The Foundation of Methodism (A timely paraphrase of Wesley’s sermon “On Laying the Foundation”

IMG_1851 (2)_LIHere is a paraphrase of the sermon John Wesley preached as the foundation was laid for a new chapel in London in 1778. It gives a powerful and timely summary of what methodism is all about. I visited Wesley Chapel in London last week and was moved, once again, by John Wesley’s consistent call to a higher unity within the church. Often the church has fallen short of this calling, but Wesley never gave up on the vision.  What might we learn from this commitment?

Number 23:23 –  “See what God has done!”

At the risk of appearing ostentatious or being called an enthusiast who confuses the Holy Spirit with their own ego, I want to give an account of the rise of Methodism from my personal perspective.

I start 1725, when a young student at Oxford was very much affected by Kempis’s “Christian Pattern,” and Bishop Taylor’s “Rules of Holy Living and Dying.” He was inspired to live by these rules and let them guide him. In time, others joined in this desire. Together we read scripture, prayed, and provoked one another to engage in good works. On this journey, we were orthodox in every way, firmly committed to the creeds and to the doctrines of the Church, as contained in the Articles and Homilies. The regularity of our gatherings led others to call us names. “Methodist” was at the top of the list.  It was an allusion to physicians who once flourished in Rome and, for us, was used as a term of derision and ridicule. In time, we embraced the term. But in the moment, we have no conception that this would become a movement.

The next key turn came in 1735 when my brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and I were led to travel to the new colony of Georgia. Our purpose was to preach to the natives, but we found ourselves primarily attending to the spiritual needs of colonists in Savannah and modeling methodism for them.  While there, I was totally committed to the Church and to orthodoxy.  I even turned away a Lutheran pastor because he was not “episcopally ordained” and called on him to be “re-baptized” into the true church. Thankfully I have been delivered from this misguided zeal, where people are turned away from God so that we can feel good about our own faithfulness.

I returned to England in 1738, content to study in Oxford and bury myself in “beloved obscurity.”  But then God awakened my soul.  Along with others, I began to preach what some called an “unfashionable doctrine.” And yet, people came! Many were “cut to the heart.” Some came to me in tears inquiring what was needed to be saved.  I asked them to meet with me, and, without plan or design, the Methodist society was born. These societies, as renewal groups within the church, became places where people could help one another “work out their own salvation.”

That’s how Methodism began. But what is this movement about? What is methodism? We need to be continually reminded. Methodism is not a new religion. In fact, at its heart, it is nothing other than the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Bible, and, I am confident, the religion of the Church of England.  It is the true religion rooted in love – the love that first comes to us from God, and so fills our hearts that we are then empowered to love others.

This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world.  Wherever this love reigns, virtue and true happiness come; there is humility, gentleness, patience, peace beyond human understanding, and joy unspeakable. This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.  Jesus declares this love to be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. It is at the heart of all we call “true religion.”

And yes, this love is at the heart of our Church. It is found in the liturgies and homilies. It is found in our prayers, so beautifully summed up in that one comprehensive petition that is said so often: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, O God, and worthily magnify your holy name.” As long as we hold to this love we can faithfully address all extraneous issues and varying perspectives within the larger church. Our diversity of perspectives keeps us humble and trusting in the real presence of the Holy Spirit to sort it all out. This sorting is not our work, but God’s work. In God’s love there is room for all, and together, and only together, are we able to practice the virtues of true holiness and grow in the grace of true religion.

In our beloved Church, many have been called, in this time, to preach repentance to sinners. Thousands have come to hear this word.   Many have been deeply convinced of their sins, their evil tempers, their inability to help themselves, and of the ineffectiveness of their outward religious practices. The love of God has filled their hearts and they have been led to love others with this same holy love.  God has called us to give witness to this work. May nothing else distract us.

This love that we preach must be free from enthusiasm – that zeal for our own opinions about things beyond the core of faith. Often in renewal movements, this misguided zeal finds its way into the body.  May this not happen among us. We do not put our stress on anything, as necessary for salvation, other than what is plainly contained in the word of God.  And of all things contained within the scriptures, we assess them in relationship to what Jesus calls the sum of it all – love of God and of our neighbor as a part of ourselves. (This is the chief among the “master-texts” by which we evaluate all revelatory claims, even those in scripture).

Likewise, this love must be free of bigotry. We refrain from all party zeal where our own opinions and allegiances to particular branches within the church cloud the call to unity and to bearing one another in love. We contend for nothing circumstantial as if it were essential to a relationship with God.  We do not seek to build “our” church by relying on violence and division.  We rely on no method other than reason and persuasion, while giving witness to the virtues of holiness – patience, kindness, and humility – and believing that the Holy Spirit really is at work.

No doubt, there have been other revivals that have led to division and polarization in the church. We have seen this among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers. And after this separation they did little good except to their own little body. Bigotry grew between parties. And as a result of this lack of a higher sense of unity, the hope of general reform suffered.

And yes, there have been Methodist (so-called) who have gone this way as well, with Whitefield and Ingham among them. But, I want to be clear, this move toward division is a move away from the vision of methodism. When true to our calling, we will never form a separate sect but, in principle, always stay connected together within the Church.  When societies leave the church, our observation is that they swiftly crumble into nothing, having been uprooted from the good soil and nourishment of the larger community and from being a part of something bigger than themselves and their opinions about what is right. When we are planted in this rich soil of the larger faith, we are then able to bear good fruit – fruit that will last.

Therefore, whoever you are, I invite you to examine your own heart before God, rather than to occupy your time in judging others. Are you rooted in the love of God? Does your heart glow with gratitude to the God who loves you and gave his Son so that you “might not perish but have eternal life?” Are you bearing the fruit of this love? If so, then let us come together and magnify the Lord by establishing peace and good-will among us.   IF YOUR HEART IS AS MY HEART, GIVE ME YOUR HAND. Let us unite together in our desire for the restoration of the image of God in every soul.  Let us all give ourselves, not to contention, but to love and to good works; always remembering those deep words, (as God engraves them on our hearts!) “God is love; and those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God in them.”  Amen.

Michael Roberts