[This is a post on one of John Wesley's Sermons as part of the Getting to Know John series. See the other posts here.]
Because the Lord's Supper is so central to Wesleyan and early Methodist spirituality, it's appropriate that posting on this sermon falls today, on Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus' last supper with his disciples and the beginning of the Christian church's sacrament of Holy Communion. If there is any day when we should practice a combination of all three of the means of grace Wesley focuses on in this sermon (prayer, searching the Scriptures, and receiving the Lord's Supper), we should do so today.
This is a great sermon, and it is key to understanding John Wesley and the meaning of Methodism. Practicing the means of grace (or, in his language, "attending upon all the ordinances of God") was one of the three General Rules that made up the lifestyle that the early Methodists agreed to live by. Doing what Wesley describes in this sermon, combined with commitments to do good for others and avoid doing any harm were what it meant to be a Methodist in Wesley's day (as well as participation in Methodist groups), and they still form a reliable framework for how we can shape our lives today.
I wish that the sermon described more of what grace meant for Wesley, but apparently its definition was known well enough by his audience that there was no need to include a description. The need is tremendous in our day, though, because its meaning has been reduced drastically between his time and ours. Today, we often equate God's grace with his willingness to forgive our sins. That certainly is gracious of God, but his grace is much bigger than that. When grace is only forgiveness, the very phrase, "means of grace" makes no sense. How can doing these things be a means of God's forgiveness? That is far from the intended meaning.
Dallas Willard says that grace is God's action in our lives to bring about what we do not deserve and cannot accomplish on our own. That's a much bigger (much more Wesleyan and much more Biblical) understanding of grace. When we understand it in this way, we can see how prayer, "searching the Scripture," and receiving the Lord's Supper are essential ways that we open doors in our lives to God's work in us.
Wesley spends much of the sermon addressing the theologies of his day which questioned whether outward things that we do have any role in the Christian life. Although the questions would be phrased differently today, they're still very applicable. Is doing these things necessary for Christians? Wesley lays the groundwork for an unequivocal "Yes" which is utterly dependent on God's grace.
If you consider yourself a Methodist, or if you may already be one and don't know it, you will do well to dig in to this sermon.
A Wesleyan Hymn for today and for this sermon:
Because Thou Hast Said Charles Wesley, 1748
1. Because thou hast said: "Do this for my sake," the mystical bread we gladly partake; we thirst for the Spirit that flows from above, and long to inherit thy fullness of love.
2. 'Tis here we look up and grasp at thy mind, 'tis here that we hope thine image to find; the means of bestowing thy gifts we embrace; but all things are owing to Jesus' grace.