On Christian Perfection: Wesley's Sermon #40 - 1741

On Christian Perfection: Wesley’s Sermon #40 – 1741

For me, Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection has always been a challenging topic for discussion as it brings so many cultural and contextual issues with the word “perfection.”  Heitzenrater and Outler remind us in their introductory comments on this sermon what they believe Wesley had in mind when he put this message out there for people in his time and place.

 “For Wesley, salvation was the total restoration of the deformed image of God in us, and its fullness was the recovery of our negative power not to sin and our positive power to love God supremely.  Wesley chose to call that furthest reach of grace in sanctification and its triumphs in this life ‘Christian Perfection’, a position that he had stated earlier in ‘The Circumcision of the Heart’ (1733).” (John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, p. 69)

They go on to state how few from a western cultural milieu ever “envisioned it as a realistic possibility in this life.” (p. 69)  As we enter into this time of Lent, I’ve been challenged to think about how Wesley’s message of Christian Perfection applies to our United Methodist connection.  If sanctification is about “what God does in us,” then what evidence will we find that God is at work in the quest for human flourishing for all who have been transformed through their relationship with Christ?  Is this what Christian Perfection means?  And if this is the case, then what is the Church’s role in partnering with God on this quest for human flourishing?  What is our role and responsibility as The United Methodist Church? 

Wesley goes on to unpacking what he means by “Christian Perfection,” and points to the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of Matthew, the writings of Paul and the words of James.  He states, “And as Christians indeed are freed from evil thoughts, so are thy, secondly from evil tempers.  This is evident from the above-mentioned declaration of our Lord himself: ‘The disciple is not above his master; but everyone that is perfect shall be as his master.’”  Then he points to how Christ lived:

·      Christ was lowly of heart;
·      Pure from self-will or desire;
·      Christ desired only to do the will of his Father and to finish his work;
·      Pure from anger, in the common sense of the word (for all anger is not evil);
·      Christ was meek and gentle, patient and long-suffering.

If our role and responsibility is to be as the master, then maybe the role and responsibility of The United Methodist Church is to be lowly of heart, pure from self-will or desire, desiring only to do the will of God and finish God’s work.  Can our church be pure from anger, meek, gentle, patient and long-suffering?  Is that God’s call?  At the same time, I wonder about what it means to be “angry at the sin, and in the same moment grieved for the sinners” as Wesley states in his sermon.  Should the church practice “righteous anger?”  In the uncertainties and disparities in the world today, I tend to believe there is a time and place for Christians through the church to step forward. 

But, I also struggle with the call for meekness and gentleness, patience, and long-suffering.  Maybe this is why all Christians are invited to come together as the whole Body of Christ.  Where one part of our Body steps up in one arena of Christ’s perfection, the other part of Christ’s Body can be challenged to rise up.  This is why we need one another in a vital connection.  We must strive together to live into the vision of “Christian Perfection” as the whole Body of Christ.  For if we just live as individual parts, we lose the gift of grace offered to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Well, at least that is the wisdom I have captured today as I re-read Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection. May by God’s grace more wisdom come through our collective reading of the scriptures and our study of our forefathers and foremothers interpretations of God’s Word.

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

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