Letter To A Cousin
Considering our many discussions/arguments over religion, after our recent conversation, I was very surprised that we are really pretty much at the same place in our Christian involvement. We don’t like the church as an organization and aren’t a “member” anywhere (or at least I’m not) but we go with wives and, most importantly, try to live by the Golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. As I pointed out, Jesus said that this is the Sum of the Law and the Prophets. (That’s in Matt. 7:12 if you want to put it in context.)
I’ve thought about it a lot – primarily about where I am and how I got there – and want to continue the conversation with some insights that were meaningful for me and that I think you will find interesting.
I find it somewhat comforting that Jesus wasn’t that big on the “organized church” either. While He sometimes taught in Synagogues but most often He spoke out-of-doors. He was continually in conflict with religious leaders who considered him a lowlife sinner. He choose common folks as Apostles, including 6 fishermen and an IRS agent and to make it even worse, they traveled accompanied by several women who Jesus had healed –evil spirits, disease etc. – at least one of whom, Mary Magdalene, was said to have been a prostitute. Not only did he sometimes work on the Sabbath but he once healed a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath, that’s when the church leaders decided he had to go and started the plot that led to his crucifixion:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Mark 3:1–6
Like us, Jesus was not about the trappings of religion but about what’s in your heart. He made this clear many times but the most stark example occurred as he was dying on the cross:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:39–43
Being a Wesleyan – although not currently a Methodist – I have been taught to believe that the real church is God’s kingdom on earth, where God’s kingdom consists of all those who accept God as their King. This is not a specific denomination or even the summation of all denominations and only God knows who is in his kingdom/church and who isn’t.
My name is on no church roll. I think you said yours might be on that of the church and I personally don’t think that makes much difference one way or the other. Interestingly, my favorite church of all time is a Wesleyan non-denominational church, where my wife and I used to attend once a month – and they don’t even have a church roll – nor members. They think you should call it role and it has to do with the role you play in life.
I believe Wesley’s ministry is a great illustration of ardent Christians losing sight of the Golden rule and, in his case, then having his eyes (really his heart) opened. And, it’s a pretty interesting saga so here’s a quick overview:
Wesley’s Christian ministry started normally – an Oxford educated pastor in the Church of England – but turned into more of a Jesus-like ministry to all – particular to the common folks. After graduation, he was a rather typical intellectual Christian, working to create a better theology or system of doctrines. Then, he was invited by the founder of the colony of Georgia to go there as a missionary and agreed to go. During the voyage a group of Moravians were having a religious service when a storm came up that terrified everyone on board except the Moravians – who just continued to sing. Wesley couldn’t believe what he saw and asked if they weren’t afraid and the answer was that they were not afraid to die. From his later discussions with the Moravians he began to seriously try to understand the difference between his faith and theirs.
Wesley the “intellectual” had no success with the heathen Indians or even the Christian “Colonials. To say that his ministry was a failure would be an understatement. In less than two years he returned to England. He later stated: “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted”. Upon returning to England, doubting his own faith, he turned to the Moravians for help. After couple of months of searching within himself, he attended an evening Christian society meeting in a Moravian home during which “his heart was strangely warmed”. Soon thereafter, he declared that up to this time he had not, in a real and vital sense, been a Christian at all. Many years later he said of his early ministry:
“When, 50 years ago, my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the people that unless they view their sins forgiven they were under the wrath and curse of God, I wonder they did not stone us. Methodists know better now.”
Soon thereafter, Wesley began to minister in prisons and workhouses and he preached in churches until they locked him out and then in houses or anyplace else where he was needed. From then on his ministry was to the common people of Britain. And – very Christ like – he traveled, preached wherever the common folks gathered, and established a “Society” of folks who lived by the Golden Rule daily. After a few years this movement spread all around Britain. A few years ago there was an article in National Review that credited Wesley’s movement as the primary reason that there was no revolution to overthrow the monarchy in Britain as occurred at that time all around Europe.
