Luke 16:10-12, Proverbs 3:1-8
The Holy Club: A Matter of Trust
When John Wesley and his younger brother Charles were students in college, they struggled with how to keep growing in faith, despite the rigors of higher education. John was hoping that having his brother near him at school meant that he would have a partner to keep him on track, to keep him accountable with his discipleship, but when Charles first went to Oxford, he sort of “put his faith on hold” like many other students. By then John had become a fellow, a teacher of other students at Oxford, and then went to serve as pastor of a church. But eventually, he received a letter from Charles. Charles wrote, “I … awoke out of my lethargy.” Charles “wrote of his renewed desire to focus on his spiritual growth. He also asked for tips on keeping a spiritual journal, a practice John found helpful.” (1)
John took the opportunity when offered to go back to his teaching post as a fellow at Oxford, and he and Charles and a couple of other friends started meeting together regularly. In fact, they gathered together for 3-4 evenings each week. They would review and discuss classic books together along with the Greek New Testament. Group members tried to serve God every hour of the day. They set aside time for praying, examining their spiritual lives very carefully, and meeting together, and they also engaged in service to others, bringing food to the poor, visiting people in prison, and teaching orphans to read. They also fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3pm as a spiritual practice, and shared in Holy Communion together weekly, a then uncommon practice in the Church of England of which they were part. (2) Others started calling the group “The Holy Club.” Like the name “Methodist,” “The Holy Club” was not a name Wesley and his friends gave themselves. Instead, it was meant to be an insult from others who mocked their intense practices. They were labeled “enthusiasts,” people with “excessive religious behavior,” and even teased with a little rhyme:
By rule they eat, by rule they drink,
By rule do all things but think.
Accuse the priests of loose behavior.
To get more in the laymen's favor.
Method alone must guide 'em all
When themselves "Methodists" they call. (3)
Despite the critiques, though, the small group persisted, with many of its members making significant contributions to their faith over the following years. The “Holy Club” model also served as a guide for the model of Methodist societies, small groups of disciples encouraging each other in faithfulness, that formed the backbone of the Methodist church to come.
For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at a set of 21 questions that members of the Holy Club used. They’d reflect on these questions in their private devotional time, and then meet with each other to share about their discipleship together. (4) And as we think about our Methodist heritage and the example John and Charles Wesley set, we’ll see if their Holy Club questions can help us deepen our discipleship - or if we’re prone to make up new rhymes about methodical Methodists!
The Wesleys and the Holy Club, and eventually the Methodist movement that grew from it all emphasized practices of accountability for a growing discipleship. Practicing accountability in our discipleship means letting others in on our faith journey, and that’s something that can be very difficult for us in our culture. We prize individualism and privacy, and lots of spheres in our world emphasize that your religious views are your own - not open to the scrutiny or questioning of others. And so we sometimes let our discipleship turn very inward. We want our faith journey to be just between us and God. But God is always sticking our neighbor smack in between. How do we demonstrate our love of God? Through the way we love one another. How can we draw close to God? In part, by drawing close to each other.
Next Sunday and the week after, we’ll celebrate baptisms during worship. From time to time, I get shy folks ask me if they can have a baptism outside of worship, because they’re so uncomfortable being up front. But I’ll work hard to find ways to make them more relaxed within the worship service - because our acts of faith are never between just us and God. The community always gets invited into our covenant. We all make promises to each other: God, us, and the whole congregation. Listen to these words from our baptismal covenant:
I ask the whole congregation: “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?”
The people respond: “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. we will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
I give the charge: “Members of the household of God, I commend these persons to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
The people respond: “As members together with you in the body of Christ, we renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 37-38)
We’re accountable to each other, even if we’re much less intense about it than the Wesleys and The Holy Club were. Being together is an integral, irreplaceable part of our faith journey. Supporting each other in discipleship is something for which there is no substitute. We need each other to be the body of Christ. So, who are the people in your life helping you grow in discipleship? How can you entrust more of your spiritual journey to them, sharing heart and soul with them?
