LESSONS FROM WESLEY
Today is Aldersgate Day, the day when Christians, especially those from the Methodist tradition remember John Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience when he came into a personal experience of salvation. Church historians have argued over whether this was his “conversion” or not, whatever happened it was a profoundly spiritually significant moment which turned Wesley’s life around and it could be argued changed the world.
What happened was that on the 24th of May 1738, John Wesley, who was an Anglican minister, went to what today we might call a bible study in Aldersgate St in London. At that meeting someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. Wesley described what happened with these words
“About 8:45 p.m, 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.”
John Wesley’s life was transformed and through him a movement began, Methodism, which many argue transformed Great Britain and had a profound impact on the new country of the United States. As we remember Wesley, I think there are two great lessons for us to think about
FAITH IS NEVER SECOND HAND
John Wesley had a tremendous Christian heritage in his family. His two grandfathers had been well known leading ministers in England. His own father Samuel was a Church of England minister and His mother Susannah was an incredible Christian woman who led family devotions, tutored each member of her large family individually in the Bible and held bible studies in her home for her servants and other locals. (not always with the approval of her husband) Yet despite all of this, being brought up in a Christian family, having studied theology at Oxford, becoming a Christian minister, being very committed with others to prayer and good works and becoming a missionary to the American colonies Wesley himself it seems had never had a personal life changing encounter with Jesus. Wesley wrote with candid honesty about his experience as a missionary in North America “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?” It wasn’t until the evening he describes above that all the head knowledge he had about Christ moved to his heart and changed it.
Wesley’s Aldersgate experience is a reminder to all of us that it doesn’t matter if your family is Christian, you can’t rely on their faith. It doesn’t matter that you have gone to church all your life and know the Bible well, you have to personally encounter Jesus. There is no second hand faith in Jesus. Its not enough to know about Jesus, we must encounter Him personally.
FAILURE IS NEVER FINAL
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be on St Simon’s island just off the coast of Georgia in the US. While there I wandered round the remains of Frederica; the town built by the 18th century British colonists where, for a while, Wesley was the minister. His time in Frederica, like most of his work in Georgian, was an unmitigated failure. His time as a minister and missionary in the colony was marked by constant conflict with other people and not a little arrogance on Wesley’s part. Eventually he left Georgia in disgrace to avoid a court case and returned to England feeling rejected and dejected.
Yet today if you return to St Simon’s Island as well as the ruins of Frederica you will find a huge retreat centre run by the Methodist Church to which people from all round the world come. I was speaking at conference there with participants from every continent, we all had one thing in common, John Wesley’s legacy had touched our lives. That retreat centre and the people who go there are a testimony to the worldwide impact that Wesley made after his Aldersgate experience. Today literally millions of people around the world in the Methodist Churches, the various Wesleyan denominations and the Salvation Army all look back to Wesley as their spiritual mentor and ancestor. John Wesley went from failed missionary to one of the most effective evangelists and church leaders in all of history. I am pretty sure that following his failure in Georgia that he never believed he would leave such an enduring legacy. So, as we remember John Wesley today we should remember that failure was not final for him and nor need it be for us.