A Sermon in the Wesleyn Spirit

“Repentance is the porch to religion, faith is the door to religion and the essence of religion is holiness”…John Wesley

(This sermon was prepared for the class, “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit”.)

Text: Luke 15: 11-31

To me, the richest portions of truth, the meatiest cuts of learning are found on the abundantly furnished tables of the Bible, heaped upon the plates of the parables.  In particular, it is the parables of the New Testament – those stories told by Jesus Himself – that I find most delectable.  Jesus was a master storyteller.  He took the lofty truths of God and brought them into the simplest of language so that we could share in them.  Jesus had a wonderful ability to captivate His audience with His stories.  Even now, two thousand years after those stories were first shared, Jesus is still weaving His listeners into the fabric of those parables.  His illustrations give us understanding and application to our everyday living.  They move and change us.  They convict and challenge us.  And with them we more clearly perceive the things that are of God.

Today, by the grace and help of the Holy Spirit, I hope to share with you an illustration that provides understanding of this grand thing we call Christianity.  It is an illustration that John Wesley used to bring his listeners closer to a great spiritual truth.  Simply put, it is: “Repentance is the porch to religion, faith is the door to religion and the essence of religion is holiness.”  We shall examine this illustration of Wesley’s through one that Jesus Himself told.

In Luke 15, Jesus brings us three wonderful stories in response to the Pharisees who contended that He was not living a holy lifestyle – that He was keeping company with sinners and therefore living far from the will of God.  Jesus’ stories here show us how little they knew of the essence of God and how really distant they were from a holy lifestyle.

The last of these stories is what we often refer to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It begins with a description of a house.  A house where a father lives with his two sons.  It is a home that is abundant with provision and safety.  And as we will discover, it is a home built with bricks of grace, held together with the mortar of love.  Those who accused Jesus of lacking holiness might well be surprised with the rules governing this home.

Jesus tells us that the youngest of these sons, strange as it may seem, became discontented in this home.  He did not recognize the benefits and joys available to him.  So, he asked his father for his inheritance and set out to discover what the world had to offer.  Soon his wealth and good fortune ran as dry as the famine that struck the land, and he could no longer sustain himself.  Taking a job where he waited at the table of pigs, he sank to sad depths.  Then, one day, Jesus tells us, the son “came to his senses.”   He remembered his home.  He remembered his father.  He remembered the benefits of living in connection with his father and his family, and he longed once again for that home.

But how could he ever return?  How could he explain the repugnant smell of swine on his tattered clothing?  How would his father ever take him back?  This son resolved within himself that there was only one way – he must repent of his sins.  He must not only say to himself that he was sorry but he must explain his great regret to his father and ask to be taken back home.  But this repentance would not be only in words, it would also be of deed; not only a matter of the heart but also of the will. He would pick himself up and return.  And in so doing, he discovered that the porch to his father’s house is approached with repentance.

And with that repentance, we find the most stirring reunion ever recorded in the pages of scripture.  The father, longing for his son, rejoiced that day as he saw his son walking on the road leading toward their home.  He went out to meet him, but walking would not do.  He ran.  He ran to his wayward son who was returning and, as he drew near, he heard the words that made the reunion possible – “Father, I have sinned.”

Let me ask, can we expect to enter the house of relationship by doing anything different?  Can we hope to be in relationship with God and with our neighbor by doing less than repenting?  Can we for a moment believe that we can simultaneously live in the pigpen and also in the house of God?  Absolutely not!  We cannot begin the journey to the house without repentance.  We must abandon our sinful and selfish lives and renounce them.  We must leave the filthy mire that surrounds a life without God and resolve to return home.  It is a truth that our journey home begins as this young man’s.  It begins with repentance and we cannot expect to return without it.

Jesus’ story tells of another brother, the older brother who did not leave home.   He missed his younger brother’s reunion, not because he was disobeying his father, but because he was busy serving him.  When this older son returned from the fields, he was greeted by the sounds of rejoicing.  Having spent a day in labor, this son must have been tired and longing for the comforts of home.  Yet when he heard the reasons for the rejoicing, he became angry and would not go inside.  His father came out, entreating him to enter, but his stubbornness would not permit him to go any farther.

