The Atmosphere of The Book of Acts

The Atmosphere of The Book of Acts

The Atmosphere of The Book of Acts

By Bishop Gerald Kennedy

1961 World Methodist Conference

In the nineteenth century, the English theologian Frederick Dennison Maurice wrote: “I cannot but think that the reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life, as that did upon the justification by the Son.”

That expectation, while as yet unfulfilled, was a confident hope that God through his Holy Spirit would again act mightily in the Church. This expectation was based on previous experiences in the first century and again in the eighteenth century.

The Book of Acts is really the Book of the Holy Spirit. The clue to the meaning of Pentecost is in the words: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2). There is a mighty assurance in those early Christians and they acted as if it were only natural to heal and convert. They were filled with a power that made their witness sharp and clear. They lived in the constant awareness of the reality of the Holy Spirit ever present with them for guidance, comfort, and courage.

The end of World War II was a terrible time for the Christians of Germany. The country was ruined, defeated, disgraced, and there was no hope in the future. Germany was divided, with much of Protestantism under the communists. The churches were particularly hard hit, for they had lost their buildings and many of their leaders. Some of the church leaders had to cross back and forth between East and West Zones and suffered harassments from the authorities. Yet listen to this testimony from Bishop Otto Dibelius: “We are living in the Book of Acts, and, oh, it is glorious.” He was speaking of the recovery of the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Our fathers knew this experience. Indeed, to read John Wesley’s Journal is to be transported back into the atmosphere of Acts. There are the same great expectations, the same inspiring hopes, the same signs. The Evangelical Revival was, among other things, a rediscovery of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I cannot escape the conviction that the Wesleys were raised up by God for this witness and that the people called Methodists have been chosen to continue it.

Now the scandal of revelation for many is its particularity. Why should God reveal himself in one man, one tribe, one event, one place? Why does God so seldom if ever use an entire generation, a continent, a general infiltration of a whole period as the means of making himself known? Why is it that he speaks through minorities and fellowships rather than through majorities and institutions? Perhaps it is because he chooses to use the foolish things with which to confound the wise. But I believe he will use some particular instrument for the new reformation.

It could be Methodism. At least we have the tradition and the theology for it. We may have been raised up for such a time and we have the advantage of having been born out of a revival of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by its doctrine, and commanded by its sense of urgency. Let us examine briefly four aspects of our belief in the witness of the Spirit.

In the first place, we believe in Experience. We may argue as to the particulars of John Wesley’s heart-warming event at Aldersgate Street in 1738, but it seems inescapable that it was a personal turning-point and the spring of the Methodist flood. It was an inward witness that brought personal knowledge of God and assurance of the availability of God’s power. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This was a part of the worship experience of early Methodism. You may remember how Francis Asbury attended a Methodist meeting in Wednesbury and said: “I soon found this was not the Church – but it was better.” He found there no cold formalism and no lifeless ritual, but the sense of the immediate presence of God.

The dour and dark dread which seems to dominate so much modern theology is not the prevailing atmosphere where the presence of the Spirit is expected and recognized. So Wesley could say of a man who has this experience, “He is therefore happy in God.”

I attended a church service a few years ago in a mood of prejudice, which is not the proper way to enter God’s house. I did not like the sermon subject and I was sure that the whole approach was not for me. But from the first hymn, I was captured and lifted. The pastoral prayer began: “O God, when Thy Son walked the earth, men felt that if they could but touch the hem of his robe, they could be healed. We believe he is here with us this day in this place, and with our arms of faith we may touch him and be healed. Help us to claim Thy promises.”

The sermon was a testimony of how men find Christ the answer to their needs and the goal of their search. I left the church helped and strengthened, which is too seldom the experience of people who sit through our chilled formalities.

One of the main problems for modern Methodists is how to create an attitude of expectancy in our ‘cathedrals’ with our choirs and dignified services. Our preaching can so easily become like the heavy lecture at the 1954 World Council Meeting, after which the late Bishop Berggrav of Oslo murmured, “The word became theology and did not dwell among us.”

Methodists should sing their theology, which is a better way to proclaim it than reciting a creed or constructing a dogma. Charles Wesley’s hymns are full of personal experiences, and they abound in personal pronouns. I have noticed that Methodist theologians, particularly in England, often quote a hymn when they are discussing a doctrine. They have the sense of these expressions of Charles and John Wesley’s poetry as descriptions of religious experience. And that is theology!

The sign of the living God is communication and revelation. This means experience, and we are committed to the belief that His Spirit witnesses with our spirit. Preachers without the experience of the Holy Spirit are smoking fires with hardly any flame of light. Laymen who have not been baptized with the Spirit, are merely salesmen for an institution with little joy and hardly any power. We cannot give what we do not have any more than we can go back to where we have not been. We believe in the experience of the Holy Spirit.

In the second place, the Holy Spirit’s witness makes us believe in Results. To connect anything pragmatic with the spiritual, will seem to some a contradiction. I am convinced, however, that quite the opposite is true. The spiritual affairs which produce no ascertainable results are to be considered with suspicion. The practical affairs which have no spiritual implications are to be regarded as of questionable importance. This is true of religion in general, but it is the very center of Christianity’s truth.

I have been impressed with the way Wesley met his critics and how in the midst of controversy he kept his eye on the main issue. He seldom argued generalities, but went straight to the particular point. How often he replied to his opponents by referring to the change in environment the Methodists had wrought. He talked about changed personal lives as the answer to Methodism’s critics. John Wesley seems to have thought that the results produced by conversion were the answers to the opposition.

