Our United Methodist Roots

Revelation 2:1-5

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

Click here to listen to this week’s sermon.

We are going to do a short series on our roots as Methodist – and what it means to be a Methodist. Roots are vital to the health of any plant. Roots go deep – physically supporting the plant and carrying nourishment to the limbs and branches. Many times, a plant can survive even when the plant is damaged by fire or flood or cutting.

Let us look at the roots of our faith. How many of you were taken to a Methodist church by your parents? How many of you chose to become a Methodist? How many of you are not a Methodist? In 2018, PGUMC celebrated its 150th anniversary on the establishment of the church— this building at this site – in 1868. A long time. But, if we want to continue ahead for the next 100 years, we must let go of our past – with all of its order and customs and rules and memories! Additionally, we also have to understand our roots as Methodist – which are far deeper than this building. In 2018, we were not celebrating the building, but we were celebrating our Methodist legacy — our history that goes back centuries. 

To move forward beyond our 150th, we have to let go of our past and not let our past shape our future. However, to move forward with integrity, we have to remain connected to our roots. With those statements, we began our new sermon series called Roots in which we as a church are looking at the roots of the movement called Methodism which began in England in the 1700s and led to the denomination we know today. For those of us who grew up in the United Methodist Church, it will be a great reminder of why we are here, and for those of us who did not grow up United Methodist, it will be a great articulation of why we ended up here.

So, let me set the stage —- How about this statement: Great things come about because of a great question. Example –How can I talk to my loved ones when they are not in the room where I am? This is a very good question. Until the late 19th century – that question did not have an answer— there was no way — you could shout – but that was only a short distance and the person always had to be nearby. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone and received a patent for it. Now it was possible to talk to a person who is far away – but we would have party lines and pay phones if you wanted to call. Today, the question is the same — how do I talk to my loved ones? But the answer is significantly different – we have an individual phone that we carry with us, and it has a computer on it – it has a camera on it – and I can call any person in the world who has a cell phone. —- same question – but a different mode or model of an answer.

When Jesus died and was resurrected and ascended to heaven, the first disciples asked the great question since Jesus was not with them – How do we follow Jesus? How do we help others become believers in Jesus so that they may experience the lifegiving grace that comes with faith? And the disciples struggled with the answers to this great question until they realized that their goal is the Mission — their mission was to follow Jesus and to share the good news of Jesus Christ – to make new disciples.

The early disciples began to plant meetings in homes and caves and catacombs – hidden away because of the persecution by pagan Rome. But Christianity grew so rapidly that the disciples had to create structures and organizations so that they could continue to answer the great question. By the three hundreds, Constantine declared that Christianity was the state religion of the Roman empire – and buildings to hold worship were built everywhere. By the time of the Middle Ages, massive buildings were built – cathedrals with spires rising hundreds of feet into the sky. Along with the buildings came the bureaucratic organizational structure to manage the churches – complete with the rules and regulations on how to hold worship. 

In the sixteenth century, King Henry the 8th declared that he would be the head of the church of England and not report to the pope in Rome. This created the Anglican church—with more rules and order of worship. Somehow the mission of making disciples and sharing the good news of Jesus slowly ebbed away — the building with its rules and regulations was more important and the churches grew wealthy.

Today, as we reconnect to our roots, we realize that we might have gotten away from something that has always been a part of our identity: valuing and being true to our God-given mission rather than any way of doing church. 

My college desk chair – given to me by my father from and old liberty ship from WWII. The chair met a specific need, and I valued the chair because it has a history. All those late nights in my dorm room—studying and dreaming. I had to take this chair with me when I married Ann – it was a part of my history. Ann keeps telling me that it is time to get rid of the chair – it is dated – old and dirty – and no amount of patch work will fix it. But the chair is my past! And no one could possibly value it as I do!

Now, suppose that the chair is a particular model of church, and those of us on the inside of the church hold onto that model because it is ours even if it’s old and irrelevant. New people come in and they see the old chair and wonder why the church has not modernize – it must indicate an old – outdated way of thinking. And new people do not seem to want to be a part of it,  It becomes a serious problem not only for the church, but for all the people who look at the church and decide that Christianity isn’t for them. What worked for a season, or for one generation (think of the furniture in your grandmother’s house!), does not always work for all seasons and all generations.

