Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nazarene Heritage Week 2: Wesley and Bresee (All Saints Day)

Today is All Saints Day - a day to remember people who have followed Jesus especially well. Nazarenes donʼt usually celebrate All Saints Day, but weʼre missing out.
All Saints Day is an important part of Christian tradition, and it was actually John Wesleyʼs favorite day of the church year. All Saints Day is a great opportunity for us to remember the “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Listen to how John the Revelator describes this great crowd in his vision of
heaven in Revelation 7:9-17.
 9 After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 And they were shouting with a mighty shout,“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”
 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living beings. And they fell before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God. 12 They sang,
   “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor
   and power and strength belong to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
[3] 13 Then one of the twenty-four elders asked me, “Who are these who are clothed in white? Where did they come from?”
 14 And I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.”
   Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.
 15 “That is why they stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his Temple.   And he who sits on the throne will give them shelter.
 16 They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun.
 17 For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd.  He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

There will come a time, when we will stand with the saints from every tribe and language and culture and time - all those who have ever trusted in the Jesus as the Lamb of God. Together we will sing praises to God. We will be one people, healed together by his love.

All Saints Day is a day to practice this corporate worship and unity now - here on earth. We stand today with the saints of Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas. We stand today with the saints of the first humans, the first Israelites, the first Christians, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Industrial Age, our own time, and all times yet to come. Together, we are Godʼs people. Together, we worship him. Together, we learn what it means to follow him.

Today, as part of our study of our Nazarene Heritage, we are focusing on the two most important saints in our history: John Wesley and Phineas Bresee. As we talk about these two leaders and how God used them, my prayer is that we will catch some of their passion and let God use us in similar ways.
Letʼs look first at John Wesley. There was an old Methodist tour guide giving a tour of London, and he took the group to several sites in London that had been significant in Wesleyʼs life. After the third stop, one person in the group said, “Excuse me, but who is John Wesley?!” The old Methodist guide gasped, “What, man!? Have you never read your Bible?!”
We laugh, but if I want to say something really controversial, I try to find a Wesley quote to back it up. Some people will argue with my interpretation of the Bible, but they wonʼt argue with Wesley.
John Wesley has changed Christianity more than any one else in the past 300 years. He was born the son of a pastor in England in 1703, and he lived 87 years. Wesley studied and taught at Oxford University. We was ordained in the Church of England. There were three major turning points in his life.

First, when he went to Oxford, he joined a group called, “The Holy Club,” a group of young men who were committed to following Jesus in every aspect of their lives. They prayed together, read the Bible together, and served the poor together. Wesley developed a deep passion for holiness, and this practice of discipleship through community would be a permanent part of Wesleyʼs life and ministry.

Wesleyʼs second life changing event is famously called his “Aldersgate experience.” Wesley explained it in his journal. During an outdoor worship service, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my 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.”2 From this point forward, Wesley would always insist that we must personally experience God in the depths of our beings.

Wesleyʼs third life changing experience was when his friend George Whitfield asked for a favor. Whitfield had been preaching to coal miners in Bristol, and a crowd of 20,000 people began to gather. Whitfield needed help not only with the preaching but also with organizing the ministry. Wesley was so committed to order and propriety that it was hard for him to preach in the open-air. He said, “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

But he got over his fears, started preaching primarily to the poor, and started organizing them into small groups. These two emphases would also stay with him his whole life - preaching the the poor and organizing small groups. In fact, Wesley worked out such a well planned method of life and church that other people gave his movement their name: The Methodists. The Methodists became a large subgroup within the Church of England, and later one of the largest Christian denominations in the world.

As Iʼve looked back on Wesleyʼs life and ministry this week, Iʼve been overwhelmed by his many writings and contributions. Out of all of this, Iʼve asked: What is most important for us to learn? I think Wesleyʼs most important message for us today is: Pursue full salvation.

Full salvation was one of Wesleyʼs key preaching points. Donʼt settle for religion. Donʼt settle for church attendance or half-way Christianity. Go all out for God. Wesley loved to preach on Jesusʼ Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes at the beginning. Letʼs read those now in Matthew 5.
 1 One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2 and he began to teach them.
    3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
    4 God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
    5 God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
    6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
    7 God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
    8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
    9 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
   10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
 11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

   One thing we notice about this text is that it is holistic. It covers everything - every part of life - economics, attitudes, behavior, desire, suffering, happiness, peace, and spirituality. Jesusʼ plan of salvation involves every part of life. Wesley agreed and tried to model this in his teaching and ministry. For Wesley the key question of the gospel was, “Is it actually changing you?” One historian said, “Wesley must be forever taking the lid off, to see [if] his Gospel is working!”  Actual life change - people actually being captured by Godʼs love and being changed to become more loving - this was Wesleyʼs driving passion.

Wesley famously said, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” In other words, our life with God must always be worked out in our day-to-day life with people. Wesley taught people to live holistically. He was always translating and publishing classic Christian works, guides for practical medicine, and general education guides. Methodists served others in schools, churches, slums, prisons, hospitals, factories, and homes. For Wesley, if Christianity is real, it is real in every part of our lives. Nothing is left out. We commit all we are to God and ask God to change us through and through.

Wesley has kind of a reputation for being overly serious, but I think this comes from reading his words centuries later without knowing him in person. Those who traveled the roads of England with him reported on “his cheerfulness, courtesy, kindness, and wit.” Knox, who met Wesley in his older years, said, “The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his [face].” Wesley himself often said, “Sour godliness is the devil's religion.” Wesley was seriously committed to God, but it was a commitment soaked thoroughly in joy.

