1/5 in the “WHY Methodism?!?!” Sermon Series
Galatians 6:1-6,7-16; Luke 10:1-11
There has been a storm brewing in the United Methodist Church for many years now. The media and even some Methodists think that the debate is about whether we are willing to marry and ordain our members who identify within the LGBTQAI+ community. And if you are interested in the latest stance that the Minnesota Methodists took to support all of our siblings who feel called to be married or ordained, you can pick up the material on the Connexion Point. But the truth is, that is about people and we should be ashamed at debating people, as though they are an issue. The issue we have actually been debating, is about what it means to be United Methodist. And because of that debate, the church is splintering.
So for the next five weeks, we are going to be focusing in worship on what it means to be Methodist. So many of you have asked me in the past few months, WHY Methodism? What is this really about? I have loaned out all of my Book of Disciplines, and in all my years as a Pastor, that has never happened. But I didn’t want you to just hear about Methodism from me, so I have asked three other Methodist clergy to preach this July: Lynda Ellis, Alison Hendley, and Bill Meier, and to weigh in on their favorite parts of Methodism. And then of course our very own Randy Johnson, an adopted Methodist, will also have a turn.
So this morning we start with, what makes a Methodist a Methodist? What boxes do we have to check if we’re going to continue calling ourselves Methodist Christians? What does a Methodist look like?
Every generation of Christian has had to wrestle with how to follow Jesus. And in Galatians, the very first iteration of the church, Paul is writing to urge them to stick with what’s most important. You see in Galatia, some of the leaders of these new Christian communities who were, of course, Jews, are teaching people that circumcision is the only way to prove you are a follower of Christ. But Paul is writing to tell them that they’re missing the big picture. He says “there are people who are circumcised who are not following God’s law, and there are people who are not circumcised who are faithfully following God’s law.” Circumcision is not a litmus test of faith. Being circumcised does not make you a follower of Jesus. Paul recognizes that having a list of things to check off does not make us faithful to God; what makes us faithful to God, is how we choose to love God and our neighbor.
1700 years later, John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, would say the same thing. And John was a guy who loved lists. He kept a journal constantly his entire life so that he could examine how he was being faithful to God and so he could see the times when he wasn’t and correct it. And yet when it came to the litmus tests of being a Christian, John was remarkably fine with ambiguity. He believed in living life as a reflection of Christ’s love, and there is no checklist for that.
In his sermon, “The Character of a Methodist” Wesley lays out all of the things that do not make someone a Methodist. All of the things that we may be tempted to put on our checklist, like circumcision, that are not really about following Jesus. And the first thing he says, is that being a Methodist isn’t about your opinions. It’s not about your preference of how to worship or who to vote for. It’s not about whether you like this thing or that thing. In fact, Wesley says, “as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” I have often told you that Methodism is a big tent of ideas. Here you see why. Wesley himself believed that we should “think and let think” unless it strikes at the heart of Christianity.
Wesley also said that you can’t tell a Methodist by his or her speech. We are not a people who have to speak a certain way or use a particular language. He would probably be frustrated by the insider language of our acronyms today— when someone tells you that they are part of the UMW or the UMM or the MYF or that we give to UMCOR. That has become Methodist language, but Wesley was clear that we need to speak plainly and in a way that is easy for others to understand what we’re talking about— this is not an exclusive club. We can speak in whatever ways are most helpful in sharing and living out the Gospel.
Wesley then went on to say that being a Methodist is not detectable by our actions and customs. This is why you can go into two or three or five Methodist churches and get completely different music, order of worship, prayers, and customs of congregations. Methodists have always been very flexible about how people worship and what customs are important to us, because we allow for a wide variety— for whatever customs and actions are helpful to communities and individuals to live out their faith in God.
