On the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist "welcomed" us good religious folks — "Brood of Vipers!" — with a warning to turn again toward God and "bear fruit." The Revised Common Lectionary gives John two Sundays; about one is all I can take.
Yet, the Baptist and the purple seasons in our year — Advent and Lent — invite reflection on our human condition and the need for grace. The conviction that faith is known by its fruits is strongly emphasized in the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley's genius, in my opinion, was in the way he taught the Christian faith, both in practice and content.
For Wesley, the goal of the Christian life is to have "the mind that was in Christ Jesus" and to "Walk as Jesus walked." Salvation is to be on a journey toward the fullness of life in love, the perfect love of God and our fellow human beings. Wesley repeatedly emphasized that God's love is universal for all people. Ours must be, too: "The Lord is loving to every [person], and his mercy is over all his works." (Psalm 145:9). I find great comfort in this image of salvation being a journey, a living toward perfect love. Few of us are there yet. We work at it just the same.
The Mind That Was in Christ Jesus
Wesley's often repeated emphasis on having "the mind that was in Christ" is a crucial piece of spiritual geography left behind in contemporary Methodism. On most days, I am happy to have done the right thing. Nevertheless, Wesley insisted that doing the right thing emerged from a prior essential: the temperaments of the Spirit, the same in Christ Jesus. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentlenesses, and self-control. There is no law against such things" (Galatians 5:22-23). To which he would append, and in "all manner of conversations" (1 Peter 1:5).
Here, I believe Wesley was taking issue with my social media posts! His point is essential. If we are not being patient and kind, grateful, encouraging, quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to take offense amid our work to do good, then the mind of Christ is not in us. Addressing the ills that plague society is essential. Still, Wesley is correct: the real battleground is first here, in each of our hearts. Every day.
To Walk as Jesus Walked -- Justice and Kindness
"To walk as Jesus walked" is more familiar territory. Wesley used the phrase "works of mercy." Justice and compassion are distinct but overlapping actions. Justice is our advocacy for equality; everyone deserves equal dignity, opportunity, and treatment, to live free from harm. This, today, is not controversial. It is a core moral principle of our modern western society. Yet, the persistentince of injustice reveals a problem as ancient as the Bible.
Regardless of how well-meaning, the powerful will invariably use their advantage to tilt the scales of justice in their favor. To justice, the Bible appends another thing. I will call it kindness after Micah 6:8, but the New Testament uses the word agape or love. God calls us to behold the person before us as sacred and respond in kind. Scripture invites us to feel the pain of the afflicted as if their pain was our pain, to love our neighbor as ourselves. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the biblical ethic as the "universality of justice and the particularity of love." The first two of Wesley's three simple rules are a helpful summary: do no harm (justice); do all the good you can (kindness). The third is next.
The Means of Grace -- Walking Humbly with God
In the words of Jesus' disciples in the first century, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" Or G.K. Cheerston in the 19th century: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." How are we to accomplish this? We can not do so on our own. It is only by the grace of God.
Grace is the unmerited, unearned love of God for the world. God created the world as an act of unconditional blessing. This love is made visible in our lives by grace on our behalf -- for Christians, Jesus Christ. God's love for all things guides us and strengthens us in God's loving image. I won't belabor this three-movement pattern now; methodists spill much ink here. What is essential to our lives in faith and grace is the next part.
Because we are constantly reshaping the good in our own image, the work of keeping our path in the grace of God requires vigilance: intentionally walking humbly. We call these practices "the means of grace." And though technology and technique have constantly evolved over two millennia, the shape of these practices remains the same as they have been. In Wesley's words, "Prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon) and receiving the Lord's Supper." To this, Wesley insisted that we encounter grace, as well, in doing the works of mercy, even in our Christian conferencing. Finally the church's purpose is to provide these means and encourage their practice for God's people and for healing of the world.
This advent, Methodism 101. May we remember the wisdom of our tradition. May we strive toward the fruits of our faith: to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus and walk as Jesus walked. May we do no harm — Justice; may we do all the good we can — Kindness; and may we attend the means of grace as we walk humbly God.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Advent 2022
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess