We continue our “Composing a Faith” sermon series where we look at the inspirational scriptures and stories behind some of our most beloved music. Last we talked about if you are going to think of faith as a musical composition, you start with the sweet sound of Amazing Grace—the unbreakable love that God has for you no matter what.
Any musical composition also has some structure. What key is it in? What is the meter? 4-4 time? What is the structure of your faith, the bones that hold it together, your method of approaching your faith so that you keep growing?
Today we focus on the music and theology of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. They were the founders of the Methodism. John was the theologian and Charles wrote the soundtrack; he was a hymn-writing machine. He wrote more than 6,000 over his lifetime, many are in our hymnal. I don’t know how we’d do church without him. He wrote our great Easter hymn: Christ the Lord is Risen Today and our beloved Christmas song, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
I thought it would be a good day to talk about how they help us see the Bible because today we celebrate Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and made them speak in tongues. It’s alluded to in our hymn O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing. The Wesley’s brought an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and brought a spiritual revival to England in the 1700s that spread to America.
It’s hard to overstate their impact. Besides the United Methodist Church, there are several other denominations that splintered off, such as the Church of the Nazarene. Quite a few denominations trace their lineage back to the Wesleys. For much of America’s history, more Americans could trace their theological roots back to the Wesley than any other theologian.
Full disclosure: I was raised and ordained in the Methodist church and left it 12 years ago. Although I couldn’t stay with them, it breaks my heart to see what is happening in the denomination right now. I still have a deep appreciation for how the Wesleys have influenced my spiritual journey.
John and Charles were born to a large, religious family in England in the early 1700s. There was a fire in the family home and a tiny John was rescued because they formed a human ladder to rescue him from the 2ndstory. His mom said he was a brand plucked by God for branding human hearts. They both received very formal educations. And during their studies they started a holiness club, which was a few students who would gather for prayer and mutual support as they tried to live faithfully. This became a central feature to his structure of the Christian life. Find some people who you can talk to about your life and help you keep on track.
When John entered ministry and served a church in England but he got bored. He decided to go to the colonies and convert the natives into proper Church of England churchgoers. That plan didn’t pan out so well. Neither did a romantic interest who just wasn’t into him. So he headed back to England. On his voyages he was very impressed with the way a group of Moravians practiced their faith. It was a much more personal and expressive faith than he was used to.
Although he was an ordained priest in the Church of England, he always felt there was something missing. Then one night it happened. He recalled in his journal, “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.”
It was like the Emmaus Road story in the Bible where the followers of Jesus felt their hearts burning within them when they broke bread with him. It was a moment for John Wesley when his religion went from being some abstract philosophy, a head religion to a personal, heartfelt religion. An experience rather than a thought or a set of beliefs.
What happened? I think a busy guy slowed down. He had a journal where he tracked what he was doing every 15 minutes of every day. He didn’t need much sleep at night. He was just always going. At Aldersgate, he went to a place where he had to stop. Listen. Quiet his mind. And when he did, he could listen to that voice of God that is within him, that voice that is within all of us. The voice that says, stop beating yourself up. You are mine. You are forgiven. You have a purpose. Stop worrying about all that stuff in your mind. I’ve got this. Make it simple.
Wesley believed in constant conversion. It’s not a one-time thing—you believe and say a prayer once and you’ve got it. No, he believed there are always areas of our lives that we can find new ways of turning over to God, inviting God in and experiencing grace. That’s a Wesleyan part of my Come Holy Spiritprayer. It’s not praying to convert others to believe in a certain way, but us praying to God to help us turn more of our lives over to the Holy Spirit.
Wesley finally felt his faith. Faith isn’t about a set of doctrines. It isn’t about rituals performed by priests. It’s about how we connect to God on a personal level, a heart level. Maybe you’ve never felt that in your life. But it can happen. I liked that he got dragged to a meeting and heard someone talking about a book that someone else wrote when it happened. Maybe you can put yourself in a position, a frame of mind, an openness the spirit where it is a little more likely to happen to you. To relax, feel. Imagine your heart opening up and letting the light in. To feel the warmth in your chest and experience it as God’s love, kindness, best intentions for your life.
John developed the concept of Prevenient Grace where he saw all the biblical passages that said our salvation is not our own doing, but the Holy Spirit working in our lives before we are even aware of it. He rejected the Calvinists notion that some people are born predestined for damnation. He saw salvation as God’s will for everyone and works constantly in our lives to bring goodness and grace.
