UMC Glossary: District Superintendents

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Who is your pastor’s pastor? In some denominations, this can be a very tricky question. Congregational and non-denominational churches cannot answer the question. The pastor is the pastor’s pastor. As a pastor, I can tell you, I am not a very good pastor for myself. 

As discussed before, Elders appointed to a local church are not members of a local church. Elders are members of the annual conference. As conferences are currently structured, my District Superintendent (or DS) is my pastor. 

This is not a minor thing. I need a pastor who can support, encourage, and hold me accountable to the vows I have made. 

DSs have many other responsibilities beyond being the pastor’s pastor. They are appointed by the Bishop to be extensions of the Bishop’s office. DSs represent the bishop at the District level as well as work with the bishop in what is called the Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of all the DSs plus a few other conference level personal. They function to advise the bishop on all clergy appointments. 

There is a liturgical calendar in the church (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) as well as an administrative one. In the UMC, our administrative calendar revolves around Annual conference. The fall is Charge Conference season and the spring is appointment season. DSs supervise local church charge conferences (which are the annual administrative event of the local church). They also represent the district in the cabinet during the appointment season. (Here is a video of our current bishop, Robert Schnase, explaining the appointment process). When there is an opening, the DS explains what is going on in that church. As well, the other DSs proffer candidates from the district who have gifts that may be applicable to that location.

When there is a pastoral move and a new pastor is coming in, the DS comes with the newly appointed pastor to meet with the Leadership Team to introduce the pastor to the church. 

When disciplinary matters come up, the DS is also a big piece of that system. 

The DS serves for 6 year terms before returning to local ministry or serving in another capacity. For me, though, the DS is mostly my pastor. Someone I can turn to in times of need, of doubt, someone who can remind me why I am here. 

UMC Glossary: Bishops

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A bishop is a funny word and a funny position within the United Methodist Church. In Roman Catholic churches, the bishop is a separate ordination and a special calling. In the United Methodist Church, a bishop is an elder elected to be the superintendent of an annual conference and to preside over that conference session. They are given authorities to particular ministries, but they are still full elders. However, instead of being members of annual conferences (like other elders), bishops are members of the College of Bishops.

Bishops deserve respect but not fealty. They are not members of the House of Lords (like in the Church of England) and their power is not infinite, yet they have specific authorities that are quite consequential. They also have a task that is not enviable. A few years ago, I wrote about the office on the site Ministry matters and I am posting the full text here to share more about what I learned of Bishop’s at that time. 

In December of 2015, I was on my way to San Antonio to drop off my papers at the Episcopal Office for ordination as an elder in the Rio Texas Conference. While on the road, I received an email from the conference communications director concerning an imminent announcement about the actions of our bishop. A few hours later, came the bishop’s resignation. I handed off my papers hoping to be ordained but having no idea who would actually ordain me. Instead of bringing in a retired bishop to finish Mr. Dorff’s term, though, the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction elected to have four bishops cover the responsibilities of the Rio Texas Conference. These were all people who had come out of either the former Southwest Texas Conference or the former Rio Grande Conference and so they had a special relationship with us. What I don’t think they realized is that by delegating the functions of the bishop to four separate individuals, they revealed a great insight into how bishops in the United Methodist Church actually view their own job.

The Bishop of Record for Rio Texas was Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Conference. Houston is geographically closest to San Antonio and the Texas and former Southwest Texas Conferences had shared bishops in the past. What is important with Bishop Huie is that as the bishop of record, her one responsibility was for appointments. That’s it. Thus, we see that bishops understand appointments as the most important responsibility given to them since the power to appointment went hand in hand with an official capacity as bishop.

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference was designated to plan and lead Annual Conference. The Bishop is president of the conference. Sometimes we may forget because conference happens only once a year, but this was seen by the college of bishops as a responsibility great enough to fully occupy one person.

Bishop Michael Lowry of the Central Texas Conference was designated with overseeing the nominations process of the conference. Because Rio Texas is a new conference, many older disciplinary committees have been merged together, but there is still a lot of work to be done in nominations. Bishop Lowry was also tasked officially with assisting the transition to the new bishop, though what that specifically means was never made clear.

Bishop Joel Martínez, a retired bishop of both the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences was designated with preaching at special services around the conference, overseeing mission, service and justice ministries, and with sitting on the various boards and charities that go with being bishop of the conference.

There was a fifth bishop who oversaw the Rio Texas Conference in the Spring and Summer of 2016. He was not named in the official press releases. He was not discussed on the website. But when we met up as districts to discuss the new system, Bishop Huie herself mentioned this function. Bishop Michael McKee of North Texas was designated with overseeing complaints and judicial actions. Bishop Huie said that this was the worst part of the job of being a bishop so she was thankful that Bishop McKee took on this responsibility.

