Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Servant Leadership - Part 3

Isaiah 42:1-4

The Bearer of Justice to the Nations

Here we see the servant of God who is chosen and empowered to “establish justice in the earth” (v. 4). As the bearer of justice for the earth, the chosen one serves all of creation. This chosen one is filled with the spirit of God (v. 1). The Spirit leads, teaches, and conforms the servant’s will to the will of God. Because of the power of the Spirit within and around the servant is able to bear witness to and establish God’s rule of justice for all nations not through violence or domination but through love, compassion, and suffering. “…a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).

What is justice? The Hebrew here is mispat. Bruce Birch provides a clear definition in his book Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life:

Justice (mispat) relates to the claim to life and participation by all persons in the structures and dealings of the community, and especially to equity in the legal system.”[i]

“Justice is a chief attribute of God’s activity in the world… God is the source of care for the right of every person, and the giver of the law which seeks to embody that right in structures of faithful community. Thus, the context for apprehending the activity of God as justice is the wider covenant community and not merely the structures of the judicial system. The prophets in particular appeal to this broad understanding of God’s justice as a warrant for human justice.”[ii]

As God’s chosen one within the human community the servant must bear witness to the reality and the nature of divine justice. He does this by identifying himself with the poor, the weak and the vulnerable members of the world. In this sense, the world is God’s household and is under God’s compassionate and just sovereignty. Likewise, God’s chosen one is the representative of the head of the household and bears witness to the household rules of justice and righteousness that assure that everyone has a place at the table and a share of everything that is on the table; that all receive what is needed to live and to participate fully in the community.

The early church interpreted the baptism of Jesus through the lens of Isaiah 42:1-4. All the synoptic accounts of his baptism present Jesus as God’s chosen one upon whom the divine Spirit rests:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

For the gospel writers there is no question as to the identity of God’s servant. Jesus is the one who will bring forth justice for Israel and for all the earth. Later in the synoptics each writer reinforces the servant identity of Jesus as he prepares to set his face toward Jerusalem for the last time on the mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:16-18). As he prepared to encounter suffering, rejection, betrayal, and death Jesus’ appearance is transformed “and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt. 17:2). The light brings to mind here Isaiah 42:6-8:

…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name, my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.

In all that he suffered in the days that followed, Jesus was the light of God to the nations that revealed God’s power in weakness. His passion became the light that gave freedom to all that were living in the darkness of oppression, suffering, and injustice. God’s kingdom of compassion and justice was revealed for all to see in the servant of God who was crucified.

The eyes of Peter, James, and John were opened. They witnessed the glory of God and the full identity of Jesus. To clarify their understanding of the image standing before them, they heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him! (Mt. 17:5)” The voice reaffirmed Jesus’ identity as the Son and servant of God heard years earlier at his baptism by John. Thus, in both the accounts of his baptism and in the transfiguration stories, the early church identified Jesus with the servant of God in Isaiah 42.

Jesus is explicitly recognized as God’s chosen servant in Matthew 12:15-21. The author of Matthew cites Isaiah 42:1-4 to show that Jesus’ ministry of healing and of challenging the legalism of religious authority (Matthew 12:9-14) were fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus’ life and ministry was that of the servant of God. He was the bearer of God’s justice for all people, Jews and Gentiles. When he healed the sick he restored them to wholeness. As whole persons they could become full participants in community life and resources. When Jesus challenged the Sabbath law (Mt. 12:9-14) he liberated the Sabbath from rigid limits imposed upon it by the traditions of religious leaders. He taught that the Sabbath was created for humankind. Humankind was not created for the Sabbath. In this teaching Jesus set the Sabbath free to be the life-giving time of re-creation for which it was intended. Here Jesus illustrated the servant nature of his ministry and of the institution of the Sabbath. Both he and the Sabbath were gifts from God to give and to celebrate life, love and justice for all people.

[i] Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 259.

[ii] Ibid., 155-156.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Servant Leadership - Part 2

Jesus the Servant of God

Jesus lived and died as the servant of God. His life and death were exemplified by self-giving love in the service of compassion and justice. Jesus gave himself freely, body and spirit, to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). In other words, his life was the incarnation of God’s love and intention for all people and all of creation. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16a). In his life and death the church saw and experienced God’s presence and power in their midst and in the world. Jesus illuminated the power and presence of God and revealed the nature of authority and power in God’s household. He gave those who followed him a new way of thinking, seeing and living that is free of domination, competition, and fear. Jesus was a different kind of leader. He healed the sick, fed the hungry and ate with sinners. He comforted the lonely, cared for the lost and welcomed strangers. Jesus gave of himself for others. He put their needs ahead of his own, even to the point of suffering and humiliation. Jesus revealed God’s power and authority through humble service and caring; not through market logic.

