Blessed Assurance

This past Friday was the anniversary of an important day in the Methodist world, and so in honor of that, we’re going to begin today with a little bit of Methodist trivia.  You might find the answers to some of these questions in your bulletins, or you may have already heard me say them earlier in the service.  Some of them might require a little bit of outside knowledge.  Here we go:

  1. The name of the founder of the Methodist movement. (A: John Wesley)
  2. The name of John’s brother, who wrote many of the hymns in our Methodist hymnal. (A: Charles) Can you name some of his hymns?
  3. The name of John and Charles’s mother, who was their primary religious instructor growing up. (A: Susanna)
  4. John Wesley’s life spanned almost one complete century. What century was it? (A: 18th – he lived from1703-1791.)
  5. What country did the Wesleys live in? (A: England)
  6. In what church, or denomination, was John Wesley ordained? (A: Church of England – the Methodist movement he started was a renewal movement within the CoE, never meant to be a separate church.)
  7. During his time in university, Wesley led a group known by some as the Holy Club, which met frequently for prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, communion, and visiting and serving others. What university did he attend? (A: Oxford)
  8. After his Oxford days, Wesley traveled to the American colonies as a missionary. Which colony did he go to? (A: Georgia – statue of him in Savannah)
  9. The name of John Wesley’s girlfriend, who he finally refused to marry and ended up getting chased out of Georgia by her powerful uncle. (A: Sophie Hopkey) (Even religious leaders have their relationship drama.)
  10. A hard one: the name of the non-Anglican religious group that influenced Wesley in his early days back in England with their strong faith? (A: Moravians)
  11. The street name in London where Wesley had the conversion experience we are commemorating today. (A: Aldersgate)
  12. Switching from history to theology: Methodists believe that we encounter God’s grace in three ways. Name one of them. (A: Prevenient, justifying, sanctifying)
  13. And just for fun: what is the one thing, so far, the Methodist church in the US has split over? (A: slavery)

OK, so, let’s put all of this together.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was born in England in 1703, to a father who was an Anglican clergyman and a mother, Susanna, who taught him everything he knew on a very strict schedule.  He went to Oxford, along with his brother Charles, who wrote many of the hymns in our hymnal; there they got together a group of friends to meet regularly for the purpose of living and growing faithfully: they read Scripture, sang hymns, shared communion, visited people who were sick, and gave money to the poor.  This earned them several fun nicknames including the Holy Club, the Bible Moths, and Methodists (because they were so methodical in their approach to faith.)  John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England, went to Georgia as a missionary to convert the natives, had little success in doing so, compound that with some romantic drama, and came back to England generally feeling like a failure.  On his way back to England he fell in with the Moravians who helped him to look at faith in a new way, one that was less about trying to do all the right things and more about trusting and waiting for God to be at work in your life.

Here’s the thing.  Up until this point, Wesley had spent his whole life trying to do the good and faithful thing.  He got ordained, met with friends every week to make sure they were doing the things God expected of them, went off to be a missionary.  And all of those things would go on to be important in the movement he founded.  But they also weren’t enough.

On May 24, 1738, Wesley went to a Bible study in a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London.  He wrote in his journal:

In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to 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.

This has come to be referred to as Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, or sometimes just Aldersgate, and that’s what we’re celebrating the anniversary of today.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what Wesley experienced at Aldersgate that day: this experience of assurance of his salvation.

Wesley doesn’t tell us exactly what he heard from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans he heard that night.  (I thought maybe I would read it and try to figure it out, but it turns out it was like 270 pages long.)  I also don’t know what passage of Romans they were talking about that night.  I do know that he preached on and referred back to one particular passage from Romans many times as he later talked about assurance and what it looks and feels like to be saved.  So we’re going to hear that passage now.

 

[Scripture reading: Romans 8:12-17]

 

Question for you to answer quietly or out loud: How do you know you are saved?

Maybe we even could stand to back up here and define saved.  For many of us we might define it as something like “we’re going to go to heaven when we die.”  And actually, Wesley saw salvation as more of a lifelong process of being remade in the image of God, the process of sanctification.  But I think the salvation he referred to that night on Aldersgate Street was more about justification, being made right with God.

So how do you know you have been made right with God?  For Wesley, one of the answers to this question was assurance.  That’s what he felt like he was missing during his time at Oxford and in Georgia.  He was doing all these things he knew he was supposed to do as a good Christian: praying, reading the Bible, giving money, serving others.  But the thing is when you’re just trying all the time to do the things you’re supposed to do, you’ve always left something out, and it’s never really enough.  Wesley was doing all these things and he never really felt like he could be sure he was saved, like Christ had really died for him.

