A Methodist died and arrived before St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven, and St. Peter asked, well tell me about yourself, about why you think you want in. “Well,” said the woman, “I am a good Methodist, have been all my life. I went to VBS, then UMY, then UMW, and I gave regularly to U.M.C.O.R (UMCOR, as we called it). I was baptized. I went to worship regularly. I even went to Annual Conference and, get this, I have read the Book of Discipline.” “OK,” said St. Peter, “that all sounds impressive, and since you are into all this stuff, I think I’ll have Brother John, John Wesley, come over and give you a little test. The woman said, “Who’s that?”
Well, St. Peter gave her a chance to study a bit, before Wesley arrived, and, in her quick research, she discovered a couple of interesting things. One, her memory of him came back quickly, although his life and teachings were not emphasized much in her church. She was struck by his statement when he said, “The world is my parish.” By this, he was not taking about other continents or countries. The world was one step outside of the church. Wesley led a movement by taking a big step outside the comfortable walls of the church and into the world to share the love of Christ in concrete ways – by starting schools, by organizing health clinics, by providing food, and most of all by forming communities of faith to cultivate a place where people could build one another up in love. This movement spread like wildfire. It spread because the movement was full of people willing to take a huge risk and step out into a crazy world with the love of Christ.
Next, this woman was struck to the core by his emphasis on the heart. True religion is not rooted in all the outward forms of religion – in buildings and doctrines and rituals and events. True religion is about God transforming our hearts and expanding ourselves into God’s love. This woman stated crying when she read these words: “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not our opinions of any sort ... or our assenting to this or that scheme of religion ... or embracing any particular set of notions ... that is all quite wide of the point ... A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in their heart ... God is the joy of their heart, and the desire of the soul.” (A paraphrase from “Character of a Methodist,” John Wesley)
This woman knew this in her heart. This is who she was deep inside. This identity had been shaped at VBS, UMY, UMW, and even at Annual Conference. She was embarrassed, at this point, that she had focused on the “means” rather than the “end” in her encounter with St. Peter. She talked about the outward forms of religion and neglected to express what was in her heart. St. Peter just smiled. He knew.
John Wesley was never really called over to give her a test, but she continued to learn more, on the inside … and about what God wants for us on the inside … which is the ultimate purpose of “all this,” all that we do around here. She found one sermon titled “The Marks of the New Birth,” which was especially helpful to her. She had some trouble with the old English, so she found this really cool paraphrase of the sermon from a place called First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas, of all places. In this sermon, Wesley laid out the key characteristics of those who live in a life-giving relationship with the living Christ. These key marks, building on the words of the Apostle Paul, are: Faith, Hope, and Love. These gifts are written on our heart when we become, and recognize ourselves to be, children of God. These are the marks of new life.
First, “Faith.” We can distinguish between dead faith and living faith. Dead faith is little more than intellectual affirmation of doctrine – believing, for example, “that” God exists or “that” Jesus was God’s son. As the scripture says, even devils believe “that.” With this kind of faith, we are still bound in the chains of darkness. This is dead faith. Life-giving faith is “believing in” rather than “believing that.” Living faith is a sure trust and confidence in God, that, through the merits of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. This faith leads to new life, to a new way of living in the world. It is the first blessing written on the hearts of those who are born anew in Christ or awakened from above with new life.
The second gift written on our hearts is “Hope.” St. Peter himself once said, that we are given a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He called it a “living hope” because there is also “dead hope.” Dead hope comes when we put our hope in things, and believe that the finite “things” of this world will lead us to life. Living hope, on the other hand, is hope in the One who takes what is perishable and puts on what is imperishable, who takes what is finite and clothes it with eternity. Living hope expands our hearts beyond the pain of this world. This is the second gift written upon the hearts of those who are born anew in Christ or awakened from above with new life.
The third gift written on our hearts is the greatest of all. It is “Love.” On that same website from that church in Conway, the woman found a vision statement called “Love Grows Here.” She read how this congregation comes together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to love, forgive, bless, and honor one another. She read that this is a place where there is less judgment and a lot more understanding, less condemnation and a lot more forgiveness, less shutting out and a lot more hospitality. And she thought, “that’s it.” She remembered how the Apostle Paul once said that we could not enough faith to even remove mountains, but if we did not have this love, we had nothing. She thought of the Apostle John saying that “we are able to love because God first loved us.” She then read from that same website that “God’s love comes to us on its way to someone else.” (That’s the last line of the core belief statement)
So, how do we escape the very powers of hell in this life? There is no other way then to have these blessings of faith, hope, and love planted in here (heart) and then for them to grow here (all around us).
This woman learned a lesson that day that we all need to learn. Don’t hide them behind religious practices … or outward religious identity. That’s not what God wants on our heavenly resumes. God looks upon the heart. Is your heart being transformed by the blessings that come from God through the continuing work of the living Christ, the Spirit of God in our lives? Is your heart being prepared to live in the presence of God? Faith, Hope, and Love. That’s what God wants for us. Receive these blessings that continue to flow even into eternity. Amen.