Reveille United Methodist Church
Ascension Sunday/Aldersgate Day – May 24, 2020
I remember that it was one Saturday last November. Specifically, it was the day of the University of Virginia/Virginia Tech football game, which I listened to on AM radio while it happened. The irony was that I remember thinking, no saying aloud that it was going to be easy, that despite having no experience whatsoever, I knew what I was doing, and everything was going to turn out fine.
I rehearsed these assurances in my mind so that they might sound plausible when I shared them with my wife, who I knew in this little one-act play would inhabit the role of the skeptic, and as I expected, she did not disappoint. She knew better than to believe me; she had simply seen too much evidence and had been disappointed far too many times.
“This time will be different,” I pleaded when her response turned out to be exactly what I had expected, “I know what I am doing. I have taught myself. I watched a video on YouTube.”
“Doug,” she replied, “You do not know how to do masonry. This will be expensive and besides, it will never work.”
I am getting ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.
Ever since before we purchased our house six years ago, some of the bricks on the front porch steps have been loose, and this has only gotten worse with use. When they finally became dangerous, I did a little research, I watched a short video, and convinced myself I knew what to do. In my defense, if it turned out that I could pull off this task, I stood to save myself hundreds of dollars. “Doesn’t it make sense to at least try to do it myself before we hire someone else? Isn’t this just good financial stewardship,” I asked.
It turned out that, no, in my wife’s estimation, it definitely did not make sense for me to attempt this. It was poor stewardship, and a waste of money. I was in no way authorized to attempt this project.
However, because I have my own car, my own checking account, and let’s face it, because I am bigger than my wife, there was no stopping me. I was soon at the hardware store purchasing a bucket, mortar, and a trowel.
Almost immediately, things went off the rails. Three or four loose bricks turned into ten or twelve that came loose. There was a foot-deep hole beneath the steps, and my solution to every problem was simply to use more, and more, and more mortar. By the end of the football game, I had probably doubled the weight of my house with the stuff. No longer would the bricks wiggle and wobble, but mercy, was it ugly. I covered the whole war zone with a large blue tarp and convinced Tracy it was going to need to stay covered for a few days, for the video had said so, but the fact of the matter was that I was simply trying to buy time before I had to face the disaster I had created.
When we finally hired a professional to fix my alleged money-saving handiwork, I came home to encounter him finishing the job with his teenage son. When I exited my car, he saw me and began to act as though I were a celebrity or at least, a long-awaited friend. He excitedly told me how he had taken pictures of my work before saying, and I quote, “In 41.6 years of doing this work, that was the worst job I have ever seen. Tell me, how long did you wait before you showed it to your wife?” He even introduced me to his son in a way that intimated that years from now, they would reflect upon the day they met the man who was The Worst.
You know that unmistakable smell that all hardware stores seem to have? Do you know what it is? For me, it is the scent of failure. I move out of my house in eighteen days, and that means that is exactly how long the TV I mounted has to manage to not fall off the wall.
For the last two months or so, we have all been living through our own worst disaster, our own immense terrible situation over which we wish we could throw a blue tarp to hide it, or at least hire someone to fix it, to save us from a situation for which there seems to be no good way out. In mid-March, my social media feed was filled with people joking about toilet paper, working in their pajamas, and watching far too much Netflix. Yet now, it is late May, the mortar has hardened into an obscene fresco, and what is coming into stark relief is the fact that none of us, not one, will rectify this situation on our own. This is not the worst disaster of its kind in 41.6 years, it is the worst disaster of its kind in over a century, and no one but God knows how this catastrophe ends.
When Jesus spoke the verses I read a few moments ago, we was speaking part of what is known today as his Farewell Discourse, words of Jesus found only in the Gospel of John. He gathers the disciples together for a meal, he calls them his friends, he prays for them, he describes heaven, he attempts to prepare them for what is to come, and then Jesus and his disciples depart into the night and cross the Kidron Valley before Jesus is arrested so that he might be tried, tortured, crucified, and buried.
On Friday of this past week, I read another portion of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, the part where he describes heaven as a mansion with many rooms, at a graveside at Forest Lawn Cemetery on Northside at the service of death and resurrection for Shirley Merchant Ennis, a charter member of our church. That experience combined with the experience of studying and meditating upon today’s Farewell Discourse text this past week has invariably put my mind in the place of Jesus’ disciples as they heard him speak these words on this night so long ago.
