Although we have been directed by our governmental leaders to withdraw from contact with others by practicing “social distancing,” it is time for the Church to pray for wisdom in discerning the good work for which God is preparing us in a time of great devastation and loss. In a sermon from the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley affirmed clearly, following the wisdom of Christ, that Christianity is not a “solitary religion.” He called upon Christian people to be light in a darkened world, to be salt among a humanity in need of God’s healing grace. While we now find ourselves in places of “solitude” in order to preserve health and prevent infection, we must remember that we do not participate in a “solitary religion.” A brief description of the ministries of John and Charles Wesley will be helpful.
John Wesley believed preachers are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord whose beauty reverberates through one’s whole being; the heart, soul, mind, and strength in love with God and the neighbors to whom we speak. Wesley spoke of God’s “design” in raising up the preachers called “Methodists” which was, “to reform the nation, and in particular, the Church: to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” There is an attractiveness to the design of scriptural holiness as a social form of life which embodies the simple beauty of loving devotion to God with our whole selves and sacrificial service for our neighbor’s good as perceived by the light of God’s love.
In addition, the ministry of evangelization was for Wesley the fruit of a larger end and purpose: faithful preaching, hearing, and living of the gospel within the divine economy of justifying and sanctifying grace. Sermons were homiletic expressions of prayerful attentiveness to the whole canon of Scripture, Christian tradition, and lives of the saints. Preaching was a public acclamation of praise for the extravagant love of the Father, who by sending the Son in the power of the Spirit, calls and creates a holy people in the world. Personal conversions, numerical growth, forms of public witness and sacrificial acts of mercy, therefore, were not the end or goal. Rather, these were celebrated as concrete signs of God’s grace manifested in astonishing new turnings and fresh beginnings generated by the Spirit, as signs of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven through a common witness to the reign of Jesus Christ.
Because the church has no holiness in itself, it is important to remember the means of grace, particularly the intimate connection of works of devotion and mercy, which enable participation in Christ’s humility and holy love.Wesley saw these as necessary to sanctification, the working out of full salvation, which shows forth its form and content or the “beauty of holiness.” For example, as a work of mercy, ministering to the poor is not merely a matter of moral calculation, problem solving, or social activism. God has so made this ministry to have a unifying, even “beautiful” effect among those who experience the joy of mutual giving and receiving that partakes of and bears witness to fellowship in Christ. A hymn by Charles Wesley conveys the significance of the poor as Christ’s beloved.
The poor, as Jesus’ bosom-friends,
The poor he makes his latest care,
To all his successors commends,
And wills us on our hands to bear:
The poor our dearest care we make,
Aspiring to superior bliss,
And cherish for their Saviour’s sake,
And love them with a love like his.
The materially poor, and those impoverished in numerous other ways, are intimately connected to Christ and therefore central to preaching the gospel and holy living. For early Methodists, moreover, the gospel was a message spoken and heard by quite humble people. They understood Christ’s ministry to spiritual, moral, health and material needs as integral to his mission as the incarnate Son of God. Randy Maddox clarifies the relation between the means of grace and holy living. “The integral connection Wesley makes between works of mercy and the sanctified life reflects deep disagreement with any such merely instrumental valuation of works of mercy and with the spiritualized view of salvation that underlies it.”
Works of piety––activities such as prayer and worship, reading Scripture, preaching and teaching, partaking of the sacraments and Christian fellowship––are joined with works of mercy in ministering to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the distraught, widows, orphans, and children. Wesley viewed such works of mercy as means of grace that contribute to nurturing Christian virtue and devotion through encounters of mutual love and service. Loving the poorest and neediest, then, has a formative rather than merely functional effect; as a means of encountering Christ by participating in his humble love with and for all humanity. A hymn by Charles Wesley gives beautiful expression to this in poetic form,
Thus fit us, Savior, for heav’n,
as with gladness we restore
all that God has freely giv’n
to his deputies, the poor.
God has chosen the simple poor
as the followers of his Son,
rich in faith, of glory sure,
they shall win the heav’nly crown.
Selfless love for God and our neighbors directs our attention to the image of God in Christ which is central for proclaiming and living the gospel. Because the poor are recipients and images of Christ’s humble love, they occupy a central place in the sanctification of our minds and the knowledge of God we confess in him. Both pastors and Christian people bear common witness through their respective ministries by following the pattern of Christ’s humility and holy love. It is important to remember as well that self-denial for the sake of recognizing and serving the poor as objects of God’s perfect love was central for Jesus in his ministry of proclaiming and enacting God’s reign. Another hymn by Charles Wesley calls upon God to pour out an abundance of the Spirit’s transforming love which is received in giving one’s self for the good of others.
Come, thou holy God and true! Come, and my whole heart renew;
take me now and possess me whole, form the Savior in my soul:
In my heart thy name reveal. Stamp me with the Spirit’s seal,
change my nature into thine, in me thy whole image shine.
Love immense, and unconfined, Love to all of humankind.
The gospel calls Christian people to be glad recipients of the immensity and humility of God’s self-giving love in Christ. The Holy Spirit conforms us to the mind and excellence of Christ with his gifts, virtues, and fruit, by which we mature in faith, advance in hope, and radiate “a beauty, a love, a, holiness.” Wesley offers an apt description of preaching that seeks to build up the witness of God’s people in the world. We would do well to heed his words as we prepare to meet both the challenges and opportunities that lie before us.
Nor is it a little advantage … to hear a preacher whom you know to live as he (or she) speaks, speaking the genuine gospel of present salvation through faith, wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost, declaring present, free, full justification, and enforcing every branch of inward and outward holiness. And this you hear done in the most clear plain, simple, unaffected language, yet with an earnestness becoming the importance of the subject and with the demonstration of the Spirit.
Michael Pasquarello III is the Methodist Chair of Divinity and Director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute and D.Min. Program at Beeson Divinity School. He will give a talk entitled, "Preaching in the Anglican Tradition," at the Anglican-Wesleyan Theology Conference, Aug. 10-11.
 Here I have benefitted from the excellent essays in The Poor and the People Called Methodists 17299 – 1999 ed. Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
 Cited in Campbell, “The Image of Christ in the Poor: On the Medieval Roots of the Wesleys’ Ministry with the Poor,” 51,
 Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, 85.
 Randy Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’: John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” The Poor and the People Called Methodists 1729 - 1999 ed. Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 68.
 Maddox, “’Visiting the Poor’: John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” 69 - 76.
 Charles Wesley, “Ambitious, covetous, vain” Help Us to Help Each Other: Hymns for Life and Ministry with the Poor, ed. ST Kimbrough, Jr. Music Editor, Carlton R. Young (Madison, NJ: The Charles Wesley Society, 2010) 22 - 3.
 See the discussion in Ted A. Campbell, “The Image of Christ in the Poor: On the Medieval Roots of the Wesleys’ Ministry with the Poor,” The Poor and the People Called Methodists 1729 - 1999 ed. Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 39 - 58.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Gracewing, 1992) 21.
 Cited in Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, “Wesley’s emphasis on worship and the means of grace,” The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, eds. Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2010) 236.