I visit a lot of other churches.
In my role as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I am required to fulfill three assignments:
1. the Bishop has appointed me to help lead a particular congregation of United Methodists, in word, in sacrament, in order, and in service…
2. the Bishop has appointed me to be a voice of unity, and a caring presence, representing Jesus Christ in the local community to which I’ve been assigned, and
3. the Bishop has appointed me to be an active part of the Methodist connection; in the district, the conference, and even the world.
It is in those last two capacities that I get to visit other churches…. Not on Sunday morning of course, but I’m there for meetings, visits, times of prayer, hymn sings, and district and community events.
Whenever I’m in a different church, whether United Methodist or not, I try to walk away with a handful of their handouts… to see how they do things so that we can learn some of the things that work well elsewhere.
In one of those churches a few years back, not a United Methodist church, I came across two rackfuls of literature located prominently by their main entrance that, I supposed, were chocked full of their most important tenets. I expected to find tracts about salvation and faith in Christ. Instead, I found very pointed brochures about how wrong people were who didn’t believe the same way they did… including several references in various places about why United Methodists were not only misled and confused, but we’re probably not even Christian.
The reasons cited by the authors of those brochures highlighted the facts that United Methodists have commercials running advertising that we have “open hearts, open minds and open doors.” That’s true. Supposedly that means that we’re TOO open… TOO embracing of those that aren’t acceptable… because of our open policy of ecumenical work… trying to work together with those Catholics and those Episcopalians and those Presbyterians and those… those… those… others.
Interestingly enough,isn’t that the very same accusation that the Pharisees leveled against Jesus…? He was hanging out with the wrong people!
As I continued to read, the brochures cited the ultimate evidence that our denomination is in error: we actually let the discussion of homosexuality come up in our legislative meetings. And that, according to what I read that day, is proof of our evilness.
Of course they didn’t mention that every single time the issues of ordaining homosexuals or marrying homosexuals has ever come up, it has ALWAYS been soundly voted down.
The other argument I read about pointed to the fact that we United Methodists weren’t really together on the important issues… and pointed to our stands on homosexuality, baptism, abortion, the death penalty, and such as proofs.
What those authors were saying, in effect, was that they were right… and they would be the greatest in the kingdom of God (and perhaps the ONLY ones in the kingdom of God).
That’s not really a new argument is it?
Jesus’ disciples, in Mark 9 and again in Luke 9, were doing the same things. Who would be God’s favorites? Who REALLY held the spiritual keys? Who would be IN, while everyone else would be OUT?
We read in Luke 9:46-48: An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”
This Scripture passage reminds us of two major principles of following Jesus Christ.
1. The greatest in the kingdom is identified as the one who welcomes in the children…
2. The greatest in the kingdom is identified as the one who serves everyone else around them.
As United Methodists, we take those two principles seriously…
We believe that one of our main priorities needs to be welcoming in the children…Those who are young and innocent in age and those, I believe, who are young and innocent in faith… and remember… the children are the ones who don’t know any better yet… Sometimes they do wrong things or go about things the wrong way… and it’s expected.
That’s part of the emphasis we have in our denomination on Sunday schools, junior church, and nurseries. United Methodists try to reach out to children and make them welcome in the presence of the church and her Lord Jesus Christ. To introduce them to Christ and then help nurture them as they grow in faith.
Secondly, one of our main priorities in this denomination is serving others… And thus you see United Methodist hospitals, prison ministries, hunger programs, soup kitchens, mission outreaches, relief efforts, elderly homes, and even working hand-in-hand with others who don’t believe like we do in order to improve people’s lives. We even spend time and money trying to be an advocate for peace and for those who are denied justice… we try to serve our fellow humans… regardless of their beliefs.
But read the next verse…
Luke 9: 49-50 reads: “Master,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”
Mark 9: 38-41 says it like this… “Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.
In these two passages, we find Jesus telling us what to do when we are confronting a situation where another group, that isn’t exactly like us, is trying to minister in Jesus’ name…
We let them be… Because if they are ministering in Jesus’ name, then we’re on the same side… Even if an immature disciple like John calls us names or claims that we’re not real followers of Christ.
That is one of the undergirding, although often unmentioned, foundations of Methodism.
We recognize that what you believe about the king or the president, about marriage or homosexuality, about baptism or communion, isn’t nearly as important as to whether or not you know Jesus Christ.
We look to passages like Acts 16:31… “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved…” and passages like First John 5:1… “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…”
Notice it doesn’t say, ‘If you are baptized the right way, you’ll be saved’ or ‘If you hold the same theological understanding of communion or do communion the right way, then you’ll be saved.’ Nor does it say ‘If you follow the Bible exactly and do all it says to do then you’ll be saved.’ It doesn’t even say ‘You have to agree with one another on issues like abortion and homosexuality and drinking and gambling, then you’ll be saved.’
What DOES it say?
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…”
We United Methodists are joined together by our belief that the Bible tells us that you come to salvation by a belief in Christ… That’s what ties us together in Methodism… That’s how we can be called UNITED Methodists.
And we also believe that you come to Christ like the song says: “Just as I am.”
And Jesus, will work on you from there on the things he wants to work on in your life…
And that’s why there’s SO much room in our church for so many people who don’t believe exactly like you and me… I recognize that Christ hasn’t perfected me yet, and I’m still a work in progress, and I’M allowed in the church, therefore someone else who calls Jesus ‘LORD’ but hasn’t been perfected yet, and doesn’t yet understand the truths that we understand, can fit in the Christian church just as easily…
And that’s why we don’t print brochures and tracts calling other churches names or claiming that we’re the right one ourselves.
Let’s thank God for the UNTIED nature of our church… for the room we have for those who aren’t perfected yet… because in such a church there is room for you and me!
Let’s thank God for the UNITED nature of our church… that all those who believe in Jesus can come just the way they are and be welcomed into our church life… where we’ll pray for, commune with, and love one another as we all seek to grow and mature in Christ.
I think this is especially important as we celebrate World Communion Sunday this weekend… At least as United Methodists, we invite EVERYONE that knows Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior to join us in this act of obediance, this act of unity, this declaration that knowing Jesus Christ is the ONLY way we can be saved and the ONLY criterion needed to determine whether or not you are welcome in our church… or in the kingdom of God….