Your bishops greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, who “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation . . . through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”(Colossians 1:15-16, 19-20). Grace and peace to The United Methodist Church and the church universal as we gather for this time of holy conferencing.
We thank God for bringing us together as a diverse community from around the world. We are grateful to God for sustaining our brothers and sisters in times of poverty, terrorism, and war since we last met. Thanks be to God for the faithful witness of General Conference delegates and our bishop colleagues, who have joined the company of ‘saints and martyrs’ and now are part of that great cloud of witnesses that encompasses us.
We acknowledge with gratitude the congregations, institutions, boards, and agencies across the church that invite, nurture, and send forth disciples of Jesus Christ. We are grateful for those who give of their resources for the fulfillment of the church’s mission, and who prophetically and courageously proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We give praise to God for the many annual conferences that have continued the repentance of racism initiated at the 2000 General Conference and who bear the fruits worthy of repentance.
We express thanksgiving for responses of the church to the Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty. God has blessed that Initiative through signs of new life, the forming of new communities that reflect Christ’s solidarity with the least of these, and commitment in many places to ministry and fellowship with those who live in poverty.
In the words of the Apostle Paul: [We] thank [our] God every time [we] remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of [our] prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel” (Philippians 1:3-5).
EXPANDING HORIZONS AND NEW CHALLENGES
We gather as ‘people called Methodist’ in the foyer of a new century. A year ago we celebrated the three hundredth anniversary of John Wesley’s birth. We gratefully remembered “the rock from which we were hewn, the quarry from which we were dug”(Isaiah 51:1). But we are not content to remember the past. We also anticipate a new future as we await the fulfillment of God’s promise of “a new heaven and new earth . . .” (Revelation 21:1-2).
Your bishops firmly believe that God is calling ‘The People of The United Methodist Church’ into a new future while remaining firmly anchored in our Biblical and Wesleyan foundations. At the heart of the biblical witness and our Wesleyan heritage is the promise of the New Creation. That new creation includes hearts and lives changed by the power of God’s grace. It includes cultures and social structures transformed by God’s righteousness and justice. And, it includes the healing and reconciling of the entire cosmos. This promise of a new creation provides the foundation and vision for the church’s mission in this new millennium.
Central to the biblical message and our Wesleyan heritage is that through the “new birth” God transforms human hearts and lives. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”(2 Corinthians 5:17f). God’s new creation does not end with changed individual hearts and lives. God’s salvation extends to human social relationships, institutions, and cultures. “See everything has become new.” Families and neighborhoods, politics and economics, personal identity and social relationships—everything is seen through the lens of the new birth in Jesus Christ.
God’s new creation involves the entire natural order, the whole cosmos. Hear this promise from the New Testament: “ . . . the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . .” (Romans 8:18-23).
God is, indeed, expanding our limited horizons and revealing a new creation. Could it be that God is challenging a myopic worldview that fosters parochialism, nationalism, and chauvinistic arrogance? Just look at this magnificent, vast universe! Our earth is but one among billions of planets in one small galaxy among billions of galaxies. Hear again the probing prayer of the Psalmist: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! …When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”(Psalm 8:1,3-4).
Is the gospel comprehensive enough to answer that ancient question with convincing insight to a generation viewing the earth through the lens of the Hubble telescope? We answer with a resounding YES! God’s creativity and mercy know no boundaries of time or space. God’s salvation embraces the whole creation, nothing less than “a new heaven and a new earth,”(Revelation 21). Jesus Christ “is the firstborn of a new creation (Col. 1:15-16). “In Christ God was reconciling the world [cosmos] to himself…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us”(II Corinthians 5:19).
Yes, God cares about the inner life and personal needs of every individual. Yes, God cares about cultures and nations and institutions. And, God’s attention is also directed to the interaction of the countless stars in the vast heavens. God’s cosmic salvation in Christ Jesus challenges us beyond preoccupation with institutional structures and narrow agendas to being the Body of Christ for the salvation of the universe.
But the minute is not lost in the infinite reaches of space. While the telescope exposes the mystery of the macro, the microscope reveals the wonder of the minute and invisible. Just think! Each human being consists of 60 trillion cells, each cell containing undiscovered mystery and potential. And, we human beings are but one of 1.7 million known species on earth. It is estimated that there remain between 10 million and 100 million species yet unexplored in the depth of the oceans, the fertile rain forests, and the rugged terrain dotting the planet.
