Here is my sermon from yesterday:
Two weeks ago we began a sermon series, entitled Three Simple Rules, based on a book of the same name written by retired united Methodist bishop Reuben Job. Now Bishop Job did not just make up these rules, instead he took them from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley wrote these rules because as Methodism was spreading he had people coming to him and telling him that they wanted to be living a Christian life. They wanted to know and love God but they didn’t know, and so Wesley wrote do these rules which still serve as guideposts for the Methodist church today.
Now the first rule is to do no harm. This rule causes us to have to pause and evaluate everything we are doing, everything we are thinking, and everything we are saying. We have to pay attention to how we live, including how we spend our money and our time, what we are watching or listening to, even what we are wearing. Doing no harm requires us to take a step backwards, to pause and evaluate what is going on in our lives.
The second rule is to do good. In some ways this is the opposite of doing no harm, because doing good requires us to step forward. In order to do good, we have to move out into the world. We cannot just watch as the world goes by. We have to be engaged with the world, encountering people and meeting them were they are, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting and caring for the sick and those in prison. This is an engaged faith, it is a faith active in following Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves. First do no harm, take a step back, and second, do good, take a step forward.
Now these are both important rules. They guide us and lead us in our faith as we engage in the world. But the problem that can arise with these first two rules is that you can do them without being in relationship with God. In fact, many have speculated that the decline of the mainstream church came about because of the church’s emphasis on social holiness, that is doing work in the world, while seeming to ignore personal holiness, our relationship with God, during the 1960s and 70s.People thought that they could do good without the church, which you certainly can, so if the only thing the church was concerned about was doing good, then the church was no longer necessary for their lives and so they left. I think there is something to that, although it’s certainly not the only reason, but it was also one of John Wesley’s concerns.
Wesley wrote “a [person may] both abstain from outward evil and do good and still have no religion. Yea, two persons may do the same outward works… and…, one of these may be truly religious, and the other have no religion at all: for the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise.” Wesley called doing good and doing no harm, works of mercy, or prudential means of grace, that is things that are prudent to do. These represent our horizontal relationships, our relationship with others. But, Wesley said that if this all that we are doing then we are “almost Christian.” We are certainly fulfilling one of the great commandments, to love our neighbor as ourselves, but “the great question of all, then, still remains,” Wesley says. “Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, ‘My God and my All?’ Do you desire nothing but God? Are you happy in God? Is God your glory, your delight and your rejoicing?” In other words, are you in love with God?
Which leads us to rule number three, which Wesley said was to “attend upon all the ordinances of God,” which is not as easy to understand as Job’s statement which is simply to “stay in love with God.” Just like with the other rules, Wesley gives examples of how we are to stay in love with God. It is by participating in the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read of expounded; participating in Communion; family and private prayer; searching the scriptures; and finally fasting or abstinence. Wesley believed that by participating in these activities, that we would come into a deeper relationship with God, and deepen our love of God.
Now you might wonder what these have to do with being more in love with God, as these sort of appear to be a series of tasks, sometimes even onerous ones, like the one about fasting. But, let me give you another way of thinking about them.As you have already heard me say many times already, and undoubtedly you will hear even more about in the future, I love baseball. Did I always know everything about baseball? Certainly not. And how did I learn about it? First, someone told me what they thought I should know, and then I watched baseball, although watching it and being told about it sort of went hand in hand, and I read about baseball, and I listened to baseball, and I talked about baseball. It’s something I learned about over time, and as I learned more, guess what? I loved it even more, and because I loved it even more, I learned even more, and so on and so on. Now if we were to meet someone and they told us they loved baseball, and we asked how often they watched it, and they said never, and we asked how often they listened to it, and they said never, and we asked how often they read about it, and they said never, and we asked how often they talked about it, and they said never, would we really believe that they loved baseball?
