The year 1738 was a momentous year for John Wesley. At the end of 1737, Wesley left the colony of Georgia, where he had failed as a missionary and priest and sailed home to England. He was disheartened and confused about who he was and what he was supposed to do with his life. He longed for God but wondered if he even knew God. He wanted assurance that God loved him and resided in his heart. He wanted certainty that he was God’s. He wanted to know that he had faith.
Throughout the early months of 1738, these questions were on Wesley’s mind until May 24, 1738, when Wesley reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate St., in London. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m., Wesley later wrote:
“while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
That moment when John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed is a date that we United Methodists turn to, over and over, because that was the moment that set John Wesley on fire, with assurance. It was one of the moments that led to the founding of the Methodist Church. That year held so much more for John Wesley as he drew closer and closer to God and felt God’s love and mercy deeper and deeper in his heart. That year and the year following were full of discoveries for John Wesley and these discoveries of who God is and what we are called to do, shaped John Wesley’s life and preaching and helped him to develop the Three Simple Rules for living.
In August of 1738, John Wesley wrote these words:
There is scarce any possible way of doing good, for which here is not daily occasion…Here are poor families to be relieve: Here are children to be educated: Here are workhouses, wherein both young and old gladly receive the word of exhortation: Here are the prisons, and therein a complication of all human wants.
John Wesley already understood the do no harm, but in this writing, he understood the next layer: Do good. To do good was a serious challenge to Wesley. To do good is a serious challenge to us from Wesley. To do good is serious command to us from Jesus.
Recent lectionary lessons for two consecutive Sundays helped me to think about doing good from the Gospel point of view recorded in Luke as the “Sermon on the Plain. In the Sermon on the Plain, there are a lot of people, but the main audience was the disciples, newly called by Jesus receiving instruction on what it meant to follow Jesus and to live a life of grace and mercy.
For me, the significance of the Sermon on the Plain, as being a time of instruction for the Disciples, is very clear that it is also a time of instruction for all of us. As believers, you and I are all called to a life of grace and mercy. Just like the disciples, all who love Jesus are called to serve, to care deeply for all those that Jesus loves, to seek justice, and to offer hope and life. For Wesley, this was accomplished by three rules of living:
Do no harm
Stay in love with God
That day, Jesus said some very important things that we cannot ignore. He put into perspective the kingdom of God, lifting up the ones that are at the forefront of God’s heart and compassion.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”(selected verse from Luke 6)
Jesus was very clear here, but just in case, Jesus went on to teach us that these words are a universal command. Doing good is not limited to those who are like me—who look like me or think like me or speak like me or act like me.
Doing good is not limited to those who like me or love me.
Doing good is directed at everyone—even those who do not fit my category of worthy.
This command, from Jesus, is universal and no one is exempt from it.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)
This instruction for the disciples and for us is serious. We are saved by the grace of God. There is nothing that we can do to deserve this grace, but when we do receive it, we are called to be the Body of Christ and we are called to live as Christ lived.
Doing no harm, doing good is how we are called to live. It is how we develop the gifts of love and compassion that we are all given as children of God.
And like doing no harm, this doing good is not always easy. Indeed, it can be frightening. The late Bishop Reuben Job, in his little book on Wesley’s rules states it this way:
“There are obstacles to this way of living, and at the top of the list may be my desire to be in control. I like to know where I am going, and I like to know what it will cost to get there. That is why doing all the good I can is such a frightening idea. The needs of the world, my community, my congregation, my family are so great that if I were to do all the good I could, I might feel compelled to give everything away for some good cause. Would that be the right thing to do? Even if it were the right thing to do could I do it? I already have too many responsibilities, to many commitments, and too many others who depend upon me.”(Job, Rueben P., Three Simple Rules, page 39)
In other words, what does doing good mean? How does it look especially in this hostile world?
Last April, when I was traveling to Germany for two months and back on the East Coast for one month, I carefully packed for three seasons. I knew that I was going in early spring, when it was still cold, that I would be there as it got warmer, and that I would be in Washington, DC through June and July. I packed the largest suitcase I could find, and I just barely came under the weight limit of 50 lbs.
