Stained Glass, IX: God’s a Methodist
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
So today I want to tell you that Methodists have a unique color and shape to contribute the stained glass mosaic that is global Christianity. I want to convince you, in fact, that God’s a Methodist.
I made this sermon the next-to-last episode in this sermon series because, of all the denominations we’ve looked at, I knew the least about the Methodists and needed to give myself some time to study them, and as I read about the Methodists, I was kind of stunned by the huge impact Methodist religiosity has had on the American character.
There is a Methodist church in every tiny town in America. There are 40,000 Methodist churches in America, more Methodist Churches in America than post offices (31,000), almost three times as many Methodist Churches as McDonald’s (14,000). Membership is 11 million; with seven million members, the United Methodist Church (one of several denominations in the Methodist family), is the third largest denomination in America after the Catholics and the Southern Baptists. There are four times as many Methodists as Presbyterians, four times as many as the Congregationalists, four times as many as the Episcopalians, twice was many Methodists as Lutherans.
Why has the Methodist Church flourished so remarkably in American soil? Three—probably more, but at least three—contributions the Methodists make to the mosaic of global Christianity. I want to talk about (1) the heart strangely warmed, (2) the Methodist Quadrilateral, and (3) Boots-on-the-ground theology.
First, the heart strangely warmed. John Calvin was said to be the intellectual giant of the Reformation, and Calvin’s descendants, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, are famous for their intellectual approach to Christianity.
John Wesley, a much simpler person than John Calvin, was always talking about “the heart strangely warmed” rather than “the mind strangely cool.” That’s what Wesley said at his conversion from Anglicanism to a more fiery brand of Christianity at the age of 35 in 1738: My heart was “strangely warmed.”
John Wesley was born in 1703, almost 200 years after Martin Luther, so we have to remember that Wesley was to the Church of England what Martin Luther was to the Roman Catholic Church. In the sixteenth century, Luther thought the Mother Church in Rome needed to be reborn and reformed. She was 1,500 years old in 1517, and she was suffering a little hardening of the arteries; she was sclerotic; she was ossifying. Institutions are like people, right? As they age, they get a little arthritic, a little sclerotic; they get hard of hearing.
My friend Michael is a Roman Catholic priest, the Catholic Chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford. Michael is unmarried, of course, but he likes to say, “I’m married to the Roman Catholic Church; she’s 2,000 years old and looks it.”
That’s what Luther, the Augustinian monk, said in 1517: “I’m married to the Roman Catholic Church; she’s 1,500 years old and looks it; time for some Botox, time for a makeover.”
So, by the time Wesley comes along in the early eighteenth century, his Mother Church, the Church of England, was in need of rebirth and reform. Wesley liked to use the image of heat and fire and flame to talk about the vitality of Christian faith.
Wesley thought that the Church of England, 200 years old already when he came alone, was lukewarm, a dying ember, a campfire gradually dying down under the killing drizzle and wet fog of 200 years of English prosperity. That’s why the United Methodist Church has this stunning red flame in its logo. Remember that remark at his conversion: a heart strangely warmed.
And so the story of those two early disciples on the road to Emmaus is a quintessentially Methodist text. These two disconsolate disciples are grieving over the death of Jesus when suddenly the Risen Christ is walking down the road with them. Understandably, they don’t recognize him, because they weren’t looking for him; they thought he was dead.
They don’t recognize him until Jesus interprets the scriptures for them, and the meaning of his own betrayal, suffering, and death, and then breaks bread with them and pours out the cup for them, and then there he is! And one disciple says to the other: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he unfolded the Scriptures?” That’s where Wesley got the image of the heart strangely warmed.
But here’s the thing. This emphasis on the heart strangely warmed never made the Methodists soft in the head. There is no anti-intellectualism in Methodism as there is in other corners of the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian Churches.
Here’s a little irony of American history. John Calvin and the Presbyterians have always been known for their intellectual heritage. After the first service, Jo told me why the Methodists outnumber the Presbyterians four to one in America: It’s because as the new nation moved west, the Methodists always got to a new settlement first. If you’re a Methodist, all you need is a horse and a Bible and you can go anywhere you want.
