A thirst for something more

Reuben Job’s little book Three Simple Rules has been getting a lot of attention in Indiana. Our bishop has encouraged all Hoosier pastors to teach this book along with Bishop Robert Schanse’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Job’s book is undeniably Wesleyan – based as it is on the General Rules of the Methodist societies, but I keep finding instances in John Wesley’s sermons that suggest we need to be careful in how we teach the book.

Job reminds us in his book to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. The last rule is a restatement of Wesley’s less accessible admonition to keep the ordinances of God.

But in Wesley’s second sermon about the Sermon on the Mount, I find he calls this exact kind of program the religion of the world.

The religion of the world implies three things: (1.) The doing no harm, the abstaining from outward sin; at least from such as is scandalous, as robbery, theft, common swearing, drunkenness: (2.) The doing good, the relieving the poor; the being charitable, as it is called: (3.) The using the means of grace; at least the going to church and to the Lord’s Supper. He in whom these three marks are found is termed by the world a religious man.

Can it be that we are merely striving to teach United Methodists the world’s religion? Of course, it may be a step forward if we could instill even this worldly religion in the lives of more who call themselves by the name of Christian. But Wesley – clearly – saw this kind of faith as a pale shadow of true Christianity.

But will this satisfy him who hungers after God? No: It is not food for his soul. He wants a religion of a nobler kind, a religion higher and deeper than this. He can no more feed on this poor, shallow, formal thing, than he can “fill his belly with the east wind.” True, he is careful to abstain from the very appearance of evil; he is zealous of good works; he attends all the ordinances of God: But all this is not what he longs for. This is only the outside of that religion, which he insatiably hungers after. The knowledge of God in Christ Jesus; “the life which is hid with Christ in God;” the being “joined unto the Lord in one Spirit;” the having “fellowship with the Father and the Son;” the “walking in the light as God is in the light;” the being “purified even as He is pure;” — this is the religion, the righteousness, he thirsts after: Nor can he rest, till he thus rests in God.

How do we speak to those who thirst in this way? How do we help people to know that they thirst in the first place?

John Wesley preached while being pelted with rocks. Often when he preached at a church he gave his first and last sermon at that pulpit on the same day. His journal is full of notes about him being told never to come back and preach at this or that church again.

He braved rocks and criticism because he believed his own soul would be called to account for those he was too timid to try to shake from their spiritual slumbers. He was convinced that many Christians were not even aware enough to realize that they harbored a deep thirst. If he had spent all his time preaching to “felt needs” of his congregations, he would have missed the deeper and abiding unfelt need that is so important to the evangelical message.

I write these words from a personal sense of failure. I lack the skill but also the courage to preach in a way that shakes people from a comfortable, worldly religion. I risk hypocrisy by even striving to preach in this way. So, I fall too easily into an unspoken conspiracy. I won’t preach in ways that rattle you too much. You smile and shake hands with me on the way out the door. It is not their fault. It is mine.

Part of me is happy to be told I should not worry so much about John Wesley’s ideas and message. It lets me off the hook in an area I am quite hung up. Part of me still hopes to become a better preacher – and a better Christian – than I am right now.

As Peter Bohler told the young Wesley: Preach faith until you have it.

Make us hungry, Lord. Make us thirst.

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