I don’t know about you, but when I go to the grocery or lumber yard I like to make a list. Strangely, I prefer to make my list on recycled paper with a pen. Last week, I scratched out a quick list to pick up after my lap swimming: dog food, coffee, creamer, cherries, shaving cream, and a few other things. After putting away the groceries, I opened the refrigerator to start a salad and discovered we were out of spinach and lettuce, leaving only kale that I generally overpower with other flavors in a smoothie. I sighed wishing I had opened the cabinets and made a proper list. Lists are unglamorous and helpful. I have a list affixed to the top of my kayak gear box; life jacket, water, sunscreen, sunglasses, paddle. I made that list on a lovely Sunday afternoon after I untied my kayak on the Stone’s River boat ramp and realized my paddle was still in our shed. I did not venture down the river without a paddle. Defeated, I reloaded my kayak and drove back home to make that checklist. Lists are not exciting, but they are one of the reasons I love the Methodist church.
In 1739, about a dozen people began meeting with John Wesley on Thursday nights. They prayed together and talked about their spiritual lives. The UMC Discipline recounts that these foundational gatherings were a community “having the form and seeking the power of godliness”. They employed “forms”, methods and guiding patterns to help cultivate Christlikeness. Back in 1739, like today many think of spirituality like a magical gift God floats down from heaven disconnected from our human organization or efforts. In sermon 27 of Wesley’s 52 Standard sermons, the seventh discourse “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” Wesley wrote, ”It has been the endeavour of Satan, from the beginning of the world, to put asunder what God hath joined together; to separate inward faith from outward works.” We believe in spiritual gifts, but spirituality is not a magical blessing divorced from spiritual disciplines. God does not zap people into sainthood- Christlikeness requires human cooperation and faithfulness. Some people think that spirituality, like wisdom, art, or athleticism, are innate gifts that require little work. Musical, athletic, scholastic, or spiritual excellence are born of skill and hours of honing raw talent, learning new techniques, trying again, missing shots or notes, crumpling up drafts, and regular practice routines.
Jesus’ lifestyle shows us that Christlikeness is not just a product of prayers and beliefs but comes through doing justice, serving people, and attending to spiritual disciplines. The early church made the effort to memorize Matthew’s three chapter compendium of behaviors we call the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins with a list: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those mourning, the meek, those hungering for the right things, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for telling the truth… you are the light of the world!” Jesus wraps up the long list telling us “that everyone who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built their house with the slow costly practice of driving pilings into the bedrock. A faith made of beliefs alone and not locked in place with spiritual practices will collapse, but accumulated spiritual practices will hold us together when life’s inevitable storms pound us. We Methodists value the forms, methodologies, and disciplines of faith.
So back in 1739, this small group of Methodists made a covenant together to meet together every Thursday, worship somewhere every Sunday, unite in prayer, be open to words of exhortation from the scriptures, “watch over one another in love, and help each other to work out their salvation.” Such a spiritual workout routine strengthens our souls and prepares us for hard times or arduous spiritual seasons. Let’s rehearse that routine:
meet each week,
unite in prayer,
be open to words of exhorting,
watch over one another in love,
help each other work out salvation,
Work out- do you have a spiritual workout routine? As the Methodist small group movement began to grow, other Christians began to judge and ridicule our methodology. The word Methodist was an insult that we embraced as fitting for a people committed to spiritual workouts, practises and disciplines
I love that our United Methodist Disciplines lists Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons and our 300-year-old “General Rules” under section 104. 3—OUR DOCTRINAL STANDARDS. We placed rules for small group accountability alongside the theology of the church. John Wesley was not focused on perfecting a systematic theology but providing practical tools to help people live out their faith on earth as in heaven. Indeed, Wesley said, “The nature of religion does not consist in orthodoxy, or right opinions… A person may be orthodox in every point; not only espousing right opinions, but zealously defending them against all opposers, They might even be as orthodox as the devil (knowing but never doing right)… and yet it is possible they may have no (true) religion at all.” (Sermon 7: The Way of The Kingdom)
Let’s consider our first Methodist list- a list of General Rules made as a small group covenant and guide. These Methodists said “(wherever a desire to grow in Christ-likeness) is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation…”
First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as taking God’s name in vain, profaning the Sabbath, drunkenness, slaveholding, fighting, quarreling, returning evil for evil, using many words in buying or selling, charging excessive interest rates, uncharitable conversation, speaking evil of the government, consuming entertainment that does not tend to the love of God, putting on gold or costly apparel, needless self-indulgence, laying up treasures on earth, doing to others what we would not want done to us, doing what we know does not glorify God.
Secondly, we show evidence of our spiritual life by doing good to all people, doing everything in our power to be merciful, doing every kind of good that we can for all people – caring for people’s bodies, feeding hungry people, clothing needy people, visiting those in prison, caring for all who are sick, caring for people’s souls, by instructing, admonishing, or exhorting them, caring for the community of faith by helping each other in business and being patient with others’ spiritual journeys.
Thirdly, we continue to show evidence of our faith by attending to all the ordinances of God – public worship of God, the ministry of the Word, The Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the scriptures (Wesley did use the term Bible study, caring little for the accumulation of Biblical facts and trivia, but the searching of the scriptures in order to apply the scriptures to one’s life), fasting.
The doctrine of the General rules is practical doable “on-earth” stuff, not technical theology that does little to advance Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and serve neighbor. What lists, forms, goals keep you spiritually on track? Who is watching over you in love? Where are you working out your salvation?
The apostle Paul, or in this case most likely a third generation student of Paul, includes the kind of familiar list that Paul often sprinkled in his letters. Paul’s most famous checklist might be the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul’s ultimate list of what matters most is found in 1 Corinthians 13, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (New Living Translation). We can make a little checklist out of these three verses from our three verses in 1 Timothy.
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
Don’t order your life around money.
Don’t drift away from practicing faith.
Pursue ethical and righteous actions.
Seek to live a holy life,
be known by your faithfulness.
Strive after love.
Abide in gentleness.
Fight the good fight of faith (John Lewis called this “good trouble”).
Grab hold of eternal life right now.
God called us to live a holy life.
Remember you made a good confession in the presence of many witnesses,
maybe right here around the altar at Belmont UMC.
Have you taken the time to make a proper spiritual list, or are you kind of just bumping around the big box store of life hoping to run into what you need? Do you have spiritual practices in place to guide you back onto the path when you drift off? Who is watching over you in love? Who is helping you work out your salvation? As a right-brained, progressive, mystery-loving Christian I need guides, checklists, daily disciplines and weekly rituals. Methods, routines, and lists are not sexy, marketable, or celebrated, but they are one of the reasons I love the United Methodist Church:
Meet together each Thursday.
Worship every Sunday.
Unite in prayer.
Be open to words of exhortation.
Watch over one another in love.
Help each other work out salvation.
Do no harm
Do all the good you can, as long as you can, for everyone you can
Stay in Love with God
Watch over each other in love
Work out your salvation
Today, we are having a ministry fair with 16 booths, 16 places to connect with people and work out your salvation, to be watched over in love and unite in prayer. I invite you, even if you have not ordered lunch, to walk around the Community Center and see where you might connect with a ministry or small group and work out your salvation. Establish a spiritual workout routine. It is a very Methodist thing to do. Amen.