I always get overwhelmed with something that feels a lot like shame when I hear my own voice so in an effort to be healed of this I am publishing the services of which I was the local preacher in training. These are the services from Sunday.
Speaking this sermon is an entirely different experience than passively reading. By the time I get to sermon 44 I hope to enthuse some of the passion from John Wesley because I suspect he was an animated speaker. I made my first error by the tenth word, saying something like God’s grape instead of God’s grace. But as a first attempt it went okay.
You know when you get one of those lightbulb moments when things click into place. Well this sermon is one of those for someone who is on the periphery of church, an almost Christ or a seeker. Oh what judgement I hear you call. No, from experience, from my own experience I can tell you this sermon is the “the last piece of the jigsaw” that has been missing from the spiritual journey of an almost Christian.
The introduction explains grace as free and undeserved favour. How true is this, without the grace of God there is no way someone like me could venture into communion with the Living God. People like me are the ones you cross the road to avoid, I am the smelly homeless guy in the doorway, I’m the young girl on a corner selling her physical body for a fix of instant gratification, I’m the refuge in a cold barren land far away from familiar sights and aromas spat at for being a different colour, I’m the old lady by the cold fire grate to scared to light the fire lest it is colder tomorrow and there is only a few lumps of coal left. I am the internet troll making nasty remarks, I am the paedophile. I am the rapist. I am the prisoner. I am all of these. The people who believe they are unloveable, because once I too thought that God could love a murderer but stopped short of loving me.
Wesley goes on to describe human sin, in terms of good works i.e. that if we do enough good works it outweighs the sin. He is not in favour, thank goodness, of this type of work. When I look at what I do, that people would consider good works, I do not see myself, I see only God working in me. There are things I do now that I know I am not capable of doing in my own strength. God has done and is doing a work in me that I do not know where and when it will end but I am thoroughly enjoying whatever it is. Christians have corporate liability so even if we were not sinners (impossible) we would be as sinful as the most sinful. It is part of our responsibility as individual Christians and as the body Christ to encourage and challenge our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ to dig deeper into relationship with the Living Lord.
- What kind of faith it is through which we are saved
God expects intellectual assention that he is God, that there is a God from every human on this planet. Believers and non believers alike. Faith in this situation is the very narrow definition, faith that He exists. He expects humankind to show justice, mercy, and truth to their neighbours. I have a family member who is to their friends “a Christian” because they exhibit kindness and love, would do anything for their friends etc. but they are agnostic. They have chosen not to believe that God exists, but in the choosing there is an option to choose again.
Wesley quite rightly points out that even the devil and demons have faith, the devil believes that Jesus is the son of God, the promised Messiah and the saviour of the world. The forces of evil are well aware that Jesus was God in human flesh, the incarnate Lord, and that he will ultimately be victorious in the fight against evil.
And he goes further than I would at this point, he says that our saving faith is more than the faith of the apostles. I disagree with him. I think that we act in our spiritual journey with the Lord exactly as the apostles behaved, we believe and have trust and faith in the Lord and then we mess up and are shown by the conviction of the Spirit that we have messed up. I concur with Wesley that whilst Jesus was on the earth, in his earthly ministry the disciples could not know the saving faith of Christ because he had not yet become the ultimate sacrifice, the perfect one slaughtered for us, to redeem us and save us from death. Through his death of the cross we have eternal life.
Christian faith is not merely the brain saying “yes there is a God” or even believing that the Bible is without error and everything in it is God breathed truth. It is more than that. The gift of faith, saving faith, that we have been given is giving over our lives to Christ. Relying on Him, not on our own strength, to depend on him totally, surrender and submit to the one who loves us more than we will ever understand.
He was our atonement, the once and for all complete atonement for our sins, we trust in him completely, in his life, in his death and in his resurrection and we hold onto him steadfastly as the only way in which we can become holy, redeemed, wise and right with God.
The gift of faith from God, our Christian faith is our salvation, so it is saving faith. We are saved because we put all our trust in Him.
- What is Salvation
It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. We are saved, saved from sin, saved from the guilt of sin, saved from fear, saved from the power of sin and saved from all sorts of sin according to Wesley.
