Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-10
Date: October 19, 2014
The Methodist Movement of the 1700’s in England is credited with putting the heart back into the church because John and Charles Wesley emphasized a faith of the warmed heart. It was because of God’s love for us, and through His grace, that not only are we redeemed, saved, reborn, but also sanctified. That God’s work is made complete in us. Two things that we need to note about that:
First, Wesley did not introduce the concept of sanctification – perfection into the theology of the church. But in the eyes of the church entire sanctification was reserved for the called – the monks and the mystics and the priests. It was really very similar to the religious thinking of Jesus day in that sanctification was reserved for the priests, and the pharisees. The Temple was their domain and they determined who was worthy to approach God and only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God. For everyone else, the Temple was not a place of sanctification, it was a place of atonement. Not a place where you were forgiven of your sins, as much as you paid for your sins. But Wesley believed that when the Temple Veil was torn in two, that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, as Jesus was dying on the cross as the once and for all atonement, that sanctification became universal. And so the difference between what Wesley taught and what the church taught, was that God’s grace was for everyone. That to everyone came the chance for redemption and salvation. Wesley believed that this religion of the heart was meant to be universal. But he couldn’t convince the established church of that and so he took the message to the fields and the mines and street corners – inviting everyone to come and take their place in God’s Kingdom.
And secondly, Wesley believed in the priesthood of all believers. Part of universal sanctification was that we would all become, not only the recipients of God’s grace but also the vessels through which God’s grace could be poured into the life of others. We are blessed to be a blessing. Saved to save others. Made Disciples so that we can make Disciples. Wesley was fond of quoting 2 Kings as what some would call their life verse: Is my heart right, as my heart is with your heart? If so, then give me your hand.
As we observed the anniversary of the terrible events of 9-11-2001 last month, I read this:
It was not Welles Crowther’s job to save anyone’s life on September 11. He worked on the 104th floor of the south tower as an equities trader. At about 9:00 in the morning on that terrible day, he was on the phone in his office. And then the second plane struck the south tower, and though it struck twenty floors below where Welles Crowther was, the presumption was that all who were above the impact zone would not escape. Immediately smoke and fire began to fill the top floors of the tower, and all was plunged into darkness, but Welles Crowther sprung into action. One survivor said:
There we sat bloodied and terrified, in shock – the lights out, smoke engulfing our office, pain engulfing our bodies from that initial blast and the lack of oxygen. There did not appear to be any escape. Then out of nowhere, a young man burst in and took control. In a strong, authoritative voice, he directed us to a stairway – which had been hidden by the darkness, wreckage and smoke. He told the injured to get out and implored the healthy to help them down. And then he disappeared.
One of those on that floor that day later recounted: “I see this incredible hero, running back and forth and saving the day. In his mind he had a duty to do – to save people.”
And another who was trapped with a group of people several floors below that first group, tells a similar story of rescue and said: “He was definitely my guardian angel because without him, we would have still been sitting there when the building came down.”
Welles Crowther has been credited with saving at least 18 lives that day, probably more. Witnesses say that though his life had been spared and he reached the safety of the street, he went back into the tower at least three times to lead others to safety. And then he went in one more time and the tower collapsed. They recovered the body of Welles Crowther seven months later in the debris, along with the bodies of several fire fighters who gave their life to save others.
Through the grace of God who redeems and saves and sanctifies, our faith becomes a faith that matters, a saving faith, when we are saved to save others. And so James writes:
Whoever catches a glimpse of God – the free life – even out of the corner of the eye, and sticks with faith, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find joy and assurance in their action.
In God’s great plan, Jesus Christ came to us to save us. And in doing so, Jesus called disciples, followers, and then sent them out to offer redemption and salvation to others. And that’s where we fit into God’s plan. We are saved, so that we can be instruments of salvation for others. James goes on to say:
do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon a man dressed in rags and half-starved and say: “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ. Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department. I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
The conditions in which people were living in England, which at that time was probably the wealthiest country in the world, the slums, the homeless, the exploited children, slavery, tHe deplorable conditions of the prisons, the widening gap between the haves of the church and the have nots of society, convinced Wesley that his Aldersgate experience, his personal salvation, was not enough. That God had a plan for his life and that experience of personal redemption was only a small part of that plan. Wesley believed in practicing a faith that matters, a faith that compels him and his followers to reach out to all segments of society. He believed that equality was based on the fact that all were sinners and in need of the grace of God. He believed that God raised the Methodists to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread holiness over the land. Which prompted this criticism: The Methodists are most repulsive and tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and doing away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting. You see our society today is not that much different than that of 1700 England and I don’t think God’s plan for us has changed.
