Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.

A Way Forward through Psalm 85:10

IMG_4577To build upon a Jewish Midrash (an art form that Jesus regularly used through parables) there is a story that tries to make sense of the verse saying, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10). In the story, the angels of heaven are debating about whether or not humans should ever have been created. This debate quickly broke into two general camps.  Those on the side of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness to the law argued that humans should never have been created because all they do is pervert God’s law, engaged in self-justification, and turn God’s truth into lies.  In contrast, those on the side of mercy and peace said, “But they are so beautiful. They sing lullabies to their children; they care for one another with such compassion. We are glad they were created because we want to see how the stories they tell are going to end.”  Both sides were adamant, so God got involved. God tells them that one of the reasons for the creation of humans was to bring them together.  Since both sides truly loved God and wanted to do God’s will, they met in the middle, embraced, and kissed.

Maybe that’s a parable for us today.   God’s desire is for righteousness and peace to kiss, and mercy and faithfulness to embrace, but nobody – especially God – discounts the tension that comes with this uniting.  Israel was born in this struggle.  The name Israel means to wrestle and struggle and this carries over to the church as well.  It is only in the struggle, and in the commitment to work together, that we are able to find a faithful way forward.  These two sides, joined together, provide the energy needed to light the way.  And if this is true then withdrawing into like-minded camps only produces spiritual darkness.

In our church today, leaders from multiple perspectives are looking for a solution.  The options are not really new.  One option is schism – to leave and form a new denomination.  In my opinion, this option will not make the issues go away but will only multiply the pain. This is not a viable option in the 21st century.  Another option from the past is to “play nice” at church, to stay together but keep our interactions (and maybe our faith) at a nominal and surface level.  There is evidence of this old option going back to Constantine.  Another option, perhaps, is found in this verse.  In the midst of our struggle, could God be calling us to meet in the middle and embraced, to work together to forge a higher sense of unity, to cultivate a community where we can truly learn how to love one another and practice the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility (virtues not really needed in likeminded camps),  where righteousness and peace kiss one another, or in Wesleyan language where grace and holiness meet, where we honor knowledge and vital piety, head and heart, evangelism and social justice, traditional and progressive perspectives…where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of diversity of opinions, in discerning core doctrines together rather than dividing over things that do not “strike at the root of Christianity.”  Who is up for this kind of embrace, this wholeness?  What if this were our witness to the world?

 

The Foundation of Methodism (A timely paraphrase of Wesley’s sermon “On Laying the Foundation”

IMG_1851 (2)_LIHere is a paraphrase of the sermon John Wesley preached as the foundation was laid for a new chapel in London in 1778. It gives a powerful and timely summary of what methodism is all about. I visited Wesley Chapel in London last week and was moved, once again, by John Wesley’s consistent call to a higher unity within the church. Often the church has fallen short of this calling, but Wesley never gave up on the vision.  What might we learn from this commitment?

Number 23:23 –  “See what God has done!”

At the risk of appearing ostentatious or being called an enthusiast who confuses the Holy Spirit with their own ego, I want to give an account of the rise of Methodism from my personal perspective.

I start 1725, when a young student at Oxford was very much affected by Kempis’s “Christian Pattern,” and Bishop Taylor’s “Rules of Holy Living and Dying.” He was inspired to live by these rules and let them guide him. In time, others joined in this desire. Together we read scripture, prayed, and provoked one another to engage in good works. On this journey, we were orthodox in every way, firmly committed to the creeds and to the doctrines of the Church, as contained in the Articles and Homilies. The regularity of our gatherings led others to call us names. “Methodist” was at the top of the list.  It was an allusion to physicians who once flourished in Rome and, for us, was used as a term of derision and ridicule. In time, we embraced the term. But in the moment, we have no conception that this would become a movement.

The next key turn came in 1735 when my brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and I were led to travel to the new colony of Georgia. Our purpose was to preach to the natives, but we found ourselves primarily attending to the spiritual needs of colonists in Savannah and modeling methodism for them.  While there, I was totally committed to the Church and to orthodoxy.  I even turned away a Lutheran pastor because he was not “episcopally ordained” and called on him to be “re-baptized” into the true church. Thankfully I have been delivered from this misguided zeal, where people are turned away from God so that we can feel good about our own faithfulness.

