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.

The duty we reject

I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what is faith, unless it worketh by love? Thus it was in every part of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty years ago: All the subjects of that revival, — all the Methodists, so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin.

– John Wesley “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor

In the list of sermons of John Wesley that would not go over well today, this one has to be near the top. It is a sermon about the necessity and method of pointing out each other’s sins. Wesley takes as his text Leviticus 19:17, which if you are not aware comes right before a little verse that Jesus Christ holds up as the second great commandment.

As is typical for Wesley, this sermon displays a keen grasp of the nuances of pastoral work. Wesley is never a one-size-fits-all teacher. He is always aware that different people and different audiences require different messages. In our day, we often misinterpret Wesley because we fail to take his awareness of audience and situation into account. We treat him like a systematic theologian rather than a pastor in the trenches.

In this sermon, he starts right off with a key observation about picking our battles wisely.

But if we desire not to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth. Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil.

In another place, while offering similar counsel, Wesley holds up the example of going to the theater. He writes that he could not set foot in such a place, but he knows others who can without threatening their salvation.

So the question, of course, is what are those class of things that are of a disputable nature? Wesley offers some examples of things that fall into the category of undeniable evil.

Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness, which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning of the Lord’s day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience in the sight of God.

The list here: profane cursing and swearing, drunkenness, and profaning the Lord’s day. I almost hesitated to produce the quotation above as examples of undeniable evil because for each one we do deny them as evil.

Although Stanley Hauerwas no longer claims to be United Methodist – I believe — he has taught many a seminary student that cursing is nothing to be ashamed of. As for drunkenness, many will call this a sickness rather than an evil act. There are even those who say it is mere frivolity and of no moral concern at all. And as for profaning the Lord’s day, to even raise it as a concern is viewed by most Christians today as a sure sign of fanatic or a hopeless fool.

Are we reproved by Rev. Wesley’s list or does it lead us to dismiss his entire sermon?

If we retain the sermon at all, we will notice that Wesley does not advise us to engage in street-corner reprovings. He is no advocate of hectoring passersby. Indeed, he directs our attention first to our close relations then in widening circles. Of special attention are those who were joined together in Methodist societies, as those groups were formed for the express purpose of watching over each other in love.

As baptized Christians we make similar promises to nurture and love each other. Is there room for more of a spirit of reproof among us?

The evils of schism

From John Wesley’s sermon “On Schism.”

One great reason why this controversy has been so unprofitable, why so few of either side have been convinced, is this: They seldom agreed as to the meaning of the word concerning which they disputed: and if they did not fix the meaning of this, if they did not define the term before they began disputing about it, they might continue the dispute to their lives’ end, without getting one step forward; without coming a jot nearer to each other than when they first set out.

How much truth is there in this observation about nearly every dispute in the life of the church? How many arguments grind on forever because we cannot even agree on the meaning of words?

But this sermon of Wesley’s is worth our attention for more than his insights into the nature of disputes. It is a challenging and fascinating reflection on issues that are being discussed openly among us today. (Thanks to the colleague who drew my attention to it.)

The first section of the sermon is a word study on the biblical word “schism” and its meaning. Wesley argues that schism in the Bible refers not to separating from another group of Christians but the presence of divisions or divides within a body of Christians. Wesley argues that schism is a lack of unity of mind or loyalty within the church. It is agreeing to disagree while still claiming to be outwardly united.

After arguing that schism is not about separation from the church, Wesley then goes on to discuss the evil of separating or breaking off from a community of Christians.

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of he Spirit in the bound of peace.

To separate, Wesley argues is a repudiation of the command to love each other. And this breach leads to all sorts of evil consequences. See if you spot any of those among us today:

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmising, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.

Do we think evil thoughts about each other? Do we impugn the motives of those who we see as our foes? Do we celebrate their struggles and resent their victories? These are what happens when you stop loving each other.

And as these things grow and grow, Wesley writes, they become a real obstacle to the work of the church. To those outside the church, they become a spectacle that undermines any claims we make about what it means to be Christians or follow Jesus Christ.

But then Wesley turns in a way that speaks to the very heart of our present troubles. He asks what one should do if they cannot remain in a church without being compelled to sin. He argues that in that case we must separate and that the sin of the separation should fall on those who forced us to it. He explains his own thinking this way:

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society.

And so, in the United Methodist Church, I believe, we have many clergy and laity who say denying them the ability to preside at same-sex weddings is the equivalent of the scenario imagined by Wesley. For them, preventing gay weddings is in some way forcing them to sin and, perhaps, risk their own salvation. (I’m not sure if any argue the point as far as Wesley.) And I know some clergy who have reflected upon what they would be forced to do if the language in our discipline were rewritten. Could they stay in such as church, they ask?

Of course, many of our contemporaries opt to stay in a church that requires them to betray their conscience and choose to defy the church. Wesley was neither the democrat nor the activist that many of us are today. To defy the church and remain within it at the same time would be unthinkable to him. We, in our day, have made it not only thinkable but righteous.*

Wesley ends his sermon with a call to Christians not to separate from their church. This is, I believe, a sermon written to quell the calls from within the Methodist movement to pull away from the Church of England or to cease to attend parish churches where the priest does not preach sound Methodist doctrine.

But Wesley then closes by returning to what he had called the biblical definition of “schism” — division within the church. He summons his hearers and readers to resist all factions, parties, and divisions within the church as well.

O beware, I will not say of forming, but of countenancing or abetting any parties in a Christian society! Never encourage, much less cause, either by word or action, any division therein. In the nature of things, “there must be heresies,” divisions, “among you;” but keep thyself pure. Leave off contention before it be meddled with: Shun the very beginning of strife. Meddle not with them that are given to dispute, with them that love contention. I never knew that remark to fail: “He that loves to dispute, does not love God.” Follow peace with all men, without which you cannot effectually follow holiness. Not only “seek peace,” but “ensue it:” If it seem to flee from you, pursue it nevertheless. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I read these words and think of our factions and divisions. We have saavy and in some cases well funded groups vying to power and leverage within the church. On the congregational level, who cannot think of these same kinds of divisions and factions. Who does not have within their congregation divisions that poison the life of the church, the love of Christ, and our witness to the world?

Wesley’s closing words are of encouragement. Do not weary of doing well and seeking peace, even if there are no signs of peace coming. No where — no where — does he imply that such peace should be bought with betrayal of truth. But neither does he suggest we should abandon our hope and trust in God, the God of peace.

I do not expect Wesley’s words to solve an disputes among us, but I hope those of us who claim some fellowship with Wesley would at least listen to his words and reflect on whether they might have some wisdom for us.

*Some would cite here Wesley’s practice of field preaching and the complaints that generated, but note the difference. Wesley always argued that his practice and theology were in line with the Church of England. He did not declare the authority of the church void or its rules evil. I think there is an interesting discussion about this comparison, but to just say “Wesley broke the rules” as if that justifies breaches in our discipline strikes me as simplistic and perhaps misleading.

Words we don’t fight over #LukeActs2014

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV)

I do not have a lot to say about this, other than to notice that John Wesley’s words about “The Danger of Riches” are no more listened to by United Methodists in 2014 than they were 300 years ago.

The nation is turned upside down and inside out over sex. Nothing lights up the Internet more than a debate about what Jesus meant when he quoted Genesis or what Paul knew about the living arrangements of Corinthians.

Why don’t we get in the same kind of uproar over Jesus Christ’s words about riches and wealth? Why do we not anguish over whether we are obeying God in this regard? Why don’t we get stirred up when Jesus says “lay not up treasures on Earth”?