This week, we’re looking at some of the 21 questions Wesley and his friends asked themselves and each other each week, questions that broadly look to questions of trust and discipleship. Is God trustworthy? Are we trustworthy? How do we grow in our trustworthiness in our relationships with God and one another? Wesley and his friends asked each other:
Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
Can I be trusted?
Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
Do I disobey God in anything?
At our Wednesday night Bible study this past week we asked these questions as a group, and found them challenging. If we have to answer these as the simple yes/no questions they’re presented as, our answers are pretty stark. Yes, sometimes I’m a hypocrite. Yes, sometimes I exaggerate. I am not always 100% honest in every situation. I have not kept every confidence shared with me. I have not always been worthy of trust. Sometimes I’ve done things despite knowing better. I’ve been jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touch, and distrustful. I’ve disobeyed God. Admitting that to God, myself, and out loud is hard, even though I suspect I’m in pretty good company with my answers. But I also think these questions push us farther. We talked about that at Bible Study too - when do I find myself disobeying God and why and how can I do things differently next time? In what situations do I find myself trying to make myself seem better than I am, exaggerating? We talked about, for example, the enormous pressure we face in world of social media to make ourselves look great online. We tend not to post pictures of our dirty dishes, but instead only our well-arranged rooms. We tend not to post times we’ve been bad parents or bad friends, and instead share our successes or the triumphs of our children (or niece and nephew!) Of course we do this. What’s the cost to our spiritual life when we can’t be honest about the real, messy, sinful people we are, and instead have to pretend to have it together all the time? When we’re pretending with everybody else, how easy is it to start pretending with God too? If we pretend with God, how can we grow? How can we experience forgiveness and reconciliation if we can never admit we’re in need of them? As I let these Holy Club questions into my heart, I find them pretty challenging indeed.
Today we heard a passage from Proverbs. I have to admit, it isn’t my go-to book of the Bible, and I’m not sure I’ve ever preached on it before! But as I was thinking about these questions of discipleship and trust, it tugged at me. In our text, God is telling us not to forget God’s commandments, but instead to remember that following God’s commandments brings us abundant well-being. Instead, we should keep God’s word close at hand, around our neck, written on our hearts. And when we do that, the writer says, now shifting points of view, we’ll find favor with both God and neighbor. The best way for us to be trustworthy is by trusting entirely in God. If we trust God, we don’t have to rely on our own faulty wisdom. God will guide us. God will be our wisdom. God will help us turn from evil. The writer concludes, “It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.” I love that image. It fills me with peace. When we put our trust in God, and let God be our guide, we experience healing and refreshment. Don’t we want that?
Of course, we can trust God, always. But here’s something surprising for us to think about: God trusts us too! Again and again, God trusts us. God starts out trusting us with responsibility for the rest of creation right in the beginning of Genesis, and God trusts us with carrying out the work of Jesus for the rest of our days. And all in between that, God entrusts us with caring for people and places and messages and situations. Again and again, God shows a great willingness to trust us. Despite how often we mess up what God puts into our hands, God trusts us. Is God foolish to trust us when we so often fail? I don’t think so. Instead, I think our God of all hopefulness, the one who created us, knows just how much potential we have. God knows all we are capable of doing and being. And God knows that when we commit to growing as disciples, we grow more and more ready to handle what God entrusts to us.
Can we be trusted? With God’s help, and with the help of our friends on this journey, to whom we open our hearts and souls, we can. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Iovino, Joe, “The Method of Early Methodism: The Oxford Holy Club,” UMC.org, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-method-of-early-methodism-the-oxford-holy-club.
(2) Keysor, Charles W. (1996). Our Methodist Heritage. Good News, 12.
(4) “John Wesley and The Holy Club’s 22 Questions,” Hope, Faith, Prayer. https://www.hopefaithprayer.com/john-wesley-holy-club-questions/