Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wesley on communion, at Oxford, on the Law

We read three more sermons of Wesley this week at IWU.

The Duty of Constant Communion
I've had people suggest this sermon to try to guilt trip Wesleyans into taking communion more often. Don't do it. It backfires. Give them the sermon "Means of Grace" instead.

What works in this sermon is the idea that, if God actually dispenses his mercy to us in communion, then why wouldn't we want it as often as possible? I also agree with Wesley that one shouldn't be fearful about taking communion because you're not perfect. Similarly, I do not at all believe that communion inevitably becomes a ritual if you take it often. I believe I could take communion every day and it not become a "vain repetition."

However, his argument that it is a command of God to do it as often as possible doesn't work. Jesus says, "as often as you drink it." He does not command a specific time frame. It is also unhealthy to think of it as a duty. It is a privilege. It is a great opportunity. In that sense, I fear we are hearing some of Wesley the "almost Christian" in this sermon.

The Almost Christian
This is a masterful little sermon. Wesley preached it at Oxford in 1741. It is masterful for the way it fits its context and for the way it builds its rhetoric.

The text is incredibly clever, Herod tells this to Paul in Acts 26, that Paul almost convinces him to be a Christian.

What Wesley does is he describes a very religious person, a very pious person. Indeed, he is describing himself as a "methodist" in the Holy Club when we was at Oxford before. How wonderful if we had lots of people in our churches who were "almost Christian" like he describes!

He builds to the "altogether Christian." This is the person who loves God and neighbor truly. And at the climax of the letter he gets to the main point. This is the person who is justified by faith.

I wonder if today we should almost preach the sermon backward, since we have plenty who are justified but are hardly as dedicated as the almost Christian he describes.

The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law
I was really impressed with this theological piece. I think, to a large part, it fits very well with the new perspective on Paul. Wesley recognizes that Paul in Romans 7 is referring to the Jewish Law, but he distinguishes different referents within the Jewish Law when Paul uses the word law.

I know that purists will point out that Jews did not distinguish between ceremonial and moral parts to the Law. But, like it or not, Paul uses the word law to refer to different parts of the Law that roughly correspond to what Wesley means by these terms. The phrase "works of Law," especially in Galatians, largely refers to what Wesley calls the ceremonial law. Similarly, Romans 7, as Wesley says, points to the part of the Law that Paul expected believers to continue to live out.

Wesley also weighs in on some contemporary debates within Protestant. Lutherans and, I believe, some Pietists, rejected the "third use of the law." Luther accepted the first two uses of the Law: 1) to show us that we are sinners, 2) to lead us to Christ. (Wesley does here have the old sense of the law as a schoolmaster, where it would be more appropriate to think of it as our guardian).

Calvin and Luther, however, debated about the third use of the Law--to show us how to live. Wesley here sided squarely with Calvin. The (moral) law shows us how we need to live, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Also interesting here is Wesley weighing in on divine command theory and the Euthyphro question: "Is good good because God says so, or does God say so because it's good?" For Wesley, good is not arbitrary or a random choice of God's will. Good is good because God is good and thus good is his will.

Of course I have questions about this answer, orthodox and Wesley-an though it be. But my thoughts are only musings, nothing I am willing to stand on.


Paul Tillman said...

I use "The Duty of Constant Communion" as part of my (Bible study/Sunday school/discipleship) teaching on Communion, and will look into"Means of Grace" as an addition. I think I probably hit the point w/o specifically referencing the sermon.

I re-preached "The Almost Christian" last year, adding to my John Wesley for Today series. Next up for me will be "On Working Out Our Own Salvation" as an end cap to the Living Stones discipleship series.

Ken Schenck said...

Good stuff!