By Rev. Michael Roberts
General Conference Clergy Delegate
To build upon a Jewish Midrash (an art form that Jesus regularly used through parables) there is a story that tries to make sense of this verse. In the story, the angels of heaven are debating about whether or not humans should ever have been created, and the debate quickly broke into two general camps.
Those on the side of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness to the law argued that humans should never have been created because all they do is pervert God’s law, engage in self-justification, and turn God’s truth into lies. In contrast, those on the side of mercy and peace said, “But they are so beautiful.” “They sing lullabies to their children; they care for one another with such compassion; they find a way to bring love into all the pain.” “We are so glad they were created because we want to see how the stories they create are going to end.” Both sides were adamant, so God got involved. God tells them that one of the reasons for the creation of humans was to bring these two camps together. Since both sides truly loved God and wanted to do God’s will, they met in the middle, embraced and kissed.
I was asked to share how the scriptures have shaped my life. This story came to mind. As a pastor, I have witnessed the church engaged in this continuous struggle, played out in many different ways. I have come to see this struggle as a blessing. Israel was born in this struggle. The name Israel means to wrestle and struggle, and it is only in the struggle that we are able to find a faithful way forward. These two sides – priests and prophets, grace and holiness, head and heart, evangelism and social justice, traditional and progressive perspectives — provide the energy needed to bear one another in love and to seek for unity of spirit and the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3). Without this tension, this calling would be way too easy.
I see the scriptures as our primary guide for how to navigate this struggle with faithfulness and fruitfulness. As we move towards General Conference, it is true that some form of division is likely. There are seasons in the life of the church when we need to give each other “room to breathe” and where some form of separation can be healthy. We may be at that place right now. I will predict, however, that this “room” will not free any of us from the tension. Within minutes of any separation, God will continue to bring transformation to human hearts, different insights into the scriptures will touch hearts, and the struggle will continue. God will see to that. The scripture will continue to be our guide.
Using scripture as his guide, John Wesley called all of us to the “middle way.” This is my hope for the United Methodist Church that stays together. When Wesley used this term, he was not talking about politics, party, or opinion. He was talking about behavior. Even with strong opinions, Methodists are to BEHAVE in the middle.
We are called to practice true holiness, which Wesley consistently defined through the virtues of humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, and “kindly affection for all.” Wesley calls us to filter all challenging texts, and all struggles with interpretation, through the lens of God’s steadfast and eternal love, pointing out that Jesus calls “love” the summary of it all. This love is patient, kind and does not insist on its own way (I Cor 13:1-8). Discovering this hermeneutic (or method of interpretation) helped scripture come to life, not only in thoughts, but in my behavior.
As we go into this season of conferencing, my hope is to make decisions that will help the United Methodist Church cultivate this witness. My hope is to help cultivate a church where there is room for all, where a high(er) view of scripture is affirmed beyond proof-texting to justify opinions, and where righteousness and peace can embrace. With a Wesleyan optimism that we really can be transformed and can learn how to love, I know that this is possible. The Bible tells me so.