Wesley and the Sin of Sodom (Part Three in the Series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In this series, the next word from Wesley is “sodomy.”  Wesley uses this word in several places. While we often associate this word with sexual sin, and even homosexual practice, Wesley takes a much broader and more biblical view.  In Wesley’s commentary, he uses this word to describe abusive and harmful actions against others.  Wesley also uses the word “assault” to describe this sin.  At another point, Wesley expands the meaning by highlighting what is said about the sin of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49.  In Wesley’s notes, he says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor were the source of Sodom’s fall. That’s straight from the Bible!   In another place, Israel is compared to Sodom for their wickedness. This wickedness is defined as failure to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow (Note on Isaiah 1:9-17).  Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).   This broad and biblical view of the word gives us all cause to look in the mirror rather than project sin onto others.

In the list of sins found in I Corinthians 6, the original Greek word in question is “arsenkoitos.”  It is translated as “sodomy” by Wesley. (We also see this in the NRSV). There are no known previous usages of this word, so it is assumed by many that Paul coined the term.  The word is a combination of two words meaning “male” and “bed,” probably used with sexual overtones. Since there is no literary context for this word, it has been translated and interpreted in many ways. It has been used for men who use others as prostitutes or who use their strength (masculinity) to exploit others. It has also been defined as masturbation, pervert, abusers of boy or children, and with general words like “abominations.”  In the last century it has been translated with the word “homosexual,” thus associating this word with behaviors listed above. With this association, it is understandable why the word “homosexual” has become offensive to many, and is no longer used as a description of one’s identity.  By associating this term with abusive and exploitive behavior, it is “incompatible” with Christian teachings.

In more recent years some translations have combined this word with the previous word to describe the passive and active male (not female) partners in a same-sex relationship.  This move is problematic in many ways.  It veers from the original meaning of the words. It covers up the biblical and historical precedence for using this word to describe abusive and harmful behavior. It also removes the possibility of such a relationship being moral and life-giving. It makes it possible to use this passage against Christians seeking to live faithfully and to grow in the virtues of Christ through their relationship, perhaps with more commitment than those making the accusations. Is this biblical? Is it right? Is our judgment, and the call to accountability, in the proper place?

In any responsible reading of scripture, this word cannot be used to project sin only on to others or seen only in terms of sexuality.  Wesley would not approve.  When confronted with lists like in I Corinthians 6, the first calling is to self-examination. This list, for example, includes “fornicators.” Wesley uses this word to cover “every kind of [sexual] uncleaniness” and the harm that comes from it. The Greek word is “pornia.” It is sex when another is objectified or used, or when one allows themselves to be objectified or used, thus causing harm. I wonder if this would not be a better cause for us. This list also includes “drunkards.” At one point, Wesley speaks of being “drunk with the blood of the saints” believing we can judge others. The list is long, but the point is clear.  When we are “washed” and “sanctified” in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God, we behave differently.  We learn to live in love.

To avoid the labeling that makes it so easy for us to project sin onto others, I like the paraphrase of these verses found in “The Message.” It reads, “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.”  Praise be to God.

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.

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) 

Party Zeal and the Call to be Peace-makers

img_0491Party, Partisanship, Partners, Partakers. All of these words have the word “part” in common.  In a “party,” the healthy perspective is to see yourself as a part of a larger whole.  There is great danger in believing that the part can be the whole, that any part can possess all truth unto itself.

Wesley would agree.  This is why he cautioned us against “party zeal” in the church and contrasted this zealousness with the call to be peace-makers.  Here’s Wesley’s definition: A peace-maker is one filled with the love of God and all people, one who is not confined to expressing this love only to family, friends, or party – those of like opinion or “partakers of like precious faith,” but who steps over all these narrow bounds, and manifest love to others, even strangers and enemies. In another place, Wesley insisted that followers of Christ purify themselves from all “party-zeal” and purify their own hearts before casting any judgment on others.   To give into such zeal is to become a “narrow soul.” This doesn’t mean that we give up our opinions, but it does mean that we engage others in opinion-sharing in a very different way than we often see modeled in the world. (See Sermons: Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 3 and National Sins and Miseries).

If politics is the art of making good decisions for the whole, and not the part only, then politics requires meeting in the middle, opening ourselves to new perspectives, and coming up with solutions that are “win-win” rather than “win-lose.”  Wesley actually uses the word “middle” as the proper place for true Christian witness and the best platform upon which we might see more of the whole and thus be instruments of peace.  Extremes bring harm. This may not be the way politics is practices in the world, but it is the way we are called to practice politics AS the church.

In this light, Wesley asks this question: How can we bear the name of the Prince of Peace and wage war with each other – “party against party,” faction against faction!”    For the church, this happens when we are “drunk with the blood of the saints.” In this state, we allow contention and malice to drive us, “even where [we] agree in essentials, and only differ in opinions, or in the circumstantials of religion!”  Our true calling, says Wesley, is to “follow after only [his emphasis] the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”  Anything other than this is to “devote each other to the nethermost hell.”

Wesley makes it clear.  If the world is looking at us and saying anything other than “look at how they love one another” then our witness is causing harm. That happens when a lust for rightness and power becomes our focus, usually justified as righteousness. (Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 2). For Wesley, “true religion is nothing short of holy tempers.” – humility, patience, and love above all, virtues to be practiced as parts of a larger whole, virtues that make for peace.  In these anxious times we need peace-makers… and a lot of them.

Up next: The Narrow Way (A Wesleyan Perspective) 

The Madness of Building on Sand (Another Word on Wesleyan Orthodoxy)

It is madness, says Wesley, to hold to a set of “notions” and suppose that they are “more rational or scriptural than others,” as if we can be “right” or “orthodox” in this way, and as if this were at the heart of our witness. Wesley compared this zeal for orthodoxy to building our spiritual home on sand. In fact, Wesley says it is worse than that; it is more like building on the “froth of the sea.” (See “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 13).