The authors of the Gospels make it clear throughout their respective narratives that the disciples never truly understood that Jesus must actually suffer and die. I am told that today, in the hours before execution, condemned prisoners never believe it is really going to happen to them; something will happen, or someone will call it off. Likewise, I find it entirely plausible that while sitting with Jesus on that Thursday night, the disciples must have somehow believed that it simply could not happen. Jesus could not die. It was simply unthinkable, for if they came for Jesus, what would they do to those closest to him? What would they do to me? Surely Jesus will avoid such a fate. Surely, he will not fail in what they believed was the single greatest endeavor he had come to do: overthrow Rome and restore the kingdom as God intended.
Surely, there is another way. The mission of Jesus of Nazareth cannot end in brokenness, in suffering, in calamity, in disaster, can it? If our God can be crucified, then perhaps there is an evil loose in the universe that is more powerful than God, an unfathomable thought.
In Methodist Circles, today, May 24, is what we call Aldersgate Day. It remembers the day when the founder of the Methodist renewal movement, an Anglican priest named John Wesley had an encounter with God that changed his life and altered the trajectory of the world, particularly in the Western hemisphere.
John Wesley was born a parsonage child in the summer, of 1703 the fifteenth child of Susannah and Samuel Wesley. His father was a less-than-popular priest in the Church of England, serving at that time as a rector in the town of Epworth. John, along with his brother Charles would, like their father, pursue ordination in the Anglican Church.
When John was thirty-two, he was approached by James Oglethorpe, the founder of the Georgia Colony to be the priest of the newly-formed Savannah parish, and Wesley agreed, believing that his soon-to-be parishioners would be eager to practice Wesley’s strict spiritual disciplines and high church ways, as well as believing that he could have great success evangelizing Native Americans, who he believed would be eager to embrace the Christian faith.
He was very wrong on both counts. In addition to this, he fell in love with a young woman named Sophia Hopkey while desiring to spend all of his time attempting to convert indigenous people and practicing clerical celibacy. When she married another, he excommunicated her (protip: don’t do this), which led her to sue him for defamation, which led to him fleeing back to England.
Wesley indicates in his journal that he had arrived in Georgia questioning the depth and authenticity of his faith, and he returned to England depressed, broken, and beaten. Everything had fallen apart. In desperation, he reached out to a group of German Christians called the Moravians, who invited him to a Bible study on May 24, 1738 in a room on Aldersgate Street in London. In his journal, he writes this reflection of that day: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, 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.”
I love that story for a number of reasons. First, on the night that changed his life forever, John Wesley did not even want to be there, and on that night that would change not only his life, but permanently change the life of the Christian cause on earth, everything, everything was falling apart. On that evening of May 24, John Wesley was surrounded by doubt; doubt of himself and even doubt of God’s call upon his life. He was surrounded by doubt, failure, brokenness, and death.
And of course, right on time, this is when God arrives on the scene.
In this morning’s text, right there in the middle, in the second paragraph, Jesus prays to God “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
A cursory glance at those verses could easily lead one to believe that they are all about faith, all about belief the Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, just like the rest of the Gospel of John. And yet, it all hangs upon what Jesus says right at the end: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine.” Without these words, I cannot conceive how Jesus could have risen from that table and led those beloved friends with him out into the night and submit to the powers of this world so that they could try and crucify him. Without those words, I cannot conceive how Jesus could send his disciples, send us out into the world to do ministry in his name. Without those words, I cannot conceive how we could ever live with ourselves, with our failures, with our brokenness, with our sin, with all the ways in which we fall short of the glory of God.
And yet in this text, Christ makes it clear that he claims us, as we are, all of our sins and all of our failures, and all of our brokenness, and all of our depression. In this morning’s text, Jesus even prays to God of how, in the life and witness of these most imperfect disciples, his life has been glorified.
Because Christ claims us, because we belong to him, he claims all of our disasters. In fact, it is in the midst of those disasters that some of God’s best work always seems to be done. Too often, it seems to me that we look at times of loss, fear, failure, and brokenness as proof-positive of the absence of God, or barring that, as proof that God is malevolent, seeking to only increase our suffering, to magnify the consequences of all the times when we get it wrong.
But that is not the God revealed in this morning’s text, because it is not the God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God claims us “as is,” assumes all of our debt, bears all of our burdens, and takes us as God finds us. No longer is it all about who you are and what you do and what you can earn and what you can become and what value you can add to your worth. You belong to God as you are, as does the church, and as does this world. The catch is, the world is not yet fully aware of this fact, which is why the world needs the church.
When everything is at the bottom, when everything is falling apart, God has this way of showing up, of sending the right people to cross our paths. So in the midst of all of our present fear, brokenness, and heartbreak, stay alert, keep your eyes open, God is afoot, and these are the times when the miracles occur, miracles large and small, brought by the one who claims us, all of us “as-is.”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.