I recently ran across this excellent article on John Wesley’s Sermons and Methodist Doctrine from Dr. Cindy Wesley. Dr. Wesley compares the doctrinal function of John Wesley’s sermons with the that of the Book of Homilies in the Church of England in 18th century England. Sermons were the English way of “doing theology”.
A Means of Grace
In his sermon On Visiting the Sick, John Wesley begins by calling his readers to look upon the act as a means of grace.
He explains that the means of grace “are the ordinary channels which convey the grace of God to the souls of men.” They include works of piety, such as hearing and reading the Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, and fasting. And they include works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, relieving the stranger, and visiting those who are sick or in prison. Here, Wesley follows Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46.
That just sounds like a sweet thought until one realizes exactly what Wesley is saying. The means of grace are not add-ons to the Christian faith that earn you brownie points in heaven or offer you a richer spiritual experience on earth. The means of grace are not optional.
The walking herein is essentially necessary, as to the continuance of that faith whereby we are already saved by grace, so to the attainment of everlasting salvation.
John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of the end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.
As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.
In a recent post on the church’s mission-essential tasks, one of the sub-tasks I listed was this:
Reorient – address obstacles to faith and holiness
I listed this as part of the second mission-essential task:
Integrate Disciples into the Community of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
By “addressing obstacles to faith and holiness,” I mean that repentance and liberation from sin characteristic of Wesleyan theology. The church helps its new members begin the process of reorienting their lives away from enslavement to the world, the flesh and the devil toward freedom for joyful Christian holiness.
The early church addressed this aspect of making disciples with its extended catechumenate. Catechumens not only learned the basics of the faith, they were liberated from the power of the world, the flesh and the devil by prayer and exorcism. The church watched over the catechumens in love, encouraging them, exhorting them and holding them accountable for the commitments they were making.
Early Methodism accomplished this same task with its system of classes and bands. Methodists met together in small groups to hold each other accountable to life under the General Rules and to seek perfection in love. They exhorted each other and prayed for each other as they sought to lay aside all known sin.
United Methodist identity is bound up, in part, with our understanding of the word “connectional.” In ordinary speech, a connection is “a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.” (Oxford Dictionary). Almost every Christian church is connectional in the ordinary sense of that word.
When United Methodists use the word, however, we are describing our particular manner of being connected with other members of the United Methodist Church. According to the Book of Discipline, we are connected by our historical standards of faith, our polity, our ethos, our distinctive way of doing things and our working together in mission (¶132). The connection is “experienced” through our systems of episcopacy, itinerancy, property, annual conferences and agencies. (¶701) The Book of Discipline is the cornerstone of our unique way of being connectional.
For many United Methodists, the word “connectional” is not merely descriptive; it evokes our sense of religious identity. On more occasions than I can count, I have heard United Methodists utter their own version of Luke 18:11: “God, we thank you that we are not like other people. We are connectional!” The connection is who we are. And as the place where we meet God, it is a holy thing that should not be trifled with.