Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.

No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

How we get salvation wrong

I was listening to a radio preacher yesterday talking about the nature of salvation and its dependence on believing the right things.

I know the words he read in Romans to support this contention. But I don’t see it. I think we get the means of salvation confused with salvation itself. I think John Wesley was on the right track when he argued that salvation is holiness, salvation is the restoration of the image of God, salvation is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, salvation is freedom from sin, slavery, and death.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not itself salvation. Faith in Jesus Christ is a means to salvation — Wesley would say it is the beginning of salvation. When we trust, believe in, and confess Christ, we enter into salvation, which transforms us.

“I am saved” is a true statement. “Salvation freed me from addiction” strikes me as a better and deeper truth. Here are some more experiments with that kind of language:

  • Salvation empowered me to love.
  • Salvation inspired me to forgive rather than seek revenge.
  • Salvation gave me strength to hold up despite my troubles.
  • Salvation shielded me from despair when I lost my job.

Jesus accomplished our salvation on Calvary. We enter into that salvation by faith and grow more and more into it. And that salvation itself acts on us and changes us.

Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.