I have been in England for a John Wesley Heritage Tour recently. It is a great way to gain perspective on the current conversation in the United Methodist Church and the possibility of future division. The over 200-year history of the Methodist movement is based on careful attention to its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and the desire to reach the lost, serve the poor and bring “scriptural holiness” to the land. It is also rife with times of personal and corporate disagreement and division. Division has often led to new periods of renewal or the emergence of once-dormant leadership and spiritual gifts akin to the talents buried by the fearful servant in Jesus’ parable. It is also true that division often leads to the dying off of branches of the church, like the fig tree that Jesus cursed when it bore no fruit. Division can also be a bright and promising road that leads to a dead end, making one wonder what good works might have been produced if only there would have been continued unity and forbearance in times of disagreement.
It is yet to be seen what our current conversation will produce in the future for United Methodists. Nothing is certain. But I am left with the observation that the only Methodists who did any lasting good were those who remained committed to the basics to which they commonly agreed. Their best was found when they shared their faith in Christ and served the least, the last and the lost. Change came when they engaged in the rigor of discipleship through the study of the scripture and the honesty that comes when we place our lives in the trust and encouragement of mutual accountability. What a powerful thing these early Methodists did when they gathered in small classes to ask penetrating questions about their Christian journey. They longed to know Christ, to be made holy in this lifetime, so that they could enjoy an even deeper joy that comes with the experience of God’s love and mercy. They trusted each other sincerely, believing that if they were honest about their sins and temperaments, they would not be thrown out, but their demons might be cast out.
They desired to share the new life they discovered with their friends and neighbors, not for the sake of a long roster, but to set people free from the hardships that inevitably accompany sin. They understood that living without Christ meant being constrained by sin and self, just as living a life under the Lordship of Christ brought both order and the significance found when you live out God’s purposes for your life. As their love of Christ grew, they began to care about issues around them. They worked to end the hardship of illiterate children working in homes and factories and the horrors of slavery. They invited the poor to join them, hoping people whose poverty arose from dysfunctional habits, or addiction to alcohol or drugs, or who simply had no idea how to live a well-designed life for themselves or their family, could find transformation in Christ. They began to organize themselves, offer their time and treasure and take a stand on matters that conflicted with Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God.
The times of greatest vitality came when they embraced discomfort. They risked their reputation in the broader society to do that which was often counter to their intuition about how to exercise their faith and religion. For John Wesley, it was the moment he decided to become “vile” by stooping to preach in an open field to the most common of people – poor laborers and coal miners – rather than pining to preach in the proper pulpits of the Anglican church which had ordained him. Methodists became vital when they set aside the social constructs of being church people and became “enthusiasts” whose vigorous sermons and willingness to share their faith across class, race and gender crossed the line of ecclesial decorum. They were not seen as respectable by their colleagues in the church because they spoke too loudly and dared to exhibit emotion commiserate with the sorrow of the confession of one’s sins or the joy innate to the embrace of the deep love of God. In this space of personal perplexity, they did what was counter-intuitive. They reached people unlike themselves. They were guided by the Holy Spirit into spaces of their society and world they never dreamed of going. Here they became of great use to God. They satisfied the calling of Christ to share the good news of the mercy of God and new life found in Jesus Christ. They set aside the comforts of reputation and the nagging desire to be favorably known, or the blessed peace of being unknown, so that they could relieve suffering and make the joy of Christ alive for others.
If unity comes, let it be a unity that leads to such commitment to bless the world with the love, mercy and justice of Christ broadly and consistently. And if division comes, let all parties go in ways of vitality and grace. The worst thing that can happen is that we will muddle along and ignore the lessons of the most vital spaces in the history of our movement, do church mildly and offer the world nothing more than respectable company that requires no change, makes no sacrifice and sees no transformation of ourselves or the world around us. The best we have to offer is the ministry which the early Methodists did so well, the blessing and the hope the world still needs today.