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"My heart strangely warmed"
By Stuart Grant in Sermons
A sermon on the life and influence of John WesleyIt was the worst winter ever in London. Snow had been falling off and on for almost the entire week. The temperatures had remained below freezing and the pollution from open coal fires was suffocating. Along a cobblestone street in one of London's better neighbourhoods, a short thin figure wrapped in a black cloak for warmth went from door to door seeking donations to support the Methodist work among the poor. He was a striking figure with brilliant blue eyes, long white hair and fine delicate hands. His name was the Rev. John Wesley. At the time he was probably one of the most prominent figures in England. The month was January, the year was 1785. Wesley was 82 years old at the time.
I quote this rather moving passage from a book by Dr. Jim Stuart published last year "The John Wesley Code", because it gives us a vivid picture of a driven man. This morning I'm going to try to describe, very briefly, what it was that drove John Wesley, and what he has to say to us over the three centuries that separate us from him and his time. (By the way, "The John Wesley Code" is much more worth reading than "The Da Vinci Code".
Of those days in a wintry, snowy London, Wesley wrote in his journal:
"At this season we usually distribute coals and bread among the poor of the society. But I now considered they want clothes as well as food. So on this, and the four following days, I walked through the streets and begged two hundred pounds, in order to clothe them that needed it most. But it was hard work, as most of the streets were filled with melting snow, which often lay ankle deep; so that my feet were steeped in snow-water nearly from morning till night."
Now let's go back in time to near the beginning of John Wesley's life. When he was 5 years old, the parsonage at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, where his father was Rector, was destroyed by fire. All the family escaped from the burning building except little John. Mercifully, he was saved when a villager climbed on the back of another and rescued him from a first floor window. John Wesley always regarded his escape as an act of providence. He considered himself "A brand plucked from the burning" to use an Old Testament phrase, and that he had been spared for a purpose.
It was quite some time before he discovered what that purpose was. He was the son of a clergyman of the Church of England; he was well connected - not an aristocrat, but in receipt of aristocratic patronage
which led to his being educated at Charterhouse School and Oxford University. While at University he and a group of fellow students committed themselves to diligently studying the bible, praying together, and visiting the poor, the sick and prisoners. (This is where the derogatory nickname "Methodists" comes from.
In the 1730's John and his brother Charles sailed to the young American colony of Georgia. That venture turned out a disaster. John would look back on that time as one when he was driven by a legalistic approach to Christian faith. Everything had to be done properly and in order. The needs and feelings of people took a rather second place to right doctrine. There wasn't much love in it. "I went to America to convert the Indians," he wrote later, "But who should convert me?"
To cut a long story short, after arousing the anger of the colonial authorities, John and Charles fled back to England, where they both arrived at an all time low in their lives. John saw himself as an utter failure. He was searching for a deeper faith than he knew existed.
In this state of mind, on 24 May 1738, he went unwillingly to a house in Aldersgate Street, in London, and listened to a man reading from Luther's commentary on St. Paul's letter to the Romans.
While he read, Wesley wrote in his journal, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation . . ."
This was the turning point. From then on, John Wesley was driven, not by orthodox faith and right doctrine, but by love. And all his considerable powers, - of scholarship, of preaching and teaching, and above all of organization, were guided and taken over by love; love of God and love of hi fellow human beings. He could have had a comfortable life as a University lecturer, with a secure income, living among people of his own class. Instead, he chose to go out among the poor of the new industrial towns, among the tin miners of Cornwall and the coal miners of Newcastle, bringing them the good news of the love of God. As Jim Stuart puts it, " . . . to miners, mill workers and factory workers who worked from sun up to sun down, to the poor trapped no only in the poverty of their class but also in a poverty of spirit - the words of God's grace being free in all and for all must have struck the notes of forgiveness, healing and freedom in their ears for the first time."
Gradually, societies of Methodists grew up all around the United Kingdom. People who had never heard the Gospel were changed by its influence. A band of travelling preachers was established to help spread the word. Some Anglican clergy supported Wesley, but many others opposed him.
Wesley never left the Anglican Church. He saw the Methodists as a kind of church within a church that had largely turned away from basic Christianity. But by the time of Wesley's death in 1791 it was clear that a split from the Anglican Church was inevitable. Many of the Methodist leaders had come to faith from outside the established church and felt no loyalty to it. In the United States, Methodism spread rapidly, as it did, within a short time, to other parts of the world, including our own. The first Methodist missionary came to the far north of N.Z. in 1822, and a Methodist, James Watkin, was the first missionary of any church to come to Waikouaiti, just to the north of Dunedin, in 1840.
