Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #9 ©

A Community of Holiness

 In a casual conversation recently, a clergy colleague commented to me, “We used to fight over doctrine now we fight over behavior.” I am struck by the insight offered in that comment. Churches are to be communities of holiness which provide the foundation for a common ethical behavior in service to the Lord God and genuine love of the neighbor, even those we disagree with! It is important to note that, to a very real degree, behavior is a reflection of doctrine. Ultimately the two (behavior and doctrine) are intertwined. Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment sticks with me because there is a thoughtful reflection of our current reality contained in it.

In our recent angst over various issues bedeviling us as a people (globally – Afghanistan, North Korea, and terrorism in Spain; in the United States – violence, racism, incivility and gender preference) the breakdown of community and common communal ethic is ever present. We struggle over what is acceptable common behavior both in the Christian community (i.e. the Church) and in our wider social communities. This was true in the Great Britain of early Methodism as well. The Methodist movement as an expression of the Christian faith (what I call the Wesleyan Way) offered a deep sense not only of belonging but also of a commitment to Christ which enhanced a common ethic and way of living.

Today, we desperately need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way through spiritual formation in a community of holiness (otherwise called the Church). As good as most churches are at being friendly, collectively we long for a deeper, more intimate sense of community. Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson remind us in their marvelous book The Band Meeting (soon to be published): “Christ came to build a ‘holy priesthood’ (I Peter 2:5), not simply ordain individual priests. He came to create a community of people equipped to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). They further note that “Methodism ordered itself to bring the gospel to people at every level of community” (Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy).

Living in an age of individualism run amuck, it would well serve us to recover the communal sense of the Wesleyan Way. We best do this not by throwing bricks at others but by ourselves growing in holiness both individually and as a community of faith.

Consider Luke 6:47-48: “I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. We build our lives on bedrock when we anchor them in Christ. We do so by drilling down deep into His Word.”

Basic spiritual practices are the pitons we pound into the rock of Christ. By way of analogy, in mountain climbing a piton (also called a pin or peg) is a metal spike (usually steel) that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pounding in pitons is basic to walking with Christ! We call this spiritual formation at its foundational, if you will, bedrock level. This is necessary to survive the rising waters of evil, sin, death and chaos; the violence and cultural incivility which so bedevil us as a people; the dis-ease of lacking moral center so evident in the torch-lit parade at Charlottesville.

Wesley famously said that there was no such thing as solitary religion. By that he meant that we were anchored in our faith and grew in the faith only through some kind of group accountability. A rock anchor, a piton, for early Methodists was small spiritual formation group. The painful truth is that we have become casually comfortable in our Christianity to a point that we have forgotten foundational spiritual disciplines that anchor us to the bedrock of Christ. This is actually where we got the name Methodist. We were so methodical about being Christian. What do those practices look like? Regular disciplined prayer with some kind of a group or support system that can graciously hold you accountable. The Methodist motto was “watching over one another in love.”

At this point I almost feel like a shill for small group ministry. And yet, without apology communities of holiness come from a communal practice of spiritual accountability. To be sure it starts with the individual in solitude, silence and simplicity, but by necessity it must expand to a wider sense of a shared commitment to and practice of holiness. The common disciplines (both privately and with others) of quiet time with God, prayer, worship, Bible reading & study all become linked to service in love of God and others.

The point of tending to the institutional needs of the church (and of so called organized religion) is that those needs help us to be shaped spiritually in formative practice that issues forth in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. Ignore the formative practices of spiritual formation for too long (both individually and as a group) and the high ethical commitments of loving God and neighbor fall away for lack of a healthy foundation.

John Wesley went so far as to write John Smith, “What is the aim of any ecclesiastical order? Is it not to snatch souls from the power of Satan for God and to edify them in the love and fear of God? Order, then has value only if it responds to these aims; and if not, it is worthless” (John Wesley, letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746; taken from, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy, by Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson).

We reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way as we rekindle formative spiritual practices and build communities of holiness. Such formative practices take methodical work and holy discipline. The discipline of holiness involves more than just the lone individual. We must be a part of communities of holiness. Together, we are built on the bedrock of Christ. “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already”  (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

 

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