The big C Church

I’ve been reading City of God by Augustine recently. A couple of passages about the nature of the church have grabbed my attention and won’t let me rest.

Normally, I would write a post about these kinds of passages and try to make some point or argue for some conclusion arising from them. But for the last couple of days I’ve been trying to land on a conclusion without success. So, I’m going to share these quotations and some questions they are stirring up for me.

Here are the passages:

[W]hile the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, she has in her midst some who are united with her in participation in the sacraments, but who will not join with her in the eternal destiny of the saints. Some of these are hidden; some are well known, for they do not hesitate to murmur against God, whose sacramental sign they bear, even in the company of his acknowledged enemies. (Book I, Chapter 35)

And later:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distresses of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome. In this situation, many reprobates are mingled in the Church with the good and both sorts are collected as it were in the dragnet of the gospel, and in this world, as in a sea, both kinds swim without separation, enclosed in nets until the shore is reached. There the evil are to be divided from the good … (Book XVIII, Chapter 49)

I love that phrase “in the dragnet of the gospel.”

Here are some questions and thoughts that arise for me from reading these words.

I experience a tension here between Augustine’s realism about the church as it is and John Wesley’s passion for a movement that strives for a robust sense of lived holiness. Perhaps this is at its heart the difference between a church and a movement. If so, I wonder how United Methodism — or whatever forms come next — learns to live with that tension.

I wonder what Augustine sees as the role of the clergy in shepherding those in the church who are known to “murmur against God”? What, I wonder, did the bishop do in the face of members of the church who did not keep their baptismal vows? Wesley did not hesitate to eject “disorderly walkers” from Methodist class meetings. What would Augustine say about that?

Finally, I’m struck by the Augustine’s language about the church here. Just as his book speaks of the church as the city of God, he writes in these passages in a sense of the church as a collective. The church is being prepared for its final exaltation and glory. The language is a contrast to the way I often think and often hear others speak about the church. We often see the church as a collection of individuals, and we usually talk about salvation in terms of this or that individual. Augustine has a different point of focus. Clearly, he is attentive to the fact that the church has individual people in it, but his vision of the church and salvation seems to come — for lack of a better phrase — from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Again, I feel a tension between our emphasis on local, contextual, and congregationalist impulses and the idea that the Church (capital C this time on purpose) is a body that as a whole is on a pilgrimage toward glory. I don’t know exactly how to describe this tension much less discuss ways to navigate it, but I wonder if we United Methodists have let our distrust of our broken polity erode our ability to perceive or speak about the Church in the way an Augustine would.

As I warned you at the start of this post, I don’t have any conclusions to argue here. I am sharing these passages from Augustine and some of the thoughts in my head because I need to get give those thoughts another place to live for a while until I can give them more attention. I don’t have the leisure right now to wrestle with them like Jacob.

I’d be interested in any thoughts or questions these words stir up for you.

Now is the time to ask for faith

In the closing exhortation at the end of his sermon “The Righteousness of Faith,” John Wesley addresses many of the artificial barriers we put in the way of saving faith.

The first parts of the sermon deal with the difference between righteousness based on our own good works and righteousness based on faith in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s point is that we cannot attain righteousness by anything we do because we are sinners through and through. The only means we have to rest in the favor of God and restore within ourselves the image of God is by believing in Jesus Christ.

That part of the sermon and that argument is well worth attention, but I wanted to focus more on how Wesley addresses what he proposes to be the objections that people raise when invited to believe in Christ.

It is important to note here that Wesley is addressing those who actually desire to be forgiven and reconciled. In other words, he was speaking and writing to people who were aware that their lack of peace and happiness was because they were out of line with God. He is not here offering arguments to those who have no regard for God at all or who do not believe themselves to be out of step with God.

To those who do desire peace with God but do not feel it, Wesley outlines some objections – no doubt ones he encountered in his own life and pastoral work.

The first objection is the sense that we must do certain things prior to believing in Christ. Wesley imagines someone saying, ” I must first conquer every sin; break off every evil word and work, and do all good to all men; or I must first go to church, receive the Lord’s Supper, hear more sermons, and say more prayers.”

No, Wesley says, you have it all backwards. Belief in Jesus is the foundation that allows us – with God’s help – to do the very things we imagine we need to do before we can believe.

The second objection Wesley shares comes from the heart that says “I cannot be accepted by Christ because I am not good enough.” To which Wesley responds: Of course we are not good enough. We never will be. Indeed, the harder we try to establish our own goodness the more of a mess we make. Delay no longer, Wesley urges. God will make you clean.

The third objection I was not quite expecting when I first read this sermon, but it is one I have seen expressed in various ways. The objection is “I am not contrite enough. I am not sensible enough of my sins.”

The version I hear of this in my own ministry is slightly different. I have encountered many Christians who have the sense that they need to draw closer to God but also feel like they are not in the right place to get on their knees or cry out for Jesus. They will acknowledge as true the statement that they are sinners, but they just don’t feel it. They are not at ease in their relationship with God but are reluctant to name and shed tears over their own sins. I interpret such spiritual conflicts as at least standing near the ground that Wesley was pointing out in his third objection.

