Holston offers Episcopal Address on becoming ‘who God needs us to be’

Bishop L. Jonathan Holston gives the episcopal address during the 2024 United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News

By Jessica Brodie

CHARLOTTE—Bringing a word on staying who God needs to us be in spite of the ever-changing noise of this world, Bishop L. Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Annual Conference delivered the Council of Bishops’ Episcopal Address to kick off Day 2 of The United Methodist Church’s 2024 General Conference.

“When things are happening all around us, God uses the church to make a difference,” Holston proclaimed before the crowd of delegates, observers, volunteers gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center April 24. “The church was never built for our pleasure. The church is built for God’s purpose.”

Holston was selected by the Council of Bishops to deliver the address on their behalf. The council comprises 59 bishops presiding over conferences and episcopal areas across the globe, as well as retired bishops.

Holston opened the address with a prayer calling on God to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us as we strive to put love first.

“When the world shouts hate, help us to love,” Holston prayed. “When the past won’t let go, help us to love. When we feel broken, betrayed or rejected, help us to love. Even when it seems impossible or doesn’t make sense, help us to love.”

He shared how so much has happened since an episcopal address was last delivered at General Conference 2016, eight years ago.

Citing wisdom from former United States ambassador and pastor Andrew Young, Holston noted the paradox of our humanity can be described in this way: “We live in the tension of who we are, who we say we are and who we want to be.”

As a lengthy montage displayed examples onscreen, Holston reviewed the changes that have occurred in the church and the world since General Conference last met—the highs and lows, the opportunities and challenges, the tensions as we pivot between the best and the worst of our human nature.

“Since 2016, TikTok launched, Saudi Arabia legalized women driving, the northern white rhino became extinct, Notre Dame burned, ChatGPT was created, elephants are being studied to treat cancer,” Holston said.

The list goes on: Elections. Natural disasters. Terrorist attacks. Good things and bad.

Yet amid what Holston called this “noisy backdrop of world events,” God’s people still did what they could to be God’s church.

He lifted up numerous examples of this, from baptisms and new churches rising up to powerful mission work done in the name of the Lord to fight trafficking, provide economic opportunity and deliver desperately needed medical care in remote areas.

“We fall short,” Holston said. “Yet even in our shortcomings as imperfect humans, we strive for who we want to be—holding before us the vision of God’s kingdom built, the hope of Christ fulfilled, as we move toward that vision with courage. All of this because we know that God prevails—the victory has already been won in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 

As we walk this path, he urged us to keep our focus on what is important as we tune out noise.

“Friends, this is who God needs for us to be,” Holston said, urging all gathered to continue God’s work in the midst of divisive, joyful and sometimes terrible situations.

For as he said, our striving to be who God needs us to be should be the only priority.

Glancing backwards is fine, but our focus must be the future. After all, he said, “There’s a reason that rearview mirror is so much smaller than the windshield itself. We are only meant to glance backward. We are meant to fix our gaze ahead, following where Christ leads.”

Where Christ leads is God’s kingdom, Holston said, and it’s being built among us now. And even though we’re uncertain about exactly what this looks like, we must press on, surrendering to God’s will in the busy circumstances surrounding us.

“We sometimes fall into thinking that if we have God’s peace, then there will be no tension, no conflict, no issues to face,” he said.

But this world will always have tension and conflict. And just as pilots must train to fly in spite of what they face in the sky, “They have to fly the plane, set their bearings and don’t lose sight … . There is no room for fear or doubt when the plane is in the air.”

As he brought his address to a close, Holston reminded the body the church must keep one things clear: “It is about this and only this: How do we become who God needs us to be?”

We do this, he said, by heeding the call of the Lord to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do this, he said, by embracing disciple-making, peace-making and anti-racism, by building up and not tearing down.

“We embrace the radical, world-transforming love given so freely by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Holston said.

And we can do this when we allow God to liberate us, freeing us to live in the light of God’s victory already won in Christ.

“Are you ready to be the people that God needs for us to be? Let’s go!” Holston proclaimed. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

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