Vicar's Sermon - 30th August 2015
One week back from holiday and the memories are fading but picture the scene. The vicar is in his shorts and is wearing his sun glasses. The pool is azure blue. The sun is shining brightly. The croissant have been duly munched and a long summer’s day in rural France lies ahead of me: so what to do? Nothing...wonderful. No pressure to do anything whatsoever but in the back of the big blue car we have brought a great pile of books and DVDs. Over the last few summers I have worked my way through the compendium of Church Times Cryptic crosswords – one a day to keep the grey cells ticking over (helped by the answers being at the back of the book) . Martin Amis’ novel Zone 1 was a brilliant read. Naomi Klein’s ‘This changes everything’ was a Christmas present gazing out at me from my shelves. But I also took along with me a biography of John Wesley by Roy Hattersley called A brand from the burning. The title refers to the fact that Wesley, as a child, was thought lost in a house fire at his father’s Rectory and was the last to be rescued – he saw this as a sure sign that God had a great work for him to do but also as an image of him escaping God’s Judgement.
Wesley’s time – the 18th century- was very different to our own. The church was in total disrepair, pretty grim to be perfectly frank. The Church of England was comfortable in its decline. Its clergy all of one class of society, the dutiful 2nd or 3rd sons of the gentry farmed out to parishes, collecting tithes from places where they did next to no work whatsoever. The country certainly needed someone like Wesley. The church certainly needed someone like Wesley. By all accounts he was a difficult man: the sort of clergyman (because he was a Church of England cleric until his death) whose actions lead to lots of letters landing on the Bishop’s desk. He preached – famously breaking with tradition by preaching to mass crowds out of doors and breaking church law by preaching in other vicars’ parishes. When he came to Barnard Castle the local parishioners pulled the fire pump out of the church porch where it was kept and hosed him with water – my guess would be that my predecessor had something to do with that happening.
What he preached was ‘salvation’ and ‘assurance’. He’d grown up in the church. His dad was a vicar. His mother was almost excessively devout. He said his prayers. He studied for ordination. He sailed across the America to the colonies to try to bring the gospel to both the settlers there and the native American Indians. But all this he felt was not enough: he famously had a ‘conversion experience’ when he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’ with the knowledge that he wasn’t just a servant of God but a child of God.
That experience transformed Wesley’s thinking. Looking back it seems to me that he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to analyse the mechanics of salvation. In the 18th century people wrote innumerable pamphlets arguing this and that, for and against particular notions or ideas. Wesley was a veritable word machine – there was no stopping him. He would preach 3, 4 5 times a day on his journeys! He would write his journal and his diaries, he would pen letters and publish tracts. Much of what he wrote was about words we seldom hear nowadays: salvation, redemption, assurance, perfection in holiness and much of what he wrote was in dispute with another great revivalist, George Whitfield.
Whitfield comes across as a far more amenable person than Wesley but they argued fiercely about the doctrine known as predestination. Whitfield believed that, because God knows everything then he also knows who will be saved and who will not. Wesley, thankfully held to the view that God’s grace is offered to all and available to all, that there are no limits on his welcome and embrace: ‘all might come’, he would say. If our lot was ‘predestined’ argued Wesley then what is the point of living a Godly life? Your ‘good works’ are as nothing for the door of heaven might still be shut to you whereas the nominally Christian ‘evil doer’ (18th century language by the way!) predestined by God for salvation was fast tracked into the heavenly places.
With apologies to those from Wednesday’s service who have heard these thoughts they are relevant to our new testament reading today. One of the questions James’ epistle is answering (and of course with the epistles we only have one side of the conversation) is this: how do you know...how do you recognise?...how do you spot the true follower of Jesus?
That’s still a question for us isn’t it? What does it mean to be a Christian? It’s a modern question that may well have a different answer to the one our forebears gave. For Wesley and Whitfield in the 18th century the answer lay in holding to a particular doctrine of salvation – our forebears fought like cats about words and meanings. Later Christians have held to being able to identify true faith through disciples having particular experiences: Wesley’s heart might well have been ‘strangely warmed’ but what do you say to the person who loves Jesus and seeks to do His will but cannot, in all honesty, claim such an experience.
James’ epistle was sent to people who were already followers of Jesus Christ. It was sent to people who had made a significant statement of faith by seeking to live Jesus’ way so James’ starting assumption is that his hearers are active disciples who have already been convinced of God’s work through Jesus Christ. But James wants his readers to know that their discipleship must be more than a token membership of a society they never attend – it must lead to action.
Look at how often James mentions the importance of responding to God’s word. It’s there in verse 18, 18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. and verse 21, ‘ welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’ It comes again in the rest of the paragraph 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. James’ point is quite simply that you will know a Christian by what they do. James wouldn’t have had much time for John Wesley’s disputes. He writes a letter but he doesn’t occupy many pages of the New Testament and today’s’ key message is summed up in verse 27, 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
That’s a real challenge isn’t it? That’s enough to ponder on today. A challenge to live by a different set of values to our wider society. A challenge to not only be aware of human need but to respond to it with care. This verse has a bias to the poor that James will underscore in the rest of his epistle – a bias that the world church is reminding us of and that the Church of England is trying to learn. A bias that will become increasingly important as the gap between rich and poor within and between nations grows unchecked. James asks ‘whose side are you on’? Your answer, in his mind, will decide whether you have true Christian faith.
He’s not saying anything new - The concern for the widow and the orphan is Old Testament short-hand for getting stuck in and creating a fair, just and healthy society in which all can play their part - but James sees this as the church’s role, as the sure sign of Christian discipleship. We are (as he says in verse 18) the first fruits of God’s creatures. James would expect Christian people to be first to act in meeting human need, at the forefront of reshaping God’s world, in the lead in remodelling the way our communities function. He might look for Christian people to pioneer new ways of addressing economics and the world of work, modelling how people of different communities and nations might live and work together, caring for individuals, caring for God’s world.
James’ ‘true religion’ is as real as Wesley’s but it breaks out of introspection and a concern for the salvation of the individual soul and has a wider horizon. ‘Are you playing a part in building the kingdom of God’, James might ask. If so then you can bear the name ‘Christian’. If not, then you are kidding yourself, you are deceiving yourself: you might have a religion but its not the Christian religion and its worthless (vs 26)
John Wesley might have been a difficult character. I wonder how many letters to the Bishop the apostle James might provoke?