Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

What is the gospel?

John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.

Our peculiar doctrine

From John Wesley’s journal of February 1789:

Friday, 6, being the Quarterly Day for meeting the Local Preachers, between twenty and thirty of them met at West-Street, and opened their hearts to each other. Taking the opportunity of having them all together, at the watch-night, I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Keep that which is committed to thy trust;” particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.

That doctrine, expounded upon in detail in Wesley’s great sermon “Christian Perfection,” teaches that while humans prior to the Second Coming will never be free from ignorance, mistakes, weakness of the flesh, or temptation, the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts does give Christians power to resist all sin — in thought and deed. By an act of grace God will sanctify in this life those whom he has justified.

Wesley preached this for nearly his entire post-Aldersgate ministry. And he was resisted all along the way by those within and outside Methodism who objected on scriptural or experiential grounds. After his death, this doctrine would give rise to splits as groups that held firm to Christian Perfection — or as Wesley also called it in his sermon, holiness — broke off from the moderating masses of Methodists.

We United Methodists still hold to this doctrine formally. It is still committed to our trust. But it is a relic that we keep in the attic.

I wonder what it would be like if in the upcoming Annual Conference season every bishop in United Methodism followed Wesley’s example in 1789 and pressed on the gathered preachers to affirm, embrace, and proclaim again this peculiar doctrine and all it entails.

Three marks of evangelicalism

I came across a wonderful little book at the university library earlier this summer. Timothy L. Smith’s Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth contains sermons and writings from the two great Methodist preachers. It also includes a lucid and edifying essay by Smith tracing the essentials that bound the two men and the differences that divided them on matters of theology. The book is out of print, but worth picking up if you find a copy.

In Smith’s essay, he summarizes his view of the three points on which Wesley and Whitefield always agreed. Smith writes that the pair shared these convictions with Quakers, Baptists, German Pietists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist heirs to the Puritans.

All such “evangelicals” affirmed the moral authority of the Bible, declaring that it called human beings to righteousness that is not only imputed to them in Christ’s name but actually imparted to them by His grace. All stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by His presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing in them the love and holiness that please God. Evangelicals also declared it the duty of all who had discovered these truths and experienced this grace to proclaim the good news of salvation everywhere, at home and abroad. From that day until this, these three convictions have marked the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.The Bible is its authority, the new birth its hallmark, and evangelism its mission.

There are others schemes that people try to use to define what it means to be an evangelical, but I find Smith’s summary quite appealing.

A commitment to holy advocacy

The president of my seminary, Wendy Deichmann, has written her thoughts about the way of holy advocacy in the United Methodist tradition. In the piece, she offers her take on both what holy advocacy is not and what it should be in the midst of what she calls our “sex wars.”

The entire post is worthy of a few minutes of your time. I hope it gets wide readership among the people called United Methodist.

Perhaps because I am introducing my students to the meaning of team work this week, I wanted to lift up for a moment a few thoughts in reaction to her discussion of our polity.

Roman Catholics have a pope to pontificate, yes, imperialistically, over the denomination’s official position on social matters. Congregationalists (independent churches) take a vote to decide things on a congregational basis. Fundamentalists of various stripes (including many Baptists) rely on selective literal biblicist interpretations as determinative for their own respective judicatory. Some Anglicans, Lutherans, and others discern social questions in regional or continental contexts. United Methodists, by comparison, long ago agreed to define, defend, and/or change our official, denominational social positions and principles on the basis of General Conference vote. In the USA, with its cafeteria-style freedom of religion, any member objecting to a particular aspect of United Methodism or his or her own denomination is free either to use the provisions of the respective polity to try to change the denomination, or to leave it and take their preferences elsewhere.

Deciding things as important as social issues that affect people’s lives by General Conference vote has always meant that United Methodists (and those in our predecessor denominations) have had to live with differences of opinion, disappointment, and abundant, sanctifying grace to labor faithfully in ministry together despite personal, social, and political disagreements. Historically, we have had to do our best, God helping us, to continue to love, respect, and work alongside others in a denomination in which toleration of different opinions was fully expected, except when it came to the core doctrines of the church. United Methodist polity rests on an assumption not that there will be winners and losers in a vote, but that even when a vote does not go our way, God’s grace will equip us to exercise holy respect and tolerance for differences, even while we continue to work together for the larger mission of the denomination.

In my classes, I teach team work by using a book by Patrick Lencioni called Five Dysfunctions of a Team. As a denomination, you could easily say United Methodism displays all five. But the one that comes to mind while reading Deichmann’s piece is called Lack of Commitment. This is the tendency of people to hold back their support or fail to move forward because people will not commit to a plan of action. As Lencioni writes in his book, the problem is that in a team — sooner or later — people have to be willing to say that they will support the team’s decisions and plans even if they are not the ones they would have adopted themselves. If we all insist on always getting our way, then the team will always be mired in the mud.

United Methodism’s polity calls for this kind of commitment. Our process of decision-making is predicated on the idea that we will buy in to the process by which decisions were made and support them even if we would have preferred a different outcome.

For some reason, when I think this way, I always think of Al Gore at the end of the election in 2000. When the divided Supreme Court ruled narrowly against him and handed the White House to George Bush, Gore came out immediately and conceded the race. He surely did not support the outcome, but he endorsed the process.

For better or worse, United Methodism is built on the assumption that we will do the same.

United Methodism rests on the assumption that the Holy Spirit can empower us to both work for change in the parts of our doctrine and law with which we disagree while supporting and acting under the doctrine and law as it now is. This is a challenging discipline. It certainly challenges me. I am challenged both by the ways in which I currently do not live up to this call and by the ways our polity would call me to act if the 2016 General Conference brings radical change. When I hear people saying they would leave the UMC if our social positions changed, I understand their reasons, but it feels to me that I would be inconsistent with myself to suggest people who disagree with present doctrine should respect the process while saying I’ll leave if the process leads to changes.

It may be that our process has broken down so much — and our trust of the process and each other as eroded so far — that we no longer can abide by our own polity. But I am not beyond hope that we, or more properly the Holy Spirit, can repair what has been broken.

The size of the church

Taking his lead from the official doctrine of the Church of England, John Wesley wrote that the visible Church includes three essentials:

Living faith – “without which, indeed, there can be no Church at all, neither visible nor invisible.”

Preaching and hearing the pure word of God — “else that faith would languish and die.”

Due administration of the sacraments — “the ordinary means whereby God increasetth faith.”

Of course, these ideas are nothing new to United Methodists. Our Articles of Religion say the same thing, which is no coincidence as they are adapted from the Church of England.

But what is this faith that is essential to the presence of the church?

Quoting the Homilies of the Church of England, Wesley reminded his readers that the living faith is “a sure trust and confidence in God, that through the merits of Christ my sins are forgiven, and I reconciled to the favour of God.”

We like to count warm bodies and buildings. Even now, there are men and women gearing up for a possible fight over those buildings and trying to hold on to as many of those warm bodies as possible. We round our numbers up and say that in the United States we have 8 million members.

But how many do we really have?

What is the actual size of the United Methodist CHURCH if we use these standards?

What is the size of the congregations that I serve?

Is my preaching the kind of preaching that preserves and fosters living faith?

Does my administration of the sacraments — and I’m fully aware here that as a licensed local preacher Wesley would not have permitted me to serve at the table — does my administration of the sacraments and my teaching about them ensure that people approach them and experience them as true means of grace?