Wednesday, May 14, 2008

the way (john 14)

I want to talk about Jesus as the way, and about a way of life that is a spiritual practice. Think about the activities that fill your schedules, that call forth your passions: they are usually made possible by practices of one sort or another.

A girl loves cheerleading; the practices teach her the rhythms of movement and the sounds of words. A young man loves to play the classical guitar; practice teaches him correct body posture, the importance of tuning, the right positioning of his hands and fingers. Another man is passionate about fly-fishing. Over time he practices the clockwise motion of casting, he learns to tie flies, he becomes adept at reading the waters. A woman loves to work with fabric, her eyes are trained to see the colors and her hands become knowledgeable about texture. In time she grows more comfortable in her creativity, having mastered the basics and now moving on to new and different possibilities.

Many of us find that when we engage in an activity over time, an activity that includes an ongoing experience of practice of some sort, habits are developed. These habits can become second nature to us: the cheers that a young girl learns, the music of the classical guitarist, the fisherman’s art, the seamstress and her relation to the fabric. Of course habits are not always positive: we often call negative habits addictions. Addictions are habits that have destructive consequences in our lives and in the lives of others.

The earliest followers of Jesus were said to be on “the way” (Acts 19). Maybe they remembered that Jesus had said, of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. The way turned out to include a number of spiritual practices and habits; many of them are recorded in the New Testament:

Do this in remembrance of me. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Go and make disciples. Repay no one evil for evil. Confess your sins to one another. When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me. Love one another, as I have loved you. You will be my witnesses. Pray without ceasing. Do not neglect to meet together

Today, many followers of Jesus read the New Testament, for ourselves, and there we discover a way of life. But mostly we discover that Jesus himself is the way. And because he is the way, we learn that being a follower of Jesus involves a set of practices and habits. Understood positively, habits lead to an increase in freedom.

As a teenager I learned to play the guitar, the usual stuff that many kids pick up along the way. As a young adult I took classical lessons for many years, two lessons a month with a well-known guitarist in a city an hour away. Over time I learned a great deal, and could I play Bach pieces.

Well, life went on, priorities changed, children were born, and I stopped taking the lessons. Over time, I stop practicing. And now, when I sit down with a guitar, I no longer have the skill, the freedom, to play those pieces. Freedom always flows from discipline.Jesus said, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8. 31-32, NRSV). “If you continue in my word”…Practices lead to habits, and habits, over the long haul, add up to a way of life. I am the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus says. Follow me.

The earliest Methodists saw themselves as followers of Jesus, the way, and so they felt a need to define their way of life. They came up with three simple rules, to remind themselves of who they were and where they were going. These rules were sort of their global positioning system. And the rules were grounded in deep biblical practices.

The first rule: do no harm. We live in a violent world, violent in action, violent in speech. It is counter-cultural to begin with “first do no harm”, but Christians have always been counter-cultural people. “My kingdom is not of this world”, Jesus said. A few years ago in 2003 I was in Nashville for a conference. The meeting would take place on the Monday in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was remembered. I arrived late on Sunday evening; we would begin our work the next day at noon.

The next morning I woke up and made my way to the dining hall. A couple there introduced themselves: James and Eunice Mathews. I later learned that Richard Bailey of our congregation worked with Bishop Mathews and knows him and Eunice well. They asked me to join them, and we shared breakfast. I offered the blessing, remembering especially on that day the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Matthews seemed vaguely familiar to me---he was a retired Bishop, and they were known for their commitment to missions. They shared some of their life story that morning: Eunice was the daughter of E. Stanley Jones, who served in India as a missionary/evangelist for forty years and whose books were translated into eighteen languages, selling in the millions of copies. James Matthews had been elected a Bishop, without his knowledge (he was in India at the time) and apart from his ambition.

Eunice told me this story: When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a reception was held for him at United Methodist-related Boston University, where King had received his doctorate. James Matthews was the Bishop of Boston at the time, and he and Eunice joined in the line of people to congratulate him. When King met Eunice he pointed his finger at her and said, “it was your father’s biography of Gandhi that changed my life, and convinced me of the necessity of non-violence”.