The modern split is reflected in the conversation between two students attending a theological seminary. Both of them served student churches, and one of them was complaining about the condition of their particular congregation. The finances were in bad shape, the organizations were feeble, and the attendance was small. But the other one was not disturbed. “What do you expect?” he asked. “Results?” Or we see it in the superior attitude some times exhibited by other churchmen toward our “activism.” I have seen these communions with their empty sanctuaries and their lack of life. I prefer a Church committed to the idea that the living Spirit of God will produce observable results from its labors, if it is doing God’s will.

We may disagree about methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. Let us be critical of all methods and never think that a single method is holy. But that we should ever think that our Methodism can be excused from winning people to Christ would be a confession of death. Every minister and layman in our fellowship must be under the constant question: When was the last time you won somebody to Christ?

We are heavily organized and this causes some of the brethren to chafe. Organization as an end in itself is of the devil, but waste and inefficiency are neither pious nor pleasing to our Lord. All we are trying to do is to conserve the benefits of our faith and exert our maximum power. John Wesley said that he would not strike a blow unless it could be followed up and sustained. I think history says clearly that, for the long pull, Wesley’s way was right. Let us not assume that if we believe in the witness of the Spirit, we must be opposed to machinery in the Church. For it too is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. It helps us maintain the fruits which God gives from our labors.

A third aspect of this subject is Discipline. This is more important than we think, for only within the framework of a strict discipline can the free Spirit work constructively. Since the days of St Paul, there have been those who would turn the Christian’s freedom into license.

Precisely because he was dealing with tremendous spiritual power, John Wesley insisted on discipline in his services and in the lives of his followers. The early Church found that same necessity and so shall we.

In Wesley’s Journal for 17th August 1750 there is this entry: “I preached at Ludgvan at noon, and at Newlyn in the evening. Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’” All one or the other can only create half-Christians.

I marvel yet at the Methodist tradition of time and rules. We are to consider time the great gift and the heavy responsibility. We have our General Rules and our Discipline. Our ministers carry heavy burdens and take responsibility for their conferences as well as for their churches. They are to serve where they are appointed without spending time candidating for pulpits. They are subject to the modern tensions and strains which are destroying so many of our contemporaries. I do not know a more difficult or demanding job in our modern world than to be a Methodist minister. This situation will not get better, for we are not about to become pietistic fellowships or passive, waiting servants of Christ. Ours is the marching tradition and we are a travelling ministry. We can only do our work by being the most disciplined of men and women.

Billy Sunday said one time that he had been accused of rubbing the fur the wrong way. “Well,” he replied, “let the cat turn around.” Perhaps God is saying to us that we must turn around – that we are on the wrong path going in the wrong direction. With all the material advantages we enjoy, we are often frustrated and unhappy people. To be an instrument of the Spirit’s power, we must accept spiritual discipline. The path to freedom is both straight and demanding.

Finally, let us see the witness of the spirit in the light of our doctrine of Christian Perfection. This is a difficult matter for us to understand and explain. There is a very close connection between the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Christian Perfection. Both stem from the experience of being found by God in Christ. Both are based on a faith that God is involved in all of man’s life. Both believe that the Spirit of God can capture a man and transform his desires. Both will destroy our carefulness and timidity with an assurance that “all things are possible with God.”

When I was a young preacher, I studied John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection, which may be the only unique doctrine Methodism has preached. I found him spending about as much time explaining what he did not mean as what he did mean. It seemed to me too troublesome, and I spent little time on it in the following years of my ministry. But John Wesley held it and preached it in spite of its difficulty, and I have become convinced that he was right.

A young candidate for Conference membership objected to saying “Yes” to the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” An old bishop asked quietly, “Well son, what are you going on to?” The whole idea of perfection is foreign to us, and we prefer to just do the best we can and not expect unreasonable attainment. But Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5).

It is time that we tried to recapture the mood of a man and a people who would declare their intention of aiming at nothing less than being perfect in love. They were not saying that they expected to become sinless – or perfect in judgment. But they were willing to be content with nothing less than giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the service of Jesus Christ. It was an affirmation of the kind of faith we find in the Book of Acts when the experience of the Holy Spirit was so real.

That New Testament enthusiasm is lacking in our time. The American comedian Mort Sahl said that he wished he could find a cause, because he had a lot of enthusiasm. Our problem is just the reverse, for while we have a cause, we seem curiously lacking in enthusiasm, either in the pulpit or in the pews. If in the midst of this compromising, vacillating, mediocrity-ridden world the Methodists should proclaim again that they were committed to being made perfect in love, it might start a new revival. In the midst of all the bad news which reaches us daily, this would be good news indeed.

God gives much or little according to our asking. If all we want is the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, that is all we shall receive. But if we dare to reaffirm our faith in the doctrine of Christian Perfection and pray for the glorious experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, God will use us mightily again. And who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) was a bishop of the United Methodist Church over Southern California, Arizona, and Hawaii. This sermon was delivered at the Tenth World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, August 17-25, 1961 (to learn more about our friends at the World Methodist Council, visit WorldMethodist.org). Bishop Kennedy was a remarkably pivotal figure within Methodism. He was consecrated as a bishop at age 40 in 1948. Kennedy earned his Ph.D. at Hartford Theological Seminary, wrote more than 20 books, was considered one of America’s premere pulpiteers, and held leadership roles in the Council of Bishops, presenting the Episcopal Address at the 1964 General Conference. He was appointed twice by Governor Pat Brown to the California Board of Education, wrote reviews of fiction books from 1956-1972 in Together magazine, and oversaw the Hollywood office of the National Council of Churches. He was also an essential ingredient in the creation of Good News, appearing in our first issue in 1967 and speaking at our first convocation in 1970.    

