Downton Abbey, John Wesley, and Disruptive Grace

Dan Johnson

I made the claim this past Sunday, an outlandish one I might add, and would like your opinion, too. I stated in my sermon that Eph 2:8-9 (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast,” NIV) is the basis for (1) western civilization, (2) democracy, (3) equal rights, (4) voting rights, and (5) civil rights. Let me substantiate.

Here in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul (or someone else, if that’s your view), is addressing both Jewish and Gentile Christians, as he is in Rom 1-4. The fact that Jews and Gentiles can both share in the promises of God has raised enormous questions about God’s promises to the Jews as God’s chosen people. If non-Jews are now allowed in, then what does that say about God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness? Paul navigates these waters by asserting that the sole basis for a relationship with God is that of grace through faith — for both Jew (first) and Gentile.

This was revolutionary, although in reality it is as old as God’s love for creation and for the human beings he created. In Paul’s day, it removed the notion of ethnicity as the basis for being a recipient of God’s grace. The religious leaders didn’t take kindly to this “betrayal,” and worked to get Paul killed, something akin to what was done to Jesus — for essentially the same reasons.

Fast forward to 18th century England and the man named John Wesley. After his heart-warming experience at Aldersgate, he began to preach with fervor out of this experience of grace, so much so that he was turned out of nearly every Anglican Church in England, and told never to return. Strange, isn’t it? Someone preaching about “grace as God’s sole basis for acceptance” — why wouldn’t everyone be overjoyed? But the Anglican Church had become the provenance of the upper echelon of society. By implication, Wesley’s focus solely on grace meant that all people were on the same level, both in their sinfulness and need of grace, and in their being recipients of grace. This did not go over well, to say the least.

Fast forward to 1920’s England and Downton Abbey. My wife and I love this program, as do millions of others — even though I am against most everything it stands and stood for! Position by birth, hierarchy, “m’Lord and m’Lady,” enormous inequality, with those upstairs having privilege and honor while those downstairs having food and labor, and stations restricted because of a system meant to keep them so.

Fast forward to 1997. Our son did his junior year abroad at Oxford University. It was a most remarkable and wonderful year. He was a member of Mansfield College, where he got along splendidly with the principal of the college or headmaster (I don’t recall the exact title) — until his second semester when our son decided to earn a little extra money by working in the kitchen. All conversation with the headmaster ceased! When my son asked why, the answer was this: “Because now you’re working in the kitchen, and we don’t converse with servants.” My American, democracy-oriented, “all are created equal” son couldn’t believe it, and pressed: “You mean that before I worked in the kitchen you would be happy to talk with me, but just because I am working in the kitchen you won’t?” “Yes.”

Fast forward to 1964: Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr., and the march. King called our country to live into our historic documents — the Constitution and Declaration of Independence — and the reality that “all men are created equal” — just as Jesus and Paul called on their listeners to live into God’s word that all are equal before God; all have sinned and fallen short; all are in need equally of God’s grace!

The reason John Wesley got turned away from churches is the same reason Paul and Jesus were rejected: grace is an unsettling thing. Grace is a wondrous gift — one that implies, nay, requires equality; one that says our relationship with God, our innate value is not dependent on birth, ethnicity, skin color, sex, status, caste, etc., but on grace alone!

And the reason John Wesley, according to many historians, helped England avoid the bloody revolution the French experienced is because his message of grace to all was embraced by thousands of disenfranchised persons who were lifted by this message into the reality of equality, fraternity, and liberty in a most profound way, both personally in their relationship with God through Jesus, and collectively in their emerging role and status in society.

So, you see, I trust, that the Christian faith, far from being an irrelevant relic of the distant past as many “nones” and “dones” believe today, is, and continues to be, the basis for the very things “nones” and “dones” hold dear; the very things we all cherish when we embrace our freedom from the tyranny of birth, station, ethnicity, skin color, or sex as the determinative factors in our lives. And you can see why I embrace the unlimited possibilities of being “a new creation in Christ Jesus.”

Posted Feb 02, 2015

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