“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that he has given to us.”
To me there are two main points in the scripture lesson for today:
1] We are justified by Faith.
2] That suffering eventually leads to hope.
Justification by Faith, made famous by Martin Luther, can be seen in our own Methodist Church history.
“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 Wesley penned these famous words in his journal on May 24th, 1738 in the hours shortly after attending a Moravian society meeting on Aldersgate street in London, England. It is from this place that we, our church, derive our name. This warming of the heart is symbolized in our United Methodist logo with the flame next to the cross. This moment was the paramount of numerous experiences in Wesley’s life that led him from being a man suffocated by his own sufferings to a man who felt and saw the hope of God’s assured love.
“I felt my heart strangely warmed”
Wesley had been listening to a Moravian man read Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans when the event took place. The reader was describing the change, which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.
To fully comprehend Wesley’s episode, one must grasp Paul’s desire and hope in writing to the Roman Church.
One of the biggest issues facing the church in the 1st century was the legitimacy of Jewish-Christians versus Gentile Christians. We know from Pentecost [last Sunday, the day that celebrates God’s pouring down of the Holy Spirit] that Peter went out and addressed the crowds calling out to the Israelites: “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” This was specifically aimed at the Jews, the Israelites, yet Jesus came to be the light of the World.
In the wake of the day of Pentecost, churches were established throughout ancient Palestine, Greece, and reaching parts of Europe. By the time Paul wrote to the Roman church he faced opposite misunderstandings of the Gospel. In Jerusalem he needed to defend the validity of a largely Gentile church in Rome, who did not observe the Jewish law. In Rome he needed to defend the continuing validity of Israel in God’s purpose. His letter to the Romans insists that there is one gospel for all humanity. Even in his letter to the church in Corinth he decrees that we are all, Jew and Gentile, one body in and through Jesus Christ.
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that he has given to us.”
It is our faith in God that justifies each and every one of us.
So we are justified by faith.
Our suffering leads to hope.
For me, this is one of the most difficult things to preach about. I live a very blessed life, and I continually see God’s love in everything that I do. But I also understand that suffering is everywhere. I appreciate that we learn from our mistakes but it is hard to stand here and preach to you, telling you that suffering is a good thing. What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger is a good translation for the second point. I offer the story of John Wesley to help demonstrate how suffering can lead to hope.
When Wesley was 22 he began to fill his personal Journal with entries discerning his call to the ministry, yet he struggled with God’s love in his life. He knew that he felt called but he also felt unworthy of God’s forgiveness and believed that the Word itself was more important than his own personal faith. Within the year he was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church.
In 1735 Wesley was asked to go to America as a minister for the new colony of Georgia. He wrote in his Journal: “My chief motive, to which all the rest are subordinate, is the hope of saving my own soul.” The leader and founder of our denomination felt unworthy of God’s redemption. He was living a life predicated on God’s forgiveness at his death, not during his life.
Wesley’s first experience with the Moravians Brethren, one that would eventually lead him to Aldersgate, took place on the voyage across the Atlantic. The Moravians were holding a service on the deck of the ship when the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks. Everyone began to scream and run yet the Moravians calmly continued to sing and pray. They were not afraid of death. Their faith in God sustained them in all that they did; through their suffering they continued to have faith. This was Wesley’s first tangible experience with God’s unconditional love.
While in Georgia Wesley met his greatest moment of suffering, one that would force him back to England. During his time in Savannah he fell in love with Sophia Hopkey, a young and attractive woman, and he courted her for a short while. Wesley was often called out of the city on long missional ventures to the Native Americans in Georgia, and on one such trip he returned to find Miss Sophia engaged to another man. Feeling betrayed Wesley made the mistake of refusing Sophia communion shortly after her engagement. A warrant was issued for his arrest, which he continued to ignore, until he was considered a criminal at large. Wesley left the colony for England shamed, and suffering.
Upon returning to England Wesley was prevented from speaking in the Anglican churches in response to the Georgian incident. He endured through this time, eventually preaching famously in the open air. Through his endurance he eventually saw the errors of his choices in Georgia, and began to repent for what he had done.
When he was invited to the meeting at Aldersgate his sufferings had finally led him to the realization of hope. Wesley was finally able to hope and to trust in Christ for Salvation, because he felt the Holy Spirit in his own heart.
“I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, the he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Suffering leads to Hope
It is fitting that the scripture for this service fell o Memorial Weekend. The greatest example of suffering that leads to hope is the sacrifice of those who have fallen in service to their country. Be it the Civil War, World War 1 or 2, Vietnam, Korea, The Gulf, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have given their lives did so in the hope for a future of peace. The families who have lost sons, daughter, mothers and fathers suffer in the wake of death. But this suffering produces endurance. Our country continues to fight for justice throughout the world. Our endurance leads to character, we area beacon to the rest of the world. Our character produces hope; hope for a future without war, without suffering by the hands of evil.
This past Tuesday I was invited to a Bible Study meeting, made up of women from our church. They had spent the previous 12 weeks learning about the prophecies of the eschaton, or end times as detailed in the Book of Daniel. Before the meeting started one of the women asked me, “What do United Methodist believe about the apocalypse?” And to be honest with you, I have no idea. But like many times in my life, God sprung forth an answer through me that I did not see coming.
This is what I said:
I do not know what the United Methodist church believes about the end, but I do know this: John Wesley was tired of living a life worrying about the end. After his experience at Aldersgate he started living in the present. He made the kingdom of heaven happen here and now on earth to the best of his ability. He began to feel God’s love in his life and tried to replicate that feeling in all that he did.
My friends, this is exactly what we are called to do. We need to take his Word and replicate it in all that we do. We need to believe and understand that suffering produces hope. We need to take the warmth of our hearts and share it with our neighbors. We need to endure. We need character. We need hope. And finally we need to know that God will always love us. Always.