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.