That was what he finally felt on Aldersgate Street that day – assurance.  That’s what he felt when he wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.

Do you know that feeling?

I do – at least I think I do.  I’ve had some heartwarming experiences of my own.  I felt it maybe first on a retreat I went on my senior year of high school.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Walk to Emmaus program, but this was the youth version of that, called Chrysalis.  I know that there were talks throughout the weekend on different faith-related topics, but the one thing I really remember about this retreat is that they took all our watches and all the clocks away, and how all of a sudden this felt like I wasn’t responsible for everything anymore, all the important stuff in my life at the time like getting good grades and getting into college, and that I could finally relax and actually trust and depend on God.  And I remember at one point during that weekend hearing a song called When God Ran.  It was based on the Prodigal Son story, and it helped me imagine God running to me and embracing me in all of my brokenness and not-enoughness, too.

I’ve felt it, sometimes, this feeling of assurance, in the lines of certain hymns that come back to me again and again.  Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.  Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside – great is thy faithfulness.  Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?  And I’ve felt it, too, in service to and community with others – not because I am doing the things I am supposed to do, but in the experience of God drawing me into a family and the way God breaks down barriers to do that.

Do you know that feeling?  What are your heartwarming experiences?  When have you felt assurance of your own salvation?

But then, I find, there are the other times: the times when God seems far away, and it all seems like just a story in a book.  The times when the times when I fall back into believing that being saved means I have to do more and more to please God, that I am never really enough.  The times when I don’t feel very well assured that anything is going to be OK, and if being saved means knowing you are saved, then I’m not really sure I am.

In those times, it is helpful for me to remember the rest of Wesley’s story.

Aldersgate is one of those days that gets celebrated as this watershed moment in Methodist history.  And yet it wasn’t really that.  It was one moment in Wesley’s life – an important moment, but not necessarily an all-defining one.  He had been a Christian all his life before, and surely had had some moments in which it all felt particularly real to him.  And then, even shortly after that evening on Aldersgate Street, Wesley was writing in his journal that he wasn’t sure he had ever really been a Christian.  This life of faith is rarely ever a straight uphill line to heaven.

Assurance was a concept that Wesley would continue to wrestle with for the rest of his life.  He would write multiple sermons on it and argue with people about it through letters.  He believed that it was and should be a thing that accompanies our justification – that point at which we say yes to God’s invitation and our sins are forgiven.  And he believed that on some level we would know it when we had it – that, as the passage from Romans says, our spirit would join the witness of God’s Spirit telling us that we are children of God.

But it also wasn’t as easy as that.  Wesley knew that our salvation could never really hinge just on how we feel, because that’s putting too much back on us again.  He knew that there were people who had “mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God.”  He called such people “enthusiasts…in the worst sense of the word.”[1] In a later sermon he put it this way: “Madmen, French prophets, and enthusiasts of every kind have imagined they experienced this witness.”[2]  And on the other side of things, Wesley came to admit, over time, that because someone didn’t feel saved didn’t mean they weren’t.  In 1789, two years before his death, he would write this in a letter to a man named Melville Horne: “When fifty years ago my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England that unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, that they did not stone us!  The Methodists, I hope, know better now; we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of real Christians; but we do not enforce it, under pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not.”[3]

Furthermore – even in those early days, Wesley never believed that being assured of our own status as children of God meant that we could just lean back and not worry about how we were actually living our lives.  The Methodist movement he would begin was all about growing in holiness over the course of our lives, the process of sanctification, as God gives us the grace to become more holy and loving and we respond to that grace by putting it to use and God gives us more.  As Wesley preached to crowds and delivered the message of salvation, they wanted to know what to do, how to respond, and Wesley drew on his Holy Club days: we respond by growing in holiness through prayer, Scripture reading, communion, visiting the sick, serving the poor, and other things Wesley called means of grace.

But the thing is even then it’s about grace, and not just about us, not just about trying a little bit harder, not just about doing enough, but about God’s grace on which it all depends.

The idea Wesley never gave up on is that assurance is something God wants us to have.  Not that anything rests on it, but that it is a gift.  That God wants us to know that we are God’s children.  That God wants us to know that we are forgiven.  That God wants us to know that we are accepted, that God runs to us and embraces us in all our brokenness and not-enoughness.  God wants us to be assured of our salvation, so that everything that comes next – our prayer, our Bible study, our giving, our service, our growth in holiness and love – is born out of that.

