Don’t wait for heaven

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its orginal purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in rightouseness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

— John Wesley, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” 1744

Methodism at its foundation was deeply concerned with the eternal destiny of souls. John Wesley wrote that his great aim in life was to land on the happy shore of heaven when he died. But he had no time for those who thought heaven was a far off country that would remain ever distant from us until our final hour. No, Wesley and his preachers taught with great passion that the best part of the good news of salvation is that we do not have to wait until our death to taste the blessings of heaven.

Our salvation is about today. It not something we tuck away like our life insurance policy to be consulted during funeral arrangements. In Christ, we can experience the restoration of our souls today.

So much of our talk in church denies this.

How often do we say or hear other people say, “I’ll never be perfect” or “I’m always going to be a sinner”?

Yes, we are all sinners.

No, we are not condemned to always sin.

Christ came so that you might know life today.

I know these words do not express all there is to say on this topic, but I am going to stop today with these words because I find that once we open the gates to caveats and exceptions and “yes, but” conversations, we lose sight of the good news.

God desires that you know the sweetness of your original design. Christ has come so it might be possible for you to do so. The Holy Spirit is at hand to refresh and renew your soul.

You need only let go. Seek what you long for. Accept what you most wish to find. It is here. It is waiting. God waits only for your hands to be opened.

Why do we preachers need to talk more about heaven? Because it is close at hand, if only we will seek it.

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The test of a false prophet

As I was pondering in recent weeks what it means to preach about the way to heaven, I was caught short in my ponderings by the words of John Wesley in his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (there has to be a less awkward way to phrase that). I want to explore part of one of those sermons with you today, not to cast criticism on anyone else but to test and examine my own ministry.

I turn to Wesley’s 12th sermon on the Sermon on the Mount in which Wesley considers the warnings in Matthew 7:15-20.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

If you have any doubts that preaching the way to heaven is one of Wesley’s chief concerns, this sermon will clear such confusion away. The biblical verses warn of false prophets, and so Wesley begins by explaining what a prophet is: “those men who profess to be sent of God, to teach others the way to heaven.”

And he continues this emphasis on heaven as he explains what makes a preacher a false prophet.

“Those are false prophets, who teach a false way to heaven, a way which does not lead thither.”

And what is the true way? Wesley finds his answer in looking to the beginning of Christ’s sermon, at what are commonly called the Beattitudes of Matthew 5:1-12.

Now the way to heaven pointed out in the preceeding sermon is the way of lowliness, mourning, meekness, and holy desire, love of God and our neighbour, doing good, and suffering evil for Christ’s sake. They are, therefore, false prophets, who teach, as the way to heaven, any other way than this.

To give an all-too-short a summary of Wesley’s point, he is saying that the way to heaven is a way of spiritual grief over our own sinfulness, a way of a changed life animated by the love and forgiveness of Christ, and a way of worldly reproach for our obedience to a God the world does not recognize as its own.

It is a narrow way and often a difficult way, which makes it usually an unpopular way. We all want to be told that the way to heaven is a broad way and that everyone arrives on that happy shore. We want to be told that it does not matter if we let our pride, sloth, ego, lust, and rage rule us because the doors of heaven will still be open to us. None of us want to hear that we are wrong about that, preachers or laity.

But if it is true, then what we want to hear — and what we pastors find it easy to say — is irrelevant. If it is true — as Christ says — that the way to the Kingdom is narrow and few find it, then woe to us who ignore this truth. We should seek earnestly what has been revealed to us about the way to heaven in the Bible. It should be of highest priority to all who preach and, indeed, everyone else as well.

And so the question I put to myself today is this: Have I been a false prophet or true? Do I preach in a way that makes the narrow way clear? Or do I tend to comfort those on the broad way to destruction too much?

These are questions for me to weigh but not answer in this moment as I write this post.

I will, however, close with Wesley’s exhortation to preachers that closes his sermon. I read it as words written for me, but I share them with you as well.

Humble yourselves before him. Cry unto him out of the dust, that he may first quicken thy soul; give thee the faith that worketh by love; that is lowly and meek, pure and merciful, zealous of good works, rejoicing in tribulation, in reproach, in distress, in persecution for rightousness’ sake! So shall “the Spirit of glory and of Christ rest upon thee,” and it shall appear that God hath sent thee. So shalt thou indeed “do the work of an Evangelist, and make full proof of thy ministry.” So shall the word of God in thy mouth be “an hammer that breaketh the rocks in pieces!” It shall then be known by thy fruits that thou art a Prophet of the Lord, even by the children whom God hath given thee. And having “turned many to righteousness,” thou shalt “shine as the stars for ever and ever!”

Can we follow the prescription?

Methodists have long struggled with the question of how to relate with John Wesley and how to understand his role and position in the church. Some warn that he should not be afforded too high a regard because his theology is practical rather than systematic. Some defend him. Some dismiss him. Some quote him at length. Some misquote him.

Over the years, I’ve become partial to William Abraham’s encouragement that Methodists understand Wesley as a saint and teacher of the church — one who has shown us a way of life and spirituality in deep pursuit of communion with God. We Methodists might see ourselves, then, as a holiness movement within the wider church catholic, and not so much as a rival church to other churches.

There is a lot to say on that topic, which I am going to leave unsaid for now, but these thoughts form a preface to my continued reading of John Wesley’s first sermon on The Sermon on the Mount because this week, we encounter Wesley’s very strong reading of Scripture through the lens of his deep concern with teaching Christians what it means to become holy.

