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A Chosen People: Methodists and Prevenient Grace

A Chosen People

Ephesians 1:3-14

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video
featuring Jon Stewart of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, where in a piece
about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, who is a Methodist, Stewart said this:

JON STEWART

“Methodists are like the University of Phoenix of religions.
Just send them 50 bucks and click ‘agree’ and you’re saved.” Now whether you
love or hate Jon Stewart, the fact is that his critique is pretty poignant
about what Methodism has become. In a lot of ways, our denomination has
forgotten who we are called to be as Christians and Methodists. As our t-shirts
suggest this morning, it’s time we did some “rethinking” of church. To do that,
we don’t need to focus first on something new, but rather pay attention to our
core identity. 

If you were to ask me to use one word to describe what
Methodism is about, I would tell you that word is “grace.” If you look up
“grace” in the dictionary, you see it defined as “elegance” or “politeness” or
“a pleasing quality.” We think of dancers and skaters being “graceful,” for
example. But in theological terms, grace has a much more powerful meaning when
it is applied to what God is and does. Biblically and theologically speaking,
“grace” means God’s unmerited favor—the fact that God loves us even when we
don’t deserve it. Grace is God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love offered to us
without any prerequisites or hoops to jump through. To put it another way,
grace is God’s movement toward us at God’s initiative.

John Wesley believed, as did many of the theologians of the
Reformation, that our salvation is only possible because God moves toward us by
offering grace. When we receive God’s offer of grace, we are “saved.” Now, in a
lot of Christian traditions, salvation is mainly about being saved from
something—going to hell when you die. I’ve been around a lot of Christians who
seem to be fixated on hell as much as, if not more than, heaven. Their idea of
grace is a theology of “turn or burn,” and salvation acts as a kind of “get out
of hell free” card.

Wesley would say, however, that while we do need saving from sin and its consequences, we are
perhaps even more so saved for
something as well—that God’s grace works in us to shape us into people who are
holy and set apart as people who reflect God’s own image. God’s grace enables
us to become the people we were created to be from the beginning—a people who
can walk with God and know the power of God in our own lives in the present.
Wesley was concerned as much about how we live as about how we die, and his
theology was less about a formula for getting people into heaven than it was
about a way to get heaven into people—the way of grace.

Using Scripture as his primary source, Wesley thus
understood grace as the means by which God works a change in us, transforming
us into God’s own image, making us fully whole and fully human in the way God
meant for us to be from the beginning. Wesley would say that God’s grace comes
to us in three movements, which he called prevenient, justifying, and
sanctifying grace. Everything that Methodist Christians do and believe flows
forth from this understanding of grace.

So, today we’re going to look at the first movement –
prevenient grace. Now, here’s a word you have probably never seen before.
“Prevenient.” It comes from the Latin praevenire, which means to “come before,
precede, or anticipate.” Prevenient grace is thus the grace that “comes before”
our conscious knowledge and love of God. It is the grace that God offers to us
even before we know who God is or what God is up to.

Prevenient grace recognizes that God has known us and cared
for us from the very beginning of our lives. Think back to our Call to Worship
this morning, which comes from Psalm 139 – one of the great psalms that remind
us who we are in God’s eyes. Listen again to the Psalmist’s words – “O Lord,
you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…where
can I go from your spirit?…verse 13 – “For it was you who formed my inward
parts ; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am
fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very
well.” That reminds me, too, of the word God gives to Jeremiah when he calls
the young man to be a prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart.” God’s grace, God’s love, knows us
intimately before we are even aware of it (Jer. 1).

The apostle Paul understood this and reminds the church at
Ephesus that they, like Paul himself, were chosen in Christ “before the
foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…” that
they were “destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ” (Eph.
1:4-5). We were created for relationship with God, to be God’s own children
through adoption, made possible by grace. We are all “destined” for a
relationship with God, but Wesley would say that we have a choice whether or
not we embrace it. Grace is freely offered to everyone, regardless of their
past—as Paul will say to the Ephesians in chapter 2, “You were once dead
through your sins, all of us were, but God made us alive through grace.” God
chose us first, and invites us to choose him, too.

