By Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader*
June 10, 2019 | 10:30 a.m.
Love was the theme for the opening worship service for the 50th meeting of the East Ohio Annual Conference, with scriptures read and proclaimed that encouraged us to hold on to the great love and example of the saints that has been revealed to us in Christ Jesus. We were also challenged to receive this great gift of love and to let it grow in us so that we might see every person as a child of God.
Worship began with the traditional singing of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Are We Yet Alive?”, with lyrics that reflect the shared ministry that exists throughout the year between our annual meetings. This year there was particular poignancy in the third verse which asks: “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!” The Special General Conference of February 2019 was held to resolve the divisions that currently exist in The United Methodist Church; those divisions remain. But by verse six, the song encourages us: “Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain.”
The gathered community that processed into Hoover Auditorium served as a visual reminder of the outreach of Jesus Christ in East Ohio. Clergy and laity from all ten districts represented the life and witness of our churches. Spouses and family of the remembered saints were honored as well and surrounded by the gratitude of a thankful church, as names were read and candles lit.
The choir anthem “Come, All Christians, Be Committed” invited the gathered community to enter into this year’s theme, following Christ in service to God and the world.
Bishop Tracy S. Malone’s sermon “No Greater Love” was a litany of celebration and a call to the church to receive and model the all-inclusive, selfless, sacrificial, and eternal love of Jesus Christ. The sermon also acknowledged the saints of the church who have demonstrated this love for us.
She began by reciting the words of a hymn by Omer Westendorf: “When we are living it is in Christ Jesus and when we’re dying it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God.” “Before our loved ones were ours, they belonged to God.” Paraphrasing the apostle Paul, Bishop Malone reminded us that “it is this eternal love of God in which we live, we move, and we have our being.”
In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus spoke of making his home in God and invited his disciples to experience the radical love of God that can satisfy. He wanted them to choose to belong to Christ.
“There is no greater love than the all-encompassing love of God. It is beyond all comprehension, it is love that causes the sun to shine, that turns the darkness into daylight; there is no greater love.”
Bishop Malone then recalled the words of Jesus to his disciples in which he commands them to love as he has loved them. “Commandments are not only connected to love. Love is the commandment itself.” Jesus calls his disciples his friends but also demonstrates his love through his sacrifice. “This is love: putting your life on the line for your friends.”
Love, she reminded us, is more than a feeling. “No one can command feelings. Feelings are fleeting. Fear drives our emotions. Jesus is not talking about emotions.” Sharing an insight that she learned from another theologian, she notes: “Because we are human, we are always looking for ways to add authority to our causes if we can convince ourselves that God wants it too. We are free to harm one another in the name of God.”
But the love of God is agape love, selfless love, unconditional love for another, even at a cost to oneself. It is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and ministry to the marginalized.
What does this kind of love look like? It is a voice for the voiceless, it is speaking the truth in love, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, having less so that others might have more and ministry to the marginalized.
She then quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who wrote ““The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”
“Calling [the disciples his] friends is not making things easier for them,” the Bishop added. But we are also invited to share the grace that we have received.
Paul wrote his letter to a church in Corinth that was divided, but he reminded them that they are the body of Christ, made up by many parts. In chapter 13, Paul showed them the “more excellent way” of becoming like God in our love.
“We have to practice this kind of love. It is a lifelong journey. Love is our purpose. Every relationship teaches us how to love and how to be holy. We love because God first loved us. Our salvation is a joy. Peace is ours to have. Our hope is eternal in the heavens.”
“We remember our loved ones who taught us how to love and how to be holy.”
“May we make our home in Christ. There is no greater love, no greater gift than the love that we have in Christ Jesus. The joy of the Lord is our strength!”
Following her message of encouragement and challenge, Bishop Malone officiated in a celebration of Holy Communion with a prayer of consecration that included these words: “Sanctify the heart of our Church so the world might experience through us the living presence of Christ. We pray that you heal the United Methodist Church; use our theological struggles as a tool of your Grace.”
In remembering the saints, in holding fast to the promises of Jesus Christ, and in witnessing our faith, we can indeed fulfill our calling to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
*Rev. Bruce Bachelor-Glader is a retired Elder in the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.