01 July 2012

Methodist Vice-President: "The hardest thing for many to accept is the role of change"


The newly inaugurated Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Michael King, told a packed conference hall in Plymouth today that welcoming strangers into the Church implied a willingness to be changed.

Addressing the annual Conference at Plymouth Pavillions, Michael said that within the context of creating disciples of Jesus, hospitality is powerful and that Methodists need to be prepared to be changed when welcoming people into their churches. He also said that the Methodist Church could become a movement of "world transforming" disciples if it regains its confidence in Christ as the head of the Church.

"The hardest thing for many to accept is the role of change. Traditional leaders of the Church can find it difficult to enable the 'guest' to become the 'host'," Michael said. "The member from another country, the young person newly converted, the person whose lifestyle, or sexuality, or abilities, or impairments seem very different - how is it possible for them to minister to a fellowship that has become at ease with itself, or too comfortable with its own exclusive view of the world?"

He went to say that all discipleship depended on knowing, and seeing, who it is that people are following. "Let us be clear that we do not follow a philosophy, or a book of rules; we follow Jesus and we are in relationship with the Living God. If this Church regains confidence in Christ as its head, it will again become a movement of 'world transforming' disciples."

The full text of the address follows:

Over the last few years the Methodist Church as a whole has shown renewed confidence in 'Discipleship'. It has been good to sharpen our focus as followers of Jesus Christ, and to understand the possibilities that can arise as a result of such commitment. But all discipleship depends on knowing, and indeed seeing, who it is that we follow.

Luke 24 v 31 "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him."

This is where discipleship begins. Recognising who it is that we are following.

The Emmaus Road story in Luke 24 has spoken to me many times on my personal Christian journey; it has also helped me theologically in the ways the Methodist Church has recently engaged in mission with our Partner Churches worldwide; and recently this same passage has also been a source of wisdom to me in my present role working with rural churches in the Banbury area. For me, it is one of the key missiological texts of the New Testament. It is also a reading from the post-Resurrection period, the age we live in now as Christians, as truly Easter people. I use that phrase generically, not just to denote that former annual pilgrimage to various British seaside resorts the week after Easter, even though my family enjoyed many years of spiritual refreshment thanks to the Easter People movement; and in passing may I say how blessed we are as a Church that a new generation of leaders are developing a new vision with the increasingly youthful ECG event.

Back to Luke 24. The first thing to understand, and one of the most important truths in this whole passage, is what is happening before the story unfolds. God in Jesus comes alongside the two troubled, disappointed disciples. There is absolutely no expectation that they will see Jesus - why should they? Yet Jesus comes alongside. Quite simple, but utterly profound, it is God who seeks us out and is always there for us. It is up to us whether or not we choose to recognise all that God in Jesus is offering. Jesus finds us; some people talk about seeking and finding God, but the truth is that God is already beside us. "Open the eyes of my heart, Lord."

So the Emmaus Road story opens with the mystery of faith. The world, its happenings and its everyday events affect all people. Yet people of faith see these in a different way, a God-centred way. Most of us here this morning know the truth of seeing through eyes of faith. The world looks very different. These early disciples on the road have yet to see this new reality.

This story in verses 13 to 27 is classic Jesus! How does he get right alongside these two dispirited disciples? This is not the place to ask who these two were, whether they might have been man and wife, or what the name of the second person might have been. I want to say to you this morning that Jesus here gets alongside them by doing what he so often is reported as doing in the gospels - he asks a question.  Early on that Sunday evening he asks, "What are you discussing as you walk along?" He must have known their thoughts, yet he makes no presuppositions. He certainly does not give answers to questions that have not yet been asked of him. I have met a number of people in my life, inside and outside the Church, who have told me answers to questions I never asked! Jesus says, "What are you discussing?" The way into the telling of the story, into putting their experiences subsequently into the meta-narrative (the big unfolding picture of God wanting to save his world) was to ask, "How is it for you, this evening ?"  How is it for you?

I was 20 years old, it was midnight, I was on the back of a lorry under a flimsy tarpaulin in a thunderstorm. I was in West Africa. There were about a dozen others with me, all strangers. The lorry stopped at the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) border with Mali. It was very dark! I was then given the information that everyone else seemed to know! The border would not re-open until 7.00am. Everyone else got out quickly in the pitch darkness, off to find somewhere to rest in the border village. I had little idea where I was. Six hours before in Bobo Dioulasso I had asked if this lorry would get me closer to Timbuktu, to the desert where I was heading.  Now where was I? What could I do? Not a lot. Nothing else for it, I settled down on the floor of that lorry, lightning crashing around. It was then that I had the realisation that no-one who knew me, had any idea where I was - and I wasn't even sure myself! And it was then that God came alongside me and asked, "How is it, for you?" And he gave me peace. I knew he was there.

"Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him."

Well actually, in my case, whilst my spiritual eyes were opened; it meant that my physical eyes could happily close! I slept peacefully, woken up by my fellow passengers jumping over the sides of the lorry as the dawn was breaking.

Luke 24 has much to teach us. Since 1996 and the bringing together of the old Divisions into one Connexional Team, there have been two major themes for the staff team responsible for relationships with World Church partners. One theme has been how to enable the Church in Britain, and in microcosm those responsible for the Connexional Team, to learn from the wider world and thereby understand itself better in a world context. The second strand has been how to enable the Methodist Church to understand the change in relationships with Churches around the world, many of whom are now growing in all kinds of ways; and, following on from this, how to enable all our partners to engage with us in a spirit of mutual respect. In seeking to 'define' these changing relationships, we looked at many Biblical texts as well as many books on the subject, but kept coming back to the text before us this morning - the Emmaus Road.

Jesus comes alongside. He presumes nothing. He asks where his new 'companions on the road' are, personally and spiritually. Which is why the World Church team have used the word 'companion' for different relationships in recent times, as a word which somehow is more applicable than 'partners'. Companions or 'companeros' (my understanding is that the Spanish version gives an even more rounded sense of the word) is at the heart of the Emmaus Road story. Non judgemental, learning together, sharing together - and all for God's glory!

And so let's move on in the Luke story. These two disciples on the Emmaus Road are allowed to tell their story, during which time Jesus listens and does not interrupt. What an important ability it is to listen carefully to where people are coming from - physically and spiritually. Jesus listens, and how he needs his Church to listen too to the deep yearnings and needs of the world. I hope this week at Conference that, alongside the carefully crafted speeches, we will listen carefully to each other in some of the more difficult pieces of business.I pray that, like Jesus, we ask what the questions really are, before offering what we hope and pray is the answer.

The Emmaus couple finish their anxiety-ridden story. Only then does Jesus try to put it into an historical context. With apologies to Luke's gospel, I've reversed three verses: "And beginning with Moses, and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (v 27). "Didn't the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?"(v26). "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the Prophets have spoken."(v25)

"Really? Are we being stupid? The stranger's story does make sense. Shall we invite him for supper?" And so it came to pass that Jesus was invited in, in the guise of the stranger; invited to share a meal, friendship and fellowship. My own life has been full of blessings, but some of the most special moments have come when complete strangers have shared food with me; or indeed I have shared with them. The Bible has many examples of God entering households as a stranger. If I pick up my own story on my West African journey, now in Mali, we went on for another 12 hours on the open back of that lorry; a long and very hot day when any and every piece of food was shared with me by people, by strangers, who had comparatively little. It was like a confirmation of God's presence and goodness. I knew that I was meeting with God, and it was all so unexpected. My needs were being met in extraordinary ways. I was actually baptised 8 months later.

Hospitality is powerful. I now work with people in rural areas in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. They have challenged me over the last few months. Sit down, sit beside us, eat with us, share time with us. They may even regret this, because they already know that I will happily sit with anyone for a piece of cake (especially fruit cake!), but I digress! In our ever-so mobile age, in our increasing dependency on cars, there is too much tendency to dash from one event to another. Sit awhile; take time to listen; accept hospitality; share what others have to give; care for one another; meet with God in the meeting with others. Share each other's space; feel each other's breath.

So, in verses 28-32 the two companions offer such hospitality and urge the stranger to stay and eat with them; which is where the real meaning of 'companion' comes from, of course; 'with bread', sharing together 'with bread'. Jesus responds to their invitation of hospitality, seemingly because the day was "almost over". Little did they know then that the rest of their lives was just beginning.

For what Jesus does, in one simple action, is to move from guest to host. The stranger blesses the bread. "Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him…" (v31).  What a blessing! Jesus was made so welcome that he assumed the role of host. Now there's a real lesson here for us in the British Church. Over the last 50 years, so many people of different nationalities have come into the UK. Nothing new in this, we're all mongrels and all the healthier for it. The degree to which newcomers to Britain are made welcome in general terms, we know well that it varies; but what we need to be sure of in the Church is that our brothers and sisters from all these different cultures and nationalities are able to find a home in our local churches and chapels. All need to find a welcome. But I will go further; all those in the host churches need to understand that any stranger, properly welcomed, will change those same churches. Welcome implies a willingness to be changed.

