The work of the Holy Spirit

Easter 6 – 2014

John 14:15-21

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose Spirit enlivens us and gives us peace. Amen.

 I am sure that most of you could name at least one Wesley hymn and that some of you could name many more. I wonder how many could name which of the two Wesley brothers John or Charles was the hymn writer and which was the driver for the movement within the Anglican Church which became Methodism (the Methodist church)?

 Yesterday was the feast day of John and Charles Wesley and though their story would take much longer in the telling, it seemed an opportune time to give you some insights into their lives and their influence.

Charles Wesley, the younger of the brothers wrote an extraordinary 8,989[1] hymns (or poems), some of which consisted of more than 100 verses. Among these are some of the best-loved hymns in the Anglican Communion: “And can it be?”, “Love Divine” and “Hark the Herald Angels sing”. So well-known and well-loved are these hymns that 71 are included in the hymn book (Together in Song) Nearly one tenth of the hymns considered useful for today’s church were written by Charles Wesley. both brothers were prolific writers, Charles of hymns and John of 500 religious books, papers and tracts.

According to the Christian History website, Charles is often considered the forgotten Wesley, however, in my experience, it is the other way around. Because I am so familiar with the hymns, I tend to credit Charles with the founding of Methodism, whereas it was his older brother John who was the driving force and chief organiser of the new movement.

The brothers were born four years apart in 1703 and 1707, to Samuel and Susannah who had nineteen children – 10 of whom survived into adulthood. Samuel was an Anglican clergyman educated at Oxford. Both he and Susannah were well-versed in theology. Education was an important value in the household and the children (girls and boys) were taught at home by their mother, who not only taught them Latin, Greek and French, but who found time twice every day to quiz them. In addition, Susannah set aside one hour a week for each child to give them intensive spiritual instruction.

John initially embarked on an academic career and though he later became a priest, he returned to Oxford as a teacher after a two-year curacy. It was while John was away from Oxford, that Charles, then a student himself, formed what became known as the Holy Club in response to the general disinterest in spirituality. The group practiced a rigorous spiritual regime – meeting daily from 6am to 9am for prayer, psalms and the reading of the Greek New Testament, once every waking hour they prayed and though the current practice was to receive Communion only three times a year, this group received communion every week. They adopted the practice of the early church and fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. The group became known as Methodists because of the methodical way in which they practiced their faith.

Over time they began to visit prisoners, and to relieve jailed debtors. They visited the sick, preached and taught. Such was their enthusiasm and piety that the group were held in suspicion and regarded as radicals and fanatics.

In 1735, both brothers responded to an invitation to a new colony in Georgia. The trip was a disaster in many senses – a mission to the indigenous people failed and though John was given a parish, Charles was employed as a private secretary to the colony’s governor. Charles, despondent and in poor health, left first. John remained, but was unlucky in love, and was sued for defamation. He too returned to England. A positive result of their trip was that they had met up with a deeply pious group of Christians – the Moravians who were originally from Germany.

For both brothers this relationship was a turning point in their lives. Despite their intensely rigorous spiritual practices, neither had never really felt at peace with God or that they had achieved salvation. Charles, during a period of illness read Luther’s commentary on Galatians and, for the first time felt confident of God’s love. Sometime later John attended a Moravian service at which he heard read the introduction to Luther’s commentary on Romans. He “felt his heart strangely warmed and he wrote in his journal: “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.” Both learned, as Luther had before them that they was put right with God through faith, and not by anything that he had done. This insight was to play a vital role in their life and ministry from then on.

George Whitfield who took over the leadership of the Holy Club when the brothers went to America, found himself excluded from churches in Bristol. He began to preach to those who felt neglected by the Church. When the brothers returned and they too found pulpits closed to them. George persuaded them the Wesleys to preach to a group of miners in the open air. Unregistered religious meetings outside a church were illegal but though Charles thought the practice vile and John that the appropriate place for preaching was in the church, both eventually saw value in the practice and it seems, had considerable success. John rode something like 250,000 miles through the countryside of the United Kingdom and preached some 42,000 sermons. Charles claimed that in five years he had preached to over 149,000 people (and those were only the crowds for whom he had an accurate count).

John and Charles were both Anglican clergymen, whose desire was to reform the Anglican Church, to deepen a sense of holiness and live out the gospel message of serving the marginalised. Neither had any desire to see Methodism (as their movement became known) as a separate and therefore dissenting sect. However, as they were gradually cut off from the church and denied the right to administer the sacraments, they began to operate more and more outside the establishment. Further the strength of the movement meant that separation was inevitable. Within four years of John’s death, Methodists in Britain were legally able to administer the sacraments and conducts marriages. Today Methodism is the fourth largest church in Britain. In Australia the Methodist Church united with the Presbyterians in 1977 so it is difficult to measure the strength of the movement here. Globally the movement consists of 70 million people.

Wesley differed from contemporary Anglicans not in doctrine but in emphasis. He taught that Christians should strive to obtain holiness of life (called “perfect love”) with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in today’s gospel promises to send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth that will abide in them and unite them to the Father and the Son. John and Charles Wesley allowed that Spirit to work in them to achieve extraordinary results. If the Spirit could achieve so much through just two people, imagine what the Spirit could do through all of us!

 

 

[1] In comparison, Isaac Watts, the nearest competitor wrote only one tenth of that number. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/poets/charleswesley.html?start=1

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