This week, the majority of Methodists across the country are gathering for their Divisional Annual Meetings, na Bose Yabaki. The 56 divisions will, during this meeting, discuss matters of importance relating to the life and work of the Methodist community at both the grassroots level and national level. The Divisional Annual Meeting will hear recommendations from the various circuits (parishes) within that particular division as well as reports and recommendations from the departments, programmes and institutions that are part of the national church’s secretariat. Apart from making decisions that will guide the Methodist community in that division for the next year, the Annual Meeting will also make recommendations that will be taken to the Methodist Church in Fiji’s Annual Conference in August.
Apart from the official business of the annual meeting, this annual divisional meeting is an opportunity for the Methodist community, the largest religious group in Fiji, to gather in their divisions for worship, prayer and fellowship. This year’s gatherings will be particularly significant as the Methodist Church in Fiji marks its “Golden Jubilee” – the 50th anniversary of the church becoming an independent conference in 1964, after 129 years of being a mission of the Methodist Churches of Great Britain and then Australasia.
At the divisional level, the members of the church are able to celebrate and commemorate this important event from the perspective of the biblical and theological understanding of Jubilee. The original meaning of Jubilee is found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus 25:10 -
“And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.” In this understanding, slaves were to be set free and all debts were cancelled. It was a time of restoration, reconciliation and renewal.
The Christian understanding of Jubilee is further developed by Jesus, who on one particular Sabbath, in His hometown of Nazareth, attended the local synagogue, and reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, announced to this community, the manifesto of his earthly ministry (Luke 4: 16-21). The text of the “Jubilee” passage in the book of Isaiah 61:1-6 reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour … to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, .... They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; … Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and will work your fields and vineyards. And you will be called priests of the Lord; you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.”
The theme of Jubilee can be understood as:
· Freedom from oppression, slavery, debt, sin – God’s liberation
· Freedom for forgiveness, love, reconciliation – God’s favour
· Freedom to consecrate, proclaim, tend the flock, save lives - God’s commission
It is important that the Methodist Church in Fiji ties this understanding of Jubilee to the theme, “Na Lako Yani Vou” – the “New Journey” as part of its journey from oppression and structural legitimation to the liberation and empowering the community of faith called Methodists to be agents of God’s kingdom. The reflection on the past history of each division and the washing of the feet and other reconciliation ceremonies performed at divisional jubilee celebrations over the next two weeks and then again in August during then national celebrations are an important part of this process.
This week is also significant in the Methodist Church because it is “Prison Week,” a time when Methodists are reminded of the importance of ministry and care for those in prison and for those who have been released from prison. The theme for Prision Week this year is, “Called to be United into the Biblical Mandate of Prison Ministry”.
One of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s earliest social outreach programme included prison visitation with worship services as well as counselling, material relief and even assisting in the legal defence of prisoners. Wesley continued his practice of visitation to those in prison and continued to provide counselling and challenge others to treat prisoners better. In 1759, after coming across a group of suffering French prisoners, he preached on Exodus 23:9, “Thou shall not oppress a stranger,” and was able to improve their conditions. In 1780, after helping to quell the Gordon Riots, he travelled with and counselled the condemned enroute to the gallows to be hanged. The Bands and Classes within the Methodist Societies provided pastoral care and a sense of community to those who individually did not matter to society. The Class gave individuals a sense of belonging and care by the group. Methodists were to help each other in the community of faith, locally within the Society as well as within the wider connexion, going beyond the boundaries of societies, parishes, towns and cities.
In challenging members to undertake Prison ministry as part of their sharing the unconditional love of God, the outgoing Prison Chaplain for the Methodist Church, Rev. Inia Mavai, writes in one of the Bible Studies for this year’s Prison Week:
“Even while dying on Calvary's cross, Jesus took time tor each out in love and concern to a thief and prisoner. As a result, that convicted criminal and sinner experience God's healing, love, tender grace, and forgiveness. During the time between his death and resurrection; we are told that Jesus "…..went and preached to the spirits in prison. (1 Pet. 3:19).
Unfortunately, despite the clear Biblical injunction and Christ's example to minister to prisoners, many believers and churches prefer to pass on the other side of the road, as did the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan.”
As Methodists celebrate their Jubilee, and as we as a nation journey towards elections and the promise of a new and better Fiji, let us remember that liberation comes in many forms, and one of these is the transformative power of unconditional love to all, even or perhaps especially, those despised by society.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”