2 Tim 3:10-4:5; Matthew 17:1-9
Last Sunday before Lent
St Barbara’s; 26.2.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Our series on learning from Christians from the past finishes today with a most remarkable individual, John Wesley.
John Wesley was born the 15th of 19 children born to an Anglican clergyman in 18th century England. His mother, Susannah, was a woman of deep religious faith, and he was greatly influenced by her. He grew up with a rigorous commitment to personal bible study and prayer.
In his 30s he and his brother Charles went to the States to do missionary work. It was for all intents and purposes a disaster. Few people responded to his message – indeed many objected to his interference in their lives – and he had a relationship crisis when a woman he was almost going to marry married someone else, he refused to give her communion as a result, and he had to hasten back to England to avoid a law suit being brought against him.
He returned to the UK low in confidence and despairing that despite his life of personal piety and missionary work, he was still a failure and a sinner. Then on 24th May 1738, he experienced a profound transformation. Just as the disciples saw Jesus in a whole new way on the Mount of Transfiguration, so John Wesley’s eyes were opened to seeing Christ in a whole new way as he listened to a preacher. He wrote in his journal: “Whilst the preacher was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
This experience totally transformed his life. He realised that living a holy life was important, but it came out of a response to the abundant, overwhelming grace of God, not as an attempt to earn it. He began to preach a message of God’s love and our call to respond personally to it. Over the next 50 years, he travelled the length and breadth of the Uk, often riding 60-70 miles a day, and 8,000 miles a year, preaching wherever he went to large open-air crowds. He was an inspirational preacher – whole crowds were often moved to tears – and crowds would gather at five in the morning to hear him preach his first sermon of the day. During the course of his lifetime it is estimated that he preached 40,000 times. The impact that he had on the poor and working classes during a time of huge social and economic upheaval with the advent of industrialisation and the growth of cities was immense.
There are four areas of John Wesley’s teaching and influence that can be helpful for us to consider as we look to grow deeper in our faith.
Firstly, he reminded the Church of the possibility and the importance of a personal relationship with Christ. The Church of his day had got bogged down in religious ritual and academic disputes. When Wesley’s own heart “became strangely warmed” as he listened to the personal love of Christ, he realised afresh that Christ’s love was to be felt as well as understood, that it was to touch the emotions as well as the mind. Faith was not just a theoretical concept; it was something that touched ones heart, ones soul, ones feelings. That Christ died not just for the world in general, but for him personally. It is the difference between believing that the whole world has been set free and that Christ himself has unlocked the door and opened wide the prison in which you are in. It is the personal ownership of a general truth.
For all of us in our lives we can get so used to proclaiming the general truths of God’s love that we can forget they apply to us personally, that Christ died for me, that Christ died for you. Wesley’s spirituality encouraged a focus on the personal implications of the cross of Christ: to receive communion, to meditate on the cross, knowing it was for me Christ died.
A second area of great insight that Wesley gave the church was the value of encouraging Christians to meet together in small groups. Wesley was not just a great preacher; he was a great organiser. Thousands of people were becoming Christians through his open-air sermons but the parish churches were just not set up to cope with the sudden surge in numbers. Wesley’s response was to gather people into small groups – societies – who would meet together each week to pray together, to read the Bible together and to encourage one another in their Christian lives. These groups ensured that the enthusiasm and excitement generated by the open-air meetings did not just dissipate, but led to profound and sustaining change. Christians would come together to support one another, to share their experiences, to encourage one another in faith. As friendships grew, these little communities became places of nurture in times of crisis, of guidance at times of decision, of accountability at times of temptation, of faith at times of doubt. It was these groups that ensured that the faith revival of the 18th century did not die out with its charismatic leader. And indeed, when the Anglican Church of the time failed to be flexible enough to incorporate these groups into the life of the church, they became the foundation of the Methodist Church, a church today of 70 million members.
Can I encourage you to think about joining a small group too. It is a wonderful place in which to grow in faith. We have a regular day-time group on a Thursday afternoon, and a small group that meets for communion every Wednesday morning. We have three small groups that meet at the vicarage once a fortnight on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and a monthly evening group that meets at Liz’s house. Or maybe come along to our Lent group happening each Wednesday evening in Lent, or to one of our communal times of prayer happening during the Prayer Week. If you don’t find faith comes easily to you, you may find coming to a small group is a great way to hear the experiences of others and realise you are not alone.
A third area of spirituality that can be a source of great inspiration to us as we pray, and as we read and reflect on Scripture, is music. John Wesley’s brother, Charles, wrote an extraordinary 9,000 hymns, many of which we sing today. These hymns were the bedrock of Wesley’s ministry and the resulting Methodist church. The music helped to express both how people felt about their faith, but also helped them to grow in their faith as they reflected upon the words they sang. Such stirring and powerful hymns as “And can it be that I should gain an interest in my Saviour’s blood” and “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise” express profound truth about God’s love for us whilst helping our spirits soar with praise.
I remember how in South Africa, singing hymns and protest songs was such a vital part of keeping the faith and hope of black Christians alive in the dark days of apartheid. The songs helped people to articulate their feelings in ways beyond bare prose. The same can be true for us. If there are hymns, songs, that express faith experienced, and maybe faith longed for, that resonate with you, sing them while around the house or in the car or in your times of prayer. Or listen to a CD of hymns if you would find that less embarrassing. As Augustine said, “he who sings, prays twice”. Let us draw something from this great Wesleyan tradition.
Finally, and a good place to finish our whole series on prayer and reading the Bible, a mark of John Wesley’s spirituality was that it led to action, what he called “social holiness”. As we encounter God through prayer and his word, we cannot remain simply passive recipients. We are moved to act, to tell others the good news and to bring the love of God to situations of injustice. Wesley threw himself into campaigns for prisoners’ rights and the abolition of slavery, and the movement that emerged from Wesley led to the great social reforms of the 19th century.
For us too, there is a call to act – to live out our faith in word and deed. Moved, transformed, by our times of prayer and study, in response to the wondrous love of God for us, may we address the great social evils of our day.
During the last four weeks we have thought about Christians from the past – Benedict, Ignatius, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and John Wesley – and what we can learn from them in terms of prayer and reading the Bible. Can I encourage you this Lent to take just one or two things from their examples and put them into practice. Allow God to meet with you and speak to you afresh. And we too may find our hearts, in the words of John Wesley, strangely warmed.