Now, as many of you know, I am an adopted child. My adoptive
mom used to tell me all the time that I was “chosen.” But like a lot of adopted
children, I have also understood the other side of that equation. Studies have
shown that a lot of adoptees struggle to define their identity because, often,
they come into the world as the byproduct of a mistake and can come to believe
that they themselves are a mistake. The result can be either a sense of despair
and low self-esteem, or a driven-ness that seeks to prove one’s worth to those
who gave them up, even if it was for a good reason.

A couple of years ago, I learned some information about my
birth parents, whose names I still don’t know. I was born in a Salvation Army
hospital in Pittsburgh to a 24 year-old unmarried woman. My father, according
to the caseworker, was an officer in the Salvation Army—a pastor. I am the
product of a scandal, a mistake. But when I read Scripture, I realize that I am
not a mistake—I have been chosen by God. All of us have been chosen from the
foundations of the world, from the time we were born, no matter the
circumstances—to be children of God.

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God does not make
junk, and God does not make mistakes. God has formed us and created us for a
purpose, to be loved and to love, and to reflect God’s own image. We are all
adopted children. We are all chosen!

Problem is that we may begin to believe another script about
ourselves. Our understanding of our worth, our chosen-ness, our reflection of
God’s image, is distorted by what the Bible calls sin. When we don’t know or
understand God’s grace and God’s plan for us, we can begin to believe that we
are something else altogether. We can begin to believe that our worth is bound
up in things like success, wealth, power, and control. We start to search for
meaning in material things and medicate the pain of our loss of identity with
addiction, anger, and despair. Sin moves us farther and farther away from who
God has called us to be.

And yet, God still does not give up on us. Even when we
don’t know God or have walked away from God, God still pursues us. Prevenient
grace is God’s way of calling us back to himself. It’s a reminder of the truth
that God is always moving toward us.

 Some commentators have described Wesley’s concept of
prevenient grace as God “wooing” us—much like one lover “woos” another into a
relationship. That’s a great word, “woo.” How does God “woo” us?

Well, think about this. How did you “woo” your spouse or
your boyfriend or girlfriend? Let me talk to the guys for a minute, because
I’ve been there. Did you approach her like a lawyer, building a case for
yourself? Did you present her with a four-point plan and a Powerpoint
presentation outlining your good qualities and how dating you would offer a
wonderful plan for her life? No! (well, maybe did…I’d love to know how that
turned out!). If you were really wooing her, you’d want to be close to her, get
to know her story, tell her your own story. You’d enlist mutual friends to tell
her about your good qualities (most people get introduced to each other via
mutual friends). You would know that you can’t force her into a relationship
with you, you want her to choose you freely.

It’s an imperfect metaphor, so work with me here, but I
would argue that God pursues us in the same way. God does not come at us with
four-point plans, arguments, and flip charts—God comes at us with a story, his
story, and with an unconditional love. God reveals his love for us through the
beauty of creation, a love letter designed for everyone. God comes to us
through the witness of others who love him, who tell us about his love for us.
God never forces us into a relationship with himself—it is always offered as an
invitation.

God chooses us, leads us, calls to us. I find it interesting
that the Greek word that is translated as “chosen” literally means “spoken
forth.” God has spoken us forth and has spoken for us. We are “spoken for” to
use the old language of betrothal!

But the invitation is not enough to save us and make us
whole. We have to accept it in order for that new relationship to begin.
Prevenient grace, when we become aware of it, convicts us of the reality that
we are not what we were meant to be. Prevenient grace makes us aware of the God
who is inviting us and reminds us that we are not worthy of that relationship
because of the sin that separates us from God. Prevenient grace can begin to
turn us toward God, however, and prepare us to accept God’s invitation. Next
week we’ll talk about justifying grace—the grace that we experience when we say
“yes” to God.

Another important thing to remember, too, is that our
salvation isn’t for us only. God wants us to be whole so that we can
participate with him in the salvation and redemption of the whole creation.
God’s grace comes to us always on its way to someone else.

John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to describe God’s
movement of grace. In that model, prevenient grace is the porch. When we were
buying our new home, one of the criteria for me was that it had to have a
porch. When I was a boy, my grandparents had a wonderful screened porch on
their old farmhouse, and I used to love to sit out there reading a book or
listening to the Pirates game on the radio, watching the cars and the people go
by on the road out front. From the porch you could see people coming, you know
who is pulling into the driveway by the barn. I could hear my cousins calling
me out to play ball from the porch.