When I read Wesley, I encounter a man who is always about the pastoral task of helping Christians to interpret their own spiritual experiences and pushing, pulling, cajoling, and prodding them toward a deeper holiness in heart and life. His entire ministry is obsessed with concern that most Christians settle for a counterfeit faith that challenges them little, comforts them much, and leaves them short of the holiness to which we are called.

And so, as he read the New Testament and interpreted it to his listeners and readers, he was constantly reading Scripture for clues to the journey we walk from non-believer to child of God. As he read the Beattitudes, what he saw was a description of the spiritual struggles and mile markers that Christians experience.

As we saw in my last post, Wesley read Christ’s words that those who are poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of heaven as a call to repentance, a call to look at our own heart and see with unflinching eyes the darkness there. This was the first step. The reward for this step is the joy of coming to know that despite our foulness, we are forgiven.

This joy, though, does not last because the battle for holiness is only just begun. And thus, Wesley interprets for us the second Beattitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The mourners of whom our Lord here speaks, are those that mourn on quite another account: They that mourn after God; after Him in whom they did “rejoice with joy unspeakable,” when he gave them to “taste the good,” the pardoning, “word, and the powers of the world to come.” But he now “hides his face, and they are troubled:” They cannot see him through the dark cloud. But they see temptation and sin, which they fondly supposed were gone never to return, arising again, following after them amain, and holding them in on every side. It is not strange if their soul is now disquieted within them, and trouble and heaviness take hold upon them. Nor will their great enemy fail to improve the occasion; to ask, “Where is now thy God? Where is now the blessedness whereof thou spakest? the beginning of the kingdom of heaven? Yea, hath God said, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee?’ Surely God hath not said it. It was only a dream, a mere delusion, a creature of thy own imagination. If thy sins are forgiven, why art thou thus? Can a pardoned sinner be thus unholy?”

He describes here the believer wrestling with the tension in their own soul created by the fact that although they have been “born again,” still they feel afflicted by temptation and sin and doubt. Surely, they think, a Christian should not have such thoughts or temptations. Perhaps, I am not a Christian after all. Perhaps, it is all just words spouted out by preachers to fill their collection plates.

From long examination of his own heart and conversation with many struggling believers and non-believers, Wesley developed a fairly sophisticated grasp of the ills of the spirit. In some of his sermons and counsel to Methodist preachers, he even uses the language of medical diagnosis to talk about the work of pastoral care and the tending of the spirit. Wesley was a student of the pathologies that plague the soul. Here we see him at work.

And here, too, we should see a piece of spiritual autobiography. I do not believe that Wesley could write at such length about the trials of faith and the struggles of doubt without having experienced those things himself. He says a much in some of his other sermons. He has known the struggle of doubt and the grief of his own failures in pursuit of holiness.

To those who find themselves in this mournful state — those who find they have lost touch with the joy that first received when they first came to know the loving forgiveness of God — Wesley says they will find comfort if they rely wholly and only upon God.

Blessed, therefore, are they that thus mourn, if they “tarry the Lord’s leisure,” and suffer not themselves to be turned out of the way, by the miserable comforters of the world; if they resolutely reject all the comforts of sin, of folly, and vanity; all the idle diversions and amusements of the world; all the pleasures which “perish in the using,” and which only tend to benumb and stupefy the soul, that it may neither be sensible of itself nor God. Blessed are they who “follow on to know the Lord,” and steadily refuse all other comfort. They shall be comforted by the consolations of his Spirit; by a fresh manifestation of his love; by such a witness of his accepting them in the Beloved, as shall never more be taken away from them. This “full assurance of faith” swallows up all doubt, as well as all tormenting fear; God now giving them a sure hope of an enduring substance, and “strong consolation through grace.”

It is a fairly simple prescription Wesley offers. Lean on God when you are troubled. Go to him in prayer. Immerse yourself in the Word. Set about doing good to all people in every way you can. Be present at the Communion Table and seek only the comfort of God in your distress. Do not seek the distractions of food and drink and entertainments the world provides. Do not turn to the numbing embrace of drugs or sex. Do not seek strength through anger and power to chase away your inner turmoil. Lean on God alone.

It is a prescription that Wesley often made and that was often poorly followed, or at least I assume it was given the need Wesley felt to emphasize the point so often and in so many ways throughout his ministry.

As a reader of Wesley, I have long been struck by his deep concern with and understanding of the spiritual struggles that we encounter when pursuing holiness of heart and life. As a Christian in the 21st century and a pastor, I am often struck as well by how foreign so much of what he teaches is to the church today.

Even here, we are only to the second of the Beattitudes and already we are cut loose from the experience of the vast majority of American Christians in 2017. I know very few Christians who would say they mourn in the way Wesley describes. For some of them, it is because we have not given them the vocabulary to describe their own experience that would allow them to articulate these things. They have some powerful but hard to describe feelings and sensations of emptiness and doubt and shame and guilt and resentment over their shame and guilt. They feel a detachment or distance from God, but they cannot describe it and have no vocabulary of mental categories to explain all this to themselves or to anyone else.

For others, the problem is pretty straight forward. They have never taken the first step Wesley describes. They have never owned their “poverty of spirit,” and therefore have not felt the joy of forgiveness or mourned for that joy when it passed under the pressure of temptation and the great accuser. And so, all of Wesley’s talk and his prescriptions are useless to them.

As a pastor, I see these things, and I struggle to find ways to communicate them to my congregation. I return to Wesley because — for better or worse — God has called me to teach and preach in the church birthed out of the holiness movement stirred up by this quirky and ceaselessly energetic saint and teacher of the church. There is joy and peace and healing here. God help me to steward what you have given us to dispense.