Jesus saves all his people, all who believe in him. He saves us from our past sin, when we turn to Christ he transforms us into a new creation without the baggage of our past sin. It is gone, finished, we are healed of it. We are pronounced ‘not guilty’ because of the blood of Christ that was shed for us. We have been washed in that blood and he makes us new, pure and white. And if we could stay that way life would be a walk in the park. Now once we have been reborn our habitual sins are gone, the dominating sins that came to us as we we confessed them one by one to the Lord are gone. But we are still capable of sinning, and we do still sin.
If we lived in a Christian bubble and the only interaction with the world was as missional creatures maybe we wouldn’t sin (?) Going down from our ivory towers to the lower people below to give them tracts and sing songs and talk in the abstract of a life saved, the people who stop and listen are searchers anyway so is it effective mission to fill our churches with people seeking only to be happy. No, a sermon preached from a pulpit in 1738 on a bright summer’s day in Oxford University to people of learning would encourage some, challenge others and offend many. A sermon preached outside a sweatshop factory where young children were sold as slaves to the owner, one to one contact with these people in a language they understand, if we meet the sex slaves in this town and help them practically to get out and stay out of that life. If we show the love of God to them through the way we accept them just as they are, then we are in the world of sin. When they talk about what they have done and what has been done to them, we are hearing of sins committed and sins committed to, if we are truly at one with God in this and then we will be tempted. Temptation is good because we can choose to continue on our journey with the Lord, consider them trials.
Wesley maintains that a new creation doesn’t sin. He puts forward the argument that the desire to sin is gone, stifled at rebirth. So I read this and my first thoughts are – well girl you are not as Christian, not as reborn as you thought you were because I know I sin. It is in that sigh when the phone rings and I know that there is a need on the other end of the line. Now because I am in constant communion with the Lord I immediately throw myself on his mercy and I confess my sin and answer the phone joyfully. It is in that frustration that bubbles up when I am studying and my door opens and family life needs to be attended to but I want to get back to my study. The balance of that I am working on. It is in the compromises I have to make, it is all right for someone to preach be in the world but not of it, but what happens when the of it is your spouse, tension, right.
I like that Wesley puts forward his arguments and then presents objections that were around and still are today. The faith and good works scenario is still played out today . So rather than give Wesleys point of view this is mine and I think they correlate. Because my life is a life surrendered I do what God directs me to and this can be sitting with someone for hours, it can be baking a cake, or picking up kids or paying a supermarket bill or praying for someone, being kind to someone who is being horrid, experiencing joy in the battlefield, endlessly studying, singing, preaching and maintaining self control in areas I would not ordinarily have and loads of other things that I have no part in, it is God through the Spirit directing my life. So I don’t do good works because I am driven to outweigh my sin, or to be seen as doing good works, in fact I prefer when I can be a secret giver than an overtly rambunctious giver (well I am never going to be that) but I remember when someone was sharing a giving I had done and they managed to do it anonymously within the group and I was pleased because they were able to show the abundance of God and all the glory quite rightly was directed to him and no one knew who the giver was.
The next objection is that being saved through trusting in God leads to pride. To have pride in your faith, puffing up the chest while saying I am a Christian is not of God. If we have to tell Christians that we are then we are not getting it right at all. God’s love should ooze from our very pores, it should be so obvious to the world that we are different and make the world curious and want to come see. I am often caught blushing when people talk about me in a positive light, I do not like being in the spotlight, I like it when I am forgotten and God is seen.
If we have been saved and can throw ourselves on Gods mercy and grace whenever we mess up then doesn’t it give us the option to continue sinning? No, because we have been transformed, we run away from sin (the big ones) we are convicted by the Spirit over the small ones and let’s face it sin is sin and all intentional sin is equal. Sincerity in our faith is key. If we are living authentic, sincere Christian lives then we would not want to sin and when sin comes knocking we should banish it. Last year I was in a time of famine and someone else’s bounty was put in place not once but three times and I had to pick up their bounty and hand it to a safe place because I did not trust myself to not eat of their bounty. I was not willing to go where that might lead.
Wesley states that another objection to saving faith is that it leads people to despair. If people cannot be saved by their own works it can lead to despair, and so it should because until those people surrender completely and trust in Christ alone and not in themselves they have despair. Does this make you uncomfortable? If you have given your life to Christ it should be of comfort to you, I am smiling, knowing that my works are useless, when it is done in the name Suzie it is not fit for purpose but when done in the name of Christ with his guiding light then the work is good and all the glory is for Him alone.
