It occurred to me recently that Jesus has little to do with our current denominational crises (sexuality, authority, polity, theology, etc.). We argue about all of these and more, of course. But Jesus is rarely invoked. Whether this is because Jesus is not particularly relevant to our debates (which I don’t believe is true), or because his life, his Spirit, and his witness are secondary to our ego-driven conniving, it is hard to say. But make no mistake, Jesus is conspicuously absent from our day-to-day conversation in the UMC. If invoked at all, it is either Jesus the one-dimensional revolutionary, or the (equally monochromatic) Jesus the holy celibate, who existed above all temptations. We too quickly trade the Second Person of the Trinity for a usable Christ constructed in our own image(s), and then peddle fool’s gold as if it is precious.
Of course, the problem with this is that without Jesus, the Christian faith – and the church who bears that story – is bankrupt. As John Stott wrote so viscerally,
“The person and work of Christ are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, the foundation is undermined and the whole superstructure will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the centre of Christianity; all else is circumference.” (Basic Christianity, 21)
In contemporary United Methodism, we spend most of our time playing around in the circumference, and little time sitting at the feet of Christ.
No doubt, many will say this is all an obvious and overly pious dodge – so simplistic it is almost foolhardy. But absent a refocusing on the One who truly matters, the circumference will continue to dominate our energy, attention, and resources. Such a church will be many things – many of them good, beautiful, and just – but it will not be a church of the living Christ. It will be a husk, a shadow, a corpse of a thing incapable of being neither salt nor light. I pray this is not our future; but many of the loudest voices in our church seem satisfied with nothing less, either in the name of ‘scriptural’ fidelity or ‘biblical’ obedience.
Like the Greeks who approached Philip wanting only one thing, I believe the UMC has only one real need, despite our sea of petitions, conversations, and threats: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21b)
Will we recover “the one thing needful?” Only time will tell.