A Love Letter to The People Called Methodist

Thirty years ago, I could not imagine I would fall in love with the United Methodist Church. The first time I visited Centenary UMC in Lexington, KY, I lined up a second “more theologically acceptable” church for us to visit later that morning. Connie, my spouse, had to employ some strategic guilt to get me to visit her childhood denomination. I prophetically told Connie, “We will go, I will hate it, and that will be that!”  

Looking back on my first time visiting a Methodist church, I only remember feeling welcomed and the straightforward genuineness of Associate Pastor Don McKinney’s gentle preaching. I whispered to Connie that the Methodists “were on our short list.”  

It was not love at first sight for me, but I have slowly come to love the United Methodist Church despite our shortcomings like this current morass of divisiveness, antiquated bureaucracy, a 900-page rule book, and our slowness to heed God’s prophetic call. Perhaps, I love the UMC because the people of the Methodist Church have loved me and accepted me despite my short-sightedness, shortcomings, and mistakes, all while wooing me deeper and deeper into God’s grace, mercy, and love. 

I have come a long way theologically from my more know-it-all days, but strange as it may seem to others, my inner connection to Jesus feels even closer than when I was a zealous 21-year-old fundamentalist. Almost everything good I believe about the Bible, God’s grace, faith, reason, acceptance, inclusion, hospitality, peace, justice, systemic evils, oppression, liberation, theological latitude, solidarity in Christ, mystery, wonder, community, connectionalism, creation care, and our call to build God’s kin-dom on earth I found in this, my Methodist home.   

Frankly, I was surprised how warmly our clergy staff welcomed this series “Why I love the UMC!” Our clergy are a thoughtful bunch, not given to quick endorsements, but perhaps they embraced this series so because all of us have found our home inside this imperfectly beautiful Methodist church.  

On Wednesday, Ingrid and I spoke about how many women and oppressed groups struggle with the Apostle Paul. I will credit the Methodist quadrilateral, our scholarly approach to Scripture, and Marcus Borg, with helping me rediscover the radical grace Paul taught. 

The Apostle Paul—and possibly later ghost writers borrowing Paul’s name— wrote about half of the New Testament books. With a missionary zeal, Paul pushed open the exclusive church doors becoming the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11). Like the prophets of old, Paul rejected faith rooted in one’s legalistic adherence to religious rules instead focusing on God’s grace, Christ in us, and spiritual liberation (Isaiah 58; 2 Corinthians 3). Paul may be the unlikeliest Christian prophet, evangelist, apologist, and apostle. Indeed, Paul self-identifies as “the least of the apostles unworthy” of the title, “the chief-most of all sinners” and “a fool for Christ.”  (1 Cor. 4, 15; 1 Tim. 1)

We meet Paul in Acts 8 as the religious council is about to stone to death the second Christian martyr, Stephen. Luke tells us how Paul, a well-educated and trusted religious lawyer, held the watches, wallets, and phones of the angry young men who were picking up stones, covering their ears, and charging Stephen. The mob shouted down Stephen’s prayer, “Lord Jesus, don’t hold this sin against them!” 

Before telling of Paul‘s transformation, Acts 8 ominously begins, “Paul/Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.” Paul is carrying arrest warrants for the religious crime of blasphemy and “breathing murderous threats” against Christians when Jesus appears to him in a blinding light.  The loveless scales of legalism only fell from Paul’s eyes when Ananias’ deeply welcomed him as “Brother Paul.” (Acts 9)

But did the church embrace this once “chief of sinners”? No, when Paul arrived at the denominational headquarters in Jerusalem and “tried to join the disciples… they didn’t believe he was really a disciple.” But Barnabus, whose name means ‘one who encourages’, brought Paul to the apostles and told them Paul’s story. 

What if the church had failed to embrace Paul? What if Anainias and then Barnabus had not taken the risk of speaking up for Paul? Who might the church have failed to reach? What if they said, “You can belong to our church but not preach or teach?” Who would have written in Romans 8 that “nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God,” or in 1 Corinthians 13 that “only faith, hope and love remain, but the greatest of these is love”? Who would have traveled across the entire Mediterranean basin three times preaching good news to all kinds of people? Who would have been the apostle to the Gentiles, breaking down walls of bias and hostility to welcome all kinds of new people into Christ’s church? (Ephesians 2)    

Perhaps Paul’s life itself is a parable about God’s radical grace that welcomes everyone- A parable of grace that offers sanctuary to all God’s wandering children. As Methodists, we understand God not so much as an agent of law-bound eternal judgment, but as the incarnational source of all love, mercy, and grace in the universe. “God is love.” (1 John 4).