Our Wesleyan heritage is that, in a very real sense, faith without works promotes that kind of inequality because it says that we can be restored to God’s image without ministering to the lame, and the beggars and the lepers and all the other persons that Jesus spent most of his time with. Love your neighbors, Jesus said, and when they asked Him who our neighbors are he pointed to those who were considered too unclean to be reached by the church.
John Wesley believed that for those who were saved and moving on to perfection, as we talked about last week, there were two aspects to our Discipleship. One aspect was the personal holiness that we talked about last week. It begins when God claims us where we are and we are saved, converted, born again. The second aspect of discipleship is what came to be known as social holiness. Disciples are called to help redeem the world. You see, when sin entered into God’s perfect creation, not only did it cause the corruption of humanity, but also the corruption of the world. Every problem that plagues us now – war, environmental imbalances, poverty, hunger, disease, and on and on – can be traced back to that original sin and the corruption of God’s perfect creation. Adam Hamilton, in his book, Revival writes that when sin entered into the equation it caused a gap to open between the world as it is and the world that God intended. And the more humanity has sinned, the wider that gap has become until today it seems sometimes that there is little relation between that which God created and what we have made of it. Hamilton writes:
As we look around us, we see the gap between the world as it is and world as it should be. That’s when we ask, “Lord, what would you have us do to close that gap?” In the world as it should be, no one goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough to eat. No one is cold because they don’t have clothing and shelter. In the world as it should be, all are treated with respect and compassion and receive justice. There are no wars, no one receives a subpar education, and racism and bigotry have vanished. If that is the world as it should be, then Christians are meant to work to close the gap between the realities of the world we live in and Christ’s vision of God’s kingdom on earth.
In other words, we are saved by God through faith so that we can be the instruments that God uses to redeem and save the whole world. When John Wesley was excluded from serving in the Church of England, he said, that’s okay because my calling is not just to Epworth where his father had served, or London, or Georgia – the whole world is my parish. He believed that God not only saved him from his sinful nature, but that God also saved Him for a larger purpose – a larger mission. That God’s plan was for the redemption of all creation and that our individual salvation is part of a much bigger plan. Being saved is not enough – that we are saved to save others. And as did Paul and James, Wesley believed that our works were the witness of both our personal salvation and journey towards sanctification, our personal holiness, but also our works must witness to our social holiness. That one without the other, rather than being faith that matters, is really what the Bible calls dead faith. Hamilton goes on to say:
For me, some of the most profound experiences of God’s grace and love have come when I was serving others. When churches stop actively serving others – the elderly, the young, the sick, the prisoners, the hungry, the poor, those on the margins – something in those churches and in their people begins to die.
Our Christian faith – a faith that matters – is witnessed to by the works we do in this world. And in recognition of the dual nature in us – personal and social holiness – Wesley identified two types of works that every Christian must be engaged in if our faith was going to make a difference. The first he said were works of piety. These included the worship of God, the study of scripture, prayer, meeting together in small groups, regularly receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, and other Christian disciplines. These works are focused primarily on the edification of the individual soul. Those who were a part of those early Methodist Societies were expected to hold one another accountable for these works of piety. If a member of the society was absent from worship one week, everyone else in the society was expected to hold that person accountable. It wasn’t just a matter of “Oh we’ve been missing you in church.” No the question was “Why haven’t you been in worship?” “Why haven’t you been in Bible Study?” “Why haven’t you been at the society meeting?” Now I’m going to step on some toes with this next statement, and I make it with the awareness that in some respects I’m preaching to the choir. So I’m going to step on your toes in hopes that it will make you mad enough to go and step on somebody else’s toes. So here goes – in today’s church we have lost all sense of accountability. We don’t hold one another accountable for being in church on Sunday. Instead we listen to the reasons that they weren’t there, and we say that we understand. Today regular attendance in the church is defined as being here one Sunday of the month, and we have said with all of the conflicts that are present on Sunday mornings, that’s okay. Well that may be okay in our eyes, but I’m not so sure it’s okay in God’s eyes. To not practice these works of piety is not a witness to our piety, it is a witness to our sinfulness. Because it says that all these other things have priority in our lives over worship, and Bible Study and prayer. There, I’ve said it. And I’m not taking it back. For those who are redeemed and on the journey towards sanctification – there should be nothing in this world that comes before God. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. So for our faith to matter, for our witness to be one that leads the whole world towards redemption and salvation, we must be engaged in works of piety. It is through worship and prayer and Bible Study and the regular practice of spiritual disciplines that God continues His saving work in us, until all other priorities fall away and we stand before Him as His children, created in His image, redeemed and sanctified.
