Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Looking Beyond The Empty Skies

The first chapter of the book of Acts is the story of the Ascension of Christ and the faithfulness of the disciples in the ten days that followed.  As Christ ascends, the disciples watch him rise until he is out of their sight.  For a time, they stare into an empty sky.  Waiting, perhaps, for Jesus to come back or for their preferred version of the restored Kingdom of Israel that they asked Jesus to reveal to them before he ascended. It is then that two messengers dressed in white, two angels, asked the disciples why they stood there, looking to the sky.  Soon after this question, the disciples leave the Mount of Olives and return to an upper room in Jerusalem.   In that safe and familiar place, their waiting would not be idle or empty.  The eleven disciples, together with about one hundred and twenty more, would be about the work of Christ through prayer, holy conversation, and a discernment of the next steps for the new Christian movement.

In these days, this scripture offers us a good word. Perhaps it simply reminds us that we cannot stand idly and look to the heavens waiting for the kingdom we prefer, for things to get better, or for Christ to come again.  There is, after all, the work of the Kingdom of God to be done, even as we wait for the fullness of time. It is a scripture that is all the more relevant as we struggle with the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the ministry and doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  We are waiting for resolution of this pressing issue.  We do not know when or how resolution will come. Maybe it will come in 2016 and the next session of General Conference, maybe not.  It is the hope of the faithful that resolution happens in a way that reflects the will of God and not the convenient politics of the moment.

In our particular time of waiting we aren't simply staring into an empty sky.  There is a deep, unmistakeable line being drawn on the issue of homosexuality and the church. On one side of the line, there are brothers and sisters quoting scripture and claiming the new thing that God is doing and the new path we are called to take.  On the other side of the line, there are brothers and sisters quoting scripture and reminding us of the constancy of God and the ancient path we are called to follow.  With the deep and unmistakeable line, there is the alliance of the like-minded on "our" side of the line and the alienation of "those people" on the other side of the line---those who don't agree with the correct understanding of how the Kingdom of God should be.  Yes, there are people on the line itself, those souls who see both sides.  They too are often preoccupied with sides and outcomes, fears and futures. This is the way many of us wait in the 21st century for the next chapter of our life together in Christ; we work for the victory of our preferred outcome as much as for closure or for resolution.  We worry more for what may be different in our future rather than the missed opportunities of the present.

This could have been the way the early Christian community chose after the eleven came down from the Mount of Olives.  Judas had to be replaced.  No doubt there were those in the community who wanted Barsabbas and others who wanted Matthias; lines could have been drawn and plans formulated to get one person selected over another.  Thankfully, that is not the course taken by the early Christians between Ascension and Pentecost.   The growing and increasingly diverse fellowship worked together and found a way forward consistent with their relationship to God even as they honored the deepening bond with one another.  Acts 1:26 says the disciples cast lots for the replacement for Judas; in other words, they placed full faith in the Christian movement as a whole and ultimate trust in the Providence of God.  What mattered was not who won or who lost, but how in that moment they were faithful to God in the context of the fledgling community of believers.
We cannot ignore the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the the ministry and doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  It is the proverbial elephant in the room.  We need our own holy conversations in safe places like that shared upper room in Jerusalem.  Yet, this needed conversation is not the full measure of who we are and what we do as a local church, an annual conference or as a denomination.  Diverse thinking around a single issue should not limit our work together or distract us from the fullness of our call.  Our Book of Discipline offers hopeful direction:

"In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God."
From: Our Theological Task located in paragraph 105, page 87 of The 2012 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church

How will we work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another? Where are our shared safe places for holy conversation and collaboration? With our divergent understandings about sexuality and faithfulness, what will we do together to fulfill our covenant to God and one another through our loving service to, with, and for the forgotten whole of humanity that Christ died and rose to save? Dare we trust one another in ways deeper than the lines that keep us apart?

Perhaps the long and powerful stream of history has worn smooth the rough lines drawn between the choices to replace Judas just as it has other controversies in the storied history of the church.  But perhaps the way through divisions and strife is not by watching the skies and plotting our preferred version of the Kingdom.   The way forward to wholeness as well as God's desired future for us all is to choose to follow Christ and risk crossing the deep, unmistakeable lines to those brothers and sisters on the other side, working together as we move forward in discerning our next steps together as the Body of Christ.  That was the blessing for the Christian community in Acts; may it be also with us.

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