Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. – Joshua 23.14
All Saints Day reminds us as much about our morality as it does our immortality. Every morning when we rise up to attend to life’s business; it is easy to discover that we are growing old every day. Each day from the time we are born until we pass through the veil to the other side we grow and change. Some of us just grow old while others of us discover the benefit of a life filled with the holiness of God in an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now there was a man named Joshua who had this ever-deepening dependency upon God, and we can read about it in his last words in Joshua 23-24. Let’s take a moment to read his last memoirs.
Joshua grew up in stature and well-being under the watchful eye of Moses. Joshua became the warrior to capture the land for the people of God. And, as Joshua prepared to leave this life his parting words remain as faithful to God as when he started his journey standing watchful outside the opening at the tent of meeting. Joshua’s parting words should move us even today. He had suffered much under the hand of God’s direction. The Israelites were freed from Egypt and plunged into troubles in the desert only to see Moses die before they crossed over the River Jordan to the Promise Land. Joshua robustly shares his departing words. A warning shot across the bow! Before he departs he aims his whole people toward a grand goal of obedience to the Lord their God, which he clearly stated is not welcoming cultural norms of others. Joshua emphatically proclaims his allegiance to the one God, then calls his people to stand with him.
What is the aim of our faith?
John Wesley was much like Joshua in that he experienced the urgency of faithfulness toward God Almighty, and insisted on others taking their place with him. What we might call a movement of true spiritual fervor that was both ecumenical and transformative rather than the creation of a denomination. The aim of Methodism was to make “real Christians” not “almost Christians.” Wesleyan spirituality emerges from sound doctrine informed by Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. At the heart of Wesleyan spirituality is holiness.
Wesleyan spirituality is about making disciples who are holy in heart and life—men and women who live in a community that is developing our human nature (personal holiness) and purposes to be engaging in relationship with the strange, widow, lost, and lonely (social holiness). Holiness should always move us to live both socially responsible (individual, family oriented) and transformational (communal, neighbor oriented) in our communities. Surely we can hear Joshua’s cry in Wesley’s movement!
We can hear Joshua so well in the cry for true Christianity. Long life seems to be a catalyst for the hardness of heart toward God. The power of choice is more available to a child than to the aged one nearing death. There comes a time in a person’s life that repentance becomes more difficult, even impossible. God’s door is always open to us for reconciliation, but man’s door quickly closes when facing repentance. As a child our hearts are pliable, but as we age our hearts grow hard as concrete. We may find ourselves deceiving ourselves about what is right and wrong so much that we close our hearts to God’s open-handed gesture of reconciliation.
Our daily decisions ground us in truth or forge a greater resistance to the mind of Christ Jesus. Although we see our lives stretched out before us with plenty of time for change, God knows we grow more resistant with each passing day. There are no exits in hell. The Old Testament stories inspire us to learn early that God is the Almighty.
What keeps us out of the heavenly embrace of God?
Jesus once said, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
- Original Sin is an important concept across the Christian faith. Through the expressions of preventing grace we “awaken” to the hope of living into our best selves, and as we grow in that awakening we become connected to God. We believe in Original Sin that each one of us was born with the tendency toward sin; we have a sinful nature.
- Actual Personal Sin is an equally essential concept of our belief system.
- Generational Sin is a concept that is prevalent in the Old Testament Scriptures.
- Communal Sin, behavior that is shared in a community, infects the relationships across breath of the community.
What is a saint anyway?
The term saint refers specifically to those who have been sanctified. The root words (sanctus in Latin, agios in Greek) are the same. As Wesleyan’s we understand grace as a key ingredient in our real pursuit of holiness of heart and life. God invites us to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2). The holiness of God cannot be measured by our culture norms, nor our physicians. Holiness begins in the spiritual awareness that we have all sinned and fall short of God’s best desires for his creation. Through the process of sanctification we welcome the transformation into God’s very best. We no longer live as our sinful nature compels us but as God desires his best for us.
