This Spring the Honor's College at IWU has initiated reading groups on campus that are reading through a number of Wesley's sermons. One of them I read this morning is titled, "The Way to the Kingdom."
1. Wesley's main text is Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (NRSV). Some will recognize this verse as quite possibly the cornerstone of Jesus' message on earth. Of course Wesley did not have the benefit of the last two hundred fifty years of biblical studies. In their apocalyptic context, Jesus and John the Baptist likely referred to the coming in-breaking of God's rule to the earth in a very concrete and visible kingdom, for which we still look.
But as a child of his age, Wesley tied this kingdom to true, inward religion. He connects the phrase "the kingdom of God" in Mark to the phrase in Romans 14:17: "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (NRSV). Wesley takes this verse to mean that the kingdom of God is something inside us. I suspect more is going on here for Paul than Wesley sees in this verse, because he was 1700 years removed from Paul. A more literal paraphrase of Paul would go something like this: "The kingdom of God, which we await to come to earth fully when Christ returns, will not be focused on the purity rules of the Jewish Law and should not be now. Rather, the key concern in God's kingdom is that we be righteous and that we be at peace with one another and that we be a community of joy."
2. Here we get to an essential point and one that I think is particularly important for the Wesleyan tradition. Neo-evangelicalism, because it was born out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, is very focused on the original, historical meaning of the Bible (although it sets sharp boundaries on the conclusions a scholar can reach using historical-method). If you go to the pillar institutions of evangelicalism--Wheaton, Gordon-Conwell, Trinity, or any number of others--the focus of their biblical studies program is not only on how to read the Bible in context but you will find an assumption that this meaning is more or less the meaning we need to know to hear God in the Bible. In so many words, unless you learn Greek, Hebrew, and do extensive homework, you are not equipped to read the Bible "for all its worth."
Wesley was not a scholar of the original meaning, but his theology was usually spot on. We can do the hard original meaning research and the sophisticated hermeneutics work to come up with the same things he came up just by catching the spirit of Scripture, even if he was not in a position to know the letter with precision (and truth be told, even experts disagree frequently on this).
I am not against the original meaning at all, what the Bible really meant. I'm out of a job as a Biblehead if the church ever throws the real meaning of the Bible away completely. What I am saying is that the original meaning task is not the "be all and end all" of the Bible for the Church. It is relevant. It is part of it. But the theological task in which it sits is more primary. Our theology and ethics find their origins in the original meaning of the Bible, but they come to us within a framework that the Spirit has worked out over time. The Church does not read the Bible so much to "get back" as to move forward.
3. So in this sermon, Wesley argues that true religion is a matter of the heart, not of orthodoxy or ritual. "Neither does religion consist in orthodoxy or right opinion which... are not in the heart, but the understanding" (56). "The nature of religion is so far from consisting in these, in forms of worship or rites and ceremonies" (55).
Remember of course that Wesley was quite concerned to be orthodox and that, as an Anglican, his ritual practices were far more extensive than the typical Wesleyan Church (a lot of my seminary students would be wierded out thinking he was Catholic ;-) But these were not the essence of religion for him. These were not the heart of the matter.
"This alone is religion, truly so called; this alone is in the sight of God of great price. the Apostle sums it all up in three particulars--'righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost'" (56).
Faith "is not... a bare assent to the truth of the Bible, of the articles of our creed, or of all that is contained in the Old and New Testament... It is... a sure trust in the mercy of God through Christ Jesus" (60). More properly, it is faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and, thus, in Jesus as Lord, but Wesley is completely right in what it is not.
4. I found this sermon refreshing. I put smiley faces in the margins when he broke exegetical rules or got an interpretation wrong. He mixes Scriptures together from different places in the Bible. He has a "soterian" view of the gospel (60). As a child of the Enlightenment, his filter is individual focused in places where Paul was surely more corporate in thinking.
But Wesley's message is spot on. It is not that orthodoxy is unimportant, and there is much a Christian can gain from the sacraments. But these do not make someone a Christian. BTW, this also applies to neo-evangelical orthodoxy or even the expected practices of holiness communities. We may find that we have just changed the referent of these terms but still missed the point.
Repentance for our wrongdoings and faith in Christ--this is what God expects of our hearts. Love of God and love of our neighbor, this is what God expects in our lives. God expects true righteousness, and this will result in peace and joy.