The sermon Wesley did not preach

If I understand the story properly, John Wesley never preached his sermon “True Christianity Defended.”

The manuscript of the sermon was found crumpled up among his papers after he died. I believe Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater has argued that this was the sermon he planned to give at Oxford on the day he preached “The Almost Christian.” Some friends of his, however, talked him out of preaching “True Christianity Defended,” as it called out many of his fellow ministers — some by name — for corrupting the gospel and undermining the church by their preaching. Relenting to their counsel, he wrote and preached the better known sermon, which Methodists and United Methodists have regarded as a standard of doctrine for close to 300 years.

Even though it was not preached, “True Christianity Defended” does speak a challenging word to us still today. For instance, think of our common recitation of Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules — Do No Harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God — as you read what Wesley wrote about the nature of true holiness:

[M]any write and preach as if Christian holiness, or religion, were a purely negative thing; as if, not to curse or swear, not to speak or do evil, was religion enough to entitle a man to heaven! How many, if they go further than this, describe it as only an outward thing; as if it consisted chiefly, if not wholly, in doing good, (as it is called,) and using the means of grace! Or, should they go a little farther still, yet what do they add to this poor account of religion? Why, perhaps, that a man should be orthodox in his opinions, and have a zeal for the Constitution of the Church and state. And this is all: this is all the religion they can allow without degenerating into enthusiasm! So true it is, that the faith of a devil, and the life of a Heathen, make up what most men call a good Christian!

Do you hear him calling us out for making it sound as if the sum of Christianity is to do no harm, do good, and use the means of grace offered in worship, Scripture, and prayer?

Wesley was troubled — you might say outraged — by a dead formalism that he saw widely practiced as if it were true Christianity. What he argued for — throughout his life — was a religion that changed us from inside out. “Holiness of heart and life” was the phrase he used to describe the marks of true Christianity. This holiness did not consist of outward acts or restraint from evil, but in an actual transformation of our nature and heart. To be holy is to be a new creature, with a heart that is cleansed from all evil and a life that is animated by love of God and neighbor. Christianity, Wesley preached and taught, is an inward change of our very being.

Now, this inner change does lead to outward change. It is true that a person who is going on to perfection will refrain from all harm, will do good, and will be eager to worship God, pray, and read the Bible. But we err greatly, Wesley argued, if we mistake these outward things for the real thing.

In his sermon, he put it this way:

[T]he absence of the form [of Christianity] signifies much. It infallibly proves the absence of the power. For though the form may be without the power, yet the power cannot be without the form. Outward religion may be where inward is not; but if there is none without, there can be none within.

In other words, you can look like a Christian on the outside but not be one on the inside, but you cannot live like a heathen on the outside and truly be a Christian on the inside.

Although Wesley crumpled that sermon up, the spirit of it lived on throughout his ministry and challenges us still today. Do we preach a gospel of inward and outward holiness or a gospel of mere outward appearances?

Is someone building an ark?

They say every preacher has one sermon. Dan Dick has one blog post, but it is a good and needful one. Here’s the latest iteration.

In this he laments the low expectations culture of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing.  People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations.  I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient.  Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith?  Obviously, a lot of people think so.  But be a disciple?  Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up.  People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples.  Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples.  Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples.  Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples.  Come on!  Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing?

On his blog, I asked — and will repeat here — whether we are institutionally capable of surviving the fall out that would happen if United Methodists got serious about discipleship. Here is what I predict would happen: First, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict and shedding of “members.” Then, the remnant would go forth and be much more like the church as the New Testament describes it. But make not mistake, it would be a much smaller church. It would probably be more active and vital, but it would be smaller.

There would be fewer buildings, fewer full-time jobs for clergy, and even less cultural relevance than we have now — at least for a time.

If we want a church of disciples — I think it says this somewhere in our mission statement — then shouldn’t we being doing the kind of institutional prep work that getting that kind of church is going to require? The image that comes into my head is Noah. If we know a flood is coming, shouldn’t we be building an ark?

Maybe someone is. I can’t hear the hammering from where I stand, though.

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.