Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

How You Can Tell a Methodist
June 25, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 22:34-40

How can you tell a Methodist? Bob Scarborough and Francis Sanford both answered this question by saying, “Not much.” But the question is not what you can tell a Methodist—I agree, not much—but how can you tell a Methodist? All the hymns this morning were written by Charles Wesley. As we look today at our historic Methodist Church, some of you may ask, “Why should a Methodist be any different from anyone else?” And is a Methodist different from anyone else? I contend that whatever you believe in, wholeheartedly, and whatever you've committed yourself to, will make a difference in who you are, what you are, and people ought to be able to tell. You don't have to be with a vegetarian very long before you know they're a vegetarian, or a teetotaler or a Mormon when they refuse coffee or tea . It doesn’t take long to be with an anarchist as they plot and plan revolutions. Whatever you believe in ought to make a difference so the people can tell who and what you are. 

In the community where I grew up in Minnesota, we had basically three classes of people— Methodists, Baptists, and pagans, with a few Lutherans thrown in. It was easy to tell the pagans because they went to the beer joint. In our town, we only had two churches, two grocery stores and two beer joints. Everybody went to the grocery stores. Only the Baptists and Methodists went to the churches, and only the pagans went to the beer joints. So it's easy to tell them. The Lutherans also went to the beer joints, but they went to church on Sunday so you could tell a Lutheran. Baptists and Methodists did not smoke or drink so you could pick them out. But there was a finer difference yet between the two. My Grandpa Norris who was a very strict Baptist looked with disdain on all Methodists. He knew the difference  between them because Methodists fish on Sundays! 

But how do you tell a Methodist today? It's not by dress. There are some religious groups that have taken a particular historic dress and cemented their stamp on it. They called it holy garb and from that time on they wore those kind of clothes, Dunkards in Modesto for example. But you can't tell a Methodist by the way we dress, or by the way the women wear their hair, or the absence of makeup or jewelry. So how can you tell? 

I am preaching this morning, not because Methodists are different from other Christians, not because we have any unique handle on anything that anyone else doesn't have, not that we're any better or superior to any other Christian religious denomination. But, every denomination has an emphases and has brought their emphases from history to witness to the entire Christian Church. It's like an orchestra with each denomination playing a section of the orchestra. A section has been allotted to us and if we don't play our part bravely, the entire orchestra is missing out on something. 

So I am preaching this sermon today to call attention to some of the historic emphases of the Methodist movement. It is relevant because we are really a diversified church. Many of you come from other places, many of you are visiting from other denominations, many of you have joined from other denominations. In my Sunday school Class this morning. (I say “my class” loosely. I have very little control over it)!  In the class, there are 14 of us. Only two were homegrown Methodists, only two were born Methodist. We're a diversified bunch so it's interesting to hold before us the historic emphases of the church so when the world looks at us, they ought to be able to tell, first of all, that we're Christians and secondly, they ought to be able to tell that we're Methodist Christians. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in the 1700s, was an Anglican priest who brought religion to the common poor people. The Church of England was composed of upper class people while the Methodist movement spread among the poor lower classes. The Methodist movement spread like wildfire across England in the 1700s. Then in the 1800s, it spread across our country as people moved westward. With the camp meeting and the revival movements of the 1800s, Methodism spread across the country. 

John Wesley was once asked, “What is a Methodist?” His answer, “What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist? A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost, one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart.” That's how you can tell a Methodist. For John Wesley, the Christian religion can be summed up in love—love of God and love of neighbor, love of God and love of all humankind. Wesley wrote, “This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices.” Love is the medicine for all of life. Love can cure all evils and all heartaches. Love can redeem. 

Love to John Wesley was not a passive sentiment. Love was not an emotional feeling. Love was not goo, or romance. He made love very practical and spelled out what the love of God and love of neighbor mean. He believed in rules. He had rules for everything. He was a very practical minded person. That has been carried through the years as Methodists are usually very practical people. We know how to organize, we know how to appoint committees. We are a practical people. Three men were dying in the hospital. The doctor asked each man his one last wish before he died. The Catholic said, “I would like to see a priest, have last rites and make my confession.” The Baptist said, “I would like to make my peace with God. I want to make sure I'm saved so that I will have eternal life.” The Methodist said, “I want to see another doctor.” 

John Wesley made it all very practical and he had a lot of rules. In fact, that's how we got our name. He and his brother Charles, when they were in college, organized a Holy Club. They were very disciplined. They got up at four o'clock every morning for prayer and Bible study. They studied the Bible diligently. They went to their classes and in the afternoon, they visited the poor and prisoners. They were so methodical that the other students teased them and called them Methodists.

His rules can be organized into three categories. The first rule, and these were rules for those who shall continue to evidence their desire of salvation by, number one, doing no harm, avoiding evil. Number two: doing good to everyone, all people, and number three: attending services, attending worship services and Bible study. 

