Today is Heritage Sunday, a time we set aside to call the church to remember the past, by committing itself to God's continuing call to ministry.

Today commemorates both John Wesley's "heart-warming experience" at the church on Aldersgate Street in London in 1738, and the 1968 union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form what is now known as the United Methodist Church.

To help us celebrate Heritage Sunday, and to keep us grounded in the truth of scripture, we turn to our epistle reading from 1 Peter. In our reading the apostle Peter portrays the church as a living, spiritual house, with Christ as the foundation and cornerstone, and each believer as a stone.

You'll remember that the apostle Paul uses the image of the body to portray the church, with Christ as the head and each believer as a member. Well in both cases these two men are conveying the same message, a message of community, realizing one stone is not a temple or even a wall; likewise one body part is useless without the others.

In our society where individualism is overly emphasized it can be easy for us to forget our need for other Christians, and our interdependence with other Christians.

We forget that when God calls us to a task he's not only calling us as individuals, he's calling others to work with us, so that our individual efforts might be multiplied for the good of the Kingdom.

This analogy applies to us as individuals, as individual local churches in our community, as well as the different Christian denominations throughout the world.

As Christ's church we come from a long history, going all the way back to creation. From a faith perspective our history has Jewish roots, Roman Catholic roots, and as United Methodists our history includes Anglican or Church of England roots.

Our community has Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed and United Methodist roots. And when I think of our church specifically, we too come from many different roots. From a faith perspective I know we're very diverse.

How many here have as their faith roots only the Methodist Church? What are some other faith traditions represented here today, traditions you grew up in or were exposed to?

Well today I want to explore our Methodist faith tradition a little bit, so that we see how we fit into the much larger universal Church.

So how did United Methodism come about? Well first let me begin by saying, much like the other major church reformers, for example Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, John Wesley (the man considered the founder of "Methodism") was not interested in creating a new denomination, he sought to reform the Anglican Church (which is called the Episcopal church here in the United States).

Wesley was a very practical Anglican priest, and although he loved the Anglican Church was fed up with the church because it wasn't addressing the needs of those in their community. In other words the church was inward focused.

Wesley's position was the church must speak to the needs of society, spiritual and social, and offer real solutions to those needs, not just be bystanders peering out the windows of the church. The Anglican Church was beginning to suffer because it's "stones", the believers were crumbling and were beginning to fall away.

So Wesley offered a way for people to grow in faith by creating what we now call Bible Study's, small groups, etc. so that people could hear the word of God read, taught, and preached, in a way that led to a changing of the heart. However, Wesley never baptized or served communion at these meetings. Wesley still insisted that the people attend their community churches and receive the sacraments there.

Again, Wesley loved the church, he was just trying to reform it, by sharing the gospel to the congregants in a way they could understand it and relate to it. Many of the small group and Bible Study models used today are a result of Wesley's success with them in the 1700's. Same is true of the old camp meetings. It was the early Methodist's that began using these meetings as a means to reach others for Christ.

Wesley's message was simple and yet at the same time profound. He basically preached and taught that God's grace is given to all people and we have the opportunity to apply it to our lives completely. He emphasized the need for spiritual discipline, and he had a "method" for helping people with their spiritual discipline, hence the word Methodist.

One of the famous quotes attributed to Wesley is, "The World is my Parish." Methodists today tend to use this as a mantra for mission work. But when Wesley originally said this he was speaking about breaking down the limitations of parish boundaries in England, arguing for innovative ministries to meet local needs wherever one might be.

I lift this up today because I see this as our role in Emmitsburg. Our vision is to advance the Kingdom of God in Emmitsburg, and sometimes this requires knocking down the barriers or obstacles that prevent us from realizing this vision.

Over the past couple of years Trinity has modeled what it means to serve and reach outward, and the community is beginning to take notice, and folks are responding. This is great and I hope and pray we will continue to make a difference in our community. Now I don't mention this so we can beat our chests to say hey look at us, but to remind us that we have a role to play and right now that role is to lead, and we need to continue to lead by example, with God as our guide.

Also, understand what we do here in this place, and from this place, is not an effort to make better Methodists. Through our efforts we're trying to be better Christians and to help others become better Christians, using the Methodist context as a way to live out our faith.

Our primary identity, is our identity as Christians, make no mistake about it. It's in this basic identity, which we share with other Christians, that's far more important than what is distinctively Methodist. Our first loyalty, as was John Wesley's first loyalty, is to our Savior, and our first identity as a church is that we are indeed part of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."

