Unity with Methodists

John 17:20-26

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

We are in our third week of a five-part sermon series on finding unity in the church, focusing on Jesus’ prayer for unity for his disciples. Again, I just want to admit that I do not know what this unity looks like. I sure do not have all of the answers. What I do know, however, is that what we see in our churches today is anything but unity. And as ambassadors of Jesus’ message of reconciliation, I believe that it is essential that we as the church do some work toward reconciliation in the church with our brothers and sisters from other denominations.

So we have set aside the last few Sundays of the summer of 2013 to look at some of the different denominations that the people of our church come from because I believe that the first step toward unity is understanding. I don’t think that Jesus really expected everyone to agree on everything all of the time, but he did expect them to love one another, serve one another, and worship God together.

Our practice has been to spend about the first ten minutes or so looking at the history of a denomination. We then take some time looking at what I believe we as Anabaptist/Mennonites have to offer that denomination. Finally, we wrap up by looking at what we as a denomination can learn from the tradition we are focusing on.

We started last week by looking at the Episcopal Church, where I proposed that we can teach the Episcopalians about communal discernment and they can teach us about communal prayer.

Today we turn to the United Methodist Church. I was surprised just how similar our beliefs are to those of the UMC. But I guess I really shouldn’t be that surprised. I studied in seminary beside a number of Methodist pastors as our denominational seminaries are approved by the United Methodist Church for the training of their clergy. I also know a number of Methodists, including my next-door neighbors. They are all good people!

The founders of the Methodist Church, like so many others that began movements in the church, never intended to start a new denomination. Instead, there was a group of students at Oxford University in England that met regularly for Bible study, prayer, and book discussions. They hoped to help one another in their efforts to live a holy life. Other students gave these young scholars nicknames, like the “Holy Club” and they were called “Methodists” because of their methodical studies. Among the leaders of this group were brothers Charles and John Wesley and George Whitefield.

Two years after the Holy Club began meeting, the members went their own ways and began ministering in their own context. Whitefield became a great evangelist, with reports of him speaking to thousands at a time, long before the use of electronic amplification technology. The brothers Wesley wrote beautiful hymns, many still sung in our churches today. And John formed a relationship with clergy in the Anglican Church, sharing the findings of his methodological Bible study. This group became popular, growing large congregations with the teachings of John Wesley. This group of clergy was eventually given one of the nicknames from John’s college Bible study, and the Methodist movement began.

The Methodist movement spread across the Atlantic and began influencing the Anglican churches in the US. Remember, beginning an entirely new denomination was never John Wesley’s intention. This was simply meant to be a movement within Anglicanism. However, like we saw with the split between the Anglican Church and Episcopal Church, the American Revolution made it difficult for American churches to be Anglican. Anglican clergy were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch. That didn’t go over well in the young US.

The first official Methodist organization was formed in 1784 in Baltimore with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke serving in leadership roles (how many Methodist churches still bear the names of these men?). The church grew rapidly in its first century of existence, largely because of individuals known as “circuit riders.” Circuit riders were usually lay leaders that rode horseback throughout the countryside, preaching, teaching, and often times starting Methodist churches in small towns. If you wish to see the impact of these circuit riders today, just drive through rural Virginia and notice all of the little, country, Methodist churches. These churches continue to have a major impact on society, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and giving hope to the hopeless.

The Methodist Church has gone through a number of splits, which have led to other closely-related traditions. There have also been other denominations that have risen up, influence by these Wesleyan traditions, such as the Church of the Nazarene and the Wesleyan Church. All are a part of this matrix of churches that trace their lineage back to that Bible study at Oxford where the Wesley brothers gathered to methodologically study the scriptures.

Today there are approximately 11 million United Methodists, making this the second largest Protestant denomination and the third largest Christian denomination in the world.

So what is it about the Anabaptist tradition that I think the Methodists and other Wesleyan traditions can learn from? I struggled with this question for a little bit, but I decided to go right to the core of Wesleyan theological reflection because I believe it is the Wesleyan approach that allows many in the UMC to come out at different places on other issues that we might disagree on.

If you have a theological talk with leaders in the Methodist Church you will likely hear a little bit of geometry mentioned as they often refer to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. A quadrilateral is a four-sided shape, such as a square or rectangle. John Wesley himself did not articulate the quadrilateral that is often attributed to him and bears his name. But in 1964 a Wesleyan scholar by the name of Albert Outler published a book on the work of John Wesley. And in this book Outler noted that Wesley used four different sources to arrive at theological conclusions: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Each of these sources makes up a leg of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

So if Wesley was attempting to come to a theological conclusion on an issue, such as gambling in the church, Wesley would consider what the Bible says, but also consider what the church has traditionally said about the matter, he would use reason, and also reflect upon his own experience with the matter at hand.

When I was first introduced to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in seminary, I recall being a little bit caught off guard and thinking that it was a rather subjective approach. I even said to a fellow student who was a Methodist, “How can you put scripture and reason on the same level when considering something from a theological perspective?”

