(Sermon 27 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
Matthew 6:16-18, “On Fasting”
There is an on-going theological battle in Christianity where outward religion is pitted against inward religion, as if this is an either/or equation. In one extreme corner we have “Showtime,” who believes that righteousness is all about being shown doing the right things – going to church, wearing the T-Shirt, praying in public, handing out food, all to show God, and everybody else, how good we are. Showtime’s motto is “just look at how good I am.”
And then, in this other extreme corner, we have “Just Believe.” Just Believe says that it is not about works, it is all about faith. All you have to do is believe, as in give an appropriate affirmation using the right words. Beyond this, you can do whatever you want. Don’t even try too hard to be good lest you give into the temptation of “works-righteousness” or think that you can earn your way in God’s good graces. It is better to not even try, beyond basic niceness and outward morality. Just Believe’s motto might be, well, “Just Believe.”
These two extremes are real in the church. Each side beckons others into their camp where they don’t have to deal with others. In these camps, any kind of “bipartisanship” is suspect. And yet it is good to note that the words “partisan” or “party” include the word “part.” A “party” is part of a larger whole. Therefore, in such camps we shut ourselves off to at least half of the blessings that God wants for us. God’s way is always bigger than any “part.” And, by the way, here we are talking about the church, not about the state – although there may be some implications for there as well. It is only by meeting with those who might have a different perspective that we are able to learn how to love.
Can we not steer a middle way? That is a question we continue to ask ourselves in these standard sermons. Can we not stand up for grace AND holiness together? In this middle ground, we see that grace without holiness is cheap grace. Cheap grace says, “It doesn’t matter what we do, because God is gracious anyway.” We do not advocate for that. On the other hand, holiness without grace is equally unhealthy. Holiness without grace becomes judgmental, legalistic, and self-righteous. When we go to this extreme, we start to draw hard lines in the sand and divide the world into “us and them.” But these extremes bring so much harm into the world, even as we think we are building ourselves up. Can we not bring “Showtime” and “Just Believe” together? As Methodists we proclaim that there is no faith that does not manifest itself in works of love (Galatians 5:6). Faith and works go together. (More liberties have been taken with this introduction than normal, but the way Wesley begins this sermon, along with this repeating theme, sparked these thoughts).
So what does all this have to do with “fasting?” This means of grace illustrates this battle more than any others. At one extreme are those who exalt this discipline beyond what the scriptures say and beyond reason. For those in this “camp,” fasting is the perfect discipline to prove how loyal and holy we are. I don’t think there are many here at that extreme. I do suspect, however, that there are many who are at the other extreme, for at this extreme this discipline is simply ignored altogether. Maybe we think about it during Lent, and maybe try it for a day after the pastors have insisted, but it is not a regular part of our spiritual walk with God.
First, fasting means to abstain from food. To fast is to intentionally be hungry for a prescribed period of time. In the scriptures, we see many examples. We see the example of a one-day fast, from morning to evening. We see fast for extended periods of time, even 40 days. In the church tradition, we see the call to abstain from particular foods for a time, or consuming smaller portions. This might be recommended for those who, for health reasons, do not need to engage in a fuller form of fasting.
The witness of scripture abounds. Through the prophet Joel, the Lord calls us to “sanctify a fast,” and to “return to the Lord with all our heart.” In doing this we discover, once again, that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:12-16). We also have the witness of many others, including Jesus. In our passage for the day, we are given some specific instructions for how we are to give alms, fast, and pray. We are given the clear command to perform all these duties, and to do so in a manner that shall keep us from losing the blessing that comes from God as we practice these means of grace.
One might naturally fast when they are in a state of grief or emotional struggle, but this is not the same as a spiritual fast. One might fast to lose weight to combat over-indulgence. We must acknowledge the benefits of fasting for our physical and emotional health. Excess of food or drink can harm the body and the soul, and indeed “chain the soul down to earth.” To remove this consequence requires that we address the cause. An intentional fast, with this motivation, can help us learn temperance, balance, and self-control. This kind of practiced discipline can be helpful to our own physical, emotional, and spiritual heath. But this is still not the primary reason to engage in fasting as a spiritual discipline. The primary reason for fasting is to help us pray and to commune with God.
Prayer and Fasting go together. Fasting makes prayer about something more than words. With fasting, we involve our whole being. In both a physical sense and a spiritual sense, we open a place in our lives for God to come in and to fill with the blessings God wants for us. It is not a magical formula. We cannot control or manipulate this, but we can affirm that fasting and prayer are God-given means of grace. God has given us these practices as channels for grace and growth. Through these disciplines God is often pleased to lift us up, and “sometimes to rap us up, as it were, into the third heaven,” providing special strength, guidance, and inspiration.
Some still might object, saying that we should fast from sin but not from food. They might argue that this outward work makes it about us. I say that it is not an either/or. God asks for both. The scriptures call us to physically fast and to spiritually fast in faith. The grace conveyed through fasting empowers us to abstain from all temperaments that are not pleasing to God. Fasting becomes a sacramental act, a tangible act and offering that opens the way for God’s grace to come. It is an incarnate act for incarnate beings.
The next question is “how?” First, do so with a focus on God, not ourselves. Next, we refrain from hypocrisy. Here, Jesus refers to the practice of some of the “religious folks” of his day, covering themselves with dust and ashes, and a mask of sadness and sorrow, in order to get attention for others. Truly, says Jesus, they have their reward. Then, we fast trusting in God’s unmerited mercy. We do not engage in spiritual disciplines to “establish our own righteousness.”
Fasting is a work of repentance and an act of spiritual cleaning. It is a tangible way for us to open a place in our lives for the transforming grace that renews us to the image of God (2 Corinthians 7:9). To this end, may fasting always be joined to prayer. And to fasting and prayer, add giving and all works of mercy. There is a direct connection here as well, and stated so clearly by the prophet Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice ... to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? ... Then, your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly ... Then you shall call and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and he will say, ‘Here I am’.” (Isaiah 58:6-9).
That’s how we are to fast! The inward blessings of this means of grace leads to outward good works in the world. Through this discipline we join faith and works together. We bring the blessed parts into a larger whole, and we become more whole in the process. That is the promise contained in this means of grace. Amen