So what we have is a five-fold office: appointments, annual conference, nominations, pastoral ministry, and judicial complaints. We should not see these functions as equivalent but comparable. This is how bishops see their job. This is what they do. Each of these tasks is an enormous responsibility. United Methodist bishops are not a separate order because they are not a separate ordination. They do not function like Catholic or Episcopal bishops, no matter how fancy a crozier one person may have. The pragmatic episcopacy is a noble goal. An episcopacy based on truly superintending the connection (that is, fulfilling the functions that are asked) as opposed to positioning oneself above the connection.

So what can we learn from this episcopal relationship? Bishops in the UMC have a lot of responsibilities. In order for active bishops to help with the Rio Texas conference, they were only willing to take on one aspect of episcopal ministry. It may go without saying, but the episcopacy is an arduous place to be and the people there need our continuous prayers and respect. How often do you pray for your bishop? Have you ever asked of their spiritual condition? Have you ever asked how they are going on to perfection in this life? The five-fold office mentioned here does not even include responsibilities to any General Boards or Agencies. Yet in the five-old office, I see a hopeful future for the position of bishop. A future that does not have CEO envy or Catholic envy but is firmly Wesleyan in the goal of sanctification, in the goal of personal responsibility, in the goal of social holiness, in the goal of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

It is here that I propose an idea of the pragmatic bishop. The pragmatic bishop leads by serving. The pragmatic bishop leads by doing the job of the bishop, the five tasks the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction knew needed to be done for the conference to continue. Maybe a few more tasks, but at least these five. The pragmatic bishop is not a person apart but a person in ministry with and our connection will be strengthened as conferences and bishops see their relationship as deeply connected. The bishop is not simply an authority. The bishop has a job. Titus 1:5 points to this. 1 Timothy 3 points to the character of the person who would do this. For us not so called, it is our job to serve as the bishop requires, and help build a church where the office of bishop is not isolating but sanctifying.

When we, as a church, affirm that the most effective place for making disciples of Jesus Christ is the local church, we are not saying that we don’t need bishop’s leadership. We are saying that bishops are not the center of the story of what it means to be a Methodist. The bishop is a part of the story, they serve a function, but they are the center. By looking at the interim episcopacy of the Rio Texas Conference, we can see how bishops view what they do, and we can see what they do not find important enough to designate. We in the local church should be reminded of what we do and, mostly, what God has done and is still doing through all of us, despite all of us

UMC Glossary: Annual Conference

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Methodists are not known for their flowery language. Annual Conference is a conference that meets annually. After 1784, Annual Conferences were centered around places that people could travel to. 

Annual Conferences are analogous to presbytery’s in the Presbyterian church, Synods in the Lutheran Church, conventions in the Baptist Church, and Dioceses in the Catholic Church. Geographically, they are similar, but in practice, Annual Conferences are much more central to the function of the United Methodist Church than any other denominations geographical divider. 

As discussed earlier, UMC elders are itinerant, which means we are moved. The annual conference is the area in which an elder can be moved. As well, Elders and Deacons are not members of local churches, they are members of Annual Conferences. Each of the other churches in the conference matters to me both because a colleague is currently appointed there and also because I could be there soon. 

As well, the annual conference is both the administrative unit of the regional church as a well as a literal conference that meets annually. Berkeley’s conference (Rio Texas) has been meeting for many years in Corpus Christi, TX. This year’s conference is being held June 6-9. Each church has lay delegates, lay alternates, and clergy delegates. 

There are business sessions and teaching sessions at annual conference. The business session adopts the budget for the conference and any new policies that may need to be implemented. As well, every four years, delegates are chosen from Annual conference to go to the General Conference. The business side can be tedious with all the Robert’s Rules going on, but the amazing thing about it is that every delegate has a voice. Every church, no matter how small, has the right to stand and speak. The Bishop gets to appoint elders and committees, but they preside over Annual Conference, they cannot dictate it. 

Annual Conference is also where new clergy are commissioned and ordained. The best part of annual conference is found here, in the worship of our Lord and the ordaining of new people for the commitment of ministry. 

As Methodists, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Both geographically and generationally. There is a service at conference where both the retiring clergy and the new clergy are both recognized. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In times of challenge, it is wonderful to remember that.

UMC Glossary: General Conference

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There is no pope for the United Methodist Church. So who speaks for the church? I do not nor does my bishop. The authority to speak for the church resides solely in the General Conference. That is it. There is no spokesperson for the church. There are General boards which have secretaries and can speak to their designated area but not for the church itself.

So what is this General Conference. This is from umc.org:

The General Conference is an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that meets every four years. The delegates are elected by annual conferences (at annual conference sessions) to attend General Conference. They represent all annual conferences around the world. Half of the delegates are laity (non-clergy members), half are clergy.

Bishops attend the General Conference but cannot vote. Different bishops serve as presiding officers during the conference. Other bishops cannot speak unless permission is specifically granted by the delegates.

