It was two years to the week since Carl died.
The group that had met every Tuesday night since then, bore his name: Coffee. Conversation. Carl. Carl had started the group several years before his death, but he was already in his 80’s. He wanted some place where people could just get together and talk about their faith. Since his death, the task of keeping the group together fell to two members of the group: Leona and Josh. When Leona would host the meeting, Josh would lead, and vice versa. And this Tuesday was at her house, so leadership fell to Josh. He was a recent seminary graduate, and was frustrated with the direction that the group was going. Participation in the group was like a roller coaster after Carl’s death. At first, everybody showed up. It was their way to grieve together, and honor his memory with their presence. But the early wave wore off and eventually attendance dropped. There were some weeks where attendance would be single digits, and it was hard for Josh to remember when Carl’s living room was packed with 25 or more bodies.
But lately, things hadn’t started to change. There were a lot of new faces showing up on Tuesday nights. They loved the coffee. They loved the conversation. But inevitably someone would ask each week, “know who is Carl?“ The group was changing, and with new faces came new ideas and new tensions. Some of the new folks wondered aloud if they should change the format. Maybe study a book together instead of being so open ended. Others suggested a change in venue, perhaps at one of their churches, so that there wouldn’t have to be a line for the bathroom in Josh’s apartment. But when somebody actually suggested they take Carl’s name out of the title of the group, Josh and Leona thought that there was about to be a nuclear explosion! They weren’t sure what to do. They wanted to keep the group together, but weren’t sure how to do it. Josh had many sleepless Tuesday nights after Bible Study, during which he wished that Carl was there, so he could ask him what to do.
This Tuesday, Josh happened upon a scripture passage that seemed to hit him like a ton of bricks. It was at the end of Ephesians, a book appropriately enough about unity. About an hour before Bible study was about to start, he had a brilliant idea about how he would open the lesson that night.
As the group filed in to Leona’s apartment, Josh was a little worried about whether everyone would fit. They gathered their cups of coffee, and the snacks that one of the members had brought. And settled in with their Bibles.
Josh read the scripture passage from Ephesians, and began with a picture hastily drawn on the back of a magazine with a sharpie. It was a favorite illustration from his Methodist seminary days: the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. As he described to the group, it was basically a way his professors used to talk about how we believe God reveals who God is to humanity.
- In one corner is tradition. The beliefs and orthodoxy of the church. For someone like Wesley, it was important to remember the heritage of those who had come before.
- In the third quarter is experience. Wesley himself pointed to an experience of the Holy Spirit which felt as though his heart was strangely warmed. Our own personal experiences are critical to the revelation of God.
- In the next corner is reason. According to Wesley, God gave us minds to be able to reason from the evidence we see around us. God reveals truth through our minds and the wisdom of science, the arts, and learned minds.
- And finally in the last corner is Scripture. God reveals God‘s truth in the Bible. The stories, letters, teachings, and poetry of the Bible are filled with God‘s truth through the centuries.
After a five minute explanation of the quadrangle, Josh asked one simple question: in what order of importance would you place these four? The conversation took off, and it would be well over an hour before he spoke again.
The first to answer was Richard. Richard was a contemporary of Carl’s and a lifelong Catholic. He and Carl never quite saw things eye to eye, but they were good friends and he kept coming to the group out of habit more than anything after Carl died. He had no hesitation as to what his order would be. Tradition. Scripture. Then far down the list reason. And finally experience. “I guess I have always been and orthodox kind of guy. I figure the church fathers knew what they were doing, and who are we to question them? The Bible even tells us that the church was founded on the rock of the apostle Peter. The line of church leaders from him have been ordained by God to speak the truth. It’s not like I think everyone should be a Catholic, but I do think we should respect our leaders, and trust that they know more than we do. I trusted Carl because of his position of authority as a teacher in his church, and I trust this young man because I believe him to be ordained by God to lead us and teach us. I get a little nervous when people start talking about their own experiences as authoritative. If we follow that line of reasoning, we could believe any old thing we want. I believe we stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and to run off and do our own thing dishonors their memory. After all, in the Ephesians text, look at the first thing that we are to put on: The belt of truth. I don’t know about you,” he said as he Pat is rotund belly, “but for me my belt is the hardest working article of clothing I own. Likewise the church has worked hard to give us the truth of God. We should trust it!“
The next to speak up was Kylie. She was one of the new faces in the crowd who loved the Bible study on Tuesday nights, but would often shake things up with her ideas. “Mr. Richard, sir. I appreciate your perspective, but I have exactly the opposite order. I would put experience first, followed by reason, followed by scripture, and van pretty far down the list would be tradition. For me and my generation, we see a lot of the tradition of the church as more harmful than good. We see the bloody and violent Crusades, originated by the church. We read about the way the German church embraced the Nazis. We see in our own country how it was Christians who oppressed the native Americans and African Americans with a religious fervor. And our eyes are open even today to those who use religious language to support a specific political agenda. To me and a lot of my friends, the church has been more trouble than it is worth. I hate the term “spiritual but not religious,” but it kind of fits me. I love where Ephesians says to pick up the shield of faith. It is my faith, my experience, that leads me closer to God. This Wesley guy had it right! I have felt a much warmer experience of God in my own times of prayer, or even in this Bible study, then I ever have attending a official religious service. How will I protect myself against the evils of this world? My shield of faith!“
