FREE GRACE, UNADYIN’ LOVE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. May 25, 2003.
June 17 will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded a renewal movement in the Church of England in the 18th century which later became the Methodist Church. Here in Canada the Methodists constituted the largest of the three churches which came together in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada. Today I would like to share with you some of the story of John Wesley who was an Anglican priest all his life.
On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, he wrote in his diary:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he 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, 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 personal assurance was the one thing that had been lacking for the Reverend John Wesley, and his life was quite different after that. In many places Methodists have observed the Sunday nearest to May 24 as Aldersgate Sunday, with a focus on the life and ministry of John – and his brother Charles – Wesley.
John Wesley was born in the Anglican rectory at Epworth, England, on June 17, 1703, the 15th of 19 children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. His father Samuel had come from two generations of nonconformist Puritan preachers, but had decided to return to the Church of England where he was ordained after working his way through Oxford by waiting on tables. After marriage Samuel became the rector of Epworth. The people at Epworth were an ignorant and godless lot, and Samuel Wesley told them so. He told them so vigorously and so tactlessly that they burned the rectory down around him. However that only motivated him to work harder, and finally he won the people.
There are three things of particular interest about John Wesley’s father: he had a vision of foreign missions which was a century ahead of its time; he always had difficulty in managing his finances, and was once in a debtor’s prison; and he also had a spirit of deep religious concern. Just before his death, Samuel Wesley said to his son John: “The inward witness, son, the inward witness – this is the proof, the strongest proof, of Christianity.”
John’s mother, Susannah Wesley, was a remarkable woman by any standards. The nine children who lived and grew up in the rectory were subject to a discipline that would seem quite strict to us today, but her stern rules protected one child from another, and she gave each one the opportunity for self-development. She referred to her husband as “my master” – no doubt to keep him from realising just how independent she really was. When her husband was out of town, she would lead worship and preach in the parish church there in Epworth – quite unheard of at that time. In a letter to her son John, she once wrote, “‘Tis misfortune peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike.”
Susannah Wesley made education into a great adventure for her children – and this gave them an eagerness of mind that stayed with them all their lives. The fifth birthday was a great time in the life of each child, for that was when they began their education by learning the alphabet in a single day. And her teaching was not restricted to the 3 R’s. Once a week she spent an hour privately with each child discussing the deepest things of the Spirit. Into such a family John Wesley was born three hundred years ago.
The things that he remembered most from his childhood were the hours spent with his mother in education, his ordeal with smallpox, and most of all the night when the rectory burned. He jumped from an upper window just before the roof collapsed. Only a child of six at the time, he later thought of himself as a “brand plucked from the burning.” His mother impressed upon him that God must have some great destiny in store for him, to have delivered him in that way.
After attending Charterhouse School and Christ Church college at Oxford, John decided to enter the ministry; and at the age of 22 was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England. He was named to the faculty of Lincoln College and carried out a strict regime of organised personal study: On Sunday of every week he studied divinity. For the next two days it was Greek and Latin. Wednesday, logic and ethics. On Thursdays he studied Hebrew and Aramaic; Friday, metaphysics and natural philosophy; and Saturday, oratory and poetry. In addition, each day he presided over the debates of the undergraduates, pointing out fallacies, and deciding the outcome.
Wesley then spent two years as a parish priest, but returned to Oxford where he and his younger brother Charles gathered a small group of serious students to discuss the classics and religion. This group was known as the Holy Club. At a time when religion stressed moderation and not being overmuch righteous, these young men gave as much as they could to the needy. They spent their time visiting the sick and the prisoners, and conducting schools for the poor. They prayed aloud three times everyday, and stopped for silent prayer every hour. They observed all the practices of the church in a very meticulous manner. Soon they were ridiculed by other students, who began to call them Methodists because of their very methodical way of life.
Wesley spent six happy years at Lincoln College, but within himself he was not convinced that his life should be spent that way. He accepted a position as chaplain with General James Oglethorpe who was organizing the colony of Georgia in America. Wesley went with romantic notions of being a missionary to the Indians, but he was a complete failure with both the Indians and the English colonists. Neither were interested in his high-church practices, and he returned to England after getting involved in a bit of scandal and being sued for defamation of character.
John Wesley’s spiritual state was quite disturbed during that time for he was uncertain whether or not he was saved. He wrote in his diary, “I went to America to save the Indians, but oh, who will save me?” He was in great fear during storms at sea while he was aboard ship, and was greatly impressed by a group of Moravians who had the calm serenity of faith. Back in England he talked with a Moravian leader, Peter Boehler, and asked what he should do. Boehler answered, “Preach faith.” Wesley asked, “How can I preach faith when I have none?” And Boehler responded, “Preach faith until you have it; and then you will preach it because you have it.”
It was this contrast between the Moravians’ quiet faith and his own desperation that brought John Wesley at the age of 35 to the meeting at Aldersgate Street, London. There he received the assurance that his sins were forgiven. It is important to note, however, that this inner blessing which came to him did not bring an end to his spiritual struggles, for he had months of further torment. But beginning in 1739 John Wesley had no more inner torment: he was too busy.
