WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (3)

Attend Upon the Ordinances of God

The eighteenth century was a time of fertile discovery and argument. It was an age of questions. And these questions threatened both the established answers and even the new ones being offered by other thinkers of the time. The major questions concerning knowledge and the nature of moral order always led to questions about how we live out the answers. Even the fledgling American Republic had these questions being answered in different ways by its leaders.

John Wesley searched for the answer for his “Methodists” by relying on the past. Do no harm and do good are obvious ancient precepts. Almost any thinker in the eighteenth century would have agreed on the general ideas if not necessarily the details. These two principles would be agreed upon in Western European culture in all centuries as defining how a “good person” lives. By the modern era, this would be the assumption in the Near East as well. Wesley argued that African “primitives” understood these principles through their own natural experiences. For Wesley, the Priest of the Established Church in England, being good was not enough. A Christian believer possessed a call to holiness. A Christian nation would have that same call too. The reality  of evil actions also showed that human beings, including Christian believers in community,  failed in the sense of good and right actions. There was simply one more aspect of Christian living that was required.

Historically, the Christian Church held that followers of Jesus were to keep certain spiritual disciplines to maintain holiness of the person and the community of believers. Wesley knew them as sacraments and practices. The rites of Christian initiation (baptism) and community (the Eucharist) were of paramount importance for Methodists. The spiritual actions of prayer, fasting, reading scripture, reading spiritual literature, celebration, and giving alms to the poor were very important for the believer and the community. Participating in these acts reinforced the connection to God and the goodness done.

I understand that Bishop Reuben Job rephrased the third General Rule as “Stay in Love with God.” And it certainly appears to fit the sensibilities of the self-absorbed believers of early twenty-first century America. The General Rules easily become “I” statements. I do no harm. I do good. I stay in love with God. I know those sentences are grammatically incorrect. They are also theologically and philosophically incorrect. The original statement of the third rule emphasizes a collective sense of obedience to God.

Holiness and morality are connected in Christian religious practice. One can be good without the sense of holiness. Yet, one cannot remain holy without being moral. This problem vexed Wesley. He preached that slavery was immoral. A nation could not be holy and immoral. He believed conflict among believers was definitely unholy because the conflict concerned religious truth.

Christianity was born when the Jewish understanding of a time where God would reign met Greek and Roman culture. When Antiochus IV of the Seleucid dynasty began his persecution of the Judean people, the conflict began over how Jewish identity could be maintained when ruled by people who believed their destiny was to civilize the world in their image. The Apocryphal books of the Maccabees and the Jewish celebration that became Hanukkah tell this important story in history. The military conflicts continued under Roman rule off and on for centuries. Even after Judea was no more and the Jewish people exiled from their home land, the intellectual conflict was not settled. Christianity represents one way it eventually was. The other way was the secular concept of religious tolerance which came about in the modern era.

Christianity came to rely on the Platonic philosophy of Truth being in Idealism as well as the Hebrew Canon and then later adopting the Canon of the New Testament. In his research of ancient Christian writers, Wesley brought the platonic view of “an examined life” back into individual practice. And along with it came the concepts of Idealism and Truth beyond the concept of the Good. The Aristotelian concept of ethical goodness was gaining ground in Europe and the British colonies of America.

The General Rules provide a mix of ancient and modern thinking that tends to appeal to twenty-first century Christian liberalism and evangelicalism each emphasizing one part over the other. This development leaves one to ask if what was useful in the beginning of a movement becomes the seed of destruction at the end of it? Hopefully, this is the wrong question. I doubt it.

WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (2)

Do Good

What does it mean to do good? That is an important question. Is the question aesthetic in nature? Does it mean to do good work? Or is it primarily ethical in nature? Does it mean to do good deeds?

I believe the majority of people reading this blog would assume the exhortation to do good means to do good deeds. The Golden Rule as given in Matthew 7:12 is contextually about good deeds. “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It is between a section about how God gives good gifts and an admonition to find “the narrow gate” because that one leads to “life.” Doing good means to act in ways toward other people that enhances their quality of life. Or as we often hear, “treat people the way you want to be treated.”

The first issue I wish to consider here is an objection given on the basis of ethics. “What you may consider good for you is not necessarily what is good for me.” This objection is sound. It is quite possible that a dangerous situation could arise for another person from my offer to give them food or medicine to which they are allergic. This objection has led many to argue that the negative Golden Rule offered by various other ethical systems is superior to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 7:12. The statement of Rabbi Hillel, the Buddha, Socrates and others, “What ever is harmful to you do not do to another person,” becomes the actual golden standard of ethics. I find this conclusion problematic because what may be harmful to me does not necessarily mean it is harmful to someone else. I could be allergic to certain foods or medicine. Does that mean I should hold them back from you if you can use them to enhance your health? Of course not. This is why the first of Wesley’s General Rules is Do No Harm.

