Well, we’ve come to the end of this series on “The Method in Methodism,” and I hope that you have found this look at our foundational theology and practice to be helpful. My goal has been to provide a basis for understanding our identity as a church in this community, and to offer a Wesleyan way of looking at the gospel that I think can give us a unique voice within the Body of Christ.
We’ve been talking a lot about grace—God’s grace, God’s movement toward us. That movement has a purpose. God seeks to reshape us into the image of God we were created to be, thus we can participate with God in reshaping and renewing the whole creation. This has been God’s mission since the first humans left the Garden. God doesn’t abandon us, but continually sticks with us to show us the way to salvation for a new future with him. Jesus is the image of the God we are to follow, and it is in Jesus’ own life, teaching, death, and resurrection that we find our ultimate purpose and identity. The more we conform to the image of Christ, the more we find our lives have meaning for eternity.
John Wesley passionately believed that there is a way, a method, to being shaped in the image of God. It doesn’t happen haphazardly or accidentally, and it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It only happens when we surrender ourselves completely to God and engage in the kinds of disciplines, attitudes, practices, and worldview that are grounded in the Bible and lived out in our everyday lives. To be a disciple is to be someone who is always on the way to being perfected in the love of Christ.
We’ve talked a little bit about how the early Methodists engaged the process through their class meetings—gatherings of 12-15 people who were accountable to one another for their spiritual journeys and practices. It was in those meetings, with the support of others, that people began to be shaped. Wesley understood that discipline and growth always happens best when there is someone walking beside you, encouraging you, and challenging you.
Many of you know that I’ve been doing some conditioning classes at the Y. I used to go to the Y and work out on my own, but I decided to try one of the afternoon fitness groups. It was a little intimidating at first because the class was nearly all women, but then I thought, “This shouldn’t be too hard.” I got a lesson in a hurry as the first workout left me feeling like I had been hit by a truck. These women are tough, and the workouts trump anything we ever did in morning PT in the Army (and there’s a lot less yelling).
Now the instructor knows my name, so if I miss class I hear about it! I’m improving every day (though I still get sore), and I’m convinced it’s largely because I’m not alone. I’ve also noticed more men joining the class, so I like to think I’ve set a trend as well.
Our spiritual lives require a similar kind of partnership. We need each other if we’re going to really grow. The content of our conversations, however, needs to go beyond the surface to ask some challenging questions: How is it with your soul? How are you growing today in the knowledge and love of God? How are you serving your neighbors?
Wesley boiled all these questions down to three simple rules, which he called “The General Rules of the United Societies.” The class meetings were centered around these rules, and each member was challenged to talk about how they were following these rules of life. They are all three dependent upon one another. Fall in one area, and you fall in all the others. The rules: First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can. Third, stay in love with God. Let’s look at these briefly.
DO NO HARM
First, do no harm. On the surface, this seems to be self-explanatory. We shouldn’t intentionally harm anyone else physically or emotionally. And yet, in many ways, it is this rule that gets violated most often, particularly when we’re feeling anxiety.
I’ve been listening to the radio recently and it’s always interesting to me to hear political ads. Candidates spend a lot of money spewing vitriol about their opponents. Rarely do you hear a candidate talk about their ideas, only that the other guy is a bad choice. Add to that talk show hosts who make a living by whipping up fear and anxiety and demonizing those who don’t agree, and a public that is deeply divided over ideas and there’s lots of opportunity to do plenty of harm. Rumors, half-truths, gossip, manipulation—it seems like that’s what drives our discourse every day.
One of my mentors from afar is Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a family systems therapist. Friedman wrote that the thing that drives our society is anxiety about the future, anxiety about our present circumstances, anxiety about outsiders. When a society is driven by anxiety, people become highly reactive and sensitive. They begin to herd together and engage in group-think, where outside ideas are rejected. They begin to blame someone else for their problems. They engage in a quick-fix mentality that seeks to quell anxiety with short term solutions. And, finally, leaders in anxious systems tend to not be able to make any decisions on his or her own, but are driven by the need to quell the anxiety of the loudest voices in the family or society.
Does this sound familiar? We’re in a culture where different ideologies are at war with one another, where neither side can hear the other, and where anger and anxiety block out civility and a search for solutions. Such a culture gives strength to the extremists, and we’re seeing that every day.
Friedman wrote that one of the sure signs of madness is when people cannot stay in a relationship with others with whom they disagree. That cut-off of relationship breeds the demonizing, discounting, gossipy, half-truth culture in which we live.
In that kind of setting, “do no harm” is a radical concept, but it’s one that we have to recapture, particularly if we’re going to call ourselves Christians. Friedman would say that the best way to shift an anxious system is to change the climate by changing yourself. If I am to do no harm in that sense, that means I can no longer tolerate or spread gossip. I can no longer speak disparagingly of others, even of those with whom I disagree. I can no longer manipulate the facts, and I can no longer speak ill of others. “Doing no harm” is a promise that “I will guard my lips, my mind, and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure, or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.”
This, my friends, is the way forward. Christians must not be a people driven by fear and anxiety, but by love. Bishop Reuben Job, in his book on the three General Rules, puts it this way: “When I am determined to do no harm to you, I lose my fear of you; and I am able to see you and hear you more clearly. Disarmed of the possibility to do harm, we find that good and solid place to stand where together we can seek the way forward in faithfulness to God.”