When John and his brother Charles began to preach their new faith, they found that their own church was not open to their enthusiasm. Now the Anglican clergy in London admitted there was nothing wrong with the content of their preaching. Rather it was the tone that was objected to. For the Wesleys did not just preach as though they believed what they said. They also preached as if they expected others to believe – and to do something about it. And the last thing that the established clergy wanted was for something to be doing – something which might upset their comfortable living. Soon their pulpits were closed to the Wesleys.
But then came George Whitefield, an old friend from the Holy Club at Oxford. Whitefield had just spent a year preaching in the American colonies. It was said that when he preached, he could be heard for a mile; but when he sang, he could be heard for two miles. It was Whitefield who got his old friend involved in preaching out of doors. Now John Wesley was not a likely person for this kind of ministry. He was only five feet four inches tall, and mild In manner and appearance. In fact he was much more at home in his priest’s robes and in the cool quiet of a church than in the open air where there was plenty of hecklers and plenty of mud. Wesley hesitated to embrace this way that was so strange to him, but then he thought of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, and realized that here was a “pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching.”
And so, not quite a year after his awakening in Aldersgate Street, Wesley stood on a little rise outside the city of Bristol and began to preach. The response was incredible. The miners there at Kingwood had been considered less than human for so long that they had come to believe it themselves, and they lived accordingly. Now here was this young preacher assuring them that he believed in them, and that they were capable of better things. He spoke to them of a God they could scarcely believe in – a God who loved each of them personally and intensely, a God who would make any sacrifice to bring them back in touch with himself. That was the beginning of a religious awakening which spread throughout England.
Beginning from Aldersgate, John Wesley’s ministry spanned 50 years, and during that time he traveled 250,000 miles by horseback and carriage to preach the gospel. He would rise every day at four a.m., preach at five, and be on the road by six. He would ride 60 to 70 miles a day, and preach at least three times. Until the age of 70, he always traveled by horseback. He delivered 42,000 sermons, focusing on the doctrines of salvation by faith, justification, the witness of the Spirit, the new birth, and the way of the Kingdom.
John Wesley’s most important contriubion to our understanding of faith is what has been called “prevenient grace” – or what another writer calls “preparing” grace. It means the grace which comes before, and it is what helps us to see that God is at work in us even before we accept God’s love - preparing us to do so. We experience God’s grace in those first thoughts which nudge us toward God. And we are free to accept God’s offer or reject it. Someone said that this grace is “universally available, yet resistible.”
So God’s prevenient grace does not force us, but it is the way that God courts us, so we can move beyond our broken relationships (what some people call “sins”) and receive God’s freely given love. And in this way God nudges us closer to the time when we can wholeheartedly accept and embrace the love that God offers.
While John Wesley was a preacher, a scholar, and a theologian, he also had a great ability at organising. He did not simply preach to the crowds: he also started small groups known as classes. Each group had a class leader who was to meet with the group weekly and monitor the spiritual health of the members. Soon Wesley had recruited a group of lay preachers who were travelling to these groups to preach to them. He printed tracts for these societies, and educational booklets for his preachers. He edited hymnbooks which were full of the hymns of his brother Charles.
Speaking of Charles, John’s brother was a masterful poet who was able to use many different poetic metres to suit the particular concerns of each hymn. He wrote over 6,500 hymns in his life time, many of which are still known and loved. Three of the hymns in our worship today were written by Charles Wesley, and there are a total of fourteen of his hymns in our hymnbook.
This then is a capsule version of how the Methodist movement began and how it started to grow. It is significant that this was happening at the same time as the Industrial Revolution in England. The personal nature of the message and the personal religious experience of the listeners gave them the assurance of their significance in the sight of God at a time when everything else seemed to deny their importance as people. The historian Lecky claims that the Methodist revival saved England from a civil war.
As the experience of the warmed heart spread, we find the impact of Aldersgate travelling farther and farther until it circled the globe. It has been the warmed heart that has cared for the needy and the oppressed, and also established churches and missions to minister to them. And the heritage of Aldersgate also includes the certainty of God’s free grace and undying love. While some have caricatured Methodists as only being concerned with personal faith and morality, in fact this assurance of God’s love has given Methodists the courage to face the forces of oppression and injustice in every generation since the night John Wesley went to that historic prayer meeting.
I have named this sermon “Free Grace, Unadyin’ Love” – which are words taken from one of the Spirituals – because these words seem to me to express the core of Wesley’s life and message, as well as the impact that he had upon people of his time. It is something we could benefit from more of today. So then, may each and every one of us find our own hearts “strangely warmed” as we experience the assurance that God loves and cares for us. Then in that assurance let us live faithfully as disciples of Jesus, and may our faith too be evident in both personal and social holiness – both in works of piety and works of mercy.