Our finest hour
"When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the Law of Moses.' The apostles and elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them... ‘God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith, he has made no distinction between them and us.'" -Acts 15:4-6a,8-9
By BISHOP ROBERT E. HAYES JR.
For the past two weeks, in the city of Fort Worth, Texas, I have been engaged in one of the most important, sacred duties of a United Methodist. I have been a participant in the General Conference of our denomination.
What makes this meeting so special? It is the only entity that officially speaks on behalf of The United Methodist Church.
Some of you may think that bishops, who oversee the spiritual and temporal life of United Methodists, are the people with primary responsibility of speaking for the Church. We are not.
That authority rests solely with the General Conference, held every four years. Approximately 1,000 delegates, representing 11 million United Methodists, come together from all over the world to craft the "discipline" that will govern us for the next four years. This year, 20 of those delegates were from Oklahoma Conference.
Since December 1784, at the famous Christmas Conference held in Lovely Lane Chapel at Baltimore, Md., Methodists have been gathering to chart the course for our Church. The first Book of Discipline was published in 1785. The quadrennial (four-year) concept for General Conference was adopted, and the first such meeting was held in 1792.
For 216 years, Methodists have met in this community to explore how we as believers can best offer Christ to the world. We are heirs to more than two centuries of denominational history and tradition.
United in Jesus Christ
From the moment the gavel calls to order the General Conference, you know you're in a special place. Hues and colors from nearly every continent and country are represented. The blending of languages, music, and culture produces a picture and sound unlike any other you will see or hear. Clergy and laity are equally represented. The atmosphere is electric, as people united in devotion to God and Jesus Christ meet for 10 days to address some of the most pertinent and controversial issues of our day.
The business and the delegates are divided into 13 legislative committees, whose purpose is to vote on thousands of petitions submitted by United Methodists worldwide.
Each legislative committee reports its decisions to the entire body for further consideration, and the results determine what goes into the Book of Discipline.
The work can be tedious; the hours, demanding; and debates, heated.
By the conclusion of General Conference, the clergy and lay leadership of the denomination will have made decisions on a plethora of subjects, from the Church's budget to human sexuality, from educational requirements for clergy to wars and torture. With such decisions in place, the Church will move forward into the next four years. It is not a perfect system. But it is the best system we have, tested and tried for more than 200 years. It represents the finest hour of our Church, and I am proud to be there with the delegates from Oklahoma who represent us so well.
The work of the Spirit
It is understatement to say many "United Methodist eyes" will focus on what happened here. People are very concerned about the proceedings of our General Conference and the direction our Church will take.
As a veteran of several General Conferences, I can assure you that I have seen God's Holy Spirit at work in these gatherings--just as the Spirit poured out when the future of the first-century church was at stake.
That meeting later became known as the Council at Jerusalem. It occurred in that city several years after Jesus ascended into heaven, after he gave those first disciples the commission to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).
A serious debate arose in Jerusalem. What happened when the disciples encountered people of other nationalities who wanted to know Jesus, but who didn't look like those first disciples, talk like them, or have the same common interests?
The first reaction of the followers was to decree that all non-Jews be circumcised.
But Paul and Barnabas had seen God's Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles in Phoenicia and Samaria, and they reported the great joy present when Gentiles were converted. Scripture records long and serious debate among the faithful elders.
Then Peter stood and declared that God, "who knows the human heart," had given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles and had made no distinction between "them and us."
That moment was a turning point in our faith understanding. The minutes of that meeting, recorded in the final verses of Acts 15, are breathtaking!
As United Methodists, we belong to a worldwide Church, made up of many people from so many places. We don't all speak the same language, nor look alike, nor have the same priorities.
However, what we share in common takes precedence over any differences we might have. His name is Jesus!
When we find ourselves in one room, I contemplate our many differences, and I am amazed anything gets accomplished. I know what results from our drawing together is nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit, and I thank God for allowing us to be a denomination that has a future filled with hope.
(That was the theme for the 2008 General Conference: "A Future with Hope.")
Just as those first-century disciples could not know how their decisions would change the world, those of us who gathered at Fort Worth do not know how our decisions will be viewed in 200 years, or 2,000.
But this I do know: When you gather God's people from all around the world and you let loose the power of the Holy Spirit, anything can happen!