The apostle Paul was the writer of this book 2 Corinthians – he was writing to the early church; he was writing to some of the very first Christians in the city of Corinth. And much of 2 Corinthians was written to respond to some false workers who were masquerading as true disciples of Christ. These false teachers were opposing Paul, and in this writing, Paul is dealing with this opposition and Paul is addressing this conflict in the early church. And so keep in mind that Paul is defending himself and his teachings as well as giving the Corinthians a lesson on how they should act if they are truly disciples of Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:11-17 Common English Bible (CEB)
Ministry of reconciliation
11 So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. 12 We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.
13 If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. 14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Believe, Love, Obey: Part III – Transformation
Imagine with me today, what our lives would look like if the love of Christ controlled us. Imagine! What would your life look like today, if every action and every word and every minute of your time were controlled by the love of Christ. Imagine if we didn’t look at people with human standards, but if we saw them through God’s eyes. –When we are living not for ourselves but for Christ, that is when we become a new creation in Christ. But how do we do that?
These are beautiful words, and I love the idea of being a new creation in Christ. I love the idea of being controlled by the love of Christ. But then I realize that people are mean; people hurt each other; evil lurks in the world; bad things happen; and nothing is fair. Some days it seems impossible to be controlled by the love of Christ – some days it seems impossible to even be influenced a little bit with the love of Christ. And as much as I want to be a new creation, I usually don’t feel or look like a new creation.
The more I read about the leaders of our faith, though, the more I am convinced that these kinds of doubts, I see that faith struggles are common – even in the lives of the greatest believers. Sometimes, I think that the most faithful believers, were also the most desperate doubters and seekers of answers to their faith questions. One of my heroes Mother Teresa was discovered to have had a dark night of her soul most of her life. After her death, her diaries revealed her struggles. In one entry she said: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/augustweb-only/135-43.0.html). It’s hard for us to imagine such a servant of God feeling such doubts and having such questions about her faith. Some said this anguish and feeling of abandonment by God helped her to better know those she served in India – who felt the same.
John Wesley spent years wondering if he really did believe in Christ, and if he really had experienced salvation – even though he was raised from birth as a Christian. His father was a priest, his mother Susanna taught him to read scripture and pray. He became ordained as a priest himself. He certainly should have been sure of his faith. And so, today I come to share some stories about John Wesley that you might not have heard before. I want to talk about some of his failures, and how those failures came to be a part of his faith journey and his transformation into a new creation. And I ask for you to think about how your struggles and failures might be a part of your transformation, too.
So, again this week, I share my adventures on the Wesley pilgrimage that I went on in July. The last two weeks of this sermon series I’ve shared with you about John Wesley’s life and faith journey. John Wesley’s theology and methods are the basis for the United Methodist Church, and it has been really amazing for me to come to see John Wesley as a real person – and to learn that he struggled and grew in his faith just like we do. The first week, we talked about John Wesley’s youth and his upbringing – we heard about the struggles of life in the 1700s and how his mother Susanna was diligent in building a foundation of faith in her children. The second week we talked about the devotion that John Wesley exhibited in his life — I shared with you about John Wesley’s growing faith as a young man at Oxford University. We heard about the group of college students called the Holy Club which met together to read scripture, pray, engage in works of ministry with those in need, and to hold one another accountable in their goal of becoming more like Christ.
And this week, I want to share with you the story of how John Wesley experienced failure in his walk of faith, and how he ultimately experienced reconciliation with God, he came into a new relationship with God. And I believe these struggles played a huge role in leading to his transformation. So, I also want to share with you Wesley’s conversion story which came quickly on the heels of a wilderness experience.
First, I want to tell you the story of John Wesley going to America. And I’ll tell you the end at the beginning — John Wesley’s time in America was a disaster. In 1734, John Wesley was contacted about the possibility of his going to one of the new colonies in America – Georgia. Wesley’s father, Samuel had just died, but before Samuel died, he had expressed his own interest in going to the new world if he had only been ten years younger. So perhaps John was influenced by his father’s desire to evangelize the colonies. As I was reading about this, I found something really interesting. I found a quote about John Wesley’s process of discerning God’s will in deciding whether to go to Georgia that I thought was really helpful. Wesley said this: “a man has no other way of knowing God’s will but by consulting his own reason, and his friends and by observing the order of God’s providence.” (Heitzenrater, Richard P., Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd edition, p. 62). So if you are discerning God’s will for your life, as Wesley was at that time, he said – listen to your own reason, listen to your friends advice, and watch for how God is directing you and putting opportunities in front of you.
