Thursday, January 26, 2012

We Believe in Discipleship in Action

This week, I return to the series of messages focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.

No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more consistent than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace… The coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship…. Discipline was not church law; it was a way of discipleship. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline)

Any truly Wesleyan vision of the Christian life includes direct, personal, sacrificial encounter with suffering persons – simply collecting money for someone else to work with the poor is not enough. Also, John Wesley stressed a need for understanding of the root causes of poverty. He avoided the typical moral explanations for poverty that were in vogue in his day (and our day too). Wesley also didn’t mind urging governmental officials to do their part in response to human need. Why does the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society lobby Congress? Not simply from a desire for a better functioning society but rather from our theological vision of God whose presence and love among us is always “good news to the poor” and our passionate desire to walk with this God.

Here is the summation of one of Wesley’s diatribes against wealth:

Heathen custom is nothing to us. We follow no men any farther than they are followers of Christ. Hear ye him. Yea, today, while it is called today, hear and obey his voice. At this hour and from this hour do his will; fulfill his word in this and in all things. I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling. No more sloth! Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might. No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men. [1]

Wesley’s 1739 decision to go out and preach in the fields to the masses and engage in the innovative practice of “field preaching” in the open air was his dramatic attempt to take the gospel to England’s new urban poor, just as he had worked among the poor at Oxford for a decade before. He defined the gospel as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4). Right up to the very end of his life, John Wesley worked to set right what was wrong with the world, supporting the Strangers’ Friend Society to help newcomers to England’s great cities. He worked to end the scourge of slavery, as in his famous last letter to William Wilberforce in 1791. Just four years before his death he welcomed Sarah Mallet as a preacher; the first officially sanctioned female preacher of Methodism. He gave away all that he made from his books and writings, dying a pauper. Six poor men bore Wesley’s body to its grave.

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.
[1] Works, 2:279.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Disturber of the Peace

Our Lord Jesus preached peace, but “not as the world gives.” Peaceful Jesus was from the first a disturber of the status quo. Alas, too often Jesus’ followers have been on the side of peace at any cost, peace as the world gives in opposition to Jesus.

A remarkable moment in church history occurred right here in Alabama in the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you know, Dr. King was discovered here in Alabama while he was a Baptist pastor in Montgomery where the church called him to the ministry of Disturber of the Peace, the “peace” wrought by people like George Wallace and Bull Connor.
I’ve got a copy of, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Martin Luther King, Jr. justifies why he has organized marches and sit-ins that “disturbed the peace.”
Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation . . . Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
King explains that while he opposes violent tension, he believes there is “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension… the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of King’s protests was “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”[1] The liberal recipients of King’s letter (one of whom was our bishop) hoped that Birmingham would desegregate without a fight. King eloquently told them they were wrong.[2]

The peace that King disturbed was no peace, but instead Birmingham’s police state, constructed by powerful people in order to oppress and terrorize black citizens. No transformation without disruption.

In my experience, churches always hope that it is possible to be faithful to the mandates of Jesus Christ without the pain of disruption and dislocation. We pastors tend to be reconcilers and peacemakers who are uncomfortable with disruptions.
This day let’s remember that Jesus Christ was unable to work our redemption without a disruption of the status quo that eventually led to his crucifixion in a vain attempt to silence him.

Let’s remember, as we go about our attempts to be faithful to Jesus, that few good works meet no resistance, and few transformations occur without disruption. As I’ve studied pastors who transform congregations I’ve noted that these pastors expect there to be resistance and this disruption and they learn to creatively use this dislocation as leverage in their leadership of change.

It’s good to be reminded, by recalling our history, that change is never painless, particularly if we are changing something that is sinful. One of the great blessings of being in the North Alabama Conference is that a few of our elders engaged in social activism and various forms of civil disobedience back in the Sixties and they are still around to tell us about it. Whenever I encounter institutional resistance, whether it be in our church at large or in an individual congregation, I recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was told to ease up on Alabama. In his sermon, “Our God is Marching On,” King vowed, “No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normal.”

Of course for us Christians, the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo is Jesus Christ. Since Jesus appeared among us, we’ve never been able to “return to normal.” And one of the ways Jesus continues to disrupt us in order to save us is through faithful disrupters like one-time-Alabama- pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Will Willimon

Monday, January 09, 2012

For the next few weeks I’ll be focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.

