Preached June 9, in Dunmore and Throop UMC's
England in the 18th century was a very tough place. Especially in the early part, there were strong economic disparities, lots of distance between rich and poor. It wasn’t uncommon to wake up in the morning, in certain neighborhoods, and find that there had been people who had died during the night. Not of alcoholism, not of drug use, but from simple hunger.
The way the church worked at that time was that you rented or bought a pew to sit in, and you were a member of a parish whether you went to church or not-it was by government design what parish you belonged to.
People were moving from the countryside into the cities, as this was the beginning of the industrial revolution. Coal was not yet a big part of the revolution, it was still about 80 years in the future before they learned how to burn anthracite down in Wilkes Barre.
Church was something that you did as part of being middle class, or respectable. You rarely found the poor in church, unless they were filling an obligation. It was just too expensive. People who were hungry and sick probably found it hardtop care what was being said from any pulpit.
Into that mix, culture time, was born one of 19 children, ten of whom achieved adulthood, named John Wesley. His father was a priest, and so he was what we called a PK, or “preachers’ kid”.
Their mother Susanna was the one who instilled spiritual discipline in the children, insisting that all the boys AND the girls learn how to read and write. She believed that it was through reading and writing that her children would become better instruments for God.
John, who they called “Jack”, went to Oxford and became an Anglican priest, as well as his brother Charles. They and a group of friends together began to have regular meetings where they would pray together, study Bible together, talk about problems, and go out and do acts of charity and compassion together.
The other students at Oxford mocked them for this, calling them the “Holy Club,” “Bible moths”, and the worst one of all,
Yes, our worldwide denomination of 29 million people were named by college boys who were mocking our guys.
They were regular, and they were doing a lot in the community. They would visit those who were sick and in prison. They would feed the hungry. And they would study and pray, at regular times.
John and Charles were invited, after college, to go to the colony of Georgia to chaplain the colonists. It did not go well, and Charles left after a few months. It was worse for John, who fell in love with a woman named Sophey Hopkey who did not return his love. When he chose another to marry, he refused her communion, and the colonists chased him out of town-he had to leave Savannah in the middle of the night to get to Charleston SC, to get a boat home.
On the way back to England, in doubt of his faith and depressed, the ship passed through some terrible storm. Now, on top of everything else, John was not just in doubt of his faith, he was in doubt of his salvation. But on that ship was a group of German-speaking Christians, Moravians, who were singing hymns and were generally unconcerned with their plight. He was fascinated with their faith.
He wanted that. He visited them a number of times, both in England and Moravia, over the next decade or so, and it is finally at one of their Bible studies, on a street in London called Aldersgate Street, he has what we call the “Aldersgate Experience”, when John received a strong feeling of assurance, for the first time, of his salvation. The reader that night was reading out of the preface or the prologue to Martin Luthers’ commentary on Romans, and something in those words about salvation by faith alone, freely given and unearned, spoke to Wesley in a new way. We say, in the Methodist Church, that “his heart was strangely warmed.”
He was 34 by this point. He’d been clergy for over a decade, and had preached hundreds of sermons. But he just now gets what assurance means.
He has no parish, so he begins to preach the availability of this assurance to anyone who will listen. We know of his preaching in the open air a lot, once being chased out of a field by a bull that been let loose on purpose, once standing on his own fathers’ crypt. He would preach to miners coming out of the shaft, he would preach to seamen getting off their boat in the harbor.
He’s not preaching to people who go to church. He’s preaching to the lower classes, the ones who are not sure of God knows them. He’s giving the reassurance of Christ to people who had not yet heard it.
As he is heard more and more, and people want to grow in Christ, he organizes them into class meetings that meet during the week. So, in a church of 40 today, there would also be four groups of 10 each that would meet during the week.
When this movement came to the American colonies, there were preachers commissioned here to travel up and down the countryside, starting around Baltimore and Philadelphia, and expanding north and south, called circuit riders. These were single men who had power to marry and baptize. They would be assigned to geographic areas, called charges, which is where we get that term from, though we no longer have strings of 20 or so churches.
The most famous of those circuit riders was named Francis Asbury, and his diary has records of him preaching in all original 13 colonies, and Kentucky and Tennessee as the US spread west. We have record of him preaching in Berwick and in Clarks Summit, using what we now call Route 11.
The United Methodist church has its roots in a faith that takes the Gospel to the people. It takes the Word out to where they are. They don’t wait for people to come to them. They go out and feed the people, visit them, care for them, show compassion and charity, where they are.
In this modern time, when we as church institutions are trying to recapture what it is that made us so vital, we borrow terminology from advertising, and talk about “branding”, and “re-branding”, and “our market”, this is who we are: we act out our faith by serving those who need it-those who need help, because the Word of God is not as important to them as recovery, food, clothing, housing.
We come to church to be refreshed in that work, to encourage each other in our work, and to be reassured of Christ’s love for us. But our work is not here. It is OUT THERE. Wesley claimed the whole world for his parish, and we are called to that work as well.
There is nothing in what we believe that says that all of Christianity must believe and act like us. There are hundreds of Christian expressions, and we are but one. We are no more and no less than any other expression. But our special recipe, our method of being followers of Christ, is to study, read Scripture, pray, and be in mission to help the last, the least and the lost.
Just as Zen is a technique of how to be Buddhist, Methodism is a technique of how to be Christian.
Our faith is demonstrated in our walk. We may talk about it as well, depending on our personality, but it is clearest in our actions.
This is who we are, this is who we are trying to become.
Methodism does not make you more or less Christian, but it does give us the tools with which to be authentically Christian.