In my last post, I started a conversation about a church sign I passed recently. It read, “God wants your heart more than your service.” I simply don’t believe that.
In the last post, I used mostly biblical sources to challenge that thought. In part 2, I want to focus on our Wesleyan / United Methodist roots.
Warning: It’s gonna get pretty nerdy, but this is one of the many things I love about being a United Methodist steeped in the Wesleyan tradition.
Our spiritual goal as United Methodists
In a video on UMC.org, Dr. Ashley Boggan, a historian with the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History, summarizes what we believe. “Our spiritual goal as United Methodists,” she begins, “is to embody the love of neighbor in such a constant and consistent fashion, that when people look at us, all they see is the love of God shining forth from us.”
Or in the words of that church sign: We aren’t just recipients of God’s love in our hearts. We are to be the embodiment of God’s love through our service.
Faith isn’t a ticket to heaven redeemable upon death. It is instead an invitation to live as the body of Christ in the world. To participate in the work God is doing in the world every, single day; in every single neighborhood; in every, single life.
When we embody the love of neighbor—loving who God loves, serving who God serves–we are serving Jesus. When we feed someone who is hungry, give a drink to someone who is thirsty, care for someone sick, visit someone locked away, donate clothes, recognize someone who is hurting, we are serving him in our service to others (Matthew 25:31-46).
God wants your heart and your service.
The lodestone of love
“Jesus United By Thy Grace,” an amazing hymn written by one of our founders, Charles Wesley, illustrates this point beautifully.
Touched by the lodestone of Thy love, Let all our hearts agree, And ever toward each other move, And ever move toward Thee.
To get the full sense of these words, it’s good to know that lodestone is an 18th century word for a magnet. God’s love, Charles writes, is magnetic drawing us “ever toward each other” as we draw closer to God. A heart filled with the magnetic love of God is called to serve others.
Man, I love that image.
I learned that from Paul Chilcote, a United Methodist pastor, author, professor and theologian. In his book, Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision, he talks about Wesleyan theology conjunctive, making the point that we Methodists embrace a both/and theology rather than either/or.
It’s not either heart or service. It’s both heart and service.
I talk about this so much, because when we begin to see the world this way, we realize our lives matter. You and I have purpose, a calling, work to do in this world. We’re not just biding our time, waiting for Heaven.
Instead, your life of faith is a life of purpose, to make the world a better place. To participate in God’s Kingdom coming to earth as it is in heaven. And that happens in small ways all the time.
Maybe a better way to say this is, we get to serve God by serving one another. We get to participate God’s work in the world. We get to be, in the words of 1 Corinthians 3:9, “God’s coworkers.” How cool is that?
Means of grace
I’m going to go a little farther into Methodism to a place that may make some nervous. So, hold on…
John Wesley talked about service as a “means of grace.”
The best way I’ve come to understand this concept is that when we participate in a means of grace—worship, sacraments, mission, service—we put ourselves in a posture that opens us up to the grace of God. It’s not like we’re earning some heavenly points (with apologies to one of my favorite shows of all time, The Good Place), but instead we are opening our hearts—the Bible sometimes uses the language of softening our hearts—to allow God to form and shape us. Kinda like dropping our resistances.
When I was a youth pastor, I used to talk about this on mission trips. Nearly every summer students would wonder how a week of doing things that for the most part weren’t religious in the traditional sense—made them feel closer to God.
Scraping and painting the exterior of a house is hardly something anyone would call religious. Neither is digging post holes or cutting wood. But making sure someone you’ve never met, has a home that can weather a storm, or caring for someone by building them a wheelchair access ramp—those are things Jesus commissioned or invited us to do.
Sure, sleep deprivation and exhaustion play a role in the youth group mission trip experience, but we also talked about how what we were doing “made room” for God to do something in our lives. We were emptying ourselves to allow God to move in us. Or in the words of Dr. Boggan, on those mission trips the youth were embodying the love of neighbor so fully that God was shining through, and they could feel it.
Okay, that’s not the part that is going to make anyone nervous, but here’s the part that might…
Service before faith
Sometimes the means of grace come before we believe—or one might say, before our heart is changed. A means of grace can be the entry point, one of what may be many.
A good, recognizable example is the sacrament of Baptism. In Methodism and all other traditions that baptize infants, baptism is a means of grace, a way we—or our parents on our behalf—put ourselves in a posture of openness to the work of God in our lives. In the baptismal covenant, those in our family and those in the congregation promise to:
surround us with a community of love and forgiveness, that we may grow in our trust of God, and be found faithful in our service to others.
They promise to pray for us, that we may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.Paraphrase of Baptismal Covenant I, Hymnal of The United Methodist Church
In other words, sometimes the service comes before the heart. Sometimes the action leads to the change of heart.
In communion, United Methodists celebrate what is sometimes called an “open table,” meaning that you don’t have to be a member of the church—or any church—to receive the sacrament. Communion is a means of grace that Wesley talked about as a “converting ordinance” — writing in one place, “For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper” (Journal entry, Friday, June 27, 1740).
His brother Charles emphasized the point, writing words we United Methodists still sing, “Come, sinners to the gospel feast; let every soul be Jesus’s guest” (UM Hymnal 616).
So sometimes the means of grace come before our faith—they can be our initial move toward a changed heart.
I say all this to illustrate how interconnected these two parts of the whole are. They don’t behave chronologically. They are two sides of the same tranformation–a single life fully transformed.
Meaning that one can participate in the Kingdom of God, perform acts of service that are a foretaste of the age to come, without being a believer.
So, no, I don’t believe that God wants your heart more than your service. I think it’s a much better story than that. God wants all of you, and invites you to join the work God is doing throughout the world — heart and service.