Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Catholic Spirit

2 Kings 10:15
Matthew 5: 43-45
John 13: 34-35
1 John 3:11

The verses above are the texts that John Wesley used in writing his sermon “A Catholic Spirit,” a sermon which eloquently calls for unity in Christian love. It is from this sermon that comes the famous Wesleyan quote, 'If your heart is as my heart', 'Give me your hand.' What many of us in the church never realize is that these words are not of Wesley’s own creation…they come from a particular verse in scripture.

As I prepared for this sermon, I went back to Wesley and the scriptures he quoted. The subtitle of the sermon is the verse from 2 Kings, the central verse of his sermon. But it is interesting to note that he does not begin there. Instead, he starts his reflection with a beautiful summation of God’s call to love found in the Gospels listed above.

Now I have preached a thousand times from Matthew, John and 1 John. I mean who doesn’t like preaching on love? But the text from Kings, I confess, was less familiar. I had a general sense of the historical time period, but didn’t remember exactly what happened before and after this one verse. So, I opened my Bible and began to read…

“Jehu slew all who were left of the family of Ahab in Jezreel, as well as all his powerful supporters, intimates, and priests, leaving him no survivor.Then he set out for Samaria, and at Beth-eked-haroim on the way, he came across kinsmen of Ahaziah, king of Judah. "Who are you?" he asked. "We are kinsmen of Ahaziah," they replied. "We are going down to visit the princes and the family of the queen mother." "Take them alive," Jehu ordered. They were taken alive, forty-two in number, then slain at the pit of Beth-eked. Not one of them was spared. And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him. And he saluted him and said, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? And Jehonadab answered, “It is.” “If it be, give me thine hand.” Jehonadab gave him his hand, and Jehu drew him up into his chariot. "Come with me," he said, "and see my zeal for the LORD." And he took him along in his own chariot. When he arrived in Samaria, Jehu slew all who remained there of Ahab's line, doing away with them completely and thus fulfilling the prophecy which God had spoken to Elijah.” (2 Kings 10)

Christian love? My goodness.

From the context of Wesley’s sermon it is hard to believe that this verse is that which inspired him to write such a passionate plea for Christian love. Surely Wesley was no biblical slouch. He knew quite well the context of this verse, after all he reminds readers that Jehu was a “mixed character” at best and who tended to “drive furiously” in all things both secular and sacred (And here, we suspect “drive furiously” is a euphemism for slaughtering everyone in his way.).

Yet, still Wesley chose to use it as an example of Christian unity and love.

Wesley uses the interchange between Jehu and Jehonadab to illustrate the radical ways in which unity of spirit and love, can overcome diversity of opinions and practices. Even these two men, so zealous that they slaughtered those who differed with them, in this one moment overcame their own individual prejudices and predilections to come together. If these two could find common ground, perhaps it is not too much to ask of the church today that is likewise filled with vitriol and violence…in its own way.

It is a fact of life for Wesley that people differ in what they believe in religious, as well as common life. Diversity of opinions is perfectly normal, perfectly natural. And, for Wesley, there is nothing anyone can do to change that.

Some opinions will never change because they are held captive by what Wesley calls “invincible ignorance.” And by this, Wesley means the inevitable influences of social and cultural prejudices. He writes,

“Perhaps some cannot know. For who can tell how far invincible ignorance may extend? Or (what comes to the same thing) invincible prejudice; which is often so fixed in tender minds that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root.”

Invincible ignorance. No matter how hard we try to communicate with one another, there are some whose opinions, whether about secular things such as Republican or Democrat, Sox or Yankees, cats or dogs, or whether about religious matters of how to understand scripture, or be the Church or love one another, will never change.

Wesley reminds us that we cannot compel others to believe or act like we do. All we can do is strive in good conscience to live a life which embodies God’s love. It is our living out of God’s love in our life that will reconcile us to one another.

We have all probably at one time or another found ourselves in an argument with a fellow Christian, perhaps even a fellow United Methodist, going round and round about one or two verses of scripture, haven’t we?

“It’s sin.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”

These arguments get us no where. Invincible ignorance. To belabor the point is to waste our time and energy. Rather, there is a better way.

Wesley’s use of the bloody tale of Jehu and Jehonadab in conjunction with the verses proclaiming God’s call to love, tells us something about the overarching message of the gospel. Perhaps there is a better way, than arguing and brute force. Perhaps, there are instances, sparks, glimpses of divine love and compassion even in the midst of the most brutal of battles, both secular and religious, that lead us to a better way.

Rather than persuade one another of our right opinions and practices, Wesley urges us to unite together in love of God and neighbor. Do you love God? Do you love Jesus? Do you have a faith that is energized by love? Do you strive to love your neighbor? Do you work to make a difference? If so, our opinions are nothing compared to the great love to which God calls us.

Wesley wanted to unite Christians in a love embodied in a common mission, the mission of God. For Wesley, this meant “promoting holiness of heart and life.” This holiness was both personal and social and referred not to mere individual acts of piety, but rather a predisposition of openness, love and right relationship. Holiness for Wesley was creating justice…just lives, just relationships, a just world. This was the common vision to which Methodists have been called.

I believe, we can all sit at the table together. But we must first commit ourselves to acts of love and justice. We must first be united in love as Wesley taught. This means that while we might differ in our understandings of scripture, reason, tradition and experience, in order to sit together, all must have equal access to the table, all must be permitted full participation, and all must be valued and loved despite their invincible ignorance.

Our unity as United Methodists comes not from our opinions or even practices, but to the extent to which we strive together to create a world where there is more love and more justice.

Is your heart like my heart? Then give me your hand.


Anonymous said...

The Allied Powers of WWII set aside differences to face and destroy the common Axis threat of fascism. In the Cold War era that followed the West withstood the spread and eventually defeated the threat of communism. A lesser response would have been as indefensible as the one which Chamberlain hailed as historic.
In the same way within the Church those of differing opinions can for a common good work together. Where it is simply a matter of opinion as regards a non-critical concern, we need to come together. However with integrity we can not ignore or fail to address the substantive issues about which we have "opinions." Even in the name of unity, a lesser response is morally unconscionable and scripturally indefensible as it constitutes an abject failure of integrity.

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...


That is exactly the point of this sermon...our "opinions" regardinhg the nature of sexuality are not central to the heart of the Gospel. What is central to the Good News of Jesus Christ is the welcome to all people to be disciples, following Jesus and seeking to create God's vision of peace and justice in the world.

Very Rev. Deji Okegbile said...

Discerning spirit helps us to discern opinions that negates God's world including sexuality. God did not create man for man when marriage was instituted. He created them 'male and female.'
Very Rev. Deji Okegbile