It’s on the porch that we greet people for the first time,
it’s there that we observe the world going by in front of us. It’s on the porch
where hands are shaken, conversations held, and lemonade shared. A porch
invites a new relationship.

One of the reasons I love being a Methodist pastor is that
we have a theology of God’s grace that meets people where they are. As we
talked about last week, we celebrate an open communion, which extends the
invitation of God to everyone. We want everyone to be invited into a new
relationship with God, to step on to the porch and get to know that God who
loved them enough to die for them. We extend an open invitation because we
believe that God will meet anyone who will respond to his offer of grace and
love.

In the same way, we not only baptize those who are old enough
to confess their faith in Jesus Christ, but also infants. Infant baptism is a
sign of God’s prevenient grace – a reminder that God is at work in the life of
this child even before the child knows who God is. Parents take vows, promising
to love this child and raise them so that he or she will know how much Christ
loves them and respond to his grace. Confirmation is the time when we invite
those baptized young people then to step through the door of justifying grace
and accept the relationship that God has been offering them all along. For
Methodists, baptism is always more about what God is doing through his perfect
grace, than it is about our often inadequate and halting response. We don’t
claim our baptism as a sign of how righteous we are, but as a mark of a grace
and love that we cannot possibly earn, only receive.

No matter if you’ve been a Christian (or even a Methodist)
your whole life, or whether you are coming here for the first time and
wondering what all this about, I want you to hear today the good news that God
is extending an invitation to you – an invitation to a new life. You have been
chosen. You are spoken for. You are not a mistake. You are beloved.

This is the message we Methodists should be taking to those
around us, particularly those whose image of God has become distorted. We have
been called to approach people with grace, not judgment, with invitation and
not condemnation. Prevenient grace is a doctrine that teaches us that God is
always and everywhere pouring out his grace on people, even to those who don’t
yet acknowledge or love him. If God is doing that, we must be doing the same. If
we have experienced God’s grace, we are always looked for ways to share it with
others.

Methodists have nothing to boast about or feel superior
about, because we are all about grace. Grace is what defines us. We are chosen
people—Christians are a chosen people–not because we are pious and perfect,
but because of God’s unconditional, unmerited, and unbounded grace. We don’t
burn Korans to protest 9/11, we don’t hate people who aren’t like us, we don’t
see faith as a formula, and we don’t assign people to heaven or hell. We trust
instead in God’s grace for us and for the world, because God is the one who
chooses God’s people. We proclaim that grace through our worship and our
service, and we join God in offering it to the world, praying that the world
will respond to God’s invitation to be whole again.

My prayer is that we are no longer a people who are defined
by a lack of identity, but a people whose identity is all about grace!

 

 

 

The One Thing Needful

Text: Philippians 3:7-17

One of my all-time favorite movies is “City Slickers” –
starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. I always like movies that have
memorable lines in them and this one has one of the best. If you’re not familiar
with this flick, Billy Crystal plays a salesman who is approaching middle age
and wondering where his life is going, and he and a couple of friends head out
to a dude ranch for a couple of weeks to get away and contemplate the next
chapter in their lives. Jack Palance plays the tough old cowboy who turns out
to be a philosopher. Take a look at this scene:

(Note: If you're offended at Jack Palance's reference to, er, "crap," remember that the word that is translated as "rubbish" in Paul's letter to the Philippians is essentially the same word as Palance uses, just cleaned up by the translators)

One thing.

Every time I watch this movie I’m struck by that question,
and the more I think about it the more I realize that the failure to recognize
that one thing is probably the biggest issue that most people deal with.

A USA Today poll a few years back asked the question, “If
you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Some of the answers were
predictable, like “Why is there suffering in the world,” while others were
intriguing like, “Where do socks go when they leave the dryer?” But the number
one question people wanted to ask God was this: “What is the purpose of my
life?” In other words, what’s the one thing?

Our culture seems to driven by the pursuit of purpose.
Pastor Rick Warren wrote a bestselling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” but it
didn’t seem to quell the hunger for meaning. People are riding to and fro
across the landscape looking for purpose in things like wealth and power, in
sex, in relationships, in work or in getting 15 minutes of fame on TV or
YouTube. Some have pursued so many things that they are exhausted, while others
still haven’t found what they’re looking for and decide to check out by
spiraling into addictions and self-destructive behaviors. Most people seem to
be living their lives by simply sticking their finger in the air to see which
way the wind is blowing today.

