The Substance of a Sermon
preached at Baltimore, in the State of Maryland,
before the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church,
on the 27th of December, 1785,
at the Ordination of the Rev. Francis Asbury,
to the office of a Superintendent.
by Thomas Coke, LLD.
Superintendent of the said Church.
Published at the Desire of the Conference.
Printed by Goddard and Langworthy.
The Grand Characteristics of a Christian Bishop
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke
First Bishop of the Methodist Church
This is the preserving power and guard of every other grace.
As once was said: other graces, without humility, are like a fine powder in the wind without a cover. Let us be ever so zealous, work ever so hard, yet if we want humility, we will be only like Penelope with the web in the ancient fable, undoing at one time what we do at another [the reference is to an endless task]. There is something interwoven with human nature, which immediately recoils at the very appearance of pride.
But this man (Francis Asbury) is clothed with Humility. When no other Grace shines forth, still we discern this beautiful veil.
(Note: Bishop Coke presented this sermon at the worship service of the Conference that elected and ordained (or consecrated as we do today) Francis Asbury as bishop. The masculine references in language are directed to Francis Asbury. Please see the Notes page for further information and explanation of language and usage.)
We give him credit for everything. And when in spite of all his caution, some hidden gem peeps out, it sparkles with redoubled luster. But, above all, he is a vessel fit for his Master’s use.
His eye is single, he moves directly on his only desire to glorify God and benefit humanity, yea, he lives for no other end. He is “torn between two desires” (Philippians 1:23) and at the same time a fervent desire to be a blessing to his fellow creatures.
“He is crucified to the world,” and the world to him. (Galatians 6:14)
And his soul disentangled from every selfish view, and emptied of every selfish desire, is a fit receptacle of all the divine gifts which God is willing to bestow.
He continually lies at the feet of his Lord, and the language of his heart is “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory.” (Psalm 115:1)
Flow back the rivers to the sea, and let my all be lost in Thee. (See the notes for this reference.)
There is no impediment in his soul to the divine operations. He is as the clay in the hand of the potter, as the pen in the hand of the ready writer. His humble spirit simply inquires into the will of its God, and when that is discovered, confers no longer with flesh and blood, but fulfills it with the most entire resignation and great delight.
This is a passive Grace
It is the sacred ballast of the soul providing a holy stability and support. It is an evenness, a divine serenity of spirit which “is not provoked,” (1 Corinthians 13:5) which nothing can move to wrath. It is that moderation spoken of by St. Paul, which harmonizes all the passions, and holds every power of the heart in sweet subjection — it ties them all to the horns of the Altar.
In this the Christian bishop eminently shines. Amidst all the contradictions of sinners, and the provoking of tongues, he still retains his gracious state of mind.
The Christian bishop discovers no emotion but that of pity and compassion, gentleness of heart, and above all is love. This is the quiet Spirit, whose price is great in the sight of God. (1 Peter 3:4) [You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God]
It is the Spirit of the Lamb whose voice was not heard in the streets. It is the voice of the Lamb who was oppressed and afflicted, even so much as to be brought as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7) O how contrary to the spirit of the meek and lowly Jesus is the turbulence and violence of many who call themselves the Ministers of Christ. But “the sheep will flee from such, for they know not their voice.”
This is an active Grace
Gentleness is a grace which flows out in the conversation and the way one carries oneself in public and in private.
It is Christian courtesy.
This grace, the Christian bishop possesses in a high degree. “Grace is poured into his lips,” for from the fullness of Jesus “we have all received, grace upon grace.” (Psalm 45:2 and John 1:16) Nothing that is grating drops from his mouth. His very reproofs are dipped in oil. How invitational is all his language, while the hearer hangs upon his tongue! His words drop like the gentle dew from Heaven upon the place beneath. His looks, and every gesture, and every feature, beam forth Love.
This is a key to opening hearts. What an amazing field of action does this engaging temper, accompanied by the Blessing of God, gradually open to his zealous soul? He makes Christianity appear amiable even in the judgment of the world itself. And excepting when employed in the more severe duties of his function, he knows nothing of the pain of giving pain.
