A Way Forward: Which Way?*
This morning, as we gather for worship, delegates from the United Methodist Church around the world are gathered in St. Louis for the Special Session of General Conference. The Conference officially began yesterday, with delegates and bishops and visitors coming together for a day of prayer. Today, the legislative session will begin. They will do their work from today through Tuesday, the 26th. The Special Session is meeting to hear the report of a body that the last General Conference, General Conference 2016 created: The Commission on a Way Forward. Delegates who gathered in 2016 expressed to the Council of Bishops their desire to find some way to move forward as a denomination in light of our enduring disagreements over same-sex relationships and church practices. And the Council of Bishops, in turn, created the Commission to present possible plans for action to this specially called General Conference.
Here’s what the Commission on a Way Forward has had as part of their vision statement as they’ve worked together over the last few years: “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.”
Their vision really captures my attention - their hope has been to guide us in a way forward that allows for both “as much contextual differentiation as possible” and “as much unity as possible.” That’s a pretty tall order! Contextual differentiation is another mouthful - we seem to be pretty fond of those in The United Methodist Church. But what it means is that we want to allow people to adapt the way of being church as much as possible so that it makes sense in our own setting. Think about the two United Methodist Churches we have just in our community. I’m the pastor of both North Gouverneur and First UMC. We’re both United Methodist congregations, and we both function under the same guidelines, but we don’t do things the same way. It wouldn’t make sense! We don’t have lots of committee meetings in North Gouverneur when we, a small group, can take care of most of our business on a Sunday morning before or after worship, meeting when we need to. At First UMC, we have to pay for some services that at North Gouverneur we accomplish through volunteers, because of the different scale, different size we’re talking about. We often sing the same songs in worship, but sometimes we sing different music that better suits each congregation. Our order of worship is similar each week, but adapted to reflect each setting. That’s “contextual differentiation.” So the Commission on a Way Forward set as part of its vision the idea that maybe there is a “way of being” related to same-sex relationships and church practices that is contextual. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for there to be only one way of doing things that works for congregations that are big and small, diverse and homogeneous, in countries all around the globe.
At the same time, the Commission has worked with a vision of “as much unity as possible.” Unity doesn’t mean sameness. It means that we’re not whole unless we’re together. It means that we have a shared purpose, values, and vision. For example, at both First UMC and North Gouverneur, and in United Methodist Churches around the world, we share the same mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Commission on a Way Forward has worked, then, to craft a plan that has space both for contextual differences, and the unity of the whole church. A tall order!
As a result of their work over the past few years, three primary proposals came out of their work. I want to share with you very simplified details of each plan. One plan is called the Connectional Conferences plan. In this plan, the denomination would separate into three groupings, based on our theological point of view. We’d be either part of a “progressive,” “traditional,” or “unity” conference, that shared some resources, but were mostly independent of each other. This plan requires a lot of amendments to the Constitution of the church, and hasn’t gained a lot of traction.
The Traditionalist plan keeps the current language of the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s book of rules and order, which prohibits same-sex marriages in the church and performed by United Methodist Clergy, and which prohibits openly gay and lesbian clergy from serving as pastors. The Traditionalist plan focuses on increasing accountability to these rules and increasing the penalties for violating them. It also provides a pathway for those who feel they are unable to comply with the rules to form a separate network of churches outside of, but loosely connected to The United Methodist Church.
Finally, the One Church Plan would allow individual pastors to decide whether or not they would officiate at same-sex weddings, individual congregations to decide whether or not they would host same-sex weddings at their churches, and individual clergy sessions of an annual conference to decide whether or not they will recommend the ordination of gay and lesbian persons as pastors.
After studying these three plans, the Commission on a Way Forward presented them to the Council of Bishops and the Council of Bishops voted to present all three plans to the General Conference, with their noted preference that we adopt the One Church Plan. Now, during these next few days, delegates will have an opportunity to perfect and vote on these plans. There are two additional plans, presented by other groups: The Simple Plan would remove all language from the Discipline that restricts same-sex relationships and related church practices, and another plan calls for the dissolution of the denomination - deciding that we have no path forward that is together as one body. It is also a real possibility that delegates will not be able to agree on any of these plans. If that is the case, delegates will meet again on the regular schedule in 2020, and probably consider similar legislation all over again. Whew. Are you all still with me? I know it is a lot to take in!