It seems so simple. One thing. But somehow we can’t see it.

The good news, however, is that God does. God created us for
one thing—one purpose. When I was younger and in confirmation, we had to
memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question of which was:
What is the chief end of man? (What is humanity’s purpose) – to glorify God and
enjoy him forever. Wesley would put it a little differently: “the one thing
needful is the renewal of our fallen nature.” – in other words, to get back to
the beginning, to become the people God created us to be from the beginning.

Our problem is that we can’t see it because there’s
something blocking the view—something the Bible calls “sin”. This morning, as
we get into our series on the Method in Methodism, it’s important that we take
the advice of the real trail boss and pay attention to the one thing that
matters

A lot of Christian traditions talk a lot about original sin,
believing that sin is an inseparable part of our human DNA. We are thus
predestined for the eternal trash heap unless God does something for us. The
doctrine of original sin takes a very low view of humanity, which many in the
Reformed tradition call “total depravity.”

We know that is certainly true—humans are broken by sin and
are helpless to overcome it on their own. What we forget, however, is that,
biblically speaking, original sin only followed what Wesley called “original
righteousness.” God created humans in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27), and
called that creation “very good.” These original humans had a face to face
relationship with God, a relationship of complete openness and intimacy where
nothing was hidden. They reflected the very nature of God.

But these humans also had a free will, which meant they
could make choices. God knew that for these humans to be authentically in
relationship with him, they needed to be able to choose that relationship
freely. Love must be authentically chosen in order to be real. The snake
reminded them that they had a choice, and they chose against God, which is sin.

The question, however, is did they HAVE to choose against
God? Could they have chosen to remain as God’s perfect image? Well, think about
us…do we have to sin because we’re human, or can we choose otherwise? Wesley
defined sin as a willful choice against God, not an involuntary state of being.
If love is an act of the will, then it follows that sin must be as well. 

Sin has been the human family’s problem from the beginning,
and if you know anything about family systems you know that family traits are
passed down not only through our genes but also through the systemic emotional
and relational patterns we retain from generation to generation. Those systemic
patterns, while influential, aren’t necessarily prescriptive. Just because your
family has three generations of alcoholics, for example, doesn’t mean you HAVE
to become an alcoholic. You can choose otherwise, recognizing that it’s still a
difficult choice. We all have the disease…only God has the cure.

Sin, willful rebellion against God, is a human family trait
passed down from generation to generation, but it doesn’t mean we have to
continue the pattern. We can make the decision to turn toward God and allow God
to reshape us, reform us, and help us grow into healthy, whole, and holy
people. We can choose God because we know that God is always choosing us!

Methodists believe what Paul believed—that the one thing,
the most important thing in life, the goal of the Christian life, is to be
formed in the image of God which is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ—the one
who has chosen us and loved us from the beginning. I love Paul’s language
here—verse 12 – “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

For Paul, for John Wesley, for us—the “one thing” that
matters is being renewed in the image of God. That renewal is not an event, but
a life-long pursuit. Paul didn’t believe he had arrived there yet and neither
did Wesley, but they understood that they were on the way. To be on the way,
however, means leaving some things behind.

Paul left behind a life that other Jews would have found
admirable and respectable. John Wesley left behind the comfort of being a
parish priest. These weren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they were
nothing compared to the irresistible love of Christ. Paul traveled the ancient
world risking life and limb to share that love. John Wesley risked the ridicule
of his peers and preached in the open air to people whom proper society had
forgotten. If we are to know Christ, to become like Christ, to be formed in the
image of Christ, then we have to be willing to put that one thing ahead of all
others.

How do we get there? How do we begin to form an identity in
Christ? How are we to become renewed in his image? What does Christian maturity
look like? (after all that’s part of our church’s purpose statement)?

Well, we’re going to talk about that over the next three
Sundays, because these questions are at the heart of who we are as Christians
and Methodists.

Next Sunday, we’re going to talk about how God pursues a
relationship with us. Methodists believe that God always makes the first move
toward us, wanting to make us his own. Wesley called that “prevenient grace” –
the grace that God offers even before our own knowledge and love of God. Unlike
a lot of popular religion that seeks to find God somewhere out there, we
believe that God comes looking for us, just as he looked for those first humans
in a Garden long ago. We have our “Back to Church” Sunday next week, and it’s a
great time for us to invite others to hear how much God loves them and wants to
change their lives forever. 

