“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” (or Why I Became a United Methodist)
Sermon by Dr. Jodie Lyon
April 12, 2015
1 John 1:5-2:2
Choir Anthem: “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”
I officially joined the United Methodist Church in the summer of 2006 after years of stubborn resistance. Yes, I fought tooth and nail against becoming a United Methodist. It took two years of Methodist college, three years of Methodist seminary, and finally being accepted into a PhD program at a Methodist institution before I finally, like Jonah, begrudgingly gave up the fight and joined the Ninevites, (otherwise known as the United Methodists).
Don’t get me wrong—I liked the Methodists, I just wasn’t ready to sell the soul of my firstborn child to join them, or whatever denominational membership entailed. I grew up Church of Christ, the granddaughter of two Church of Christ ministers, and we Church of Christ folks are naturally suspicious of mainline denominations. For one thing, the Church of Christ is a denomination that prides itself on being a non-denomination. We cling to that belief staunchly, against all logic, and we’re critical of other churches who actually admit they are denominations. The Church of Christ is of course NOT a denomination, but the restoration of the NT church, the church that Jesus himself started. How was I supposed to be a member of an openly denominational denomination? Did you know that there are currently at least 45,000 Christian denominations? When I was in the Church of Christ, I could pretend that I was special—set apart from a sea of denominations. Joining the Methodists meant becoming just one of the masses. Joining the UMC, I had to admit that my church wasn’t THE church, but just a church, a group of people who tried to follow Christ’s teachings in the way they knew best.
Aside from my reluctance to accept denominationalism, there was a bigger obstacle in joining the Methodist church: a sin-related obstacle. You may or may not be aware of the fact that I have a certain reputation. A reputation for being knowledgeable in a very particular area. Let me explain by giving you an example:
A few weeks ago I received an email from a former UGA student who is now studying at Emory to become ordained in the United Methodist Church. The email began like this:
“Dear Dr. Lyon,
You know a lot about sin. Maybe you can help me.”
I’ve been living with this reputation for quite a few years now. One of my friends loves to introduce me this way: “Hey, John, have you met Jodie? She’s an expert in sin.” It’s possible that I get these emails and these introductions because I wrote my dissertation on the doctrine of sin, but it’s also equally possible that people are just judging me. Once, on an airplane, in the course of a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, I was asked my area of research. The guy was quite fascinated with my field of study, and turned to the woman on the other side of him and proclaimed, “Hey, we’ve got a sin expert over here!” She, without missing a beat replied, “Oh yeah, I’m a sin expert too! I’m really good at ______.” Because this is a church service, I will not finish that sentence. Let’s just say that being a sin expert makes for interesting airline conversation.
When I looked at the lectionary passages for today, I figured I had to choose the one about sin, since that’s what a sin expert would do.
But I also chose this passage because it sums up for me two Methodist doctrines that were crucial in my decision to become a member of the UMC. First, this passage demonstrates a Methodist teaching that attracted me to the denomination long before I was ready to join. This passage tells us that “God is light” and in God “there is no darkness at all.” The first reason I became a Methodist was because of the Wesleyan vision of God, an understanding of God as wholly and utterly good, a God who is pure light, a God in whom there is “no darkness at all.”
But this passage also reveals the big initial stumbling block I had in joining the Methodist church. The sin-related issue. This passage also asks us to imitate God, to walk in the light as God is in the light, and therefore not to sin. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, loved this passage in first John, because for him, it demonstrated his doctrine of entire sanctification, or what he also referred to as Christian Perfection.
This sin-related doctrine known as Entire Sanctification kept me out of the Methodist fold for a number of years. I just couldn’t get past it. Now some of you may be scratching your heads saying to yourself, “I’ve been a Methodist for years and I have no idea what the doctrine of entire sanctification even is.” If you feel that way, you’re probably not alone. The funny thing about the doctrine of entire sanctification is that while it was the seemingly unsurmountable obstacle that kept me from joining the Methodist church, once I finally joined the church I never heard of it again. I’ve been an official United Methodist for 9 years now and I don’t believe I’ve ever even heard it mentioned in a church building in all of those years.
But before we get to an explanation of entire sanctification, let’s return to the first thing of note in this passage: John’s insistence that in God there is “no darkness at all.”
I became a Methodist first and foremost because Methodism, more than any other denomination I know, recognizes and proclaims the goodness of God.
Methodism says this about God: That God loves everyone with an extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace. Let me explain those adjectives in detail. God’s love is extravagant: it’s above and beyond, it’s far more than we could ever deserve, and far more than we could even imagine. Whatever you imagine to be the extent of God’s love for you, it is much, much more than that. The depths of grace are unfathomable. You can’t exhaust the grace of God, because it continuously overflows out of the depth of God’s very being. God’s love is extravagant, and hence God is light and God is good.
