By Allison Trussell
GREENVILLE—With the last four lines of the Apostles’ Creed as their foundation, the Revs. Susan and Gregory Jones presented four days of Bible Study at the 2019 Annual Conference.
Gregory Jones is the Dean of Duke Divinity School, and Susan Jones is the ministry associate for Church Transformation Ministries of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. The two alternated presentations Monday through Wednesday and both presented on Thursday.
Monday, Greg Jones explored “the Communion of Saints” with a discussion on the Book of Numbers, chapters 10-21. The Israelites are wandering and beginning to wonder if there’s a future for them. They’re beginning to complain and wondering if they weren’t better off heading back to Egypt, he said.
“Everyone has a ‘back-to-Egypt’ part of our soul. … When the Israelites want to go back, they suffer a death of the imagination. A death of the imagination is worse than physical death; we get stuck and we’d rather have the suffering we know than the fear of moving forward.”
But, Jones said, the antidote is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that is the vision ofnew creation. It’s challenging because we tend to get caught up in the how and lose sight of the why. “We’re called to bear witness and to be swept up in the power of the holy spirit.”
The saints of the past and those who are still with us have stories to tell and witness to bear that tell of the work of God. Jones recalled meeting the survivors of the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania. “Even amid horrific suffering, they engaged in reconciliation with the shooter’s mother and children. … We marveled at their faith.”
The communion of saints are the stories we tell. … It’s not just the dramatic stories, but also the day to day stories of everyday happenings. “We are beneficiaries of those that went before us, of those who made sure the buildings were built and the candles were lit. … Are we spending our time in committees planning on returning to Egypt or are we filling our time with patterns of discipleship and devotion?”
Tuesday’s focus was on the forgiveness of sins and led by Susan Jones. “Forgiveness,” she said is a conduit of hope and allows us to have a future with hope.”
She told the story of an opioid addict who decided to rob a bank for a second time (he got away the first time). He was caught and sent to jail. There he had time to think, reflect and pray. Although he’d grown up in the United Methodist Church, he didn’t have the ears to hear. While in prison, he felt hope well up inside him. Since then, Charles has been released, has reconciled with his children and is in his fourth year as a pastor at Duke Divinity School. He’ll graduate and become a full-time pastor next May. “That’s what God’s forgiveness can do.”
Jones reflected on the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. When criticized by Simon, Jesus responds by holding up the woman as an example of great love and hospitality. The forgiveness he offers to the woman and to us has a powerful effect. Her need for forgiveness and grace comes before the letter of the law.
“We need people in our lives to be models who can challenge and encourage us—Holy friends,” Jones said. Holy friends challenge sins we have come to love, affirm gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t imagine. … We need people who represent Jesus to us and who embody Christ for us. Someone to love (communion of saints and holy friends); something meaningful to do; and something to believe in. When Jesus is asked the greatest of all commandments, he says these three things. … These three things cultivates community creating forgiveness and creates a new future with hope.
Greg Jones returned on Wednesday to study the resurrection of the body. How is it that Christianity went from 500 people in the year 50 to 50,000 a short time later? he asked. The answer was the surprise of the resurrection of the body. The first hospital was created by Christians because of the power of the resurrection. Those early Christians reached out to those who were sick, to those who couldn’t find a cure. The power of the resurrection created Christian faith.
“Too often Christians are known for what they don’t like rather than what they are about. But the power of the resurrection is the heart of Methodism. … The Methodist Movement was a vision of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives, unlearning sin, a discovery of a future of hope not because of what we are but of whose we are,” Jones said. He traced the institutions founded in the Methodist name from the Foundry in London to Epworth, Claflin, Wofford, Columbia College here in South Carolina. “When we believe, we created institutions and renewed them. (We did this) So much so that people are surprised when we aren’t doing more.”
The power of the resurrection is the reason Paul follows Christ. It allows a fundamental new reality to see everything differently, even our brothers and sisters from whom we are estranged and be in awe of their new creations. “This power of reconciliation has been given to all of us. That is, in Christ, God reconciles the world to himself and trust the message of that to us. … The only way we bear witness is if we’re willing to cultivate unlikely friendships and work with ‘those’ people,” Jones said. The heart of Methodism is the bear witness to yesterday, tomorrow and especially today.
The Bible study ended with the life everlasting led by both Joneses. Susan Jones stated that life everlasting isn’t something in the future, but begins right here on Earth. 1 Timothy 6 tells us “We need to claim how rich we already are because we have a God who richly provides us with good works. When we have good works and are ready to be generous and share, we are ready to take hold of life that is really life!”
Recalling Tuesday’s lesson of holy friends, she said that one way of being a blessing to the world is to draw out the good in others. Jesus offers images of salt and light as images of how to become blessings. Salt’s purpose is to enhance, to bless other things. But it also relates to the future: when path and roadways are blocked with snow and ice, we use salt to open up a way forward. “Hope and blessing are twin sisters that open up paths for us to a future of hope.” Likewise, light makes paths more visible and leads us to the future.
Greg Jones read from Revelations 21, the vision of the new heaven and new earth. Life everlasting isn’t just when we die, he said, but takes effect now. “The vision inspires us to cultivate a Christian imagination. We can’t go back to Egypt. God has given us a vision of some kind of tomorrow in the new heaven and new Jerusalem.”
Jones cautioned the body that this vision of life everlasting doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles. But the vision of Revelations prepares and compels us to be salt and light, to become icons of Christ.
“The four passages from the Apostles’ Creek weave together a hope for the future,” Jones concluded. “Our hope for you, for South Carolina, for the United Methodist Church, is that as we go forth, we might not be obstacles, that we might have scriptural imagination to see the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting at work.”