Summary: Ninth in the "Back to the Basics" series, exploring the foundational beliefs of Christians. This sermon addresses the question, "What do United Methodists practice?"
[This sermon was the last 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 practices 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.]
If someone asked you, “who are you?”, how would you answer that question? You’d probably start by giving your name and maybe describe where you live and where you work or go to school. But if, after saying those things, that person looked at you and said again, “OK, but who are you?” To truly explain who we are, we have to reveal how we live our lives. Our lifestyle really defines us.
As we conclude our series on Back to the Basics today, we are asking ourselves, “Who are United Methodists?” And that’s a question that has always required telling what we believe, and also telling how we live. So last week we focused on what United Methodists believe. This week we focus on how United Methodists live.
And how United Methodists live goes all the way back to our origins. When two of our church’s founders, John and his brother Charles Wesley were in college, they formed a small group called the Holy Club. These students wanted to practice their faith more sincerely. So they came up with a highly structured way to live, engaging in regular practices of prayer, Bible study, collecting food for the poor, visiting the sick and the prisoners, spiritual conversation, and so on. They even kept detailed notes about their daily activities and their spiritual conditions. And to keep them on track, they would meet to make sure they were following the structured lifestyle. Their goal was to have their outward life match up completely with their heartfelt beliefs.
Now, because they were so structured in the way they lived, people began to come up with names for them. You know how people are. Name-calling has always been one of the ways people label things they don’t understand. So this little group of students were called the “Bible Moths” because they spent so much time “fluttering” around the Bible. They were made fun of as “Methodists” because they were so methodical in the way they approached their faith. Methodist is the name that stuck.
Later in his life, John Wesley would write that: A Methodist is “one who lives according to the Method laid down in the Bible.”
And that’s exactly how Methodists were trying to practice their faith. They looked for what the Bible says about how we should live our lives, and they took those things seriously! They intentionally arranged their lives around those habits and practices that they found prescribed in the Scriptures.
And so, over 200 years ago in England, you would find small groups of Methodists led by regular people who met every week to encourage each other to live by a set of practices that assisted their growth as Christians. Together, they worked hard to grow into fully developed, mature Christians. Generally, these were not people of extraordinary talent or exceptional ability, but ordinary people with struggles like we have, hopes like we have, sufferings and joys just like we have.
What set them apart from others around them was that they followed a daily practice of devotion, gathered together regularly for Christian fellowship, public worship, and caring for their neighbors. Methodists were convinced that by following this discipline they would grow in the knowledge and love of God and love for their neighbor as well. In other words, they would live a truly, altogether Christian life.
Even today, a true Methodist is still a person who has made a commitment to intentional, regular practices that draw us closer to God and closer to the people God intends for us to be. Being a Methodist has as much to do with how you practice your Christian faith as with the specific doctrines you believe. It’s about spending time each day growing in your faith and knowledge of God, growing in your ability to live a fully Christian life and regularly doing the things that make you more like Christ and more free from sin.
We heard a passage from the Apostle Paul this morning that compares that kind of regular, intentional, and disciplined Christian living to the way an athlete trains for a race. Listen to that passage again:
24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly, I do not fight like a man beating the air; 27No, I beat my body and make is my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (NIV)