Marks of a  Methodist 6: Perfection

Marks of a Methodist 6: Perfection

Marks of a Methodist 6: Perfection

By Thomas Lambrecht

This edition of Perspective concludes our survey of the marks or characteristics of a Methodist, as put forward by Bishop Gerald Kennedy in his 1960 book of that name. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. We noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We saw Methodism characterized by Mission, the outward focus of the church to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people. In the previous article, we noted the tendency toward Freedom of thought and proclamation, leading to freedom from sin and the world, yet within a framework of shared doctrinal commitments.

The final mark that Kennedy and Wesley identify is Christian Perfection. As in Kennedy’s day, United Methodists in the time of my ministry have tended to regard Christian Perfection as a joke. Often the only allusion to perfection comes when someone makes a mistake and then remarks that they are “going on to perfection” (using Wesley’s language).

Yet, holiness is not a joke. “Make every effort … to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Christian Perfection does not mean that a person will never make a mistake. In Kennedy’s words, Wesley “said that [people] could be perfect in their love and their motives.” Wesley believed that one could be free from willful or intentional sin, guided by love and the Holy Spirit. He believed that one could reach this goal in this life, not just at the moment of death. And if one could reach it, one ought to strive for it.

Kennedy notes, “the complete surrender of the life to God was the goal. … If a [person] becomes single-minded, then so far as his love is concerned, he has reached perfection. The disease is always double-mindedness, and Methodism believed that it could be cured by an experience of religion.”

Kennedy points to Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus describes a God who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (vs. 45). Love for all, and behavior expressing that love, makes us like our heavenly Father, which is the standard of holiness.

Motivation

Kennedy believed that the pursuit of holiness or Christian perfection raises the bar on excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment to the Christian life. “The early Methodists expected miracles and it did not seem unreasonable to them that perfection should be their aim. We are short on enthusiasm. … There [is] a noticeable lack of any sense that the message proclaimed could change a [person’s] life or turn the world upside down.

“There are not many of our meetings where anybody gets excited. … We seem to have lost the sense of the Gospel as good news, and we put our emphasis on new laws. And yet there is no sense in thinking we can stir up enthusiasm by appointing a committee or passing a resolution.”

Striving for spiritual “greatness” motivates our journey of faith much more than just going through the routines of religiosity. In our own time, there is beginning to be a recovery of this emphasis on the pursuit of holiness that is energizing the church.

Hope

The idea that Christians can live in perfect love in this life gives tremendous hope to the believer. In contrast with a world that sees only hopelessness, pain, and brokenness, the Gospel gives us hope that our lives can be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

For Kennedy, this hope was particularly manifested in the ministry that Wesley had with the “miners, tradesmen, and servants” – the forgotten common man. “Beginning his work with the people neglected by society as being of little worth, he came to see in them unlimited possibilities through the grace of God. He saw that the perfect will and motive were just as open to them as to the gentry. Perhaps more so! So he preached the same promises and held forth the same marvelous expectations to [people] of all sorts and conditions.

“There is a great need to get things turned around in our thinking. We are so much aware of the newspaper headlines, where the news is always bad, that we forget to listen to the Good News from another source. It may seem naïve to speak of Christian Perfection as our aim in a world preparing weapons of warfare more horrible than we can imagine. It seemed naïve to preach that doctrine to the gin-soaked inhabitants of London. But all of our trouble springs out of the human heart, which is very sinful, and we have a promise that Christ has won a victory over both sin and death. We must begin to proclaim the reality of hope.”

Along with this hope for the potential of humanity comes a belief in the reality of that potential. Kennedy affirms salvation by faith in God through Christ alone. He calls for us to be “rescued from our service club do-goodism which makes God merely the president of the club. Faith in good works and social planning is nothing to build life on and these puny efforts cannot deal with sin.”

At the same time, he goes on, “It does not follow that we must despise human nature because it is weak and sinful. It does not mean that we must regard human effort as altogether futile. There is a sense in which faith in God must always increase faith in [humanity] and its potentialities. You do not glorify the Creator by despising His creation.”

The challenge is maintaining a balance between dependence upon God and acknowledging the contribution of human effort in spiritual growth. “The danger of believing in the possibility of Christian perfection is that it will lead to pride. … Let us make sure that we are not clearing the way for societies of perfectionists who thank God that they are not as other men [Luke 18:11]. What do we claim? Only that we have faith to believe that people can be perfect in love and that we do not propose to aim for anything less.”

The Holy Spirit

Crucially, Kennedy saw the work of the Holy Spirit as essential in transforming the life of the believer into the likeness of Christ. It is interesting that he points to the need for a “reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, [which] will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life” (quoting English theologian, Frederick Denison Maurice). In the decade after his book, the Charismatic Renewal hit the church and ushered in the reformation that Kennedy thought was coming.

Kennedy saw that the presence of the Holy Spirit in life was the power of God at work transforming us. He notes Wesley’s Journal “gives the clear impression of a living power at work among the people. There was an invisible stream which, once entered, affected people in wonderful ways. They were exalted and inspired; strengthened and comforted; made confident and unafraid.”

Here, Kennedy becomes practical. “How shall we find this new experience of the Spirit and its promise? We should begin by knowing people who already possess it. We should make a serious search for the path to spiritual power. We must search our own lives for the habits and attitudes which cut us off from God. We can find a like-minded group within our churches to study, pray, experiment. To sum it all up, we must resolve that we shall make it possible for God to brand this ancient mark of a Methodist on our own lives.”

