This is the sermon I preached at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church at Lake Junaluska, N.C. this past summer. It was a plea to the delegates, just before they elected new bishops, to allow the Holy Spirit to work among them and to follow the Spirit’s leadings in their election of new bishops. I’d say , from the group of new bishops whom they elected, that my sermon was effective!
Come, Holy Spirit
The Opening of the South Eastern Jurisdictional Conference
Lake Junaluska, North Carolina
In those days Peter stood up among the believers…and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”….For as it is written in the book of Psalms,…’Let another take his position of overseer.’ So one of those who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of Jon until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become with us a witness to his resurrection. So they proposed two, Joseph…and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-17, 20-26)
The Acts of the Apostles begins with a bang. The resurrected Christ gives the apostles their marching orders and then ascends to heaven.
And what is the very first thing the church does? Calls a meeting. Elects a replacement apostle for Judas. Jesus ascends and the church in response – has the first Jurisdictional Conference, takes a vote (casting lots rather than electronically) — elects the first episcopos, Matthias.
If you listened closely, you heard that Matthias was elected to replace Judas in “his position of overseer (episcopos).” (Acts 1:20) Matthias replaced Bishop Judas. The first bishop to be retired from the episcopacy was Judas.
Moving right along, you are convened to select overseers of our church. Methodists join most of the world’s Christians in believing, from the first, ministry in the name of Jesus is so demanding that it can’t be done without someone designated to watch over us in love, episcope. Our constitution permits us to change almost anything about our church except: we can never, ever do away with bishops. Our earliest name: Methodist Episcopal Church.
The United Methodist Church is founded on two convictions: (1.) Jesus Christ is Lord and, (2.) preachers ought never, ever be left alone, “unoverseen.”
Your job, the election of overseers (episcopoi) is one of the most daunting tasks given any Christian. Jesus’ mission is too demanding to be done without leaders. In the Acts of the Apostles, resurrected Jesus ascends and gives the church its marching orders but the very first work of the church? Election of bishop Matthias (Acts 1:12-26) to replace bishop Judas.
Many of you long for our church to have a future, to grow and move in mission but we can’t do that without first having an election. Whatever Jesus wants to do with us, he chooses not to do without someone designated for episcope.
Now here’s the message that God has entrusted to me to give to you: you cannot call a person to the ministry of oversight by yourself. The apostles chose a replacement bishop, after the recent unpleasantness over the Judas episcopacy, through prayer. Only God can make a bishop.
No one can decide to minister in the name of Jesus; one must be summoned. That’s why the core of our ordination rite is the epiclesis, prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. No church leader without first Veni, Creator Spiritus, Come, Holy Spirit. That’s not only because the things that Jesus demands are too difficult to be done by ourselves, but also because all ministry rests upon God’s external authorization.
Surely you clergy will agree when I say that’s one of the joys of being called by God to be clergy: should laity unfairly criticize our ministry (as laity are wont to do) suggesting that we are inept at ministry, we can reply, “Take it up with the Lord! My being a leader of the church wasn’t my idea!”
If anybody is called to any ministry, whether that of child care, school teaching, preaching, or episcope, it’s a miracle, God’s idea before it was ours.
In 374, when Bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died, there was a row over who would follow him — conservatives battling liberals, fistfights in the streets, name calling. (Sound familiar?) A Milanese lawyer, Ambrose, dropped by the cathedral one morning, just to watch the fight.
“What we need is a good bishop!” some screamed. During the uproar, a little child shouts out, “Ambrose, bishop!”
“Yea, Ambrose bishop!” “Ambrose bishop, Ambrose bishop,” everybody began to chant.
“That’s ridiculous,” muttered Ambrose. “I’m not even baptized. Besides, nolo episcopare, I don’t want to be a bishop.”
Well, the Jurisdictional Conference, I mean mob, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Unbaptized, untrained Ambrose fled the melee and hid out a friend’s house. Under a bed. They dragged him out and in one week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop of Milan. He became one of the greatest bishops of the church, the man who converted Saint Augustine.
