Believe, Love, Obey: Part II – Devotion

O Lord, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, and strength to follow on the path you set before us; through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Matthew 22:34-40  Common English Bible (CEB)

Great commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[b] 40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

Romans 12:1-2  Common English Bible (CEB)

Living sacrifice and transformed lives

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

1 Peter 1:13-16    Common English Bible (CEB)

Response of obedience

13 Therefore, once you have your minds ready for action and you are thinking clearly, place your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 Don’t be conformed to your former desires, those that shaped you when you were ignorant. But, as obedient children, 15 you must be holy in every aspect of your lives, just as the one who called you is holy. 16 It is written, You will be holy, because I am holy.

Believe, Love, Obey: Part II – Devotion

I’m excited to continue sharing my experiences in England during the Wesley pilgrimage I went on last month.  As many of you know John Wesley is considered the father of the denomination, and on the pilgrimage I was with a group of about 40 people who journeyed to the places that are important to the birth of Methodism.  If you missed last week, you can read the sermon on the church website, but I wanted to briefly recap. Last week, I shared the things I had seen in Epworth, England, the childhood home of John Wesley.  I shared some stories about the hardships the family faced like fires being set by disgruntled church members that destroyed the family home.  I told you about John Wesley’s mother Susanna, who had 19 children in 19 years and only 9 survived childhood.  I shared with you about the courage and boldness that Susanna Wesley had in general and the boldness she showed in sharing God with others.  We looked at the disciplined devotional practices Susanna engaged in herself and that she also taught her children.  We looked at the strong foundation of faith that Susanna helped instill in her children, including John – and we began to see how this foundation helped to shaped her family.  We talked, too, about the foundation of our own faith.  And I asked you to think about who had helped build your faith foundation, how you could continue to grow and how you could help others develop that foundation in Christ.  Last week was foundation.

Today, we are going to talk about devotion.  We are going to look at how John Wesley lived out his devotion to God as a young college student at Oxford, and how the first rise of Methodism began.  So, today, we move to Oxford, England, where John Wesley went in 1720 to earn his bachelor’s degree.  This is the perfect back to school sermon because today’s story begins with 17 year old John Wesley going off to university.  

I learned that there are many colleges in Oxford University, and that one doesn’t earn a degree from Oxford, but rather from each college.  And if that isn’t confusing enough – John Wesley’s college was Christ Church, which isn’t a church at all, but a college.  Here is a photo of Christ Church and here is a photo of the great hall at Christ Church which has become quite famous.  If any of you are Harry Potter fans, I’ve been told this dining hall is a big part of that movie.  

Christ Church was the most prestigious of the colleges at Oxford.  Most of the students at Oxford were preparing for positions in government, medicine, the law or the Church.  And the teachers and tutors there were mostly priests in the Church of England.  John Wesley entered Christ Church to receive the training and education to become a priest in the Church of England, just like his father was.  

Just like most college students, as John studied, he began reading new works, he began to form his own ideas, and his own theology began to develop.  His own beliefs about who God is began to take shape.  One of the writers who influenced Wesley was Thomas a Kempis, and he began to learn from that writer about the holy living tradition with the goal of imitating Christ – becoming more like Christ through devotional practices.  During his years at Oxford, Wesley began keeping a diary to record and measure his progress with holy living and to hold himself accountable.  Wesley came to believe that “true religion was seated in the heart and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts as well as words and actions.”  (Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 40.)  

The entries in Wesley’s diary indicate how serious Wesley was about this idea of holy living.  One Wesley scholar said that by 1725 we can see “the first outward manifestations of a conviction that holy living is essential to the nature of true Christianity.  Even the beginning implementation of this perspective in Wesley’s life and thought displays many of the characteristic features of what will come to be called ‘Methodist.’  This spiritual quest for holiness provided the focus for Wesley’s theology.”  (Heitzenrater, p. 41).  And so, it is Wesley’s spiritual quest for holiness that I want to focus on today.  I hope in hearing about John Wesley’s quest, you will think about what it means to be holy, and how we can begin or continue our own spiritual quests for holiness.

Wesley received his Bachelor’s degree from Christ Church, and in 1725 he began his studies toward ordination in the church.  In 1726, Wesley became a fellow at Lincoln College – another Oxford college.  His father, Samuel, was very proud and said, “Wherever I am, my Jacky is a Fellow of Lincoln.”  Not only did John have a teaching position, he could “be assured of basic support – a roof over his head, food on his plate, students under his charge, along with a yearly stipend, as long as he remained unmarried.” (Heitzenrater, p. 41).  Parents you can relate to Samuel’s joy — you know it’s a happy day when your kids are off your payroll!

But Wesley did not find much support at this time on his spiritual journey – in his quest for holy living.  His brother Charles had also come to Christ Church, and he was not interested in a deeper spiritual life.  Like most college students, I think, Charles had other things on his mind than holy living.  And John couldn’t find any like-minded people among his colleagues or his students.  Soon after, Wesley was ordained and accepted his father’s invitation to serve in the parish church in Epworth and nearby churches, so he left Oxford.  

But not for long.  

Charles Wesley stayed at Christ Church and began to experience a spiritual awakening as his time went on at Oxford.  About this time, the officials at Oxford saw that their students were not as holy as they should be – imagine that!  And they began requiring tutors to teach the students about religion and to encourage them to regularly read the scriptures.  Charles took this seriously and asked his brother John to come back to Oxford to join him and a friend in serious study and going to church each week.  And this is when it all began – faith sprang up among the students at Oxford, and the seeds of an organizational pattern developed and grew.  “The little band of friends met together for study, prayer, religious conversation, and Holy Communion.”  They kept track of their activities in their diaries and shared them with one another.  (Hetizenrater, p. 44).  