This is exactly what is being captured in the return to an emphasis on accountable discipleship. The recovery of the “class meeting” of early Methodism allows modern-day disciples to go deeper in our walk with Christ, encouraged and supported by fellow travelers. Engaging the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, Holy Communion, fasting or abstinence can help us continue to be remade into a new creation, with the goal of loving God and one another perfectly.

Kennedy concludes, “We are pressured into watering down our convictions in the name of being tolerant and broad. Sometimes we subscribe to an unwritten theory that we will be better Christians by becoming nondescript Methodists. But I believe we are especially fitted for the living of these days because God has put His hand upon us. … As the Methodist part of the Body of Christ, we bear the marks of our faith in Experience, Results, Discipline, Mission, Freedom, and Christian Perfection. Let no worldly fear trouble us!”

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Image: Shutterstock.

The Marks of a Methodist 5: Freedom

The Marks of a Methodist 5: Freedom

The Marks of a Methodist 5: Freedom

By Thomas Lambrecht

We have been examining the characteristics of Methodist Christianity in homage to John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist, but based on the 1960 book by Bishop Gerald Kennedy, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. We noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the previous article, we saw Methodism characterized by Mission, the outward focus of the church to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.

The most controversial mark of a Methodist is perhaps the freedom given to its clergy and laity. We shall see that freedom is not absolute and has perhaps been taken further in current Methodism than Wesley or even Kennedy would have allowed.

Doctrinal Freedom

Kennedy states, “We are a Church that makes no specific creedal demands and every Methodist can live in a very large room, theologically speaking.” The canard that “we are not a creedal church” thus dates back at least 60 years.

This, of course, ignores the fact that The United Methodist Church has doctrinal standards, including the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, which are of the nature of a creed. While candidates for ordination may not be required to provide a written and signed statement of agreement with our doctrinal standards, ordinands are asked the historic questions that date back to early Methodism. They include, “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?” (In other words, we do have specific doctrines.) “After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Will you support and maintain them?” (In other words, ordinands do commit to preach and teach the doctrines of our church.)

The difference is that United Methodist doctrines are the basic teachings of orthodox Christianity, with very little that is uniquely Wesleyan or Methodist in them. Christians from a wide variety of denominations could all assent to our doctrines without compromising. This is unlike some denominations that insist on particular interpretations of Scripture, such as predestination or a specific understanding of the end times of the world.

Kennedy describes it this way, “We are not a people marked by opinions, though our theology is biblical and orthodox. We are not to be distinguished by words or phrases nor by a peculiar mode of speaking. … We are not to be marked by ‘actions, customs, or usages of an indifferent nature.’ We are not food faddists nor people who wear special apparel. Nor do we single out some particular part of religion and act as if it were the whole of religion.”

The key here is distinguishing between doctrines and opinions. The official teachings of the church are expected to be upheld by all. Wesley himself broke from Moravians who believed in “quietism,” that the believer needn’t pursue holiness by using the means of grace, but merely wait upon God. He also broke with the Calvinists, who believed that God’s salvation in Christ was offered only to a select few, not to all people. These both went against essential elements of Methodist teaching.

Opinions, on the other hand, are disputed matters or, in Wesley’s words, matters of “indifference.” Whether to observe the liturgical calendar, whether the world was created in six 24-hour days, or whether Christians may drink alcohol are all opinions, upon which Methodist have the freedom to disagree without it disrupting the unity of our church.

Kennedy goes on to exhort, “This heritage must not be forgotten or minimized. Those among us who rise up to fasten some particular interpretation of doctrine on our preachers do not understand our Church. The groups who demand that a particular economic or political doctrine shall be regarded as orthodox have deserted the faith of their fathers and insult the memory of John Wesley.” We have the freedom to “think and let think” on many aspects of the faith, so long as we maintain unity around the core essentials.

Freedom of the Pulpit

Nowhere is this freedom more evident than in the ability of Methodist preachers to preach “without fear or favor.” Kennedy explains, “This is partly due to our system of appointing preachers rather than calling them. When a congregation has the power to enthrone or dismiss its minister, he [she] can hardly be entirely free. A comparatively small but determined minority can often have its way and silence a voice which does not please it. We appoint our preachers, and they have the status of being sent. They will not be removed at the whim of a few people, and their message is not expected to be adjusted to please one class or one group.”

The freedom of the pulpit, however, imposes a corresponding responsibility upon preachers. In Kennedy’s words, “They must not abuse it and they must know whereof they speak. The saddest figure in the pulpit is the well-meaning but uninformed prophet. We must respect the difference of opinion in the pews, and we must never assume that we cannot be wrong.” While unafraid to address a controversial moral issue from the pulpit, Kennedy maintained that preachers ought not “speak about it every Sunday. The [person] who honestly disagrees with a preacher on one issue, still ought to find much in his [or her] preaching to feed [their] soul.”

Kennedy cites the separation of Church and State as a primary belief of Methodism. This would, of course, have been a foreign idea to John Wesley. Anglicanism, the Church of England, was (and still is) the state church of the country. The monarch is nominally head of the church (a role Queen Elizabeth II took quite seriously and that guided her decisions). Kennedy elaborates the rationale for separation. “We believe that the Church must speak to all of society and the pulpit must be the prow of the ship of state to warn and guide. The Church must be free and the state must never be under the domination of a religious institution.”

