Risen. Renewed: Unity - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Risen. Renewed: Unity
John 17:20-26
Louis Timberlake
May 8, 2016

John 17:20-26: ’I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ 

This coming Tuesday begins the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Some of you are familiar with General Conference, others are not, so allow me to give a brief explanation. Local congregations in the United Methodist Church are organized into Annual Conferences—ours is the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. There are 131 Annual Conferences around the world—56 in in the US and 75 in Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. Every four years, each Annual Conference sends both clergy and lay delegates, in numbers proportionate to the size of the Annual Conference, to General Conference, which is the only body that can set governance and speak for the United Methodist Church as a whole.

Just to give you a picture, this year, there will be 864 delegates at General Conference from around the world. There will be real-time translation in nine different languages. This year, it’s in Portland, Oregon. In 2020, it will be in Minneapolis. In 2024, it will be in the Philippines. In 2028, it will be in Zimbabwe. The church has grown so much in the Philippines and in Africa that we truly are a global church, and it is important that we reflect that in where we gather for General Conference.

At its best, the United Methodist Church is a diverse family of churches and people throughout the world that are united in their mission to share the message of Christ and to transform lives and communities with the love, hope, and justice of God. We at Christ Church are a part of this large, worldwide family. As of 2014, there were 12.3 million United Methodist Christians around the world. Currently, around 7 million are in the US and 5 million outside of the US, but it won’t be long till it is evenly split. 

So, 12 million people have encountered Christ through our church family and our distinctive emphases–on the grace of God being offered to all people, on the importance of being in Christian communities that challenge us to grow as disciples, and on the idea that, if we’re not impacting our world for the better, then we’re not being the church. Our heritage is that of a gracious, compassionate, outwardly-focused church family. That’s a good heritage and a worthy future.

General Conference can be a beautiful thing. If you find yourself with a little spare time, you can actually watch it live online. It is awe-inspiring to see the worship services, where people of vastly different cultures and languages gather to worship God, weaving together their unique worship practices with our common practices as Christians in the United Methodist tradition. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. It is a glimpse of what it means to be united in the midst of our diversity.

Now, I wish I could tell you that all of General Conference is that inspiring. But, that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth is that it just as clearly reveals the depth of our sin and brokenness, because we are not always as united and constructive as we should be. And so, it is timely that we read this passage and we talk about Christian unity.

James Howell is a pastor in our conference, currently serving Myers Park UMC in Charlotte. He wrote a powerful blog post a couple of weeks ago, as one that has served as a delegate to multiple General Conferences, about the dissonance between the beautiful, uniting worship and the ugly, divisive politicking that takes place around the work of General Conference. And, it truly is a striking contrast. At times, it’s disheartening. So, in the face of this dissonance, he asks for prayers.

Pray for the delegates. Pray that the Holy Spirit will be present in all parts of General Conference. That the delegates will be led by God, rather than by backroom deals and political agendas. Pray that we won’t mirror the worst characteristics of our political systems. Pray that we’ll mirror the characteristics of Christ.

Now, as a number of you know, the most prominent topic at General Conference is the United Methodist approach to human sexuality. Because it is the top legislative body for the church, it is the body that sets the policies on same-gender marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. That’s what gets the bulk of the news coverage. The reality is, in our United Methodist family, we have people of many perspectives on human sexuality, particularly with the sheer number of nationalities and cultures. We are not of one mind, likely not even in this room. But, the truth is, United Methodists are not of one mind on many things. We are not of one mind on whether or not war can be justified. On the use of alcohol and tobacco. Climate change and environmental stewardship. Sources of energy. The criminal justice system. Immigration. These are all topics that require us to decide what it means to be faithful as followers of Christ. Yet, we do not all come to the same conclusions. Our differences span a number of topics. As you might imagine, it is exceedingly difficult to establish comprehensive policies and doctrines for such a diverse church family.