We Believe that Faith Is Known by Its Fruits

The communal forms of faith in the Wesleyan tradition not only promote personal growth, they also equip and mobilize us for mission and service to the world. (The United Methodist Book of Discipline)

Fully a fourth of John Wesley’s Sermons focus on the Sermon on the Mount. Wesley took with great seriousness the Sermon on the Mount as a practical guide to how to live the Christian life. That’s curious because most of us today think of Jesus’ exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount – turning the other cheek, not remarrying after divorce, enemy love -- to be utterly impossible ideals. Wesley gave thanks that Jesus so simply, directly gave us practical guidance for everyday discipleship. He said that the Beatitudes were a picture of God drawn by God’s own hand.
[1] These commands are not meant to forever frustrate us by their impossibility, said Wesley, but are meant to be actually practiced with the help of God. When faced with some seemingly impossible demand of Christ – such as forgiveness of our enemies -- we are to change the church and ourselves, rather than attempt to scale down the command.
In our church’s recent debate on the U.S. interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, I was impressed how infrequently anyone referred to Jesus. And when someone mentioned Jesus, most disputants seem to agree that Jesus is irrelevant to a contemporary conflict like the “War on Terror.” We had made Jesus’ command to enemy love into an impossible ideal. This is distressingly “unmethodist.”
We Wesleyans once assumed that Jesus himself combined personal righteousness with social holiness, that his ethic is not to be relegated to the personal and the subjective, the ideal and the unrealistic, but is meant to go public and be put into practice. Jesus came to teach us about the “real world” and we are called to follow him there out of the fake world where the poor are oppressed, and the strong lord over the weak, and well, you get the point. Our United Methodist Social Principles are an attempt to render the real world in the light of the love of Christ.
Early Methodists contended that the urge to holiness in thought and life can be perverted when holiness is not linked to love. Love is not sentimental syrup that we pour over everything to make our problems easier to swallow. Love is the complex, multifaceted force that drives us to engage in the world’s needs in the name of Christ. Love is the divine gift that enables true moral transformation. How sad when contemporary United Methodists attempt to scale down the dominical demand for love to the secular political possibility of justice. It is also sad to see contemporary United Methodists choosing up sides on the political left or the right and slugging it out in political squabbles that Wesley would surely dismiss as debates about mere “opinions.” Too many of us are confident that being on the “right side” of some social or political issue is more important than being there in love.
It is a constant challenge for us to think and to live on the basis of our theological convictions. Wesley cared as much for our being and our believing as for our doing. Christians are meant to serve the needs of others, in love. The notion of “Christian perfection” can be an ugly thing if not always answerable to love. And the practice of politically engaged social Christianity degenerates into just another worldly power play when it is loveless. Jesus didn’t call us simply to improve our neighbors but to love them as he has loved us.
Note that we use that word discipline when we talk of social ethics. United Methodists use “discipline” as both a verb and a noun. Discipline in the sense of a Book of Discipline is constitutive of church governance. For us, discipleship and discipline go together. In a sermon “The Late Work of God in North America,” Wesley said that the great limitation of the evangelistic ministry of George Whitefield was lack of discipline:
[I]t was a true saying, which was common in the ancient church, ‘The soul and the body make a man, and the spirit and discipline make a Christian.’ But those who were more or less affected by Mr. Whitefield’s preaching had no discipline at all. They had no shadow of discipline; nothing of the kind. They were formed into no societies. They had no Christian connection with each other, nor were ever taught to watch over each others’ souls. So that if any fell into lukewarmness, or even into sin, he had none to lift him up….
Holiness and discipline go together:
Prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves, in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-25)
The Social Principles, along with our General Rules, are testimony to the continuing role of disciplined holiness – personal and social holiness – in the United Methodist way of being Christian. Our church attempts to be more than simply an expression of the religious yearnings of its members. In these principles, guides and rules, the church seeks to conform us, to change us, and discipline us to the nature of Christ. As Wesley summarized the message that he expected his traveling preachers to proclaim: “Christ dying for us” and “Christ reigning in us."[2]

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

[1] Sermon 23, “Sermon on the Mount III, “ §IV, Works, 1:533. Wesley described the Sermon on the Mount as “the noblest compendium of religion which is to be found even in the oracles of God,” in Journal (17 Oct. 1771), Works, 22:293.
[2] Letter to Charles Wesley 1928 Dec. 1774), Letters (Telford), 6:134.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

We Believe in Faith and Good Works

For the next few weeks I’ll be focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.

