Designed to be used in a small group and, if desired, a congregation-wide emphasis, the Companion Reader, designed for both group members and leaders, provides background and deeper understanding of each week’s theme from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective.
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About the Author
Justin LaRosa is a United Methodist Deacon and a licensed clinical social worker. He has served Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa since 2005, first as the Minister of Discipleship and now as the Director/Minister of The Portico, a community gathering space where people come together for conversation, connection, and community change. Justin has co-authored three studies for Abingdon Press: A Disciple’s Path: A Guide for United Methodists; A Disciple’s Heart: Growing in Love and Grace; and Sent: Delivering the Gift of Hope at Christmas. He and his wife Caroline have a daughter, Isabella, and a son, Russell.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish retired after 43 years of pastoral ministry in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He was the founding pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and served for 22 years as the Senior Pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa. He is the author of A Disciple’s Heart: Growing in Love and Grace, Earn. Save. Give. Wesley’s Simple Rules for Money, and Make a Difference: Following Your Passion and Finding Your Place to Serve. He was a consulting editor for The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and a contributor to The Wesley Study Bible. He and his wife, Martha, have two married daughters and five grandchildren in Florida and South Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
A Disciple's Heart - Companion Reader
Growing in Love and Grace
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Our destination was the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The question was how to get there.
My eyes were focused on my iPhone. Our hostess was going by memory, having spent the summer in the Berkshires for many years. My wife had the tourist map in her hands. I kept saying we'd never get there if we kept going the way we were heading. My wife kept insisting that it was straight ahead.
It turned out that she was correct. If they had followed me, we would have gotten somewhere, but it wouldn't have been the place we wanted to be!
Whether we use Google, a printed map, or our intuition, two questions are critical to every trip we take: Where are we now? and Where are we going? Where we begin determines how we get to where we want to be.
The same principle holds true for the spiritual journey in our relationship with God. The sheer pace of change around us can create a sense of personal and spiritual whiplash. The confusing and sometimes conflicted directional signs that we depended on in the past can leave us wondering if the path we are following in the present will get us where we want to be in the future. The nonstop chatter of the noisy world around us can drown out the deepest voice within us.
We need an inner compass that is fixed on "true north" to guide us through the unexpected twists and turns of our lives—a spiritual GPS to keep us on the right path. For people of biblical faith, the whole story of God's relationship with the creation in Scripture becomes the map we follow. As Christian disciples, we find our "true north" in the words, will, and way of Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection set our course for the abundant life he promised. Like the voice in the GPS that redirects us when we turn in the wrong direction, the Holy Spirit becomes the inner voice that redirects us when we drift away from the path.
Where the Journey Begins
One of my pastoral mentors liked to say that none of us wants to begin where we are; we would rather begin where we would be if we had started when we should have. But there's no way around it. We have to begin where we are, bringing with us all the doubts, questions, fears, and hopes that emerge out of the experiences that have shaped our lives to that point. Then, somewhere along the way ...
We hear Jesus offer the invitation, "Follow me." Like his first disciples, we may not know where this journey will take us, but we trust that he knows the way better than we do.
We commit all that we know of ourselves to all that we know of Christ in the confidence that as we get to know both ourselves and the One we are following more deeply, our commitment will continue to grow until the life that became flesh in Jesus becomes a living reality in us.
We experience God's forgiveness and grace through repentance and begin a new life in Christ by faith.
We enter into a way of discipleship that is rooted in Scripture and defined by the way, truth, and life revealed in Jesus.
We are born anew into a community of disciples for whom the cross and the Resurrection become the ongoing metaphor of dying and being raised with Christ.
We experience the power of the Holy Spirit as we practice the essential disciplines by which we actually become people who love God and love others.
We become the agents of God's kingdom becoming a tangible reality in this world.
We look forward with confident hope to the fulfillment of God's saving purpose when God's kingdom comes and God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
In his own spiritual journey, Benjamin Ingham was searching for practical direction in living the holy life when he made his way to John Wesley's apartment in the spring of 1734. John Robson joined them for breakfast, during which Wesley recommended that Ingham and Robson begin meeting together once a week to study Scripture, to encourage each other's faith, to hold each other accountable to their spiritual disciplines, and to serve the needs of the poor. He also taught them to keep a daily journal of their discipleship.
The experience of those students became the starting point for a spiritual awakening that swept across England and launched a movement that would lead to ministry and mission around the globe. But it all began in the hearts of a few people who longed for a deeper, more transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.
