Are we a church or an institution?

Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?

Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.

As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”

These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.

In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*

I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.

It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.

If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.

The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.


*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?

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Can we follow the prescription?

Methodists have long struggled with the question of how to relate with John Wesley and how to understand his role and position in the church. Some warn that he should not be afforded too high a regard because his theology is practical rather than systematic. Some defend him. Some dismiss him. Some quote him at length. Some misquote him.

Over the years, I’ve become partial to William Abraham’s encouragement that Methodists understand Wesley as a saint and teacher of the church — one who has shown us a way of life and spirituality in deep pursuit of communion with God. We Methodists might see ourselves, then, as a holiness movement within the wider church catholic, and not so much as a rival church to other churches.

There is a lot to say on that topic, which I am going to leave unsaid for now, but these thoughts form a preface to my continued reading of John Wesley’s first sermon on The Sermon on the Mount because this week, we encounter Wesley’s very strong reading of Scripture through the lens of his deep concern with teaching Christians what it means to become holy.

When I read Wesley, I encounter a man who is always about the pastoral task of helping Christians to interpret their own spiritual experiences and pushing, pulling, cajoling, and prodding them toward a deeper holiness in heart and life. His entire ministry is obsessed with concern that most Christians settle for a counterfeit faith that challenges them little, comforts them much, and leaves them short of the holiness to which we are called.

And so, as he read the New Testament and interpreted it to his listeners and readers, he was constantly reading Scripture for clues to the journey we walk from non-believer to child of God. As he read the Beattitudes, what he saw was a description of the spiritual struggles and mile markers that Christians experience.

As we saw in my last post, Wesley read Christ’s words that those who are poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of heaven as a call to repentance, a call to look at our own heart and see with unflinching eyes the darkness there. This was the first step. The reward for this step is the joy of coming to know that despite our foulness, we are forgiven.

This joy, though, does not last because the battle for holiness is only just begun. And thus, Wesley interprets for us the second Beattitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The mourners of whom our Lord here speaks, are those that mourn on quite another account: They that mourn after God; after Him in whom they did “rejoice with joy unspeakable,” when he gave them to “taste the good,” the pardoning, “word, and the powers of the world to come.” But he now “hides his face, and they are troubled:” They cannot see him through the dark cloud. But they see temptation and sin, which they fondly supposed were gone never to return, arising again, following after them amain, and holding them in on every side. It is not strange if their soul is now disquieted within them, and trouble and heaviness take hold upon them. Nor will their great enemy fail to improve the occasion; to ask, “Where is now thy God? Where is now the blessedness whereof thou spakest? the beginning of the kingdom of heaven? Yea, hath God said, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee?’ Surely God hath not said it. It was only a dream, a mere delusion, a creature of thy own imagination. If thy sins are forgiven, why art thou thus? Can a pardoned sinner be thus unholy?”

He describes here the believer wrestling with the tension in their own soul created by the fact that although they have been “born again,” still they feel afflicted by temptation and sin and doubt. Surely, they think, a Christian should not have such thoughts or temptations. Perhaps, I am not a Christian after all. Perhaps, it is all just words spouted out by preachers to fill their collection plates.

From long examination of his own heart and conversation with many struggling believers and non-believers, Wesley developed a fairly sophisticated grasp of the ills of the spirit. In some of his sermons and counsel to Methodist preachers, he even uses the language of medical diagnosis to talk about the work of pastoral care and the tending of the spirit. Wesley was a student of the pathologies that plague the soul. Here we see him at work.

And here, too, we should see a piece of spiritual autobiography. I do not believe that Wesley could write at such length about the trials of faith and the struggles of doubt without having experienced those things himself. He says a much in some of his other sermons. He has known the struggle of doubt and the grief of his own failures in pursuit of holiness.

To those who find themselves in this mournful state — those who find they have lost touch with the joy that first received when they first came to know the loving forgiveness of God — Wesley says they will find comfort if they rely wholly and only upon God.

Blessed, therefore, are they that thus mourn, if they “tarry the Lord’s leisure,” and suffer not themselves to be turned out of the way, by the miserable comforters of the world; if they resolutely reject all the comforts of sin, of folly, and vanity; all the idle diversions and amusements of the world; all the pleasures which “perish in the using,” and which only tend to benumb and stupefy the soul, that it may neither be sensible of itself nor God. Blessed are they who “follow on to know the Lord,” and steadily refuse all other comfort. They shall be comforted by the consolations of his Spirit; by a fresh manifestation of his love; by such a witness of his accepting them in the Beloved, as shall never more be taken away from them. This “full assurance of faith” swallows up all doubt, as well as all tormenting fear; God now giving them a sure hope of an enduring substance, and “strong consolation through grace.”

