On 21 May 1738, the Day of Pentecost, Charles Wesley received a message from Christ himself, spoken by his host, Mrs Turner. “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe.” His journal from that day reads in part: “I felt in the meantime a strange palpitation of heart. I said, yet feared to say, ‘I believe, I believe!’ … I now found myself at peace with God and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ. My temper for the rest of the day was mistrust of my own great, but before unknown, weakness. I saw that by faith I stood…. I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness, yet confident of Christ’s protection.”
Three days later, John had an experience which has gone down in Christian folklore: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he 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, 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.”
John and Charles Wesley both experienced transformation through another proclaiming the Gospel – formally and informally.
It’s a tricky thing transformation. It’s risky, and it’s scary – but it isn’t passive. Yet as I travel around our synod, I see many people, lay and ordained alike, understanding transformation as something God does solely on God’s own. And so we passively wait for the neon sign to light up and tell us what God’s will might be. I see people afraid: afraid of shrinking resources and declining numbers; no longer enough people to fill our committees and run our programs. I see people searching for the new thing, the quick fix that might bring young people back to church without actually changing what they might come back to. I see our energy being consumed by our own survival instead of by the proclamation of God’s good news.
It is as though we have become so obsessed with the design of the flower pot that we no longer remember what we were called to grow in it. As a consequence, our preaching runs the risk of losing its salt, its courage. It becomes placating and calming when perhaps it needs to inspire and challenge.
But transformation is not passive and faith will not flourish in self-obsession. Our place in creation and our relationship with the triune God has never been a matter of waiting till God sorts everything out for us. Faith is about responding to God’s invitation to get involved and to actively participate in making real the realm of God on our earth. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
As Charles and John Wesley discovered, faith, gospel good news, is explosive material; it blows our ordered lives into pieces. Our preaching, in these days, needs to be courageous and vibrant – reminding people who they are and whose they are, reminding all of us that the call of Christ is not to passively sit in a pew once a week and be spoon fed, but to be nourished and grown and stretched and shaped as we become more like Christ. And then to go out to live as the people of God, to use whoever we are and whatever we have to build the realm of God and to allow love to transform our world.
Preaching surely involves pitch and tone, illustration and creativity. But never lose sight of the heart of our preaching: Jesus Christ the crucified is risen, and calls us to be more than the sum of all our mistakes, calls us to be more than the selfish wants of our own desires, calls us to be God’s people and to transform this world into God’s own realm through the power of love, forgiveness, compassion and justice.
The bar is set high – and it is not for the faint hearted. But this is the good news of Jesus Christ. May it be what we boldly preach. Amen.