Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:1-10
At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. 2 You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. 3 At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.
4-5 However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! 6 And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. 7 God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.[a] This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
Today, our denomination is meeting for a special called General Conference in St. Louis, MO for the purposes of praying, listening, discerning and ultimately deciding what our denomination’s policy will be regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons. This is a debate that our denomination has been having for 47 years, ever since the language was added to our Book of Disciple that “homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.” I’ve spoken already about the ways that faithful, Bible-reading Christians can read the handful of scriptures that reference what we now call homosexuality and, with reason, tradition, experience and examination in the light of Jesus’ teachings on love, can come to a different interpretation of these scriptures than others, who hold to a more literal interpretation.
For the weeks surrounding our general conference, I wanted to lead us through a short study of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church, some of the foundational theology around which our denomination was formed. Last week, we learned about how John Wesley, son of an Anglican priest, and himself a priest in the Anglican Church, had an encounter with a group of Moravian Christians that led to a period of soul-searching, and eventually a change in heart about his faith. Unlike the very methodical faith he learned to practice, the Moravians seemed to be experiencing joy, peace and assurance even in the face of challenges that John Wesley had not experienced. In a journal he explained that though he tried to be good, he continually failed, and eventually concluded that he lacked saving faith, saying, “I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. … I fell and rose, and fell again.” On May 24, 1738, he had an experience that completely changed his faith. In his journal he wrote,
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. 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.
This experience led to a reawakening of John Wesley’s faith, and to a movement of preaching which led hundreds of England’s working-class poor to hear and respond to the gospel. John Wesley began organizing these new Christians into Methodist Societies, and it was to these small communities of faith that he gave the General Rules:
All three of these rules were meant to help these new Christians to be able to live out, in practical ways, Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Last week, we explored the first rule, to do no harm, which requires us to think not only about the more obvious commandments such as, do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, or worship idols, but also those things that may cause unintentional harm. Some of these may be on a larger scale, such as consumer practices that contribute to environmental harm, systemic poverty or racism; as well as on a more individual scale, such as withholding God’s love and grace from others, speaking ill of others, or refusing to give or accept forgiveness. We also have to be aware that sometimes, our actions may even cause ourselves harm.
So the next rule, then is to do good. John Wesley lived by a personal motto which says, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Once John Wesley had his “Aldersgate moment” he realized that he had previously been trying to earn his salvation; that if he just prayed more, read scripture more often, and tried harder to be good, that he would somehow feel God’s grace as more real. Once he experienced God’s grace shed abroad in his heart, he realized that he had gotten it all backwards – that God’s grace comes first, and that everything we do once we awaken to God’s grace in our lives is in response to that grace.
In our scripture lesson today, Paul made that same point to the new Christians in Ephesus. Chapter 2, verses 8-10 says, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” John Wesley eventually came to believe that God’s prevenient grace is present in our lives from the very beginning. Before we are even aware of it, God is loving us unconditionally, and wooing us, inviting us to draw close to God, to love God in return. It’s there with us, even in the darkest times, just waiting for us to turn around and recognize it and accept it. Wesley calls this the Awakening or Convicting Grace – when we, like he did at Aldersgate, realize God’s loving presence in our lives and our hearts are ‘strangely warmed’ – when we, too, say yes to a relationship with God. Then, Wesley says that we begin our journey of transformation, of becoming sanctified and going on toward Christian perfection – of living out our lives in response to that saving grace that we couldn’t earn. So good works are not to earn our salvation with God, but to say thank you to God, and to become the vessel for God’s grace to reach others.
John Wesley had a heart for the poor, the sick and those in prison. And he encouraged those in the Methodist societies to live out their faith by doing good to the least, the lonely and the lost. Today we see that in addition to those living in poverty, there are others who are living on the margins of society who long for expressions of God’s love in their lives, as well. Those who are caught in addiction, those who are unwelcome and unaccepted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, and those who are fleeing violence and abuse. Our response to God’s grace is what Wesley called acts of mercy – unselfish acts of love that bless others with wanting recognition or anything in return; giving grace upon grace to others.
I’ve known self-professed Christians who seem to believe that as long as their own heart is right with God, and they avoid doing evil themselves, then they are doing all that is ‘required’ of their faith. In other words, they believe their faith is limited to a personal relationship with Jesus. But over and over again in the gospels, we see that Jesus, too, has a heart for blessing those who were excluded from the religious community of his day – those who were considered ‘unclean’ due to illness, injury and disease, those who were considered ‘other’ because of their gender or ethnicity, those who were considered ‘less than’ because of economic or social status. Jesus demonstrated that being his disciple included acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the poor, and visiting the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25: 35-36).
