My worship professor in seminary — many years ago — pointed out to us that, in the earlier days of the church, Lent was both a season of penance and a season of celebration. For those looking towards their baptism at Easter, it was a season of penitential preparation; for mourning their sins and focusing upon their liberation by Christ who took those sins upon himself when he was lifted up on the cross. For those who were already marked by baptism, however, it was a season of joyful preparation for the celebration of the saving act of the death & resurrection of Jesus; Emanuel.
‘How very much like the church,’ he said, ‘to simplify a liturgical season and keep the penance and toss out the celebration.’
We all do honour to what we believe when we give witness to those beliefs in civil discourse. I could be right or wrong. You could be right or wrong. But the correctness or incorrectness of ideas and beliefs does not change how we should treat one another — ever.
I do not regret the efforts of reformers over the centuries and millennia to work for changes to the church as an institution or to practices of piety when Christians have lost their way. I do not regret the church rejuvenating efforts of mystics or of theologians who call upon us to reflect upon what it means to be Christian. I do not regret Jan Hus, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or countless others who have pointed out the flaws in the church and called for us to do better. I do not even regret that sometimes the genuine call to growth in faith and piety can mean that institutions and power structures suffer divisions. What I would regret is if we made an idol of an institution of faith instead of being true to the faith itself.
United Methodists come together because they are answering God’s call to discipleship in Christ Jesus. The purpose of coming together in church is to enact with each other the teachings of Jesus, to model our lives upon his life and ministry in this world, and to be mutually accountable and supportive of one another as we all seek to grow in grace as individuals and as communities. Discipleship is constitutive of community — of church — for United Methodist Christians
It is difficult being church together. The History of Christianity is filled with a progression of conflicts over right teaching, the authority of the church and its leaders, and the proper shape and character of a Christian life. These things are important. Sadly, though, these conflicts often distract from the example of Jesus and his life and ministry in this world. Instead of an athletic contest to see who can best exemplify God’s love as demonstrated by Christ, Christians waste large amounts of energy on arguing with one another. It is discouraging to those within the faith and its various traditions. It is wholly off-putting to those ‘outside’ the church who are trying to decide whether they see anything of value in Christianity.
What keeps me going as a Methodist Christian is the question I ask myself with regularity. It is a question, in fact, that I ask my students when I teach — Do God and the world still need Methodists?
God has a life-story; and so do all those whom God gives life. We meet one another, as God’s creatures, in the overlapping narratives of our lives. We, likewise, engage with God in the narrative of the Divine life. We are all making history together. We all participate with God in creating that history moment by moment. Our mutual experience of each other is the living of that history.