And secondly, Wesley talked about works of mercy. Jesus talked of these when he told the parable of the sheep and goats. He put the sheep on one side and said that they had found favor with God because
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and You came to visit me.
In other words, the way we serve others are the works of mercy that we do in this world. And God uses our small efforts for the work of redeeming and sanctifying all of creation. We’re never too young. Never too old to be serving others. So it is through works of piety that God changes us. And it is through works of mercy that God uses us to help change the world. Both are the evidence of God’s grace working in our lives. And in the church we need to hold one another accountable for our works of mercy also. Because Disciples whose faith matters witness to both in our lives. Early Methodism exploded in England and the colonies because it emphasized a balance between works of piety and works of mercy. And if we are going to stem the decline of the 21st Century Church we must restore that balance. In today’s church only about 10-20 % of the members are seriously engaged in works of mercy. But we put 80% of our resources, both financial and human, into works of piety. We can do better than that. It’s no mystery that those churches that are experiencing explosive growth today in this difficult environment for the church are those that strike a balance between the two. Paul and James, as well as our Methodist heritage both challenge us as a church and individuals to ask, what am I doing to show mercy to my neighbor? And that’s where these cards come in. I confess that I have taken a sneak peek and noticed that our responses are weighted towards works of piety, that which we do for ourselves. But I believe that God is calling us to works of mercy also. So keep praying. Keep listening with open hearts and minds. If you have already turned in a card but God is still speaking, fill out another one. When we go through them we’ll pick out the one we like best.
In his book, A Gentle Thunder, Max Lucado gives us a picture of Mercy in the story of his friend Kenny who took his family to Disney World. “I saw a sight I’ll never forget.” Kenny said. “We were inside Cinderella’s Castle. It was packed with kids and parents. Suddenly all the children rushed to one side. Cinderella had entered.” Cinderella the pristine princess. She was perfectly typecast. A gorgeous young girl with every hair in perfect place, flawless skin and a beaming smile. She stood waste deep in a sea of adoring kids, each wanting to touch her and be touched. It was a sight to behold. But for some reason Kenny turned and looked at the other side of the castle. It was now vacant except for one boy, maybe seven or eight years old but his age was hard to determine because of the disfigurement of his body. Dwarfed in height, face deformed, he stood watching quietly and wistfully, holding on to the hand of an older brother. Kenny said that it was obvious that he wanted to be with the other children. In the middle of the crowd reaching out to Cinderella, calling her name. But he saw it in his eyes. The fear of rejection, of being taunted by the children, mocked, repulsing the beautiful princess. But as Kenny watched, Cinderella glanced across the room and saw that little boy. And without hesitation, she gently pushed her way through the throng of children and walked across the floor and with everyone watching she knelt down in front of the boy and looked him in the eyes and then she leaned towards him and placed a gentle kiss on the little boys deformed face. Can’t you just imagine that everyone’s life, kids and parents, that little boys and Cinderella’s, changed that day. Transformed by that act of grace and mercy. She made that little boy feel special and loved, as though he truly belonged, through that one loving act. A faith that matters witnesses to God’s mercy and grace through our worship and our service.
And so Paul, after writing to the Ephesians, For it is by God’s grace that you are saved, goes on to say, And why does He give us His Grace. Because we are His creation, His workmanship, made to do the work of Christ in this world.
Is your heart right? Then give me your hand. And together we’ll offer a faith that matters to a troubled world.