During General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions and resolutions proposed by individuals, agencies, annual conferences, and other groups within the denomination. These actions result in a revision of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, and Book of Resolutions, policies of the denomination on current social issues.

It is at General Conference where delegates wrestle with today's issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church's understanding of that teaching. Here is where the church's official stands and church policies are made regarding such issues as human sexuality, abortion, war and peace, as well as determination of ministries and funding.

General Conferences are held in years divisible by 4, such as 2008, 2012, 2016, etc.

Resolutions for General Conference must be submitted months ahead of time. The body of General Conference has the power to call a special meeting with a special, focussed agenda. This is a called General Conference. This is what happened in 2016. The Conference voted to have a called session in February 2019 to address resolutions concerning Human Sexuality and to have a plan for a way forward. 

General Conference is not a nimble, fast moving body. It moves slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly. Yet in its deliberations is a continuity back to the early church. The first church council takes place in the book of Acts. The first decision the early church makes is a bureaucratic one: who is going to replace Judas Iscariot? Even when it seems like it, bureaucracy is not antithetical to the Gospel. When people are together, decisions have to be made. Sometimes those are not the decisions you would make. Being a part of a church is holding on to the fact, by faith, that God is more present in our deliberations than the sinful humans are. Because ultimately, our hope does not rest in General Conference or the United Methodist Church but in our Lord, Jesus Christ, who called the curious community of people together to grow holy and follow him in faith, hope, and love.

UMC Glossary: Deacons

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“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of

faith, and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”

Acts 6:1-6 ESV

The first deacons are chosen and ordained early on in the Book of Acts. Biblically, what they do and who they should be is quite clear. Since then, however, the position and the role of the deacon in the church has been far from clear. Almost every different denomination of the church has a different idea of what the deacon is. Before 1996, the United Methodist Church had what is called a transitional diaconate. What that means is that when someone is preparing for ministry, they are first ordained a deacon and then, following a probationary period, they are ordained an Elder. This is how the Episcopal Church still functions. In this polity (a fancy word for church structure), deacons are probationary ministers who will eventually graduate out of that position. When you look at the New Testament, there is nothing transitional about being a deacon. It is a specific calling for a specific purpose to make certain that no one gets left behind. 

Since 1996, the United Methodist Church has had what is called a vocational diaconate. That means deacons are people who are called to something different than elders. There are two orders of the ordained who have different functions within the life of the church. Yet because the order of deacons is relatively new in the life of the church (even though the practice of ordaining deacons is so ancient) there is still learning going on among deacons and churches about the full scope and possibility of the order. Many deacons are chaplains or music directors or children’s ministers. The practical distinction between elders and deacons come down to the sacraments and appointments. Elders have guaranteed appointments but must be open to itinerate or move at the pleasure of the bishop. Deacons don’t have to move but also do not have guaranteed appointments. Thus, they must find jobs themselves. As well, unless there is specific approval by the Bishop, deacons cannot consecrate the sacraments of communion and baptism. Otherwise, deacons can serve in any capacity.

If you read the passage from Acts 6 again, you will see that the distinction historically has been clear. Deacons connect the church with the world. Deacons make sure people do not get left behind. Deacons serve.

In every position of church leadership, there are a lot of expectations from all parties involved. Some of those are based on theology, most are based on past experience. I am proud to be a part of a church that has a vocational diaconate. I am proud to know and serve with deacons  and support the reality that deacons are not less than elders. In many ways, they are more. Jesus never ran a church. Jesus did heal the sick, feed the hungry, seek the lost. Jesus did the things deacons do. That is something that should never be lost.

UMC Glossary: Elders

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It may seem odd to have an elder who is younger than you. If you have ever wondered why the UMC calls preachers elders, have I got the blog post for you.

Elder is a translation of the greek word, ‘presbyter’, which is both the root word of Presbyterian and priest. Greek has a word for priest as well that the early Christians chose not to use. When the book of Hebrews calls Jesus the great high priest, it is ἀρχιερέα. It points to the priest in the Greek tradition, not presbyter. A priest makes a sacrifice and Jesus offers the sacrifice and is the sacrifice as the lamb of God.

Okay, it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly once we get going in the greek, but I want us to pull on back to the English and talk about the word, Elder. An elder is usually someone who is older, but it is always some who is wise and experienced in certain things. Think about the elders of a community. In the ancient world, elders were people who had survived life. That is praise enough in a world with such a sky high mortality rate.

In the UMC, “Elders are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.” (¶332). The discipline goes on:

“Elders are ordained ministers who, by God’s grace, have completed their formal preparation and have been commissioned and served as a provisional member, have been found by the Church to be of sound learning, of Christian character, possessing the necessary gifts and evidence off God’s grace, and whose call by God to ordination has been confirmed by the church” (ibid).

The UMC has an itinerate polity. I will explain this strange term in more detail soon, but for the time being, the basics of itineracy is that elders are appointed by a bishop and move around. Elders are sent. Churches receive. Some elders you as a church receive are loved by all. Some are not. The point of an elder is not to be loved but to be ordered for this life of ministry.

Elder is a biblical term. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he even says elders deserve a double honor, but there is a catch at the end.

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:17-20, NIV)

Because elders are set apart, they are accountable to the whole body of the church. Elders are held to a higher standard of behavior in the scriptures and in the UMC. Pragmatically, elders can administer the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. All Christians are ministers of Jesus Christ, Elders (like the other group that is ordained, the deacons) are set apart in specific ways for specific reasons following the tradition of the church since the time of the Apostles. 

Next week, we’ll look at the second order, the deacons, who they are, what they do, and why the UMC is so much richer as a church because of them. 

 

UMC Glossary: The Book of Discipline

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The Book of Discipline is the authoritative document of the United Methodist Church, and boy, doesn’t it sound authoritative. It is not light reading, but it is neither entirely dull either. The book begins with the history and theology behind the United Methodist Church, including our foundational documents like the Articles of Religion, the Evangelical Confession of Faith, and the General Rules of the Methodist Societies. These things can’t be changed. That is, there can’t be a group put together that votes against the Trinity or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

That being said, almost everything else in the book, all 800 plus pages is open for debate and discussion at a General Conference of the United Methodist Church which meets every four years.

What is the point of having all this written down, you may ask. It may seem like the UMC is filled with disciplinarians always concerned with telling others what to do and how to act. 

The United Methodist Church was only founded in 1968 but Methodists have been meeting since 1784 and have learned a lot since then. The earliest edition I have is from 1874 (pictured above) and though it is smaller physically, many of the same issues are covered. It contains the articles of religion, how to become a member, etc. Organizing a church in 1874 is rather different than organizing one today, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. 

Even though there are more than 2000 paragraphs that can be cited, there is tremendous flexibility within the document itself. What being bound by something like the Book of Discipline forces on us is an intentionality of ministry. Why do we do the things we do? As well, what should we do when things are not working out?

Each local church has a lot of authority given to it by the Book of Discipline that only exists because it was written down. If we were a church with a much smaller authoritative document, all it would mean is that more authority resides with the Bishop’s and other central officers.

It is not a perfect document but it is also not a finished document. That is part of the beauty of it. Nothing other than doctrine is set in stone. Much of it will come under revision next year at the called General Conference (which we will talk a lot more about soon). Our faith is not in the Book of Discipline but in Jesus Christ. There will be no Book of Discipline in heaven, but in this broken world, it is helpful to keep track of how to run a church.

UMC Glossary: What is a United Methodist?

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The United Methodist Church is a global organization based on the mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the foundation of the world. Over the next few weeks, in this space, I am going to discuss and define a number of keywords that may seem strange for people who grew up outside of the Methodist tradition. I mean, they will probably seem strange to most people. There is a lot of lingo in the church that is unique to Methodism. Some of it obfuscates things, but for the most part, the language has been used because of intentional thought and deliberation. The point of this post and the future ones in this series are not to give a seminary education. Some of this will be redundant to you and that is okay. The point is to have a common language as a church so that you know what it means to be a part of Berkeley United Methodist Church from the top to the bottom.

The United Methodist Church was founded in 1968 after the merger of the Methodist-Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Brethren Church. We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the church near the end of this month on April 23, 1968. The merger also marked the dissolution of the segregated Central Conferences so that Black and White Methodist church would be under the same administrative structure. 

The word ‘Methodist’ was a term of derision used against the Church of England priest and Oxford professor, John Wesley, in the 1730s. The Methodists were an ancient sect of doctors who didn’t think medicine needed to be restricted to a select few but could be taught to many. 

John Wesley prayed for a revival of the Holy Spirit across England and Wales and then it started to happen. Wesley wasn’t limited to a local parish, because he was an Oxford professor, and so he preached in the open to people who often didn’t make it to church on Sunday. He preached at coal mines at 5am before miners started work at 6 for 12 hour days 6 days a week.

Wesley also emphasized small group discipleship and intentional growth in faith. Theologically, Wesleyans (the term used to describe the theological tradition influenced by Wesley) emphasize God’s grace in 4 ways: prevenient grace (the grace that comes before our awareness of God), justifying grace (the grace that forgives us and makes us right with God), sanctifying grace (the grace that makes us holier), and glorifying grace (the grace the allows us to be fully present with God after death). 

Wesley also preached prominently the doctrine of Christian perfection, which goes hand in hand with his view of the four graces. Christian perfection is a belief that God’s grace and power is greater than our sin. It is nothing to do with mistakes but a claim about what God can do with us. 

The last theological distinctive I will talk about today is the emphasis on free will over predestination. This is more of a technical theological argument between people of Calvinist traditions (Reformed Churches, presbyterian churches, etc.) and Wesleyans. 