This next bit is the part I remember from a long time ago (three years ago but a lifetime) “Is there mercy for all?” Can the love of God that extended to women at wells and tax collectors in trees really encompass me too? Even if no one on this planet love you, God does, no matter where you have been, what you have done, or what has been done to you, God loves you. God loves me. I praise and worship the Lord and lift his name on high because of it. His loves envelopes me daily, hourly, every minute and every second of every day and I rejoice in that love. My life is a response to that love, the more I love in response, the more love is revealed to me, so much love that I will never grasp how big it is.
We are stained red with sin but I will wash you as clean as snow (Is 1:18)
Finally the objectors say not everyone should hear the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ and Wesley. He quite rightly points out that not everyone listening will hear and points to the wealthy, the educated, the moral and the respectable as those who may listen but not hear. This makes me smile because the congregation of St Mary’s in Oxford would have been made up of these people. I wonder how many were offended by his words? Did the words of his sermon wound them?
When I began preaching I stated that I couldn’t imagine not preaching ‘challenge’ and at the time I was not lying by saying this. However in the last couple of months a number of barriers were put in my walk, one is a six foot six reinforced concrete wall but the others were barriers of church making and taking. I have come full circle in my thinking thanks to the Lord and would welcome the opportunity to preach to small rural congregations words of encouragement spiced with a little challenge. I have discovered along the way that yes I may not be acceptable to some in the church because of the relaxed way I talk, the way I dress, the way I do family and the way I do church but rather than frighten away the congregation like I am sure Wesley did in part. I want to encourage them to continue in the way they do church but maybe change a wee bit at a time. This does not make the message in anyway lukewarm, it just changes the language to suit the listeners. My intention is to proclaim God’s message to listeners who hear so that his name will be glorified in this land, all lands, but particularly this land.
I have a special heart for the Catholics in this land and so Wesley turns me right off when his vitriol is turned towards the Catholic Church. I understand a little of what was going on in the church at the time of the reformation, of the franchising of holy relics and buying dead peoples salvation, but this was of human, not of church and religious power corrupts just as much today as back then and to when Jesus walked the earth, it absolutely corrupts because people forget as they move up hierarchies from where they came and so the Methodist Church with its lay people on committees and at conference and sometimes are the voice that stops the ordained in their tracks for a time of selfireflection. We are all equal in this church as we are before God, there is very little hierarchy, no bishops, no secret enclaves, it is open. Wesley was damning of the Catholic Church, but that was then. Now we need to move forward and have ecumenical Christians Together. All churches are hurting from the opening of society towards talking about abuse, just like all of society is reeling from disclosure after disclosure in the secular world and yet access to images that would take a person into thinking human life has no value except as an object for instant self-gratification is greater than ever before.
Wesley ends with words of victory, with words of comfort, with words from God himself – So thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be praise, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour power and might to our God for ever and ever, amen. (1Cor15:57, Rev5:12)
The idea of learning and being familiar with John Wesley’s sermons, well forty four of them anyway is not something that ever appealed to me. Not because I don’t have a deep respect for John Wesley and his evangelism in the working class areas of the north of England from where I come from. Not because I have any problem studying lengthy documents and gleaning their relevance to today.
No my problem is that it is marketed as a book learning exercise but I (of course) will not be doing it like that. I am coming at them in a spirit of prayer and personal reflection on his ideas that we are made in the image of God to sin and grace, salvation through Christ, assurance, sanctification etc. It will be devotional and confessional rather than theoretical, allowing the sermons to read me, pierce my heart and convict me by the Holy Spirit in those areas of my life that are not of God.
My plan is to read out loud the sermons in plain English and leave a copy here for anyone who wishes to hear them and then write about them, read sermons based on Wesley’s sermons and devote lots of time (twenty two days) to this project.
So with God’s help, with the Spirit flowing freely and in communion with the Living Lord let’s press on.
Streaming dreams on a rainbow cloud
Brainwaves filling to overload
Midnight cold in empty bed
Nightmare images fill my head
Streaming tears fall on a rufescent cheek
sombre future glimpsing bleak
i sat, emptied
fall afresh on me
i knelt, empty
tear stained cheeks
fall afresh on me
i stood, slowly
raised weary head
fall afresh on me
i walk lithely
full of joyful spirit
filled to the brim
onwards on this path
He is never through with me
He is always there
I nestle in the crook of his arm
I am wrapped in His love
I breathe in the sweet perfume
to help me carry on