These days, I am up to my ears in John Wesley’s economic theology, preparing for a series of Sunday school classes on the topic. I am scratching the old itch — what does following Christ mean in detail, in how I eat, how I shop, how I give…
This was an all consuming issue back in the days before I had a sense that God’s love was not something that I needed to earn (thanks for the big kick in the pants, Robert Farrar Capon!), but I still have a strong sense that grace is not an absolution from working the details out.
For years, I have used the analogy of my marriage to talk about the grace/works relationship: Brian’s love is not contingent upon me doing housework. Which was such a relief to me that I went a couple of years without doing the dishes. I guess I was sort of testing the theory. But one day, I just had the urge to do the dishes – as a response to the kind of love that did not require me to do them. And as the years have gone by, as I have grown into the assurance that Brian’s love is not contingent upon my housewifery, I have been freed to do things around the house because to do them makes our lives better – in our marriage, when I fold laundry or wash dishes or tidy the living room, I am acting out of love instead of fear, out of freedom instead of bondage.
But all this Wesley had me wondering if God does not in fact require me to do the dishes, so to speak. And this crisis is (for the first time for this Wesley acolyte) making me see the point of some of his contemporary critics, including Augustus Toplady, who apparently wrote “Rock of Ages” as a sort of anti-Wesley protest song. Which is sort of ridiculous, since it is not like Wesley did not believe that we were saved by grace, right? Right? Poor guy – the answer to that appears to have even been a head- scratcher for Wesley himself, at times.
CAKE has a song that begins, “Jesus wrote a blank check, one I haven’t cashed yet…” When I hear it, I think of those checks that, right below the endorsement line, have something to the effect of, “by signing this, you are agreeing to…” There is so much disagreement about what would follow the ellipsis on the back of Jesus’ blank check – just what are we agreeing to when we endorse it? What would it mean to cash this check? No wonder there are so many who are wary, who are not interested in cashing that check – at least not yet.
The Bible could be more transparent here. Many love to point to John 3:16 – “whosoever believes in him…” But what does that mean? What does believing in Jesus really entail? Believe what about Jesus? That Jesus is God incarnate? And if Jesus is God, shouldn’t believing in him, I don’t know, mean something? Like maybe we should pay attention to some of the stuff he said we should be doing with our lives. And if those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true want to put their money where their mouth is, then I double dog dare them to take every teaching of Jesus’ at face value. Like not storing up treasures on earth, for instance. This is a big one for Wesley, by the way. According to Wesley, the rich are those who have something more than adequate food and clothing to their names. Televisions? Computers? CD players? Forget about it – a rocking chair is decadent by Wesley’s standards.
The thing is, if faith without consistently following Jesus’ teachings is not faith at all, and if there really is a hell to which unrepentant sinners are consigned, then it is hard to believe that as many as 144,000 could escape it. Roger Williams is more likely to be right – it will just be him, with the rest of us burning like those magic birthday candles that cannot be blown out.