Monday, June 22, 2015

A Method (ist) to our Madness

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
1 Peter 1:10-23
Matthew 22:34-40

“As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.  So that whatsoever these opinions are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.”  John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist”

The common joke about and perhaps among largely uninformed Methodists is the presumed lack of defining doctrine.  It is (or once was) a running joke that it is easy to be a Methodist because we can believe whatever we wish!

This notion may be an allusion to John Wesley’s “think and let think” observation, but Wesley was generally referring to anything that did not “strike at the root of Christianity”.  So it cannot be said that Methodists don’t believe anything – OR – that Methodists believe anything or everything.  This may be true of some who identify as Methodist, but it is not the mark or the character of a Methodist.

Our doctrinal heritage distinguishes us in that we do not “look like” Catholics OR Protestants even though we share much with both.  Our heritage does not make us better or worse than any other denomination, and it certainly does not make us closer to “right” or further from “wrong”.  Being Methodist does not exclusively bring us closer nor does it push us further away from the Truth itself which is claimed exclusively by Christ alone.

In the early days of the movement (and it is a MOVE-ment!), “Methodist” was a term of distinction … but not in a good way.  It was a derogatory term that did distinguish those early disciples of John Wesley who had approached the priest to help them to discover a more disciplined and purposeful approach to discipleship and spiritual growth.  There was no existing “method” involved (at least in their eyes); it was enough to simply “believe” and show up for church.  They were hungry for more, they knew in their hearts there was more to be had, and they wanted it.

It is fair to say, then, that a “method” was born from this encounter – not from Wesley’s answer but, rather, from the hunger of those who were seeking!  This, my dear friends and fellow Methodists, is our heritage - born of spiritual hunger rather than opinions!

We must not misunderstand what is implied in “method”, however, lest we lose sight of the unique nature of the relationship we are to pursue within that “method”.  We must not be trying to become “holier than thou”.  Like the married relationship, we know (or should know) that active engagement in that relationship EVERY*SINGLE*DAY is of the utmost importance.  We must not take for granted that our spouses will just love us for simply being there, and we should not take a whole lot of comfort in what can often be the empty and habitual words, “I love you”.  The engagement in the relationship requires effort and devotion and DOING and sacrifice lest that relationship disintegrate into nothingness.  This active engagement is the very heart and heart BEAT of the Methodist movement.

It might also be noted that the beginning of decline in Methodism came when Methodism stopped being a “movement” and became more of an “institution” of brick and mortar and social respectability, when its foundation became concrete rather than Christ Jesus.

Of course “brand name” in denominations does not have the impact it once had.  In the so-called “good ol’ days” Methodists went to Methodist churches, Catholics went to Catholic churches, and Baptists went to Baptist churches.  The churches were full because it was the socially acceptable, responsible, and expected thing to do; to take the family to church on Sunday. 

But it might also be said there was truly nothing else to do on Sundays.  Blue laws in some states discouraged or prohibited buying and selling on Sunday, particularly products that promoted vice or labor.  Pot lucks and family gatherings after worship (rather than instead of worship) were the norm, children played in the yard, and adults drank lemonade and iced tea on the front porch. 

The “good ol’ days”, very idyllic, very Norman Rockwell … and more likely than not, the “faithful” had no real doctrinal knowledge and did not want any.  For them it was enough to simply “believe”, go to church, and then completely disengage until the next Sunday.

But a funny thing happened over the years.  As the kids grew up and began to ask more in-depth questions about the Bible stories they were taught in Sunday school, they were – more often than not – being told (in a nutshell), “It’s in the Bible and just needs to be believed”.  It wasn’t an untruthful answer, of course, but the kids were asking “why” questions rather than “what” questions.  And they were asking because they were unable to make the stories of the Bible connect in a real way.  So in an understanding of the Church’s God-given and Christ-directed duty to the faithful, the children (and likely also their parents) were not being adequately “fed”.

