Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17
Several years ago I attended a continuing education workshop for clergy that involved horses. The workshop was held at a horse stable and centered on learning how to know and trust the horse in order to safely ride the horse.
Getting to know and build trust with the horse was compared to getting to know and build trust with a church congregation. One of the instructor’s teaching points was what she called “Cowboy Wisdom.” Cowboy wisdom says that knowing and riding a horse is “simple…but not easy.”
That seems to also hold true with the Gospel; with faithfulness; with discipleship; and with the three simple rules of John Wesley…they are simple…but not easy!
These three simple, historic rules of John Wesley return to us at just the right time…a time in which we live in a world where nations are at war; our country is deadlocked in political wrangling; communities are divided over any number of issues, and religions and churches are divided over who has a corner on the truth.
Today more than ever, denominations and even individual congregations are divided over doctrine, what it means to be Christian, and what is sin and what sins are worse than other sins.
In the midst of all this we hear the call to, do no harm; do good; and stay in love with God. Doesn’t seem that complicated, does it? From a very early age we teach our children not to hurt one another and when they do, we teach them to say, “I’m sorry.”
We teach our children to do good by helping others. And when we bring our children for baptism, we promise to raise them in the life of faith and in the church, in the hope that they will stay in love with God.
So, what does living these three simple rules really mean? I want to briefly suggest three things.
First, when we are working to live these three simple rules, we refuse to speak badly of others or spread rumors, whether verbally or through social media.
Speaking badly of others or spreading rumors is something it seems we have all been guilty of because we have either initiated it or gone along with it without objection. The problem is that it becomes so much easier to talk about people rather than talk to people. Speaking badly of others or spreading rumors is toxic and it is passed along quickly because it is so easy.
When we engage with others, especially online, whatever is posted quickly links us into the lives of others and we may forget that living, breathing people with feelings are on the other end of our digital postings.
Everything we say, write, text, or post has the opportunity to be an outlet to do no harm, do good and show the love of God to others.
Second, we live these three simple rules by being respectful. This is where the biblical verse called the ‘Golden Rule’ kicks in…”In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” As Christians this means we establish a standard of kind, respectful behavior.
To do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God is probably the hardest and most challenging when harm is done to us; or when others do not have goodness in mind; or when we realize that loving God is not a priority for many.
The good news, Bishop Job tells us, is that, “It is possible to practice a way of living that is in harmony with the life of Jesus and survive, even thrive, in a world like ours.”
When we treat people with respect, we model what our scripture from Colossians has called us to be…full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.
And third, we live these three simple rules when we deal openly and honestly with conflict. We all know the harm and damage that can be done in a work place, in a school, in a family or in a church by conflict over issues that are serious and profound and other issues that are just plain silly.
And disagreement is not the issue…it’s o.k. to disagree; how we disagree is the issue.
Problems that are hidden cannot be resolved. When problems and disagreements are unresolved, stress, tension and hurt feelings escalate and misunderstanding erupts into harm and separation. These three simple rules call us to address conflict by honestly and appropriately communicating.
It would be nice if when conflicts arise, all parties involved could agree to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. But we know that seldom happens. But, Bishop Job has said that even if it is only you that is vowing to hold those rules, the climate in which the conflict exists is changed.
So often fear speaks louder than our faith. More times than not, when we do not hold these three simple rules we are acting either consciously or subconsciously out of fear…Fear of not being accepted…Fear of not being respected…fear of rejection…and fear that God is going to give up on us.
In writing particularly about doing no harm, Bishop Job says, “When I am determined to do no harm to you, I lose my fear of you; and I am able to see you and hear you more clearly.” Then he writes, “We discover that we stand on common ground…share a common faith, feast at a common table, and have an equal measure of God’s unlimited love.”
The good news is that God never gives up on us. Even when we choose not to put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness…even when we reject or choose against God…even when we are afraid, God stays with us and continues to work in our lives with mercy and grace.
Pastor and author Fred Craddock tells of a time when his children were young and the family was out for a drive on a beautiful spring day. When they came around a curve they saw a kitten by the road.
Fred and his wife hoped that the children had not seen the kitten, but no such luck. Immediately, his young son insisted that they stop and pick up the kitten. Dad refused, the children pleaded, mom refused, the children pleaded more and more. Dad began to weaken; now the children are weeping, dad is now turning the car around; he pulled the car past the kitten and then stopped.
Fred got out of the car and walked back to where the kitten was huddled by the shoulder of the road. The kitten appeared to be maybe three months old, but as Fred reached for it, it somehow gained the tenacity of an experienced alley cat.
The hissing, spitting and clawing of the ‘kitten’ left bleeding scratches on Fred’s hands. So, he got a blanket and a box out of the trunk and mustered up his courage and made another try to pick up the kitten.
Without much blood being lost, the kitten was wrapped in the blanket, put in the box and taken home in the trunk of the car. Food and warm milk helped and by morning the fearful kitten had calmed down. It was the weekend, so the children played with the kitten and by Monday the attachment was so great that the family now had a new kitten for a pet.
As it sometimes goes with pets, Fred said by the end of the first week, he was the one who seemed to be tending to the care of the kitten. One evening Fred was reading the paper, his hands still bearing the scratch marks from the kitten, when the kitten jumped up in his lap, curled up and began to purr.
Fred Craddock turns from telling his story and says, “The other day I saw the hand of God reach down from heaven. And I’m pretty sure I saw scratch marks.”
No matter the circumstances, we are always in God’s care. In the big picture, the work of doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God is about intentionally spending time with God in prayer and study and worship and service.
And it is about doing something…something that models a way of being Christian in the world that shows our love of God and neighbor.
Our behavior and our words carry great impact. So if we wish for our world to be a better place…a place of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness, we can begin by living these three simple rules and letting the peace of Christ control our hearts—a peace into which we were called in one body.
To do no harm, do good and stay in love with God will demand much of us. Yet, these three simple rules are urgently needed to live out the Gospel in a troubled and needy world.
May we each hear the call to live in this simple, but not easy way.
Thanks be to God.