In Honor of Aldersgate Sunday

I wrote this in May of 2019, but never posted. I knew that I was moving to Aldersgate UMC. What I didn’t know was how appropriate the message of peace would be almost a year later.

The year, 1736. The place was Oxford University. John Wesley and his brother Charles left England for “The Colonies;” Governor James Oglethorpe needed religion in Georgia. Being loyal members of the Church of England, the Wesley brothers answered the call. Truth be known, they might have been tiring of their routine. John, Charles, and their friends were so rigorously devout, so bound by routine, that others had taken to derisively calling their little group “Methodists.”

For whatever reason (Why is it that young men seek adventure?), the two felt called to the frontier of Savannah, Georgia. Imagine the 4,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Benjamin Franklin reportedly made the trip in six weeks, while it took the Mayflower two months (over a hundred years earlier). The Wesleys were not likely to be first class passengers. It was not a luxurious passage. Rough seas, seasickness, disease, bad food, all were possibilities.

As was common in such a long voyage, a storm hit. It was so strong that the decks flooded and the main sail ripped. The English passengers, John and Charles included were terrified. John writes in his journal:

“At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. At seven I went to the [Moravians].

During the voyage, Wesley had noticed their humility. They would do jobs no one else would do, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts . . . Their loving Savior had done more for them.” As the storm raged, Wesley says he was curious to see if they dealt with fear as well as they dealt with pride. He continued:

“In the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The [Moravians] calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

Wesley concludes:

“I went to their crying, trembling neighbors, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not.”

When his life felt threatened, Wesley’s faith was found wanting; yet, he found faithful men and women who were not afraid. These Moravians knew how to survive a storm that threatened their bodies and their souls. It is a lesson that John would need to remember during his professional struggles in Savannah and his spiritual struggles when he got home.

Today’s scripture was spoken by Jesus to the disciples in the Upper Room, where they spent their last hours together. Their storm was about to begin. Jesus knew that. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus spoke those famous words that we hear at so many funerals – “Do not be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions . . .”

He follows that up with the equally famous, “I am the way, the truth, the life . . .” Through all the chapters of 13 – 17, Jesus clearly states that he is leaving. He is equally clear that he “will not leave them as orphans,” that God, the Father, will be sending the Holy Spirit, The Companion, the Advocate, to be with his followers.

Jesus knew that his twelve disciples would not be able to weather the storm alone. The Holy Spirit would help them. During the coming storm, they would need Jesus’ presence and peace most of all.

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (abide) with them.24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled (worried) or afraid. 28 You have heard me tell you, ‘I’m going away and returning to you.’ If you loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than me. 29 I have told you before it happens so that when it happens you will believe.

In Jesus’ absence, the disciples will feel his presence. How’s that for a contradiction? They will feel Jesus beside them because the Spirit will be near.

That happens when we love Jesus; and when we love him, we keep Christ’s commands. We usually boil all his commands down to two: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. In chapter 13 (just a few “minutes” earlier), Jesus makes it even simpler:

“I give you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

It’s easy to love Jesus. The picture we have of him is holy and kind and loving. It’s easy to love God – big, gentle God up in heaven, made the world, all that stuff. But loving the mean, nasty, smelly, argumentative, conceited, judgmental loser sitting next to you? See what I mean?

But, if we love Jesus (really love him, not just “saying words”), we will do what he tells us to do. What he tells us to do is LOVE EACH OTHER. When we do that, Jesus will “make his home” with us. Some translations say “abide with us.” In The Message, Jesus says, “we’ll move right in to the neighborhood!”

How do we feel Jesus’ presence in the midst of chaos and turmoil? We keep his commandments. We love one another.

Take Wesley’s example. He knew that these Moravians had something that he needed. They sang Psalms while the mainsail shredded and the boat was swamped. Rather than laugh, rather than act tough, rather than act like he didn’t need anybody of anything, he went to them, during the storm. He reached out to strangers, people who were different, who might have more faith than he did.

When we get bounced around by life’s winds, reach out! Too many of us isolate ourselves when trouble comes. We don’t want people to know and think we are weak. We pretend there is no problem, that we can handle it. What if we can’t? What if someone else has the answer? The arms to open in welcome? What if you don’t have to be alone?

Christ commands us to love one another. We should even do so when there is chaos all around us. When we love one another is when we feel the presence of Christ, abiding, living with us!

We have divine help. The Holy Spirit, the Companion, will teach us and remind us when we forget. Don’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, the Spirit has whispered Jesus’ words in my ear at just the moment I need them the most. The Spirit might make me cry, but they have always been tears of Joy.

Stereotypes would relegate the work of the Holy Spirit to people “speaking in tongues,” or dancing some ecstatic dance in a worship service. For me, the Spirit has been more like Jesus’ loving arm around my shoulder. That’s how we feel Jesus’ presence when he is absent.

Along with his presence, Jesus brings peace to our storms. Peace, “not as the world gives,” but a peace straight from Jesus. By “peace that the world gives,” Jesus meant the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Rome created peace by enforcing order. Under Roman rule, life was peaceful because any behavior other than total compliance was punished! They were afraid to do anything else!

The peace of which Jesus speaks does not mean the absence of conflict or suffering. It didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Twelve; it certainly doesn’t mean that for us. The peace of which he speaks wells up from within, and will go with us in any situation.

Wesley never forgot his experience with the Moravians. They seemed to enjoy the peace that Jesus gave, but he didn’t! After returning to London as a failed missionary, he confessed his doubts to Peter Bohler, a Moravian leader. On March 4, 1738, Wesley records that he had considered leaving the ministry and even doubted his own salvation. Bohler encouraged him to continue.

A little over two month later, on May 24, 1738, at 8:45 in the evening, Wesley discovered the peace that only Christ can give:

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.

Storms will occur. Turmoil comes. Change must happen if we are to live. Knowing and Loving Christ, following his commandments, leads to a never-ending presence and an ever-lasting peace. I pray we all feel such presence and peace in the coming weeks and months.

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