The Method in Methodism: Part V—The Means of Grace
OK, let’s begin this morning with another review. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about how Methodists emphasize God’s grace as the means of saving us from sin and bringing us to new life. Wesley said that God’s grace comes to us in three movements: Prevenient grace (the grace that goes before, that calls to us), Justifying grace (the grace that forgives sin and launches us into a new life) and sanctifying grace (growth in the image of God).
We then talked about the Rule of Discipleship, which is our response to God’s grace. The Rule of Discipleship touches four practices that define who we are in relationship to God. In other words, we are called to balance love of God and love of others through both personal and public acts of faith. Remember the Jerusalem Cross diagram. Last week we talked about the upper two quadrants, acts of compassion and justice. Today I want to focus our time on the personal acts of piety—acts of devotion. Since there’s some detail here to cover, we’ll look at the acts of worship next week and talk about worship in general and why it’s so important.
One of the phrases I’ve used throughout this series to describe Wesley’s theology is “practical divinity.” In other words, Wesley was not just concerned that people love God and their neighbor with their hearts and minds but also with their actions. The early Methodists engaged in a wide variety of spiritual practices that enabled them to grow in their relationship with God. These practices were not designed as a way of gaining God’s favor, but rather were practices instituted as a response to God’s grace and were means toward the end of knowing God more intimately. In fact, Wesley called these practices of personal devotion to God “The Means of Grace.”
Wesley listed these means of grace often in his writings and certainly practiced them himself, calling them “outward signs, words, or actions” that the Holy Spirit uses to convey grace. These practices invite us into a transformational relationship with God. They are a reminder that being a disciple is a discipline!
The means of grace that Wesley listed were not limited, but he did have several to which he most often referred. These are:
1. Prayer: personal, family, extemporaneous, and written
2. Searching the Scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing the Word preached and taught
3. Taking the Lord’s Supper
4. Fasting or abstinence
5. Christian conference, which includes conversations that minister grace to the hearers.
Wesley would say that these were the “ordinary” and “instituted” means of grace: things that Jesus himself practiced or instituted for his disciples. These acts of devotion act as a daily check upon our lives. If we want to know God, said Wesley, these are the basic ways we can do so.
Take prayer, for example. We often look at prayer as the thing we do when we need God to do something for us. We make a list and offer that to God for inspection and approval. But that’s not really the true intention of prayer. Prayer is not so much about changing God as it is about changing us. We pray so that we might bring ourselves into God’s presence, to align our will with God’s will for us. Prayer, in other words, is an act of surrender.
How do we pray? Well, that’s a whole sermon series in itself. But look at Wesley’s list of kinds of prayer: personal prayer can be anything from an awareness of God’s presence to a daily running conversation. It’s not just a “fold your hands and bow your head” thing. Prayer with your family is also important. We pray together at mealtimes, thanking God for our daily bread (we rotate the responsibility for the prayer and use a “prayer cube”—a little wooden cube that has 5 different prayers on it that the kids can read, too. They roll it and pray the prayer that comes up. We also say a prayer together at bedtime, thanking God for the day and asking God’s blessing on our rest.
I’ll confess that I have had problems with prayer over the course of my life, mostly because I had put my prayer life in a tight little box that required sitting and trying to concentrate. I am not a contemplative at heart, so I have gone toward writing down my prayers—getting them out on the paper and offering them to God. The more I write, the more I begin to see what I need and where God is calling me. Sometimes if I don’t have a clue what to pray, I pray the psalms…the ancient biblical prayer book. There’s a prayer for everything in there! Or I also have books of Celtic prayers that I like.
We’ve been talking a lot about how we can help everyone with their prayer lives. Francesca Flood is working with our prayer ministry and you’ll be seeing some workshops in the near future that will focus on ways of praying. If you’d like to learn more about prayer, watch for those workshops!
The Scriptures, for Wesley, were the source of life and faith for Christian disciples. He called himself a “man of one book” and spent much of his time studying the Bible. He understood it to be the primary revelation of God—the means by which we might know God historically and practically. “Scriptural Christianity” was the goal for the early Methodists.
But Wesley also understood that studying the scriptures was about more than just reading them in a vacuum. He saw the scriptures as being primary, but that they were also to be read and studied through certain God-given lenses, too.
These three lenses were tradition, reason, and experience. Think of it like this: The Bible acts as a prism that filters light from three sides. Tradition is the witness of generations of Christians who have read, studied, and practiced the faith. Think of the rings on a tree—each successive ring representing growth but also enclosing everything that has come before it. The tradition is living and active, ever-expanding and growing—unlike traditionalism, which says “We’ve always done it that way!”
Reason is the ability we have to think. We use our reason to study the Bible, to look at is context, understand its history, know the differences in its literature. We use our reason to discern meaning, glean interpretation, argue potential applications. Wesley did not advocate the infallibility of the Bible—it’s literality, but rather its authority. We don’t check our brains at the door when we approach the Bible…in fact, we do just the opposite. We approach it critically, inquisitively, with our questions and our intellect.
Experience, then, is the end of the prism where we see how the witness of Scripture plays out in human experience. We relate to the scriptures by finding our experience in it. This is what I try to do in preaching—relating the ancient text to modern life. The beauty of the Bible is in its practicality—when we open the pages, we find ourselves there. Personal experience is important.
When we put all these things together, we achieve a balanced perspective on the Bible. Like the Rule of Discipleship, balance is important. Most Christians (and churches) tend to focus on one of these lenses more than the others. We need all four, with Scripture as the prism, in order to see all the colors of grace God has offered us.