The next Sunday we’ll talk about justifying grace—when we
respond to God’s offer of grace, we are given new life and new birth. The
barrier of sin is removed and we can begin to pursue the one thing that matters
most—becoming the people God created us to be. We’ll touch on baptism and how
that is a sign of this new life. 

Then, on the 19th, we’ll talk about sanctifying
grace—the grace that helps us move from new birth to maturity in Christ. It’s
the process by which we grow more intentionally into the image of God.

We don’t need to keep searching for the one thing—God wants
to bring it to us through his grace!

The Method in Methodism – Why I Preach It…

EDITOR'S CORNER: Too bland for our own good?Robin Russell, Sep 1, 2010

via www.umportal.org

I think Robin's column is dead on here about the identity crisis in United Methodism. One of my convictions as a Methodist preacher is that our doctrines (and, yes, we have them!) provide a grace-filled, biblically sound, and transformationally-focused framework for introducing people to Christ, helping them to mature in faith, and equipping them for ministry in the world. I invite you to join us this Sunday as I continue a new sermon series, "The Method in Methodism!"

Methodists and The Lord’s Supper

Communion-2  This Sunday we celebrate The Lord’s Supper at all three of our worship services, and since we’ve entered into a new sermon series on “The Method in Methodism” I thought it might be helpful to offer a bit of instruction on what “open communion” means for United Methodists.

The basic answer is found in our communion liturgy, “The Service of Word and Table,” which is in our Hymnal and Book of Worship. One of the reasons I love the liturgy is because it teaches us while we are worshipping, helping both congregants and visitors to know precisely what we believe and how that belief is worked out in practice. For The Lord’s Supper (which can also be called Holy Communion and the Eucharist), the basic answer to who is welcome at the table is found in the words of invitation:

“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live at peace with one another.”

Notice the three-fold criteria: love for Christ, repentance of sin, and peace within one’s relationships. All three are requisite for approaching the table and the liturgy affirms that through the rest of the Service of Word and Table.

In the order of worship, communion comes after the sermon, which is often followed by a creed or affirmation of Christian faith. This allows us to state our faith in Christ and declare our love for him. The Invitation to communion is then immediately followed by a prayer of confession, which allows us to examine ourselves in light of Christ’s sacrifice, to confess our sins individually and corporately, and begin the process of repentance. The prayer of confession is then immediately followed by the “Passing of the Peace,” which is not the same as merely greeting those around you. The “Peace” has been a part of the communion liturgy since the beginning because it allows people within the community of faith to go to one another to ask for or offer forgiveness for sins against one another. Having declared our faith in and love for Christ, and having confessed our sins to God and each other through the liturgy, we can now all approach the Lord’s table with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24).

The “open” part of our communion thus means that all who would embrace the three-fold invitation may come regardless of their denominational affiliation or even their past life of brokenness. Wesley believed that communion should be available to all, even to those who may be declaring their love for Christ, asking forgiveness for sin, and beginning a life of peace for the first time that day. Open communion allows for the possibility that someone could come in to a church, be inspired and converted through the Holy Spirit working through the words and spirit of the liturgy, confess their love for Christ, confess their sins, and begin a new life–all at Christ’s table. In this sense, communion is an altar call–an invitation to receive the Christ who died for our sins.

Methodists recognize that there’s a biblical precedent for this kind of communion. Jesus spent a great deal of his time eating with “sinners” at various tables throughout his ministry (Luke 15:2, among other verses). He even ate at table with the very one who would betray him. Jesus still eats with sinners every time we gather at his table, for none of us is “worthy” on our own. All of us are in need of the grace of God offered through the broken body and shed blood of Christ. While baptism is the one-time sacrament whereby we profess our faith in Christ and are initiated into the life of the church, communion is the regular sacrament that reminds us that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

I saw this beautifully illustrated once when I was serving communion at a wedding at which I was officiating. After the service, one of the bridesmaids came up to me in tears and said (I’m paraphrasing), “I have to tell you what happened to me today. As you were saying the prayer before communion, I felt something happening in my soul–a really deep sense that God loved me enough to die for me. I came to the altar rail shaking with that reality. I was just a bridesmaid here, but today I feel like I’m the most important person in the world to Jesus. I feel incredibly loved.” That’s grace!

