Aldersgate Sunday 2020
Sunday 24th May 2020 @ 9:34 am
A sermon, (delivered in two parts) for Aldersgate Day, given on RTE May 24th 2020.
Today in the Methodist tradition, is what we call Aldersgate Sunday – and on this day, we hold in mind the experience of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, an Anglican priest who longed for the renewal of the church in his time.
He was a fiercely passionate human, as well as a strong advocate and practitioner of what we now call social justice.
John Wesley was born the 15th child of Samuel and Suzanna Wesley in a small town in Lincolnshire called Epworth in 1703. He was educated in London, and at 17 went to Oxford to study at Christ Church, where he thoroughly enjoyed college life. He began to keep a diary in these early years, and that is why we know so much of this thinking and experience.
Several years after completing his degree in classics + logic, he was offered a fellowship in Lincoln college Oxford, where he took to life in a more serious fashion. He studied theology and became a priest in the Church of England, he was joined by his brothers Charles (the incredible hymn writer) and Samuel in Oxford. Soon they were running their own small group comprised of young men from most of the colleges in Oxford – and yes sadly in those days all men. They called themselves The Holy Club – and were known for their passionate singing, serious bible study and even more serious accountability to each other.
I have had the pleasure on a couple of occasions of visiting Lincoln college and spending time with chaplains there – who in these days have as their office the room where John Wesley lived as a Fellow. It’s quite a moment sitting in a space you know was a highly significant place in the growth of your tradition. When I was last there, just over a year ago, I was talking with the current incumbent of the rooms, who informed me that she had been talking to an academic physicist, who told her, there is an idea in theoretical physics, (never proven, it remains a theory to be fully investigated if ever possible) that no sound ever totally disappears, the wave of sound simply dissipates into mater present …
She smiled and told me sometimes she likes to remember that theory, as she sits in that space bringing to mind that the songs and prayers of those reviving days – imagining they are still somehow present to her! Now that is quite a thought!
Not everyone in Wesley’s Lincoln college however thought these meetings and passions were appropriate, the Oxford Dons would mock Wesley at the dinner table, and the Holy Club got the nickname, the Methodists – because everything they did seemed methodical – a mob arrived at the gates of Lincoln college one evening to ‘encourage’ John to stop his teaching and preaching. Even John’s father Samuel expressed some concern at the rigours of the Holy Club and eventually tried to get John to take over his parish to get him to a more reasonable existence. Eventually, in 1735 John and his brother Charles left for America, in many ways an ill–fated time for them.
But the movement they had begun –
a movement of passionate religious life,
a movement of serious spiritual engagement,
a movement of obsessive works of charity and generosity to the prisoners others of lower classes in Oxford,
a movement that fought for renewal and relevance for the church of his day,
that movement had begun to catch fire by the time they were on the boat to America
and today it numbers some 80million people around the globe.
This morning we want to acknowledge that our country is going through a lot.
Our world is going through a lot.
This has been a time of crisis.
Of need for strong leadership and wise heads.
This is a time when grief is palpable, a time when the cortisol adrenaline rush that got us through the first weeks of lockdown is morphing into something else … the panic is over, we have settled into secluded living, and we are now settling into safe and sensible ways forward. Yet, that adrenaline rush we used to get us through the first months?
Well, that might be getting payback now and making us/you nervous, jittery, anxious?
You might be sorted knowing what the coming weeks will bring?
Or you might still be wondering how and when will this all end?
You may well have experienced loss so deep over theses last months, that you know that life will just never be the same again.
On 24th May, 1738, John Wesley wrote the following in his dairy, after attending a Bible study in Aldersgate Street, London – this text has become almost sacred to the people called Methodists around the world, and it was an experience after which life was never the same for him again – listen to some of what he wrote …
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, 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.
… herein I found the difference between this and my former state … I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”
This experience changed Wesley’s life, and shifted emphasis in the life of faith of would become the Methodist tradition.
Wesley ‘felt’ his faith,
a deep internal stirring, a settling and unsettling within him,
pointing to something more than he had previously known.
More than the laws he had been feverishly following for decades
More than the scriptural understandings of grace he had known in his head
More than the efforts and methods he had been fostering upon those who were joining with him.
The Aldersgate experience is sometimes called Wesley’s conversion – I think it’s unfair to call it that. Wesley was a living breathing passionate church reformer before this experience. But here, something more happened.
Life was no longer a set of rules to be followed meticulously,
life was internal and external,
thinking and feeling,
head and hand
in wholeness together.
All vital. All holy. All sacred.
