From the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.
It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?
One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.
Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.
Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”
Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”
Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:
“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”
“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written:
‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.
Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”