A People Called Methodist (July 22, 2018)
Matthew 5: 43-48; John 21: 15-17
A People Called Methodist
So we’re going to be concluding our series on recognizing the call of God, and today we’re going to be looking at the call that God gives to all Christians; specifically the call that we believe God gives to all the people called Methodists. How do we live as United Methodists?
In order to look at this we’re going to be looking at the first five questions asked to clergy. And I mentioned last week that these are kind of basically asking the clergy “are you one of us? Do you live by the Methodist rules? Are you a Methodist? Do you follow what we do, are you practicing the things that we practice?” These questions are examining whether or not they are Methodist and so we could look at these questions to see what it means to be Methodist.
These first five questions are really broken into three main groups. The first question is the first group. The first question is “have you faith in Christ?” This is the basic foundation, the centerpiece of a Methodist: having faith in Christ. To me that seems pretty self-explanatory, but if you’re going to be a Christian then you should have faith in Christ. But this is the centerpiece and it is worth mentioning.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is faith that is more than just belief. It’s more than just believing that Christ existed, more than believing the Christ died, more than believing that Christ saved the world, but it says “Christ saved me specifically.” Because if that matters to me then that changes something about me and my life. This is about trusting in Christ with an active trust. Trusting in Christ here and now, in this life and not just in the afterlife. Do you have faith in Christ, here and now, to watch over your soul? Do you have faith in Christ to guide you on the path? To save you from your sin? To bring you on to perfection? If you don’t have that kind of active faith and trust in Christ right now, then that is what you must focus on in your spiritual practices this week and then you can come back for the rest of it. But if you have that level of faith then a Methodist must continue to strive for perfection.
The next three questions can kind of be lumped into one group. They ask “do you believe you could be made perfect in love? Do you believe you can be made perfect in love in this life? Are you striving for that result?” Now we do believe that you can be made perfect in love. This is about faith development, about the spiritual practices, and engaging in them, as we continue on and live our lives after the moment we become “saved.” Wesley defined perfection as “the humble, gentle, patient, love of God, and our neighbors, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.” One of my seminary professors summed that up as “returning to how we were in Eden, returning to what human beings were supposed to be, how we were before the fall.”
This is the idea of being made perfect in love, we are becoming like Christ. And Wesley believed the Christians would be made perfect in this way, that all Christians would be. Not only that, but that we could be made perfect in this way in this life, and furthermore he believed that a select few actually were made perfect in this way in this life. Wesley believed that, and we are called to believe that.
In order to achieve this you must strive for it. The Christian life does not end when you’re saved. It doesn’t end right there and you just coast through the rest your life until you ultimately get to heaven. There is a striving, a seeking, first; and it begins that moment. You continue to work with God, you continue to grow in your faith, you continue to strive for God and ask, seek, and knock for God; until finally you reach that point of perfection, or Wesley also use the word sanctification. Until you become saintly, Christ-like, in love.
One of the ways that Wesley sought to achieve this was by following three simple rules that he created as a way of striving for God when he was working with a small group in Oxford including his brother. And then those rules would eventually become the standard rules or General Rules of the Societies of the People Called Methodist. This was Wesley‘s way of life that he encouraged all Methodists to live. That brings us to the fifth question: “do you know the general rules of the societies?”
We’re still expected to live by these rules. So what are those rules? The first rule is “do no harm.” This is a simple rule, and yet it is also immensely profound. It seems a simple rule, but it is extremely difficult to follow because there will come times where you’re faced with extremes of it, and you’re called to live this rule to do no harm no matter what. For instance, when you’re in a disagreement with someone else you are called to do no harm to the person that you are in a disagreement with; to treat the other person how you wish to be treated: no gossiping, no taking their words and spinning them, no name-calling, no diminishing them, no dehumanizing them. No harming them. Treating them as if they were you or your son or your parents. And keep in mind that means that you are not to harm them even if they have harmed you. Do no harm even if you feel wronged by them. “You have heard it said ‘love those who love you and hate those who hate you,’ but I say to you ‘love your enemies.’” Do no harm. Do you see why it’s difficult to do so?
