There are few more established routines in life than the famous bedtime story. When our children were small it was the only way a day could be brought properly to an end. The number of stories which we read, remembered from our own childhood or, quite frankly, made up on the spot during that sacred nightly ritual, must number in the thousands. It was Eugene Peterson who gave us the classic version of the expectant question, “Daddy, tell me a story and put me in it.” Story telling is the most basic human activity. All of our memories are built around stories. When we get together with our friends, what do we do? We tell stories. We exchange little narratives with each other. We laugh and we tell more stories. Life is not just filled with facts and information like much of our e-mail, it is an unfolding story – a narrative. The gospel itself is like this, isn’t it? It is a grand narrative. We call it the “meta-narrative” – the grand story – the story of God’s mission. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously wrote. But, history is more than merely a stage for our stories, our “exits and entrances.” For Christians the whole of history is a grand stage for God’s mighty acts – our exoduses and his entrances! Elizabeth Browning said, “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush aflame with God, But only those who SEE take off their shoes. The rest sit around eating blackberries and daub their natural faces unaware.” Most people don’t get it – they’re sitting around eating blackberries! We live our whole lives in light of this grand story! “Daddy, tell us a story and put us in it!” God is unfolding a grand story and, as the ultimate story teller, he is putting us in it!
God put Wesley’s story into his grand narrative
This is precisely what happened to Wesley on May 24th, 1738 at about ¼ till nine. For convenience sake, let’s call this the May 24th story. You need to have a May 24th story. It may not have happened to you on May 24th – you not even remember the date or that it took place at ¼ before nine! (process versus crisis), but you need a May 24th story. This is your stake in the ground… the point when you “got it”… when you said, “I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance was given to me that my sins, even mine, were taken away, and I was delivered from the law of sin and death.”
So, let’s call it the May 24th story. It’s your birth story! It’s about the foundation… it’s about walking through the front door.
On May 24, 1738 Wesley had a heartwarming, life changing, course altering experience at Aldersgate. Suddenly he discovers the word “faith.” Wesley scholars in our midst can correct my memory, but as I recall Wesley only used the word faith 7 times in his pre-Aldersgate sermons – and always a kind of generic “faith of the church” kind of theme, never in reference to personal, justifying faith. After Aldersgate, his sermons are filled with references to faith. I was on a youth group trip up into the mountains of N. Georgia and we stopped one evening at a boarding school in Rabun Gap (Nacoochee Valley-Rabun Gap) and we, along with a few hundred residents of the school, sat on wooden stools around tables and ate supper in a large, grungy cafeteria. In was the summer of 1975. At the end of supper we were anxious to board the bus and get on home to Atlanta when a man got up to give an after supper devotional. I – if I can borrow the language of Wesley – reluctantly sat back down on my wooden stool to wait out the devotional. The chaplain opened his Bible to Phil. 3 and shared very clearly from Paul’s declaration that he counts all things rubbish that he might be “found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own…, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8,9). Something happened as I sat there – I heard the gospel. Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience” like Luther’s “tower experience” or my own “boarding school cafeteria experience,” and you fill in your own story… These are May 24th stories.
There are some stories which you can’t tell until other stories are told. There are some stories in life which are logically prior and, indeed, necessary pre-requisites, to other stories. Your birth story, or your conversion story, or your wedding story are often stories which logically lay prior to other kinds of stories. Your May 24th story is a vital and logically prior story to what I want to share this morning.
This morning I want to tell another story – not the May 24th story, but another one, maybe a new story for some of you. However, I’m acknowledging up front that this new story requires that you already have a May 24th story as a prerequisite. If you don’t have that, then nothing I am about to say will make a bit of sense.
This brings us to New Year’s eve, bringing in the year 1739 (271 years ago). Wesley goes to another society meeting. This one hasn’t penetrated the popular imagination like Aldersgate, but it is essential if you are going to really understand Wesley and the whole Methodist movement. He goes down, not to Aldersgate, but to Fetters lane.
That night, at Fetters lane they have a prayer meeting – a kind of night watch vigil to bring in the new year. It is a long standing tradition among many Christians – pray in the new year – it is a lot more exciting than watching the ball drop with Dick Clark. So they are praying, and around 3:00 a.m. (Wesley was very particular in his journals about recording the time things happened!) January 1, 1739 something dramatic happens to Wesley. He later calls it his personal Day of Pentecost. He received a sanctifying experience where God re-oriented his heart and life. Listen to his own words, “On Monday morning, January 1, 1739, Mr. Hall & my brother Charles were present in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy and many fell down to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out with one voice, ‘We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’”
Wesley believed in sanctification as a doctrine before 1739, but it is was here that he experienced it. It became a new chapter in his spiritual journey. We’ll call it the Fetters Lane story. There is the May 24th story and there is the Fetters Lane story – both are essential in the life of the believer. Wesley’s life was re-oriented. He became sanctified. He was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Our text is the first of three times in Paul’s letters where he uses temple imagery to refer to the church. Paul is writing to a church which, in many ways, reflects the compromised church of our own day. It is a church filled with division and sin… jealously, quarrelling. “I belong to Paul, I belong to Cephas, I belong to Apollos”… they are missing the Grand Epic – they are caught up in little tiny petty narratives… they are picking blackberries when every bush is aflame with the presence of God! Yet, they proudly assert that everything they are doing is a sign of Sophia, worldly wisdom. This is a sophisticated group. This is the passage – the place – where Paul corrects their view of the church – their vision of what it means to be the People of God! It is not enough to have personal narratives, even personal testimonies… that can only get us to “I belong to Cephas or I belong to Paul.” Paul is helping us to see that holiness is only possible by bringing us into the community, the church.