The Presbyterians, on the other hand, had to wait for the railroad to arrive in a new place because they had to ship their books.
That may be true, but in fact the Methodists have had at least as much success as the Calvinists in American higher education than the Presbyterians. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities are pretty cool schools, all planted originally to train Calvinist ministers, but now think of all the prominent, national universities founded by Methodists. American University, Boston University, Duke University, Drew University, Southern Methodist University, Wesleyan University, Emory University.
In 1851 nine prominent Chicago Methodists got together and purchased 379 acres on Lake Michigan and planted a modest little school about two miles south of here and placed it under the protection and sponsorship of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was nonsectarian and secular from the beginning, but its roots are Methodist.
John Evans, a prominent Chicago Methodist physician, was the leader of that little group. Mr. Evans knew his baby university would need the support of a nearby village, so he platted out a little town next to the university and it eventually became known as John Evans’ Town; we call it Evanston.
Later, Mr. Evans moved to Colorado, where he eventually became governor and founded a second university—the University of Denver, another university planted by Methodists.
So, the heart strangely warmed, which didn’t make the Methodists soft in the head. The second thing I love about the Methodists is the Methodist Quadrilateral. Do you know about the Methodist Quadrilateral? Neither did I till very recently. The Methodist Quadrilateral. This is what I mean: one of the most important but also thorniest issues the Church has wrestled with for 2,000 years, and the synagogue for 2,000 years before that, is the question of how we know what we know about God. How do we know our truths are true?
For 1,500 years, the Mother Church in Rome taught that Christian truth is a two-legged stool. Here is a two-legged stool that works. Our knowledge about God rests on two legs: Holy Scripture, and Tradition: what the Holy Mother Church has always thought and taught down ages.
So, for instance, there is no mention of purgatory in the Bible; there are no celibate priests in the Bible; the Bible does not tell us about the bodily assumption of Mother Mary into heaven. Those things are not in the Bible, but they are true, said the Mother Church, because we’ve been thinking that way for hundreds of years. Tradition.
Then Luther and Calvin came along and took one of the legs away. Tradition is human and therefore fallible, said Luther and Calvin. Sola Scriptura, said Luther and Calvin, always and everywhere.
But look how tippy a one-legged stool can be; you have to have a very strong core to stay balanced on a one-legged stool; it’s less stable than a unicycle.
I’ll give you a small example of why we need multiple ways of knowing to discover the truth about God and ourselves, and why the one-legged stool of “Scripture alone” is a bit tottery.
There is a wonderful evangelical Christian college in Michigan, which I respect a lot and will not name here because of that respect. This evangelical college in Michigan once fired a religion professor because he would not confirm that Adam and Eve were real persons who actually lived in history. “If it’s in the Bible it has to be true” is the motto of this college always and everywhere, but this just seems to me to be a spectacular misunderstanding about how the Bible communicates its truth.
Think about this for a minute. If Adam and Eve are historical, real, flesh-and-blood persons and not just characters in a story, just when during the evolutionary journey of the hominid species and its predecessors do you place the first man and the first woman and their talking snake?
Was it Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis creature from three million years ago that they found in Africa 40 years ago, or the first homo erectus figure that emerged several hundred thousand years later, or was it the first homo sapiens couple that wouldn’t show up for another 2.5 million years but finally looked like you and me, and if it was any of these ‘first humans,’ did they have a vocabulary and grammar and syntax advanced enough to communicate with each other and with God and with snakes in the witty repartee reported by the Book of Genesis?
We’ve got to use the brains God took so much trouble evolving for us over millions of years: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
Wesley’s Mother Church, the Church of England, realized that a one-legged stool is essentially unstable and came up with a three-legged stool. We know what we know about God, say the Anglicans, from Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. The Anglicans want to say: It took God 13 billion years to evolve this snappy little three-pound instrument called the human brain: we might as well use it to understand God.
But John Wesley taught that there are four ways in which we can discover the truth about God. Wesley said that the truth about God is revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified by personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Spiritual experience was the fourth leg or pillar of the Methodist quadrilateral.
