I get the feeling at times that the church tries to be more than it is and tries to do more than it reasonably can do. It feels at times that we don’t know why we exist, and so we grab on to virtually anything that justifies our existence.
John Wesley — whatever his faults — did not suffer this problem. He saw the purpose of the church as getting people to heaven. He sums this attitude up no where better than in the preface to his sermons when he discusses his own attitude toward the Bible.
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.
Elsewhere he wrote more directly about the church, but the spirit was the same. The point of what we do is to land people in heaven.* This was Wesley’s passion and purpose for his entire ministry.
And I wonder what would change in the UMC if that was our goal. What if our mission statement was something like this: The mission of the United Methodist Church is to get people into heaven?
I have to confess that it feels like a goal with a great deal more clarity to it than “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” We won’t know if we have met the goal in this life, but the goal feels like the kind of thing that could actually organize our work in a way that our current mission statement does not.
* I am aware that the idea of heaven as the goal rather than the new heaven and earth is a debated point. I find the term “heaven” a convenient place holder for whatever we understand to be the end of all things.
In the preface to his first series of sermons, John Wesley entreated readers who thought he was in the wrong how they could most effectively persuade him of the truth.
Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and get more and more out of the way.
Wesley’s words here may have been better than his practice. I’m sure many of his debating partners found him not terribly open to persuasion on most points. But that acknowledged, I admire the spirit of this passage. It would be wonderful if we could adopt such an attitude in the midst of our disagreements.
And having written that, I feel compelled to point out that Wesley, who wrote the above, was also an absolute stickler on discipline in his societies. He would warn a wayward member and weather their backsliding for a time, but if they would not amend their ways, they were out. So, clearly, there is a distinction in his thinking between discussing points of faith and enforcing church discipline. In the United Methodist Church, we would probably do well to follow that example as well.
Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.
It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.
One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.
Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.
Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.
Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.
This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.
I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.
“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.
When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.
In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:
- He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
- He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
- He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
- He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
- He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
- He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
- He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
- He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
- He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
- He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
- He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
- He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
- He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)
This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.
And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)
God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?
Ebenezer Blackwell was a London banker. He was also a supporter of John and Charles Wesley’s Methodist movement who reportedly gave “considerable sums” to John Wesley for distribution to the poor. In Wesley’s works, we find several letters to Blackwell. A recurring subject in the letters is Wesley’s concern that the wealthy banker faces many temptations and dangers to his soul. Here is one example:
Whereunto we have attained, let us hold fast! But this can only be, by pressing on. Otherwise, we must go back. You have need of courage and steady resolution; for you have a thousand enemies: The flattering, frowning world; the rulers of the darkness of this world; and the grand enemy within. What need have you to put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day! I often tremble for you. And how few will honestly and plainly tell you of your danger! O may God warn you continually by his inward voice, and with every temptation make a way for you to escape!
The letters are instructive for the glimpse they give of Wesley’s pastoral method and for what they reveal about Wesley’s concern for “The Danger of Riches.”
I also find in the quotation above a compelling image of the life of the spirit. We cannot stand still. We either press on or we slide back. We either go on toward perfection or we slip back toward sin.
This is a pastoral rather than a purely scriptural observation by Wesley. It came from his wide experience shepherding souls in all corners of the British Isles. It is also why he was so adamant about the need for individuals to be in society with other Christians. We need the encouragement and at times the gentle prod of others to help us to keep pressing on. Otherwise, we sag and slide and fall away from the way that is set before us.
This all rings true to me.
As a part-time pastor with little direct interaction with more experienced pastors, I am continually grateful for the lessons and challenges that I find in Wesley’s words.
The United Methodist Reporter has an interesting look at ongoing work to revise the administrative law in the Book of Discipline to reflect the global nature of the church.
At the end of the story, Bishop Patrick Streiff touched on what strikes me as a key goal:
Streiff hopes that one outcome of the committee’s years of work will be a more stable Book of Discipline that will invite fewer legislative revisions each General Conference.
“If we are right about the essentials,” he said, “they do not need to be changed every four years.”
The unspoken word here is “trust.” The reason why the Discipline keeps growing in length and complexity every four years has to do with trust. It is when we do not trust the structures that in place to oversee the denomination that we spawn more and more rules to try and force behaviors we want.
Worried that the church will not pay enough attention to diversity? Write rules about board membership to ensure it happens. Worried that the boards of ordained ministry will not do their jobs? Put in hard and fast rules about who cannot be ordained. Worried that bishops will run rough shod over clergy? Write rules that restrict bishop’s powers and expand clergy rights.
Rules rush to fill the vacuum created by an absence of trust.
As we all know, of course, trust cannot be decreed. It is the by-product of experience.