In February, I preached a sermon series based on John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. It was a four part series that ended with the last sermon preached on the Sunday during the special General Conference session of The United Methodist Church. My heart was broken by what occurred at General Conference, by the discord and lack of trust, by the actions that caused such pain for so many. In this General Conference gathering, our witness to the world was not a witness of God’s love. When I started to post the last sermon/article in the series, I found that I couldn’t. Finally, today, I can.
Stay in Love With God
Over the past several weeks as I have revisited John Wesley’s Three simple rules for Living, I have discovered again how Wesleyan I am and how it suits my soul to follow Jesus with Wesley’s rules in mind. I have also discovered that these rules are not easy to follow, though they sound simple enough. In order to follow them, it takes practice and evaluation, but mostly, it takes a fair amount of concentration on the last of the rules.
Originally, the last of the three simple rules was described by John Wesley as “tending to the ordinances of God,” but through the centuries, as scholars have studied Wesley and the Gospel words of Jesus that Wesley loved so dearly, a paraphrase arose— “Stay in Love With God.”
For Wesley, attending to the ordinances of God are what keeps us close to the heart of God, feeling God’s love and grace, and loving God in return. For Wesley, attending to the ordinances of God brings us to the center of God’s grace and mercy and love, over and over and over again and brings us into the center of God’s life-giving love, drawing us to a desire of longing to linger there, of feeling forgiven and graced there, of deeply loving God in return, and a longing for the heart of the faithful to reflect and be the heart of God.
This is indeed staying in love with God.
As I was growing up, June 9 th or there about was a very important date for my family and each year we celebrated it with cherry-vanilla ice cream. That was the date of my parents’ first date. As the story goes, my father was invited by a friend to preach a revival service at his church. My father’s friend happened to be my mother’s pastor. So, initially my parents were introduced by my mother’s pastor, on purpose. It was something that he had planned for quite some time. My parents were both older, in their thirties when they met. World War II had been a deciding event during their twenties which kept both of them from meeting anyone that they wanted to spend their lives with.
Neither of my parents were very impressed with the other, but because the pastor had put such effort into their introduction, they decided that they would go out once, on June 9, 1954. Apparently, once was all it took and they were both smitten. They had gone out to dinner and the evening ended back at my mother’s home, with my grandmother making homemade cherry-vanilla ice cream.
Over the years, they had challenges as most relationships do, but my parents had intentional things that they did to stay close to each other and for their love to keep growing. Rituals and stories were important to them. So, we always had cherry ice cream on June 9th. We always had friend oysters on their anniversary as that was their wedding dinner. In August, we always heard about the difficulties my father had finding the right time to propose and we always knew that Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” was what was playing on the radio when my parents were finally alone and my father could propose. In part, these rituals kept the story and their love alive. These were the things they would not give up. These were the sacred memories that, when celebrated, helped my parents to stay in love.
The last year of my father’s life, was spent in a nursing facility. My mother would go to see him every day. On the day of their anniversary, my father was so sad that they could not have their annual anniversary celebration together, but he had saved a very beautiful piece of artwork, insignificant to anyone else, but made beautiful to my mother by the simple “I love you,” that was written across the bottom in my father’s beautiful handwriting. It was a very small, nearly unremembered way to maintain the yearly ritual, but years later, when I was clearing out my mother’s apartment, I found this simple gift and knew it was one of the hundreds of small gestures that kept my parents in love.
One other intentional practice that my parents did every night was, that as they went to bed, they would read a chapter of the Bible together and then they would get on their knees and pray. Sometimes, when I was very little and I would wake, I could hear them reading and praying together. Even when I was older and would come home for a visit, their voices murmuring their prayers were a comfort and somehow reminded me of their love for each other, for me, and most importantly, for God.
Attend to the ordinances of God. Wesley would have been proud of my parents’ routines.
Ordinance is a very strange word to our ears, but for Wesley, it was a word that described the practices that kept the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing. Public worship, regular communion, private and corporate prayer, Bible study, searching the scriptures and fasting were the essential ordinances for Wesley. In other words, spiritual disciplines or practices are the ordinances that keep us in love with God. For Wesley, spiritual disciplines were central to any life of faithfulness to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Wesley found that attending to the ordinances was encouraged scripturally, especially in the second chapter of the Colossians:
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6-7)
Spiritual disciplines are important to us each day because they teach us to live our lives in harmony with something larger than ourselves, larger than the values of the world, and deeply in touch with the love and mystery of God, reminding us that even though we grow closer and closer to God, throughout our lives and our daily practices, we never completely know the heart and mind of God, but we keep striving to know God through deepening our love for God.
Sister Joan Chittister, puts it this way in her book Illuminated Life,
All we have in life is life.
Things—the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money—come and go, turn to dust between our fingers, change and disappear. . .the secret of life. . .is that it must be developed from the inside out.
The late Bishop Reuben Job puts it another way in his book Three Simple Rules:
Living in the presence of and in harmony with the living God who is made known in Jesus Christ and companions us in the Holy Spirit is to live life from the inside out. It is to find our moral direction, our wisdom, our courage, our strength to live faithfully from the One who authored us, called us, sustains us, and sends us into the world as witnesses who daily practice the way of living with Jesus. Spiritual disciplines keep us in that healing, redeeming presence and power of God that forms and transforms each of us more and more into the image of the One we seek to follow.
