The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

IMG_4576Holy Spirit Come! That is at the heart of my prayer as General Conference approaches. To understand the meaning of this prayer, my go-to source is John Wesley.  From a big-picture perspective, Wesley’s focus was on the way the Holy Spirit works through ordinary means and basic virtues, rather than extraordinary signs and wonder. The witness of the Holy Spirit is best revealed when we come together in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.”  The Spirit is revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions. In my mind, we could use a lot more of our energy being open to this witness of the Holy Spirit rather than expecting something extraordinary.

In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  For Wesley, the “worst kind of enthusiasm” is where we are so convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense and actually create division.  In contrast to this kind of “enthusiasm,” the Holy Spirit leads us to “steer a middle course.” On this way, to draw upon the scriptures, we work to break down dividing walls of hostility and seek unity in the One who not only brings peace but is our peace (Eph 2:14).  This way is defined by an eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). To draw lines in the sand, and promote division is to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

After seeing this phrase in Jude, I had to do a little research. Sodom is used as an example. (We have seen this before in this series). As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used as a general term, often translated as “fornication” and here as “immorality.” It can be defined as objectifying others and using them only for our pleasure.  There is no doubt that this is against God’s will for us, but it is far from Jude’s main point (and that is important for our current debate). When Jude outlines “unnatural lust” he focuses on the way we use words to harm others and to get an advantage over others. To do this is to be “devoid of the Spirit.” In contrast, those who are with the Spirit keep themselves in the love of God and focus on sharing the mercy and peace of the Lord.  These virtues work only when we meet in the middle where we can then engage in the greatest challenge we are given, and that is to learn how to love one another.

To build upon Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, it is possible that God might come and give some extraordinary sign, but we have little reason to think that God will.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in the everyday and universal call to “steer a middle course.”  This cannot happen when we are intent on using scripture as a weapon to belittle faithful interpretations that differ from what we believe is the only right way. It cannot happen when we use good words – orthodox, evangelical, Jesus-loving, traditional, progressive, inclusive, gracious — as code words to create an “us and them.” Rather, God will be glorified in the way we love one another in our difference – with patience and kindness, without arrogance or envy, and never insisting on our own way. What a word! (I Cor 13:4-8).  If we were able to practice this faith, then I guess we could say that it would be extraordinary indeed.  Come Holy Spirit!

Middle Way Behavior (The Wesleyan Way)

A Mempic- trinity 3e put out by the Wesleyan Covenant Association says, “We actually believe what the UMC says it BELIEVES…and how THAT MAKES us anything but the CENTER, I have no idea.”

It’s a nice soundbite and rings true at a basic level.  If being in the center is equated with being in the majority of the global church, then this is a valid claim. – at least at this time and on specific issues.  Likewise, if being in the center is about beliefs, then this statement is accurate as well.  From this perspective, to be in the center is to affirm the official position on any given issue, and by implication, to also be right.

In the light of this claim, it is important that we, as Wesleyans, acknowledge another perspective on what it means to be in the center.  John Wesley calls us to the middle way.  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs.  He is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, Methodists are to BEHAVE in the middle.  We do so because our faith is not centered in doctrines or opinions, but in a relationship with a Living Lord, and in virtues that promote life-giving relationships in the world.  This is not to imply that doctrines and opinions are unimportant, but only that they are resources to support the larger purpose.  To confuse means with ends can easily lead to a betrayal of the Body as a whole.  It is a first step to dividing the body into “us” and “them,” in support of sides or causes.

One important example of this calling to behave in the middle is found in Wesley’s sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit.”  Here Wesley defines the middle way in opposition to both extremism and enthusiasm.  He is concerned about the temptation to mistake our own imaginations for the witness of the Spirit, and thus to become “the worst kind of enthusiasts,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.   When one is “drunk from [this] spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.

Continuing this thought, Wesley turns to the other extreme where “reasonable people,” who “see the dreadful effects of this delusion,” assert that “the witness of the Spirit” must have only belonged to the apostolic age and that the Spirit does not move among us in the same way.  At this extreme, people are weary of any claim of God’s direct guidance. Here, faith runs the risk of drying up into an intellectual exercise or becoming little more than a resource to help us feel good about ourselves.

In seeing the harm done by these extremes, Wesley asks: “May we not steer a middle course?  Can we not distance ourselves from the extremes of error and enthusiasm without denying the gift of God and giving up the great privilege of being God’s children?”  He is convinced that we can steer this middle way.

To do so, we must see ourselves as people who BEHAVE in the middle.  As Wesleyans, the evidence of the Spirit is not found in our enthusiastic defense of our way as God way, but rather in the opposite; the Spirit is revealed in the “holy tempers” of humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, and “kindly affection for all.”  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

In a culture that seems to thrive on extremes and divisiveness, on winning and pitting ourselves against one another, what would it look like if we could “steer a middle course?” What if this was the focus of our conversation? Would this not be much more in line with the witness of the Spirit?  For one more quote from this sermon, this witness just might save us all from “the pain of proud wrath.”