The Catholic Spirit

Hands joined wrist-to-wrist around the world.

TEXT: 2 Kings 10:15; 1 John 4:7-12

This is the last in our series of Wesley sermons, and in my mind it carries a message equal in importance to Wesley's stewardship message that we looked at last week. Wesley calls this sermon "Catholic Spirit," but he is not talking specifically about the Roman Catholic Church. The word "catholic" means universal. When we say the Apostle's Creed and say the line, "I believe in the holy catholic church," we are not expressing our belief in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. We are saying that we believe that all Christians of every stripe are really part of the same universal church...that are differences are superficial and at our core we are one in the God revealed in Jesus.

Wesley's sermon called "Catholic Spirit" is pleading with Christians to get along with each quit letting differences of opinion about doctrine, forms of worship, and religious practice get in the way of loving each other. It's hard to get more relevant to our contemporary situation.

The problem Wesley wants to address is the lack of love...especially the lack of love between Christians. There's no point in learning how to love the enemy, when we can't even get along with our allies. If even Christians can't love one another and see Jesus' face in one another, we are not going to move very far along our spiritual path.

Wesley sees two general hindrances to loving each other that seem to me to be right on the mark. He says the problem is that we can't all think alike and we can't all walk alike. That is, it is our differences that present a stumbling block to love...differences in opinion and doctrine...thinking alike, and differences in culture and practice...walking alike. Boy, did he hit the nail on the head! What he wants to emphasize in response is that we need to be speaking heart to heart, not mind to mind. We need to ask, is your heart the same as my heart, not are your opinions the same as my opinions.

The United Methodist Church has kept this focus in its structure, which is one of the things for which I am grateful but also one of the things that brings the most criticism. The United Methodist Church, when it gathers internationally every four years, takes a formal stand on just about every social issue they can think of. I have a booklet available in my office that allows you to read the official UMC position on everything from abortion and capital punishment to genetic engineering and agriculture. As a body, we do take a stand. What we don't do is insist that in order to become a United Methodist you must agree with every stand that the official body takes. Those who joined the church this morning did not have to sign a document saying that they opposed capital punishment, for example, even though that is the official stand of the church.

With John Wesley, we do not insist that our membership be of one mind, but rather of one heart. To other Christian groups who do make those kinds of demands on their members, it looks like the United Methodist Church is wishy-washy...and we get criticized for it. But Wesley is careful in his sermon to say that he is not claiming that opinions are unimportant or that we shouldn't hold them. It is essential for Wesley that we come to some decisions about what we think and why we think it, and it is essential that our faith be a part of that decision-making process. He recognizes, however, that to insist that our opinions cannot be wrong and to make them the thing that defines a Christian is arrogant and harmful.

Wesley knows human limitation, first hand, and says in his sermon..."to be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity....[we] know in general that [we ourselves] are mistaken; although in what particulars [we] mistake [we] do not, perhaps cannot, know...For who can tell how far invincible ignorance may extend?" [p. 302] In other words, Wesley wants to say that every human being holds some opinions that are true and some that are mistaken. We just have no way of knowing which is which; so when we are confronted with someone else's different opinion, we should always be open to the fact that this might be one of those times when we are mistaken. We need to have humility when it comes to expressing our opinions and listening to the opinions of others.

Listen to how Wesley ends this section, "Every [one of us who is wise] therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which [we] desire they should allow [us]; and will no more insist on their embracing [our] opinions than [we] would have them to insist on [our] embracing theirs. [We] bear with those who differ from [us], and only ask [those] with whom [we] desire to unite in love that single question. "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with they heart?" [p. 302]

Way too often we hear a differing opinion as an insult. We wonder how a Republican and a Democrat can ever live in the same household, and we lose friendships because we think that a friend who does not always agree with our opinions is somehow unfaithful to us. Real friendship means you love each other even though there are areas where you strongly disagree. If you shut down the differing opinions of your friends, or insist that they agree with you, you will not have any real friends. Being of the same heart doesn't have to mean being of the same mind.

It will not be a surprise to you that Wesley spends a good chunk of this sermon explaining that having the same heart also has nothing to do with having the same style of worship. Even back in Wesley's day in the 1700's, this was an issue. He says, "As long as there are various opinions, there will be various ways of worshipping God; seeing a variety of opinion necessarily implies a variety of practice. And as in all ages [people] have differed in nothing more than in their opinions concerning the Supreme Being, so in nothing have they more differed from each other than in the manner of worshipping [God]." Amen and amen.