The gift of Aldersgate, which we celebrate today, is the gift of both-and: a faith that demands our hearts and our hands, assurance of what is and at the same time yearning for more.

May our spirits whisper or shout along with God’s Spirit: we are God’s children – loved, forgiven, embraced.

And may our lives of love and holiness begin and grow from there.

 

[1] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit I” in John Wesley’s Sermons, ed. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 146.

[2] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit II” in John Wesley’s Sermons, p. 399.

[3] Quoted in John Wesley’s Theology Today by Colin W. Williams, p. 106, via a handout from my Methodist Doctrine class

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The New Creation

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-8

As a young teenager I was fascinated by the book of Revelation.  It was very mysterious, and I wanted to decipher and understand it.  The pastor of my church tried to do exactly that.  In a series of Wednesday-night Bible studies, he explained what Revelation meant for the 1960’s.  In its cryptic images he found the European Common Market, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.  As a result, he concluded that the end times were coming very soon.  How exciting it was to see the modern world depicted in a book nearly 2000 years old!

My former pastor’s interpretative stance is shared by many who want to link the events described in Revelation to contemporary times.  That effort has been remarkably popular.  After all, who doesn’t want a roadmap for the near future?  Have you heard of Hal Lindsey’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth?  How about the more recent Left Behind series of no fewer than sixteen novels about the end-times by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins?

Not all Christians are convinced by Lindsey, LaHaye and others, and they don’t find Revelation especially relevant for today’s world.  Let’s face it, it is a very difficult book.  It is filled with arcane language, images and visions, and coherent interpretation seems impossible.  There are angels, horsemen, dragons, beasts, seals, trumpets and bowls (yes, bowls), all of which appear in crucial but hard-to-understand contexts.

Many Christians are simply turned off by Revelation.  It is harsh and violent, and doesn’t have much to say about love, that most essential of Christian virtues.  Women don’t come off very well in the book either, symbolizing evil.  For example, there’s the Whore of Babylon, who is one of Christ’s bitter enemies.

Some accuse Revelation of encouraging “pie in the sky” thinking, that is, focusing on heaven and the hereafter so much that we become passive in the face of the urgent needs of today.  In other words, if God is going to take care of everything at the end of time anyway, where is the need for decisive Christian action now?

Yet, for all its problems­ – or, rather, our problems with it – we must pay attention to Revelation.  After all, it is part of the Christian canon.  As Christopher C. Rowland insists in his Introduction to the book in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “What we have in Revelation is the opening of a . . . space for readers . . . to be provoked, to have their imaginations broadened, and to be challenged to think and behave differently.”

In spite of all its harshness and difficulty, Revelation is a very hopeful book, as we heard in today’s reading, a fitting scripture lesson for the season of Easter.  In Eastertide we should certainly be in a hopeful frame of mind, because Christ, our salvation, has risen from the dead.

In Revelation 21 we are near the end of the book: the great battles are over, Satan and Death have been cast in the lake of fire, and the last judgement has taken place.  What happens next?

John, the visionary on the island of Patmos, sees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth have passed away.  We can readily understand the need for a new earth – our old earth is in pretty bad shape, beset by sin and destruction.  But why a new heaven?  Is John talking only about the sky above us or about the homeplace of God, or about both at the same time?  We don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that we have a new creation, with an interesting twist:  there isn’t any more sea.  Why should this be?  In the Bible and in ancient Jewish thinking, the sea was a source of chaos, evil and death, things that will not be a part of the new creation, so on the new earth there is no more sea.

John’s vision continues with the descent of the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  It is coming down out of heaven from God, dressed as a bride adorned for her husband.  The New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ, the church, prepared to meet her husband.  A detailed description of the New Jerusalem follows this morning’s scripture, but we won’t have time to go into that today.

Not only does the New Jerusalem descend from heaven, God does too.  In verse 3, John hears a loud voice from the throne of God saying,

“See the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them.”

God is going to dwell with God’s peoples.  Peoples, plural, because they will come from every one of the racial, ethnic, social and political groups that divide us from one another here on the old earth.  God is no longer going to be transcendent in heaven, but immanent.  That means that God is going to be alongside God’s peoples forever in the New Jerusalem.

In verse 4 it says that God, like a tender mother, will “wipe every tear from their eyes.”  These must be lingering tears from the life of travail on the old earth, because it is made clear that in the New Jerusalem “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.”  All these belong to the former age with its attendant evils.  Former things, our age and everything that is a part of it, have passed away, because, as God says at the beginning of verse 5, “I am making all things new.”