There's a word in the Swahili language of southern and eastern Africa that has influenced me greatly over the last decade - the word 'Ubuntu'. It's impossible to translate into one English word; the heart of its meaning is "I am who I am because of what we are together." The next conversation, this meeting together this morning, our conversing at Conference, the next pastoral visit; whenever we listen to each other it will contribute to whom we are, to whom we will become. When we welcome people to our churches, we need to be prepared to be changed, radically changed.

The hardest thing for many to accept is the change of role. Traditional leaders of the church can find it difficult to enable the 'guest' to become the 'host'. The member from another country, the young person newly converted, the person whose lifestyle, or sexuality, or abilities, or impairments seem very different - how is it possible for them to minister to a fellowship that has become at ease with itself, or too comfortable with its own exclusive view of the world?

"Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him."

Well, these two disciples in their house in Emmaus certainly had their eyes opened! Suddenly, in the blessing of the bread, in the action of Jesus as host, in the words spoken or the eyes that met around the table - they became aware of a new reality. Mind blowing. And many gathered here today will have had the experience of knowing a new reality through the sharing of bread and wine. It can be truly life-transforming.

With this new understanding, now realising that the women, yes women, who went to the tomb earlier in the day had told them a message that was true (v 23); and now having seen for themselves that Jesus was alive - they breathlessly rush out of the house and return to Jerusalem. I suspect the return journey took much less time than the downbeat walk to Emmaus earlier that evening! It was dark, it was potentially dangerous, but sharing this good news could not be delayed.

A few months ago I sat in a small field on the edge of the coast on the island of Tonga in the South Pacific. There was a memorial to the Revd John Thomas, of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, who arrived on the island in 1826. He had taken his wife with him on a voyage to the other side of the world, knowing that the previous attempts to convert the islanders had failed. It was obviously dangerous, but sharing the good news could not be delayed. The Revd Thomas didn't go half way around the world because of a philosophy; he went because he had a personal relationship with Jesus. Some years ago, when working in Sierra Leone, I remember having a similar feeling when entering the church of St John Maroon in Freetown. The walls have plaques that tell of missionary after missionary who left Britain, came to West Africa knowing all the dangers of disease, and dying within months or a few years at best, in the early Nineteenth Century. It was dangerous, but spreading good news could not be delayed.

The two disciples returned from Emmaus with precious news. It just had to be shared.

So where do we share this precious news? What about our own British context? It's not easy, is it? It is a  context of increasing secularism, of politics where we are irritatingly told that elections are only about the economy ("stupid"), of apathy to any kind of commitment, of  accepted 'humour' that plumbs the depths of self-deprecation and the humiliation of others. Surely, we as Christians have an alternative world view. Surely, our eyes have been opened to a loving God who rejoices in us, who says we are worthy, who loves us and everyone else no matter what. Surely, we are committed to life in all its fullness, in all its abundance. Surely, as Christians we have the answer, the perfect answer, to secularism and apathy.

If our eyes are opened. We see things differently. Think things differently; we literally re-pent. 

Ordinands, members of Conference, guests and friends, the message this morning is the same for all of us.  Already present, the living God is alongside us in the joys and troubles of our everyday lives. God wants to come in. And when we do invite Jesus into our lives, the excitement of that new reality, of new vision, means that we want to share it with others. 

If you and I are sure of whom we are following, we will become 'world transforming' disciples.  So let's be clear that we do not follow a philosophy, or a book of rules; we follow Jesus and we are in relationship with the Living God. If this Church regains confidence in Christ as its head, it will become again a movement of 'world transforming' disciples. That is my prayer. Because the world is changed, is spiritually transformed, by ordinary women and men of all ages looking at what is happening all around them - the everyday, the routine, even the humdrum - with a new sharpness of vision that turns the apparently ordinary into the miraculous thing that life is. Just like the two in Emmaus; when they became aware of the presence of Jesus, it changed their outlook completely. It transformed their lives.

So my prayer this morning is that we go from here as renewed disciples, totally confident in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. And first things first, let's ask God to open our eyes again today.

"Then their eyes were opened…". Or rather, let it be:

"Then our eyes were opened, and we recognised him."

 What, in Plymouth? What, this very day? Why not. Share the excitement. Because together with Jesus we can transform the world.


StF no. 451    "Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. I want to see you." 

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