Friday, May 05, 2006

The Four Abiding Truths of Methodism

The heart of the Christian message is contained in just three sentences from the first letter of John. John says, 'We should believe in the name of [God's] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.'[1]
John Wesley's message became distinctive, in his lifetime, because of his repeated emphasis on four things: everyone needs to abide in Jesus; everyone can abide in Jesus; everyone can know that they abide in Jesus; and everyone can abide in him completely. This is not quite how Wesley put it, but it's what he might have said if he had published a sermon on this particular passage. They are the four 'abiding truths' of Methodism.
In his 'Notes on the New Testament', Wesley says, 'This [passage contains] the greatest and most important command that ever issued from the throne of glory. If this [command] be neglected, no other can be kept: if this be observed, all others are easy.'
What does it mean, then, to 'believe in the name of Jesus Christ'? I think it means to put our trust in everything which Jesus stands for or represents. In particular, John says that Christians believe Jesus' life and death define the true meaning of love.
Older people will remember the 'Love is...' cartoons. At one time you could get them on postcards, tea towels and aprons. They always depicted a naked, but totally innocent looking, man and woman. Beneath them would be a caption like, 'Love is... never having to say you're sorry.'
In his letter, John gives us the Christian version of that slogan. 'We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.' The unique thing about Jesus' death is not the horrid way he died, nor his innocence of the crimes he stood accused of committing. The unique thing is that – by dying in this way – he claimed to be speaking for God, and showing us what God is really like. God is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, and – indeed – has already done so in Jesus. This is what we are asked to believe.
But trusting in Jesus, abiding in him, is not just a matter of intellectual commitment. We also have to walk the talk. John says, 'Let us not love in word and speech, but in truth and action.' And just in case we don't know what that means, he gives us a concrete example: 'How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?' In other words, whenever we've got something to spare – even if it be only a tiny amount – we are not abiding in Jesus if we refuse to share it with a brother or sister in need; and that applies not only to our personal lives – to the way we spend our own time and money, but also to the way we run our churches and our communities.
If abiding in love involves this kind of commitment, we might well ask ourselves, 'Who, then, can be saved?' Knowing how selfish and self-absorbed human beings can be, it sounds like a tremendous challenge. But Methodist tradition has always insisted that it is not impossible. It can be done! Everyone can abide in Jesus. Everyone can love in truth and action. Everyone can walk the talk if they really want to.
Not only that, but everyone can know they abide in Jesus. John says that even the best of people, who have totally committed themselves to laying down their lives for brothers and sisters in need, will still have doubts. They will wonder, in their heart of hearts, 'Am I really good enough?' But, says John, God knows us better than we know ourselves, and the truth of our actions will speak for us even when we ourselves remain unconvinced.
He goes on to give us three signs to look out for, which will prove beyond doubt that we really do abide in Jesus. First, our personal prayers will begin to be answered, because we won't be making selfish or unloving requests any more. We shall find that we are only asking for what pleases God. Above all, that means we shall be asking how we may lay down our lives in his service.
Second, if we abide in Jesus – if we trust in him and commit ourselves to living in his way – he will also abide in us. We shall begin to feel that he is with us.
And, finally, he will give us the power to do those things which would otherwise be impossible for us to do by ourselves – to actually let go of self, trust in him and commit ourselves to the way of total love. And the power to do all these things will come 'from the Spirit that he has given us.' In other words, we shall know that we abide in Jesus because we shall find ourselves able to abide in him more completely, until there is no room left for doubt.
Abiding in Jesus can be a sudden transformation, sparked by a realisation that it's all or nothing, now or never. It can be triggered by a crisis, by the need to make a decision one way or the other. But it can also be a more gradual process – a journey of discovery, a journey deeper into what it means to trust in Jesus Christ.
[1] 1 John 3.16—24

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