Conventional Wisdom may be that we live in “unprecedented times,” but this tumultuous era is “not the church’s first rodeo” and the most unprecedented reality is the ability to “set up Holy Spirit ground zeros wherever we go,” according to speakers at a major gathering of Methodists shaped by the charismatic renewal movement.
Bishop James Swanson and the Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman—both of the United Methodist Church—addressed the contemporary trials of the pandemic and race-relations by focusing their sermons on the Gospel message during the Aldersgate 2020 Conference on Spirit-Filled Living.
Swanson rebuked any expectations of harbor from worldly troubles, arguing that Christians are not buffered from suffering or worldly affairs. Neither are they exempt from exploitation and oppression. Swanson pushed back against any assumption that God has given a “favorite nation status” to America because of Christianity, pointing out the disproportionate trust this places in government. A Christian’s trust should be in God, Swanson corrected.
Material prosperity and relative freedom has weakened American Christians to real adversity, the resident bishop of the Mississippi Conference charged. But while the stress, uncertainty, and loss experienced today might be traumatic to the individual, “the Church as a whole,” Swanson stated, “has always had tension after tension after tension.” Born to suffering and raised in persecution, the Church is no stranger to “unprecedented times.” Truly, she is more unprecedented than these times.
This is because, Swanson argued, “God is always in control of the world and of you.” Therefore, we should “cast our cares on God” because they are His cares. In fact, admitting weakness and fear releases one from their chains. “As long as you pretend that you are not afraid, you give fear authority over you” Swanson concluded. Therefore, “confess your fear.”
Examples Swanson gave to illustrate the act of trusting God lead to some confusion. First, Swanson explained that the sanitary and quarantine laws in the Old Testament demonstrate God’s care for his people and thus a reason to trust in him. Obeying the rules, consequently, becomes an act of trust.
In contrast, the other example Swanson gave pictured his own experience after he forgot to “obey the rules” for college enrollment. But a kind woman took pity on the young Swanson and, in addition to enrollment, paired him with a full tuition scholarship for his first semester. Though Swanson forgot the rules, God still provided.
These examples might make Christians ask, which is it? Do we trust God by ignoring the rules or following them? Using faith as a reason for not wearing face masks, for instance, reveals the contemporary relevance of these questions. But in the sermon, Swanson offers no resolve.
Even so, Swanson’s reminder that Christians are not exempt from suffering but can still trust God is a starting point for all circumstances.
In addition to trust, Reisman preached the importance of letting the Holy Spirit in, especially when life gets rough. What does this look like? Reisman uses the ancient town of Bethany as a blueprint.
Bethany, Reisman argued, was the “ground zero” for the Holy Spirit during Jesus’ ministry. In Bethany, John was baptized, Mary anointed, Lazarus resurrected, and Jesus ascended into heaven. So many extraordinary things happened in Bethany that we forget, Reisman points out, that Bethany was probably a leper colony.
This leper colony—perhaps the most marginalized of any society—was a major outpost for Christ’s ministry. Reisman argued that if Christians want to live out their calling, they “have to set up Bethanies wherever [they] go.” This means recognizing the suffering of yourself and your neighbor and remaining open to the Spirit’s work.
Even if 2-3 cannot gather due to civil authorities’ mandates, the Holy Spirit presence and work will not stop. The trials Christians face during the pandemic and racial tension tensions should be treated as opportunities for building Bethanies. Reisman argues that the way forward—just as Swanson stated two nights before—is to “cast our cares on God.”
In the end, both clerics conclude that our hope is not in the law nor in our planning. Our hope is not in “science, progress, or the Church.” Reisman closed stating that “our hope is in Jesus to bring salvation in all its dimensions.” Therefore, let us live like we are in Bethany.