One of my favorite movies of all time is The Princess Bride. Among many memorable scenes in that movie is the following one which states what everyone else is thinking after multiple inappropriate uses of the word “inconceivable”
Inigo Montoya, the character who calls his partner on the carpet, would, I think, say the same thing to many of our fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church with regards to the word “love.”
My friend James-Michael Smith pointed me to a sermon by formerly defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer which, in my opinion, is an even greater offense than the offense for which he was originally defrocked. In his message he talks about how we shouldn’t judge anyone at all, how everyone is a child of God no matter what they believe, and that our only responsibility is to love everyone. One must wonder if there would ever have been a Christian martyr if everyone would have just been as tolerant and as nice as Schaefer and progressives like him claim we ought to be. We are all OK, after all, preaches Mr. Schaefer, and therefore we should all just love each other.
Mr. Schaefer, you keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.
At least not in the way Scripture uses the word “love,” nor our Wesleyan heritage has understood the word “love.” Love is not sentimentality (read: A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment). There is purpose and content to love, and that content is filled out for us remarkably well in the life of Jesus.
One of the ways in which Jesus loved people was by telling them the truth. He came in “grace and truth,” (John 1:7), and we must be careful that we do not emphasize one side of that equation at the expense of the other (falling into “cheap grace” on one side and legalistic rigidity on the other). One of the ways I see how Jesus loved people is in the story we read in Mark 10 of the rich man who came seeking eternal life. Before Jesus demanded everything of him – go and sell all your possessions – the gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him.” Jesus did not say “you are OK as you are and everything will be alright.” Love is costly and demanding. It’s anything but the cheap sentimentality Mr. Schaefer and progressives like him are peddling in our churches.
I’ll never forget the time my parents showed me the greatest love. When I was deep in addiction to self and to sex I was in desperate need of $300 in order to keep my utilities on in my apartment (I had been kicked out of the house due to multiple affairs). I was sure my parents, who had the money, would help me in my time of need to prevent me from going homeless. They took a day to talk it over amongst themselves and to pray. I was shocked when the next day they denied my simple request. For months I was enraged with them, blaming them for my subsequent homelessness and pitiful plight. And yet, it was that desperation which ultimately led to my rebirth and reconciliation with my family. I later learned that they had prayed hard about what to do and heard the Lord restrict them from helping me, their son. It was the hardest love they ever had to show me but it proved to be the greatest and most healing love I have ever known.
This devolution of love is a natural consequence of the progressive belief that all are children of God no matter what they believe or how they live (as Scheafer states unequivocally in his sermon). It’s a beautiful sentiment – if only it were biblical! None other than Jesus himself makes it clear that not everyone is a child of God. The better part of John 8 is reserved for Jesus’ harsh judgment upon the people who could rightly claim to be God’s children because of their father Abraham and their adherence to Moses’ Law. These are not children of God, Jesus says, but children of the devil. Only those who believe in Jesus are given the right to be called sons and daughters of God (see John 3). To say that all are children of God by virtue of birth nullifies Jesus’ insistence that a person must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God. New birth is the cornerstone and promise of the New Testament as well as a foundational doctrine for Wesley and Methodists ever since. John Wesley has this to say about the new birth:
It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Paul says in Rom. 8:14 that only those who are led by the Spirit are children of God. And Jesus said that those who obey his commands will remain in his love (John 15:10). Those are some sobering qualifications! It ought to cause everyone of us to pause and examine whether or not we are in the faith (as Scripture tells us to do). And yet, progressives love to talk about love, and love to tell those who will listen that all is well. Lord, in your mercy, keep them from hearing!
Every time I get up to preach I have an expectation that someone will be saved today. I expect and believe that people’s lives will be forever changed, both here and in eternity, because the Holy Spirit is at work and is going to do some heart surgery. New birth will, and must, happen. The day I stop believing that is going to happen is the day I’ll defrock myself. It’s my opinion that the problem facing our denomination at large today is not a fight over sexual ethics alone but a devolution of what it means to love God and our neighbor. We have watered down both to such an extent that we do not offer meaningful life to sinners, nor a meaningful vocation to our pastors.
Whatever future lies ahead for the United Methodist Church I pray that it is one that embraces love in all it’s gospel fullness. I pray it is one that speaks and lives both grace and truth. The sort of rigorous love the gospel calls it’s disciples to embrace is one that is worth dying for, and requires one to lay their life down in order to comprehend. No real disciples will ever be made when our greatest vision for the church is to be a place of tolerance where people of many faiths can sing songs together, enjoy a potluck and do some good deeds. John Wesley charged his preachers with the task of saving souls. This requires a love that looks a person in the eye and tells them the truth about their condition and the remedy found alone in the blood of Jesus the Christ.