I am happy to talk more about each of these in depth if anyone would like. I am leaving out a lot of things as well as some of the details about Wesleyan theology that I treasure most. Next week we will look at the Book of Discipline: what it is, where it is from, and why it matters today.

The Seven Last Words: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

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The sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. 46Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” And when He had said this, He breathed His last. 47When the centurion saw what had happened, he gave glory to God, saying, “Surely this was a righteous man.”    Luke 23:45-47

I have too many commitments” is a refrain I often here from people inside and outside of the church. ‘I am stretched too thin’. In reality, we can only make one commitment because we can only be one person. What is the point of our life? Why do we exist? What are we committed to? Who are we committed to? 

Jesus walked that lonesome valley all the way up to the cross where he was nailed and mocked and stabbed. In that agony, he has already forgiven those around him, he has already thirsted in his physical body, now he commits his spirit, his soul, his being to God the Father. Jesus speaks in intimacy with God as he teaches his disciples.

When you pray, pray like this: Our Father…

A cross is a public execution. Not only are you killed in public, but you slowly die. This is not a hanging or a beheading which happens fast and allows for tidy clean up. Jesus dies in public and it hurts and yet he has faith.

A commitment is an act of faith. When I committed to marriage, I had faith in God and Alina in our future together. When I committed to this vocation of ministry, I had faith that it was what God would have for me. When I commit to a lunch meeting with someone, I have faith that they will show up. When my son, Dominic, commits to jumping off a wall, he has faith that I will catch him. 

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul writes what has often been translated as the following:  

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

In the Greek, what is often translated as faith in Christ (pistis christou) can also be the faithfulness of Christ. This interpretation radically shifts our understanding of this passage and our understanding of Jesus. If instead of fixating on our own actions (even our action of having faith), what if our justification comes purely from Jesus, purely from the faith of Jesus? We see in these penultimate words the power of Christ’s faithfulness. He is committed to God the Father in all that he is (‘all that he is’ could be another translation of spirit). 

Are you committed to anything with such devotion? Christ offers himself totally for us, for you. Christ’s shows us that we, too, can commit ourselves to God. We can commit our lives. We can commit all that we are. We can call God Father not because of the works of the law, but because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

We all have victory in this. For Christ did not simply come back from the dead but defeated death itself and revealed that the last word for us had already been said in the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Yet we must not rush to Easter. Christ did not rush to easter. We see in Christ the actuality of absolute commitment to the Father. Absolute commitment to a faith that says our suffering is not in vain, our joy is not vain, our relationships and love are not in vain. Christ's words on the cross cover the span of human emotion and life and Christ's commitment holds through to the end. 

The fullness of Christ is revealed on the cross. We must not rush to Easter. We must remember this place.

The Seven Last Words: It is Finished

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Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. John 19:29-30

My brother hiked the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail with me. When he asked what it would be like, I said, ‘Oh, just a few ups and downs.’ That is how I saw the situation. I had been hiking for 4 months. My brother had been sitting at a desk for 4 years. We had different understanding of what a few up and downs meant. 

Or to slightly shift the analogy, I can say it is finished at 12,000 feet when I give up or at 14,206 feet when I get to the summit. They each have different meaning. The disciples hear one meaning from the foot of the cross. They think Jesus is giving up. In light of Easter, we understand a very different meaning.

We see on the cross the absolute commitment of God for us. The absolute reality that Emmanuel, God with us, humbled himself to even death on a cross. 

As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit. What wonderful news.”

Yet the cross is not the end of Christ’s work.

In 1 Peter, we read that Christ, after the cross, went to proclaim to the spirits in Sheol, in Hell. Christ does not simply stand in solidarity with us who are living and suffering but also with those who have gone before. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, Christ defeats death and to do that takes more than just dying.

We must not rush to Easter. Christ did not rush to Easter. It was not enough to suffer and die. Christ had to stand with the dead. Only their would Easter be possible. Only with that solidarity could death be defeated. 

The Seven Last Words: I thirst

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After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), "I thirst." A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.

I thirst. When are we truly thirsty? The Scripture being fulfilled is Psalm 69 which begins, Save me Oh Lord, for the waters have come up to my neck. Save me, Oh Lord. Even Jesus thirsts. Even Jesus is desperate for the water of life.

 One time, many years ago, before I was experienced in the outdoors, I went hiking with my brother and sister in law in Big Bend. We hiked in the desert plains below the Chisos mountains. We had stored some water ahead on the trail before we began but the day was hotter than we expected and we ran out. We only came across shade once or twice a mile. My sister-in-law started to faint and so my brother stayed with her in the last shade spot we could find. I left my pack, since it was too heavy, and went ahead looking for the water, hoping it was still there. 

It was hot.

I was truly thirsty. My body ached. I was falling forward more than walking. It was about a mile and half with the sun crisping me over(I had stopped sweating for, at least, an hour). About halfway through, I started hearing voices. I was hallucinating. I turned around, once, after a voice and tripped and fell. I laid their for minutes before rising to walk again. I thirsted.