John Wesley knew that people’s real-life needs had to be addressed in order for them to believe the good news he was preaching. In his own experience of trying to practice a self-focused faith, where his intention was on personal piety, or personal righteousness, his faith remained cold and he felt distant from God. But when he experienced God’s grace as something he could never earn, something he didn’t deserve, and something that came from God’s unconditional love, he was moved to share this same grace, this same love with others. And it moved him to have compassion on others, to do all he could to bless them so they would come to know this overwhelming love of God, as well.
We were created to do good in response to God’s love. Jesus demonstrated a real-life way to bless others. So the question to us today is, how are we doing in responding to God’s love in our lives? Are we out there, sharing it by feeding the poor, clothing the needy? Are we visiting the sick and the lonely and those imprisoned, whether in a literal prison or a prison of their mind or bodies? Are we doing all we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can to bless others?
Our denomination is at a crossroad. We don’t know what will ultimately be decided this week. But as individuals, and as part of this community of faith called Maple Grove, we can decide that our way of living will be one that seeks to do no harm, and one that does as much good to others as possible. Whether or not we remain United as Methodists, our faith and understanding of God’s grace has been shaped in a way that calls us to look outside of our church walls to those in our community who need someone to share with them that God is already with them, already loving them, already beside them with arms wide open, waiting for the day when they turn around and recognize that love, and accept that grace to transform their lives. But how will they know unless we tell them, and show them?
We know that our culture is changing in a way that makes it much more difficult for families and young professionals to attend church on Sundays. That’s part of the reason why I am exploring possibilities for new expressions of faith in our community. I’ve invited some of you to begin a weekly bible study with me over lent to begin discerning what these expressions may look like. But I want to invite all of you to begin praying daily for this effort. How will the 60% of our community who are unchurched or dechurched come to know the amazing love of God? It’s up to us. Pray also that God will lead you to personal ways that you can bless others. Our faith isn’t something we get to keep to ourselves – it is meant to be lived in such a way that others see the difference God’s grace has made in our lives, and that changes the way we treat others; it is meant to be shared with those who are walking through struggles in their lives, and those who have been marginalized because of status, race, religion, orientation, or other things that leave them less than, lonely and lost.
In Bishop Rueben Job’s book, Three Simple Rules, he writes, “I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide that my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can." (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.) In other words, do good NOW. Love others NOW. And if you have never turned around and recognized God’s grace in your life – if you want to say ‘yes’ to accepting God’s grace to transform you into a disciple of Jesus who lives your life in response to this grace by loving God with your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, and by loving your neighbors as yourself, then respond to God NOW.
John Wesley’s brother Charles, also a priest in the Anglican church had a similar change of heart and faith. And he wrote a beautiful hymn that captures these experiences they and other new Christians have described. The fourth stanza says,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
God’s amazing grace – freely given and present with us all our lives – is calling us to be people who seek to do no harm and to do good. Let’s look for ways that we can share God’s love this week. Do good NOW. Bless others NOW. And share God’s amazing love with every person you meet. Amen.
Romans 12:9-18 (CEB)
9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
Romans 13:8-10 (CEB)
8 Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi that says, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Can’t we all think of at least one person we have known who was extremely religious, but not very nice? I saw a meme on the internet this week that said, “God’s truths are not bricks to throw at people. They are bread to feed people.” We’re beginning a three-week study today of the United Methodist General Rules – the three guiding principles by which Methodists, and all Christians, really, are encouraged to use to guide their words and deeds in order to follow Jesus’s commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
These general rules came to us from John Wesley who formed the Methodist movement within the Church of England in the early 1700’s. As a priest in the Anglican Church, John Wesley and his brother Charles were asked to be part of a mission to the American colony of Georgia. Things didn’t exactly go well, and they returned to England with their faith shaken. But during their travels, they met a group of Moravian immigrants whose assurance of faith made a lasting impression on John. After that, he began having regular conversations with a man named Peter Böhler about Moravian spirituality, which included the belief that Christians have an assurance of faith experienced as love, peace, and joy. Those emotions were not part of the methodical faith that the Wesley brothers knew, but John became consumed with these ideas, and poured through the Bible for evidence of Böhler’s claims.
Eventually, both brothers came to know this faith for themselves, each of them describing a particular moment when God’s Spirit touched their heart. In a journal, John Wesley wrote:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a 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.
Even though John Wesley was the son of a preacher and grew up in a devoutly religious home, the dynamic connection to God that he made at Aldersgate was new to him. Dale Patterson, General Commission on [United Methodist] Archives and History explains that this led to a complete re-thinking, or re-framing of faith. He says, “I think he came to his adulthood with one particular concept of how the religious life should work for him. And I think that’s what he had to relearn. He had initially planned to live life in a certain way and that was going to make a great relationship with God. And what Aldersgate taught him was he had to flip it. He’d gotten, unintentionally, the cart before the horse.”
