Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Donald E. Messer. Dr. Messer is president emeritus and professor emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology. Currently he is Executive Director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, co-chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee, and a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Dr. Messer is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
“A World Transformed by Grace” (Paragraphs 56-65) sounds utopian and idealistic, far from realistic, but this dream has long been the vision that motivated Christians to move out of their comfort zones, seeing to create change in cultures and society. Idealism and realism are not polarities but a continuum; dreams can become one’s destiny.
I have always marveled at Christians who, despite their lack of wealth or other resources, have repeatedly set out to bring hope, health, and help to persons around the world. Though the apostles numbered but twelve, they aimed to transform the world. Despite all odds and obstacles, missionaries established hospitals, schools, universities, and churches around the world. They battled slavery, infant genocide, witchcraft, hunger, and disease. Dreams were transformed into destiny.
Years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the darkest days of apartheid, was asked if he were an optimistic about the future of South Africa. He responded, “Oh, yes. As a Christian I’m a prisoner of hope.” Hope differs from optimism in that it soberly recognizes realities like sinful persons and social structures, yet never despairs about the possibility for grace to break through seemingly impossible impediments.
If persons become cynics about the possibilities for human or social change, they limit the potentiality for conversion or transformation. The United Methodist missional statement “Grace Upon Grace” (Par. 56-65) affirms that Christians should envision through “eyes of faith . . . a world transformed by grace.” In my own lifetime, I have seen both church and society change for the better; even when but a few years previously it seemed impossible for such transformation.
Globally United Methodists agree that “God’s good creation has been bent, distorted, and broken: gods of egoism, nationalism, racism, classism, militarism, and sexism work their havoc.” What United Methodists fail to see is that heterosexual privilege and prejudice has also stigmatized and discriminated against our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered neighbors. In fact, the depth of our disagreement today threatens schism in United Methodism and imperils our missional outreach to the world. The unity of the church is threatened.
Reading the document “Grace Upon Grace” in light of United Methodist’s division on LGBT issues prompts one to ask what it means to affirm the proclamation of the Gospel. Are we really affirming the inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ or do our biblical and theological interpretations inevitably exclude some persons? Is the evangelism we affirm really for everyone or is it intentionally making heterosexuality normative for all of humanity? Many a person in the LGBT community has found Christianity lacking in grace, unjust, unwilling to offer equality, and unwelcoming. As long as United Methodist polity and leaders insist on saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” language about grace will have a hollow, if not a hypocritical, ring to many both in the church and world. Is this document simply a lovely treatise on theology or does United Methodism actually seek to practice what it preaches when it declares “Inclusiveness of all people is to be characteristic of the missional church.” (Paragraph 51)
This document suggests that “one audacious form of mission today is for Christians to obey Christ and diligently love one another.” Is it too much hope that a future revision would add “sexual orientation” at the end of the sentence that declares “Resisting principalities and powers, we love one another across limits of country, color, clan, creed, class, or culture”? Or are we more inclined to follow Leviticus or Paul than to obey Jesus’ clear command to love our neighbor?
Besides the global struggle for human rights, the document needs an updating to reflect the challenges of the 21st century—issues like terrorism, torture, drones, privacy, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, cyber-threats, etc. The challenge of grace transforming the world has become more improbable rather than easier.
What is timely is that the essay challenges us to recognize God’s prevenient grace in all people. Respecting the religious faith of others remains a challenge to many United Methodists. Yet increasingly in dialogue and action together we discover meaningful spiritual dimensions. Even today as Ebola threatens Africa, we are reminded of the urgent necessity of Christians and Muslims working together, and in Sierra Leone we have witnessed such cooperation between a United Methodist bishop and Islamic leaders. In places where HIV and AIDS are being addressed most effectively in Asia and Africa, one witnesses persons of differing faiths recognizing the sacred worth of every human being, promoting prevention and care together. But in other places and on other issues too often we witness discord and division. War still plagues humanity; peace will never come to nations divided by religious strife.
Let us pray United Methodists continue to experience the grace of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ and seek in every way to witness by word and deed to that marvelous gift. If we do so, we shall be harbingers of hope helping to usher in at least a foretaste of what we envision when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”