The sermon was "Faith tried by Fire" and when Bishop Cecil Bishop began preaching yesterday the congregation at John Wesley AME Zion Church knew exactly what he was talking about.

It marked the first time the congregation has been back in its sanctuary since a fire started from a hotplate in a room behind the altar gutted the place last July 24.

"John Wesley Church," Bishop shouted from the pulpit, his voice rising, "you have been tried by the fire . . . You have come through like shining gold."

"Amen," replied the congregation, as Bishop recounted how church members had watched their new, $400,000 restoration project project at 14th and Corcoran Streets in Northwest Washington, go up in smoke.

"Many of you who have been members for 30, 40 and 50 years, stood in the service station lot across from the church and watched helplessly, tears rolling down your faces, as the church went up in flames," he said. "You were wondering what the future held.

"I was saying to myself, 'What do you say to people who have worked very hard and now see their efforts go up in smoke,'" Bishop continued. Then he quoted a Bible scripture, ". . . All things work together for good to them that love God."

"Amen" and "Yes Sir" were shouted by the worshippers, many of whom had brought cameras to church to take pictures of the nearly completed building.

Thomas Washington, chairman of the church's trustee board, said the rebuilding of the ruined structure cost $652,000, which was covered by the insurance.

"We are not complete," Bishop told the congregation. He said additional work must be done on the church's pulpit and windows. The organ and piano used at the service were filling in until the new ones, which are on order, arrive. The skylight is temporary and will be redone.

The congregation had been worshipping in the Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church at 16th and Allison Streets NW during the rebuilding of their sanctuary.

Francine Wade, a 75-year-old church member, leaned on her cane and surveyed the new interior. "There's no place like home," said Wade, who has been a member for decades. "Everybody is so glad to be back."

Sarah Prince, who has been attending the church since 1946, brought her camera to church yesterday to take pictures. She also taped the service.

"It's beautiful," she said of the rebuilding. She said she taped the service because Bishop soon will be leaving the congregation.

Bishop, a longtime civil rights activist who has served the church for the past five years, was elected bishop over the church's 12th Episcopal area last month. He will preside over the church's congerences in Liberia, Nigeria, Central Nigeria, East and West Ghana and Rivers, South Africa.

After the service yesterday, Bishop stood at the church doors and greeted the worshippers as the left. "It's a good feeling being back," he told a grayhaired woman. "There's no substitute for home. . . This is a day of jubilation."