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A Future With Hope; General Conference 2008 - Fort Worth Texas

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He Fed the Hungry and Ate with Sinners: Ministries of Compassion

by Elliott Wright

Jesus of Nazareth said and did unexpected things.


  •  He fed a crowd of 5,000 just because the people were hungry.
  •  He bent religious rules in order to respond to human need.
  •  He taught that visiting prisoners was equal to visiting God’s anointed.
  •  He treated lepers, prostitutes, and people with mental illness with respect.
  •  He healed the sick regardless of their legal status.
  •  He recognized the value of women and children.
  •  He sat down at table with public sinners.
  •  He was always compassionate -- always.

Jesus is our model for Christian mission in the area of ethics and human relationships. He spelled it out in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feed, give, care, visit, and welcome—verbs of Christian compassion—summarized earlier in Matthew 22:39, “love your neighbor.” The parable of the Samaritan on the road (Luke 10:29-35)showed the uncommon breadth of Jesus’ understanding of the question, “who is my neighbor?”

The Apostle Paul underscored and shaped a love ethic in the course of his missionary journeys even before the gospels were compiled, building a sense of profound compassion into basic Christian theology. John Wesley, our Methodist founder, built on this theology in his eighteenth-century English context, insisting that poor, sick, and neglected people, including all manner of sinners, were at the heart of the church's circle of compassion. Today, The United Methodist Church and its General Board of Global Ministries, the international mission agency, strive to remain faithful to the model of Jesus Christ and to embody the theology of active compassion honed by the Apostle Paul and John Wesley.

Mission Paper Series on Compassionate Ministries

In the months leading up to the church's quadrennial legislating General Conference, Global Ministries issues a series of papers designed to inform and challenge the almost one thousand conference delegates on current or pending mission opportunities. The 2008 series consists of eight papers, including this introduction, dealing with ministries of compassion that represent today's mission opportunities. The ministries included invite, even compel, the deepest, most enthusiastic faith responses.

The series' theme emerged from two streams of commitment that came together during the past four years. One is a threefold program priority adopted by the Global Ministries' directors for the 2005-2008 quadrennium. This highlights:

  • Ministries with children and youth;
  • Ministries with persons overcoming crises; and
  • Ministries with persons on the margins of their societies.

This pattern of priorities emerged in part through a reappreciation of the ministry of John Wesley and the biblical basis of his ministry. It also represents a deliberately inclusive reconfiguration of historical mission concerns and permits both general and specific mission partnerships within global Methodism and the ecumenical community.

Ministries with children and youth are at once evangelistic, educational, and social, including health and nutritional services. The need is global and changing, but the United Methodist mission experience in these areas is both sound and adaptable. United Methodist Women, represented at Global Ministries through Women's Division, has an especially strong historical and future commitment to children and youth, as well as to mothers, and to women in general.

Persons find themselves in or coming through many kinds of crises. We are survivors of disasters; victims of economic deprivation, political injustice, and disease; we are overcoming addictions, loneliness, and spiritual distress-the dark night of the soul. This mission priority had a prophetic edge during the past quadrennium: the tsunami in South Asia and hurricanes along the Gulf of Mexico, a new awareness of the menace of malaria, a demand for more aggressive attention to alcohol and drug abuse, and church growth in areas of the world where being a Christian is not such an easy matter.

Ministries with those on the margins encompass the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the unwelcome, and all manner of other "no accounts" in the eyes of "proper folks." The margins call out from Manila, Miami, Maputo, Milan, Moscow, Matamoros, and Managua. These mission opportunities challenge, even bewilder, our sense of acceptable Sunday decorum. We often forget that these are exactly the people Jesus put at the head of God's banquet table.

Four Churchwide Emphases

The second stream of commitment contributing to this series comprises four projected emphases for United Methodist and general agency collaboration in the coming quadrennium. These emphases, complementing Global Ministries' current mission priorities, came through the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops and were warmly embraced by Global Ministries' directors and staff. They are:

  •  New church starts;
  •  Leadership development;
  •  Ministry with the poor; and
  •  Global health.

General Board of Global Ministries' strategies for the 2009-2012 quadrennium include starting 400 new congregations outside the United States, many linked to more than a dozen new or recent mission initiatives in Asia, West Africa, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Central America. Leadership development for clergy and laity is part of each of these initiatives, as is also the case in older mission partnerships with central conferences and autonomous Methodist churches around the world.

Ministry with the poor and health concerns are as indivisible as they are global. They include healing response to the diseases of poverty-HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis-and, as importantly, confrontation in the name of Jesus Christ with the powers and principalities that generate and perpetuate poverty. Poverty means having little or no recourse to health services. Yet poverty or sickness does not disqualify men, women, or children from full participation in the community and sacraments of God's grace. Both the global health and poverty emphases remind us that Jesus invites the poor, the lame, the migrant, and overworked and underpaid parents into the sanctuary of love and compassion-into the church, where they can become pillars of faith and heralds of good news.


Components of the Mission Paper Series

Each of the papers in this series points toward an unexpected source of God's grace; a Jew, born in humble surroundings, condemned to die between two thieves, who so incarnates the compassion of God that he-Jesus, the Christ-is eternal, the very source of faith, and hope, and love-our example in mission and the wellspring of our capacity to be in mission.
The other seven papers in this series on ministries of compassion and their authors are:

  •  Ministry to the Least of These. Kathleen LaCamera,a journalist living in the United Kingdom,looks at examples in which The United MethodistChurch or its ecumenical partners areengaged in remarkable ministries among the poorest of the poor.
  •  The Church, Economics, and Migration. Rev. Dr. Harold Recinos, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, directs the eye of faith to the economic implications of contemporary migration, with particular reference to the immigration situation in the United States.
  •  More Life and Less Death: Methodism as a Positive Epidemic. Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson of Methodist Health Systems, Memphis, Tennessee, unfolds the theological and humanitarian rationale behind the church's commitment to the prevention of disease.
  •  Women and Poverty in a Mission Context. Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, Director of Spiritual Formation and Mission Theology for the Women's Division and Administrator of the United Methodist Seminar Program on National and International Affairs at the Church Center for the United Nations, explores the implications of poverty for women and the mission opportunities to address the problem.
  •  Health Ministries for Congregations and Communities. Dr. Cherian Thomas and Patricia Magyar, staff members of the Health and Welfare Program Area of Global Ministries, examine and explain the growing phenomena of congregation- and community-based health ministries.
  •  Global and Local in Mission. Rev. Dr. John Nuessle, a Global Ministries' staff member who works with contextual mission relations and mission education, looks at the interaction between local and global expressions of mission, a topic of importance in the dialogue on the global nature of the church.
  •  To the End of the Earth. Rev. Sam Dixon, current director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and formerly with the Evangelization and Church Growth unit of Global Ministries, puts a contemporary focus on the Great Commission of Matthew 28, with special reference to the new and recent mission initiatives of Global Ministries.

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