What incredible good news! While God’s domain extends to the yet uncharted planets in unexplored galaxies innumerable light years away, God cares about and is present with the DNA in every one of the 60 trillion cells in every one of the 6.3 billion people on earth! This God whose mission is the salvation of the whole creation “numbers the hairs of our heads” and “marks even a sparrow’s fall.”
Yet, sin ravages the human family and threatens the creation itself. Are we surprised that as knowledge of the outer and inner world increases, so also do the misuses of these discoveries? We know all too well that the remarkable advances in science and technology also make available new instruments of destruction and death. While developments in science and technology offer resources for healing and renewal, troubling signs of potential devastation of cataclysmic proportions also abound. The widening gap between the rich and the poor, the pervasiveness of market forces dominated by the wealthiest of nations, and the prevalence of personal and corporate greed threaten the very existence of vast populations and the ecosystem itself. The reliance on violence and military solutions to conflicts destroys life and compounds terror in the name of resisting terror. Suspicion, fear, and hatred of those who are different plague the human family precisely at the time when interdependency, mutuality, and new depths of community are possible.
The people of God live with the tension between the old creation dominated by sin and death and the promised new creation healed, reconciled, and transformed by God’s love and power in Jesus Christ. But we can proclaim with boldness and hope the message that was the hallmark of Jesus ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). God’s vision for the world, the cosmos, has dawned in Jesus Christ. It is a vision that encompasses the far-reaches of an infinite universe and the depth of the microscopic cell.
THE NEW HEAVEN AND NEW EARTH AND THE CHURCH’S MISSION
God in Christ has called the church to be a visible sign, foretaste, and instrument of the new creation. This is our mission: To point to God’s reign of compassion, justice, peace, generosity, and joy; to provide a foretaste of living in the new heaven and new earth; and to be an instrument by which God’s promise for the world becomes a reality. This is why we make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is why we as Wesleyans are committed to personal salvation and social transformation. This is why we exist as a Church!
What characterizes God’s vision for the cosmos? The qualities of the new creation are revealed in Scripture and incarnate and brought near in Jesus Christ. They include at least these:
When God’s work is completed, all creation will be reconciled and healed, from the distant and yet unknown galaxies to the microscopic cell. We know from our Wesleyan tradition and from our own experience the power of God’s grace to save and transform the human heart. Yes, John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed; yes, he instructed his preachers to do nothing but save souls; yes, the hymns of his brother plumb the depths of divine parental intimacy. But there is more! What is less familiar to many heirs of Wesley is his conviction that God’s grace will heal the entire cosmos, from the wayward, falling stars to the destructiveness of wind and fire and the turbulence of roaring waters. Toward the end of his long life, he shared this vision: “He that sitteth upon the throne will soon change the face of all things, and give a demonstrative proof to all his creatures, that ‘his mercy is over all his works.’” (Sermon, “The New Creation”)
In God’s new heaven and new earth, social relationships and the entire creation will be transformed. God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more”(Revelation 21:4). Children shall live beyond infancy, old people shall live out their days, those who build houses will live in them and those who plant gardens will eat their produce (Isaiah 65:20-22), swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly”(Isaiah 35:1-2) “The mountains and the hills. . . shall burst into song, and the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). “The heavens will proclaim God’s righteousness and glory and the firmament will declare God’s handiwork” (Psalm 19:1, 50:6). God’s creation will be healed!
The church as a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s healed creation is embodied in those laity and clergy who serve in Christ’s name among the hurting, wounded, and dying in our communities. We call to mind healthcare workers, scientists and technicians who are devoted to preventing and relieving suffering. We think of environmentalists who safeguard endangered species, government officials and advocates who protect and justly distribute finite resources. The church’s witness to the healed creation is seen in those who support social and economic policies that make the earth’s resources accessible to all of God’s beloved children.
When the new creation in Christ is completed, people will know their identity and worth as beloved children of God, made in the divine image and redeemed in Jesus Christ. No longer will human worth be based on such fleeting externals as physical appearance, achievements, titles, or political or religious labels. Rather, everyone will be valued simply for their status as a beloved, forgiven child of God for whom Christ died. Every person, every person already has infinite worth and dignity bestowed as a priceless gift from God. As the First Epistle of John joyfully announces: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”(I John 3:1-2).
As a creature bearing the divine image, every person has a God-given right to the resources necessary to flourish. The church exists to point all people toward their true identity and worth as beloved, ‘Water Washed and Spirit Born’ daughters and sons of God. We are to give them a foretaste of what it feels like to be treated with infinite worth and dignity and unconditional love. The church is to be an instrument whereby systems and governments and institutions preserve, nurture, and enhance the value of every human being.
