Based on Psalm 19, Exodus 20:1-17, 1Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
The United Methodist Church is moving slowly but inexorably towards a split. We have discussed this over the years that I have been with you and have talked about the rationale behind the proposed schism. I have mentioned before that the Methodist Church in America has split before, most recently after the General Conference in 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church split North and South over differing perspectives around ministers and members owning slaves. Given the fact that we are now contemplating another division based on differing understanding of scripture, it seems a good time to revisit John Wesley’s original vision for the people called Methodists.
Methodist historian, Henry H. Knight III, captured Wesley’s vision in this way, “…When at the Methodist Conference it was asked, ‘What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the people [sic Preachers] called Methodist,’ the answer was, ‘To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land’. This gave Wesley’s Methodists a distinctive identity both in England and later in America. It also gave them a distinctive mission. In his sermon, The General Spread of the Gospel, Wesley again raises the issue, this time focusing on England and France: ‘What manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy as God [sic he] that hath called them is holy?’… is there ‘that mind in them that was also in Christ Jesus?’ And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked?’ Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven!…” The same has been said about Christians in the United States as well for decades.
How did we allow ourselves to get so far away from what the whole of the Bible teaches us about what we are to believe and how we are to live? One answer is that we are now 250 years removed from Wesley’s time and we have forgotten his teaching on scriptural holiness. John Wesley defined scriptural holiness as the spiritual growth that occurs through God’s grace and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit when we dedicate ourselves to not only read the Bible but diligently study it, alone and with others. This growth in love leads us ever closer, in all situations, to “having the mind which was in Christ Jesus” and also to “walking as Christ also walked”. We have before us today scriptures ranging from the Ten Commandments and a psalmist’s celebration of God to the “zeal” of Jesus in the Temple and the foolishness of the cross. How do we make sense of these seemingly disparate parts of the Bible and what they have to say to us in this Lenten season of 2021? Feels like a good time to seek God’s wisdom in prayer…won’t you please join me?
Exodus 20 and Psalm 19 go hand-in-hand. In Exodus, the people of God have now reached Mount Sinai. There they will worship God on God’s mountain and Moses will receive from God the laws that will guide the people moving forward. God begins by reminding the people how they came to be at the foot of Mount Sinai in the first place – it was because God released them from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Therefore, they are commanded to love God exclusively and to love and care for one another in beloved community. Psalm 19 speaks of the glory of God and God’s creation. The psalmist sings about the perfection of God’s law which brings wisdom to the simple. God’s directions are pure, righteous and true. If they followed God’s directives, the people would grow in holiness.
In John’s Gospel account of the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus is brand new to his public ministry. He has just performed his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, and now he heads to Jerusalem for Passover. In the outer courts of the Temple, merchants are selling their wares to keep the coffers of the Temple filled. Jesus takes offense at how the average Jew is being fleeced in the very place where they should be protected. Jesus is incensed at how the tenets of loving God and neighbor with all that people have and are, is being monetized to support the Temple structure and personnel. Jesus needs everyone to wake up and to see how this is a perversion of what God intended for them in the Torah. Those who have made the holy Temple into a marketplace need to return to God in repentance and ask for forgiveness so that they can once again become holy.
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth, a church that has many deeply concerning problems with how they are conducting themselves in the name of Jesus. In this early portion of the letter, Paul is trying to point out to the leaders and the rank-and-file where they have gotten off track. He reminds them that they are following Jesus, not Apollos, or Paul or Peter or anyone else. The power and wisdom of God are contained in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The killing of God is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. They cannot understand a God that would love creation so much that God would allow God’s-self to be killed by humans; nor can they allow themselves to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. They are a long way from Wesley’s scriptural holiness!
John Wesley both deeply believed and widely taught that the Bible contained everything necessary for the salvation of the believer. In order to grow spiritually into the person God intended, it was imperative for the believer to intentionally study the scriptures to discover what God had placed therein for the betterment of all God’s children. Intentional spiritual growth through study of the whole of the Bible begins the transformative process of growing into the mind and heart of Jesus – what we as United Methodists call salvation. It also calls us out of our partisan viewpoints and into a more holistic understanding of how we are called to be in the world but not of the world. The Wesley scholar, Johnston McMaster, had this to say about John Wesley’s view of the transformative power of scriptural holiness for the people called Methodists, “…For Wesley the spreading of scriptural holiness entailed ‘the transformation of the economic and political order, the establishment of Pentecostal commun(al)ism and the abolition of war’. Holiness was nothing less than a new creation….” Thus, Wesley believed that by diligently studying scripture and through the grace of God, believers would be directed through love to work for a more equitable, just, merciful and truth-filled society.
It is clear, however, that we as United Methodists are very far from this teaching of John Wesley. I call on McMaster again to elucidate our path forward, “…The task for contemporary Methodists is still to develop the great social ethic of scriptural holiness. This will mean going beyond Wesley, not least because we live in a very different world, especially where globalization is dominant….This will mean a more contextual reading of the Bible [sic text] in our 21st century context. It will mean engaging with the principalities and powers of racism, poverty, nationalism, ethnocentrism and the systemic violence which they express with such devastation and destruction of human and environmental community. This also includes the violence of sexism and the personal and structural domination of women….”
The United Methodist Church will quite likely end up fractionated once again because we as disciples have neglected our task of scriptural holiness. What McMaster and others have put before us is a challenge to reconnect ourselves with the Bible in a meaningful and consistent manner, so that the love of God can transform us. Many United Methodists have never attended an adult Bible study – or any meaningful Bible discussion outside of listening to sermons. Many have bibles at home that they have never opened – partly because it seems so very daunting a text. Yet, we live in an era when most people have at their fingertips the materials that Bible professionals use to open the context of the writings. Sites like Bible Gateway, online commentaries, scholarly research on different books, concordances – all free or at low cost.
The Bible contains everything necessary for our salvation as the people of God – and to keep The United Methodist Church together. God has told us how to live with God and with each other in loving and equitable community regardless of our understanding of our gender, sexuality or any other matter. God has loved us so much that God has given us a guide in Jesus to show us the way. God has given us prophets, psalmists and other inspired writers to reinforce God’s messaging. Our task is to use our time on Earth not to attack Christians and non-Christians, but for every one of us to return to the study of the Bible so that we can all grow in love. Wesley’s “scriptural holiness” described our growth in unconditional love; a love that will allow us to put away the divisive, uninformed and un-biblical opinions which keep us from living together as God intends. Amen and amen!