Jesus was tired. Crucifixion kills through many ways. You can die on a cross from heart failure, hypovolemic shock, acidosis, arrythmia, sepsis, dehydration, or, most commonly, asphyxiation. Exhaustion leading to oxygen deficiency leading to heavy breathing. He was on the cross for three hours and this fifth word is near the end. 'I thirst'. There is nothing modest here. We see the desperation of God, the willingness of God to go even further for us. Jesus does not ignore his body. He thirst. Darkness has fallen across the land. Our Lord and Savior has been in agony for hours, and he thirsts, and what do they give him but sour wine.

And he drinks. Because he is tired. Eternal life is not simply living forever. Jesus thirsts. The pain is real. The exhaustion is real. He has nothing left yet he still cries out, he still drinks, he still has two more words to say.

The Seven Last Words: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

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When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
                                Mark 15:31-34


If even God is forsaken, what does that say about me? With these words, we have turned the corner on Good Friday. No longer is the focus on the others around him and in his life. Here, on the cross, the gaze of Jesus turns to himself. My God! It is possessive but not personal. Over and over again, Jesus says Father, but not here. My God! In this verse, he quotes the first lines of Psalm 22.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

The separation between Father and Son in the Trinity is almost finished. The bond of the Three-in-One is stretching so, so wide, that we barely imagine the possibilities of what is about to take place.

From our post-Easter posture, we may say, “Don’t worry, Jesus, it is going to all work out.” Yet that idea gives no comfort in the midst of agony. Pain and death are horrible, yet they are not triumphant.

In this space of Jesus crying out to the Father in the words of the Psalmist, there is room for us to enter into the life of God. As Paul says in the great Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, ‘Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is LORD!’

In the Jewish context in which Paul was writing, to call Jesus Lord is not simply to call him the king or ruler. In Hebrew, it is forbidden to speak the name of God aloud. In day to day life, God is referred to as ‘Hashem’ or ‘the name’. In worship, God is referred to as ‘Adonai’ or ‘Lord’. To confess Jesus as Lord is to confess Jesus as God. To understand that God loves us, saves, and calls us to something more. 

In the suffering we see on the cross, most prominent in the cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, we, each can both understand the question and receive the answer. Through those times when it feels like God has forsaken us, we can look to Jesus and see that that is not so. We forsake ourselves, but God the Father through Jesus the Son with the Holly Spirit redeems us.

There is hope even here on the cross, but we cannot rush to Easter just yet…

The Seven Last Words: Here is Your Mother

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Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:25-27

Many years ago, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said the following about Jesus and Mary.

I believe that Jesus was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.

In the mystical way that we are all the sinners yelling "Crucify him" and not knowing what we do, we are also the beloved disciple whom Jesus tells, "Here is your mother". 

Jesus tells us that Mary is our mother. John Wesley tells Catholics, in a time of great Catholic persecution in England, that Catholics are his brothers and sisters since they equally believe many things including the blessedness of Mary.

Mary who said yes to God and showed us how to say yes to God.

Mary who reminds us that Jesus is human as well as God. Jesus had flesh like our flesh. Jesus took the form of a servant, was born in human form as the perfect imprint of God and that form came into this world through Mary. 

Mary sings out the song we all should sing.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

Mary receives God into this world with her yes. With Jesus's third word on the Cross, we see that we have, in Mary, a mother who understands our suffering, our pain, as well as our Joy, and still loves us and shows us how to receive God into the world. Jesus tells us to remember Mary. That in Mary, Christ came into the world. When we forget Mary, we forget the humanity of Christ, we forget that God understands who we are, where we are, where we have been, and what we truly need.

The Seven Last Words: I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.

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One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

On the cross, Jesus is confronted with the same temptation he met in the wilderness. ‘Save yourself. If you are so special, save yourself.’ In the desert, Jesus quotes the

Scripture ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Matthew 4:7) On the cross, he does not respond. Another speaks for him.

The second man doesn’t need to speak. He is going to die. He is dying. The pain of the cross is tearing him apart as the conversation is taking is taking place, but he confesses. ‘We are rightly condemned.’ He confesses to the justice of his own punishment and to the injustice put upon Jesus.

He confesses his sin and seeks the mercy, the same mercy offered only moments before by Jesus to his killers. Remember me. I am a person. Remember me. And with that we have the second word of Jesus, the most confusing and eschatological word. ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.’

Paradise? really? But he is a killer and a thief, why would you want him there. Is paradise heaven? You didn’t speak much of paradise before now, Jesus, what changed?

