I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. But we must hold on to the progress we have already made.
I was naively drawn to Methodism for very old reasons. The idea that there was a form of Christianity emphasizing continual spiritual growth toward a high standard set by God fascinated me.
I say I was naive because I somehow conflated the historic Methodism of John Wesley with the modern United Methodist Church I joined in my late twenties. Yes, because we developed a traditional understanding of Methodism, my wife and I joined the denomination when we were everything a church wants—young, seeking to be involved, and with small children.
Certainly, vestiges of the Methodism that lured us remain. But it has become obvious that with the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968, that old, very successful form of Methodism has increasingly been forced to share a tent with people hostile to some of its basic principles. The last 20 years or so have been particularly telling.
The headline on an April 22, 1972, New York Times story about that year’s General Conference, where the fledgling United Methodist Church established its doctrines, clearly identified what would trouble the denomination for the next half-century: “Methodists Back Theological Pluralism.”
Today’s Scripture, and some important words preceding it, lay out what the UMC no longer emphasizes—a burning desire for holiness, including the pursuit of perfection.
If you just pursed your lips and wrinkled your nose, you are struggling with what these terms mean. You may be falling into the stereotype nonbelievers like to apply to church folk: “Those Christians think they are perfect.”
Hardly. Instead, we know we are broken by sin, and that we cannot find healing without God’s help. Given the great gift of salvation by Jesus Christ on the cross, we methodically go about the activities that allow the Holy Spirit to penetrate us more deeply day by day, changing us into the people God would have us be.
For most people, it’s a long process, one God likely will have to complete in us at death. But in this life, we press on, seeing Scripture as a corrective for our broken minds, learning to pray without ceasing, and living in fellowship so we can help each other through the process.
An old Nazarene preacher—the Nazarene denomination is part of the broader, very traditional Methodist movement—once described holiness as our learning to love the way Jesus loves.
Jesus was obedient unto death; Jesus offered love freely. Seems pretty straightforward to me, even if I have yet to perfect it.
Lord, help us to embrace not just salvation, but the tremendous change you are willing to make in our lives as we submit to you. Amen.