Wesleyʼs great challenge to us is, “Is it working? Is the gospel working in your life? Are you being changed more and more to become more humble, more pure, more hungry for justice, more merciful, more peaceful, more joyful, and more able to follow God despite resistance? God wants to save us fully and thoroughly. Pursue God with a whole heart until God has your whole heart.

Next, weʼre going to look at Phineas F. Bresee, whom some called “the John Wesley of America.” Bresee was born on a small farm in New York in 1838. His family moved to Iowa when he was a teenager. While still a teenager, he began his life as a Methodist pastor - actually serving in Sarahʼs hometown of Marengo. In Iowa, he became somewhat of a radical - preaching strongly against slavery. He and his family moved to California in 1883, and he served with the Methodist Church there for 11 years.
In 1894, after pastoring the largest Methodist churches in California, Bresee moved to Peniel Mission, a nondenominational ministry to the homeless in LA. The Methodist leaders of California cut ties with Bresee because of this move. But Bresee persisted because this fulfilled his longtime passion to serve the poor. In fact, one of Breseeʼs favorite preaching texts was Isaiah 61. Letʼs read it now.
 1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
      for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
      and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.
 2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
      and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
 3 To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
   a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.
   In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities destroyed long ago.
   They will revive them, though they have been deserted for many generations.
 5 Foreigners will be your servants.
      They will feed your flocks and plow your fields and tend your vineyards.
 6 You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God.
   You will feed on the treasures of the nations and boast in their riches.

  7 Instead of shame and dishonor, you will enjoy a double share of honor.
   You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.
 8 “For I, the Lord, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
   I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
      and make an everlasting covenant with them.
 9 Their descendants will be recognized and honored among the nations.
   Everyone will realize that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”
 10 I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
      For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
      and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
   I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit or a bride with her jewels.
 11 The Sovereign Lord will show his justice to the nations of the world. Everyone will praise him!
   His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring, with plants springing up everywhere.

 Bresee felt that he was called to bring good news to the poor. Unfortunately, Bresee and the other Peniel Mission leaders had a falling-out over strategy. Bresee wanted to make a fully functioning church for the poor and their families, but the other leaders wanted to focus only on homeless men. The Peniel Mission leaders fired Bresee by telegram while he was traveling.

Now Bresee was frozen out of the Methodist Church and cut loose from Peniel Mission. But he had confidence both in Godʼs calling and Godʼs provision. Together with other likeminded people, Bresee started a new church for the poor. They chose the name, “the Church of the Nazarene,” to demonstrate that this was a church of Jesus, the poor man from Nazareth, where everyone is welcome and equal.

This one local church blossomed and multiplied all over the west coast. Eventually, this regional group joined with groups in other regions of the USA to form a new denomination, which also bore the name Church of the Nazarene.

Bresee lived and breathed in the spirit of Isaiah 61. He felt that Godʼs Spirit was on him specifically to preach to the poor, and he preached the message of Isaiah 61: freedom from captivity, restoration for the broken, forgiveness and joy instead of despair.

Bresee and the early Nazarenes worked for the restoration and healing of their world. They built hospitals and schools and orphanages. They built rescue homes for prostitutes. They welcomed alcoholics and the homeless. They built simple, plain buildings so that all would feel welcome and so that more could be helped. In everything, they sought to live out Godʼs love with simplicity and service to others.

Yet Bresee knew that the greatest social ill was not poverty but sin. The worldʼs biggest problem is our rebellion against God and our half-hearted commitment to Jesus, so a pervasive passion for holiness and righteousness captured Breseeʼs heart. More than anything else, he called people to give their whole hearts and lives to the God who has given his whole self to them.

You might think that this kind of passion and drive would make Bresee a serious and dull man, but his friends and biographers report otherwise. He had a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh and to tell jokes. He had a way of laughing that would start with nodding his head in a quiet smile, then move to a chuckle, and then finish in an all-out belly laugh.
 In the spirit of a good joke, I thought Iʼd share this image of Bresee that I found at a website called Holy Hijinx. I think Iʼm going to get one of those! If Bresee can do it, so can I!
Seriously, though, one of Breseeʼs biographers called him The Man of the Morning, because it was always morning for him -- the best was always just beginning to arrive.6 He lived Isaiahʼs words, “I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord” (61:10).

If Bresee could speak to us today, I think he would say, “Donʼt worry about power. Turn away from prestige. Seek God with all your heart and love people with all you are. Go down - not up. Serve the poor - not the rich. Thatʼs what Jesus did, and thatʼs where youʼll find true holiness and true joy. Let Godʼs love overwhelm your soul, and you will be overwhelmed with joy as you see righteousness springing up everywhere like a garden in springtime.”

 Wesley and Bresee stand as the great pillars of our tradition, building on the foundation of Christ, pointing us in the ways of Christ. They call us to whole-hearted commitment to God. They call us to follow Christ completely in every single area of our lives. They call us to love our brothers and sisters, especially the poor who need our love most. And they both, by example and by word, call us to live in Godʼs joy - hopeful for what God has planned for us. Wesley and Bresee shout over the centuries: “Trust God. Love without limit. Live joyfully. For God is good, and God is faithful, and God is restoring our world.”

May the same Spirit who filled them also fill us. May the same Spirit who empowered them also empower us. May the same Spirit who led them also lead us.
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