Kennedy laments the tendency among Methodists to avoid controversy. “We seem to prefer peace at any price and many a Methodist seems to think that criticism is the worst possible thing that can happen to his Church. Let me tell you that it is much worse to be ignored. The Church that is free must often speak a word of judgment.”

Of course, we have had more than our share of controversy over the last few years, including the breakup of our denomination. Even so, many local churches and many clergy have been unwilling to even discuss the issues and options that are currently under debate, for fear of causing conflict in the congregation. That in itself manifests a tragic lack of freedom. If such discussions are carried out in a spirit of love and consideration and based on biblical principles, it can lead to a deepening of faith and commitment to obedience to one’s understanding of biblical truth, even where some form of separation results. Such faith and commitment lead to a stronger congregation that knows what it believes and how it will live out those beliefs.

Academic Freedom

Kennedy states, “If we have freedom in the pulpit, we also have freedom in the pew. Our scholars and teachers do not submit their writings for official approval. Our families do not find their private affairs made the business of an institution. Our members are at liberty to visit any church and worship in it. We may work together with all churches and with all non-Christian religions.”

While this freedom is real and to be guarded, there is also the corresponding responsibility that scholars and teachers do not undermine the doctrines of the church in their teaching and writing. There should be what Kennedy calls “the joy of free investigation,” but there are also guardrails around our faith in the form of our doctrinal standards. This balance or tension can be difficult to maintain.

We have a history of denominational freedom to participate with other Christian denominations and even work together with non-Christian religions on common goals and interests for the good of the society. Lately, however, animosity toward the Global Methodist Church and against congregations that have disaffiliated has spawned a form of institutional protectionism that has curtailed the freedom that clergy and members have in the past enjoyed. When retired clergy cannot participate in a disaffiliated congregation without being summarily removed from The United Methodist Church and losing their retiree health benefits, it is again an unfair and tragic loss of the freedom that has normally characterized Methodism.

Freedom from Sin and the World

Surprisingly, Kennedy points to freedom from the world as one of the distinguishing characteristics of Methodism. He notes that the poor and marginalized are the ones most likely to respond early to a great religious movement, since they have the least to lose. “When you possess only a little of the world’s goods, it is not too difficult to give up that little. But if you have a great stake in the world, the sacrifice is so considerable that many will never make it.”

Kennedy elaborates, “We need greatly to be set free from the world, and it will be more difficult for us today. For we have great possessions. John Wesley foresaw this and counseled his people to earn all they could, save all they could, and then give all they could. He urged that the Methodist preaching places be kept plain lest there should develop a growing dependence on rich [donors]. Institutions with huge investments and great buildings do not easily accept the counsels of St. Francis or of John Wesley. We depend more on influence and standing. We are too much impressed by the successful and the comfortable. We give too many hostages to the status quo, and we are timid lest we offend. Carried to far, we become slaves to custom and style.”

Kennedy goes on, “The problem with us is to use our possessions but not trust in them. Wealth is such a wonderful servant and such a ruthless taskmaster. Respectability destroys more dreamers and prophets than all the prisons and persecutions in the world.”

We have seen how this plays out in the disaffiliation process, as the primary reason for following that process is for the congregation to keep its building, property, and bank account. Obviously, where the congregation is fairly united, it would be better for the bulk of the congregation to keep and use the property as a tool for ministry. However, we have learned from traditionalists in other denominations, as well as some in our own, who have had to leave their buildings behind, that they experience a new freedom and enthusiasm for ministry, even when they have not a scrap of property to their name. Keeping the building is not always the ultimate or even best goal for a congregation. Leaving it behind where necessary can demonstrate the kind of freedom from the world that Kennedy advocates.

The whole purpose of our freedoms of various kinds is to provide the mechanism for achieving the greatest freedom of all: freedom from sin and release from despair. In Kennedy’s view, this happens not by arguing or reasoning people’s way into the Kingdom, but through the witness of personal experience. He quotes Lord Lindsay, onetime Master of Baliol College, Oxford: “Does this thing work? Then share it with the rest of us.” Kennedy explains, “Everything seems to lead us back to an Experience that sets us free from sin and inadequacy.” (Recall that the first mark of a Methodist is a personal experience of salvation from God through Jesus Christ.)

Kennedy eloquently gives his own witness to his experience of faith. “God gave me power to do what I could not do by myself. My own poor life is an example of salvation. How many crooked paths beckoned, and He led me on the straight way! He gave me a purpose and an assurance that there is an eternal plan for each man and for all the world. I am a part of something wonderful and grand. When I fell under the control of powerful habits which could have destroyed me, He helped me break them. I come to the close of every day with a great song of thanksgiving in my heart that God dwells with me and gives the spiritual gifts without limit. … The mark of a Methodist is to witness to the reality of freedom in Christ.”

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo by Brett Sayles (Pexels.com).

 

The Marks of a  Methodist 4: Mission

The Marks of a Methodist 4: Mission

The Marks of a Methodist 4: Mission – 

By Thomas Lambrecht –

We have been examining what it means to be a Methodist in honor of John Wesley’s tract, The Character of a Methodist, but following a modern version of those ideas in Bishop Gerald Kennedy’s 1960 book, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. In the previous article, we noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Today we consider the fourth mark, Mission. It could be said of Methodism in general what our pastors say of the local church I attend: “Missions is the heartbeat of our church.” Mission has an outward focus, without which the church turns inward and begins to die.

Kennedy quotes Wesley: “God, in Scripture, commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. Man forbids me to do this in another’s parish; that is, in effect, to do it not at all, seeing I have now no parish of my own, nor probably ever shall. Whom then shall I hear? God or man? … I look upon all the world as my parish.”