I regularly encounter people who once they find out I’m a minister will tell me that they too are a Christian, and as we begin talking I often find out that they don’t attend church, because, they’ll tell me, you don’t have to be in a church to be a Christian, which at one time I would have agreed with, but no longer do, and as we converse more they tell me they don’t pray, they don’t read scripture, they, in fact, don’t do anything of the things that Wesley, and more than just Wesley, says that we need to do in order to be in a relationship with God, but they tell me they love Jesus Christ.
If I was to ask you about your marriage and you told me that you never talked to your spouse, never spent time with them, never sought to learn more about them, or never engaged them in any way, first I would wonder what was going on and second I would tell you that your marriage is in serious trouble, because if you weren’t doing any of those things then I think we could all agree that you are not actually in relationship. To be in relationship with someone, to be in love with someone, requires us to have an interaction, to be actively engaged with that person, and that is what Wesley is talking about.
Although Wesley does not have prayer listed first, I would say that prayer is the first and most important step in deepening our relationship with God. Prayer is a holy conversation. Just as we get to know about another person, and come to love them more, by talking with them, the same is true for prayer, and prayer is just as much, if not more, about listening as it is talking. Does your prayer life mirror how you talk with other people with whom you love?
Now I know that most people I have talked with about prayer say they don’t pray because they don’t know how, and that is something we will address, but do you know how I learned how to pray? I just did it. As soon as people found out that I was going into the ministry, I became the designated prayer, but praying is way too important to be left to the minister to do. So let me give you just two simple things to get started if you are not already praying at least once a day.
One, if you are not comfortable saying your own prayer, is to use prepared prayers. In the scripture insert which we started today, there is a prayer for the week. Pray that each day as you get started, or find your own. There are literally millions of resources available. The second thing is just to simply talk, that’s how I pray. I don’t pray formally like we do here at church. I simply start talking. Talk to God just like you do everyone else and I guarantee you will see and feel a difference in your faith. It might take a little while, you may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s like learning any new activity. At first you’re not sure, but the more you work at it, the better you’ll get and the better you get the more you’ll enjoy it, and the more benefit you’ll receive.
The next thing Wesley enjoins us to do is to join in public worship. As I said, I once disagreed that you needed to be attending church, but I was wrong, and I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I began coming to church. Wesley said “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and… to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it.” Pretty strong words, but Jesus does not say that were one is gathered he is there, instead what does he say, “where two or more are gathered, there I am amongst them.” We are on a journey and journeys are always most successfully completed in groups, and so it is with Christianity. Christ is found in the gathered body of Christ. But worship can only be part of our spiritual nourishment. If worship is the only spiritual food we are receiving then we are starving ourselves to death.
This leads directly into the receiving of communion. Wesley believed so strongly in the power of communion that he received it four to five times a week, and even preached on the duty of constant communion. The Methodist church in America was founded basically in order to give people the opportunity to receive communion, and it is the official position of the church that we should be serving communion every week. It is that important. Although I am sure that altar calls are fairly prevalent in this area, you will never see me do an altar call the way people normally think of them while I am here. I won’t do so for numerous reasons, some theologically, some historic, but here is the simple reason why: We have an altar call every month. It is called communion. It is the time in which we come forward, pledging ourselves to Christ. It is the time when we reaffirm to whom we belong individually and as a congregation.
One of the reasons that we practice an open communion table is because Wesley believed that communion could be a converting sacrament, that is in receiving the elements you could be moved to accept Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf. It is an altar call. Because of its importance I would be more than willing to serve communion every week in service, which some churches do, or to have a separate communion service after worship, which is how others handle it.
Finally Wesley enjoins us to read scripture. Wesley has this as two different points. The first being the reading or hearing of scripture, and the second is the searching of scripture. In addition to prayer, reading the bible should be a part of your spiritual life. Now just like with prayer, I know that people often don’t read scripture for numerous reasons. The first reason I often hear is that they don’t know where to start. I would not recommend that you start at Genesis 1:1 and work your way through to Revelation 22:21, because, unless you have incredible fortitude, you’ll never make it. You’ll get bogged down in names and numbers and get discouraged and stop.
