By Bishop Peggy Johnson
“God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of God, who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which God has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them, you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:3-8
The Broadway musical “Hello Dolly” is back in New York City, starring Bette Midler as the leading lady. I can actually boast that I saw Carol Channing perform this role in 1968 when I was in high school on a field trip to the United Nations building. Now to see it again 40 years later does make me feel a bit old.
But the signature love song in this musical is “It Only Takes a Moment.” It speaks of romantic love: “It only takes a moment for your eyes to meet, and then your heart knows in a moment you will never be alone again.” The leading lady and man croon together, “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.”
United Methodists believe in moments too: moments of experiencing for the first time God’s wooing grace, moments of conviction of sin and repentance, moments of conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, and one special moment that happened to our founder, John Wesley, at a Bible study on London’s Aldersgate Street nearly three centuries ago.
John Wesley was raised in the Anglican Church and was a priest and the son of an Anglican priest. But when he was 35 years old he was struggling with his faith.
As the story goes on May 24, 1738, he went reluctantly to a Bible study and prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone read from Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”
John writes in his diary “About 8:45 PM, 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.”
This was Wesley’s defining moment of assurance of salvation and freedom from sin and death. What he experienced was what St. Peter describes as “the precious and great promises of God.”
In this moment he felt the power of the Holy Spirit to preach salvation. From that day on he dedicated his life to proclaiming that good news around England to anyone who would listen. They say he preached as if he were “out of breath in pursuit of souls.”
Eventually, he inspired a movement that found its way to America when Wesley sent his preachers to “spread Scriptural Holiness” across the continent.
United Methodists observe Aldersgate Sunday every year around the 24th day of May. We do this to remind people of the love of God for everyone and that all can be heirs of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and be blessedly assured of the same.
It is also a time for us to rededicate our lives to not only spreading the gospel but being the loving presence of Jesus Christ out in the world. This is another important thing to know about John Wesley:
He preached conversion but also sanctification: that is the Holy Spirit working on one’s soul to improve one’s character and obedience to God through prayer, study of the scripture, accountability groups, the sacraments, and fasting. He called this personal holiness.
The passage above, from 2 Peter 1:3-8 describes it well. We are to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly and sisterly affection, and love. This personal holiness is vitally important because it gives us strength and direction for the works of Christ out in the world.
Wesley calls that “social holiness.” It means being a “sermon in shoes” through sacrificial giving of ourselves to the poor, to minister to those in prisons, to visit the sick, and to speak out on social justice issues for those without a voice.
There are many ways to give yourself away for the love of God’s children. This is the heart of mission. And as we engage in mission, God’s witness increases and we decrease. Mission is the fire and we are merely the candle.
When I was in seminary back in the late 1970’s, there was an early, heavy snow storm. Some seminary students—being seminary students—went out to throw snowballs and make snowmen, rather than study in the library. One of the students, an amazing artist, crafted a snowman that looked exactly like John Wesley. We all commented on this incredible work of art.
A few days later, when the autumn sun returned, the snowman had melted some, and there appeared a sign on the sculpture: “My heart was strangely warmed.” (quoting of course John Wesley’s experience of assurance of salvation at Aldersgate).
We all had a good laugh. But truly, as we engage in heart-warming mission, we give ourselves away—or melt away, as it were—so that we are not important any more. It is the work of ministry that is most important. We give ourselves away out of love for Christ.
Aldersgate Day can be everyday as we remember the love of God poured out for all of us in abundance. It only takes a moment to realize that we are loved a whole life long.