He begins with the imagery of the field. You are God’s field… some plant, some water, but God causes the growth. He is trying to lift them up to the big vision….it is not about the people planting or watering, it is about God’s work. Then, in verse 9, Paul shifts the metaphor from a field to a building. You are God’s building. Here he makes the same point in a different way. Paul may be the bricklayer, Peter a roofer, and Apollos the plumber, but it is God’s building… He’s the architect… and Jesus Christ is the foundation stone. It is here we meet that great text, one which always makes the “must memorize” list, vs 11, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.!” But, as Paul develops the metaphor, it is not just a generic building that God is constructing it is the temple!! Here is where we begin to capture a deeper understanding of holiness. Our tradition regularly focuses on the importance of personal holiness and the importance of sanctification. If you have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit and had your heart re-directed to God’s love then you need to really ask yourself if your salvation is fully Trinitarian. But, holiness does not end with an experience of personal sanctification. For the Apostle Paul holiness cannot be understood in merely personal, private terms. You see, if you eradicate every single sin in your life by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are only half way there… Because the real story of holiness is not the sins which we avoid, but the fruit we produce…. It is not just saying “No”, rather, it is about a lot of “yes’s”!! You can’t be holy without your neighbor!
It is here in this text that we see Paul moving theologically from justification to sanctification. Yet, for St. Paul, it can never be construed as only a personal journey. For Paul, it is a journey in community – it is an eschatological journey which is embodied in community of the church in the present. Jesus Christ is the foundation – that’s justification. We are saved by and through and in Jesus Christ – sola fide, solus Christus – Hallelujah!
But how are we building on that one foundation? The building happens in community. Here Paul recalls the Temple.. are we building on it with gold, silver, and costly stones? Are we using wood, hay or straw? The Corinthians, it is clear, were, though their division and sin and bickering, building with wood, hay and straw – none of it would survive the great eschatological test – the fire of God – which is, remember the Presence of God, the shekinah glory!
Don’t you know, Paul declares, that you are God’s temple. It is not you singular, but you the people of God are God’s temple. Paul uses the word vaos – the actual sanctuary, the place of God’s dwelling, the holy of holies, not merely iepov, the larger temple precincts (LXX distinction). The church – that is, the community of God’s people – is the place where the Spirit of God dwells in his people, the restored temple of Ezekiel’s vision (40-48) where God promises “to live among them.” The “Holy of Holies” – where is it today? It is now wherever God’s people are gathered in His name! Remember the veil in the Temple rent in two; not merely our access in… but God’s presence going forth… “God’s outpost in Adam’s world goes viral – make disciples of all nations… create communities of holiness all over the world. All of the realities of the New Creation breaking into the people of God—forgiveness, reconciliation, holiness.
Holiness become mobile… contrast with Jewish and Islamic view of holy space.. for us, holiness is community based and it is virally mobile. Child prostitution in Thailand, loving Muslims in NY City, hope for refugees in Sudan, creation care.
There were many pagan temples in Corinth… they were used to visiting them.. Paul is declaring to the Corinthians that actually the living God only has one temple in Corinth… and it is them… they are the temple of God.. they are the eschatological community!! The spirit of God dwells in your midst!! The church is the people of the spirit!!
We must reclaim the basic theological point that salvation is the work of the Triune God because that is the root and foundation of all community. We need to be justified through the work of Jesus Christ and be sanctified through the work of the Holy Spirit, all according to the purposes and for the glory of God the Father. You need a May 24th story – Your Aldersgate…your justification… and you need a Fetters Lane story … Your sanctification… Sanctification is what re-orients your heart away from sin and towards God. As I noted in my convocation address, holiness is about even more than the eradication of sin. If you were to eradicate every sin in your life, it would only get you half way there! Because sanctification is not just about what we avoid, but what we produce – fruitfulness. In Wesley, “faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed.” I pointed out that we have been passing on a truncated view of holiness which is forensic, private, negative and static. That becomes legalistic, self-focused, identified by what we don’t do, and even more important it has been non-missional. True holiness focuses on the full range of holiness which is the positive vision… it is not merely forensic, but it is relational; it is not private, but embedded in community, not negative, but is a vision of the in-breaking New Creation; not static, but virally mobile. It is this virally mobile. That is the point of our text this morning: God is building His church – not instrumental, but ontological. Every church should be “an outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world.” (Sandy Richter). I call it “missional holiness” – holiness which extends to the ends of the earth.. all peoples, all nations. Neo-holiness moves us out from the long night of self-imposed exile whereby the biblical vision of holiness was truncated to either personal holiness or social holiness, rather than it being personal, social and global all made possible through the life and witness of the church, God’s temple in the world.
Many of you this morning have a broken, fragmented view of the church. You think it’s just about you and Jesus. Listen to the songs that our generation sings. You think it’s about being justified. Brothers and sisters, the Word of God declares you wrong! Sexual immorality, greed, enmity, broken relationships…all of these mark the old life… The church is not just the aggregate gathering of all the justified individuals who happen to come together. The church is what God is building in the world. Jesus Christ is the foundation, and He is building His church. You cannot fully enter into holiness unless and until you are rightly related to the church, the people of God. It is possible to become justified by yourself on a deserted island, but sanctification only happens in the context of community. It is the church which is the lens through which you capture and understand the glorious work of God. You (plural) are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you (plural)!! We are more than Luther’s “dung hills covered in snow”…. Simul Justus et peccator—imputed righteousness—we are being made holy through the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s telling a very big story, and he’s putting you in it! His temple is sacred, and you plural are that temple. The story God is telling is the story of the church, the bride of Christ being prepared for that final day when we will be eternally united with Him. Thanks be to God.