John Wesley taught that one of the ways we know God when we see God is because we have met God on our own Road to Emmaus. It is because we have met the holy and encountered the sacred in the compelling life and giving death and victorious resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We know what divinity is like and we know what humanity ought to be like when, minding our own business, perhaps devastated by loss or distracted by trivialities, we suddenly look up from the common table and notice that Jesus has been walking with us all along, and then our hearts burn within us when we open the Bible and break the bread and pour the cup.
This seems to me just a huge contribution to the mosaic of global Christianity, because it just seems to be honest about the way people like you and me decide what is true and what is real and what is important.
So there’s the heart strangely warmed and The Methodist Quadrilateral. One last great thing about the Methodists. It’s Wesley’s Boots-on-the-Ground theology. One reason the Methodist Church is so attractive to Americans is that even though John Wesley was an Englishman and an Anglican, there was something quintessentially American about him.
He was such a winsome, practical, “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” sort of a guy, and that describes the prototypically American personality: Americans are pragmatists; Americans are utilitarians. Like Wesley himself, Americans want to say: “Keep your abstractions to yourself. We don’t want your erudite, esoteric, ivory-tower speculations about a god you really don’t know much about. So don’t tell me what you guess; tell me what works. Put the hay down where the goats can get at it. Do your theology on the curb where any little uneducated street urchin can understand it.
All Wesley wanted to do, after all, was to shape beautiful, winsome lives and make effective disciples. Wesley wanted to show his folk how to be holy.
Will Willimon is a Methodist preacher, an eloquent one. For a long time he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. Once he was complaining to another Methodist minister about the sorry state of the Church, about how it so little resembled the Kingdom of God it was meant to embody on this earth, and after Dr. Willimon waxed on like that for several minutes, his friend wearied of the whining and finally said to Dr. Willimon, “Will, you want to see the Kingdom of Heaven?”
And then this Methodist minister took Dr. Willimon down into the dark basement of his church, where two women were washing, drying, and folding the clothes of the homeless people who slept in refrigerator boxes around the Church. There’s the kingdom, or at least a hint and guess and foretaste of it, said the preacher. It was, admits Dr. Willimon, a very Methodist moment. Boots on the ground. How do I become holy? The rest is just ornament and decoration.
So what’s the greatest baseball movie of all time? Bull Durham? Field of Dreams? Fever Pitch? Bang the Drum Slowly? Moneyball? The Natural? Hard to choose; lot of great baseball movies.
But you could make an argument for 42, the 2013 biopic about Jackie Robinson. If you have to pay $3.99 for it on Amazon, it’s worth the price of admission just to watch Harrison Ford ham it up as Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey.
When Branch Rickey (University of Michigan Law, Class of 1911, by the way) decided in 1945 that a young, four-letter athlete from UCLA would be the perfect player to break the MLB color barrier, his Dodger front-office staff was skeptical.
In 1944, when Jackie was a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Army, he’d been arrested and almost court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus. This was not a crime in 1944, nor even a discourtesy; the military forbade segregated buses, but the bus driver thought it was wrong and called the MP’s.
When Jackie’s superior officer refused to proceed with the court-martial, the charges against Jackie were reduced to public drunkenness, which was a lie, because Jackie and his wife Rachel were Methodists, and Methodists don’t drink, or they didn’t in in 1944. But Branch Rickey’s Dodger scouts feared that Jackie was too stubborn and too hot-headed, maybe even a little too principled, to break the color barrier.
But Mr. Rickey’s mind was made up. The way the film tells the story, Mr. Rickey told his scouts, “Jackie’s perfect. He’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. It was meant to be.”
Mr. Rickey may have been exaggerating—just a little bit—but God certainly had a lot to do with the flourishing faithfulness of the Methodist movement in England and America. John Wesley once said, “If I die with more than ten pounds in my pocket, I am a thief.” He sounds a little like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. He gave away 30,000 pounds in his lifetime, or over a million dollars by today’s valuations, and his theological descendants have been doing the same thing ever since. That is worthy of our respect.
The number of congregations and the number of members reflect the combined figures for The United Methodist Church, The African Methodist Episcopal Church, and The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007), p. 53.