E. Stanley Jones had written a biography of Gandhi, and in it he included Gandhi’s simple conviction---that nonviolence was a strategy not of the weak, but of the strong. In the margin of his copy, King had written “this is it!”. James and Eunice Matthews gave me a copy of that biography, and I asked them to sign it, which they did. They also underlined the sentence: “nonviolence is the method of the strong, and the only method of the strong”. If you visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta today, you can see his copy of the biography of Gandhi, opened to page 88, with the words in the margin, “this is it!”.

Do no harm. Each of us must wrestle with the meaning of that phrase, that spiritual practice, in our own lives. Someone hurts us, someone hurts our children, through words or actions, and what is our natural response: to retaliate. Or, sometimes we are prepared to say something or do something, and we pause for just a moment, and we reflect, and we ask ourselves, “will this cause harm?”

Physicians, because they are intervening in the very lives of their patients, practice in accordance with an oath: first, do no harm. We live in a world where violence gives birth to violence, but the seeds of violence are within each of us. What if everyone were governed by this phrase, Do no harm? This was the way of Jesus, who did not retaliate, but said, on the cross, “Father, forgive them”.

The second rule: do all the good you can. In his simple book on the three rules, Rueben Job makes the connection between loving our neighbor and loving ourselves. The idea is a simple one, but it is difficult to practice. We live in a culture where the self is placed first: this is the first principle of marketing—what do you want, what do you need? What if there is a more important question: what is good for the community? What is good for the world? These are risky questions, because we live in a world where groups, institutions take advantage of individuals, in ways that are self-destructive.

But we still need to understand our culture. When a product is marketed to us, and the message is “you are the most important person in the world”, you can be sure that the messenger is not really that interested in you or me---they are more concerned with the product. The early Methodists believed in simplicity of life, in vital connections with others, and in the grace of a God who loves each of us. And so, John Wesley gave an invitation to those who were on the way: do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

The Methodists responded to this invitation. Listen to this description of the early Methodist Christians:

“Methodist life was marked by a deep and authentic personal piety that led to a broad and uncompromising social involvement. Methodists were known for their prayers and for their commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. This commitment resulted in persistent efforts to build houses of prayer and worship as well as consistent efforts to visit the prisons, build schools and hospitals, and work for laws which moved toward a just and peaceful social order… Because they took their relationship to Jesus Christ with utmost seriousness, their life of prayer and witness was readily identified and often very contagious as many wanted to what Methodists appeared to have. Among these Methodist gifts were a certain knowledge about their own salvation, an at-homeness in this world and confidence in the next, a living companionship with a living Christ, and access to the power of God that could and did transform the most broken and hopeless persons into productive, joyful and faithful. Such was the power of God in the way the Methodists lived.

When I read those words I give thanks to God for you, the people of this congregation, for the good that you do. And I realize it is all a part of trying to follow the way of Jesus, who went about doing good.

A third simple rule: Attend to the ordinances of God. Reuben Job has described this as “staying in love with God”. These ordinances of God are the practices that help us to sustain the first two rules. The ordinances are worship, prayer, scripture, singing, communion. “Staying in love with God”, Reuben Job says, is the foundation (48); “we practice the rules, but God sends the power that enables us to keep them”. If we are not staying in love with God, all of the good works are merely, in the words of Paul, “a noisy gong or a clanging symbol”, our human efforts or achievements.

These were the three basic spiritual practices of the early Methodists, their “general rules”. If they followed these rules, they believed, they would remain in the way, they would never lose their way, they would never lose this way of life. They saw in Jesus someone who gave them access to this way of life but who also embodied it. These three simple rules, Reuben Job says, can change the world. They can be easily understood, even if they are a challenge to practice. And yet those who have followed them have discovered a less violent and destructive life; they have discovered the joy that comes in giving to others; they have turned again and again to the streams of water that give abundant life, and found renewal. So, this week, I invite you to practice these three simple rules: do no harm; do all the good you can; stay in love with God.

Sources: Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules. Rueben Job, A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader.


Blogger lehall said...

Thanks for this. I really enjoy reading your blog, and I will share this sermon with my Sunday School group tomorrow.

6:56 PM  

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