I recall the election of Saint Ambrose to the episcopacy, not so you can take pride in our sedate electronic balloting but rather to remind you that you cannot elect a bishop. A call to any ministry is only by the descent of the Holy Spirit. I worry that our belabored, protracted process of vetting, campaigning, and electing bishops could be– like General Conference and any number of paragraphs in the Discipline — an elaborate, but thank God, futile defense against incursions by the Holy Spirit.
The good news is that Christ promises not leave us to our own devices. Whenever two or three, much less this many hundred are gathered, Jesus shows up, disrupts our plans if necessary, gives us ideas we wouldn’t have thought up on our own, and sends just the people we need to lead us where God wants us to go.
After the embarrassment of Bishop Judas, the Holy Spirit led the church to Matthias. Three hundred years later, to a church in turmoil, the Holy Spirit put Ambrose in the mind of the church. Many of you are here today as testimony that the Holy Spirit delights in summoning odd people and assigning them outrageous jobs to do. (I really believe that’s how Patsy and I were fortunate enough to be sent to Alabama.)
I believe the Holy Spirit can do it again this week.
My summons to episcope came not when you elected me, but rather after one of our delegation’s protracted meetings in which we attempted to discern the Holy Spirit’s machinations. In the parking lot afterwards, a member of our delegation (someone I had personally never cared for) said, “I’ve been praying for guidance and frankly, though I’ve tried repeatedly, God is giving me only your name.”
I said, “God has not said that to me,..but I’m listening.”
Her last words to me, before I kicked up gravel and departed, were, “Well, while you are listening for God’s word, remember: sometimes God speaks to preachers like you through laypeople like me. Good bye.”
She was wrong on gays, wrong in much of her biblical interpretation, but she was my teacher in susceptibility to the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Ambrose once wrote that the church is to God as the sun to the moon. We have no light of our own. The church’s light is but our reflection of God’s light, through the Holy Spirit.
I want to beg you to vote for transformative leaders who stress productivity, accountability, and growth – bishops who will not merely manage decline but who will dynamically, courageously lead us forth.
But I won’t do that.
I’ll just ask you to risk openness to the unconstrained machinations of the Holy Spirit. Leadership is Christian to the degree that it emanates from and is instigated by the Holy Spirit.
Church oversight (episcope) requires miraculous assistance. A low point in my episcopacy came when I had to remove two of my DS’s for adultery. I met with my decimated Cabinet on Monday, greeted by their hurt, blank, clueless stares. So I said, “Let us pray.” I prayed the longest time, praying, ‘Lord, help us. We messed up, again. I don’t know which way to turn. I’ve talked to these people and I can tell you, none of them have any good ideas. Please Lord. You love to redeem our mess. Give us a name! Come on Jesus, do that salvific thing you do so well, redeem us!”
When I said, “Amen,” a DS immediately mentioned a pastor I would never have thought of on my own. Then another. We called two amazing pastors to the ministry of oversight, people I learned from and who helped transform our conference.
It was the apex of my episcopacy — and one for which I take no responsibility.
The gesture of ordination is the baptismal act of laying on hands (repeated in consecration of bishops). Laying on of hands signifies that all ministry is too difficult to do alone. Therefore the Holy Spirit is invoked. What you have been called to do in the next few days is too important, too impossible for you to do alone. Therefore, let us pray for miraculous help,
* O Holy Spirit HAMBURG
O Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to create, renew, inspire;
Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.
You are the seeker’s sure recourse,
Of burning love the living source,
Protector in the midst of strife,
The giver and the Lord of life.
In you God’s energy is shown,
To us your varied gifts make known.
Teach us to speak, teach us to hear;
Yours is the tongue and yours the ear.
Flood our dull senses with your light;
In mutual love our hearts unite.
Your power the whole creation fills;
Confirm our weak, uncertain wills.
From inner strife grant us relief;
Turn nations to the ways of peace.
To fuller life your people bring
That as one body we may sing:
Praise to the Father, Christ, his Word,
And to the Spirit: God the Lord,
To whom all honor, glory be
Both now and for eternity.