And then Wesley goes on to say that we don’t have a particular scripture that is our slogan or theological stance that makes us Methodist because Methodists don’t stress one scripture over another unless the Bible itself has done so. Here you get a glimpse of the Quadrilateral which Lynda Ellis will talk about next week. Methodists keep an even keel about looking at the big themes of the Bible, using our reason to recognize what comes up time and time again that God is trying to get us to learn, examining the tradition of the church and repenting when we see places we’ve gone astray and listening well to the wisdom of those who have gone before us, and also being open to how the Holy Spirit is working in us today.
So that’s the un-checklist— the ways you won’t be able to recognize or stereotype a Methodist, by Wesley’s estimation. That old saying, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck; is not true for Wesley. He said that we may all walk differently and talk differently, and we can still all be Methodist. So how do you know when you meet a Methodist? Or, in our case, when you are one?
As always, Wesley puts the bar high. He is a believer that each and every one of us can, by God’s grace, reflect Christ’s love. And he says that it’s not even enough to do no harm, do good, and live out practices of faith— a checklist he made up for the small community groups that met together. No, it’s more than that. Wesley says the marks of a Methodist are seen in those who pray without ceasing. The marks of a Methodist are those who are pure in heart— forgiving those around them and accepting forgiveness. Methodists love God and love their neighbor and try to do everything for God’s glory.
So how is this different from other Christians? It’s not. Wesley himself said, “If any [people] say, "Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!" thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both [you] and all [people] knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other [people], by any but the common principles of Christianity.”
Wesley never meant to create a denomination. He wanted to re-form his church; to revive it; to help it once again to follow Jesus. And that’s why so many of you have come from other denominations and have found a home here in the Methodist church. Because the principals are the same. Wesley never meant for Methodists to be exclusive in any way. It has never been about “us” and “them” in the Methodist faith. It’s about how we can all follow God.
But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: "Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Quoted from Jesus) And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.
Wesley was willing and ready to partner with anyone who earnestly desired to follow Jesus and love their neighbor. It’s one of the reasons we Methodists have always been so ecumenical. We don’t think we’re the best! We know that we’re all in this together.
I want you to think for a moment about how freeing that is. This is what made Methodism so absolutely flexible in the early days as preachers rode out on horseback to share the Gospel with towns across America. Taking his cues from Jesus, in sending the disciples out two by two with nothing but the clothes on their back, that is exactly what the early Methodist circuit riders did. They rode out on horseback with a Bible and a collection of Wesley’s sermons. And trusted in God for everything else. That is what made Methodism so compelling as to be shared in all different cultures and languages across the world. These values, to hold to the heart of Christianity and to be flexible in all else, is what made it possible for John and Charles Wesley, white British men who lived in the 1700’s, to be so radical— condemning the slave trade before America was even its own nation; commissioning local pastors which included a few women to preach in churches; empowering lay people to take leadership in leading small groups and Bible studies and love feasts; standing in solidarity with the poor. Wesley believed that being in community with people who were poor was as important to our souls as taking the sacraments. All this is why, if you ask a Methodist what it means to be Methodist, they may pause for a moment and realize they’re not sure what to say. Because we are not chained to any type of worship, to any specific liturgy, to any particular custom; we are not wed to a cultural norm or told how to do things in a particular way. We do everything in our power, albeit never perfectly, to let go of the biases of our culture and to follow Jesus. Our focus, above and beyond all else, is how to love God and love our neighbor and to do that not just in word, but in action.
And perhaps that is the biggest mark of a Methodist— is that we are active in living our faith. We believe in loving God and neighbor not just in speech or in politeness, but by partnering together to change the world.
So if you’re looking for a checklist, I have none for you, even though we Methodists are great at counting things and making lists. But what makes us Methodists, is that we follow Christ in loving God and our neighbor, and we do so without reservation; without hesitation; without excuses. It’s a tall order, but it’s one worth giving our lives to. After all, Jesus said in order to gain our lives, we must lose them. Wesley encourages us, from 300 years ago, to lose everything that is not essential to the Gospel so that we may embody Christ’s love in this world.