Sermon given at the Evening Service on the First Sunday of Christmas 2017
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides, Priest Vicar
Sunday, 31st December 2017 at 6.30 PM
In this Abbey Church, more than three thousand men and women are buried or memorialised. Among their number, in the south aisle, a white marble sculpture commemorates the life of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, and his brother Charles, a prolific hymn writer. Some might think it strange that the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, should find a place here in Westminster Abbey given the hostility of the Church of England towards Methodism in the eighteenth century, resistant as it was to his preaching and his social outreach. However, this Abbey is where many of the most significant people in British history are buried or commemorated and John Wesley is undoubtedly worthy of such recognition.
But to be clear, Wesley did not intend to launch a new denomination. It was more a circumstance of history. Its roots were in an Oxford student society for which, in 1729, Wesley provided leadership. Mockingly called the ‘Holy Club’ (because of its emphasis on holiness of heart and life) or, alternatively, ‘methodists’ (because it advocated a methodical approach to Christian study and devotion) for all of that, the idea of accountability and the mutual support that accompanied it was appealing. The 1730s saw an expansion of their numbers largely due to Wesley's itinerant ministry: preaching in fields, collieries and churchyards, a radical innovation for his day, and by which means he engaged with those who were estranged from or neglected by the national Church, miners and agricultural workers among others. By the 1740s, it had become an identifiable movement within the larger Christian Church developing its own distinctive style of devotion and discipleship. Central to both was Wesley’s belief that people need not just to accept but to grow in the covenantal relationship which God offers. It is not about acquiring a relationship with God, but living within the loving relationship that God has already offered.
Questions then arise. If God is committed to us, are we prepared to accept that as a reality and, in return, commit ourselves to God? Even then, how do we live out that commitment given our self-preoccupation? How do we give our lives and our choices to God?
Wesley saw the need for a liturgy or service within which people might address such questions, and on a regular basis rededicate themselves to the covenantal relationship, opening themselves to God more fully, listening to God more deeply, and responding to God more faithfully. To this end, in 1755, Wesley produced a Covenant Service which remains an important part of liturgical life for British Methodists at the beginning of each New Year.
Within that service there is a prayer compiled by Wesley:
'I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.'
Those words, that prayer is counter-cultural because it goes against everything our ‘rights’ society stands for: a society championing the right to make our own decisions, the right to choose our own path through life, the right to be self-seeking, self-centred, and self-absorbed.
Rights can be so difficult to surrender but in the covenantal relationship with God that is what we are called to do. As our reading reminds us, we are God’s children not by right of birth, not by right of blood-line, not by right of what I have chosen or others have chosen for me, but simply by God’s power. Believing in his name is to live within the loving relationship that God has already offered us.
We need to recall that the old covenant between God and Israel was not one that Israel made, but one initiated by God as he choose them to be his people. ‘This is the Covenant I will make with the house of Israel,’ God says through Jeremiah. He was not compelled to choose Israel - he could have chosen any other people. Israel was not more remarkable than any other nation, quite the opposite. It was not the most powerful, or the most civilised, or the wealthiest. In choosing Israel, God chose a people that was not a nation. They were a rabble of slaves in a foreign country.
God isn’t compelled to choose you or me, yet he does, offering a love which is free and undeserved.
We are the people of his new covenant and again it is rooted in God’s choice: free, unexpected, and undeserved.
In Jesus, God chose the poor, the lame, the untouchables, those who no one else would have. We are their successors. Any covenant is not a moment when we choose God, but when beyond all hope or expectation he is choosing you and me!
We are not godly individuals but we are representatives! God has chosen a people stretching as far as the eye can see. In fact, no one is excluded from God’s choosing, although admittedly, not everyone responds to God. But in making this covenant, God has everyone in his sights, a truth that Christ-followers sometimes forget. We see it as ours, the property of the baptised, the believers, the select few who have so far responded to God.
Forget it! This is a Covenant for everyone - every class, colour and country. There is no numbers limit set by God. It is for all. Those of us who are here, are here by the skin of our teeth. We are not the total of those God wants to include in his Covenant. We are the few who are ready at this moment to accept that unconditional offer of love and forgiveness, but we are proxy for the whole of humanity. And never forget this, as with any proxy we have a responsibility to those for whom we hold that proxy.