Confession. Repentance. Hope, all among the agony of the cross. There is no limit to mercy. There is no line beyond which we cease to be human, cease to be created in the image of God, cease to be loved. In lent, we must remember this hard truth. As well, we should not wait until the nails have been driven into our wrists. We must turn now. We must rend our garments, wash ourselves clean, offer ourselves openly, and receive the mercy we do not deserve but which we are still given by the one who did not deserve to die but who still suffered death for our sake so that all might live.

The Seven Last Words: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do

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Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Luke 23:32-34

I desire mercy not sacrifice, God says to the prophet Hosea. The final words of Christ begin with mercy. Yet it is an odd kind of mercy. 'They do not know what they are doing', he says. The people who crucify Jesus are surely conscious of their actions. In what way do they not know what they do?

 

Broadly speaking, Christ's first word on the cross is a description of us all when we sin. All of our sins, all of our actions against the peace of God, against the Shalom of God, all of the ways we hurt our neighbors and ourselves we do without really knowing what we do. We may, from time to time, deceive and realize that we are deceiving, but the magnitude of our action is never apparent.

In our sin, we put Christ on the cross because Christ takes away our slavery to deception. Christ's freedom means we don't have to just think of our selves and our own pleasure, yet sometimes we want to. Sometimes we are tired of being good and we just desire our own self fulfillment. 

God is not angry with us for God only ever loves us. God wishes to take away our lust for power. To take away our pride. That is the mercy of Christ on the cross.

Christ's first word is to us. Even though we don't know what we do, Christ still shows us mercy. Even when we think we know what we do, Christ still shows us mercy. When we deserve curses and damnation, we are given mercy.

 

The Social Creed: The Triumph of God

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In the last 50 years, the Social Creed has been mostly sidelined by more conservative UMC congregations or promoted by more liberal congregations. These petty caricatures guide many people’s expectations of a church but they should not guide our understanding of statements of faith like the Social Creed.

The final word on all our social relationships does not come from anthropology or sociology or any other field, it comes from God. When we speak of creation or human rights or or the rights of workers, ultimately this comes from who God is and who God has revealed Godself to be through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As Tisha Rajenda says, "the whole Bible, rather than just a handful of texts, supplies a moral vision for the Christian life" (Migrants and Citizens, 95). How Christians relate to others and to the Lord begins with who God is. We try to live out what God has done, is doing, and will do. We try to participate in the inbreaking Kingdom of God by being the hands and feet of Jesus. This means announcing Good News to the captives, but also manifesting life in the world.

How can we be a community that manifests life? I think that that is the ultimate call of the Social Creed. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a far off thing. It is a right here thing, and we show this kingdom in how we act and love. Are we people of the light? Do we treat our neighbor as if Jesus is Lord or as if we are? Do we treat our world as if Jesus is Lord or if we are? Do we treat our workers or co-workers as if Jesus is Lord or as if we are?

May our final word in all that we do be Jesus is Lord. Therefore let us live into that reality today by treating others justly and working towards the liberation and freedom of all people, working towards an end to all forms of oppression and healing for all of creation.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

The Social Creed: We are called to peace

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“Peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” (John 14:27) “I did not come to bring peace but  a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

How are we supposed to align these two statements of Jesus? On the one hand he says he gives peace, on the other hand he says he does not. What we must remember is that there are more than one kinds of peace. The peace of Jesus’s day was the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome bought through the blood spilled by the Roman Legions. 

In the Matthew passage, we remember that Jesus does not bring the peace of Rome. This is not a peace where the blood is on other people’s hands. That, in fact, is no peace. Jesus does not come to support the status quo or to replace the Romans with Jews and still win that victory on the blood of the barbarians. 

The peace Jesus leaves with us is tied to God’s justice. God doesn’t call us to wash our hands so others will dirty theirs. Instead we are called to be a people of shalom. This is not a statement about the military or those serving or who have served around the world. What kind of people are we called to be and do we believe God has the power to make that possible?

It is an act of faith to be a people striving for peace, striving for justice, and freedom. These are words that are continually hollowed out by the ways many governments are run. They sound good but the decisions and actions necessary to make them last are hard. And ultimately, the Christian faith is not in our ability as peacemakers but God’s sovereignty over all creation. We are called to be witnesses to the victory Christ has won. 

One of my teachers, a famous pacifist, was asked in class where is peace to be found in this world of violence. His answer was only slightly tongue-in-cheek: a baseball game. At a baseball game, people aren’t killing each other. May we be a church that is at least as peaceful as a baseball game, that is dedicated to peace and promoting reconciliation in our own neighborhoods and around the world. Another teacher who runs a gang rehabilitation ministry once described what he did as breaking up fights. 

May we be a church that breaks up fights, that stands between people and points to the ultimate peacemaker, the one who sought peace so much he gave his life for us all that we may have hope. 

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

The Social Creed: Workers and Ownership

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We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

The original social creed of the Methodist Churches was originally put together during a period of deep societal unrest, especially between the working classes and the owning classes. Since then, there have been hundreds of labor laws put into effect in the United States which addresses many of the concerns of the first social creed: child labor, 40 hour work week, right to collectively bargain, etc..