Doing no harm, however, is just the first step. The second is even more radical. Wesley outlined the second rule like this:
DO ALL THE GOOD YOU CAN
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as you ever can.”
Jesus was the author of this rule. The passage we read earlier is a call to radical love and goodness, even and especially toward those with whom we are in conflict. Hear it again: “Love you enemies. DO GOOD to those who hate you…if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, do good, expecting nothing in return…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Not only are we supposed to do no harm, but we are to engage in radical goodness! This is the very example of Jesus, who offered forgiveness and love even to those who were nailing him to the cross. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say here, “Demonstrate your right-ness,” or “Defend your position.” He says, “do good—always, to everyone.”
Notice, too, that acts of goodness are not dependent upon the positive reaction of the other. We don’t do good so that the good will always be reciprocated. We do good no matter whether the other person is appreciative, or changes, or whatever. We do good because that’s what Jesus calls us to do and because we are to be reflecting the image of his character and love.
I was listening to an African-American preacher once who said something I’ll never forget. He said, “A lot of you all pray all the time, ‘God, use me.’ But then somebody comes along and does just that—they use you, and then you get upset. You shouldn’t be surprised. It’s what you asked for. To be used of God means that you give up claim on how and when you might be used and for whom. You do good all the time because that’s the only way that God can really use you!”
We’re talking radical concept here, one that’s not easy—but then again being a disciple is not easy! The opportunities for doing that kind of good surely abound. Wrote Wesley, “There is scarce any possible way of doing good for which here is not daily occasion…Here are poor families to be relieved: Here are children to be educated: Here are workhouses, wherein both young and old gladly receive the word of exhortation: Here are the prisons, and therein a complication of all human wants.”
What if we added people in power to that list? What if, for example, in these contentious days we Methodists were so bold to write a letter to a politician or someone else we don’t agree with that said, simply, that we are praying for them? What if you said, “I may not agree with everything you stand for, but I pray for you nonetheless and ask God to give you wisdom and strength to serve the people.” Our local officials are often under a barrage assault of negative emails and letters. What if we decided to do good by engaging in a campaign of prayer instead of a campaign of complaint?
Non-anxious people have a much better perspective on life. When we choose not to be reactive, when we choose to lead always with goodness, we begin to see the world and our neighbors quite differently. Wesley understood that God had poured out his grace and love on us while we were yet rebellious sinners. If we’re going to grow in the image of God, we have to pour out God’s grace and love to others as well, even if it costs us something.
First, do no harm. Second, do all the good you can to all the people you can…
The third rule undergirds the first two, for without it we don’t have the capacity to do good and we have plenty of capacity to do harm. Wesley named the third rule,
STAY IN LOVE WITH GOD
“Attend to the private and public ordinances of God.” Bishop Job puts it a little more simply: “Stay in love with God.”
What Wesley is talking about here is the practices and disciplines of the Christian life, the “means of grace” that enable us to grow more in the image of God. These practices include:
Reading Scripture daily, not just for knowledge but for transformation. As we said last week, the Bible is the source for our life and faith and herein is knowledge sufficient for salvation. To be a Christian is to be a person of the Book!
Daily prayer, recognizing that prayer is the way that we listen to God. Often, this is the biggest barrier for people. Even the disciples had to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray! Wesley said that prayer is essential and encouraged the Methodists to a daily time of peace with God, even if it’s difficult at first: “O begin!” he wrote in a letter to a friend struggling with prayer. “Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not. What is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way…Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice.”
Prayer is at the center of a transformed life. We need to learn how to pray without ceasing. This is something we’ll be working on as a congregation as we move forward together.
Fasting is another discipline. We deny ourselves something, be it food or technology or whatever, so that we can be filled with God. Wesley fasted over two mealtimes each week and replaced the time he would have spent eating with prayer. I’ve done this. The rumbling of the stomach reminds me that I depend on God for my daily bread. Maybe you can’t give up food for health reasons, but there are other ways to fast. Turn off the TV or the computer, inject times of solitude and silence. Fasting is a discipline we need to recapture in order to really listen to God.
Public worship is another discipline. We can’t be lone ranger Christians. We need the body of believers and, perhaps even more importantly, we need to worship God. Worship brings us into God’s presence and sends us out renewed by the encounter. Weekly worship, even if we’re out of town, is a vital discipline that connects us to the Body of Christ.
Coupled with worship is the regular receiving of the sacrament of holy communion. As we have said throughout this series, communion is the outward sign of an inward grace, a sign that teaches us clearly about the love and grace of God. We come to the table to be reminded and to be transformed. Communion is kind of like our monthly altar call—a chance to come and once again confess our sins and receive the grace of God.
Christian conferencing is another way we stay in love with God and with each other. We must not give up the habit of meeting together for fellowship, worship, study, and mutual support. We need each other if we’re going to be able to grow! Are you in a small group? A Bible study? If not, there’s no better time than the present!
The early Methodists centered their lives around these practices. We must do the same if we’re going to be able to grow in the image of God and participate with God in the transformation of the world.
Do no harm. Do all the good you can. Stay in love with God.
Three simple rules. May they be our guiding rule of life together.