A sermon for Aldersgate Day 2018.
Two people had a word with me last week to point out that today is Aldersgate Day. They thought it would be good if I could preach on the topic, I suspect what they really meant was that it would be good to sing some of Charles’ well-known hymns. I hope I’ve been able to deliver at least on that front.
It has been quite a challenge for me. The Wesleys are, of course, the founders of our denomination and I had to learn a certain amount about who they were, what they did and what they believed when I trained as a local preacher . For all that, however, I find even the modern translations of John’s sermons quite impenetrable. It’s not just the antiquated language. They are sermons addressed to a specific context which is very different to the context in which we live today. There is a huge gulf in culture and concerns between mid 18th century England and the present day.
I think if we want to look for contemporary resonance in the Wesley’s theology we need to look to broad themes rather than individual sermons. Perhaps the best starting point is the four alls.
All need to be saved
All may be saved
All may know that they are saved
All may be saved to the uttermost.
I’d always assumed that these were framed by John Wesley. I discover, however, in my reading preparing for this sermon that they weren’t. They were actually first written down more than a hundred years after his death by a Methodist minister called William Fitzgerald who, like me, was trying to make sense of all those sermons that John had written addressed to a different time and in a different context.
I haven’t got time to do justice to all four of these so I want to focus on the third. I choose this one because I think it is perhaps most distinctive contribution of John Wesley’s theology and also because I feel it is most relevant to the present day.
For most theologians before Wesleys (and for many since) salvation was fundamentally about what happens to us when we die. There is no doubt that the Wesleys saw salvation in this context, but they didn’t just see it in this context. Salvation for them was something that we start to experience in this life. Experience is perhaps an understatement. Salvation is something that transforms our lives now. The experience is so remarkable that we are granted complete assurance that we are now living in the power of God’s Spirit.
This wasn’t book-learned theology. This was their lived experience. John and Charles had been ordained clergy in the Church or England for over a decade. By any judgement, they lived model Christian lives. They term Methodist was coined to reflect their meticulous approach to living out their faith. Yet both knew that something was lacking in their lives. On this day 180 years ago John, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and, as he later wrote, “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 followed an uncannily similar experience that his brother Charles had had three days earlier. The point I want to emphasize today is that the Wesleys didn’t see this assurance as a promise of some salvation they would receive in the future, or confined to the question of what would happen to them after death. They saw it as a part of their lives from that time forwards.
The meeting John had been at in Aldersgate Street had been at a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”. If we read Romans we see the Apostle Paul describing this same experience that the Wesleys had had. Romans Chapter 8 verse 11, as we heard read from the Good News Bible earlier, says:
If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.
Just as in Wesley’s time, today we often assume that our salvation is primarily about what happens to us when we die. If we read this verse carefully though, we see a different picture, life is given to our mortal bodies, with the implication that it is given now, rather than to our immortal spirit (or whatever) after death.
Other translations make the point even more forcefully, take the Good as New Bible:
If God’s spirit has taken possession of you, then just as God brought back Jesus from the dead, so the same Spirit will give your humanity a new lease of life.
or JB Phillip’s translation:
Nevertheless once the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you he will, by that same Spirit, bring to your whole being new strength and vitality.
or the Message:
When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s.
In this text salvation is not about a transformation after death it is about a transformation in the midst of life. It is a transformation we can experience now and be assured of forever.
In many ways this message is even more relevant to the modern world than the people to whom the Wesleys were preaching. Most people in Europe at the time believed literally in heaven and hell and one of their primary concerns was where they were destined for themselves. Many of them came to Christianity primarily to protect the fate of their immortal souls.
The modern world is very different. Most people in the UK now do not believe in life after death as revealed in numerous surveys. The most recent I came across (conducted on behalf of the BBC in February last year) suggested that only 46% of people in the UK believe in life after death (and amongst those about a third believe in reincarnation rather than in an afterlife).
It follows from this that if we want to proclaim a Gospel that will draw people to faith then we need to emphasis the transformative power of that Gospel within life (which will be relevant to everyone in the population) and focus less on its impact on any after-life (which only about a third of the population believe in anyway). The Wesley’s doctrine of a faith through which all may know they are saved does just this.
As well as exploring the implications of this survey for our mission to those outside the church it is interesting to reflect on those for Christians within it. The large majority (85%) of “active Christians” believe in life after death and it is important to emphasize that so did the Welsleys. Their belief in spiritual transformation in the midst of life reinforced their belief in life after death, to them it was a foretaste of the feast that was in store.
But the survey suggests that about 1 in 7 “active Christians” do not believe in life after death. These, I assume, are people who in the light of a modern understanding of how the person, the mind and the brain are inter-related cannot believe that the person can persist once the brain has died. If we extrapolate this number to the current congregation then there are perhaps 7 or 8 of you here this morning in this position. The first message is to reassure you, if you think like this, that you are not alone, there are 6 or 7 like-minded people here today – it’s just that you don’t know who they are. But the more important consideration is that the Welsleys’ conviction that salvation can be experienced in the midst of life opens an avenue for how the Christian gospel can make sense to people who can’t believe in life after death. I suspect the number of these people will grow as the implications of modern science become more widely accepted. In saying this I must acknowledge that nothing could have been further from the minds of the Wesleys living right in what was still, essentially, a pre-scientific age.
The promise of transformation within life is also increasingly important to the modern world in the light of the epidemic of mental health problems that we are facing. I spent considerable time exploring this last Sunday at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and don’t want to repeat what I said then, but we are facing an extraordinary rise in the number of people who are stressed, depressed, anxious, obsessed and even suicidal. In medical terms these are people who are ill, but in theological terms they are people in need of salvation. That salvation needs to be a lived experience offering transformative change now rather than just a promise of a better life to come once their current torment has been lived through. This is exactly what the Wesleys’ theology is offering. It is also what Jesus and the early disciples offered when they cast out demons -and offered wholeness to the broken-hearted. There can be no more pressing need today than for the church to cast out the demons that blight the current age and offer wholeness and meaning to those who can see no purpose in life.
In summary then, on Aldersgate Sunday, I invite you to embrace our Methodist heritage. Let’s celebrate the promise that we can all be assured of our salvation now. None of you who know of my passion for Christian Aid will be surprised to hear me conclude by stating that this aspect of the Wesleys’ theology can be summarised by the most powerful advertising slogan I have ever heard – “We believe in life before death”. Let’s go now, and offer this to our community and our broken world.