The reason I’m sharing this with you is because I think it is important to realize that the church we know as the United Methodist Church might not even exist if John Wesley, an Anglican priest who thought he had God and religion all figured out, had not been willing to question what he was taught, and have Spirit-led conversations with others whose faith seemed to be producing fruit that his did not, and then to be willing to open his mind and his heart to experiencing God in a new way. In fact, once he did have that “Aldersgate moment” he was so on fire for preaching and sharing his experience and his new-found faith with others that he, in effect, started a religious revival! As people heard him preaching and became Christians, he began forming them into societies, similar to the Moravians that we might call today, churches or communities of faith. Then within those, he formed them into small classes and bands, which we might call Sunday School and small groups. It was to these societies, who met weekly for the purpose of instruction and prayer, that he wrote the general rules as a way to give them real-world guidelines to help them live out their new faith.
These “General Rules” were:
Former Iowa Bishop Reuben Job wrote a very short and simple book about these three “simple” but challenging rules, because he saw the signs that American Christianity, including those in the United Methodist Church, seemed to be reverting to a practice of Sunday-morning religion that didn’t necessarily make its way into our daily living the rest of the week. In his book he asks a series of questions that I would ask us to consider today: “Those who seek to follow Jesus must be asking if this is the way Christians are to live. Are we really measuring up to our calling as children of God? Is there a better way for us to practice our faith? A way so simple and substantial that none are turned away and all are able to practice as together we engage in our quest for faithful living? Do we look at one another and see movement toward our oneness in Christ? Do others look at us and see God at work in our life together? Is our way of living life-giving rather than life-draining? Is our way of living one that will enhance the quality of life of each of us for as long as we live?” (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.)
Wow. Those are convicting questions, aren’t they? A simple way, but not an easy way. But a way that can show God to those who don’t know God, a way that gives life instead of draining it, and a way that actually makes the quality of life better for everyone! That’s a life I want. So how do we do it? First, do no harm.
What does it mean to live life in a way that does no harm? In the medical community, when a person’s life can literally be in the hands of a medical professional, the healer has taken an oath to first do no harm. That means on purpose, or accidental. I all of us can easily think of ways that we can intentionally do harm to others. If you’re having trouble with this, think of the ten commandments: Thou shalt not… what? Murder. Commit adultery. Steal. Take the Lord’s name in vain. Be envious of your neighbor, or give a false witness against them. And there is an entire theology based on this type of doing no harm, called deontology, based on the Greek root deon which means duty, or obligation. It’s a way of thinking of morality as defined by behaviors that are considered evil, no matter what. In other word, there’s a list of “thou shalt not’s” and it’s pretty black-and-white. Where this begins to break down, in my opinion, is that if one lives their life only in terms of not doing the “bad things” does that make them a good, moral person? And even if they do things that are technically “not bad” but that in some way causes harm to another person, is that okay? Jesus himself seems to challenge this way of thinking when he says in Matthew 5, “You have heard it said ‘don’t commit murder; don’t commit adultery’” … “but I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment; that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5: 21-22, 27-28) So there can even be thoughts and attitudes that can be harmful, and that’s not so black-and-white.
So there’s another theology that is based more on the idea that we are all moving toward God’s divine purpose for our lives and for all of creation, and that’s called teleology, based on the Greek root telos, which we’ve already discussed means purpose, or end result. And in this theology, instead of saying, well, here’s a list of bad behaviors to avoid, it asks instead to consider the ramifications of everything you do so that it is always in alignment with movement toward God’s kingdom goals of reconciliation and restoring everyone and everything to its intended wholeness. So in this spirit, we can begin to think of our actions in terms of whether they cause harm.
Let’s think about big-picture things for a moment, like the environment. Scientists are warning us that our earth is getting warmer which is creating devastating changes in climate, that deforestation and other agricultural practices are putting the environment and some species at risk, and that globally our use of fossil fuels are contributing to the larger issue of climate change. So one way to do no harm in light of these areas of concern would be to think about the ways we may be part of the problem instead of the solution. Our denomination’s social principles state that it is “the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.” Some simple ways to do this might be to turn off the lights when you leave the room, or not to let water run while you’re brushing your teeth. But we can take other steps like only purchasing eco-friendly materials that are recyclable or that did not come to us from practices that are harmful to the environment. The UMC and the UMW has lots of information on their websites about ways that we can be intentional in doing no further harm to God’s creation.
