I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.
As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.
His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.
Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.
Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”
As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.
So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?
He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.
- Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
- Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
- Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
- Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
- Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
- Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits
Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)
There are passages of Scripture that I read, and they leave me completely unable to understand Christians who never lift a finger in service to their brothers and sisters. People tell me that they love Jesus, but they never do anything for the good of others. I can’t find any place in the Bible that reflects that kind of passivity.
We have probably all heard those sermons where the preacher has talked to us about the meaning of love. We know the various Greek words. We can call to mind various metaphors and word images that festoon the pulpit talk that we preachers use when trying to get a point across.
Here, in the lectionary this week, we get it straight and simple.
Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love” for Christians? Jesus Christ died for you. Go and do the same for others. That is love.
Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love”? Let me show you the cross. That is love. It is self-surrendering action.
It is more than most of us can hear or bear, so the the epistle writer gives us an easier problem. You are not ready to die for your brother or sister? Okay. Put your money where your mouth is. You say you love your neighbor. Show me the money.
If love is laying down our life for another, then how can we possibly say we have love — that we even know what love is — when we have the means to help a brother or sister in need and close up our heart against our fellow Christian?
The point here cuts right to our hearts if we have any ability at self-examination, but it also points to something of crucial importance about Christianity.
Our faith is not about merely believing the right things. It is about action. We cannot claim to love Jesus and sit on our hands. It simply is not possible.
Jesus said he was giving us a new commandment: Love each other. Let all of us who call him Lord strive to obey and pray for faith to do so.