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.