I Peter 1:17-23
Garrison Keillor is retired now, but his legacy lives on, not just in reruns of A Prairie Home Companion but also in his writing, some of which circulates endlessly on the internet. Among those writings are his description of Methodists. Mind you, he was raised as part of the Plymouth Brethren – a small, fundamentalist group dating back to the late-nineteenth century – and spent a lot of time on the radio pretending to be Lutheran although he is actually an Episcopalian, with affinity to a group he calls, “The Church of the Sunday Brunch”. Anyway, this is what he says about Methodists:
Out of all of that, I’d most like to think that the concern for the dying, the lonely, and the hungry is the part that is most true – and the most true of any group of Christians, by whatever secondary name they are known. It was said of all who follow Jesus,
“Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” [I Peter 1:21]
“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” [I Peter 1:22]
That is why it grieves me, and so many, many others that we have been caught up in the same kind of nastiness and wrangling that has become part of life in the entire modern world. (I almost said, “In these United States,” but it’s a worldwide problem that’s playing out in other lands as well, and in all aspects of public and private life.) Among us, it has taken hold around issues of sexuality and become entangled with questions of how to do things when folks in California and Uganda engage their local cultures under one system that allows some autonomy but considers us all to be answerable to one another as well as to God.
Christian love is not just something abstract, and it doesn’t live in a vacuum. It gets put to the test, and sometimes it passes and sometimes it fails. Right now, among United Methodists, it is under some strain. This past week the Judicial Council, essentially the Supreme Court of the denomination, heard arguments from people in the South Central United States asking what to do when people in the Western United States have elected a bishop that they consider to be in violation of the Book of Discipline that gives us our operating procedures. Beyond that lie deeper disagreements about how to interpret the scriptures, disagreements that have produced a situation where we say that all people are “of sacred worth” but that some people (and here’s where the trouble begins) should be left out of some (but not all) leadership roles because of their orientation which some say is inborn and others say is not and some say can be set aside and others say is totally a part of their being. We’ve been going round and round and round on this for decades.
It’s clear we are not going to reach agreement, which is how it ends up going to the Judicial Council. No matter how that body rules, someone will be deeply upset, and there will be further consequences, but don’t ask me what they will be, because I have no idea. No one knows, including the people who were officially assigned last year to find “A Way Forward”.
You’re going to hear about this stuff in the news sometime, and it will be characterized as a big fight. Let me point out, however, that we have in fact been going round and round and round about this for decades without giving up on one another as hopeless infidels consigned to outer darkness, but as Christians with a deep commitment to
“love one another deeply from the heart.” [I Peter 1:22]
One of the most moving things I saw in the news articles last week and that I guarantee you will not be published in the secular press that loves a fight was a picture of the bishop whose election has brought things to a head and a laywoman from Arkansas whose name is one of those on the request for a ruling (essentially the papers asking why she hasn’t already been brought up on charges), and the two are hugging one another, even smiling.
Tell me, do you think that would happen in Washington? Do you see it happening in Kiev or Damascus?
We are not about ourselves. We are about Jesus and his love. Christian sisters and brothers can and will disagree about some very basic matters and not see one another as enemies. Even if they do, they are still under the authority of Jesus, who said,
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” [Matthew 5:44-47]
Far from being wishy-washy or conflict-avoidant, which is what Keillor is joking about when he says,
we have actually had the guts to live with conflict rather than kick one another out of the family or turn our backs and leave, even when we think the “other side” (whichever it is) is missing something important. We realize that they may have something important to say that we need to hear.
Unity isn’t something that comes about by concentrating on ourselves, but by keeping as our central reality the one experience we all hold in common, which is the reality of God acting through Christ, not only in our lives but also in the lives of all who will come to him, all of us sinners in need of grace, and all of us sinners receiving it freely.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” [I Peter 1:18-21]