ON THE WAY OF SALVATION
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
August 14, 2016 Twelfth Sunday After Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 139; 1 John 4:7-19; John 15: 9-17
This morning I want to begin by bringing our attention to the Collect for the Day. This beautiful prayer has a long history in the church; Thomas Cranmer took it from the Latin Rite, where it is originally attributed to the 5th century Pope Leo. Over the centuries, it has been edited and altered only slightly, most recently for the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer.[i] Its petition is for mercy, “forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask.” In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” John Wesley calls conscience, “more properly ‘preventing grace.’”[ii] This preventing, or prevenient grace, is perhaps John Wesley’s most distinctive doctrine, described in The Book of Discipline (BOD) as “the divine love that surrounds all humanity.”[iii] Prevenient grace prevents our utter ruin and enables our initial response to God: the ‘drawings’ of desires and ‘showing’ “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God.” Prevenient grace is the first marker along “the way of salvation.” Today I want us to journey up that path, minding its guideposts as they appear in our readings and hymns.
The reading from Jeremiah has two parts. The first three verses express the omnipotence of God. The next five verses contrast the Word of God to the vain imaginings of lying prophets. Methodism was founded as a movement to restore the New Birth experience and disciplined practice of early ‘scriptural’ Christianity to the everyday life of Christians. These verses validate, so to speak, this effort.
John Wesley identified the Old Testament prophet with the office of ‘teacher,’ that is, a preacher in the synagogue. For Wesley, there are two kinds of prophets: “the extraordinary, such as Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many others,” and the ordinary, “those who were educated in ‘the schools of the prophets,’ such as the one “at Ramah, over which Samuel presided.”[iv] Prophets and priests were separate orders. In the early church, built on the Jewish model, the office of prophet was filled by preachers or evangelists, part of the team sent out to “build up in faith the congregations.” These worked alongside pastors, “frequently called bishops.” Pastors administered the sacraments; preachers and evangelists did not. In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the teachers God refers to as prophets, rather than instructing the people, deceived the people. This deception was accomplished by teaching their own imaginings, dreams which are “the delusions of their own minds,” instead of the word of God, spoken ‘faithfully.’ Only the latter has power. Dreams are like straw; they have nothing to do with the grain of truth. Wesley, an ordained minister in the Church of England (COE), took seriously his obligation to speak God’s Word, not straw-like dreams. Further on, Jeremiah said the consequence of teaching falsehood is being cast out of God’s presence and disinherited from God’s kingdom: in other words, “everlasting disgrace—everlasting shame that will not be forgotten” (Jer 23:39-40). New Birth and the discipline of sanctification, according to Wesley, are “scriptural,’ that is, the Word of God. To be a ‘true’ Christian, you must be born again; and then, importantly, you must continue forward on ‘the way.’
As an aside, I want to briefly mention that Wesley considered the verses beginning Jeremiah’s passage, the questions,
“Am I only a God nearby…and not a God far away?”
most worthy of consideration by “every rational creature” for its “deep instruction.” The subject of omnipresence is “divine,” “useful,” and “vast,” Wesley says, as first he explains it, and then applies it “in a few practical inferences.” His explanation relies on Psalm 139, where the Psalmist observes, God “is first in this place, and then, God is in every place.” “In a word,” Wesley says, “there is no point of space, whether within or without the bounds of creation, where God is not.” Dependably, where God is, God acts, “having regard to the least things, as well as the greatest.” This “comfortable truth” urges us onward.[v]
God’s omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience are common Christian attributes; God is everywhere at once, all-powerful, and all-knowing,[vi] and understanding this, we are strengthened and comforted as we make our way to perfection. Commenting on our reading from 1 John, Wesley singles out love as God’s ”reigning attribute:” “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise,” he writes, “but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”[vii] Wesley’s distinctive emphases “for living the full human life” are pervaded by his understanding of “the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit” which we call grace.[viii] This gift of love is given to us through all the stages of our Christian life.
Wesley comments that John parses verse 12 in two parts, first “If we love one another, God lives in us,” and, second, “his love is made complete in us” This is the pattern of conversion: first, we are justified, that is pardoned of our sins and restored to a right relationship with God; then we know, we are assured, that we live in God and God lives in us, because “He has given us his Spirit.” Charles Wesley writes about this experience in the hymn we sung earlier:
“Jesus, thine all victorious love
shed in my heart abroad;
then shall my feet no longer rove,
rooted and fixed in God.”
Because Wesley’s hymn teaches us that, because we are reborn, we increase in the knowledge of and love of God and our neighbor.”[ix] We are sanctified.