None of are truly worthy of holy communion, but the apostle Paul does warn us that the meal can be eaten in an “unworthy manner.” In I Corinthians 11, Paul instructs the Corinthians on proper decorum at the table. Abuses were taking place in that fledgling church because there were divisions in the body between rich and poor, which reflected the prevalence of the Greco-Roman class system. Some in the church, probably the wealthier members who did not work during the day, would arrive at the meal (which was a full meal) and begin indulging so much that there was little left for the poorer members who were likely showing up late. Paul thus says, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper (11:20),” because the Lord’s Supper is the great equalizer–a time when each member of the church is confronted with his or her sin and the need for God’s grace regardless of their status or wealth. Paul thus urged them to “examine” themselves (11:28) before partaking so that all could participate with one another as the Body of Christ where each member has equal status. It’s no coincidence that Paul goes on from here to describe that Body in chapter 12!

Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is a means of grace that uses ordinary elements, bread and cup, to convey deeply spiritual truth. When we gather together in worship around the table, we know that Christ is present, and when Christ is present things can and do change in the lives of people, no matter where they have come from. We do not know the hearts of those who join us as we come forward, but we trust that Christ does. We do not check people’s eligibility for communion at the door because none of us is eligible without grace. It is Christ’s table, and he gets to set the guest list. We don’t come to the table as finished Christians, but always as people on the way to knowing the breadth, depth, and love of God in Christ.

That’s what “open communion” means to me.

A Brand from the Burning

John-wesley-150x150  One of the things that has been intriguing to me as we moved
back to Colorado from Utah is the difference in church cultures. In Utah, of
course, the dominant religious culture was the Mormon church, which really
affected the whole culture. It was interesting to be in a culture where, as a
Protestant Christian, you were definitely a minority (only 21 UM churches in
the whole state) and when you live in Utah a lot people outside the state make
assumptions about you. We were camping over here in Colorado once, for example,
and parked next to another Christian family who seemed to kind of avoid us for
awhile. We finally got together for a conversation and they visibly relaxed
when they figured out we weren’t Mormons (I don’t know what they expected a
Mormon family to do differently while camping, but…). I thought it might be
interesting to get a bumper sticker for the trailer that said, “We’re from
Utah, and no we’re not…”

Coming back to Colorado and especially the Colorado Springs
area, though, Protestant churches are everywhere—some 500 or so I heard
somewhere. Everywhere you drive you see churches or banners announcing new
churches. We’re a much more “churched” culture here, though a very large part
of the population has no church affiliation.

That got me thinking about us—how does TLUMC fit into the
mix? We’re not in competition with other churches (we’re all part of the Body
of Christ), but every church has something different to offer. What’s our
contribution? What makes us unique and what niche do we fill in the Tri-Lakes
community?

Well, I would argue that we Methodists have a unique
contribution to make to the Body of Christ and a message that can appeal to
those who are seeking a different experience of faith–one that combines reason
and intellect, deep personal and corporate spirituality, and an emphasis on
changing the world by serving others in light of God’s kingdom. In other words,
a faith that combines head, heart, and hands. Our identity as Methodists, while
certainly not making us better or more “right” than other Christian traditions,
does give us a unique voice and an opportunity to reach people for Christ in
ways that others may not.

This sermon series explores some of those unique and vital
beliefs and practices that we can offer to our community and, when we embrace
them, can help to transform us as well. Some of you are long-time Methodists,
others of you come from different denominational backgrounds, and some of you
are new to faith. What I want to do over the next several weeks is to bring us
all to a deeper understanding of who we are and who we can become as a church
and as disciples of Jesus through the lens of the Methodist tradition.

To do that, however, we need to talk a little about how we
got here. As a historian I’m a little biased, but I really believe that
understanding the history and evolution of a group or an idea has a way of
putting the present into context, so we’ll start our series this morning by
looking at some church history.

