Bishop William W. Hutchinson, episcopal leader for the Louisiana area, challenged United Methodists during the April 26 morning worship service to move toward the baptismal waters and to be moved by the Holy Spirit.
The worship service was one of 18 services scheduled during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, being held April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Thousands were sprinkled with the water as young confirmands moved throughout the meeting space, wetting branches and shaking them over worshippers. Those present made signs of acceptance and renewed their baptismal commitment as musicians sang, "Rain down, rain down, rain down your love on your people."
Hutchinson spoke about another baptism service he attended four years ago in Havana, Cuba, when close to 200 "eager souls" gathered in the courtyard of one of the city's largest Methodist churches. "Leaders from The Americas and the Caribbean were there to celebrate the exploding church in that area of the world," he said and added that the fact that the church was allowed to hold the service in its courtyard was a milestone because of the government's stance toward religion.
"We were happy just to get to do it in the out of doors so others could see this living testimony to the regenerating grace of Jesus Christ," Hutchinson said. The courtyard was surrounded by hundreds of onlookers from the city streets. A lively Christian band was perched on the balcony, playing energetic music so "all knew something special was about to take place."
Hutchinson referred to the passage in the gospel of John that begins the discussions of rebirth by "water and the spirit" that are central to the Christian faith.
"Under the canopy of nightfall, a man of stature and wealth in Jerusalem made his way to the place where Jesus was staying and sought counsel for his soul," said Hutchinson, referring to Nicodemus. "Jesus says, 'Unless one is born of water and the spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'"
"In other words, Jesus is saying we have to be born from above — 'out of this world,' so to speak," said Hutchinson, who asked the crowd, "Have we been baptized into form, but not yet into power? Have we been born from above as well as from below? Have we been baptized with water and the Spirit? To use two phrases spoken frequently by one our district superintendents in Louisiana, have we moved from the 'My, my, my' state of baptism to the 'Yes, indeed!' state?"
Hutchinson had the worshippers laughing and clapping with comparisons of his own worship style to that of the maternal grandparents of his wife, Kay. As members of the Nazarene Church, her grandparents were often in church on Sunday mornings past the "respectable" hour of noon, he said, humorously.
Hutchinson recalled one such Sunday when they waited a long time outside for her grandfather to come out of church. "Finally, he came. We asked, 'What were you doing in there for so long?' 'We were praying a man through,' he replied," meaning the congregation was in prayer for a man who wanted to accept Jesus, but didn't quite have the conviction of the spirit to do so.
"If we had been at The United Methodist Church we would likely have said, 'Maybe we can take a moment to apply a little water, but we don't have time to pray you through! It's 12 noon you know! And we're closing up shop for the day. Come to my office this week and we'll talk about it and reason it through. Let's stand for the benediction!'"
Hutchinson challenged the worshippers to think about the rigidity that can hold United Methodists back from "moving" in the Spirit. "Isn't it amazing how we don't want Jesus and the Holy Spirit loose among us? They might embarrass us!"
Hutchinson ended by inviting the crowd to "gather at the river," adding, "Come, let's wade in these waters! Come on down to the river to pray come on down, come on down!"
*Backstrom is communications director for the Louisiana Conference.
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Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405(817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470(615) 742-5470.