II Peter 1:1-11
[Aldersgate Sunday is the Sunday before 24 May, the anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion experience, which Methodists recall as the starting point of our tradition]
Peter reminds his friends, and through them he reminds us:
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness.
This is literally the first thing which Peter says. He reminds us of the basic feature of believing in God. To believe in God as we do, is to believe that the ultimate source of everything is God. Inside of this declaration about God is packed pretty much everything we believe about God! So for example: I think this declaration of Peter necessarily implies a belief in God as creator. Since he declares that everything needed for life comes from God, we can look around and see what sustains our life, and recognise the world and everything in it, the very precise way in which the world and indeed the solar system, even the universe is ordered, in such a way that makes our lives possible. But also the gift of knowing God, what Peter calls godliness, also has the same source. Peter in a way is pointing us back to Jesus, since what God has done through Jesus, his birth and life, and death and resurrection are the source of our knowledge of God, the beginning of our “godliness.”
Of course accepting that those things are true is an act of faith. We take Peter’s word on trust. There is nothing which imposes that belief in God in a way which we could not reject it. There is just something that makes us believe. I suspect that almost none of us could convincing explain, even to ourselves, why we have faith in God rather than not. We just do. It feels like something that has been given to us, a gift. Which of course, exactly what Peter is saying to us.
If all of this is true on a large scale, it is also true on a slightly smaller scale. God has also given us what sustains our life and godliness in a more immediate sense. God gives us the church. The church is the place where we learn that this all is true, and learn to put our trust in it; the church on the grandest scale, the whole historic assembly of Christian believers in every time and place, the tradition of the church of which we are part: the Methodist church, and the individual congregation of which we are part. All of this is something which God has given to us.
The central question for Christians then becomes: what are you going to do about what God has given you? It can be, indeed it is, very easy to be complacent about the gifts we have been given. It is very easy to take what we have for granted, and even not appreciate it until it has gone. Today as a I said is Aldersgate Sunday, the day when we remember the transforming experience John Wesley had in May 1738, which we mark as the starting point of the tradition in which we stand. In a way this Sunday is the Church Anniversary for our whole denomination. Wesley lived in a period when complacency about religion had become the norm. Or rather where there was a rejection of anything that suggested enthusiasm or effort in the direction of religion. That idea of faith coming from God as a gift from God was very much the dominant one. All that anyone could do was simply accept it. The trouble as far as Wesley could see was no one was making sure that everyone was getting the opportunity to receive that gift. And once that gift had been received, almost no one was doing anything with it! There were large parts of the nation that were simply being ignored by the church. And the Church itself was often about appearances, rather than any transformative substance. Even before his “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate, Wesley was vey conscious of these problems, but it was after Aldersgate that he became more effective in answering them. But it wasn’t Wesley himself who came up with the answer to the first of those problem. Actually to begin with he was resistant to it. It was George Whitefield who persuaded Wesley to follow him into preaching in the open air, to take Christian faith to people rather than wait for them to come to it. In their field preaching, Whitefield, John Wesley and his brother Charles and a number of other began to make sure that the gift that God is giving was offered to as many people as possible. Wesley’s distinctive contribution, the contribution which forms the Methodist church, was to recognise that faith can be worked on. Wesley was very much of the belief, and Methodism remains convinced, that Christian faith is meant to make a difference. The gift of faith is intended to transform, believers individual and as a result, transform society around them. What is more Wesley was sure that you could be “methodical” about this. Peter was already there before him, since he says:
You must make every effort to support your faith with…
Peter then gives a ladder of virtues: excellence, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love. The gifts which God gives are not just to be held onto, they are meant to be grown. This reading from Peter is one of those set for Aldersgate Sunday. We could easily place beside it other readings from the New Testament: We could turn to James who writes – What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works?. . . So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.[James 2:14a, 17] Or we could remember the parable of the talents. Where those who put their gifts to use are praised for the growth they produced, whereas the one who simply hid what they had was condemned. [Matthew 15:14-30]
Wesley was careful to put in place structures that would enable the people who received the gift of faith to ascend that ladder of virtues. In particular he emphasised making use of what he referred to as the “ordinary means of grace.” On his list were: reading and meditating on scripture, fasting, attending worship, attending the sacraments of the church, what he called “Christian conferencing” by which he meant talking over our faith with others, doing good works, seeking justice and so on. [Sermon XII] Out of his structure and out of his encouraging the practice of those means of grace grew the Methodist Church and Methodist Churches. Yet all of that is just what we started with, these things too are the gift of God, they are exactly what we need to sustain life and godliness, as Peter put it.
A few years ago the Methodist church in Britain came up with a definition of itself. It said Methodism is a “discipleship movement shaped for mission.”
Methodism, Christian faith are not ends in themselves. Slightly earlier Methodists said of us: “in the providence of God Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land by the proclamation of the evangelical faith. . .” [Deed of Union] One of the things that the Bible is consistently clear about is that gifts are not given for themselves. Wealth, despite what our society thinks, is not an end in itself. God gives in order that what we have been given can be shared. When I was small we used to sing a song in Sunday School: Love is like a magic penny. I don’t remember many of the words but I do remember the lines: “Love is something if you give it away you end up having more” And an image that has always stuck with me: “Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor.” Something that was visible in early Methodism, and probably in the people who started each of our congregations, is the joyful gratitude and excitement of that song which I sang as a small child. Perhaps that is what we are missing now. We lack the powerful sense of what Peter reminded us of when we started, which is what Wesley experienced at Aldersgate, which is probably what motivated the people who opened our churches. But perhaps what were are also missing are the means to climb that ladder of virtues which Peter also reminded us of and Wesley established the structures to enable that to happen.. Because Peter offers a warning or is it an encouragement. Having received our many gifts we are called to work on them:
Make Every Effort To Support Your Faith by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0