Catholic Spirit (contemporary version of John Wesley’s 1750 sermon)

Preface: I wrote this sermon for a (fantastic) seminary class focusing on early Methodism in which we traveled to Philadelphia in the summer of 2012. I’m posting it here now because a.) this message is ALWAYS relevant and b.) my church has been studying Wesley’s original version of the sermon and I thought they might appreciate a more contemporary retelling of it.

Biblical Text: Jehu departed from there and encountered Rechab’s son Jehonadab. Jehu greeted him, and asked, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?” Jehonadab replied, “Yes, I am.” “If so,” said Jehu, “then give me your hand.” So Jehonadab put out his hand and Jehu pulled him up into the chariot. (2 Kings 10:15, CEB)

This week we’ve all been blessed to be surrounded by fellow Methodists and immersed in Wesley’s theology. We’ve been in a happy Wesleyan bubble, without having to think too much about other Christian denominations or groups. And that’s nice. But chances are, you’ll have to face some non-Wesleyans at some point during your life and ministry. And you might even have to deal with people who believe in Predestination! Whether they’re Predestinarians or not, the fact is that the world is full of a lot of different kinds of Christians, and we don’t always get along so well. An outside observer might see some of our conflicts and assume we were mortal enemies, with the way we sometimes talk to—and about—each other.

Enemies. Hmm… I feel like Jesus said something important about enemies. Right… he said that we are to “Love our enemies.” Whoops.

It seems that this particular exhortation is, to put it mildly, difficult. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I have a hard time loving my enemies. Especially if they’re my ideological or theological opponents. I guess it’s a result of being a religious person: I take my beliefs seriously. So, naturally, I hate to see them threatened—even if the threat is all in my imagination. And I am so distracted by some of these differences in opinion that I forget that the person I disagree with is a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ. Or, even worse, I forget that the other person is a child of God.

My guess is that you might also struggle with this kind of feeling at times. It’s a problem Christians have been having as long as anyone can remember. Different individuals, sects, churches, and denominations butting heads as if there’s nothing more pressing in the entire world than proving each other’s beliefs to be wrong. Why is it that we Christians, the ones who are called to love all people—even our enemies—can’t even love one another? Are we not called to be one body in Christ? How can we get past our differences in order to strengthen, rather than tear apart, this precious body?

Well, to start with, we all could use a little reality check. It turns out that we’re all fallible. (No way!) As convinced as we might be that all of our opinions are correct, I promise you that they’re not. We don’t all believe exactly the same things. We all have different life experiences and different ways of processing information, so we come to different conclusions. We just can’t all be right, all the time. Each of us is most likely correct in most of our opinions, but not all of them. The problem is that we don’t know which ones are wrong. That’s just life. And that’s okay. We’re all in the same boat. It’s okay as long as we remember that this is the boat we’re in. We’re a bunch of fallible people, all doing our best to know God as well as we can. We have yet to reach perfection. So we should give each other the same room for intellectual freedom that we want for ourselves. Diversity of opinions is inevitable, so the question becomes, how can we deal with that diversity?

One way to deal with it is to insulate ourselves from one another and avoid those people whose beliefs differ from our own. That way, we can do things the way we like. We can propagate the theology we like. We can worship in the style we like. The problem, though, is that the more we only spend time with people like us, the more we start to look down on the people who aren’t in our group. Even if it’s subconscious and unintentional. We get so used to one view of the world, and never get challenged in it, that we lose touch with reality. We forget that we’re fallible! We obviously don’t forget that other people are fallible, but in this type of separatist Christianity, we start to view every single one of our beliefs as absolute, unquestionable truth. Even though our beliefs are always questionable. While we’re on this earth, “we know in part” (1 Cor 13:9, 12) as Paul reminds us. We will not know fully until the New Creation.

But, even so, what we do believe in this life is not meaningless. We shouldn’t head straight for the opposite extreme and just give up on believing anything. Our beliefs about God shape our relationship with God and others. They shape our faith. They shape how we see our place in the world around us. We can still believe what we believe, but we must always temper it with the knowledge that we might be wrong. And here, we find some middle ground.

The conversation that Jehu has with Jehonadab in this verse from 2 Kings can provide a model for how this middle ground should look. In the story, Jehu meets a man named Jehonadab while traveling on a mission. Jehonadab is not a Hebrew like Jehu, but Jehu isn’t concerned with Jehonadab’s belief system. Instead, he simply asks, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?” In other words, “Is your heart in the right place?” And when Jehonadab responds in the affirmative, Jehu says something truly worth remembering: “If so, then give me your hand.” He takes Jehonadab’s hand, and pulls him into the chariot. Despite the different beliefs these two men have, they can join hands and work together.