The Servant Songs of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) provide an interpretive framework to help the early church understand Jesus’ life, ministry and death. According to Colin Kruse, “The primitive Christian community soon came to understand and interpret the ministry of Jesus in terms of the suffering servant prophecies …(cf., e.g., Matthew 3:17; 12:18-21; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; 1 Peter 2:22, 24-25).”[i] Much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings reflect the image of the “Suffering Servant of God” from Isaiah. Kruse also contends that Isaiah’s servant imagery helped to form Jesus’ self-identity as much as it did the church’s interpretation of him.[ii] Servant identity so infused Jesus’ ministry that he expected his disciples to follow his example; even to share his fate. It is so central to Jesus understanding of himself, his ministry and the continuing ministry of the community gathered in his name that it bears close examination for the Christian community of every age.

We will look at each of the Servant Songs in the prophet Isaiah in turn. Each conveys aspects of Jesus’ life and death. Understanding their message is important because they help us better understand who Jesus is and who we, as the church, the community that bears his name, are to become.

[i] Colin G. Kruse, New Testament Models for Ministry: Jesus and Paul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), p 34.

[ii] Ibid., 50.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Servant Leadership - Part 1

The following several posts are a paper I wrote a few years ago titled “Servant Leadership in the New Testament Church.” It addresses problems and paradigms of leadership in the church today and offers a course correction.


Leadership is a hot topic in the church today. After decades of declines in membership, giving, and missional vitality many in the church today are searching for ways to inspire the remaining flock and to attract new members to its doors. Unfortunately, the models for leadership adopted by the church have come from the world and dominant culture. They are grounded in the logic of the market. Consequently, they are characterized by division of labor, domination, and authority that foster passivity in the laity and elitism among the clergy. In adapting its organizational structures and understanding of power and authority to the market logic, the North American church has become a reflection of the world it has been called to serve and transform. In fact, just the reverse has occurred. The church has been made into the image of the market.

What is the market logic? It is the organizing principle of the modern world. The market logic places all faith and trust for the provision of human need and desire in the forces of supply and demand. In the market logic everything is for sale. Everything, even life and health, is a commodity. The worth of human life is determined by the individual ability to acquire and accumulate wealth. Those who are limited in their ability to acquire and accumulate are forced to the margins and become the objects of charity.

The North American church has unquestioningly accepted and adopted the market logic. This acceptance is seen in the way the church has organized itself. It is especially apparent when we look at the church’s life and ministry. Church membership is regarded as a relationship with an institution in which the member expects to receive services (entertainment/worship, moral education of children, social standing, etc.) in exchange for a nominal sum of money placed in the offering plate on the Sunday services they attend at their convenience. Participation on church committees and social functions passes for discipleship. The clergy are regarded as the hired experts who are responsible for carrying out the church’s ministry: visiting the sick and elderly, teaching the children, planning and leading worship, performing weddings, and burying the dead. There is a very clear division of labor in the church. The clergy are service providers who do the work of the church on behalf of the laity who are the recipients (customers) of the product (ministry). This outcome has been fostered by the church’s adoption of market driven organizing principles employed by corporations and the world of business. Pastors increasingly see themselves as managers and CEOs while laity regard themselves as consumers of religious and social services.

It is no wonder that the North American church has experienced a steady decline in membership and vitality in the Twentieth century. The church has reduced itself to a religious social club that “proclaims a gospel without demands and makes demands without gospel.”[i] It understands its need for leadership. But it all too often looks to the market for answers. Where and to whom can the church turn for help if not to the market?

The Bible is where the church will find itself. In the Bible the church will discover its true identity and mission. It will also find an understanding of power, authority and leadership that will renew and revitalize its life. More specifically, in the Bible the church will find in the life and teaching of Jesus and the early church a means for re-orienting its life and ministry away from the market and toward the God who is the author if its life and mission.

This paper will examine the approach to authority, power and leadership that was revealed in the life, teaching, and death of Jesus Christ. He set the course to be followed by his disciples. We will look at Jesus’ understanding of his identity and mission in and for the world. It is the contention of this paper that Jesus has established the paradigm for the church’s employment of authority, power and leadership. Jesus, not the market or the world, is where the church must look to learn about true leadership and power.

[i] Orlando E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982), p. 79-80.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Basic Practices of Christian Faith 3: Conclusion


Self deception is a destructive component of the human condition. We are inclined to believe what ever pleases and makes us comfortable. Never mind that, whatever it may be, is false and may lead to our spiritual or physical death. We are easily lead to think and believe and act in ways that are self-serving and self-centered.

