06/28/20 “Birthday Gift”

Romans 5:1-11  (Watch on YouTube)

Today is John Wesley’s birthday. He was born 317 years ago in Epworth, England. He was the 15th child of 19 born to Susanna and Samuel Wesley, although many of his brothers and sisters didn’t survive. He followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a priest in the Anglican Church.

Father John was committed to living according to the highest Christian ideals. He took the instructions of Matthew 25 seriously; he cared for the poor, the stranger, the ill, and the imprisoned. He traveled to the colony of Georgia as a missionary.  But, though he was doing all the things a Christian should do, he knew something was missing. He didn’t believe he actually had a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

But then, at the age of 34, something happened. Listen to what he wrote in his journal about the events of May 24, 1738: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a meeting in Aldersgate Street. Someone there was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter til 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 think we could say, and that Father John would agree, that that day, too, was his birthday. What Wesley experienced that evening on Aldersgate Street was the new birth of the Spirit, the fruit of justification with God through Jesus. He had received the birthday gift he had been longing for—the gift of saving faith and assurance that he was loved completely by his Savior.

The document that was being read at that Aldersgate meeting was Martin Luther’s chapter-by-chapter commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. I tried to find out exactly which part fueled the fire of faith as it leapt up in Wesley that night.  I wasn’t successful, but I’m guessing that it was the part about Chapter 5, from which we read a few moments ago. Luther’s words opened up a space in Wesley’s heart that allowed Paul’s words, which he surely knew well, to speak to him in a new way—a personal way, as a love letter from God addressed to him.

Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand . . . God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. . . God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

What a gift Wesley received!  To be assured that he was included in these words. To know that God’s love isn’t just a general thing, like rain that falls on anyone who happens to be standing outside without an umbrella, but a pouring out on you—you specifically! To know that this love was made manifest in the most sacrificial way imaginable—in the death of a man who loved you enough to die for you! To know in your deepest heart—in your very spirit—that by grace you have been given the gift of faith and the salvation that comes with it!  As Wesley wrote, “An assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” No wonder his heart was strangely warmed!

This good news was too good to keep to himself. He knew he had to tell others about what they were missing. Wesley and his brother Charles, who had had a similar experience, began preaching about justification and the New Birth to anyone who would listen. As the Methodist Movement took shape and grew, more and more people learned that they, too, could have this second birthday and receive all the gifts that go with it.

Justification and the new birth happen nearly simultaneously, but they are different things. Wesley explained it this way: Justification is “what God does for us, in forgiving our sins. The New Birth is what God does in us, renewing our fallen nature.”

Justification happens when we accept God’s gift of the forgiveness of our sins.  As Wesley wrote, “Because of Jesus’ death, God will not condemn us on account of our past sins, either in this world or in that which is to come.” All our past sins, “in thought, word, and deed, are covered, are blotted out, shall not be remembered or mentioned against us, just as if they had never been. God will not inflict on the sinner the suffering that is deserved, because the Son of God’s love suffered for us. God accepts us, loves us and blesses us, and watches over us for good, even as if we had never sinned.”

Justification—what God does for us—frees us to experience the new birth—what God does in us. It is the change that God works in our hearts so that we can begin to live in new ways, guided and enabled by the Holy Spirit. We are given a second birthday and, with that birthday, we receive a birthday gift—the gift of reconciliation with God.

“But wait!” you might say. “Aren’t forgiveness and reconciliation the same thing?” The answer is, “No, they’re not.”

Forgiveness is a one-sided thing—what someone who has been wronged does on his or her own, whether it is asked for or not, whether it is accepted or not. It’s a personal act; it doesn’t depend on what someone else does. God forgave our sins when Jesus went to the cross. Our response doesn’t change what God has done for us.

Reconciliation is a two-sided business. Both the one who has been wronged and the one who committed the wrong approach each other in order to re-establish the ruptured relationship. It’s a bridge-building project that allows parties who have been separated to reach each other once again.  God’s gift to us is a bridge that has already been completed, but we still have to decide to step onto it. When, in trust and faith, hand-in-hand with Jesus, we move over the bridge toward God, reconciliation happens.

Has anyone ever given you the gift of a big box that actually contained lots of other boxes? That’s the kind of gift reconciliation with God is. It’s a gift full of other gifts. One of the gifts that comes out of that box is peace with God—the peace that passes all understanding.  It’s the peace that comes from knowing we are loved absolutely. It’s the peace we have in a relationship that is secure and which depends not on our worthiness but God’s trustworthiness.

Another gift from that box is, as Paul says, “access to the grace in which we stand.” We know that grace is prevenient—it surrounds us whether we know it or not. But once we have been reconciled with God and enter into new life in Christ, by the power of his Spirit, we can draw on God’s grace to move us and lift us and fill us.