You may recall
that in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation began when
Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, nailed his 95 theses or critques of the Roman
Catholic Church on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. Others followed
suit, bucking the power of the Church which had essentially ruled church and
state in the Western world for some 12 centuries. In England, the reformation
found its legs not so much on religious grounds as it did in the personal
circumstances of the English King Henry VIII, who wanted to divorce his wife,
Catharine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn instead. The Pope refused to
authorize the divorce, so Henry declared that he was starting his own
church—the Church of England, which would eventually become (and still remains)
the state church. The Church of England is also known as the Anglican Church
and the Episcopal Church in America retains ties to it today.

 
   By the 18th century, the Church of England,
however, had become a rather monolithic power in England, much like the
Catholic Church had been for centuries before. The Church was more involved in
the affairs of state than in spiritual matters. Priests were often absent from
their posts, collecting pay while having others perform their work in absentia.
The lines between poor and rich in pre-industrial England were sharply divided
even in the church as the rich purchased subscriptions to the state church for
political reasons and sat in pews while the poor were largely kept outside.
Religion and politics were one and the same and the result was to the detriment
of both.

 
   It was into this climate that, in 1703, John Wesley was born to
his parents: Samuel, who was an Anglican priest serving the Epworth parish and
his mother Susanna. John was the 14th of 19 children Samuel and
Susanna would have together, though only 9 survived to adulthood. Samuel was
the authoritarian clergyman, but Susanna was herself a woman ahead of her time.
She was educated, spirited, and a natural leader. She taught all of her
children to read, even the girls, and to her husband’s consternation led Bible
study meetings in the parsonage when he was away—something that was certainly
scandalous for a woman to do at the time, but more than 200 people would show
up. Susanna was a woman of God and a woman ahead of her time.

 
   As the local parish priest there in rural Epworth, Samuel Wesley
was the designated representative of the King. When the royalty decided to
drain the marshes around Epworth, from the which the people gained their
living, they took out their anger on the Wesleys.

When John was 6
years old, the Epworth parsonage was engulfed in a massive fire that some
historians believe was set by Samuel Wesley’s parishioners (if you ever get mad
at me, by the way, please don’t burn down our house!). John was miraculously
saved from the fire, and his parents called him “a brand plucked from the
burning” – believing that he was designated to do something important in his
life.

John grew up and,
as was expected, entered college to study for the ministry. His younger brother
Charles would join him a couple of years later. They attended Christ Church
College at Oxford. Oxford at the time was considered to be more of a social
club for the rich and so the Wesley brothers were a bit odd considering their
poor roots. It was there, however, that the Wesleys joined an emerging group
called The Holy Club—a small group of students who were seeking a measure of
spiritual devotion within the walls of the increasingly secular institution.

 
   Picture, if you will, a group of students who rose very early in
the morning for prayer and Bible study, who held one another accountable for
their failures, and who saw their mission as reaching out to the poor, even
going to visit prisoners in the local jail. They read the scriptures for 6
hours a day, fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, kept meticulous journals and
generally maintained a strict discipline of life. They were considered by their
peers to be religious fanatics and were thus called things like “Bible Moths”
or “Sacramentarians” or “Methodists.” The name stuck, for they truly did have a
method to their spirituality. Imagine, however, having your movement named
after an insult!

 
   John and Charles would eventually be ordained as Anglican priests,
but John especially was still searching for a faith that went beyond the
formality and regimen of the Church of England. He was never satisfied with
himself or his faith and was constantly seeking assurance that he was doing and
believing the right things. He went to Georgia in the American colonies on a
mission to the prisoners and Indians there…not so much because he was zealous
about converting them to Christian faith but because he was searching for
assurance of his own faith. The trip was a disaster—his methodology was a
turn-off to the people in Georgia and a failed romance that ended badly sent
him back to England confused.

 
   It was on returning, however, that all the discussion and
wrestling and discipline he had subjected himself to began to pay off. In May
of 1738, he had a kind of conversion of his own as he was listening to someone
read from Luther’s commentary about the book of Romans. Suddenly, he had an
assurance—a heart “strangely warmed” and knew that God’s grace was available to
him and, indeed to everyone.

 
   It was then that the Methodist movement really began to take off.
Wesley began to preach in the open air among the poor, the people whom the
Church of England had ignored. He stood in marketplaces, at the entrance to the
coal mines, and anywhere else he could proclaiming to the people that God’s
grace and love were available to all. Wesley encountered resistance from the
state church as we might imagine, yet he never left it. Methodism was always
designed to be a reform movement within the church. That would eventually
change, but in its early stages the movement was about connecting people to God
in ways the church had failed to offer.