The means of grace are a necessary corrective to our propensity to self deception. They provide a corrective to the alternatives presented by the world. They give direction toward and focus on Christ when sin drives us into ourselves and our own desires. The means of grace convey prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace through tangible words (prayer and Scripture), actions (prayer, Lord's Supper, Christian conference, visiting the sick and doing good) , and relationships (Christian conference, worship, Class meetings). They help to remind us who we are (beloved children of God; sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ) and whose we are (we belong to God the Father, revealed and incarnate in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit that empowers, inspires and leads us into relationship with God and the Church).

We live in a world corrupted by sin that endeavors to convince us that we are the center of the universe, that we don't need God, and that no other human being can be trusted to care for or love us. This same sin has distorted the image of God within us. Thus, no matter how much faith we have, we are susceptible to the lies of the world and the self-deception they encourage. God has given us the means of grace as a means to counter the powers of sin. They are an acknowledgement of sin's presence and power in the world and in human life and relationships. God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has given the means of grace to the Church through the ages to help us cooperate with God's project of restoration and healing for our souls and all creation.


Wesley understood the means of grace to be the means for human participation in the life of God and as means for cooperation with God in the process of healing and renewal of the divine image.[1] In other words, the means of grace are like medicine God makes available for the healing of our lives, souls, relationships and world:

Wesley's considerations of the means of grace focused predominantly on their contribution to sanctification (in the broad sense). When one understands sanctification on Wesley's terms, as a life-long process of healing our sin-distorted affections, there is an obvious need for continually renewing the empowerment for this healing. The other essential requirement is a persistent deepening of our awareness of the deceptive motivations and prejudices remaining in our life, because co-operant healing entails some discernment of that which still needs to be healed. Wesley understood the means of grace to provide for both of these needs.[2]

In the means of grace, we make ourselves available to God and the healing power of grace. They teach us how to respond to God's love, accept God's acceptance of us, and receive God's forgiveness. In this sense the means of grace are like therapy for the body, soul, mind and relationships of those who seek God and God's healing love in Jesus Christ.

As we practice them and allow them to become part of our life the means of grace form us into the image of Christ and help us to walk with him. As we walk with Christ we must then walk where he walks and orient our lives and attitudes toward that which is central to his life. In other words, the means of grace ultimately lead those who make them part of their lives into solidarity and service and ministry with the poor.

The more grace renews and restores the image of God within us, the more we must be drawn into the lives and struggles of the poor. As mentioned above, Jesus explicitly identified himself with the poor (Matthew 25:31-36). He proclaimed his mission to be with and for the poor (Luke 4:16-21). He lived his life with the outcasts, the weak, the sick and vulnerable of his world (Luke 5:29-32).

Function and purpose of the means of grace are to convey prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace to people broken and corrupted by sin. They awaken the heart to God in Christ, restore relationship with God, renew the image of Christ, and allow human beings to cooperate with God's work of healing for their souls and to participate in God's life in the world.

As we are healed and participate in God's life and work, our lives are re-oriented away from ourselves and toward God's will for the universe. An essential part of this new orientation is God's preferential option for the world incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[1] Maddox, 199.

[2] Ibid., 202.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Basic Practices of Christian Faith 2: The Prudential Means of Grace

This is part 3 of 4 from my thinking on the relationship between the means of grace and ministry with the poor as essentials for faithful discipleship.

Knight differentiates between the instituted and prudential means of grace:

The instituted are those which are appointed by God as means of grace, . . . The instituted means belong to the universal church in all eras of history and in all cultures. In contrast, the prudential means of grace vary from age to age, culture to culture, and person to person; they reflect God's ability to use any means in addition to those instituted in accordance with different times and circumstances.[1]

As we look at the instituted means of grace we can see how the prudential means flow from them. The instituted means of grace lead to, inspire and empower the prudential. While the instituted means remain constant throughout history, they provide the foundation upon which the prudential means build faithful disciples within their particular times and cultures. The prudential means of grace are the practices that lead disciples most directly to encounter Christ in the world. Which is to say they lead disciples into the world of the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sick.

For Wesley the commonly held prudential means were:

1. Particular rules or acts of holy living.
2. Class and band meetings.
3. Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, love feasts.
4. Visiting the sick.
5. Doing all the good one can, doing no harm.
6. Reading devotional classics and all edifying literature.

