RIGHTEOUSNESS AS THE WAY FORWARD (A Word from Wesley)

img_0502-1 The bishops’ commission has been named and people are talking.  I’ve read a few comments about the liberals and/or the conservatives on the list, as well as many prayers. My prayer is that this commission, and all of us, will be able to rise above the contention, and truly witness to Christ’s love for all. As you may know, I’ve been engaged in this project of reading Wesley to re-hear what he has to say about matters before us.  There is so much!  I would say that his use of the word “righteousness” is among the most relevant words for us today.

In his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” Wesley starts by grieving the dreadful contests that arise among the body of Christ. He is disheartened by the way we can turn our “weapons against each other.”  For Wesley, the primary cause is attachment to opinions and modes of faith-expression which leads us to lose sight of our common faith and our common cause.

So, the question becomes, how do we rise above the evil fray? – and yes, Wesley does call it evil.  A glimpse of true righteousness helps.  In a long and involved exposition, Wesley says that true righteousness is found in the One who is the image of God for us.  In Christ, we see a reflection of who we are called to be.  At the heart of true righteousness is “love,” a word more fully illuminated by the virtues of reverence, humility, patience, and gentleness.   This understanding of righteousness stands in sharp contrast to the more common definition of justifying our positions as right over and against others.  True righteousness is rooted in peace rather than war.

In several other places, Wesley cautions us against those who are overly enthusiastic for their positions and are “righteous over much.”  Anytime we put our trust in ourselves and magnify our own ways as “right” for everyone, then we block the light of Christ’s righteousness rather than reflect it.  May this not happen to those commissioned to lead us forward.

In this sermon on true righteousness, Wesley stews over the broad diversity within the church of his day, focusing on differing denominational confessions and practices.  In the midst of much contention, he truly sees this diversity as an opportunity to give witness to Christ and to grow, if not in agreement, certainly in love. With great optimism, Wesley believes that it is possible for us to “take off the filthy rags” of our own righteousness and put on Christ, where we partake of the “same precious faith” even as we celebrate our diverse expressions of this faith.  I wonder, are we up for this kind of courageous witness?

Wesley also quotes “Mr. Hervey,” with words “worthy to be written in letters of gold:” “We are not solicitous as to any particular set of phrases. Only let [us all] be humbled as repenting criminals at Christ’s feet, let [us] rely as devoted pensioners on his merits…” Meeting on the common ground of Christ’s merits, and with the call to love by the virtues of true righteousness, there is no room for “contention about this or that particular phrase,” according to Wesley, or condemning others as “Antinomians” or law/covenant breakers.  There is no place for divisive or destructive “wrangling” over opinions and expressions of faith – not as we stand together as “repenting criminals at Christ’s feet.”  To count ourselves among such “contending parties,” says Wesley, is to be “an enemy of peace, and a troubler of Israel, and a disturber of the Church of God.”

In our current contention, there is much labeling of self and others, often in flowery and soft spoken attacks. There is so much “us-them” language, and talk of “winning” and “defeating.”  Is it possible for us to rise above the fray? The answer is, “Yes!”  We can “join hearts and hands in service to our great Master,” even as we “think and let think” on matters of opinion and practice. We can stand together as “repenting criminals” on the common ground of Christ’s righteousness, rather than our own, and we can truly grow in Christ’s love. I can’t help but believe that this is our time to embrace this identity and give such a witness to the world.

Bigotry in the Church (A Very Relevant Word from Wesley)

pic-bigotIt’s a strong word – Bigot – often associated with extreme prejudice. John Wesley actually used this word in direct connection to the church.  He defined bigotry as extreme “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” This is similar to the way he talked about orthodoxy.  Underlying bigotry is a form of self-righteousness, possibly combined with fear, where we focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently overlooking the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us.  This leads us to divide the world into “us and them” and causes great harm to our witness.

In the midst of the blessed diversity of perspectives among us, Wesley warns against party zeal and how it can override our call to love.  Wesley challenges us to be attentive to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us, even when what seems “efficacious to [another] is horrid to [us].”   If another seems to be bearing good fruit, then who are we to judge?  As Jesus says, “Bless them and do not try to hinder their work.” “Forbid them not” – even if they are only a “lay person,” says Wesley. That certainly says something about an issue of his day.

Wesley gives a personal example regarding preachers.  He points to the book of Acts where people preached before they were ordained.  They demonstrate fruit before given the office.  Building on this, Wesley wonders about a Bishop refusing to ordain them, even if they are bearing good fruit.  Even if the Bishop stands in their way, “I will not,” says Wesley, “I dare not lest I be found even to fight against God.”  That is a strong word of warning.  Echoing Jesus, if we discourage others from using their gifts, even indirectly, then we are bigots by this definition, and possibly in grave risk of working on the side of the devil.

Wesley gives another personal example.  He asks himself, “what if I were to see,” to use his 18th century terms, “a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils.  If I did, I could not forbid even them, without convicting myself of bigotry.”  In radical and relevant fashion, Wesley goes on to say the same about a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (a Muslim).

