An “Optimism of grace” is about John Wesley’s doctrine of the Christian life based on his evangelical conversion, his personal experience of God’s Redemption At Christ Expense on May 24, 1738. The phrase “Optimism of grace” coined by Gordon Rupp, an English Methodist as a defining mantra of holiness theology opposes the Enlightenment “Optimism of nature”  that ‘denied the fact of sin … repudiated the need for grace and of redemption.’[1] For John Wesley, a profound optimism of grave is about salvation of soul, spirit, and body. Wesley said, “By salvation I mean not barely … deliverance from hell, or going  to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of soul to its primitive health … a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of or soul after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.” Rupp’s description of Wesley’s theology in relation to eschatology of love called us even in or pandemic, isolation, and lockdown “to be always seeking, eagerly and expectantly new horizons of Christian experience … which the bountiful Givers is always more ready  to bestow than his children to ask.’

Wesley’s optimism of grace precedent stood out in his day as it does in our pandemic and lockdown today. Optimism of grace in this context is both ‘hopeful and realistic at the same time; hopeful to encourage an expectant and receptive faith; realistic about both the condition and content of the promise expected.’

David Messer, in his presentation at the 15th Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies, Oxford, in August 13-22, 2003 on Global Aids: What would John Wesley Do? suggests some instructive lessons from the life and ministry of John Wesley in times of global crisis.[2] Messer, with reference to the United Nations General Assembly in June, 2001 on the worst health crisis the world faces in relation to the “global HIV/AIDS epidemic that constitutes a global emergency reminds us what John Wesley would do. The overwhelming global statistics nineteen years ago of over 40 million people infected worldwide resonates with COVID-19 pandemic era. Beyond the over 40 million infected people ‘some 26 million persons have already died. Devastating personal, political and social consequences are escalating … UN calls on every segment of society to come to the rescue, specifically mentioning faith-based groups as essential to the global effort.’ The beginning of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic in 1983 as the leading killer of millions among all known infectious disease with no end in sight is now secondary to COVID-19 pandemic, yet without known scientific cure.

There were numerous concern raised by the United Nations calling the HIV/AIDS pandemic a ‘global emergency’ that resonates with the COVID-19 pandemic concerns. For example, there were 40 million living with the disease and the 23 million ‘number of people estimated to have died. The pandemic with grave concern for all people ‘threatens development, social cohesion, political stability, food security and life expectancy and imposes a devastating economic burden.’ There was emphasis on stigmatisation, discrimination and denial among others that ‘undermine prevention, care and treatment efforts.’ There was the problem of ‘nations straddled with overwhelming “eternal” debt … no resources to expend for the health and education of its citizens.’

The first of its kind partnership call by the United Nation ‘on the leadership of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples … to join with others in tackling this global emergency’ remains a pointer to the management of COVID-19 pandemic. In the words of a United Methodist Bishop Felton E May, “Churches cannot conquer AIDS alone, but it will not happen without us,” likewise, victory over COVID-19 pandemic will not happen without the churches. The creation of partnerships among government, non-government organisations coupled with the role of family, cultural, ethical and religious factors are paramount ‘in the prevention of the epidemic, and in treatment, care and support.’

Year 2020 Wesley’s Day and Ascension Sunday celebration in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic calls for reflection on what John Wesley would do in the light of this global pandemic era. The precedent of Wesley’s optimism of grace from his ‘practical theology and his practice of ministry in relation to issues of medicine, health, illness, pandemic, suffering, and death is about care and salvation of soul, spirit, and body.  Wesley’s optimism of grace as precedent ‘based on his profound interest in medical care and his prolific publishing about known prevention and remedies’ calls us as his followers to expend significant energy  and resources in promoting prevention and treatment of COVID-19 pandemic. An optimism of grace as Wesley’s doctrine follows the pattern of Jesus and example of “systematically and scientifically” caring for the sick people. Wesley’s optimism of grace as precedent is able to translate Methodist slogan, “the world is my parish” into an ‘aggressive and compassionate program’ against COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the scourge of COVID-19 pandemic and going by the words of Pope Francis, a number of governments exemplary measures ‘has been shaped around the economy. In the world of finance it has seemed normal to sacrifice [people], to practise a politics of the throwaway culture, from the beginning to the end of life.’ Celebration of Wesley Day and Ascension Sunday in pandemic and under a culture of euthanasia reminds us of a powerful motif for Methodist over the centuries. The culture of euthanasia in this context is ‘either legal or covert, in which the elderly are given medication but only up to a point.’ While the homeless continue to be homeless especially in pandemic, Wesley’s optimism of grace precedent summons us to arise and reclaim a hallmark of our tradition as we follow the pattern of Jesus, going everywhere to preach, teach, and heal the sick.

The COVID-19 pandemic contains both danger and opportunity, Wesley’s optimism of grace is a means of recovery of our divine nature. The precedent of Wesley’s optimism of grace, a “therapeutic grace” which ‘emphasises the healing power of love for both body and soul’ points to the “new life God has in store for the whole creation.” 2020 Wesley’s Day summons us to constructively engage in combating COVID-19 pandemic as we fulfil Wesley’s word, ‘beware of sins of omission; lose no opportunity of doing good in any kind. Be zealous of good works; willingly omit no work, either of piety or mercy. – Do all the good you possibly can to the bodies and souls of men.’ Wesley’s optimism of grace invites us as Christians to be authoritative, reliable and provide helpful and accurate sources of information so as to counter the massive amount of misinformation, rumour, and confusion that circulates as a major feature of pandemic.

[1] Knight III, Henry H, Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), pp. 17-18

[2] Messer, David, Global Aids: What would John Wesley Do? 15th Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies, Church College, Oxford, England 13-22, 2003.