Wesley rarely (I believe I could say never) used the term orthodoxy in a positive way. At the same time, it is clear that he promoted key doctrines and core beliefs. Doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation, for example, expand our understanding of God and keep us from getting locked into narrow agendas.  They enhance faith…BUT only when in service to the call to love.  When they are used to set up “us and them” categories, or to promote positions over people, or to justify division in the body of Christ, or to lay claim to “faithfulness” for ourselves, they do great harm. When used in service to ourselves and our causes, these good doctrines are placed into the service of the devil, says Wesley. They promote a Pharisaic faith, as Wesley argues elsewhere.  They inspire building on sand.  Yes, Wesley used multiple metaphors to keep us from missing the message, and yet he still might have underestimated how alluring this mode of faith can be. We are prone to such madness!

It makes me wonder why so many Methodists are enamored with the notion of orthodoxy today. What does the word “Wesleyan” refer to in the phrase “Wesleyan Orthodoxy?” Is it simply a reference to our historic roots and a way to make a connection in order to promote a new theological agenda?  I wonder, what might happen if we actually engaged Wesley and let him, as our spiritual father, guide us through our current struggles.  Would that not be our better hope for a Wesleyan revival?

If we did this, I suspect that talk of splitting or schism would not even be on our radar.  I suspect that there would be a lot less labeling. I suspect that we would put a lot less energy into creating like-minded political camps.  Instead, we would distinguish ourselves not by doctrine or code words, but by the love in our hearts and our desire to glorify, not ourselves, but the One who is saving us – even us — by much needed grace.  Our focus would be on how we might “outdo one another” in showing this love.

From a Wesleyan perspective, that’s the way to build our spiritual home on a solid foundation, one with the strength to hold us together by something more than our opinions and positions.  What if we let the Holy Spirit do this work, of bringing us together upon the solid foundation of God’s peace which passes human understanding? What if we poured our energy into growing together in the holy virtues of meekness, patience, gentleness, and compassion, to name those on Wesley’s frequent list. That possibility moves me to joyful tears.

The word “orthodox” is not the only word being used to divide, and I dare say, to do harm. Others include evangelical, justice, rights, tradition, faithfulness, truth, and even love. While I do trust that God can use even our harm to do good, I also see that Wesley wants us to pay a lot more attention to the “woes” that are pronounced upon those who do the harm, especially when the harm is justified as righteousness. I wonder if we need to be a lot more fearful about that – of God taking an anointing away.  What if our focus was on our common “solid” foundation? What might it look like if we were all more Wesleyan in this way?  And thus less mad?

Up Next: Is it time to split? (Wesley had a lot to say about it).

Orthodoxy and Our Treatment of Others

In continuing the previous post, there is no doubt that Wesley was orthodox in the sense of affirming the Trinitarian faith.  The “rightness” of this doctrine is illuminated in the way it expands our understanding of God and keeps us from getting locked in our prejudices and narrow theological agendas. Likewise, Wesley affirmed the divinity and humanity of Christ. This full understanding of the nature of Christ keeps us from over-spiritualizing, on the one hand, or over-moralizing, on the other; it also has implications for the way we embrace grace and holiness, evangelism and social justice, knowledge and vital piety, among other blessed tensions within the faith – tensions which lead to wholeness.

What Wesley DID NOT like is the term “orthodoxy” itself. It would seem that too many in his day were using this term as a label to claim “right belief” over others. Too many were placing “right belief” at the core of faith.   Seeing this, Wesley says that orthodoxy or “right opinion” is “at best a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”  In even stronger statements, he equates those who claim to be orthodox as promoting a form of “salvation by works,” and even condemns it as the “faith of the devil.”  For Wesley, our life-giving faith grows through how we threat one another. It does not grow through our need to win or defend our version of “true faith.” In faith, God does not need defended in this way.  That stance leads to haughtiness, arrogance, divisiveness, anger, abuse, self-righteousness, and self-proclaimed faithfulness – the opposite of the life-giving witness manifested through the virtues of humility, patience, kindness, and love (a few of Wesley’s favorites as he describes true holiness).

Centering faith in “right opinion” rather than in relationship is more than misguided; it can be insidious, it can be violent; it can do great harm.  As we struggle through issues as the body of Christ, we need to be cautious about following those who are “drunk with the blood of the saints,” to use another image from Wesley.

So how might we approach someone whom we suspect believes “wrongly?” From a Wesleyan perspective, when we engage others our focus can never be on what they believe or don’t believe, or on any “externals,” as Wesley calls them, even on good works.  Our focus must be on “nothing short of ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ the image of God stamped upon the heart… attended with the peace of God and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, we focus on our heart and our desire to show pure love.  This approach opens a way for the Holy Spirit to do the work of building relationships and creating unity, not in opinion or even practice, but in love.

In this holy relationship, our hope is to see peace and joy, humility and love in the other, but what if we see no evidence of these virtues?  At this point, we look, not for some fault with them, but inward once again. We ask: Is there something in me that is blocking me from seeing these blessings in the other? Any questions about the character or actions of the other are a very distant second, if ever asked at all.  If it turns out that the blessings of peace and joy, faithfulness and fruitfulness, are not in the other, then our next response is not condemnation, judgement, or argument; our response is to actively stay engaged, show mercy, and to pray that we might be instruments that help produce these blessings. That’s the “right” way for the people called Methodists. (See “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists”). 

Oh, if only this could be our focus. If only this could be our hope for one another. If only this could be our witness in the world. Is this not worth being more than a dream?

(Up Next: Orthodoxy and the Pharisees, another word from Wesley)