My discipleship journey began before I can remember. Like John Wesley, who was nurtured in the faith by his parents, and Timothy, who received the faith from his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5-6), I was born into a deeply committed Christian home with parents who encouraged my childhood faith. While there were many times in different places when I responded to the invitation to follow Christ, some of the most formative were at summer youth camp. Each evening we would hike up a grass-covered, central Pennsylvania hillside called Vesper Hill for evening worship. I don't remember a word that was preached, but I remember the way each service ended. After a time of silent reflection, we would fold up our blankets and hike back down the hill, singing, "Follow, I will follow Thee, my Lord, / Follow ev'ry passing day."
I've been following him ever since.
I've discovered that every disciple has a unique story of the way his or her journey began. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern. Though some stories are similar, none is quite the same as any other. They are not unlike the unique stories married couples tell about how they met and fell in love. The evidence is that the Spirit of God is amazingly patient and infinitely creative in finding ways to enter into our lives and call us into the life of discipleship.
This should not come as a surprise. Look at the amazing variety of ways people in the New Testament experienced Christ:
Shepherds heard the good news in the blazing light of angels.
Wise men found the Christ child at the end of a long and arduous search.
Fishermen met Jesus while working their nets.
Nathaniel discovered that Jesus knew him long before he knew Jesus.
Matthew met Jesus while collecting taxes, and a house full of tax collectors and sinners met Jesus at a dinner party in Matthew's house.
Mary and Martha encountered him in the comfort of their home.
A centurion at the cross realized that Jesus is the Son of God by watching him die.
Mary Magdalene mistook him for a gardener at the tomb.
Saul was blinded by his presence on the Damascus Road.
Timothy learned of Christ from his mother and grandmother.
The gospel is the story of how ordinary people in ordinary places discovered the extraordinary presence of Jesus and rose up to follow him.
For Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), following Jesus meant leaving a career as a musician, theologian, and philosopher to serve as a medical doctor in Africa. Here's the way he described the discovery:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, continued growth in love and grace involves naming where you are along the pathway of discipleship:
Where did your discipleship journey begin?
Where are you now?
What is the next appropriate step in your discipleship?
What's Your Destination?
If that's where the journey begins, the next question is where the journey is going. What is the destination?
The destination of Christian discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition is nothing less than a spiritual heart transplant. It is the fulfillment of the promise that came from God to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one. (Ezekiel 36:26)
Ezekiel caught the vision of an inner transformation that goes far beyond external behaviors and involves the transformation of the inner core of a human life. But the reality is that often it is much easier to focus attention on obeying rules than on experiencing transformation.
In the case of Jesus' first disciples, it was their lack of appropriate table manners that drove the Pharisees crazy. When they saw Jesus' disciples eating without washing their hands, they went ballistic. They asked, "Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?" (Mark 7:5).
Jesus turned on them with words from the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors me with their lips, / but their hearts are far away from me" (Mark 7:6). He told the crowd, "Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God's sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person" (Mark 7:14-15). He made his point with a graphic illustration of the human body to say that "It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come" (Mark 7:2021 NRSV).
Jesus did not come with a new set of rules to control us from the outside in. Rather, he came to call us to a way of living that transforms us from the inside out. The critical factor is not how perfectly we live by the rules but how deeply we love from the heart. For Jesus, the heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart. Wesley called the process of heart transformation "Christian perfection," "sanctification," or "being made perfect in love." The early Methodists named this spiritual destination "holiness of heart and life."
Going On to Perfection
John Wesley asked his preachers the same questions more than two hundred years ago, but hearing Bishop Joel McDavid ask the questions at my ordination ceremony in his resonate voice with a slow, Southern drawl made them an unforgettable part of my life. Four decades later, they still lure me toward a goal I have not yet reached:
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?
I agree with Kathleen Norris who called perfectionism "one of the scariest words I know." But as she went on to say, "To 'be perfect,' in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness."
Perfection in the biblical sense is the end or goal toward which all things are moving. It is what our world and our lives will look like when God's saving purpose is fully accomplished. It is the fulfillment of the prayer that God's kingdom come and God's will be done on earth—in us—as it is in heaven.
Richard Heitzenrater, who discovered Benjamin Ingham's diary in 1969 in the Methodist Archives in London, said that for the Oxford Methodists, the goal of Christian perfection was not to act perfectly but rather "to be perfect, to achieve an inward perfection of intentions and attitudes, of will as well as of understanding." As Paul Wesley Chilcote defined it, sanctification (Christian perfection) is "that process by which the Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus."
Wesley found the idea of Christian perfection in the Scriptures as well as the spiritual tradition that goes back to the early church fathers. A twentieth-century Roman Catholic monk named Thomas Merton found it in the writings of Saint Chrysostom. In the fourth century, Chrysostom rejected the assumption that "monks alone need to strive for perfection, while lay people need only avoid hell." Chrysostom said that "both lay people and monks have to lead a very positive and constructive Christian life."
Benjamin Ingham's diary demonstrates the intensity with which the Oxford Methodists held themselves accountable for even the most minute behaviors that would either help or hinder their pursuit of holiness. Their shared discipline is a reminder that growth in holiness results from a combination of receptivity to the work of the Holy Spirit and disciplined action that brings our lives into harmony with the holiness we seek. It is the combination of belief and action that results in transformation.
A Centering Way of Life
In the Daily Workbook, we define Christian perfection as "an end without an ending." It's the end toward which all things are moving, the fulfillment of God's saving purpose in our lives and in the whole creation. We touch on the same idea in A Disciple's Path when we define a disciple as "a follower of Jesus Christ whose life is centering on loving God and loving others." The continuous present tense of the word "centering" indicates an ongoing process by which the Spirit of God is persistently at work to accomplish God's loving purpose in and through our lives. Eugene Peterson used the same word when warning us that "Americans in general have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the condition in which growth takes place" (emphasis added).
Peterson is onto something. Our culture prefers a quick fix for everything. We don't have much patience with the slow and sometimes tedious disciplines by which lasting change or growth takes place. But the transformation of the human heart doesn't happen overnight. Sanctification, the journey toward Christian perfection, takes time. It's like the old adage that if God wants a mushroom, he can pop it up overnight; but if God wants to grow a sequoia, it's going to take some time. A person can decide to follow Jesus in a moment, but being formed into Christ's likeness takes a lifetime. We can catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God in a brief parable, but working it out in this world takes time and costly effort. Christian perfection is the result of the patient, persistent work of the Spirit of God within and through us.
Pastoral colleague Magrey R. deVega gave me a fresh way of imagining the process of sanctification when he reflected on a visit to Mount Rushmore. After viewing the breathtaking spectacle of Gutzon Borglum's carvings of the four presidents, he stopped by the gift shop where he purchased a photograph of the mountain taken in 1902 before the sculptor began his work. (You can find this picture on the Internet.) That photograph now hangs in Magrey's office as a reminder of what he describes as the way the Spirit "patiently, diligently carves away at the hardened facades that conceal the image of God that lies deep within us."
It took Borglum twelve years to carve away the stone in order to reveal all the faces that he alone could see inside the mountain. This could be a metaphor for the way God sees something within each of us that no one else can see. The new discovery for Magrey was that Borglum allowed an extra three inches in each of the figures' features to account for the weather, which wears away an inch of granite every one hundred thousand years. This suggests that it will take three hundred thousand years for the carving to actually fulfill the sculptor's intention. Magrey wrote:
I can see that at every turn, God has been at work, chipping away at our hardened hearts and rough-edged personalities, teaching us—sometimes painfully—about being utterly dependent on God and clear in our commitment to God's ways. Just like Borglum's crew used both explosives and nail files to carve into the granite, our lives are filled with monumental moments, both great and small, that change our lives forever.
As followers of Christ, we are always works in progress; imperfect disciples on the way toward perfection; ordinary men and women who need the continuing work of the Divine Cardiologist to heal our stony hearts, replacing them with hearts that are fully alive and being formed into a human likeness of the heart of God. By God's grace, we are going on to perfection.CHAPTER 2
Walking the Way of Salvation
In January 1733, Benjamin Ingham recorded, "[I] am resolved, God's grace assisting me, to make the salvation of my soul my chief and only concern but never to depend upon my own strength because I can do nothing without God's assistance." His resolution raises some formative questions for us.
What do we mean by salvation?
How do we experience it?
Who can be saved?
Whatever Became of Sin?
We can't experience salvation without facing up to the reality of sin. But even the word sin may be harder to find these days.
Sin was among a variety of words rooted in the Christian tradition that were removed from the most recent edition of Oxford Junior Dictionary, along with altar, disciple, pew, and saint. The editors explained the exclusion by saying that "the dictionary needs to evolve to reflect the fact that Britain has become a modern, multicultural, multi-faith society." They said the decisions were made in part by looking at the numbers of times the excluded words appeared in current children's literature.
Excerpted from A Disciple's Heart - Companion Reader by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: A Matter of the Heart,
1. Where Do We Go from Here?,
2. Walking the Way of Salvation,
3. By the Power of the Spirit,
4. The Company of the Committed,
5. On Fire with Holy Love,
6. All the Way to Heaven,