On this day, which marks the birth of John Wesley (June 16, 1703), we join the whole Church in offering thanks to God for his faithfulness to the gospel, his sound knowledge and vital piety, and his commitment to the fullness of salvation through the Spirit’s work of sanctification. I would like to share a brief description of Wesley and his profound desire to proclaim the gospel in order to the spread of holiness and Christian virtue.
For John Wesley, becoming a preacher entails glad receptivity to the immensity and humility of God’s self-giving love in Christ. The Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ’s intellectual and moral excellence with his gifts, virtues and fruit, by which we mature in faith, advance in hope and radiate a beauty, a love, a holiness. Wesley provides an apt description of Methodist preaching.
Nor is it a little advantage … to hear a preacher whom you know to live as he speaks, speaking the genuine gospel of present salvation through faith, wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost, declaring present, free, full justification, and enforcing every branch of inward and outward holiness. And this you hear done in the most clear plain, simple, unaffected language, yet with an earnestness becoming the importance of the subject and with the demonstration of the Spirit.
Wesley directed Methodist preachers to cultivate habits of daily prayer and study in order to discern the beauty of Scripture’s wisdom and to speak its truth in love. This kind of learning forms preachers endued with a goodness manifested in love for God, devotion to God and love for one’s listeners in God. A good example of this can be seen in Samuel Bradburn, a younger contemporary of Wesley and fellow Methodist minister, who used a prayer by Thomas Aquinas before his studies to seek God’s guidance in preaching.
Ineffably wise and good Creator, illustrious origin, true fountain of light and wisdom, vouchsafe to infuse my understanding some ray of thy brightness, thereby removing that two fold darkness under which I was born of sin and ignorance […]. Thou that makest the tongues of infants eloquent, instruct, I pray thee, my tongue likewise: and pour upon my lips the grace of thy benediction. Give me quickness to comprehend; and memory to retain; give me a happiness in expounding; a facility in learning; and a copious eloquence in speaking. Prepare my entrance into learning, direct me in my journey, and render the event of learning complete, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Such learning requires an attunement of one’s heart and mind to the Spirit as the wellspring of wisdom, desire and speech in proclaiming the good news of Christ. Wesley saw this matter as a matter of pastoral formation or ethos that reorders one’s affections, which by God’s grace and obedient love become habitual responses to God and those whom we serve.
Am I … such as I ought to be, with regard to my affections? I am taken from among, and ordained for, men, in things pertaining to God. I stand between God and man, by the authority of the great Mediator, in the nearest and most endearing relation both to my Creator and to my fellow creatures. Have I accordingly given my heart to God, and to my brethren for his sake? And my neighbor, every man, as myself? Does this love swallow me up, possess me whole, all my passions and tempers, and regulate all my faculties and powers? Is it the spring which gives rise to all my thoughts, and governs all my words and actions?
At the center of Wesley’s homiletical wisdom are thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount that depict the knowledge and love of God in aesthetic terms. The Discourses are significant in that they demonstrate Wesley’s understanding of the form and substance of true religion as proclaimed by Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God incarnate.
Wesley perceived a beauty, wholeness and symmetry in Christ’s teaching, in that each part is proportioned in harmony with the others. He viewed the teaching of the Sermon as lovely in its holiness, truthful in its form, and desirable in its goodness. God’s love thus communicates itself in Christ for our reception, participation and witness to its beauty. Wesley states this clearly, “The beauty of holiness, of that inward manner of the heart, which is renewed after the image of God, cannot but strike every eye which God hath opened; every enlightened understanding.”
The beauty of holiness radiates the brightness of the Father’s love as manifested in the Son, the express image of his person in whom divine glory dwells in human form. Wesley writes, “He is the character and the stamp, the living impression of his person who is the fountain of beauty and love, the original source of excellence and perfection.” The “eyes” of our hearts are thus illumined by Christ’s glory through which we perceive God in human form and offered for our imitation.
Wesley, therefore, delighted in the beauty and proportion of the parts and whole of Christ’s teaching: “How desirable is the happiness here described, how venerable; how lovely the holiness!” Christ’s blessings or beatitudes are transcribed in the heart till “we are holy as he whom hath called us is holy.” As the incarnate Son of God, the life and teaching of Jesus radiates a beauty which, in its truth and goodness, is diffused through the whole of Scripture. Wesley points to the intricate design of Holy Scripture, “The main lines of this picture are beautifully drawn in many passages of the Old Testament. These are filled up in the New, retouched and finished with all the art of God.”
This is a participatory way of knowing which reorients how we perceive God, ourselves, and others in light of the Father’s love shining forth from the human righteousness of Christ. In the sermon, “Scriptural Christianity,” Wesley provides a brief summary of the purpose and end of Methodist preaching.
…the mind that was in Christ,” whose holy ‘fruits of the Spirit’ which whosoever hath not ‘is none of his’; to fill them with ‘love, joy, peace, long - suffering, gentleness, goodness’; to endue them with ‘faith’ with ‘meekness and temperance’; to enable them to ‘crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts,’ its passions and desires; and in consequence of that inward change, to fulfill all outward righteousness, ‘to walk as Christ also walked,’ in the ‘work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love.’
Such transformation is affected by an awakening of the spiritual senses which transforms our perception of God, the world and our place in it. Wesley describes this as being made “sensible of God” by the Holy Spirit who gives “spiritual respiration” and “spiritual life” which are received by faith in Christ. The “eyes of the understanding” are thus opened to perceive the glory of God in Christ, while the “ears are opened” to hear and obey the voice of God. Wesley summarizes this awakening as one in which the veil is removed and God’s light and voice, God’s knowledge and love, are imparted by the Spirit—God’s life giving breath—which is returned in unceasing love, prayer, and praise.
Wesley articulates this truth cearly in his sermon “The Circumcision of the Heart.” The sermon offers a vision of God’s goodness which inspires a preacher’s passions and directs her desires, words and actions according to the beauty of holy love.
The one perfect good shall be your ultimate end. One thing shall ye desire for its own sake—the fruition of him that is all in all. One happiness shall you propose to your souls, even a union with him that made them, the having fellowship with the Father and the Son, the being joined to the ‘Lord in one Spirit.’ One design ye are to pursue to the end of time—the enjoyment of God in time and eternity—desire other things so far as they tend to this. Love the creature—as it leads to the Creator. But in every step you take be it this glorious point that terminates your view. Let every affection, and thought, and word, and work be subordinate to this. Whatever ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun, whatever ye think, speak, or do, be it in order to your happiness in God, the sole end as well as the source of your being.