Friday, June 8, 2012

The Circuit Rider

The Circuit Rider
       To discuss the biblical basis for the itinerant system of our church
       To remind pastors the difficult but rewarding task of being sent in the name of Christ and their task of sharing the grace of God for the sanctification of the church
       To remind churches of their task in continuing the ministry and maintaining the health of the local churches

Whenever I lead the Bible Study in our workplace, I always ask questions.  So to give a twist on this Bible reflection, I will ask some questions and raise your hands if you know the answer. So for the first question:
       Who is the famous circuit rider, also one of the first American Methodist Bishops, that become iconic with the image of a horse rider?
a)      John Wesley
b)      Francis Asbury
c)       Thomas Coke
The correct answer is b.) Francis Asbury. John Wesley also rode the horse and he indeed travelled great distance to preach the gospel. Despite being credited as the founder of Methodism, Wesley was not an American Bishop. That distinction belongs to Asbury and Coke who were consecrated at the same time as Bishops of American Methodist. Although both travelled on horseback, it was Francis Asbury who became associated with the circuit rider. His iconic image of riding the horse is a monument found in Drew University.
The circuit rider has been a name used to refer to the early Methodist preachers in America. As the name suggest, they are riding a horse to move around their circuit, the circuit is composed of many congregations. For his part, Bishop Asbury travelled 6,000 miles each year to preach. Do you have any idea how far that is? The Philippines is 1150 miles from the tip of Luzon to the end of Mindanao. That means Bishop Asbury rode the horse from Luzon to Mindanao at least six times within a year. And to think he had to do that every year. The distance is already a very tiring task to imagine. Add to that the dangers of travelling in a forest, the exhaustion of the body, the loneliness, the discomfort and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Yet, the circuit riders went on. Now, if being sent as a circuit rider was a difficult and challenging task the question begs to be asked:
        Why did John Wesley sent Circuit Riders to preach the gospel?
a)      It was part of his theological understanding of doing the mission
b)      It was a strategy adapted from the Bible to reach the wide field for evangelism
c)        All of the above
In her Theology of Mission paper, Pastor Jody Spiak noted that John Wesley saw practical and theological reasons in sending circuit riders.[1]
John Wesley wrote in a letter in 1756, "We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.”[2]
She added that the itinerant system of sending preachers was Wesley’s practical solution to the Great Commission. It is Wesley’s Theology of mission.
The itinerant system is a Wesleyan Theology of Mission[3]. It is a response to the concept of Missio Dei – God is a missionary God. The task of the church is not to do mission but to be part of the mission of God. Just as God the Father sent Jesus, so are we sent to the world to do the mission of God. Do you remember where can we find this verse?
       Where  can we find this verse, “Peace be unto you, as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you?”
a)      John 20:21-22
b)      John 11:35

We are sent. That is clear in John 20. In that chapter, Jesus was about to leave his disciples. He showed himself to them after his resurrection and commissioned them.First, Jesus appointed them to go on with his work, spread his gospel, and set up of his kingdom. The disciples were sent the way Jesus was sent. But the question we need to ask ourselves, how was Jesus sent? If we are to be sent just like Jesus, we should know how Jesus was sent. And that will be the model we will follow in performing the mandate that was given to us. So let us look, how was Jesus sent?
Read John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38
In Henry’s Commentary, Jesus was sent, not to be ministered to, but to minister. Jesus was not to do his own will, but the will of him that sent him – the Father. He was not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fill them up. As the Father sent Jesus to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so he sends us into all the world to find the lost. This is how we must also behave if we are to be sent like Jesus was sent.
Read John 8:29; 2 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:32; Phil. 3:7-8
In the following verses, we see that Christ was sent not to please Himself, but to please His Sender. In a posted Biblical reflection, the author noted that the danger of doing mission is we try so much to reach out to people by pleasing them when in fact it displeases God. [4] He then continued the reflection with the following verses.
Read John 3:34; 7:16; 12:49-50
Here we find in these verses that Christ was sent into the world, not with His own words and doctrine, but with the words and doctrine of His Sender.[5]
Read John 8:29; Matthew 28:20
         After Jesus was sent, he elaborated that the one who sent him did not send him alone. The Holy Spirit was always with him and so it will be with those Jesus will send. These verses are very comforting knowing that the mission we are tasked to do is difficult and full of challenges. The itinerant system that we Methodists go through every year is met with anxiety both by the “circuit riders” and the “parishioners.” There will be dangers and trials  to where we will be sent but as Wesley said, “the best of all, God is with us.”
        As we end our holy conferencing and go to our different church appointments, let me leave you with these words for reflection. Pastor Spiak asked these similar question but let me frame it in our present context. Despite a strong missional theological basis for our itinerant system, we have focused too much on the system of “sending/appointments” to which we resist so much. I believe that we only resist the system because we “forgot” the theology behind it. Now, my challenge is - how can we re-claim the missionary purpose of itinerancy? In the same way, how can the local churches reclaim its active participation in the missionary purpose of our itinerancy?

[2] The Encyclopaedia of World Methodism, Vol 1. 1974
[3] John Nuessle,
[5] Ibid.

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