A World Worth Knowing
Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action
Wednesday 24, 2016
John Wesley described Methodism’s purpose as a movement in this way: to “reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” The Wesley brothers came to this perspective after much Bible study and prayer. In eighteenth-century England, the Church of England was the national church. The Wesleys felt, however, that it did not speak to the needs of the people or address the social ills within the nation at the time. The Wesleyan understanding of mission took shape during this era as John and Charles addressed social needs like education, poverty, disease, and mental health in their preaching and teaching.
Methodist Christians began the first Sunday schools to teach children how to read. They collected offerings to alleviate the conditions of those in poverty. In a time when medical doctors were concentrated in London, Methodist circuit preachers carried copies of Primitive Physick with them, a book by John Wesley that helped diagnose and apply medical techniques to those who were ill.
Methodists also worked to change the appalling conditions in mental institutions and jails. By proclaiming the grace of Jesus Christ, the Wesleys brought change to many of the social ills in England. Persisting in this mission remained a challenge in the lifetime of the Wesleys. John was not always welcomed in places where he preached and ministered. Other Methodists faced contempt and ridicule.
James Logan, in How Great a Flame, tells the story of Martha Thompson, a housemaid in London born in 1731. While doing errands she passed a crowd of people who were singing outdoors. She listened to the singing and then noticed a small man who began preaching to the crowd. It was John Wesley. When she returned home and told her mistress what she saw, the mistress told her to avoid Wesley because “he will drive you mad, he will ruin you.”
Martha, however, returned often to hear John Wesley preach. One day during the singing of “The Lord Jehovah Reigns,” she experienced an inner peace, which Wesley called the “inner witness of the Spirit.” She continued to praise and give glory to God, even after she had returned home. Ultimately, this led to her committal at Bedlam, a notorious mental asylum. At Bedlam she continued to witness for Christ. Thompson was eventually released from Bedlam and remained an active Methodist Christian witness until her death.
Stories similar to Martha Thompson’s were common in eighteenth-century England. Methodists were often unwelcome in society, and their words and actions brought hostility. Charles Wesley, inspired by his reading of Matthew Henry’s commentary on Leviticus 8:35, wrote a hymn of encouragement to the early Methodists who were experiencing animosity from the public.
A charge to keep I have,
a God to glorify,
a never-dying soul to save
To serve the present age,
my calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage
to do my Master’s will!
Arm me with jealous care,
as in thy sight to live,
and oh, thy servant, Lord, prepare
a strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray,
and on thyself rely,
assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.
This hymn offers strength and comfort to Christians of the eighteenth- and twenty-first centuries alike, all of whom have received as their calling to fulfill, “to serve the present age.” The hymn speaks to all aspects of Christian ministry and mission. Whenever we sing this hymn, we reaffirm the call of Christ to engage in ministry with the world. O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will!
We may pay no attention to the meaning of these words as we sing them, but they speak of our common ties with Christians around the world to bear witness to grace through word and deed. We find one of the clearest statements of God’s will in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus speaks about the judgment of the nations. Jesus says to those at his right hand:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (vv. 34-36).
These words express the actions that Christ wills for us. Not only are these actions a charge we have been given, they are a charge we have to keep. God invites us to find deep satisfaction in the work.
For Your Growth
Read the words of “A Charge to Keep I Have” again. Consider why you believe that God thinks the world is worthy of redemption and love. Today, pray for each of the situations on the list you created the day before. Pray that God will bring reconciliation where division exists and justice where oppression rules.