A sermon preached in Oxnam Chapel on the campus of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Last week I gave a lecture downtown on the detrimental effects of early Methodism and so this week, here in chapel, I’ve decided that I should entitle my sermon, the Genius of Methodism. It only seems fair. And it does come from a deep-seated affinity that I have for Wesleyan Christianity, for I believe that what the Wesleyan Revival was really about was a call to holiness, a vision of life shaped and formed by the reality of Jesus Christ, the Jesus we just heard about in the scripture readings.
One of my seminary professors used to say all of the time, we point to Wesley as he points us to Christ. And so the adverse is also true, that if there is ever a time when Wesley doesn’t point to Christ, we put him aside because ultimately it is Christ who matters, not our theological heroes.
The text from Hebrews that you heard this morning is not about John Wesley or Methodism, but rather about the one to whom Wesley and Methodism point. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews – thought by Wesley to be St. Paul – wrote some of the most beautiful words about the self-revelation of the Triune God. God – its obvious from the start who this is about – who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days – meaning ultimately – by his Son. This isn’t just anyone, this is the Son of God, the heir of all things, and through whom also he made the worlds. In other words, even before the clarifying and precise language of the Council of Nicaea, God spoke not through an intermediary, but Himself, directly, tangibly, personally, incarnationally.
And who is this Jesus? He is the “brightness of [God’s] glory, the express image of his person” and upholds “all things by the word of his power.” And just to make sure that we know exactly who the author is talking about he reminds us, the readers, that this is the one who “purged our sin” and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
I love what the author does here. Like so often in scripture, the text begins with great and cosmic declarations about the heavens and the creation, about things well beyond the scope of everyday life, speaking of the majesty and glory of God. And in just the flick of a pen, that cosmic drama, that glory, that majesty, is brought to our level.
In Genesis, it records that God created all that is and in beautifully poetic language we read the story of God’s work. But that cosmic work very quickly leads to a garden, where humanity walks with God in the cool of the day.
In John, we read another creation account, and this time we learn that the Word was not only with God, but was God, and through him all things were made. It was that same eternal Word that was incarnate for us and even “dwelt among us.” But just as quickly, after introducing the glories of this eternal Word made flesh, we run into John, a bug-eating prophet calling sinners to the tangible waters of the River Jordan.
The author of Hebrews is speaking about this cosmic and yet tangible Jesus, the same who created all things and who taught along the dusty roads of Galilee.
There’s a lesson here, among many because the riches of scripture will never be exhausted, but one lesson that we can see here is that the cosmic actions of God have everyday consequences.
In Oxford in the late 1720s there was a university-wide scare caused by the discovery of a deist; one deist. The University officials and the faculty doubled-down their efforts to combat the heresy. One of the effects of these efforts was Charles Wesley’s “turn toward seriousness,” a change of heart that led to the formation of the Holy Club with his brother.
But the irony of that particular crisis and their over-reaction is that the deists were the one’s full of fear. At the heart of deism is a fear that God might actually mess with our lives. The deists wanted a God they could contain and keep at arms length. Too bad Jesus doesn’t work that way.
I like what the lectionary has done here, though. I’m not always a fan when the lectionary jumps over sections of scripture, but in this case they chose well. Chapter breaks are not always useful. But by skipping a beautifully poetic section about the Son’s superior status to the angels and moving to chapter two, the link between the first section and the second chapter is made obvious.
In the first, the author speaks of God’s self revelation, in the second the focus is on us. Whenever there is a “Therefore,” we are called to sit up and to pay attention, and we have one here, “Therefore, we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?”
As one who wakes up with Wesley tunes in my head, I automatically thought of Charles Wesley’s text, “Come almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive. Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.”
The cosmic salvation that we begin with speaks to the personal and very real salvation that God has in-store for us. And how shall we escape if we neglect it?
Salvation is the core of the Wesleyan message. It’s not that we own it. Certainly not. In fact, as Wesleyans we claim no new doctrinal revelation. We cling to that which we have received from the beginning. It’s in its presentation that Methodism is sometimes unique, and particularly unique amongst Protestants.
When Wesley was asked about the message of Methodism, he called it nothing short of the religion of the bible, the religion of the primitive church, and the religion of the Church of England. But in his less polemical moments, he described it having three emphases: Justification by faith, the new birth, and holiness of heart and life.
At the heart of the Wesleyan message is a saving relationship with the Triune God that brings us into the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit and the community of love that has existed within it from eternity.
