Spirit and Truth

Well, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been engaged in a very busy quarter, reading a lot and recently writing a lot.  I just turned in my paper for the quarter.  It was 60 pages long, plus a 6 page bibliography.

The title was “Spirit and Truth:  A Study of Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and John Fletcher as Participants in the Stream of the Spirit’s Work”

Here’s the conclusion:

As my goal was to look at Wesley as part of a stream of the Spirit’s work through the course of history, I primarily focused on those influences which fed into and flowed out of his significant contributions.  Although not within the scope of this present effort, the political, social, and religious contexts of his era were also vitally important and understanding these more fully is essential to understanding not only what Wesley thought but also how he applied and expressed his underlying priorities.[1] Wesley was, to be sure, an intellectual man whose eclectic reading and education shaped him significantly more than most of his era, yet a person can never be independent from their social surroundings.  Indeed, Wesley’s immensely practical interests make his social and intellectual climate even more important for study.

Seeing the work of the Spirit in an ecological rather than reductionistic fashion means that to most fully understand a context we have to look before and after, into the specific details of the people and settings, while keeping in mind the general patterns the Spirit seems to exhibit in every era. In this work, my goal was not to offer a comprehensive view of Wesley or Methodism, but rather to narrow my focus on particular influences which seemed to have led Wesley to explore certain paths, and shaped how he led others down these paths.  To be sure, there were even significantly more religious and literary influences which affected Wesley, each of which deserves fuller study, though I selected those which I felt were the most influential, with other influences often either honing or expanding what the initial influences prompted in Wesley’s continuing quest for a holistic faith.

This quest for a holistic, more purely expressed faith was not new to Wesley.  Indeed, this is the expression of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church since the day of Pentecost.  The Spirit has called and enabled the people of God to more fully participate with God in this world.  This participation calls people to turn away from their own attempts to bring definition to their life, which only lead to an incomplete identity in a struggle against the contrasting forces faced in this world.  The attempts to bring hope or definition or peace are, ultimately, unsuccessful.  For death entered into this world, and death calls all people into its grasp.  Death came into this world through the first man, Adam, but death was overcome by the new Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, who died on the cross but did not remain dead.

After three days, he was resurrected, in the power of the Spirit, the firstborn of all creation becomes the first of the resurrection, and offers this hope to all who seek him, letting themselves find their identity in his identity. In doing this, such people do not lose their self. By letting go of attempts at self-definition, by letting go of the ego’s attempt to form a false, defensive identity, the power of the Spirit reaches in and provides renewal, refreshing, and resurrection, even in this present life.  In the life of Christ, we are given life. In the power of the Spirit, we are reborn to new identities, able to take hold of the fullness of God’s reality, participating increasingly in his fellowship, and in this, participating in the fellowship of all his people.

This fellowship of God’s people in this present era is called the Church.  It is a reflection of God’s Kingdom, formed in unity and diversity to be a people who hope, who help, who love.  Yet, the Church, like present humanity, is not always, or even often, fully reflecting this call in the world.  In every age there are errors and heresies, mistakes caused by zealousness or distortions enabled by gross perversions allowed in sometimes even the highest leadership.  The Spirit who calls the people, who empowers the people, does not abandon the people.  In every age there is a constant work of the Spirit of God, calling people back to wholeness and truth, empowering those who truly seek Christ to be light in their contexts, teaching and prophesying, for the sake of the whole of God’s people.  This work of the Spirit often enlightens the people to a more fully realized truth, building on the insights of the past to help each generation see more and more clearly the fullness of the truth that God is calling all humanity to live.  This stream of the Spirit refreshes and enlivens; it sometimes breaks down but it also helps build up, bringing fresh life wherever it goes, even in the face of deep struggle.

