Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 10/23/2016
This is the first part of a three-week series called “Three Simple Rules.” It is based on a book by the late Rueben Job, former UMC bishop, which you can find here.
“Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.
Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.
You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!” (Galatians 5:1, 6, 13-15)
This week, we start a three-week series called “Three Simple Rules.” (Online-only readers-my congregation received a copy of the book mentioned above)
The three rules alluded to by the title were given to us by John Wesley – the founder the Methodist movement and our denomination’s founding father. He set these three simple rules in the 1700’s for his United Societies – the precursors to the Methodist Church. You see, John Wesley believed that if you were truly saved, if you have truly found Jesus, then your way of life should have changed radically. Wesley believed that your life with Jesus should be marked by a constant attempt to live out these three simple rules. Here they are – could you repeat them after me?
Do no harm.
Stay in love with God.
Those three rules of John Wesley show us a more faithful way of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. And when they’re put into practice, they have the power to change the world. And I’m not exaggerating.
So because they’re so important, we’re going to focus on one rule/week for the next few weeks. Which means that today, we’re focusing on rule #1 – Do no harm.
Now each of those three rules is pretty simple to understand and grasp with your mind. But they are surprisingly difficult to follow, to live out in your day-to-day life. And the first rule, Do No Harm, is no exception.
Do No Harm. I find this to be incredibly hard to follow, maybe the most difficult of the three. As a follower of Christ, I’m called to do no harm with my words, with my money, or with my actions. Do no harm to anyone, including myself. I find that to be incredibly demanding, and almost impossible to carry out each and every day.
Do No Harm. Think of all the ways we might cause harm. Think of all the harmful words we say on a daily basis, or all the harmful actions we might take, or all the harmful ways we might spend our money. This is a very demanding rule. At least for me – maybe you all have this figured out.
But despite the difficulty, Wesley saw this rule – Do No Harm – as part of a more faithful way of following Jesus Christ. I want to follow Christ more faithfully. I hope you do too. And these rules can help us to follow Christ more faithfully, to live as a more and more fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ. So let’s dig in here, ok?
Now I want to start with the passage from Galatians I read a couple minutes ago. Because Paul knew something about this first rule of Do No Harm, and about all three of these rules. Then we’ll dive into the specifics of what this rule really meant for Wesley and what it could mean for us today. Ok?
Those verses are actually a great way to start this whole series. Because in those verses, Paul calls us to live a life marked not by religious rules and traditions, but a life marked by serving each other through love; a life marked by loving your neighbor as yourself. And these three rules – Do No Harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God – give us specifics for how to live that life marked by love. Because we love each other and all of our neighbors, we will do no harm, we will do good, and we will stay in love with God – because it is only in God that we are able to do any of this at all. Love is the underlying reason for all of this.
But verse 15 points us specifically to the first rule – Do No Harm. Paul tells us “If you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!” Which I take to mean that if you do bite and devour and wound and waste and squander each other and your relationships, you might very well be destroyed.
I love how the Message translation puts it. “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out – in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
I wonder church – do we know anything about biting and devouring and ravaging each other? Do we know anything about squabbling and bickering? Do we know anything about saying or doing anything that was meant to wound or harm someone else?
Paul tells us pretty plainly that if you harm each other instead of living a life marked by loving service, you might very well be destroyed.
Now we see the importance of this rule – Do No Harm. Vitally important. So now let’s unpack what Wesley meant by this rule – Do No Harm.
That Scripture passage seemed to just point out the harm that comes from how we talk to each other – when we don’t use nice words, when we use our words as weapons. But we all know that there are many more ways that we can harm each other than just talking meanly to someone. Humans do damage to each other in many more ways besides how we talk to each other.
Wesley saw that the life of a true follower of Christ cannot be one that consistently causes harm to anyone or to any part of God’s creation. Now with this rule, Wesley wasn’t really talking about the most obvious ways we cause harm – stealing, lying, physical harm, even murder. Wesley would say that even “heathen morality” would see that those things are wrong; meaning that Christian or not, people know that actions such as lying and stealing are wrong and you shouldn’t do those things. Now of course Wesley agrees that those things are wrong. But that’s really the bare minimum. People who call themselves “Christian” should not think “I haven’t stolen anything, I don’t usually lie, I certainly haven’t killed anyone, so I haven’t done any harm. I’m good.”
No, Wesley saw that Christ demands much more from the life of a Christian. What kind of harm is he talking about then?
Wesley actually gets very specific as to what specific actions are harmful. And I’d like to share a few with you, to see if maybe they still apply today. (all from Wesley’s “General Rules”)
One of these harmful actions was, in Wesley’s words “The taking of such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus…”
Now, in the 18th century, when Wesley set these rules, one of the specific diversions that Wesley spoke against was the theater. Theaters at that time were places where fights continually broke out, where there were innocent victims. There were accusations of sexual assault, all at the 18th century theater. So Wesley asked his congregations, “Who is being harmed by you continuing to support the theater?”
