Message: A Faith That Matters – Holy Heart Burn
Scripture: Revelation 2:1-5a
Date: September 28, 2014
In the Spring of 2011, I had an issue with my heart. I don’t talk about it much because I know that many of you think of pastors as being flawless, and I don’t want to tarnish your image of me but it was a wake up call and caused me to take a hard look at who I am and where I’m going. And I started contemplating questions about the physical condition, but also the spiritual condition of my heart. And I determined in all things there needed to be some changes made.
Now one of the things that I did in the immediate aftermath of that was to turn to that great fount of facts and information, the internet, to learn more about heart disease. And I was surprised by the many forms of heart disease that are out there. One of the diseases that I read up on was called Cardiomyopathy. Now basically cardiomyopathy causes the muscles of the heart to lose their ability to relax and contract and so they become stiff and brittle. Some call it a hardened heart. And once I read about it, I became convinced that the hardened heart, was exactly what led to my heart attack. But my cardiologist assured me that I did not suffer from a hardened heart. A few hardened arteries yes, but a hardened heart – no. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about whether he was right or not. Because while I may not have been suffering from cardiomyopathy in physical terms, what about spiritually. Was my faith in critical condition due to a “hardened heart.” You know, it seems to me that as we think about a living faith that matters, the first thing that we need to do is have a spiritual check up. When John Wesley established the first Methodist Class meetings in England – small groups of persons who were mostly new to faith and religion – he created an expectation that the members of those class meetings would hold one another accountable for their spiritual condition. And so at each meeting the question would be asked: “How is it with your soul?” And as we begin this consideration of “A Faith That Matters”, I want to begin by asking “How is it with your soul?”
You know, one of the things I discovered about Cardiomyopathy is that it is not a communicable disease. In a physical sense, you can’t catch it from someone else (although heredity is a factor.) But spiritual cardiomyopathy might be a different matter. In fact, spiritual cardiomyopathy has been a common ailment in the church down through the history of humanity. For instance, in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, God sent Moses to the Egyptian Pharoah to plead for him to let them go home, and scripture tells us that “Pharoah’s heart was hardened.” Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. In the book of Ezekial, the prophet is talking about all of the bad things that have befallen and will befall the people, and what is his diagnosis. Ezekial says they have turned from God due to their “hearts of stone”. Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. A Psalmist wrote: “Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.” Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. And in the early church of Jesus Christ, there was a fear of it. The Apostle Peter often finished his sermons with the admonition to “harden not your hearts” to God’s grace. And the writer of Hebrews feared cardiomyopathy in the early church and writes: “Do not harden your hearts as the people did in the wilderness.” And then in the book of Revelation, that is the diagnosis given to the angel of the church at Ephesus, which had once been the mega church of First Century Christianity. But now, “I have this against you. You have forsaken your first love. In other words, you have hardened your heart” The Ephesians suffered from Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. So while it might not be a contagious disease, cardiomyopathy has certainly been an infection that has plagued the church since the very beginning, and continues to do so today.
In more than six years as a District Superintendent in the church, I had the privilege of working with about 130 churches across two districts in Kentucky. Most of those were a joy to work with. But there were several of those churches that were dying. From the moment you pulled into the parking lot, you could tell that there were few signs of life left. The first year I was in the Ashland District, I went to hold a Charge Conference at one of these churches, and only a handful of people showed up. And we went through the business of the church, and I got ready to bring my Charge Conference message designed to encourage and inspire, but instead I just said, “You know, it’s obvious to me that you are really struggling right now. What can I do as a Superintendent to help you?” And there was an awkward silence. It was like they had never even considered before that there might be someone who might want to help them, or that they could be helped. And then one elderly lady spoke up and said: “Pastor, the best thing you can do for us is to leave us alone and let us die in peace.” Spiritual Cardiomyopathy.
