given on Sunday, October 30 2011:
Knock, knock, knock. The doors open and the cries of “trick or treat” ring through the night. Kids of all ages and sizes eagerly crowd around in costume hoping for the treats to fill their bags.
Part of the night’s fun is figuring out who really is knocking on the door. Is that ghost a grandchild you know very well? Maybe Spiderman is really the neighbor across the street. And that princess almost hiding in the back of the pack, is she the new little girl in Sunday school?
One night a year costumes are planned, bought, and worn trying to surprise family and friends. The tradition may have started in cultures where Christianity was not the prominent religion, but today the holiday has transformed into a non-religious one which is filled with all types of scary and silly fun—not to mention the sweet treats.
Growing up on a farm eight miles from town, going trick or treat was really not part of our routine. In fact Halloween was more important during my high school years when it was the annual “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” campaign that took the youth groups door to door. When we knocked on doors, we were not looking for sweets but we were looking for coins.
When we leave our houses, do we put on a costume or do we go out as we truly are? Can others recognize us as Christians, ones that John Wesley would accept as a Methodist, or do we have to put on a costume to look like Christians?
In the Wesley’s article, “The Character of a Methodist,” he clearly states that there are no specific ‘distinguishing marks’ for Methodists. The costume is not a type of clothing, not a physical characteristic—natural or tattooed, not a particular vestment worn on the shoulders or the head, nor a specific book or tablet that is carried. The distinguishing characteristics are in actions, not in something costume that can be put on and taken off.
In Wesley’s essay about the Methodist Characteristics, he addressed what Methodists are not:
- No distinguishing marks
- No peculiar mod of speaking, any quaint or uncommon set of expressions
- No distinguishing actions customs or usages, of an indifferent nature
- No laying the whole stress of religion on any single part of it (for instance circumcision)
The descriptors of Methodism are nothing one can put on and take off, nothing concrete, nor anything that can put on and taken off like the Halloween costumes we see this weekend.
Early in Wesley’s ministry, he and a small group of men at Oxford met and discussed religion. (I suspect that they also discussed what was going on in the world at that time, rather like we do when we sit down for a cup of coffee with friends.) Still they developed a structure for their meetings. They became known for their disciplined lifestyle. Yet they were identified as being ‘different’ in their religious beliefs and/or works.
In fact, when the term ‘Methodists’ began being used, Wesley took offense to it. Yet, his paper on the characteristics of the Methodists became the answer to the label. He states, “I say, those who are called Methodists; for, let it be well observed, that this is not a name which they take to themselves, but one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent.”
In his answer he includes a reference to the one who began using that term as well as the possible origins of the reference. He actually gives two alternatives:
- …either an allusion to the ancient sect of Physicians, so called, from their teaching, that almost all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise,
- . . . or from their observing a more regular method of study and behavior than was usual with those of their age and station.
Over the hundreds of years since Wesley wrote this answer, the second reference for the term ‘Methodists’ has been the one most commonly identified as the ‘costume’ of the denomination.
Wesley and his small group of peers spent time in their meetings studying the Bible, discussing among themselves the importance and application of the passages, and they held each other accountable for their own actions during the week they were apart. These class meetings became the hub of the faith.
The methods of accountability became so internalized that the costumes of these men were evident to those not part of the class. The characteristics of the denomination are outlined in Wesley’s paper, too:
- He is therefore happy in God, . . . and overflowing his soul with peace and joy. . .
- . . hath this hope, thus “full of immortality, in everything giveth thanks, . . . [he] casts all his care on Him that careth for him, . . .
- . . . prays without ceasing . . . not always in the house of prayer . . neither is he always on his knees. . nor . . always crying aloud to God. . . . the Spirit maketh intercession for him with groans that cannot be uttered, . . . his heart is ever with the lord. . . he walks with God continually.
- . . . loves his neighbour as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all mankind, to every child . . . loves his enemies
- For he is pure in heart, . . . being dead to all that is in the world, both to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.” . . . “all his desire is unto God . . .
- . . . his one desire. . . “not to do his own will, but the will of Him that sent him. . .Every thought that arises points to him, and is in the obedience to the law of Christ.
- . . . so he keeps his commandments; not only some, or most of them, but all.
- . . . he serves him with all his strengths. . . [and] all the talents he has received. . .
- . . . whatsoever he doeth, it is all to the glory of God. . .
- . . . the customs of the world [hinder him]
- . . . he does good unto all men. . .
The description of a Methodist is a description of Christians everywhere. The costume of Methodism is worn day in and day out. It cannot, or should not, be seen only on Sunday mornings. The costume is not just for holidays; it is for daily life.
The discernment between a Methodist and any other denomination should not matter. The denomination is only a vehicle for personal study, for accountability, for service beyond that of one’s personal boundaries, and for worship. The fellowship we receive while worshiping together or while studying or serving together reinforces our personal faith. If the world outside of our doors perceives us as Methodists, so be it. We just know that our lives are filled with grace that fills us with the Holy Spirit and drives us to do all that we can for all those we can in every way that we can.
Is not that what Christ has asked of us? Are we not to be in ‘costume’ all the time? Wesley put it this way:
“. . . A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one “who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”
Wesley, always staying close to the scriptures, echoes Psalms 73:25 as the final argument in that statement:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
When you answer your doors or join us at church Monday evening, make sure that you are not simply putting on a costume as you meet and greet those trick or treaters. Make sure that anybody who meets you sees exactly who you are—a Christian who is in costume all the time, not just for an occasion like Halloween.
Dear All Knowing Father,
As we step out this morning,
Help our faith shine out from within us.
As we meet others during the week,
Guide us in our daily activities.
Keep us in costume,
So each and every person we meet knows
We are Christians—inside and out. –Amen