This past Sunday I did my trial service in kwaNobuhle, a township just outside Uitenhage. Each probationer minister is required to do one such service as part of the academic requirements to be submitted to Synod.
My message was based on Psalm 133: 1, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity", which was quite apt coming, as it did, three days before South Africa's fourth democratic general election.
I reflected on some of the acts of unity that we as a Methodist Church have demonstrated over the years. For instance, it was as far back as 1958 that the Conference of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa took a landmark decision, in the face of draconian pressure from the apartheid government to segregate its structures, that “… it is the will of God that the Methodist Church remain one and undivided”.
This pledge of unity was reaffirmed at a gathering of Methodists in 1981. In what became known as the Message of Obedience ’81, the delegates stated that “… every Methodist must witness against this disease [referring to apartheid] which infects our people, our church and our country. We have experienced how hard it is to abandon long-held prejudice and long-felt bitterness, but we have seen God work this miracle. It happened because we continued to search for each other even at our times of deepest division. We now declare to all South Africans that there is a third way, where people, who have discovered their love for each other, translate it into justice for all.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming elections, I also reflected on that historic first election just 15 years ago, when the world witnessed the birth of the miracle that is the New South Africa, as for the first time ever in this country’s history, black, white, and every colour in between stood together in line on an equal basis to elect their leaders. I’ll never forget the unbelievable goodwill that was shown, as we stood patiently in line to cast our vote. On that particular day there were no domestic servants or doctors. No women or men. We were not European or African, Xhosa or Afrikaans, ANC or NP. Young or old, it didn’t matter. On that day, the 27th of April 1994, we were all, simply, South Africans.
There were other examples of unity demonstrated over the years - in particular, the outpouring of generosity in response to the brutal attacks on foreigners last year. When Bishop Paul Verryn put out the call to Methodist Churches to provide assistance, little did we realise that we would be working with organisations as diverse as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Frontiers, and the Human Rights Commission, not to mention Christians from every church imaginable from Anglican to Zionist. At one stage I even received a call from the Johannesburg Muslim Charitable Association. Don’t ask me how they got my number, but someone told them that there’s “a guy from the Methodist Church with a bakkie”, and they contacted me to let me know that they could give me as much tinned food as I could carry. A Hindu family filled me up with baby food, disposable nappies, and toilet rolls. Bedfordview Methodist Church had their entire hall piled from floor to ceiling with donated items – clothes, food, you name it – for three weeks solid. Just as fast as we were distributing items to those in need, so more kept coming in.
Sadly, there are just as many instances where we display our complete lack of unity - even today. Some of my fellow Phase Ones have experienced the most humiating experiences, perpetrated within our very own church! One colleague is stationed in a very remote area - the Superintendent of his Circuit is based about 100km away. The church at which he is stationed is attended by farm workers, the majority of whom happen to be black. Four hundred metres away is another church, attended by the farm owners, all of whom are white. This church does not have a minister, only a lay pastoral assistant. However, my colleague cannot serve the Lord’s Supper in the “white” church, because the congregants refuse to receive Communion from a black minister.
Another colleague - a lady minister - also has a problem when it comes to serving communion. As probationers we are taught the words of institution, where the apostle Paul says that “for I have received from the Lord that which I have given to you”, and it is therefore normal for us to serve by taking the bread or the wafer from the plate and placing it in your outstretched hands. In this poor lady’s case, it’s considered “improper” for a man to receive Communion from a woman, so she is subjected to the humiliation of having to hold out the plate so that Mr. Macho Man can take his own Communion! I wonder to what extent he examined himself, as directed by the Apostle Paul, before presenting himself at the Lord's Table?
Isn't it funny how we can read the passage in Luke 10: 25-27, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.”, yet ignore the true meaning thereof? We don’t have a problem with loving the Lord our God – or at least, we don’t think that we have a problem loving God. But we expose our lack of love for God by the way in which we show a lack of love for one another.
We say the words of the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Yet we don’t forgive. We hold grudges against each other for years – decades, even. And then we have the audacity to expect God’s forgiveness. But we’ve just asked God to forgive us with the same measure that we are prepared to forgive others. Our lack of fellowship with one another is cutting us off from fellowship with God – ironically, exactly in line with what we have prayed! Perhaps we will think a little bit more about what we are saying, next time we pray the Lord’s Prayer?
We need to realise that there’s a hurting world out there that is crying out for love. People need a place where they can belong, and feel loved and accepted. Where they won’t be discriminated against or looked down upon because they are poor, or a different colour, or old, or young, or speak a different language, or are gay, or divorced, or are HIV-positive. Where whatever need they have can never surpass the love of Christ, as shown through His people. Where they can feel “how good, and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity”.
The question is, is that place in our churches?
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