Salvation by Faith

Rev Neil Whitehouse-croppedSalvation by Faith

Sermon at Westmount Park United Church Saturday 18 August 2015

Ephesians 2:4-10, Luke 12:22-31
‘By grace are yea saved through faith’  Eph. 2:8

“All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; His free, undeserved favour; favour altogether underserved; man having no claim to the least of His mercies. It was free grace that ‘formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul,’and stamped on that soul the image of God,and ‘put all things under his feet. The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things…..”

So preached fellow of Oxford University, Rev. John Wesley, June 11, 1738, in a sermon titled Salvation by Faith, before the University.  He was 35 years old, preaching two weeks after a key conversion experience and soon he was to found a movement; that became a Church, that is why, at least in part, you & I are here today.

Today and for the next two services I have chosen to call on the sermons of John Wesley.   To acquaint you with the riches of our inheritance and to give this inheritance a contemporary twist, as I literally stand in this tradition  having preached in Wesley’s London chapel pulpit, creaky floorboards & all.

In his sermon Salvation by Faith Wesley refutes the notion that good works were essential to gaining salvation.  Typically Wesley has three points:

What is this faith? 

He states what this faith is not: it is not the faith of the heathen albeit a God respecting faith, nor the devil (who names and acknowledges Christ in the gospels), nor even faith of the Apostles before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: it is faith in Christ, not a cold thing but a disposition of the heart, ‘that God hath raised him from the dead’.

What is salvation

From what are we saved by faith: it is salvation from sin and the consequences of it, a deliverance from guilt and punishment, and a deliverance from the power of sin, ‘through Christ formed in his heart’. Now some of the objections are that this (by being so easy) encourages people to despise holiness and good deeds, that it leads to pride, that it encourages sin and even leads to despair.   Wesley asserts objectors are just uncomfortable with the notion that good works are finally not so important, in fact the faith he preaches leads to good works and that it is ‘seasonable’ (relevant) as an antidote to Poperywhere faith is defined AND restricted to the Roman church.

To give you a further sense of what Wesley’s impact was like, listen to an account of his arrival in Newcastle two years later, which is the very city where I was ordained by his Methodist Church 252 after that.

‘It is Sunday morning, May 30, 1742.  the northern port city of Newcastle is hardly awake. Two strangers from London walk quietly down Sandgate Street –the poorest and most contemptible part of the town-. ‘The two men stop and begin to sing a psalm, a few curious people gather, and the shorter man, slightly built in his late thirties, starts  preaching. The knot of listeners grows to a crowd of several hundred, then over a thousand.  When the preacher stops the crowd gapes in astonishment.  So the preacher announces. ‘If you desire to know who I am my name is John Wesley.  At five in the evening, with God’s help, I design to preach here again. That night Wesley finds a crowd of some 20,000 waiting.’ (from Wesley’s Journal)

Extraordinary, but not everyone was so pleased: it is easy to miss how controversial and disturbing John Wesley was to those of his own Anglican Church.   This is an account of his third and last sermon before Oxford University.

‘When he mounted the pulpit, I fixed my eyes on him and his behaviour.  He is neither tall nor fat; his black hair quite smooth and parted very exactly added to a peculiar composure in his countenance, showed him to be an uncommon man. He expressed himself like a very good scholar, but a rigid zealot; he fired his address with so much zeal and unbounded satire as quite spoiled what otherwise might have been turned to great advantage; I liked some of his freedom, such as calling the generality of young gownsmen “a generation of triflers”.  But , considering how many shining lights arehere that are the glory of the Christian cause, his sacred censure was much too flaming and strong, and his charity much too weak in not making large allowances.  But so far from allowances, that, after having summed up the measure of our iniquities, he concluded with a lifted–up eye in the most solemn form; “It is time for Thee, Lord, to lay Thine hand”.  This and the assertion that Oxford was not a Christian city and this country not a Christian nation, were the most offensive parts of the sermon.”  (B. Kennicott then 25 yrs old, future notable Hebrew scholar)

Not afraid to put people on edge, Wesley brings innovation from his own personal experience of renewal.  He looked for a renewed church from renewed people. I would dare to imagine the same for us today – despite so much change.

Let me suggest a very different Salvation by Faith The faith I suggest is a Faith in Nature. The salvation this brings is a salvation from our self-destruction. Faith in Nature is to include human nature with all living things and the material world, the solar system, the universe.   It is to offer up a new common creation story, one given by science. Faith in Nature is to re-vision our love for Christ, in Nature, to realise the world is God’s Body, that Christ is crucified in the abuse of nature, the genocides of indigenous peoples as well as other species.

Faith in Nature is to accept the glory of the Grace of God, for what have we done (ie not done) to receive this living world in which we live and breath, a re-location for what John Wesley preached:  The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things….. We can see and believe this Grace in the glory of creation, in the mystery of how one system rests upon another, the web of life, the myriad galaxies and solar systems.

But let me give voice to a wiser person, Sallie McFague published The Body of God, in 1993.   Her words remain fresh and pertinent as the Ecological crisis reaches the popular consciousness.

“If the earth is an aspect of God’s body, and if the paradigmatic story of Christianity is that the Word became flesh to liberate, heal and include all who are needy, then Christians have a mandate to love the earth. God, in the model of the Universe as God’s body, makes her home in the universe (and in our planet) and gives us, we believe, in the story of Jesus of Nazareth some clues as to how we should live in our home.  The most basic clue is to love it….it is not only our space, but our place, our beloved home.” Sallie McFague

And of course Faith in Nature we know goes back to Jesus of Nazareth himself, in his teachings that are the most profound and challenging of all, love your enemies.  Love your enemies, is the human participation in the vision of the lion lying down with the calf.  Jesus points to nature to call us to love our human enemies: God created rain that falls on good and bad alike.   He even tells a parable that deals with living with evil, the tares and wheat growing side by side are not to be disturbed lest uprooting the unwanted tares harms the valuable wheat.   This is a knowledge of the fabric of life, animal or vegetable, that we resist violence to make change happen.

An extraordinary command that comes out of human nature to have a sense of right and wrong, to have choices and responsibilities to act. What then is the nature of Salvation in this new perspective?   We are saved from ourselves: in a way this is still salvation from sin, from missing the mark, only now it is about living with integrity here today, respecting creation around us, valuinghuman life including the weakest and the least who are most at risk in any collapse of living systems and rapid climate change.

Faith in Nature offers a salvation from the judgement of living systems, of the human abuse and misuse of the planet. We can change, we see more clearly than ever, we can be part of a re-flourishing earth.

I finish noting the huge difference between Wesley’s day and today, to justify this re-vision of his message.  It seems impossible that a street corner preacher could raise a crowd of several hundred let alone 20,000 in one day; The view of the world has changed radically.

Sally McFague observes : ‘ The reason for looking to the common creation story coming to us from the sciences is simple; it is the view of reality current in our times. Theologies always have paid and always should pay serious attention to the picture of reality operative in their culture.  If they do not, theology becomes anachronistic and irrelevant.

Wesley is anachronistic today, he would be ignored or scoffed at on a street corner, but his inspiration lives: Nature is known by us all.

All can have Faith in Nature. All need to have faith in nature and all can know they have this faith. Therein, lies salvation for us all, as rain falls on good and bad alike. Therein God is found. Therein we may both love God and our neighbour and find that ‘by grace are ye saved through faith’.