The Character of a Methodist

This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 12, 2015.

Readings: Matthew 5:43-48

 

We’re continuing this week our series entitled Methodist INformation where we’re exploring the basic beliefs and practices (polity) of The United Methodist Church. The series is so much more than just passing along information (knowledge). It’s my prayer that through our conversations, in worship and at the table, that we all might be in formation—being formed by grace through faith; becoming like Christ, loving like Christ for the sake of the world God so loved and came to save. Growing in love is the distinctive mark and character of a Methodist, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

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Let’s pray.

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.

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“The Character of a Methodist” is my favorite of John Wesley’s writings. John Wesley is the founder of the Methodist movement. He was an unconventional Anglican priest who wanted to see the Church of England return to its apostolic roots.

Methodism began as a student movement at Oxford in 1729. Led by John Wesley, the Holy Club, as it was mockingly called by the other students, was devoted to a rigorous search for holiness of heart and life. “Members fasted until 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, received Holy Communion once each week, studied and discussed the Greek New Testament and the Classics each evening in a member’s room, visited (after 1730) prisoners and the sick, and systematically brought all their lives under strict review.”[1] For all the mocking of the other students, the method of accountability and support was appealing.

Between about 1733 and 1738, [John Wesley] was overseeing a growing number of Christians who wanted to live their lives according to the gospel and do so in ways that held them accountable to each other. By 1742, this collection of people became an identifiable movement within the larger Christian church.[2]

Wesley wrote, “The Character of a Methodist” to help define “the principles and practice whereby those who are called Methodists are distinguished from other people.” The treatise is more than an informational pamphlet, it is a foundational document that reminds us—those of us who claim to be Methodists and stand within the Wesleyan tradition–of what we’re called to do and be.

The distinguishing marks of Methodists [notes Wesley] are not their opinions of any sort…their accepting this or that scheme of religion…their embracing any particular set of notions…or mouthing the judgments of one person or another. All these are quite wide of the point.

Therefore, whoever imagines that a Methodist is a person of such and such a opinion is sadly ignorant. We do believe that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” This distinguishes us from all non-Christians. We believe that the written Word of God is the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice in our lives.

We believe that Christ is the eternal, supreme God. This distinguishes us from those who consider Jesus Christ to be less than divine.

But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. This means that whether or not these secondary opinions are right or wrong, they are not the distinguishing marks of a Methodist.

Neither are words or phrases of any sort. For our religion does not depend on any peculiar way of speaking. We do not rely upon any quaint or uncommon expressions. The most obvious, easy words which convey the truth most effectively—these we Methodists prefer, in daily speech and when we speak about the things of God. We never depart from the most common, ordinary way of speaking—unless it be to express scriptural truths in the words of Scripture. And we don’t suppose any Christian will condemn us for this!

We don’t put on airs by repeating certain scriptural expressions—unless these are used by the inspired writers themselves.

Our religion does not consist of doing only those things which God has not forbidden. It is not a matter of our clothes or the way we walk or in abstaining from food and drink. (All these things can be good if they are received gratefully and used reverently as blessings given to us by God.) Nobody who knows the truth will try to identify a Methodist by any of these outward appearances.

Nor are Methodists identified because they base their religion on any particular part of God’s truth. By “salvation” the Methodist means holiness of heart and life. This springs from true faith and nothing else. Can even a nominal Christian deny this? This concept of faith does not mean we are declaring God’s Law to be void through faith. God forbid such a perverted conclusion! Instead we Methodists believe that faith is the means by which God’s Law is established.

There are too many people who make a religion out of 1) doing no harm or 2) doing good. (And often these two together.) God knows, we Methodists do not fall into this mistaken way of defining our Christianity! Experience proves that many people struggle vainly for a long, long time with this false idea of religion consisting of good works (or no bad works)! In the end these deluded people have no religion at all; they are not better off than when they started!

Then what is the distinguishing mark of a Methodist? Who are Methodists?[3]

Wesley continues with 37 or so distinguishing practices and principles. Don’t worry, there won’t be a 37 point sermon this morning.

