Do we still have room for Wesley in Methodism?

A comment on my last post about John Wesley’s explanation of why Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount concluded that John Wesley got it right. In other words, Jesus preached the sermon to show us the way to heaven.

And I agree. I do think John Wesley got it right. Jesus did come to bring us to heaven on Earth and in eternity. Wesley’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are immensely challenging and edifying for Christians. They call us to a faith that has the power of godliness, not just its outward form.

But I’m not convinced that his is the only right way to read the Sermon. You see, my son has autism. This morning, we sat over breakfast. I read the first two verses of Psalm 40, and we shared a few brief reflections about it. I talked. Luc made signs and smiled in response to something I said. I prayed a very short prayer. He ate his toaster waffles. My son has a spiritual life. Luc and God have their thing together. I don’t get the privilege of seeing most of it. But it is there.

At least for the moment, though, the highly cognitive, verbally expressed Christianity that Wesley practiced, with its literature and hymn singing and small groups of people gathering to open their hearts to each other and public declarations about the witness of the spirit, is not Luc’s kind of Christianity.

John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount speaks of deep sorrow for our sin and mourning for our lost state and repentance toward a God who is justly offended by our choices to reject him.

If this is the only way to read the sermon, then I do not think it is written for Luc. I find I need to read with different eyes. Without lapsing into a condescending paternalism — Lord, please forbid that — I read the Beatitudes much more as a description of my son than a set of eight spiritual stages toward salvation for him.

This makes me sympathetic to people who read Scripture in ways that I don’t understand. It reminds me to be humble when I presume I have “the answer” that fits every person and situation.

But — if you have read this far please do not stop — I can’t understand how United Methodists, at least, can read the Beatitudes or the Bible at-large in ways that implicitly or explicitly make Wesley’s reading out-of-bounds or somehow a relic of a previous time that no longer has any meaning for us. I cannot understand how people can read Wesley and declare that he is just some old, dead guy who did not have the good fortune to have modern biblical studies to help him see the error of his ways.

The Holy Spirit used the early Methodist movement to change the lives of thousands of people and save souls in this life and the next. To sit on our privileged perch in 2014 and refer to people today who preach what Wesley preached as some kind of ignorant group of knuckle-draggers is not just unloving. It is blindness.

The gospel of grace — preventing, convicting, justifying, sanctifying, glorifying — that Wesley preached is sorely needed among us today. Thousands upon thousands of people who go by the name of Christ, have the form without the power of godliness. Thousands upon thousands of people live under the power of sin and trudge through and toward the pits of hell because no one will tell them there is another way.

I pray weekly for the grace to see the people who need that gospel and to preach that gospel in its fullness.

People tell me or write to me that the gospel of individual salvation from sin and hell is “not big enough.” But, in subtle and not so subtle ways, what I am often offered in its place is a gospel with no room for John and Charles Wesley. That’s okay for the Lutherans and Presbyterians, I suppose. But I cannot understand Methodists who are embarrassed by John Wesley or dismiss the thousands of lives who were changed by God through his ministry. I cannot understand Methodists who look at the world today and ridicule or dismiss the ministry of those who preach today the gospel Wesley preached.

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13 thoughts on “Do we still have room for Wesley in Methodism?

  1. Success in delivering the gospel and somehow measuring success in delivering it needs to be accomplished. In general, the U. S. is in faster moral decline than Rome. Apparently the gospel success rate not matching or exceeding the sin rate.

  2. While I’m an LLP at a small church in an adjoining county, I spend most OC my ministry with incarcerated people, many of whom have severe emotional, psychological, cognitive and educational handicaps. I preach/teach/dialogue with the “mean” among the 150 or do men – I know no other way to communicate. I find that God’s grace is at work among those who are challenged, and I suspect I will be surprised, relieved and astonished at the extent to which God’s mercy has been distributed. In my limited capacity, I can only do what Wesley did – preach and teach the great mass the right way to God as best it has been revealed to the Church, and to me.

    As for Wesley’s diminished role in Methodism today, don’t get me started. He is an embarrassment and affront to moderns – most of whom can only dream of having the kind of eternal and salutary impact Wesley had. Blessings on you, your ministry and your continuing, godly witness to your son.

      1. You saved me from spending the rest of the day trying to figure out what that means.

        Thank you for your ministry and for taking the time to stop and write on my blog.

  3. Well said, John. The Sermon on the Mount has a long history of guiding believers in the life of discipleship. It is much underused these days, except as kind of an ethics manual, but ethics understood usually through the lens of modern Protestantism. We therefore miss much of the rich explication that Wesley offers in his discourses on the Sermon on the Mount.

  4. One of the major factors in deciding to seek another denomination in which to serve could be summarized in your post, John. Thank you for so carefully highlighting one of the larger blind spots in modern United Methodism.

    1. Thank you for writing, Mike. I find myself wondering from time to time whether we would be more honest in the UMC if we stopped trotting out Wesley. There is something unseemly in it when we quote him while ignoring the things that matter the most to him.

  5. Reblogged this on Commmonplace Holiness blog and commented:
    This is an interesting addition to my remarks from last week about the Beatitudes. If John Wesley basically got the Sermon on the Mount right — then, John Meunier asks, does United Methodism today really have any room for Wesley and his teachings? There may be more than one one way to read the Sermon on the Mount, but why discount the Wesleyan reading?

  6. John, I hope this comment goes through because WordPress is giving me fits.
    I’d like to reprint this post on United Methodist Insight, including the photo of you and Luc that appears with it on Commonplace Holiness. Please let me know if I may have your permission to do so. Thanks!

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