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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: We Believe That Faith Is Known By Its Fruits

January 20, 2012

For the next few weeks I'll be focusing on some of our distinctive Wesleyan beliefs from my book on that subject.

 We Believe that Faith Is Known by Its Fruits 

 The communal forms of faith in the Wesleyan tradition not only promote personal growth, they also equip and mobilize us for mission and service to the world. (The Book of Discipline) 

Fully a fourth of John Wesley's Sermons focus on the Sermon on the Mount. Wesley took with great seriousness the Sermon on the Mount as a practical guide to how to live the Christian life. That's curious because most of us today think of Jesus' exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount - turning the other cheek, not remarrying after divorce, enemy love -- to be utterly impossible ideals. Wesley gave thanks that Jesus so simply, directly gave us practical guidance for everyday discipleship. He said that the Beatitudes were a picture of God drawn by God's own hand.[1] These commands are not meant to forever frustrate us by their impossibility, said Wesley, but are meant to be actually practiced with the help of God. When faced with some seemingly impossible demand of Christ - such as forgiveness of our enemies -- we are to change the church and ourselves, rather than attempt to scale down the command.

In our church's recent debate on the U.S. interventions in Iraq and elsewhere, I was impressed how infrequently anyone referred to Jesus. And when someone mentioned Jesus, most disputants seem to agree that Jesus is irrelevant to a contemporary conflict like the "War on Terror." We had made Jesus' command to enemy love into an impossible ideal. This is distressingly "unmethodist." 

We Wesleyans once assumed that Jesus himself combined personal righteousness with social holiness, that his ethic is not to be relegated to the personal and the subjective, the ideal and the unrealistic, but is meant to go public and be put into practice. Jesus came to teach us about the "real world" and we are called to follow him there out of the fake world where the poor are oppressed, and the strong lord over the weak, and well, you get the point. Our United Methodist Social Principles are an attempt to render the real world in the light of the love of Christ.

Early Methodists contended that the urge to holiness in thought and life can be perverted when holiness is not linked to love. Love is not sentimental syrup that we pour over everything to make our problems easier to swallow. Love is the complex, multifaceted force that drives us to engage in the world's needs in the name of Christ. Love is the divine gift that enables true moral transformation. How sad when contemporary United Methodists attempt to scale down the dominical demand for love to the secular political possibility of justice. It is also sad to see contemporary United Methodists choosing up sides on the political left or the right and slugging it out in political squabbles that Wesley would surely dismiss as debates about mere "opinions." Too many of us are confident that being on the "right side" of some social or political issue is more important than being there in love.  

It is a constant challenge for us to think and to live on the basis of our theological convictions. Wesley cared as much for our being and our believing as for our doing. Christians are meant to serve the needs of others, in love. The notion of "Christian perfection" can be an ugly thing if not always answerable to love. And the practice of politically engaged social Christianity degenerates into just another worldly power play when it is loveless. Jesus didn't call us simply to improve our neighbors but to love them as he has loved us.

Note that we use that word discipline when we talk of social ethics. United Methodists use "discipline" as both a verb and a noun. Discipline in the sense of a Book of Discipline is constitutive of church governance. For us, discipleship and discipline go together. In a sermon on "The Late Work of God in North America," Wesley said that the great limitation of the evangelistic ministry of George Whitefield was lack of discipline:

[I]t was a true saying, which was common in the ancient church, 'The soul and the body make a man, and the spirit and discipline make a Christian.' But those who were more or less affected by Mr. Whitefield's preaching had no discipline at all. They had no shadow of discipline; nothing of the kind. They were formed into no societies. They had no Christian connection with each other, nor were ever taught to watch over each others' souls. So that if any fell into lukewarmness, or even into sin, he had none to lift him up....Holiness and discipline go together:

Prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves, in all your conduct; for it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy." (1 Peter 1:13-25)

The Social Principles, along with our General Rules, are testimony to the continuing role of disciplined holiness - personal and social holiness - in the United Methodist way of being Christian. Our church attempts to be more than simply an expression of the religious yearnings of its members. In these principles, guides and rules, the church seeks to conform us, to change us, and discipline us to the nature of Christ. As Wesley summarized the message that he expected his traveling preachers to proclaim: "Christ dying for us" and "Christ reigning in us."[2]              

-- Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.


[1] Sermon 23, "Sermon on the Mount III, " §IV, Works, 1:533. Wesley described the Sermon on the Mount as "the noblest compendium of religion which is to be found even in the oracles of God," in Journal (17 Oct. 1771), Works, 22:293.[2] Letter to Charles Wesley 1928 Dec. 1774), Letters (Telford), 6:134.

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]


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