God’s love is also relentless: God is always in pursuit of us. You don’t have to run to God, for God has already run to you. Methodists also speak of grace as prevenient: it not only chases us, like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, but it even goes before us, where it stands, ready and waiting for us. God is not caught unawares. If we run from the fold, God is already there, ready and waiting to embrace us when we arrive. Grace is always ahead of us, behind us, around us. God’s love is relentless, and hence God is light and God is good.
And finally, God’s love is wasteful. Using a term like “wasteful” to speak of God in an age in which we recognize the importance of recycling and the conservation of precious resources seems like an odd thing, but hear me out. God’s love is wasteful in the sense that it is not given only when it will prove to be effective. It’s lavished on us just as freely when we will certainly reject it as it is when we will surely open our arms to receive it. God, according to Jesus’ parable, is not a prudent farmer, carefully plotting rows of crops and meting out exact portions of seeds, but God is a crazy farmer who wastes seed, throwing it willy-nilly all over the place, not caring whether it lands on the plowed soil or the rocky soil or even on the road. God can be wasteful with grace, because, as noted before, God’s supply of love and goodness is endless. There is no need to worry about it running out, no need to carefully and prudently dispense it. God has grace to waste, and so love and goodness is showered on all persons, all the time, regardless of their response to it. God’s love is wasteful, and hence God is light and God is good.
This is the God that Methodists worship—the God of extravagant, relentless, and wasteful grace. This is what attracted me to the Methodist church; this is what sealed for me my decision to thrown in my lot with the people called Methodist instead of the people called Baptist or Presbyterian or any other denomination. It’s not that other Christians or other denominations deny God’s goodness. I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t believe that God is good. But so many denominations define the goodness of God in ways that I consider to be less than truly good, so when I found Methodism it was truly a breath of fresh air.
I don’t want to dwell on the negative today, but I do want to share with you one example of the difficulty Christians have in acknowledging the utter goodness of our God. A couple of years ago while teaching a class called Popular Theology I assigned the book, Love Wins by Rob Bell. If you haven’t read this book, you should. But let me summarize it for those who haven’t: in Love Wins, Rob Bell challenges the traditional depiction of God as someone who will send millions of people to Hell to burn eternally because they never heard of or believed in Jesus Christ. Bell contends that a truly good and loving God wants to spend eternity with all creatures, and that the existence of Hell would mean that God doesn’t get what God wants. Wouldn’t it make more sense to believe that in the end, love wins, or in other words, God wins? For Bell, God is good, and the goodness of God rules out the traditional ways Christians have understood salvation and the afterlife.
But Bell’s defense of God’s goodness wasn’t positively received by his fellow evangelicals. Popular pastor and author Francis Chan wrote a book in response to Bell, claiming that what Bell was doing was defining God in his own terms instead of allowing God to be self-defined through the Bible. Chan says that the Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of Hell, and even if we don’t like it, or find it morally appetizing, we have to accept it on faith. Chan says the NT writers didn’t have the same “allergic” reaction to Hell that people today do, they just took God at God’s word and didn’t try to make God measure up to their moral standards or to their mere human sentimentality. God is good, Chan claims, but Christians need to let God define what goodness means, even when it opposes our own understanding of morality.
Chan’s vision of God is a popular one in Christianity, because many people believe that faith involves forcing ourselves to believe things about who God is or what God does that we have trouble believing, or even, in this case, find morally repugnant. Faith, for many Christians, is believing these things, and still proclaiming, against all logic, that God IS GOOD.
Francis Chan believes that the problem with progressive Christians, Christians like us, like those here at Oconee Street, is that we’re not willing to let God be God. We want to put God in a box and make God act like we would if we were in charge. Our problem, Chan claims, is that we we’re unwilling to recognize the fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and submit ourselves to those ways, even when they make no sense to us.
But that’s not our problem. We’re not upset because we don’t want to let God be God. Our problem is that we want God to be God, and not to be us. Chan’s portrayal of God looks all too much like us, all too human. Chan’s God is a God who like us takes sides and plays favorites, a God who picks some and passes over others. Chan’s God is a God who like us allows wrath to overtake love, who selectively forgives, and selectively administers grace. My problem is not that I don’t want to let God be God. My problem is that I know God is better than me, and Chan is describing me. I refuse to worship a being who is no better than I am, not because I am stubborn but because I know better than that. God is light, and in God there is NO DARKNESS AT ALL. God’s goodness has to be superior to mine. God has to be (forgive me, grammarians) more good than I am. I recognize that I am good only a percentage of the time, and even then, my love and grace toward others is always mixed with selfish motives and half-hearted effort. My best actions are often accompanied by less than truly good thoughts, as sometimes I have to force myself, against my true desires, to do the good in the world that I know God expects from
Where we are supposed to struggle with the goodness of God is in its overpowering light, not in trying to defend shadows as if they were light. God’s goodness is too overwhelming for us. It’s too good. We can’t bear its expansiveness. It hurts us to look at it, and it forces us to adjust and adapt to its brightness. It shines on us and makes visible all the things that we were trying to hide, whether actions or thoughts or motives. It exposes all our partial attempts at love and forces us to see the wider community that we have rejected.
