We are in the home stretch of our year-long series where we are using the standard sermons of John Wesley as inspiration. We thought it might be an appropriate time to revisit the title of this year-long focus. We have been calling it “True Religion.” And yes, that’s a bold claim. So right off the bat, I want it to be clear what we mean by True Religion. True Religion is not rooted in any ritual or creed, or to use Wesley’s words “anything external to the heart.” True Religion is rooted in a relationship with God that yields love, joy, peace, all from a divine source beyond us. It is rooted in a personal relationship with the One who comes into our lives with a love that is even able to overcome death itself.
So, if that’s true religion, then how might we characterize false religion? False religion is when we get hung up on practices and doctrines and judgements and start using “religion” to divide us up and pit ourselves against one another. Doctrines, creeds, practices are important, and even essential to our growth, as long as we remember that they are resources for faith, not the focus of faith. When we make them our focus and believe that faith is about defending them (defending all this around us), then that’s when religion can do so much harm in the world.
Our word for today – taken from Wesley – is the word “bigotry.” It is a word that is being thrown around a lot these days, so I thought it would be interesting to explore the roots of the word for a moment. Its roots are in religion. One theory is that it came from warriors who would swear “Bi Got” or, in English, “By God” to defeat and defend all that their god had given them. They became known as “by-gods,” “By God, we will destroy you.” “By God, we will defend our way of life to the death.” The phrase “bi-got” or “by god” soon became “bigots,” and referred to anyone who claimed God as their ally against others. Today, the word refers to anyone, or any group or party, who claims superiority and are then intolerant of others. In his sermon, Wesley defines bigotry as an extreme “attachment to one’s own party, opinion, church, or religion,” causing an escalation of bitterness, division, and deep prejudice, often while thinking that they are in service to God.
So, let us be clear. Bigotry, in this way, is false religion. It is false because it is rooted in something other than a relationship with the One who comes to us with pure and perfect love for all creation. It is false because it is rooted in something external to the heart – it is rooted in a human way of life or way of worship.
Now, I want to pause here and say that, as Methodists and Wesleyans, we have a very high view of what can happen in the heart. The heart is a metaphor for that place reserved for God. It is the place that cannot be corrupted by the world. It is where we are able to receive the pure and perfect love of God.
We believe that God connects to us here (heart). This is the method that God uses to bring us into relationship. God works first within the heart – at a place too deep for human understanding and human explanations. And then, God gives us the methods to connect our lives to what God is doing in our hearts – to connect heart and life together. These methods include prayer, reading scripture, worship, holy conversation, and service to others. When we practice our faith in this way we keep the flow going – where God’s blessings come to us on the way to someone else (as we say so often around here). That’s how we might characterize true religion.
So once again, false religion is when we use religion to build barriers around the heart and to keep us from experiencing God’s pure and perfect love. Sometimes we don’t want to experience that because it would mean that we have to give up on putting our faith in our own opinions and parties where we find some sick comfort in thinking we are better than others.
We see this struggle in the bible as well. Sometimes we see characters of the bible give into bigotry and the harm it can cause. We’ve talked about that some in this series, where people in the church, for example, turned on one another and fought over whether or not to eat certain foods, or about the relationship between faith and works, and other issues that caused division. Paul called them back to the big picture of being the body of Christ where there are many parts, many perspectives, and all needed to make us whole and to keep us all growing.
We saw this in our gospel lesson this morning. Right before this lesson, the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus moved between them and picked up a child and says, “whoever receives one such as this, receives me.” You might think that that would have softened their hearts, but it did not. The disciple John must have not been listening because he immediately says, “Master, we saw some strangers doing ministry in your name, but they are not of us, so we told them to stop.” I guess he was expecting praise from Jesus. But I can see Jesus smiling and just shaking his head. “Don’t stop them,” he says, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Rather than focus on them, look inside yourself. If you give even a cup of water to someone who is thirsty – not because they bear the name of Christ – they may not, at least outside of the heart – but because you bear the name of Christ, then you will be blessed. Focus on how you can share the love of Christ that you know in your heart.
I was actually a little shocked when I saw how seriously John Wesley took this to heart. In his reflections he said, “If I were to see another doing good works – including a Papist, an Arian, a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (his name for one who practices Islam), I could not judge them. The implication is that if they are doing good, then God/Christ/the Holy Spirit must be at work in their heart. We are called to encourage that, support that, and pray that it may lead to a conversation where we can give witness to what God is doing in our heart and what we are coming to know about God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I love these words from the Apostle Paul in his counsel to the Philippians. He says, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility and love look not to your own interests, but to the interests and well-being of others (Philippians 2:1-4). That is the way of true religion. Paul goes on to say that when we act in this way we have the same mindset that was in Christ, whose love comes to us always on its way to someone else. Amen.