For Advent we will look at John Wesley’s sermon titled “The More Excellent Way” over 1 Corinthians 12:31 “31 But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way”. Today we will look at the introduction as Wesley understands this one verse to be an important transition to understand 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. If you want to read the full sermon it is found here: The More Excellent Way.
In the preceding verses, St. Paul has been speaking of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost; such as healing the sick, prophesying, (in the proper sense of the word; that is, foretelling things to come) speaking with strange tongues, such as the speaker had never learned, and the miraculous interpretation of tongues. And these gifts the Apostle allows to be desirable; yea, he exhorts the Corinthians, at least the teachers among them (to whom chiefly, if not solely, they were wont to be given in the first ages of the Church) to covet them earnestly, that thereby they might be qualified to be more useful either to Christians or heathens. "And yet," says he, "I show unto you a more excellent way;" far more desirable than all these put together, inasmuch as it will infallibly lead you to happiness both in this world and in the world to come; whereas you might have all those gifts, yea, in the highest degree, and yet be miserable both in time and eternity. (Introduction.1)
John Wesley begins his sermon lifting up Paul’s paradox. We have been given extraordinary gifts by the Holy Spirit to do amazing things. These gifts or works are desirable and Paul encourages the Corinthians to seek them out as useful in spreading the message of Christ to both believer and non-believer. Wesley will go on and say while many of the “extraordinary” gifts have not been seen in sometime we have been given gifts of speech, knowledge and faith we can strive for. This is a reflection of John Wesley’s life. He lived with strict discipline-fasting, prayer and scripture reading. He lived his life as a pursuit of knowledge- he was one of the most well-read persons of his time. He lived his life proclaiming Jesus- at first from the pulpit, then in the fields, and then with acts of assistance to those in need. AND YET, as the scripture says, Wesley knew he was missing something. And that is Paul’s paradox- we are to work hard and strive for the gifts of the spirit and yet our work will never satisfy, fulfill or save us. There is a more excellent way.
The way of love, -- of loving all men for God's sake, of humble gentle, patient love, -- is that which the Apostle so admirably describes in the ensuing chapter. And without this, he assures us, all eloquence, all knowledge, all faith, all works, and all sufferings, are of no more value in the sight of God than sounding brass or a rumbling cymbal, and are not of the least avail toward our eternal salvation. Without this, all we know, all we believe, all we do, all we suffer, will profit us nothing in the great day of accounts. (Introduction.4)
Love is the more excellent way. All our works, without love, is vanity and meaningless. One can imagine the impact this passage had on Wesley as a high functioning overachiever. This is seen in the rest of the sermon. While many would leave with the understanding that love is the most important gift, Wesley turns it a little by wondering what a faith would look like if it indeed possessed this more excellent way of love.
But at present I would take a different view of the text, and point out "a more excellent way" in another sense. It is the observation of an ancient writer, that there have been from the beginning two orders of Christians. The one lived an innocent life, conforming in all things, not sinful, to the customs and fashions of the world; doing many good works, abstaining from gross evils, and attending the ordinances of God. They endeavoured, in general, to have a conscience void of offence in their outward behaviour, but did not aim at any particular strictness, being in most things like their neighbours. The other sort of Christians not only abstained from all appearance of evil, were zealous of good works in every kind, and attended all the ordinances of God, but likewise used all diligence to attain the whole mind that was in Christ, and laboured to walk, in every point, as their beloved Master. In order to this they walked in a constant course of universal self-denial, trampling on every pleasure which they were not divinely conscious prepared them for taking pleasure in God. They took up their cross daily. They strove, they agonized without intermission, to enter in at the strait gate. This one thing they did, they spared no pains to arrive at the summit of Christian holiness; "leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, to go on to perfection;" to "know all that love of God which passeth knowledge, and to be filled with all the fullness of God." (Introduction.5)
I debated about whether this sermon would be too much of a downer for our Christmas season. No one wants to be asked “are you Christian enough?” and this is especially true during Christmas were we celebrate the joy and hope we find in Jesus. It seems that in a season of hope and love we may look at Wesley’s sermon and say that he doesn’t want to say “AND YET” to leave a faith defined by works to experience the more excellent way of love we find in Jesus. And yet, there is a more excellent way for us to experience this Christmas. Yes, it is in the love we find in Christ as well as family and friends. It is also in the love we share to those around us. What would it look like if we were serious about the joy, love, hope and peace we proclaim at Christmas? Would our outward behavior, our use of our gifts, our words used in person or on-line change? I believe this is what Wesley is trying to reveal. That there is a more excellent way in knowing Christ's love and that love reveals there is a more excellent way for us to live out and share his love to others. As we approach Christmas I encourage you to seek the more excellent way. You could:
Greet each person in the stores and in public with the same smile you give your best friend.
Buy one less gift for a family and friends so you can donate a gift to someone in need.
Pray that God, through the Holy Spirit, will help you know the love we find in Jesus and help you share that love with others.
May these ideas or others that you come up with help guide you to a more excellent Christmas this year.