I returned to England in 1738, content to study in Oxford and bury myself in “beloved obscurity.”  But then God awakened my soul.  Along with others, I began to preach what some called an “unfashionable doctrine.” And yet, people came! Many were “cut to the heart.” Some came to me in tears inquiring what was needed to be saved.  I asked them to meet with me, and, without plan or design, the Methodist society was born. These societies, as renewal groups within the church, became places where people could help one another “work out their own salvation.”

That’s how Methodism began. But what is this movement about? What is methodism? We need to be continually reminded. Methodism is not a new religion. In fact, at its heart, it is nothing other than the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Bible, and, I am confident, the religion of the Church of England.  It is the true religion rooted in love – the love that first comes to us from God, and so fills our hearts that we are then empowered to love others.

This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world.  Wherever this love reigns, virtue and true happiness come; there is humility, gentleness, patience, peace beyond human understanding, and joy unspeakable. This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.  Jesus declares this love to be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. It is at the heart of all we call “true religion.”

And yes, this love is at the heart of our Church. It is found in the liturgies and homilies. It is found in our prayers, so beautifully summed up in that one comprehensive petition that is said so often: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, O God, and worthily magnify your holy name.” As long as we hold to this love we can faithfully address all extraneous issues and varying perspectives within the larger church. Our diversity of perspectives keeps us humble and trusting in the real presence of the Holy Spirit to sort it all out. This sorting is not our work, but God’s work. In God’s love there is room for all, and together, and only together, are we able to practice the virtues of true holiness and grow in the grace of true religion.

In our beloved Church, many have been called, in this time, to preach repentance to sinners. Thousands have come to hear this word.   Many have been deeply convinced of their sins, their evil tempers, their inability to help themselves, and of the ineffectiveness of their outward religious practices. The love of God has filled their hearts and they have been led to love others with this same holy love.  God has called us to give witness to this work. May nothing else distract us.

This love that we preach must be free from enthusiasm – that zeal for our own opinions about things beyond the core of faith. Often in renewal movements, this misguided zeal finds its way into the body.  May this not happen among us. We do not put our stress on anything, as necessary for salvation, other than what is plainly contained in the word of God.  And of all things contained within the scriptures, we assess them in relationship to what Jesus calls the sum of it all – love of God and of our neighbor as a part of ourselves. (This is the chief among the “master-texts” by which we evaluate all revelatory claims, even those in scripture).

Likewise, this love must be free of bigotry. We refrain from all party zeal where our own opinions and allegiances to particular branches within the church cloud the call to unity and to bearing one another in love. We contend for nothing circumstantial as if it were essential to a relationship with God.  We do not seek to build “our” church by relying on violence and division.  We rely on no method other than reason and persuasion, while giving witness to the virtues of holiness – patience, kindness, and humility – and believing that the Holy Spirit really is at work.

No doubt, there have been other revivals that have led to division and polarization in the church. We have seen this among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers. And after this separation they did little good except to their own little body. Bigotry grew between parties. And as a result of this lack of a higher sense of unity, the hope of general reform suffered.

And yes, there have been Methodist (so-called) who have gone this way as well, with Whitefield and Ingham among them. But, I want to be clear, this move toward division is a move away from the vision of methodism. When true to our calling, we will never form a separate sect but, in principle, always stay connected together within the Church.  When societies leave the church, our observation is that they swiftly crumble into nothing, having been uprooted from the good soil and nourishment of the larger community and from being a part of something bigger than themselves and their opinions about what is right. When we are planted in this rich soil of the larger faith, we are then able to bear good fruit – fruit that will last.

Therefore, whoever you are, I invite you to examine your own heart before God, rather than to occupy your time in judging others. Are you rooted in the love of God? Does your heart glow with gratitude to the God who loves you and gave his Son so that you “might not perish but have eternal life?” Are you bearing the fruit of this love? If so, then let us come together and magnify the Lord by establishing peace and good-will among us.   IF YOUR HEART IS AS MY HEART, GIVE ME YOUR HAND. Let us unite together in our desire for the restoration of the image of God in every soul.  Let us all give ourselves, not to contention, but to love and to good works; always remembering those deep words, (as God engraves them on our hearts!) “God is love; and those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God in them.”  Amen.

Michael Roberts