United not by belief but by love
Today we will look at section I(8-11) of John Wesley’s sermon titled “Catholic Spirit”. Wesley is describing how different opinions lead to different ways of worshiping God. Yet, in spite of our differences we can still say, “thy heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart”.
But even among men of an upright heart, men who desire to "have a conscience void of offence," it must needs be, that, as long as there are various opinions, there will be various ways of worshiping God; seeing a variety of opinion necessarily implies a variety of practice. And as, in all ages, men have differed in nothing more than in their opinions concerning the Supreme Being, so in nothing have they more differed from each other, than in the manner of worshiping him. Had this been only in the heathen world, it would not have been at all surprising: for we know, these "by" their "wisdom knew not God;" nor, therefore, could they know how to worship him. But is it not strange, that even in the Christian world, although they all agree in the general, "God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;" yet the particular modes of worshiping God are almost as various as among the heathens? (I.8)
There are many things we can have differing opinions about that cause division. Wesley focuses on differing ways of worship as one that in his time was very divisive. Not only is Wesley only a generation removed from violence of Church of England separating from the catholic church, there are also divisions occurring within Protestantism. Samuel Wesley, John’s father, was a minister in the Episcopal Church and Susana Wesley, John’s mother, is from a family of dissenters, Protestants who are dissenting from the Church of England for numerous reasons. Beyond home discussions and disagreements John would have experienced there was a wide disagreement in Protestantism on what is Orthodox and authentic worship. This disagreement still exists today. Like those before us we can deem whatever style of worship that we personal agree with and connect to God through as the one way worship is supposed to be. While it may seem trite to argue about style of worship the point Wesley is making is that these various ways of worship reflect our various theologies about how we are to live as a disciple of Christ. We all agree in general that Jesus is our Savior yet what do we make of the many different modes or variations of the way people worship and live out their faith?
And how shall we choose among so much variety? No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind and then act according to the best light he has. Nor has any creature power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren; but every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God. (I.9)
When confronted with the differences there is a temptation to impose beliefs on others. While sometimes it is maliciously done, there are many other times we are unaware that we are doing this. We just might be unable to understand or see issues from a different point of view. Answers and truths may seem so obvious and unquestionable that we are prevented from receiving people who disagree. Wesley states that it is not the call of God for us to impose believes on someone else. He was seen it and knows of its destructiveness. I imagine we all have seen this today as well. Every person must find God for themselves. By acknowledging this we can take a step forward in offering a right heart to others. We can disagree and I can still honor and respect your humanity as a person God loves.
Although, therefore, every follower of Christ is obliged, by the very nature of the Christian institution, to be a member of some particular congregation or other, some Church, as it is usually termed (which implies a particular manner of worshiping God; for "two cannot walk together unless they be agreed"); yet none can be obliged by any power on earth but that of his own conscience, to prefer this or that congregation to another, this or that particular manner of worship. I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong; that one, for instance, who is born in England, ought to be a member of that which is styled the Church of England, and consequently, to worship God in the particular manner which is prescribed by that Church. I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal. I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over. Not the least of which is, that if this rule had took place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgement, on which that whole Reformation stands. (I.10)
I encourage us all to take time to reflect on our life as Wesley has. He once was zealous for only his tradition but can to see that it was limiting those he ministered to and limited his own experience of God. He also realizes that if the same zeal for his tradition was applied 200 years prior that there would have been no reformation, no Church of England nor any of the theology, belief and modes of worship he holds dear. It is easily forgotten but each of us enters into a story that has already begun. There have been those who came before us and those who will come after. There will be many things to find disagreement about, theology, worship, scripture and the mission of the Church, and many people in the past, present and future to disagree with. This story is not our own but God’s story of love and grace found in Jesus revealed to us by the Holy Spirit. It does not belong to us or to our theology or our tradition. It is God’s who invites us in to his story through grace and love. Jesus, in John 15:12, implores us to invite and engage each other with the same grace in love. John Wesley words it as thus:
I dare not, therefore, presume to impose my mode of worship on any other. I believe it is truly primitive and apostolical: but my belief is no rule for another. I ask not, therefore, of him with whom I would unite in love, Are you of my church, of my congregation? Do you receive the same form of church government, and allow the same church officers, with me? Do you join in the same form of prayer wherein I worship God? I inquire not, Do you receive the supper of the Lord in the same posture and manner that I do? Nor whether, in the administration of baptism, you agree with me in admitting sureties for the baptized, in the manner of administering it; or the age of those to whom it should be administered. Nay, I ask not of you (as clear as I am in my own mind), whether you allow baptism and the Lord's supper at all. Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season, my only question at present is this, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?" (1.11)
We live in a time of division. We are divided politically. We are divided economically. We are divided socially. We are divided theologically. We seek groups and people with similar beliefs and push away those who disagree. Yet, what if we sought unity not in belief but in love? This is the goal of John Wesley’s sermon. There must be something greater that unites us. To Wesley it is God’s Love in Christ. Yes there are things we can discuss and even debate but it needs to be clear: My heart redeemed by Christ is at peace with you and is what unites us.
Is your heart right with God that you can receive those around you, those in our community with the grace and love God receives you?