By David K. Gardner
If Delivered on Horseback by a Circuit Rider, This is Another Sermon on the Mount
Understanding who we are and "Whose" we are involves a trip down the river of history. As Christians, we know our final destination. As humans, we know where we come from. As individuals and as a church we are on our own personal and collective faith journeys. Where are we, and why is that important?
Where we are is important as to how we will choose to finish the rest of our journey. It is important because we are to share our faith with our children and with others. If we do not know where we are - we are like a fledgling bird in its nest which has fallen into the river. We can be
content to know we are dry and the current is moving us along. However, there is a waterfall ahead (each of us has at least one waterfall if not a series in our lives) - and we soon should learn to swim or fly!
John Wesley is credited with being the founder of the Methodist Church. That statement is not so simple as it sounds. First, John and Charles Wesley as well as others founded the society in Oxford which came to be known as Methodist. Second, the Wesley boys were greatly influenced by their parents, Samuel and Susanna Wesley, as well as others. Third, the Methodist “movement” was never intended to be more than a revitalization of the Church of England, under the complete auspices of that organization and not a separate one. Fourth, the movement took many forms and influences from many people over many years in many places. John might be credited with some of the organization and energy and direction, but certainly not as the sole driver. Last, let us never forget that the term “Methodist” which is held in such high esteem today, was originally utilized as a derisive moniker.
Now that our legal department has signed off on all the above disclaimers, let us look at several foundational beliefs of John Wesley as expressed in his work, “The Character of a Methodist.” Wesley states, “We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule
both of Christian faith and practice and Christ to be the eternal, supreme God” (Jackson 1872). There are two items here to be clarified. First, as Stephen Gunter states, “Scripture is authoritative primarily to relate to us all that we need to know for our salvation” (Gunter 1997, 17). The other belief to clarify is that Christ is the means of grace. The Son of God and the Son of Man is not only central to our salvation but also splits the river of history.
A Methodist is one who has "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him." (Romans 5:5 KJV) A Methodist is one who "loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5 KJV) God is the “joy of his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:20 KJV) and “the desire of his soul" (Ecclesiastes 6:2 KJV). There are three simple observations here. First, Methodists have no pride in their salvation because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, the passage in Deuteronomy 6:5 is not only the heart of the Jewish Shema but also is repeated by Christ who calls this the greatest commandment. The wisdom literature tells us that, even though it sounds simple that God is the joy, the effect is complete.
As we continue to explore “The Character of a Methodist” we see that Methodists believe “good is the will of the Lord" (Psalm 106:1 KJV) and whether the Lord giveth or taketh away, we should be equally "blessing the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21 KJV) For one has "learned, in whatsoever state he is, therewith to be content." (Philippians 4:11 KJV) John Wesley expresses the unshakable faith of Job. In a moment when his world has imploded, Job’s inner faith acknowledges the sovereignty of our creator. In other words, God is God, and we are not.
A Methodist "prays without ceasing." (I Thessalonians 5:17 KJV) Many people wonder how you can be on your knees and get anything done. Wesley wrote about this passage in A Plain
Account of Christian Perfection by stating, “Whether we think of; or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for Him, all is prayer… All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity…” (Jackson 1872). You do not have to hit your knees to be in an attitude of prayer.
A Methodist’s one desire is, "not to do his own will, but the will of Him that sent him." (John 4:34 KJV) The intention at all times and in all things is not to please yourself but Him whom your soul loves. For as you love God, so will you keep his commandments. You will not just keep some or most of them, but all of them, from the least to the greatest. For obedience is in proportion to love, the source from whence it flows. Reuben Job reminds us…
Staying in love with God was the primary issue of a faithful life then [when Jesus asked
Peter if he loved him in John 21:15], and it is today. For from such a life of love for God
will flow the goodness and love of God to the world. It can be no other way. One who is
deeply in love will be constantly formed and transformed by that relationship. And such a
transformed life will be a natural channel of God’s goodness, power, and presence in the
world (Job 2007, 57-58).
