By Rev. Dr. V. Yvonne Conner*
A project designed to embolden Wesleyan theology among clergy and laity of color in the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church is nearing completion after eight months devoted to the study of Wesley sermons. The project is a partnership that brought Dr. Gloria Brown from the East Ohio Conference Commission on Religion and Race together with Dr. Diane Lobody and Dr. Lisa Withrow of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) to develop Wesley scholars throughout the jurisdiction.
Eight sermons, complete with background material and video explanation, have been read in small groups. Groups participated via online discussions, conference calls and some in face to face sessions. The project concludes with a jurisdictional John Wesley retreat May 30 and 31 on the campus of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
The following overview is a reflection on the Wesley scholars’ final assignment, General Deliverance –Romans 8:19-22.
In his current hit single, “Happy,” Pharrell Williams sings, “Happiness is a room without a roof.” Residents in 18th century England discussing purpose and value of life considered happiness a core value measured by material gain and community status. Their value system placed friends and family as their central focus. This made it difficult for individuals to see needs beyond those expressed by their own inner circle or family.
Many did not believe in an afterlife and made the best of their earthly existence. But they did place great status on having both domestic and wild animals. A yacht without a domesticated animal was frowned upon. Wesley strongly believed in an afterlife and defined it as heaven. In this context heaven is Wesley’s goal for fulfillment. Heaven means eternal joy in Christ – eternal happiness is in the future.
Theologians in Wesley’s time believed the soul rested in the bosom of Abraham after death until the final establishment of the New Jerusalem. He leads us on an excursion through this sermon about whether or not the heavenly reign would include both the representation spiritual and physical realms. He believed this reign would indeed include the wellbeing of animals, too.
Homiletically, I think the discussion about animals was Wesley’s method of getting the attention of his audience. People were committed to finding happiness for themselves and pets played a significant role in their lifestyle. He masterfully linked eschatology and soteriology to draw attention to the need of the entire household – human and animal alike – to have a sustainable futuristic plan beyond that made possible by materialistic gain.
Based upon scientific studies of which his circle of influence would have been aware, Wesley moved the discussion toward the ordered levels of cognitive capacity that rest with all of God’s creation. Humankind’s capability falls just one level below the angels. Using the ideal set forth by the ordered level of beings, Wesley ventured into arguments that infer that animals had the capacity to make choices before the fall of humankind into a sinful state. God loves humankind and all of creation equally but humankind is the only created being with the capacity to love God in response to God’s own love.
Wesley tells us that the sin of humankind has blocked blessings other members of God’s created order are due to receive. So, when scripture speaks of all creation groaning for the completion of this current season of things, it extends release of these blessings in response to the cries of animals as well as cries lifted on behalf of sufferings endured by humankind.
The part of the sermon and background information that speaks to me are those stating that people in the 18th century expressed interest in discerning a purpose for their life in the greater scheme of things. Where is the dwelling place for happiness if it is not within each of us? Do we work out of necessity? When does this focus shift for us?
John Maxwell says leaders must be disciplined about raising our capacity to increase our influence in the world. Each generation has opportunity to build on foundations set in place by those who have come before us.
Dr. William B. McClain contends that the question for persons of African ancestry in reference to Wesleyan theology is “what’s the appeal?” Why have we continued to embrace Methodism over the years since the life time of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen? Dr. McClain, himself being a lifelong Methodist, answers his own question by stating that it is because “we find Methodism adaptive and we are drawn to its practice of inclusion.”
Studying the sermons of John Wesley has been a way for clergy and laity of color to fully claim their place at the table and identity in the Wesleyan family.
*Rev. Dr. V. Yvonne Conner is a Wesley scholar and Methodist Theological School in Ohio alumni.