Sermon preached at St Mary’s in Holy Trinity, Parnell, Auckland on Sunday 23rd May, 2010. Preacher Rev.Norman Brookes, Methodist Synod Superintendent
A Gospel for Today?
Scripture: Acts 2: 29 – 33, 36 -
The Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles is a story about communication, about speaking a word, and about being heard and understood by a divergent, multi-
Today, I suspect that we, Anglicans and Methodists long for another such moment. A moment when we in the Church of the Risen Lord can rise above our failings, shortcomings, scandals, sins, the things that the media loves to latch on to, and again communicate clearly and effectively the Church’s one central message of the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. Don’t you long for such a moment? I do!
There was such a moment two hundred and fifty years ago, when quite unexpectedly two sons of the Church of England, sons of the rectory at Epworth in Lincolnshire, took centre stage in the English Christian drama. Sons they were to the Church of England, fathers they were to became to the Methodist movement of their day. They were of course John and Charles Wesley.
For some fifty years they travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles. John Wesley visited the country of my birth, Ireland no less than 27 times. It is estimated that he rode over a quarter of a million miles on horseback. Together John and Charles preached to thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. Central to their preaching was a focus on the love of God. And they practised what they preached. They went to the homes of the poorest of the poor, they cared for the sick, they visited those in prison, they opposed things like slavery. And they, especially Charles, proclaimed the gospel, the good news in song. Charles wrote over 6,000 hymns. Some have stood the test of time. Our Service this evening testifies to that. Some are hard to beat for their poetic quality, and their theology, hymns like Love divine all loves excelling, and Hark the Herald angels sing. Somehow, through the miracle of grace, through the work of the Holy Spirit the message preached, and the words of their songs resonated in the lives of many. As had happened at the first Pentecost, through the ministry of John and Charles Wesley thousands were added to the Church.
Initially John Wesley didn’t seem to have the qualities to be an effective communicator, an evangelist, or one to inspire others. Indeed he seemed a somewhat tormented soul. In spite of living a rigorous, disciplined, and austere life in which personal devotions, and attendance at Holy Communion played a central part, he was not at all sure if he was good enough for God. He regularly took his own spiritual temperature, and almost invariably he found himself wanting. In 1738, several years on from his ordination, and after almost two and a half years work as a missionary in Savannah in Georgia, he despaired, being unsure if he even was a Christian. On the ship journey back to England he wrote: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, O! Who shall convert me?”
Who amongst us would want to emulate such a man? Wasn’t he rather the kind of person which many of us might want to avoid? A religious crank perhaps? Not only that, this man was a failure, a failure in this his first real test, his first missionary endeavour. We can add to that that in Georgia he also had a messy romance with a niece of the colony’s magistrate. She ended up marrying someone else. John then tried to bar her from receiving Holy Communion. That caused consternation in the colony. He was a failure in love as well.
Months later, back in England on the 24th May 1738 something happened to this man – it was his Pentecost. Was it his conversion? Or was it his moment of assurance -
Within weeks there would be another significant change. This man who was by nature conservative, this man who virtually believed that it would be a sin to preach outside the confines of a church building, this introspective man who had been so fixated on himself and his personal spiritual needs, within weeks this man was preaching in the open air, in fields, in village squares, at the mine heads. Almost overnight he became as passionate about sharing the good news of God’s love with others as he had previously been about his own spiritual quest.
As his life changed the gospel became clear to Wesley in ways that would shape his ministry for the decades ahead. Three things in particular:
First, he became convinced that the good news of Jesus Christ is good news for all people. No one, man or woman, rich or poor, black or white, English or African, no one is beyond the grace of God. No one is excluded by divine decree, or gender or race, from the possibility of salvation. God’s grace is offered to all. Any person can of their own volition respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.
This led him into controversy, controversy with one of his best friends, George Whitefield. Whitefield was also an Anglican clergyman, also an evangelist, many would say a greater preacher than Wesley. But Whitefield was Calvinist in his theology. Whitefield believed that the sovereignty of God was such that God predetermined those to be saved, but not only that, God also predetermined those to be damned. John Wesley would have none of that. Charles Wesley captures the essence of their shared theology when he writes:
Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
Immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends;
It reaches all mankind.
The good news is for all – that was clear to Wesley.
Secondly, John Wesley came to see that a Christian is not simply a person who engages in what we might call formal religion. Attendance at worship does not automatically make one a Christian. Likewise the singing of hymns, the saying of prayers, even participation in Holy Communion, does not make one a Christian – though of course Christians will do these things. Instead a Christian is one who has experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ and is committed to displaying the fruits of the Spirit in his or her own life. Wesley didn’t deny the gifts of the Spirit but he saw the fruits of the Spirit as far more significant – for him the fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-
Holy living, sanctification, Christian perfection – these were words that John Wesley used to underline this conviction. Just as the essence of Christian faith is not formal religion, it is also not simply belief – Christian faith has to be lived out. Wesley would have strongly agreed with the apostle James when he said faith without works is dead.
But Christian perfection – the idea also got him into trouble. It was hard to define, could anyone attain it, how would you know when you had reached it? Ultimately such questions didn’t matter – what he was concerned about was that people were not static Christians but were committed to growing in grace, committed to becoming ever more Christ like in their way of living. Charles Wesley puts it this way:
Finish then Thy new creation
Pure and spotless let us be,
Till we see Thy great salvation
Prefectly restored in Thee.
A Christian has an experience of God, a Christian bears good fruit in their lives .
Thirdly, John Wesley came to see that people, human lives, were the supreme focus of God’s love. People mattered, and ultimately for him they mattered more than tradition, or the order of the Church. Don’t get me wrong Wesley liked order. He was a very ordered person, a very disciplined person, a methodical person – the nickname Methodist wasn’t given for nothing. One sign of his personal order, discipline, was that the second largest volume of correspondence in existence from the 18c, comes from the pen of John Wesley -
But, he was persuaded by the gospel that if people were to suffer, if new Christians were to be barred from the Lord’s table as they were in some parishes, and if in other places they could not receive the sacrament because there were no ordained clergy in the vicinity as was often the case in the American colonies, then for their sake – for the sake of the people, and against his natural inclination to honour the tradition, Wesley would do something about it. The sacrament, as a means of grace, had to be made available. This meant that Wesley, after many requests had been turned down, reluctantly came to the conclusion that he a presbyter and not a bishop would have to ordain some of his travelling preachers. In a sense he broke with one order, one tradition – that bishops only could ordain, to preserve another order that only the ordained can administer the sacrament.
But he did ordain, and once again he was in trouble. His brother Charles was utterly dismayed. He said it ended their cooperation but not their friendship. For Charles the Church of England always came first and the Methodist movement second, for John it was the reverse. Ordination is still an issue between us but by the grace of God in the 21c we may yet work through it.
Three things then shaped Wesley’s gospel. Three things that I believe have continuing relevance for us today, here in this land.
1. The good news of Jesus Christ is indeed for all people – no one is barred – God’s love is inclusive, it reaches out to all.
2. The formalities of religion are not of the essence of the Christian faith – the essence is to be found in our personal experience of God’s love and to be demonstrated by the fruits of the Spirit in our lives – our growth into Christ.
3. Finally, the traditions of the Church – whether Methodist or Anglican – while necessary for order, and helpful no doubt in many respects, should never take precedence over the needs of people to grow in grace. The world God so loves is the world of people – human lives are ultimately more important than our traditions.
Together, as Anglicans and Methodists, the challenge before us is to communicate a 21st.c version of this message, this word, with the divergent, multi-
Today we await a new heart warming, a new Pentecost, a new openness, new possibilities. Amen