Aldersgate Day"You are accepted, you are loved, and there is nothing that you can do to stop it.
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John Wesley is the founder of this Methodist movement that Grace is a part of. Wesley grew up in the church of England, his father was a pastor and his mother lead a Sunday School class out of the family home that was sometimes better attended than her husband’s Sunday services. John went on to be a a fellow at Oxford, not too far outside of London, England, As a fellow, Wesley served as a pastor, philosophy professor, and guidance counselor for many of the students. It was during his time at Oxford that Wesley became captivated by the idea of holiness and devoting his whole life to the glory of God.
I’m sure no one else has ever had this thought, but when Wesley was growing up, he always wondered why some of the people that went to church were jerks for all but one hour on Sundays. Wesley thought that our faith should challenge and compel us, that we should be continually transformed into the grace that we believe in.
So John, his brother Charles, and a few other students, started meeting together at a pub, forming what they called the holy club. They would read the Bible, pray, and fast twice a week until 3 in the afternoon. Additionally, they started to visit people in prisons and hospitals. Seeing the need that these people had, John Wesley stopped cutting his hair so he could give away the money that he would have spent on haircuts. In the holy club, they had a rigorous and methodical way of practicing their faith and that is how they came to be known as Methodist.
In these early days of the Methodist movement, John wrote in his journal that he had, “been charged with being too strict…with carrying things too far in religion and laying burdens on myself, if not on others, which were neither necessary nor possible to be borne.”
The practices, the methods, that John Wesley was using with his faith, the ways that he prayed, studied, and shared his faith, they are supposed to be ways that help us embrace life, ways that we experience the joy, wonder, and awe that God has given to us. But for Wesley, instead of being passionate about living a good, holy and grace-filled life, he was finding himself focused on unhealthy legalism and guilt.
Wesley felt he had to prove that he was good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me. Instead of trusting in grace and believing that there was nothing he could do to separate himself from the love of God, Wesley felt like he had to achieve the love of God.
Have you every felt like you can never do enough, that you aren’t worthy, that you have to try harder and harder and harder to be loved, to be accepted for who you really are?
Two months ago, some of you became teachers, co-workers, chefs, coaches, custodians, and more overnight, all without leaving your home. When we started this season with COVID-19, I don’t know about you, but I thought to myself, I can do everything I used to and more. How hard have we struggled and strived to be perfect for others instead of accepting and extending the perfect love of God that is already with us?
It was Wesley’s quest to prove that he was faithful enough, that he was good enough, that lead him to leave his position at Oxford and travel to Georgia as a missionary.
In 1732, the British Empire established a new colony in North America and it was named Georgia in honor of King George II, not to be outdone, King George’s wife, Caroline, had two colonies named after her.
James Oglethorpe was a member of Parliament at the time and was a social reformer in England. In the 1700’s many people found their way into debtors prison, and Oglethorpe realized that putting someone in prison to pay off a debt is a terrible policy, because if someone is in jail for debt that means they can’t work, which means they can’t pay back their debt. Oglethorpe also thought that people in prison deserved a second chance, imagine that. This brand new colony was seen as a place to start over and start again. After spending a few years in Georgia, Oglethorpe returned to England to find a handful of clergy that could help to serve the community there. Oglethorpe wanted pastors in town, and he also wanted pastors to reach out to the natives that lived in the area so they could have peaceful relationships.
John convinced his brother Charles and a few of his other friends to travel to Georgia, to embark on this grand adventure in a new world. But there was another motivation that Wesley had for going to America, in his journal he writes that he traveled to Georgia in an attempt to save his own soul.
As a pastor, Wesley didn’t think faithful enough. What Wesley preached to others he didn’t quite believe. So he set off, across the ocean. One Wesley scholar and historian, Richard Heitzenrater noted that before traveling to Georgia, Wesley had never been on a boat before, so you can guess how prepared he was for this journey.
Traveling from England to Georgia would take just over three months, and Wesley was sea-sick for most of it.
There is a passage in the New Testament where it says that we’re supposed to work out our faith with fear and trembling, but I don’t think three months of puking off the side of a ship is what they’re talking about.