Each is derived from and informed by prayer and searching the Scriptures. The "particular rules or acts of holy living" were founded upon the acts of Jesus. The understanding of Wesley being that those seeking to be disciples of Jesus need to do what Jesus did and taught. The essential rules were the general rules cited above. In them is contained a practical summary of how to live out the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. It is also important to understand the rules were not intended to be proscriptive or legalistic. They were meant to serve as a guide for living; a sign that points beyond itself to a destination. The rules were a means for forming Christian character and holy habits. They were a means for helping disciples live in the presence of God.

The Class and band meetings were the place society members made sure their discipleship (as defined by the rules) happened. They were places for the mutual support and accountability needed to form Christian character. The class meetings and bands were intended to help the Methodists have the form and power of religion so that they could live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, and love feasts were occasional community building events that brought Methodists closer to one another through prayer and the reading of Scripture. They shared their struggles with each other, prayed for each other, shared faith stories, sang hymns, and celebrated together in the presence of God. One of the important purposes for these occasional events was to help the Methodists remember who they were and whose they were; they were beloved children of God chosen and called to love and be loved to be channels of divine grace for the world.

Visiting the sick and doing all the good one can were essential means of grace for Wesley:

. . . By whom is this duty to be performed? The answer is ready: By all that desire to "inherit the kingdom" of their Father, which was "prepared for them from the foundation of the world." For thus saith the Lord, "Come, ye blessed; – inherit the kingdom; – for I was sick, and ye visited me." And to those on the left hand, "Depart, ye cursed; – for I was sick, and ye visited me not." Does not this plainly imply, that as all who do this are "blessed," and shall "inherit the kingdom;" so all who do it not are "cursed," and shall "depart into everlasting fire?" [2]

Wesley saw visiting the sick and doing all the good one can as clear commands of Christ. They are implied in the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. And they are explicitly named by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46. (A text Wesley took very seriously and which guided much of his ministry.) It is in Matthew 25 that we find Jesus explicitly identifying himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the ill clad, the sick and imprisoned. Not only does Jesus identify himself with them but he says our eternal salvation hinges on our treatment of them. Therefore, visiting the sick and doing good are not simply nice things we do when we feel like it. They are imperative to Christian life.

Here we have an explicit connection between practice of the means of grace and the imperative for ministry with poor. Jesus clearly states in Matthew 25 that when we feed the hungry, quench the thirst of the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned we are serving Christ himself. Christ is found among the poor, the strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Christ is alive and incarnate among the ones living at the margins of the world. The means of grace, when practiced in the spirit of Christ, within the body of Christ, will bring us to Christ who is in and among the poor.

The means of grace exist for us because we live in a broken world that is ruled by sin that distorts the righteousness and justice of God. Wesley, influenced by the writings of the Eastern Church, believed sin was like a contagion that has infected the universe.[3]

Like the West, Eastern theology from its beginning saw the Fall as a result of human preference to compete with God as God's equal rather than accepting our need for participating in the Divine gifts. However, they understood the results of the Fall differently. First, they rejected the idea of human posterity inheriting guilt from the Fall; we become guilty only when we imitate our Parent's sin. Second, they argued that the primary result of the Fall was the introduction of death and corruption into human life, and its subsequent dominion over humanity. Finally, while early Greek theologians clearly believed that the death and disease thus introduced have so weakened the human intellect and will that we can no longer hope to attain the Likeness of God on our own, they did not hold that the Fall deprived us of all grace, or of the accountability for responding to God's offer of restored communion in Christ. That is, a characteristic Eastern Christian affirmation of co-operation in diving/human interactions remains even after the Fall. In this sense, they base their anthropology more on Creation than on the Fall.[4]

Human beings are created in the image of God; to live in relationship with God as reflections of God's divine image and will. Sin distorts the human heart and soul, thus distorting the capacity to reflect the image of God. Consequently, human beings are rendered incapable of living in relationship with their Creator apart from grace. The natural, political, and moral image of God are corrupted and lead to make corrupt choices and decisions. The natural orientation of this distorted image is transferred from God to the self. Only grace has the power to renew the image of God and restore the proper orientation of the heart.[5] To the corrupt human heart that which is false becomes truth, that which is evil becomes good, that which is unjust becomes just. Wesley believed that only by grace, incarnate in Jesus Christ, can right relationship with God be restored.

[1] Knight, 3.

[2] John Wesley, "On Visiting the Sick," in The Works of Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. Thomas Jackson, 3rd ed., 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; reprinted Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers (Compact Disc), 1995), VII:123.

