I came to faith in Christ through the United Methodist Church. But my journey was a little strange.
I was not converted at a revival or altar call service. I was not raised in the church where I absorbed Christianity by osmosis. As curious as it is, you could say I came to faith in large part because the UMC was the custodian of a theology that I only stumbled upon by accident.
My first steps toward faith were guided by teachers who saw themselves not as the custodians of the faith handed to them but as those who would rescue the faith from its own ignorance.
I backed my way into Christianity through theologians who worked so hard to make Christianity “credible” to non-believers that they left very little for actual Christians to believe. Writers such as John Shelby Spong were non-threatening to my non-belief and so gave me an entry point to a faith I had been long suspicious of but had been consistently called toward.
I eventually found people such as Spong so lukewarm and diluted as to be a hinderance to my move toward an orthodox faith. I found after my time with them that they were offering me things I could have gotten just as easily from people who did not bog down their ideas with trying to somehow loosely tie it all to Jesus.
It was during this time that I first started reading the sermons of John Wesley. I could have found what he preached in many different places. Scores of contemporary evangelical pastors and teachers preach the same message Wesley did. But, for better or worse, it was Wesley who first told me that Christianity was about more than the weak and watered down brew I’d been sampling up to that point.
An example of the concepts Wesley introduced to me can be found in his first standard sermon, “Salvation by Faith.”
This then is the savlation which is through faith, even in the present world: A salvation from sin, and the consequences of sin, both expressed in the word justification; which, taken in the largest sense, implies a deliverance from guilt and punishment, by the atonement of Christ actually applied to the soul of the sinner believing on him, and a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart.
Nearly every word of that passage was alien to me when I first encountered them. The theology of Spong and the Jesus Seminar had no room for preaching about sin and the necessity of atonement. It spoke little of Christ being formed in the heart and none at all about our need for deliverance from the consequences of our sin.
This was all amazing and shocking to me at first, but it stuck. There was something in all this that rung deeply true and powerful. And it finally brought me to my knees.
The oddest part of this entire story for me is that it was through our Book of Discipline that I learned about John Wesley. I’d not heard much about him in the preaching at the United Methodist Church I was attending at the time. That is not really surprising, of course. We should be preaching Jesus not John Wesley. But neither was I hearing much about the great themes that animated his preaching and the movement he led.
I only stumbled upon Wesley when I was looking through the Book of Discpline, a book that is rarely put in the hands of lay people or taken down from the shelves of the church library. Those pages and that book were only there for me to find because the church insisted on holding on to some things, even if it did not speak of them much. I read in those pages of our foundational doctrines and something called the standard sermons of John Wesley. And so began my search.
It was all God’s grace, of course, that brought me where I am, but God was strangely at work through the UMC and its persistence in holding on to the theology of Wesley. Of course, the UMC held to that theology the way some of us hold on to ancient family heirlooms. They might be stuffed away in the attic or basement where few ever venture to see them, but they are there waiting when someone makes that dusty climb.
As our denomination heads toward a split, I find myself wondering whether Wesley’s voice will still be heard well in the UMC that remains after the divide. I was concerned not long ago when I discovered that the UMC official web site no longer posts Wesley’s sermons. Hundreds of links in this blog on posts I’ve written over the years now go to a dead end. For the link above in this post, I’ve had to rely on our denominational cousins the Nazarenes.
Maybe that is a small thing. I’m sure not a lot of people scour the internet for electronic copies of John Wesley’s sermons, but it feels significant to me. Somewhere along the way the UMC decided to abandon the notion that the words and theology of John Wesley were important enough to preserve. It feels to me like a decision to give up our role as the custodians of the movement stirred to life by the Holy Spirit at Oxford and Aldersgate.
I’m sure the people who made that decision would not describe it that way. I can’t help but feel a loss, however, when I view the results of searching the UMC website for “salvation by faith john wesley.”
I pray that pilgrims such as I might still find ways to stumble upon the things that changed my life. I hope we still insist on holding on to the original words and theology of Wesley.