So now turning to the study. A little background. In the 1700’s, England was in turmoil. There was wide spread poverty, high unemployment, and many people were homeless. There was a wide gap between the haves and the have nots of society. The colonies in the New World were threatening rebellion and there were great fears that the deplorable social conditions would lead England into the kind of rebellion and revolution that eventually toppled the monarchy in France. It was into that world that two brothers, John and Charles Wesley were born and raised. They were sons of an Anglican Priest, Samuel, and a strong willed mother Susanna, herself the daughter of an Anglican priest who together had nineteen children. John and Charles were among the youngest. Both John and Charles followed in the steps of their father and grandfather and became priests in the Anglican Church. But what they discovered was that in the early 1700’s the Church of England was suffering from a severe case of Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. It had become a church for the haves and had no place for the have nots. It was a church with a collective hardened heart. And every time the Wesley’s tried to reach out to the least ones and bring them into the care of the church, they were ridiculed and criticized and even censured. the Wesley’s were stymied by the church in all of their attempts to minister beyond the church walls to the have nots of society. Finally, as much to get them out of the way as anything, the church sent the brothers to Georgia in the new world, which was a colony that was originally settled by persons who had been released from the debtor prisons. But their methodical and regimented approach to faith did not fit well in Georgia. Charles returned to England almost immediately, but John stuck it out for a year before being run out and returning discouraged and defeated. However, on the boat trip back to England, John Wesley encountered a group of Christians and Wesley was struck by their passionate and joyful and very personal expression of their faith. He arrived back in England determined to seek a faith like they had, a religion of the heart, as well as mind, but was again blocked by the established church, and began to sink back into despair. He confided to a friend that he was beginning to suffer from a case of Spiritual Cardiomyopathy that he had contracted from the church. His faith was all in his head but not in his heart. He preached Christ alive, but He did not feel it in His heart. And the advice that his friend gave Him was to continue to preach faith in Jesus Christ until he experienced it for himself. Like Wesley I have discovered that there are times in our faith journey that we just don’t feel Jesus present, and so it is in those times when we must keep on believing no matter what we feel. That was the advice that John Wesley got. And then on May 24, 1738, brother Charles dragged John kicking and screaming to an evening Bible Study that he had been attending on Aldersgate Street in London. And that evening God answered the pleadings of John’s heart. I call it his Holy heart burn experience. And he recorded the moment in his journal. “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while (Luther) 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.” Wesley’s Holy Heart Burn experience was not the first time that he had understood the working of God through Christ, but it was the first time that he had experienced it as a personal reality. He had preached that Christ loved everyone but for the first time he truly believed that Christ loved him. It was the moment that his became a religion of the heart – and his faith became a faith that mattered. Charles Wesley went on to write the words to nearly 5000 hymns describing this religion of the heart and John took the message to the have nots of society, outside the walls of the church. At first he tried to do so through and with the blessing of the church but his religion of the heart was not welcome in most Anglican Churches. That was evidenced in these journal entries. (Play from session one of What Does It Mean To Be United Methodist from 9:05 to 10:00) So Wesley decided that if the church would not open itself to the least among them, if they were not welcome in the church, then he would take the church to them. And like Jesus, Wesley was criticized for going to the rabble, the outcasts, but that’s where the Methodist movement began. It was not started to replace the church but rather to help cure the church of it’s cardiomyopathy – it’s hardened heart. And eventually this religion of the warmed heart, the Holy Heart Burn spread throughout Great Britain and the American Colonies. It was a faith that mattered and is credited not only with bringing thousands to Christ in those early years, but Wesley’s emphasis on love changed the church of Jesus Christ forever. Because Wesley insisted that it was not enough to just have faith in Christ, but that we must have a faith that mattered in people’s lives. It was a faith that reflected the heart of Christ. A faith that was built on love for God and was witnessed to, through love for our neighbor. And so in a very real sense, those first Methodists added the love of neighbor to the theology of the church. John insisted that the Methodist Societies be engaged in what he called “Works of Piety” because he knew from his own experience that it was not enough to simply have faith, but that if we truly love God and love our neighbors, we would need to practice our faith. We must have a faith that matters. A faith that compels us to serve the least and have nots in the name of Jesus. And so those early Methodists began orphanages and senior homes. They built shelters for the homeless. John established a headquarters in London and provided employment for many of the unemployed in the various ministries that were located there. In the 1700s, John Wesley established a micro loan program in the Methodist Societies that was initially financed with his own money. It is because of Wesley’s Holy Heart Burn, this heritage of service, that the United Methodist Committee on Relief does such wonderful work all around the world today. And that in the 300 years since Wesley’s heart warming experience, wherever Methodists have gone, we have established schools and children’s homes and urban missions, and we have sent long term and short term missionaries to every part of the world. Wesley believed that it is the love of God and the love for God that makes our faith, faith that matters because it compels us to love our neighbor too. Thank God for the most famous case of heart burn ever!
