Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4)
This past Thursday was the day the church commemorates the lives of John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who sparked a revival in the 18th century Church of England by their zealous preaching, hymn writing, and experience of conversion. In their enthusiasm, they practiced a very methodical pattern of piety, from whence the Methodist movement takes its name.
How ironic, then, that the day before this commemoration, our parishioner J. F. should bring into the church office a communion cup that has been passed down through her family since the days it was used by John Wesley himself in the Union Chapel, Bury, Lancashire, England. And there it is, sitting on the altar!
The wonderful thing about artifacts like that is that they remind us that these saints we read about were real human beings, very much like ourselves. Just as we take communion here today from vessels laid out for the purpose, so did he and his community from that very cup—not another one, but that one!
And being reminded of just how human John Wesley was is especially helpful in his case for getting a feel for the nature of his religious enthusiasm. He was, to put it bluntly, a mess. He had a couple of humiliatingly awful love affairs, his missionary work in Georgia was a bit of a disaster, he was openly mocked in the streets, and he made several really bad judgment calls (such as deciding to ordain ministers himself for his missionary work) which effectively put an end to his membership in the Church of England. As Rowan Williams puts it, “His life is a record of what many have seen as muddle and silliness, false starts, disastrous misjudgments, and wrong turnings.”
So how did such a fool as that spark a global movement that today comprises come 40 million people around the world, 7.2 million of them in the United States, making it nearly 5 times as large as our own denomination?
Perhaps the most obvious clue comes from his last words on his own deathbed: “The best of all,” he said, “is God is with us.” It seems that from the very chaos of his life, he had come to the deep realization that it is not we who finally weave our lives together into a meaningful whole, but God. As Williams says, “He knew he was a fool, that his life was a mess; but he set that to one side, because the imperative he felt was to preach what he could only have learned in his folly—that God is to be trusted.”
Now, that seems to me like an important point for us here at the beginning of Lent. It is easy to lapse into thinking that this season is all about penitence and abstinence—but viewed through the lens of John Wesley’s life, I think one might reframe that a bit to say that Lent might better be thought of as being about learning to accept and receive the gifts God has to offer. To paraphrase Jesus, just a little bit, “One does not live by ashes alone.” That is to say, however useful fasting and self-denial may be, they should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that God’s underlying intention is to bless us, not to accuse us.
In my experience, Methodism (the movement founded by the Wesleys), has a particular gift of emphasizing the blessedness that comes from knowing Jesus. The theological word is “sanctification,” but beneath that very big word is a more straight forward meaning: doing good. Methodists talk a lot about the “means of grace,” the ways that God gives to us for learning what it means to do good. At the end of the sermon, we are going to sing a good, sturdy Wesleyan hymn (written in this case written by Charles, one of some 6500 that he wrote!). You’ll notice that for Lent, it’s quite celebratory: the refrain is “Lift up your heart, lift up your voice! Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!”
But if it is true, as John Wesley said on his deathbed, that we have every reason to trust God, to entrust our lives to God, confident that God will hold them in trust for us so that at the end we will not have lived without purpose and meaning, then those are words worth singing in any season. We can entrust our future to God, knowing that God sees us whole and complete, where we may see ourselves only in fractured and scattered pieces.
And just this kind of trust, it seems to me, is the deeper meaning behind the story of Jesus’ temptation, about which we read this morning: the devil gives Jesus opportunity to trust in all manner of things other than God, but Jesus returns again and again to the simple truth that “all our hope in God is founded” (as another hymn puts it, this time of German rather than English origin):
All my hope on God is founded;
God doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance God guideth,
only good and only true.
calls my heart to be God’s own.
Thanks be to God for John and Charles Wesley: misfits, evangelists, saints, people.