Methodism is for lovers

December 4, 2010

We are, after all, a loving people…

Back in the late-’80s, in the early days of Dana Carvey’s magnificent run on Saturday Night Live, Carvey appeared with John Lithgow in a sketch entitled “Rev. Dwight Henderson: World’s Meanest Methodist Minister.” O.K., maybe it wasn’t very funny, and Carvey did church humor better with the “Church Lady.” But even as a Baptist at the time, I appreciated the irony of it: Methodists and Methodist clergy (I hope) are—doggone it—just nice people. In general, I mean.

We’re generally loving people, laid back people—not terribly dogmatic. We are all about “open hearts, open minds, and open doors,” after all. In large part, this stems from John Wesley himself—not that he was particularly laid back. No, it stems in part from Wesley’s strong theological emphasis on love. The big problem with Christians living in England in the 18th century was not that they failed to believe the right things (he was a big fan of Anglican doctrine), but that they failed to live it out in love and service. He emphasized orthopraxy (“right practice”) somewhat more than orthodoxy (“right belief”).

Wesley couldn’t abide Christians (like the Moravians, with whom he parted ways a couple of years after Aldersgate) who lived as if the goal of the Christian life was saving faith. That’s a necessary starting point, of course. But what are we saved for? For Wesley, if saving faith doesn’t inspire within us a greater love of God and neighbor through the power of the Holy Spirit, what’s the point?

We are saved in order to love.

He makes this point in a sermon entitled “The Law Established Through Faith, Part II.” Faith, he writes, “ministers to love. It is the great temporary means which God has ordained to promote that eternal end.” To help make his point, he cites 1 Corinthians 13. Love is the greatest Christian virtue—even greater than faith—because on the other side of eternity, when we are fully and finally in God’s presence, faith will be unnecessary. But we will still have love.

You should read the sermon. It’s really wonderful. But Wesley is wrong about the “temporary” aspect of faith (and hope, for that matter), as N.T Wright helped me to see in his recent book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I shouldn’t have required Wright to figure this out: Paul says, after all, that the three virtues of faith, hope, and love “abide”—unlike those extravagant gifts of the Spirit he refers to in the same passage. If faith and hope abide, alongside love, how can they be temporary?

I excerpt the following paragraph from Wright’s book because it helps me to get clear on the nature of Christian faith and hope. Maybe it will help you, too. (Emphasis mine.)

It is true that faith and hope do at present seem to us to be looking forward to the new age, so that we might assume that when that new age comes they will be redundant. But Paul is seeing much deeper than that. Faith is the settled, unwavering trust in the one true God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. When we see him face to face we shall not abandon that trust, but deepen it. Hope is the settled, unwavering confidence that this God will not leave us or forsake us, but will always have more in store for us than we could ask or think. I do not imagine for a minute that in the coming age we shall arrive at a point where we shall have experienced everything the new world has to offer, and will become bored (as is imagined by some scornful contemporary visions of “heaven”)… In contrast, because I believe that the God we know in Jesus is the God of utterly generous, outflowing love, I believe that there will be no end to the new creation of this God, and that within the new age itself there will always be more to hope for, more to work for, more to celebrate. Learning to hope in the present time is learning not just to hope for a better place than we currently find ourselves in, but learning to trust the God who is and will remain the God of the future.†

† N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 203-4.

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