On Pentecost Sunday, the Church tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and the amazing things that happened to them (see here for the story from the Book of Acts)
This year, Pentecost Sunday also fell on May 24th, which in Methodist circles is also known as Aldersgate Sunday or “Wesley Day” – the day on which Wesley recorded that he experienced an evangelical conversion, describing in his journal how his heart was “strangely warmed” at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, London (see the full text here)
I think in liturgical circles Pentecost always takes preference, but at the New Room there is always an afternoon service marking Aldersgate Sunday/Wesley Day. This year it was a privilege to take it and to preach in Wesley’s pulpit. Here are some thoughts:
Last weekend, Niall and I were in London to meet up with friends and we visited the Museum of London.
It’s a very good museum which tells the story of the city in imaginative ways – but of course one of the main attractions for us was outside.
The Aldersgate Flame is a modern bronze sculpture, unveiled in 1981, which stands at the approximate location of John Wesley’s conversion in Aldersgate Street on May 24th 1738. It is positioned outside the entrance to the museum (although according to this week’s Methodist Recorder, the museum is moving in a few year’s time)
On it is engraved the entry from John Wesley’s Journal for May 24th 1738. It recalls the profound experience of God’s grace and love which John experienced at a society in Aldersgate Street, three days after his brother Charles.
As we heard, he wrote: “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.”
Wesley’s words, carved in bronze outside the museum, provide a permanent reminder of an encounter with God through the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit which was very powerful.
And of course the Museum is located very close to many other special places of interest to Methodists – including Wesley’s Chapel in City Road and Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, which contains the grave of Susanna Wesley. (as a plug – there is a Methodist Heritage walking tour which contains many other sites of interest around the Aldersgate area and it is very good).
But as I stood and had my picture taken with the Aldersgate Flame and read again the words from the journal of John Wesley set in bronze, I started thinking about words and language and how Wesley would have hated it if his words became static and set, like the bronze inscription.
Wesley was a man who used words extensively – in his preaching, his writing, his publishing, the hymnbooks, the sermons, even the collection of natural remedies.
In fact, in a discourse about the Sermon on the Mount, he wrote: “Let there be no guile in your mouth; let your words be the genuine picture of your heart.”
Words were the means by which he communicated his love for Jesus and the way that he communicated his faith and beliefs. Words were his tools; just as he covered many thousands of miles in travelling, I wonder how many words John wrote during his lifetime – there’s a research project for someone with a lot of spare time!
Many of Wesley’s words are still republished and used today; to inspire, to challenge; to guide. They are quoted and sometimes misquoted. But as I continued to reflect on words and language, I wondered what the Wesleys would make of today’s hyper-connected world.
It’s interesting that now, in a world of emails and tweets and posts on social media, people do ask the questions: “Would Wesley have approved of using Facebook? and “ What would Wesley tweet?”
Coming from a time when even photography would have been a novelty, I am sure John and Charles would have been intrigued by technology, computers and the internet. They would have heartily disapproved of some of the darker recesses of the web, but I also think that if they were around today they would definitely harness the internet to further their Gospel message that “all can be saved.” Imagine what it would be like for them to realise that they could preach the Gospel to millions of people around the world at the touch of a button!
As John used all the means available to him in the 18th century to communicate, I am sure he would take to using new forms of communication with gusto – but my guess is he would also issue guidelines to Methodists on how to behave well online.
Maybe he would have a blog – heartstrangelywarmed.co.uk perhaps? The jury is out, however, on the possibility that if Wesley were around now, he would be taking selfies on his mobile phone of all the places he visited to preach in!
The point I am trying to make is that Wesley was savvy; he knew the power of words and language and he probably had no idea that all these years later we would be quoting his journal and remembering his Aldersgate experience.
However I think it also poses a challenge to us – especially on what is also Pentecost Sunday – to consider all the ways and means that WE use words and language to communicate our faith. St Francis may have said “Preach the Gospel; Use words if necessary.” But sometimes words are very important. Do we encourage or criticise – build up or tear down – dismiss or include? Do we moan too much?
What words are outside on our gates and noticeboards? Do they say “welcome” or “keep out”? I visited a church in Dublin once (which shall remain nameless) where the overriding image in the porch was a notice informing visitors that they were being watched by CCTV cameras. No words of welcome, just a warning not to steal anything. I didn’t go any further because I didn’t feel welcome at all.
Language was one of the defining factors at Pentecost, which was a feast for all the senses. The sound of rushing wind, the sight of tongues of fire, the intensity of receiving the Holy Spirit, the absolute exhilaration of the disciples going out into the streets and speaking in all kinds of languages to the culturally diverse crowds of people around them. Words were central; the Spirit enabled Peter and the others to speak with authority and clarity so that (most) people were amazed by what they said and drawn to their messages of faith.
The Spirit took them over; they may have had no idea what they were saying but they became part of a bigger picture; a picture of a world where everyone was included and everyone was welcomed; all the barriers were coming down and this was a new way forward.
And so it works that this year we celebrate Pentecost and Aldersgate together – because it was through the experience of the Spirit that Peter and the disciples, and John and Charles Wesley were all met by God and enabled in their weakness. They still wrestled with doubts, “fears within and without”, they still suffered and struggled but at the centre of their lives was not just the love of God but also words; words of life, grace, encouragement and hope.
Wesley’s words should not just be static proclamations from the past but words which we return to again and again because they speak to us today. A fortnight ago I visited St Mark’s, an Anglican/Methodist primary school. They use the famous “do all the good you can” quote (although I know there are questions about whether Wesley wrote this or not!)
The school has adapted the quote into a prayer “Lord, help me to do all the good I can, in all the ways I can”. This for me was an encouraging sign of words being used creatively in the school environment in a way which was very accessible and understandable for the children, yet linked to the Methodist ethos they were trying to foster.
What about us? One of my favourite verses from the New Testament is from James chapter 3. “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”
Whether written or spoken, printed or typed, words are a great gift but we still need to consider how we use them. On Aldersgate Sunday, we give thanks for the words of John and Charles Wesley, which still resonate today, and at Pentecost, we celebrate the words which united people from different cultures and backgrounds who all heard about the resurrected Jesus.
Prayer: Loving God, may our words, however we express them, point to you. Warm our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we may speak of your love, write of your hope and share your grace, through Jesus Christ our risen and ascended Lord. Amen