Reisterstown United Methodist Church

Francis Asbury: Grounded in Love - Propelled to Act

In 1771, tensions were beginning to increases between the colonies and England.  But as with so many who have a strong vision and love for God, a young British lay preacher stepped off a ship in Philadelphia as a missionary to North America.  Francis Asbury wrote in his journal:  “Whither am I going?  To the New World.  What to do?  To gain honor?  No, if I know my own heart.  To get money?  No, I am going to live to God and bring others to do so.”

This brief video gives us an overview of his ministry in the colonies.  [You may view the video, Francis Asbury: American Saint, at       http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/methodisms-american-saint-bishop-francis-asbury 

There is one thing I want to bring to the forefront that wasn’t mentioned in the video.  When the Revolution broke out, Francis Asbury was the only British circuit rider left.  What was mentioned in the video is that the Methodist colonists were without access to the sacraments.  That’s because Francis Asbury and “his” preachers were not clergy.  They were all lay preachers, dependent on the Anglican priests to offer sacraments until Wesley finally authorized Coke to ordain Asbury and make him the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The Anglicans had to leave since they were Brits and therefore behind enemy lines.

One more thing I want to be sure we point out today is that Francis Asbury himself came to Reisterstown to preach on February 6, 1777, the date which we claim as the founding of this congregation.  Asbury is buried in Baltimore’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, on Frederick Avenue.

The Sunday nearest May 24 is designated Heritage Sunday by our denomination.  May 24, as you may recall, is the date of Wesley’s warmed heart experience at Aldersgate Street, a highly significant event for us as Methodists.  This year, however, the emphasis is on Asbury because March 31 was the 200th anniversary of his death.

You know, messages like this one could be all about what used to be.  Some guy who lived more than 200 years ago – enh!?!  My hope is that you’re still with me and that we can spend just a couple of minutes exploring how Asbury’s heart and life shaped who we are as United Methodists and still prod us to live out of the core of our United Methodist faith.

Asbury planted within the heart of our faith a theology of love and inclusion.  Along with the Wesleys, as Rev. Alfred Day III wrote, “he preached God's jaw-dropping, amazing, boundless, boundary-breaking, life-igniting ALL consuming, merciful, redeeming, perfect, perfecting and sufficient love.”  (I wish I had written that sentence!)  His act of ordaining Richard Allen, the first Black pastor in American Methodism, in 1799, as well as his strong stance against slavery demonstrated his conviction that God’s love, and presumably God’s church, knew no racial or ethnic barriers. 

We, as Asbury’s “children,” are to always be examining our life together for evidence that we are continuing in living out our commitment to radical love and open-armed inclusion – living this out as a church body as well as individuals.  We must ask ourselves if we are excluding those who seek God either in this congregation or when they meet us in our daily lives for any reason.  And we have to ask ourselves whether we have projected judgments that push people away.  As Methodists, inclusion and grace are at our core.

Asbury’s second legacy is that United Methodists are people who Experience God’s Love in Jesus Christ and in the experience are Transformed. 

A local church Lay Leader, thought to be the congregation's model Christian, surprised everyone one day describing a new experience of spiritual renewal.  He spoke about faith moving from his head, where it had comfortably resided for years, to his heart, where he felt fervor he hadn't before.  All at once, that fire that moved from head to heart ignited his hands and feet.  As far back as the Wesleys, to this very moment, United Methodist DNA stirs the rational and doctrinal towards the experiential—what John Wesley called "practical divinity." Our Book of Discipline's Theological Statement says: Our Theological Task is essentially practical.  It informs individuals’ daily decisions and serves the church's life and work... incorporat[ing] the promises and demands of the gospel into our daily lives (The Book of Discipline, pg. 79)[1]

Finally, Asbury’s life and witness showed us that United Methodists, propelled to put God's love experienced in Jesus Christ into action, are DIFFERENCE MAKERS

Grounded in and experiencing the God of love and inclusion in Jesus Christ, United Methodists can't sit still. The experience is dynamic. The Holy Spirit provides the energy.  Our United Methodist “family tree” is filled with Spirit-driven difference-makers.  From the Wesleys, and Asbury and Richard Allen, from Francis Willard, the famous suffragette and head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, William and Catherine Booth, who founded the Salvation Army, and Mary McCleod Bethune, an educator who opened higher education to Black women, to the Methodist-influenced world leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and the world’s first elected black female president, we have been and are witnesses in and to the world—in word and deed, personally and institutionally, collectively, spiritually, materially acting-out God's love in Christ.[2]

Last week our message showed the importance of 3 elements that open disciples to the power of the Holy Spirit:  prayer, obedience and work.  Today’s 3 elements of being United Methodist as embodied in the life and work of Francis Asbury are very similar. 

  • Grounded in a wide theology of love and inclusion
  • Open to experience God’s love in Jesus Christ so that we can be transformed; and
  • Propelled to act out God’s love as we experience it – to be difference makers wherever we can.

Asbury said, "My desire is to live more to God today than yesterday, and to be more holy this day than the last."  How very Methodist of him!  Thanks be to God!

[1] From Resources for Heritage Sunday 2016:  http://gcah.org/resources/heritage-sunday-2016

[2] Ibid.

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