The process of sanctification in this world culminates in the perfection of being “like Jesus,”[x] that is, of “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”[xi] Wesley took John’s words “we have seen and testify” to mean it was incumbent on all who have undergone conversion to “openly confess” that Jesus is the Son of God. Our love is made perfect, Wesley notes, so that “we shall have boldness in the day of judgment, Because as he – Christ. Is – All love. So are we.”[xii] Charles Wesley describes the experience of Christian Perfection in the fourth section of the hymn, which is omitted from the Hymnal:
‘My steadfast soul from falling free,
Shall then no longer move;
But Christ be all the world to me,
And all my heart be love.”[xiii]
In John Wesley’s notes, the stages along the Way of Salvation that we sing about in this hymn are analogous to a person’s lifespan: “A natural man has neither fear nor love; one that is awakened, fear without love; a babe in Christ, love and fear; a father in Christ, love without fear.”[xiv] As we grow, God provides us with the grace to keep growing, and we “shed our love abroad;” as 1 John writes, “we love because he first loved us.” “This is the sum of all religion,” Wesley comments, “the genuine model of Christianity.”
No matter how powerful a person’s conversion experience, and where along the Way of Salvation they are, as when he and she would imagine they had no sin left in them, they would soon discover in their hearts pride, self-will, the love of the world, inordinate affection, fear of dispraise, jealousies, covetousness, uncharitable and unprofitable conversation, etc. Self-knowledge leads to further repentance, and further, inward change, just as the repentance of justification changed us outwardly.[xv] Real Christians, John Wesley preached, are free from outward sin; they have ceased “from any outward transgression of the law.”[xvi] “The more any believer examines his own heart, the more he will be convinced of this: that ‘faith working by love’ excludes both inward and outward sin from a soul ‘watching unto prayer’; that nevertheless we are even then liable to temptation, particularly to the sin that did easily beset us.[xvii]
The gospel reading from John gives more details about the process of sanctification. To abide in Christ’s love, we must do his command, and “See that [we] do not forfeit that invaluable blessing.”[xviii] John recounts Christ’s command as this: “Love each other as I have loved you.” He has chosen and appointed his disciples, “so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” This is ‘the great privilege’ of those ‘born again.’ In his Notes, Wesley exclaims, “A thunderbolt for Antinomianism! Who then dares assert that God’s love does not at all depend on man’s works?”[xix] Charles Wesley’s writes about this “divine-human synergy” in his hymn, “O Thou Who Camest From Above:”
“Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work, and speak, and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up the gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat;
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.”[xx]
Our journey up that path of the scripture way of Salvation gives us an idea of its arduousness as well as its sublime benefits. Jesus tells the disciples, “The consequence of your going and bearing fruit will be, that all your prayers will be heard.”[xxi] Practically, we don’t pray enough.
As Pope Leo wrote in the Collect, God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray.” We continue to explore what a prayer life can be by praying, finding a balance between using our words and sitting in silence. The deeper we go into prayer, the more it reflects our self-knowledge and the more attuned we become to God’s responsiveness. God is always merciful; even the conscience which provokes fear of judgment is a gift of love, for we cannot turn away from unrighteousness we don’t recognize. For goodness, we are entirely dependent upon God, and especially on “the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ” obtained for us on the cross. The abundance of God’s mercy is so great as to cover all our sins and the sins of the world. May we continuously petition God for forgiveness, and avail ourselves of the means of grace. Then we will continuously grow.
[i] C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F.M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006, 92
[ii] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 373
[iii] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), 50
[iv] John Wesley, “Prophets and Priests,” ibid, 543
[v] John Wesley, “On the Omnipresence of God,” ibid, 524-529
[vi] “Our Christian Roots: God,” http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-christian-roots-god
[vii] John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Ethereal Library), 663
[viii] The Book of Discipline, ibid, 50
[ix] The Book of Discipline, ibid, 51
[x] John Wesley, Notes, ibid
[xi] The Book of Discipline, ibid, 50-51
[xii] John Wesley, Notes, ibid
[xiii] Jonathan Hehn, “History of Hymns: “Jesus, Thine All-Victorious Love,” by Charles Wesley,” http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-jesus-thine-all-victorious-love-wesley
[xiv] John Wesley, Notes, ibid
[xv] John Wesley, “The Repentance of Believers,” ibid, 406
[xvi] John Wesley, “Christian Perfection,” ibid, 74
[xvii] John Wesley, “The Great Privilege of Those Who Are Born of God,” ibid, 190-191
[xviii] John Wesley, Notes, 231
[xix] John Wesley, Notes, ibid
[xx] Scott J Jones, 198-200
[xxi] John Wesley, Notes, ibid