The second issue then is when we do good for others we should be certain we do not create harm for them. I live near a national park that uses a black bear as its symbol. Many tourists want to see black bears living in the wild when they visit this park. One major rule of the national park is that no wildlife including the black bears is to be given food, have left over available to them, or for any human to be within 50 feet of the animals especially black bears. The reason? Were we to take any action that would be good to help a human being, it would be detrimental to the wild bears. Attempting to do good actually causes harm when the animal learns to associate humans with food. The animals can be destroyed. If we are dealing with human beings it is possible to cause harm to one set of people in order to do good for another group of people. One cannot take needed food, clothing, or shelter from one person to give it to another. John the Baptist’s instructions are for the one who has two coats to give one to someone that has none. Moses instructed that the person who has one coat that must give it as collateral on a debt must receive it back at night as defense against the cold.

The third issue is an aesthetic one. To do good is to provide quality in our efforts for others. We do not say, “beggars can’t be choosers,” and throw anything we want to them. My youngest son once came to me with a pair of blue jeans he had outgrown. “Can I give these to the clothes closet?” He asked. Proud as I was that he was considering the needs of other people, I used the incident to teach the lesson he had learned on another level. Together we unfolded the jeans and looked for holes, tears, and very worn places. I told him we wanted to give away clothes we would wear if we could. If it was something we would be embarrassed to wear and we gave it to someone in need, what would the action show our mindset to be about those in need? When we consider that issue, giving is about doing good work.

Doing good then is not about the act taken or viewing ourselves as the superior or hero in the relationship involved in helping others. Doing good is about enhancing the life of the other person. As Matthew indicates in the context of Matthew 7:12, it is a narrow gate leading to life while emulating the goodness of God.

WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (1)

The Wesleyan “General Rules” have been rediscovered in recent years. The late Bishop Rueben Job deserves the credit for this with his book and study “Three Simple Rules.” It is a good study. Personally, I recommend it. What I offer today is my own understanding of these rules and how they may be applied. If one is not familiar with them the rules are “Do no harm. Do good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.”

Do No Harm.

The first rule appears simple enough. Do no harm. It is often considered the basis of what the West calls “the golden rule.” Jesus never used that term. It is still attributed to him from his guidance “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NRSV) Other teachers in other traditions have said similar things. A legend has it that Rabbi Hillel was once challenged to teach the whole Law of Moses while the gentile questioner stood on one leg. The Sage replied, “Whatever is harmful to you do not do to another person.” The approximate wording of the same teaching is used by Plato, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and others. The Hippocratic oath begins this way. “First, do no harm.”

Essentially intending to do no harm to another person is a common sense rule. Most people would assume it should be easy to follow. Yet, it is not a law. It is a practice. Decisions to do no harm are made every day. And so are decisions to do harm to other people. Most often though, decisions are made that appear to be easily to one’s immediate benefit without taking into account whether that decision will cause harm to others. While Jesus never uses the three words “Do no harm,” he knew the harm caused by such carelessness.

Jesus makes the point often that harm was being caused in many ways in the world. He tells Pilate that he recognizes the governor’s ability to release him or to condemn him. He may represent Caesar but his true ability comes from the free will given to him from Heaven. Pilate’s way was always to do harm to benefit Pilate and the Empire (see Luke 13:1-5). Jesus informs the people willing to listen that the Temple’s treasury received all the wealth a poor widow had on which to live. The same Temple establishment received gifts from the abundance of those who ignored the widow’s plight. The Temple in fact participated in the harm being done to the poor.

These are a few examples of how harm can be done unless one intentionally looks for the consequences of human actions. I have been both impressed and perplexed by other cultures, especially tribal ones, that recognize harm being done when we of “the first world” would cease to care. If an animal must be killed, sorrow and thanksgiving are expressed in such cultures. The harm to be done is apparently unavoidable. Guilt is discharged as the animal is understood to be offering its life. We in “the developed world” may claim that belief is superstition and ingenious avoidance activity. However, we miss the wisdom in regarding that life as important in a cycle of sustenance.

Consider how the desire to dominate expresses the intent to do harm as well. To dominate others requires the threat of violence and often lethal violence. When I was a child in Sunday School, the students would ask the teachers what “the mark” that God put on the mythical patriarch Cain was. Our teachers, who had grown up in the “Jim Crow South,” had been told the mark was dark skin. It was once a belief so common that the Book of Mormon written in the nineteenth century says so.  That teaching had fallen out of fashion by the 1970’s leaving our teachers with no answer to give us. The problem was twofold. The translation of the text of Genesis 4:15 from Hebrew Masoretic text is difficult. Often the word “and” is inserted to give the impression that God declares vengeance will be seven times as great on whomever harms Cain and then a mark was put on him to identify him. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – called the Septuagint – is actually older than the Masoretic text Protestants rely upon for translation. The Orthodox Study Bible gives us this translation from the Septuagint of verse 15. “So the Lord God said to him. ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. Thus the Lord set a sign on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” The mark or sign on Cain becomes the reputation that Cain is dangerous and crossing him and his family won’t end well. “For every one of us you kill we will kill seven of you.” It also ends the idea that God is the one taking vengeance for Cain.

