‘Control your own body’

Paul in 1 Thessalonians calls on the church to live in a manner that will please God.

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, NIV)

This is not by any means a unique passage in the New Testament.

So, how do we interpret Paul’s words here? What does it mean to control our bodies in holy and honorable ways?

Those who divide

These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (Jude 16-23, NIV)

Healing on the Sabbath #LukeActs2014

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say. (Luke 14:1-6, NIV)

This is merely another statement of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is it not? In that parable, we are often told of the pious motives of the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side. It is not cold indifference that causes them to avoid the man in the ditch but a misunderstanding of the relative importance of mercy and piety.

Piety is good. Prayer is good, and we are commanded and counseled to do it. Studying the scriptures is good. Worship is good and necessary. But if mercy calls, then we are to lay aside piety for the moment.

John Wesley touches on this theme in his sermon “On Zeal.” He puts it this way:

But he should be more zealous for the ordinances of Christ than for the church itself; for prayer in public and private; for the Lord’s supper, for reading, hearing, and meditating on his word; and for the much-neglected duty of fasting. These he should earnestly recommend; first, by his example; and then by advice, by argument, persuasion, and exhortation, as often as occasion offers.

Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing “God will have mercy and not sacrifice,” that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, “at charity’s almighty call;” when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.

I see such teaching of Jesus and such interpretations as Wesley’s sometimes get stretched to abolish all sense of the laws or commands of God. We are told that since Jesus requires mercy rather than sacrifice that the law does not apply or that any particular breach of the law of God that we can frame as a mercy issue is okay.

Here, at least, is Wesley’s response to such arguments:

Those, indeed, who are still dead in trespasses and sins have neither part nor lot in this matter; nor those that live in any open sin, such as drunkenness, Sabbath-breaking, or profane swearing. These have nothing to do with zeal; they have no business at all even to take the word in their mouth. It is utter folly and impertinence for any to talk of zeal for God, while he is doing the works of the devil. But if you have renounced the devil and all his works, and have settled it in your heart, I will “worship the Lord my God, and him only will I serve,” then beware of being neither cold nor hot; then be zealous for God.

For Wesley at least, the point here is that to go through pious motions while neglecting mercy makes all our piety an abomination:

Do you follow the example of your Lord, and prefer mercy even before sacrifice? Do you use all diligence in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting them that are sick and in prison? And, above all, do you use every means in your power to save souls from death? If, as you have time, “you do good unto all men,” though “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” your zeal for the church is pleasing to God: but if not, if you are not “careful to maintain good works,” what have you to do with the church? If you have not “compassion on your fellow-servants,” neither will your Lord have pity on you. “Bring no more vain oblations.” All your service is “an abomination to the Lord.”

This is a framework for a Wesleyan reading of these verses from Luke 14. My takeaway is this. Worship, prayer, fasting, study of scripture, and all the other spiritual disciplines that we commend and practice for good reason should never be used as an excuse to ignore the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of other people. Indeed, to pray with great fervor or fast rigorously while your fellow creatures are in need is to make your prayers repugnant to God.

This is not, of course, the only reading we might make of this text. But it is one that we United Methodists should not ignore, even if we ultimately disagree with it.

Holiness is of God

Late in his ministry, John Wesley looked back at the early days of Methodism and described in his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” the truths first proclaimed by the Oxford students who started the movement:

Let us observe what God has done already. Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths, which were then little attended to: — That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; — that this holiness is the work of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do; — that he doeth it of his own good pleasure, merely for the merits of Christ; — that this holiness is the mind that was in Christ; enabling us to walk as he also walked; — that no man can be thus sanctified till he is justified; — and, that we are justified by faith alone. These great truths they declared on all occasions, in private and in public; having no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.

Pulling this apart, we can list the key doctrines, according to Wesley, as these.

  1. Without holiness no one will see the Lord
  2. This holiness is the work of God who works in us both to will and do
  3. This holiness is grace, merited not by us but by Christ
  4. This holiness is having the same mind that was in Christ, enabling us to walk as he walked
  5. This holiness, or sanctification, must follow justification
  6. Justification is by faith alone

I wrote about point 1 in a recent post.

I wonder how we can communicate point 2: Holiness is the work of God — from first to last — who works in us both to will and do good. It seems people have a hard time hearing it.

In a recent comment here, someone wrote that telling a person to “try harder” when they cannot fulfill the demands of the law is not very helpful.

I agree, 100 percent. “Try harder” is at its heart Pelagian. It is why Pelagianism was actually a very harsh theology. If you were not holy, Pelagians said, the problem is that you did not work hard enough at it. A lot of Christianity, I think, is unintentionally Pelagian in that way.

What orthodox Christianity has taught since the settlement of the Pelagian controversy is that it is not our effort that makes us holy. God works in us so we can will and do what God desires.

What we are called to do is to trust in the grace we have been given. This grace stirs in us, convicting us when we do wrong, and drawing us to do right. But it is God’s initiative. We respond.

I’m not sure how to explain this. I think part of the problem is that it is all grounded on a doctrine of original sin and human depravity that is not well received in the church today.

Without holiness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14, NIV)

If Methodism went looking for a bedrock biblical verse, Hebrews 12:14 would be a strong contender for that title. There are some verses that John Wesley might have liked more, but the need for holiness was the driving force that got him up in that saddle day after day.

And so, I find myself wondering what this verse means in 2014 in the United Methodist Church.

For me, this verse, especially when read in the context of the whole chapter, resonates with a tone that we shun. Hebrews 12 takes a stance toward God that we do not. It stands in reverent awe of God. It shudders at the immense stakes of all this. It is the voice of one who stands humbly and meekly before a God beyond our comprehension.

We, for the most part, do not stand where the author of Hebrews stands. We are arrogant. We presume to tell God what is right and just and true. We treat God like a hired servant, here to cater to our whims. We let our democratic impulses invade our theology, informing God that the voters are not buying his program. We lecture God about poor customer service and threaten to take our business to the vendor up the street.

Without holiness no one will see the Lord.

If we believed that, our theology would be undertaken with much less confidence and much more fear. Lives are at stake here. Our God is a consuming fire.

But here is the good news in that. Our God is powerful. Our God is not helpless to save us. Our God is not reduced to merely weeping beside us when we suffer. Our God is stronger than the foes that surround us. The Psalms know this to be true. They are prayers to a powerful and awesome God. They are prayers that speak in anguish when God does not rebuke the wicked precisely because they know in their bones that God could shatter evil like a rod on a clay pot.

A God powerful enough to kill Pharaoh’s child is a God who can save you, too.

The unholy will not see the Lord.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16, NIV)