By Steve Beard
“We begin, not with business and legislation — as important as these are — but with a fresh emphasis on Jesus Christ for all our living,” said Bishop James S. Thomas as he launched into the Episcopal Address of the 1976 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. “It is he who calls us into being and gives meaning to whatever we do here. Plainly, we are here to recognize and respond to his Lordship, to plan for his mission in the world, and to divide the labor and pass the legislation that will be consistent with such discipleship.”
Forty years ago, Bishop Thomas (1919-2010) was widely known as a venerable statesman, beloved civil rights leader, and champion of dismantling the insidious racial barriers within United Methodism. As the denomination returns to Portland for General Conference, it is fitting to remember his prophetic role and revisit his clarion call to the centrality of Jesus Christ.
“Christ calls us to wholeness in mission and ministry. We are not here to choose various themes that will rove over the landscape looking for a place to center down. Jesus Christ is the center, and his ministry in the world is what we are about. No disjointed series of brilliant flashes here or there can substitute for him,” Thomas told the General Conference delegates. “In this Christ-center, we will both frame and express our special ministries, whatever may be their name. By him we are defined and to him we are — each and all — accountable.”
In the 6,200 word Episcopal Address, Thomas touched on numerous subjects facing the church and society. With each issue, Bishop Thomas pointed back to Jesus as the compass for our direction.
From uncertainty to vitality: “Our major task is to proclaim the message of Christ’s redeeming love so clearly, and demonstrate it so joyously, that we will move from uncertainty to vitality. … Let us affirm that God is real, Christ is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is present; and let us be sure of the faith that is in us. … Christ is never met adequately by an argument over differences.”
Crisis of faith: “There is no deeper crisis, either within or without the Church, than the crisis of faith. Contrary to the views of some religious people, this is not a crisis of unbelief. There is abundant evidence that the human population is given to a plethora of beliefs, probably in desperation to find a place on which to stand.… The depth of the faith crisis is not a pluralism in beliefs; this we have always had. It is the grave identity crisis of Christians, many of whom do not know what they believe or why. … The faith crisis comes at the point of a naive belief in the sufficiency of our own technologies to meet deep inner needs that they can never reach.”
Cherishing faith: “For us as United Methodists, the crisis can become even deeper. We do not believe now — and we never have — in rigid doctrinal concepts to hold us steady in a wavering world. This is a virtue, we think. But there is no deeper peril than that of taking to the high seas in a ship whose structure we do not know and whose capacity we are afraid to test. We need to know and cherish the faith that is in us.”
World hunger: “What we, above all other institutions, are called upon to share is what the world needs supremely — a vibrant and intelligent faith in the Christ who ministered to the physical hungers of people who came to him when their spiritual hungers prompted them to neglect physical hungers.”
Human equality and justice: “Let it be admitted that much social action on the part of the church has often lacked deep biblical and theological roots.… The avoidance of our faith foundations, either for reasons of pietism or activism, is clearly not what we are here to affirm.… Persons of faith cannot keep their own motivations clear unless they are constantly under the light of God’s holiness, or wholeness, as he is known to us in Christ. Between an emphasis upon personal salvation and one upon systemic reformation, there should be no real choice.”
Criminal justice: “What concerns us primarily are not the statistics of crime, tragic as these are. Our primary concerns are the human beings behind the statistics: the victims, the prisoners, the judges and the juries, the society out of which crime grows and on which it preys.… Our witness must be seen under the loving judgment of Christ who included prisoners in his chief ministerial concerns.”
Experience, reason, and tradition: “Instead of rigid doctrinal outlines, we have a faith rooted in a heritage of scriptural commitment…. Beyond a religion of correct but cold concepts, we have a heritage of experience. … Instead of unrelieved emotion and sentiment, our heritage calls us to a clear commitment to reason. But there is a vast difference between arid intellectualism and loving God with all the mind. Beyond the regular pendulum-swings of history, our heritage calls us to a commitment to tradition.”
Evangelism: “Evangelism is not a method or a function of the Church to be assigned to one board or a division of a board. It is the heart of Christian self-definition, the fundamental reason why we exist as Christians. It is — or should be — pervasive, not occasional; permeative, not segmental. It should go along with the job as it did, in consuming fashion, for Francis Asbury, John Seybert, and Christian Newcomer.… It is conversion, without long debates as to whether it is step-by-step or instantaneous.… The Christian community would be much advanced if we could recognize that evangelism is not so much the fighting of a battle as it is the sharing of a faith.”
Enkindling flame: “It is our business in this session to provide ways by which evangelism will become the chief concern of this quadrennium and lead to new evangelistic growth in the future. … It means that we will see evangelism as a continuing expression of the total life and definition of this part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is an expression of our total Christian witness that we would not avoid even if we could.… Whatever our human methods may be, it is good to remember that the Holy Spirit is the major actor in bringing people to Christ. Evangelism will not occur, either by direction or indirection, unless there is a deep commitment to let method follow the enkindling flame of the Good News.”
Our task: “The task of the ministry, clergy and lay, is to lead inactive members to become active; idle and passive Christians to be alive, with a workable and working faith. … We think and act on the assumption that all our members are precious persons for whom Christ died and who need the nurturing ministries of the Church. Winning persons to Christ is not a mere afterthought.”
Bishop Thomas reminded the delegates that our “God is moving decisively into the future. Indeed, he is well ahead of any utopian future of which we can possibly dream. It is our business to be where God calls us, however far or hard that seems to be. We desperately need a deep and unashamed passion for the kingship of Christ in all the structures of life.”
In the midst of the great challenges faced in his era, Bishop Thomas leaned upon and appealed to Jesus Christ as our compass. We would do well to follow his lead. “There is no time like the present to commit ourselves to following God into the future with faith, prayerfully believing that our church, under God, can do even greater things than we ever dared to attempt before.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.