A comment on my last post about John Wesley’s explanation of why Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount concluded that John Wesley got it right. In other words, Jesus preached the sermon to show us the way to heaven.
And I agree. I do think John Wesley got it right. Jesus did come to bring us to heaven on Earth and in eternity. Wesley’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are immensely challenging and edifying for Christians. They call us to a faith that has the power of godliness, not just its outward form.
But I’m not convinced that his is the only right way to read the Sermon. You see, my son has autism. This morning, we sat over breakfast. I read the first two verses of Psalm 40, and we shared a few brief reflections about it. I talked. Luc made signs and smiled in response to something I said. I prayed a very short prayer. He ate his toaster waffles. My son has a spiritual life. Luc and God have their thing together. I don’t get the privilege of seeing most of it. But it is there.
At least for the moment, though, the highly cognitive, verbally expressed Christianity that Wesley practiced, with its literature and hymn singing and small groups of people gathering to open their hearts to each other and public declarations about the witness of the spirit, is not Luc’s kind of Christianity.
John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount speaks of deep sorrow for our sin and mourning for our lost state and repentance toward a God who is justly offended by our choices to reject him.
If this is the only way to read the sermon, then I do not think it is written for Luc. I find I need to read with different eyes. Without lapsing into a condescending paternalism — Lord, please forbid that — I read the Beatitudes much more as a description of my son than a set of eight spiritual stages toward salvation for him.
This makes me sympathetic to people who read Scripture in ways that I don’t understand. It reminds me to be humble when I presume I have “the answer” that fits every person and situation.
But — if you have read this far please do not stop — I can’t understand how United Methodists, at least, can read the Beatitudes or the Bible at-large in ways that implicitly or explicitly make Wesley’s reading out-of-bounds or somehow a relic of a previous time that no longer has any meaning for us. I cannot understand how people can read Wesley and declare that he is just some old, dead guy who did not have the good fortune to have modern biblical studies to help him see the error of his ways.
The Holy Spirit used the early Methodist movement to change the lives of thousands of people and save souls in this life and the next. To sit on our privileged perch in 2014 and refer to people today who preach what Wesley preached as some kind of ignorant group of knuckle-draggers is not just unloving. It is blindness.
The gospel of grace — preventing, convicting, justifying, sanctifying, glorifying — that Wesley preached is sorely needed among us today. Thousands upon thousands of people who go by the name of Christ, have the form without the power of godliness. Thousands upon thousands of people live under the power of sin and trudge through and toward the pits of hell because no one will tell them there is another way.
I pray weekly for the grace to see the people who need that gospel and to preach that gospel in its fullness.
People tell me or write to me that the gospel of individual salvation from sin and hell is “not big enough.” But, in subtle and not so subtle ways, what I am often offered in its place is a gospel with no room for John and Charles Wesley. That’s okay for the Lutherans and Presbyterians, I suppose. But I cannot understand Methodists who are embarrassed by John Wesley or dismiss the thousands of lives who were changed by God through his ministry. I cannot understand Methodists who look at the world today and ridicule or dismiss the ministry of those who preach today the gospel Wesley preached.