Summary: Eighth in the "Back to the Basics" series, exploring the foundational beliefs of Christians. This sermon addresses the question, "What do United Methodists believe?"
[This sermon was the eighth in a series on the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. The first seven were about the beliefs that all Christians share in common. Because it was preached in a United Methodist Church, we included this sermon about the beliefs of United Methodists. It clearly will be more helpful for other United Methodists, but I hope that non-Methodists will find it beneficial as well, since I am absolutely *not* claiming that simply because these things have been emphasized within the Wesleyan tradition that they are any less true for brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominational traditions.]
As you can imagine, every month when we publish our newsletter, we send it out to a handful of area churches. And every month we receive a handful of newsletters from other churches. The Lutherans always have an interesting page that explains their beliefs on a certain topic. They’ve had explanations of the Lutheran view on marriage or their view on separation of church and state or worship or human cloning or the Bible. Well, last month, the topic was “what is a Lutheran?”
Here’s the answer that was given: “A Lutheran is a person who believes, teaches and confesses the truths of God’s Word as they are summarized and confessed in the Book of Concord.”
Okay, so a Lutheran is someone who believes in the Book of Concord. But what is the Book of Concord? The article goes on to explain it: the Book of Concord is a collection of the Lutheran doctrines. Among them are the Augsburg Confession, written in 1530 by a man named Philip Melanchthon. It also contains the small and large catechisms, also written in 1530 by the great reformer Martin Luther. The catechisms explain the official positions of the Lutheran church on various topics. Then in 1537, the Smalcald Articles were added, which further explains Lutheran beliefs. Finally, in 1577, the Formula of Concord was adopted to address a variety of doctrinal debates and controversies. Together, these documents make up the Book of Concord. And Lutherans are expected to believe in these doctrines fully.
It ends up providing a very short answer to the question, “What is a Lutheran?” A Lutheran is someone who believes the doctrines in the Book of Concord got it right. Period. End of story.
Today, we’re looking at the question, “What do United Methodists believe?” And there’s a lot of people who want to ask what the Methodist equivalent of the Book of Concord is. What’s the doctrine we can point to and say, “If you’re a United Methodist, then you believe in this document, this book, this statement of belief?” Well… there isn’t any.
Let me ask, for those of you here this morning that have taken the next step of commitment and become church members here, when you joined the United Methodist Church, were you asked to state your belief in the United Methodist doctrine? No, you weren’t, because there isn’t one! Methodism has never had a unique doctrine or particular creed that sets us apart from any other group of Christians. We affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, but these are beliefs that all Christians share.
And all the beliefs we’ve talked during this “Back to the Basics” sermon series about the foundational beliefs of the Christian faith are beliefs United Methodists hold dear. But almost all the beliefs we’ve talked about during the Back to Basics series are ones that are shared by all Christians.
In fact, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, made it very clear: “the distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort.” There are actually no doctrines or beliefs that belong exclusively to United Methodists. While we emphasize certain beliefs, there is nothing that United Methodists affirm that are not also believed by other Christian groups.
So, if our beliefs aren’t unique, what is it that sets us apart from any other group of Christians? Initially, John Wesley intended for Methodism to simply be a movement within the existing church that would motivate people to strengthen their Christian faith and to live it out more fully. Wesley had lived for many years with a pretty halfhearted faith, and he knew how empty that felt in comparison to fully living out the Christian faith. He wanted others to experience the fullness of the Christian faith as well, and Methodism started as a movement that would help people move toward a full and joyful expression of the Christian faith. He didn’t want lukewarm Christians. He wanted Christians who were on fire for God!
And really getting that fire stoked meant having a certain balance between the extremes. A few weeks ago, when we were up in northern Michigan on vacation with my family, we were getting a campfire started so we could roast marshmallows and make s’mores. My niece was helping out, and she asked why we were blowing on the fire to get it started. I explained to her that besides heat, a fire needs two things to burn – it needs fuel and air. By blowing on it, we were giving it more air so it could burn hotter. Fuel without air won’t burn. And air without fuel won’t burn. But together, fuel and air create a great campfire we could enjoy.