O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
What do you think about when you hear the word, church? Does your mind wander back to the first place you called church? Do you remember the folks in the pews? The people who helped form you into the disciple you are now? Do you remember Sunday school and Vacation Bible School? Or even, singing in the choir? Maybe, church was a place you saw other people go, and always wondered what went on in there?
In recent history, some churches have made headlines for numerous misdeeds that had been kept quiet for far too long. Other churches have made headlines for changes in doctrine that have or have not been accepted by the denominational bodies. In other words, for some people, the word church, brings up feelings of hurt, of mistrust, and of grief.
In her book, Five Means of Grace: Experience Love in the Wesleyan Way, Elaine Heath suggests that if we were to ask the average person, “What is church?” The two most common responses would be: a building or something that people go to once a week. Poet G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” Both of the authors from our Scripture Readings this morning and John Wesley would likely agree.
In the first letter of Peter, the author writes to a newer church community, possibly in Asia Minor, teaching and exhorting the community what it means to be church. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). God has loved, us, who are called to be the church first in order that we may share and express that same love for others. The gospel writer of Matthew concludes a section of how to live in community with one another by saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name [that is in the name of Jesus], I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). For the gospel writer, the church gathers for the express purpose of: loving, listening to, following, and participating in the ways of Jesus.
On July 25, 1741, John Wesley preached a sermon at St. Mary’s in Oxford entitled, “The Almost Christian.” In the sermon, Wesley asserts that a person can be very religious: they can be honest, honor the ten commandments, speak in ways to build up others, act generously and not as gluttons, attend worship, share in communion, pray, and study scripture, and still not live as a Christian. The primary difference between an almost-Christian and a Christian, for Wesley, was that a Christian does all of these things with a central purpose: love for God and love for neighbor.
Real Christians, according to Wesley, possessed a faith that was lively and transformative and had steady growth in holiness of heart and life, and a real Christian’s faith was grounded in an ongoing, dynamic relationship with Christ. Neither of these of these characteristics involved participation in programs or committees, but both were centered on loving, practical, honest relational commitments to God, to neighbor, and to self.
Wesley’s entire life of ministry focused on ekklesia, the gathering of people around Jesus for the sake of others. It was this love for Jesus and a desire to act on behalf of others that led Wesley and some of his schoolmates to begin meeting regularly. These men met to study Scripture, to pray, and to offer a deeper sense of accountability. They met not for the sole purpose of growing closer to God, but for growing closer to God in order that they might share that love of God with the imprisoned and disadvantaged persons of their time.
From this, classes formed. Classes were small groups ran by a leader and were groups in which the members practiced a shared set of disciplines and held one another mutually accountable. For Wesley, holiness was both personal and corporate. One needed to participate in a set of disciplines or spiritual practices in order to grow and to discern how God was calling them to serve the broader community.
When I was in seminary, Elaine Heath was one of my evangelism professors. During my time there, she began several neo-monastic communities. These communities were houses located within and outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In each house a group of young adults, more than half whom were seminary students, lived together, followed a common rule of life, and offered a means of hospitality/grace to the surrounding community regularly. There was a house for single men, single women, married couples, and Hispanic persons.
While these communities might sound idyllic, like any church, the communities sometimes found themselves drifting from the intended purpose of the community. This especially happened, when Jesus drifted from the center of the community’s purpose. As individuals and as a part of faith communities, we can relate to this. How many times have we found ourselves preoccupied with a care, a grief, a difficulty, and lost sight of Christ as our center?
Wesley established 3 general rules in order to keep the people called Methodists centered on love of God and love of others: First, do all the good you can. Second, do no harm. Third, stay in love with God (in other words, practice the means of Grace). When we, as people, and we as part of our church, practice these three general rules, we invite God’s grace to grow deeper within us in order that we may then share that grace with others.
Do not let the word “rules” confuse you. Wesley, although taunted for acting in a methodical manner, did not create a system intended to be legalistic, but rather offered these rules as a means by which we are able to guide our lives. Out of these rules, arise two pressing questions that are fairly familiar in circles of Methodism: 1) How is it with your soul? 2) Are you without sin? These questions are not light hearted, passing the peace kind of questions, but are questions that intend for people within a community or church to know one another, to grow deeper with one another, and to intentionally pray for and with one another.
Christian Conferencing, being part of a church or small group, is both a call and a means of grace. Through Christian Conferencing, we are asked to examine our lives: the areas of our lives that prevent us from wholly trusting in God, the ways we intentionally connect with and relate to God, and the ways we intentionally connect and relate to one another. Through holding one another mutually accountable, studying Scripture, praying, sharing in communion, and fasting, we also invite God to be present with us in community, to guide us in community, and to grow us as a community committed to loving God and loving our neighbor.
“But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do [God’s] work and to speak out for [God], to tell others of the night-and-day difference [God] made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted” (1 Peter 2:9-10, The Message). May we all share in this means of grace we call church: growing deeper in our discipleship and sharing our love for God with our neighbors. Amen.