THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY
We have started on a series of sermons that looks back at the sermons of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Because today is also Mother's Day, I looked through his sermons for something that might speak to the occasion and ended up choosing a sermon from the latter part of Wesley's ministry called "The More Excellent Way."
The title refers to the last line from 1 Corinthians 12. Earlier in the chapter, Paul has been talking about all the spiritual gifts given to people for the building up of the Church. Paul points out that we are all one body, but that each part of the body has a different function. The eye is different from the leg, but you sure need both of them. Spiritual gifts are like that. We need teachers and healers; we need those who pray and those who are wise. Whatever the gift, the body is incomplete if we don't have it, and we should work together with all our differences as one body in Christ.
However, that whole bit of wisdom and advice in chapter 12 is qualified.. All of that is good, but there is a still more excellent way to go about being a Christian in the world. That more excellent way is what chapter 13 is about, which you hear at most weddings and a fair number of funerals... "If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." It is good to use the gifts you have been given. That is chapter 12. The more excellent way is to use them with love. That is chapter 13.
Wesley takes these two chapters and makes them concrete, which is why I wanted to use this sermon on Mother's Day. His sermon is kind of like Mom's practical advice to the kids. He says to his congregation that chapter 12 represents your basic, good Christian. Chapter 13 goes on to show that there is a further step...a more excellent way to do all the things that we do, which is to do them with love, particularly with love of God. Wesley calls these differences "...two orders of Christians." The good Christian and the one who follows the still more excellent way. 
The rest of the sermon is a very practical look at a day in the life of both types of Christians. I think this sort of practical bent was one of the reasons Wesley was so successful in changing the religious climate of England. If you're a good speaker, it's relatively easy to get people pumped up about love. Most everybody agrees that love is a good idea and that there ought to be more of it. And when somebody suggests that some people don't love all the time, we are generally quick to name the times that others have hurt us and been unloving toward us.
Wesley doesn't let people get away with pointing the finger away from themselves. He wants us to point the finger inward...not so we will feel guilty, but so that we can improve our Christian lives, increase our joy, and be a better witness to the God of love we say we serve. The church is not supposed to be the place where we plunk ourselves down in a pew and say "Whew! Made it into the Kingdom! Glad that's over." The church is supposed to be the place where we say, "Well, I've made it this far, and I feel pretty good. What's the next step?"
In this sermon Wesley details the next step in the mundane business of the day. He begins with getting out of bed. I told you last week that Wesley made his preachers start their day at 4 am. But he didn't want them deprived of sleep...he also sent them to bed early. The good Christian, says Wesley, doesn't really consider sleep to be part of the Christian life. Often they don't get enough sleep or they sleep too much.
The more excellent way, says Wesley, is "in defiance of fashion and custom, to take just so much sleep as experience proves our nature to require; seeing this is indisputably most conducive both to bodily and spiritual health."  The thing to strive for is enough sleep...not too little and not too much. God cares about your body and your spiritual health will suffer if your physical health is messed up by your sleep patterns.
After getting us out of bed, he assumes that all Christians next begin their waking hours with prayer. It's notable that getting up and going straight to breakfast does not enter his mind for either order of Christian. You get up, you pray. What he wants to distinguish is the kind of prayer that this is. Listen to what he has to say:
"The generality of Christians, as soon as they rise, are accustomed to use some kind of prayer; and probably to use the same form still which they learned when they were eight or ten years old. Now I do not condemn those who proceed thus...though they have used the same form, without any variation, for twenty or thirty years together. But surely there is a more excellent way of ordering our private devotions." What is that way? To, "consider both your outward and inward state, and vary your prayers accordingly." 
What he's saying is it's OK to pray a standard prayer...a prayer from Scripture or from some other source. But it is better in private devotions to make the prayer your prayer. If things are going well, name those things and give thanks. If you are hurting or have concerns, lift those things before God. It doesn't mean we can't use the other. He just wants us to consider broadening our prayer life to make it more of a personal time with God.
Wesley puts his food discussion at lunchtime rather than breakfast, so he next moves to the business of the day...whatever that might be. He sees three ways in which the good way differs from the more excellent way when we do our work. The first difference is in motivation. The good Christian works (whether in paid or unpaid labor) to provide for him or herself and the family. The more excellent way, however, is to work out of a sense of God's calling to the task. The second order of Christian works to please God and to do God's will. The work is exactly the same, but the reason for doing it is different. 
The second thing he sees as a difference is the manner or method in which we work. To work with diligence and justice is good. The more excellent way is to work also with piety and prayer. He's not saying don't work with diligence and justice. The first way in all of these instances is not something to be thrown out but rather added to. He says the person of the more excellent way will seek to, "Add piety to justice; to intermix prayer, especially the prayer of the heart, with all the labour of his hands."  The Shakers called it "worshipful work."
Lastly he sees a difference in the spirit in which work is done. Wesley asks if you do your business "in the spirit of the world, or the Spirit of Christ? I am afraid," he says, "thousands of those who are called good Christians do not understand the question."  In today's language, Wesley is talking about wearing a mental WWJD bracelet through the day. The good Christian considers what needs to be done and does it. The more excellent way is to consider how Jesus would go about accomplishing that task.
