Authentically United Methodist: When We Agree to Disagree Agreeably
July 19, 2015
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”
So, some of you think that “back in the day” John Bletsch, a former associate pastor, was the geek-meister, the guru of gadgets at Christ Church. Well, he was, but there is another one, another gadget lover on our staff: me! John trended toward anything computer, and I trend toward the odd. For instance, some of you remember that I have a dog bark translator collar. A wireless mic attaches to my English springer spaniel’s collar and it transmits his bark to a little box with a screen on which purports to translate his sounds in English. So far our conversations haven’t been too rich. I think Charlie may actually be an English Airhead. I also have a metal detector and just this past week I ordered something that is a bit “TMI”: I love listening to NPR in the morning used to have a shower radio. I just ordered a Bluetooth speaker that has FM built into it. Here’s the weird thing: You can pair it with your phone and take and make phone calls while you shower. So, if I ever call you early in the morning…. not many UM preachers can claim such. And recently, I obtained this pair of sunglasses. Here’s what’s unique about them: they have a built in camera to record whatever I’m looking at, saying and hearing. As I read and prayed about this passage from Colossians, I started thinking, “If I wore these glasses all the time, what would they record of my life? What would be the grand theme of how I treat folks?” And now, I pose the question to you. What would “recording” glasses reveal about your life? Because, as we all know, God does see all we do. Would they record a life whose grand theme reveals the love of Jesus?
Specifically, in regards to our passage from Colossians, would these recording glasses show the virtues that come from Christ in your heart and would such virtues be seen in your interactions with everyone, but especially with other Christians congregated together as Christ United Methodist Church?
Today, we move into our 4th sermon on the distinguishing marks of the “people called Methodist.” As with all the “marks,” all of our distinctives exist in all branches of the Christian “family tree,” but how we emphasize them, how they are our “accent notes,” is the ground of our uniqueness. We’ve looked at how we are a people who emphasize God’s love as opposed to those who focus on God’s judgment; a love so strong that through it God offers the gift of assurance of salvation. Then, we considered how Wesleyan-rooted folks are those who emphasize and practice the spiritual disciplines that result in sanctifying grace influencing our view of self and others. Last week, we delved into our roots of being a people who are winsomely evangelical. We heard that our relationship with Christ is always personal but never private. We learned that collectively our changed hearts result in social action.
Today, we consider how we are those who, especially in the church, “agree to disagree” agreeably. Each week, we’ve looked into the mirror of “who we are” through scripture, our plumb line, and a quote from Wesley. Here’s this week’s Wesley quote:
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart though we are not of one opinion? If your heart is as my heart, give me thine hand.”
A distinctive of the “people called Methodist” is that even though we don’t always think alike and agree on every thing, we can still join hands in love.
Our passage teaches this. You see, in the days when Paul and Timothy sent the letter to the church at Colossae, writing, rhetoric and persuasion styles dictated that the most important qualities they wanted to convey came first and last on a list. This means if we’re to take Paul and Timothy seriously, the two most important virtues they wanted Christians to have are compassion and love.
In our passage Paul and Timothy use the great image of clothing. If you go back and read the context of our passage you’ll see this theme. The writers urge Christians to take off the old garments of sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk and lying. Then, with allusions to the baptism ceremonies of those days, the stripped down of old worldly ways believer is to put on new, pure, “Christ” clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, tolerance of differences, forgiveness of each other, and most of all love, which leads to peace in our lives. So, would my glasses reveal such virtues in your life? Not just on Sundays but always?
The church at Colossae needed these words. At one time Colossae had been among a trio of cities on the Meander River that excelled and thrived. After a time, the other two cities continued to thrive while the textile and dyeing town of Colossae languished. Its population was greatly reduced, particularly after the frequent occurrence of earthquakes. The Romans even reduced down to town status from being a city. The textile industry of making and dyeing wool from the chalk-infused river had evaporated. The Christians at Colossae were fragile and ripe to believe “anything that came down the pike” and believe me, they did. The Colossians seem to have bought into a belief system that merged together Gnosticism, astrology, Stoic asceticism and Christianity. They were a church, scholars reveal, that was roiled by controversy and arguments. And though Paul didn’t found and had never visited the Colossians, he and Timothy were compelled to write them and give them instructions for what’s important in the church: a loving atmosphere and peacefulness.