This was one of Wesley’s conversions. He had several. One was the decision to follow the teaching of his family and lean on Christ as a young man. Another was to turn his back on pious pomposity in Oxford and stir up the Holy Club, another was when he met Moravian Christians who he could not understand why they were so joyful in the midst of a crisis, (and after this Adlersgate experience he traveled to seek them out and discover their secret!) another conversion came later years when he changed from being a man who attacked what he previously termed Popery to one who wrote a letter to a Roman Catholic saying,
”If your heart is as my heart,” if you love God and all mankind,
I ask no more: “give me your hand.”
This is the heritage of some 80 million Christians in the Methodist tradition across the globe. It’s the heritage of a founder who dug deep into his inner–life, while maintaining an active generosity of social compassion. Everywhere he went, he preached, he laid hands on people for healing, he sold his books, and gave the money from those books to begin schools for the disadvantaged, children’s homes for orphans, hospitals for the sick.
He lived his internal faith, out.
It didn’t always go well by the way …
During one trip to Dublin he preached in a church on Abby Street where the Abbey Theatre now stands. After he had finished preaching, and thankfully left the building, a mob walked up Abbey St to find him, when they arrived at the church, they set fire to it!
Wesley lived fiercely faithfully in the midst of all the realities of his day. When faced with a crisis, a challenge, or an experience which called forth change, which his Aldersgate experience certainly did, he met that challenge, and opened himself to be different because of it.
He had moments that changed his life.
So what about now?
What about these days?
If John Wesley was able to respond to circumstances and experiences around him in his days, what is his inspiration for these days?
In these days that we have not seen the like of before.
In these days that have
stretched families physically,
stretched government logistically,
stretched the capitalist system we are beholden to financially,
stretched our health system to the ‘enth degree
and stretched our hearts, our hands, our heads …
… what can the example of a church reformer of 300 years ago say to us today?
Or more importantly, what can Wesley’s Aldersgate experience say to those infatuated by questions of faith in these days?
Those not interested in established traditional church practices,
but absolutely willing to ask bigger questions of God
Questions of hope and meaning and purpose
questions of dignity and forgiveness and justice
questions of fairness and goodness and love?
What could we say today?
I don’t know.
I would not dare dictate an answer to you.
But I will join the conversation.
I will encourage us all to take seriously the words that we read from the Gospel of Matthew to:
“Steep your life in God–reality, God–initiative, God–provisions. Don’t worry about missing out … “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when we were still trying to guess how different life was going to be, and how long it would be different before we would get back to normal – I was in a local Tescos. There was no proper social distancing measures in place at that stage, there were still no queues outside the stores, so there was still a lot of people inside.
While I was going around a corner I accidentally came quite close to a middle aged woman. I was looking the other way and didn’t see her.
I heard a gruff mumble of ‘2meketrkesc’
Eh? I thought???
I turned round and this small fierce female says TWO METERS!!!
My response was not very gracious – I simply went, ‘OK, rolled my eyes a little, and walked away.’
Had I of course had more presence of mind, I would have said, ‘I am so so sorry, you are quite right, I do not want to catch anything from you! Thank you.’
I began to worry at that point, that social distancing would come to mean socially distant. And I began to panic for the state of this country when we get into the habit of treating each other with avoidance and suspicion, when we learn to treat other people in the street as infection, not as human.
A few weeks later I was in the same Tesco’s and talking with the checkout lady. We were talking about the realities we are living under, and I told her about the previous woman, who by this time in the telling of the story had become someone viciously attacking me!
I was smiling telling her this, when she looked at me and said,
“Oh well – it’s tough for people isn’t it? You don’t know who she has at home, or if she’s trying to protect other people – she might have some hard things going on at home.”
Yes, she might have had.
And shame on me for being so short–sighted.
The checkout lady pulled me back to my senses and showed me how social distancing,
while important and right,
does not have to mean socially distant.
I do not want to go back to ‘normal’ when these months pass.
American writer and poet Sonya Renee Taylor has written,
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was.
Our pre–corona existence was not normal other than we normalized
greed, inequity, exhaustion,
depletion, extraction, disconnection,
confusion, rage, hoarding,
hate and lack.
We should not long to return, my friends.
We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.
One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
The tradition of the people called the Methodists knows what it’s like to have life–changing experiences and let those experiences fuel us forward for change.
Please God. Let it be so again.
Ireland and beyond has seen pain,
we will see more.
There has been incredible suffering,
and in that suffering we have surfaced a new found respect and admiration for those walking into the middle of front line health services every day.
There has been loss, and there will be grief for some time to come.
But we do not face these days,
or the future
We face it together,
with the Divine presence of the God who is Love
in our midst
”If your heart is as my heart,
if you love God and all humankind,
I ask no more:
give me your hand.”
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