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A reflection on what it means to be United Methodist in the Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

By Rev. Beth Rambikur
Matthew 16:15b

“But who do you say that I am?” When Jesus asks this question in Matthew 16 it comes in the midst of anxious conversations about the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the world. The Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from heaven, the disciples lament their lack of resources and failure to plan ahead, and all parties are afraid of what the future holds. It is a chapter that cuts to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus Christ and it speaks to any who stand upon the crossroads of change. In this passage, Jesus calls his followers to remember that identity is shaped by practicing and participating in a faith rooted in the proclamation “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” I believe that this story offers a powerful reminder to the disciples of Christ who practice as United Methodists as we live into the denominational question of: “what does it mean to be United Methodist?”

This week we begin a walk toward the 2019 Special Session of General Conference that will challenge United Methodists around the world to wrestle with questions like:

  • What does it mean to follow Jesus in The United Methodist Church?
  • What is the purpose of our polity in the practice of our faith?
  • What does faithful discipleship look like in the United Methodist Church?
  • What does it mean to participate in a global denomination?

And, in each of these questions lives Jesus own question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter was the only one to speak an answer to this question in this gospel, yet each disciple has their own answer, and each answer ultimately leads them to the final task Jesus sets for his followers as they wrestle with their own questions, doubt, and as they worship together at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Regardless of how the disciples answer Jesus’ question the task of the church remains the same.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)

As the director of connectional ministries for the Desert Southwest Conference, I have the privilege of sitting at the convergence point of our local, district, conference, jurisdictional, and global ministry efforts as a denomination. From this point of view, I can see how our 130 ministry settings across Arizona, the southeastern tip of California, and southern Nevada are offering transformational ministry in our small corner of the globe, and how these efforts impact our global ministry as a denomination. In every church in our Conference, people are meeting Jesus, wrestling with this question “Who do you say that I am,” and practicing faith as a courageous people teaching our communities to love like Jesus, act for justice, and be united in hope. Our denominational conversation about how we practice United Methodism does not change the reality of our transformational ministries happening right now. We may be calling for a sign from the 2019 General Conference to clarify who we are or lamenting our lack of resources and failures like the disciples when Jesus speaks of yeast, but in the midst of our fears and demands comes Jesus’ own blessing, “Blessed are you” because you had the courage to answer my question and say who you believe I am with your lives and your ministries.

I offer all this because, just as the disciples struggled to understand who Jesus was and what he was doing especially in that anxious time leading up to Jerusalem where broken expectations and assumptions forever changed the relationship of the disciples to each other and Jesus, it will be easy for us to let our own expectations and assumptions change our relationships with each other as we prepare for General Conference 2019. So let us remember that our shared Wesleyan practice begins with three general rules: do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend to God’s grace every chance you get. Regardless of the shape of our polity, our vital practices have always been prayer, searching scripture, preaching and teaching, fellowship through the Lord’s Supper, and worship. Every one of our churches around the globe is offering places and spaces for God’s grace to transform people’s lives.

In the coming weeks the Connectional Ministries office will be inviting us to worship and prayer practices that remind us of our global connection and offer us a chance to pray for one another in the “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative sponsored by the General Church. In the fall, Bishop Bob will lead a series of district Holy Huddles to discuss the Way Forward and General Conference 2019. The delegates to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference will seek our thoughts and offer reflections of their own. But most importantly, we will continue to give God our best in our ministry together as we live out our answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

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