Outside in a park; I love doing a worship service in a place like this. It’s an opportunity to be on the other side of our usual walls, and to be reminded that 50 North Main Street (Manheim, PA) is just a home base for what we do everywhere else. God preaches to us in the creation that surrounds us here. More than that, God shows us that there are people who use this park and live in these neighborhoods who need to know the Jesus we worship.
In our country, worshiping outside had its roots with the Methodists. In the early days, in the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, Methodists were known for their methodical way of living. They were devout Anglicans, mission-minded people, loyal members of the Church of England. But they were very aware that the huge cathedrals and the stiff religious practices of the Anglican Church were having very little impact on the common people. John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield were young Anglican priests, only in their twenties, when they each had a personal conversion experience. Then watching the common people walk by the churches, knowing that they would never come inside, the Wesleys and Whitefield decided to go out to them.
In the fields outside London in 1739, they stood on stumps and rocks and preached to the people as they went to work in the mines and the shops – at 5 or 6 in the morning. There were hecklers, but crowds listened, and grew bigger, and it wasn’t long before they were preaching literally all day and even at night.
The movement became so popular that the next year, George Whitefield was invited to America, and became one of the most influential people of the 18th century on this side of the Atlantic, which is a little strange, because most people today have never heard of him.
George Whitefield may have been one of the most effective preachers who ever lived. It was partly because of his style; he was a natural preacher. He never used notes and only used a pulpit when he had to be indoors and there was no other place to stand. He was not afraid to show emotion and knew how to use his body and his voice for the maximum effect. Benjamin Franklin once estimated the size of a crowd he was preaching to – without a microphone – at over 30,000, and he was clearly heard by everyone there.
The crowds that came to hear him were almost always larger than the population of the city where they met, even in Boston and Philadelphia. It’s estimated that by the time he had preached in America for 30 years, at least 80% of the people living in all the colonies had heard him in person at least once. Another estimate says he preached to about 10 million people during his lifetime.
The English actor David Garrick said he wished he could say, “Oh!” like Whitefield. Franklin became one of Whitefield’s best friends, and described how he could bring a crowd to tears simply by saying the word “Mesopotamia.”
That’s a description of his speaking style – that wasn’t what Whitefield preached about. He actually had a fairly simple message: put your complete faith in Christ and be saved, become one with God through Christ.
Because of Whitefield, the average person’s experience of church completely changed. Instead coming to church to follow religion, people came to experience Christ.
Whitefield never founded a church or a school or a denomination and refused to have anything named after him. He never had his sermons printed. He only traveled from town to town preaching. Even though he had this Anglican/Methodist background, he probably had more impact on churches in the northeastern United States than other preacher outside of Billy Graham.
In the 1740’s, in Philadelphia, a meeting hall was built for him to preach in. He preached in it for a year or two then left, and this became the first building of Pennsylvania University.
Whitefield probably preached many times from today’s passage from Romans. Open air preachers usually preached for at least two hours at a time, so this sermon is really only a sample! Romans 5:1-5 was most likely part of a sermon Paul had preached. When the apostle Paul wrote this sermon to the Romans, he had probably preached these words outdoors himself, to a crowd gathered in a synagogue courtyard, or by a river, or in a field somewhere.
Romans 5:1-5. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we* have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access* to this grace in which we stand; and we* boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we* also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
An Open Air Sermon. God calls us to have faith in the living Jesus and we are justified by our faith. Justification is a bible word, an ancient legal word that means “declared innocent.” I heard an old preacher say that God sees us “just as if” we had never sinned.
But justification has a more modern meaning, especially for those who use computers. When you hear the word “justify,” what do you think of? You think of pages of typing with straight margins. Print with no sloppy, ragged edges. And you can’t make it that way yourself; the computer has to do it for you. In the same way, Christians can’t justify themselves; only God does that.
Because God has declared us innocent, we have peace, which is more than just taking a deep breath and deciding not to worry. This is a good relationship with the creator of the universe, the God who made everything we see here today. This is confidence for living!
And as Paul puts it, we stand in this grace, which is God giving us salvation just because God loves us and wants to give it. We can’t earn it and nobody can take it away.
3And not only that, but we* also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
We are Rocky at the top of the steps in Philly. The world is our oyster. We can actually boast in our sufferings! Those who have walked the path of faith in Christ know that they have more endurance after a hard time. They know that character has grown in them; they less likely to give in to the dark side because they know that in the end, God wins. That knowledge is hope. By “hope” I don’t mean a wish that God is hoping and wishing we will be okay. This hope is a future that God has already given us in Christ. God’s love working in our hearts through the Spirit confirms it. All we need to do is believe.
The Methodists clung to the memories of those open air meetings and after they had become a denomination in America, separate from the church of England, especially as settlers moved westward, churches would have annual camp meetings. For a week, families would set up a little village in the woods, set up a pulpit, cook their meals outside and sleep in tents or log huts if they didn’t live nearby.
After the Civil War, many denominations including ours set up for themselves permanent campgrounds where people could come to get away – to be spiritually refreshed. Instead of tents, they built cottages. Usually in the center of it all was a large pavilion with canvas sides that could be rolled up, so that people listening to the preachers still had the feeling of being outside. Does this sound like a place you know? (Mt. Gretna, Martha’s Vineyard, Chautauqua) Many of us have stayed at one of these places at one time or another.
Is it possible that out here, we hear God’s voice a little more clearly? There are no walls out here. We hear the birds and the sounds of the neighborhood. We start to understand that it all comes down to God and us, God and you, God and me. And God is still inviting all of us to put our faith in Christ – and give that faith away to make a difference in the world through the love of Christ.
O God, as we are outside today, use the birds and the trees and the wind to remind us of whose earth we live in. We hear your voice in the wind, and you call to us; you remind us that we belong to you too. You created it all. You created us, and sent your Son to save us. Through him, you give a kind of life that never dies. Through him, we come to you. Through him, we are yours. Amen.