John Wesley wrote a great sermon in which he basically said, “since the very beginning, people, including people in the church, have not always thought alike. It’s normal. It’s a product of our collective limited understanding. We worship God in different ways. We have different opinions on things. And, it will be that way until this world passes away.” The problem is not necessarily that we are not of one mind. The problem is that we tend to express our disagreement in unhealthy and harmful ways—and all sides are guilty. We vilify those that think differently from us, we only associate with people who think like us, and all this does is divide the Body of Christ and undermine our mission. We are not always good at dealing with our differences.

In that same sermon, Wesley gives four steps for engaging with others with whom you disagree. Now, I’m paraphrasing a little bit here, but this is the core of it.

  1. Start with love. Strive to love those with whom you disagree with the sacrificial, unconditional love of Christ. Let that love eclipse all agendas and ill feelings.
  2. Pray for them. Pray for God to be at work in their lives. For the love of God to be evident in their lives and in your life.
  3. Talk with them. If you still have differences, after grounding yourself in love and prayer, then speak with those with whom you disagree honestly and graciously. Don’t be self-righteous, don’t be obnoxious. Be humble, be loving, and be straightforward.
  4. Keep loving them. Don’t just use your words, but show it in your actions. Regardless of the outcome, strive to love them and to serve alongside them as different parts of the Body of Christ.

We have gotten to the point today, certainly in our national politics, and, unfortunately, sometimes in the church, when, if we disagree with somebody, we almost feel like we can’t be friends. But, unity is not uniformity. Unity is beautiful. Uniformity is boring. The beauty of this world, which God has brought about, is in its sheer diversity.

So, if we who seek to follow Christ have disagreements with others, what do we do?

Love them. Pray for them. Talk with them. Love them.

In that, we find unity. Not when we necessarily agree, but when we ground our disagreements in mutual love and prayer.

Now, some of you sitting here this morning don’t care one lick about General Conference. Some of you sitting here aren’t overly interested in church denominations. And that’s ok. Methodism has been around for almost 300 years—less than a quarter of church history. The United Methodist Church has been around, in it’s current form, for almost 50 years. There was a time before Methodism was an expression of the Christian faith and there will be a time when the United Methodist Church no longer exists. It is just the nature of things. New things emerge and old things pass away. What does not change is that people will continue to gather and worship because they find hope, meaning, and truth in the God that created the heavens and the earth, who has offered us new life in Jesus Christ, and who continually works in our hearts and our world in the Holy Spirit.

United Methodism is an expression of the Christian faith that resonates with my understanding and experience of God, as it does many of you. But, whether or not we have any particular loyalty to a denomination, we, as the church, must seek unity in the midst of our diversity for the reason that Jesus states in his prayer: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Christ doesn’t pray that we all think alike or that we all practice our faith alike, but Christ prays that we will be one. Different expressions of a singular hope, a singular love, a singular faith. Christ prays for us, for the unity of the church, because Christ knows that, if we don’t live as one body, then our witness to the world and impact on the world is compromised. We don’t seek unity in order to preserve a denomination or an institution. We seek unity because our calling, as the Church, is to share Christ with others and to transform the world to reflect the love, hope, and peace of Christ.

We are far more effective and faithful in this as one body with many parts, each different, yet equally important to the work of the whole. So, may we be united in love and in mission, in the midst of our diversity, so that the world may come to know the gospel and be transformed.

Pray for General Conference this week. Pray for the 864 delegates that are gathering from around the world to wrestle with difficult questions and navigate a future for our church family. Pray that we might be united, in the midst of our diversity. And pray that we will reflect the love, hope, and peace of Christ in all that we do.


Discussion Questions

  • What did you learn (if anything) about the United Methodist church family?
  • What are the benefits of being a large, worldwide church family? What are the challenges?
  • Why is unity an important pursuit for the Church?
  • What does it look like to be united in love and in mission, in the midst of diversity?
  • Where have you seen unity, in the midst of diversity, in the church?