This is the first in a 4-part sermon series called “Living Faithfully.” In this series, Pastor Drew will be addressing some of the deeper truths by which we profess our faith in and commitment to following Jesus Christ, even as our denomination faces the likelihood of separation later this coming summer. The theme for today’s message is God’s love for the church.
- Sermon #2 – February 6: “What Did Jesus Do?“
- Sermon #3 – February 13: “Called and Equipped“
- Sermon #4 – February 20: “What Doesn’t Change“
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-6; 5:15-27
Google the phrase “this we believe book” and you’ll discover that there are a number of books on the market with that or a similar title, many of which have to do with explaining core Christian beliefs. One of them has a Methodist focus. In 2010, Bishop William Willimon wrote the book, This We Believe: the Core Wesleyan Faith and Practice.
So, what do United Methodist’s believe? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. As it concerns our denomination, there are some historical statements of belief upon which the Methodist movement was built. But when it comes to individuals within United Methodism, we truly cover the entire theological gamut, from the very the very progressive to the very conservative.
In 1784, John Wesley gave the new Methodist movement in America a doctrinal statement which contained twenty-four basic statements of belief. He called them “Articles of Religion↗.” When the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged in 1968, forming today’s United Methodist Church, the EUB’s brought with them their own “Confession of Faith↗,” consisting of sixteen statements of belief.
As a way of helping new Christians mature in their practice of faith, Wesley put together something he called the “General Rules↗,” which functioned as a kind of contract by which small group members held one another accountable. These rules are organized into these three basic categories: 1) Do no harm; 2) Do good; 3) Practice individual and communal spiritual practices (prayer, Bible reading, worship, and the Lord’s Supper).
Finally, as a denomination we align ourselves with the two historical Christian creeds, the Nicene Creed↗ and the Apostles’ Creed↗, which are found in the back of our United Methodist Hymnal. Taken together, these articles of religion, statements of faith, general rules for living, and the historical creeds are the theological foundation of The United Methodist Church.
Built upon that theological foundation is our United Methodist Book of Discipline↗, which has all our denominational rules and laws related to how we’re structured and relate to one another. The Book of Discipline can only be amended by the members of General Conference, which meets every four years. General Conference consists of clergy and lay representatives of The United Methodist Church throughout the world. Only they have the authority to add to, subtract from, or change the language and content of our Book of Discipline. A lot takes place over that 10-day conference, much of which are petitions which request changes to the Discipline. Some petitions are agreeable to the majority, which then get adopted and later ratified by the annual conferences. And some get voted down, which means they go nowhere.
Almost from the day our denomination was formed in 1968, one category of petitions has consistently come before every General Conference, and every General Conference has consistently not adopted it. That category of petitions centers around the request to change the language in the Book of Discipline which currently prohibits clergy from performing same-sex marriages, and which prohibits the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual men and women in The United Methodist Church.
Through the years, this particular debate has garnered increasing attention from the secular news media because the disagreements and factions between the two sides has only widened, and in recent years has resulted in acts of civil disobedience right there on the floor of General Conference. Because the 2016 General Conference was so overwhelmed by the high volume of petitions from both sides of the issue, it was agreed that they would discontinue any further debate on that one issue and, instead, would convene a special-called general conference session in 2019 which would address this one issue. The hope was that this session would provide a way for the denomination to move forward so that it wouldn’t continue to consume us.
Soon thereafter, The [32-member] Commission on the Way Forward was established. In a nutshell, their task was to develop a number of different plans for moving forward which would be brought to the 2019 special General Conference, one of which would be adopted. They brought three plans to the 2019 General Conference: 1) the One-Church plan; 2) the Connectional Conferences Model; 3) the Traditional Model. For those who would affirm a changing of our current language and official positions to one that’s more inclusive, the One-Church plan and the Connectional Conferences Model would provide a more progressive way forward. The Traditional Model would not only keep our current language and official position in place but tighten it up a bit.
So then, beginning Feb. 23, 2019, United Methodist delegates from around the world met in St. Louis to choose one of the three. After four days of discussions, debates, and politicking, the Traditional Model garnered the highest number of votes. Through the decisions made by those delegates as a whole, our denomination made choice, and their choice sent shock waves across our nation. Very few people saw that coming. Very few, including those in support of the Traditional Model, believed it would be chosen. But it did. And as a result, instead of it being a way for us to move forward in a way that wouldn’t consume us, that vote resulted in the recognition that for all intents and purposes, there really isn’t a way for us to move forward within confines of our current polity and practice. It became clear that as a denomination, we’re too divided on this issue, and the only way forward is through an amicable separation.
