1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Today we’re going to talk about three strands of DNA which make us United Methodist. In 18 years of being a Methodist pastor, I realized this week that I haven’t preached on this topic, which amazes me. So I’m excited about this message this morning.
There’s the story of a bakery whose sales were lagging though its breads were wonderful. So the baker decided to put out a sign on the street which read, “Best bread in town.” A few doors down another baker responded by putting out a sign on the street which read, “Best bread in the parish. Still another bakery on that block put out a sign which read, “Best bread in the state.” Frustrated by all of the signs going up and seeing his business decline, another bake put up a sign which simply said, “Best bread on the block.”
I want to be clear: this message is not about ranking one denomination against another. Methodists believe that all Christians are equal. We believe we all worship the same God and claim the same Savior and each has a contribution to Christendom and the kingdom of God. I had a conversation with one of Luke’s friend’s mothers the other night about her son going to Camp Istrouma with Luke. What she said floored me. I had alot of dealings with (I’m not going to mention the denomination) in Mississippi and they looked down on me and my Catholic faith. In fact, they said I needed to be saved and convert to their denomination. And quite frankly, I don’t want my son going to a camp where he’s going to be ridiculed, made fun of, called an idol worshipper and told he’s got to become a Methodist or he’s going to hell. Now let me say that’s not representative of most of that denomination’s ministers and laity I know. But as Methodists, I made it clear to her that we don’t believe we’re more right than Catholic, or Baptists or Pentecostals or any other Christians.
This is the reason we have an open communion table. Everyone is welcome at this table. You may be Catholic, Nazarene, Assembly of God or non-denominational, but if you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are welcome at this communion table. This is also why we don’t re-baptize. If you go to another church, some of them will say you have to be baptized again. Methodists say, because every Christian faith is valid, every baptism is valid because it’s not the church which did the baptism but God himself. And if we re-baptize then we’re essentially saying that God messed up the first time and God just doesn’t do that. He’s perfect. But we would also be saying that God is not working through that denomination and we just don’t believe that is true because there is one God, one Spirit and one Savior we worship. So Methodism and this message is not about espousing why we’re better than the next guy down the street or why we’re right and they’re wrong. It’s about what we contribute to the kingdom.
Why Methodist? A Methodist is a person who has made a commitment to the practice of daily disciplines. Methodism is more about how you practice your faith more than doctrines of what you believe. Wesley preached these words in Glasgow England: “There is no other religious society under heaven which requires nothing of men in order to share their admission into it but a desire to save souls. Look all around you; you cannot be admitted into the church or the society of the Presbyterian, Anabaptists, Quakers or any other unless you hold the same opinion with them and adhere to the same mode of worship. The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion; but they think and let think.” Wesley had seen enough division within the church over social and political issues that he avoided them altogether. But he stood strongly on the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. The one requirement for those who desired to become a Methodist was “a desire to flee from the wrath to come and to be saved from their sins” and a commitment to live out one’s faith in practice and save souls. One could only accomplish this through daily disciplines.
Paul wrote, “Everyone 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.” Training: a daily regimen which connects you to God, helps you to become more like Jesus and live out the will of God. Many of you know a great part of my life is concerned with my health. I have a weekly regimen of working out in the gym which focuses on specific parts of the body spread over 5-6 days a week mixed in with cardio 3-4 times a week. I also have a daily regimen where I eat 5-6 six small meals a day which have a mix of 50% protein, 30% carbohydrates and 20% fats. All of these are methods to get me and keep me in the best health possible. Did you hear the word methods? That’s where the name Methodist came from which initially was used derogatorily because of our mehodical practice of the faith.
Now I’m in just about the best physical shape of my life. I can go 60 minutes on the elipticals without much problem. But I can’t go out and run a marathon. Why, because of training. I have not trained for that long of physical exertion. Now any couch potato can get off their butts and begin to train and run a marathon in a relatively short period of time. So the key is training. But here’s the other side to this. If I stop working out, I will lose most of my gains in muscle, strength and endurance within a matter of weeks. So these practices or methodologies are meant to build and maintain in us spiritual muscle so the image of God shines through 1 Timothy 4: “Physical training is of some value but godliness has value for all things holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
Now there are five daily practices of what John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, called the means of grace. This what makes us Methodist. One is reading the Word of God every day. It takes us about 24 hours to lose a healthy fear of God. And then we are capable of reverting back to living our lives for ourselves and that usually means outside the will of God. Remember Peter said, “O Lord, I would never deny you” and yet just hours later he did it 3 times. And the same can be true in us. So as Methodists, we must take the time continually to realign ourselves with the purpose of God, to remind myself who I am and whose I am. The second regimen is prayer. All of us keep falling back into this illusion like we’re in control. Prayer is the outward expression of my dependance upon God. Prayer is one of the easiest disciplines for me to skip so I must continually force myself to pray. I need to say to God and in doing so remind myself, “I can’t but you can, God.” But it is also when God can speak to us.