Re-read Revelation 2:1-5a. “To the angel[a] of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

In it, a prophet named John is reporting the vision he receives from the risen Christ, specifically to seven early churches. Christ knows the churches are working hard, but there is a problem: they have forgotten the love they had at first, the original purpose, what was most important and the reason they started the church in the first place. They have started valuing the model over the mission, and that is a problem. The great question remains the same: How do we share the good news of Jesus Christ? And not the love of our buildings?

This was also the point that John Wesley, an Anglican priest in the 1700s in England, started making about the way church was done at that time. John Wesley and his brother Charles were at Oxford university started a small group of students who were deeply engaged in the reading and study of Scripture, and they went into the community – especially to the poor and shared the good news of Jesus AND brought food and clothes and help. And they would hold each other accountable. This Holy Club that was focused on piety, mercy and justice was given a title of “This Methodist” – because they had such a method to their practice of Christianity.

After Oxford, Wesley was an Anglican priest, and he went to Savanah in the colonies to help convert the native Indians – and his mission was a failure. On his way back to England, the ship was caught in a storm. John Wesley was moved by the way the Moravians were singing hymns of hope and trust in God during the treacherous storm.

Once back in London, Wesley went to Aldersgate with the Moravians and he heard the reading of Luther’s preface to Romans –and Wesley felt that his heart was strangely warmed with the assurance that he was truly loved by God and that Jesus Christ had died for his sins.

Wesley’s life was totally changed, and he changed the model of worship but stayed true to the mission – to make disciples for Jesus Christ. The answer to the great question. Wesley realized that people were engaged in the Anglican Church in a very sterile, routine way, if at all, and that there needed to be a recommitment to the mission of the church, even if and especially if it meant changing the model of church. So, he started preaching outside of church buildings, literally in fields, and encouraging people not just to attend church, but to get into smaller community groups, to serve together, and to live like they believed in the grace of God. This became the foundation for the movement that swept through the church and led to what we know as the United Methodist church today.

At the end of the US Revolution, Wesley sent Thomas Coke to the new United States to continue the Methodist Church. In 1784, in Baltimore at Christmastime, Coke ordained Francis Asbury as a co-superintendent – and the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed.

Because of the circuit riders — pastors on horseback – small churches were established everywhere — notice the many UMC churches within several miles of PGUMC. Jesus Christ influenced John Wesley, more than anything else in being true to God’s mission — make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. – mission over the model of the church. 

This was the beginning of Methodism in the United States. Since 1784 and the Christmas Conference that launched the Methodist Episcopal church, many changes have occurred. The Methodist Episcopal church has been significantly divided. In the early 1800, African Americans split and formed the African Methodist Episcopal and then the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion. Reeling from the issue of slavery, in 1844 the church further split into the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Episcopal Church. During the time from 1844 on there were more splits over the issues of bishops and superintendents, conservative theology, the holiness movement.  Churches such as the Nazarenes, Free Methodist, Colored Methodist Episcopal Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church all appeared as branches of the original Methodist Episcopal church. In 1939 The South and North Methodist Episcopal Churches combined into the Methodist Church and then in 1968 the Evangelical United Brethren Church combined with the Methodist Church and became the United Methodist Church. Now, the United Methodist Church is quite active in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Next year in 2022, there appears that another branch of the Global United Methodist Church will appear. In 1972, the General Conference placed a clause The Disciple that states that homosexuality is inconsistent with the Christian doctrine. For fifty years that clause has caused an increased stress in the Methodist fabric. Also, American society now is more accepting of homosexuality than it was in 1972. While the subject is quite contentious, the UMC finds itself in steadfast different biblical interpretations on the subject of homosexuality. Yes the Bible has six references to homosexuality and countless references to loving and accepting all of God’s children. The UMC is at a stalemate. While there is no firm decision as of today, it appears that the church could be reformed into several segments – traditional and progressive. It is my understanding that each local church, eventually, will be able to decide as to which way the church would like to move forward.

An excellent example of the split due to the issues of slavery exist in Reisterstown. There is Reisterstown UMC — down the road about a hundred yards is the building – Grace Methodist Episcopal Church South (recently a real estate office).  In 1941, Grace and Asbury churches combined to be Reisterstown Methodist Church – took almost 100 years to heal the separation.

Pleasant Grove UMC celebrated 150 years of ministry to the community in 2018. Now, as we move forward, we must reconnect to that deep root of our identity in Methodism. If we recommit to being true to our mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ then we will be able to move forward into the next one hundred years, with integrity, always helping people become deeply devoted followers of Christ.

Guess it is time to get rid of the old chair – new models are coming!