By Drew McIntyre
There is no life without water. This is as true for our physical natures as it is for our spiritual lives. Whether as infants or as adults, the doorway to the church is this mysterious Spirit-blessed water that transforms people into disciples, strangers into family, and individuals into a church.
With this in mind, it was quite appropriate to begin this year’s Annual Conference with a remembrance of baptism, particularly given our theme: Go and Baptize the World. “We cannot give what we do not claim ourselves, after all!”
Worship began with a beautiful rendition of “Down to the River and Pray,” and District Superintendents poured water into a common vessel. To underscore the theme of God uniting us, lay and clergy, from across the Conference, voices from around Stuart Auditorium prayed in succession. Overlooking the beautiful waters of Lake Junaluska, morning worship was a perfect match of setting and theme, especially when combined with the skillfully designed worship space, adorned with various shades of blue to suggest the waters of baptism.
Much credit is due to Rev. Josh Sherfey and the worship team for an outstanding, creative, joyful, and reverent opening worship service. A highlight of this particular service was the artist who painted a beautiful image of Christ with a crown of thorns during the offertory. Our guest preacher was Bishop Leonard Fairley, who currently serves the Kentucky Annual Conference but originates from our neighbors to the east, the North Carolina Conference. (Interesting side note:: my wife Brittany was baptized by Bishop Fairley when he was serving a congregation in Raleigh where she and her family attended.)
Bishop Fairley artfully wove his own story into a sermon about the power of God’s grace that is given in baptism. For instance, he shared a story from earlier in his ministry when he asked a student why we do not use last names when we baptize someone. The student replied, in part, that there are no last names in the church. Baptism, Bishop Fairley went on to say, means “welcome to God’s family,” and that God gives us a new name: the beloved. This is a name the world did not give us, and therefore the world cannot take it away.
This happens through water that’s been transformed by the Holy Spirit. It is thus powerful. “You better not fool with this water,” Bishop Fairley told the Conference. This water, through the grace that it imparts, will change your life – not only once – but continually.
The service concluded with a baptismal remembrance. In keeping with historic Christian practice, it is not United Methodist tradition to ever re-baptize, but we are encouraged to remember our baptism at regular occasions. In our local churches, this often happens at Confirmation, or during the first of the year on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. As part of that remembrance this morning, we affirmed our faith, confessed our sin, prayed together over the water, and were then given the opportunity to come forward and touch water to remember our identity.
“Remember who you are,” Bishop Fairley said in his benediction. And that is the whole point, if I may venture a guess, of beginning our 2017 Annual Conference this way. Let us remember who we are as United Methodists, and as a Conference of people in covenant with God and with one another. Most of all, let us remember that our identity is bound up in Christ. Even though we bicker, disagree, misunderstand each other, vote differently, we are first and foremost children of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are no last names in the church. We are all God’s beloved.
May this remembrance infuse our worship, work, fellowship, and conversation in the days to come.
MEDIA FROM OPENING SERVICE
The liturgy is available online at 2017 Worship Book (see pp. 2-5)
Bishop Fairley’s Sermon “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” (NOTE: This is a manuscript that may not be exactly what was preached that day)