Archive for September, 2011

29
Sep
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 6: the new creation

In the later years of John Wesley’s life, the new creation became a dominant theme in his thinking and writing.  To a large extent, he embraced an integrated view of God’s creation, avoiding the typical spirit vs. matter dualism that so often lies beneath the surface of Western Christian thought.

This meant that Wesley did not treat issues relating to the physical world as unimportant, because all of creation was created good in its very physical reality, and because God’s plan of salvation includes the deliverance of creation (not its destruction, as some believe).

These convictions are reflected in a number of ways, including Wesley’s interesting reflections on the suffering of animals (see Sermon 60) and on the original state of creation before the fall (see Sermon 56, §I.1-14).

But it becomes especially clear as Wesley thinks through issues of eschatology, where it becomes clear what he thinks “the new creation” means – not disembodied souls floating in the clouds, but a new heavens and a new earth.

His sermon bearing the title “The New Creation” makes this clear, as he tries to think cautiously but imaginatively about what the new heavens and the new earth will be like.  For example, he suggests that there will be no more comets (§8), no more hurricanes or destructive storms (§9), no polluted water (§12), no volcanoes (§15), and no animal suffering (§17).

But the climax of his vision of the new creation comes in the closing paragraph, where Wesley discusses the deliverance of human beings to “an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.”  He concludes that,

…to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him! (Sermon 64, “The New Creation,” §18)

This category of “new creation,” of course, was not just about the future restoration of all things, but was very important to Wesley’s understanding of salvation itself.  Of course, 1 Cor. 5:17 uses this same big-picture concept of new creation in relation to the salvation of the person – “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”   The problem is that many Christians never see the big picture implied in this verse – that is, that their participation in the new creation is part of the bigger picture of God’s restoration of all creation.  The goal of God’s work of redemption is not to take disembodied souls out of creation, but to bring about a new heavens and a new earth, which includes resurrected and transformed human beings.  Therefore, for human beings, salvation means not only “continual enjoyment of the Three-One God” but also “of all creatures in him!”

This has two obvious implications for mission.

First of all, if our vision of salvation is a physically resurrected humanity, where all physical ailments and infirmities are healed, then meeting physical needs in the present is not irrelevant to the church’s mission.  God obviously values the physical well being of his creatures.  Therefore, our own work of physical healing, and meeting the basic needs of human beings can be an anticipation of God’s own final restoration.  Meeting physical needs can be a witness to the future new creation.  It is not surprising, then, that John Wesley was very interested in physical health and healing, as well as preaching the gospel.

The second implication is that our mission should include care for the created world.  God’s plan of salvation includes the restoration of the earth, as well as the resurrection of human beings.  Humanity was originally created in the context of creation as a whole.  It is not surprising then, that God’s new creation will also put humanity in the context of a transfigured creation, which will include not only a physical earth, but – we have every reason to expect – a new and transformed ecosystem, including and plant and animal life.  Because of this, proper stewardship of the present creation can be a witness to and participation in the new creation which has begun in the resurrection of Jesus.

[If you are interested in looking into this second implication at greater depth, I recommend the new book by Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed.]

22
Sep
11

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 5: Social Holiness

In the preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems, published in 1739, John Wesley wrote,

“Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers.  The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.

Wesley was particularly concerned about any spirituality influenced by the Mystics, who elevated individual contemplation to the highest ideal – a move that, Wesley suggested, undermined the importance of loving neighbour in both both word and deed.

But we must be careful to note that, for Wesley, “social holiness” did not simply mean “social justice.”  Social holiness begins in Christian community, and therefore has everything to do with the internal life of the church.  The fellowship of believers is the place where social holiness is cultivated and exercised, but it also spills over the boundaries of the church and reaches out to those who are outside of the fellowship.

In 1749, in answer to the objection that the Methodist Societies were divisive and disrupted Christian fellowship in the established parishes, Wesley wrote:

But the fellowship you speak of never existed. Therefore it cannot be destroyed.  Which of those true Christians ever had any such fellowship with these?  Who watched over them in love? Who marked their growth in grace? Who advised and exhorted them from time to time?  Who prayed with them and for them as they had need? This, and this alone is Christian fellowship.  But alas! Where is it to be found?…The real truth is just the reverse of this: we introduce Christian fellowship where it was utterly destroyed.  And the fruits of it have been peace, joy, love, and zeal for every good word and work. (A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, §I.11)

Because salvation for Wesley was not simply about “souls” going to heaven, but about loving God and neighbour, he realized that the holiness was a reality which needed to be lived out in community.  And not only is Christian fellowship the necessary consequence of a holy life, but true Christian koinonia is also the means whereby the Spirit forms the mind of Christ in us.

Wesley was fully aware the the life of the church is messy, and sometimes painful.  But even through the difficulties of church conflict, the Christian community remains the place where Christians are formed after the mind of Christ, and learn to walk as he walked.  This, of course, includes Christian discipline, as a necessary part of Christian fellowship, and a necessary part of the church’s life as a covenant community.

Therefore the mission of God requires the church as the people of God, as a living, embodied reality.  The church is not an afterthought to mission, and Christian community is not an obstacle to mission, but the vehicle through which mission takes place.   Though Wesley felt he needed to create new structures and new forms of community to produce true Christian fellowship, he did not suggest (as many, who are understandably disillusioned with the church do today) that we can live out our faith in the world without being a part of the fellowship of believers.  This fellowship is the foundation of social holiness, and “zeal for every good word and work” is one of the fruits that grows from this root.




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