Based on 1Samuel 15:34 – 16:13, 2Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
Spiritual teachers have long taught that the journey towards salvation (i.e., growing into the mind and heart of Jesus) is first inward in reflection and self-assessment and then back out into the world in action. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a huge proponent of this. In fact, he created some aspects of the Methodist movement to encourage and enable people to develop insight into how things were going with their souls. Wesley’s unique gift to Christianity was his development of Societies, Class Meetings and Bands that brought together new believers with seasoned believers to learn together and to hold each other accountable. Societies were the largest of the groups and they taught three major Methodist doctrines in a lecture format. The doctrines taught were: (A) the perfectibility of humanity vs. Reformed and Calvinistic views of human depravity; (B) the freedom of the human will vs. theological determinism; and (C) true religion manifested in human relationships vs. the mystics, who emphasized individual inner contemplation as the way to spiritual growth.
Class Meetings and Bands were smaller groups, the former about 10 to 12 persons and the latter just a handful. Class Meetings were required while bands were self-instigated. Both of these groups were dedicated to the lived experience of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus the Christ. Probing questions were asked and it was expected that they would be truthfully answered. In this way close, supportive relationships developed which helped believers stay on the path towards salvation and to become ever more involved in their community addressing social ills like poverty, imprisonment and care for the physically and mentally ill.
In the mid-1700’s, John Wesley developed 22 self-examination questions to aid both his own and other believers’ growth in insight. He expected that these questions would stimulate self-reflection and in turn help bring to light sin and other harmful or self-limiting behaviors. John knew from his own life and struggles that it wasn’t what was on the outside of a person that mattered but the health of his relationship to God and other humans. This is what we learn from our scripture readings this week. In 1Samuel, God has realized that Saul was not the King that he should have been and so God sends Samuel out to anoint a new leader for the people. Paul is teaching about living in the faith focused on God and not in the worldly aspect of focusing on ourselves. Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God using parables of the miracle that is the seed which once planted grows as it is intended. Before we go farther, let us go to God asking for insight into that which is keeping us from a full relationship with God, one another and our larger community and world…
In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus follows the “parable of the Sower” with two more seed-based stories. The first is comparing the kingdom of God (or reign of God) with a planter who would scatter seeds and trust that they would grow and become fruitful – because that is what they were created to do. Likewise, the mustard seed, though the smallest of seeds is destined to grow into a large plant which shelters other creatures. It is both what is inside the seed and the relationship to the rest of creation that determines the fruitfulness of the seed.
Paul is writing to the believers in Corinth about living life by faith. In typical Pauline fashion he is teaching that the ways of the world (Paul’s words are “flesh” or “body”) keep us “away from the Lord” Jesus the Christ. Paul points out that we should have the insight to not boast about our worldly accomplishments, but rather boast about the love of Christ which dwells in our hearts for all of creation. We are to put off the worldly vision of viewing each other “from a human point of view” and attempt to see all of creation as God sees it. When we are truly “in Christ” we are a new creation and the old ways of living have passed away. Having this insight allows the love of God to live in and through us.
The first King of Israel, Saul, has been a disappointment to God. God decided to replace him and tells Samuel about the need for a new leader. Samuel grieves this loss of the relationship between God and Saul. God calls Samuel out of his grief and sets him on a path to Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint a new king. Jesse had many sons, but as each passed before Samuel, they were rejected by God. Wondering why, Samuel is told by God that he should not judge the young men as a human assesses their capability, but as God evaluates their hearts. It isn’t until the youngest son, a shepherd, is brought in front of Samuel that God finds the right heart. God’s insight into the deepest part of ourselves is what we need to identify and live out of to be fruitful with God.
This morning I attached to the ZOOM link e-mail an electronic version of John Wesley’s 22 self-examination questions. I know that some of you are not on e-mail or might have earlier versions of WORD on your computers and not be able to open the file – so I also printed a few copies and they are available for you to take home. These questions come directly from The United Methodist website, and I have included the link to the file. I would encourage you to spend some time in prayer with these questions. It mentions at the top of the page that some of these questions might cause you some discomfort. That is what they were designed to do – to shed light on areas of our behavior towards God and all of creation that need to be transformed by God’s almighty love.
Some of the questions seem to reinforce others like Questions 1,18,19 and 20: “Am I a hypocrite?”, “Am I proud?”, “Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? “Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?” That is, do I count myself as “blessed” that I am not a Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, queer, person-of-color, immigrant or illegal, homeless beggar at the intersection, Fox News or MSNBC exclusive watcher, Jew or Muslim or follower of a non- or quasi-Christian religion, Oath Keeper, 3 Percenter, QAnon or Antifa follower, “been here” or a “come here”? The second part of Question 20 then asks us with any of these issues, “what am I doing about it?”
What am I doing about the habits that I have developed that are barriers to moving toward perfection (i.e., growing into the mind and heart of Jesus) in this life? This is the insight God is looking for us to develop. God is hoping that when we spend time assessing whether we are trustworthy, whether we are spending time enough with the Bible to allow it to speak into our lives, whether we are miserable to be around, that the seed that God has planted in each of us will germinate and begin to grow fruitful.
The Methodist movement was successful because it demanded a level of engagement that was different than that of the Church of England in Wesley’s day. The Societies, Class Meetings and Bands called the children of God together in a community of faith that expected its members to live fully into the teachings of Jesus and to confront honestly and openly how they were struggling to live as disciples. We have failed to continue to live into these teachings of John Wesley and thus we see The United Methodist Church and her people at a crossroad. Many current members of The United Methodist Church have no idea what The UMC stands for, how its polity works, what makes us unique versus other Christian denominations, nor what gifts John and Charles Wesley brought to the Body of Christ.
It is critical for us to understand why United Methodism is a gift to the larger body of believers. Therefore, I will be preaching and teaching United Methodist doctrine more intentionally than the four to six times yearly that has been my practice. You all need to be informed, to have insight into this denomination prior to the General Conference vote in August/September of 2022, because every member will be asked to vote to determine where each church is going, following whatever decision is reached by the Delegates to General Conference. Do you believe that we can be made perfect in this life, that we are free to choose God and Jesus, and that there can be no individual holiness without working to alleviate the social injustices of the world? If so, then you are on your way to gaining the insight that God through the teachings of John Wesley wishes you to have. Amen and amen!