Martin Luther participated in this stream, seeing the perversions of the Church of his era and fighting against them, and when they would not listen he helped lead the Church to new forms of gathering, forms in which the people could, once again, find more freedom in their worship and learning.  Yet, there was not an end to corruption or distortion.  The Spirit continued to work, however, leading men and women to find renewal as they explored the fresh paths of the Spirit. Often this involved looking back to those who had walked with God in previous generations. They followed the call to “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”[2] In England, a people arose who were known as Puritans, for they sought a refreshed purity in the Church of England.  However, even as many sought with a Spirit-enlightened spark, the church still had not found the full way of light. Errors were made.  People were lost.

The Spirit, however, continued to work, both in those who remained in the Church of England, and in those who Dissented from it.  Susanna Wesley, a daughter of Dissent, returned to the Church of England when she was a young teenager, following a call on her life that led her to a deeper spirituality, and an intimate relationship with a man who also sought God in his return to the Anglican communion.  They had many children, and Susanna saw it as her life mission to help these children learn how to participate with Christ, to truly walk with the Spirit in life and light.  The testimony to Susanna’s faithfulness in Spirit and Truth is seen in her children, the most famous of whom is John Wesley, a man who helped transform people not only in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, but also throughout North America.

It was in England, however, that Wesley’s continued leadership through preaching, teaching, and writing found some of his most treasured growth.  A young Swiss man named John Fletcher was drawn into the Methodist fold, and was soon drawn into John Wesley’s own inner circle, becoming a helper and a friend, and one of the most important interpreters of Wesley’s theology, helping the many tributaries which poured into and out of John Wesley to find even greater cohesion.  They sought perfection, but not perfection as performance. Rather, they sought a perfection that was itself a gift and testimony of the Holy Spirit, a true holiness which was reflected in inner purity and outward actions, a purity that was at its very depths one filled will divine love.

This stream did not stop in the age of Wesley and Fletcher. Their contributions helped to steer others, men and women, towards an even better understanding of the call of God in this world.  Though there were also still temptations and distortions and many mistakes leading particular churches down wrong roads and out of the stream of the call of Christ, there was always a testimony of God’s Spirit in this world, calling and leading, enlightening and empowering.  John Fletcher called this great work of the Spirit in a person the baptism of the Spirit, seeing it as a continual Pentecost that can be experienced in each person, in each generation.

Those in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries understood this to be a true call to the signs of the earliest church, and sought a renewed Pentecost in holiness and healings, tongues and prophesying.  The renewal the Puritans sought in England found new insight in Susanna Wesley, who passed her wisdom to her son John, who was a mentor to John Fletcher, who gave new insights and understanding to men and women of, at first, two continents, and then many.  This is a church that is constantly emerging, finding both renewal and fresh insight in every generation.

This stream of the Spirit continues to pour out even to our day.  Often, as in the beginning, this work of the Spirit is warming hearts in unexpected places and among unexpected people and in unexpected ways.

Supreme eternal being!  Fountain of life and happiness! Vouchsafe to be ever present to the inward sense of my mind. I offer you my heart—take possession by the Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen. Amen.[3]

[1] Very helpful texts for understanding the context of Wesley, Methodism, and nonconformity in general are the earlier works of  J. Wesley Bready, England, before and after Wesley : The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938) and  Maldwyn Lloyd Edwards, After Wesley: A Study of the Social and Political Influence of Methodism in the Middle Period (1791-1849) (London: Epworth Press, 1935).  For more contemporary studies see David Hempton, Methodism and Politics in British Society, 1750-1850 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984); David Hempton, The Religion of the People : Methodism and Popular Religion C. 1750-1900 (New York: Routledge, 1996); David Hempton, Methodism Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); James E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism: Nonconformity in Eighteenth-Century Politics and Society ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, A History of Evangelicalism ; V. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003); Patrick Karl O’Brien and Roland E. Quinault, eds., The Industrial Revolution and British Society (New York: Cambridge University Press,1993).

[2] Jeremiah 6:16.

[3] From the journal of Susanna Wesley, in Wallace, Susanna Wesley, 333.

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