These practices keep us in love with God. They keep us positioned in such a way that deep within we can hear God’s softest whisper of love and promise, of forgiveness and direction. These practices not only keep us in love with the One who loves us most, but they help us to hear God, to trust God, and respond to God.
In the Gospel of John, we find a story that reminds us how important it is to love God and to know what loving God means for our lives. Traditionally, the passage is preached during the Great Fifty days of Easter. After the resurrection, the disciples had gone fishing and Jesus came to them on the beach early in the morning, cooking them breakfast and waiting patiently for them to come to him. When they had finished eating, Jesus turned to Peter and asked a very simple question:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Every time I read this story I can see Peter’s confused look as he responds to Jesus: “Yes, lord; you know that I love you.”
Why is this story so important to us? It is important to us because the question that Jesus asks Peter is asked of all of us and it reveals a great deal about the essentials of our relationship with God.
Our relationship with God cannot be one where we take what God offers us—love, mercy, forgiveness, grace—and go on our way, thinking that we deserve it without any response. Jesus asked Peter three times the same question: Do you love me? Three times Peter answered yes, but I am certain that he thought about that exchange over and over again for the rest of his life. In a real way, I believe Jesus was saying to Peter to make certain that he knew what he was answering, what he was agreeing to, what was expected of him and us as a follower of Jesus.
Staying in love with God was the primary way of life then and now. Living a life of love flows the goodness and life of God to the world. It can be no other way. Henri Nouwen put it this way:
He whose only concern had been to announce the unconditional love of God had only one question to ask, “Do you love me?”
And for us today, Jesus, the One whose only concern has been to help us know and understand the unconditional love of God for us and all people, has only one question to ask us, “Do you love me?”
Do you love Jesus?
Do I love Jesus?
Do you love me, Jesus asks? Then tend my lambs, feed my sheep.
In that exchange with Peter is something very important for us to know and understand: Holy living will not be discovered, achieved, continued, and sustained without staying in love with God. Wesley knew that staying in love with God is a challenge for all of us, but we are helped along with prayer, worship, study, communion. And John Wesley knew that staying in love with God also means “feeding God’s sheep.”
Bishop Job put it clearly in Three Simple Rules:
Spiritual disciplines not only include practices that bind us to God every day, but they also include actions that heal the pain, injustice, and inequality of our world. It is impossible to stay in love with God and not desire to see God’s goodness and grace shared with the entire world.
Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. And three times Peter answered him. Peter had denied Jesus three times, but in this exchange, he proclaimed his love for Jesus boldly. Peter was drawn toward a new beginning, a new future. All the failures of his past were forgiven and he could move forward embracing new possibilities.
Jesus was honest with Peter. In his forgiven life, there would be places where he would be called to go that he would not want to go. When he said yes to God’s call of love, he was given freedom from the past sin and a new beginning, but he was placing his love and loyalty in Christ and sometimes, that is not easy.
It is the same with us. As we receive grace and seek to live a life in love with God, we are often called to a life of either action or restraint or both as we seek to live a life of faithfulness. Wesley knew that we must seek to stay in love with God because in loving God we discover more and more and more about who God is and how God loves this world and we find that more and more and more we have the strength and capacity to love as God loves.
My parents had one other practice each year on their anniversary. Every year, after the dinner of fried oysters and stories, my mother would go to her cedar chest and pull out a bunch of letters. Often my father would sit with her as she read them. They were his letters to her that he had written over the months of their engagement when my parents lived miles apart after my father had received a new appointment and moved.
I would sit there with them, hoping that I would be able to read them too. But every year my mother would say simply: “someday.”
When my father died, it fell to me to clean out his papers and give away his clothing. One day my mother came into the living room where I was working and handed me the stack of letters and said that it was time and I could read them. But I couldn’t.
It would take another full two years before I would allow myself to read my father’s letters to my mother and when I did, I realized why it so important for her to read them year after year. All the challenges of their lives together, the hardships and discouragements, melted away when she read those letters because she was reading how and why my father loved her so dearly. She would always say to me that reading the letters helped her love my father more deeply and it helped her love others more deeply too.
It is that way with us. Staying in love with God means that we must continue those practices that help us to live deeper and deeper in God’s love and to respond more and more to God’s sons and daughters with the same unconditional love that God has for each of us.
Our world faces great challenges these days. More and more I see hatred of certain people emerging with greater and greater abandon. Judgmental behavior and attitudes seem to be the basic foundation for making decisions about other people’s lives. People are crying out but not being heard, as decisions about them are made. People are abandoned. People are treated as invisible. Families are separated. People of other nationalities are misjudged and mistreated, while fear spreads and drowns out the voices of reason. People whose gifts are needed in this world are not allowed to share them.
It is a painful time for so many. It is a dangerous time for others. It is a time when the foundation of our lives must be rooted in God’s love for us—God’s love for all people, no matter who they are, who they love, or what they believe. It is a time when the foundation of our lives must be rooted in our staying in love with God and growing deeper and deeper in that love, until there are no distinctions that keep us from following Christ and offering love to all people, in all places, in this world.
If we do not attend to the ordinances of God, if we do not stay in love with God, how will we ever know how deeply God loves us or how deeply we can love others? How will this world ever heal?
To God alone be glory!