And this passage in I John asks us not simply to look at the light, to recognize and admire the sheer goodness of God—a task that is difficult enough in and of itself—but this passage asks us to walk in the light. Here comes the obstacle, that doctrine that plagued me so heavily when I was thinking of aligning myself with the Methodist Church.
One of the most distinctive aspects of John Wesley’s theology was his doctrine of entire sanctification. Wesley believed that redemption meant more than just forgiveness. Forgiveness was only the beginning of redemption, which is the process by which we transformed into children of the light. Against the common Christian idea that salvation is something that happens in the future—that it’s simply a matter of where you go when you die, but that it doesn’t really change much in the present—Wesley read Scripture as promising a new life here on earth, a life in which we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are remade in the image of God. Wesley believed that sin isn’t mean to be the default human position, that it is something that God here and now offers us freedom from, if we are willing to allow ourselves to be changed by God.
Wesley called this teaching entire sanctification or Christian perfection because he truly believed that it was possible for those who were filled with the Spirit to avoid all sin. In fact, drawing off of this passage in I John and also Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, Wesley sometimes insisted that if a person continued to sin after being born again in Christ, then they weren’t truly a Christian. A Christian walks in the light as God is in the light. Sin is darkness, and in God there is “no darkness at all.” A person filled with the presence of God is a person through whom the light shines brightly, so that no shadows and no sin remain.
I just couldn’t past this doctrine when I was a seminary student. It struck me as arrogant, quite frankly. My general belief is that if someone goes around claiming to be perfect, they probably are anything but perfect. Besides that, I knew lots of Christians, but I didn’t know any perfect ones. My upbringing didn’t help me accept the doctrine either. I had grown up with the belief that sin was something that inevitably remained until heaven. One day, we believed, God would abolish all sin from the human heart, but until then, we were imperfect creatures, and although you should try as hard as you could not to sin, you had to recognize that no one was going to be perfect. Screwing up was going to happen, and to claim otherwise was to deny one’s fallen humanity.
Once I got over my indignant rejections of Wesley’s position, I realized that what he was describing was more realistic than I thought. Wesley himself acknowledged that he wasn’t entirely sanctified (which was good, since I had studied his life story in seminary). HE also admitted that he didn’t know very many people who were entirely sanctified, and that most of those people were elderly, which demonstrated that entire sanctification was often a long and difficult process, one that was not likely to be achieved until late in life. And finally, he defined “perfection” not as never making a mistake, or never getting anything wrong, but as always being motivated by a complete love of God and of neighbor.
Once I got past my reservations about entire sanctification, I began to see it for what it really was: a call to Christians to imitate the extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace of God to the world. Wesley called his followers to mirror God’s goodness, to be light to others as God is light to us. And he called Methodists to never be satisfied with our half-hearted, minimalistic attempts to love others. We are to always be loving more, remembering that the light of God is pure grace and goodness.
The grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness, must be extravagant. It must not be based on the perceived “value” of the person to whom it is directed. God’s grace is not given out proportionally, but wholly, in an overwhelming flood of love, and so must ours be. We must always love more than we want, or even more than we feel that we ought. God does not measure out love, and neither may we. The grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness must also be relentless. It cannot be satisfied with defeat, but must keep pushing forward. Our grace must be prevenient, it must go before others and follow up behind others, enveloping all people in its grasp. It must do whatever it takes, and then some more. And finally, the grace we extend to others, if it is to exhibit God’s light and goodness, must be wasteful. We must give love to those we are sure cannot or will not accept it, just as we do to those who stand waiting with arms open. We must be crazy farmers, scattering the love of God abroad in ways that make us look like complete fools to those who watch us.
I am thankful that I found a home in the Methodist church, with its emphasis on the goodness of God and the Spirit’s empowerment of people to share that goodness with others. And I am even more grateful for finding a home here at Oconee Street, where I am constantly challenged by a group of people who are, in John Wesley’s words, “going on to perfection,” people who are involved daily in mirroring the extravagant, relentless, wasteful grace of God. Thanks be to God.