This coming Sunday, May 24th, is the anniversary of John Wesley’s conversion and an important date in the Methodist calendar.
There have been a number of famous Christian conversion experiences beginning with that of Paul described in Acts 9 and referred to again in Galatians 1 verse 17. Perhaps the most famous in Christian history is that of Augustine in Milan described in Book 8 of his Confessions. There he was sitting in the garden of his house feeling anguished and distressed when he heard a child next door calling out: “Pick it up, Read it, Pick it up, Read it. His mood changed at once and he took into his hands a copy of Paul’s letters and opening it at random read Romans 13 verses 13/14. And the rest as they say is history.
Augustine’s confessions is one of the great books best read in a modern translation of which there are many. My favourite is that of Sarah Ruden published in 2018. Try it. It could change your life. The account of his conversion experience has provided the template for other such experiences including perhaps that of John Wesley himself.
Wesley’s account of what happened on the evening of May 24th 1738 begins with his attending evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral-a good start-but then he goes to a Methodist meeting where one was reading from Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans. During the reading his heart was strangely warmed as he put it.
On the following day he went to another meeting (You can’t stop these people!) which he addressed on the subject of his conversion stating that until the previous evening he had not been a proper Christian at all. The leader of the meeting who obviously knew Wesley well was sceptical about this and told him that if he hadn’t been a proper Christian before May 24th he had given a very good impression of being one.
Somebody said to me once. Your problem Peter is that you never meet anyone because you are always going to meetings. (This was before I met the lady who subsequently became my wife-at a Methodist meeting!)
Other prominent Christians down the ages have testified to special experiences – St Thomas Aquinas the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages had such an experience at the end of his life and resolved to write no more. –which was something of a disappointment to those who admired his mind. But some Christians, perhaps most, have discounted such moments. Martin Luther when challenged as to how he knew he was a Christian simply replied: I have been baptized. That’s a good answer.
Heart-warming experiences are not peculiar to Christians –atheists and followers of other faiths have them too-some atheists have even been converted from Christianity by such experiences.
But I would not wish to be misunderstood. Special experiences can be blessings:
Many of us have been deeply moved by particular pieces of music –the choruses from Bach’s St Matthew Passion for instance or special hymns. Charles Wesley’s hymn “O thou who camest from above” never fails to move me-even to bring a tear to the eye. Provided it’s set to the right tune of course! This is what some Orthodox writers call the gift of tears. Then there are what I would call St Martin experiences-an encounter with someone in real need-causing within us an overflowing feeling of love-leading to action. Many of us have had experiences like that but we shouldn’t boast of them. Paul who seems to have been no stranger to mystical experiences preferred to speak only of his weaknesses and to insist: Let him who boasts boast only in the Lord.
Special experiences mean a lot to people and such people like to recall these special moments. But everyone is different. God speaks in many languages and through all manner of media. When Paul had his special experience on the Damascus Road those who were with him at the time heard nothing. Those who were with Wesley listening to Martin Luther’s comments on Romans remained unmoved. When I tried to replicate the moment by reading the same passage to a group of modern Methodists in Bristol everyone was thoroughly bored. It’s the same in the Holy Land-some are really excited by the Garden Tomb, others by the Sea of Galilee or the desert. In these things we are all different and in our differences we should rejoice.