Anointed by the Spirit of the Lord

young girl at sunset praise the lord

The Scripture fulfilled
When John Wesley took the significant step of preaching in the open air on April 2, 1739, the text he chose for his sermon was the same text that Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah as he announced his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… [and] today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Reaching the people
Preaching in the open air had a long tradition in Western Christianity, but in 18th century England it was a bold move for an ordained clergyman, and he was roundly criticised. “Let the people come to the churches,” it was argued. “There is plenty of room for them.” Wesley answered that his preaching reached people who would not come to church, either because they did not wish to come, or because they were not made welcome. And of course the role model for this was Jesus himself.

In the decades that followed, it became clear that Wesley was indeed anointed by the Spirit of the Lord as he founded a movement that was to become the Methodist Church worldwide. There were two dimensions to his leadership that we need to affirm in the church of today.

Proclaiming the Gospel
Wesley first insisted that the Gospel be proclaimed to all the world. Yes, we must preach and teach the Gospel in and through the church, but we must not make the church the only place that people can hear the Gospel. Wesley and his preachers not only took the Gospel to people in the open air, but also at the best time of day to reach them: five o’clock in the morning! Working people had little time or energy after laboring twelve or more hours a day, so Wesley reached them early in the morning on their way to work, and Charles Wesley wrote a hymn for them to sing: “Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, my daily labor to pursue; thee, only thee, resolve to know, in all I think or speak or do.”

Late in his life we find Wesley rebuking his preachers for not doing this more faithfully, warning that the power of the Gospel can easily be diminished when it is preached only to those who already believe.

Building up in the faith: The method of Methodism
We also find in Wesley’s ministry a deep pastoral concern for those who responded to the Gospel. He observed that the fruits of preaching often withered when there was not a Methodist society to nurture those who were converted. By his own account, the most effective and practical way of doing this came about in the Bristol Society while discussing the building debt for the New Room (which remains the oldest Methodist building in the world still in use). It was suggested that each member should contribute a penny a week toward the debt, and when it was pointed out that not everyone might have this to spare, a retired seaman, Captain Foy, offered to take eleven names and collect their penny each week, putting it in for any who could not afford it. Others offered to do the same, and so the whole Society was divided into groups of twelve, each with a Leader.

Within a year it was determined that the members should bring their penny to the Leader, thus beginning what became the bedrock of Methodism: the weekly Class Meeting. This was not only a time of rich fellowship, but also a means of mutual support and accountability for walking with Christ in the world, and in the General Rules that Wesley published in 1743, attendance at the Class Meeting was mandatory. More than anything else, this was the “Method” of Methodism.

More will be said on Saturday, May 24, about how the Methodist Church of today can honour this tradition of methodical, dependable, reliable discipleship.

Publications written by Dr Watson include:

Class Leaders: Recovering
a Tradition (2002)
Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability (2002)

Christian Disciples: The Role Of Covenant Discipleship And Class Leaders In The Congregation (2002)

The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance (2002)