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


The newly inaugurated Vice-President of the MethodistConference, Michael King, told a packed conference hall in Plymouthtoday that welcoming strangers into the Church implied awillingness to be changed.

Addressing the annual Conference at Plymouth Pavillions, Michaelsaid that within the context of creating disciples of Jesus,hospitality is powerful and that Methodists need to be prepared tobe changed when welcoming people into their churches. He also saidthat the Methodist Church could become a movement of "worldtransforming" disciples if it regains its confidence in Christas 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 enablethe 'guest' to become the 'host'," Michael said. "The member fromanother country, the young person newly converted, the person whoselifestyle, or sexuality, or abilities, or impairments seem verydifferent - how is it possible for them to minister to a fellowshipthat has become at ease with itself, or too comfortable with itsown exclusive view of the world?"

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

The full text of the address follows:

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

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

This is where discipleship begins. Recognising who it is that weare following.

The Emmaus Road story in Luke 24 has spoken to me many times onmy personal Christian journey; it has also helped me theologicallyin the ways the Methodist Church has recently engaged in missionwith our Partner Churches worldwide; and recently this same passagehas also been a source of wisdom to me in my present role workingwith rural churches in the Banbury area. For me, it is one of thekey missiological texts of the New Testament. It is also a readingfrom the post-Resurrection period, the age we live in now asChristians, as truly Easter people. I use that phrase generically,not just to denote that former annual pilgrimage to various Britishseaside resorts the week after Easter, even though my familyenjoyed many years of spiritual refreshment thanks to the EasterPeople movement; and in passing may I say how blessed we are as aChurch that a new generation of leaders are developing a new visionwith the increasingly youthful ECG event.

Back to Luke 24. The first thing to understand, and one of themost important truths in this whole passage, is what is happeningbefore the story unfolds. God in Jesus comes alongside the twotroubled, disappointed disciples. There is absolutely noexpectation that they will see Jesus - why should they? Yet Jesuscomes alongside. Quite simple, but utterly profound, it is God whoseeks us out and is always there for us. It is up to us whether ornot we choose to recognise all that God in Jesus isoffering. Jesus finds us; some people talk about seeking andfinding God, but the truth is that God is already besideus. "Open the eyes of my heart, Lord."

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

This story in verses 13 to 27 is classic Jesus! How does he getright alongside these two dispirited disciples? This is not theplace to ask who these two were, whether they might have been manand wife, or what the name of the second person might have been. Iwant to say to you this morning that Jesus here gets alongside themby doing what he so often is reported as doing in the gospels - heasks a question.  Early on that Sunday evening he asks, "Whatare you discussing as you walk along?" He must have known theirthoughts, yet he makes no presuppositions. He certainly does notgive answers to questions that have not yet been asked of him. Ihave met a number of people in my life, inside and outside theChurch, who have told me answers to questions I never asked! Jesussays, "What are you discussing?" The way into thetelling of the story, into putting their experiences subsequentlyinto the meta-narrative (the big unfolding picture of God wantingto 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 alorry under a flimsy tarpaulin in a thunderstorm. I was in WestAfrica. There were about a dozen others with me, all strangers. Thelorry stopped at the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) border withMali. It was very dark! I was then given the information thateveryone else seemed to know! The border would not re-open until7.00am. Everyone else got out quickly in the pitch darkness, off tofind somewhere to rest in the border village. I had little ideawhere I was. Six hours before in Bobo Dioulasso I had asked if thislorry would get me closer to Timbuktu, to the desert where I washeading.  Now where was I? What could I do? Not a lot. Nothingelse for it, I settled down on the floor of that lorry, lightningcrashing around. It was then that I had the realisation that no-onewho knew me, had any idea where I was - and I wasn't even suremyself! And it was then that God came alongside me and asked, "Howis 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 sleptpeacefully, woken up by my fellow passengers jumping over the sidesof the lorry as the dawn was breaking.

Luke 24 has much to teach us. Since 1996 and the bringingtogether of the old Divisions into one Connexional Team, there havebeen two major themes for the staff team responsible forrelationships with World Church partners. One theme has been how toenable the Church in Britain, and in microcosm those responsiblefor the Connexional Team, to learn from the wider world and therebyunderstand itself better in a world context. The second strand hasbeen how to enable the Methodist Church to understand the change inrelationships with Churches around the world, many of whom arenow growing in all kinds of ways; and, following on from this, howto enable all our partners to engage with us in a spirit of mutualrespect. In seeking to 'define' these changing relationships, welooked at many Biblical texts as well as many books on the subject,but kept coming back to the text before us this morning - theEmmaus Road.

Jesus comes alongside. He presumes nothing. He asks where hisnew 'companions on the road' are, personally and spiritually. Whichis why the World Church team have used the word 'companion' fordifferent relationships in recent times, as a word which somehow ismore applicable than 'partners'. Companions or 'companeros' (myunderstanding is that the Spanish version gives an even morerounded sense of the word) is at the heart of the Emmaus Roadstory. Non judgemental, learning together, sharing together - andall for God's glory!