He responded to me in a very calm, soothing voice, “We consider reason, tradition, and experience when considering matters theological. However, we do not consider them all equally. Scripture clearly has the most emphasis in our decision making.”

Or, as the United Methodist Church has said, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.'”

I tell that story because I am always afraid that when I attempt to show the shortcomings of others’ methodology, theology, or beliefs, I tend to mischaracterize the other in order to strengthen my own argument. I actually really like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and I think it is a lot better than the approach of some other traditions (i.e., a flat Bible approach). And my arguments for what I will propose are actually going to be arguments against non-Methodist approaches to thinking theologically. So again, the Quadrilateral is good, but I think we have something better to offer from the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition that we have come to call the Christocentric Hermeneutic.

Those are some really big words that need a little explaining. Christocentric simply means that Jesus is the center, or Christ centered. I have used the word hermeneutic a number of times, but I don’t think I have ever taken the time to explain the word. Hermeneutics is the practice of interpreting something. In Christianity we use the word hermeneutics to describe how we interpret the Bible. And when I say interpret, I do not mean translate, like from the original Greek and Hebrew. When I say interpret, I mean how we read, understand, and put into practice the things that the Bible teaches us.

Popular etymology, if there is such a thing, tells us that the word hermeneutic is closely related to the name of the character from Greek Mythology called Hermes. Hermes is said to have been the messenger of the gods. So if we follow popular etymology, we can say that Christian hermeneutics is the delivery of God’s message to God’s people.

So when I say that we have a Christocentric Hermeneutic, I am saying that we read the Bible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus even mentioned in John’s Gospel that all scripture, that is the Old Testament, points to him (Jn. 5).

I could actually make the argument that every Christian interprets the Bible through Jesus, whether they want to admit it or not. I’ve never put to death a person caught in adultery and I hope that you never have, either, though the Bible commands it. Why is adultery not a crime punishable by death? Because when Jesus was asked to contribute to the stoning of a woman caught in adultery he instructed the people to let the one without sin to cast the first stone.

Every time we don’t stone an adulterer, we are reading the Bible through a Christocentric Hermeneutic.

Every year when I skip the slaughtering of a goat on Yom Kippur and instead put my faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, I am reading the Bible through a Christocentric Hermeneutic. Like I said, all Christians use a Christocentric Hermeneutic at some point. However, most Christians will quickly bring in other ways of interpreting the Bible when the words and life of Jesus are not what they want to hear or do. That is when I critique things like tradition, reason, and experience.

Because most Christians practice some form of Christocentric Hermeneutic, I would actually like to suggest that we as Anabaptist/Mennonites take our hermeneutics to the next level and put into effect what I would call a Cruciform Hermeneutic, that is, we interpret the Bible through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But that is a message for another time.

1 Corinthians 1:20-23 says this:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

The cross of Jesus defies conventional wisdom. Even to the Jews who had been studying the Torah for centuries, millennia, the cross is a stumbling block. I find the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to be helpful and a step up from the hermeneutic of many other denominations. But tradition, reason, and experience can also be a stumbling block and can keep us from being faithful to the teachings of Jesus because so many of Jesus’ teachings are anything but reasonable. Go ahead, turn the other cheek. See how that turns out for you.

So what can we learn from our Methodist brothers and sisters? I think plenty. Any time you are a part of a church that emphasizes ethics as much as the Mennonite Church does you run the risk of making Christianity all about what we do and not about what God has done for us through Jesus. So what I want for us to learn today from the Methodists is a little thing call grace.

I want to focus on a specific kind of grace that the Methodists teach. John Wesley emphasized three different aspects or manifestations of grace: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. Without going into too much detail, prevenient grace is the way God works in the lives of all people, drawing them into a relationship with him. Justifying grace is God’s gift of forgiveness. And the one I think we Anabaptist/Mennonites could stand to learn from is sanctifying grace, which is God working in us and through us to bring us to what Wesley called “Christian Perfection.” Wesley described Christian Perfection as a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” (Wikipedia)

We as Mennonites have something very similar to sanctification, though we give it a different name. We call it “following Jesus.” We talk about learning at the feet of our Lord. But when we, when I, talk about following Jesus, it is a very human activity. One could claim to follow Jesus just as they might follow some other wise philosopher. Heck, I can “follow” someone on Twitter.

Furthermore, following Jesus seems rather binary, as if you are either doing it or not and there is nowhere in between. The Methodist concept of sanctification seems to solve both of these issues.

Where following Jesus sounds like an action that we do on our own without assistance, the language of sanctifying grace clearly states that it is an act of God drawing us closer and closer to him as disciples. This is indeed an act of discipleship! And in this drawing closer we see that it is not binary; we’re not simply either following Jesus or not. Rather, everyone is at a different place in the sanctification process.

In conclusion, I believe that we in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition have a better way to read and interpret the Bible, though I do not dislike the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Being a Christian isn’t always going to be reason-able and it isn’t always going to make sense. But we need to do more than just follow Jesus. We must seek to follow him closer every day. That’s what sanctification is about.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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