In the time since the 2019 General Conference, a document entitled “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation”↗ (pdf) was drafted by a group of Methodist leaders representing a wide theological spectrum. This document lays out a plan for annual conferences, local churches, and individual clergy to remain a part of The United Methodist Church or affiliate with a new denomination which reflects the traditionalist position. Soon after General Conference 2019, it was decided to have another special called General Conference to decide how to separate. The pandemic has forced that General Conference to be postponed twice. It’s scheduled to take place at the end of August of this year, but that’s yet to be seen. However, even though it’s not official because the General Conference hasn’t met, there’s a widely held belief that it’s only a matter of time. In essence, it’s a done deal. And once it happens, overnight our beloved United Methodist Church will become something different than we’ve been since 1968.
With that said, there’s something important I want you to know. If and when the decision to separate becomes official, God will still be in charge of his Church! And that’s because it’s his church. We, the church, belong to God. The church doesn’t belong to us. As an earthly corporate entity, we may own the deed to this building, but we certainly don’t own the church. And that’s because the church is us. We are the church, and we don’t belong to ourselves. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds us that we were bought with the blood of Jesus Christ, and therefore we belong to God. God’s in charge. Always has been, and always will be. Always has been, and always will be.
Friends, this is good news. And it’s good news because it means that regardless of the ways we human beings have managed to intentionally and unintentionally hurt the church over the past 2000+ years, it’s still intact and going strong. We’re still doing God’s work in the world, and we’re still making disciples of Jesus Christ.
God will still be in charge of the church! Always has been. Always will be.
Here’s a fact: the Church has survived debates and divisions from day one. Sometimes the “division” is forced upon us through persecution and sometimes it’s self-inflicted. Acts 2 describes the birth of the Church, in which “all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had” (v. 44). By chapter 5 we read about fear taking hold of the church after the sudden deaths of Sapphira and Ananias, a wife and husband in that early church, for not being honest about holding onto some of their income.
Throughout the book of Acts, a reoccurring theme is persecution and scattering. Christ-followers are arrested and executed. Churches are shut down.
After Paul’s conversion, he traveled throughout the region and started new churches. Wherever he started a new church, he would develop leaders from within the congregation who would then take over when he moved on to start a church elsewhere. Because he would often leave those new congregations in the hands of relatively new Christians, they were easy prey. And so, one of the issues he frequently addressed in his letters was the problem of someone else infiltrating that community of faith after he left, and would try to impose Jewish laws upon those new Christians and/or subject them to heretical teachings. Paul was constantly trying to keep together what others were trying to undo in his absence. Some churches survived, and no doubt many didn’t. And yet, we’re still around today. So, clearly, the church survives persecution and division.
Now, it was only be a matter of a few years before the 1st century church held it first “General Conference” to address a very real theological and practical problem. You can read about it in Acts chapter 15. The issue is whether or not Greek converts to Christ have to first undergo circumcision in order to become Christians. It describes this first ever “Council” of church leaders who gathered in Jerusalem to hear the debate and make a decision. That official decision was then communicated to all the various congregations scattered throughout the region. It was a theological decision with practical application that these churches were expected to abide by.
The fact is the church has been struggling in one way or another from the very beginning. For two millennia, the church of Jesus Christ has survived splits, disagreements, mergers, dying congregations, debates, conference and councils, heresy, poor leadership, bad theology, loss of vision, loss of passion, establishment of new rules, and, of course, the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of Protestant denominations. I’d show you a family tree of Methodism but the high number of branches in the tree—each one representing a split—renders the image too small to see on these monitors! Nevertheless—to borrow a recent phrase from a sitting Senator—she persisted! She, the Church, the Bride of Christ, persisted through it all and continues marching forward. Why? Because God’s still in charge.
In our reading from Ephesians, Paul keeps before God’s people an important truth. Regardless of our denomination or tradition, regardless of our polity or policies, and regardless of our debates and debacles, we are one body, one Spirit, and God has called us to one hope—the hope we have in Jesus. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6) This will never change. No debate can change it. No General Conference vote can change it. And certainly, no change to the Book of Discipline can change it.
Who’s our head, and to whom do we the church submit? Jesus Christ. Jesus himself submitted to the Father, choosing to sacrifice himself for the sake of Church (5:25). Why did he do this? To make the church holy (v. 26). And to be able to present to the Father the Church—his body—to be without stain or wrinkle; one that’s holy and blameless. (v. 27) In short, he chose death for himself out of his love for us! Let it be known everywhere that Jesus Christ loves the Church. And he loves the Church despite our brokenness and divisions and debates. He’s not given up on us, and he never will. That is the truth.
Just outside the church office are pictures of pastors who’ve served this church dating back to 1846. Near the main entrance is a commemoration to some our former church buildings You’ll note that none of our former buildings are still around. A few of the clergy are still around, but most of them are no longer with us. And yet, our church – the people called Methodist in Port Huron– still stands. Still remains. Our church still persists. Come what may in August, God will still find people in Port Huron who will do his work. How General Conference will affect this congregation is yet to be revealed. Fortunately, God knows. And he’s already working out his plan for his Church in Port Huron. And I say, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t continue to be a part of God’s plan, because that’s a plan that’s guaranteed to always be a true way forward.