This is the Grace that “endures all things”
This grace flows out in sufferings and trials, and bears up the soul under every difficulty! —sub ponder crescit [Virtue grows under oppression.] The more this virtue is exercised, the stronger it grows.
Let us view the Christian bishop in this respect. Behold, with what a steady pace he moves! Equally unshaken by the smiles or frowns of others, he gently moves along, like a mighty river, that bears down all before it, and yet waters every fertile meadow on its sides. His great Zerubbabel proceeds before him, (Ezra 2) and every mountain drops into a plain. His soul “looks to Jesus, who endured the Cross, despising the shame,” (Hebrews 12:2) and earnestly endeavors to trace his example, the world to disdain, and constantly trample on pleasure and pain he smiles at persecution, and thanks his God for the opportunity of displaying an example to the world of the faith he proclaims.
Thus does he go on, till he has finished the work which God has given him to do. And when the organs of his body have been weakened and enervated (weakened) by the diseases which sooner or later assault the mortal frame, he still puts forth his little strength for the glorious cause in which he has been so long engaged, till having “fought the good fight, and finished his course,” he drops asleep in the arms of his God.
His soul is far above the fear of temporal dangers. He possesses this Cardinal Virtue in all its strength and vigor. He “adds to his Faith, Courage.” (2 Peter 1:5) And though it is so divinely tempered by all the softer passions, as to be hid to all but the discerning eye, when not drawn out to action. Yet there it ever resides, even in his inmost soul, like an iron pillar strong.
But when the Church, which he fosters in his anxious bosom, is in danger, he always steps out to the front. He stands in the front of the battle, and endeavors to receive himself all the fire of the enemy. Like a faithful Shepherd he steps between the wolf and the sheep, and is perfectly willing to lay down his life for their sake. If you touch the Church of God, you touch the apple of his eye.
And though he is not entirely ignorant of the value of his life and labors, yet when the cause of Zion calls him forth, He “laughs at fear and is unafraid [and] does not run from the sword.” (Job 39:22)
He beholds his once-suffering, but now exalted Savior. He looks up to the noble army of Martyrs, “the cloud of witnesses,” and follows their glorious track,
Want, pain defy,—enjoy disgrace, glory in dissolution near.
This is the rarest of all Virtues, and yet one of the most important for a leader of the Church.
There is nothing more intolerable to each of us than partiality in those that govern; and it always springs in part from a meanness and baseness of mind. It meets with such immediate and effectual resistance, that all the reins of discipline are dropped, and the vineyard of the Lord thrown open to every beast of prey.
But the Christian Bishop is “without partiality and without hypocrisy.”(James 3:17) He moves by equal rules. He seeks not the praise of others, but serves the Lord Christ. He meets with the constant and effectual support of those whom only he esteems—the upright and the good.
And when the welfare of the Church demands the separation of a rotten member, however rich, however honorable, however powerful, he clothes himself with the dignity of his office, and executes the Will of God.
In this he is eminent indeed. For though it is softened and corrected by the other Graces, yet it wraps up his heart in the interests of Zion, and “the zeal of the Lord’s House eats him up.”(Psalm 69:9) He pants for the conversion of the whole world, and cries out with the souls under the altar, “How long, O Lord?”
How far does his rapid spirit rise above the honors, the riches and the pleasures of the world! He leaves them at a distance behind. His whole attention is swallowed up by greater things than these.
While people of the world are variously employed in the pursuit of earthly objects, he endeavors, in the Spirit of his Lord, to extract honey out of every flower, good out of every evil. He watches the opportunity, runs through every open door and spends and is spent for the good of all.
This reigns over all his soul. He is prepared for it by the God of Nature, and endued with it by the God of Grace. he was born to govern. He is “as wise as a serpent.” His eye continually pervades the whole circle of his work, and yet who so blind as he?
He is all ear, and yet none is so deaf.
He sets his feet in the center of his sphere, and feels the smallest motion through every parallel.
He knows with clear precision, when to speak, and when to be silent; when to move, and when to be still; when to parry, and when to thrust.
He has a quick discernment of people and how people behave and act, but he never is “in a hurry about appointing a church leader.” (1 Timothy 5:22) His choice of laborers proceeds from the ripest judgment, and from the clearest evidence that can be procured.