So what can we do?  According to Wesley, we can give praise and encouragement to whomever God is pleased to employ.  We can work to enlarge their sphere of action. We can focus on manifesting the virtues of Christ – patience, kindness, compassion – rather than judgment and division. That is our witness to Christ, as we stop trying to defend God and start following instead.  Is this not a most relevant word for us today? (See Wesley’s sermon: “A Caution Against Bigotry”)

In a time when theological/political parties are forming within the church, we need to be alert to this danger.  In a time when people are rallying around code words that are too easily perceived as divisive and self-glorifying – progressive, prophetic, evangelical, orthodox, traditional, covenant-keeping, Jesus loving, faithful (some use more self-elevating adjectives than others) — we need those who are willing to rally around what truly maintains “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  We definitely need to be cautious of hard line ultimatums which come from those who love self-affirming qualifiers; those so attached to their own party and position that they are unwilling to reflect upon how they might fall short or break covenant, or cause harm by their self-proclaimed faithfulness and rightness.  It comes from all “sides” and does so much harm.

As we turn to Wesley for guidance, he cautions us against this temperament and calls us to meet in the middle with a very different understanding of grace and holiness.  May we heed Wesley’s cautionary word and turn our focus to our common calling to be something other than bigots. Yes, it is a strong word revealing a great weakness within us. May we all guard against building ourselves up by implying that others have less of whatever has hold of our heart.   Does the right thing have hold of our heart?

Patience As the Way Forward

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“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo through our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.

Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.

And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification!  It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.

Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ.  From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening.  Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.”  Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.”  With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification.  Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change.  In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity.  The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.

And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do.   We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this:  to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”

Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.”  (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation.  In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division.  In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.

Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.

The Wide Narrow Way (A Wesleyan Perspective)

phonto-1How’s this for a timely thought from John Wesley? Wesley calls us to purify our hearts from “all party-zeal,” from “prejudice, bigotry, narrowness of spirit; from impetuosity, and impatience of contradiction…” (Sermon: National Sins and Miseries).  I want to explore a few of these conditions.

Party zeal! Wesley speaks often of the problems caused by zealousness for the “part” rather than the whole within the body of Christ.  In contrast, he calls is to be peacemakers, willing to step “over all these narrow bounds” with a love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way. Sometimes, “party-zeal” leads us into the trap of too hastily judging others, based on our “opinions,” while seeing little need to be patience with ourselves because we are already models of true faithfulness – at least in our own eyes.

Impatience with contradiction!  As finite beings, our relationships are rarely neat and uniform, free of differences or paradox. Within the church there is so much diversity among those seeking to be faithful in the midst of such varied circumstances.  This diversity is the context in which we learn how to love, and thus be the church. Impatience with contradictions betrays the call to this holy and humble love.

Narrowness of spirit!  Our orthodox faith, built upon the doctrine of the trinity, is meant to expand our understanding of God and actually keep us from narrow agendas.  In reality, however, the opposite can happen.  A focus on “right belief” and “right opinion” can lead to a narrowing of our capacity to love. The way out of this temptation is to focus on “holy virtues” over “right opinions,” and on people more than positions. With this focus, we are able to glorify God rather than just call attention to ourselves.

The Narrow Way! The way into God’s kingdom is by the narrow gate.  As Wesley makes clear, the wide and easy way is the way of division, contention, power, and judgment. That’s the way of the world.  The true narrow way is the way of “poverty of spirit” — recognizing that we all lack the means to achieve what we really want.  Into our poverty, Christ comes with the indescribable riches of God’s grace, with light to overcome all forms of darkness. In this same vein, the narrow way is the way of “holy mourning, of meekness, of mercy.” These are the virtues by which we connect to others and, together, show the way of God.  The narrow way is the way of “ordering conversations aright,” and thus working for unity of spirit always in the bond of peace. Along this way, we discover the wideness of God’s mercy and grace.

At one point, Wesley says that he would rather listen to a “generous heathen” than a “poor narrow-souled Christian.” As a hindrance to the health of the Body, Wesley also speaks of the “enthusiasm of weak and narrow souls,” who are “always righteous over much.” (See Sermon: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption).   We might conclude that narrow souls follow the wide way of the world — allowing party zeal, impatience, judgment, bigotry and bitterness to “disease” the whole body.  Souls that are wide in love follow the narrow way, the “road less travelled.”  And make no mistake, this narrow way is hard, for it requires us to give up our righteousness and to risk the wrath of those bound by fear.  Following this way can only be done by a deep trust in God.

Through this narrow gate, Wesley pushes us even farther.  We may strive to enter by the narrow way and still build a barrier to the holy love that God desires for us. The deepest places in our hearts may still be wide open to the ways of the world.  This is one reason why, for Wesleyans, the “road less traveled” always calls for deep and constant self-examination more than a focus on others. There is always spiritual work to be done within ourselves as we enter into the fields of God’s abundant love.  (See Sermon: Upon the Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 11).  That’s the Wesleyan way!

(Up Next: Patience as a Way Forward)