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?
Sometimes it stuns people when I ask this. Is this a question one should be asking? Is it right to ask this in a class full of seminarians? Or in a gathering of laypersons in a local church?
I think it is right to ask this basic question. I even think it is right to ask a question more basic than this one — Do God and the world still need Christians?
The question should make us all uneasy. A question asked implies that an answer is expected. And what if the answer is not what is expected?
As we look around us, there is so much lovelessness exhibited by people who take for themselves the name of ‘Christian.’ Certainly this is also true for the traditions within Christianity that take the name of ‘Methodist.’ We are too silent about war, poverty, hatred — so many things. We give lip service to caring. But then we reduce Christian witness to a commitment more appropriately reserved for hobbies. A couple of hours in church every week . . . or maybe not every week. Our lives are seldom so shaped by the call to have compassion for others that they look much different from the lives of people who feel no such call. Christians and people diametrically opposed to Jesus’s teachings of love, mercy, forgiveness, and healing are too often indistinguishable from one another in how they act, speak, think — and how they spend their time, money . . . and how they vote. The cross of Christ, that symbolic remembrance of Jesus’s overcoming cruelty and death, is worn too much like a fashion accessory and too little as a mark of commitment. And, too often, when it is claimed as a mark of commitment it is claimed less as a sign of promise that God comes to save us all than it does to show who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ It can be depressing to those who profess to be Christians — and how disappointing it must be for those who look to Christians with the desire to see something better than the abusive and loveless behaviours of those whose lives are lived as a vicious competition and constant war with everyone else around them.
I think it makes sense for people to want to leave Christianity in disgust. I think it is fair when people want to dismiss Christians for not living what they say they believe. And, I think this is every bit as true when people look at United Methodists today. We show too much self-fixation. We war with one another and leave the poor mostly uncared for. We battle over right-teaching when we show little evidence that those teachings are used for anything other than obligations of church membership, financial contributions, and conforming to social expectations of the ‘in’ group.
And Lazarus is at the gate while United Methodists wallow in the ‘luxury’ of hate and neglect of their fellow beings. How can even one who returns from the dead be believed by a people whose hearts have grown hard and whose love — to the extent it is there — is parceled out in a miserly way towards self and a few who look, think, and act like self? It is a crying shame.
And I come back to the question again . . . Do God and the world need Methodist Christians?
God and the world need people who live and teach that God loves all of God’s creatures — and that salvation is offered to all. God and the world need people who believe that God promises that we all can be saved and grow in grace so that our love and life can be transformed to be like that of Jesus. God and the world need people who know that we have free will to choose to co-operate with God in the ministry of love and compassion that Christ began and will see us bring to fulfillment together. God and the World need Methodist Christians; because these things are the core of what Methodists have testified to with their lives over the course of generations.
It may be that there are, in fact, very few Methodist Christians in the world. And every one of them is needed, I think — and more are needed — not fewer.
Scripture teaches us that God is love. John Wesley repeated this in his own ministry and teaching. Any ‘right teaching’ that says otherwise is a lie about God, a lie about the church, and a lie about ourselves.
May God tear open our hearts and cleanse us with the full realization of just how far we have fallen. May we realize that God’s hand is still stretched out to us to lift us up and bring us together in the family that God creates, calls, and equips. And may those among God’s children who are called to be Methodist Christians turn back to our loving God and learn again to be humble enough to be disciples of the rabbi, Jesus — Emanuel. May we be bold enough to live as he lives and love as he loves.