Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Vital Connection

The following is a devotion I wrote for the Board of Church & Society in the new Indiana Conference.  Some of the insights come from Randy Maddox's article "'Visit the Poor': John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers" in The Poor and the People Called Methodist edited by Richard Heitzenrater. 


From the beginning, the Wesleyan Movement, like Christianity itself, was largely a movement of and for the poor.  An Oxford don, John Wesley himself attempted to imitate the life and ministry of Christ to the marginalized and disenfranchised of England.  He brought together evangelical zeal and social outreach in a manner that focused on the needs of the working class.

The Methodists of Wesley's day translated their basic message of "love of God and neighbor" into a mission of help and hope in the community in which the poor were included as children of God.  The Wesleyan approach or method of outreach to society was (and remains) a defining feature of Methodist piety.


Throughout his life and ministry, John Wesley assumed that consistent and faithful social action must be grounded in deep communal and spiritual patterns of formation.  His statement that "there is go holiness but social holiness" presumes a whole network of ecclesial practices, notably the means of grace.  Indeed, in his famous sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation (1765), Wesley integrates two key aspects of the Christian life, namely 1) how salvation is by grace through faith, and 2) how God upholds a place for our responsive appropriation of that grace.  Wesley insists that both works of piety and works of mercy are "necessary to salvation," being the way that Christ has appointed us to share God's love with others.

Throughout Wesley's writings, we see an integral connection between the reality of sanctification or holiness and the concern for the poor or social action.  Unfortunately, as the history of Methodism shows, the connection Wesley found to be so vital to the church's witness and mission has been difficult to maintain.  Again and again, we have seen how the heirs of Wesley's legacy have gone in different directions or staked out opposing positions:  for example, over the centuries there have been those who have focused a great deal of attention on Wesley's concern for social action but have paid little attention to the spiritual formation Wesley believed inclined us to be involved in this kind of ministry, and there have been those who have devoted a great deal of energy on Wesley's spirituality but paid scant attention to the formative power he assigned to works of mercy.  In the Wesleyan tradtion, holiness of heart and life involves making this vital connection and keeping it in tack. It is the key distinctive in imitating Christ, or, as Wesley put it, walking as Jesus walked.


1 comment:

  1. It feels like, to me, that the "opposing positions" that you stake out are not helpful for the real discussion that would be most useful (in both a practical and spiritual sense). I think that one of the things that is most interesting to me about Wesley's commitment to the poor was the way he both tapped into the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the times in which he was living in, and articulate it in ways that connected with his age (and beyond). I wonder if I'm projecting too much by suggesting that Wesley might be frustrated by the fact that we spend a lot more time arguing over his example, and a lot less on reading the signs of the times around us (guess I'm still thinking about the Gospel lesson from this morning).

    Having said that, you have probably heard me say many times before that I am very distressed that while Wesley talked about the very things Maddox pointed out in his article (which I read): Micro-lending, starting schools, etc... We spend our time talking about raising money to send nets to people so they won't get malaria and collecting food for food pantries. Isn't that a pretty significant difference? It looks like it to me. I'm not arguing that we should do the same things Wesley did (though I have been doing Microlending for around 15 years now). I am arguing that thinking about/discerning/seeing the opportunities to celebrate God's good news to the poor - is one way we can see more clearly the holiness around us (it opens our eyes to what is important when everything else is cleared away). And both practically speaking and strategically speaking - I just don't see how buying malaria nets or donating cans or (via the Indianapolis Star and many area congregations including United Methodist ones) tutoring a child a week fulfills that call. None of these are bad things at all. Just like the Anglican Church back in Wesley's day was not doing bad work at all - it seems to me that at the heart of Wesley's complaint was that it had no depth at ANY level. I think he might point out the same thing in this day and age. And even if he wouldn't - maybe - just maybe - we could consider it.