It is a fairly simple prescription Wesley offers. Lean on God when you are troubled. Go to him in prayer. Immerse yourself in the Word. Set about doing good to all people in every way you can. Be present at the Communion Table and seek only the comfort of God in your distress. Do not seek the distractions of food and drink and entertainments the world provides. Do not turn to the numbing embrace of drugs or sex. Do not seek strength through anger and power to chase away your inner turmoil. Lean on God alone.

It is a prescription that Wesley often made and that was often poorly followed, or at least I assume it was given the need Wesley felt to emphasize the point so often and in so many ways throughout his ministry.

As a reader of Wesley, I have long been struck by his deep concern with and understanding of the spiritual struggles that we encounter when pursuing holiness of heart and life. As a Christian in the 21st century and a pastor, I am often struck as well by how foreign so much of what he teaches is to the church today.

Even here, we are only to the second of the Beattitudes and already we are cut loose from the experience of the vast majority of American Christians in 2017. I know very few Christians who would say they mourn in the way Wesley describes. For some of them, it is because we have not given them the vocabulary to describe their own experience that would allow them to articulate these things. They have some powerful but hard to describe feelings and sensations of emptiness and doubt and shame and guilt and resentment over their shame and guilt. They feel a detachment or distance from God, but they cannot describe it and have no vocabulary of mental categories to explain all this to themselves or to anyone else.

For others, the problem is pretty straight forward. They have never taken the first step Wesley describes. They have never owned their “poverty of spirit,” and therefore have not felt the joy of forgiveness or mourned for that joy when it passed under the pressure of temptation and the great accuser. And so, all of Wesley’s talk and his prescriptions are useless to them.

As a pastor, I see these things, and I struggle to find ways to communicate them to my congregation. I return to Wesley because — for better or worse — God has called me to teach and preach in the church birthed out of the holiness movement stirred up by this quirky and ceaselessly energetic saint and teacher of the church. There is joy and peace and healing here. God help me to steward what you have given us to dispense.

The treacherous first step

John Wesley reads the Beattitudes as both an account of the perfected Christian life and as a description of the journey we take toward that state. The first and enduring rung on that ladder is poverty of spirit, which Wesley described at great length but sums up with the following words:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the very first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and our guilt and helplessness.

It is a proper awareness of our “mere want, of naked sin, of helpless guilt and misery.”

Let me not sugar coat this, though, because I have found in my study of Wesley that this first step is the one that we most fight against, most try to skip past, and most deny as having any basis in “contemporary” Christian thought, obsessed as we are with being infectiously peppy and upbeat. We want to jump to the blessing that poverty of spirit brings without actually being poor in the first place.

Here are some of Wesley’s words about the thoughts of the one who is poor in spirit.

“In me,” saith he, “dwelleth no good thing,” but whatsoever is evil and abominable. He has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin, which he brought with him from his mother’s womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof.

The one who is poor in spirit is deeply aware of his or her own pride, vanity, thirst for praise, envy, jealousy, hatred, anger, opposition to God, love of the world, and self-will.

It is difficult to overstate how pessimistic Wesleyan Christianity is about human nature. There is not a speck of the talk that we so reflexively engage in to defend our own faults and “short comings.” The notion “Well, you are only human,” is neither defense nor justification, but is rather an indictment.

As we come to terms with this, we can see why Wesley was hounded out of so many churches and why the movement he founded was always derided by many good church leaders. In our day of bright and sunny Christinianty in which faith is often offered as a kind of “be happy” solution to the difficult things in life, I expect Wesley would meet a similar reaction in our churches as he did in his day.

We sing hymns still at times about our sense of unworthiness and our sinful nature, but if we hear the words we sing, we often do not really think they apply to us. Sinners are other people. I just have problems and struggles that hopefully God will help me get over.

And here is the problem that our contemporary ways of thinking have. Wesley was so adamant about the desolation of sin because he knew that only when we could look without flinching at our own sin could we experience salvation with joy. For him, the blackness of sin set the stage for the brilliant sunshine of salvation. But so often for us, our tepid and halting admission of our own sinfulness and helplessness leaves us with a similarly tepid experience of the gospel.

Poverty of spirit is the first step toward the joys of Christian salvation, but it is a deep step down for many of us and we often will not take it unless we stumble and fall into it.