John 21:14-17: “Do you love Me?  Then feed My lambs … tend My sheep … feed My sheep.”  Over the course of time, the Church tried to do this very thing through coherent and meaningful doctrine; the human response to the Divine Mystery.

Doctrine can be a tricky thing, though.  It seems doctrine has done more to divide the Church into denominations rather than define the Church Universal as one Body because of the implication that if “this” is the doctrine of the Church, we must believe it – and not everyone did or even could because they were given the “what” rather than the “why”.  Still being told a series of “stories” rather than THE Story.

Yet there is the Mystery of the Revelation in Christ which requires a human response.  Sometimes there are no words sufficient to express our response, so we struggle.  Sometimes the struggle becomes so overwhelming that we just quit.  Like the sad and regrettable dissolution of so many marriages in our “it’s-all-about-me” culture, it becomes easier to simply walk away. 

Still others choose to explore and dig deeper.  We ask questions and seek answers.  And when we do not find the answers we’re looking for (or find no answers at all), we make something up that makes sense to us.  And we “adjust” our opinions over time as we mature (but not necessarily in the faith) and somehow convince ourselves we are that much closer to The Truth – or worse, that we have arrived and that our journey is somehow complete.

But Wesley’s understanding of the “Character of a Methodist” had nothing to do with drawing any definitive conclusions except for perhaps one: “We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith AND practice.”  Yes, our Methodist understanding of the written word in both First and New Testaments is that all we need for salvation is written for us to know.  However, to simply arrive at the conclusion of “saved by faith alone” misses the mark of what Wesley understood about an enduring and progressive relationship with the Lord in sanctifying grace.

To the belief of “saved by faith alone”, Wesley answered, “You do not understand the terms.  By salvation it is meant holiness of heart and life”.   Wesley (and ultimately Methodism) rejected the notion of any religious “silver bullet” or doctrinal “magic pill” that defined salvation even as he maintained that faith alone does breed and give rise and strength and meaning and purpose to “holiness of heart and life” that included a broad understanding of The Torah, what we Christians shallowly refer to as “The Law”.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith?  Certainly not!  On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (3:31 NRSV).

Yet the “Character of a Methodist” is also not defined strictly by our observance of and strict obedience to The Law as a list of “rules”.

What, then, is the “Character of a Methodist”?  What can we expect or hope to gain from such disciplined devotion to worship, the Sacraments, the study of Scripture, fasting and prayer, and fellowship in and with the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful?  Wesley’s answer: “A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit given unto him, one who loves the Lord his God will all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.  God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart and the desire of [the Methodist’s] soul which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but You, O Lord!  And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You, My God and my All!  You are the strength of my heart, and my portion forever”.

The whole of religious faith, then, and the genuine “Character of a Methodist” is in the reality of the “Greatest Commandment” that is within us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We must be head-over-heels in love with our God and Father in order for Him to be our All-in-all!   This depth of love can only be realized and appreciated for what it is through daily, active engagement.

This love is comforting but is never comfortable.  It is love that is personal AND at the same time publicly professing in outward daily living.  It is love that is both sacrificial and satisfying.  It is love which lifts up others FROM their own self-imposed hell rather than leaving them affirmed in their sins.  It is love which leaves nothing undone and nothing unsaid.  And it is love felt and appreciated only when expressed outwardly – “shed abroad” from within the depth of one’s soul.

It is the “yoke” of Christ Jesus we bear gladly, the burden that is lightened only by our willingness to share in that burden.  It is love which is evidenced only by our eagerness and enthusiasm and faithfulness to a greater and higher ideal than one’s own.

If this love does not exist within you in this moment and in this hour, then TODAY “is the day The Lord has made” … just for you.  So you may look up from the depth of your sorrows, from the chains of your past, from the burdens of your discontent and doubt.  It is love and redemption which is offered to you today and each day when we as The Body of Christ are willing to sing His Praises and Bless His Holy Name! 

This is the “Character of the Methodist”, for this is the character of the Cross of Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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