I had to fly from Pittsburg to Boston to Reykjavik to Frankfurt. In Reykjavik, we had to walk out on the tarmac to board the plane. I got on the plane and got settled and looked out the window to see that the baggage was still being loaded. I could see a large suitcase that looked as if the front had been shredded. I remember thinking, “how unfortunate.”
When I got my baggage in Frankfurt, I was horrified to discover that the suitcase that appeared shredded was mine. It looked horrible, but the good thing was that it was still functional, and I had not lost anything. I really wasn’t interested in buying a new suitcase if it still worked so I just lived with it. It was fine for the kind of traveling I was doing, and I knew that I could always replace it if I needed to.
One week I went to Göppingen, where I was hosted by the Peace United Methodist Church congregation. One of the places I stayed that week was with Zahra, a young refugee woman from Iran. Zahra has a heart of compassion that is deep and caring and above all she loves Jesus. She lived in a third floor walkup and I struggled to get my suitcase up to her apartment. So, she lifted part of it and we both carried it up the stairs. In doing so, she saw my suitcase and that the front was shredded.
Zahra’s hospitality was amazing and generous. She gave me her bedroom and made certain that I had what I needed. Cooking for her was inconvenient because she did not have a stove or oven in her apartment. She had to go downstairs to the landlord’s apartment to use the stove and oven. I never did know where the washer and dryer were, but one morning, when I woke up all my clothes had been washed and pressed and folded. It must have taken her all night.
I was getting ready to leave, packing and rearranging my suitcase and Zahra slipped in the room with her suitcase. She told me that I could not possibly spend six more weeks traveling all over Germany with the shape my suitcase was in. So, she wanted me to take hers.
I was stunned. Zahra had very little and she was giving me something that she herself might need. I argued with her and with tears in her eyes she held firm until I took her over and showed her that the shreds in my suitcase did not interfere with the function. Then I told her that she would need her suitcase when she came to see me here in WV.
I have had many kindnesses done for me during my life, so many people who have done good for me. But I will never forget Zahra’s willingness to give up something in order to make my life easier. Her kindness speaks of her willingness to do good and it speaks of her faith and commitment to following Christ. Zahra’s kindness is exactly what it looks like to do good. Zahra’s heart holds within it a deep compassion for God’s children, which is exactly what it takes to do good. I don’t look like Zahra. My native language is not her native language. She doesn’t know if she will ever see me again, but she was willing to go out of her way to do good for me.
Before I left Göppingen, I told the pastor what Zahra wanted to do. He just smiled and said: “Now you really know Zahra. She lives to help others. She will never forget you. Don’t forget her.”
We are called to do good. Every day there is something that we can do that is good. But we will also fail and when we do, there is the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Christ to pick us up and encircle us with the knowledge that we are forgiven and loved.
In my first reflection on Wesley’s rules, I wrote about “hearing” God calling us to pray for the division in our church and for the power and mercy of the Holy Spirit to fall upon us.
In the second reflection I added another layer to the prayer, that the Holy Spirit would help us as a church to do no harm.
In this reflection there is another layer I add to our prayer. The prayer is for the Holy Spirit to empower us all to do good. In the midst of Christian history, there have been so many times when Christians have done harm. We have and will continue to discover those times and I hope that we will continue to confess and ask for forgiveness for those times when our beliefs and actions have led us to harm any child of God. Some of those times grieve my heart so deeply.
Currently, the church must face that we are still finding ways of doing harm. We harm our brothers and sisters with exclusion from the very life of the church to which they are called. We harm with walls of all kinds that keep children of God from finding safe places to live and thrive. We harm with wars and rumors of wars, with ignoring the cries of God’s children, with our own actions of entitlement. Sometimes, we harm our brothers and sisters just by the way we live and use the resources of this planet, without giving much thought to the way we eat or drink or what we wear or how we get around. Many times, we harm others even in the way we vote. It is imperative that we pay attention to our actions and what we say or think and learn to do good.
I pray that the Holy Spirit will surround us and inspire us to do good. As we learn to focus on this second rule, to do good, and incorporate it in our lives, we may find that it becomes easier to keep the first rule to do no harm.
To God alone be glory!