christians burned their old magic books, reportedly worth over a million dollars. (Acts 17) Paul, Barnabus, Silas, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Aquilla planted churches in about 15 cities around the Mediterrian Sea. The influx of gentile Christians disrupted a homogeneous Christian-Jewish culture. New understandings always stretch us. In time, the church would offer an “easier” orthodox practise not requiring kosher food or circumcision. Circumcision came as the very sign of God’s eternal covenant with Abraham. (compare Philippians 3 and Genesis 17). The introduction of gentiles tested the limits of grace and unity inside the early church. If we all hold the same culture, language, and beliefs- we do not need love to get along.
Imagine, loading the grandparents, one aunt, and three kids into your mini-van. You ask: “Where do you want to eat supper?” Now if everyone yells “Fido” you’re done… no love required. But if the chorus comes out “Hop Doddy, Smiling Elephant, Pancake Pantry, Grill Cheesery, Double Dogs, McDougals…. and what if a teenager yells out: “meat is murder- I only eat vegetables!” Well, those dining decisions require love. Doing church, life or family with people who hold different points of view, experiences, and languages requires active love. If we all agree, love is not necessary. However, God’s presence is revealed and perfected inside anyone who chooses to practise Love ( 1 John 4).
Romans 14 is about love and how to break bread together! The inclusion of new folks at God’s table challenges passed along rules. New faith expressions call us to explore the core that truly unites us! Torah observant Jews would not eat meat if it was not slaughtered according to kosher laws. Remember how Peter, cried out, “Lord, I have never eaten anything impure?” God’s vision answers the uneasy bishop: “Never consider unclean what God has made pure!” (Acts 10) In time the church decided that Following Christ, mattered more than circumcision or kosher meals.
If we live inside God’s abiding Love, then God, not our theological agreement creates unity. I love my two boys. They hold different opinions, values and practises. One studies engineering and the other theatre. Once, as we walked past a huge metal sculpture beside my son’s engineering dorm, I asked, “Lewis, what is that?” “Art.” he answered with a one word dismissal! My children believe different things and take different paths. I love them both deeply. I grieve any fight they have. I will love my children no matter what they do. I may not agree with them, but my love is not rooted in their opinions, but a transcendent and inclusive love. The Apostle Paul holds an opinion. In Corinthians 8, Paul says “We all have opinions, but knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul believes those clinging to the Levitical rules as “weaker” in faith. Yet, Paul offers a remedy to the deep divisions and different understandings. Paul has a vision for peace within the division.
Welcome each other. Do not argue about differences of opinion.. Do not look down on others. Do not judge: God has accepted them, so who are we to judge?…. Do not let something you consider to be good be criticized as wrong. God’s kingdom is not about rules but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let us strive for the things that bring peace. Let us seek to build each other up.
Paul’s argument goes like this: Who is right does not matter. That requires our practicing a radical transcending and including Love. What we believe matters less than the ways we treat each other. However, that does not mean we should stop lovingly standing up our beliefs. Our inclusive theology is rooted in God’s grace, Jesus’ practice, our baptism vows, and an internally consistent application of scriptures. We understand women in ministry, the rejection of slavery, and the inclusion of divorced pastors with the same theological lens that we use to fully accept queer Christians. God’s justice demands we become a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression. However, if God is Love, then Loving orthopraxy matters more than our orthodoxy.
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice. Love rejoices with the truth. It puts up with stuff, trusts easily, hopes for the best, and endures all things. Now, our knowledge, preaching, and arguments will all end. Love never ends. Love never fails.
Now, I have a lot more I want to say about will happen in Minneapolis next May. My faith is not rooted in the institutional church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church” (Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Prophet, Maryter, spy 84). The UMC does so much good in our world, but our rule book is longer than the Gospel of Matthew! Jesus had some scraps with the institutional church. Let us be part of that Loving movement Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
Today, we come to the Table. Pastor Sandy will speak the familiar words in Thai. We will not translate her words. We will be unable to give our intellectual ascent, as she leads us in this holy mystery. But as she lifts the bread, the Love of God will come among us. Jesus will abide even as we do not know exactly what is being said. God’s Love so exceeds words. Indeed, when God wanted to demonstrate how to live, God took on flesh, and in Jesus showed us Divine Love through action. Jesus did not write a creed, a Discipline, or even an order of worship. No, God shows us Love through incarnational actions: in a manger, through a child’s lunch, healing people, feeding crowds, accepting religious outcasts, lifting the cup, breaking the loaf, taking up the cross, and rising up to eternal life. Let us practice Love. Let us love each other, accept each other, include each other, and forgive each other. God’s very nature is one of incarnational Transcendent Inclusive Love: God Loves us, welcomes us, includes us, defends us, forgives us and accepts us. Friends, Let us demonstrate Love for each other. If we love as Christ loved us, then the very gates of hell will be unable to withstand our loving march. Amen.