A third gift is hope. Reconciled with God, we have the sure and certain hope of sharing in the glory of God—Christ’s glory. It is hope that springs from the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—both God’s love for us and our love for God. This hope transforms everything in our lives—even suffering. Because of this Spirit-birthed hope, we can stand firm without dismay in the face of adversity. As we face adversity, our characters are strengthened; we are found tried and true.  Paul says that, because of our hope in Jesus Christ, even our suffering can be celebrated, because it is undergirded with hope.

All these gifts, given to us, not because we deserved them. Not because we earned them. Not because they are ours by right. But simply because God loves us and wants to mend the relationship between us. And so, even while we were weak, even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, justifying us by his blood, and reconciling us with God.

This reconciliation is not for us alone. When we are reconciled with God, we have both the responsibility and the power to reconcile with others. We are able to follow Jesus’ instructions when he said, “…when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” he said.

It’s funny. I’d read those words many times before I realized that Jesus wasn’t saying that I should forgive someone who had wronged me. He’s telling us to reach out as the ones who have done harm, or at least have been accused of doing harm.  He doesn’t seem to care whether we think harm has been done or not, or even whether we actually have done any harm. It’s enough that the other person feels that we have wronged them. We are to go to the ones who have something against us—those who accuse us—and do the hard work that is necessary to bring about reconciliation.

Each of us can probably think of a time in our personal lives when someone accused us of hurting them. I’d venture to say we responded with excuses.  “I didn’t mean any harm,” we say. “I didn’t know that was a problem for you.” “You’re making too big a deal out of this.” “I was just joking. Can’t you take a joke?” “You’ve hurt my feelings, too, you know.”

It happens all the time in our personal lives but, in our nation, white citizens are coming face-to-face with the fact that our African-American neighbors have something against us. When we hear their accusations, we’re quick to make the same kind of excuses as we do in our personal lives. But, none of those responses lead us to the reconciliation Jesus calls us to, either in our personal lives or in our nation. None of them lead us to seek reconciliation with others as God sought to be reconciled with us through the precious blood of Jesus.

We’re not perfect, not by a long shot. Often, we don’t deserve the gift of reconciliation from other people. We never are deserving of it from God. But here’s the good news: God knows that about us. God has always known that about us, and God loves us anyway. God loves us enough that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God loves us enough to justify us and give us a new birth in the Spirit.

And here’s the better news: when we experience that new birth, we’re not done! It is simply the beginning of a life-long process of becoming more and more like Jesus—what we as Methodists call “being sanctified—being made holy.” And we don’t expect merely to be made better than we are. We expect to be made perfect—perfect in love of God and love of neighbor.

When I was in the process of choosing a seminary to attend, I took a look at the applications for several different schools. One of the applications asked this question: “When did you experience conversion?” At the time, I didn’t think I could answer that question. I had grown up in the church. If anyone had asked me at any given if I was a Christian, I would have said yes. So, I didn’t think I could name a moment when I was “converted.” As far as I was concerned, there wasn’t anything I needed to be converted from or to.

I would answer that question differently today. I know now that for many years I was a lot like Wesley. I was doing all the right things—or tried to. I loved Jesus. But, I didn’t understand the unconditional, grace-filled nature of God’s love for me. I still thought that I needed to earn God’s love and the salvation that went with it. So, I did need to be converted. I needed to be changed from someone who loved Jesus and longed to be sure that I was loved in return. I needed to be changed into someone who knew that Jesus loved me enough to take away my sins, even mine, and save me from the law of sin and death. I needed to be changed into someone who trusted that God’s love is a gift that doesn’t depend on my worthiness.

I had a moment when I realized the truth of what God does for us, and that it was done for me. This is what conversion is. It isn’t necessarily a matter of going from not loving Jesus to loving Jesus. It isn’t necessarily a turning from one god to the One True God. It’s when our relationship with God changes, as mine did when I went from feeling a deep grief and fear that I would never be good enough to deserve God’s love to being assured that, indeed, I wasn’t deserving and that it didn’t matter—that Christ had died for me precisely because I could never be good enough. I was assured of the truth that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us—for you, for me. And, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, that assurance brought about my second birthday—my New Birth-day.

Maybe you’ve felt a divine “aha” moment. Maybe, amidst a lifetime of faithfulness, you had a moment when you could say with complete confidence, either out loud or to yourself, Yes, Jesus loves me.” Maybe you’re still uncertain and waiting—still feeling your way toward that moment, which I promise comes to every person who places their whole trust in God’s grace. In that moment, we know ourselves to be justified and, right on its heels, to be newly born.

John Wesley began that journey when he had his new birthday on Aldersgate Street. Praise be to God if you have had an Aldersgate moment of your own which set you on the path of sanctification that leads to perfection. If you haven’t, or if you’ve forgotten that day, know that you can have or reclaim that second birthday at any time, the moment you place your whole trust in the one who died for you. God is waiting to shower you with birthday gifts—forgiveness, peace, hope, and the assurance of God’s love, all wrapped in the gift of reconciliation, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. May this be a day of birthday celebration for us all. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young