This is the latest version of a sermon/address that has evolved over the years. It is based on the account given by Rupert Davies in his book Methodism. It has been preached both on Wesley Day (24th May) and Aldersgate Sunday (the Sunday preceding 24th May).
Wesley Day is as close to a saint’s day as we get in the Methodist Church. However, it is surely significant that 24th May does not commemorate a birth or a death, but a spiritual experience: what is often called the conversion experience of John Wesley, which took place on 24 May 1738. It is an inspiring story, and one worth retelling.
To some of us the story of the events of 24 May 1738 will be familiar; to others it may be new.
In our imaginations we need to go back 274 years, to the City of London, where we discover an anxious young clergyman called John Wesley, not long since returned from a two year appointment as missionary in the American colony of Georgia. For various reasons this had ended as an embarrassing failure and caused John to question his vocation as a minister and indeed whether he was truly a Christian at all.
As was his custom throughout his life, John woke at 5 that morning to pray and opened his Greek New Testament, where he lighted on a verse from 2nd Peter:
“there are given to us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.”
Later in the day, he wrote to a friend:
“I see that God’s law is holy, righteous and good. I know that every thought, every movement of my heart should bear God’s image. But how deep I have fallen! How far I am from God’s glory! I feel that I am sold under sin. I know that I deserve only wrath… God is holy, I am sinful. God is a consuming fire; it must devour me the sinner.”
That afternoon John walked over to evensong at St Paul’s cathedral, where he heard the anthem: “out of the depths have I cried unto thee.” What followed must be told in his own words:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s 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.”
The room where the society – what today we might call a house fellowship group – met disappeared in wartime bombing and the site is now covered by the Museum of London. But there is a large memorial next to the main entrance of the museum. It is in the shape of a flame, with those words from Wesley’s journal inscribed upon it. The flame reminds us both of his experience of the warmed heart and also the Holy Spirit, whose presence we celebrate at Pentecost. Just as the apostolic church was give new life and purpose through the Spirit, so too was John Wesley. That day he felt God’s presence in a way he had never experienced before. Saving faith was given to him, and the assurance of sins forgiven.
John was so excited by this turn of events that he felt he must share his news with his brother Charles. Charles was in bed, recovering from pleurisy, when John came round, late on the evening of 24 May, to relate all that had happened. What John didn’t know was that just three days previously, on Whit Sunday, Charles had had a very similar experience. In his sickbed Charles had written a hymn to describe his spiritual reawakening, and the brothers and their friends now sang this new song together:
Where shall be wandering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great deliverer’s praise.
But this was no celebration of a merely inward, pietistic faith. The brothers wanted others to share this same experience. So the hymn continues:
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots and publicans and thieves!
He spreads his arms to embrace you all:
Sinners alone his grace receives:
No need of him the righteous have;
He came the lost to seek and save.
This verse anticipated a change of outlook in the life of John Wesley. He was a man of immense spiritual and mental energies, but up to now these had been mostly directed upon himself. He had spent much time brooding upon the state of his soul and trying to improve it. Now these energies were released, and immediately directed outward to his fellow men and women who stood in need of the same liberation he had himself received. No longer was personal salvation for himself his all-absorbing aim. In fact he virtually forgot it in his enterprise to bring salvation to others. For most of the following year Wesley was in Bristol, busy organising new societies. This culminated in his embarrassed descent into outdoor preaching, encouraged by his friend George Whitefield. Wesley noted in his journal entry for 2 April 1739:
At 4 in the afternoon I submitted to being more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in the ground adjoining the city to about 3,000 people. The scripture on which I spoke (is it possible any one should be ignorant that it is fulfilled in every true minister of Christ?) was, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
So it was that over the next year, Wesley’s societies in Bristol and London were joined by about 300 people in each place, and he had the delight of seeing his work appreciated and the societies being accepted and extended. These new, Methodist societies, as they came to be called, welcomed all who wished to come. As Wesley put it,
“There is only one condition required in those who desire admission into this society – a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.”
For John Wesley the growth of the societies was evidence that a providential hand was behind this train of events. He put it plainly in a letter to brother Charles:
“I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary call. My ordinary call is my ordination by the bishop; Take thou authority to preach the word of God. My extraordinary call is witnessed by the works that God doeth by my ministry, which prove he is of a truth in the exercise of my office.”
That spiritual experience, call it a conversion experience if you will, that heart warming experience of 24 May 1738 set into train a course of events which were to change church history forever. Today there are worldwide some 20 million members of Methodist churches across 100 countries and a total community of some 50 million. Aldersgate has become a name familiar in lands totally unknown to Wesley: a few years ago I attended a wedding in the Philippines at a church called Aldersgate UMC. To my knowledge, none of the people in that church had ever been near Aldersgate, but they knew the name and they knew the story associated with that place.
But the significance of Aldersgate goes far beyond those churches which have inherited the name of Methodist. All denominations are familiar with the hymns of Charles Wesley. Some of his finest and most powerful hymns were written shortly after the brothers’ twin conversions: ‘And can it be that I should gain’ is one of these. And a year later on the anniversary of his conversion Charles Wesley was still writing about it when he sang ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’. More broadly Wesley’s Arminian emphasis on God’s desire for the salvation of all people arguably shifted the centre of English theology, which up to that point had been largely Calvinist in nature.
The Wesley brothers are the property of no one denomination – and it is in that spirit that we celebrate Wesley Day today. Indeed that was John Wesley’s own understanding of the movement he had founded, for his was a remarkably ecumenical voice in an age which suppressed dissent.
So the final words go to Wesley, in a response to his critics, after they had accused the societies he led of heresy and dissent, and in which we hear the voice of the one whose heart was strangely warmed.
A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’; one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’ God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out. ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.’