Jesus talked about heaven more often than hell. In fact only during the last week or so does hell become a hot topic for his ministry, and then only with the rebellious leadership. God’s arms are opened wide to receive each one of us and we have the opportunity to say “yes” to God’s best. In fact the Gospels report that Jesus seldom spoke of judgement, punishment, and death related issues until he neared the end of his own life. The Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven was preached fully until those who would not hear or listen would soon take his life. It was only when leaders refuse to listen to what Jesus had to share about this Good News that Jesus began to utter offer words of “woe unto you” (Mt. 23.13-15), “unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3.12), “weeping” (Mt. 13.42,50), “gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13.42,50), “outer darkness” (Mt. 25.30), and “worms that do not die” (Mk. 9.44,46). There is a paradise in heaven. We do not become angels, but like the angels in that we are eternal beings. There is punishment and hell. And, as we pass on to glory we experience “glorifying grace” as our final Sabbath Rest. We understand that there is an ultimate teaching on hell and the punishment of sin.
There are clear teachings that we cannot ignore on the issue of reaching eternity, i.e., sin and forgiveness. All unforgiven sin shall be punished, and punished both impartially and naturally in accordance to the moral law. The penalty of sin can cross the threshold from life to death. The punishment of sin is never contrived or simply made up, but there is a natural consequence to our actions. To be sure God’s justice is perfect. There are levels of accountability with sin in the experience of divine judgment. We face the fact that every unforgiven and unresolved sin shall be punished. When we are standing in judgment of others, we find ourselves falling into judgment of ourselves. Only God himself has the wisdom, perfection, and understanding to see the truth beyond our limited vantage point.
What keeps us within the embrace of God?
Methodists understand the importance of the “means of grace” to guide one through the life process of sanctification by which we become saints. The “means of grace” provides the conduit for transformation to happen in our lives: prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and conferencing. John Wesley understood that true Christianity was “the mind that was in Christ” (Philippians 2:5). For John Wesley the chief means of grace is prayer; all other means of grace are subservient to our relationship with Almighty God. Conferencing focused on sustaining our relationship between God and neighbor. Wesley professed his belief that there were three prudential means of grace: doing no harm, doing good in every way possible, and attending the venues by which we have the opportunity to experience God on this earth.
Small groups are essential. The only precondition for joining a “trial” class meeting was “a sincere desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” (See John Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies,” 2012 Book of Discipline, Para. 104, p. 76). Small groups were key components to the faith development of the whole community.
- Step One: Class meetings were held for those coming to initial faith and growing in their everyday walks.
- Step Two: Then there were smaller bands of believers where 3-5 folks gathered to seek deeper spiritual formation.
- Step Three: There were also small penitent groups for those who were struggling with sin in their lives. For instance there were groups whose goal was to help one another overcome habitual sin. They might be struggling with dishonesty, swearing, stealing, gossip/slander, or unfaithfulness so they would gather to repent and hold each other accountable.
- Step Four: And, then there were select bands that were formed especially for those who were “on fire for God” and needed guidance with their spiritual formation in the midst of revival expressions of God’s grace.
- Step Five: There is more grace – glorifying grace. John Wesley was also fascinated with the evidence of glorifying grace at the last moments of life here upon the earth. Wesley studied the end of people’s lives documenting what was called a “good death.” Death closes the door to further opportunities for repentance. The moment our life expires we maintain the same moral attitude in the life to come. Hell and Eternity are essential concepts that we must comprehend as Christians.
We are often so willing to take the cultural view of our Christian beliefs as our own standard for living. Rather than searching out the morality of Christ Jesus ourselves, learning about the cultural context of Jesus life stories and their meaning. Nor do we take seriously what the early church fathers have to say to us. We find ourselves listening to those who water down the hard teachings of Jesus for a more compassionate and passive version of the Gospel.
John Wesley spent a great deal of time studying the closing lives of the ones whom he loved and cared for as a friend and pastor. In many ways Wesley wanted to know whether his theology and doctrine really helped his people pass from this life to the next. He wanted to believe that his life work made a difference on the soul of a man or woman. Otherwise, all this sanctification processes of doing good deeds and living right really wouldn’t make a difference. But his studies showed the importance of an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus instilled an aura of holiness upon a person at life’s closing moments.
I have had the privilege of being with two such women at the end of their days: one was a well-known missionary who suffered from dementia and the other a housewife. The well-known missionary who suffered from dementia for the last 8 years of her life didn’t know who she was or her family in the parting months of her life, but the week she passed to glory a holiness descended upon her room at the hospital so much so that the staff feared going into the room. They experienced the holiness of God and the sacredness of her life that left a powerful mark upon others. The housewife upon her last weeks in the hospital lay frail in her bed unable to eat or drink, but her final mantra was a cry to Jesus. I just want to be with Jesus. Let me go be with Jesus. If you want to read more on the experience of a happy death, let “Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death” be a resource for you.
When John Wesley passed from this life to the next, his closing words were, “And best of all God is with us.”
Truly, no life experience can be more important for us than Jesus in the last week of his life. You can read the stark contrast of holy celebration followed by deepest sorrow and death. We too can find ourselves having the same contrasting experiences: one moment we are overjoyed with life and the next some unexpected life altering accident or life altering prognosis changes everything. I have discovered that Jesus’ life stories help families connect to his humanity when his divinity is a distant spiritual reality. In his humanity Jesus becomes real to people and they are able to see how he is like themselves and suffered like them.
Jesus’ life story “witnesses” to us that he was fully human in all that he lived and experienced. Every teaching, parable, and healing was formed from who he was a human being with life experiences just like ours. All that he talked about came from spiritual insights that were birthed from his everyday walking around life.
We too have to live life as witness. Jesus was “willing” to surrender his wants and desires, his plans for a future, to take on the plans his Heavenly Father had for him. We too must accept God’s will.
The Father bestowed upon Jesus special “wonder” encounters to strengthen him for the many tasks ahead. The encounters that Jesus had with the Father were for the purpose of sustaining him during the most difficult trials in his life. We must seek God for those special encounters …in rituals, worship opportunities, community experiences, but especially power encounters in prayer and solitude. Jesus held the past with the possibility of tomorrow while being present today.
We too must seek after “wisdom” that comes from our Heavenly Father, not earthly wisdom. I have had the privilege of studying the faith of folks in the veil of life. I have observed how we walk through our journey, and how much our journey is like Jesus’ himself. There is great wisdom to be gained from studying Jesus’ response to his own eminent death.
Wow! Prayers happen when you are faced with something unexpected. You wonder like Jesus “Why?” Watch! Prayers happen when you begin to walk through the situation in shock. Everything slows down. Wait! Prayers happen when there is nothing left to do but sit patiently until the initial difficulty subsides. Others begin to question you, trying to make sense of what happened. There are no pat answers. Wish! Prayers are formed when you come to the realization that you are going to have to endure this very difficult task. Whisper! Prayers happen as we speak the name of Jesus when all other words fail you. Wail! Prayers are formed when families are in transition, wailing is a normal response. Wailing is a physical response to a deep burden. Weep! Prayers happen as a common response to transition. Often tears are frequent in the early stages of transition and may fall without sounds or words. Withdrawal! Prayers happen as a normal response in transition just like Jesus did as he physically removed himself to the Mt. of Olives. Wasteland! Prayers happen when we feel as though we have entered a hopeless moment of emptiness and loss. Wander! Prayers happen when we physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually find ourselves frightened like the disciples did the night of Jesus’ betrayal.
After a season of grief we find ourselves just like Jesus waiting for the resurrection life promised to us. At the end of this season there is a spiritual awakening waiting for us. Jesus does rise from the dead and the Holy Spirit is given to the people. New birth comes. There are times when we too must experience Jesus in the garden, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I am dying.” Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth life and so it is with us. There comes a time for a new beginning when saying goodbye and saying hello happen in rapid fire success. Jesus had this experience as he approached the end of his life journey. In the midst of change between this life and the next we stand ready with a prayer just like Jesus did leaning on the rock of his Father’s love.
What’s keeping you from being a Saint?
Being a Christian is an interactive experience. We cannot be passive in our approach to being like Christ Jesus. He calls us to live out our spirituality that looks just like his very own. To be sure there are no “inactive” members in Wesleyan Spiritual formation. Wesley viewed disciples not as consumerism within the walls of a membership church, but mission driven that reaches beyond the walls into the fabric of a community for the soul purpose of sharing transforming grace. Discipleship always aims toward the mission of new making disciples. Wesley held a tiered vision: welcoming the unchurched, revitalization for the saved, and experiential societal change. Wesley fully embraced the concept of organized church, never denying our need to be in a community expression of Christianity.
Do you consider yourself a member of the United Methodist Church at Hodgenville, are you a disciple of Jesus Christ, and are you living into your sainthood? And, here in lies the answer: you are a member and a disciple. The next question is are you growing in your sainthood? There is intentionality in living into our eternal call to sainthood. Let us be intentional together.