[3] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 65-67.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Runyon, 14.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Basic Practices of Christian Faith 1: The Instituted Means of Grace


"Prayer, said Wesley, is 'the grand means of drawing near to God'; all other means are helpful 'as they are mixed with or prepare us for this.' Prayer thus pervades the other means of grace, as both preparation and content. But prayer also pervades the Christian life."[1] For Wesley prayer is the beginning and end of Christian life. It is the where we make ourselves available to God and God's grace that awakens the heart and moves the spirit to act as though Christ's life were our own. Without prayer there could be no Christian life or discipleship. As prayer, both private and public, opens us to God's gracious Spirit, it is the primary means for drawing us into first sympathy for, next service for, and finally solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and vulnerable. Prayer is the first means for awakening an awareness within us of where and with whom Christ lives and works in the world. It is the habit that moves the heart closer and closer to the heart of God in Jesus Christ. Prayer makes us susceptible to the good news that Christ has for the world through the poor. All the other means of grace derive their power from prayer.

Searching the scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing, attending the ministry of the word, either read or expounded is essential because the Bible is where we come into the presence of the God who is revealed in the Word. "The purpose of scripture for Wesley is stated in the preface to his sermons:

I want to know one thing, the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

. . . scripture had primacy not only as an authority for theological reflection, but as a context which formed and shaped Christian life."[2] Scripture is, for Wesley, the heart of Christian life. He believed it to be the authentic word of God. Therefore, God's will and way for living is found within the pages of Scripture. The Bible is a gift from the living God given for the building up of God's people. As the word of God, Scripture is a means of grace, second only to prayer, because within its pages God and God's word, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is made available freely to everyone. As the word is read (or heard) and studied, it forms character and life into the image of Christ. All one needs do is open its pages and read. If one cannot read, one can listen to the word read to them.

Scripture is closely related to prayer because the one often leads people to the other. Reading Scripture often induces prayer as a response to the word. In fact, reading the prayers recorded in Scripture teaches one how to pray. Conversely, a disciplined life of prayer inevitably leads to disciplined reading and study of Scripture. Prayer and Scripture are closely related means of grace.


The Lord's Supper combines prayer, Scripture, and the breaking of bread as a means of grace that has the power to heal and transform. "For Wesley, the Lord's Supper invites an experience of faith which powerfully forms and shapes the affections, and a relationship with a God who freely gives God's own self out of love for sinners."[3] The sacrament tells the story of grace. In it is found the story of God's unlimited, universal, self-giving love for the world in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In the broken bread and pungent wine the One who gave all he had, even his own life, to set all the world free from slavery to sin and death is re-presented. And, we are invited to become participants in God's grand project of salvation, liberation, healing, and transformation for the universe.

The Lord's Supper is an invitation to enter into the life of Christ for the world. It is a re-presentation of Christ's gracious life. "In the Lord's Supper God is experienced as the one who promises in faithfulness. A response of loving gratitude is evoked for this promise of new life, a response of joyful hope is evoked for both the expectation of present transformation and the assurance of feasting with God in the future kingdom."[4] Christ's offering of himself for the life of the world is an invitation for us to respond by offering us to Christ as channels of his grace in and for the world.

The Lord's Supper is "food for the journey." The bread and cup are offered to everyone who will receive it to fill them with the food they need to continue (or begin) their walk with Christ. In the bread and cup we take Christ's body and blood into our own bodies and blood. He becomes part of us and we take him into the world with us. His body and blood, represented in the bread and cup, connect us to all the generations of disciples that have gone before us. The Sacrament is our connection to Christ and the communion of saints who served as his faithful witnesses and passed the faith along from generation to generation. The Lord's Supper gives continuity to our discipleship by connecting us to our history in Christ. It gives life to the body and the spirit as it conveys prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.


Fasting, or abstinence, serve to focus the attention on the need for God. "Wesley identifies five grounds or reasons for fasting: sorrow for sin, bodily health, avoidance of excessive consumption, self-punishment, and as an aid to prayer. The union of fasting to prayer was especially important for Wesley, who saw it as a means

of confirming and increasing, not only virtue, not chastity only (as some have idly imagined without any ground either from Scripture, reason, or experience), but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection.[5]

For Wesley, fasting is a means for removing barriers that we erect between ourselves and God. It is a real emptying of self that makes room for God and the Holy Spirit to replace sinful habits and attitudes with holy habits. Fasting is a means for maintaining a healthy orientation away from sin and toward the cross. It teaches self-denial and discipline that facilitates prayer and searching the Scripture.