Methodists throughout our history have admitted no limit to where we should go to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.

Go

Kennedy writes, “Sometimes I think the Great Commission was given with the Methodists in mind. For if there has ever been a Church with the word ‘go’ at the center of its life, it is The Methodist Church.”

The need to go sent John Wesley an estimated 250,000 miles by horseback throughout his life and ministry, mostly in the British Isles. That same motivation led Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America, to travel an estimated 270,000 miles by horseback in this country. Asbury was so insistent upon traveling to preach the Gospel and oversee the clergy and churches that historian John Wigger has written, “more people would recognize Asbury on the street than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington,” the famous leaders who lived during the same time.

It was the call to go where the people were that led Methodists to adopt the ministry model of itinerant evangelists and preachers called “circuit riders.” Every six months (and then later, every year) the circuit rider was appointed to a new circuit, or route of towns and churches, on which he rode, preaching and baptizing, performing weddings and funerals. Wherever he went, the circuit rider was establishing new churches. As the frontier in America moved west, the circuit riders moved along with it, always staying on the cutting edge of the country’s growth.

This impetus to go into all the world and preach the Gospel motivated Methodists to be some of the staunchest supporters and participants in the modern missionary movement. Beginning in the early 1800s, thousands of missionaries went to all the continents and countries of the world, establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and planting churches.

Today, one can get a sense of going into mission by taking a short-term mission trip, serving on mission projects in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While short-term mission trips bring help and encouragement to the mission field, they more profoundly impact the missioner with the life-changing awareness that God is at work in all places and all cultures. Taking such a trip opens one up to being used by the Lord in new ways to serve others. For many, this experience is transformative.

The need to go where the people are and where the needs are can mean local church members getting outside the walls of the church to serve. It might mean going to the other side of town or into neighborhoods that are different from one’s own. Taking risks and carrying the ministry of the Gospel out to the people of the community is the essence of mission, exemplified by the Apostle Paul and millions of other Christians ever since.

Social Concerns

Mission is born of love – love for God played out in love for others, in response to God’s love for us. That love extends not only to the heart and soul of a person, but to the body, mind, family, and every other part of the person. Kennedy reminds us, “There has never been any willingness to believe that any part of life is beyond the reach of our faith. From the beginning we have had a concern for the physical conditions of life. … The Gospel deals with all of life because it comes to heal the whole [person]. The Bible knows nothing about partial religion, and it has no tendency to divide life into compartments. The goal is a Kingdom in which [each person] will be a citizen under the government of God. So, we may begin where we will and go in any direction, but if Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we will travel straight toward human need. We will soon be involved in solving human problems and making life better for all.”

Our goal as Methodist Christians is to seek the welfare of all people in the name of Christ. That is why Methodists have been in the forefront of establishing schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, farms, and other social service agencies. That is why Methodists have felt called to advocate for policy changes like the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the ending of child labor in the 20th century.

Where Methodists have often agreed on the “what” of human need, we have sometimes disagreed on the “how” to meet that need. It is important to acknowledge the validity of different strategies to combat social ills like prostitution, drug addiction, human trafficking, world peace, and crime. When the church limits itself to one approach, it runs the risk of being wedded to an ideology, whether liberal or conservative, rather than focusing on the Gospel and practical love of neighbor. The church is at its best when it goes out to meet the needs of people directly. It is less effective and sometimes harms itself when it ventures into the political arena and begins playing by the rules of advocacy and activism.

Even worse is when the church comes to believe that passing resolutions or governmental laws is the sum total of social concern. Kennedy warns, “The world must be changed, but in the hearts of [people]. There is no system that can do it and laws are poor weak things when you are trying to change society. Wars can stop some things from happening, but they cannot build the new life. What a limited thing is force and how inadequate is money! But God has entrusted to us His love and power to conquer our sin and redeem our wills.”

The transformation of the world comes through the transformation of individual lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of political rallies or governmental edicts. But much of that individual transformation happens when people see the love of God in Christ displayed in our loving outreach to minister to human needs. That is the essence of mission.

Evangelism

Individual transformation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That requires evangelism to be a central part of missions. Kennedy states, “When the Gospel is a living experience, there is no need to talk about evangelism. For to share that experience both consciously and unconsciously is inescapable.”

Living a life of love and caring for others opens the door to relationship. In the context of that relationship, one can then share “the reason for the hope that [we] have” (I Peter 3:15). And certainly, we can use the relationship to invite people to accompany us to church, where they can experience the Gospel in that setting.

Foremost on our minds should be our striving to live a life that is congruent with our message. A life that does not display the grace of God and his love for all the world will not be a great advertisement for the truth of our message of redemption through Jesus Christ. It has been said that you and I may be the only Bible a non-Christian will ever read (at least until they get interested in finding out more about Jesus). On the other hand, Kennedy cites a story about a meeting of college students where one student asked, “What is Christianity anyway?” The response was, “Why Christianity is Oscar Westover” – the name of a Christian believer known to the group. “I love those quiet Christians who move among their friends like a judgment and a benediction,” observed Kennedy. “They are witnesses and evangelists.” Our lives can embody the message we proclaim and be the walking definition of what it means to be a Christian.

Kennedy writes, “There is no joy to compare with bringing Christ to another. The Church has bestowed on me many honors, but nothing compares with the privilege it gives me to call [people] into its saving fellowship.”

