Let me begin with a brief personal history. I grew up a Roman Catholic in New York. I went to Catholic school, attended Mass every week, as well as every Holy Day of Obligation. I was a weekly regular at confession, and dutifully performed my acts of penance. I knew who God was, that Jesus was his son, and that there was a Holy Spirit. Mostly, though, I knew that God was watching me and judging me, and would send me to hell if I didn’t stay on the straight and narrow path to Him.
As an adult, I felt compelled to look outside of the Catholic Church (GASP) for a relationship with God. I went to many different kinds of churches, from nondenominational to Messianic Jewish congregations, and every other type I could find. I was looking for a home, but it wasn’t until I went to a United Methodist Church that I found one. That was 25 years ago, and I am now pursuing ordination as an elder in the church because I love it so.
There are many things I love about Methodism, but two stand out in particular: the grace of God, and the community that is necessary to be a true United Methodist. Let us begin with grace.
What is grace? Grace is a word that means help. If we claim that we are saved by grace, it means that we have God’s help in our salvation. We cannot do it alone. Dr. Scott Kisker, in a lecture on grace, sums it up perfectly. He says “We cannot earn our salvation. It is founded in, and at every moment, moved forward by grace, by the free love of God. However, by grace, we can respond to grace.” Confusing? Let’s explore this.
As Methodists, we believe that grace is available to everyone. This is known as the Arminian belief. Methodists also believe in three types of grace; prevenient, or preventing grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Grace is a gift from God, that allows us to live in our imperfections as we strive for Christian perfection. Let’s face it, we all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God, and it is nearly impossible to be that image of Whom we are created to be. The good news is that God’s love is so plentiful that we are extended grace so that we may have salvation. This love is so abundant that God sent Jesus Christ to atone for our sins. Grace is where we find salvation.
Prevenient grace is the first type of grace we will discuss. According to John Wesley, prevenient grace comes before our belief in Jesus Christ. it prepares us for acceptance of Christ, and it is not anything in which we participate. It is a gift from God, and we really have no say in the matter. Its available whether we want it or not. Because of this grace, we are lead to repentance and to the realization that we cannot be saved without God’s help. It is through this prevenient grace that we find ourselves aware of our sinful condition, and our dependence on God for salvation. This is such a powerful image to me about how much God loves us!
Justifying grace is our next topic. This is the grace which most of us as Christians are familiar with. It is of course the forgiveness, or pardoning of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John Wesley referred to this as justification by faith. We must participate in this grace, unlike the prevenient grace. Wesley says we must know doctrine, but knowing it is not enough. He told us that even the devil knows that Jesus is the Savior. We must go beyond that knowledge; we must trust in Christ wholeheartedly.
Included in this justifying grace is an assurance of pardon. This means that there is a kind of divine peace and awareness that one’s sins have been forgiven following a time of repentance and awakening. It could feel like a weight being lifted off our shoulders. John Wesley believed in this assurance of pardon because he experienced that divine peace himself. Charles Wesley had strong feelings about this assurance of pardon as well. It is reflected in some of his hymns. If we look at the second verse of Charles’ Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin, we see that he feels strongly about this:
O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blessed with this antepast of Heaven!
(antepast means foretaste)
Wesley claims that assurance through his description of feeling. Justifying grace is an interactive grace, God helps us, but we must repent of our sins, so that God will forgive or pardon them through Christ. According to Wesley, Christians die to sin and is then reborn into a new life in Christ through justification.
Our third type of grace is sanctifying grace. What exactly is sanctification? According to John Wesley, it is a growth in holiness, or saintliness. It is a process that begins at our “new birth” during justification, and continues until we reach “entire sanctification” which is complete and unfettered love for God. It is during this process of sanctification that we see the community aspect of Methodism take place. What that means is that we are on a quest for Christian perfection, and we are not on it alone. Bible study, worship, classes, prayer and the Lord’s Supper are all communal ways we seek sanctification.
Wesley acknowledged that we cannot live in a vacuum, we must take our faith to the world. We must engage in the betterment of social conditions, and stand against injustices. In Wesley’s day, he encouraged the end of human slavery, but he also advocated for improved conditions for laborers, women and children, economic justice e and to end racism. This is part of earning that sanctification, and it is still relevant today. We must not keep this great and glorious grace to ourselves, we must share. In verse two of Charles Wesley’s hymn How Can a Sinner Know, he reminds us to tell what we know:
What we have felt and seen
With confidence we tell;
And publish to the sons of men
The signs infallible.
In verse 6 of the same hymn, Wesley extols the powerful message:
Stronger than death or hell
The sacred power we prove;
And, conqu’rors of the world, we dwell
In heaven, who dwell in love
God’s grace is an amazing powerful gift to us, and we can achieve salvation through that grace.
The second aspect of Methodism that holds me captive it the community aspect. I’m not talking about pot lucks and spaghetti dinners, although they are pretty terrific as well. No, I am talking about community through worship, prayer, bible study, discipleship and the sacraments.
At baptism, the person being baptized (or their parents) enters into a covenant with God. However, they are not alone in that covenant, the congregation, as representatives of the United Methodist Church, also enter into that covenant. We are expected to support and help each other live into that covenant. We are also expected to hold each other accountable if we stumble along the way. We are not alone. How great is that?
When we gather together for worship, we are a community speaking out to God. We are gathering together, feeding off of each other in song and prayer, and we are being fed and educated in the sermon. We gain insight from each other when we gather together in study. We read the scriptures, dialog, and give insight to each other. We share out experiences, so that others might understand their own experiences, and we come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
This communion experience is very important to me, because my Catholic background did not make the Lord’s Supper an inclusive experience. This is because of the belief in transubstantiation. This means that Catholics believe that the bread and wine are transformed in substance, but not appearance, into the body and blood of Christ. Due to this belief, Catholics will not take communion from other denominations, because the pastors do not have the heavenly authority of transubstantiation. For me, there is no greater joy than an open table, such as we celebrate in the United Methodist Church.
An open table is an invitation to everyone who desires to know about Christ to partake in the service, We don’t believe that the actual body and blood of Christ are being served, rather that we are remembering Christ’s sacrifice in a symbolic and spiritual way. we do this as a community in an inclusive loving way. It is truly my favorite part of being a Methodist!
There are other parts of our responsibility to community. Our mission as a church is to grow disciples, to spread God’s word and to take His teachings to the world. our community is greater than our congregation, greater than out neighborhood, our city our state and even our country. Our community is meant to be global. John Wesley wanted social justice, for all people to be treated as human beings, and he wanted this because he was obedient to the words of Jesus, found in Matthew 12:30-31: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There are many reasons that I choose to be a Methodist, but grace and community are my two stand out reasons. I hope that I have engaged you in a way that inspires discussion and is thought provoking. I look forward to being in community with you!
Campbell, Ted. Methodist doctrine: the essentials. Nashville, TN, Abingdon, 2011.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016. Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016.
Wesley, John, et al. A Wesley reader: writings of John and Charles Wesley. Dallas, Tx., Tuckapaw Media, 2008.
Young, Carlton R. The United Methodist hymnal: book of Methodist worship. Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989.