What if, on your way to work between floors in the elevator, someone asked you, “Why are you a Methodist?” That’s shorthand for, “Why have you chosen to live out your discipleship in the context of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition?” How would you respond?
I heard about a feisty little Methodist woman who visited a Baptist Church where the fire-breathing preacher asked, “Why are you a Methodist?” She replied, “Because my parents and my grandparents were Methodists.” He shot back, “If your parents and grandparents had been fools, what would you be?” She said, “I guess I’d be a Baptist.”
The fun thing about that story is that you can tell it either way! But there’s nothing new about the differences between the Methodists and the Baptists. Those denominational labels tend to represent two great branches of Christian theology which go all the way back to the 5th Century, but which took particular form in the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. On one side is the Calvinist or Reformed tradition represented by most Baptists and Presbyterians. On the other side is the Armenian or Wesleyan tradition represented by the Methodists, Episcopalians and others.
The differences came home to me this spring when Time magazine listed “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.” Number 3 on the list was “The New Calvinism.” Here’s the way they described it.
“Calvinism is back … complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination … It offers a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything … by a logic we may not understand but don’t have to second-guess.”
The writer traced the Calvinist influence in America to 17th Century Puritans like Jonathan Edwards but went on to say, “It was soon overtaken in the U.S. by movements like Methodism that were more impressed with human will.” (Time, March 23, 2009, p. 50)
That article came out about the same time I was preaching a couple sermons on Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, one of which became an article in The Tampa Tribune. I said that Young sounded like a good Methodist when he had “Pappa” say, “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace.”
The morning after that article came out, I found a voicemail from a woman who, with tears in her voice, said, “I don’t know anything about the Methodists, but I know that’s what I’ve always believed.”
One reason I live out my discipleship as a Methodist is the Wesleyan balance between God’s providence on one hand and human freedom on the other.
Methodists don’t believe in “an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity … who orchestrates absolutely everything.” We don’t believe that “God has a reason for everything.” Rather, we believe in the God who loves us enough to give us the freedom to reject that love; the God who is relentlessly at work to fulfill his saving purpose for us while never abrogating the freedom he planted within us; the God who invites everyone — not just a predestined few — to receive his love and grace in Jesus Christ.
Charles Wesley described God’s universal love and our freedom to respond in his hymn:
Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.
His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.
This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him Who died for all.
Another reason I’m a follower of Christ in the Methodist tradition is the Wesleyan balance between heart and head.
I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but it’s an oversimplification that points to a real difference. The Reformed tradition tends to focus its attention on what happens in our head. The important thing is to get the truth and get it right in the assurance that right belief in right doctrine is the critical factor in a right relationship with God. We need that emphasis because there’s a lot of flakey theological fluff floating around these days.
But while the Wesleyan tradition is no less concerned about the content of what we believe, its central focus is on what happens in our heart in the confidence that once we get our hearts right, our heads will follow. For the Wesleys, the heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.
Two Wesley hymns capture that balance. One says:
O for a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free,
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely shed for me.
A heart in every thought renewed
And full of love divine,
Perfect and right and pure and good,
A copy, Lord, of Thine.
The second is a hymn that Charles wrote for the opening of their new school at Kingswood.
Unite the pair so long disjoined;
Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love let all men see
In these, when up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.
My third reason for following Christ in the Methodist tradition is the Wesleyan balance of personal piety with social action.
Eddie Fox has traveled the globe as Director of World Evangelism for the World Methodist Council. (We support his work through the Faith Promise Mission Fund.) Every now and then someone will ask him which is more important, personal piety — the individual transformation of the heart — or social action — the transformation of the kingdoms of this earth into the Kingdom of God. Eddie says that it’s just like breathing. Personal piety is the way we breathe in. Social action is the way we breathe out. You know which is most important when you know which you did last.
That’s a good Methodist answer. The Methodists have always agreed with the epistle of James that faith without works is dead. The inner transformation of the heart must be expressed through social transformation of the world in which we live. Some of Wesley’s early followers expressed the spirit of Methodism when they said:
Do all the good you can,
By whatever means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Methodist Christians have always been social activists because they are convinced that the love we feel in our hearts must become the love we express with our hands. Here’s the way Charles Wesley sang it:
Let us join (‘tis God commands),
Let us join or hearts and hands;
Still forget the things behind,
Follow Christ, in heart and mind;
Plead we thus for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown.
My final reason for following Christ in the Methodist tradition is the balance between present and future salvation.
We believe that God’s salvation is not a static thing. It’s not a form of spiritual vaccination. We don’t just “get saved” and then sit around waiting to go to heaven. Salvation is a living, growing, dynamic relationship in which God forgives and heals the brokenness in our lives, relationships and in the whole creation so that we participate in God’s transformation of the world.
Salvation begins now and continues throughout our lives. Wesley used the word “sanctification” to describe the ongoing process by which the grace of God is constantly at work in us to shape our lives into the likeness of Christ. The work begins here and continues within us until it is fulfilled in heaven.
One of Wesley’s greatest hymns begins in the way God’s love meets us in the present:
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.
It begins right here, right now, when we experience the love of God in our hearts. But the last verse of the hymn points to the way that love continues to be at work within us all the way to heaven.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
(You can hear an arrangement of that hymn that absolutely thrills my soul here.)
All of which brings me one of Wesley’s favorite texts. Paul tells the Galatians that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6) He rivets our attention on the love of God at the cross (Galatians 6:14) and declares that “new creation is everything.” (Galatians 6:15)
My prayer is that faith, working in us through that “love divine all loves excelling,” will fulfill God’s new creation in and through “the people called Methodist” at Hyde Park and around the world.
Adapted from a sermon delivered July 26, 2009 by the Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish, retired senior pastor, 1992-2014