It was add that point that Claire could not keep quiet any longer. “Not to be the defensive Methodist in the room, but actually Wesley was in a church service when he had his spiritual experience that he described as a warming of the heart. He was listening to a reading of Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans. I have always felt it was interesting, and a bit of a source of pride, that it was an experience of scholarship that allowed Wesley to see God in a new way. Some of you may not know that I am a part-time professor at the seminary here in town, and a counselor as well. So I’m sure you will not be surprised that my order begins with reason. I think that God gave us minds to use them, and the more we understand about the world, the better we can understand God. The Bible would be my number two, but even then, Jesus was a teacher. Paul was a teacher. The stories of the Old Testament were designed for didactic purposes. They were oral traditions meant to teach lessons. Our faith is an intellectual faith. We must look at the world around us and find examples of truth, beauty, peace, and justice. In fact, Ephesians says, “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” And before that, it says we should wear the breastplate of righteousness. That word in Greek can just as easily be translated as justice. God’s righteousness and God’s justice are foundationally tied together. So our task is to do the work of peace and justice in the world, and join with those who do that work. Experience and tradition are related, of course. But both are a mixed bag. For me, it is the breastplate of justice that shows us where and when God is at work. And we can only see that work when we sharpen our minds to understand God.
Junior raised his hand in the corner. “I’d like to jump in here if I may,” he said. No one quite knew what to expect when Junior spoke up. He was also a good friend of Carl’s but if Richard was pretty straight-laced and conservative, Junior was the ultimate aging hippie. He had long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. When the three of them were arguing about some issue at the coffee shop, the manager would often have to ask them to hold it down. Everybody was on the edge of their seats waiting to hear what Junior would say. “Man, I get it what you guys are all saying. But, man, the Bible. I love me some Bible! I mean, for 2000 years our brains have let us down, and our hearts have let us down, and the Church has even let us down. But the Bible! Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t Wesley see the Bible as the priority, with all that other stuff meant to help us understand Scripture better? See how Ephesians ends this list? With the sword! The word! How does God reveal himself? With a word. In the beginning God spoke and it was. During the times of the prophets they all started their sermons with the same phrase: “Thus sayeth the Lord….” And who does John say Jesus is? The logos! The word! From the beginning God reveals by speaking the word. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate revelation, the ultimate Word. But the ultimate written revelation? The Bible. And all those other things help us understand the Bible better – reason, and our experiences, and of course the church. But they all point back to what? The sword! The Bible!
The conversation went on like this for a long time. Everyone have a chance to give their order. Someone would pipe up and shout “amen!” when their order agreed with another’s.
It was about an hour into the conversation that Josh figured he needed to bring things to a close. “I hate to break up this great discussion, but it is getting late. If I might take a shot at wrapping all of this up, I would remind you how this passage begins. It doesn’t say put on some of the armor of Christ. It doesn’t say put on your favorite part of the armor of Christ. It says put on the whole armor of Christ. This has been a helpful discussion to reveal our own preferences and it needs. But might I suggest that the best thing that we could get out of this passage is to learn from one another? So many of us think there’s only one way to fight against the brokenness of our world. But Wesley suggested that this quadrilateral is not an either/or. He offered a metaphor of four-legged stool. All four legs are necessary to keep the store from getting wobbly or even falling down. We need all of these things, and perhaps we need to each other to remind us of the strengths of each. Richard, you have a lot to offer Kylie, and vice-versa. Claire, your wisdom is critical, and I love your love for the Bible, Junior.
“In fact, that is what Carl had in mind with this group. He wanted it to be a place where it didn’t matter what your denomination was, or even if you were not sure what you believed. A place where Christ followers of all types and brands could get together, listen to each other, and learn more about the faith from the experience.”
“I keep coming back to this image of the armor of God. Back in the day, when knights would put on their armor, there would be a helper, an armor-bearer, a squire. And the squire’s job was to run along behind the knight and help them put on the armor, keep the armor in good and working order, support the knight as they headed off to battle. What if we did that? What if we were squires for each other? What if we saw ourselves as equippers, supporters, squires for one another? I am your squire, and you are mine. You help remind me to keep my belt handy, and you hand me my shield when it’s time. Ephesians reminds us that that is the job of Christ-followers…that we are to equip and support one another, even in our differences.
“Carl had a favorite hymn, one that we would sing every now and then. “Be Strong in the Lord.” It was based on this passage, and he loved it because it reminded him that God’s strength would never fail us. Tonight, and every Tuesday, and every day, my hope and prayer is that we would do well to remember those words. God is our strength, and gives us what we need in life. May we live out that truth this and every week!”