The third discipline is having a community of accountability. You heard me say it before and I will say it gain until I am blue in the face. You cannot remain faithful to God and his will for your life without a community of accountability. You and I need people who will hold us accountable. The fourth is service. You were not saved to sit, you were saved to serve, especially the poor. We’ll say more about this in a few moments.
The fifth is the discipline of stewardship. Stewardship takes many forms. First, Methodists believe that our bodies are a gift from God and we are going to be held accountable for the way we care for our bodies. That not only includes what we eat but also whether we exercise. This is the temple of God. Second, we believe we are going to be held accountable for our gifts and talents ad how we use them. We only have 70-80 years of life if we’re fortunate. God wants us to use that short period of time to our best and that means using his gifts to do his will by serving others. Third is the environment. Genesis 2 syas God gave us dominion over all creation and everything in it. That means we are to be caretakers. It’s why we’re concerned about the use of energy, the pollution of our waterways, the loss of our wetlands and the recycling. For this is not our world to do as we see fit but it is God’s world as and it has been entrusted into our hands. Fourth is the stewardship of our money. Money, possessions or wealth do not belong to the one who accumulates it. Only God owns, we’re just stewards. Wesley believed if we keep it to ourselves then we’re robbing God and wasting the Lord’s resources but we’re also robbing the poor. This is why we believe debt is not our friend and why we are committed to living debt free so we can give to God’s purposes generously. Wesley practiced what he preached: dying practically in poverty and yet he gave away the equivalent of millions of dollars throughout his lifetime. A Methodist is someone who is committed to the daily practice of disciplines.
The second strand of DNA is piety. Piety comes from the Latin word which means dutiful heart. Piety is a heart matter. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” We are called to be clean, unpolluted, spotless. But here’s the problem: I have a conflicted heart. I struggle with a divided heart. There is a war zone going on in here. There’s a constant battle with wanting to be self-centered rather than Christ centered. This is the battle of trying to define my life not on what I get but on what I give. We have been affected by a society which has placed self first. How many times do we find ourselves focusing on the gods of money, status and sex. It is real easy to give God lip service rather than true heart commitment. Let me say that again: It is incredibly easy to give God lip service rather than true heart commitment. So there is a need for heart conversion, not just actions but heart conversion.
John Wesley was an Anglican priest and saw that most people in the church were lukewarm. They brought Jesus into their lives but were never truly converted to the life and worldview of Jesus. As a result, Jesus becams a reflection of them rather than them reflecting Jesus. You know these types of Christians. If they’re racist then their Jesus is racist. If they’re sexist then their Jesus is sexist. If they’re materialistic then their Jesus is materialistic and wants to bless their lives financially. If they’re Republican then their Jesus is Republican. This is bringing Jesus into your worldview and not being converted into his. So Wesley saw that every Christians needs a heart conversion. Wesley could point to the specific date and time, May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street, in a Bible study on the book of Romans, “my heart was strangely warmed.” I can point to my time in my life in April of 1979 at a Christian retreat called the Happening in the youth building of my home church on the first floor in the main room. When was your heart changed and you took on the worldview of Jesus? Every person needs a heart conversion, a time when you completely and fully surrender to God.
You hear people talk about when Jesus came into their life. It’s not so much Jesus coming into your life as it is when you came into Jesus’ life. That place of conversion is like marriage. You can live with someone and it may even be for years but the reality is you can walk out the door anytime with no strings attached. But when you’re married and then you have kids, your life is no longer your own and you are no longer about yourself. There will come a time and place in your life where you have to make a decision: is this life about your needs, your desires and your hopes and dreams or is it about God? It’s when you make a choice for God and his ways that you know you have a conversion of heart. It’s when you see and think as he thinks and your heart hurts for the world that you’ve had a conversion of the heart. But that doesn’t mean temptation is never going to happen again. It will. It’s going to be there a lifetime and as a result of your commitment to Christ, it might ev en increase. That’s why accountability is so important. Jesus’ values become your values. Jesus’ heart becomes your heart. You can’t just add Jesus into your life, his life becomes your life and his purpose becomes your purpose.
