Laity Sunday 2019: Overview
By David Teel
“I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach.”
-John Wesley, Letter to Dorothy Furly, September 15, 1762
One Sunday a year we celebrate what Methodists and many other faith communities claim is a 24/7 reality: the priesthood of all believers. Rooted in the Protestant Reformers’ reading of scripture passages like 1 Peter 2:9 (“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . .”), this conviction is reflected in our Book of Discipline under the heading, “The Ministry of All Christians” (2016 BOD, Part IV, Section II, especially ¶ 126- ¶ 128,):
“. . . all Christians are called to minister wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free.” (emphasis mine) - The 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶ 128.
Do we really believe this? We are often tempted to see laity as “temps”; the real agents of grace are the professionally religious like clergy and those who work on a church staff. But lay persons aren’t temps. They aren’t “volunteers.” They’re not occasional “helpers” or “hourlies.” They are, in fact, the primary agents of holy love incarnate in the world – and the implications are profound for a “great commission” faith:
“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.” (emphasis mine) - 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” (p.97)
In this sense, lay discipleship is always leadership and leadership is always evangelism – because all who follow Jesus lead others to him. Laity are called to be disciples – and disciples lead others to Christ.
This calling extends well beyond weekend work or off-hour voluntarism. As Christian educator Rev. Jack Seymour reminds us, our calling, our very purpose—our vocation—is a whole life matter of reflecting God’s love for all. God calls all to respond to grace through forms of faithfulness that amplify “outreaching love” for all people.
This is what we celebrate on Laity Sunday. All called. All loving. And all experiencing God’s rescuing and redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
In the Fall of 1762 John Wesley wrote a short letter to a layperson and dear friend, Dorothy Furly. She had questions about something perplexing to both laity and clergy alike in the early Methodist movement: “Christian perfection” (aka sanctification or scriptural holiness). Was this some kind of rarefied state of flawless fidelity only attainable at death?
Wesley’s response was simple: “I want you to be all love. This is the perfection I believe and teach.” All love. What would it mean to be “all love”? And where would we even start in becoming “all love”?
For Wesley, we become “all love” disciples through on-purpose (intentional) participation in the “means of grace”: those ordinary, Christ-instituted channels that convey salvation through “the healing, peaceful, loving presence of God.” These include worship, prayer, searching the scriptures, sacraments (the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion), fasting, in-person acts of love, and Christian “conferencing.”
These simple practices – especially acts of mercy – help those who yearn for God recognize a deep truth: holy love for God and others has a learning curve. It calls for growth. As we grow closer to the heart of Jesus, our own hearts expand to see others, all others, with his eyes. And our hearts are broken by the things that break his heart. This is the fruit of intentional discipleship: love lived out in a community committed to growing in grace, becoming all love.
As all-love people of purpose, we are called to own and model what it means to follow Jesus. We do this through practices that deepen our capacity to recognize grace. While this includes the ordinary, outward means or “ordinances,” it also extends to our redeemed vision: the ability to recognize prevenient grace at work in the lives of the “all people.” These are the very people we are called to see and appreciate by learning to listen to their stories.
The means of grace also teach our hearts empathy as we recognize that our purpose is actually a call – a call to be all love by engaging people in the places God plants us.
While some see the means of grace as a kind of “lamp rubbing” or “works spirituality” where our best efforts grant wishes for a holy life, Wesley didn’t believe we could make God appear through religious elbow grease or the alchemy of executing someone’s best laid plans for spiritual growth. Instead, we practice the means of grace as a growth plan that positions us to experience all love, to draw so near to God’s heart that we become the “outreaching love” we see in Jesus.
The means of grace are also a way to wait, to trim sails that will catch winds of grace that blow where they will. And even when we don’t know or have confidence in our experience of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ, Wesley knew that the means of grace could also be the best kind of waiting game: a powerful way to expect and even hope for the gift of faith we can’t currently call our own.
Here’s the punch line for the “all called”: all love means “love all until all love God.” And all means all. Laity Sunday helps us remember that our purpose is a call to be love – with and for the world God so loves. And Wesley believed we could be all love in this life.
On this Laity Sunday we remember and celebrate the mission behind the 24/7 efforts of the ‘all-called”:
“Beyond the diverse forms of ministry is this ultimate concern: that all persons will be brought into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ and be renewed after the image of their creator (Colossians 3:10).” - 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 128, The Ministry of the Community (p.97)
We celebrate the vocational reality that there are no temps, no part-timers, but only “all love” disciples – disciples who “serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free.” So all are saved. All are renewed. Through Jesus Christ. Therefore Go! With Hope through Purpose.
This year’s Laity Sunday theme is: Therefore, GO with Hope through Purpose: Growing in faith through participation in the means of grace. The focus is on spiritual depth as we follow Jesus and nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian Conferencing.
To see a simple pattern for intentional discipleship (based on ¶ 122, The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission) view/download the Laity Sunday brochure describing the four themes for the current quadrennium expressed in the acronym, H.O.P.E. (Hospitality, Offer Christ, Purpose, Engagement).
The Works of John Wesley, Volume 27: Letters III, 1756-1765, Ted A. Campbell, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015, p. 301-302. For a user-friendly look at what Wesley means by “holiness of heart and life” see Steven W. Manskar’s A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley's ""A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2004). See also Albert C. Outler’s Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Tidings/Discipleship Resources, 1975), pp. 65-88. For a deeper dive into Wesley’s thoughts on holiness, see H. Ray Dunning’s Grace, Faith and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1988).
Elaine A. Heath, Five Means of Grace: Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017, p. viii).
Not so much large legislative gatherings with lanyards, agendas, and voting but something else: an intimate conversation between people who love each other and hold each other accountable to become all love. Wesley once described it this way: “the holiness of conversation [is] the image of God visibly expressed.”
It’s hard to overestimate the grace-bearing power of mercy. Wesley goes so far as to say neglecting works of mercy leads to an atrophy of the grace we’ve received through works of piety: “Surely there are works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace. They are more especially such to those that perform them with a single eye. And those that neglect them, do not receive the grace which otherwise they might. Yea, and they lose, by a continued neglect, the grace which they had received.” See his sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” in The Works of John Wesley, Volume 3 (Sermons III), Albert C. Outler, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), pp. 385ff.
See John Wesley’s sermon, “The Means of Grace,” in The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1 (Sermons I), Albert C. Outler, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), pp. 376-397.