John Wesley describes the purpose of the church in Sermon 92: “On Zeal”

Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one—the church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.

The church is the community, called and centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ for the purpose of provoking one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.

To provoke is to stir or incite someone to act. Wesley is referring to Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Typically, the word “provoke” is used with anger, wrath, fighting, and violence. But here the writer of Hebrews and Wesley use the word as a means to holiness. He is saying the purpose of Christian community is to incite imitate Jesus in their daily lives. Faith in Christ must be seen in acts of compassion and justice. If faith does not compel good works then it is dead (James 2:17).

We see this reflected in the words of the baptismal covenant when the congregation promises:

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.[1]

This is another way of saying, that we are united in Christ “to provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” Baptism marks the initiation into the church and provides the ongoing shape of the Christian life. When the church is serious about baptism it is organized to provoke members to love, holy tempers, and good works.

You’re probably wondering, “What are holy tempers?” Wesley frequently used the term when he wrote and preached about discipleship. The holy tempers are the fruit of the Spirit Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-23, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” Randy Maddox writes that Wesley “was using ‘temper’ … in a characteristic eighteenth-century sense of an enduring or habitual disposition of a person (Responsible Grace, page 69). Wesley believed that holy tempers were formed in the Christian as they participated in the life of the Church by habitual practice of the means of grace—works of piety and works of mercy. Another way of understanding the formation of holy tempers is they are formed in the heart of the Christian who habitually obeys Jesus’ commands to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.

This is what Wesley, and the writer of Hebrews, meant when he said Christ gathered his followers into the church to “provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” Christians provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works when they meet weekly to give an account of their discipleship, support, and pray for one another. Covenant Discipleship and other small groups, like the Methodist class and band meetings, are essential to the church’s disciple-making mission.

I was prompted to write this article by the responses to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Fear is the natural response to such senseless violence and tragedy. Unfortunately, political “leaders” are too often willing to use the people’s fear to their advantage. I put leaders in quotes because politicians who manipulate fear to benefit themselves in my mind disqualify themselves from leadership. They are not the leaders that are needed to help the people overcome fear.

In times such as these, when we are told to fear refugees and immigrants, I’m reminded of 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” This tells me that Christians who faithfully provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works will be the people the world needs to stand up to “leaders” who seek power by manipulating fear. The Christian response in times of fear is to show the world what love looks like by obeying the crucified and risen Lord who commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus said that our neighbor is anyone, anywhere in the world who is suffering, wounded, and homeless (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 25:31-46). He goes even further when he widens the circle to include enemies and “those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-48). We are to love them too, because he loves them. This kind of self-giving, self-emptying love requires us to “provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” We can love as Jesus loves only when we stay close to him. We stay close to him in the company of the people Jesus gives us in his church, united in the baptismal covenant.

When Christians habitually meet in small groups to provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works the church will answer fear with love and hope in Christ. Christians are called by our Lord to be a people who profess to pursue holiness of heart and life, universal love filling the heart and governing the life; a people who habitually resist fear and respond to the world with Christ-like love.

 

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 35.