Religions of the World: What’s So Special About Methodists?
Rev. Sandy Johnson
June 14, 2015
Today marks the last day of our series about the religions of the world. I hope you‘ve learned something about the other faith traditions and hope that your respect for people of other faiths has grown. We end the series this morning with a look at our own faith traditions, what does it mean to be a United Methodist?
Let’s begin with a prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I was born into a long line of Methodists, my Great-Great Grandfather was a United Brethren Minister. Of course that is where the “United” comes from in our name, when the United Brethren and the Methodist merged in 1968. I was baptized in 1961 at three weeks and was raised in the church. The Methodist theology was so embedded into my psyche that I didn’t realize how Methodist I was until I went to Seminary and learned more about the specific tenants of Methodism and realized that in fact, I bleed John Wesley!
Before we get into the basics of Methodism, I’d like to share a bit of the history that led to the formation of our denomination. In the beginning, we were all Catholic! During the 1600th century the Protestant reformation sparked a “religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place the structures and beliefs that would define the continent in the modern era. In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They argued for a religious and political redistribution of power into the hands of Bible- and pamphlet-reading pastors and princes. The disruption triggered wars, persecutions and the so-called Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s delayed but forceful response to the Protestants.
“Historians usually date the start of the Protestant Reformation to the 1517 publication of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” Its ending can be placed anywhere from the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which allowed for the coexistence of Catholicism and Lutheranism in Germany, to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War.” The key ideas of the Reformation were not themselves novel. They were after “a call to purify the church and a belief that the Bible, not tradition, should be the sole source of spiritual authority. However, Luther and the other reformers became the first to skillfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wide audience.”
Reformation was taking place all over Europe and especially in Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics led by Martin Luther; in Switzerland led by Ulrich Zwingli; and in France led by John Calvin. In England the reformation was led by Henry VIII and his jockeying for control of the church in England so he could authorize his own annulment and remarry to guarantee an heir to the throne. Conflict arose between “Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in England” and led to “bloodshed and even civil war as England’s monarchs severed ties with Rome. “The struggle for control of the Church of England was a three-way tug of war among Roman Catholics, more-radical protestant reformers (Puritans who wanted to purify or purge the English church of Catholic influence), and those who sought a middle way between these two.” History tells us that the middle way won the day.
“We might picture this period of England’s history as the swinging of a pendulum between religious ideas. After two hundred years of turmoil among the three groups, the Roman Catholics, the Protestant reformers, and the middle way, a new movement called the Enlightenment offered those frustrated with the old religious debates, salvation through knowledge and reason. People ascribing to enlightenment principles retained membership in the church and formally held that they were Christians, but increasingly their allegiance to Christianity was in name only.” As a result morality declined as did religious vitality. As the pendulum swung back, a religious society called “Pietism” was formed, aimed at fostering holiness. These Pietists formed “societies” or groups that taught that “reason was deceptive and that truth was found in the heart and in the spiritual realm, not in the realm of reason.”
It is into this setting that John Wesley was born. John was the son and grandson of clergy; his father was a priest in the Church of England; his grandfathers were known as dissenters or nonconformists, dissatisfied with the Church of England, they started their own churches. John studied at Christ Church College at Oxford where he “felt a desire for God and for a more-rigorous faith than he saw among many of his classmates. In 1725, he wrote that his desire was no longer to be a “nominal” Christian but to be a “real” Christian.”
John began to meet with fellow students following ordination and laid down a path to achieve a more rigorous faith. He and the other students “worshipped together, and pursued acts of charity in the community. Their methodical approach to the pursuit of holiness earned them the name “Methodist” among their critics. The name stuck.
“Wesley was shaped both by the spirit of the Enlightenment and by the Pietist movement that was skeptical of reason, holding these seemingly opposing forces together in a tension with each other. This union of reason and the desire for a personal faith would become a defining characteristic of Methodism.”
Although trained in the Church of England and led by their traditions, this traditionally “high church” minister began to venture outdoors and into the fields to preach to those who didn’t typically attend church. Although he had thought it “improper and distasteful” in the beginning, encouraged by his friend George Whitefield, he found this type of preaching to be very satisfying and was quoted saying “the world is my parish.” He spent the “rest of his life preaching in the open air, and in churches when invited. It is said that he rode over 250,000 miles by horseback traversing the British Isles, preaching and calling people to follow Jesus Christ.” In the United States many circuit riding pastors followed Wesley’s example, bringing Methodism to the new world.
John Wesley did not intend to begin a new denomination, his hope was to bring reform to the Church of England. He was an accomplished preacher as well as a writer and with the help of the printing press was able to publish and share his messages with the masses. He organized “societies” which were small groups intended to help its members to be encouraged and strengthened in their pursuit of God and Christian mission. The members of these societies were called to follow three simple rules:
- Avoid doing what you know is wrong.
- Do all the good you can to everyone that you can.
- Pursue the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, worship, Scripture reading and fasting, among others.
These early Methodist were also known for their “involvement in the transformation of society. Wesley organized a school for children, raised funds for the poor, spoke out against slavery and other social ills of his time, visited the prisons, and called for prison reform.” Wesley understood the need for both charity and work for justice. It is valuable to feed the poor, but as valuable is to work to end hunger and help to eliminate the need for charity in the first place. Does that make sense? The work that we do with Nevadans for the Common Good is an example of justice work. This organization, of which we are a member, is fighting to change policy through legislation to help make our community a better place to live, as well as providing for those who are needy. We are working on issues related to education, vulnerable elderly and human sex-trafficking to name a few. This is what Methodists are known for.