But with this said, United Methodists have a rich history, a history that by the grace of God has changed the lives of millions of people throughout the world. It's a history that ought to be celebrated, remembered, and built upon today.

What began over 200 years ago with a handful of people in Oxford England is a movement that has over 39 million members worldwide, churches on every continent, 35,000 churches in the United States alone, and continues to grow at a rate of 1 million members per year, primarily overseas right now.

Personally, I'm very proud to be called United Methodist, so much so I probably bleed United Methodist red. Sure we have our issues, we've had our dark days, but the spirit of Methodism is firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and if it remains so it will continue to thrive as a vital faith tradition. As I consider what makes our Methodist Heritage so special, I have to say it's the teachings of John Wesley. Now as most of you know by now I hold John Wesley in high regard as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and that's because I can easily relate to Wesley, I can appreciate clearly his understanding of scripture, and I admire his faithful witness to humanity for Jesus sake.

Wesley's focus on grace, his insistence on practicing the spiritual disciplines, his emphasis on conversion, and his stress on addressing social issues, makes Methodism a gift to the Christian Church.

"Phillips Brooks tells of his first days in a divinity school. He had come from a college where the students studied hard but said nothing about faith. His first experience with a prayer meeting came at the seminary, and he was impressed with the devoutness of the participants.

However, the next day in Greek class he noted that some of the most devout students were unprepared in their lessons. Brooks commented that the "boiler had no connection with the engine." In the Wesleyan Revival, there was always a vital connection between the boiler and engine, meaning a connection between spirit and mind, between message and action, and I now suggest we can say the connection between past and present.

When I look around at our community I wonder if there's a loss of spiritual power today because we've cut ourselves off from the source of power, because we've forgotten that we are the "stones" not the church itself. Perhaps we descendants of John Wesley cut ourselves off from the message that energized the Wesleyan Revival.

We talk about Wesley's warmed heart, but sometimes forget the fire that warmed it. In encouraging people to warmth, we need to remember that a person can't generate his or her own heat. We must speak words aflame with the love of God in Christ, words which can kindle a fire.

Albert Outler has spent a lifetime seeking to recover this Wesleyan message, not only for the Methodist church but also for the ecumenical world. From his study, Outler finds a total view of the Christian life that is comprehensive and realistic.

  • It's a view of God above all, and that all else comes from God;
  • It's a view of a human flaw, called sin, that runs deeper than any human cure for it;
  • It's a view of Christ's suffering love as the Father's redemptive love, restoring our lost humanity;
  • And it's a view of the Holy Spirit as God's inspiring presence.

You know the hungers of the human heart are no different now then they were over 200 years ago, the context may be different but the needs are the same. The human heart cries out for truth, it cries out for a powerful gospel. The church longs for a theology which is truly universal, truly evangelical and truly reformed.

Outler goes on to say that he keeps looking toward a day when Wesley's embracing vision of God's grace, bringing human nature to its full potential, may find a rightful place in the kind of Christianity that will survive the crises that lie ahead."

Today, in a world where many are falling under the pressures of sin, the demands from society, and the fast-paced what-can-you-do-for-me-now attitudes, the church needs to convey a more pastoral theology that understands and cares for Christ's people, a working theology that's anchored in truth, a Word that swings the gate of freedom wide open to liberate people to experience the only freedom that will make them truly free, that is freedom in Christ. Well I believe we have that message, it's a part of our heritage, it's Wesley's message of grace and love.

Even Wesley's death was a witness to his faith and message, which nourished and sustained him and the Wesleyan Revival. He spoke often of holy living and holy dying. And his death in 1791 at the age of eighty-seven was a holy experience.

Lying on his deathbed in a small room in the house on City Road, London, he astonished those present by breaking into the Isaac Watts hymn: I'll praise my maker while I've breath; And when my voice is lost in death, Praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne'er be past, While life, and thought, and being last, Or immortality endures.

Wesley lived into the following day, summoning his little remaining strength for these final words: "The best of all is, God is with us." And he died, quietly, the following morning."

As United Methodist's we have a special heritage, a heritage to be acted on, a heritage to be celebrated, and a heritage to stay connected to. Perhaps we're on the verge of another Wesleyan Revival right here in Emmitsburg. Wouldn't that be fun to be part of.

And now as we live out our faith as Methodists, may we always remain connected to our heritage, may John Wesley's message never die, and may we never forget "the best of all is, God is with us."


Read other messages by Pastor Wade