Because our identity, worth, and dignity lie in God’s claim upon us as beloved children, barriers among human beings will be removed and reconciliation will be complete in the fullness of God’s reign in Christ. Indeed, Christ has given us a shared dream of the Beloved Community. But the beloved community is more than a distant vision. God has acted in Jesus Christ to bring it near by breaking down all dividing walls of hostility. “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household God”(Ephesians 2:19). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we welcome the stranger, extend hospitality to the marginalized, embrace with agape love the despised and rejected, we are pointing toward Christ’s redeemed and reconciled community. Participation in efforts to overcome barriers within the Christian community through such efforts as the dialogue between The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, pointing toward full communion, are signs of reconciliation within the body of Christ. Our cooperative mission involvement that is moving beyond paternalism to partnership is another means by which we become answers to our Lord’s Prayer in John 17 that “they may be one, as we are one”(v.11). When we live the oneness of the human family that Christ makes possible, we are providing a foretaste of the heavenly banquet when people will come from the north and the south, the east and west and sit at table with Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Mary, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mary McLeod Bethune, Oscar Romero and Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and Albertine Sisulu.
When God’s new heaven and new earth come to completion, justice will permeate all relationships, institutions, and policies. Biblical justice is defined primarily as extending God’s loving righteousness throughout the whole of human existence, enabling the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, “the least of these” to have access to God’s table of abundance and to flourish as God’s beloved children.
The God of the Exodus and Jesus “defends the orphans, the widows, and the aliens.” God identifies so closely with the poor, the oppressed, and the prisoners that what is done to them is done to God. Jesus, the incarnate God, was born as a vulnerable child of a young peasant girl, lived the first two years of his life as an alien in Egypt, grew up in a working class family, was executed as an abandoned criminal, was buried in a borrowed grave, and even in his resurrection was mistaken as a grave digger. He defined his mission in the language of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). This was the text from which John Wesley first preached in the open air in England on April 2, 1739. Wesley’s own experience and understanding of grace was formed and empowered by his life-long relationships with the marginalized and impoverished, those whom Charles Wesley called “Jesus’ bosom friends.”
Nations and churches will be judged in the new creation by their response to those who live in poverty as victims of economic and political exploitation, neglect, and oppression. Through our Initiative on Children and Poverty, the Council of Bishops has called the church to be a visible sign of God’s justice and compassion. In keeping with our Wesleyan tradition, we have attempted to challenge the church to be a beloved community shaped by the God who has chosen to be in solidarity with “the least of these.” History documents that whenever the church has turned its face toward the poor, there is revival and justice springs forth as a flowing fountain in a parched land.
As an instrument of God’s justice, the church is to evaluate all personal actions, governmental and business practices, economic and taxation policies on the basis of the impact on the impoverished and faithfulness to the God who has chosen the poor and vulnerable as special recipients and means of divine grace. We must ask of our salary systems, our church extension strategies and building programs, the targeted populations of our evangelistic efforts, and the spirit of our mission programs, our stewardship practices: Do our practices reflect the One who though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, the One who “emptied himself” on behalf of the whole world? What is the impact on those who live in poverty in our neighborhoods and world?
We thank God that United Methodist people live and serve around the globe. It is important that we resist the temptation to mimic the current mood of political imperialism. We are part of a global Methodist and ecumenical family much larger than The United Methodist Church. Wherever we operate in the world, we need to be particularly sensitive to, respectful of and receptive to our Methodist sisters and brothers in other Conferences and Connections. Justice within the Methodist family would come closer to reality by instituting authentic interchanges at the highest levels of judicatories within the Connection. God’s justice means entering solidarity with and receiving the gifts of those with less voice or power. We must heed the wisdom that comes from God’s global family, many of whom bear witness to the Gospel in circumstances of poverty, disease, danger and war. Justice demands it.
When God’s new creation comes to completion, hope will triumph over cynicism, insecurity, and despair. Fear, cynicism, and despair dominate the old world. Violence, terrorism, economic uncertainty, and the crumbling of familiar foundations and institutions shake our confidence. Our failure within the church to resolve long-standing conflicts over such perplexing issues as human sexuality adds to our fear, suspicion, and cynicism. We are tempted to seek certainty and security by removing all ambiguities, adopting dogmatic pronouncements, and multiplying the rules.