Steve Harper, in his latest book entitled Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), condenses the Wesley’s 37 defining Methodist practices and principles into five marks: a Methodist, he writes, loves God, rejoices in God, gives thanks, prays constantly, and loves others. I appreciate Harper’s summary. Five marks are much easier to remember than 37. I’d highly recommend his books especially to those who are looking to deepen their faith journey and bear fruit for the Kingdom Christ proclaimed. Harper’s five points are great, and undoubtedly true, but I think there is really just one foundational and distinguishing mark of a Methodist: a Methodist grows in love.

The distinguishing principle and practice that defines our religious pursuit is an ever evolving and expanding expression of love. We strive to be as complete in showing love to all as God is complete in showing love to all (see Matthew 5:48, Common English Bible). Methodists strive to “be perfect, therefore, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, New Revised Standard Version). “Methodists,” writes Wesley, “are people who have the love of God in their hearts.” Methodists love God with all their heart, soul and mind; and, they love their neighbors as they love themselves (see Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus Christ shows us the fullness of love; he shows us what it means to love fully and completely. He demonstrates what it means to love completely. A Methodist strives for nothing less. A Methodist strives to give him or herself fully in love to God and neighbor. Following the example of Christ is what distinguishes us

from an unbelieving world, from all whose minds and lives are not ruled according to the gospel of Christ. But we Methodists do not wish to be distinguished at all from real Christians of any denomination. Like them we are seeking that perfection of Christ which we have not yet attained. As Jesus said—whoever does the will of the Heavenly Father is our brother, sister and mother.

And so I beg you, let all true Christians remain united; let us not be divided among ourselves. Is your heart right as my heart is with yours? I ask no further question; give me your hand. For the sake of mere opinions or terms, let us not destroy the work of God.

Do you love God? This is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.[4]

The love that unites us is the love that defines us. Love is the distinguishing and foundational mark of a Methodist: love should define our character.

 

Let’s pray:

God of Perfect Love,

You call me to be perfect even as you are perfect. That is a monumental claim upon my life. Despite the fact that this call to be completely conformed to the image of Christ—to be absolutely Christlike in my life—is offensive to many, I will strive to open my life to the transforming power of your perfecting love. My prayer is that I might become daily more and more like Jesus, your Son.

The perfection to which you call me certainly does not mean that I will ever be free from ignorance or mistakes or infirmities or temptation; neither is it a call to absolute perfection, for only your unconditional love is perfect in this sense.

Rather you call me quite simply to develop such a close and loving relationship with you that I would never want to do anything to separate myself from that love or withhold it from anyone else. You call me to be loving as Christ was loving, in every relationship and at all times. And if I live by your grace in this way, then I will always be able to look you in the face without fear and with love in my eyes.

So I pray sincerely that the blood of Christ might cleanse me from all sin. I know that you are ready to forgive all the darkness of my past and that you are able to fill my heart with your life-transforming Spirit. I know that Jesus is my advocate, a liberator who frees me from the bondage of my past and sets my course for a future filled with reconciling and liberating love.

I pray that you also free me from those thoughts and desires that are contrary to your love. I want to be clean, not only on the outside but also inside. If I am to be like Christ, his love must rule alone on the throne of my heart. I want you to live in me and become the source of all my thoughts, words, and actions.

Purify me from pride, from self-will, and from anger.

Grant me courage to press on toward the mark for the prize of your high calling in Jesus Christ, not because I can make it my own but because you have made me your own. Make me mature in him through the power of your Spirit, and perfect me in your love. Amen.[5]

 


[1] “The Holy Club,” ChristianityToday.com, posted 1/01/1983 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1983/issue2/216.html> Accessed July 11, 2015.

[2] Steve Harper, Five Marks of a Methodists: The Fruit of a Living Faith (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p viii.

[3] From “The Character of a Methodist” by John Wesley (1742) as quoted in Methodist IN-formation, revised and edited by Jacob W. Juncker (July 8, 2015).

[4] From “The Character of a Methodist.”

[5] “Christian Perfection, Prayer” in Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit: 52 Prayers for Today by Paul Chilcote (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001), p123-124.