We’ve come to the conclusion of our “Marks of a Methodist” series. So far, we’ve talked about the fact that a Methodist loves God, a Methodist rejoices in God, a Methodist gives thanks, and a Methodist prays constantly. These are all wonderful marks and foundational to who we are as the people of God.
The problem is that many Christians, many Methodists, stop with these marks. They love God, go to church and praise him, they say prayers of thanks and even pray for themselves and others. All of these are great and vital things, important marks. But it’s in this fifth one—a Methodist loves others—that the rubber meets the road. Perhaps that’s why John Wesley spent the bulk of his writing inThe Character of a Methodist on this particular mark. He realized, as did Jesus, that the authenticity of our love for God is largely evidenced by the way we love others.
This is one of the great gifts of Wesleyan theology. Unlike some Christian theologies that seem to focus more on getting one’s doctrine right, Wesley believed that good theology was about getting our lives right under the Lordship of Christ. He took seriously Jesus’ statement of the great commandment: That we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, AND love our neighbor as ourselves. Wesley scholar Ken Collins has called this a “conjunctive theology”—it’s not either/or, but both/and. It’s personal and its social. Its love for God and love for neighbor. Wesley called it “practical divinity” and “scriptural Christianity—that following Jesus means more than just a personal spirituality. It’s both a It’s a recognition that God’s love always comes to us on its way to someone else. If we fail to love others, then we fail to love God and our faith is dead.
I like how the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones once put it: “An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body, and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost, the other a corpse.”
Wesley saw enough dead Christianity in the Anglican churches of his day, and we see a lot of it in our own time. We have churches that are very good at worshipping God but have no vision for reaching the people around them. Conversely, we have churches that are really good at doing social justice but who wind up looking more like franchises of the United Way than the church of Jesus Christ. Love for God AND love for others creates a people who are fully rounded disciples whose faith is evidenced by action. God’s love flows into us and then from us to the world.
We’ve captured this idea in our church’s mission statement—that our job is to build followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God AND neighbor. We represent that by this target represented by the Jerusalem cross. That our love for God is expressed in what Wesley called Acts of Piety (worship and devotion), and that our love for others is expressed in Acts of Mercy (service and compassion). We demonstrate these in both the public and private spheres of our lives. We recognize that while Christian faith is personal, it’s never simply private. The love God has given us is poured into us and then poured out of us on to others, and not just to people we naturally love, but also on those we don’t know, those whose lives we may not approve of, and even on our enemies.
And so, Wesley takes this last section of The Character of a Methodist and defines the nature of that love for others and what it looks like in real life. As we have said throughout this series, the love of God is designed to change us and shape us into people who reflect God’s image. Here Wesley defines what such a person looks like and how they will act:
First, they are pure in heart. The more the love of God is in us, the more the Spirit of God has filled us, the more we become purified of attitudes contrary to the will of God. We give up anger, revenge, envy, and wrath and, instead, we begin to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control. If these are not naturally flowing from us, then we need to listen more deeply to the Spirit and ask him to transform us.
Those who are shaped in this way, says Wesley, have a “single eye” to do the will of God and not focus on pleasing themselves. If we love God, we will do everything in our power to please God, which includes keeping God’s commandments. Jesus made this clear in John’s Gospel—if you love me, you will do what I command. The one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart will “run the way of God’s commandments.” As Wesley puts it, a Methodist keeps all the commandments of God, “for his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows.”
Our obedience, however, is never for our own pride, but is designed to glorify God with our lives. Everything that we do serves this “great end.” “Whether he sit in his house or walk by the way, whether he lie down or rise up, he is promoting, in all he speaks or does, the one business of his life; whether he put on apparel, or labor, or eat and drink…it tends to advance the glory of God, by peace and good will among men.”
This is where the challenge of discipleship hits 21st century people the hardest. We’re used to living our lives in compartments. I remember a girl I had in a youth group years ago who was caught doing something bad at school by a teacher (who also happened to be a member of our congregation). The teacher said to her, “Corinne, how could you do this? You’re a member of the church!” And the girl said to her, “Oh, please don’t confuse my church life with my school life! They’re two different things.”
We’ve been culturally conditioned to think this way. Words like “obedience” tend to make us cringe because we see ourselves as free agents, even if we’re Christians. We’ve bought into the lie of secular humanism which says that the number one goal of life is to please ourselves (actually, Wesley would call that “original sin”). We’ll worship God as long as God doesn’t mess with our own vision of human flourishing. When God’s commandments or God’s will doesn’t fit that vision, we are quick to kick him back upstairs and push our religion to the private sphere of life. We love God as long as he doesn’t mess with our money, our time, our desires, and our pleasures.
