On Unity: Bishop’s Address to Annual Conference, 2016

By WV UMC Admin

by Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, Annual Conference 2016

The Gospel of John records Jesus’ farewell prayer for the disciples on the night before he was crucified. He said: “I do not pray for these only (meaning the twelve who were gathered in the room with him, the first disciples), but for those who believe in me through their word (meaning all of us who are heirs of the faith through the ripples of evangelism and witness cast forth from the first disciples), 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.”

There is a saying long attributed to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, which has frequently appeared in Methodist writings through the years, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.”  Some claim this saying originally came from a man named Meldenius, who wrote it during the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century. Whoever originally penned it, the saying is a basic guide for those who believe we can do more for the kingdom of God together than we can do individually.

This saying was used in England, in John Wesley’s time, as an antidote to the religious wars that had ravaged the country. In the 18th century, religious people fighting and killing one another was still a painful and living memory. The people were sick of religious wars. That is why this aphorism became so popular. But Wesley used this phrase not only to refer to the religious wars but also to express his concern about division in the early Methodist movement.

 Our present day is not the first time that Methodists have had different, competing thoughts and ideas. In early Methodism, factions emerged among the leadership within the societies. People identified as Calvinist, Moravian, or Arminian Methodists and there were significant, serious differences among these perspectives. These theological differences have never really gotten resolved and have led to differing views in our present Methodist ecclesiastical house. I believe that Wesley realized that for the sake of unity, meaning the unity of which Jesus speaks and which is a gift of God, it is necessary to decide whether doctrines or relationships should become essentials.  

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things charity.”

Out of the same revulsion to religious division, and in the same century, the founders of this country ensured the separation of church and state in the Constitution, so that the state would never use its arms on any side of a religious struggle.  

This country’s European ancestors/founders remembered religious wars where people were killed because religious factions sought superiority over one another. They recognized the terror often borne out of strongly held differing religious beliefs. In our time, both at home and around the world, terror continues to occur because of competing religious ideologies.

Our Wesleyan belief in grace, specifically perfecting grace, tells us that God’s dynamic love works through change and becoming. Instead of God looking at the world and condemning all of us who are sinners, saying, “No, you are not part of me because you have sinned/are sinning,” God sent Jesus, Love in perfect form, to show us sinners that God is not done with us yet!  

Additionally, Jesus tells us to go and share the Good News that God is not done with anyone yet. We are called to tell people – even in the midst of difference – that God has given, that God’s gift and God’s desire for all creation is to be in unity through grace and love.  The unity that Jesus speaks of is not an act of human will or tolerance; it is the idea that God’s dynamic love works through transformation and is given by and is a gift of God.

Religion, or at least the practice of Christian religion, is not meant to divide or to harm or to tear people down or to kill people. The purpose of religious practice is to build people up, to lift people high, and to give people hope and life.

Lately, there has been much conversation in The United Methodist Church about what divides us, especially when it comes to the topic of human sexuality. There has been talk among some of schism, of dividing the Church over the particular issues that divide this country – many of those issues being the “isms” of this world. There is disagreement, and in the midst of the fear and defensiveness that often comes from disagreement, some people actually push for the church to divide into groups of like-minded people and form various homogeneous communities, where everyone thinks alike and acts alike.

But to take that action would be unfaithful in light of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus prayed that we might all be one. The unity of God’s people, the unity of God’s people with God and with one another, was the top thing on Jesus’ mind, the top priority of his life, even in his very last hours of life as he made his journey to the cross. Jesus did not make this journey to stand against something or to protect something, but to be the bridge for God’s perfecting power of love and grace.

For United Methodists, as followers of Christ, we need to ask: what are the essentials?  

One essential we believe in as United Methodists is that each of us is a holy, beloved, and valuable child of God. We are created in God’s image. We are all pursued, accepted, and covered by the unbounded love of God’s grace. No one of us is better than another. This is the unity God gives us.  It is part of the divine purpose and is present as God is present. It is more powerful than our thoughts, our theologies; our actions which divide. It cannot be overcome or denied. We have all received grace upon grace. When we divide ourselves, we are turning our backs to the unity that is all around us, the unity in which we live in spite of our limited awareness.

A second essential to understand is that none of us is perfect. That contributes to our limited awareness. We are all sinners saved by grace. None of us has all the truth. None of us sees or understands perfectly. Sometimes we want to cast out evil when that is God’s job and not ours.  If we would seek all for Christ, we can trust that in the midst of changing and becoming, ours and theirs, God’s transforming power and love will cast out the evil in all of us, whatever form that evil may take. All of us now see ourselves through a clouded mirror, through a lens that has been damaged by fear, hurt, or hopelessness. The distortion of our sight is exacerbated by our biases and prejudices.  

We must confess that and seek God’s more excellent way.

As we seek God’s more excellent way, a third essential is that we follow Jesus to the best of our conscience, wisdom, knowledge, and with as much passion and energy as we have. And, knowing that each person, created as we are, in the image of God, we must seek to see, hear, and know the divine image in the other person while hoping to be a conduit, a revelation, of God’s Spirit contained in the divine image within us. An essential is to be intentional in our work of “having the mind of Christ.”

These are the things I believe Wesley put forth as the essentials. Wesley thought if we could be united in these efforts and beliefs, then in other things we could trust God and allow liberty, so that in all things we could be charitable and gracious with one another.

I believe that the Church must operate in this way, with these essentials in mind, not only for its sake, but also for the advancement of God’s mission, ministry, and saving efforts for the world. The prayer of Jesus is that the world would be one, so the world may believe.  It is for the world that we must be united.

If religious communities fight within and among themselves, how can the world be saved?  

Our mission is to show a better way. Our mission is to show that in this God-given world of wonderful diversity, there is a better way of handling differences, disagreements, and differing opinions among human beings. God sent God’s son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world would have life through him. God’s rescue plan and life-saving mission in and through Jesus Christ gave us a prayer, a prayer that I believe expresses God’s deepest yearning and deepest hope. “I pray that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us so that the world may believe.”