A Witness to the World

Matthew 5:13-16 - Salt and Light
Acts 11:19-26  - The Church in Antioch

Aldersgate – Wesley’s conversion

In response to last week’s service and the conversation about tradition, I am a traditionalist; my traditions may not be as old as some others or the same as anyone else’s but a traditionalist I am, as are you though you may well dispute the description. On a date such as this, I have to draw to mind the event of 282 years ago. It was 32 years ago I was in London, at St Paul’s Cathedral and in Aldersgate later that evening on the 250th anniversary of a life-changing, and perhaps a world-changing, event. I refer you to the words of John Wesley’s own journal for May 1738 :-

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I had continual sorrow and heaviness in my heart. Wednesday May 24, I think it was about five this morning that I opened my Testament on these words, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Just as I went out, I opened it again on these words, “Thou are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The anthem was, “out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord….”  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 alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

To Quote John Pollock from his biography of John Wesley; -

On his way to Aldersgate Street he was in the Company of James Hutton, with whom he lodged when in London, They walked through mean streets and past alleys and brothels. They stepped over men and women lying drunk from cheap gin; and waved away harlots; and kept an eye for pickpockets and thieves – all the very outcasts who, until lately, the Wesley’s had believed could never be forgiven before prolonged penitence; nor be intimate with Christ, nor have power to live like him. 

Wesley was seeking at that time a true understanding and experience of salvation by faith. Through reading the Scriptures he saw that instantaneous conversions did take place in the New Testament Church. It was on the 24th May that as one had put it, Wesley “broke the faith barrier”.  That experience was to change his life, his relationship with God, his relationship with others and his expectation of what God could do in the life of others.

Have we broken the faith barrier? Has our faith become real and personal?

Reflection – Church as a witness to the World

Wesley From Pulpit to Paddock

John Wesley was born in 1703, ordained deacon in 1725, a priest in 1728. He was a learned man, a man of letters and intellect; he taught he preached, he went to be a pastor to the settlers in America in 1735 and desired to be a missionary to the native population his ministry was not very successful despite what he knew he didn’t know the love and grace of God for himself. His ministry changed when he’d experienced the grace of God for himself, he could then preach, speak and witness with the authority of experience.

At the time of Wesley there was another great preacher and evangelist by the name of George Whitfield, at the age of 25 he had become a national celebrity through his preaching, rich and poor alike flocked to hear him speak. By the beginning of 1739, his strong Christian message led him to being banned from every Church in London and Bristol. Undaunted, at the end of February, George preached for the first time in the open air; to the rough coal miners of Kingswood outside of Bristol. The impact of his message on the miners was dramatic and led to many conversions. A great religious revival was beginning in Bristol but Whitfield wanted to return to America. He invited John Wesley to continue his work.

There were two difficulties – Wesley was not sure about whether it was right to preach outdoors and his congregation in Fetter Lane, London was anxious not to lose him.  Through the guidance of drawing lots Wesley was led to go – is this a method Stationing Committee should consider?  And so on the 2nd April 1739, John Wesley stood on a small mound in the brickfields outside Bristol and preached his first open-air sermon to a crowd of 3000 people; so began the open-air ministry of the man who went on to say “the World is my Parish.”

There is the link between May the 24th 1738 and the theme for today’s service, “I look upon the whole world as my Parish” (June 11 1739) “ and  “Church a witness to the world.” As a result of John’s open-air preaching there were many small groups of believers in various parts of the country; to ensure these new converts did not drift away from their newfound faith he set up classes with leaders who met regularly. They met to encourage faith growth, reformed living and bearing witness to neighbour through a growing confidence of faith, “So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.’ At the heart of the Methodist movement was the class meeting; small groups meeting together to learn more about Jesus and support each other in the growth of faith and the journey with Jesus. What has become of such groups? – they are now called house groups and are at the heart of many growing church communities. Yet where they were at the heart of a movement they have so often been abandoned.

Stourbridge from Pew to Public Park 

We have heard so often it said that Church is the people and not the building. At the moment we are excluded from our buildings; Church still exists. Meanwhile, the building still stands there.

At Gigmill Chapel a young chap was seen in the gardens – when approached he explained what he was doing. He had asked at the shop opposite what was wrong with the Church. It was explained to him that we had to be closed because of the virus. His response – he wanted to help the church so he was tidying the grounds for us. A Good Samaritan? Here was a person who over the years had seen the building and the grounds being well maintained – he saw a difference and wanted to know why and help; a link is made, who knows where with the grace of God it can be developed.  We never know what people notice – the cared for became uncared for and a helper came found. Not that I am condoning not looking after our premises for our buildings do bear witness.

The old wayside pulpit can be of use if not to too corny – In Bradford one read “Live the sort of life that means they can tell the truth at your funeral.” It was outside a church that most funeral processions went passed on the way to the Crematorium. When the minister saw it he had it taken down quickly.

Our buildings do bear witness and many people have been thinking about how to use our closed premises as channels of mission. Josephine has been looking at Gospel Gardens – using our church gardens to share the gospel. Our Church noticeboards can carry messages of hope; bright pictures from young people in our community and no doubt many have come up with very creative and effective uses. There is a suggestion of having a “Thank you tree” in communities where people can place messages of thanksgiving. But we can go further.  The “Love Stourbridge” event – was started by Chawn Hill Church a number of years ago taking the Church into the park for a time of fun and witness; they invited others to join them as Churches Together In Stourbridge– the church people getting amongst the people for a time of free fun for the community; later on in the year Carols in the Park. The Christians of the town sharing with others can give an opportunity to share faith.

You from Patio to Pavement – being out front with your faith.

What about using our homes and gardens to bear witness? Everywhere we walk now we see rainbows in the windows of houses. On Easter Sunday we were encouraged to put a decorated cross in our windows. We see teddy bears in windows. Can we come up with ways of using our windows and our house frontage to raise a conversation about our faith? One of the members at Wollaston has a shared garden with the neighbouring bungalows, during Holy Week she placed her cross for decorating and reflection in the garden for others to see; a starting point for conversation. What are we a witness to?  We can only honestly be a witness to that which we have experienced; it is an eyewitness who is believed not the bearer of hearsay.  It is why the 24th May 1738 is such a significant date; it was from that moment John Wesley could speak about what he knew rather than what he had been taught. Many have no confidence in sharing their faith and that needs addressing if we are to be a people of witness. Does this bring us back to Wesley and his Class Meetings? As I wrote to some this last Wednesday we need to bear witness in a language that can be understood and which makes a connection with people where they are.

I quote Meg Prowting, the Youth and Young Adult Development Officer in the Methodist Church

We no longer live in a society where people have a background and basic understanding of Christianity. Our challenge as individuals, and a Church, is to speak of God in ways that make sense to those around us, recognising the different backgrounds and cultures in which they dwell”

The Church is a witness to the world.

What is the world? It is our parish, our area for care and area in which love is to be shared. We are to love without limit of borders and boundaries. We cannot solve the world’s problems on our own, but that does not mean we can ignore the world's problems.

That is why we are a Connexional Church; it is why each member of the Methodist Church is a Member of the Methodist Missionary Society, we support others who are tackling issues and reaching people far away with Good News in the name of Jesus.

While they do that far away we do it on our communities, in our paddocks, parks and pavements, being light and salt as people of Christ worth of that name.