This past week, in the Episcopal calendar, we celebrated the feast of John and Charles Wesley. Although John Wesley is probably best known as the founder of Methodism, both John and Charles remained Anglican priests throughout their lives. Their impact on world Christianity was tremendous--John as a preacher in what is now referred to as the First Great Awakening, and Charles as a writer and composer of hymns that continue to inspire the Church 250 years later.
In my sermon on Ash Wednesday, I mentioned being at Christ Church in Savannah, Georgia, the previous Sunday--the historic church where John Wesley was the third rector.
I may have mislead you with that reference to Wesley. Because, if that is the only information you have, you might imagine that Wesley had a glorious ministry there--preaching powerful and eloquent sermons, seeing multitudes converted, etc. But nothing could be further from the truth. At this point in his life, Wesley lacked assurance of his salvation, and his ministry reflected it.
On the trip from England to Savannah, the ship on which Wesley was sailing went through a series of storms, one so violent that the wind broke the ship’s mast. While Wesley and most of the others on board were terrified, one group of passengers calmly prayed and sang hymns. They were Moravian Christians. Wesley was so impressed by their faith that one of the first things he did when he arrived in Savannah was to go and see the Moravian bishop--Bishop Spangenberg. Spangenberg asked him, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" Wesley responded, "I know he is the savior of the world." Spangenberg pressed him, "But do you know he has saved you?" Wesley could only respond, "I hope that he has died to save me."
Returning home to England after less than three years in Savannah, Wesley became curate at the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, he was greatly moved by his rector’s sermon on Pentecost Sunday 1738, dealing with the power of the Holy Spirit. Recalling the only Christians he had known who had displayed that power, he was led to seek out the Moravians once again. Shortly thereafter, on May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street. Listening to a reading of the preface to Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans, Wesley was enabled to trust Christ fully and to know that he had been saved by faith.
John Wesley's brother, Charles, was one of the most prolific hymn writers who ever lived. He wrote many powerful hymns of faith. My favorite is “And can it be that I should gain, an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died he for me who cause his pain, for me who him to death pursued?" These are rhetorical questions Wesley is asking, and each one demands an affirmative answer:
"And can it be that I should gain, an interest in the Savior’s blood?" Yes.
"Died he for me who cause his pain, for me who him to death pursued?" Yes.
Then the hymn continues:
"Amazing love, how can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"
When my daughter Laura was about 4 or 5, I took her to buy a Valentine’s Day present for my wife. Children are so cute in their innocence at that age. Laura had said she wanted to help buy her mother's present. So we got to the store and picked out a ring. And Laura helped pay for it. She put her 35 cents on the counter; and, well, I put about 500 times that amount on the counter, and we left with the ring.
Some of us think like this about salvation. We know that Jesus died, and that he did something to procure our salvation. But we think that it is up to us to "help." The only problem is that, when it comes to salvation, we don't even have 35 cents!
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
Titus 3:5 says, "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."
As I did research for this sermon, I ran across one writer who stated boldly, "the Bible never explicitly declares Jesus to be our substitute nor declares Jesus to have died in our place." Apparently, this writer has never read 1 Peter 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might be dead to sins but alive to righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” And 1 Peter 3:18 says, "For Christ also died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit."
The good news of Jesus Christ is that, when we were totally incapable of helping ourselves, Jesus died for our sins in order that, through faith in him, we might have eternal life.
When we read verses such as we did in our Old Testament lesson this morning from Isaiah 49:5, "[God] formed me in the womb to be his servant," or Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as a prophet to the nations," do we think that God only foreordained and called Isaiah and Jeremiah to serve him?
No less than Isaiah or Jeremiah--or John and Charles Wesley, God has a purpose for each of our lives and intends for us to live for him and serve him, and to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost world. But we can only do that, as John Wesley discovered, when we have the full assurance of our salvation by faith in the Savior who died for us.
♫ "Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" ♫