Once upon a time, a small group of Christians approached their teacher. “Mr. Wesley,” they said timidly, “you have been preaching to us over and over again about the wrath is to come. We want to follow Jesus, we want to experience God’s salvation. But how do we get from here…. To there?”
Well that teacher, Mr. Wesley himself, was a man who had struggled with that very question. You see, growing up, he thought that he always had to be doing something in order to prove himself worthy of God. He was always looking for some method, some way, some path that he was supposed to walk on in order to get to God. Or maybe, it was that he was looking for some way of finding the assurance of his salvation. You see, for Wesley and that small group that approached him, it seemed like the wrath of God was always hanging over their heads, just waiting for some little sin to come along so that it could pounce.
In his younger years, Wesley had tried all sorts of things to bring him that assurance, to prove that he was safely in the arms of God’s love. He meticulously kept a journal of all the things that he did in a day – as a way of measuring his progress. He fasted two days a week. He got up at 4 am to pray and study. He spent time in prisons visiting those who were lost and in orphanages visiting those who were abandoned. And he met with fellow believers, always seeking to learn more about what God demands of our lives.
But you see, Wesley had a little problem as well. As much as his type A personality didn’t want to admit it, he found multiple places in the scriptures where it says “faith and not works” is what saves us. Sometimes he was trying too hard. Making the path more difficult than it really had to be.
Out of all of that straining and trying and pushing and pulling of his own experience, when this small group of people came to him and asked “what should we do,” Wesley had an idea. He arranged a time when they could all gather together to pray. And then weekly they continued together to pray, they gathered together to hear the gospel – to hear over and over again that they are beloved children of God and that God would provide the grace they needed to be transformed. And they gathered together to watch over one another in love – to point out when another was starting down the wrong path and to encourage faithful steps.
And when they did so, there were three things that they focused on – three rules that all people in the societies had to follow. Three ways to measure how they were in fact doing: First – Are you doing harm to others? Second – Are you doing good to others? Third – are you staying in love with God?
This week, we are going to focus on “doing no harm.” For Wesley, these included a number of things like: taking the name of God in vain; fighting, quarreling, taking your brother or sister to court; slaveholding; gossip; wearing gold and costly apparel; buying on credit things you cannot afford to pay for; and singing songs and reading books that don’t tend to the knowledge or love of God.
From the looks of it – it almost appears that Wesley’s rules are yet another addition to the 10 commandments, an attempt like those of the Pharisees to make things harder than they have to be – to place more obstacles between us and God’s love and grace. Don’t do this, Don’t do that. Lead boring lives of strict obedience and puritanical faith.
But that’s not what these are at all. In this first rule – that we should do no harm, is about taking the time to think about who is harmed and where is injustice done through our everyday actions.
Doing no harm is about taking the time to see other people as children of God and asking how they are affected by our decisions.
Because the truth of the matter is, even as Christians, we still make mistakes. We still take the wrong path at one time or another, We still have slips of the tongue and do hurtful things to the people we love. We still sin. The question is – how to we keep from doing it again? How do we prevent those things from eating us alive and enslaving us?
This is the same question that Paul is wrestling with in Romans. After all of his talk about living under grace now instead of the law, after all his talk about being free in Christ to choose the good he has a confession to make: No matter how hard I try, I still do those very things that I don’t want to do. Try as I might, I keep doing bad things.
And the old Paul – the Saul who lived under the law and whose faith required complete obedience… who taught that those who broke the law had punishment awaiting them… the old Saul would have been mortified by his sins. The old Saul may not have been able to live with himself – or would have lived in a state of denial and making excuses, always trying to avoid the truth about his failures.
But the new Paul… the new Paul who now lives under grace freely acknowledges what he has done wrong because he knows it’s the only way to let go it. It is the only way to forgive himself and to freely rest in God’s grace. We can only experience grace by accepting our lives as a whole – the good and the bad – and in the process, acknowledging where we are moving towards God.
There was once a Native American elder who described his own inner struggles, his inner war, in this manner: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, “The one I feed the most.”
Making the simple precept of “do no harm” one of our most important goals in daily living is making the decision not to feed the mean dog. It is making the decision not to encourage the sort of behavior in ourselves or in others that will eventually lead to hurt and disappointment.
In our roundtable group this week, we talked about ways that some of these things are harmful – ways that they hurt rather than heal relationships. One of the group shared about a time when children were playing… got hurt… parent wanted to sue… offered to pay… not about hurting others, but taking the time to make things right… how foreign that was to the other person.
We live in a society where we are always looking for ways to hurt one another, to get to the top of the heap… it’s a dog eat dog world out there and you’ve got to get ahead.
If that means working on Sundays or making other’s work on Sundays – so be it. If that means finding tax breaks and worming your way through the law to get the cheapest goods- so be it. If that means buying expensive jewelry and the best clothes so that you can show just how successful you are and separate yourselves from the rest – so be it. If it means paying your employees as little as possible so that you can make an extra buck – so be it. If it means putting down others so you can look better – so be it.
That’s the way our world works. Or at least, that’s the way we try to make it work. But the truth of the matter is, we all just end up more bruised and battered and damaged than when we started.
And because that is the way that we have always done it, there just doesn’t seem to be another way. Paul laments about his sinful state, about his struggle to do good and his inevitable failure and like a lightbulb going off in his head he cries out: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?… I Thank God… through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We struggle and we wrestle and on our own spend so much time focusing on all the bad things that we have done and continue to do in our life. But we need to be reminded that Christ himself promised he would teach us. “take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” so stop beating yourself up over not doing the good. walk with me, become my apprentice, cease from doing harm, and lay aside that burden of guilt.
For too long, we have focused on the wrath of God that hangs over us. When we do so, then all of these “simple rules” become hoops to jump through. They become things we do or don’t do to maintain our standing in an organization – to keep our membership. They become things we d oor don’t do because someone told us to. When we focus on the wrath of God, we are focusing on the law and following the law, and our lives become hollow – empty – cold.
But salvation is a gift from God… it is freely offered, without question, without cost, to anyone and everyone. Grace is a gift from God, always preceding us, always moving us, always ready to be given. The trouble is, we are always looking for the catch. We are always making excuses: I’m not worthy enough, I’m not ready yet, I have all of this guilt and past hanging over me.
That is the load that we have been carrying on our own. That is what we have yoked ourselves to and that is why Jesus calls out to his disciples: come to me, take my yoke of grace upon you, and let your soul be at rest. We have let so much come between us and God’s grace. Denial, guilt, other obligations. We need to set that yoke and those chains aside and finally rest in the peace of God’s love.
The gospel message is so hard to absorb because it seems too good to be true, to easy to be really real. We want to live in a world of black and white, good and bad, where those who do wrong are punished and justice is had for all.
But what Jesus says to us is: come to me, all of you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. My burden is easy, my yoke is light.
What we want, are rules to follow – clear simple directions. Do this, don’t do that. And we want to know what the rewards and consequences are. We want to know what the ends are.
What is so hard to believe is that Jesus actually makes it very simple. I will give you rest from your burden – your burden of guilt, your burden of sin, your burden of despair. I will take all of that from you and teach you a new way. A new way to live. And I do this all freely – without cost.
Come to me, come to this table, come and take this life that I am freely giving you. Come and eat this bread and drink of this cup and remember that I have already taken your sin away. I have already died so that you may live. Come and find rest for your soul. Amen.