The Method of Methodists

Scripture: Philippians 3:17-4:1

            In 1982 the novel Running Man was released.   This book about a dystopian future was a moderate success, and five years later Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a movie adaption of the book.  Running Man was only the third novel from a little known author named Richard Bachmann.   Of course, those of you who may be big readers know the author was not so little known.   Richard Bachman was the pseudonym for Stephen King.  This was discovered in the mid 80’s, but at the time Running Man was written this was not a known thing.  Stephen King is easily one of the most prolific, successful, and well-known authors of the modern era.  However, he created Richard Bachman because of an insecurity.   When King first created Bachman he had already been wildly successful.   However, he was not sure if his success was because of his writing or his luck.   He was not sure if people were reading his stories because they worth reading or because he had name recognition.   Writing under a pseudonym was a way to test and see.   The Richard Bachman works proved to King that he had merit as a writer.  

            Thirty years after Running Man, released a very different book called On Writing.  On Writing is a book about what he has learned on the craft of writing and the art of being a writer.  This includes the lessons he learned from his experiment of writing as Bachman.  It is generally considered to be one of the absolute best and most informative books on the subject.   One of the points that can be drawn out of the books is what makes people a writer.   What makes people a writer compared to a non-writer is simple.   Writers write.    To be a writer does not require a Shakespearean eloquence in the English language, it does not require a book deal, and does not even require inspiration.   To be a writer requires writing.   Writers write and non-writers do not.  The biggest emphasis that King makes is this, and one of the things that is stressed the most is the best way to be the best possible writer is to write every day.    No one becomes a writer by accident.  They become a writer because they write, and the more they write the better writer they become. 

I think the same thing is true of our faith and being a Christian as well.   The difference between a non-Christian and a Christian is Christ.   To be a Christian requires nothing else but Christ, and no one becomes a Christian by accident.  We become a Christian by accepting the grace and forgiveness Jesus made known on the cross and submitting our lives to the lordship of Christ.  Just like writers become better at writing the more they write, we become more like Jesus the more we seek to follow his commands and examples.  

Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community of faith to take our faith more seriously.   If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith.    To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we are going to focus on the core beliefs of faith.   We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs.  Today we are going to focus on a core belief that has a distinctly Methodist emphasis.  In fact, as we will see these beliefs drive the method that made Methodists in the first place.  These beliefs are holiness and sanctification. 

            I realize these are both extremely churchy words.   They are heavy words packed with a lot of meaning, and they are not words that tend to come up in our everyday language.  Unfortunately, the way we talk these words do not always do the best job at providing great clarity.  For instance the United Methodist articles of religion does have an official definition of sanctification.   Sanctification is defined as such:  “It is the renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost, received through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood of atonement clenseth from all sin; whereby we are not only delivered from its pollution, saved from its power and are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless.”   (and yes, that is all one sentence!)

            So the official definition is still pretty heavy and it might be a little wordy.  To attempt to simplify that detailed explanation:  sanctification is the process to become more like Jesus in thought and action.  Holiness is the way we live day to day in order to bring that process about.   These are the topics that Paul was writing about in this morning’s scripture, and these topics are at the heart of Methodism.  

            In this morning’s scripture Paul was writing to the church in Philippi.  There are a couple of things that are helpful to know about the ancient city of Philippi.   First, it was a very Roman city.  The people of Philippi were known for the Roman patriotism.  They were proud of their status as a Roman colony and they sought to be like a little Rome.  The culture of Philippi found a lot of identity in their Roman citizenship.   The second thing to be aware of is that Roman culture of the first century was famously hedonistic in its outlook.  One of the chief schools of Roman philosophy was Epicureanism.  The primary tenant of epicurean thought is the greatest good is to seek pleasures as a way to find fulfillment and tranquility.   Paul wrote this morning’s scripture to a church in a pro-Roman culture that held seeking pleasure as one of the highest ideals.  

            This morning’s scripture pushes back against that culture.  It urged the church to holiness by telling them to follow the example of holy living Paul has given them.   Paul’s letter urged these early Christians to set their mind on heavenly things instead of pursuing their pleasure above all else.   Paul urged them to find their identity by being a citizen of heaven, not a citizen of Rome.  Paul is urging the Philippians to define themselves by how much their actions and attitudes are like those of Jesus instead of like those of Caesar.   Paul gives the example of holiness to follow all for the goal of sanctification, to be more like Jesus. Verse 21 of this morning’s scripture makes this clear.  Paul writes that seeking to live as a citizen in heaven will enable Jesus to transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.  

