Sunday, April 11, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
1 John 1:1-4 and John 20:19-22
God who embodies community—Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—three and one—the dance of community; open us entirely to fellowship with you, with one another, and with all of creation. Resurrection is relationship. Make us Easter people. Amen.
Methodism is in my blood. There are men named after John Wesley in my family tree. I am a born Methodist. It’s in my bones. And yet, all seminarians at Duke were urged, over the course of their education, to truly examine their denominational ties—to choose the path of our relationship with God and our call to service, and not just follow in our family’s footsteps. We explored many, many denominations and I found beauty in each one. However, nothing pulled me away from the United Methodist Church. In fact, in the multiple semester class entitled Methodist History, Doctrine and Polity, I fell in love with the Methodist movement all over again.
Why am I Methodist? I love the theology of John Wesley, centered on love and grace. Why am I Methodist? Social justice and activism are in our roots, our DNA. We live to serve and to strive for justice. Why am I Methodist? Connectionalism…community. No other denomination has such deep connection woven into its structure, knitted into its daily life. We know one another in very deep and intentional ways. Connection—community—fellowship. We are a people of love, of grace, of social justice…all rooted in our sense of connection. And as it happens, the letter of 1 John, that we will be spending a lot of time with over the Great 50 Days of Easter, was so favored by John Wesley (our founder) that he exclaimed, “If the preacher would imitate any part of the oracles of God above the rest, let it be the first epistle of St. John.” Why? Because 1 John is all about love and fellowship, grace and justice, which is love lived.
Unfortunately, for 21st century United Methodists, there is another important reason we might want to spend some deep and intentional time with the letter of 1 John. This epistle is addressed to a church divided, a church going through schism. In 1972, our global denomination was gathered at General Conference, the governing body of the church, think Congress. In the course of our elected delegates work there, they dismantled a blatantly racist structure in the church, a vestige of segregation in our denomination. Somehow, in the midst of that, another form of horrible discrimination made its way into our polity book, The Book of Discipline. This time the blatant discrimination was targeting the lesbian and gay community.
Over the past 49 years, those seeking inclusivity have sought to remove this sin from our beloved church. And over the past 49 years, those against inclusivity have instead successfully deepened this sin in the denomination until this harm was widened to include bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people and their families. This division has grown louder and deeper, and at General Conference of 2019, those of us present heard an audible snap, but one so deep that it shook us to our core. We aren’t divided, we are fighting against one another across a chasm. Our beliefs about inclusivity or exclusivity are rooted in our theology, our understanding of God and our understanding of life in community. Schism is in the air.
The elder scribing the letter of 1 John was witnessing such a rupture as well in his beloved community which held dear the Gospel of John. The young church, still in its early days, was fracturing, with some turning away and leaving to form their own community. The divide was fueled by theology, by belief in the form in which Jesus came among humanity, and in turn, the life such belief called followers to live. A small percentage of the church community adamantly believed that Jesus did not take on flesh, but was spirit only. They held that the purity of the divine would not become ‘muddied’ by taking on flawed fleshiness. This, in turn, led them to a disembodied spirituality—one that did not require them to change physical behavior, as long as they felt spiritually good, nor care about the physical needs of others.
In our reading today, the elder insists repeatedly that Jesus embodied our humanity. His coming was a full sensory experience. As his followers, we are to embody the way of life Jesus modeled in all of our daily lives—heart, mind, soul AND body. As we will hear in the coming weeks, we are to love all people and all creation for God is love. We are to care for one another and for the earth God entrusted into our hands, and in this way we are united in fellowship, in connection, in community. It is interesting that the elder does not do everything in his power to just stop people from leaving. No, the elder insists that they cannot be community, cannot embody the fellowship Jesus intended, unless they embody the life Jesus intended. Their fellowship must embody Jesus’ way of life, the life he modeled as recorded in the gospels; a life that crossed boundaries, touched the untouchable, lifted the lowly, cherished the outcast.
In this season dedicated to the resurrection, we are called to renew our commitment as followers of the Risen One. We are called even more intentionally than in Lent to shed dead ways and to rise to new life. This call is to us as individuals, as households, as a church, and as a denomination. The elder of 1 John has a message for us this Easter season. Community is to be cherished. Fellowship is to be sought after, but NOT at the risk of embodying Christ and his way of life. I do not know how to cross the chasm in the United Methodist Church, or even if it can be crossed at this time. It may very well be best for those so theologically opposed to go our separate ways. However, what we should do in this season of transformation is deep discernment, a deep exploration. The way of Christ should be in our blood, in our bones, in our DNA. And thus working to embody Christ, we will find embodied fellowship—connection—community.
We are United Methodists, but the Church belongs to Jesus Christ. To Christ be the Glory. Let us sing our hymn of response, Thine Be the Glory. And those of us in person…