A sermon given at the Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church Camp Meeting on August 7, 2016
Text: Mark 12:28-34
Well, our Camp Meeting day has finally arrived. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time, and though we’re only here for the day, our history tells us that gathering in the outdoors for worship is actually one of the most Methodist things we could possibly do.
In 1739, John Wesley took to the fields of England to begin preaching to common people. That was very unusual at a time when “proper” preaching was only considered to have taken place if it happened inside a church. But at the invitation of his friend George Whitefield, Wesley “submitted to be more vile” and, on April 2, 1739, preached to about 3,000 people near Bristol and some 4,000 more the next day—all this without the aid of microphones—just a clear voice filled with conviction.
Very soon, the Methodists became known for taking the gospel outside—not only outside the church but outside of convention as well. Methodist circuit riders took to the highways and byways to share the gospel to anyone who would listen. When Methodism came to America, Francis Asbury rode some 130,000 miles on horseback to preach to the point at which, according to historian John Wigger, most Americans in the late 1700s would have been able to pick him out of a lineup before George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
As Methodism became part of the frontier, outdoor gatherings were popular. In the early 1800s, the camp meeting was born as people traveled significant differences to gather for multi-day events of preaching and revival. The meetings would often begin on Friday evening and continue until Monday noon. One proverb said, “The good people go to camp meeting Fridays, backsliders Saturday, rowdies Saturday night, and gentleman and lady sinners on Sunday.” Historians often credit the camp meeting for fueling the Second Great Awakening, a major Christian revival of the early 1800s.
So, we’re tapping into a great tradition by gathering here in a pavilion provided by our Baptist brethren (who have their own camp meeting tradition). We might think of it as being a bit nostalgic—but I think of it as something more significant. We gather here today during a time when our nation and our world are in need of a new Great Awakening—a new revival of true Christianity.
Such awakenings usually take place during times of great social upheaval. The Methodist movement was birthed during a time of revolution and social and political strife. Indeed, the Methodists are often credited for preventing England from undergoing the same bloody revolution that France would have in 1789, as well as credited for making America a more Christian nation at its outset. The movement, which had gone outside the established church and into the field, made a real impact on society—an impact fueled by people who had been renewed in faith, galvanized by discipleship and discipline, and spurring one another on to Christian perfection.
Like any revival, however, it started with going back to the basics. When John Wesley preached, his desire was to give “plain truth to plain people.” Wesley was no systematic theologian with lots of propositions about God—rather, Wesley preached a message that invited people to know God and be changed.
Wesley took his cues from Jesus himself, who took to the fields to preach the good news of the kingdom and spoke plain truth to the plainest of people. In a world where the established religion had turned inward and insular with volumes of commandments and rules, Jesus went outside and preached a simple message—a message of love—a message that fueled a movement.
It’s always been interesting to me that our Methodist doctrine is not primarily grounded in a catechism or series of questions and answers, but instead within sermons. It is a practical theology designed for delivery to people. It’s designed for the field.
Every Methodist preacher studies Wesley’s 52 standard sermons (or at least they should), and one of the most influential sermons for the Methodist movement, then and now, is “The Almost Christian.” Originally preached at Oxford in 1741, Wesley would have gone back to this message often because within it is contained the essence of true religion. For the early Methodists, love was not merely a concept to be studied, it was a way of life. Wesley’s preaching was not simply about convincing people about the truth of the gospel, it was about calling them to commit to it as a way of life. This was the Method in Methodism and the call of the gospel
Take a look at our reading for today. Jesus is once again outside, this time at the temple. A scribe (the equivalent of a lawyer in our own day) has been listening to his peers grilling Jesus there in the temple on everything from paying taxes to Caesar to who will be married at the resurrection. Jesus answers all these questions, which were designed to trap him, with skill and grace. This scribe is impressed with Jesus and his answers, and thus comes with not a hypothetical question but a sincere one: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Which one is the most important. Jesus gives him what we know now as the Great Commandment—a quote from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 – “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and then from Numbers, “and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Yes, says the scribe, you’re right, Teacher. That is the most important thing—more important that all the burnt offerings and sacrifices offered up here at the temple. Good answer, we think, and so does Jesus. But then Jesus says something we don’t expect, and I’m guessing that neither did the scribe: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” You’re almost there, but not quite yet.
Why would Jesus say that? I mean, the scribe got the answer right, and isn’t faith about getting the answers right? Isn’t it about being convinced?
The scribe is one of many people in the Gospels who seem to be convinced that Jesus is the real deal—that he is the messiah, the Son of the living God. But while many people were convinced in their beliefs about Jesus, far fewer were committed to following him. The Gospels make it clear that the convinced far outstripped the committed.
Look back at Mark 10 starting at verse 17. A rich man comes to Jesus, much like the scribe does, with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is convinced that Jesus knows the way to eternal life. In response to his question, Jesus lists some of the commandments—don’t murder, don’t commit adultery or steal or lie or cheat anyone. Honor your parents. The rich man says, “Yes, I’ve been following these commandments since I was a boy.” But Jesus, with love, looks at the rich man and says, “Great. You’re almost there. Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Then you can come and follow me.” Jesus attempted to move the man from being convinced to being committed, but Mark says that the man went away “grieving, for he had many possessions” (v. 22).
