By Jason Vickers —
For God so loved the world. So begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God does not need the world. God in no way depends upon the world. The world’s existence is sheer grace. It is a fitting expression of God’s loving nature. God loves the world – so much so that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, shining light in the enveloping darkness (John 1:1-5).
But the Gospel is not finished. It also declares that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God does not love the world because we are righteous. God loves the world despite our sin and unrighteousness – so much so that Christ suffered and died in order to reconcile us to God and make us ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Central as it is in the drama of redemption, the cross is not the final word of the Gospel. God’s love for the world is further displayed in Christ’s resurrection, signaling as it does God’s power over death and God’s resolve to renew God’s good creation. But God does not raise Jesus in order to take him away, leaving us powerless in the face of sin and death. Even now, the risen Lord is present in the sacramental life of the church, forgiving, comforting, and sanctifying us. God loves us and has mercy upon us – so much so that God provides us with means of grace by which the Holy Spirit joins us to the crucified and risen Lord. Incorporated into Christ’s body, the power and promise of the resurrection enable us to weather the storms of life and to live together as a sign of God’s love for the world (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Gloriously good news that it is, even Christ’s resurrection does not exhaust the Gospel. Tragically, sin and death continue to have their way in the world. Brokenness and hostility are everywhere. The righteous suffer, and the wicked prosper (Psalm 73:12-14). Warring and violence persist. Amid the flickering light, a deep and encircling darkness remains, just as the Lord promised (Matthew 24:6). Fortunately, the Gospel declares that Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). God’s love for the world will have the last word – a word of welcome for those who persevere, and a word of condemnation for those who oppose the cause of Christ. And his kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:33).
All of this is the Gospel; it is the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). With the help of the Holy Spirit, we cling to this good news in faith, hope, and love. But we are also called to proclaim it throughout the world. We are called to proclaim that God is love (1 John 4:8b); that God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4); and that God will sanctify us and preserve us blameless at the coming of our Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). We are called to proclaim that, with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). We are called to proclaim that Christ has disarmed the authorities and powers, including death itself, and that we therefore have nothing to fear (Colossians 2:15).
The world desperately needs to hear the Gospel. The world needs to hear that God is love and that God has not abandoned God’s good creation. The world needs to hear that, because of Jesus Christ, we do not have to be slaves to sin (Romans 6:20-22). We do not have to despise our neighbors or horde our resources. We do not have to be captive to anger and bitterness and shame. Nor are we doomed to cynicism and despair. But for the world to hear the Gospel, someone must proclaim it.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15).
The proclamation of the Gospel is central to the church’s mission. It is what we are called to do. We come together for worship and fellowship, but we are ultimately sent out to bear witness to the Gospel in our neighborhoods and workplaces and to the imprisoned and the infirmed. We receive the body and blood of Christ so that we might be Christ’s body and blood for the sake of the world. And this is why disagreement and disunity among Christians is so deadly. In our disunity, we risk losing sight of the high calling to which we have been called (Ephesians 4:1). Caught up in our disputes with one another, we lose sight of the very world that God so loves. In turn, the world sees our disunity, shakes its head in disbelief, and sinks ever deeper into the darkness.
Disagreement and disunity are realities of church life. Across the centuries, the church has endured many seasons of separation and schism, most notably, the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation. Methodism itself is the result of a separation from the Church of England. Wesleyan-holiness churches separated from Methodism. And so on. Of course, the fact that there have been many divisions and schisms across the centuries does not justify disunity. Unity in the body of Christ is something we should all earnestly seek for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus himself prayed that we would all be one, even as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). In the meantime, which is to say in the midst of the painful reality of disunity, we must do all that we can not to lose sight of the world that God loves – a world inhabited by drug dealers and sex traffickers and by people whose lives have been broken by addiction and abuse.
In the months and years ahead, Methodist clergy and laity will continue to make decisions about their futures. Many will remain in The United Methodist Church. Many will join the newly founded Global Methodist Church. Some will join other existing denominations. Others will choose to become independent. Once decisions are made, the only question that will remain is whether we will allow ourselves forever to be defined by our disagreements with one another. To the extent that we do, the cause of the Gospel will suffer, and with it the world that God so loves.
If we are to be salt and light in the world, then we must both understand the Gospel and be able to communicate it effectively to a world that views the Gospel as so much folly. These are monumental tasks – understanding the Gospel and communicating it effectively. Each requires the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. We all need the Spirit’s help more fully to understand the mysteries into which we have been baptized. And we all need the Spirit’s help to communicate the Gospel in such a way that the world can hear it as good news and respond to it in faith.
