Review IIIb: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is Practical”

For the second half of Bishop Willimon’s chapter on the practicality of Methodism, he deals quite a bit with the difficulty of being a disciple of Jesus in the world. That is, he’s transitioned from Methodists as a practical people to Methodists as a practicing people. In other words, discipleship.

“The way Jesus invites us to walk is a narrow way, so against the stream, so uncommon that anything less than intentional, careful, Christian formation will not do.” (Page 48)

Again, we see the transitioning of practical to practicing. If Methodists do what work in the task of discipleship, then the task of discipleship is putting into practice what works. This is why Methodism, thanks to the Moravian influence on John Wesley, had its beginning in class meetings. Methodists would meet together to discuss their spiritual life, their failings, their worries, prayers, etc. The purpose was to create a people, a church, that were passionate about the Kingdom of God.

But one does not just become a disciple merely by going to church. There is far more to the life of discipleship than going through the motions. This is where a word related to “disciple” enters the equation: “discipline.”

“But it is unimaginable that one could be a disciple, could follow a master whose name is Jesus, without discipline–the conscious, intentional submission of our feelings, time, talents, and projects to the will of God as revealed in Christ. Disciples are made, not born.” (Page 49)

Discipline is integral to our lives as Christians. Christianity is a call to sacrifice. It’s not about our own egos or desires, it’s about giving of ourselves to something greater. But the ego does not easily die as so many Orthodox writers remind us. It takes effort and it takes grace.

Bishop Willimon contrasts the discipline of Wesleyanism with the “freedom” the world offers us. But every way we try to live out this freedom merely hints at the emptiness that is always somewhere inside of us:

“We buy expensive cars or drift from person to person, not because me are just immoral, but rather because somewhere within us we are desperate for meaning.” (Page 50)

Again, Bishop Willimon examines the lavish extremes to which we take our “freedoms” in our search for something:

An over-sexed society is just another manifestation, like an over-consuming economy, or an overly bureaucratized state, of our dilemma of being all decked out with our rights and our freedom with absolutely nowhere worthwhile to go.” (Page 50)

Ultimately the “freedom” that our (incredibly free) societies offer us leave us as the old saying goes, “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” So we walk further. We push our freedoms as far as we possibly can because there must be something there that can fill that emptiness. But it all ends up so banal somehow.

“Look we’re all going to die for something. Wouldn’t it be good to die for what is true, to expend my life for something more significant than a mortgage and a desk in the front office?” (Page 51)

The fascinating thing is that I really think we are seeing the ends of this culture of “freedom” in our western society right now. Societies have pushed their freedoms to their furthest emptiness and still found no fulfillment. And I think we are beginning to see the opposite motion in reaction to this. People are starting to long for something more. Something ancient and greater than themselves. Something disciplined. Something that requires us to sacrifice something of ourselves. I think our culture is at an intersection and I pray the Church does not miss this valuable opportunity to remind us all of the only one who can heal that empty space within us.

“Reaction to unlimited freedom suggests that we may be the first generation in a long time to have confidence in old-fashioned Wesleyan discipline. To be a disciplined person is to be someone who has some means of being able to say yes and to say no (no small achievement in a self-indulgent age).”      (Page 50)

It’s of course not easy, nor is it inevitable. A culture can very easily sink back into these empty “freedoms” because change is never easy and what is known becomes comfortable in spite of its failings. But we need to be uncomfortable. For far too long all of us, even those of us trying really hard to be disciples, have been too comfortable. And all too often the Church, rather than assuming its prophetic role, has accommodated our sinful desires.

“Rather than reducing our life together in the church to the lowest common denominator (a life-style indistinguishable from that followed by everybody else, even those who aren’t following Jesus) I believe that we ought to ask more of our people rather than less, ought to build congregations that test the limits of our faithfulness, which expose us to ever deepening dimensions of commitment. The future belongs to churches which create the communal structures and the forms of congregating which are able to sustain discipleship in an unbelieving world.” (Page 52)

This is what it means for us to be always reforming. It is to come aware of the fact that we have failed, that we have preferred false comfort to challenge. We have preferred power to powerlessness. We have preferred wealth to poverty. We have conveniently tucked away the most radical sermon ever preached in the history of humanity. “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weepers, and the hated (Luke 6:20-22).”

“Our challenge, as twentieth- and twenty-first-century followers of Jesus is to discover the means of discipline for disciples in our age.” (Page 55)

The hunger is out there. To reverse a parable, the poor and the lost have shown up to a feast but is the ruler of the city there to receive them? Is the ruler of the city even prepared?

“Wesley demanded that all theology, all hymnody, all church structure, all preaching, and all teaching have discipline as their function, the making of disciples. He therefore examined candidates for the Methodist ministry by asking not only about their talents… but also about the practical results of their work…” (Page 54)

Bishop Willimon ends by recounting the parable where a father asks his son to go out and work in the field. The son replies that he will go out, but then he doesn’t. The father asks the second son to work. The second son replies that he won’t work, but then he does go out and work. He compares this to the practicality of Methodism. We just have to get out into the field and do something. It’s really as practical as all that.


~ by crossingthebosporus on August 30, 2012.

One Response to “Review IIIb: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is Practical””

  1. So much richness here, and so much on which we can all agree. I hope we are at a turning point 🙂

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