Fasting is also one of the means of grace that helps create a concrete connection between the life of following Christ and living in solidarity with the poor. It allows those who practice it to experience some of the suffering and sorrow that are a normal part of the life of poverty; namely never having enough of what one needs for life and always feeling hunger. Fasting can lead to a life of simplicity. Wesley believed "fasting is the avoidance of excessive consumption of food, along with a 'carelessness and levity of spirit' and an increase in 'foolish and unholy desires, yea, unclean and vile affections' which accompany such consumption."[6] Fasting helps lead us away from dependence upon things and consumption of things, which can lead to idolatry, and leads us into a deeper relationship with Christ and the simplicity of his life. It can help set us free from our "stuff" so we can more faithfully, and without fear, draw closer to the poor. Fasting allows those who have more than enough to voluntarily give away what they have so that others may have what they need.


The last of the instituted means of grace important to Wesley and the Methodists is "Christian conference, which includes both the fellowship of believers and rightly ordered conversations which minister grace to hearers." Like the Lord's Supper, Christian conference is a corporate means of grace. Christian conference, a term rarely used today, is simply Christians gathering into groups for the purpose of mutual support and accountability. It is a fundamental expression of Christian tradition extending back to Jesus and the community of disciples he gathered around him. The first thing Jesus did as he began his public ministry was to call a group of disciples to share the load of mission and ministry God had given him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-42) Jesus knew the life to which God had called him could not be faithfully lived alone. He needed the support, love, prayers and accountability of others.

If this was true for Jesus, it is all the more true for ordinary human beings. Christian conference is simply the practice of living in Christian community. It is the acknowledgment that if we are to faithfully live in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need the company, support and love of others.

The most important expression of Christian conference for the Methodists was the Class Meeting. They were small groups within the Societies. Wherever Wesley preached and perceived his message had an effect on people in the crowd, he formed a society consisting of people desiring to "flee the wrath to come." This was the key to his success as a leader of an evangelical revival. He gave people a means of support and formation in their new-found Christian faith. The society was the means for organizing and forming people into Christians.

Each society was divided into smaller groups of up to twelve. In the class meetings women and men met together weekly. The group had an appointed leader (the Class Leader). Weekly meetings consisted of prayer, singing of hymns, reading of Scripture, and a time of examination during which each member was given an opportunity to share with the Leader their walk with Christ during the preceding week. The meeting was conducted by the class leader and the time of accountability guided by the General Rules.[7] Members received spiritual, emotional, and physical support while they were encouraged to be steadfast in their life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Henry Knight maintains: "The voluntary communities of Methodism were concerned with the maintenance and advancement of the Christian life. While they embodied ‘Christian conference,’ an instituted means of grace, Wesley continually called them prudential . . ."[8] The Societies and Class Meetings provide a connection between the Instituted Means of Grace with the Prudential Means of Grace.

[1] Knight, 116.

[2] Knight, 148-149.

[3] Ibid., 142.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 120-121.

[6] Ibid., 121.

[7] The General Rules are: 1. "By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced. . . . 2. By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their own power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all [people] . . . 3. By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: The public worship of God. The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. The Supper of the Lord. Family and private prayer. Searching the Scriptures. Fasting or abstinence. . . ." The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church

[8] Knight, 95.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is there good news for the poor in The United Methodist Church? Here's an intersting and provocative perspective from a pastor in Indiana: Where's The New Territory?

Wesley and The Means of Grace

The means of grace are those spiritual disciplines that are described in Scripture and which have been practiced by people of faith for millennia. Wesley summarized them for the people called Methodist as works of mercy and works of piety. The works of mercy are doing no harm, avoiding evil, and doing all the good one can. Today these works of mercy may be described as acts of compassion and acts of justice. The works of piety include private and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, The Lord's Supper, the public worship of God, Christian conference, and fasting or abstinence.

Henry H. Knight III provides three categories that are useful for understanding the means of grace and their place in Christian life in the Wesleyan tradition:[1]


1. Universal obedience.
2. Keeping all the commandments.
3. Watching.
4. Denying ourselves.
5. Taking up our cross daily.
6. Exercise of the presence of God.


1. Prayer: private, family, public; consisting of deprecation, petition,
intercession, and thanksgiving; extemporaneous and written.

2. Searching the scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing, attending the ministry of the word, either read or expounded.
3. The Lord's Supper.
4. Fasting, or abstinence.
5. Christian conference, which includes both the fellowship of believers
and rightly ordered conversations which minister grace to hearers.


1. Particular rules or acts of holy living.
2. Class and band meetings.
3. Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, love feasts.
4. Visiting the sick.
5. Doing all the good one can, doing no harm.
6. Reading devotional classics and all edifying literature.