Now, that was specific to Wesley’s time – theaters are different now, we don’t have to worry about that now. But the question is still a good one. What are our diversions? Think of all those new fall TV shows, Netflix binge-watching, the hours you spend watching football. I’m not saying that those things are inherently wrong, but ask yourselves – When I’m so absorbed in doing these things and watching these things, is anyone getting harmed? Am I harming myself? Am I supporting something that does harm somewhere along the path that brought this image to my TV screen or computer screen?
I’ll confess to this – I take plenty of diversions that cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus, and probably do cause harm, at least to myself, if not to others. I wonder if any of the rest of us can confess to this as well?
Here’s another action that Wesley saw as harmful, again in his words: “Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers…”
Now here, Wesley is talking specifically about speaking evil of government officials. Whether it’s two officials (or presidential candidates) speaking evil about each other, or the regular citizens badmouthing their governor or president or their least favorite presidential candidate. Now that stings a little bit. Now I’m not saying anything against disagreeing and debating, but speaking evil – name-calling, wishing harm, badmouthing government officials – these things do harm. And Wesley, as well as Jesus I believe, would have us rise above it.
Now I’m sure we could all confess to this. I am no different – I badmouth the other side as much as the next person. But we must realize the harm we cause and the division we bring when we do that.
Here’s a third action that Wesley called harmful: “Doing what we know is not for the glory of God…”
Now that really pinches, if I can be honest. I mean, really – take every single one of your decisions and ask if you did it for the glory of God. Take a look back at every single thing you’ve spent money on and ask if it was for the glory of God. Take a look back at everything you’ve spent time on and ask if you did it for the glory of God. If not, Wesley sees this as causing harm.
What I’m doing here is asking you to note all the possibilities for doing harm in this world in which we live, and then make decisions accordingly. Because harm is happy to take root in our lives. Evil thrives everywhere, so we have to pay attention so that our words, our actions, our money, our thoughts, our pastimes, our hobbies – that nothing of our life causes harm. Because, as Paul told us, if we consistently harm each other, we will be destroyed.
Do No Harm. What does that mean for you? How do you harm people? How do you harm yourself?
We are a people who love to say “If you’re not for me, you’re against me. And if you’re against me, you’re my enemy. And if you’re my enemy, I can harm you.” Now, that’s usually not the conscious thought, but that logic is everywhere. But Christ stands against that and calls each of us to live a life that also stands against that pattern of harm in our world.
Also, we live in a world that gets smaller each day. And the pathways that bring us the products we love to buy – food, clothing, whatever – get more and more complicated. And that means that it gets harder and harder to see if our money is actually being used for harm. If the toy you buy for your kids or grandkids was made in a sweatshop in China or Africa where the workers are way underpaid and way overworked, to the point of causing harm, then the money you spent to buy that toy eventually works its way back to support that harm, even though you didn’t intend it to, or even know about it. If committing to do no harm is essential to following Christ faithfully, and I believe it is, what are we to do?
To follow Christ faithfully, we must commit to do no harm in our lives – no harm to ourselves, and no harm to our neighbor. So will you commit to that, church? Will you commit to do no harm in your lives?
It’s a big thing to ask. Will you commit to examine each of your actions and decisions and purchases and words to see whether or not you are causing harm? Will you commit to stopping anything you are doing that causes harm?
Now, we are not perfect, I will be the first one to admit that. We will inevitably cause harm in some way in our lives. I will inevitably say something that causes harm. I will inevitably spend my money in a way that causes harm to myself or someone else. So I need to remember, and we need to remember that we serve a God of forgiveness who will forgive us when we cause harm if we just humble ourselves and confess.
BUT our imperfection does not let us off the hook. If we decide to follow Jesus, if we decide to make Christ the priority in our lives, then we will grow in holiness and become more and more like Christ. Doing no harm is a huge part of that. This is not something we do by our own power – Jesus gives us the strength and the power and the will to try this, to eliminate harm from our lives. But it requires your commitment first.
If I want to follow Christ more faithfully, I must commit to do no harm. If you want to follow Christ more faithfully, you must commit to do no harm. If you don’t want to follow Christ more faithfully, then feel free to ignore this. But if we want to follow Christ faithfully, then we must commit to do no harm, throwing ourselves on Christ’s mercy and power, trusting that Christ will give us the strength to carry out our commitment and the grace and forgiveness when we fail. Now I know following this rule is a big commitment. But I wonder how many of us would be willing to try it out for this week, seven days. Church – just for this week – will you commit to trying this rule out in your lives? Will you commit to do no harm for this week? Will you join me in this?