 
   Methodist “societies” formed all over England, characterized by
small groups where people held one another accountable for their spiritual
disciplines. To be a Methodist meant more than just showing up on Sunday—it
meant a life of devotion to worship, to individual prayer and study and to acts
of compassion and justice among the poor. Wesley himself wrote a book called “A
Primitive Physic” which was essentially a health manual that promoted simple
cures for various diseases (he was particularly fond of cold water and electrification
as remedies, by the way). The poor could come to a Methodist meeting house and
receive these primitive medications free of charge—a kind of early health care
system.

 
   Methodists also established schools to educate the poor and
ministered in places that proper English society would not go—to the inner
cities and to the poorest villages. When Methodism came to America in the mid-8th century,
it became the first religious group often to arrive on the frontier, bringing
good news to people trying to eke out an existence in a hostile environment.

 
   The point here is not to canonize John Wesley for sainthood. He
had issues, like we all do. He was a control freak, perhaps even a bit
depressed, had trouble with women, was very rigid and demanding. His theology
was not completely original and he seemed to change his mind often throughout
his life. He was probably not the person you would want as your pastor. His own
spiritual searching, however, helped him focus on a form of Christianity that
was different than the other Protestant reformers, who were mostly Calvinists
that believed that God had already ordained who was saved and who wasn’t.
Wesley believed that humans had a God-given will to choose a relationship with
God for themselves—to choose the God who has chosen them in love.

A theology of
grace that was available to everyone, the practice of spiritual disciplines to
help people grow in the knowledge and love of God, the discipline of meeting
together regularly for accountability and support, and engagement with the poor
and marginalized were the foundational principles of the movement. It grew
largely because it saw faith as being less about the trappings of institutional
religion and more about the relationships we have with God and each other.

Paul Wesley
Chilcote, a Wesley scholar, says that the uniqueness of Methodist lies in its
“conjunctive theology” – not a system of religious either-ors, but a
relationship of both/ands. In that way it is a balance of theology and
practice, belief and action, faith and works, public and private.

I want to offer
you a visual way to think about this balance (our General Board of Discipleship
came up with this). It illustrates what Methodism is all about. 


Jerusalem Cross Logo 

The Christian life
is a balance between the public and private, the spiritual and the temporal,
between devotion to God and service to others. All of this is infused with an
understanding God’s transforming grace. It’s the grace that Paul talks about
over and over again in places like the passage we read from Romans – grace that
doesn’t condemn but transforms!

Over the next
several weeks we’re going to be looking at Methodism, but we’ll be doing so by
looking at ourselves. John Wesley was a flawed person, just like all of us—but
he was working at being better and working to know God better. He believed that
God could transform us through his grace into the image of God we were created
to be, that we could be free from sin and become more and more like Christ
through God’s grace and love. A lot of Christian traditions emphasize being
“born again,” but don’t give you a way to “grow up” in faith, moving toward a
level of spiritual maturity. Some traditions are focused on when a person was
“saved.” Wesley was concerned about where a person is in the present. Are you
saved now? Are you growing in God’s grace today? Is your faith transforming you
day by day? Methodism offers a method, a process that is both biblical and
transformative.

A lot of churches
today are focused on being consumer-oriented. I went to two megachurches during
my time in Kentucky. One had free coffee and cupholders in the seats. Another
had you pick up your communion elements on the way out the door. Lots of people
are attracted to these full-service, seeker-sensitive churches. A lot of what
they do is pretty cool, but there was something missing—there was no cross.
There was no discussion of the fact that following Christ means bearing a
cross. There was a lot of talk about God can make you feel good, but less about
the hard work of transformation. I don’t want to run that model down because it
works for a lot of people, but I wonder if there isn’t a more organic and
long-lasting way of forming people into disciples of Christ?

Early Methodism
was all about transforming the lives of people. The early Methodist class
meetings all began with the same question: How is it with your soul? Where are
you in your relationship with God? Where is your life out of balance? What sins
are your struggling with? Are you growing into the person God has called you to
be? Who asks those questions today?

My prayer is that
over the next several weeks you will begin to see that having a method for
knowing God and growing in his grace will make a difference in your life. I
also think it will make a difference in who we are together as a church. We
want to move toward balance, toward maturity, toward the fullness of Christ.