Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It-Works of Mercy
Rev. Sandy Johnson
July 2, 2017
We catch up with John Wesley after his return to England, following his failed trip to the New World. With new fervor, he spent his days traveling by foot, horseback and carriage sharing the “good news of God’s love and grace and calling people to trust in Christ and to be born anew. His emphasis on yielding one’s life to Christ, experiencing conversion, and practicing a personal faith led many to label his faith “evangelical.”
“Too often, Christians have thought that the goal of faith is to be born anew and cultivate a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Wesley consider this goal to be an essential part of the Christian life, but he also believed that focusing solely on one’s personal relationship with Jesus makes for an incomplete faith – narcissism masquerading as Christian spirituality. As Christians, our salvation is from narcissism (that unhealth focus on self), it is salvation from indifference, sin and death, and it is for good works.”
So often we lose focus of our faith development and we focus inward, onto ourselves and our own journey to faith. Having our own personal spiritual practices is not a bad thing by itself. But if that is all we are doing there is something missing. We learned last week from Ephesians 2:8-10 “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
God intended our way of life to be sharing good works. Wesley understood that and saw that faith and good works are, in fact, inseparable. But it begs the question, “which came first?” The chicken or the egg, our faith or our works? It is our faith, which produces good works, from an outpouring of our love for Christ and his request that we tend his sheep.
The goal of our Christian life is sanctification, according to Wesley. We are all called to be perfected in Christian love. Wesley describes “two sides of sanctification: loving God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said these summarized the law and the prophets. Jesus gave a second command, which he also said summarized the law and the prophets: “In everything do to others as you would have them to do to: (Matthew 7:12). We know this command as the Golden Rule.”
When we look at our scripture today from James, one might mistakenly think that it is our works, our acts of mercy that govern our relationship with Christ. Our faith must take a back seat to the works we do. If we aren’t careful and misunderstand what is being said, we might get the relationship backwards. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” What this is saying is that when we have a bonified relationship with Christ, when we have surrendered ourselves to his will for our lives, when we are living the life, then we will, by default, serve others. There’s no way around it. From our faith comes acts of mercy.
Of course, we can all think of folks that proclaim a faith in God and a readiness to serve Christ, but they are so focused on their own righteousness they have forgotten to clothe the naked or feed the hungry. Now, there are also those who have no faith in God, but have compassion for those who are in need and spend much time and resources in helping their fellow man.
You may find this surprising but a study in 2015 at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that “the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics, and less religious people. In the study, the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.” My fear is that as Christians, in a few short years, we will no longer be known for our compassion because we have become so inwardly focused that we have forgotten our true purpose.
It is not our purpose to argue over the length of the pastor’s skirt, what type of cookies we should serve at followship, whether it’s allowed to serve deviled eggs at church (maybe only if there is also angel food cake?) and whether to change the name of “potluck” to “pot blessing.”
It is easy to major in the minors and forget why we are here. What is it that God requires of us? He has told us, hasn’t he? Do you remember? We are to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Faith and works are intimately entwined.
Wesley spoke of two ways in the pursuit of good works. The first “was in the ordinary expressions of love that are summarized in the Golden Rule. As we grow in sanctification, that growth should be evident in our increased patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and love. But if we are not consciously praying for and seeking the fruit of the spirit, they may actually diminish over time.
“The second was in what were traditionally called “works of mercy.” In Roman Catholic theology, these were divided into seven corporal works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works were largely drawn from Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the homeless, visit the sick, and minister to the prisoner. The spiritual works of mercy were instructing the ignorant, counseling those who doubted, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving others willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for others. Wesley, borrowing the designation ‘works of mercy,’ spoke of all these and others as acts by which we intentionally care for and assist those who need God’s help.
“Wesley believed that with these acts of mercy, God is working in and through us. Yet he also taught that these acts of mercy are themselves a means of grace. By intentionally helping, ministering to, and caring for others, we avail ourselves of God’s grace. Our own actions become the instrument God uses to change us.”