There are some very wise things that Wesley brings to this subject, not the least of which is to point out that if there is no room for disagreement about the style of worship and the doctrines of the church, we have the perfect prescription for tyranny. The church, as well as individuals, needs to approach her business with humility...recognizing that like individuals, the church can go very far astray...even into sin, as we are so well aware of today.

Again, he does not want to say that it we shouldn't hold strong opinions about such things and know what we ourselves like and don't like. But he also says, "And how shall we choose among so much variety? No [one] can choose for or prescribe to another. But everyone must follow the dictates of [their] own conscience in simplicity and godly sincerity. [We] must be fully persuaded in [our] own minds, and then act according to the best light [we have]." [p. 303]

Wesley's point is that a "catholic" spirit looks beneath the variety of doctrines and creeds, opinions and political statements. What binds us together as Christians is a heart that loves God and one another; a heart that he says is "filled with the energy of love," that is busy trying to find out and do the will of God. It is a heart that reaches out to others and whose concern for others is evidenced in good works.

Wesley doesn't care who is right about the forms of baptism and communion, although he, himself, has strong opinions on the matter. He doesn't care if you prefer to pray quietly or swing from the rafters during worship, although he has a style he prefers. If, when you are walking down the road together and see someone injured, the love of God compels you to run to that person's side to help, Wesley will take your hand in Christian love, even he would rip your creed apart limb by limb in a debate.

Love, he says, doesn't mean agree with me. It means to be patient and kind with me when I am ignorant. It means to pray for me...hard...diligently...really desiring my good. It means prod me and give me a kick when I need it. If you believe I am wrong, speak it and then be patient as I try to learn and we sort it out together. If I am not acting with Christian love, "smite me friendly" says Wesley [307]. Give me the correction I need...but gently and with love.. And most of all, join me in doing God's work. Take my hand and let us go out and do together the work that needs to be done. And what you have done for me, I shall do for you.

That is where the unity of the church lies. Jesus did not start the church in order to pass along certain ideas. Jesus never said, "Whatever you do, be sure always to stand for the reading of the Gospel." Jesus said, "Go, make disciples of all nations." The charge of Jesus to the church was an action, not a creed. The only way to test whether a way of worship is "right" or not is whether it produces the fruit of discipleship. If hearts and lives are being changed; if new disciples are being made, equipped, and deployed into ministry, then let's not get stuck on the differences. It's time to just get on with the work.

As Christians we stumble over so many things in our relationships with each other. It's no wonder that the church is such a sorry witness to the world. We teach love our enemies and can't even love our friends. We bicker and quarrel over this doctrine and that, over one form of worship versus another, and meanwhile the whole purpose of our existence as a church...the whole task for which we were formed lies forgotten in the dust.

Wesley says, forget all that. Form your own opinions, yes by all means.. Decide for yourself what moves you in worship and go to the service that does it. But don't take your hand away from the people who go to the other service or who don't agree with your stand on homosexuality. As long as someone loves God as best they know how and is trying as best they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus, by golly take their hand and get about God's business. Their way of doing things will reach some people that yours won't and your ways and opinions will touch hearts that theirs won't.

We can debate as strongly and as heatedly as we wish. But we must do it with love and with words that are sweet enough to eat if we don't want indigestion later. And, literally for God's sake, we must not get so busy trying to win the debate that we forget to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those sick and in prison, and to make disciples of all nations. It is the work to which we are called and the love of the God who ordered it which unites us and compels us to love each other...even when we have strong disagreements about doctrine, creed, social agenda, or worship style.

Is your heart as my heart? Are we walking on the same road toward the same destination, even though we may be at different places and seeing different sights? Are we really trying as best we can to love God and our neighbor as ourselves? Then there is no reason that we can't join hands and work together for a common purpose. Quit condemning people because they don't fit this mold or because they don't agree with that creed. That stuff won't save you, and it might just keep you from ever seeing the face of God if you focus there and forget that we are all created to love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; the one who doesn't love, doesn't know God, for God is love. Faith without works is dead. Doctrine and creed without tangible, loving service is a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Wesley's closing paragraphs is, I think, one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, "Think on these things. If thou art already in this way, go on. If thou hast heretofore mistook the path, bless God who hath brought thee back. And now run the race which is set before thee, in the royal way of universal love...keep an even pace, rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints and grounded in love, in true, catholic love, till thou art swallowed up in love for ever and ever." [p. 309]


Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson


John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Compilation and Preface Copyright 1991 by Abingdon Press.

Sermon texts reprinted from The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1-4: Sermons I-IV, Copyright 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Abingdon Press.


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