            This desire to be so transformed, to be like Jesus, is why we have a Methodist church in the first place.   Paul wrote Philippians to a culture that did not give a lot of thought to living like Jesus, and John Wesley found himself in a similar situation.  England of Wesley’s day was nominally Christian, but it was a country of what Wesley observed to be baptized heathens.  Faith was not much of a driving force in the day to day lives of people.   The majority of people did not seem to take being a citizen of heaven seriously, and there was little real effort to follow Jesus in daily living.    Everyone was theoretically Christian, but that distinction had little real impact on the life of most people.   This bothered John and his brother Charles.   While John was in seminary and Charles in college they began a group with like-minded individuals.  They met regularly with the goal of being intentional about their faith.  They met together for prayer, for bible study, for worship, and to serve those most in need.  They sought to take their faith seriously, and they were highly disciplined in this approach.  They met at regular times without fail and to stay on task they kept a strict schedule.  They did this because they wanted to take the steps necessary (personal holiness) to have their lives transformed to be more like Jesus (sanctification).  They called themselves the Holy Club, but others found names to mock their devotion.  They were derided as bible moths and because they were so methodical they were called Methodists. . .as an insult.

            However, Methodists stuck with Wesley because he was a methodical individual.  Years later, when Wesley and others began a movement based around the idea of holiness and sanctification, he retained the name Methodists.   The early Methodists were indeed methodical.   In this morning’s scripture Paul wrote about how the Philippians should look to him as a model, and the first Methodists sought to look to each other as a model.  They took holiness seriously and they sought to model it for one another.  They simultaneously sought to serve as an example for one another and hold each other more accountable so they would all become more Christ like.  

Part of this Method for holiness and sanctification were the general rules.  Wesley was very specific in these rules about what kind of behavior he was talking about.  In summary though these general rules are do no harm, do good, and third attending the ordinances of God.  The basic idea between personal holiness is how we live our lives matters.  Just like writing daily makes the writer better, personal holiness is the daily practice of being more like Christ.   The general rules give us a fantastic framework for how to do actually make choices that matter and make us more like Jesus.  

First, we do not harm.   We are intentional in our choices not to hurt other people.   Not doing harm is training ourselves to always ask the question.  Will these words or will these actions lower the wellbeing of another person in any way.   Second we do good.  In the general rules Wesley wrote this about doing good, “being in every [way] merciful . . .as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all.”   Doing good is not about occasionally doing something nice.   It is about regularly and intentionally giving food to the hungry, visiting the lonely, and helping the sick.   Doing good is about seeing needs and then meeting those needs.  Finally, attending to the ordinances of God is doing the things that keep us in love with God.   The ordinances of God are corporate worship, prayer, bible study, and partaking the sacraments.   Again, attending to these ordinances is not something that we do when we feel like it.  It is something that we are intentional and methodical about.

These general rules are a great framework for holiness but they also reveal how hard holiness can be.  We can get caught up in the moment and do harm, we can get distracted and fail to do good, and we can get busy and to attend to the ordinances of God.   But this is where the brilliance of the Methodist movement came in helping people attain personal holiness and move onto sanctification.   The first Methodist met together regularly, they shared life together.  They asked one another “how is it with your soul?”   Just like Paul wrote about in this morning’s scripture they were examples for one another on how to keep the general rules.  Just as important though, when they failed they confessed to one another, were held accountable, and were shown grace.  They lived, I believe, like citizens of heaven. Week by week, in community, they sought to live holy lives and through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit they became more like Jesus. 

It’s my opinion that perhaps the Methodists of today could use a bit more method to our holiness.  This morning’s scripture is just as true today as it was when Paul wrote it and as it was in Wesley’s day.   Our citizenship is in heaven, and daily we should live as citizens of heaven who seek to become more like Jesus in our words and actions.   Just like the Philippians and the first Methodists we still need models to follow and encourage us in holiness and sanctification.  We should reclaim our Methodist heritage and be willing to model for one another what it means to live Christ honoring, holy lives. 

In that Spirit, I challenge you to set one small goal.  Maybe it is volunteering weekly somewhere, maybe it is praying for someone that is a challenge for you, or maybe it is reading the bible more.    Set that goal for the next five weeks and be absolutely methodical in pursuing that goal.  If you are comfortable doing so, I challenge you to go the next step.  Share this goal with one of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pray for one another to meet your goal and hold one another accountable.   I challenge you to engage in this holiness experiment.  My hypothesis, is that if you do then come Easter you will find your faith has grown and you feel like you have grown to becoming more Christ like. 

We become better Christians by practicing being like Jesus.  That is what personal holiness is.    Becoming more like Jesus is sanctification, it is claiming and living into our citizenship in heaven.  Holiness and sanctification are core doctrines and beliefs that especially central to our Methodist tradition.  May we reclaim those doctrines more fully.   May we be downright methodical in how we seek to do no harm, how we seek to do good, and how we engage in the ordinances of God.   May we grow in holiness may we sanctified by being transformed to be more like Jesus Christ.   When I think of you all, I fully echo Paul’s sentiment, “Therefore my brothers and sisters, you whom I love. . . stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”