A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

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