In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
When pastors move to new churches there is always the quandary of what to preach. How do clergy best present their theology, their character, their beliefs, and their pastoral approach to new congregations? Should we preach a special, topical sermon designed to lay out all of these matters, and more, in a logical structure? Should we present our personal systematic theologies so that our new people will understand who and what we are? Or, should we just follow the Lectionary appointment of scriptures and introduce ourselves by simply being ourselves, and allow our people to come to know us over time through the process of preaching, teaching, and personal interaction? There is no simple answer to this question, and I suspect that there are about as many opinions as there are clergy.
Over the past 18 years of my ministry, however, I have come to the conclusion that the best approach, for me, is to simply be myself. Rather than attempt to lay out my entire systematic theology in one sermon, I have learned to simply trust God and trust that God will use the scriptural appointments within the Lectionary to guide my preaching and my entrance into a new church.
Hence, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Scripture appointed for my first Sunday at St. Stephen's Church was perfect both for myself and for the congregation. The above-quoted passage is an outstanding characterization of a critical aspect of not only my own ministry but also of the ministry of this congregation. Since Jesus receives us and gives us Grace regardless of our cultural, social, or personal background because God loves us and sent Jesus to be with us in this broken and hurting world, to die for us, and to be raised for us we are called to accept everyone whom God has called to be our sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus. There are no divisions in the body of Christ, there are no first or second class citizens, there are no barriers to membership for those who have received God’s grace, professed their faith, and expressed their desire to be a part of the family of God. All are welcome at the Table of the Lord, all are invited to partake of the means of grace, all are called to serve and to minister and to be the Children of God. Because we have been clothed with Christ, we are to treat each other as Christ treats us by expressing the love and acceptance of Christ to everyone whom we meet. This openness, this welcoming spirit, this calling to be a means of grace for others, this manifest expression of the Real Presence of Jesus, typifies not only my ministry but also the ministry of St. Stephen's Church. And this is part of the reason why my appointment to serve as this congregation's pastor makes perfect sense. Sometimes we look at the appointments that the Bishop makes and we say "he must be crazy." This time, glory be to God, we can rejoice in the realization that the Bishop made the right appointment. St. Stephen's Church and my ministry compliment each other in ways that we are only beginning to discover, and for this I give thanks and praise to God.
I rejoice in being appointed to serve St. Stephen United Methodist Church as God’s Under-Shepherd and your Pastor. Thank you for your warm welcome and for allowing me to join you in proclaiming the Gospel the good news of Jesus Christ. I look forward to the coming years, and to the glorious miracles which God will work in our midst.
Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of St. Stephen United Methodist Church in Mesquite, Texas, and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers and theological articles on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format.
© 2007, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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