We are also known for our ecumenical work and our willingness to learn and work with other Christian denominations as well as other non-Christian faith communities. “Wesley was led to look for common ground and to build bridges with people who thought differently than he did.” He believed that although we may not think alike, we are called to love alike. He is quoted as saying, “May we not be of one heart, although we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” Methodists are known to build bridges with other faith traditions and work to remove the walls that separate us from one another. “Methodists believe in bringing their intellect to their faith.” We value intellect and knowledge and are encouraged NOT to “check our brain at the door” when entering the church.
“Wesley and the early Methodists valued passion and experience. He embraced experience as a means of knowing God, although he himself was critical of the emotional excess that was sometimes seen in the Methodist movement. This combination of reason and experience, of the intellectual pursuit of God with the spiritual fervor and passion, is part of the basic makeup of Methodism. Wesley considered experience such an important part of faith that he added it to the Anglican’s three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason to create what we refer today as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.” Scripture is primary but supported by tradition, experience and reason.
“Wesley and the Methodists, drawing from the Pietist movement, placed major emphasis on a personal faith.” Spiritual disciplines were vital to the spiritual growth that Wesley taught. Having a personal devotional life and participating in the small group meetings, to study scripture, were all vital to a strong faith practice.
“Wesley placed major emphasis on two seemingly contradictory ideas: grace and holiness. Methodists recognize that it is only by God’s grace (God’s undeserved favor and blessing) that we have life and salvation. Our salvation is purely a gift from God. Methodists tend to emphasize, with the psalmists, that God is “merciful and gracious, – slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 86:15; 103:8). At the same time, Methodists believe that we are saved from sin in order to do good works. Wesley emphasized a doctrine called sanctification, or what was also referred to as Christian perfection or simple holiness, championing this ideal as the lifelong goal of the believer. Sanctification or holiness means to have one’s heart so transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit that one manifests perfect love for God and neighbor. Wesley believed that it was possible to be wholly sanctified in this life and that, by the pursuit of God and the yielding of one’s life to the work of the Holy Spirit, anyone might receive from God this gift of sanctification.
“Holiness, for Methodists, has two dimensions: the love of God, which means surrendering completely to God while avoiding anything that would offend God in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, and the love of neighbor, which includes caring for the poor, the sick, and those in need, thereby addressing injustice and seeking to shape our communities so that they are patterned on the kingdom of God. These twin dimensions of holiness are sometimes referred to as personal holiness and social holiness”
John Wesley was passionate about three things. First he wanted to change lives. “He wanted to find people who did not know Christ – those nonreligious or nominally religious people – and invite them to become followers of the Savior. He wanted to see lives changed.” Second, he wanted to “transform the world. He believed in spreading “scriptural holiness across the land,” which included helping shape society to look like the kingdom of God. This passion could be seen in the early Methodists’ ministry to the poor and their willingness to speak to the social issues of their time.” Third, Wesley wanted to revitalize the church. “He did not intend to start a new denomination but rather to reinvigorate and reform the Church of England in his day.” We have been following Wesley’s passions here at BCUMF. We are changing lives, we are transforming the world and we are all about revitalizing the local church.
Yesterday, Pat Benke, Terry McClain, Heather Gaylord and I went to a PFLAG meeting in Las Vegas. PFLAG stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays. It is an advocacy group to help families and friends of LGBTQ folks to deal with the sometimes complicated task of coming out and being who God created them to be. It is our hope that we can begin a chapter of PFLAG in Boulder City to be a support locally to our LGBTQ neighbors. As I was at the meeting and thinking about this sermon that I hadn’t written yet, it occurred to me how what we were doing yesterday was exactly what it means to be United Methodist.
Heather saw a need in our community and asked if we would consider sponsoring something like PFLAG. God works through each of us to make something extraordinary happen. When we submit ourselves to God, committing to following His way, we are drawn toward the things that God intends for us, personally and corporately. Things that make our community better, that give people an opportunity to be in Christian community and experience the love of God in a very tangible way. We were praised for being there, especially because we represented a Christian community; I couldn’t help wonder why more churches weren’t there, supporting all of God’s children.
As United Methodists we “invite other Christians to listen to and learn from one another; to recognize that truth is often found most fully not in the extremes, but in the center; and to pursue the life of faith by maintaining a balance between grace and holiness, intellect and emotion, evangelism and social justice.” And that, brothers and sisters is what makes Methodist special!
Let us pray: Holy God, we are so thankful for the leadership of John Wesley and his faithfulness to you. We are thankful that we are people of the center, that we engage our brains and that we work to bring your kingdom here to earth. Give us the stamina and courage to always follow you. Amen.
 http://www.history.com/topics/reformation Accessed June 12, 2015.
 Hamilton, Adam. Christianity’s Family Tree. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 2007. Page 112
 Ibid, 113
 Ibid, 114-115
 Ibid, 117
 Ibid, 118
 Ibid, 119
 Ibid, 120
 Ibid, 121-122
 Ibid, 123
 Ibid, 124