On October 14, 1735, John Wesley boarded the Simmonds, and just over three months later he would arrive in Georgia, but in those three months on the sea, Wesley wasn’t just sick, he was scared, he was terrified, because a number of storms shook the boat and shook Wesley to his core.
There are a lot of storms that we face in this life, and I can’t believe in a God that sends storms to punish or hurt us, but I find hope in the God that works through them. God is not out to hurt us, but to offer us hope and healing, no matter what.
Wesley faced a storm at sea, but there was a storm in his soul too. A lot of the storms that we deal with aren’t literal, but they are just as frightening. At times our life seems to get blown off course and all we can feel is turmoil. The tragedies and challenges that we call the storms of life do not have to destroy us, because when we place them in God’s hands, they can become part of our defining story, they can open us up to new possibilities.
I will never claim to know why bad things happen. Pain, when it’s not yours, can be an interesting philosophical problem, but pain, when it’s yours, when you are in the midst of it, can feel like an all encompassing mystery.
I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, I don’t know why good things happen to bad people, but I know that we’re in a real world with real pains and possibilities and potential. And because of that the people that start cancer foundations are usually the people that have been hurt by cancer, the people that start support groups for altzheimers are people that have traveled down that road and know just how hard it can be. Pain can close our hearts, but it can also open them. God doesn’t hurt us, but brings healing to a hurting world through us.
It was on January 25 in 1736 that Wesley wrote in his journal about the storms that shook him as he sailed across the Atlantic. During the storms the main sail was in tatters and waves washed over the ship, Wesley writes that water, “poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.” Wesley was in terror, fearing for his life, but in the middle of the storm, a group of Christians from Moravia, in Germany, calmly sang a psalm together on the deck of the boat.
Wesley wanted a faith that could sing through the storm, he wanted the peace that he saw in those Moravian Christians, but when he arrived in Georgia, instead of trusting in grace, Wesley doubled down on his rigorous understanding of faith, telling himself that he had to try and work even harder than he ever had before. Just after the ship landed, Wesley confiscated and destroyed all the rum that had been on board. Quite a few people on the ship had been planning a party, they wanted to celebrate their arrival in the new world, but Wesley crashed their party before it started.
Wesley did not know how to win friends and influence people.
When Wesley started his ministry in Georgia, he advocated more and more for a rigorous and methodical practice of faith, and some people embraced this vision of the Christian life, but for others, Wesley was asking far too much.
For example, Wesley started holding a 5am prayer service every day. That alone is too much for me, but some people like mornings, so maybe it’s not a terrible idea for everyone. But what made things worse is that Wesley took things even farther telling the church people that if they didn’t join him for the morning prayer service they wouldn’t be able to receive communion. Wesley thought that God’s goodness and grace was only available to the early birds.
Wesley writes in his journal that during this time one person came to him and said, “I like nothing you do…Indeed there is neither man nor woman in the town who minds a word you say. And so you may preach long enough; but nobody will come to hear you.”
It’s almost as if Wesley was so compelled by the idea of holiness that he forgot what it means to be holy, to live with the fruit of the spirit that Paul writes about in Galatians where we are filled with, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Wesley was more known for being judgmental and rude than he was for graciousness and love. Unfortunately, Wesley wasn’t the last Christian in history to be seen that way.
Throughout the spring of 1736, Wesley hadn’t scared everyone out of the church, just most of them. There was a small group of people that would meet with Wesley to pray and study with one another, and one of the people that came to these meetings was a young woman named Sophie Hopkey. Sophie was about 18 years old when she met John, and she had been previously engaged to a man that was in jail for forgery, so she thought that John, who wasn’t in jail, was a real catch. But there was one catch because John was 32. On top of that, Wesley wasn’t sure that marriage was for him.
Still, Wesley and Sophie started to spend more time together and they grew close. In Wesley’s journal from this summer you read the struggles of his spiritual life, wanting to devote himself completely to God and yet wanting to be with Sophie too.
That same summer, Sophie kept thinking she would be engaged, but as summer turned to fall, John still hadn’t put a ring on it.
One day, John told Sophie that he wanted to stay single so that he could devote himself fully to the church, and Sophie said, maybe I can do that too, maybe we can be single and serve the church together.
