Whitfield, Wesley and a Rope of Sand

John Wesley was not the greatest preacher of his day. His occasional friend and sometime nemesis George Whitefield was that. “My brother Wesley acted wisely,” Whitefield said. “The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” …. Wesley himself used the image to describe the Christianity against which his people reacted in eighteenth-century England: “Those who were desirous to save their souls were no longer a rope of sand, but clave to one another, and began to watch over each other in love. Societies were formed, and Christian discipline was introduced in all its branches.” …. There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world.

Thus write Jason Byassee and L. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School in a 2009 article at First Things. The article focuses on Wesley as the inventor of what is now known as the micro-loan or the micro-credit movement. It begins, however, by describing the difference between John Wesley and George Whitfield’s approach to evangelism and discipleship.

The authors use the word “organize” to describe the secret of Wesley’s success. I would prefer to use the word “community.” Organization is a method; community is the product, and organizational leadership is not the only key to its existence.



Who Was the Real Threat to the Kingdom Community?

Mark 9:38-50 is a strange passage. At first reading, it appears to be a collection of disconnected sayings and anecdotes tied together by an arbitrary string of keywords highlighted below. Mark may have indeed received these sayings as stand-alone logia. Together, though, they answer the question, “Who was the real threat to God’s work in the life of Christ, and to the community that formed the seed of the coming kingdom?” It wasn’t the tangentially connected or the marginally aligned, those who saw and responded to only to part of what God was doing in Jesus. It wasn’t even really the evil men who would put Jesus to death, for God promised to raise his messiah from the grave. God’s victory over evil is certain.

No, the threat that most concerned Jesus was the internal threat. Those who followed the worst examples of religious piety were concerned only with themselves. There were believers within the messiah’s own fellowship who aspired to worldly greatness. Moreover, some members of the Christian community were leading their brothers and sisters astray, taking them away from the saving life of faith and causing them to fall.

How they were causing their brothers and sisters to fall, Jesus does not say. Was it false teaching? Was it worldliness, a lack of commitment or setting a bad example? Was it hypocrisy or insincerity? Was it a lack of love or a failure to build a fellowship that incorporated all believers? All can be deadly.

If the church’s mission is to seek and save the lost, every apostasy – every case of falling away from the kingdom – is a kind of mission failure (one which the church should never seek to remedy by force or threats).

Instead of looking at the threats outside the church, Jesus’ followers should look at their own lives and the quality of  the fellowship within their own community.

Continue reading “Who Was the Real Threat to the Kingdom Community?”

Eucharist and Discipleship

Two recent posts on Eucharist and discipleship, one enthusiastic and one more cautious.

At Seedbed, Steven Bruns writes:

For these early Christians, the Eucharist was the main form of discipleship as well. It was the climax of every service they celebrated. For the entire portion of the service leading up to the Eucharist, the people were being raised up to the throne of God in heaven. Their prayers focused them on God, petitioning God to create the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The reading of Scripture and expounding upon it showed how God had been acting throughout history to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, and how Christ was still present in the world through the Church, his Body. Finally in the Eucharist, as the people have been ascending to heaven, heaven comes down to earth as the Holy Spirit eucharizes the bread and wine so that the people in Christ actually receive Christ. In Holy Communion, heaven and earth meet.

What this did for the Christians was to give an objective reality to the Christian experience. Not every worship service was an ecstatic journey into the third heaven. Not every presider was skilled at preaching, or even praying on behalf of the people. Not every Christian felt like they were in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe every week. But in the sacrament, the Christians knew, whether or not they felt it, that Christ was present. They knew they were standing in the presence of the God of all who gave all for them. And they knew that by receiving the sacrament, they were receiving more of that God within them for their transformation and empowerment to be the faithful disciples they were called to be.

On the other hand, Kevin at Many Horizons recently asked, “will liturgy save us?”

One could look, for example, at the ideas of James K.A. Smith, who has talked about how our world has “liturgies” that form us (such as the liturgy of the mall), and so how we need rich liturgies to counter these destructive narratives. Other thinkers have similarly argued that liturgy is necessary to save us from secularism and the practical atheism it entails.

This kind of thinking has also led many people I know, including myself at times, to have a sense of spiritual growth in having moved from “non-liturgical” backgrounds into Anglicanism or other “high church” denominations.

Yet, there is a problem with all of this theory—the facts don’t match it. One needs look no further than England or Quebec, two deeply secular societies who were not all that long ago dominated by strongly liturgical churches. If liturgy is supposed to form us into better Christians—how did this happen?

Vulnerable Disciples: The Least of These My Brethren

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

The Parable of the Judgment of the Nations
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25:31-46

When Christians live vulnerable lives in order to fulfill the mission of Christ, God will hold the people of the world accountable for how they receive them.

Jesus’ teaching on the Son of Man’s coming judgment of the world has had a tremendous impact on the church for thousands of years. For the most part, I think we’ve only understood a fragment of what Jesus intended to tell us in these verses.

The Future Judgment

Some interpreters have focused their attention on the first few verses.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33)

A day of final judgment is coming. Eternal life and death hang in the balance. As we read on, we discover that some will inherit the kingdom of peace and blessedness prepared for them from the creation of the world. Others will face annihilation – the eternal destruction from which there is no escape – the “fire” that will ultimately consume even the devil and his minions and rid God’s creation of every menace.

The cathedrals of medieval Europe frequently portray this scene from Matthew 25 in carvings over the doors of the sanctuary. Jesus is seated on his throne. The people of the world are gathered before him. The saved are on his right; the damned are on his left.

Continue reading “Vulnerable Disciples: The Least of These My Brethren”

Bruns on Worship and Discipleship in the Early Church

At Seedbed, Steven D. Bruns has an excellent article on the relationship between corporate worship and making disciples in the early church.

… The main function of the worship service, wherever it was celebrated, was twofold. First, it was a time of intense teaching and discipleship, and second it was a time to receive the Eucharist. All people were allowed to attend the first part of the service; only baptized Christians were allowed to remain for the second. …

… The worship service was not evangelistic in nature, and the preaching was not for conversion of the visitors. The focus was on God and how to be a faithful follower of God. If people who were not Christian arrived at a service, (they frequently did since the Church experienced explosive growth for the first three centuries), they had already been intrigued by the lives of the Christians they knew. The reason they came was not to be the center of attention or the focus of the service, but to learn what these people truly believed and why.

Some may find it ironic, or even a bit troubling, that early Christian worship was liturgical, always incorporated the Lord’s Supper, did not focus on the conversion of its visitors, and yet still grew tremendously. …