A plea for Methodism

In the wake of our great division, the United Methodist Church is struggling to find its identity. We have lots of voices projecting visions of the future of United Methodism and articulating the things that unite us after division. A number of people are planting flags in various places and inviting the church to rally around this or that set of priorities or shared values.

For me, the place to look for the answer to the question “What is a Methodist?” has always been John and Charles Wesley.

United Methodism, I believe, has always struggled to hold on to its Methodist identity. The pull of Mainline Protestantism, a gaunt and dying creature that still has an odd attraction for many, has always conflicted with our origins when we were derided by respectable Christians as too boisterous, too insistent on our discipline, and too expectant that God would actually do great things among us.

Fortunately, we still have the words of the Wesleys to help remind us who we are. Here is a gem that I don’t hear often sung, but I share it with you as one entry point into the heart of Methodism.

Let Us Plead for Faith Alone

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
sure salvation is the end;
heaven already is begun,
everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
till we see our Lord appear,
never from the Rock remove,
saved by faith which works by love.

These four short stanzas could sustain a great deal of discussion, but allow me to share a few observations about the contours of a Methodist Christianity found in these words.

First, faith is not something we will into being, but we receive. Let us “plead” for faith. Let us ask for faith. God, give us this faith. From first to last, our faith is a gift from God, not something we accomplish or create within ourselves.

In a recent survey I was asked to fill out of the United Methodist Church about clergy wellness, it asked me how much I agree with the statement that when I am struggling I can find within myself resources to help me through difficult times. My impression was that a “positive” answer to that question would be seen as a good sign, but I struggled to mark an answer because my commitment as a Methodist is that the source of my help is not “down inside me” but with God. We are not called to get through hell by drawing on our own inner strength, but by admitting our weakness and relying on the strength of God, who gives us the faith to stand even when the earth shakes.

Second, our concern for this faith is tied directly to our concern for salvation. We want this faith so that we can be justified by God’s grace, we can overcome the power of sin and death, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, and we can experience the joys of heaven both today and in eternity.

My social media accounts often include posts that say stuff like “The gospel is less about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven when you die and more about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now.” I don’t think that is correct. It is about both, equally. The Gospel is about eternal life. And it is about access to the joys of heaven right now. It is not one or the other. It is certainly not one at the expense of the other. John Wesley wrote in the preface to his published sermons that he desired to know one thing in his life: The way to heaven. We can certainly decide that old John got Christianity wrong, but we cannot reasonably go around telling people to stop being so worried about salvation, saving souls, and heaven and hell and still say we are speaking from the central concerns of the Methodist tradition.

Third, it is a faith that is visible to others in the lives we lead, by our works. Just as a healthy tree bears good apples, so our lives bear good fruit when this faith is the source of all that we are and do. The works signal that the faith is present, but they themselves do not save us or give us any of the blessing that come alone from faith.

My observation as a pastor is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for good church people is that they confuse works for faith. We confuse the outer things of religious life with a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And this confusion is all the more tempting because the works are the things that win us the approval of the world around us. They are the things people can use to defend the church when it is attacked as irrelevant or harmful or deluded. “Well, yes, but we have a food pantry.” God does want us to feed the hungry, but we are called to do so because we have faith the overflows from our hearts as love for God and love for his people. Without this faith and love, the works themselves are worthless.

Much more could be said about this hymn, and there is much more to say about what a Methodist is. I am a Christian called to be a Methodist by God’s grace. I am a Methodist called to be and remain a United Methodist. In this uncertain time for the people called United Methodist, I pray that God will help us recover the gifts first given to the people called Methodist. I plead for the faith that we sing.

The divided soul of Methodism

We have been reaping a lot of poisoned fruit in the division of the United Methodist Church.

John Wesley warned us this would happen.

In his sermon “On Schism,” he warned the Methodist societies of his day about the dangers of division within the church, which he argued was the true biblical meaning of the word “schism.” Such factions and parties, he wrote, bring forth evil fruit.

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethern; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to eternal hell.

To be clear, we were rent with division long before traditionalists started leaving the church. We fell into hostile camps long ago. When I write that schism is bearing evil fruit, I do not lay the blame at the feet of those currently disaffiliating. I lay the blame on all of us. I have no interest in parceling out blame or engaging in the sibling game of “he did it first.” I merely observe that the long division within the UMC, which is now leading to actual division from the UMC, has given birth to many of the things Wesley warned us about.

I have seen Methodists calling their brothers and sisters tools of Satan. We have spat venom at each other and given in to bitterness and malice so much that I fear it will indeed settle into a real hatred. We gather around the fires of our contempt and confuse the warmth we feel for the Holy Spirit’s flame. We who declare our tables open to all have, in too many cases, closed our hearts to each other. Not all of us, but far too many of us.

This began long before disaffiliation. We divided long before we started falling apart. The opportunity to stamp out this out when it was but an ember is long past. The trees like torches blaze with light.

We all need to be on our knees in prayer about this.

If we claim to be Wesleyan at all, we should heed Father John’s warning and work as diligently as we can to repent and repair the damage we have done to our own souls.

The problem remains the same

Some of my brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church have been posting an opinion piece by Will Willimon that appeared in The Christian Century. Those who are familiar with the former bishop’s writing, will recognize his signature sarcasm, sense of superiority, and skill with words. I have long read and profited from reading Willimon.

In the piece linked above, Willimon makes the same mistake that lots of my colleagues in the UMC make about those who are disaffiliating and departing the denomination. He does a poor job of using the “active listening” skills all we Methodist elders were taught in seminary. He does not really listen to what they are saying. Or if he is listening, he does a very poor job of repeating back what they are saying in a way that they would recognize as their own. This is a very common fault these days in Methodism.

But Willimon is correct about many things. The UMC will be weaker after losing so many churches and pastors. We will be more of an echo chamber. Division will not solve our problems. And we will still be faced with the central problem facing most Christians in the United States – how do we reach people for the gospel in a culture and among generations that are increasingly resistant to grace?

In many ways, our situation is little different from the one John Wesley describes in “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”

We see, on every side, either men of no religion, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are greatly grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained — a religion worthy of God that gave it.

We have a lot of grief in Methodism these days and lots of grievances, but I wonder what would happen if we were to grieve over what tugged at Wesley’s heart. Can we deny that our churches are surrounded and often filled with men, women, and children of no religion or a dull and lifeless one? What would it take for us to discover the means to change that, to convince them of a better way?

This is not one of those rhetorical questions we preachers sometimes slide into our sermons.

I’m really asking. What would it take for us to convince people of the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we keep the main thing the main thing?