So, when Wesley tells us that studying the Bible is a foundational discipline, we need to take that seriously. Biblical illiteracy is one of the biggest impediments to growing disciples and growing churches. The more we study the Bible, the more we realize God’s purpose for us. Are you involved in daily scripture reading? Are you involved in a Bible study? If not, you are missing a primary source. Being a Christian without studying the Bible is a bit like being a surgeon without ever having taken a course in anatomy!
Wesley believed that taking the Lord’s Supper was also a vital spiritual discipline. When we come to communion, we humble ourselves and are constantly reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us. God’s grace is offered to us by the invitation to this simple meal. It is an outward sign of an inward grace.
It’s interesting that in some churches I have served communion Sundays were more sparsely attended. People would tell me that it “takes too long” or that having it more than a couple of times a year would make it less “special.” Wesley would have had strong words for that attitude. The Lord’s Supper is our family meal and we should take it as often as we can. That’s one of the reasons we offer it every week at the second service and every month at both. We want people to have every opportunity to take this practical sign of God’s grace and love.
Fasting is one of those disciplines that has been more sparsely practiced, but is perhaps the one that makes the most practical impact on us. Fasting means to give up taking food for a period of time—intentionally skipping a meal and dedicating that time to prayer. John Wesley would fast beginning after supper on Wednesdays and break the fast at Thursday supper, essentially skipping two meals. I have done this at various times, especially during Lent. The discipline is very humbling. When you skip a meal intentionally and devote that half hour or hour to prayer, the rumbling in your stomach reminds you of your dependence upon God for all that you have and, even more importantly, reminds you that there are others who don’t have enough to eat every day. Fasting puts us into the mindset of our needs and opens up avenues for us to grow closer to the God who provides for us.
Abstinence is another form of fasting where we “give up” something important to us as a spiritual discipline. We might forego television or chocolate or dessert, anything that gives us pleasure, as a means of denying ourselves in order to be able to listen to God.
We live in a culture that is always telling us that “more is better” and that, like Taco Bell, “it’s good to be full.” Fasting and abstinence remind us that we are needy and that our neighbors are needy. We can live more simply, live with less, and that we need to be filled with more of God’s grace instead of more food and self-gratification.
This is something I’d encourage you to try. Intentionally decide to skip one meal this week and take that time to spend with God by yourself. Use that time to write a prayer or read the Bible. Listen to the rumbling in your tummy and remember who provides for you. Remember those who are hungry. See what it does to you as a discipline.
Christian conferencing is another means of grace which recognizes that we grow best as disciples when we do so in community. The early Methodist movement was built on small groups where people met for mutual support, prayer, study, and accountability. The class meeting was not optional in Wesley’s Methodism, it was required. You had to be involved with a small group in order to be able to be part of the larger church.
Christian discipleship is a group project, thus we need to meet together. It’s always interesting to me to note that in most churches most of the people’s involvement is limited to one hour on Sunday morning. While that’s great, it’s the equivalent of being like a football player who only shows up for the occasional game while skipping practice all week. One of our goals here is to provide opportunities for everyone to be involved in a group where you can grow deeper in the knowledge and love of God through interaction with others who are seeking the same thing. Typically, we get the same people at every small group and Bible study, however. I think it’s critical to our church’s growth and the growth of each person to be involved in some type of small group experience beyond Sunday morning, whether it’s here or somewhere else in the community.
A lot of people tell me that they don’t have time to do something like that. I know that modern life is busy, but each of us still has the same 24 hours in each day. We get to allot that time according to our priorities. If growing as a disciple, if responding to God’s grace is your priority, it is something for which you will make the time.
Trust me, I speak from experience. I was warned by a wise mentor once to be careful that the practice of ministry didn’t cause me to lose my own soul. I now know what he was talking about. As a minister, it’s easy to get so busy doing work ostensibly “for God” that I neglect to be “with God.” Busyness, however, is not a biblical virtue. Devotion is!
I got convicted about this in England this summer and one of my goals has been to spend intentional time each day with God. Jennifer and I have made a covenant together to get up at 6 every morning so that we might have our devotional times before the kids wake up. I get showered and dressed and then head downstairs to my study. I have a prayer book (“A Guide to Prayer”) that has in it written prayers and scripture readings for each day. I read through those, then read a chapter out of a book of daily readings from CS Lewis that stimulates my thought processes. I then spend about 15 minutes writing in my journal, recording my prayers, thoughts from the previous day, confessions of where I’m failing to live as a disciple, goals and plans, reflections and thoughts. I use a good notebook and a fountain pen (which was a gift, but gives me a sense of being a “scribe”).
All of this takes about a half hour, but it’s the most important half hour of my day. When I miss it (which is rare now) I really feel it. It’s become a habit and a necessity. Who else has a daily discipline like this? What do you do? Would you share it with us?
One of the ten commandments (actually, the one that has the most words dedicated to it) is the one about Sabbath—time dedicated to stop working and devote ourselves to God. We most often think of that as Sunday and it’s true—we dedicate a whole day to rest and worship.
But I believe that we need a little bit of Sabbath every day—some intentional time to stop whatever else we’re doing and give time to God. It’s something we’re commanded to do—not simply for God’s benefit, but for our own.
I’d like to covenant with you to help you engage in some kind of personal devotional practice. It might look very different from mine, but the point is that you devote time each day to working on your relationship with God. It’s an essential part of being a disciple.