Wesley thought that was great – he found a way to have the best of both worlds, but not too long later, one of Sophie’s family members came to John and said, Sophie is going to get married to someone else unless you propose to her first. Wesley didn’t think it was true, because he was convinced that they were going to be single, together, but it was true, Sophie wanted to get married, so she did.
John was devastated.
He wrote to Sophie telling her that she had lied to him and sinned against God and until she confessed her sins in front of the whole church she wouldn’t be able to receive communion.
But Sophie didn’t think she did anything wrong, because she didn’t. And Sophie was a strong-willed woman, so the next Sunday she walked to the front of the church to receive communion, and John refused to serve her. Sophie and her new husband were sent away from the open table of Christ empty handed, and shamed.
Sophie and her new husband charged Wesley with defamation of character and soon he was taken to jail. He was let out on bail, and the next few months passed like a soap opera. The court proceedings moved slowly, with the trial date being pushed back again and again.
Wesley was devastated, his faith had been shaken since the storm at sea, the members of the church had abandoned him, because, frankly, he had abandoned them first, and he was alone, taken to court over communion. Late at night, in December of 1736, Wesley left Georgia for Charleston so he could return to England in shame.
He didn’t know it at the time, and if you had told him, he wouldn’t have believed you, but he rejection, the loss, the shame, the doubt, the pain that Wesley lived through was used by God to change the world. The fear that Wesley had in during the storms at sea helped him to seek more than knowing about God, but trusting God. His failure as a pastor in Georgia led him to finally be seized and captured by a saving grace and the all encompassing love of God.
Wesley thought that he had lost his faith during his year in Georgia, but he met a friend and pastor named Peter Boehler, who was getting ready to leave for Georgia just as Wesley as returned. Wesley was ready to leave the church, to leave his faith behind, and Boehler said to him, “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Wesley wasn’t sure about this advice, because he had preached faith fo a few years at this point, but he took Boehler’s advice to heart anyway.
A few months later, at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, a group of friends were meeting together, encouraging one another in the faith. We don’t know exactly what happened that night, but we know that Wesley felt the grace of God in a way that he never had before.
In his journal Wesley writes, “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…I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.”
Wesley realized that he was loved, and accepted, no matter what. He realized that the rules he had made for himself might be helpful, but they weren’t the point. The practices and the Methodists that Wesley used and cherished were important, but they weren’t the point either, the point, the only point, that matters, is grace.
You are loved, right now, as you are, no matter what.
As it’s written in Romans 5:1-2:
“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory.”
In the mid-20th century, theologian Paul Tillich expressed much of this spiritual tension that we saw in Wesley:
“It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you…Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accept.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”
You are accepted, you are loved, and there is nothing that you can do to stop it.
There is nothing that you have to do to work for love, there is nothing you have to do to earn love, you are, simply and completely, loved, the universe is on your side, and God is with you.
So today, may you accept yourself, may you rest in the grace of God, may your heart be strangely warmed as you accept the fact that you are accepted. Amen.
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Read – Galatians 2:16-21
Notice – John Wesley tried to be holy — and outwardly did quite well. Yet sailing back to England after two years in the colony of Georgia, he wrote in his journal, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?…I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well…Bit in a storm I think, ‘What if the gospel be not true?…I left my native country to teach the Georgian Indians…But what have I learned myself int he meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.” When Paul wrote “we KNOW that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law,” he wasn’t speaking hypothetically. He’d once lived in confidence that his own religious credentials were good enough to impress God (cf. Philippians 3:3-7), only to realize he could never be that holy. What’s your experience? What has awakened in your heart a sense of your need for God’s redeeming love and grace?
Pray – Jesus, thank you for loving me and giving yourself for me. Thank you for daily walking with me in a closer and closer relationship, one that allows me to face the troubles this life brings with confidence because you are with me. Amen.
