1 John 4: 1-12
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
It is hard sometimes to find a history of the Evangelical United Brethren. Outside of devoted people like our Anna Jeane, it seems that people just did not sit down and record the history of denomination in the same way Methodists did. It does not help of course that the United Methodist Church has existed in the digital age, while the EUB merged with the Methodists in ’68. Still, to know the full history of the EUB takes some time, and I do not think that I could possibly do it real justice from the few weeks of research I was afforded in putting this series together.
Still, we can talk about the faith that inspired some faithful people years ago to build a Church on 19th and Pride, and to last through several mergers since then. We start back at the dawn of a new nation, the United States of America, and a German immigrant living first in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then in Baltimore, Maryland. His name was Philip Otterbein, and he had a story to tell the nations about salvation and the power of community.
Born to a clergy family, Philip was raised with some expectation he would continue the work his family had begun. He attended seminary and became a minister in the Pennsylvania colony. He was not a particularly good speaker, but claimed that God opened his mouth one day as he was plowing a field. Whatever that religious experience consisted of, this seminary graduate could now call himself a preacher, and preach he did. His work brought him into contact with a Mennonite in the area, Martin Boehm, and he eventually moved from German Reform churches to Mennonite Churches where he became a Bishop.
Otterbein was closely tied to Methodists in his work, especially when he came to Baltimore. He eventually organized societies based off of the Methodist model and began to take on a form of ministry betwixt and between German Pietism and Anglican Methodism. This culminated in the formation of the United Brethren in Christ. This group modeled itself after the Methodist Church, adopting their governing structure as soon as German editions of the Book of Discipline were available. Ottebein himself never saw this church form, being a member of the Evangelical Reformed Church till he died. Yet, the work he did at his church, now called Old Otterbein – just down from Camden yards in Baltimore, set the stage for the Brethren to flourish.
The Brethren changed their constitution and liturgy up a few times over their existence, but unlike Methodism which saw many shifts in power and agency, the Brethren remained largely static. Unlike Methodism, they never stopped being abolitionists, standing firm by their beliefs that all people were of value, they fought against slavery as long as it persisted. This eventually led to the expulsion of all slave-holders in the Church, something that kept them from growing in the South but that secured their authentic obedience to Christ as advocates for all people. They did experience one major schism over the organization of the Church, but again this was mainly an issue of polity.
The Brethren would join with the Evangelical Association in 1946. The Evangelical Association was founded in the same year that the Brethren came to be. They believed much the same things that Methodists and Brethren did but were not necessarily an offshoot of either one. The resulting merger of the two churches would form the Evangelical United Brethren, the church some of the people in this room may remember well, and that we are using the liturgy of today. The Evangelical United Brethren was a short-lived denomination before its merger into the Methodist Church and the formation of the United Methodist Church that we know and love today.
I was expecting when I set out to put this month of services together that somewhere along the line I would find some major differences between the churches that make up United Methodism. Surprisingly, there was very little differences on paper. They all had Bishops and super-intendents that kept things running, they all appointed ministers and lay preachers. They all believed that we chose to follow God and that faith alone saved us. Even our communion liturgy kept being nearly identical. Our origins may be different, but at the root of all churches that came to be the UMC, there was a devotion to God, to one another, and to study of scripture and prayer.
The Brethren showed something that we could learn from today, and that was the power of consistency. The Brethren were able to flourish in the way they did because they never stopped acknowledging that all people had their place in the Kingdom of God. While the Methodist movement kept hitting the roadblocks of slavery and segregation, the EUB kept largely united in its fight for human rights. While Methodism shattered time and time again, forming Free Methodists, Methodist Protestants, Pentecostals, and so many others, the EUB only split once en masse and that was over whether lay people should be able to vote at conference.
Now, I do not think it would be fair to look at the present lack of evidence pointing to issues within the EUB and then say there were none. I doubt that they carried the torch of their high calling perfectly through all their years as a Church, and I know the people in the pews had plenty of failures because I was raised up among people who were raised up as EUB and they were far from perfect. Instead, what I hope to suggest is that while the EUB faced their own problems, they were not the same problems that led to schism in the Methodist theological tradition. They maintained a unity the other could not because they were willing to stand up for the least of these no matter what other people might have pushed them to do.
We’ve been looking at the book of 1 John as we’ve been looking at our history. Admittedly, these sermons have been less exegetical than my usual ones because we are talking about so much history. Yet, there are two reasons I chose 1 John. Firstly, it was John Wesley’s most quoted book of scripture, the one he claimed as his favorite. Secondly, it is a letter from an elder of the Church to a congregation he loves in a time of trouble.
The issue at hand seemed to be a disagreement about the nature of Christ’s incarnation. Was Jesus flesh and blood? Or was Jesus an incorporeal Spirit? Now, there was a right answer to this question in a way our modern issues are not quite as black and white. Jesus was flesh and blood, and was also the eternal Son of God, that could not be debated. In the midst of this trouble, it would be easy for the author to come up with a thousand different criteria and tests to show who was in and out in the Church. Instead, he came up with two – do they proclaim Christ in the flesh? And do they love one another?
I get frustrated sometimes looking at the state of the Church because we have invented a thousand different ways of defining a Christian. Christians look this way, they speak this way, they vote this way, the do any number of things in very specific ways. This comes out of a place of insecurity on our part. We are not willing to challenge our own views or ways of being, and so when a Christian comes to us praying differently or differing in one or another belief, our first instinct is to say that they aren’t really Christian or that they’re doing this Christianity thing wrong. Sometimes this is slight, our little complaints about how other churches are doing things. Other times they are major, the hundreds of years of conflict between Protestants and Catholics over how we worship the same Risen Lord.
Personally, these are my definitions of Christianity. Do they proclaim Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and that he lived a human life and died a human death and then rose again? Do they love those around them with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their strength? Those are the only two I really care about, and differences that arise within those bound need to be worked on case by case.
I have friends who are reformed, who believe that God appoints who is saved and who is not. I disagree with them and find that vision of God’s to be something I cannot hold to. But they are still Christians and I still see them as siblings. I love the liturgy and reverence of the Catholic Church for all the ordinances of God, but I cannot abide their refusal to ordain women. Still I see them as Christians, and as Siblings in Christ. I do not condone the shattering of a Church and the refusal to acknowledge the call of God upon all people regardless of who they love and how they were born, and yet the Global Methodist Church is still an association of Christians and my siblings in Christ.
I believe that the way we can continue on, as a singular Church and as a denomination, is not it creating more stringent guidelines for who is and is not part of us. Instead, it is in a more discerning attitude toward the teachings we accept. There are many pop preachers out there who get in pulpits every Sunday and tell their congregation who to be afraid of or angry at or who is tearing down the fabric of society that week. I can’t do that. I think instead that we must take every teaching in our hands and ask ourselves, “Do I proclaim a risen Christ in believing this?” If so we take up the next line of thought, “Do I love my neighbor better by believing this?” If we answer one, but not the other, than it is not a true teaching from God.
Is that an easy calling? No, not at all. Yet, it is a better litmus test than any other for plumbing the depths of our hearts. We understand who Christ is and what Christ is doing, not through cutting off all dissidents, but by collecting all siblings. We are the Church together, and if we are only ever worried about running away to be with people who are like us, then we will never know the blessedness of, to be obnoxious for a moment, being United Brethren. – Amen.