So, where is God in all of this? How are we carrying out the work of Jesus in the midst of this? How is the Spirit moving among us? Is there some good news to share? Thankfully, there’s always good news from God, and to find it, we turn to the scriptures. Today, we find ourselves in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the collection of stories about the first leaders in the church that was birthed after a resurrected Jesus returned to God’s home, and the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to give them the courage to spread God’s message to everyone. But as we talked about last week, the new church quickly realized that they had some things to work out. They didn’t have a common understanding of how to proceed given that some Gentiles - folks who weren’t a part of the Jewish faith - were hearing about Jesus and wanting to follow him too. And so the church leaders, like Peter and James and Paul, had to ask some hard questions: When should the gospel be adapted to these new settings they were preaching in? What was essential to the faith to maintain? Which traditions and practices should be enforced and which were merely contextual? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
We see this question come up repeatedly in the book of Acts. Peter, in Acts 10, has a vision of the God calling him to eat foods normally considered unclean by Jewish law, and then he is brought to the home of a Gentile centurion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he baptizes the entire household… even though it was forbidden for a Jew to share at the table with Gentiles. In Acts 11, Barnabas goes to minister to the Gentiles who have become Jesus-followers, and Paul joins him, and many are converted. In Acts 14, Gentiles are converted in Iconium and Lystra, but tension grows between Jews who follow Christ and those who do not. Some who reject the message of Jesus stir up conflict between new Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. And “to complicate matters, other missionaries began to visit some of these places and the messages being shared about which practices must be followed as a part of the faith were different.” One particular question seems to emerge after all these incidents that sort of encapsulates the whole tension: Do new followers of Jesus have to be circumcised in order to be part of the new Christian community? Circumcision was, since the time of Abraham, an important marker of identity. It was part of the cohesiveness of the Jewish identity, a way people marked their devotion to God. And now suddenly, some people were arguing that it wasn’t necessary. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus was circumcised like other Jewish men. He never said you shouldn’t be circumcised. But some followers of Jesus are interpreting his teachings and the freedom they’ve experienced through God’s grace in Christ and concluding it isn’t necessary for new followers of Jesus.
The new church, the Jesus movement, finds itself needing to make a decision. “Someone had to make an official decision about this so that the conflict among communities might cease. Local churches in these far flung places were confused about what was required and what wasn’t and it was hurting their ability to convert new followers to the way of Jesus. And so the apostles and elders of the faith gathered together in Jerusalem in the year 48 to consider this question. They heard testimony from people like Paul and Barnabas, and disciples like Peter and James made pleas. And together, the Jerusalem Council made a decision for the whole church.”
So, testimony is given by a variety of people. James, the brother of Jesus, is one of the primary leaders of the young church, and he seems to hold a great deal of responsibility in his hands. After hearing what everyone has said, he reflects on some of the writings of the prophets that speak about Gentiles responding to the word and work of God, and he concludes, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” But, he says, they should be encouraged to follow certain provisions - not circumcision, but things like abstaining from meat that has been sacrificed in rituals of religions outside of Judaism.” The group chooses several leaders to be sent out to the surrounding areas to share the results of the Council. Remember, no facebook live streaming, so people were waiting to hear the news. And we read that when the gathered congregation in a Gentile region heard the news, that space was being made for them in the church without them converting to Judaism, they rejoiced.
The folks who attended the Jerusalem Council didn’t leave all sharing the same opinion about how to do things. Instead, they left agreeing that they could make space for each other to be in ministry in some very different ways, and yet still be part of the same one body of Christ together. This was not the end of disputes over ministry to Gentiles. Paul was fighting for the legitimization of his ministry to the Gentiles and getting pushback right up to the very end of his life. But it was a turning point certainly, the allowed the gospel among the Gentiles to thrive.
In our study group’s book Holy Contradictions, one of the essay we read was by Rob Fuquay, a pastor in Indianapolis. He wrote an essay called “Multiply or Divide?” In it, he poses several questions: “What if we just show grace to one another and assume we all want to see people brought to Christ, grow in their faith, and transform the world? … What if we approached our current divide in United Methodist not as a right or a wrong, but as an opportunity to expand our mission? What if we gave room for all sides … to coexist as one church and welcome the change to reach more people for Christ? What is this potential schism has arrived not to divide us but to help us multiply?” What if? What if we decide that we don’t want to trouble people who are longing to turn to God, but instead, we want to encourage them, build them up, help them grow in faith? What if we bless each other do to this in very different ways - ways we don’t always understand, or even agree with, but we bless because we are one in Christ? What if? Maybe God’s grace is multiplying our impact, not dividing us. After all, that’s just the upside-down kind of thing God is fond of doing!
Friends, like with the Jerusalem Council two thousand years ago, regardless of what is (or isn’t) decided at General Conference, we won’t be finished with these conversations. Because everything about our life with God and living out our faith is always up for conversation. The early church found a way to move forward and still do God’s work together. Can we?
Yesterday, I was watching snippets of the day of prayer at General Conference. As folks came back from lunch, some people started singing, and eventually many joined in. They were singing words from a song called “I Need You to Survive,” written by Brooklyn pastor and gospel musician Hezekiah Walker: I need you, you need me. We're all a part of God's body. Stand with me, agree with me. We're all a part of God's body. It is [God’s] will, that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive. You are important to me, I need you to survive. I pray for you, You pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won't harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” These words are my prayer today. My touchstone. My offering to you. Friends, you are important to me. I pray for you. Pray for me. Pray for each other. I love you. Let us love each other. We need each other - we need each other to survive. Amen.
* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are so noted. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/09/02/a-way-forward-which-way/