Editor’s note: Since we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, we would like to take this opportunity to post this sermon from Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper marking the 300th anniversary of John Wesley’s birth. Kasper is President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, having served as its president from 2001 to 2010. This sermon was given at Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church in Rome on June 22, 2003.
By Cardinal Walter Kasper
It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning as you join with Methodist congregations throughout the world in celebrating the 300th anniversary of John Wesley. Your invitation to preach on this occasion is a generous ecumenical gesture for which I am most grateful, and I would like to extend my thanks in particular to your pastor, Rev. Pieter Bouman, and to all of you, for the warm welcome. It is also my pleasure and privilege this morning to bring you greetings and the blessing of Pope John Paul II. As you know, the longing to recover full communion among all Christians is a desire he carries deeply in his heart.
When twenty years ago my predecessor at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands, gave an address on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, he quoted Saint Augustine on the complexity of the human person: “Grande profundum est ipse homo” (the human person is a vast depth). Indeed, each human being is a great mystery, created and sustained by God, in a relationship with God the depths of which we cannot understand.
John Wesley was a complex figure, and his relationship with and view of the Catholic Church was complex. He was a priest of the Church of England, though decisions at the end of his life anticipated the separation of Methodism from Anglicanism. Methodist-Catholic relations today have been influenced by the fact that there is no history of formal separation between us, as Methodism grew out of the Anglican tradition; hence we have no difficult memories of separating.
While John Wesley understood the Roman Catholic Church to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and acknowledged that Roman Catholics could be saved through faith, his writings and sermons contain certain hostile references to “popery” and “the errors of the Church of Rome,” which hopefully he would phrase differently if he were alive today. His commentary on the Book of Revelation reflects a rather ungracious view of the Papacy; so much so that it is somewhat daring of you to invite me here today, and perhaps equally daring of me to accept! The Catholic response to Wesley and early Methodists was, however, no better, and happily we have ceased to blame each other.
Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, written during the anti-Methodist riots in Cork in 1749, was something of an exception to all of this. Indeed it has been referred to as an ecumenical classic. In a plea for greater understanding, Wesley outlines what he sees as the essential beliefs of “true, primitive Christianity,” wherein most of what is said could be easily embraced by the Catholic Church. He invites Methodists and Catholics “to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom,” and proposes that “if we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike,” and finally, expresses his hope that they will meet in heaven.
A Catholic reflection on John Wesley needs to grapple with his ambivalent understanding of the Catholic Church, but cannot stop there; we must also seek a wider view, to see what dynamized Wesley’s ministry, to see the evangelical passion which gave direction to his life and the movement he started. Furthermore, we do so today in a new context, engaging in a reassessment of John Wesley’s life and ministry from a very different starting point.
Following upon the positive experience and reports of Methodist observers at the Second Vatican Council, a dialogue was initiated between the member churches of the World Methodist Council and the Catholic Church. Our [decades] of dialogue have already borne much fruit. A genuine friendship has emerged between us, not only on the level of the official dialogue, but in many local contexts as well, where Methodists and Catholics see themselves as ecumenical partners who feel an obligation to take their relationship further and to offer common witness. The hostility has passed, and we have come to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
At least in part, we now look to John Wesley through eyes educated by our dialogue, and by our experience of Methodists today. A recent study of John Wesley notes that he left a lasting imprint on Methodism in much the same way as Ignatius of Loyola did on future Jesuits. In like manner, just as you continue to turn to the ministry of John Wesley for inspiration and guidance, we can look to see and find in him the evangelical zeal, the pursuit of holiness, the concern for the poor, the virtues and goodness which we have come to know and respect in you. For all of this, we can all afford to be profoundly grateful.
This morning’s readings, especially our text from the Second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians, provide us with a framework to reflect on the call to discipleship, the call to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the call to personal holiness. As we do so, we can make connections with the life and ministry of John Wesley, and hear some of his words which still resonate with us today.
After an eloquent account of what Paul and his companions had experienced and endured in order to bring the gospel to the people of Corinth, Paul notes: We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections… (vv.11-12). The missionary spirit which we see in St Paul is certainly one which inspired John Wesley, as was Paul’s desire to give himself completely to Christ. Wesley noted that as a young man, reading Thomas à Kempis awoke in him an interior dimension of faith, “the religion of the heart.” He wrote: “I saw that giving even all my life to God… would profit me nothing unless I gave my heart, yea all my heart to Him.” His experience of God at the Aldersgate Street gathering in 1738 in turn gave him the conviction that God’s forgiveness and grace were given unconditionally to him, and this propelled him to mission.