The emphasis of this paper will be on the Instituted and Prudential means of grace and the relationship between them. They are disciplines Wesley practiced throughout his adult life. He found them to be the means given by God to enable all Christians to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12b-13). In other words, the means of grace listed above are given in order to help women and men to live out the commandments of Christ: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31).

Wesley believed "first, the Christian life is most fundamentally lived as a response to God's love for us. To know God truly is to experience that love. Second, our love for God and our neighbor are core affections, emotions, or tempers which govern the Christian life."[2] The means of grace are the means to living out this love. As they are faithfully practiced, the relationships of love for God and for neighbor are nurtured. The Christian is formed as an individual and as a member of the community known as the Church. Through the means of grace God's love and our love become real, tangible, and visible through lives lived in the world and with in the community of the Church.

The means of grace draw us out of ourselves and into the world as channels of God's love. They form us, by grace, into the image and likeness of Christ. They draw us closer to one another in love. As we are drawn closer to our sisters and brothers and neighbors, we are drawn closer to Christ. This begs the question, "With whom does Christ explicitly identify himself? Among whom is Christ found to be living in every age?" The poor, the outcast, the weak, and the vulnerable. The means of grace teach us the love of God and neighbor and pulls us toward the people among whom God in Jesus Christ lives. Their ultimate purpose is to form us in such a way that we become capable of forming relationships of fellowship, service, and solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts of the world. This is how God would have us "work out our salvation."

This was the experience of John Wesley and the early Methodists. Wesley chose to live among the poor because he took Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 seriously. He visited in their homes. He slept in their beds. He ate with them and tended to their needs when they were sick. "Wesley was, if nothing else, the theologian of experience. This did not mean for him a concentration upon isolated moments of interior religious excitement, but rather the immersion in lived experience, in the texture and duration of sensory involvement. If you want to know what love is, you live the life of love and reflect on the vicissitudes of this journey through time. Similarly, if one is to know something of poverty one must spend the time and energy to be with the poor and to appropriate what is encountered there."[3] Wesley eventually maintained that visiting the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned was as much a means of grace as prayer and receiving the Lord's Supper.[4] He saw ministry and life with and for the poor to be what Paul meant by "working out your salvation."

With such a heavy emphasis on the practice of the means of grace, are Wesley and the Methodists in danger of encouraging a form of "works righteousness?" Can the means of grace become a means for earning salvation? Yes, this is a danger. It emphasizes the importance of faithful teaching, preaching, and study of the Bible. It must be understood that the means of grace are simply that, "means" of grace and not grace itself. When they become means in and of themselves the focus moves from Christ and his righteousness to ourselves and our righteousness. "Grace is relational and personal, not mechanistic and institutional; means of grace do not in effect possess the Holy Spirit, but are means used by the Spirit."[5] The means of grace flow out a relationship with God. They serve to nurture and expand that relationship. They are the ways by which we make ourselves available to God and God's life-giving love in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The means of grace become mere formalism when practiced in the absence of such a relationship; or with little or no attention paid to such a relationship with the living God.

[1] Henry H. Knight III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace, (Netuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992), 5.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 53.

[4] Ibid., 54.

[5] Knight, 30.

Marks of Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition

1. Christ-centered and Spirit-lead
Leaders in the Wesleyan spirit are called and guided by the teachings Jesus Christ, summarized by him in the Great Commandment of Mark 12:30-31, The mission of Christ-centered and Spirit-lead leaders is the saving of souls. They understand that loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength is expressed and lived through loving those whom God loves, especially the poor, the outcast, foreigners, the voiceless, sick, and prisoners.

2. Expectant faith
Wesleyan leadership lives with expectation that God will keep the promises given in the Baptismal Covenant and in Scripture. Therefore, leaders in the Wesleyan spirit have corresponding expectations of themselves, individual church members, and the congregations they lead. The expectations simply are that the baptized ought to keep the promises made in response to God because we can count on God keeping the promises given in Baptism.

3. Use the Means Provided to Live into the Expectations
God has provided means for God’s people to live into the promises they make in Baptism. The task of leaders in the Wesleyan tradition is to help people to learn and practice the basics of Christian discipleship, also known as the means of grace. This way of life is guided by a rule of life, known in the Wesleyan tradition as the General Rules (see The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church-2004 pages 72-74).

Wesleyan leadership understands that small groups are an essential component of Christian formation and “disciple-making.” Because God is relational God forms and heals human character through the lives and witness of other human beings through mutual support and accountability. Small groups are the proven and effective means of bringing people together and building the body of Christ.