Here is part of his answer to that concern. “I would to God that thou wert more sensible of them, more contrite a thousand fold than thou art. But do not stay for this. It may be God will make thee so, not before thou believest, but by believing. It may be, thou wilt not weep much till thou lovest much because thou hast had much forgiven. In the mean time, look unto Jesus. Behold how he loveth thee!”

I hear Wesley calling us here not to get hung up on having the right amount of grief or sorrow for our sins before we seek out the Lord. We don’t need to match our story or our faith journey up with someone else or some set of steps we’ve been taught. Are you aware that you need God and that you are not in line with him? Yes? Great. You are ready to believe.

The great catch — and one illustrated perfectly by Wesley’s own life — is that wanting to believe in Jesus and being able to believe in Jesus are not the same thing. Faith itself is a gift that God gives us. When Wesley says we are ready to believe, what he is really saying is that we are ready to cry out and ask God to help us believe. We are ready to “seek God while he is near” and not cease asking until we have been given what we seek.

For Wesley, that belief did not arrive until one night at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. For us, the same belief lies waiting for us to seek to have it.

Wesley’s sermon concludes in this way: “Unto thee saith the Lord, not, ‘Do this,’ — perfectly obey all my commands, — ‘and live;’ but, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.'”

Now, Wesley says, is the time. There is no reason to wait. Believe the good news and God will remember yours sins no more.

Now is the time.

Stumbling into salvation

I came to faith in Christ through the United Methodist Church. But my journey was a little strange.

I was not converted at a revival or altar call service. I was not raised in the church where I absorbed Christianity by osmosis. As curious as it is, you could say I came to faith in large part because the UMC was the custodian of a theology that I only stumbled upon by accident.

My first steps toward faith were guided by teachers who saw themselves not as the custodians of the faith handed to them but as those who would rescue the faith from its own ignorance.

I backed my way into Christianity through theologians who worked so hard to make Christianity “credible” to non-believers that they left very little for actual Christians to believe. Writers such as John Shelby Spong were non-threatening to my non-belief and so gave me an entry point to a faith I had been long suspicious of but had been consistently called toward.

I eventually found people such as Spong so lukewarm and diluted as to be a hinderance to my move toward an orthodox faith. I found after my time with them that they were offering me things I could have gotten just as easily from people who did not bog down their ideas with trying to somehow loosely tie it all to Jesus.

It was during this time that I first started reading the sermons of John Wesley. I could have found what he preached in many different places. Scores of contemporary evangelical pastors and teachers preach the same message Wesley did. But, for better or worse, it was Wesley who first told me that Christianity was about more than the weak and watered down brew I’d been sampling up to that point.

An example of the concepts Wesley introduced to me can be found in his first standard sermon, “Salvation by Faith.”

This then is the savlation which is through faith, even in the present world: A salvation from sin, and the consequences of sin, both expressed in the word justification; which, taken in the largest sense, implies a deliverance from guilt and punishment, by the atonement of Christ actually applied to the soul of the sinner believing on him, and a deliverance from the power of sin, through Christ formed in his heart.

Nearly every word of that passage was alien to me when I first encountered them. The theology of Spong and the Jesus Seminar had no room for preaching about sin and the necessity of atonement. It spoke little of Christ being formed in the heart and none at all about our need for deliverance from the consequences of our sin.

This was all amazing and shocking to me at first, but it stuck. There was something in all this that rung deeply true and powerful. And it finally brought me to my knees.

The oddest part of this entire story for me is that it was through our Book of Discipline that I learned about John Wesley. I’d not heard much about him in the preaching at the United Methodist Church I was attending at the time. That is not really surprising, of course. We should be preaching Jesus not John Wesley. But neither was I hearing much about the great themes that animated his preaching and the movement he led.

I only stumbled upon Wesley when I was looking through the Book of Discpline, a book that is rarely put in the hands of lay people or taken down from the shelves of the church library. Those pages and that book were only there for me to find because the church insisted on holding on to some things, even if it did not speak of them much. I read in those pages of our foundational doctrines and something called the standard sermons of John Wesley. And so began my search.

It was all God’s grace, of course, that brought me where I am, but God was strangely at work through the UMC and its persistence in holding on to the theology of Wesley. Of course, the UMC held to that theology the way some of us hold on to ancient family heirlooms. They might be stuffed away in the attic or basement where few ever venture to see them, but they are there waiting when someone makes that dusty climb.

As our denomination heads toward a split, I find myself wondering whether Wesley’s voice will still be heard well in the UMC that remains after the divide.  I was concerned not long ago when I discovered that the UMC official web site no longer posts Wesley’s sermons. Hundreds of links in this blog on posts I’ve written over the years now go to a dead end. For the link above in this post, I’ve had to rely on our denominational cousins the Nazarenes.

Maybe that is a small thing. I’m sure not a lot of people scour the internet for electronic copies of John Wesley’s sermons, but it feels significant to me. Somewhere along the way the UMC decided to abandon the notion that the words and theology of John Wesley were important enough to preserve. It feels to me like a decision to give up our role as the custodians of the movement stirred to life by the Holy Spirit at Oxford and Aldersgate.

I’m sure the people who made that decision would not describe it that way. I can’t help but feel a loss, however, when I view the results of searching the UMC website for “salvation by faith john wesley.”

I pray that pilgrims such as I might still find ways to stumble upon the things that changed my life. I hope we still insist on holding on to the original words and theology of Wesley.