Sadly, this elder son had placed his confidence in his years of tireless service and strict obedience.  He counted not on the grace of his father for their relationship, but upon his own good works.  And now, facing the images of mercy and forgiveness shown toward his brother, concepts his lifestyle had not permitted him to know, he could react only in hurt and anger.  The walls of self-righteousness he had built and placed his hope upon were now beginning to crumble, while his pride was being challenged.  It seemed he desired to be in his father’s home, but he found the door now a different and difficult passage.

To come inside his father’s house, he would have to leave behind his pride and self-righteousness.  Like his younger brother, he too would have to repent.  Jesus clearly shows us that both the wayward heart and the diligent soul must come to a place of repentance, before stepping upon the porch.

But is repenting enough?  Is it necessary only to turn from our sins and our wickedness to enter the home and find its benefits?  John Wesley says no and I agree.  Repentance takes us only to the door but not beyond it.  Faith, Mr. Wesley says, is what moves us from the porch and into the house.  It is the door.  If we are to repent we must believe that there is something waiting for us beyond repentance.  To turn from our wickedness and sins, we must believe there is something to turn to.  The wayward, younger son that Jesus described entered into his father’s house because he had faith in what lay inside.  If he could not believe that there was anything greater in the house of his father than what remained behind in the pigsty, then his journey would have been in vain.  Do we not read in the book of Hebrews that one who approaches God must believe that “He is, and He is a rewarder of those who seek Him?”  Yes, the first glimpses of faith are found, perhaps even unknown and unfelt, whenever a soul begins to seek God.

“O, I desire to enter!  But how do I have such faith?” one might ask in response to Jesus’ beautiful parable.   A good question to ask, and a wonderful answer to discover!  For faith is not so difficult that we cannot understand it, nor is it so divine that we cannot claim it.  It is taking the desire right now that is within you and giving that desire wings, as you trust God for your life!  Hoping no more in the things of this world or your own good works, your faith takes flight the moment you trust God for those things!  And what a marvelous flight it is!  How majestically faith soars above and beyond all that this world can offer.  How easily one slips through the veil that separates a weary life and one lived where even “angels long to look!”  Simply trust and the faith you desire is already yours.

Without this belief – this faith, we can go no farther.    But let it never be said that faith is supplemental or complementary to this passage.  It is not.  Faith is the only manner by which we may enter the house. It is not just a belief in the benefits of God – it is a requirement of passage.  Trusting not in our works, our righteousness or even our great remorse, we must fully trust God for His acceptance of us. Just as the writer of Hebrews told us that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” it is just as impossible for the homeward-bound son or daughter to enter into relationship with our Father without it.

And what is it that abides for us in the house?  What is it there that attracted both of the sons in Jesus’ parable?  Was it the security?  Was it the abundance of food and other provision?   Certainly those things were part of the living house, but they were not the whole of it.  John Wesley said, “the essence of religion is holiness.”  The centerpiece of the house is also the centerpiece of our religion – a holy life.  The benefits of the house are not the things there, but the life lived.  Holiness is living in relationship with God our Father and with those who have gathered with us.  It is being in connection with the love that was previously lost in the muck of sin and learning to love perfectly both God and our neighbor.  It is the joy that comes from bringing together an obedient lifestyle and an understanding of grace.

Both the wayward son and his diligent brother were drawn to their father’s house.  Both, I believe, yearned for relationship.  I do not think their yearnings are so strange from ours.  I do not believe our desires are less.  You and I are both described in this great parable, longing for relationship and holiness.  And Jesus does not leave us wanting, but gently shows us the way home.

For any who yet stand outside of this house, let the Holy Spirit call you to the porch through repentance.  For those who lean penitently upon the door, enter by faith.  And for those who have rushed into the waiting arms of a loving Heavenly Father, who have been ushered with much celebration into His Home, live out your life endeavoring to love God with all that you are, and celebrate His love by letting it shine forth to all the world.  Amen.