In Luke 9, beginning at verse 57 there is a list of people who are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and they say to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” They are convinced. But when Jesus says to one that following him will make him homeless, he balks. Another wants to take care of his family’s affairs before he can follow, and another wants to go home and say goodbye first. But Jesus isn’t waiting for the convinced. He is on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. If you want to follow him, you have to be more than convinced. You have to be committed. “No one who put a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (v. 62). They were convinced but not committed.
In John 6:66 we learn that there were others in the crowd beyond the twelve who considered themselves to be disciples of Jesus. But when Jesus’ teaching got difficult, these would-be disciples turned back. “Because of this [teaching], many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him.” They were convinced but not committed.
You can find a lot of people in this world who are convinced in their belief about Jesus. Our churches are populated with them—but the churches are also dying. In fact, many people think that all it takes to be a Christian is to be convinced in your mind that Jesus is your “personal Savior.” You pray a prayer, say the right words, confess the right doctrines and you’re a follower of Jesus. You just need to be convinced.
But here’s the thing—even the devil is convinced about Jesus. “You believe that God is one; you do well,” says James 2:19. “[But] even the demons believe and–shudder.” John Wesley once wrote that the demons can affirm everything in our creeds and everything written in the Old and New Testaments. “And yet for all this faith,” Wesley wrote, “they be but devils.” The devil is convinced, but not committed.
Convinced but not committed. John Wesley would have called the person who had this kind of faith in Jesus an “almost Christian.” Wesley defined the “almost Christian” as one who has a “form of godliness” or “the outside of a real Christian.” The almost Christian is one who may be a regular churchgoer; someone who does good and keeps the commandments, just like the scribe and the rich man. The almost Christian may even have a regular routine of prayer and Bible study. They are “not far from the kingdom of God.” But even though they may be convinced, they are not yet committed.
One of the things that really strikes me about this sermon of Wesley’s is that it offers a testimony of his own life. For the first 35 years of his life, you would look at Wesley and think, here is someone who appears to be an uber Christian. Indeed, he appears to have been one who was actually committed before he was convinced.
But deep down Wesley knew that all his pious living and right belief wasn’t enough. He believed that he himself was an “almost Christian.” He went through a deep crisis of faith brought on by series of failures in his life. He hit bottom, which is most often the place where we find ourselves before hear God’s voice most clearly!
On May 24, 1738, Wesley went “very unwillingly” to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. When you are questioning your faith, after all, the last place you want to be is church. But he went anyway (a lesson for us all). Broken and dejected, questioning his faith, Wesley heard someone read from Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Wesley describes it this way in his journal:
“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The next morning, Wesley wrote in his journal that because he was now convinced of Christ’s salvation, he would recommit himself to following Christ in a new way. The moment I awakened, “Jesus, Master,” was in my heart and in my mouth; and I found all my strength lay in keeping my eye fixed upon Him and my soul waiting on Him continually.”
Wesley preached this sermon “The Almost Christian” in 1741, just three years after this Aldersgate experience. By then he had come to realize what an “altogether” Christian looked like: one who was both convinced and committed. What’s the mark of such a Christian?
Well, like Jesus said to the scribe, it is the mark of love: love for God and love for neighbor.
The altogether Christian loves God with a laser-focused devotion. It is a love that “engrosses the whole heart,” soul, strength and mind. It is love that seeks to please God every moment of every day—love that delights in God more than the things of the world.
This is not love that we conjure up within ourselves, but love that is infused in us by God. “We love because he first loved us.” And because the altogether Christian loves God, then he reflects that love to his neighbor This isn’t the sappy and sentimental definition of love as a “good feeling” or positive regard toward another person, or “love” that simply avoids confrontation goes along to get along, but real, sacrificial love. It is love that is equally offered to one’s enemies as it is to one’s friends. It is love that is willing to give away everything one has for someone else if necessary. In short, it is the love of Christ, who loved the world so much that he offered himself and walked the road to the cross. It is love that requires us not only to believe, but a love that compels us to act on that belief. It is love that demonstrates and invites people people to transformation and change.
One of the reasons the world finds Christianity irrelevant and repugnant is because there are so many almost Christians who are convinced but not committed. They are very willing to talk about the tenets of their faith with a stranger but much less likely to help that stranger when he or she has a need. They preach love but practice the opposite. They believe in Christ but they don’t behave like him. They admire Jesus but they don’t follow him. As Wesley put it, “It is diligently to be noted, the faith which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith, but a dead and devilish one.”
Most of us here today are convinced. But if the people called Methodist are going to become a movement once again, we have to be committed—committed to the one God who is Lord of all; committed to the way of holiness; committed to holy love for those who come across our path; committed to obedience, following the way of Christ.
Are you committed to Christ? Does your commitment to Christ affect how you live your life every day, at work, at home, at school? Asking you if you are a Christian is one thing, but what if we asked your coworkers, your classmates, your family, that broken person you pass by in the hallway, that person with whom you have a disagreement—what would they say if we asked them if you are a Christian? Would they say that you were just convinced, or that you are both convinced and committed?
Friends, I believe a revival is coming—a new Great Awakening. Our country, our world, is primed for it, despite the evidence to the contrary. And that revival will start not at the centers of power or even within the established church, but with a few people who are both convinced and committed—people who are altogether Christians; people who are willing to go into the field—into the highways and byways, into the workplace, into our schools and neighborhoods, and even into cyberspace to not only preach love of God and neighbor but to demonstrate it daily.
This was how the early Christian church grew. This is how the early Methodist movement grew. This is how a new revival will grow as well.
Might it start with us, here in a pavilion, outdoors?