But it’s a vision that takes seriously both the realty of sin and therefore the wondrous saving work of God.
Sin needs to be taken seriously. It is nothing short of a participation in death and the longer we wallow in sin, we are participating in death. We do ourselves no favors denying the reality of sin. In fact, there’s no reason to ignore sin because God’s salvation is more powerful than anything that may bind us.
Salvation is being filled with life.
There was a reason why Wesley used the term “New Birth.” At the moment of justification, we are pardoned. Our past sins are wiped away. And in that moment we experience the New Birth. Notice that I said, “experience.” The New Birth isn’t a juridical thing. It’s an experience, an encounter with the living God. And it changes you. It is in that moment that one becomes a child of God.
Justification is pardon and forgiveness. The New Birth is nothing short of a new life. It is when the power of sin is broken by the overwhelming flood of God’s grace.
So then what is sanctification? The reality is that sin lingers, even when its power is taken away. Even when God’s grace is enough, we don’t always embrace it. And so the New Birth is the beginning of sanctification, the gateway, the entrance to the life of holiness.
Wesley used the analogy of being born for the New Birth, and that makes perfect sense. The unborn do not have the full use of their senses. They cannot see what the world looks like, their senses while capable are limited. In fact, they have no idea what awaits them on the other side. Likewise with the New Birth, the person is awakened to the reality of God and their spirit is made alive in a way that could never have been fathomed before. But like the newborn child, the new child of God needs to learn how to walk. That is sanctification.
The work of sanctification is both gradual and instantaneous. It’s gradual in that between the work of the New Birth and the work of entire sanctification we grow in grace, enabled by the Holy Spirit to “press on toward the prize,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. It is in this process of sanctification that we increase more and more in holiness so that our lives conform to the life of Christ. It’s gradual in that it is the process of a healing. And just as healing is gradual in the body, so is the process of healing the soul gradual. But entire sanctification, or that moment, when God moves to make the soul completely filled with holy love is not gradual.
There’s a moment when we learn how to walk.
In today’s media culture many of have vidoes of it and it’s pasted all over Facebook and Instagram. But it’s a moment. And likewise with the infilling of holy love, it’s immediate. But here is where the walking analogy falls down; entire sanctification is not our work, it is God’s work. Only God can fill the soul with His love. Only God can make our lives whole.
Ignoring the instantaneous work and focusing too much on the gradual has caused problems and become the source of much spiritual mediocrity. Wesley was once asked the question about the possibility of full salvation in this life and he answered, “Be a Methodist still, expect full salvation now!” The fullness is something that we can’t earn. But like all of salvation, it’s a gift, and one that God wants to give to each and every one of us.
On more than one occasion I’ve had students here at the Seminary ask me if we can expect to be freed from the power of sin in this life and the answer is yes, a resounding yes! In fact, that yes is the only reason that Methodism exists. And for my non-Wesleyan brothers in sisters, my apologies if you’ve felt that this sermon was not for you, but in fact it is. On two different levels, because the promises of Christ are not only for the Methodists, but also because the Methodists need you to hold us accountable to the charism that God has given us. We need each other.
For over two centuries the mission of the Methodist movement was to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.” And they did. When you think of the circuit riders and the early pioneers of Methodism, it was this vision that drove them.
I’ve recently picked up one of my favorite books, to read it again. There are those books that simply must be read more than once, and for me that’s Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It’s a book about discovery, or even better re-discovery. And at the very beginning the main character encounters a place with great meaning that he hadn’t forgotten completely, but that he hadn’t encountered in some time. He arrives there one night by coincidence and when he asked where he was, his response is a flood of memory. I’ll let him speak for himself:
“It was not till I reached the door that I asked the second-in-command, “What’s this place called?” He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds – for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, as its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
Sometimes it’s the rediscovery of something that we once knew that beings relief and, dare I say, revival. Those who are worried about the future of Methodism should first concern themselves with its past. Because our charism remains the same, to preach the reality of sin and God’s pardon, the experience of the New Birth, and holiness made possible in this life. Put differently, Methodism is called to proclaim a grace-drenched reality in which the empowerment of God is our fuel and the holy love of God is our daily life.
The task of the Methodist is not only to expect that work in their own life, but also to share with others the expectation that God can, in fact, cleanse the heart. The Creator can and does make his creation whole, and it can begin in you and in me. Even now.
Ryan N. Danker