Part I of the series “Marks of a Methodist”
What is a Methodist? That’s the first question that confronted me when I took my first ministry job as youth director at Faith United Methodist Church in Bellefonte, PA. I got the job, I think, largely because I was still and officer in the National Guard at the time and the youth group at that church was mostly 7th grade boys—if nothing else, things would be in order!
Within my first few months there I had a meeting with Pastor Dave McCullough, the senior pastor, where he slid a stack of curriculum across the table to me and said, “I want you to teach confirmation.” Now, I had grown up Presbyterian—and not a sort of squishy mainline Presbyterian but hardcore, PCA Presbyterian where I had to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism for my confirmation (if that was the “shorter” one, I’d hate to have read the long one!). I knew nothing about Methodism, even though I married a Methodist and had Methodist friends in high school. Asking around didn’t help because most of the Methodists I knew had never actually been taught anything about Methodism despite growing up in the church.
So, I began to work through the material, dutifully, to discover what this particular brand of Christianity was about. My reading took me to the sermons of John Wesley, which I would read in detail when I went to seminary a couple of years later, but one of Wesley’s sermons struck me in particular—actually, not a sermon so much as it was a tract he wrote. See, it turns out that even people in Wesley’s day were asking the question, “What is a Methodist?”—so much so that Wesley felt compelled to answer the question in public. At the time, many people were being drawn to this renewal movement within the Anglican church, but many more were skeptical about the Methodists in general and Wesley in particular.
Indeed, the name “Methodist” itself was considered to be an insult. It started when John and his brother Charles started a small group of serious-minded Christians while undergraduates at Oxford. Their disciplined spiritual practices earned them scorn from their fellow students who called them names like “Bible moths” or “Supererogation men” (and all God’s people said, “huh?). But the name that stuck was “Methodists” because they had a method to their faith. Wesley actually hated the name and, in the prologue to his 1742 pamphlet The Character of a Methodist said that he wished it “might never be mentioned more, but buried in eternal oblivion.” But since it was a name that couldn’t be shaken, Wesley set out to define for a wider audience what the name “Methodist” actually meant.
In this series, I want to work us through Wesley’s definition of the character of the people called Methodist and I want to do so because, now more than ever, we need to be reminded of who we are. That’s not to say that Methodists have everything right and other denominations have everything wrong (actually, there’s plenty of wrong in what Methodism looks like today) but rather to look deep at our roots and discover what kind of people we have been called to be. In fact, what we discover here first is that Wesley wasn’t a terribly original thinker—you won’t find much here that you wouldn’t find in most classically orthodox Christian denominations. Instead, the genius of Wesley’s thought lies in the marriage of Christian belief with Christian action—it’s about a full-bodied discipleship where following Jesus encompasses all of life. In this series, we’ll learn not only what it means to be a Methodist, but more importantly to be disciples of Jesus who love and serve God and neighbor—our mission at TLUMC.
It’s interesting, at the outset, to see that Wesley begins his treatise by defining what Methodists are not. That’s a good place for us to begin as well. First, Methodists are not those who ascribe to a particular set of doctrines other than those contained in the Bible, which Wesley called “the only sufficient rule of faith and practice” and the creedal statements of classic Christianity. Wesley didn’t start by writing a catechism, in other words; he started with the basics (though he did espouse the differences he had with Calvinism and Roman Catholicism). He goes on to say that Methodists are not to be known by the use of particular words or phrases, or particular modes of dress, or certain spiritual practices. Instead, he said that Methodists are a people who proclaim a full gospel wherein salvation means “holiness of heart and life.”
So, what is a Methodist? Here’s Wesley’s short answer: “A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him.” To be Methodist, in other words, is to be, first and foremost, a people of love. If you read through Wesley’s works you cannot help but discover the prevalence and priority of love throughout. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, but they all trace their roots back to love.
But what kind of love? Here’s where he gets specific. A lot of modern day Methodists have tried to interpret Wesley’s focus on love through the lens of sentimentality or tolerance, the acceptance of every human behavior or idea. As one of my professors at Asbury, Joe Dongell, said, that’s the kind of love that is “easily hijacked by heretics.” The love Wesley is talking about, however, is the kind of love we derive from God as revealed in the Bible – “The love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us.” That’s a dense statement that needs some unpacking.
First, it is “the love of God.” When Jesus was asked what the greatest of the commandments was, he didn’t hesitate to point to Deuteronomy 6, a passage known as the Shema. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.” Jesus would add from Leviticus 19, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” We’ll get to that later in the series, but for now notice that every one of the commandments of God proceeds from this one—the command to love. But it’s not as though we have to conjure up this love from within us, out of our own resources. No, the basis of the great commandment is the fact that we love God because God first loved us. We were created in God’s image to reflect back to God the love he gives to us. The very origin and character of love comes first from God.