Wesley’s time was similar in terms of church. The church of his time was roiled with argument and controversy, much of it caused by Wesley himself. While it sounds strange to us, Wesley was embroiled in a controversy about where one could preach! In a major move in his life, encouraged by a lifelong friend (with whom he disagreed theologically, but loved to the end) George Whitfield, on April 2, 1739, he preached outside! He wrote: “At 4 in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining the city to about three thousand people.” Now this is major! Wesley was a dignified guy; an Anglican priest; an Oxford don; a teaching fellow at Lincoln College. To go out and preach like a street preacher was major for him. Can you imagine if you went downtown and saw me on the corner of West Market and Elm preaching? His choice was more radical than that—all done for his passion to save lost souls. But it was controversial. The established church in Wesley’s day strictly assigned priests to particular congregations within a parish and all their church structures had been consecrated by the bishop as the right place to preach. Wesley broke this rule stating, “The world is my parish.” More, Wesley commissioned Coke and Asbury to be superintendents of the Methodists in America, again breaking with Anglican canon law. Wesley led a life of controversy to the point that riots frequently broke out where he was appearing.
And yet, to a Catholic friend he wrote, even though we disagree, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” How?
Simply this, Wesley had as his highest value, the overcoat of all the garments he had put on, “love,” and that resulted in peace. And when we’re being authentically Wesleyan, we do the same.
Inevitably, disagreements will come with others in the congregation and when they do, remember loving is more important than winning any argument. You see, we’re not any different from people in the Bible. Argue or argument occurs over 1000 times in the Bible. Disagreements are bound to happen but how we engage in them and deal with them can make all the difference. And hear this clearly: We can live together and love each other and not agree on everything! Sometimes our culture seems so filled with “us” and “them” language, zero sum gamesmanship, and “winner” take-all-ranting, that we are tempted to think that every point where we disagree with others makes them our sworn enemy for life! I want to suggest that we United Methodist people can and should model something different from that. I want to suggest that the world needs for United Methodist Christians to name and claim our different-ness and show the world we still deeply love each other.
Next, let’s note from our passage that Paul and Timothy are teaching that the good of the congregation is far more important than any position or stance congregants may take. One of the saddest things that can happen to a congregation occurs when some of its members disagree with a decision the leadership made, a direction of the pastor or even the appointment of the bishop and begin a whisper campaign of gossip. Soon, the gossip spills over into the community and as St. James stated, the tongue sparks a forest fire of negative conversation in the greater community about the congregation. And here’s what’s tragic: it could very well be that someone who needed the ministry of a congregation and was thinking about visiting, changes their mind or a person who was praying about giving a major gift to fund mission and ministry decides not to, all because some folks loved their stance more than their congregation. Disagreeing and not moving on, not putting a disagreement in the context of eternity and starting a whisper campaign can have dire results.
What then should we do when we disagree…the call of St. Paul in this passage is to do so agreeably! We are to disagree with compassion; I think that means we are to do our best to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes; to try with all of our being to understand what they are feeling and what in their life history brought them to their position. And then, Paul teaches, when we disagree we’re to do so with kindness! So, often disagreements seem to carry with them the “heat of the battle.” Raised voices, red faces and all–capital letter emails are what we’re tempted to do when we disagree with someone. But Paul and Timothy in this passage let us know it is possible to disagree and do so with kindness! How the venomous conversation in world needs that, the kindness of United Methodist Christians! More, our passage teaches that even when we disagree we can do so clothed with humility, meekness, and patience, all capped by grace and forgiveness. Such is the very peace of Christ in our hearts and lives, Paul instructs.
“If your heart is as my heart,” Wesley wrote; in others words if your heart has been given to Christ, “even if we are not of one opinion, give me your hand.” Friends, we can do this! We must do this, for the good of the Kingdom and the ministry and mission of this great church. Let’s begin praying even now for God’s enabling Spirit to do so.