Two simple words

I’m not sure how many posts this will entail, but I’m going to start a deep dive on John Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” This is one of John Wesley’s standard sermons, which are doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church.

As doctrinal standards, they should be key texts for helping us discern what it means to be Methodist today. These days in the United Methodist Church, it is quite fashionable to quote — and sadly often misquote — Wesley. What I want to do is take the time to actually read him, and, with God as my helper, hear him.

So, without further ado …

1. Nothing can be more intricate, complex, and hard to be understood, than religion, as it has been often described. And this is not only true concerning the religion of the Heathens, even many of the wisest of them, but concerning the religion of those also who were, in some sense, Christians; yea, and men of great name in the Christian world; men who seemed to be pillars thereof. He comes out swinging. That “as it has been often described” is doing so much work. Up until that point in the sentence, you could imagine lots of people nodding in agreement. Yes, yes. Religion is hard to understand and full of complicated ideas and practices. But then Wesley pivots. The man who said he was a plain preacher for plain people tosses much Christianity together with heathen paganism, even while barely granting it the status of Christianity. That reference to those “who were, in some sense, Christians” had clear targets in mind, as must have been his reference to those men who “seemed to be pillars” of the church.

Yet how easy to be understood, how plain and simple a thing, is the genuine religion of Jesus Christ; provided only that we take it in its native form, just as it is described in the oracles of God! Take note champions of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The source of knowledge about the nature of Christianity is found in the Bible. And what’s more, that religion is plain, simple, and easy to understand. Now, Wesley has already shown us that he is well aware of all the ways that human beings make religion complicated and obscure, but he does not accept the fact that we make it a mess as an indication that it is a mess that Jesus has put in our hands.

It is exactly suited, by the wise Creator and Governor of the world, to the weak understanding and narrow capacity of man in his present state. I do not believe Wesley would object to the notion that God is well beyond our understanding and comprehension. His ways are higher than our ways. But Wesley did insist that the religion God has given us is simple. It has to be simple, because we are ignorant. The mystics are correct that there are depths to God that we cannot begin to grasp, but the religion of Jesus Christ is so simple that even we can get hold of it. How else could this be the case? Just as a parent or teacher of small children uses simple and plain examples to instruct, so God has done with us.

How observable is this, both with regard to the end it proposes, and the means to attain that end! The end is, in one word, salvation; the means to attain it, faith.

2. It is easily discerned, that these two little words, I mean faith and salvation, include the substance of all the Bible, the marrow, as it were, of the whole Scripture. So much the more should we take all possible care to avoid all mistake concerning them, and to form a true and accurate judgement concerning both the one and the other. And so here we see outline for the rest of the sermon. Wesley will first consider what we mean when we say the word “salvation” and then consider what we mean by “faith.” This method of preaching is one that Wesley uses a lot. He tells us what it means to be a Christian by giving clear meanings to words. We learn to “speak Christian” as a first step to learning how to be Christian. In this case, we must be clear about what we mean when we speak of salvation and faith.

This point feels as important today as it did in Wesley’s day. In the United Methodist Church today, it is not at all clear that we mean the same things when we use the same words. We appear, in my observation, to be much more interested in “our theology” and “my understanding” than we are in having a common vocabulary that unites us.

I think this is why it is so hard to say these days what makes a United Methodist a United Methodist. When someone says, “I was born and raised a United Methodist. The church I grew up in was as United Methodist as you can get” I’m not sure at all what they mean until they go on to explain it. Usually, what they explain are certain liturgical practices or features of our polity or some vague sense of being warm-hearted and socially concerned.

I’ve never heard any Methodist say anything like: “What makes me a Methodist is my conviction that the true religion of Jesus Christ is plain, simple, and easy to understand, and it can be summed up in just two words: salvation and faith.”

And yet, that is what the first Methodist insisted upon.

If you are at all interested, stay tuned as we move more deeply into this sermon and, perhaps, find a shared language to help us remember who we Methodists are.

Missing tools

If anyone refrains from reproof and correction of ill-doers because he looks for a more suitable occasion, or because he fears that this will make them worse, or fears that they will hinder the instruction of others … in such case their action seems to be prompted not by self-interest but by counsels of charity. What is culpable is when those whose life is different and who abhor the deeds of the wicked are nevertheless indulgent to the sins of others, which they ought to reprehend and reprove, because they are concerned to avoid giving offense to them, in case they should harm themselves in respect of things which may rightly and innocently enjoyed by good men, but which they desire more than is right for those who are strangers in this world and who fix their hope on a heavenly country.

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book I, Chapter 9

I wish my seminary class on pastoral care giving had spent several hours on this passage alone. I wish the hours I spent during Clinical Pastoral Education included training and coaching about moving into and through conversations like the ones Augustine envisions.

We spend so much time in clergy education working on our listening skills and bedside manner, and very little equipping us to enter into hard conversations that are necessary for the salvation of souls.

In the mainline church, of course, we are hampered in having such conversations because so many of our seminary professors and clergy find talk of salvation, heaven, and hell as missing the point.

Developing skills in listening and learning how to be an empathetic and compassionate presence are good things, but if these are the only tools in our pastoral kit, we are missing something fundamental to the work.

Throwing fish at hamsters

Francis Chan is not a United Methodist, but reading some of the marketing materials produced by our denomination make me think of a Bible study he once taught.

Chan was teaching about how he has a hard time reading in the Bible about the church of the New Testament and then looking at the church as it exists in contemporary America. He describes his experience as being like walking into an ice skating rink and seeing people throwing fish at hamsters that are running around on the ice. When he asks them what they are doing, they say, “We’re playing soccer.”

Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

When I read through the #BeUMC website materials produced by United Methodist Communications, I’m not sure where to start. The points of emphasis in the messaging have that unique quality that marketing language often has. It appears to say something without actually saying anything.

Take, for instance, this statement: “We embrace the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition and dedicate ourselves to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

There are words here that sound specific, but they are empty containers that people can pour into whatever they desire. I have no idea what they mean by “the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition,” and I suspect that is the point. If we were to identify what those fundamentals were, we would start to draw lines and make distinctions that are not useful if your goal is to say “you can believe anything and be a United Methodist.”

What is most interesting to me in the overview materials is that they miss something that absolutely jumps out of some of the supporting research. I dug a little deeper — and it is hard to get too deep here — and found this nugget. In the research that supposedly supports the #BeUMC messaging they asked UMC laity what they thought should be the primary focus of the church — saving souls or advocating for social justice.

Go read the overview of the #BeUMC messaging again. Based on that page, what do you think the underlying research would say. Just take a guess. Based on what is written as a summary of their research, how important do you think UMC laity say saving souls should be?

Just as a reminder, John Wesley told the early Methodists we have no business in this world except the saving of souls.

What answer did you come up with?

Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of UMC laity said our main focus as a church should be saving souls for Jesus Christ?

Seven in ten.

And yet, in the materials about the #BeUMC message there is not a word about salvation.

Consider this for a moment. A website produced by the communications and marketing arm of a Christian church makes no reference to salvation, even though the supporting research behind the website notes that 70% of UMC members think the salvation of souls should be the main focus of the church.

As Francis Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”