Think about “the” time or “a” time, when your heart was strangely warmed by the love of God. That’s the way John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, described it – a heart strangely warmed. It happened one night when Wesley went to a Bible Study on Aldersgate Street. He went to this Bible Study “very unwillingly,” he says. At this point in this life, he was doing the work of the faith – worship, prayer, engaged in good works – but he just “wasn’t feeling it.” It all seemed like more of a burden than a blessing. “Do this.” “Don’t do that.” Follow this rule.” “Feel guilty when you are told you need to do more.” He had faith up here (head), but his heart just wasn’t in it. Perhaps the lesson here is that, in these times, it is good to stick to our commitments, to continue to engage in the practices of faith, and pray for this feeling – this heart-felt joy - to come again ... and again … and again. Remember, Wesley went to this Bible Study “unwillingly,” to use his word. And here’s what he wrote in his journal that night, “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." That night Wesley’s heart was opened, in a new and fresh way, to the love of God. That night, he experienced here (heart) the unconditional love of God. I invite you to think about “the time” or “a time” when your heart was strangely warmed by the love of God.
The Apostle Paul, in our passage from Romans, gives one the most beautiful affirmations of this love. I can hear him shouting this out as he smiles: “Who is against us? If Christ is for us, who is to condemn? I am convinced,” says Paul, “that nothing we do, nothing that creation might bring, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Think about a time when you knew this love, deep in your heart.
In our first lesson, we read the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation chapter 2. In this letter the church is praised. The writer, speaking for God, says, “I know your works.” “I see how you have endured.” “I love the way you engage in such great ministry.” Reading this letter reminds me of our church and all that happens here. I look at our weekly calendar and truly believe that God is saying, “well done.” “Keep up the good work.” But, if this letter is any indication, Jesus does not let us go home patting ourselves on the back. We need to hear the next part of this word as well. The one who “holds the seven stars in his right hand,” says, “Here’s my concern. You have forgotten the love you had at first.” It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Yeah, you are doing wonderful ministry, but I want more for you. I want you to remember the main thing. I want you to have the love that started it all.”
This letter is a call for us to continually open our hearts to the love Christ brings, the love that is so great that nothing in life or in death can take it from us. The call is to remember the love of the One who was able to hang on a cross and still say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is the love that comes before we are even aware of it. (In Methodist “speak” we call this prevenient grace, the grace that comes before we are even aware of it and paves the way for us to accept God’s love). God first loves us and opens our hearts to this eternal grace that makes everything else come to life. Think about a time when your heart was strangely warmed by this love. Ask for this blessing.
This month, as we lead up to Pentecost, we are talking about the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives. John Wesley makes a big deal out of this. He wants us to avoid two big dangers. One danger comes when religion becomes a “mere formality,” where we go through the motions but don’t have the power. That happens so easily. That’s what Wesley was experiencing when he went to that Bible Study. The other danger lies at the other extreme. This danger comes when we run into the “wildness of enthusiasm,” to use Wesley’s phrase. This happens when we mistake our own voice, our own opinions about how to worship, and how to practice faith with the witness of the Holy Spirit, and we start to think it is our job to get everyone to see things our way. Wesley says that the true witness of the Holy Spirit is in the middle, between these extremes.
There is a witness of the Spirit, but this witness is not some “special message” about what others should do or how they should worship. The witness of the spirit is not a license for us to judge, although we certainly see people claiming the movement of the Spirit in this way. The primary witness of the Spirit is more basic and universal. The Apostle Paul says it this way in our theme verse for this series, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God.” We are beloved by God and nothing can separate us from this love. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants us to know, deep in here (heart). It is the main thing. And then as children of God we are empowered to bear the fruit of the Spirit. I hope that you have this list memorized: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. That’s what the Spirit cultivates in our lives, as we open ourselves to this work and actively engage in the daily self-examination needed to grow in these blessings. There is a warning here as well. If we don’t do this, we are in danger of falling back into, what Paul calls, “a spirit of slavery and of fear.” (We will talk more about that in this series).
Today, I want to say to our confirmands that we are so proud of you. You have worked hard, and hopefully have learned a lot about the faith. We are, once again, so thankful to all who have devoted themselves to this process. Today, we invite all of you to remember what is at the heart of it all. You are loved. Nothing can separate you from this love. May this love guide you all into a glorious future, filled with faith and with good fruit. Amen.