For Wesley, there was no such thing as being a half-Christian. The gift received invited a response of the whole person, with intellect and heart, knowledge and piety placed generously at the service of the Gospel, put into action in order that Christian discipleship touched every aspect of the life of the believer. Wesley told his itinerant preachers: “You have nothing to do but to save souls, therefore spend and be spent in this work.” The experience of the disciples at the end of today’s gospel, the sense of awe and wonder at the way in which Jesus had calmed the wind and sea, was an experience Wesley looked to awaken in his hearers in order that they might be converted to a vibrant discipleship of Christ.
Today’s passage from St Paul also presents the urgent need to spread the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. “See, now is the acceptable time; … now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). As a folk theologian, an itinerant preacher travelling throughout Britain, Wesley was moved by this same sense of urgency to patiently but persistently spread the glad tidings of salvation, to preach the Word in season and out. His mission was grounded in Scripture, in his understanding of Scripture as the primary and abiding testimony to the redemptive work of God in Christ. He saw his mission as “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”
The core of the message was the limitless grace and love of God, echoing a line addressed to God from today’s Psalm (9:10): “You have never forsaken those that seek you.” As the leader of a revival movement, Wesley organized rounds and circuits to be visited by a band of itinerant preachers. The pastoral style he taught and encouraged was characterized by a desire to make known the love of Christ, to reform the inner life of the church, to encourage participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, to foster Christian education, to serve the poor, to impassion professed Christians into articulate witness for Christ’s sake.
A final aspect of John Wesley’s ministry deserves to be commented upon at greater length, namely his understanding of sanctification, the call to holiness. Again we can turn to today’s text from St Paul, where he outlines how he and his missionary companions have sought to live: in “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left…” (2 Cor 6:6-7). Following in the spirit of this little litany of St Paul, Wesley understood the call to holiness as being both intensely personal and strongly ecclesial. He encouraged his hearers to strive towards a holy life, to live disciplined, simple lives removed from worldly pleasures, and stressed devotional exercises as a means to grow in one’s relationship with God.
The same Lord who calmed the wind and sea can bring stillness and calm to our hearts if we place all our trust in him. The following “personal covenant” dating from 1780 communicates well Wesley’s desire to invite his hearers into such a trusting relationship with God:
I come Lord, I believe Lord.
I throw myself upon thy Grace and Mercy;
do not refuse me!
I have not whither else to go;
Here will I stay, I will not stir from thy door;
On thee will I trust, and rest, and venture myself.
On thee I lay my hope for pardon, for life, for salvation.
if I perish, I perish on thy shoulder;
if I sink, I sink in thy vessel;
if I die, I die at thy door….
At the same time, Wesley saw clearly the importance of Christian community, and sought to cultivate a strong sense of ecclesial identity, desiring through his itinerant preaching to leave behind a company of men and women closely knit together in a common life. It is interesting to hear the testimony of George Whitefield, an itinerant preacher who started out in Wesley’s company of preachers, but eventually went his own way. Whitefield noted that by joining people together in small communities, Wesley “preserved the fruit of his labour. This,” wrote Whitefield, “I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
We began our reflections from St Paul with his words our hearts are wide open to you. Today’s passage concludes with his plea, open wide your hearts also (v.13). It is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work among us that Methodists and Catholics today can hear this call and seek to respond to it increasingly together, mindful of our common baptism, and in the context of an ever developing relationship which invites us to share, to the extent that it is presently possible, in Christ’s mission to the world.
The most recent report of the international Methodist-Catholic dialogue is entitled “Speaking the Truth in Love,” and its preface notes that this phrase of St Paul (Eph 4:15) “captures both the spirit in which the dialogue has proceeded and the result that is hoped for from it.” May we ever hold fast to both truth and love, pursuing them in tandem, and trusting that if we do so, the Holy Spirit will draw us ever more closely together.
The Methodist tradition of hymns is one which has resulted in an enriching of the Catholic Church and many other Christian traditions. Charles Wesley’s hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling is well known to English speaking Christians throughout the world. Mindful of the principle that our prayer expresses our belief (lex orandi, lex credendi), let us make the last verse of that hymn our common prayer to the Lord today:
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.