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Experience (The Wesleyan Quadrilateral Part 4)

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a bramble bush. – Luke 6:43-44


Different elements of the Quadrilateral have become important to me during different phases of my life. I remember tradition becoming especially important during my first year of seminary as I was exposed to many different theological traditions and began to work out what that meant for my faith. At the College of Charleston, reason was especially important as I began to ask lots of questions about my faith after I found a campus ministry. In this particular season of my life, however, experience has come to the forefront. In retrospect this is hardly surprising; after all, I’ve had tons of new experiences in the wake of graduating seminary, getting married, being commissioned as a provisional elder in the UMC, and beginning my first appointment here at Mt. Hebron UMC. The flurry of new experiences, not to mention the growth of my faith and theology over the last several years, led me to use Luke 6:39-45 for my very first sermon at Mt. Hebron. I chose this passage because of the lifeline it offered me when I pondered how messy the idea of experience gets. Experience is inescapable and undergirds everything that we do. Whether it’s reading scripture, reasoning critically about theology, or exploring theological traditions, experience is part of it all. Those are all things that we do, experiences that we have and reflect on. We’re in church because of experiences, whether it’s an encounter with God or the experience of being invited by friends or family. We live in time and space and have experiential lives.[1] In light of that inescapable reality, what do we do with our experiences? It is one thing to talk about theology in the abstract, but to apply it in the particularity and messiness of everyday life is something else entirely.

Jesus’ words in Luke 6 offer us a means of navigating this difficulty. As we look to our experiences and try to decipher them with all of our scriptures and traditions and theological systems, Jesus offers a simple yet powerful truth; good does not come from evil, and evil does not come from good. As with most things, its power is in its simplicity. Our experiences have the power to shape and grow our theological imagination based on the fruit of our experiences. To give an example, let’s look at the example of female preachers. Scripture seems pretty clearly against it if we read 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Theologians constructed plenty of theological systems to support that claim. And women traditionally have not been allowed to preach because of the first two things. So what changed? We experienced God at work in the lives of female preachers. Christians saw God at work in their ministries and sermons and lives in a good and wonderful way. I know that we have all been encouraged in some way or another by Pastor Cynthia’s sermons, her visits to those in hospitals or homebound, her passion for missions, or any of the many other things she does as our senior pastor. And those things are good! And Jesus’ words echo in our ears to remind us that good comes from good. It is a good thing that she is here with us. It is a good thing that I have encountered so many female preachers who built me up and encouraged me and mentored me on my path to ministry. I would not be here without them. If God is at work doing good through their ministries, and we experience the fruit of that ministry, then who are we to deny them?

This is what is so wonderful about our experiences of God; it can open our eyes to new ways of being God’s people and provides an opportunity to grow as we widen the circle of who is included. At the same time, however, this can be a scary thing to do. We can construct our neat and tidy theologies, have all the right traditions (or so we think), and come up with all the reasons in the world not to change, and then God comes in and blows it all up with a new experience. That possibility, if we place undo importance on how we've always done things, can create a fearful reality. Jesus likened it to the wind, saying “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We as a people of God, those filled with God’s Spirit, open ourselves up to being surprised and blown into new directions by whatever God is doing. And it’s entirely appropriate that these words should come from Jesus, for Jesus’ very incarnation was such a paradigm shifting experience for those who encountered him. Yet in the newness and change they bore the fruits of the Spirit in encountering Jesus and experiencing relationship with him. They bore “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). And as Paul says in the very next verse, “There is no law against such things.” When we encounter God’s goodness and see people growing in knowledge and love of God through their lived experiences, there is no law against it. That can be a tumultuous place to be in, and the UMC is certainly no stranger to tumult right now. But the good news offered to us is that God is with us in the midst of all of it. So whatever our theologies, whatever our traditions, whatever our interpretations of scripture are, let us look to what God is doing. Where is God’s goodness at work? Who is God working in? Where and how is God’s fruit being displayed in them? How do we experience those fruits? Let us answer those questions and follow wherever God may take us. For against such things, there is no law.

[1] This reality undergirds a more recent strand of theology called process theology. Rather than understanding reality as principally defined by beings, they see it as defined by the process of becoming, the experiential process that all things share.

*Cover photo: Icon of Pentecost. Russian, 18th century

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