Our little book, ” Light The Fire Again ” is giving me a whole new perspective on the life, theology and ecclesiology of John Wesley. I’d say it is written from a Charismatic, Evangelical perspective – something that I am increasingly in sympathy with. But it has given me pause for thought… I’ve read a number of books about Wesley now, mostly from a “mainstream” perspective. These books have generally been pretty “safe”, sticking to historical fact and the more comfortable elements of Methodist doctrine and heritage. When they have tackled anything contentious, it has tended to be on topics that are contentious within the mainstream itself – for example, the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian Perfection.
This isn’t a theology blog, and I don’t pretend to be theologically or academically schooled. That isn’t my gift set and I confess that I have no burning desire to spend years in study of the finer points of our faith – I would rather devote time and energy to preaching the simple Gospel story to those who need to hear it, than argue the finer points with those who have already done so. I have, of course, completed my Methodist Local Preacher training, I read quite a lot, prepare in detail when I speak and love to listen to other’s teaching – there’s a lot of good material on YouTube that informs my opinions. I don’t agree with it all, but it helps me understand how God is speaking to me and what I do believe.
So, what’s the point? Basically, I’m struck by our capacity to be very selective in how and what we read. This applies to the canon of scripture and Wesley’s journals alike. We have a very diverse Church – and it is possible to argue convincingly from both sources and come to very different, opposing views. It is why we have so many denominations, splits and variations on even basic aspects of our faith.
Today’s reflection from “Light The Fire Again” recalls many occasions in which people are moved in the gifts of the Spirit during Wesley’s meetings. Men and women cry out, as if in pain, and are delivered through ardent prayer. They fall to the ground, “dropping on every side as if thunderstruck”. We are told how Tuttle, a historian, recalls that Wesley, on a least one occasion, defended the gifts of the Spirit. In a letter to Conyers Middleton, Wesley “defined, described and defended a host of spiritual gifts, including casting out demons, speaking in tongues, healing the sick, prophecy, visions, divine dreams and discerning of spirits.”
Looking back, this is not something that has ever previously become evident through the 34 years of Methodist teaching, spoken or written, to which I have personally been exposed. So, I have to ask, “Why?” During those 34 years I cannot remember a single occasion in which I have been encouraged to exercise or explore those gifts from the “pulpit”. And yet, Paul would have us “earnestly desire the higher gifts” [1 Cor 12:31]. And then, in 1 Cor 14:1-3, Paul writes – “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation.”
Netley, with its amazing “Acts 2” blend of fellowship, sharing, worship and prayer has been a haven in which such gifts can be explored and nurtured in a context that is accepting and encouraging. It is a place where I have found the courage to pray for (and received) words of knowledge, sung in tongues, shared visions and spoken prophetic words.
For some this is nothing new – it is part of their “normal” experience of the Christian faith. But for me, it has been both intensely challenging, and then intensely liberating. I have been able to engage in scripture in a way that I have not felt equipped to do in any other context. For many, if not most, of my Methodist peers, it would be far outside their own experience of what church looks like. I know what that feels like and have sat through meetings feeling utterly lost and perplexed.
But I would not turn back the clock or wish for a moment that I had not had those experiences. They have enriched my understanding of God and brought me to a deeper faith than I ever knew before. There is something unquestionable affirming about a word of knowledge that is shown to be true, or a prophetic word that is clearly accurate. I have been blessed with many experiences where something I have been given to share can have come only from God.
I am equally aware that Paul also advised caution in the exploration of the gifts of the Spirit. He warned of the danger that those outside the church may “say that you are out of your minds” [1 Cor 14:23]. It is worth reading 1 Cor 12, 13 and 14 to fully appreciate Paul’s views on this.
Whether or not Netley continues to meet in its current form, it is important that we are able to continue to explore such gifts in an appropriate context – I have wondered about the lack of accessible “missional” outreach from Netley, but perhaps its real strength has been that it has been a place where these gifts have been able to be explored without having to worry about people saying we are “out of our minds”.
Just as the church makes space for people to explore the academic, to develop doctrine, to meet new seekers in an “accessible” environment, to reflect in contemplative silence and so on – so too, do we need those spaces in which we can explore, nurture and develop the Gifts of the Spirit.