Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rethinking John Wesley

Published in the Fiji Times

THIS Friday is a special day for Methodists around the world. It marks the 275th anniversary of John Wesley's spiritual awakening. Given the significance of this for about 65 per cent of the population, I am unabashedly standing on what one reader described as my "Christian soapbox".

Following a difficult and discouraging mission trip to America, the 34-year-old Wesley, an Anglican minister questioned his faith. On the night of May 24, 1738, he attended an evening worship service in London which moved him deeply. In his journal, Wesley described his "Aldersgate experience": "In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate St, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader 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 me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

He made the realisation that God's loving grace was available to everyone and anyone and we only had to respond to this by faith in Christ to be saved. In Christian terms he realised that salvation was not by works but by faith. Many term this Wesley's "spiritual conversion".

Globally, the Methodist community celebrates this day as the spiritual beginning of the Methodist movement. In Fiji this is commemorated not just in Methodist churches but also in the many Methodist schools around the country.

Having spent the last few months writing my thesis about what John Wesley means to us in 21st century Fiji, I would like to suggest to fellow Methodists in Fiji to that they this Friday, not only remember this important event in the Methodist calendar but move beyond it to what it meant for Wesley and can mean for us.

As a result of this experience and realisation, Wesley was not only revitalised in terms of his purpose and mission of evangelism in 18th century Britain, his whole outlook on life and the world changed.

His many charitable actions which had been undertaken out of fear of judgment by God, became actions based on love of God and love of neighbour.

Holiness for him was no longer matter of personal piety for him but to be lived out in society. He practised and encouraged a practical Christianity of faith in action. Faith was to be not just a personal but a social expression of one's love for God in response to God's love for them.

Wesley set out to not only to preach God's boundless love, but to also enact this love of neighbour in the situation in which they were found. The primary implication of Wesley's focus on love, when taken with his emphasis on community and fellowship, is that each Christian must seriously engage in a holiness that is transformative in society.

Wesley believed that the good to be done to neighbours had to be done to them in the situation in which they were found. Wesley did not entertain the illusion that we could bring the good news of God's limitless love to those immersed in suffering without addressing that suffering.

Love for one's neighbour was not only selfless but completely non-judgemental of the neighbour, even in the face of hatred. In other words, neither that national or racial differences make a person unworthy of love, because all humanity is personally loved by God.

In his "Word to A Protestant", he wrote: "Let your heart burn with love to all mankind, to friends and enemies, neighbours and strangers; to Christians, Heathens, Jews, Turks, Papists, heretics; to every soul which God hath made. Let this your light shine before men, that they may glorify your Father which is in heaven."

This understanding of all people as worthy of God's unconditional love, is the foundation of human dignity and was at the core of Wesley's active campaign against slavery in his day. His understanding human equality was also evident in his refusal to let social status or gender distinctions prohibit members of the society from being class leaders or lay preachers.

Wesley saw humankind as stewards, not dominators of the environment. Humanity is not apart from but rather, in an integral relationship with the rest of creation. Wesley affirmed not only our relationship with creation but also the inherent goodness of all creatures and their integral place in the web of life. He even suggested that animals had "souls and reasoning powers". Wesley insisted that our relationship with God must be reflected in our relationship with nature and vice versa.

Wesley considered the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for Christian living. We as Methodists, and in the wider Christian community can take encouragement from the call by this short man who lived in a time of rapid social change in his society and look to our role in ours.

Wesley called for the church to not focus on aligning itself with the powers that be, but more importantly to be with the powerless.

The Wesleyan traditions we celebrate as Methodists are not just song, preaching the word, and prayer but also social action of solidarity and love with the least in our society.

As Methodists in Fiji reflect on the impact of Wesley's ministry and of Methodist mission in Fiji we would do well to remember the social aspect of Wesley's faith. Our love for God is not only to be expressed in personal piety but in the challenge to have unconditional love for the other — the different, the marginalised and consider them a brother or sister; and love and respect for God's creation.

Wesley's last words were, "Best of all, God is with us".

The question Wesley might ask of us today is whether we, in the words of the prophet Micah, were acting justly, loved mercy and were walking humbly with God?

"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your article.

    A timely reminder of the need to show love to the different, the marginalized, the accused, abused and neglected. Ths is most often where our Christian faith is challenged. My heart right now goes out to working with abused & neglected children. I want to one day be able to see a child walking all forlorn on the street and take him/her home and be able to feed/fend for he/she is safe in a new home.

    God bless you Padre!