Our fifth and final vision statement is that we seek to introduce people to Jesus.
There are many different things we differ on: prefer different styles of worship, attitude to tradition, music, how long sermons should be! Maybe we have different attitudes to our sources of authority – Bible, Church, experience and reason – and we will combine them in different ways. We will have different views on politics: Brexit, human sexuality, the environment, Donald Trump
But I hope that there is something that we do agree on:
And that is that at the heart of our community, and at the centre of our individual life, and our life together, is faith in Jesus Christ, who loved us, was crucified and who rose from the dead.
We are Christ-ians. We are the people of Jesus Christ. And we gather because of him, around him and to meet him.
And because of that:
1. We are people who have a shared motive.
Paul writes, ‘For Christ’s love compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died, and he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’. (2 Cor 5.14-15)
I would hope that we are people who are motivated, ‘compelled’ by the love of Christ
Jesus loved us and he died for us.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells three stories about a good shepherd who seeks his lost sheep, about a woman who turns her house upside down, and about a Father who runs to his younger son and who, if you notice from the passage, goes out to the older brother.
Jesus, the eternal Son of God, left heaven and came ‘out’ to earth to die for us, even to become sin for us (v21), because he loved us.
He looks at us, at you, and he sees deep within you that kernel, seed of God createdness, the image of God, of who you were truly made to be. And he delights in that, and he longs for you to be set free from all that is preventing you from becoming that person; and he desires deep intimacy, the closest of friendship, with you.
But it is our pride and fear and hate and self-centredness and perverted desires and prejudice and unforgiveness that have built up a wall that separates us from God.
If we think about the story of the Prodigal son then it was the younger son’s desire for a life that was lived apart from his father, and it was his rebellion against the father, that destroyed his relationship with the father. He believed that the father was the one who was preventing him from having a good time.
But the older son was equally cut off from the father. It was his pride which destroyed his relationship with the father. He is so obsessed with his status and his rights and his stuff. In his own mind he thinks that he deserves it, he has worked for it and his younger brother does not deserve it. He does not realise that everything that he has and in fact everything that the Father has is his (‘all that I have is yours and you are always with me’), as a gift.
St Patrick got this; he was captured by grace. He wrote in his confession, “And I am certain of this: I was a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall”.
We’re cut off from God. Some of us are like the younger son, far off, in a state of rebellion against God, eating pigswill. We are a stone, dead, trampled in the mud. And some of us are like the older son, cut off from God by our morality and our attempts to justify ourselves. We cannot receive the free gift of mercy.
But Jesus, in his love for us, on the cross, paid the price for our sins. He runs to greet the one who has rebelled but who is turning back. He goes out to the one who refuses to come in.
I have here a piece of concrete. It comes from the Berlin Wall. From 1961 to 1989 this was part of the wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin. They said that they built it to protect their people and keep the West out. In fact, what it really did, was keep their people in. It was a prison wall. It separated families and it divided a nation. And then, in November 1989, it was torn down, block of concrete by block of concrete.
The death of Jesus broke down the wall that separated us from God - so that men and women could come to know God. It is when we realise just what it cost God to ‘go out’ to us who refused to ‘come in’, that we begin to realise the depth and the extent of the love of God.
And Jesus died for me.
And he died for you.
We are told that ‘one died for all’ (v14,15).
So, that also includes Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists. It includes the ‘don’t knows’ and the ‘can’t care lesses’. It embraces the atheists. