A Sermon Series based on Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living by Reuben Job
“Do No Harm”
Mark 12: 28-31
John Wesley began the first three simple rules for the people called Methodist in the same place Hippocrates began his ancient oath for doctors: Do no harm. I have often wondered why Wesley began with a “no” instead of a “yes;” why our founder started with a “don’t” instead of a “do.”
And then I think about myself.
And then I think about the way we humans are, generally speaking.
When a child is very small, she has to be told some very basic “no’s.”
Don’t touch the hot stove.
Don’t talk to strangers.
Don’t walk out in traffic.
Parents have to teach their child a series of very specific “do not’s,” because their child doesn’t no any better. Those parents’ first obligation is to keep that child safe. Keeping the child safe means teaching her a few basic “do not’s” to remember.
As Christians, we are commanded to love, and to follow Jesus. Loving Jesus, following Jesus, means we serve Jesus. Serving Jesus means we say “yes” to doing many things; serving Jesus means we agree to do many things, many of them humbling; many of them requiring emptying and sacrifice. Still, even before we reach out to do all the humane, servant hood work Jesus asks us to do, we have to do that first very basic deed: Do no harm.
Like a parent has to tell a child those very basic series of “do not” rules, I believe Wesley lifted up “Do no harm’ to us as the first general rule, because Wesley knew human nature very well. Wesley knew all about us people, and he knew how hard it is for us to not hurt each other.
Wesley knew how hard it is for us to not hurt each other. I know that sentence sounds pretty harsh, and cynical. I believe it to be true, though. Consider all the ways in which I can hurt you, or you can hurt me.
Moses said, “Don’t kill.” Okay, that is easy enough.
Moses said, “Don’t commit adultery.” Okay, that is easy enough.
Then Jesus comes to the earth, and he says, “That’s right. No. I don’t want you to kill each other. That’s right. Oh, but one more thing. I don’t want you to be angry with each other, either. It’s not enough to not physically kill. Your anger can destroy someone’s humanity. You are angry with someone, and the next thing you know, you stop regarding them as a human being anymore. True, that. No adultery, either. I agree with Moses on that one. Oh but…um…Yeah, I don’t want you to look at someone else lustfully, either. It’s not enough to not do the deed. I don’t want you objectifying or sexualizing each other, either.
In other words, Jesus reminds us, it isn’t just our actions. It is our thoughts. It is our words.
I can hurt you with my words and not even mean to.
I can scalp you with my words and mean every hateful breath.
In Three Simple Rules, Reuben Job talks about the ways in which often we escalate situations, especially with our words. If I’m right, then I must prove you wrong. If in the process of proving you wrong, I demean you, oh well. So be it. Sometimes in my pursuit of my way, you become collateral damage.
Sometimes, I believe what I believe, and I feel that you must believe exactly like I do. I pick a fight with you, then. I want to debate you. I want to argue with you. Do no harm means that I reach a place in maturity where I realize that my beliefs are my beliefs; they are no more true to me, or less true to me than whether you believe like me or not. Do no harm means I respect you as a human being, and your feelings, your thoughts, your emotions, your health, your body, are as important to me to protect and to take care of as my very own. Job poses some very challenging questions:
If we choose to follow this way, will we be seen as weak and at the mercy of others rather than as powerful and in control of every situation? If we choose this way, will our position be eroded and our point lost? Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm?
And then Job answers his own question. He writes, “It is a very challenging path to walk. Yet, even a casual reading of the gospel suggests that Jesus taught and practiced a way of living that did no harm.”
In Colossians, chapter three, Paul teaches us to “let the word of Christ dwell in[us] richly.’ Christ’s word dwelling within us; Christ himself living within us is the only way we can truly ever do no harm.
Doing no harm and being Christian are inextricably linked. Both require something often we struggle with—at least I know I do—and that is surrender. Surrendering, by turn implies a do dedication to that which we are surrendering too.
For example, after the American Civil War, it wasn’t enough that the Confederate armies surrendered—Lee to Grant at Appomattox, Johnston to Sherman in Durham. For Confederate soldiers to be returned to full status as American citizens, they had to take a loyalty oath to the Union. In other words, upon their surrender, they were asked to dedicate. They surrendered to the armies of the Union; they were asked to dedicate themselves back to the Union.
God asks us to surrender ourselves to Christ’s love. Surrendering ourselves to Jesus means dedicating ourselves to him, too. That leads us to today’s reading from Mark.
A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks Jesus what the greatest law is. We must remember that scribes were experts at the law, so more than likely, the question was meant to entrap Jesus, the carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth. Perhaps not—the scribe could have been engaging Jesus in genuine conversation, but most scholars opt for the former interpretation. If the scribe meant to foul Jesus up, he didn’t succeed. And yet he did. Jesus lifted up the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
To the Shema, Jesus added mind. I don’t think this is a mistake. As we have already explored this morning, for our Lord, it isn’t just our actions, our deeds, but the thoughts, the words, the imagination, the mind, behind them. Jesus recognized, Jesus recognizes that if we don’t turn our thoughts over to God’s love, for grace and for healing, we will still wind up doing harm, even if we do so unconsciously.
In our frailty, in our brokenness, sometimes we say things, sometimes we do things, and we don’t even know where they came from. Psychology uses words like transference, and projection. Theology uses terms like being human, being the descendants of Adam and Eve, and thus having some struggles with being fallen. That’s where Jesus’ insertion of loving God with all of our mind comes in. That most personal, intimate part of ourselves, that part of ourselves– our brain, which we know less about than even the far reaches of outer spaces, contains such beauty, and such darkness, neither of which we can understand fully about ourselves. Jesus wants to save our minds, our brains, too. The hymn has it right:
All to Jesus I surrender.
All to him I freely give.
Even Wesley himself had struggles within his own life he could not understand His ministry in America bombed, in part because he fell in love and it was unrequited. He may have acted interpersonally in ways he wasn’t consciously aware of. When he returned to England after his disastrous two-year pastorate in Georgia, he even questioned whether or not he was really Christian. And at the time he was already an ordained, educated priest in the Anglican Church!
The heart, and especially the mind, are such mysteries. They are holy, sacred mysteries, and they take the holy, sacred love of God to understand, and save.
And Jesus says, after our total love for God, our complete love for others is essential. If we love God, there’s no way we aren’t going to love our fellow human beings. Filled with Christ’s self-giving love, our broken places being knit back together with the love of the Spirit, that love will simply overflow out of us. That love will be evident in our thoughts, in our imaginations, and in all the words spoken, in all the deeds done which are products of the mind. Of course, an astute reader or listener will note: Jesus said to “love our neighbors like ourselves,” implying we have to care about, and care for, the person in the mirror, too.
Christ’s call to us all—a call our founder, Father John picked up on and threading through the most foundational and basic doctrine of Methodism—to Do No Harm is a holistic, holy call, a call to embrace the humanity, and the sacred identity of every person as a child of God.