Loving God included words and concepts that were very important to Wesley—holiness, sanctification, and perfection. We don't use those words much anymore, but they are great concepts. They were very important to Wesley and they were very controversial in that day,. He preached holiness, sanctification and perfection. People would argue with him, “How can we be perfect?” And he would answer, “The goal of a Christians life is to be made perfect.” And they would say, “How can we be perfect? How can anyone be without sin?” What Wesley was trying to say is that perfection is the goal to which we are moving in this Christian life. Perfection is a whole hearted, totally committed love of God and of people. 

This concept involved a great emphasis on experience. It's far more important in the Methodist tradition to experience the love of God than to have a lot of ideas, doctrines and creeds. It’s more important to experience the forgiveness of sin than to be able to itemize and articulate. John Wesley would say, “If your heart is right, give me your hand for you are my brother, you're my sister” —if your heart is right, not if you believe like I do. If your heart is right, if you have experienced the love of God in your heart and in your life, and if you have love for people, then you're my brother, you're my sister. It was an emphasis on growing and on growth. Conversion is not the climax of the Christian life, but the beginning. And likewise, baptism to us is not is not the sacrament of the climax of life. It is not the sacrament after conversion. Baptism is at the beginning. Baptism is bringing us into God's grace, through which we may grow into perfection. 

John Wesley would ask, “Are you going on to perfection?” A  Methodist is one who is going on to the love of God, to the love of people, going on to perfection. There's growth, there's no static, there's no place that you get to where you say, “Well, here I am, I've made it.” There's always room for growth, new ideas, new insights, new methods, new procedures. There's always room for conversions. There's always room for new births, no matter where we are in our life. We always are pushing and going on. 

Likewise, a characteristic of a Methodist is to love people. Ours is a community religion. John Wesley used to say there's no such thing as solitary religion. Solitary individual religion will die. We need community. Our worship services are not just individual people coming to worship God. We come as the community, we come as the fellowship, knowing each other, introducing each other and caring about each other. Joy in being together is what it's all about. It's a social kind of religion where we love each other. 

And because we love people we're concerned about meeting needs. We are concerned about where people hurt. We care about feeding the hungry, which is the top missional priority for our conference—feeding the hungry and doing something about world hunger. We reach out through the Haven of Peace to care about the women and children in our community who are homeless for a period of time. Because we care about people, we reach out to meet their needs, however we can. 

But there's more to love than enjoying each other. There's more to love than trying to meet people's needs. There's another dimension of love—fight for people, crusade with zeal to care about people where they're hurting and to fight against those things which hurt people. Fight against those systems, those movements, those evils where people are hurt. John Wesley's movement at that time spread among the poor people. He visited the prisons almost daily to preach to the prisoners. Then, when he came out of the prison, he informed the community of the horrible conditions of the prisoners. He criticized the administration of the prisons. He tried to get the prison penal system changed. It's not just enough to preach to people and to meet their needs, but there must be a fight to change things that hurt people. 

Those early Methodists cared about children. The children at that time had to work in mines from age eight and up. They had to work in the mines before sunrise and after sunset. Methodists fought against child labor, and they believed in educating children. They started schools and the Sunday School movement was important to them. 

Do you remember Francis Willard? Francis Willard was a great Methodist lady, one of the leaders of the WCTU. She fought against alcohol, the social evil of that day. Francis Willard was also a leader in the women's movement. She was for women's rights. Francis Willard was a good Methodist. A Methodist is one who so loves people and cares where they're hurting that she/he will fight against it. I remember when Trina Kelly spoke to the UMW a few months ago about child battering, how children are beaten right in our own community. She told us about the countless numbers of children who are beaten, but their neighbors shut their windows, or they shut their ears because they don't want to get involved. They don't want to report those parents. They don't want to take a risk. They don't want to take a chance. A Methodist would care, take a chance and fight for children. 

Now, it seems to me one of our tasks is to be alert to the frenzy of Proposition 13. Because of the panic of what cuts are going to take place with proposition 13, somebody needs to watch to see that that those causes that are small, those those causes that aren't popular, are watched for the poor may get mistreated. We should not be so smug about accusing all welfare recipients as being cheaters and putting them in a category and say they cheat. We not should not be so self righteous, but should care about the poor. We should investigate and watch that people aren't hurt in this process and be alert to what happens in the schools. If we're not careful, reading programs where children are taught to read will be cut before football is ever cut. The popular causes will be will be left in because of the public's feelings. But somebody's got to care about the children. Somebody's got to care about the programs that help the children who have a difficult time in school. 

We are people who care. A characteristic of a Methodist is one who loves and who puts that love into action. I recall the story of a little boy in the days of Dwight L. Moody. He would walk blocks and blocks across Chicago to get to Moody Church. When they asked him, “How come you walk so far in this cold Chicago winter? You go by church after church to get to that one. How come?” and he would say, “Well, they love a fellow over there.” 

O, that our church could be the kind of church where people feel love and care, the kind of church where love is put into action—meeting people's needs, fighting against evil, love that is the result of our going on to perfection, of our getting closer and closer to the love of God. 

A Methodist is one who loves the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris