I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord, as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Israelites who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our coworker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my fellow Israelite Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother—a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Romans 16:1-15
This is not a typical Scripture reading for this season in the church. And if you are preaching, this is not a passage to assign to another reader. It is, however, a regular feature of Paul’s correspondence. Paul often ended his letters with such particular notes. It is a wonderful reminder that faith in Jesus Christ is lived with particular people in particular places and circumstances. The church is not some abstract idea of Christian community, but is Christian community with particular people, in particular places and times..
I am reminded of the line from “The Book of Discipline,” which says that “the people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced” (¶130). This is the gift and task of ministry and we engage in this ministry in our concrete circumstances with particular people.
Another way to say this is that ours is an incarnational faith. It is in this time and place, it is with these people, that we need to make the gospel real, that we must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.
One of my theology teachers, the late Schubert Ogden, once wrote about the church, “if the church is necessary, this is not because its absence would mean the absence of grace in the world, but because without the church the grace always already given to the world would not be adequately signified” (“The Understanding of Christian Faith,” 101). God is always already graciously at work in the world healing, redeeming, freeing. As witnesses to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we point to places where God’s healing love is reconciling and making new, thus doing our best to convince the world of the reality of the gospel. As signifiers of God’s grace, we seek to be people in whom and through whom God’s love in Jesus Christ touches the world, moving it toward justice, peace, reconciliation, beloved community, beauty, and love. We witness to the grace of God, we seek to embody the grace of God in certain times and places, with certain people.
Thirty-eight years ago, I became a probationary member of the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church. You are the people with whom I have been in ministry for quite some time now. Together we have sought to witness to the activity of God’s grace. Together we have worked to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—creating new places for new people, seeking to grow in love of God and neighbor, bringing healing to a broken world. Together we have sought to embody God’s grace. Together we have shared good news. Together we have worked for justice, peace, reconciliation, beauty, and love. Together we have sought to build beloved community. We have done this together rooted in our Wesleyan values.
Six years ago, I was elected a bishop in The United Methodist Church and the context of my ministry changed. There were new people, new places, new circumstances. But then two years ago an unlikely set of circumstances brought us together again. I returned to this community, to work with you who had for so long been my companions in ministry. My role was different—“bishop,” but the work was the same, making real the love of God in Jesus Christ through our particular lives, in our particular places, in this particular time. The circumstances were a challenge, but the joy of working with you again was deep.
There are some regrets about these past two years. I regret that COVID marked many of our months together, limiting our ability to be together in person, even when it may have fit my schedule, which was also a challenge. There is the heartache over disaffiliation. As necessary as this may be for our church right now, it is nevertheless painful. There may have been times when I disappointed you, and times when I disappointed myself.
All these are overshadowed by the good work we have done together in ministry and the opportunities we have had to connect and celebrate. We have often reminded ourselves of the centrality of our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and of our vision for embodying that mission, that is, every congregation being a vital center where we are creating new spaces for new people, helping people grow in love of God and neighbor, and working to heal a broken world. We have become clearer in affirming our core values, that our work is rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, that ministry necessarily includes the work of justice and reconciliation, and that all have a place in Christ’s body the church. All four of these values are critical and must be held together.
As I offer my final words as your bishop, I encourage you to continue to embody this mission, this vision, these values. Keep making them real in this time and place with these people. Keep making them real in your communities from open country areas to small towns to county seats and urban areas. We are those who witness in word and deep to the grace of God already at work in the world. We are those who must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. We are those who must point to and signify the grace of God at work in the world through Jesus Christ.
Thank you. Thank you for our shared work for over 30 years, but particularly for these past two years. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement in Christ. Thank you for your prayers and support.
Thank you. Love, joy and peace be yours in Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.
Merry Christmas and blessed new year.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference through Dec. 31, 2022. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.