Wesleyan Wisdom: Remembering what Wesley really preached

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

On June 6, 1742, John Wesley had returned to his hometown of Epworth, the parish where his   father had labored for thirty-eight years. Note this poignant “introduction” to the sermon he preached standing atop his father’s tombstone:

“After the rector’s sermon against enthusiasm, John Taylor stood in the churchyard and gave notice to the people coming out, ‘Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o’clock.’ Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation s I believe Epworth never saw before.  I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tombstone, and cried, ‘the Kingdom of heaven is not meats and drinks, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’”

Wesley and many of the congregation had been baptized in the font in old St. Andrews Church.   Though they had little exposure to an understanding of  evangelical conversion, all were exposed as children, youth, and adults to the Word, Sacrament and Order of the Church. They had been nurtured under his mother and father’s ministry and influence.  They knew all his eighteen brothers and sisters.  He was home, preaching to his kith and kin.

He chose a double text, both referencing a favorite term of Jesus—“the Kingdom of God.”  Mark 1:14 places it at the inauguration of Jesus earthly ministry: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the gospel.”   In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Wesley’s commentary on the text is that the Kingdom as prophesied in Daniel had come.  To Wesley, the term “at hand” means “here, among you, with you, and potentially fulfilled  in you.” Jesus is not referring to the Rapture, but to the fullness of time.  Jesus says that to personally receive this “at hand” kingdom, one must repent and believe.

The congregation had the same spiritual formation as he did — his parent’s ministry among them. What was the nature of the Gospel he preached in Epworth? He was living out what we read of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “He came to his own {people} and his own did not receive him, but to/for those who did, God empowered to become “children of God.” (John 1:11-12)

To define what the word “Kingdom of God” means, Wesley used  Paul’s definition in his letter to the Romans: “the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”(14:17)   In his commentary footnote, Wesley writes, “That is, true religion is not in external observances, but in righteousness—the image of God stamped on  the heart; the love of God and man, accompanied with the peace that passeth all understanding;  and joy in the Holy Ghost.” In the sermon he calls the Kingdom, “a divine taste of the powers of the world to come.”  In another place Jesus said,  “Fear not little flock; it is the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is  the Good News Wesley came to share with his home folks.

Wesley first of all negates the efficacy of “‘forms or ceremonies’ even those of the most excellent kind.”  He calls the highly respected liturgy of the Church’s “rites and forms only of human appointment.”  He continued, “The religion of Christ rises infinitely higher and lies immensely deeper than any of these.  These are good in their place so long as they are subservient to true religion. Let no man dream that they have any intrinsic work….  The nature of religion is so far from these…that it does not properly consist in any outward actions of what kind so ever.”

Apparently, Wesley is not referring to the holy sacraments, nor to wearing Anglican vestments which he always did;  but to what is usually called “good works.”  He illustrates “outward actions” by referring to one’s motive for “feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.”  He pointed out that the motives of one person might be “truly religious, but for the other, the love of praise.”   This is obviously not to denigrate good works, but to deny “works righteousness.”

Next he queries the importance of “orthodoxy or right opinions.”  Though these are not, according to Wesley, “outward things, they are still not “in the heart but in understanding.”  That is they are the conclusions of “reason.”  He roars through several orthodox positions and finally says, “A man may assent to all three creeds—Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian—and yet have not more religion than a …a Pagan.”  He even insists that the devil himself is orthodox!

“Love the Lord Your God…”

Wesley’s first “point” is a challenge to holy living—obedience to the  two-fold commandment from Jesus.     He says to his hometown audience that God’s call to them is, “My son, give me thy heart.”(Proverbs 23:26)  His call is for them to pray affirmatively, “I will love thee, O Lord, my strength.”  This he names “the first  and great commandment.”

I have stood several times at the Red Lion pub in the middle of the village and walked the hundred or so yards up the hill to the parish church.  I can imagine the crowd at the pub, some heavy into their “p’s & q’s” (pints and quarts).  They are far, far different from his congregations at the Oxford University college chapels.  His altar call to them must sound strange since they have been taught mostly to have their children baptized, to attend holy communion, come to church on the high holy days, and climb that green hill to marry their children and bury the dead.  Now the “preacher’s kid” of their former pastor is asking them to “rend their hearts and not their garments.”  Can we not imagine the impact to be much the same as a typical United Methodist congregation in 2014 in Britain or the United States!