But let's go back to Wesley himself. Think of the little boy saved from the flames of the burning parsonage, he "brand plucked from the burning." Think of the prim and proper clergyman and his experience of the warmed heart. It was these things that gave him a sense that he had been placed on this earth for a purpose. And his band of preachers were united in the same belief, - that their mission was to be agents of reconciliation, ambassadors of Christ to a deeply troubled society.
Jim Stuart: "Methodists have for the most part lost this sense of purpose and mission . . .it remains a dimly lit candle that needs fresh air to burn brightly once again."
Now, some might say, "Is Methodism all that important? Surely it doesn't matter all that much which branch of the Christian family you belong to. They all point in the same direction."
True. But I look at it this way. Methodism has certain characteristics, certain emphases, which it brings to the whole of the church, and I believe we would lose some great treasures if we ignore them, - as indeed they have been ignored.
This is the conclusion Jim Stuart comes to in his book, and I want to try to give you a summary of the characteristics he identifies.
There are four of them.
First of all comes the warmed heart. For Wesley, as we've heard, that came from the Aldersgate experience. Instead of a religion of duty and fear, he now had a religion based on the unconditional love of God.
It was that unconditional love that drove him for the rest of his days, through all the persecutions and difficulties that lay ahead of him.
If there is one thing we need to be doing and living out in our lives as Christian people, it is this same unconditional love. At a time when the very idea of God is under attack by many people, it may be hard to do this. But we need to call on our personal, spiritual experience, and trust it.
Then comes: An open mind.
Wesley wrote and published many sermons. The most quoted one these days has the title, "The catholic spirit." (Catholic here in the sense of "universal", with a small 'c').
Here's a quote from it:
"Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, "Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?"
Now this was pretty radical stuff for the time. The emphasis in Wesley's time, and since the reformation, was on right belief. Faith was a set of doctrines, which you agreed with, and if you didn't, you might end up in big trouble with the church. Wesley was very strong on the powers of reason. His father Samuel is supposed to have commented once that his Jack would hardly answer a call of nature without having a good reason for it.
The important thing is that if we have an open mind, we will be protected from the kind of blind faith that simply accepts certain opinions and prevents us from thinking for ourselves.
Closely allied with an open mind is the third Methodist characteristic identified by Jim Stuart in his book, and that is a catholic spirit. What Wesley meant by this was that no one has a monopoly on truth, and that people would always disagree about all sorts of things. But, he said, when Christians disagreed and difference of opinion, they should do so
IN LOVE. In the same sermon I referred to earlier, For Wesley, a catholic spirit meant that, "while we all cannot think alike, and while we cannot all walk alike, we can all love alike."
If you experienced the love of God in a warm heart, then it followed quite naturally that you would show love for others. There's a lot for us to bear in mind here, as we consider our relationships to our fellow Christians in other branches of the Christian church, and followers of the great religions of the world.
The last of the four points is, a Whole Gospel.
Wesley had no time for complicated and difficult expressions of Christian faith.
He wanted above all to teach the essentials of the faith in such a way that it became "plain truth for plain people." He saw the dangers of mere formal, superficial religion. True religion, for Wesley, began, continued, and finished with the warmed heart.
He considered that a Gospel minister ' in the full scriptural sense of the word, was one of whatever denomination who declared the whole counsel of God . . . The whole Gospel . . .that is, Christ dying for us, and Christ living in us."
So, that's a very brief and very inadequate summary of our Methodist heritage.
I think we'd have to say, that we have not been very good stewards of that heritage. Jim Stuart would say that as a church we have ignored, even thrown out, a lot of the valuable things of Methodism's past, and that a whole Gospel is rather hard to find among Methodists. In this highly technological and secular age, we would do well to look toward our roots and rediscover the riches that they hold, - not at all because we want to beat a denominational drum, but simply because there ARE many riches to be mined and used from the teachings and the practice of John Wesley. He was a very modern man for his time.
I'll close with two quotes from the man himself:
"For this is the whole end of one's life, one's whole business, one's whole happiness. In this our infant state we cannot know much, but we may love much. Let us secure this point, and we shall be swallowed up in an ocean both of knowledge and of love." And Wesley's own last words, "The best of all is, God is with us." Amen.
(Sermon preached on Wesley Day, 24 May, 2009)