As he has time, a Methodist "does good unto all men" (Galatians 6:10 KJV), unto neighbors, strangers, friends, and enemies. Our friend, John Wesley, not only recollects how Jesus answered the pharisees but also ties to an epistle of Paul and illumines that Christians (Methodists) “carry the marks of Jesus.” (Galatians 6:17 KJV) Wesley firmly believed that a Christian was both personal and social. Time and again Wesley balanced piety with works. Richard Heitzenrater points out that nearly a year before the Oxford band received any derogatory names, they were busy, “teaching orphan children, caring for the poor and aged, [and] visiting the prisons” (Heitzenrater 1996, 40). Action is always a part of the Methodist agenda.
How many times have you heard in our church, “Well, I go to the Methodist Church, but I’m a Christian first.”? It is interesting to note that John Wesley, in his “The Character of a
Methodist,” also asked this question and answered it thusly, “If any man say, ‘Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!’ thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth” (Jackson 1872). Here lies the good news in which we are not surprised. Jesus Christ is our salvation. Christ is our salvation scripturally, traditionally, reasonably, and experientially.
Thus far we have covered two of three simple Wesleyan rules. The first rule is: stay in love with God. The second rule is: do all the good you can. The final rule is: do no harm. Wesley expressed this in his “The Character of a Methodist” by saying, “For he is ‘pure in heart.’ (Matthew 5:8 KJV) The love of God has purified his heart from all revengeful passions, from envy, malice, and wrath, from every unkind temper or malign affection” (Jackson 1872).
Do no harm sound like a ‘no-brainer.’ However, often our so-called need for justice outweighs any chance for granting forgiveness or extending the light which is the grace of God. In the recent past the national news media descended upon a familiar town in the Midwest due to a protest group. This is not the first media event for this group. In an Ottawa Citizen article, Dan Gardner writes, “Ottawans will remember the … group that stood outside Canada's Supreme Court building a few years ago to protest gay rights rulings by burning a Canadian flag. The protesters weren't sure how to set the flag on fire so they sought the advice of an Ottawa police officer who explained that it should be doused with something flammable lest the nylon melt and drip on someone. Nail polish did the trick” (Gardner 2004). After considering the protests, the Supreme Court in Canada upheld the current hate speech law. Gardner continues, "’The peculiar evil of silencing an expression of an opinion is that it robs the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation,’ wrote John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century political philosopher, in his enormously influential work On Liberty. ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the
opportunity to exchange error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit -- the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error’” (Gardner 2004). This philosophical understanding led to non-violent actions on the part of counter-protestors. At the funeral of Mathew Shepard the counter-protestors stood side-by-side with the so-called hate group in angel costumes. When the picket signs from the hate group went up, the wings of the angels were extended and thus no one could see the signs. That is a good example for us today.
If we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, it involves an intentional effort to do no harm. It involves the force of our love filling the vacuum of the holes made by the nails. We do not replace hate with hate. These thoughts fittingly tie with lyrics by Charles Wesley, “All thanks to the Lamb, Who gives us to meet! His love we proclaim, His praises repeat; We own Him our Jesus, continually near to pardon and bless us and perfect us here. In Him we have peace, in Him we have power, preserved by His grace throughout the dark hour, In all our temptation He keeps us to prove His utmost salvation, His fullness of love” (C. Wesley 1700’s). From an Anglican priest to the Reverend Al Green we entreat this funk-filled prayer, “Take me to the river, won’t you wash me down? Won’t you cleanse my soul? Put my feet on the ground. … Hold me, love me, squeeze me, til I can’t, I can’t take no more” (Green 1974).
Gardner, Dan. 2004. “What Good is Hate?” The Ottawa Citizen. December 12.
Green, Al. “Take Me to the River.” Rec. 1974. Al Green Explores Your Mind.” Hi Records.
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Job, Reuben. Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.
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Printed by T. Cordeux, 1820.