Where our story begins

Christianity starts with the assertion that there is something deeply wrong with the world. It starts with the observation that the world is not as it should be and the conviction that what is wrong is not some minor flaw that can be easily removed by just a bit more human effort. Christianity tells the story of the world as the Bible does: It is a good creation that is fallen.

If you do not accept that story, then there is little in Christianity that makes sense. If you think the world is basically good and getting better all the time, then it does not need a savior and we do not need Jesus. If you think that the only problem in the world is that we have not yet tried hard enough or discovered the right tools, then you will not believe that the solution to every problem has already been given to us.

Christians tell the story this way. God created all that is and gave us dominion within his good creation. And God gave us the free choice to live in harmony with and obedience to his just, perfect, and loving commands. We rejected these gifts. We broke the world. We ushered in death and all the evils that follow in its train. And as the world shattered, we were shattered down to the very deepest depths of our heart and soul.

Salvation is nothing less than a restoration — a recreation — in the life of a person and the entire world of the joy, peace, harmony, and love that God first instilled in us. It is a gift and work of God, but one we must both accept and nurture within ourselves, for the old impulses die hard.

A preacher named John Wesley believed this and taught it to anyone who would receive it. As United Methodists — but I would argue as Christians — this is what we teach as well.

With apologies to Wayne and Garth

I have been thinking about how to best pray for the United Methodist Church in this time of trouble an internal dissension.

In the days of the early Methodist movement, John Wesley often had to respond to those who wanted the Methodists to break off from the Church of England. Our movement began within the Church of England and Wesley intended to stay. The American revolution and Wesley’s death defeated his intentions, but during his life he never wavered from his argument that Methodists should remain in the Church of England and attend its worship and receive its sacraments even when the local parish priests were hostile to Methodists and Methodist doctrine.

In the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, Wesley replied to those who thought Methodists should become Dissenters from the Church of England, and thus separate from it. Some even said Methodists already were Dissenters in practice if not in name. Wesley would have none of such talk.

Although we call sinners to repentance in all places of God’s dominion: and although we frequently use extemporary prayer, and unite together in a religious society; yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense that our law acknowledges, namely, those who renounce the service of the Church. We do not, we dare not, separate from it. We are not Seceders, nor do we bear and resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles.

Here is how Wesley contrasted those who sought to break unity with the Church of England from Methodists, who sought to renew it.

The Seceders laid the very foundation of their work in judging and condemning others: We laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They begin everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and Ministers are: We begin everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves…. We will keep the good old way.

Our moment is much different from Wesley’s. This is not the 18th century. Our church is not the Church of England. The particulars of the two situations bear little resemblance, but I do wonder if some of the “good old way” is in order as we let bishops deliberate and commissions study and the General Conference act.

Even as I write this, I sense my own internal push back.

But “they” have done this terrible thing. But they will not stop until they get their way. But someone has to stop the evil being done by those people. If we do not stand firm, they will win.

I don’t deny any of those reactions as valid.

I just wonder, this morning, whether we have more room or more need for the “good old way” of judging and condemning ourselves. I am reminded of the communion liturgy I first encountered in hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the following prayer of humble access:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I wonder how much time we spend in the midst of our church’s struggle reminding ourselves that we are not worthy, that God alone is worthy.

What about greed?

I was reading a biography of Catherine de’ Medici today. The book opens with an extended argument that it was in the late 15th century and early 16th century that capitalism and a social order based on competition finally swamped the medieval church’s prohibitions on greed. The author argues that the church was simply and finally pushed along by the currents of social change into accepting a set of values that it had resisted for hundreds of years before that.

I was thinking of that as I was reading this evening from Ephesians 5.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, NIV)

In the midst of our current church debates, our eye might first be drawn to the apostle’s concern of sexual immorality, but I want to draw your attention for a few moments to the sin that draws equal condemnation here: greed.

If I asked a hundred clergy, I think I would have a hard time getting much consensus about what the biblical definition of greed might be. I wonder how many of us have preached on this topic or discussed with our members the dangers of this sin. I wonder how many of us could even articulate clearly what we think the sin might be.

In our Methodist tradition, of course, we have some resources to draw upon. John Wesley wrote and preached on “The Dangers of Riches” and “The Use of Money.” In the eighth his 13-part series of sermons on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he devotes extended attention to the sin of laying up treasures on Earth. Because this is my blog and I enjoy this particular bit of Wesley’s writing, I am going to share an extended quotation from that sermon:

With regard to most of the commandments of God, whether relating to the heart or life, the Heathens of Africa or America stand much on a level with those that are called Christians. The Christians observe them (a few only being excepted) very near as much as the Heathens. For instance: the generality of the natives of England, commonly called Christians, are as sober and as temperate as the generality of the heathens near the Cape of Good Hope. And so the Dutch or French Christians are as humble and as chaste as the Choctaw or Cherokee Indians. It is not easy to say, when we compare the bulk of the nations in Europe with those in America, whether the superiority lies on the one side or the other. At least the American has not much the advantage. But we cannot affirm this with regard to the command now before us. Here the heathen has far the pre-eminence. He desires and seeks nothing more than plain food to eat and plain raiment to put on. And he seeks this only from day to day. He reserves, he lays up nothing; unless it be as much corn at one season of the year as he will need before that season returns. This command, therefore, the heathens, though they know it not, do constantly and punctually observe. They “lay up for themselves no treasures upon earth;” no stores of purple or fine linen, of gold or silver, which either “moth or rust may corrupt”, or “thieves break through and steal.” But how do the Christians observe what they profess to receive as a command of the most high God? Not at all! Not in any degree; no more than if no such command had ever been given to man. Even the good Christians, as they are accounted by others as well as themselves, pay no manner of regard thereto. It might as well be still hid in its original Greek for any notice they take of it. In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.

Our bishops have taken up the charge to sort out how we can live in a church where there is widespread disagreement about exactly what is and what is not sexually immoral. We have no need of such a commission on the topic of greed. We seem to not be vexed by that sin at all. I fear, though, that it is because we have ceased to view it as a sin and not because it is no longer a problem among the people called Methodist.