This is the difference between Methodists and other kinds of Christians. Piety doesn’t happen just at the conversion of the heart. It’s not a one time deal. It’s daily continuing work of the Holy Spirit. Methodists emphasize the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Did you know that most Pentecostal groups came out of the Methodist church? In John 11 Lazarus dies and Jesus gets word of his death but waits until the fourth day to get to the tomb? Why? Because Jewish belief was that after four days, one could not be revived. He wanted to show the power of God for life. When Jesus told the disciples to roll the stone away from the tomb, the Scripture says the smell overwhelmed them. And Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Unbind him.” New birth is when you give your life to Jesus but the fact is we’re still wrapped in all these death clothes of selfishness and the rest of life is a the process of working with the Holy Spirit in this faith community as I become more and more like Jesus in heart, spirit and mind. That’s called sanctification. The rest of my days become a process of being unbound from these death clothes. When you receive new life in Jesus, it’s not like God downloads the software into your spirit where you are now just automatically programmed to be like Jesus. You’ve got this thing called a free will with which we have to wrestle all of our days. Every day, I have to decide to say yes to God and allow the working of the Holy Spirit to free me from my death clothes and empower me to choose God. Piety is a daily work of the Holy Spirit.
Another word for piety is holiness. It is not only seeking to become more like Jesus in every aspect of our selves and our lives but it is also avoiding the influences of the world which might tempt us or cause us to falter on this journey of faith. This is why Methodists have always taken such a strong stand against the social ills of the world like drinking, drugs, gambling etc.
Third is good works. At the heart of being a Methodist is James 2:17, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Wesley believed that faith and good works go together. Religion is not just an emotional experience but it is a call to action in the name of Jesus Christ. What we believe must be confirmed by what we do. Personal salvation must be expressed in ministry and mission to the world. The connection of personal piety and social holiness has always been a hallmark of what it means to be Methodist. Wesley was always concerned about the society in which he lived and the damage it was doing to individuals and families, morally, economically and spiritually. Wesley identified 4 great evils of his age: poverty, ignorance or lack of education and disease and war.
Poverty. In Wesley’s day, poverty was considered either to be God’s will for the poor or evidence that the poor were lazy and did not want to work. Wesley saw that it was all about opportunity. “What remedy is there for this sore evil? Many thousand poor people are starving. Find them work and you will find them meat. They will earn and eat their own bread. Procure sale for what is made and employers give them as much work as they can do. And this would sink the price of provisions; for then people would have money to buy other things.” For Wesley it was all about the needs of the poor, disenfranchised and the hurting. To him, poverty was a national shame “in a land flowing, as it were, with milk and honey! Abounding with all the necessities, the conveniences and the superfluities of life.” The same can be said about America too. Today, we have feeding programs, job training programs, and transitional housing programs throughout the world to help eradicate poverty but much more needs to be done.
Education. Wesley was homeschooled by his mother both in educational subjects as well as religious instruction, He went on to college and the Oxford University where he received his Ph.D. And throughout his life he never stopped studying and learning. Wesley believed all are equal before God and the poor are entitled to education just as much as the wealthy elite are. Wesley’s first effort was to start a Sunday School, which was a day of education for the masses of children working in the factories six days a week and mired in poverty. Before public education met the needs of the people, Methodists started academies or high schools. The United Methodist Church has started more colleges than any other denomination. Today, the UM Church has 104 colleges in 38 states and 13 seminaries. This is why today we continue to raise money for scholarships throughout the denomination to make college education and a better life a reality for all who pursue it. And this is why we are building Africa University.
Disease and health. This is why Wesley started a health clinic at the first Methodist meeting house. It’s why he published a book of remedies which he had tested and knew to be effective. And it’s why the itenerant preachers of the frontier were often the only persons dispensing health advice and remedies long before any doctors arrived in the fledgling towns. And this is why we continue to fight for adequate medical care for the poor today.
Faith in action. This is what it means to be a United Methodist. Jesus said, For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:35-38, Isaiah 58:7-8 said, “True faith is to loose the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the hungry, when you see the naked to cover them. If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your life will rise in darkness and your night will become like noon day.” We are not sitting waiting for Christ to come, we are working for the healing and wholeness of the world that God loves so his kingdom might be established here on earth now.
Jesus’ mission on earth wasn’t to save people for heaven, it was to liberate people for abundant life. Life on earth matters. It’s why the blind see, the leper is healed, the lame walk and Elijah’s widow prospers. We are committed daily to the revolution of God which stands against all forces of evil whether they be economic, political, environmental or spiritual. We are called to be the servants of the world in the name of Jesus Christ. We must always be reminded of the priority of the poor with Jesus. John Wesley said, Serving the poor is a means of releasing God’s grace in our life. As grace is released in your life, your faith increases. Serving the poor is a means of releasing grace that empowers faith.
Why Methodist? We are committed to the daily practice of disciplines which are as Wesley called them, a means of grace. We are committed to a life of holiness which stands apart from the world but is still in the world calling them to true life and meaning. And we believe faith and good works addressing the needs and pains and ills of society in the name of Jesus Christ is our greatest witness. This is why we are Methodist!