Friday, May 26, 2017

Aldersgate Day

OK, maybe it's not the greatest costume. But I sure had fun pretending to be John Wesley for our Aldersgate Day celebration on Wednesday, May 24. Here's what John said: 
Good evening. I am John Wesley, priest in the Church of England, fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and by God’s grace, founder of the People Called Methodist. 

Do not ask how I am come to be among you. Indeed, I do not know myself.  I have been dead for two and a quarter centuries. How I am here I do not know, but why I am here is to share my story with you.

My story begins with a little boy, 6 years old, asleep in a four-poster bed with curtains around it. The boy awoke to what he thought was sunlight. The light on the other side of the curtains was as bright as day. He peered out through the curtains and saw streaks of fire blazing across the ceiling.

He ran to the bedroom door and opened it, but alas, the entire rest of the house was on fire. He ran to the window, but alas, his room was on the second floor, and he was too small to jump so far.

But thanks be to God, someone on the ground looked up and saw the boy’s frightened face in the window. The men stood, one on top of the other, and the man on top pulled me from the house just as the roof came crashing down. One second more, and the boy would have perished in the flames.

Of course, that little boy was me. Later on my mother said to me, “John, you are ‘a brand plucked from the burning.’ God has saved you for a special purpose.”  I never forgot those words.

I went to Oxford University to study for the priesthood. While there, I met frequently with several of my fellows to pray, study the Bible, and do good works together. Other students laughed at our organized, methodical approach to our faith, and so to make fun of us, they called us “Methodists.”

After I was ordained, I thought perhaps my purpose was to go to America and preach the gospel to the Indians. So I traveled with General James Oglethorpe to the colony of Georgia.

And my mission to the Indians was a resounding…FAILURE. No one was converted.  No church was planted. I made the colonists so angry that I had to slip away under cover of darkness – and travel dejected back to England.

And at this point I was lower than I had ever been. I doubted my call to ministry. I doubted whether I was even a Christian!  On the way back from Georgia, I wrote in my journal,

“I went to America to convert the Indians. But O! Who shall convert me?”  

Back in England, I was moping along – discouraged, depressed, not sure what to preach, not even sure I was saved.

And then—on the 24th of May—this very day—on May 24, 1738, something happened. I went to a meeting with the Moravians. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? They make lovely cookies!

In my day the Moravians were known for teaching a personal, evangelical faith. I joined them at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Aldersgate—named after an old gate in the ancient Roman wall around London.

I went to the meeting on Aldersgate Street, and something happened.  Here is how I described it in my 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 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; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

At this point I must pause in my story and ask you a question: Have you felt your heart strangely warmed? Have you had a personal experience of the love of God? Has your life been changed by a personal encounter with the living God?

Mine was. After my Aldersgate experience, I began to preach the gospel with excitement, fervency, and power.

In the year 1739, my friend George Whitefield urged me to come to Bristol, and join him in preaching outdoors, to those in the streets and the fields. I was shocked! Preaching outdoors! The very idea! And yet—as I wrote in my journal:

Saturday, March 31—In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield. I could scarcely reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.

Monday, April 2.—At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a field adjoining the city, to about three thousand people.

As time went by my companions and I preached in the streets, in open fields, in front of factories, at the mouths of coal mines. At times 20,000 people would gather round to hear the gospel message of New Birth – “you can be born again!”

Once I went to my hometown of Epworth, to preach in my home church. A large number of people came to the church to hear me preach. But alas, the priest of the church put chains on the door and locked me out.

So I went out to the graveyard beside the church, where my father is buried. His grave is my property, so I stood on my father’s tomb and preached the gospel to around one thousand people.

As more and more people responded to the message of salvation through faith I organized them into societies for mutual support and further instruction.  All the early Methodists met every week in small groups of 12, to study, pray, and help each other live the Christian life.  I taught them 3 simple rules: (1) Do no harm, (2) Do good, (3) Stay in love with God—by using the Means of Grace—prayer, fasting, worship, reading the Scriptures, and Holy Communion.

By the time I died, there were 72,000 Methodists in Great Britain, and another 57,000 in America. And I am told that in your day the People called Methodist number around 70 million around the world.

However--numbers are not everything.  Near the end of my life, I published a tract entitled, “Thoughts upon Methodism,” in which I wrote:

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”

Dear friends, I must ask you: Has this happened? Have my fears been realized? Are the Methodists of today “a dead sect?”

Have your hearts grown cold?

My brothers and sisters, I pray that you will study my life and the lives of the early Methodists – not so that you can repeat the things we did – but so that you can recover the spirit and power of the Methodist movement. Ask God to show you why he raised up this movement, and how he wants to use you today.  My friends, I beg you—do not let the fire go out. Rediscover the power and purpose of your Methodist heritage.  Be transformed by the power of God, so that you, by the power of God, may transform the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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