August 3, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Grace and Responsibility
John Wesley’s Message for
a People Called Methodist

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16


Over the past couple of weeks, I've tried to weave a picture of John Wesley: a man of his times in the 18th century, an Anglican Priest, out of step with his church and peers and uncomfortable in his skin. He was unwilling to live an intellectual religion when faced with those whose faith had led them to personal transformation which was clearly visible in their daily lives and in life threatening situations. He was unwilling to live insulated in his comfortable situation when just beyond his university dwellings the poor and marginalized lived on the brink of starvation and death. He was unwilling to preach the Calvinist view that only an elect few were God's chosen when his own Biblical study and experience of God was that God's grace was for all of humankind. And he really didn't want to part from the Church of England.

I've tried to weave into that tapestry a view of those things Wesley looked to as authoritative in his decision-making processes: Scripture underpinning all, but seen through the lenses of the traditions of the primitive church and the early church of England, through personal experience, and through reason, logic really -- the use of his intelligence to sort and combine various information at hand.

This morning's question is some form of, "How do these things shape the church we are today?" (I started thinking maybe the question was "So what?" but maybe that was a little, well, overused.)

One morning this week I found myself sitting in my insurance agent's office. For the second time in six months, the "home office" has managed to lose or mangle my payment -- this time, for some reason that remains unknown right now, my check was returned. The check never even made it to my bank, but almost a month after my policy renew date, the home office notified us that the check was somehow "bad." So, I took another payment down to the agent while research is being done on the original payment. Debbie and I got off topic, not unusual -- we're both "older" parents of younger children, we talked about our kids, schedules, jobs. She didn't know I'm a pastor, and I got a fairly typical reaction -- I heard her "church" story. She grew up in the middle of the country -- her parents took her to church. As a teen, she realized that (like many of us realized) the same people that scolded her for not looking her best on Sunday morning, were the same people that during the week were drinking beer, smoking, swearing, and generally living their lives with no difference than folks that didn't go to church. If going to church didn't make any difference in their lives, then why go? She could do without getting up early just to try to dress up and then be scolded anyway.

To make a long story somewhat shorter -- Debbie and her husband now have twin daughters (after many years of infertility). And, like many couples, with the "onset" of children, they began to think about church again. And were invited to go to church with their CPA. For the last 6 years they've been attending that church 15 miles from their home -- it's a hike on Sunday morning, but they love it. And Debbie can see a difference in her life -- it has changed the way she looks at their business, at how she treats customers, at how she thinks about world situations, how she parents her children. She and her husband are involved in charitable projects -- some church related, some not. And, although she does get dressed up on Sunday morning, the teens in her church don't, and as far as she can tell, no one scolds them for it. And, as Debbie says, her participation has deepened and renewed her walk with Jesus.

I found in Debbie's story a typical conundrum. In every generation are those who simply warm the pew. Habit, spouse, or appearance brings them to church on Sunday morning -- a sort of achievement or duty of the week. That attendance is the total sum of their "Christian Obligation". For whatever reason, these churches -- or churchgoers -- grew "dead and cold."

Four of the questions asked of United Methodist ordinands -- new, about to be ordained pastors -- have been asked of Methodist pastors for the last 250 years, since Wesley himself did the asking. The language is clearly 18th century, but the sentiment is Biblical, and Wesleyan.

  1. Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The call to holy living -- the pursuit of "perfection" -- was a consistent theme in early Methodism, and a driving force in Wesley's life. Wesley considered that Christian perfection -- the holiness of heart and life, in other words, sanctification, to be the distinctive emphasis of the Methodist movement. So distinctive in fact, that when you see denominations listed according to theological or social witness of the early 19th century, Methodism is listed as a "holiness movement" denomination.

Wesley felt so strongly about the pursuit of perfection in his preachers and leaders that he wrote, in 1763, "If we can prove that any of our local preachers or leaders, either directly or indirectly, speak against [Christian perfection], let him be a local preacher or leader no longer." He was convinced that without preaching of Christian perfection, "believers grow dead and cold."

Wesley's discussions of Christian Perfection are easy to misunderstand. His language is deeply scriptural and his nuance comes from the depths of 18th century theology. Our 21st century minds hear perfectionism as a very different animal: one of those things that leads our teens to angst, our peers to overachievement and workaholism. "Perfectionism" -- trying to excel in all things at all times can make us literally crazy, frequently self-righteous, and often self-destructive.

These are neither Wesleyan, nor Biblical, perfection. Christian Perfection is in the heart of Jesus' preaching in the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus instructs the crowd to "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

Neither Jesus nor Wesley calls for a flawless life, or instructs Christians to turn to a particular code of conduct to follow without erring. There is no cosmic list of do's and don'ts, as much as many denominations or individuals would have us believe that. The call to Christian perfection is a call to holy living, to a dynamic and committed relationship with God in Christ. Wesley uses words like sanctification, or holiness of heart and life, and perfect love as synonymous with Christian perfection. In his own words, "perfection is another name for universal holiness -- inward and outward righteousness -- holiness of life arising from holiness of heart."

Christian perfection grows from a continuing relationship with God, with Jesus. As that relationship grows, so does one's faith in that relationship. As one's faith grows, the transforming power of God's love works within us and we are changed. Going on to perfection, then, really means a growing faith in Christ -- not only trust, but also as the one who transforms us with a new heart of love and grace. And, as a result of this maturing relationship within us, the process of sanctification "takes away our bent to sinning." [Love Divine, all Loves Excelling, Charles Wesley, UMH 384.]

Wesley's own experience was that holy living could not be contained within oneself. Taking the Gospel seriously meant not only attending to one's own transformation, but also participating in God's transformation of the world -- whether one takes the cue from Jesus conversation with Peter to "feed my sheep," or the commandment to love God, neighbor, and self. Wesley preached personal assurance of salvation, but not at the expense of social transformation. He and the Methodist movement challenged slavery, spoke out against the distilling industry, against unjust taxation, and against opulent living. The Methodist movement in the US led struggles against slavery, toward suffrage, and temperance, spoke out against child labor practices and unsafe working conditions.

Wesley's movement from the pulpit into the street, from preaching holiness to enabling social holiness was not founded in some "feel good" need to do good works, or for individual expiation of guilt. Wesley understood a relationship between the transformation of individuals' hearts and souls and the transformation of the world: that love for God and being loved by God must take us into the world to love -- and act on behalf of -- our neighbors.

We in the United Methodist church are familiar with Wesley's two-pronged approach of social justice and personal holiness. As congregations and individuals we often place more emphasis on one or the other of those prongs -- sometimes swaying broadly one direction, sometimes in the other. But Wesley and the early Methodist Movement found each as the transformative outgrowth of the other: Grace -- God's transforming work in us and for us, and Responsibility -- our natural response to God's love for us, as we participate in God's transformation of the world.


This message heavily on:

Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Stephen Gunther, Scott Jones, Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles and Randy Maddox, Abington Press, 1997.
Grace and Responsibility, John Cobb, Abington Press, 1995.