Read – Romans 3:9-28
Notice – John Wesley’s inner struggle opened his spirit to hear and trust the good news that God accepts us by grace, not based on our work. Here’s how he described the moment in his journal: “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 strangleyl warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.” Paul used six Scripture quotes (Psalm 51:4, Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 5:9, Psalm 10:7, Isaiah 59:7-8 and Psalm 36:1) to show that no one, from the most libertine Gentile to the most careful Pharisee, keeps God’s law fully. (One preacher said the moral law is like a sheet of glass. If it’s broken anywhere, it’s broken–cf. James 2:10.) In what ways does this seemingly bad news form us into a community of people with a shared need who live by faith in God’s grace? How might that shared need free a person like John Wesley from shame, so that he could openly accept his need of mercy and grace.
Pray – God, through Paul you showed me how to deal with guilt when I do something wrong. I no longer need to turn guilt (“I made a mistake”) into shame (“I AM a mistke.”) Thank you for freeing me–warm my heart today with your grace. Amen.
Read – 1 John 5:10-13
Notice – As John Wesley accepted that God saves us soley by grace, he was able to quit hoping or wishing to be saved. He recorded the cange in these words: “An assurance was given me that [God] has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitfully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my hear.” Christian faith certainly looks to the future with hope. Buth the writings associated with John regularly did something different with the idea of “etenal life”: they pit it in the present tense (cf. 1 John 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, 54, 10:28, as well as toda’s reading). What different light does it cast on whatever you face today to realize that this day is already a port of the “eternal life” God gives you?
Pray – God, thank you that your gift of eternal life is not a matter of “maybe” or “I hope.” Help me to live with assurance that you have taken away my sins, and given me more love, more joy, more peace. Amen.
Read – 1 Timothy 2:2-6
Notice – Wesley echoed Paul’s words to Timothy when he said he believed his commission was to preach the gospel to “every creature.” In John 3, Jesus said he could save everyone who believed in him. Do you know people with whom you wish you share what Jesus means to you? Are you ever tempted to “write off” any of those people because “they’d never respond”? Ask God to help you see every person you know, even the “unlikely” ones, as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
Pray – Jesus, I want to be ready to give a reason for my hope–here in our community and around the globe. Give me a heart like yours, one that urgently wants to reach out and include all people in your love. Amen.
Read – Titus 2:11-15
Notice – In Wesley’s class-conscious England, many people thought the Christian faith was only for the “proper” people. But Wesley knew, like Paul before him, that the good news was for all people. More than that, they both knew that God’s people were encouraged to share their Christian hope with others. Wesley once wrote in his hournal about a group he’d preached to, “I am apt to think many of the hearers scarecely ever heard a Methodist before, or perhaps any other preacher…Are not their souls also precious in the sight of God?” In verse 15, Paul gave Titus a taks: “Talk about these things.” (Verses 12 and 14 make it clear that kind of life he and his converts lived could “talk”) That same task is ours. Ask God to give you an “inner nudge” whenever anyone you know is ready to hear your faith story, or to accept and invitation to join you in worship. It’s never been easier to invite people to church, it’s as simple as sharing a link online.
Pray – Jesus, I’m thankful that I’m precious enoght to you that you sent your Spirit to shape my life. Give mye eyes to see the same preciousness in others, as you do. Amen.
Read – Luke 14:12-24
Notice – Jesus lived amoung many religious people who recoiled at the idea of sharing God’s kingdom with “sinners” (a term they defined roughly as ‘not as good as I am’). To some of them, Jesus told a shocking story about a king who invited even the town’s street people to a royal banquet. In that spirit, John Wesley and the early Methodist preached faith to people of all social classes. In 1739, Wesley wrote ironically in his journal about his own inner struggle with his “upright” background: “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.” Priest and writer Brennan Manning loved to the quote the college student who, after reading the gospels, said, “Wow–God sure that a thing for ragamuffins.” Learning about John Wesley’s conversion experience and the powerful preaching that followed poses two very personal questions. First, can you see the degree to which your are a ragamuffin before God, one more person who desperately and gratefully needs God’s grace and mercy? Second, are you open to inviting and welcoming into God’s kingdom the ragamuffins of all kinds who live around you, even if at first you might feel a bit uncomfortable in their company?
Pray – God, you are an actively loving seeking God. That you for calling me to one of your human partners in the work of going into the highways and back alleys, so that your heavenly banquet may be full. Amen