A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 11th August 2019
During this service a child called Daisy was baptised.
Last Sunday I met someone who had grown up in the Moravian tradition of Protestant Christianity. For those of you who haven’t heard of Moravians before they are one of the traditions of Christianity that sprung up after the Reformation, with their roots – you won’t be surprised to hear – in Moravia, in the modern-day Czech Republic.
It’s not the first time I’d come across Moravians. When I was training at theological college, a group of us took part in a mission in the suburbs of Bradford, with a group of churches, including a Moravian one. The Moravians have had a presence in the UK since the Reformation and today, by virtue of an ecumenical agreement with the Church of England, a representative of their church sits on the General Synod.
But we in the Church of England owe far more to the Moravian tradition than we probably realise, because of the influence the Moravians had on one of our greatest holy men, the priest and preacher John Wesley, who became the founder of Methodism. Sadly, Wesley’s influence was not appreciated by the very formal, spiritually-weak Church of England of the early eighteenth century. Only now, as the Church of England and the Methodist Church are approaching reunification, is the hard we caused of division being undone.
In 1738 John Wesley, a devout High Church Anglican priest, met a Moravian pastor called Peter Böhler, and Wesley was impressed by their simple faith and communal lifestyle. Wesley, a serious-minded Christian, was looking for something beyond the rather depressed spirituality of the 18th century Church of England. Wesley at the time, not unlike many people today who take their faith seriously, saw it as a matter of duty and effort, to try and be a Christian with all his own power. Only in such a way, Wesley thought, could he be accepted of God. Böhler, though, shared a different insight with Wesley. He taught the idea that living the Christian faith was not chiefly about effort and duty, but what he called “relying on the finished work of Christ.” Faith was, for him, “a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven and he reconciled to the favour of God.” In other words, faith was trust that, in Christ, everything needed to find favour with God has been completed, and cannot be made more real by any effort or duty on the part of humanity to please God. Böhler wrote amused to one of his fellow-Moravians at home that the English found it so hard to imagine that faith was so simple, that they found it so hard to imagine that effort and duty had no place in finding themselves loved and accepted by God.
A few months later, in May 1738, Wesley attended a famous meeting in Aldersgate Street, where under Böhler’s influence, Wesley experienced a life-changing encounter with God. Writing of it, he said this, “‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ and 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.’ From this moment on, the course of Wesley’s life changed, and he began to emphasise the extraordinary extent of the love of God, which through faith in Jesus Christ, brings us peace with God, freedom from sin, guilt and a duty-bound faith. From this moment, the so-called Evangelical Revival began in the Church of England. Christian life, for Wesley, and for many Anglicans down the centuries since his heart was strangely warmed, has been about responding to the love of God, which brings us forgiveness in Jesus Christ and sets us from a life where faith is about duty and effort to find peace with God. It is, as Wesley and Böhler both realised, the gift of God.
With that story in mind, listen to these words of Paul in Ephesians today, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” In this passage Paul prays that the Ephesians might be strengthen in their inner being throughout life’s journey and that we might come to know the extent of God’s love for us, and the immensity of the grace he as realised in us through Christ. He prays that, through life, the Ephesians might be made complete in Christ’s love.
After four weeks of theology in Ephesians, here is a different tone. True, the theology of the first two and a half chapters is in the background. Paul begins his reading, “For this reason, I bow my knee before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name.” Paul has spent his time talking about the way in which, through Jesus Christ, a new way of being human has been created, a new family if you like, which we call the church. Instead of the earlier way in which the world was divided into two – Jews and non-Jews (or Gentiles), now in Christ, this division (and all divisions) are set aside in the new community of Christ’s love.
We’ve already explored some of the implications of this for our life together. Two weeks ago I reflected on the place of unity and reconciliation in the life of the church. Last week, if you were here you will remember the hard-hats and the life-jackets, I talked about the way in which God wants to reconcile the whole world to himself, through having a church in the world. The church is, according to Paul, the way in which the world will be reconciled to God and to itself.
But now, in this passage, Paul aims not to offer some theology but instead to lead us to doxology. In other words, he’s moving from doctrine to praise and worship. He’s moving from encouraging us to think about God, to encouraging us to love God, and more than that, to know the love of God, in all its glorious and universal scope. The apostle’s prayer for spiritual maturity, involves our knowing, in the sense of understanding and experiencing, God’s amazing grace, a love that transcends all knowledge. The means by which we build this spiritual maturity is faith, faith in the renewing work of Christ. What Wesley learned that evening in Aldersgate Street, and which motivated the renewal of the Church of England in the 18th Century, is that a focus on the love of God in Christ is at the heart of our worship and at the heart of what it means to be a Christian person.
So, the question for us in reading and responding to this passage is the one Böhler challenged Wesley with: do we know ourselves to be loved by God? Is our faith one of duty, habit, tradition, cultural memory? Or is it grounded in the “breadth, length, height and depth”? Is being a Christian all about your effort to be as good a person as possible, about moral values, to be passed on to our children, to guide us in our living, which are all wonderful things? Or is it about learning to love God, and to fall in love with the one whose love took him to the Cross, that we, to quote Paul, might “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, so that you might be filled with all the fulness of God?” What Paul knows, what Wesley learned as his heart warmed to his God and Saviour, and what many of us have come to know in our lives, is that the secret to living a good, moral life, and the secret of passing that on to Daisy and all our children, is to know ourselves to be loved by God, loved beyond all our understanding, beyond all our deserving of it, and to be freed from the burden of trying to prove ourselves to God, to others, and even to ourselves. If you don’t know that sort of love, then pray Paul’s prayer for yourself in the coming days, and be open to knowing yourself loved by God. For those of you here for Daisy today, too, especially her parents and godparents, the vows and promises you are about to take are about your wills and your hearts. As you commit to her in this service, you are asked to commit your hearts to this God who loves us with such a broad, deep, long, and high love that neither she, you or any of us can properly understand its immensity. In whatever way you will show her what it means to live a good and Christian life, remember most of all that you can teach her to know the love of God. Teach her that, friends, not because its something that’s right to do, but because you know that love yourself. The best teachers are the ones who pass on what they know not just by their words but by their actions. Be a sign and a word of God’s love for her.
It is worth pointing out one final thing about this passage, which Wesley and Böhler perhaps overlooked, but which must be mentioned to be true to Scripture. Paul isn’t addressing individuals in this passage, but the church. When he prays “that you may be strengthened…that you may have the power to comprehend…that you may be filled with the fulness of God” it’s in the plural. This is a prayer that the church will be full of divine love. Paul has been at pains to stress the role of the church in God’s reconciling of the world to himself, and the reconciliation of divided peoples to one another. Now he prays that the church will know the love that makes this all happen. If we want to be a people of reconciliation in our community and in our world, we will do so not because we have this beautiful building, a lovely welcoming inclusive congregation, a great mission plan for outreach and all the rest, but because we are known as and seen as people who know and share God’s love.
Let it be our prayer that, together, we might know that love and be known by it. Let us pray that, like Paul, our life would glorify God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
May that be our prayer. May that be coming true in this church.