Sunday, May 08, 2005

No Holiness But Social Holiness

One just discusses what is the greatest good for the greatest number and without mentioning God at all, hasn't one really been talking about God, if one believes? Do you see what I mean?

I hope very much that I see what you mean, Tena. I was going to respond to your comment in the comments, as I thought that’s all for which I’d have the time. But, as happens so wonderfully often, your comment resonated quite well with my current train of thought and with the services at my church this Sunday.

The quote in the header is from John Wesley, an Anglican reformer whose piety movement within the Church of England grew to develop an identity as a separate denomination, particularly in America. Wesley’s focus was always on the ways in which we act as Christians, not upon the ways in which we profess ourselves Christians. He took it as read that the creeds and doctrines of the Anglican Church would be that of anyone who felt called to a higher level of Christianity than simply professing them several times a year. Rather his focus was on holiness, personal and corporate-what that meant from the perspective of Scripture and Tradition, and what that looked like lived out in the world. The primary vehicle of holiness was, for Wesley, the grace of God in Christ. A great deal of Wesley’s preaching and his developing theology (which he never thought of AS a developing theology; that was left for later theologians in the Weslean tradition to articulate) focused on what he saw as the “means of grace,” the many ways in which the grace of God could touch a willing or unwilling heart and work transformatively. Perhaps I’ll write a little about this at another time. My focus today is the point raised for me by Tena above. Christians testify to the truth of the gospel, the Good News, not by what they say, but by how they live. You cannot lay claim to holiness if it does not manifest in the world around you as holiness. Not as self-righteousness because you are holy, but as love for others because the holiness you receive by grace demands nothing less and requires much more.

In 1748, Wesley began a series of sermons “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.” In Discourse IV, Wesley examines the need for outward holiness to flow from inward holiness- for our love of God to manifest as love of others. In other words, should Methodists retreat into “high and heavenly contemplation…only communing with God in our hearts?” Predictably, the response is no. In fact, Wesley claims that Christianity “cannot subsist at all without society.”

The virtues so essential to Christianity as Wesley understood it, such as meekness or peacemaking, mean nothing when practiced in solitude. In fact, a Christian life is really lived at its best when it is lived among “ungodly and unholy men,” as exposure of this nature is cause to develop and refine these virtues to a high degree. Wesley’s “ungodly and unholy men,” are those who profess the Christian faith, but do not live it. Or also, considering his time, those who profess a faith Wesley understands to be wrongly guided, including Quakers and Roman Catholics. Living only with other “Christians” might take the edge off. And, in fact, it is the task of the Christian to live as a Christian among the ungodly and be “the salt of the earth,” seasoning everyone around with holiness.

One can see that those who practice of Christianity was less fervent or evangelical than that of a devoted Methodist might be somewhat annoyed by this attitude. It does smack of self-righteousness. It is indeed a very fine line on which to walk-more so today, perhaps, when diversity of beliefs and denominations require far more willingness to be open to the depth and breadth of God’s presence among us. However, according to Wesley, one who lives a Christian life cannot hide it. Ironically, “it is impossible to hide your lowliness and weakness,” which are the very aspects that would facilitate being hidden. Christians testify to the truth of the gospel “by their lives.” While this could be taken as justification for “Jesus in your face,” approaches to testifying to the grace of God, but it needn’t be. Wesley uses the words “absolute, total apostasy” to describe those who, once moved by justifying grace, do not exhibit the fruits of justification in that love of God, enabled by this grace, lead into love of neighbor.

To those who would object that religion lies in the heart, not in outward things, Wesley responds that if “the union of the soul with God,” which is the root of all religion, “be really in the heart it cannot but put forth branches…He is well pleased with all that outward service that arises from the heart.” To other objections, such as the futility of trying to help the poor, Wesley’s response is that Christ did not cease from trying to do good, and neither should we. He also makes clear that for all of our “efforts” it is God who does the work. It is a very real trap that our motives may lead us into, and Wesley maintains that, to live a social Christian life, “let it be your sole aim that all who see your good works may `glorify your father which is in heaven.” Wesley cannot conclude without some practical advice. You’ve been told not to hide your holiness, but there are specific ways to reveal it. While giving practical advice on how to manage a lifestyle and “shine in all good works,” ultimately the formula is to “be thou full of faith and love; do good; suffer evil.”

If one is a believer in God, as you say Tena, then talk of the work that God calls God’s people to is talk of God. As Wesley once said, “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.” As a believer, as one who takes with all consuming seriousness the commandment laid upon us by Jesus-“Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”- I don’t think for a minute God cares who gets the credit.

Wesley would often end his sermons with this benediction
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can.

Well, that works for me.

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