Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #2 ©

Enthusiasts – God as a Subject

Many of us are aware that the title “Methodist” was originally meant as an insult.  Those called Methodists were considered methodical fanatics in the way they followed Jesus (i.e. through in bible study, prayer, spiritual discipline, evangelistic faith sharing and works of love, justice and mercy, etc.).  Often a more common shorthand reference to them was that they were simply “enthusiasts.”  It was not meant as a compliment!

In the introduction to David Hempton’s marvelous Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, the author recalls an interchange between two great Oxford scholars.  Hugh Price Hughes challenged Mark Pattison, the then distinguished scholar and rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford. Pattison rejected Methodism as part of religious thought worthy of consideration.  Pattison considered Methodism as “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).  Methodists in Pattison’s vision were “enthusiasts” who should be dismissed by all right thinking “reasonable” Christians/people.

And yet, if we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we recover the zeal of the original Methodist “enthusiasts.”  They held a passion for Christ and the gospel, for the life of faithfulness and fruitfulness in holiness of heart and life which so burned within them that it shed light on the outside in an often brutal shadowed world.  Indeed so true is this basic element of the original Methodists that some scholars “argue that the explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century … can best be explained as a much-modified continuation of the Methodist holiness tradition”  (Hempton, p. 2).

Famously in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley shared his hopes and fears for the future of the Wesleyan movement with the words: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” 

All this boisterous enthusiasm is a stretch for someone like myself who came to the Christian faith via the Friends (Quakers) and their preference for dignified silence.  And yet… at the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we are called to be enthusiasts for Jesus.  I can’t help but recall a young new start pastor rising to share in a Path One gathering (The United Methodist Church’s official new church & new faith community planting ministry) who commented, “The Methodist Church was begun by a bunch of college students who were determined to take Jesus seriously.”  There is more than just a small element of truth in his comment.  A bunch of college kids got seriously enthusiastic for Jesus.  While estimates vary today there are something around 35 million plus (I am sure this figure is low, but it is the best I could lay my hands on quickly) Methodists around the world and the many, many more who claim connection to the Wesleyan way of Christianity (probably 250 million!).

The modern sage of American culture Garrison Keillor has remarked, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them….If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael row your boat ashore’ they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!” (Garrison Keillor on “Those People called Methodists” ).
How then are we to reclaim this heart of the Wesleyan Way for our day?  The young pastor has it right for starters.  We embrace the model of a bunch of college kids who decided to take Jesus seriously.  We follow Jesus in our lives and larger world.  But there is more to this than simply a call to commitment and action.  At its core, the need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way is theological.

Methodists were “enthusiasts” for Christ because they saw God in action!  God was simply not an object of belief but a subject moving in their lives and the lives of those around them.  Personal transformation by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is real.  Social transformation was (and is!) an outgrowth of personal transformation.  It is happening today!  I can still taste the thrill of sitting in a worship service where the pastor opened by asking people if they had experienced any “God sightings” this week.  All kinds of folks from middle school-aged kids to septuagenarian adults stood up and shared!  They were enthusiasts in the original Methodist sense.  The Trinity was real; Jesus was alive; the Holy Spirit was active!  Their lives and community were being transformed by the Lord moving in their midst.

I love the comment offered by Professor Jason Vickers in his book Minding the Good Ground, “… the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost not simply to dwell among us but to dwell within us in such a way that, as Boris Bobrinskoy once put it, ‘we cannot discern the frontier between his presence and our own autonomy’” (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 77).  We must get over ourselves; our own convictions, causes and campaigns opening ourselves again to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is scary and dangerous stuff.  It is much more than simply academically reclaiming a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to be sure we must do this much!).  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way calls us to set aside of cultural “properness” (regardless of where we are on the political, ideological and social spectrum!) and open ourselves to the wild ways of the Holy Spirit!

Regaining an understating of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as an active subject moving in our lives and worlds is at the very center of reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  This will not happen without a re-appropriation of the practice of foundational spiritual disciplines.  But for today, I will pause.  A following blog will offer some reflections on being methodical – embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

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