These two questions, “Is your heart in the right place?” and “If so, then give me your hand,” are the key to achieving Christian unity. They may not have been intended that way in the original context of the story, but they model the two steps necessary to our coming together despite our differences. The idea is not to dwell on our differences, but to pay attention to the things that truly matter. Opinions change, but God is constant. And after all, God is the reason we are Christians! God created and chose us. God dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The body of Christ is not some human-made club to join if you fit a certain list of criteria. The body of Christ is much greater than any club. It encompasses every Christian, throughout time. The common criterion here is not a specific doctrine or way of worshipping. The common criterion is a relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

So instead of judging one another based on our own criteria of right doctrine or practice, we ought to emulate Jehu from the text. Don’t ask, “What is your theological stance?” Instead, ask, “Is your heart in the right place?” And as for what exactly that means, “Is your heart in the right place?” means:

  • Are you in relationship with God?
  • Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?
  • Do you love God?
  • Do you love your neighbor, including your enemy?
  • Do you seek to show your love by your works?

These are the core aspects of being Christian, qualities that we all have in common. We may not be perfect at any of them, but these are the things that ought to distinguish us all as followers of Christ. We clearly disagree on other issues, from church structure to the definition of Trinity to what exactly happens during Communion. But what’s more important: that we all come to theological agreement, or that we work together as Christians to live out God’s will in the world? I’m convinced it’s the latter. It’s more important that we share the good news of Jesus Christ with those around us, and minister to the needs of the poor and downtrodden. That we build up young people who are strong in faith and committed to working for justice in the world. That we create a community of love and respect where people can feel the love of God reflected in their midst. This is the work of the church. This is what the body of Christ is called to do.

And to do that, we must put aside those doctrinal questions while we focus on the more pressing issue: Are we brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we share a love of God and love of neighbor? Are we followers of Jesus Christ?

Yes, my friends. We are. And so are countless others both inside and outside the United Methodist Church. The body of Christ is expansive, and therein lies its beauty and its strength. Beauty in its many forms of expression. And strength in its ability to connect all kinds of people together into one community. The people in the body of Christ don’t all believe or practice exactly the same things, but they have in common the most important thing—a God whose radiating love brings together diverse people into a beautiful mosaic.

So, once we have asked, “Is your heart in the right place?” and discovered that the other person is indeed a follower of Christ, there’s just one more thing to say: “Then give me your hand.” Let us work together, putting all differences of opinion aside. Let’s join hands, putting all labels aside. These differences don’t matter in light of Jesus Christ. More specifically, in light of who we are called to be as the Church of Jesus Christ. We’re called to spread the good news throughout the earth, to bring peace and healing to all people! How can we do that unless people of ALL kinds participate? We need each other. None of us can do this holy work alone.

Now. I realize that it’s easier said than done. Our differences will surely pop up now and then. Our specific beliefs will sometimes dictate how we approach ministry. Our worship preferences will make worshipping together more challenging. But as fellow members of the body of Christ, we can, and must, stay united anyway.

“Give me your hand,” doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs. Nor does it mean the other person has to change their beliefs. “Give me your hand,” means that we all can trust God to work in and through one another despite our failings and our disagreement. Isn’t that what God has been doing all along, anyway? I seem to recall the phrase, “Prevenient Grace,” being thrown around here and there. God is the one who invited us, as flawed individuals, into the body of Christ, and God is the source of the love we have for one another. In times of difficulty, we need to turn to God in faith rather than turning to each other in anger.

Of course, sometimes our different opinions can really bother us. And that’s okay… as long as we don’t decide to take it into our own hands. We are called to love one another patiently, as God loves us. We can pray for one another and encourage one another in Christian discipleship, but we must not force other people to change. No one appreciates being forced to do anything. Just as God is not coercive in God’s transforming and perfecting work in our own lives, we must not be coercive in our interactions with our sisters and brothers in Christ. God isn’t done working in us, or in others. We are all in the same boat, remember? So if we approach others with love and humility, we make it easier for the Holy Spirit to work in all of us to bring us closer to perfection. If we do this, then we have what Wesley calls “catholic spirit.”

Rather than being indifference to what we believe or how we practice our faith, catholic spirit is a God-given gift of love that transcends human limitations. Catholic spirit is the overflowing of Christian love that goes beyond our own congregation or theological group and extends to all of humankind. Specifically, a person with catholic spirit looks upon all other Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. This attitude is embodied by those questions we learned from Jehu in the scripture: “Is your heart in the right place?” followed by, “If so, then give me your hand.” And once we all join hands, who knows where God will take us.

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About carissalick

United Methodist deacon, ESL teacher, wife, learner, mom
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One Response to Catholic Spirit (contemporary version of John Wesley’s 1750 sermon)

  1. Rebekah says:

    “Turns out we’re all fallible. (No way!)”

    LOLled at that. 🙂

    Awesome sermon! I love the whole “then take my hand” deal. So cool, and so important!

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