Fear, however, is not the only force at work in the world. This is God’s world! God has provided a more excellent way in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Crucifixion, God took on the principalities and powers of sin and death. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is God’s everlasting and resounding NO! to those principalities and powers. Easter is God’s eternal and cosmic- echoing YES! to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We, therefore, need not fear. God’s victory in Jesus Christ is coming! We need not resort to cynicism in the face of unresolved differences, for we are bound together by truth incarnate in love. We need not resort to violence and coercion for the one who prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them” triumphed over hatred and violence and he will pronounce the benediction on history. Christ is Risen! We are an Easter people, living toward God’s new creation in Christ!
TURNING TOWARD THE NEW CREATION
So, we enter this third millennium with hope! The Church has extraordinary opportunities and resources to live God’s vision of a reconciled, healed creation. For the first time in human history, we have the means of preventing most of the 10 million deaths each year from poverty related causes. We have the technological means to eliminate hunger and starvation and to prevent most childhood diseases. HIV/Aids ravages the human family as a population-destroying plague, especially on the continent of Africa and in India. Yet, resources for the prevention and treatment of such devastating illnesses are now available. What are lacking are the moral vision, political will, and financial commitment.
Amid the horrid conditions of eighteenth century England, John Wesley pointed to the Methodist societies as signs of God’s work in bringing the new creation into being. Could God be calling the heirs of John Wesley to be signs of hope in this new millennium? When faith falters in the face of the immensity of the universe, when hope staggers under the weight of dangers and difficulties of the world’s violence, poverty, and injustice, let us remember how crucial is our role in giving dramatic evidence to those who fear and doubt the coming of the divine reign of justice, compassion, and joy.
God is calling us to be a community in which all know their identity as beloved children of God, where all barriers are removed, and where justice enables the lowly to be exalted and the least and the last and the lost to be welcomed with joy at the table in God’s cosmic home. Indeed, we can hear with heightened joy and expectancy the announcement of Jesus, “The reign of God has come near.” We can sing with new meaning and hope: “Finish, then, thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee.”
REPENTANCE AS TURNING TOWARD THE NEW HEAVEN AND NEW EARTH
Jesus’ announcement of the coming near of the reign of God is followed by a life-changing invitation, “Repent and believe the good news.” It is an invitation to turn away from the old world of sin and death toward the new world God is bringing near in Jesus Christ. An initial step toward being that sign of hope is repentance.
We know the renewal of being reconciled to God through Christ when we confront the reality of our personal sin and receive God’s forgiveness. But we also know that when we walk with Christ, we learn his passions, his priorities. In addition to our personal sins, we find ourselves repenting for other systemic sins for which Christ died. Acceptance of the good news of the dawning of a new creation in Christ requires that we squarely and honestly face our personal and collective bondage to the old creation. Such repentance means naming our participation in that which thwarts the fulfillment of God’s dream and intentionally turning toward a new reality.
As we gather to engage in Christian conferencing, let us begin to name our realities and turn in new directions. I invite you to join with me in confession as we turn toward the new creation.
We confess our amnesia, our lost memory of the story of God’s mighty acts in history and supremely in Jesus Christ. Lost memory means lost identity, lost direction, lost mission, and lost hope. Amnesia contributes to moral and ethical disorientation and confusion. The call for recovery of doctrinal and theological foundations is a longing for recovered memory of who we are and whose we are and the source of our strength and hope. Our doctrines are lenses through which we view the world. Those doctrines must be our anchor as we grapple with the implications of modern astronomy and microbiology. Both dimensions of our theological task as defined in The Book of Discipline must be rigorously and humbly pursued—doctrinal standards and theological exploration. Thereby we can move from crippling and blind amnesia to identity, mission, and hope rooted in memory of God’s mighty acts of salvation and God’s promise of final victory. (Silence)
We confess our anesthesia, our numbness in the face of the world’s suffering, injustice, violence, exploitation, and death. The enormity and complexity of the problems confronting our world and the church, the constant bombarding of our senses with competing and consumerist images and temptations, and the hectic pace of modern life numb us to the suffering with which most of the world’s peoples persistently cope. We can move from anesthesia to compassionate engagement as we remember and commit to the God who sees the misery of the people, who hears the cries of the oppressed, who knows and feels their suffering and comes to deliver, and who in Jesus Christ has taken unto God’s own being the humiliation, rejection, suffering, despair, and death of the whole world. (Silence)
We confess our alienation, our estrangement from one another and our disconnection even within our Methodist and Christian connection. Within the Christian community, we perpetuate divisions based on race, our Social Principles, polity, liturgy, and doctrine. We allow jurisdictional, national, and political loyalties to transcend our oneness in Christ. Even the central activity of the church, worship, has become in many congregations a source of tension and conflict between ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ expressions. We often label and malign those with whom we differ, rather than humbly and sensitively listening and engaging one another in meaningful disagreement in common pursuit of transcendent truth.