This “Methodist” movement had no recorded organization, no rulebook, no dogma, just the Scriptures. They built chapels which included schoolrooms for kid’s education and libraries, and this” Methodist Society” took on the mission of helping the sick and the needy. People began to take notice and wondered who these people were and what they believed, but there was no written set of rules or doctrines of any kind. So to provide some understanding Wesley gave his sermon on the character of a Methodist. Excerpt from that sermon:
As time permits, Methodists do good to all, their neighbors and strangers, their friends and enemies. This includes every kind of good. Naturally Methodists provide food for the hungry and clothing to the naked. They visit people who are sick and in prison. But even more important than this, Methodists labor to do good to the souls of people. According to the ability which God has given to them, Methodists labor to awaken those who have never known God and therefore sleep the slumber of eternal death. And when people are awakened to God, Methodists help them realize that the atoning blood of Jesus has power to cleanse away their sins. The greatest good work a Methodist can do is to help somebody get into right relationship with God for this is the only way a person can have peace with God.”
When the Methodist Church came into being in the American Colonies, they established rules now call the Discipline. The first section of the rulebook was, and still is, the Articles of Faith – sort of a Constitution. These are Wesleyan and can’t be changed. The remainder is sort of the organization’s governing document and it can be changed, and is, by a Conference each four years. And, there is a Supreme Court that has the final authority in enforcing the rules. But no one, except maybe God in the hereafter, enforces the Articles of Faith. So, it’s okay if the congregation, including the Minister, disobeys the articles of faith, but if you don’t pay your apportionment (tax) you’re in deep trouble. As for all organizations, the original mission of the organization grew to include propagating itself. Sound familiar?
One of our share-groups recently used Wesley’s sermon on spiritual worship during one of its meetings and it made me remember the feeling of God’s loving presence that I have had for most of my life. Here are some excerpts that helped me:
“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” 1 John 5:20
In this Epistle St. John speaks not to any particular Church, but to all the Christians of that age; although more especially to them among whom he then resided. And in them he speaks to the whole Christian Church in all succeeding ages.
In this letter he does not treat directly of faith, but of the foundation of all, – the happy and holy communion which the faithful have with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We know we are of God; “children of God, by the witness and the fruit of the Spirit.” We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us “a spiritual understanding, that we may know the true One,”
As the true God, he is also the Supporter of all the things that he hath made. He beareth, upholdeth, sustaineth, all created things by the word of his power, by the same powerful word which brought them out of nothing. As this was absolutely necessary for the beginning of their existence, it is equally so, for the continuance of it: Were his almighty influence withdrawn, they could not subsist a moment longer. Hold up a stone in the air; the moment you withdraw your hand, it naturally falls to the ground. In like manner, were he to withdraw his hand for a moment, the creation would fall into nothing…
“By and in him are all things compacted into one system.” He is not only the support, but also the cement, of the whole universe.
To pursue this a little farther: We say, the moon moves round the earth; the earth and the other planets move round the sun; the sun moves round its own axis. But these are only vulgar expressions: For, if we speak the truth, neither the sun, moon, nor stars move. None of these move themselves: They are all moved every moment by the almighty hand that made them.
The true God is also the Redeemer of all the children of men. It pleased the Father to lay upon Him the iniquities of us all, that by the one oblation of himself once offered, when he tasted death for every man, he might make a full and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
In all these senses Jesus Christ is the true God. But how is he eternal life?
This eternal life then commences when it pleases the Father to reveal his Son in our hearts; when we first know Christ, being enabled to call him Lord…when we can testify – our conscience bearing us witness – “the life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
And then it is, that happiness begins;– happiness real, solid, substantial. Then it is that heaven is opened in the soul, that the proper, heavenly state commences, while the love of God, as loving us, is shed abroad in the heart, instantly producing love to all mankind…
When I was refreshing my memory about Wesley, I ran into a website that listed a bunch of his quotes. Here are a few that I especially liked:
“When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me”
“The Church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”
“Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge”
“Think and let think.”
As to matters of dress, I would recommend one never to be first in the fashion nor the last out of it” “The best of it is, God is with us.”
Going through all this has been helpful for my understanding of myself and in reinforcing my feeling of God’s love for me. I wish the same for you.