This truth is revealed throughout the Bible. In John 13 and 15 Jesus doesn’t just say, “Love one another;” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul doesn’t just say, “Walk in love,” but “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.” The love that we give to God isn’t simply a natural love that we somehow generate from within, but rather it is a supernatural love that is first offered to us as a gift. It’s not sentimental or squishy, it’s the love of God that transforms people into lovers of God. It is not love to be pursued so much as it is love to be received.
A lot of Christians primarily define love by action, that love is something we do. But we forget that in order for us to act in God’s love we have to first receive that love. All the good deeds we do are nothing if they are not preceded by God’s love in us. As Paul puts it in I Corinthians 13, without love, we can be the most pious, dutiful, prophetic people we can try to be but we will only wind up being a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Love of God is the origin of what it means to be a disciple.
And that love, when it is fully present in us, produces both internal and external effects. It is the love of God “shed abroad in our hearts” that enables transformation in us and in those with whom we share it. It is love of God that pushes out the presence of evil in our lives. As the writer of I John puts it in our New Testament lesson, “Perfect love casts out fear.” It is the love of God that produces holiness in us—that our character reflects God more and more. It is the love of God that produces obedience to God in us. Remember Jesus’ words: “If you love me you will do what I command.” And it is the love of God that produces mission through us. God’s love drives God’s redemptive mission in the world and will drive us in mission as well. Without God’s love, there is no mission, only religious activity.
And how do we receive this love and how is it shed abroad in our hearts? That’s the third phrase—it is “by the Holy Ghost given unto us.” It is the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit in us that enables us to love God and shed that love abroad. Think of it as a supernatural infusion of love. Paul understood it this way. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit’s presence in us: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You could argue that all the other fruits are the result of the first: love. We do not naturally produce these fruits on our own—they are the result of the Spirit within us. You can have all of your doctrine correct and your 50 year perfect Sunday School attendance pin on your lapel, but if you are not bearing this kind of fruit, if you have not the love of God given by the Spirit, then it means nothing.
You may have seen this bumper sticker around that says, “Love God. Love Others.” Sounds good, but that’s exactly half the gospel. Before we can love God and others, we first have to be infused with God’s love. We often demand the profusion before we have the infusion and that can lead to deep frustration and despair.
If there’s one thing the people called Methodist have to recapture, it is a robust love for God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given us. When love of God is turned into mere sentimentality or pious obligation it bears no fruit. When we fail to hear the Spirit’s voice within us (if, indeed, the Spirit is even present in us) then we cannot learn to love in a supernatural way and all of our efforts at doing church and being “good Christians” are ineffective and self-serving. As Steve Harper (another one of my professors) puts it in the book we are using as a companion to this series, “God is the first object of our love, because if God isn’t our first love, we end up loving God for reasons that the self seeks.” We create God in our own image and we love God in order to get something in return—be it eternal salvation or an answer to prayer.
But we are to be defined by a different sort of love—how do we receive it? Well, the first step for us is to do just that: receive it! For much of my life I knew, intellectually, that God loved me, but that love was never internalized. I believed it in my head but didn’t feel it in my heart. Incidentally, John Wesley went through a similar crisis in his own life. Much of my life and ministry was dedicated to serving God, working for God, but I never stopped to consider that what God really wanted wasn’t my effort. He wanted me. It took some wise mentors to remind me that God’s first move is always love. That’s something every Methodist should know and remember, always.
Do you know how much God loves you this morning? Really? If you don’t, then let me tell you—it’s this much—so much so that he had his arms nailed open as a reminder. You were created in God’s image—created to be loved and to love, created to reflect and shed abroad God’s love.
And because God loves us, God gives us the Spirit to increase our capacity and infuse us with that love. I need the Spirit within to love God and love others as he loves me. How do we receive the Spirit? All we need do is ask. We empty ourselves of all but love and invite the Spirit to fill us and produce the fruit of love within us. We recognize that we can’t do it on our own. We need this infusion. It’s the first step toward being a true follower of Jesus who loves and serves God and neighbor.
One of the other things I learned while doing confirmation in my first Methodist church was the fact that much of our doctrine is as much sung as it is read and preached. Charles Wesley took the marks of Methodism and put them in verse and music. We opened today with one of those great hymns—Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Did you catch the words?
Love divine, all loves excelling. Joy of heaven to earth come down. Fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
Doctrine is good and necessary. New birth is essential. Worship and sacraments are means of grace. Good deeds are important. But none of them are as great as love.
Who are Methodists? People who have the love of God—love divine, all loves excelling— shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto them.
That’s the first mark of a Methodist; indeed, the first mark of a disciple of Jesus. And it’s a great place to start.
Dongell, Joe. “A Methodist Manifesto.” Lecture at the New Room Conference, Franklin, TN. September 18, 2014.