There is much talk in church leadership circles about church growth and vitality. The majority of churches in our conference are declining in membership and attendance and often what goes along with that is a general lack of vitality. A church that is inwardly focused often lack vitality.
“Spiritual vitality, whether in individuals or congregations, is achieved by living out the scriptures.” Let’s re-read Ephesians 2:8-10
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
and James 2:14-18:
Faith without Works Is Dead
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
“Two dimensions of Christian life described in these Scriptures are critical for revival: a personal faith, actively pursued through prayer, worship, Scripture reading, receiving the Eucharist, meeting in small groups, and practicing other Christian disciplines; and an invitation for God to work through us in serving our neighbor, our community, and the world. These two dimensions, taken together, (faith and works) constitute the holistic gospel that Jesus taught and preached, and they constitute the holistic gospel that Wesley insisted was “the scripture way of salvation.”
The United Methodist Church has a rich history of practicing acts of mercy, it is an essential part of who we are and how we live out our faith lives. Excerpts from John Wesley’s diary show that he visited the local prisons five times each week, the other two days he was scheduled to meet with the children and the poor and elderly. These simple entries and humble actions became defining elements of Methodism: ministering to prisoners, helping impoverished children, visiting the elderly, caring for the poor.”
Later Wesley partnered with George Whitefield and began preaching to the miners, “both men felt called to begin a school for the poor children of miners and for anyone else, regardless of age, who wished to learn. Wesley built a schoolhouse that was used both for education and for a preaching house.”
“Education was important to the early Methodists. It was a ticket out of poverty and also a tool that made students more effective instruments for God’s use in changing the world.” There are more than 90 colleges and universities that were started by Methodist that are in operation today: Southern Methodist, Duke, Drew, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, to name a few. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our founding fathers would put a premium on education given that Wesley was an Oxford fellow and his peers were college students.
In addition to education the early Methodists “started to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. Wesley established two houses for the poor and elderly widows and their children. They began a school for children who roamed the streets. Today, hundreds if not thousands of inner-city ministries, medical clinics, hospitals, orphanages, and more have been started across the United States, Great Britain and around the world by Methodists who are carrying on traditions” established by John Wesley in the early formative days of our denomination.
Our DNA began with acts of mercy and we are following that tradition here in Boulder City as well. We work hard to see where there are needs in our community and do what we can to fulfill that need. “For Wesley, evangelism and ministries to the poor were inextricably linked; you could not have one without the other.” Many churches today focus on evangelism without the accompanied focus on mercy and I believe their faith journey falls short of what Jesus calls us to.
We can all look around us and “see the gap between what the world is and what it should be. That’s when we ask, “Lord, what would you have us to do to close that gap?” In the world as it should be, no one goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat. No one is cold because they don’t have clothing and shelter. In the world as it should be, all are treated with respect and compassion and receive justice. There are no wars, no one receives a subpar education, and racism and bigotry have vanished. If that is the world as it should be, then we, as Christians are meant to work to close the gap between the realities of the world we live in and Christ’s vision of God’s kingdom on earth. This means that our task as Christians is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, provide quality education for low-income children, minister to the sick who can’t afford medical care, and so much more.”
Faith without works is dead. We are not dead because our faith is alive and shown through the mercy we share with one another and the community we live.
Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you call us to acts of mercy and we want to be quick to follow. Remove all doubt and self-centeredness that sometimes get in the way of our following in Christ’s example. Provide the spiritual strength and confidence to boldly do your work, providing comfort for those in the margins, those without a voice, those who are in need. Guide us to those places of need and provide the resources to accomplish your will. Amen.
 Hamilton, Adam. Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 2014. Page 107.
 Ibid, 108
 Ibid, 109
 Ibid, 110
 Ibid, 111
 Ibid, 111
 Ibid, 113
 Ibid, 115