Do no harm sounds simple. Still many people being honest with themselves and who they are will understand that to keep this rule requires a major adjustment in who they perceive themselves to be. Many people like to assume the swagger of being “a badass” who will not only get even but get one extra hit in just to be sure their enemies remember it.

The next two weeks Glorious Life will have installments on the next two rules – Do Good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.

Ticket-Punched Christianity

There is a joke that United Methodist pastor’s tell. “There is a bird loose in the Sanctuary. How do I get it to leave? The answer can be multiple choice. “Ask it to become a member of the church? Ask it to serve on a committee. Ask it to sign a pledge card.” There are probably more. But you get the idea. The answer is not really about birds. It is about people. And it is not about just any people either. It is about professing Christians. Every congregation can tell a similar story. Someone came for several weeks as faithful as anyone could be. When they (or the kids) were baptized and joined the church (or the kids were confirmed) we never saw them in church again. Somehow we tend to blame those people for doing what they intended to do. We have not really wrestled with why they expect to get away with it.

Pastors grouse about how church members are happy to sit in the pews on a few Sundays a month or attend an entertaining event. I remember once when a Pastor-Parish Chair came to me and asked why I was not participating in “the activities of the church.” I asked what he was talking about. It seems there was grumbling about my not attending the various outings of the old folks which were nothing but entertaining themselves. My reply, “the Bible studies they always skip are activities of the church. Sunday worship is an activity of the church many of those same people miss. Serving the meals to shut-ins on Saturday mornings are missed by many of them too.” Unfortunately, I lost the argument by the chairperson conceding I was right. I am not sure how that happened.

I learned it was neither that one church nor the denomination that had this problem. It is a problem that came from outside the church. Recently, some of my more conservative colleagues learned of the following quote, “You cannot claim God as your Father without the Church being your Mother.” The quote comes from St. Cyril of Alexandria and was referenced against heretics. Remember my friends who admired this quote are Protestants and often of the evangelical school. The quote they admired was tantamount to the Roman Catholic statement “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The United Methodist clergy who supported the statement from St. Cyril were looking at it in the way I described in the previous paragraph. It surprises many when we look at our modern evangelist/revivalists that we can see the roots of the problem.

The evangelists of the previous generations like to use a phrase Billy Graham used to the new converts. “Find a Bible believing church.” The only word in that imperative statement that does not need definition is the indefinite article. Every other word there needs defining for a newly converted person. Revivalism and Evangelistic crusades became a cancer causing substance to the churches. “Be saved. Make Jesus your personal savior. Walk with Jesus. Have a personal relationship with Jesus,” all were the slogans of evangelistic crusades. If a person said, “I want that.” They were often told they now had salvation in Jesus with little to no further instruction.  In order to cover up this failure, the people were given the understanding that being once justified, God was obligated to let them into Heaven one day. They essentially had their tickets punched by the Great Conductor and forever had a place on the train. Church history demonstrates this attitude is a near constant. “Getting to Heaven” takes the place of wanting a true connection to the Creator.

The tragedy is that many of the persons asking for salvation and wanting “to walk with Jesus” were sincere in their first commitment but were let down when the revival packed up and moved to the next town. Methodists know in our history that such revivals in the old days meant there would be an organization of a class or society where people would begin working together toward being disciples of Jesus – ones who followed and then walked along side of Jesus. For them and as John Wesley understood ancient Christianity, Jesus was not merely Savior but Lord as well and that Christ was not his surname but an office he held in the Church itself.  When we acknowledge this truth, we understand why being a disciple of Jesus is the greatest job we can have in this world.

Outside the church are many people who merely wish for the church to do their own will and not that of God. John makes this clear when Jesus warns against thieves who will not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climb the wall to steal. They are indeed ravenous wolves whose tactics and intentions are far from those of the true shepherd the anointed One who calls us to Him. The leaders of the churches should expel the hateful teachings of the wolves who are in charge of “ministries” and mistakenly called “pastors” (shepherds) who are merely the mouthpieces of the interests of this world. Who are they? They are the ones who take photo ops with the people in power. They are the ones talking about the Bible and never revealing the Gospel message.  They are staging large performances and hypnotising people with false assurances and promises Jesus never made. They appear as Angels of Light and spew out human teachings and doctrines to keep the powers comfortable and destroy the souls of the poor. We can know them by their works.

The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is that mercy and redemption and celebration are available to those who will accept and participate in it. The Gospel is for those who are willing to let the One who came in the form of a servant show them how to serve. The Gospel is for those who know they need a Savior and salvation, a Shepherd and a pasture to be fed, and clear water to sustain the Resurrection Life they will be given.