Now that may be more than you really wanted to know about John and Charles Wesley, but I thought it was important to share it with you because it is important to know where we come from. Religion of the heart is in our DNA and transforms hardened hearts into hearts on fire. Essential faith, active faith, transforming faith, faith that matters is faith that compels us to love our neighbor. It is faith that compels us to act. To serve others. That’s what Jesus was trying to help the Sadducees and Pharisees understand when they came to Him and asked Him what was the greatest commandment and He yoked two commandments together. The first one was the beginning words of the Shema – the prayer that every Jewish child was taught from the time they could talk. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul. But that’s only half of it Jesus says. Because if you truly love God with all that you are, then you will love your neighbor. But their hearts had become so hardened that they were functioning at only half capacity. Their faith was a halfway faith. Jesus reserved his harshest words for those with halfway faith. Wesley called them “almost Christian”. To the Pharisees Jesus said you with half way faith are like white washed tombs. You look good on the outside, but how is it with your heart and soul. On the inside you are dying. They had the loving God part down, their whole life was devoted to the appearance of that, but it was in loving their neighbor that they came up short. And in Revelation He says to the church at Laodicea. You aren’t hot or cold, you’re lukewarm, halfway, and I will spit you out of my mouth. It’s loving and serving that makes our Faith complete, whole , a faith that matters. Because it’s faith that matters that compels us to serve God and others. Scripture is clear that God has no patience with half way Disciples. He is looking for Disciples that are all in. Remember the appearance that Jesus made after His resurrection with the Disciples on the shore of the lake. They shared breakfast together after a night of fishing. And after the breakfast Jesus and Peter slip away from the others and Jesus says to Peter: “What about it Peter, do you love me?” And, of course, Peter confesses his love for Jesus. And then I can just imagine Jesus looking him in the eyes and saying: “Then prove it Peter. Feed my sheep.”
. And so, here at St. Luke, it is faith that matters that compels us to reach out to the hungry through God’s pantry and the commodities distribution and Thanksgiving baskets. It’s faith that matters that compels us to feed children and help them succeed in school through Kid’s Cafe. It’s faith that matters that compels us to welcome the multi cultural community for worship and fellowship and offer help with language and other life skills so that persons from other nations (many of them refugees) can become integrated into the total life of the community. It’s faith that matters that compels us to partner with Nathaniel Mission and other mission agencies in the community. It’s faith that matters that compels us to send short term mission groups to various places in the world. It’s faith that matters that compels us to reach so many through the alms fund. And it’s faith that matters that compels us to reach out in so many other ways in the community. When our religion is a religion of the heart – then our faith becomes a faith that matters because religion of the heart works to bring the love of God to people no matter where or who they are. Wesley fell out of favor with the church because he insisted on treating everyone equally and maintained the church was to serve everyone. Religion of the heart causes us to burn with a fiery passion for those who scripture identifies as the least, the last and the lost. The ministries that I just mentioned are examples of the ways that this church practices religion of the heart. There are many others. But the truth is that no matter how many people we reach through the ministries of the church, we are only scratching the surface. There is so much need all around us and for our faith to matter, we have to continually be seeking ways to meet those needs. But that is only going to happen when all of us half way Christians, who come to church content to simply experience and express the love of God, develop a case of Holy Heart Burn and give our selves completely in love to our neighbors. Jesus expects no less than our all.
Because you see, while religion of the heart may be a part of our DNA as Wesleyan Christians, we must never forget that Spiritual Cardiomyopathy is also part of our DNA as the church of Jesus Christ. And as ministry gets hard, and finances get tight, and the world seems to close in around us, we are constantly in danger of drifting back into a church of the hardened heart. We have a lot of churches that are dying today from spiritual cardiomyopathy. The hardened heart. That was the diagnosis of the church at Ephesus – a great church that had lost it’s heart. The Ephesian Christians had drifted into Spiritual Cardiomyopathy. It can happen in a church when the pews are filled with half way Christians – Christians who love God but who struggle to love their neighbor. Christians who come to church with the thought of what of God’s love am I going to receive today, rather than what can I give today. Christians who think how am I going to experience God’s love today rather than how can I help my neighbor experience God’s love today. And churches that suffer from the hardened heart are churches whose pews are filled with half way Christians – who are content to love God but not love their neighbor. Because a faith that matters is a faith that melts hearts and makes us burn to get up out of the pews and serve. It is a faith that makes our hearts burn with love for others. It is faith that compels us to be more than we are. Give more than we give. Share more than we share. Reach out to more than we are reaching. Love more than we are loving. It drives us ever forward as God’s children to serve God’s children. Holy heart burn causes us to do just that – it causes us to burn with the love of God for everyone. It is my prayer that this study will cause each one of us to carefully examine our spiritual condition. Are you suffering from Spiritual Cardiomyopathy – a hardened heart, are you just a half way Christian, content to let others serve – or do you have a bad case of Holy Heart Burn? Is your heart on fire for God and your neighbor? Do you have a Faith that really matters? How is it with your soul?