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit has not left us bereft of resources to help with these tasks. On the contrary, the Spirit is a generous giver of gifts to aid the church in both understanding and communicating the Gospel for the sake of the world. For starters, there is the gift of Holy Scripture, the foundation of all true teaching concerning God and all things in relation to God. But that is not all. The Spirit also gives the gift of worship and sacraments, by which we glorify God, die and rise with Christ, and experience sanctifying communion with our Lord. Beyond all of this, the Spirit gives us the gift of doctrine and theology, as well as the gift of great teachers who can help us to contemplate the mysteries contained therein. There are also the gifts of leadership and the offices of ministry, including bishops, elders, and deacons – offices essential for the maintenance of the sacramental life of the church, for ordination, and for discipline. The Spirit also gives innumerable gifts to the laity, such as hospitality, prayer, care-giving, and service. There are also gifts of language and music, poetry and art.
In the Christian East, icons and iconography are received as gifts of the Spirit – the Gospel written in gold. All these things, and more besides, are best understood as means of grace by which we come to know and love God and communicate God’s love for the world.
Understanding the Gospel and being transformed by it, let alone communicating it effectively to the world, requires a deep immersion in all the means of grace. We need to know the Scriptures inside and out. We need to internalize the Creed, and we need a deep knowledge of our essential doctrines. We must also be able to convey the vision of God and salvation embedded in Scripture, Creed, and doctrine in a wise and winsome way. We must know when to reach for the Gospel of John and when to deploy the book of Job. We must preach with prophetic passion, calling both the church and the world to repentance, and we must help people experience the healing power of Holy Communion.
Tragically, disunity and schism threaten to rob us of the very means of grace on which our life with God depends. They do so in two ways. First, in the midst of division and disunity, we can turn gifts of the Holy Spirit meant for our sanctification and to aid in the proclamation of the Gospel into weapons with which we pummel our enemies’ positions. This is a danger that people on all sides of the current disagreements in Methodism must be on guard against. When we turn to Scripture and doctrine primarily to fund our arguments with one another – whatever those arguments might be about – we risk losing sight of the world that God so loves. The primary purpose of the means of grace that the Spirit gives to the church is to rouse the world to faith and to enable all to live in hope and love rather than vengeance and fear.
The second way that division and schism can rob us of the means of grace so crucial for our sanctification and for the effective proclamation of the Gospel may be even more dangerous than the first. In any schism, those who disaffiliate from an established church will be tempted to set aside gifts of the Spirit that, in the midst of division, they have come to see as problematic or harmful. For example, in the Protestant Reformation, many were quick to discard gifts of the Spirit that their ancestors in the faith had experienced as means of grace for sanctification and proclaiming the Gospel. The list of sacraments was reduced to two, often with little thought as to what the long-haul consequences of such a reduction might be. In addition, visual representation of the Gospel in sacred art and images was rejected, leading to a devastating wave of iconoclasm across Protestant Europe, and an utter disregard for the ways in which visual images can aid people in coming to faith, in the journey of sanctification, and in the communication of the Gospel to the world.
In any division that ends in separation, those who disaffiliate from an established church will have to make crucial decisions about what resources are essential for helping people come to faith, for sanctification, and for the effective proclamation of the Gospel. In the current division within Methodism, both those who affiliate with the Global Methodist Church and those who become independent will have to make such decisions. As they do, it would be wise to remember that all the gifts of the Spirit to the church have at one time or another been subject to misuse and abuse. However, the fact that something has been misappropriated does not mean it is not a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. For instance, many Methodists believe that the episcopacy and theological education have been subject to corruption and abuse in recent years. This does not mean that episcopacy and theology are not gifts of the Holy Spirit that, when rightly received and deployed, are crucial for understanding, receiving, and proclaiming the Gospel. On the contrary, what is now needed is a deliberate re-connecting of all the means of grace, including episcopacy and theology, to these ends.
In the meantime, the world is waiting.
Jason Vickers is Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and the incoming William J. Abraham Chair in Wesleyan Studies at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Dr. Vickers is the editor of the Wesleyan Theological Journal and the author or editor of ten books, including A Wesleyan Theology of the Eucharist and the Cambridge Companion to American Methodism.