Recently, as I do each June, I spent time at Annual Conference, held - conveniently for me - at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Each year, as United Methodist clergy and laity meet for several days, I always find myself experiencing mixed feelings.
There are parts of the church that I love dearly, but there also are many parts of the church that sadden me. Maybe it is that way in all denominations, I don't know, but each year after Annual Conference I find myself reviewing John Wesley's general rules because it is in these three simple rules that I find the basis for who we are as United Methodists.
The three rules are very simple: 1. Do no harm. 2. Do good. 3. Attend to the ordinances of the church - or, as Reuben Job has redefined this third one, Stay in love with God.
I hope it is OK with all of you if I reflect on each of these rules over the next few weeks. Reflecting on these rules will help to restore in me a sense of who we are and what we are to be about.
This week I will reflect a little on John Wesley himself. Born in June of 1703, Wesley was a highly educated son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Beginning with his mother as his first teacher, his education prepared and trained him for the ordained ministry in the Church of England.
After completing his education and serving in different areas, John Wesley traveled to Savannah, Ga., to be a missionary in 1735. Simply put, he was less than successful in the venture and returned to England with what I am certain were many questions on his heart. He must have pondered what he could have done differently, or why the people did not understand how he wanted them to live. He must have wondered over and over why the people of Georgia asked him to leave, even in the dark of night. I am certain that John Wesley was going back to England depressed.
Wesley had a dilemma. How could he continue to preach the gospel when he didn't feel it and didn't understand it? He needed a conversion experience, an experience when he could know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ loved him and offered him grace. We all need those moments, sometimes over and over again, when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are beloved of Christ and that grace is freely given to us.
On his way to Georgia, the ship on which he was sailing encountered a storm which sent fear into the hearts of most of the passengers, including John Wesley. On that ship was a group of Moravians who caught the attention of Wesley. While everyone was fearful, the Moravians were displaying a profound trust and joy in God. Throughout the storm they sang hymns that reflected their faith. During that storm, watching those Moravians, Wesley understood that they possessed something of faith that he did not have. They knew something that he did not know.
So, after he returned to England he began to attend a Moravian gathering. He must have hoped and prayed that he would discover the source of their deep faith and also find the answers to the questions that he pondered about his life and faith.
In May of 1738, Wesley was attending a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street where he heard something that he had never understood before. The scripture that evening came from Romans, and Wesley understood for the first time that we are saved by God's grace, not by works, not by doing anything. He described his experience as his heart being "strangely warmed." It was a moment that he never forgot, a moment when he felt saved and beloved by Christ.
Within Romans is the statement of faith that changed his heart: We believe that in baptism we die and rise with Christ. We believe that we die to sin and rise to new life. It is not something that we can do literally - dying and rising. Christ has already done that for us. The grace of God in Christ is freely given without cost, without payment, without exchange of goods.
Wesley did not have it simply because the Church of England said he had grace and then ordained him. I don't have it simply because the United Methodist church says I do and ordained me. No one has grace because of what we have done to be saved or because we worked hard to achieve it or because we did all the right things, said all the right things, wrote all the right things.
Grace and salvation come because of what Christ did long ago. He showed us what it means to have a personal relationship with God. He died for our sins and rose again for life eternal. Somehow in the midst of studying Romans, Wesley got what he didn't get in his education and training. And then he discovered that when we get it, when we accept grace, when our hearts are filled with joy, things change.
In Romans, Wesley heard these words: "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we, who died to sin, go on living in it?" (6:1-2)
Wesley moved on to ponder other questions then: How does life change when grace abounds? How does life change then?
Because we follow Jesus, we want our lives to change. We do not want our lives to reflect that we are living in sin when Christ has forgiven us and grace abounds.
Wesley's ponderings on these questions led him to develop the three simple rules. We will reflect on the first one next week: Do no harm.
To God be the glory!