Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis and John Wesley

Pope Francis addressing a joint session of Congress 

"But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.”
John Wesley

I love Pope Francis.

He is humble and brilliant, simple and profound, prophetic and brave, and he does not seem to care how others may judge him. He is faithful to the Gospel in such open and obvious ways that one can never doubt his passion and commitment.

Insofar as a pope can reject the trappings of his office, he does. He seems to have little patience with pomp and circumstance. He has great respect for the office he holds, and he seems to care deeply about his responsibilities as a faith leader, but part of that responsibility involves the embrace of his own humanity as a common bond with others. 

I know we disagree about many things: abortion, same sex marriage, and the role of women in the church come immediately to mind. Those are not small disagreements. In part, I accept those differences because I just like him so much as a person and respect him so much as a Christian. But I also know that as important as those issues are, they are not at the center of the biblical witness on issues of social justice.

From the Torah to the Hebrew Prophets to the teachings of Jesus, and throughout the life of the early church, the major biblical emphasis is on economic justice. This is the big issue at the heart of how human society is organized and it is the key component of how we show our love for one another.

I think I also love Pope Francis because he reminds me of John Wesley.

The visible similarities are striking. Wesley, like Francis, lived very simply and did not embrace the trappings of his office. Wesley, like Francis, embraced the poor and marginalized. Wesley, like Francis, was well loved by the common people. It was said of John Wesley that when he died he was the best loved man in all of England. And Wesley, like Francis, drew enormous crowds wherever he went. In common parlance, Wesley was, as Francis is, a rock star.

And beyond the visible similarities, they share a common message. Wesley’s sermon on “The Danger of Riches” is a foreshadowing of Francis’ critique of capitalism. The corrosive effects of unchecked greed are harmful to the soul and harmful to the social fabric. They harm the rich as well as the poor.

In his address to Congress, Francis declared that politics cannot be the slave of economics and finance, but must be “an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” He went on to say that he would not underestimate the difficulty of that endeavor, “but,” he said, “I encourage you in this effort.” Wesley did not make the connection between politics and economics as systematically as Pope Francis does, but he understood and advocated a connection between personal faith and social responsibility.

Wesley was outspoken in his criticism of ostentatious wealth and consumption, but he refused to be judgmental. Once at the dinner table a leader in the Methodist movement called Wesley’s attention to the obviously expensive rings worn by a woman dining with them. He asked pointedly, “Mr. Wesley, what do you think of that hand.” Ignoring the man’s intent, Wesley answered, “I think it is a very lovely hand.” In a similar way, when Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality, he answered, “Who am I to judge?”

In an essay on “The People Called Methodist,” Wesley declared as a first principle, “that orthodoxy, or right opinions, is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.” One guesses that Francis would never put that thought into writing, but one might also guess that he may well think it.

For Wesley as for Francis, the belief that “God is love,” is a core theological concept. Everything else flows from that central insight. It is simple and yet profound. As Wesley would say, it is something that everyone professes to believe, yet very few practice.

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