Our Wesleyan Heritage Part 2: John Wesley “Strangely Warmed”

Pastor Galen Zook

Sunday June 16th 2019: Trinity Sunday

Romans 5:1-5

Triune God

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our God who is three-in-one. It’s also Father’s Day, and our reading from Romans reminds me a lot of something that a father would say: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” In other words, “suffering builds character.” What a very fatherly thing for Paul to say!

But Paul goes on to say that “character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:4b-5)

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” What a beautiful sentiment.

God’s love. Poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, working together in perfect harmony and unity, three-in-one. The Triune God invite us into a love relationship with the Trinity. Paul says that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, and God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

We see here that God is not a harsh, demanding, or controlling father who dispassionately allows us to suffer merely for the cause of some greater good. God loves us, abundantly, irrationally, unconditionally. And God wants to fill us with love, and with hope.

Head and Heart

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday when we celebrated the birthday of the Church, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples. We talked about the story of Phoebe Palmer, a Methodist woman who lived in the mid-1800’s who experienced the Holy Spirit, not through an outwardly emotional encounter like so many other people of her day, but simply through claiming the promises of God in Scripture. Phoebe’s story reminds us that God’s Spirit is alive and at work in and through all Believers, young and old, men and women, rich and poor. We don’t need to sit around waiting for an emotional experience, God has already promised to give us the Holy Spirit. All we need to do is claim and hold onto that promise.

But today I want to encourage us that there is also a place for emotion and experience in the life of the believers. It’s not all about intellect or head knowledge. We can also experience God with our hearts, because as Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Our Wesleyan Heritage: John Wesley

For the rest of the month of June we’re going to focus on “Our Wesleyan Heritage,” looking at a different key figure in Methodist history who can inspire us to live faithfully today.

Today, as we think about what it means that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, we’re going to focus on one of the key founders of the Methodist Church: John Wesley, paying particular attention to how he experienced the Holy Spirit in his life, when he felt his heart “strangely warmed.”

John Wesley was born in England in 1703. He was the 15th child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, who eventually had a total of 19 children, although only nine of their children lived past infancy.

Although John’s father was a religious leader, serving as a rector of a church, John’s mother Susanna had a deeply profound impact on his spiritual life. Susanna provided religious instruction for each of her children, and spent an hour with each of them every week, listening to them and providing intensive one-on-one religious instruction.

When John was five years old, the rectory where his family lived caught on fire. The rest of the family made it out of the house, but John was stranded on the upper floor. One of the church parishioners was able to reach him by standing on another man’s shoulders and was able to lift him out of the window just before the roof of the house collapsed. This was a critical moment in John’s life, as he was able to look back on this event confident that God had rescued him for a particular purpose.

Holy Club

At the age of 17, John went to study at Oxford. Upon graduation he was ordained as a deacon and later became a priest in the Church of England. He was also an academic, teaching Greek and New Testament at Oxford.

While at Oxford John became passionately devoted to living a life that was holy set apart for God. He studied the Bible earnestly and sought to apply the Scriptures into his own life. He and his younger brother Charles even began a club which was nicknamed by others the “Holy Club,” which met every day from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. for prayer and Scripture reading. They sought to pray all throughout the day, fasted several days a week, and even began visiting people in prison, ministering to people who were sick, and helping the poor.

John and Charles remind me so much of many of the college students that I work with on a daily basis. Young adults tend to be passionate and energetic, and throw themselves into whatever it is that they’re doing — which can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what their interests are! For John and Charles, fortunately, they were doing great work, and even though they were criticized and made fun of by the other students at Oxford, they persisted in their convictions and even gathered quite a following of other students who joined them in their religious fervor.

It was during this time that John developed a very methodical approach to growing in his inner spirituality that involved keeping an elaborate grid of his daily activities hour by hour, keeping track of resolutions that he kept or broke, and even ranking his hourly “temper of devotion” on a scale from 1 to 9! Talk about methodical! Now you know where we get the name “Methodist” from.

Failed Mission in Georgia

Between 1735 and 1738 John had several major experiences that would prove to be significant turning points in his life and the Methodist movement. One of those experiences was an experience of failure — probably the biggest failure of his ministry career, and the other was an experience of grace and of the Holy Spirit that would transform the way he related to God and to others for the rest of his life.

In 1735 at the age of 32 John accepted the invitation to come to America to serve as a priest of the Church of England in the newly formed colony of Georgia, with the intention of preaching the Gospel to the Native Americans living in the area, and to provide pastoral leadership to those in the colony.

Unfortunately, John failed in his attempt to reach the Native Americans with the Gospel, and at the same time, he also developed romantic feelings for one of his parishioners (which was unprofessional even in those days). When the young woman married another man, John was crushed, and refused to serve her communion, which as you can imagine caused quite a stir and was completely inappropriate (today in the Methodist church we do not refuse communion to anyone – it is a symbol of God’s love and grace bestowed on all people). Charges were filed against John, and he returned back to England, discouraged and ashamed.

The other experience began while John was en route to Georgia. A storm had come up at sea, and the mast of the ship was broken off. Everyone on the ship was panicking, except a small group of German Christians called “Moravians” who calmly prayed and sang hymns during the storm. John was awestruck by their apparent deep sense of inner peace and realized that despite all of his religious fervor he was missing something.

Aldersgate

Upon his return to England, John sought out the Moravians, and it was while he was attending a Moravian church service that he had a profound experience of the Holy Spirit. While the speaker was reading Martin Luther’s preface to book of Romans, John Wesley said that he “felt his heart strangely warmed.” He said, “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.”

It was from that time that John came to realize that it was not his good works or piety that saved him, but God’s grace alone. A few weeks after this experience, Wesley preached a sermon on the doctrine of personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another on God’s grace “free in all, and free for all.” And although John never decreased in his religious fervor, from that point on his never stopped preaching about God’s grace that is freely given to all.

Through this experience, John came to more fully understand Paul’s point in Romans 5, that it is through Jesus Christ that we can have peace with God and that we have access to God’s grace (Rom. 5:1-2). And I think John’s experience at Aldersgate was also the time when John fully realized that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5)

John’s life also illustrates Paul’s point, that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

My “Aldersgate” Experience

Several years ago I had my own “Aldersgate” experience. I had been doing campus ministry for about 10 years, and I was taking a ministry Sabbatical. During that time I realized how much my identity was wrapped up in how I had been serving God and what I had been doing “for” God. When all that was stripped away I found that I didn’t even know who I was apart from my roles in ministry.

It was during that season that I had a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit. I don’t even remember where I was or what I was doing, all I know is that all of a sudden I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s love for me — not because of who I was or what I had been doing to serve the Lord, but simply because I am a child of God.

God’s Love, Grace, and Forgiveness for All

Friends, one of the lessons for us to learn from the life of John Wesley is that God’s grace is available in abundance to each and every one of us. It doesn’t matter how many wonderful things you’ve done to serve the Lord, but it also doesn’t matter how many times you’ve failed or messed up. God’s love and grace and forgiveness is available to each and everyone to repents of their sins and turns to the Lord.

If you’ve never encountered the love of God in a deep and profound way, my prayer for you this morning is that you would be overcome with the love of God, like John Welsey you might feel your heart strangely warmed, and that you would experience firsthand God’s love poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit.