…take heed, not to seek your own praise herein, not to desire any honour to yourselves. But let it be your sole aim, that all who see your good works may “glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
(Excerpt from John Wesley, “Sermon 24: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4.” Sermons on Several Occasions – Kindle Edition)
Today’s reflection starts with a dream.
Saturday night / Sunday morning, I had a vivid dream. This is not unusual in itself, as I often have such dreams. In fact, in the last few days I have had vivid dreams about being called back to London to teach, meeting my father poolside in an indoor Roman-bath-like structure, and that I was a wandering constable in His Majesty’s service in the 14th century seeking out my lost wife (who was herself half dryad) who had been abducted by a dragon in disguise.
As generally happens, only a snippet of the dream in question resurfaced in my conscious mind, but it did so as I was driving to worship. In this particular dream, I was preaching in a great and ornate building to a fair sized congregation. I set my scant notes on a music stand, with the prideful recognition that my upcoming delivery, with minimal reference to said notes, was going to impress.
As this image came back to mind on my drive to worship Sunday morning, I realized how much it spoke of my personal ego; my desire to “impress” when I preach (or teach); my subconscious need to excel. It spoke of pride. What a far cry from wanting to bring honor and glory to God! In short, my own subconscious convicted me.
I prayed; confessing and asking for forgiveness for placing too much emphasis on my own performance; and humbly asking that I might simply be a vessel for God’s word. And I went on with my duties more as I should, trying to stay centered in Christ and not self.
(It may almost be counter-productive to share this experience, since some might see blogging as bordering on ego nurturing narcissism! But I share in the spirit of honest self-reflection…)
I’ve been reminded of the experience throughout the week – particularly when I read today’s sermon from Wesley. And it occurs to me that in the last few weeks, my reflections on Wesley – from journeying where he once did, to re-visiting his theology and spirituality, to the direct reading of his published sermons – have given me both a reminder of the core of Christian faith and guidance for future preaching.
In short, my study in Wesley is helping me to recognize that perhaps I ought to focus on the four primary areas of our Christian life:
1) We’re incomplete
In Christian parlance, terms such as “depraved,” “sinful,” “original sin,” “fallen,” and even “natural man” have all been used to describe the same basic ontological dilemma we all face. Originally created “in the image of God,” we are now far from that image; and to some degree, in our innermost being we know it. As St. Augustine (who developed the doctrine of “original sin”) famously described it, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”
Early in the Sermons, Wesley expresses in various Biblical terms the existential angst which is the human condition. He details the sin and depravity, but one image that he particularly picks up and repeats is that we are, essentially, “asleep.” He further utilizes the analogy of a fetus in the womb, he shares how we have senses but are not yet using them (he goes on to share how, through faith, we “wake up”; how we enter the world and suddenly see and hear and feel…).
In more modern terms, I have heard that we have a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us; that we are “spiritually yearning;” or (the terms I appreciate most, and give all due props to Rev. Adam Hamilton from whom I first heard them) that we are all “broken and messed up.”
All of these point out our situation; we are incomplete. Broken, even. And, in the midst of our brokenness…
2) God invites us to wholeness
Faith is, first and foremost, the work of God. Our faith is the work of God’s Holy Spirit within our hearts, inviting us to recognize that we are asleep; to realize that are senses are blinded. This is what we can the work of preventing or “prevenient” grace – the grace that goes before (e.g. pre-event).
Before what? In theological terms, we call the continuing work of God’s Holy Spirit to be justification and sanctification (which are #s 3 and 4 below, respectively!). But before any of that occurs – before we open our eyes to the wonders of God and the awesome possibilities of humanity – we first recognize our own inability to do much of anything about our ontological state. The Holy Spirit opens us up to the reality of our own situation, and our basic powerlessness.
And then the Holy Spirit opens us up to the good news, and by grace…
3) We experience God’s love (e.g. “justification”)
Wesley’s moment of coming to truly know God’s forgiveness is that of his well-known Aldersgate experience, of which he famously (for Methodists, anyway) writes:
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 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…
In doctrinal language, through Christ’s sacrificial death on a cross, the debt of “original sin” is eliminated; we are set free of the consequences of “the fall,” set free from both the guilt and power of sin.
In simpler, more modern terms, by faith we come to know that we are freely forgiven the consequences of our brokenness. We experience for ourselves the amazing love of God, a love of grace and forgiveness, a love that does not hold our imperfection against us. And that is not all, but God also begins a work of restoration – re-creation – within us. As the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts…
4) We respond by growing in love (e.g. “sanctification”)
As John said, “we love because He first loved us.” Indeed, all of what might be described as “Christian” life and ethics are bound up in the process of God’s work in our hearts and lives. Yet God’s work in us is not – sadly – instantaneous. We do not immediately become better, holier people; but God invites us to work alongside, in a journey of self-discovery and enrichment.
(Indeed, Wesley’s initial sermons on the Sermon on the Mount share a great explanation that the initial beatitudes of Matthew 5 are the work of God within us to burn away negative attitudes such as anger and pride.)
In this, I am reminded of Trevor Hudson’s wonderful little book comparing Christian spirituality with his experience in AA, One Day At A Time. Without grabbing the book off my shelf to double-check, as I remember he makes the analogy that growing in faith is much like the daily steps alcoholics take; that every day presents a new opportunity to go one step further toward the goal we have in mind.
And all of this is, essentially, the story that we have to tell. A story I hope to be able to share with humility, recognizing that it is a story we all share.
(I’m also reminded in all of this of a beautiful image from the movie Joshua, based on the book by Joseph Girzone. In the film, a woman’s husband, in a fit of rage, breaks a glass cup(? – I forget exactly) that Joshua had previously given her. She brings the pieces to him, and later she finds it, returned to her; the broken pieces put back together into a beautiful ballerina. I think this well captures the analogy of faith that Wesley so regularly preaches on: all we have to offer to God is our brokenness, but God takes it and makes something new and wonderful with it.)