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

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

"Really? Are we being stupid? The stranger's story does makesense. Shall we invite him for supper?" And so it came to passthat Jesus was invited in, in the guise of the stranger; invited toshare a meal, friendship and fellowship. My own life has been fullof blessings, but some of the most special moments have come whencomplete strangers have shared food with me; or indeed I haveshared with them. The Bible has many examples of God enteringhouseholds as a stranger. If I pick up my own story on my WestAfrican journey, now in Mali, we went on for another 12 hours onthe open back of that lorry; a long and very hot day when any andevery piece of food was shared with me by people, by strangers, whohad comparatively little. It was like a confirmation of God'spresence and goodness. I knew that I was meeting with God, and itwas all so unexpected. My needs were being met in extraordinaryways. I was actually baptised 8 months later.

Hospitality is powerful. I now work with people in rural areasin Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. They have challenged me overthe last few months. Sit down, sit beside us, eat with us, sharetime with us. They may even regret this, because they already knowthat I will happily sit with anyone for a piece of cake (especiallyfruit cake!), but I digress! In our ever-so mobile age, in ourincreasing dependency on cars, there is too much tendency to dashfrom one event to another. Sit awhile; take time to listen; accepthospitality; 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 hospitalityand urge the stranger to stay and eat with them; which is where thereal meaning of 'companion' comes from, of course; 'with bread',sharing together 'with bread'. Jesus responds to their invitationof hospitality, seemingly because the day was "almost over". Littledid they know then that the rest of their lives was justbeginning.

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

There's a word in the Swahili language of southern and easternAfrica that has influenced me greatly over the last decade - theword '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 aretogether." The next conversation, this meeting together thismorning, 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, weneed 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 enablethe 'guest' to become the 'host'. The member from another country,the young person newly converted, the person whose lifestyle, orsexuality, or abilities, or impairments seem very different - howis it possible for them to minister to a fellowship that has becomeat ease with itself, or too comfortable with its own exclusive viewof the world?

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

Well, these two disciples in their house in Emmaus certainly hadtheir eyes opened! Suddenly, in the blessing of the bread, in theaction of Jesus as host, in the words spoken or the eyes that metaround the table - they became aware of a new reality. Mindblowing. And many gathered here today will have had the experienceof knowing a new reality through the sharing of bread and wine. Itcan be truly life-transforming.

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

A few months ago I sat in a small field on the edge of the coaston the island of Tonga in the South Pacific. There was a memorialto the Revd John Thomas, of the Wesleyan Methodist MissionarySociety, who arrived on the island in 1826. He had taken his wifewith him on a voyage to the other side of the world, knowing thatthe previous attempts to convert the islanders had failed. It wasobviously dangerous, but sharing the good news could not bedelayed. The Revd Thomas didn't go half way around the worldbecause of a philosophy; he went because he had a personalrelationship with Jesus. Some years ago, when working in SierraLeone, I remember having a similar feeling when entering the churchof St John Maroon in Freetown. The walls have plaques that tell ofmissionary after missionary who left Britain, came to West Africaknowing all the dangers of disease, and dying within months or afew years at best, in the early Nineteenth Century. It wasdangerous, but spreading good news could not be delayed.

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

So where do we share this precious news? What about our ownBritish context? It's not easy, is it? It is a  context ofincreasing secularism, of politics where we are irritatingly toldthat elections are only about the economy ("stupid"), of apathy toany kind of commitment, of  accepted 'humour' that plumbs thedepths of self-deprecation and the humiliation of others. Surely,we as Christians have an alternative world view. Surely, our eyeshave been opened to a loving God who rejoices in us, who says weare 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, tosecularism and apathy.

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

Ordinands, members of Conference, guests and friends, themessage this morning is the same for all of us.  Alreadypresent, the living God is alongside us in the joys and troubles ofour everyday lives. God wants to come in. And when we do inviteJesus into our lives, the excitement of that new reality, of newvision, 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 donot follow a philosophy, or a book of rules; we follow Jesus and weare in relationship with the Living God. If this Church regainsconfidence in Christ as its head, it will become again a movementof 'world transforming' disciples. That is my prayer. Because theworld is changed, is spiritually transformed, by ordinary women andmen of all ages looking at what is happening all around them - theeveryday, the routine, even the humdrum - with a new sharpness ofvision that turns the apparently ordinary into the miraculous thingthat life is. Just like the two in Emmaus; when they became awareof the presence of Jesus, it changed their outlook completely. Ittransformed their lives.

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

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

"Then our eyes were opened, and werecognised him."

 What, in Plymouth? What, this very day? Whynot. Share the excitement. Because together with Jesus we cantransform the world.


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