By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson*
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face. May their hearts be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. —Colossians 2:1-5
In my first parish, I was a recent seminary graduate, part of a clergy couple, and we were expecting our first baby. I know that I was a handful for this four-point country charge. I was their first female pastor, their first very young pastor, and their first female young pastor expecting a baby!
“Reverend Mother,” they called me. They were patient and kind for the most part.
Along came the baby showers. Five of them! What did I get? Mostly beautiful, hand-made baby blankets. They were in every color. Each one was lovelier than the next: 62 blankets in all. They were “knitted together in love.”
After the baby, Peter, was born, I visited one of my elderly members, Ruth Crone, who had made one of those lovely blankets. I brought the baby along. Seems that no one wanted me to visit unless the baby came too.
I asked her if she could show me how to knit. She leapt out her rocking chair, and got out her needles and yarn, and proceeded to give me a crash course.
“Push in the needle, wrap back to front, pull between, pick out the strand, drop the yarn and tighten up.” It did not take long for me to realize that when you knit something you need to pull tight to keep the weave consistent. Only then are the strands of yarn woven into a firm piece of fabric.
Maybe that is what Paul, the tent maker, meant in his letter to the Colossians when he talked about being “knitted together in love.” He was calling the Colossian church to experience the power of a tight love.
Love encourages us
Paul was separated from folks by distance and travel. The primary purpose of his letters was to encourage the church in his absence.
Although not living in Biblical times, we have been separated and are absent from one another in many ways during this coronavirus pandemic. This has been a challenge. But I thank all of you for your creativity and patience during this time. Pastors have especially led the effort with grace and tenacity.
We have learned that we can continue the love, even if we are not physically present. We do that through online worship services and Bible studies, but also by reaching out to one another with support, by helping the poor, by showing compassion wherever we see suffering, and by exercising sacrificial patience as this drags on. This loving encouragement goes a long way to keeping us strong.
Our annual conference has been involved in much encouraging, loving outreach this year; and I thank God for the connectional system that enables even more good community outreach. If this pandemic has shown me anything it has shown that we are better together.
Love unites us
Nothing was more important to Paul than unity. There were divisions in the flock from its very beginning, and Paul spent much time in his many letters calling the church to be united in love. Love was the secret sauce and always will be.
It seems times have not changed much since the days of the early church. We are talking about dividing as a denomination. Surely, that is a failure of love and the relationship-building that love calls us to do. Mutual sharing and conversation with people we disagree with, being willing to be open to one another with different ideas, that is still an option we have. Love still makes for unity and always will.
The late Rev. Howard Thurman wrote, “What have I learned about love? One of the central things was this: the experience of being understood by another is of primary importance. Somewhere deep within us is a place beyond all faults and virtues that has to be confirmed, before I could run the risk of opening my life up to another. To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability. This is what it means to be loved.”
God has given us some more time since General Conference has been postponed. Try love and relationship-building one more time, and give up plans for schism and division. It is our best witness. It is possible because love never fails.
Love imparts wisdom and knowledge
With love, we not only have the precious gifts of encouragement and unity. We can also experience the full wisdom and knowledge of God who is Godself manifested in the unity of the Godhead: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
Wisdom and knowledge can increase our faith, reveal the mysteries of Christ and guide the church into the ministries and missions that God is calling it to carry out in the world.
One of the most important works we can be doing right now is dismantling racism. It has long prevented us from being the “beloved community” that Christ envisioned for the church.
This is not an easy task, and people often ask me “What can I do?” That is where God can step in through prayer. God can give you and your church wisdom and knowledge about how to better organize for inclusivity, equity and thanksgiving for the giftedness of all people.
In addition we need to be teaching and preaching about racism and dismantling racism. I thank God for the faithful teaching and preaching ministries that have been happening around our conference, especially in these past six months.
You have been operating out of the loving wisdom of Christ in these challenging times. Much of this has informed us in crafting plans for the future of our churches and the future ministries of the annual conference.
So, be knitted together in love, the way to true encouragement in these trying times. It is the way to unity for our best future, and the way to receive the wisdom and knowledge that God wants us to have so that we can get it right!
Let’s stay connected by the bonds of love like a knitted fabric, like a wondrous woven tapestry! When the world sees that in us, they will be more apt to be drawn to our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to proclaim “See how much they love one another!”
*Bishop Johnson’s preached this sermon at the opening worship service of the 2020 Eastern PA Annual Conference, October 13, 2020