“…And Thy Neighbor as Thyself”

As the people of Epworth stand among their neighbors and listen to the preacher they once knew as “Jackie Wesley,” he presses them on Jesus’ second commandment. “Heart religion” not only means loving God but loving one’s neighbors whose faults and foibles they know all too well!  Wesley is specific: “You must embrace with the most tender good will, the most earnest and cordial affection…not only the virtuous and friendly who returns every kindness; but …not excepting him whom thou knowest to be evil and unthankful, even him who despitefully uses or persecutes you.”

Wow!  Can you imagine which of their “tribe” comes to mind as they glance around the patrons of the Red Lion pub!   They would have agreed with Charles Shultz, cartoonist of  the comic strip “Peanuts.” He had Charlie Brown to say, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”  This is where Christian ethics “rubber” meets the road!  Wesley was not philosophizing; he was preaching to a congregation who had known each other since birth.

The Happiness that is the fruit of Holiness

Next, Wesley brings up a word seldom used in 1742 among the pub patrons and their often abused wives and children.  This “hometown preacher” says that the true religion of which he speaks “implies happiness as well as holiness.”  An  Oxford fellow who is now four years into his post-Aldersgate journey of faith, John  turns to Paul’s letter to the Roman church: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”(Romans 14:17) Referring to his Romans text, he promises that fulfilling the two foundational commandments will issue in fruits of the Spirit—love, peace and joy.  He calls it a “peace that banishes doubt, painful uncertainty, and fear—“fear of the wrath of God, fear of hell, fear of the devil and fear of death.”

As we know from his many Journal entries, the lack of joy has been Wesley’s perennial concern in his own spiritual journey.  He quotes to them what he has doubtless quoted for himself many times—Psalm 32:1.  That psalm has one sing, “Happy is the one whose unrighteousness is forgiven and whose sin is covered.”  He assures his neighbors that Christianity is more than Anglican formalism or Puritan legalism. “The Spirit “inspires the Christian soul with that even, solid joy….”

This righteous living and  these fruits of the Spirit Wesley defines as “the Kingdom of God.”  He calls it “God’s reigning in the human soul.”  He quotes from one of his brother’s hymns: “Everlasting life is won; glory is on earth begun.”  He assures them that “this is life eternal” here and now!  “They to whom this is given may confidently address God thou you are in the midst of a fiery furnace.”

In a statement we would today identify as “post-millennialism,” Our founder assures his local folks in 1742 that by Jesus’ stating,,”  “’The Kingdom of God is at hand,’ our Lord meant ‘the time is now fulfilled.’”    He even said, “Wheresoever the Gospel is preached, this is his {Christ’s} ‘kingdom nigh at hand.”

Then comes the “hallelujah chorus” of the sermon: You may enter this if you hearken to God’s voice, ‘Repent, and believe the Gospel, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Wesley’s sermon does not end here, but the lesson in these words to us is the essence of the Gospel as “evangel”—good news!  It is a liberation from the rather ridiculous waste of predicting the Rapture and seemingly anticipating a “retribution force.”  Instead, the Gospel we proclaim is  that God’s gift for holy living is inner peace and joy of the soul.

Wesley consistently put together those two dimensions of Christianity so often kept separate—holiness and happiness. Sadly. the “holiness movement” of the 19th century that became entrapped by Victorian moralism and the pushback of theological liberalism that reduced the gospel to humanism cost Methodism its Wesleyan message throughout the 20th century.  Our challenge in the 21st century is to recover Wesley’s balance.

As Wesley draws to a conclusion, he asked, “Dost thou thus believe?”  If so, “then the peace of God is in thy heart, and sorrow and sighing flee away. Thou art no longer in doubt of the love of God; it is clear as the noonday sun.  This repentance, this faith, this peace, joy, love; this change from glory to glory is what the wisdom of the world has voted to be madness, mere enthusiasm, utter distraction.”

Imagine how, in our own generation,  the “last, the least and the lost” as well as those who have built for their happiness what Jeremiah called “broken cisterns that hold no water” need to hear Wesley’s concluding words: “Now cast yourself  on the Lamb of God with all your sins, however many they be; and ‘an entrance shall now be ministered to you—entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

This is the preaching of our “dear old father.”  This is the preaching  that God is calling us to proclaim if we are to be revived again!

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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