He feels all the strength of his resources, as if they were wholly centered in himself, and knows how and when to draw them forth.
He is acquainted with the various views, the knowledge, the situation, the circumstances and the wishes of the people; and the various gifts, graces, and abilities of the pastors. He makes them all add together into something greater than their individual parts.
He brings out all his force against the common enemy, he spreads out all his sails to every favorable wind, he keeps in motion every wheel of the machine, and uses to the utmost every person and everything within his power, for the Glory of God and the health of his Church.
Communion with God and Confidence in God
These support him through all his trials. He lives within the veil. (Referencing Hebrews 6:19. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary.)
His soul cleaves to God, and he waters all his endeavors with fervent prayers.
He bears upon the altar of his heart the interests of the church of Christ, and sends them up to the Throne of Grace with all the sacred fervor of devotion.
He spreads out all his hopes and all his fears before his God, and makes all requests known to God. After prayer he then returns to his labors with cheerfulness and vigor.
He walks with God, and moves with a full confidence and divine assurance of success, so far as the means he uses can answer the great end of everything he does leading to the Glory of God and the good of all humanity.
Though he lies at the feet of all the lovers of Jesus, yet he never debases himself. He knows his station, and builds up the ministry. (Romans 11:13) The enemies of God may fear and hate him, but they cannot despise him. No casual approach to ministry is observable in him; all is dignity as well as love. The company of the greatest upon Earth, affects him not. He lives in the presence of his Master, and says nothing but what is becoming the audience-chamber of the King of Kings.
Oh, what a blessing to the world are the ones who answer this description—-
“a shining arrow in the quiver of God, (Isaiah 49:2)
“a burning and a shining light!” (John 5:35)
His spices are continually perfuming the place where he is, and “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”(John 7:38) for the benefit of all among whom he sojourns.
When he visits a people, he comes “in the fullness of the Blessings of the Gospel,(Romans 15:29) and his Master’s feet are heard behind him.
He conserves every golden moment, picks up every fragment of time and devotes his time and efforts to the service of his Lord. He looks with the deepest contempt on filthy lucre, and is perfectly satisfied with the “riches of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:8)
A Prayer for Leaders
Oh thou Lover of Souls, who wills not the death of a sinner, have pity on the world. Remember Calvary, hear the pleading intercessor, and lift up leaders after your own heart, full of the Holy Spirit, full of Love and full of Zeal. Guide them by your Spirit, accompany them with your omnipotence, that they may tread down the Kingdom of Satan under their feet, and on its ruins build up thy glorious Church.
Advice to the Church upon Choosing Leaders
You may now easily perceive the dreadful effects of raising immoral or unconverted leaders to the government of the Church. The destructive influence of their example is so extensive, that all the skill and cruelty of Devils can hardly fabricate a greater curse than an irreligious Bishop.
But, people of God, follow after
- Patience and
Advice to the New Bishops
Be an example to the Believers
- in Word,
- in Conversation,
- in Charity,
- in Spirit,
- in Faith,
- in Purity.
Keep that which is committed to your trust.
Be not ashamed of the Testimony of our Lord, but be a partaker of the afflictions of the Gospel, according to the Power of God. (2 Timothy 1:8)
“Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3)
“Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully.” (2 Timothy 4-5) And God will open a wide door indeed, which all your enemies shall not be able to shut.
God will carry the Gospel under your direction from sea to sea, perhaps from one end of the Continent to the other.
Only feel the importance, and feel the danger of this work and let “not the foot of Pride come against you.” (Psalm 36:11)
Preserve yourself in all Humility, and Chastity, and holy Love, and you shall be a Vessel of Gold in the Sanctuary of God, you shall bring millions to Righteousness directly or remotely, and shall shine in Glory as a Star of the first magnitude for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:3)
A Prayer for New Bishops
O God who is the Holy One and the True One,
consecrate these your servants with the Fire of Divine Love,
separate these servants for your most glorious purposes,
make these new bishops a Star in your own right hand, and
fulfill in them and by them all the good Pleasure of thy Goodness.