In today's reading we hear Jesus saying to the disciples, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth". Last Thursday was Ascension Day - when the physical presence of Jesus was removed from the earth. The reading also affirms that Jesus will be physically and visibly returning to the earth at the end of history. Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost and the birthday of the Christian Church. The Church came into being with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers. The Holy Spirit is described in the Nicene Creed as "the Lord and Giver of life". Often the work of the Holy Spirit is hidden, unseen, without dramatics. But life is the sign of his presence.
Tomorrow week is also a significant date in the heritage of the Uniting Church, for it was on that day 261 years ago that John Wesley had his heart-warming experience of the converting grace of God.
I recall a conversation with a friend of many years who had chosen not to be part of the Uniting Church and has since taken a significant role in another denomination. How can you be part of the Uniting Church? he was saying, listing a number of imperfections. Above all, what about our Wesleyan tradition?
I replied, "I have always believed that the heart of the Wesleyan tradition was not Wesley himself but the grace of God experienced in his conversion, the Scriptures which he accepted as his authority and the mission to which he gave himself so relentlessly." In fact these principles were part of the historical heritage of each of the three churches that became the Uniting Church in 1977. The pressing question we face is whether as a Church we are willing to go back beyond the traditions of the past few hundred years to Godís basics.
The project proved a fiasco, and when he got back to England in 1738 Wesley wrote in his Journal, "I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh, who shall convert me? who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near. But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, 'To die is gain'!"
John Wesley also noted, "All my works, all my righteousness, my prayers, need an atonement for themselves; so that my mouth is stopped. I have nothing to plead. God is holy; I am unholy. God is a consuming fire; I am altogether a sinner, meet to be consumed."
Then, on May 24th 1738, Wesley records that he went very unwillingly to the 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's experience of the converting grace of God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit at that time is the key to what happened in and through this man of God. The Life of God was in him and reaching out through him to others wherever he went.
The Church can only move forward when there are men and women who have experienced the converting grace of God and who live in the power of his Spirit.
In his Preface he writes, "I want to know one thing - the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (a man of one book). Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: 'Lord, is it not Thy word, "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God"? I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will.' I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, 'comparing spiritual things with spiritual.' I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach."
There can be no doubt this approach that took seriously the Scriptures as the Word of God powerfully contributed to bringing thousands to faith in Christ.
The Church of today has tended to speak with uncertainty because of over a century of scholarship so much of which has questioned the authority of the Scriptures. Does God's Word have pre-eminence for us? and is it the basis on which we will assess the premises and conclusions of the scholarly interpreters? Like Wesley, we need to earnestly seek the Lord's will in his Word.
In 1744 Wesley drew up the Twelve Rules of a Helper, a document which continued to be read right up to Church Union as part of the closing of the ministerial sessions of Methodist district Synods. These Rules express a great deal of practical wisdom, but, most importantly, they enshrine Wesley's strong missional drive.
"You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work; and go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most... It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that Society, but to save as many souls as you can, to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord."
This, of course, was the pattern of Wesley's life - riding up and down England by horseback and preaching at every opportunity - always seeking to save souls and to build them up in holiness.
That is a question for today's Church too - is the "saving of souls" a top priority so that it really is the one thing that we must do? Immediately I hear voices that rise up to ask, "What you mean 'save souls'? Isn't this what we are doing anyway?"
In honesty, I believe we must answer, "No!" As a Church we stand in urgent need of rediscovering the Gospel in all its converting power - for ourselves and for the world around us! We need to rediscover the authority of the Bible as the Word of God - a solid base for our Gospel, our life and our mission! Then we need to hear again - and heed - our Lord's call and priority to be about the business of "saving souls"!
Today we are recalling the Lord's promise, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses..." And on the day of Pentecost, God poured out his Spirit to empower, convict and convert! Lord, do it again!
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