God continues in verse 6, “It is done!”  All things are accomplished.  The old age is finished and the new age has begun.  And God goes on to say, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so God was there at the beginning of time and is here now at its end.  However, at the end of time, not everything ends.  As we have already seen, there is a new and perfect creation, lacking chaos, sickness, mourning, pain and death.

God promises that “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”  Who are the thirsty?  Everyone – all people.  God has created in all of us a thirst for God, and the spring of the water of life is available to anyone who seeks it.  Life with God is a gift for everyone.

In verse 7, God says that “those who conquer,” that is, those who trust in God, follow Jesus and avoid entanglement with the evils of the world, “will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”  Being children of God – part of the family of God – is a privilege that is available to all people.

What wonderful promises these are, and what a glorious future awaits us!

However, God’s next words, in verse 8, are troubling to me and perhaps to you as well:

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Who among us isn’t guilty at one time or another of at least some of these sins?  I have been a coward, I have acted as though I had no faith, and I have lied, even in my life as a Christian.  If these words are the judgment of God on me, where is my hope?  My hope, and your hope, too, is in Jesus and in the promise reiterated in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In his letter to the Romans Paul helps us understand the condemnation in verse 8.  In chapter 1:28-32, he draws up a list of sins and sinners similar to the one in Revelation.  But he adds a critical piece of information to his description of these lost souls:  they are people who “did not see fit to acknowledge God.”  And that’s the crucial point, they did not acknowledge God, and thus they lived a God-free or godless life.

Here I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in his book The Great Divorce, where the locks on the gates of hell are on the inside, so that the gates are actually barred by hell’s inhabitants to keep heaven out.

This brings us to the end of this morning’s scripture reading, but not to the end of the sermon.  What follows is the “so what?” portion of the message.  And I think it is very fair for you to ask “so what?” at the end of my exposition.  What I have described today, the new heaven, the new earth and the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven, is God’s doing.  The new creation is coming no matter what we say or do.  So, there seems to be a risk here of “pie in the sky” thinking, which I mentioned earlier:  focusing on our heavenly future to the exclusion of meeting the needs of today.

Given that God seems to be doing everything at the end of time, what is there for us to do now?  Actually, quite a lot.

Do you know that the new creation is not only to be found at the end of time?  The new creation has already broken into the present age.  It is here now.  Hear Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 and 20:

“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . . So, we are ambassadors for Christ . . .”

If you are in Christ, you are a new creation, made new by God.  We are forerunners of the new heaven and the new earth.  We are part of God’s plan both for today and for the future.  We have been re-created by God for a reason; God has given us a job to do.  Paul describes us as being ambassadors for Christ.  What do ambassadors do?  They represent others, speak in their name and work on their behalf.  And that’s what God wants us to be for Jesus.

Wherever we find someone who is hungry, thirsty or cold, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, to do Christ’s work for them.  Whenever we meet someone who has fallen through life’s cracks, we are Christ’s ambassadors to them, as well.  Whenever we encounter someone who is struggling with sin and lostness, we are Christ’s ambassadors with the words of Jesus and the invitation of Jesus to share.  Wherever we meet with systemic injustice and unfairness, here too, we are ambassadors for Christ, doing all we can on behalf of Jesus to stop the wrong from prevailing.  We are ambassadors: we carry Jesus’s message, a message of love and hope, to a world that sorely needs it.

Does that sound like we, the church, have enough to do?  I certainly think so.  There’s no recipe for passivity here.

Nor, finally, is there one in Revelation, where among the last verses in the book, we hear this invitation, an invitation that is extended to everyone by God.  And since it is God’s invitation, it is our invitation, too, because we are Christ’s ambassadors.  Revelation 22:17 reads:

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

There are so many thirsty people around us.  To every one of them God wants to extend God’s invitation.  As Christ’s ambassador, are you offering the water of life to them?  Are you offering Jesus’s free gift?  Keep in mind, this is your most important job.

We, myself included, need to work on this.  We need to take seriously our call as ambassadors for Christ.  We are Jesus’s representatives to the world, his voice and his hands.  We know about the new creation – we have experienced it; we know about the New Jerusalem – we are the New Jerusalem; we know about the water of life, which is available to everyone as a free gift from God.  Let us share our good news.  And, remember, we’re never alone; Jesus is always beside us.  May Christ give us the courage to do what he asks of us, so that in everything we do God may be glorified.  Amen.