We see God’s grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and discipline. (United Methodist Book of Discipline)

As Wesley encountered resistance to his revival, he issued an “Earnest Appeal” to his critics, attempting to explain Methodism:

This is the religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love and joy and peace, having its seat in the heart, in the inmost soul, but ever showing itself by its fruits, continually springing forth, not only in all innocence…but likewise in every kind of beneficence, in spreading virtue and happiness all around it.[1]

Note that Wesley refuses to commend his revival exclusively on the basis of an experience that it engenders in its adherents. Nor does he take pride in the birth of a new institution or in his movement’s conformity to the orthodox faith. He urges measurement of Methodism “by its fruits,” by the “beneficence” it produces in the spread of “virtue and happiness all around it.” Faith in Jesus engenders good works for Jesus. United Methodists join Wesley in joyfully linking the mercy of God with the holiness of God, what we believe with what we do, who we are, with how we act, praying that our doing will be a public testimony to the fidelity of our believing, and “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

Wesley’s orientation toward the practical is evident in his focus upon the “scripture way of salvation.” He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship.

In Wesley’s “Address to the Clergy,” in which he outlined his expectations for the performance of his traveling preachers, he stressed (of course) grace – they should show response to God’s work in their lives, gifts – they must show both God-given talents and acquired skills for ministry, and fruit – visible, measurable evidence of God’s blessing upon their ministry.[2] In countless ways, Jesus did more than ask us to “think this” or “feel this” but also to “do this.” Faith is meant to be fruitful.

Whenever Wesley cited the deleterious results of teaching the doctrine of predestination, his main fear was that predestination fostered dreaded “quietism” and hindered the transformative work of God in the individual soul.[3] Wesley sneered that if people really believed in predestination, then “The elect shall be saved, do what they will: The reprobate shall be damned, do what they can.[4] The Christian life, initiated and sustained by grace, is known by its holy fruits.

The Discipline reminds us that Methodism did not arise in response to a specific dispute, but rather to support people to experience the justifying and sanctifying grace of God and encourage people to grow in the knowledge and love of God through the personal and corporate disciplines of the Christian life.

Note that knowing precedes doing, experience of God leads to the service of God, and ethics arise out of doctrine. On the other hand, our knowledge of God is enriched and deepened in our service of God, our attempts to put the faith into practice encourage us to intellectually explore our faith. We do no good work in the world that is not subsequent to, responsive to the work that a creative God is already doing. It’s God’s world and God intends to have it back and one way God uses to get back the world is ordinary United Methodists through whom God does some extraordinary work.

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

[1] Earnest Appeal, para. 4.
[2] Address to the Clergy (1756), in Works (Jackson) 10:480-500.
[3] Sermon 110, “Free Grace,” §10-18, (see §11), Works, 3:547-50.
[4]Works (Jackson), 14:190-8.

A Christmas Parable

A Christmas story, can’t remember where I heard it, but I tell it to you as you begin your own celebration of Christmastide.
There was a time when all the angels where gathered about the heavenly throne for a discussion. Things were in a mess down on earth. (What else is new?) The Creator had become concerned about the state of the Creation – wars, fighting, famine, bloodshed all over.
“I’ve tried everything,” God complained. “I have spoken to them some of the most beautiful words they could ever hope to hear. Think of the glorious Psalms, the hymns, the poetic passages of Isaiah. They love to read about peace and goodwill, but they don’t like to live it!”
God continued, “Then I sent them the prophets. They love Isaiah, the promises of release from their sufferings, freedom from their exile. But do they follow the precepts of the prophets about justice and righteousness rolling down like waters? Never!”
There was widespread discussion of the sad state of affairs on earth. Many of the angels – Gabriel, Michael, and others had been on earth on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and shared God’s concern.
“I think the only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, live with them, let them get to know you. Only then will heaven’s intent be truly communicated to them. Only then will they take notice of the great gap between the way they have been living and the way they were created. Only then will we be able to reveal to them who I created them to be.”
The angels stood in awkward silence. They had been to earth before, to deliver messages from God or to effect some momentary intervention in human affairs. They weren’t about to volunteer for long term duty in such a murderous, difficult place.
The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God broke the silence. Quietly, determinedly, but without resignation and no bitterness, God said, “Then I will go.”

This is a parable of Incarnation.

Will Willimon