Speaking Truth to Power:
What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany • February 3, 2019 Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 1:11-23
(adapted from The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village
So, here we are “being church” – and we are practicing being church in the midst of a historic crisis in our denomination, the United Methodist Church. We have called it “United Methodist” since 1968, but increasingly in recently years, it has felt more like the Disunited Methodist Church. Now, in just under three weeks, delegates from around the world will gather in St. Louis for the Special General Conference to decide the future direction of the UMC. More specifically, the delegates have the huge challenge of debating, choosing among, and reshaping proposed legislation regarding the church’s attitude toward and treatment of LGBTQI persons. Today and over the next three Sundays, we will focus our attention on what all of this could mean for our congregation, our Annual Conference, and Methodism.
We will reflect more in the coming weeks about the specific proposals coming before the Special General Conference and how they might impact us. For now, I ask you to join me in praying for an outcome that achieves the maximum possible reduction of harm toward our LGBTQI siblings. Pray for our NY Conference delegation and for Bishop Thomas Bickerton. And pray for the powerful leading of God’s Spirit leading up to and at the General Conference.
I can tell you for certain, that whatever is decided at the General Conference, there is no way everyone is going to be happy with the result. No matter which of the proposals is approved, some Methodists will be offended. Some individuals and churches will leave the denomination – who leaves and who stays will depend on what is decided.
The United Methodist Church has been in the throws of a moral crisis since 1972 as its official positions and actions have increasingly sought to excluded, demonized, and marginalized LGBTQI clergy and lay persons and their families. Now, we have arrived at a crossroads for our denomination. This is the context we find ourselves in as we contemplate the question, “What does it mean to be church?” The Letter to the Ephesians offers us an explicit and emphatic response:
“The church is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.”
The church is Christ’s body. We are the body of Christ for the world. This theological truth rings loudly in many of the New Testament letters. In a powerful passage, the apostle Paul wrote,
“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…. [S]o it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…. Now you are the body of Christ.”
Well, that seems like a big responsibility! Being the body of Christ for the world is a high and demanding calling. Listen to what one theologian wrote about being church: “The fact that the church is literally changed by the Holy Spirit into Christ is not a cause for triumphalism…. Our assimilation to the body of Christ means that we then become food for the world, to be broken, given away, and consumed…. The church is the incarnation of the presence of Christ in the world, but the church is only properly the church when it exists as sustenance for others.”  We declare something similar every month when we celebrate communion and pray these words:
“Loving God, pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts, that in the breaking of this bread and the drinking of this cup we may know the presence and healing of the living Christ and be strengthened and renewed as the body of Christ for the world, until God’s dream of abundant life for all people becomes a reality.”
We do not just do Communion, we are Communion, responding to God call to be bread for the world.
The Greek New Testament word for church is ekklesia, which combines two words which that mean “to call out” and “to assemble.” So we are those who are called out – inspired and led by God – to gather in community to become the Word made flesh – the incarnation of the living Christ and of all that Jesus embodied. We are called out by God to worship, pray, love, seek justice, care for hurting and broken people, and take the message of Jesus into the world. Church is the place where we come to experience God together so that we can learn to find God and offer God in every space in which we find ourselves in the world.
Church is also a space of belonging – a place where people can come to be healed and to learn how to care for others; to find forgiveness and to learn how to forgive others; a place to learn how to receive and give love abundantly.
In the Book of Acts, we read that, on the Day of Pentecost, three thousand persons responded to the preaching of Peter and were baptized. The author then gives us the following description of the early church:
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe at all of the wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
Well, that sounds wonderful. That sounds like a church I would want to be part of. Yet, make no mistake, being church is a messy endeavor and it always has been. There was never some idyllic period of the church’s history when this was not true. From the very start, when it was just Jesus and a dozen disciples, there were disputes, disagreements, jealousy, status-seeking, and even betrayal. In the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he chided the wealthy members of that church for mistreating of the members who were impoverished.
What does it mean to be church? Church is a place filled with messy people who have messy relationships and engage in social struggles in messy and imperfect ways. Church is a place where we seek to love those who we sometimes don’t like and care for those with whom we sometimes disagree. Often, “being church” means struggling with others who are part of this same body of Christ over the way forward for this body we have been called to inhabit and incarnate together. We have been experiencing this in the UMC for decades. We do all of this imperfectly and we are all flawed human beings, yet, in Christ’s body, we are being perfected in love.
Here we are – the body of Christ – drawn together for the ministry of love and justice that God sets before us. As followers of Jesus, we remember that he washed his disciples feet and said, “I came not to be served, but to serve” and he said, “love one another as I have loved you.” God calls us together to weave our messy, imperfect, and unique giftedness into this body.
Jesus announced his mission as taking the side of the marginalized, exploited, oppressed, and forgotten. This includes speaking truth to power. I believe the Church of the Village has responded to this commission from Jesus.
So, here we stand, the body of Christ, blessed and broken for the world – speaking truth to power as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning persons and collaborators. And this is not something new. In two of the congregations that joined together to become the Church of the Village in 2005, two pastors were driven from ordained ministry in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the powers that be in our denomination because they were gay. Like the Church of the Village, both of these churches were strong and vocal advocates with and for LGBTQI persons for their full inclusion in the life and ministries of the church. They actively spoke truth to power in our denomination and beyond. So, we are part of a long and proud history. We can also be proud that our witness as a church and our voices, along with many others, have had a powerful impact in our Annual Conference, helping to create a more welcoming space; inspiring our Board of Ordained Ministry to refuse to consider sexual orientation or gender identity and expression when determining a candidates qualifications for ordained ministry; becoming the first, and so far only, Annual Conference to elect a delegation to General Conference intentionally shaped to lift up the voices of queer people. The NY Annual Conference has itself, in some ways, become a body speaking truth to power, repeatedly taking stands and actions that inspired others across the UMC connection. This did not happen by chance. It happened because courageous lay and clergy individuals and courageous churches took a stand, preached, passed resolutions, held study groups, had the hard conversations necessary to become welcoming congregations, and ultimately substantially transformed our Annual Conference.
So today I stand before you in deep gratitude for the privilege of being church with you. I am proud to participate in leading with love in a community that strives to speak truth to power, and is committed to loving, affirming, and celebrating every person for just who God created them to be.
I dream of a church where everyone is welcome.
I dream of a place we all can call home.
I dream of a world where justice is flowing
with hope and peace growing, where God’s will is done.
Make it so, O God, make it so. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.
William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed By It?: Romero’s Challenge to First-World Christians,” Theology Today, 58/2 (July 2001), 183.