He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. (Luke 1:71b-75, CEB)
When I read this passage this morning as part of Bishop Ken Carter’s invitation to spend a year reading Luke-Acts, I found myself reading it as I imagined John Wesley would read it. He would, I thought, read these gifts of God as personal and spiritual rather than political. The enemies that we are given power over would not be Amorites or Romans, but sin and Satan.
My hunch was confirmed when I read how Wesley would have us read the clause “we could serve him without fear”:
Here is the substance of the great promise. That we shall be always holy, always happy: that being delivered from Satan and sin, from every uneasy and unholy temper, we shall joyfully love and serve God, in every thought, word, and work.
I can imagine two objections to this reading of Zechariah’s prophecy.
First, I can hear the Texas twang of Stanley Hauerwas decrying the individualism and pietism of this reading. Hauerwas is far from the only person to decry such readings, but his is the voice I hear best in these moments because I’ve read a handful of his books and listened to him preach and lecture on YouTube. The substance of the critique, as I understand it, is that readings such as Wesley’s make the gospel personal and individual, which obscures the plainly social and political intentions of the Bible. Pietism such as Wesley’s is a surrender to Constantine, who would have the state deal with the social, political, and economic aspects of life, and/or liberalism, which would relegate all discussion of “values” to a private realm of no consequence or concern to the public life of the social order.
Second, I imagine Eugene Peterson — among others again — decrying the perfectionism implied in this reading. The suggestion that we can be always holy and always happy, Peterson would counsel us in his grandfatherly way, is a path to delusion, failure, and spiritual elitism. Peterson’s book The Jesus Way has a particularly sharp critique of Christian perfection in his chapter about David.
These two criticisms go to the heart of what John Wesley preached and defended during his entire ministry.
He believed the spread of scriptural holiness was the saving of individual souls and the sanctification of individual sinners. The fruit of this work had social impacts, as Wesley was often quick to point out, but he believed you changed a town or a kingdom by changing the hearts of sinners one-by-one. The church was not a politics set against the world’s politics — as Hauerwas might phrase it — but a transforming power within the world.
Wesley also defended himself from charges that he made Christianity impossible for ordinary people to attain. He was called an enthusiast for teaching that rank-and-file Christians should expect to have the mind that was in Christ and to be perfect as God is perfect. For most of his ministry, he argued that every Christian should receive the commands of Scripture as covered promises. What Jesus Christ commands us to do, he gives us the grace to do, if we will receive that grace.
In the later years of his ministry, Wesley did write at times of a higher and lower order of Christianity, and yet he never stopped preaching perfection, and even his lower-order of Christianity in a sermon such as “The More Excellent Way” far exceeds the everyday faith of most Christians. And so, the charge still sticks. Wesley describes as basic Christianity what is beyond the desire of most Christians.
He argues that we should seek to be always happy and always holy. We demure that desiring such things is arrogance or elitism or beyond the power of God to accomplish.
The heart of the matter
The issue for me lurking in these few lines of scripture is an old one. It gets to the very heart of our life together. As I have crudely sketched above, even a few fairly simple lines can lead us to a wide ranging theological conversation. And the verses themselves do not settle the dispute for us. To read scripture with John Wesley is quite a different event than reading it with Eugene Peterson or Stanley Hauerwas or whoever you’d like to add to the list.
Who we are as a people depends a great deal on with whom we can sit down and read scripture without getting into a shouting match or a fist-fight.
As a United Methodist pastor, I am instructed and charged to read in ways that honor the readings that Wesley brought to the text. At the very least, I am required to allow his readings to be counted as important to who I am as a Christian and how I read scripture. If I cannot do that — if I would rule out Wesley’s readings as vapid individualism or dangerous spiritual elitism — then I wonder what would possess me to preach in a church named after his movement or sing from a hymnal that starts with “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”