Wesley decided that he would go to America and his brother Charles went too. And they set foot in Georgia in 1736. He went as a volunteer missionary without pay or specific appointment intending to learn the Indian languages and devote himself to the preaching of the Gospel to the Indian nations bordering the colony of Georgia. (Heitzenrater, p. 63). And looking back on his life, Wesley identified this mission as the second rise of Methodism, with the first being in Oxford. I feel certain that almost immediately upon setting foot on the ship to America John Wesley began questioning whether he had in fact correctly discerned the will of God for his life. Listen to this description by scholar Richard Heitzenrater: “Setting sail for the New World in the 18th century was not for the weak at heart. John Wesley had never been on a ship; he had abhorred and feared the sea from his youth. The almost certain prospect of a rough winter crossing was not one of the attractions of his call to Georgia.” (Heitzenrater, p. 64). Wesley was deeply influenced by the powerful Atlantic storms that the ship faced on the voyage. (Heitzenrater p. 65). Wesley was terrified by the storms. “He was afraid to die, he was unwilling to die, and he was ashamed to admit it. Wesley’s anxiety was compounded by his growing tendency to see his fear of death as a testimony to his lack of faith.” (Heitzenrater p. 65).
The third and worst storm, just a week before sighting land, was so terrifying that it brought Wesley to “submission to the wise, holy, gracious will of God”; it also opened his eyes to the depth of faith of the German Moravians on board. The scene on the ship was described like this: While attending the [Moravians’] evening service, the sea spilled over the ship, split the mainsail, and poured between the decks [Wesley said] “as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.” “The English passengers screamed in fright; but the Germans calmly continued singing the Psalm without interruption.” (Heitzenrater, p. 65). What a witness of faith this was to the terrified John Wesley. These faithful people became a huge influence on Wesley in the future as he sought to gain this kind of great faith that he had witnessed from the Moravians in the face of death on the ship.
This gnawing feeling within him that his faith was not strong enough became almost an obsession with Wesley, and he wrote often about wanting the assurance from God that he was saved, and he craved the abiding knowledge that he did believe. Wesley deeply desired a conversion experience that he began hearing the people the German Moravians speak of.
As I mentioned, this time of Wesley’s life in America would probably be best described as a failure. His encounters with the Indians were disappointing – as you can imagine they had no interest in meeting with Wesley or hearing the gospel.
Wesley was also sent to minister to the people of Savannah, and when he arrived he intended to carry out all the duties that he would be required of him as a priest in the Church of England. However, most of the colonists had no interest, and the Georgians were described as mostly “apathetic, unchurched English parishioners.” (Heitzenrater, p. 69).
However, there was a small group of people in Savannah which gathered to grow in their faith, and those coming to worship grew steadily after Wesley arrived. It was here that John Wesley met a love interest – Sophy Hopkey. He courted her, but apparently refused to marry her, and so when another man asked her to marry him, she said yes and was promptly married to this other man. This was devastating to John Wesley, and he retaliated by refusing to serve Holy Communion to Sophy in her local church. Sophy’s new husband took insult to John Wesley’s actions and filed charges against him on the grounds that he had deviated from the rules of the Church of England. The chief magistrate, the judge, who just happened to be Sophy’s guardian “brought together a rigged grand jury that indicted Wesley on ten counts.” (Heitzenrater, p. 77). These charges would have called for a trial. However, in 1737 (after just a year in Georgia), Wesley took the first boat back to England to avoid such a thing!
These might be the things you never knew about John Wesley! The native Americans could have cared less about John Wesley’s Gospel message, and as for his ministry with the colonists, he basically jumped bail and fled the country to avoid a trial! Not really a successful ministry. Over the years, as you can imagine, Wesley’s opponents liked to bring up his sordid past in America. So John Wesley arrived back in England a defeated young man. I imagine he thought of himself as a failure, and there were certainly those who agreed.
It would have been easy to give up. It would have been easy to think that he could be of no use to God. It would have been easy to think he had misunderstood that God had a special purpose for him when he was saved from the fire at his home when he was a child. It would have been easy to doubt and to lose faith in all that he believed.
Wesley scholar Richard Heitzenrater said that John had “landed in Georgia with high expectations, but he left with some measure of bitterness and disappointment.” (Heitzenrater, p. 78). He left with bitterness and disappointment. We can identify with that, can’t we? Have you experienced “some measure of bitterness and disappointment” with the track of your life?
But instead of being defeated, Wesley said this: “I shook the dust off my feet and left Georgia, after having preached the gospel there…not as I ought, but as I was able.” (Heitzenrater, p. 79). Heitzenrater said that after a long voyage back to England, during which he was once again confronted the peril of a great storm at sea, he was able to see some positive values in his Georgia ministry, even though overall it seemed a failure. Wesley felt that God had humbled him, proved him, and showed him what was in his heart.
