My faith story begins when my family left what was then known as the Methodist Church. The Sunday after I was baptized, ushers asked my father to help them prevent African Americans from entering the building. My father said no; that day, our family left the Methodist Church. We worshiped in military chapels until my father retired from service thirteen years later.
During that same period, the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become the United Methodist Church. Fundamental to that union was the call to include all persons, regardless of their race, as full members within the United Methodist Church. That is one of many reasons I chose to become United Methodist as a teenager. While we will always have work to do, I am grateful that the United Methodist Church believes that all persons are welcome to worship with and to join our congregations.
Another reason that I will remain United Methodist stems from our belief that God is calling all persons to salvation through Jesus Christ, and that with acceptance of this calling comes the power of God’s sanctifying grace to transform our lives. I learned this best from the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion as practiced by United Methodists.
When a child or adult is baptized, that person or family member promises to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin” (United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 34). As a young person, I didn’t understand the power of that promise until someone I knew was baptized. Along with others, I promised, “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples” (United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 35).
Long before I went to seminary, saying those words in worship helped me understand that we United Methodists believe that our baptism should form who we are throughout the rest of our lives. I believe in this calling to live in such a way that all people may come to know and love God. We are called to live into a “community of love and forgiveness” that forms disciples of Jesus Christ. Such a community should also be so compelling that non-believers will want to know Whom we serve and love.
Likewise, the Communion liturgy has shaped me as a United Methodist. As a young child, I wanted to take Communion. A Presbyterian, my father felt I should wait until I fully understood what Communion meant. My Methodist mother argued that no human mind can grasp in its entirety what God is inviting us to experience at the Communion table. That same excitement to come to God’s table remains with me now. I can’t count all the times I knelt at the altar rail crying over God’s love offered to me – a sinner – every time I take Communion.
That understanding that all are welcome to the table, therefore, has been foundational for my understanding of how God pours grace on us. As a brand new pastor, I watched as every Sunday two young men with mental challenges ran to receive the elements. They couldn’t speak, but they knew one thing. God loves us and at the Communion table, we remember that. During the Communion liturgy, the pastor says, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet” (United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 14).
That prayer for unity before we receive the elements reminds us that God’s love and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ should compel us to love and forgive others, especially those in the church from whom we are estranged. The unity found in Christ doesn’t mean that we Christians are identical. I have always found the wide umbrella of the United Methodist Church comforting. I may not agree with all that people say; but, just as iron sharpens iron, having different ideas helps us all think through important matters. The United Methodist Church has always welcomed discussion on serious issues just as the early church conferenced about circumcision. I trust the Holy Spirit to be at work in all of these different conversations no matter how strained they become. I trust because of Who unites us. We are all sinners who have found undeserved grace, love and forgiveness from the hand of God. We remember that at the Communion table.
Watching congregations leave the United Methodist Church has torn my soul, but I have placed my hope in God. At the end of time, God will present the church as the perfect and beautiful bride of Christ. In the meantime, I find great comfort in the fact that when the disciples quarreled and made mistakes, Jesus never abandoned them. Likewise, in all of our quarrels now, I am confident that God is present with us. The power of Emmanuel – God with us – is given, not because we are perfect, but because we are perfectly loved. That is why I know that God is calling me to stay United Methodist.