He went out and proclaimed the word wherever he could and the heart level religion appealed especially to hard-working folks who didn’t have a lot of Sunday finery. People who weren’t the elites. For common folks, religion had turned into a matter of following rules, listening to long boring lectures about obscure and abstract theological constructs and watching the priests perform rituals on behalf of the whole church. There wasn’t much to it. A heady, disembodied religion. God felt remote. It was stuffy. There weren’t even many good hymns to sing.
He’d preach in coal mines and there was such a hunger for a faith that applied to regular everyday people that he trained up lay preachers and sent them out. Not to start a new church, but to get regular people interested. Some of them wound up in America and after the Revolutionary War, the Church of England was not all that keen on sending ordained clergy to America so Wesley broke off and started ordaining folks so believers could receive communion.
Just like the way the Holy Spirit helped the disciples on Pentecost speak in the languages of other people, the Wesleys wrote songs that helped spread the message in ways people could relate to that made sense to them. One of their strategies was to take the earthy bar songs, the pop music of their day and put their Christian lyrics along with it. People ate it up. Why should the devil have all the good music? The upper crust elites did not much care for their message that said the hard-living laborers were their spiritual equals. “Appalling!” said the nobility.
I always appreciated Wesley’s way of interpreting the Bible. He said you shouldn’t just read it at a flat level, pop it open and randomly select a verse and then think you know what to do. Rather we should look at other scripture passages. Is it consistent with the big biblical themes? And then you measure it against the tradition. How has the church historically interpreted this verse? And then he said you should use your own reason, and your own experience in testing it. Don’t just take some scholar’s word for it. How does it feel to you? What does your gut tell you?
Wesley turned out to be an organizing genius and was very systematic in orchestrating the movement. One of the keys to their success was the equivalent of small groups for sharing and praying and learning. Some of the groups were like accountability groups. Each person would draw up a covenant, something they wanted to work on spiritually in the coming year–maybe serving the less fortunate–or reading the Bible or stopping swearing. The group would meet weekly and encourage each other. How is it going this week with the swear jar? What did you do to help someone this week? How can we help keep you on the right path?
People on the outside who did not understand snickered and called them Methodists as a derogatory term. But it wasn’t about having a method for gaining God’s love–that was a given. It was all about how you lived out in response to that love, how community helps the spiritual path.
He believed in progress in spiritual life. He called it the process of sanctification. That the goal in life is to perfectly love others as God’s love is perfect and true. The more you live your life in the spirit, the better you are at this. You are aware of the depths of the forgiveness you’ve received and the spirit that flows through your life. Your motives, rather than being self-centered, would be guided by a deep desire to please God.
Wesley had great little ways of helping people connect and remember the heart of the scriptures. He fashioned what he called 3 simple rules for a Christian life. First, do no harm. Second, do good. Third, stay in love with God and follow the ordinances of prayer, fasting, communion, Bible Study and worship.
When it came to money he said you should do three things. Work hard and earn all you can in a way that is honorable to yourself and God. You should save all you can in a way that is honorable. And third, you should give all that you can.
I always loved his simple admonition: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can.
Something that he emphasized that fits so well with how the UCC and Bay Shore Church operate, and why I feel so at home here, is the focus on spiritual development and social justice. Back then he called it personal piety and social holiness. The idea is that faith should make us concerned with our neighbor, with those who are struggling, and find ways to help them. Religion isn’t private, but it sends us out to serve. It’s right there above our doors as we go out every week.
It’s all grace. Our featured song, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing recalls that moment of Pentecost in the Bible where the disciples spoke in the plain language of the foreign guests in Jerusalem. Acts 2 tells us they were speaking about God’s great deeds of amazing power. So the song invites us to take part in that. The glories of my God and King the triumphs of His grace.There are so many great things that God has done in your life, you’d need a thousand tongues to tell of all of the triumphs of his grace. All the times and ways you’ve been graced by the beauty of nature and people and events kindnesses extended, times you found the strength to get through stuff you didn’t think you could survive. All the holy coincidences. It’s all the triumphs of his grace.
I want to close with a little meditation time. Even if you came here today as John Wesley came to that meeting on Aldersgate Street, that is “quite unwillingly.” You are here now. Just take advantage of a quiet moment and see what happens. As the prayer song is sung, just close your eyes. If you wish, open your palms upward in a posture of receiving what God gives to you, that peace, that assurance. Or even place your hand over your heart and feel the warmth that is already in you. To quiet all the other voices that grab your attention, the ones of critics, including your own inner critic and listen for the whisper of God, the warmth that says, don’t listen to that other stuff. You are mine. You are going to be okay. I’ve got you. You are mine and I have wonderful things in store for you.