What is your most important commitment? Being a Teacher? Christian? Parent? Employee? There are many ways to answer, but I encourage you to expand your point of view. We often answer to what we are asked and nothing more, staying inside the perceived frame. We need to think more broadly and put things in new perspective. We’re limited by the question, but we don’t have to be!
I am a United Methodist Christian and I am committed to seeing my brothers and sisters of other denominations and religions thrive. I am a United Methodist and I am committed to the wellbeing of both progressives and conservatives. I am a United Methodist and I believe in the sacred worth of all people. My commitment to one, does not exclude the other’s importance. In fact, they are interrelated. Living in our culture, where things are so frequently polarized, we often see the world through a lens of either/or. Yet, the gospel message challenges these assumptions. It calls us to take a broader, more comprehensive, view.
Remember Matthew 22:34-40, often called the Greatest Commandment? Jesus was asked a seemingly either/or question. Which part of the law is the most important? He answers, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Yet, he does not stop there. Jesus says there is another related commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. This response takes a broader view and indicates that these commands are inextricably linked. It’s not one part or the other, it’s both/and. Jesus goes on to say that everything else—all the law and the prophets—flows out of these commands.
Jesus is trying to show us that these two commands are interrelated and can’t be divorced. If you focus too much on love of God, losing sight of neighbor, you fall short. And likewise, focusing only on the other, without love for God, is not enough. A person cannot love God without demonstrating love of neighbor. It’s both. The call of the gospel is to take that broad, comprehensive view.
That broader view also includes the fact that your neighbor is anyone, not just fellow Christians or those who think like you. Jesus places no limits on who the neighbor is. Because the command is related to the command to love God, we must love as God does, unconditionally and indiscriminately. Your neighbor may well be a complete stranger. Your neighbor may be someone with whom you disagree. Your neighbor can be anyone. To love God and neighbor, then, is not a happy, emotional feeling of affection, but a commitment. It is a way of life where, because of your commitment to God, you are equally committed to the wellbeing of everyone around you.
The heritage of United Methodism, which we celebrate on Heritage Sunday, May 23,2021, speaks directly to these dual demands. John Wesley was adamant about what has been termed “practical divinity,” meaning theology cannot be abstracted from church practice. What we say and believe about God has to have implications in our day-to-day life. Because of this, Wesley understood the need for practical methods of living out faith and this became a hallmark of the Methodist movement. Faith produces both personal piety and social holiness, according to Wesley. In Wesleyan understanding, both must be present to indicate a faithful Christian, just as Jesus said, love of God and neighbor.
Examples of the Wesleyan call to personal piety and social holiness – ways of living out the greatest commandments—are numerous. One of the earliest dates to his university days. Wesley and a small group of friends met together for personal study, bible reading and accountability, but they quickly added prison visits and other works of charity to their tasks. As the movement grew, the people were organized into classes and societies for growth in faith or love of God. Alongside this, Wesley encouraged ministry with the poor and marginalized, education for children and medicine to be given to those in need. Individual love of God was not enough; the community needs had to be met.
Wesley put it like this: “The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” And, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” What he meant is a reminder of the greatest commandments: there is no love of God without love of neighbor; Christian faith cannot be disconnected from community.
When the Methodists began to organize they developed a set of General Rules which would govern the way the people lived out their faith. If you have been around The United Methodist Church for awhile you may be familiar with these. In the text from 1743, a person’s desire for Christian salvation would show itself through three things, known as the three general rules. First, do no harm. Second, do good. And third, attend upon the ordinances of God (by which he meant worship, prayer, fasting, Bible study, communion.) The three general rules have survived the centuries, and are foundational to what it means to be a Methodist.
Wesley, rooted in scripture, also understood the importance of expanding our view of the neighbor. In his sermon, “Against Bigotry,” he preached strongly against having too tight an attachment to your own party, opinion, church, religion or race. Wesley argues this kind of singular attachment creates too large a distinction between us and them, and undermines love. The solution to overcoming bigotry, according to Wesley, is to pray for others, rejoice in their gifts and enlarge their good work. In other words, it is to love your neighbor no matter who they are. The Christian is able to do this because of clarity about their center, Jesus, and the call to commitment for the wellbeing of all persons, stemming from commitment to God.
True Wesleyan leadership is able to hold things in tension, like social and personal holiness. Wesley—and others of our foremothers and forefathers—were willing to live into these tensions, because in looking for a larger context and increasing their viewpoint, a necessary balance could be created. The Wesleyan way acknowledges the gospel claim that going too far to either side loses something. Both are needed.
What does that look like here and now? The answer lies in reclaiming the broader perspective, not succumbing to an either/or approach. The first piece is to nurture love of God, through faith and knowledge, so that a person may be clearer about where they stand. Developing clarity of identity, a person actually becomes freer, able to allow others to stand at different places. This is done through small groups, bible studies, worship, devotional reading, prayer and other formational opportunities.
That’s when the second piece really flourishes, developing relationships with others, even—and perhaps most especially—those who differ from you. I’m talking about deep, meaningful relationships where folks are engaged in the wellbeing of one another. This can be done through conversation groups, listening to the stories of minority communities, service opportunities, mission engagement, interfaith dialogue, and countless other means.
Just imagine what could be if we reclaimed this heritage, if we rejected the idea that I must stay in my camp and you in yours, rejected the cultural view that neighbors, religions, politics and so many other things that frequently divide us must be understood through polarized lenses. The church could model a new way of being. This is no easy task; do not misunderstand me. It’s not the safer option; quite the contrary, it’s often riskier, it requires vulnerability, but there is far more to be gained.