Kennedy concludes, “Any church must be missionary in spirit, or it dies. But this is particularly true for Methodism because its whole spirit and polity are not proper for a finished institution. We must march or lose our life.” I wonder if modern Methodism has domesticated the spirit of early Methodism and created that “finished institution” that Kennedy thought we had not attained. That “finished institution” can become a museum piece to be preserved and admired, rather than a vehicle for mission. That way lies the death of the church. May we recover the missionary spirit of early Christianity and of early Methodism. For this God has raised us up!

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. A woman has her eyes examined by a medical attendant while other patients sit waiting in line at Gwandum Clinc in Nigeria. Photo by the Rev. Ande I. Emmanuel, UMNS. 

Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961

Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961

Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961 –

Address by Bishop Gerald Kennedy –
Tenth World Methodist Conference
Oslo, Norway
August 19, 1961

In the nineteenth century, the English theologian Frederick Dennison Maurice wrote: “I cannot but think that the reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life, as that did upon the justification by the Son.” That expectation, while as yet unfulfilled, was a confident hope that God through his Holy Spirit would again act mightily in the Church. This expectation was based on previous experiences in the first century and again in the eighteenth century.

The Book of Acts is really the Book of the Holy Spirit. The clue to the meaning of Pentecost is in the words: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2). There is a mighty assurance in those early Christians and they acted as if it were only natural to heal and convert. They were filled with a power that made their witness sharp and clear. They lived in the constant awareness of the reality of the Holy Spirit ever present with them for guidance, comfort, and courage.

The end of World War II was a terrible time for the Christians of Germany. The country was ruined, defeated, disgraced, and there was no hope in the future. Germany was divided, with much of Protestantism under the communists. The churches were particularly hard hit, for they had lost their buildings and many of their leaders. Some of the church leaders had to cross back and forth between East and West Zones and suffered harassments from the authorities. Yet listen to this testimony from Bishop Otto Dibelius: “We are living in the Book of Acts, and, oh, it is glorious.” He was speaking of the recovery of the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Our fathers knew this experience. Indeed, to read John Wesley’s Journal is to be transported back into the atmosphere of Acts. There are the same great expectations, the same inspiring hopes, the same signs. The Evangelical Revival was, among other things, a rediscovery of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I cannot escape the conviction that the Wesleys were raised up by God for this witness and that the people called Methodists have been chosen to continue it.

Now the scandal of revelation for many is its particularity. Why should God reveal Himself in one man, one tribe, one event, one place? Why does God so seldom if ever use an entire generation, a continent, a general infiltration of a whole period as the means of making Himself known? Why is it that He speaks through minorities and fellowships rather than through majorities and institutions? Perhaps it is because He chooses to use the foolish things with which to confound the wise. But I believe He will use some particular instrument for the new reformation.

It could be Methodism. At least we have the tradition and the theology for it. We may have been raised up for such a time and we have the advantage of having been born out of a revival of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by its doctrine, and commanded by its sense of urgency. Let us examine briefly four aspects of our belief in the witness of the Spirit.

In the first place, we believe in Experience. We may argue as to the particulars of John Wesley’s heart-warming event at Aldersgate Street in 1738, but it seems inescapable that it was a personal turning-point and the spring of the Methodist flood. It was an inward witness that brought personal knowledge of God and assurance of the availability of God’s power. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This was a part of the worship experience of early Methodism. You may remember how Francis Asbury attended a Methodist meeting in Wednesbury and said: “I soon found this was not the Church – but it was better.” He found there no cold formalism and no lifeless ritual, but the sense of the immediate presence of God. The dour and dark dread which seems to dominate so much modern theology, is not the prevailing atmosphere where the presence of the Spirit is expected and recognized. So Wesley could say of a man who has this experience, “He is therefore happy in God.”

I attended a church service a few years ago in a mood of prejudice, which is not the proper way to enter God’s house. I did not like the sermon subject and I was sure that the whole approach was not for me. But from the first hymn, I was captured and lifted. The pastoral prayer began: “O God, when Thy Son walked the earth, men felt that if they could but touch the hem of His robe, they could be healed. We believe He is here with us this day in this place, and with our arms of faith we may touch Him and be healed. Help us to claim Thy promises.” The sermon was a testimony of how men find Christ the answer to their needs and the goal of their search. I left the church helped and strengthened, which is too seldom the experience of people who sit through our chilled formalities.

One of the main problems for modern Methodists is how to create an attitude of expectancy in our ‘cathedrals’ with our choirs and dignified services. Our preaching can so easily become like the heavy lecture at the 1954 World Council Meeting, after which the late Bishop Berggrav of Oslo murmured, “The word became theology and did not dwell among us.” Methodists should sing their theology, which is a better way to proclaim it than reciting a creed or constructing a dogma. Charles Wesley’s hymns are full of personal experiences, and they abound in personal pronouns. I have noticed that Methodist theologians, particularly in England, often quote a hymn when they are discussing a doctrine. They have the sense of these expressions of Charles and John Wesley’s poetry as descriptions of religious experience. And that is theology!

The sign of the living God is communication and revelation. This means experience, and we are committed to the belief that His Spirit witnesses with our spirit. Preachers without the experience of the Holy Spirit are smoking fires with hardly any flame of light. Laymen who have not been baptized with the Spirit, are merely salesmen for an institution with little joy and hardly any power. We cannot give what we do not have any more than we can go back to where we have not been. We believe in the experience of the Holy Spirit.