Let's say the task is washing a sink full of dishes. The good way is to wash the dishes. To get the job done. Suppose your little five-year-old wants to "help." You know that makes it harder to do the dishes...you might have to do some of them over and in some cases even buy new ones. The more excellent way is to ask what is more important, the task or the child? 
Wesley does let us break for lunch, but you don't give up being Christian just because you've stopped for lunch. And this is really all Wesley is trying to say in the whole sermon. Being Christian is not something you do at certain times and not at others. Being Christian is a way of life. It means you think in a certain way, act in a certain way, view the world in a way that is very different from others. That means if our faith is real, it is going to affect every single bit of our day. It will affect our waking and our sleeping, how we work and how we play. Wesley reminds us that it also affects how we eat.
Plenty of good Christians simply sit down and eat, says Wesley. But the more excellent way is to stop and give thanks for the food. Good Christians eat in moderation, he says, but the more excellent way is to eat thankfully...to "receive every morsel as a pledge of life eternal."  He recognizes that many people eat in company with others and this conversation also is relevant to our faith. The good Christian keeps conversation harmless and modest. The more excellent way is to not just talk, but listen. When we do talk, we should be keeping the needs of the others around us in mind. Talk for their sake, not for our own. 
He has this same general theme when it comes to time for play. Wesley does believe that there are some leisure activities that no Christian should take part in...fighting sports that are cruel to animals or people, for instance. But in other diversions, he has pretty much the same message as he did for conversation. The good Christian engages in what is harmless. The more excellent way is to do something enjoyable that is also edifying. He recommends gardening, reading, music, and volunteering,  but you get the point. In most of these cases the difference between the good way and the more excellent way is the difference between doing no harm and actively doing good. Our leisure should be no different.
His last point is one you will find in almost every sermon, and that is to look at the way we use our money. What he calls the "more excellent way" with money is, "You may consider yourself as one in whose hands the Proprietor of heaven and earth and all things therein has lodged a part of his goods, to be disposed of according to his direction. And his direction is, that you should look upon yourself as one of a certain number of indigent persons who are to be provided for out of that portion of his goods wherewith you are entrusted."  In other words, not a dime in your pocket or in the bank belongs to you. God has given every cent of it to you in order that you might do two things...to provide basic needs for yourself and to help provide basic needs for others.
In Wesley's world there is absolutely no justification for a rich person to keep wealth "because I've earned it." That's not why you have it, says Wesley. God allowed you to earn it so that all of God's children could be provided for. Some don't have the opportunities or abilities that you do. They can't earn enough to meet their needs, so you were allowed to earn more so that you can help them. You should provide for yourself also, but the amount of your wealth indicates the extent of your responsibility to others, not how much more you can have for yourself. He says quite bluntly, "You will have no reward in heaven for what you lay up; you will for what you lay out." 
This entire sermon shows us a critical part of what it means to be a Methodist Christian. Faith is not just about how we feel in our hearts, it is about how we live our life...all of it. Every minute of every day is different because we say, "Jesus is my Lord and Savior." I cannot act the same once I really believe that God is love. God cares about how we treat our bodies and the bodies of others. God cares about how we use our time and our money and what we do both for work and for fun.
The legacy of the Puritans, especially in New England, is that we tend to see that as oppressive and harsh...that God is watching our every move, lightning bolt in hand. God is not trying to keep us from having a good time or to make our work harder or our day more stressful. The witness of Scripture is that living every minute for God and filtering everything...up to and including our checkbooks...through the question of What Would Jesus Do...brings joy. It brought so much joy to the early Christians that they found they would rather die than give it up. It brought so much joy to Paul and Silas that while they were chained in a dark, dank, rat-infested prison they were still so happy they sang hymns.
The Methodist movement at its root was about reforming the church, not about starting another one. Through the Wesleys...through John's sermons and Charles' hymns...the point was made again and again...if your life doesn't reflect your faith, you've missed the point. Take a day this week and try it on for size. What would it mean if you really lived for God for an entire 24-hour period? See if living the more excellent way feels good or bad.
And what of Mother's Day? The good way, I think, is to call your mother...even if she is nasty, even if you haven't spoken in years. The more excellent way, I think, is to reach out beyond whatever is going on...for good or for ill...in your own family. Realize the pain of this day for those who have lost their mothers, for those who can never be mothers, for those whose mothers never gave the love and care this day implies. There are mothers today estranged from their children, mothers who live far away from their children, and those whose children have died. There are mothers who recognize now that they harmed their children and never gave to their children what was needed. They are racked with guilt.
It is good to call your mother. But if you want to find the more excellent way, don't let that call be the only one you make today.
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson
John Wesley's Sermons: An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater. Compilation and Preface Copyright 1991 by Abingdon Press.
Sermon texts reprinted from The Works of John Wesley, Volumes 1-4: Sermons I-IV, Copyright 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 by Abingdon Press.
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