I will say that defending ourselves and our minds against the dehumanization of another is our greatest responsibility in this time as Christians. Because there are forces around us that want so badly to make us believe that those who disagree with us, those who may be a little different than us, who have a little bit of a different color of skin, who arrived in this country in a different way then we did, or maybe those who simply disagree with us politically; there are forces that want us to believe that they aren’t human. No matter whether we agree with them or not, we are called to ensure that we never let anyone convince us that someone else does not deserve to be treated as a child of God or does not deserve to be treated the way we want to be treated.
Do no harm seems like a simple rule, but the truth is extremely difficult. In many ways this rule requires a level of faith in God that many will just never achieve. Everything is turned over to God when we surrender our ability to harm others, even in defense. And we often are scared of the consequences of this.
Now, Wesley did give advice on how to do so he said “Add to your faith virtue; to virtue knowledge, to knowledge temperance, to temperance patience, to patience godliness, to godliness…kindness, to…kindness charity.” If we took this seriously, many of us would need to examine our lives; and many of us would most likely have to change the way we live. Yet this is our call as Methodists.
The second rule of general societies was to “do good.” And do good to all you meet treat them as you would wish to be treated, or really you must treat them as they would wish to be treated. Love them as if they were your own family. The reality is we like to be in control of our lives, and as a result we often don’t want to do this. Because what if helping this person turns out it wouldn’t be a small thing and become something that takes way more time that I’m willing to commit? I don’t want to be here all day, so instead I’m going to go by on the other side of the road. Surely they’ll be some good Samaritan who comes through later. We are called to be the good Samaritan; to do good in the world.
In order to do good in the world the way Wesley wanted, the common good must become what your first thought is, and what is for your own personal good becomes the second thought. I will say that that does not mean that you destroy yourself. You must do good to yourself as well. Do not be destructive to yourself. But be focused on how you can best help the world around you. It’s kind of like doing no harm, but in a proactive way. Do Good.
Finally the third rule is “stay in love with God,” or sometimes “keep the ordinances of God.” The first two rules are the ones that impact the world. These first two rules are the things that that involve other people. But if you don’t have the third rule, if you don’t stay in love with God, you’re never going to achieve the first two. You’re going to burn out eventually. Thus why Jesus had rule one and one(a) as love “Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is this third rule where the spiritual practices come into play; the things that help you nurture that relationship with God. And we’re all going to do different things that might qualify here, and we’re going to do things in different ways. And absolutely do ones that speak to you and in ways that speak to you. But often times it is going to take the form of praying, of the study of Scripture in someway or another, of worshiping in a community on at some set time, and fasting. Your practice will often look like one of these things.
God asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And he asked him that three times. Every time Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus give them a task, he gives him something to do. I want you to think of these three rules in a similar way; God is asking you, “do you love me?” And when you say yes God says, “then do no harm. Do you love me? Then do good. Do you love me? Then show me by spending some time with me.” These are the ways in which we are Methodists living out our faith.
There is one final rule that Wesley had for the people called Methodist, and that was to die well. This is something that was really a big idea to Wesley, and this is kind of the idea that we are going to stay in love with God all the way up to the final breath. We’re going to be living for God, doing no harm, doing good, etc. all the way up to the final breath. I talk about this sometimes when I’m in nursing homes, advising not moping around but the being that joyful, happy face for the nurses and attendants, be trying to lead a Bible study for our neighbors around us, or play piano, or anything that lets you be that joyful face for others all the way to the end.
For Wesley it was a recognition that there was nothing to fear on the other side because we knew that our master was there to welcome us. Now, I will disagree with Wesley in the sense that I think it’s OK to be afraid, as long as that is not a paralyzing fear. We must still able to take that next step on the way. As long as we are still able to do that, I think we’re still dying well.
There is a caveat here that this is not about speeding up the process. This isn’t about shortening our race. Part of dying well is also living well. It is seeking, and asking, and knocking, and searching for God our whole way through our lives; and serving God wherever we are until that race is up. It’s not about ending it early.
Some Methodists die well, others don’t. Some Methodist churches die well, serving God as greatly as they can all the way up until the end, and some don’t (I don’t think either of these churches are on the brink, but I’ve seen it elsewhere). Wesley was really big on this idea, and Wesley lived that out. It was reported that his final words were “the best of all is, God is with us,” and then he never spoke again. Wesley calls us to die well, and to die as a Christian. This is the last rule of a person called a Methodist. So feed God’s sheep in yourself by following the rules that you might strive for and achieve perfection in this life through your faith in Jesus the Christ until such time that you go to Christ in true faith. Amen.