This is the first in a series by the curators of Via Media Methodists on our favorite Charles Wesley hymns. Evan starts us off.
I wasn’t born or raised United Methodist. I came to this family of faith as an adult, during my college years. It was in a small country United Methodist church that I heard a call to ministry, that I grew in grace, that I was given opportunities to serve. I found a place where I was affirmed, where I could ask as many questions as I wanted, where I experienced the Holy Spirit move in incredible ways. In many ways, and I don’t say this lightly, I owe my life — at least my spiritual life — to The United Methodist Church.
I could have chosen the Episcopal Church, or the United Church of Christ, or the Baptist church, or the Roman Catholic Church; all are important and vital parts that compose the Body of Christ. But I happened to walk into a United Methodist church on a cold December Sunday morning. And eventually, I made a choice to affiliate myself with this particular expression of Christ’s church. Lately, given the vitriolic and unkind infighting over sex and schism that is happening in many pockets of our connection, I have to remind myself that I chose this denomination, flaws and all (what denomination doesn’t have flaws?), and that the Wesleyan movement is, in spite of our flaws, one of the best expressions of the Body of Christ. I have to remind myself of the United Methodist particularities that drew me in and made me stay.
One of them is Charles Wesley’s hymnody.
I love the hymn “And Are We Yet Alive.” I would gladly trade every
insipid, dull, wishy-washy contemporary Christian song for this one hymn. It is rife with Wesleyan theological distinctives: prevenient grace, sanctification and perfection, mission and service. I think there are fewer Wesley hymns that speak more clearly to where we United Methodists find ourselves today; yet, it also offers a way forward, a way to orient our lives together.
Consider these words from the third and fourth stanzas:
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord hath
brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.
Troubles and conflicts, fighting without, fears within – sound familiar? Perhaps no other line more aptly describes our current situation. The promise contained in the fourth verse, though, is that our lives are hid in God; in the scope of things, in the long run, with this promise, might that not put our current division into perspective? How much do we let denominational identity politics and taking sides over issues define us, instead of boldly proclaiming stanza five:
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
There is a lot of boasting happening right now across our connection; which side is boasting depends on the day, on the latest statements by a particular person or group or caucus, on the most current pronouncements from bishops. But I haven’t seen much boasting in God’s redeeming power. In Galatians 6:14, St. Paul wrote “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What about the move onward to perfection the last line mentions? If we believe that God works in our lives “to the uttermost,” then we will treat our sisters and brothers differently, even those with whom we disagree. It may provide the humility to realize that God is continuing the work God started in each one of us; none of us has perfect knowledge, or can claim that God is exclusively on our “side.” We are all under construction, and by God’s sanctifying grace, moving on to perfection. Each one of us must continue to press on to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).
I love the last verse:
Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.
Friends, fellow United Methodists, believers who are following in the way of John and Charles Wesley, of Jacob Albright, Phillip Otterbein, and Martin Boehm (let us not forget our EUB heritage): Are we yet alive? Do we see each other’s faces? Have we taken up our crosses and begun to follow? Do we count all things loss – our opinions, our soapboxes, our sides – so that we may gain Jesus? Remember what brought you into the United Methodist fold. Remember what keeps you here.