From collusion to covenant: A meditation for United Methodists

November 1st, 2016

United Methodists are joined together institutionally through conferencing, polity, symbols and financial resources. And yet in our unhealthy patterns of behavior we are also joined together via collusion — we bring out the worst in each other, we do harm to each other, and ironically, this mutual harm creates a bond between us. When we acknowledge this reality, and we do so in the words of our prayer of confession — “we have failed to be an obedient church” — and when we declare our intention to change (repentance), we are on a journey from collusion to covenant with each other. In United Methodism these covenants are formed in public ways through baptism, membership, licensing ordination and consecration. These covenants are also renewed when we recite the words at Holy Communion, in our appeal to God to "Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world.

Unity, which is a gift of God, is also the fruit of the difficult work of moving beyond our preferences toward a higher purpose: in our language, this is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (Book of Discipline, 121). This unity rests in covenant relationship, which in itself is built on trust — faith in God’s faithfulness (Romans 3-4), and deep sharing (koinonia) of life with each other (Philippians 1). This trust also includes our capacity to be trustworthy in regard to transparency, competence and integrity.

Our affirmations of faith (creeds) are statements of trust. In this way, Wesleyan Christians are both conciliar and confessional; we are never one without the other — and so there is no truth without unity, or grace without truth, or unity without grace. In John 1.14-18, Jesus is described as the tent of meeting, the glory of God among us, in the flesh. God is glorified whenever the followers of Jesus gather in his name and spirit, and find themselves repeating his actions. The word grace appears rarely in John, but reminds us of the gift of the light that is coming into the world, that shines in the darkness. Truth is not our usual sense of a belief to be affirmed or a standard to be upheld; instead, truth is a real, authentic experience (see Lesslie Newbigin's masterful commentary The Light Has Come). And lastly, grace is not contrasted to truth in these verses; grace and truth — embodied in the flesh, in Jesus, wherever we encounter him — are contrasted with the law. Moses had asked to see God; he was given the Torah, which is the way to life. And yet in Jesus, we see God, and in His life, which unfolds in John's gospel, we see again and again the fullness of grace and truth.

Jesus comes to embody the new covenant, full of grace and truth in contrast to and in fulfillment of the old covenant. The language of covenant is most fundamentally the acknowledgement that we live within a scarred history and amidst a broken world and that we discover freedom in binding relationships. God has shown us the way, remaining faithful when we are faithless, providing strength in our weakness, seeking us when we would prefer not to be found and never giving up on us. In his magisterial work, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann speaks of covenant as the opening of God’s heart toward his people; in return, God’s people injure him through disobedience and the consequence is that we all suffer. The wrath of God (judgment) is an expression of God’s interest in maintaining the relationship; as Moltmann notes, “the opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference”. Wrath is not God’s infliction of violence upon his people; instead, it is God’s own sorrow and suffering for the sake of his people, and ultimately, the covenant.

My friend and mentor Bob Tuttle will often say that a matter means more to God than it means to us. We use the language of covenant in a variety of ways, and often the end result is a justification for either indifference or separation. The lesson of the Scriptures is found in a succession of prophets who come in the history of Israel, reminders of God’s steadfast, covenant faithfulness, refusing to end the divine-human relationship, and even, in the fullness of time, at the cost of the atoning sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1. 29). The fullness of this covenant is both external and internal — the word that comes from beyond us, the law that is written on the heart (Jeremiah 31. 33) and the spirit that gives life. And biblical covenant is always a paradox — constricting and life-giving, dying to self and rising to human flourishing, losing our lives and finding them.

May we never settle for collusion, which is dominated by conservative suspicion and liberal cynicism. May we enter more deeply into the heart of God, which is covenant.

Ken Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area of the United Methodist Church. This is adapted from his longer reflection "Just Resolution as a Form of Restorative Justice."

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