Because there have been advances in labor rights over the last 100 years does not mean that we as a church should cease to believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others. The church should not be passive in this, though often times we are.

What does Jesus have to do with where I work and how I treat my employees? A lot, actually. Being a faithful Christian, treating employees and workers fairly and kindly does not contradict good business practices. If your business model is based on exploiting others, then it would be hard to cohere that practice with the Christian faith. Our lives and labor is not neutral. We have to practice belief that each person is created in the image of God.

Does this mean that the church should be on the front lines of every strike? No. However, strikes should not be dismissed flippantly. You may not agree with the demands of a worker’s grievance. You may wish people were more grateful. And yet we must believe in the agency and humanity of all people, and especially all workers who are so easily exploited in our day.

The social creed frames these ideas around worker rights in the context of God’s gift of property to us all. What we own is held in trust from God. The people who work for us and work in society are not owned by their employers. They are not property to be disposed with or abused at will. To believe that each person is created in the image of Christ means that sometimes they will act and behave and make demands that I don’t like, but this does not make them lose their humanity.

That is the heart of the matter. We cannot just love people on Sundays and then try to exploit them the rest of the week. Nor should we rest with just our own behavior but hope and work for a society beyond exploitation, where all people regardless of what they do or where they are from, can be treated with respect and given space for glorifying God through how they work and live and save and give. 

The Social Creed: We Commit to Human Rights

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The church is not just for the people in the church. This may seem obvious but it is an important notion to articulate. We do not exist solely to perpetuate our continual existence.

As well, the mission of the church, the Good News of Jesus Christ does not mean that we must choose between evangelism and social justice. Jesus never distinguishes between his preaching, teaching, and healing. The Good News of Jesus Christ is eternal life AND the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we can live into the Kingdom of God now. Right now. A myriad of scriptures, from James to Matthew to Isaiah, point to this reality. As Methodists, the Social Creed help us to remember our holistic duty in following Jesus towards all people, whether they are going to convert or not. 

God is the one who transforms hearts. At our best, we are vessels of God's action in this world. We are the manos y pies, the hands and feet of Christ. The UMC Social Creed commits us to the rights of all individuals.

"We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons."

In this, the church commits to being an intergenerational body. We cannot be satisfied if our sanctuaries are only filled with the young or the not-so-young. And we cannot turn a blind eye to the consequences of our actions, as individuals or as a church, for the rights of others. The dignity of every person is based on the theological concept of the imago dei, the image of God. Each person is created in God's image and his of intrinsic value and sacred worth.  

Rights language itself is rather modern and connected more to the nation-state than the Church, yet the idea is as old as Torah. Are we a church committed to the rights of all people? Are we a church that interrogates the consequences of our actions on others? Are we a church that works towards the improvement of the lives of all people? No person, no matter where they are from or what they do, is worth more than another. We are all God's children. Thanks be to God.

The Social Creed: The Blessings of Community

We do not create ourselves. One of the great modern myths is that I can be anything I want to be. In Classical Mythology, this idea was called hubris and it always ended poorly. Icarus tried to fly too close to the sun. His wings melted and fell to the earth and died. Prometheus stole the fire of the Gods and was sentenced to eternal punishment. 

The blessings in life that come to us, each of these we receive, we do not create. We are not passive in them, we participate. The Social Creed states: “We joyfully receive for ourselves and others the blessings of community, sexuality, marriage, and the family.”

Here we have four sources of social blessings: community, sexuality, marriage, and the family. These categories do not need to be seen as distinct, nor do must they be understood as only taking place within the Christian community. The blessings of community take both inside and outside of the church. It is good to see the blessings of a healthy work environment, of a community group, of a garden club, of a neighborhood, each as springing forth from God’s abundant goodness. 

The same is true with sexuality, marriage, and the family. The goodness and blessings that can be found in each need not be explicitly described as Christian in order to come from God. As well, it is important to note that each of these (as well as community) can be locations of severe abuse by people. The social does not state that community et al., in and of itself is a blessing, but that blessings arise out of community et al. and those blessings come from God. 

When we acknowledge that the blessings we receive from the relationships in our lives come from God, we remain in a spirit of thankfulness. As well, it helps us to work towards stability of community, marriage, and family. The UMC Social Principles from the Book of Discipline are quite explicit in this

The community provides the potential for nurturing human beings into the fullness of their humanity. We believe we have a responsibility to innovate, sponsor, and evaluate new forms of community that will encourage development of the fullest potential in individuals. Primary for us is the gospel understanding that all persons are important—because they are human beings created by God and loved through and by Jesus Christ and not because they have merited significance. We therefore support social climates in which human communities are maintained and strengthened for the sake of all persons and their growth.

As a church, we believe that we should work to support our communities, individuals, and families in the aim of flourishing as children of God in all that we do.