Another big picture concern might be poverty. Are there things you and I do that contribute to global or US poverty? Are there ways we are causing harm to those struggling to get by on less than a living wage? To answer this question, we may need to educate ourselves more about the factors that contribute to poverty, or the practices of the places where we shop and do business. For example, one of my best friends is married to the president of a local auto worker’s union. And through them, I have learned that there are many workers in the US who are working multiple jobs because some corporations make it their practice to hire the majority of their workforce as part-time employees, thereby saving millions if not billions of dollars by not having to provide health insurance. So when people cannot find gainful employment because we give our business to corporations who don’t pay their workers fairly, are we causing harm? My friend and her husband have made the decision that in addition to working within the political system to try to increase minimum wages or improve employee benefits, they will also no longer shop at or support corporations that treat their employees poorly, even though it means driving out of the way or paying a higher price for household items or groceries.
These two issues might give us pause to consider other big issues such as refugee and immigration policy, systemic racism, gun laws and a whole list of other policies that can have a negative impact on people’s quality of life. As followers of Jesus, are we spending time thinking about the big ways that our actions can unintentionally cause or contribute harm?
On a different scale, there are ways that even religious systems can cause harm. Going back to the theological arguments I outlined earlier, John Wesley became convinced that the best way to live out our faith was not to emphasize one way over the other, but to strive for both personal holiness and social justice. That means that when we’re making our decisions about what we say, how we behave, what and from where we make our purchases, and every other conscious decision we make, we should strive to do no harm. I have had countless conversations with people over the years who have been harmed by some of those in the “moralistic behavior-driven” camp. Some Christians, and groups within church systems have become so narrowly focused on certain behaviors, such as abortion and homosexuality, that their words and actions seem more like those bricks being hurled at others, instead of trying to build relationships where space is given for the grace of God. I am sure there are issues over which we do not all think the same. We’ve had different experiences and we’ve been created uniquely with different ways of learning and seeing and interpreting our world. But our God is so big that I don’t think any one of us knows God or God’s intentions completely. So while we may not always agree about everything, I hope that we can always leave space for God’s grace to cover both of our shortcomings and the realm of things that we cannot know.
As John Wesley was forming his religious societies, he spoke out quite boldly about what he called religious bigotry, and had this to say: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
Our denomination is headed to a special called General Conference next week to try to find a way forward even among the varying opinions over human sexuality. Our Methodist church has been here before. We’ve had similar disagreements over the issue of slavery in America, and over the ordination of women. In one case, the divide was so deep that those within the denomination chose to split. In 1884, we became the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. We stayed divided until 1939, and then joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. Interestingly enough, we’ve been having this same argument since language was added to our Book of Discipline in 1972.
Originally, in the Social Principles was a statement that read, “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” Someone at the 1972 General Conference wanted to know what it meant for ‘homosexuals to have their human and civil rights ensured,’ and that question lead the addition of this statement: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
44 years later, we are still debating this question. And here’s what I personally know: I personally know people, young and old, who were raised to know and love God, and who have dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ and to following his way, and who have experienced and strived to follow a call by God to a vocation of ministry. And these individuals who show the Spirit-produced fruits in their lives and ministry are the same as me except, they identify as LGBTQ. Most of them have said they knew this about themselves from a very early age, that it was not a choice – and that if it was, they wouldn’t have chosen it. Nevertheless, they have been formed in the faith the same way many of us have been, and yet there are those who want to debate whether they are incompatible with Christian teaching. Real harm has been done to these individuals by having debates about them instead of with them, by hurling hurtful words that demean and deny, by kicking them out of congregations and even families – this is not Christian behavior, no matter what the issue is. No matter what we may believe about another person, Jesus encouraged us to love our neighbors and even those we would consider enemies. Paul’s letters to the church in Rome, from which our scriptures today come, implore Christ-followers to show love without pretending, to treat each other as members of your own family, to welcome strangers, and to bless people – bless and not curse them – to consider everyone as equal, and even to show respect for what everyone else believes is good; and, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with all people. (Romans 12:9-18)
I don’t know what will happen next week. I but I do know what I hope happens here at Maple Grove. I hope that we are a church that will be known in this community – not because we have a historic building or a new building – but because we show love to our neighbors. I hope that we will be known as that group of Christians who get involved in our neighborhood elementary school and who make friends with the families who live nearby, and who show radical welcome and care to everyone they meet. I hope that we are known as the church who loves its neighbors – no exceptions; where everyone is welcome – everyone; and where there is genuine care and concern and meaningful relationships; a church where everyone belongs.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Bishop Job: “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God's children or to any part of God's creation. As did John Wesley and those in the early Methodist movement before me, I too will determine every day that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God—a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved—just like myself. And it is this vision of every other person as the object of God's love and deep awareness that I too live in that loving Presence that can hold me accountable to my commitment to do no harm.” (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.)
May it be so.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 46; Matthew 6:25-34;