Instead, I would suggest taking the daily scripture readings and use them. Or if you want something more consistent, begin with Matthew and read the gospels, then Acts, then the letters of Paul, or read the psalms, or proverbs, or some of the books of history out of the Hebrew scriptures. Wesley also says that we should be searching scriptures, and even though Wesley himself practiced this, I do not suggest that if you are looking for God’s guidance from scripture that you just open the Bible and begin reading and take this as what God is leading you to, and I’ll give you the perfect example of why.
One day, a man did this, and the first scripture he found was Matthew 27:5, “throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple he went and hanged himself.” Well the man thought, that can’t be right, and so he closed the Bible and decided to try it again, this time coming on Luke 10:37, “Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Instead, if you are looking for something specific, use a concordance or one of the many Bible search engines, but I would caution you to always, always, always, pay attention to the context in which the passage is used.
Wesley called all of these practices which bring us into relationship with God and help us stay in love with God, works of piety. They were, he said, an instituted means of Grace, and they represent our vertical relationships. Works of piety were given to us by God as a way of helping us to understand and participate in God’s grace. They are, in Wesley’s words, “outward signs, words or actions, ordained by God… to be the ordinary channel whereby God might convey to [people]… grace.” These works of piety are the means by which we build and sustain our vertical relationship with God. But if these works of piety all we are doing, which is what we will often hear, especially by some prominent ministers, then we are also not living a complete Christian life. We only have one part.
Zan Miller, who some of you may know because he was the host and narrator of the Disciple 1 Bible study videos, says that we need to be leading cross centered lives, something with which Wesley would certainly agree. Jesus is our example, and our focus should be on the cross. But we need both parts of the cross, when we only have the vertical relationship, our relationship with God, our works of piety, then we are missing a piece, and when we only have the horizontal, our relationship with others, our works of mercy, then we are also missing a piece. In order to lead a cross centered life, we have to have both the vertical and the horizontal. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said it was to love the Lord your God with, what, with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul and with all your strength, the vertical, and to love your neighbor as yourself, the horizontal. How do we live a Christian life? We focus on the cross.We live cross centered lives.
You cannot have or practice only one of the rules and be complete. Doing no harm, leads to doing good, which leads to staying in love with God, which in turn leads to doing no harm, which leads to doing good, which leads to staying in love with God. They all feed and build off of each other. Each one is important, and all are necessary to lead a cross centered life.
Bishop Max Whitefield, who is our bishop, was recently asked “what would you like to see in every congregation?” He interpreted this to mean, what do vital congregations have that others don’t? And the answer is simple. Healthy and vital congregations are ones who are deeply in love with Jesus Christ.
When you are in love with Jesus you cannot help but live a cross centered life, and because you live a cross centered life people cannot help but see that you are in love with Jesus. And when you are in love with Jesus you cannot contain or control it. Wesley said that he didn’t do anything special in his evangelism, except that he set himself on fire with the spirit and people came out to watch him burn. When you are on fire with the love of God, when you have been filled with the Holy Spirit, you cannot help but to live that out in your life and in turn to catch other people on fire. Fire cannot be controlled or contained, it has to spread, and here’s the biggest point. When we lead cross centered lives, then people will come to watch us burn, and when people see us on fire with the love of Christ they too want to burn.
When we live out the three simple rules, when we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God, then our lives are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our churches, then our churches are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our communities, then our communities are transformed. When we live out the three simple rules in our nation, then our nation is transformed. And when we live out the three simple rules in our world, then our world is transformed. First do no harm, second do good, third stay in love with God. We are called to love the lord our God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, the vertical, and we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, the horizontal. We are called, in other words, to live cross centered lives, and we do that by doing no harm, doing good and by staying in love with God. May it be so. Amen