March 3, 2013
Today is the day on which Episcopalians commemorate John and Charles Wesley, Renewers of the Church. Most people associate the Wesley brothers as founders of the Methodist Movement. That movement was initially an evangelical renewal movement and a sacramental renewal movement within the Church of England. John and Charles Wesley remained Anglican Priests to the end of their lives. The musical and liturgical traditions of the Episcopal Church, of which I am now a Priest, are greatly enriched by the sermons and poetry that flowed from the pens of John and Charles Wesley. I wanted to spend a little time today reflecting on these two English Priests who have touched my life and the lives of countless others.
Although I was a United Methodist Pastor for twenty-five years prior to entering the ordained ministry of The Episcopal Church, I never preached from nor saw a pulpit with an image of either Wesley brother on it. Now, at Christ Church Cranbrook, an Episcopal Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I am privileged to deliver the Gospel from a pulpit into which the image of John Wesley is carved, along with three other great preachers from our heritage of faith, John the Baptist, St. Paul the Apostle, and St. Francis.
It's no wonder that John Wesley is included. He really was some preacher! He preached, on average, for a period of fifty-four years, fifteen sermons a week. That's forty-two thousand four hundred sermons. In addition to that, he delivered numerous exhortations and addresses. Methodist clergy are required to read and pay attention to his "Forty-two Sermons on Various Subjects" published in 1771. My favorites are "The Almost Christian," "The Means of Grace," and "A Catholic Spirit." However, if you were to read these sermons, you would discover that they were meant to be read, not spoken. John Wesley's preaching was considered to be much more down to earth than what you read in these texts. He once declared that he would no sooner preach a fine sermon than he would wear a fine coat. His sermons may not have been "fine" but they certainly were effective in the lives of his hearers.
So, John Wesley was better known for his sermons than for his hymns. John did few hymns and translated quite a number from German. Here is a Eucharistic hymn that was written by John Wesley, with music by Gordon Lawson, sung by the Pittsburgh Compline Choir at the Heinz Memorial Chapel, Univeristy of Pittsburgh.
Author of life divine,
Who hast a table spread,
Furnished with mystic wine
And everlasting bread,
Preserve the life Thyself hast given,
And feed and train us up for Heav’n.
Our needy souls sustain
With fresh supplies of love,
Till all Thy life we gain,
And all Thy fullness prove,
And, strengthened by Thy perfect grace,
Behold without a veil Thy face.
Charles Wesley, on the other hand, is better known for his hymns than for his sermons. He was especially gifted in the art of expressing biblical, sacramental, and theological concepts through the medium of poetry. Others set those poems to music. Many of those tunes were popular tunes of the day which originally had secular lyrics.
Many authorities say that Charles Wesley's most popular hymn during his lifetime was Jacob Wrestling, his poem about the experience of the patriarch Jacob who wrestled with the Angel of God that night on the banks of the River Jabbok. The original version had fourteen or more stanzas, making it difficult for modern editors to use in modern hymnsls. It is difficult to eliminate any of them and still do justice to the poem, which is an allegorical testimony of Charles Wesley's own conversaion experience. The version of this hymn as published today usually has only three or four stanzas. Isaac Watts, another of the greatest English hymn writers, was quoted in John’s obituary tribute to his brother Charles as having said, “…that single poem, ‘Wrestling Jacob,’ is worth all the verses I myself have written.” Here is a setting of this great poem using three of the stanzas:
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.
'Tis Love! 'tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
Another of Charles Wesley's hymns that is better known by Christians of all communions today is Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Here is the choir of Wells Cathedral singing the hymn to the beautiful tune Blaenwern, under the direction of Malcolm Archer.
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down,
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter every trembling heart.
Come, almighty to deliver,
let us all thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.
Finish then thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Many of us would think some of our most important feast days would not be complete without a hymn of Charles Wesley. Here are a few examples: (Advent) Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending, Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, (Christmas) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, (Epiphany) Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies, (Lent) O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done, (Good Friday) 'Tis Finished, The Messiah Dies, (Easter) Christ the Lord is Risen Today, (Ascension) Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise, (Pentecost) Spirit of Faith, Come Down.
In our era, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing is probably the most well-known and beloved of Charles Wesley's hymns. With its emphasis on the impact of the Gospel of Christ in the lives of those in greatest need, it is a fitting hymn for the Church in a day when we seek to recover a wider missional focus. I'll end this commemorative tribute to the Wesley brothers on that note. Here are The Edinburgh Singers singing that great hymn on BBC Songs of Praise at Greyfriars' Kirk, using the tune Lyngham. I won't include the words here since they are included in the video.
Thanks be to God for John and Charles Wesley and the legacy of faith and praise they have bestowed upon succeeding generations. May their example inspire us to find our voices to proclaim and praise the Lover of our Souls in our own time.