But that compartmentalized life doesn’t work. As E. Stanley Jones said, it’s either a ghost or a corpse—a shadow of the real thing. Obedience to God, glorifying God with our whole lives, is the goal of the Christian life. If there’s one thing I learned in memorizing the catechism it’s that! If we truly love God, our lives will reflect that love in every way. God will either have a say in every part of our lives or God will ultimately have nothing to do with us. We cannot be disciples of Jesus by degrees.
This is Paul’s point in Romans 12, which is why Wesley draws heavily from it. In verses 1-2, Paul urges us to present our bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” We are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” so that we might know and do God’s will. When we do that, everything gets put into perspective. We see ourselves as being no better than anyone else. We discover our vocation within the body of Christ. We can show love without pretending. We can get rid of evil and hold on to what is good. We can love others as members of our family, even those who do evil to us.
Which leads us to the heart of the matter: A Methodist loves others. Again, it’s not just a love that we conjure up from inside us, but rather it’s love enabled by the love of God infused within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s love that enables us to “do good to all”—to neighbors and strangers, to friends and enemies. We do good to their bodies, feeding and clothing those in need, visiting those in prison, but we also do good to their souls—to share Christ with people, to share what he has done for them, and offer them peace with God and a new way of life.
All well and good, we might say. But it’s hard. It’s even overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why so many Christians have settled for membership in the institutional church rather than becoming real disciples of Jesus. It’s easy to compartmentalize membership—I can members of a lot of clubs at once. It’s much more difficult to order one’s entire life around love for God and love for others, especially if it means I’m to love my enemies. If I do that, it’s going to cost me something—some self-indulgence, some sense of my own pride and self-righteous anger, some sense of my own security. Perhaps that’s why so many of our churches cater to people who would rather be religious consumers—asking what’s in it for me—and why so many churches are content to dispense religious goods and services without challenging people to the deeper life of discipleship. We settle for a faith that matches our political agendas and we leave churches when the truth of the gospel conflicts with our visions of the good life.
As G.K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Wesley wanted something more for the people called Methodists. He wanted all to “come unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” He wanted a people who were radically infused with the love of God to the point that they could not help but radically love others in ways that the world found confusing and yet intriguing at the same time. In doing so, he was harkening back to the love that the first Christians demonstrated to the world.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark on the rise of Christianity where his research question was this: How did the Christian movement go from 120 believers in an upper room on the day of Pentecost to 54% of the people in the Roman empire by the year 313? We’d expect that the primary reason was the preaching of the gospel—that’s what we’ve been taught. And while that’s certainly the catalyst, the reasons that people were drawn to the Christians in the first three centuries have less to do with Christian doctrine than with Christian character. For example:
Those communities consisted of the very wealthy and the very poor and well as freedmen and slaves, but all were considered equal. That was radically different than the stratified Roman culture.
When waves of plagues hit the Roman world, the Christians risked their own lives to care for the sick. Mercy was the sign of a character defect in the Roman mind, but it was the nursing of Christians who prevented the plagues from being even more devastating. Many of these Christian caregivers died while giving care to strangers.
Christianity elevated the role of women and many women served in leadership. Women were drawn to Christianity and brought their husbands and families with them.
Thousands of Christians went to their deaths in the waves of persecution that came during those centuries, and yet the church grew as the fortitude of the martyrs impressed many of the pagans and strengthened the church. Rather than take up arms and fight, these Christians went to their deaths without returning violence because that’s what Jesus had taught them. Eventually, the empire stopped killing them because that strategy didn’t work to deter them.
These are just a few examples—but the basic explanation for the rise of early Christianity was…love for others, even strangers and even their enemies. Christianity gained a hearing because of the love demonstrated by Jesus’ followers, not first because of their great theology. That came later. People most often belonged before they believed.
Christendom, however, flipped the script. Persecutions over, it was time to argue about doctrine and start organizing committees. It’s not that doctrine and committees aren’t important, it’s that they’re not the most important. The greatest of these, Paul said, is love.
If the Methodists are to overcome the challenges of the 21st century world, this is the call to which we must return—the call to radical love for God and radical love for others. To see our mission statement as not just something to put on the wall, but something to live out every day, minute by minute. We are infused with God’s love so that we will share it with others in ways that will cause the world to shake its head in wonder. And the world will once again want to know, “Why are you doing this?”
Friends, this is what it means to be a Methodist—what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Can we take this heart? Will we nurture a deep and abiding love for God? Will we rejoice in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ? Will we give thanks in every circumstance because we know God is with us? Will we pray constantly, recognizing that God wants to give us his good will? And then, will we love others as he has loved us? By this they will know that we are his disciples, if we love one another.