Let me say that again – he felt that God had humbled him, proved him, and showed him what was in his heart. I think that to be transformed we have to be humbled and proved and become aware of what is in our heart, also. Sometimes it’s through our failures that we do become controlled by the love of Christ, instead of being controlled by ourselves. Sometimes, I think it’s walking through the dark places that helps us to learn the “obey” part of the “believe, love and obey” motto that John Wesley used in his last years. Because how can we obey God, if we are full of ourselves? How can we obey God if we think we have all the answers? How can we be controlled by Christ if we think we have all the answers? And how can we be transformed into a new creation if we are already perfect the way we are?
And so maybe our failures and our trials are a huge part of our faith journey. Maybe we should not fear these things. Maybe we should not be surprised when our life doesn’t go as we had planned.
Heitzenrater went on to say that Wesley “had learned to be cautious; he had learned to acknowledge God’s direction; he had overcome his fear of the sea; he had come to [know people who were] God’s servants. And all in Georgia had heard the word of God and some had responded in both faith and love.” (Heitzenrater, p. 79). Not a bad list of accomplishments for a failed mission!
But perhaps most importantly, “Wesley had moved along significantly on his spiritual pilgrimage.” (Heitzenrater, p. 79).
And instead of crawling in a hole and giving up, Wesley arrived back in England and resumed doing what he did. Studying and seeking God and spreading the gospel in any way he could. And on May 24, 1738, just five months after returning from Georgia, Wesley experienced the presence of God in the way that he had been craving. Listen to John Wesley’s words from his diary that day:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that 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. (Heitzenrater, p. 78).
I’ve always thought this “heart strangely warmed” story was a very strange experience. I’ve always thought this sounded kind of weak, honestly. I guess I think God should not just warm one’s heart, but set it fully ablaze when conversion comes. You know, I want lightning bolts and God’s voice speaking to me.
But then I went to Aldersgate Street. And I saw that it was just a plain ordinary busy street in London. And the site is marked by this monument outside the Museum of London – a giant flame. And I thought what an ordinary thing in such an ordinary place. I saw people passing by and not even noticing it. I wondered how many people even knew what it was. And I realized that is so like what we experience– our conversion to God may seem ordinary to outsiders – our description of our conversions are hard to put into words – others won’t understand. It’s one of the reasons it’s hard to share our real life stories. But nonetheless that moment when we realize that we do believe, and that we do trust in Christ for our salvation is huge to us – it is life- changing, it is transformative, and we are whole new persons. It’s impossible to put into words! And it’s impossible to explain – because it is God – and how do we explain God. And it is personal to us – and it’s difficult to share. And that is what makes it so holy — it is an experience meant just for that one person at that one time in all of the history of creation. And some of us even come to that point of belief, and we don’t even notice because it has happened little by little over years. We don’t have that one moment where our hearts were strangely warmed. But we know — and something is different.
Wesley felt the work that God was doing within him. And many of you have felt it, too. And if you haven’t, you will! I am confident of that – that if you are humbled to God’s power – if you are seeking deeper faith – God will transform you – you see it is not something we can do. That is why it seems so hard – because we try through our own will to be new creations. We face the daily junk of our days, and we think things will always be the same. We think God is not there – we think God doesn’t even know we exist.
Today, some of you may identify with Wesley’s experience in America. You may be facing a personal tragedy or a professional tragedy. Your best intentions and well-laid plans may be crumbling all around you. So maybe the message for you is that God can transform us through the hard times – that we can grow spiritually through these times. And that you can rest assured that you are sheltered in the arms of God.
Maybe you identify more with Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in London. Maybe you have felt your heart strangely warmed and you know what you know! Maybe you are walking in the joy of the Lord. If so, how amazing a thing that is. And would you tell others? Would you encourage those who are still on their journey to keep going? And would you continue to grow closer to Christ every day!
Sometimes, I think it takes a wilderness experience – a falling on our knees face first kind of failure, before we are willing to give up control and let God work on us. When we realize we have to trust God for our salvation, that is when God warms our hearts in an ordinary place on an ordinary day—maybe even when we go unwillingly to hear the word of God preached. We will experience the power of God’s peace in our lives, and the new creation that God envisions we can become begins to take shape – day by day.
So today, may you each feel God’s presence in your life. May you be humbled by your failures, so that you might trust in God. And in turn may your hearts be strangely warmed by the love of Christ each and every day. May you become a part of the new creation in Christ.
So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! Amen.