Small groups, worship, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, faith sharing, mission and outreach are all means of grace that are part of an intentional process of Christian initiation and formation through which people make themselves available to grace. When people practice these basics of discipleship God will heal and form their character into the character of Christ. Leaders in the Wesleyan spirit help to support and sustain intentional Christian community that is focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ through Christian formation.

4. Biblical Evangelism
Leaders in the Wesleyan tradition share the good news of God’s love, righteousness, and justice for the world. They help the church and its members to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world. The ministry of evangelism is how the church lives out Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Through mutual accountability and support for growing in love of God and neighbor in small groups, regular participation in the Lord’s Supper and the other means grace, people are equipped to help others see where and how Christ is at work in the world and in their lives. Leaders lead the church into becoming a sign community for the reign of God. Such leadership is clear that the church is not the reign of God but that its mission is to help people experience God’s love and justice in their own lives in a way that they too become witnesses.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Jesus' Declaration of Freedom

2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10; Mark 6:1-13
"Jesus' Declaration of Freedom"

Two hundred thirty years ago a group of men in Philadelphia put their names to a document called a declaration of independence. They declared America's independence from the rule of the English king and his parliament. When they put their names to that piece of paper, each of them knew he was signing his death warrant should the war of independence fail. Those men in Philadelphia risked their lives and their fortunes all in the name of freedom and liberty.

With the signing of the declaration of independence, the United States of America was born. The passage we read in 2 Samuel tells us the story of the birth of the united kingdom of Israel. For some time David ruled as king of the southern nation of Judah. Saul and his sons ruled the northern nation of Israel. After Saul's death, Israel was thrown into chaos. In an effort to restore order, the leaders of Israel went to David and implored him to become their king. They invoked the name of the Lord God who told David: "It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel." Thus David was to unite the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah and he was to be their king, their shepherd.

David was anointed to be a shepherd for God's people. God, who was the source of his power to rule and lead, did not intend for David to be a typical king;
God's king was to be a shepherd king.

A shepherd is one who lays down his life for his flock. He does what ever is needed to care for and protect the flock. The shepherd leads with love, compassion and justice. He gives special attention to the sheep who have special needs: the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the lost. This shepherd is God's paradigm for the office of king and ruler. To rule in accord with God's will is to rule as a shepherd, as one who serves for the well-being of the people.

While David was anointed to be God's shepherd king, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of the shepherd king. He is the one who literally gave his life for his sheep.
In him we see God's power revealed in what the world regards as weakness and foolishness. You see, Jesus came for everyone. But he came especially for the poor, the oppressed, the disabled, and the outcast. In his kingdom the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Because of who he was and the way he lived out God's commands, Jesus was rejected by the people who knew him best and, ultimately, by the world.

When Jesus was rejected by the people, they rejected God's rule over their lives.
They said "No!" to God's vision for nationhood. They said "No!" to God's shepherd.
The powers of this world oppose God's shepherd at every opportunity. The powers are threatened by God's shepherd because his mission is to welcome all of God's children into the kingdom. The powers survive and thrive only when power and wealth are held and used by the few to oppress and exploit the many. They know that Jesus came to destroy their monopoly on power and wealth. They know that Jesus came to set all people free to live and love; all people without regard to race, class, religion, physical ability, or anything else; all people belong to Jesus.

The Lord's Supper is Jesus' declaration of freedom from the powers and principalities. It is his declaration to the powers and principalities that their days are numbered. The Lord's Supper is a reminder to the powers of sin and death of Christ's eternal presence in the world and his people. In it we are reminded that Christ gave himself for the world. His body was broken for the world. His blood was shed for the world; to set the world free from sin’s power to destroy and the hopelessness of death.

At the Lord's table, Christ's invitation is extended to all people everywhere in every time and every place. No one is excluded, no one is left out, no one goes home hungry, no one goes home thirsty. At the Lord's table, Christ invites all people, no matter who you are, to come and feast on forgiveness, peace, justice and hope.
At his table, Christ gives to all who will come his unconditional love and acceptance.

Christ tells you that you are forgiven and he invites you to become part of his declaration of freedom. His declaration of freedom from sin and death; the rulers of this world that try to convince us that real power comes from force, strength and violence.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sets us free from the dominion of the powers and principalities. He sets us free from sin's power to destroy and deceive. His declaration of freedom - revealed in the table and the cross - sets us free to love; to love as God loves; to love those whom God loves.

Come to the table. Accept God's grace-filled love, God's unconditional acceptance. Accept the freedom and liberty that only Christ can give. Come to the table to declare your independence from sin and death. Come to the table and accept the freedom to love and live with God.