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May 2, 2000         GC-004

Bishops urge United Methodists to new vision of discipleship

CLEVELAND (UMNS) – The bishops of the United Methodist Church have issued a fresh challenge to the denomination to make disciples for Christ in the new millennium.

“Your bishops believe that the making of people as disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, and forming them into a community of discipleship, is the most radically significant event that can happen to humanity and to the world,” said Bishop Emerito P. Nacpil of the Manila Area, speaking on behalf of the church’s Council of Bishops.

Nacpil presented the traditional Episcopal Address on May 2, the opening day of the denomination’s General Conference. He is the first United Methodist bishop living outside the United States to deliver the address to the assembly. Nacpil has led the Manila Area in the Philippines since being elected bishop in 1980.

General Conference, the lawmaking body of the United Methodist Church, is convened every four years. It is meeting through May 12 at the Cleveland Convention Center, with 992 delegates and about 1,000 other guests and visitors from around the world.

The Episcopal Address is the only point during General Conference in which the bishops address the assembly. While they preside over some sessions and participate in worship services, the bishops are silent during the business proceedings and have no vote.

The bishops’ 14-page address, “Discipleship at the Turn of the Ages,” sounded at times as academic as its title. However, Nacpil drew on real-life problems as he described the urgent need for sharing the Gospel with a hurting world.

“Slavery and apartheid have been outlawed, but racism and ethnic cleansing are still with us – and we must rid the world of these demons,” he said. “Colonialism and totalitarianism are no longer politically viable options for us, but we still use power to dominate, violate and oppress, instead of to liberate, to enable and to let be.”

The bishops called on the denomination to join in working “on the side of the redemptive against the demonic.”

“The direction in which to move is clear,” Nacpil said. “It is to abandon the ways of the old order and follow the new way of discipleship.”

He raised questions about what kind of community can be formed today, and how. “Should our congregations and conferences remain open to struggle for a more inclusive community, or should we adopt a polity that organizes congregations and conferences based on race, nationality and culture?

“Your bishops believe that our polity should remain open for more inclusive fellowship – sexually, racially, culturally and globally. Will you join us in this affirmation?”

The bishops said the norm for Christian faith and practice “is faithfulness to the Gospel and not worldly success, and we must continue working for a more righteous global social order even if we suffer for it in the struggle.”

Nacpil described the current age as an evil one, “in which hope is an illusion coming out of a Pandora’s Box. All around us, there’s evidence that this world is passing away into its own destruction,” he said.

“Giving the world a sure hope for a new future ... is a difference which discipleship makes,” he said. The vision of the new hope is “the perfection of love in the world as God’s love,” he said.

He cited the Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty and the “Hope for the Children of Africa” appeal as examples of love expressed in deed. “This initiative and its appeal must now be extended globally and become an expression of the global mission of our church.”

Discipleship involves sharing the Gospel with the world, and the bishops asked the delegates to join them in that mission. “It is precisely the Gospel which the world sorely needs and must appropriate in faith, hope and love if it is to be saved from perdition – none other,” Nacpil said.

Being in mission to the world entails “discipleship suffering,” which Nacpil said is inescapable. “This is the suffering of self-denial for the sake of the Gospel.”

Nacpil described how the early Protestant missionaries bore sickness and difficult living conditions to spread the Gospel in his country. “Because they shared in the suffering of Christ, Protestant Christianity is flourishing today in the Philippines.”

While membership in the United Methodist Church has been declining in the United States, it is on the rise in the Philippines and other parts of the world.

Nacpil described discipleship as “the only alternative lifestyle in the world that has a future in the kingdom of God.”

“If the lifestyle of Christian existence is so similar to, and can be confused with, the prevailing lifestyle of a culture, then discipleship has lost its ‘saltiness’ and is good for nothing,” Nacpil said. “This is the danger faced by Christian discipleship in Western culture, especially in United Methodism, which is too closely identified with the mainstream of American culture.”

However, he noted that Christianity also runs the risk of no longer giving light if it is so different from the ways of the culture “and is regarded as an intolerable ‘alien.’” “This is the peril faced by Christian discipleship in cultures shaped and dominated by religions other than Christianity,” he said.

Nacpil named three factors as essential to the lifestyle of Christian discipleship: renouncing sin and evil; dealing with the world but not taking it as an “ultimate concern”; and “claiming all things in Christ for God.”

He related discipleship to the apostle Paul’s concept of “faith working through love,” and explored how love makes a difference in terms of freedom, justice and community.

“The right way to express love is to freely and actively do the good that benefits another,” he said. “This requires more than merely respecting the other’s rights. It demands more than simply pursuing one’s own good in one’s own way. It demands doing the good that overcomes evil and so leads to freedom.”

Justice, he said, “is the form of love in ordering community.” A community is ordered well by justice in the form of right relationships. That is what love seeks to achieve, Nacpil said. “Love does this when it establishes right relations, respects rights, motivates good deeds and right action, legislates just laws, produces and distributes good and services fairly ... and promotes the values, processes and structures that make for wholeness and community.”

He held up for the delegates the ideal of the “community of love,” a community that is not only free and just but also all-inclusive. The bishops “suggest that we must now include the genuinely different as an essential factor in a more-inclusive community.”

“There are many forms of genuine difference that we must take into account, such as sexuality, race, ethnicity, culture, ideology,” Nacpil said. “We must acknowledge the real difference they represent and include them in a more inclusive community.”

As a community in discipleship, the church embodies God’s grace “and so it is the means of grace in the world,” the bishop concluded. “Is it any wonder then that the making of disciples is our mission? If so, let us get on with it.”

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-- Tim Tanton

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