But there were lots of other groups meeting for prayer and study at Oxford.  What was unique about this group happened in 1730, when the group ramped up its spiritual journey.  One of the group members “William Morgan suggested repeatedly to John that the group visit felons and condemned felons in the Castle prison.”  For years William Morgan had been teaching orphans, caring for the poor, and visiting prisons.  And Morgan encouraged the little club to care for the least and the lost of their society.  The group enjoyed the visits to the prison so much, that they soon had a schedule of charitable activities as a vital part of their quest for holiness.

The group of young men worked to bring together children of poor families in Oxford and even hired a woman to care for the children.  I’m honored to say that these early Methodists took an active interest and role in the progress of children.

The actions of this group got a lot of attention, not all of it positive. And soon they were being jokingly called “The Holy Club” or “the Godly Club” or “the Bible moths.”  And then after a couple of years, the term “Methodist” was thrown out there as a put down, and it stuck!  

Here is an example of the Methodical attention the Holy Club gave to becoming more like Christ each day.  In 1731 John wrote this schedule in his diary: Monday – visit the prison at Bocardo, Tuesday – Castle prison, Wednesday – children, Thursday – Castle prison, Friday- Bocardo prison, Saturday – Castle prison, Sunday – poor and elderly.

The Holy Club began fasting every Wednesday and Friday having nothing to eat until 3 pm those days.  They got up at 4 or 5 am to pray and read scripture. They practiced frugality and self-denial.  They met together to go through questions of self-examination – holding each other accountable to holy living.  

Can you imagine college students doing these things today?  Can you imagine mature Christians doing these things today?   Can you even imagine mature pastors doing these things today?  You can see what a disciplined method John Wesley had for seeking holiness in his life.  

A method had been born for Wesley’s theology!

This method has later been described using this cross.  And if you are a visual learner this is a wonderful way to think about how we can love God and love people.  And this is how the Holy Club lived. Becoming grounded by putting down roots and loving God — by showing devotion through study, prayer, fasting and through worshiping God — through receiving Holy Communion as often as they could.  And then because they were grounded in the love of God, they would bear the fruit of God’s love by doing works of mercy and justice.  By showing devotion and worshiping God (at the bottom of the cross) – by loving God, we are able to love people by showing compassion to others and working to change injustice in our world (at the top of the cross).  This is a diagram of Wesley’s quest for holy living.

John Wesley called the Holy Club at Oxford the first rise of Methodism.  This small group of college students who wanted to live out a life in Christ were the spark that would become our denomination.  This group of college students started a revolution, really.  This group of college students who were willing to dedicate themselves wholly to God, became spiritually alive and others wanted what they had!

Early on Wesley was beginning to find a way to live out his belief that “true religion was seated in the heart and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts as well as words and actions.”  Truly following God involves all of who we are, every part of us – our hearts, our words, and our actions.  Truly following God calls us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our being, and with all our mind.   And truly following God also calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Truly following God means offering our lives as a spiritual sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.  Following God is a sacrifice of ourselves.

In today’s scripture from Romans Paul said it this way:

12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.   Romans 12

John Wesley began his quest for this holy life during his years at Oxford.  And this holy club practiced living a life devoted to God – living a life that was holy.  We tend to mystify the word holy, and the word has a negative connotation, because we think of holier than thou as a meaning for holy.  But “holy” simply means being set apart for service to God.  When we are baptized, and when we accept our role as a child of God, we are part of the family.  And God expects us to act a certain way.  God expects us to accept our position as special and set apart – because we are holy.  God expects that when we are living close to God, the world will notice that there is something different about us.  

Let me remind you of these beautiful words:

13 Therefore, once you have your minds ready for action and you are thinking clearly, place your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 Don’t be conformed to your former desires, those that shaped you when you were ignorant. But, as obedient children, 15 you must be holy in every aspect of your lives, just as the one who called you is holy. 16 It is written, You will be holy, because I am holy.[a]    1 Peter 3:13-16

People noticed that these college students were a little crazy – people noticed that they were spending their time a lot differently than most other college students.  I think college students in 1700 probably spent their time a lot like college students of today – there are lots of pubs in Oxford.  But John Wesley and his friends decided to take a different path — they were not conformed to their former desires – they were not conformed to the world.  And people started to make fun of them and called them names like Bible Moths and Holy Club and Methodists.  People wondered why in the world they would study and pray and fast so much.  People wondered why they would waste their time on people in prison who deserved to be there, and why they would care about children who lived on the streets of Oxford, and why they would visit sick people and old people.  

The Holy Club didn’t care what people thought about them – they were devoted to pleasing God.  And John Wesley had found a group of people who would walk with him on his spiritual quest for holiness.

In his later years, John Wesley wrote a sermon called the “Altogether Christian.”  And he talked about how he didn’t want to be an “almost Christian” or a “Half Christian.”  He wanted to be an “altogether Christian.”  A follower of Christ who was all in.  A follower of Christ who was holy in his heart and his mind, through his words and his actions.  Wesley’s quest was to live a holy life.  Not just to go to church on Sunday and be an “almost Christian,” but to let his whole life reflect his love for God and God’s love for others.  

And so, today, my prayer for each of us is that we will feel a stirring in our souls to become “altogether Christians.”  That we will commit to loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and that we will love our neighbors and even our enemies.  My prayer is that a fire will begin to burn in us to become more devoted to God – and that as we draw near to God, the Holy Spirit will transform us into something extraordinary.  My prayer is that we will be set apart for service to God, and that people will start talking.  I hope that people start saying, “those crazy Methodists are at it again!”   And I hope they come to this place just to see what we are up to!

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