Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All

John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of the end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.

As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.

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Leaders, Tasks and the Mission of Making Disciples

The Bible is nowhere near as interested in the abstractions of leadership theory as contemporary organizational theorists, but there may be some value in looking at the church through that lens.

I spent more more than a quarter century in an organization where mission accomplishment was central to all that we did. To plan operations, we learned to receive the mission, analyze the mission, restate the mission, develop and evaluate courses of action to accomplish the mission. Units of the organization trained repeatedly on their “mission-essential task list” (METL). Leaders led the organization using the principles of “mission command”.

Leaders lead organizations to accomplish their missions. Insofar as the church in the world shares the characteristics of all organizations, church leaders lead the church to accomplish its mission. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The UMC mission statement is a Wesleyan riff on Jesus’ “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The church needs its leaders to direct their energies and talents to accomplish that mission.

Having said that, I also need to frame the mission of the church within the mission of God. Before disciple-making is human work, it is God’s work. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him, and he will be present with his church until he comes in glory at the end of the age. The Book of Acts portrays the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John reminds us that the wind of God blows where it wills.

As a Wesleyan Christian, I also see this  work of God through the lens of the Wesleyan order of grace:

  • Prevenient Grace: God’s work to prepare his way in the human heart and open the way to repentance and faith.
  • Convincing Grace: God’s work to convince people of sin and lead them to repentance.
  • Justifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from guilt and restore a right relationship with God.
  • Sanctifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from the power of sin, restore the image of God and perfect believers in love

Within the Wesleyan framework, discipleship is always communal or social. Making, baptizing and teaching disciples is the work of the whole church, takes place within the church and unites people to the church. Discipleship is not a solitary endeavor or experience.

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The Shadow Side of Wesley’s World Parish

It was on this day (March 28) in 1739 that John Wesley wrote John Clayton a letter that would give Methodism one of its enduring slogans: “The world is my parish.”

It’s a slogan that has both blessed and plagued the Methodist movement and the Christian Church. While recognizing all the good that issued from the Wesleyan movement and the birth of Methodism, I would also like to acknowledge the shadow side of Wesley’s self-confident proclamation.

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Especially the Household of Faith

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10 

Among those in need, can Christians prioritize their brothers and sisters in Christ? The United Methodist Church teaches that it is not only permissible to do so, it is officially required. The General Rules we inherited from John Wesley direct those who want to belong to the Methodist societies to do all the good they can, specifically:

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

Wesley is alluding to Paul’s writing in Galatians 6:10. Paul’s word “especially” (μάλιστα) could also be translated “most of all” or “above all” or “to the greatest degree”.

The General Rules demand that members of Methodist societies help the poor, spread the gospel to everyone and live within their means, all while at the same time giving preference to their Christian brothers and sisters. The Rules are one of the United Methodist Church’s unalterable standards of doctrine.

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The Coincidence of Ascension Day and the National Day of Prayer

Yesterday marked both the Christian observance of Ascension Day and the civic observance of the National Day of Prayer.

The latter is a function of American civil religion which dates to 1952. The current practice of observing the National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May dates to 1988. The text of the president’s politically inclusive 2016 proclamation is here.

For Christians, the Feast of the Ascension is the infinitely more important of the two observances. Based on the chronology in the Book of Acts, it comes 40 days after Easter and commemorates Christ ascension to the right hand of God.

Christ’s ascension is central to the apostolic Christian faith, yet Ascension Day is the most underappreciated festival of the Christian year. The orthodox Christians who confess the Apostles and Nicene creeds affirm “He ascended into heaven.” There, as the creed reminds us, “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” There he reigns as the Lord of heaven and earth and the head of his church. From there he pours out the Holy Spirit. There he sits in power until he comes again in glory to restore all creation. There the church meets him by faith in its prayer, worship and fellowship. There he joins us at the Eucharistic table as both priest and sacrifice as the veil between heaven and earth is pulled away.

Surely Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God has something to say about how Christians understand and practice prayer.

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