 Bishop Kenneth Lee Carder writes, “At the heart of Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice is a profound understanding and vital experience of grace…..the Book of Discipline defines grace as ’the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.’ Grace pervades all of creation and is universally present. Grace is not a gift that God packages and bestows on us and creation. Grace is God’s presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. Wherever God is present, there is grace!” Bishop Kenneth L. Carder https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/a-wesleyan-understanding-of-grace

Due to style, word choice, and theology, many scholars think 1 Timothy was written by someone using artistic license to borrow Paul’s voice to speak to second century current events. Paul’s opening monologue to his long-time trusted aid “Timothy” functions to introduce us to Paul as an unlikely Christian thought leader. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength. God appointed me to ministry even though I used to speak against Christ, attack God’s people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy. Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. (God’s grace poured all over us!) This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. (Notice that: not I was the worst sinner, but I am the biggest sinner!) But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show God’s endless patience”  Ponder that for a moment: “God’s endless patience”! 

Paul is not worthy, but who is? Indeed, thinking we are worthy may truly be the chief sin.  Paul preaches, “I am the worst sinner” not “I was the worst.” You see, our faith is about God and God’s grace and love for all people. Christian faith is not about how good we are, if we eat a vegan or kosher diet, or who we kiss on the mouth. Christian faith is about God’s radical grace offered to us through Jesus Christ. “Grace pervades all of creation and is universally present. Grace is God’s presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform human hearts, communities, and the entire creation. Wherever God is present, there is grace!” (Carder) That is a radical, equalizing, humbling theological proposition, but one Jesus tells us about in a parable. 

In Luke 15, the Jewish church, like the .Christian church in Acts 8, is focused on who is doing right. Funny thing is that if we are focused on what other people are doing, we cannot stay focused on God. A sense of judgment or unforgiveness always breaks the flow of our adoration and worship. (Mathew 6, 7). Luke 15 begins by setting the stage, “Now all the tax collectors and (known) ‘sinners’ were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the (faithful religious rule followers) and the (church legal experts) were grumbling (about Jesus) and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” So, Jesus told them this parable, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now urban friends, no lone farmer does this; it is too risky. It is not sound agricultural practice to leave the herd unattended on the wide open prairie with coyotes and cougars to chase the one misguided sheep. But the farmer can’t get that lost lamb out of her head, maybe it’s down in a holler, stuck in the creek, or near the wolves’ den? “How did I lose this one anyway?” she questions herself. Love longs for everyone to find their way home. So, she leaves the 99 good and faithful sheep and wades the creeks and pushes through blackberry thickets and waist high wet fields until she finds the lamb who wandered off. Finding the worn-out lost lamb, she scoops it up and nests it on her shoulders carrying it home singing. The wet wool rubs her neck and drips stink down her coveralls.  With “endless patience” the Good Shepherd embraces us just delighted to carry us home. (1 Tim. 1) And when she gets us home, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Come rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that were lost.” Then she throws a party; God loves a party with music and dancing. (Luke 15) Jesus continues, “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns around and comes home than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

On the album “The Tree of Forgiveness”, John Prine sings “Summer’s End”. It is written by John Prine and Pat McLaughlin. Used with permission https://ohboy.com/

Well, you never know how far from home you’re feeling

until you watch the shadows cross the ceiling…

Come on home.

Come on home.

No, you don’t have to be alone,

just come on home.

 “At the heart of Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice is a profound understanding and vital experience of grace…..God’s presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile, and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation!”  Maybe I love the UMC because it has helped me find “God’s endless patience” for all of us who wander off.  May such Grace flow into us healing, forgiving, reconciling and transforming us: and having begun in us, may that Grace flow outward from us to heal, forgive, reconcile and transform our world. Amen.

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