Last Friday while barreling down I-70 toward St. Louis, I caught a billboard out of the corner of my eye. Its giant letters read, “A house divided cannot stand.” Next to it loomed a picture of Abraham Lincoln.

The quote was familiar on a couple of levels. After living in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois for 10 years, I recognized it from one of his most famous speeches. His fuller remarks were, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

Of course, Lincoln stole that first line from Jesus. Accused of being demon-possessed for driving out demons, Jesus responded, “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-25 NIV).

The irony of seeing these words of Jesus on the way to General Conference was not lost on me. The house of United Methodism has been divided over issues of human sexuality for 47 years. The question that plagues us is, “Can we have unity in the midst of deep diversity?”

Peter and Paul certainly witnessed it in the Book of Acts. To their great surprise, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles just as to the Jews. Stunned that these two long-time, feuding groups could come together through the blood of Christ, Paul writes,

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14 NRSV).

Clearly, highly divergent groups can find unity. It’s simply a matter of agreeing on the essentials. This is our struggle.

In his sermon on the Character of a Methodist, John Wesley famously said, “The distinguishing marks of a methodist are not his (or her) opinions of any sort… As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” This sounds quite open-handed and generous of John. But after that comment, he used over 2,100 words to describe what he considered the root. You can read his full description here.

It seems the deeper issue in our long-running debate about human sexuality is agreement on what is essential to following Christ and what is merely an opinion. Perhaps our prayer during this General Conference should be for the Holy Spirit to reveal the root more clearly. It may be the only way the house will stand.