Today is a special Sunday in our calendar – it is Aldersgate Sunday! More about that later. I hope that you enjoy our Worship Together at Home this morning. Today we include a special section for children led by Angela.
A Heart Warming Experience
Readings for today: Mark 12:28-34 and Acts 1: 6-12
Today is a special Sunday in the life of the Methodist Church because it is the day known as Aldersgate Sunday. Its a day that we celebrate on the 24th of May or the Sunday nearest to it and this year it coincides exactly! And the message really follows on from what I was saying last week about knowing Jesus.
If you were not brought up a Methodist you may not be aware of the meaning of Aldersgate means, so I will explain briefly. The Founder of Methodism was John Wesley, an Anglican priest who had been brought up as the son of the Rector of Epworth.
In his journal for this date in 1738 he wrote “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.”
Wesley was almost 35 years old and had been an ordained priest for nearly 10 years. The ‘society’ he attended was a Moravian meeting in London – in Aldersgate Street. Wesley had first encountered the Moravian Church during a difficult two-year mission to Georgia in North America, from which he had returned just six months earlier.
During the journey, their ship had been struck by a severe storm, and shipwreck and death seemed inevitable to most aboard. What Wesley noticed was the calm assurance of the Moravians: confident in God’s love and their salvation, they did not appear to fear death. Wesley did not have that assurance. He was struggling at this point in his life, when it was far from certain that the beginnings of a religious revival would take hold and flourish. John Wesley’s experience at the Aldersgate meeting transformed his belief and preaching, ultimately leading to the formation of the Methodist Church. Without Aldersgate, Methodism as we know it today may not have happened.
But Aldersgate Sunday is not just about remembering a historical event. This event was so important to Wesley that he is at pains to record it in a very powerful and detailed way in his journal, even though he may not have known what the future consequences of his heat warming experience would be.
Last week I spoke of ‘knowing Jesus’ and how important it is for us to come to know God in Christ Jesus for ourselves. This event and the change it made to Wesley’s life just serves to prove the huge difference it makes when we come to really know God for ourselves.
The experience that John Wesley had, and his brother Charles sometime earlier, is often described as a ‘conversion’, but John described it as an ‘assurance’. He said: “..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 emphasis is mine).
What was this assurance that he received? It was an assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. It was an assurance of salvation from the law of sin and death; It was an assurance that changed his life forever.
So what is this ‘law of sin and death’ that he had an assurance from: We believe as Christians that sin is the state of being estranged from God. It happens because we make specific actions, speak words or have thoughts that are contrary to our relationship with God. Its like upsetting a close friend – when we do something that hurts them we create a distance between us, a fault in our friendship. And if we do nothing about it then that friendship is in danger of drifting ever further apart.
Through Jesus, God tells us how he wants us to live: – to love him, to love our neighbour, to seek justice and truth always, to care for the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. In the reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus says that it is all summed up in two great commandments: They are, he says: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this. ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these”.
If we follow Jesus’ teaching to the best of our ability we remain in relationship with God but if we fail by choice then that estrangement occurs. When we damaged a relationship with a friend we have to do something to repair it. In the case of God, that something is called repentance – turning sorrowfully to God to seek forgiveness and new life in Jesus.
And the assurance that John Wesley felt that evening in Aldersgate Street, was the assurance that God’s love and grace is so great and so generous, and that it is given so unconditionally – that we can always return to him and be assured of a warm welcome. He will never turn us away. More than that he is continually seeking our return to him and rejoices when that happens – remember the parable of the two sons in Matthew’s gospel? (Matthew 21:28-32) Just like the father in the story, God is always ready to welcome us home.
And because we receive this generous and unconditional love from him our lives are changed so that we desire to live in such a way as to enable others to receive the same. We emulate that love and grace as best we can by living generously towards others. This was what motivated John Wesley to promote a life of ‘social holiness’ as he called it for the Methodist Societies that he set up as he travelled around the country, often preaching in the outdoors to reach as many people as possible with the message that salvation from Jesus is needed by all people and is available to all people. A life of Social Holiness is one where people are open to each other’s needs spiritually and practically and social justice became a mark of Methodist Societies.
All we need to do to get to know Jesus for ourselves is to ask him. So pray and ask him to warm our hearts just as he warmed the heart of John Wesley. Amen.
Rev Andrew Biggs 19th May 2020