In the second place, the Holy Spirit’s witness makes us believe in Results. To connect anything pragmatic with the spiritual, will seem to some a contradiction. I am convinced, however, that quite the opposite is true. The spiritual affairs which produce no ascertainable results are to be considered with suspicion. The practical affairs which have no spiritual implications are to be regarded as of questionable importance. This is true of religion in general, but it is the very center of Christianity’s truth.

I have been impressed with the way Wesley met his critics and how in the midst of controversy he kept his eye on the main issue. He seldom argued generalities, but went straight to the particular point. How often he replied to his opponents by referring to the change in environment the Methodists had wrought. He talked about changed personal lives as the answer to Methodism’s critics. John Wesley seems to have thought that the results produced by conversion were the answers to the opposition.

The modern split is reflected in the conversation between two students attending a theological seminary. Both of them served student churches, and one of them was complaining about the condition of his church. The finances were in bad shape, the organizations were feeble, and the attendance was small. But the other one was not disturbed. ‘What do you expect ?’ he asked. “Results?” Or we see it in the superior attitude some times exhibited by other churchmen toward our “activism.” I have seen these communions with their empty sanctuaries and their lack of life. I prefer a Church committed to the idea that the living Spirit of God will produce observable results from its labors, if it is doing God’s will.

We may disagree about methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. Let us be critical of all methods and never think that a single method is holy. But that we should ever think that our Methodism can be excused from winning people to Christ would be a confession of death. Every minister and layman in our fellowship must be under the constant question: When was the last time you won somebody to Christ?

We are heavily organized and this causes some of the brethren to chafe. Organization as an end in itself is of the devil, but waste and inefficiency are neither pious nor pleasing to our Lord. All we are trying to do is to conserve the benefits of our faith and exert our maximum power. John Wesley said that he would not strike a blow unless it could be followed up and sustained. I think history says clearly that, for the long pull, Wesley’s way was right. Let us not assume that if we believe in the witness of the Spirit, we must be opposed to machinery in the Church. For it too is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. It helps us maintain the fruits which God gives from our labors.

A third aspect of this subject is Discipline. This is more important than we think, for only within the framework of a strict discipline can the free Spirit work constructively. Since the days of St Paul, there have been those who would turn the Christian’s freedom into license.

Precisely because he was dealing with tremendous spiritual power, John Wesley insisted on discipline in his services and in the lives of his followers. The early Church found that same necessity and so shall we. In Wesley’s Journal for 17th August 1750 there is this entry: “I preached at Ludgvan at noon, and at Newlyn in the evening. Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’” All one or the other can only create half-Christians.

I marvel yet at the Methodist tradition of time and rules. We are to consider time the great gift and the heavy responsibility. We have our General Rules and our Discipline. Our ministers carry heavy burdens and take responsibility for their conferences as well as for their churches. They are to serve where they are appointed without spending time candidating for pulpits. They are subject to the modern tensions and strains which are destroying so many of our contemporaries. I do not know a more difficult or demanding job in our modern world than to be a Methodist minister. This situation will not get better, for we are not about to become pietistic fellowships or passive, waiting servants of Christ. Ours is the marching tradition and we are a travelling ministry. We can only do our work by being the most disciplined of men.

Billy Sunday said one time that he had been accused of rubbing the fur the wrong way. “Well,” he replied, “let the cat turn around.” Perhaps God is saying to us that we must turn around – that we are on the wrong path going in the wrong direction. With all the material advantages we enjoy, we are often frustrated and unhappy people. To be an instrument of the Spirit’s power, we must accept spiritual discipline. The path to freedom is both straight and demanding.

Finally, let us see the witness of the spirit in the light of our doctrine of Christian Perfection. This is a difficult matter for us to understand and explain. There is a very close connection between the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Christian Perfection. Both stem from the experience of being found by God in Christ. Both are based on a faith that God is involved in all of man’s life. Both believe that the Spirit of God can capture a man and transform his desires. Both will destroy our carefulness and timidity with an assurance that “all things are possible with God.”

When I was a young preacher, I studied John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection, which may be the only unique doctrine Methodism has preached. I found him spending about as much time explaining what he did not mean as what he did mean. It seemed to me too troublesome, and I spent little time on it in the following years of my ministry. But John Wesley held it and preached it in spite of its difficulty, and I have become convinced that he was right.

A young candidate for Conference membership objected to saying “Yes” to the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” An old bishop asked quietly, “Well son, what are you going on to?” The whole idea of perfection is foreign to us, and we prefer to just do the best we can and not expect unreasonable attainment. But Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5).

It is time that we tried to recapture the mood of a man and a people who would declare their intention of aiming at nothing less than being perfect in love. They were not saying that they expected to become sinless – or perfect in judgment. But they were willing to be content with nothing less than giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the service of Jesus Christ. It was an affirmation of the kind of faith we find in the Book of Acts when the experience of the Holy Spirit was so real.

That New Testament enthusiasm is lacking in our time. The American comedian Mort Sahl said that he wished he could find a cause, because he had a lot of enthusiasm. Our problem is just the reverse, for while we have a cause, we seem curiously lacking in enthusiasm, either in the pulpit or in the pews. If in the midst of this compromising, vacillating, mediocrity ridden world the Methodists should proclaim again that they were committed to being made perfect in love, it might start a new revival. In the midst of all the bad news which reaches us daily, this would be good news indeed.

God gives much or little according to our asking. If all we want is the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, that is all we shall receive. But if we dare to reaffirm our faith in the doctrine of Christian Perfection and pray for the glorious experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, God wih use us mightily again. And who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) was a bishop of the United Methodist Church (Los Angeles). Excerpted from the Proceedings of the Tenth World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, August 17-25, 1961.