Our fears and insecurities, our greed and excessive individualism, the economic disparities, our preoccupation with privilege and personal power, and our failure to understand other cultures and religions separate us from members of the human family and alienate us from creation itself. While science reveals an interconnected universe and exposes the rich diversity and unity of biological life, we human beings long for, and yet resist, the community called into being by Jesus Christ. Still, the good news remains steadfast: Jesus Christ has already broken down the barriers. The Holy Spirit is moving us from alienation and disconnection to Christ-formed community and missional connection. (Silence)
We confess our anemia, our powerlessness, and our failure to trust the power of love. The enormous problems of the contemporary world and the challenges within the church itself confound us. We feel helpless and scared. The world turns to violence and coercion for security. In the church, we rely increasingly on legislation, political maneuvering, and juridical processes as means of control and self-protection. Yet in Jesus Christ is revealed authentic power. It is the power of the Cross, which remains foolishness to the world, and, sadly, to the church. At the Cross of Christ, we accept our own powerlessness and vulnerability. We put aside our pretense to power, admit our own complicity in thwarting the new creation. And we assume the role of servant and enter the suffering, the alienation, the powerlessness of others in the solidarity of love, forgiveness, and commitment. Through God’s power made known in the Crucified and Risen Christ, we can “mount up with wings like eagles, we can run and not be weary, we can walk and not faint.” (Silence)
In joyful and obedient response to the good news of God’s reign in Jesus Christ, let us turn
- from amnesia to identity-forming, mission-giving, hope-restoring, memory
- from anesthesia to sensitive engagement with the world’s suffering and pain
- from alienation to Christ-formed community and missional connection
- from anemia to Cross-empowered courage and servanthood.
The first Methodist conference was held in June 1744. John Wesley defined the goal for the conference as determining “how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.” The focus was upon clarifying doctrinal understandings and commitments and how to form ‘the people called Methodist’ in accordance with those doctrines.
The considerations that dominated the agenda of that first conference become challenging questions for those of us gathered at this General Conference. We need to raise again the questions that shaped that first Methodist conference: What shall we teach? How shall we teach? What shall we DO to affirm and live our doctrine, discipline, and practice? If we approach these questions as people of faith with open hearts, open minds, and open doors we live out the spirit of Wesley who saw ‘the world as our parish’ and the whole creation as the realm of God’s reign.
To answer these questions your bishops invite you to join us in a quadrennium of Methodist conferencing around the world. We anticipate exploring again the Wesleyan roots of our foundational teachings and practices while listening for the Spirit’s guidance in living toward the New Creation. Your bishops will give priority in our episcopal areas to conferencing on key themes in Wesleyan theology and practice, using the best of our pastoral leaders and scholars, lay and clergy. We invite all members of the Methodist family around the world to join us in this time of conferencing. We invite our boards, agencies, and academies to resource the church in this effort. We propose Methodist Conferencing around the world for the 2005-2008 quadrennium focusing on the following themes:
“The New Creation and the Church’s Mission:” God’s new creation of our hearts/lives, new social structures, and the whole cosmos. Special attention is to be given to our relation to the earth and to the most vulnerable as demonstration of our hope for God’s new creation.
“Sound Doctrine and Catholic Spirit:” The essential doctrines and distinctive emphases of Methodism and their meaning and relevance for the emerging scientific worldview and the formation of God’s vision of beloved community amid diversity.
“Personal and Social Holiness:” Wesleyan principles of personal and social ethics with emphasis on how our personal and social economics may and must reflect divine love and contribute to the new creation and authentic security.
“Watching Over One Another in Love:” Discipleship in the Methodist tradition, with an emphasis on being accountable to one another and to the “least of these” for lives that reflect the Beloved Community.
CONCLUSION AND BENEDICTIONJohn Wesley assessed the results of the first Conference in 1744 in these words: “We conferred together for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened.” As we confer together these days and engage in Christian conferencing in forthcoming months and years, may the concerns that dominated that first Conference permeate everything we do: What to Teach, How to Teach, and What TO DO.
As Water Washed and Spirit Born children of God, we journey toward a new heaven and new earth. The One who inaugurated the new creation and won the decisive victory journeys with us. The Risen Christ left this promise: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).
“Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 6:23-24)
For the Council of Bishops,Bishop Kenneth L. Carder, Presenter
Bishop Ruediger R. Minor, President
Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, Secretary