The following sermon was delivered on May 22nd, 2011 by Rev. Christine Elliott at Calvary Church, United Methodist.
At the heart of Methodist Christianity is a single word, and that word is GRACE.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was raised in a Christian home. His father Samuel was a clergyman in the Church of England in the 1700’s. John lived in a parsonage in Epworth, England and learned of Jesus Christ literally at the knee of his mother Susanna, who was a hearthside theologian and John’s first mentor and teacher.
At the age of 5 John was the last member of the family to be rescued from a house fire – and ever after he thought of himself as “a brand plucked from the burning.” This traumatic event shaped him forever, causing him to wonder for what purpose God had spared his life.
He was brought up as a Christian and baptized, taught to keep the commandments of God. He was nurtured in God’s goodness and love. “But,” he wrote “all that was said to me of inward . . . holiness I neither understood nor remembered.”
He faithfully read the Bible and said his prayers in the morning and evening. He attended church regularly and received the sacrament of communion when it was offered.
“Yet,” he said, “I had not all this while so much as a notion of inward holiness.”
At the age of 22 – as his father was urging him to go into the ministry – he began to see “that true religion was seated in the heart, and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts, as well as our words and actions. . . “I began to aim at, and pray for, inward holiness.” And doing good – being good – he thought he had become a good Christian.
In addition to the Bible, he continued to read serious books about the Christian life: Thomas a Kempis – William Law. He, along with his brother Charles and members of the first Methodist class meetings at Oxford University, began visiting the prisons, assisting the poor and sick in town and doing what good he could with his presence and with his money.
At the age of 27 he fasted twice a week and “omitted no occasion of doing good.”
Still he was haunted by an unsettledness in his soul. “I could not find that all this gave me any comfort, or any assurance of acceptance with God.” He sought the counsel of other Christians and even traveled to Savannah, in the English colony of Georgia, to work as a missionary among the native peoples of America.
Journal entry, February 24, 1738
“I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled.”
In a terrible winter voyage across the Atlantic, which lasted four months, he witnessed the amazing serenity of a group of German Moravian Christians on board the ship – he envied their tremendous peace and calm.
“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on.”
After an unsuccessful two years as a missionary in America, and an unhappy end to a promising courtship, he returned to England, now 35 years of age – disheartened and racked by self-doubt. He yearned for a “true, living faith” and the serenity exemplified by his friend Peter Bohler and the other Moravians.
On the evening of Wednesday, May 24, 1738 Wesley went “unwillingly” to a Methodist meeting in a home on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone was reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the Letter of Romans:
“Faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit, through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn renders the heart glad and free. . .Then good works proceed from faith itself.”
“Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith.”
“About a quarter before nine [Wesley recorded in his Journal] 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, 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.”
No longer was the Christian gospel a kind of “general” good news – a message for others. The good news of Christ’s salvation became personal and real in a new and life-changing way that it had not quite ever been before in Wesley’s heart and life.
John Wesley was reborn, at the age of 35, by the Holy Spirit and knew from then on the peace he had sought. The fear of death with which he had struggled abated and disappeared – so that at his death at age 87 his last words could be: “The best of all is, God is with us.” He found the “true, living faith” he had so long sought and yearned for – and that contagious faith began to spread like wildfire in England, America and around the world.
At the heart of Methodist Christianity is a single word, and that word is GRACE.
Grace is like the Coast Guard ship that comes to rescue those who are drowning. It is there not because we deserve it, but because God loves us. It is “prevenient” – it exists before we are even aware of it (which is why we baptize infants in the UMC and do not require that persons be of an age to decide for themselves.) Grace is a gift.
Grace is also like the lifeline thrown out to a drowning person. “Justifying” grace is the act of grasping onto that lifeline – the decision to reach out, to trust, to accept the salvation, the rescue, being offered. And grace is what happens once we are taken aboard the ship – covered with blankets, surrounded by caring hands, being warmed by a mug of hot coffee.
It’s all gift, and it’s all grace – and it’s not until we have been changed on the inside that we will truly understand it and be at peace.
The lifeline is prevenient grace.
Our taking hold of the lifeline is justifying grace. Faith allows us to trust and reach out – and empowers us to grasp the saving lifeline of Christ’s love and transforming presence.
What we do with the rest of our lives – after our rescue – is what Wesley termed “sanctifying” grace – or holiness. Inward holiness of heart and outward holiness of life – all of it made possible only by the renewal of God’s power working within us.
Hear again the words of Ephesians 2:8-9: It’s God’s gift from start to finish!
You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God.
It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift – it’s not something you possessed; it’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
At the heart of our Wesleyan, Methodist, Protestant, Christian heritage is a single word – and that word is? “GRACE!”
Grace is the #1 strand of our DNA and must become the guiding principle and reality of our lives.
Because of God’s grace we no longer need to measure ourselves, or allow others to measure us, by human standards of achievement. A sense of worth is God’s gift to us. Our lives are ultimately justified and our worth assured through faith in Jesus Christ. “To accept this as the central reality of our lives is the most critical spiritual concern that confronts us,” in the words of Christian author James Fenhagen.
In closing, I share with you the Gospel according to Frederick Buechner 🙂
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream, or earn good looks, or bring about your own birth. . . Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. . . A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace:
There’s nothing YOU have to do. There is nothing you HAVE to do. There is nothing you have to DO.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you ARE because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.