Many of us are reading through Luke and Acts in this calendar year (2014). In my own devotional life I am reading a chapter each week. As I read Luke 20 a couple of weeks ago, I kept returning to the parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard (20:9-19). The vineyard is a traditional term for Israel, and the language of “beloved son” resonates with Jesus at his baptism (Luke 3) and transfiguration (Luke 9). The rejection of the cornerstone, from the text itself, is clearly a teaching that places Jesus in conflict with the religious authorities. While it is important that Christians not read this passage in an anti-Jewish way, at its origin its meaning was related to Israel’s acceptance of the Messiah; it is also clear that this parable came to be interpreted in light of the church as the vineyard, and the return of Christ as judge. I believe it is often true that biblical passages have more than one interpretation.
The context is also important. Having just returned from Israel in May, I am conscious that Jesus has entered the city (Palm Sunday) and cleansed the temple. The teaching is taking on an increased sense of urgency, and he is in dialogue with other rabbinical and philosophical schools. As Luke Timothy Johnson argues, the question is whether we accept Jesus as the embodiment of God’s prophetic vision. To reject the cornerstone (Hebrew: eben) is to reject the son (Hebrew: ben). Thus Jesus laments over Jerusalem (Luke 20:42) and weeps over it, recalling the life of an earlier prophet, Jeremiah.
I have reflected on the parable as a lesson about stewardship: the land is not ours, the church is not ours, the episcopacy is not mine, we simply labor here, for a season, until the time when we give an account. Within the text there is a focus on fruitfulness, and respect for the beloved son (20:13), and our human tendency to claim all of this as our own property (to be autonomous). The result is that the vineyard is given to others. God is never without a witness.
There is significant conversation at the moment, in the secular media, in the church’s media, and in the social media about schism, division and unity. I want to offer a perspective that is not often stated: unity is not our goal. Unity is a by-product experienced by those who are devoted to the mission of being faithful and fruitful disciples in the vineyard. Many of our sister mainline denominations no longer have issues with unity, because they have become smaller and more homogeneous (like-minded) groups.
In the words of the epiclesis, the prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Eucharist, we pray:
Make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
one in ministry to all the world.
At a time when division, schism and unity are common topics, I invite us to pray for a transformation that is beyond our human capacity or imagination:
- That our lives would be more Christ-centered
- That our unity would be rooted in him and not in our natural sympathies, political convictions or tribal affiliations
- That the energy channeled internally toward division would be released externally in the world to which we are sent.
The Holy Spirit is not constrained by our unfaithfulness. As the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin commented,
“The Holy Spirit…always goes before the church in its missionary journey.”
If we are not faithful and obedient to the Holy Spirit, God will give the vineyard to others. We are called, in John the Baptist’s challenge to bear fruit “worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8), or appropriate to our conversion.
I find this a sobering challenge to leaders. It calls me to take seriously my accountability to the calling, and to try to work in such a way that my part of God’s kingdom honors the Lord’s intentions, and, by his grace, that it is fruitful.
Accountability is a critical matter of concern in the present moment. In our United Methodist Church, Bishops have made promises to order the life of the church through guarding the faith, seeking unity, exercising the Discipline and supporting the mission of the church. I recall making this particular promise at Lake Junaluska in July, 2012, when I was consecrated (set apart for the work) as a bishop, and at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland in September, 2012, at the service of Installation here in Florida.
I want to say clearly, to the clergy of the Florida Conference, that I sense an accountability to these promises and a renewed energy to remain in this calling. I remind myself of these vows because we will soon ordain a new class of deacons and elders, who will make their own promises to Christ and his church. We gather, in this place, to bear witness to the journeys of these men and women, to offer our support and, yes, to offer our accountability. And I am not asking you, my brothers and sisters, to do anything that I am not willing to do myself. I hope you will join me in this rededication.
When I served as a pastor of a local church, I took seriously my working relationship with the pastor-parish relations committee. Along the way I came across a simple insight: we flourish (grow, mature) when there is an appropriate balance between support and accountability. When the balance is too far in the direction of support, the clergy senses affirmation, but the mission suffers. When the balance is too far in the direction of accountability, the clergy experiences burnout, and leadership cannot be sustained. The visible sign of the former is often a long pastorate where the church is on a plateau or in decline. The visible sign of the latter is often a series of short term pastorates in a particular congregation.
A healthy balance of support (grace) and accountability (holiness) produces a particular kind of soil, namely one that often bears fruit. The fruitfulness is the outward and visible sign of our mission—“to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.” We are accountable to this mission. We do get distracted, and our human tendency is to avoid accountability. One of the ways we avoid accountability is to obsess about holding others accountable! In this parable, we are reminded that the Lord will return to hold us accountable, and the question will be how we have cultivated our plot of the vineyard. Is it alive? Does it glorify God? Does it produce an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger? Are we making new, younger, more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ?
Historically, Methodists in America experienced support and accountability through conferences. These included quarterly (local church) conferences, annual conferences and general conferences. In his study of these conferences, the historian Russ Richey has noted three ideals: polity, fraternity (I would use the term collegiality) and revival. These ideals are in tension with each other, and yet I would submit that they also contribute to an increased sense of support and accountability.
The quarterly conference transitioned over time to the charge conference. This annual event, led by a superintendent or an authorized elder, is for the purpose of connecting the local church to the annual conference and the denomination. Historically, its roots were in the revival movement of our country.
The annual conference began as a gathering of preachers. Over time this was expanded to include lay representation and today clergy whose ministries take other forms. The annual conference was and is largely focused on collegiality: for many it is a meaningful reunion of friends and colleagues, and this is expressed in the traditional question posed by the Wesley hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive?”
The general conference had its origin in the conferences led by John Wesley himself, which produced minutes of conversations. These minutes morphed into a book of doctrine and discipline, and this book has grown, over 200 years, into a highly complex legal manual filled with rights and responsibilities (for example, there are over 4700 “shalls” in the Book of Discipline). The general conference’s primary focus is on polity; how our life as a denomination is governed, and how we live as a connectional church in accountable relationships with one another.
The basic premise of a Christian conference is that we need relationships with one another. This is Wesley’s actual definition of social holiness: surrounding ourselves with covenantal relationships and practices that contribute to the increase of our love of God and neighbor. My hope and prayer for our Florida Annual Conference is that we will undertake the work of polity, enjoy the friendship and fellowship of colleagues, and experience revival through the power of the Holy Spirit. But, as with the earliest Methodist conferences, this will all be for a greater purpose: to be engaged in the mission of God. And what is the mission of God? Could it be the work the Lord has given us to do on this earth, which again is related to our common work together in our own plot of the vineyard? And could the significance of this labor be related to a few critical questions that are linked to the mission in our congregations and communities: Is it alive? Does it glorify God? Does it produce an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger? Are we making new, younger, more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ?
For the mainline church in the United States, and the United Methodist Church in particular, this is our primary task. This is the urgent and imperative missionary calling to the church and the clergy and lay leaders of the Florida Conference. And it is the daily labor that we undertake, to be sure, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit, and remembering the words of Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3). In this way, in an itinerant ministry, all of our labors are related to each other.
So let us pray for a church that is alive, that glorifies God, that produces an abundant harvest that blesses friend and stranger, that makes new, younger and more diverse disciples of Jesus Christ.
David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret.
Russell Richey, The Methodist Conference in America: A History.
Lovett Weems, Ten Provocative Questions for the United Methodist Church.