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            Perhaps more
than any other devotional book of its time, John Wesley pointed his Methodists
to a book he came to call ‘The Pattern of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis.  A book originally written in Latin for the
Brethren of the Common Life in about 1411, Wesley saw such merit in this book
that he translated extracts of it into English, calling the work The Christian’s Pattern.  We know it today as ‘The Imitation of
Christ’.  Typical of Wesley, he not
merely told his audience to read the book, he told them how to read it as he wanted them to absorb it, and then change the
way they practiced their Christian lives.

If we carefully read
through Wesley’s extracts from the classic by a Kempis, while we might think
that this is yet just another ‘how to’ manual for our private devotions, this
would in fact be a mistake.  What Wesley
is trying to do, and what a Kempis was originally trying to do,  was inculcate an attitude towards all of
life, not just one’s devotional life, an attitude of humility, and in this
respect it corresponds quite closely to what we find in Paul’s Christ hymn in
Phil. 2.5-11 in its original context.  In
some ways in fact, what we find in Wesley’s presentation of this classic is
very similar to the work of Soren Kierkegaard who spoke about purity of heart
coming from willing the one good thing. 
Wesley is trying to deal with the root cause and motivator of all our
actions, sometimes called ‘purity of intention’, a cause that we have absolute
control over, unlike the lack of control of the outcome and consequences of all
our actions.  Wesley is not merely trying
to inculcate a certain kind of private devotional practice, though that is one
manifestation of following a Kempis’ advice.

            Indeed, Wesley is not merely concerned with spiritual
practices, he is concerned with all
Christian behavior
.  Thus for example
he quotes a Kempis in the very first chapter of his extract as saying that we
are indeed called to imitate the praxis of Christ. The goal is to live a
virtuous life not merely to be a more spiritual person, thus we hear

are admonished, that we ought to imitate his [Christ’s] life and manners, if we
would be truly enlightened and delivered from all blindness of heart.  Let therefore our chief endeavour be to
meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ.

will it avail thee to dispute sublimely of the Trinity, if thou be void of
humility, and art thereby displeasing to the Trinity?  Truly, sublime words do not make a man… a virtuous
life maketh him dear to God.  I had
rather feel compunction, than know the definition thereof.

thou didst know the whole Bible, and the sayings of all the philosophers by
heart, what would all that profit thee without the love of God ?

of vanities! All is vanity, but to love God and serve him only.  It is therefore vanity to seek after perishing
riches.  It is also vanity to seek

is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to labour for that for which
thou must afterwards suffer grievous punishment.

is vanity to wish to live long, and to be careless to live well.

is vanity to mind this present life, and not those things which are to come.

It is vanity to set thy love on
that which speedily passeth away, and not to hasten thither where everlasting
joys remain.

            Notice that this is primarily about not striving after
riches and honor, and instead living humbly before one’s God.  Wesley was perfectly happy to exhort people
on how to spend their money, and what to strive for in life.  Indeed, late in his ministry, the second most
frequently preached sermon of all of Wesley’s sermons was ‘On the Use of Money’.[1]   The net effect of reading a Kempis is that
one is called to live a simple Christian life, a message John Wesley’s Puritan
born parents had ingrained into him from childhood.  The book is not just about humility and
prayer and private spiritual disciplines. 
 It is about living out humility
by self-sacrificial service of others, by choosing a simple, not a
self-indulgent lifestyle, by walking what we talk as we follow the actual
behavioral example of Christ.  The problem with many modern readings of
Wesley’s treatment of a Kempis, is that it is read through the lens of modern
individualistic Christianity which tends to spiritualize and privatize even
social and public praxis and behaviors.

            We must bear in mind that a Kempis’ advice was
given to a group of Christians, the Brethren of the Common Life, to practice together.  He did not expect individual Christians to
manage this all alone, as a private devotional practice.  Consider the example of Jesus’ first
disciples.  He called them as a group to
be his disciples and come and follow the pattern of his life.  Usually they were called in pairs, and they
were always sent out in pairs to do mission. He did not expect any of them to
be a singular superman or superwoman for Christ.  They were called to be part of the fellowship
of followers, supporting one another, encouraging one another, lifting up one
another, helping one another on the bumpy road to the Kingdom.

[1] On
which see the appendix to my Jesus and Money, (Baker 2010), where the
text of that sermon is quoted in full and discussed.

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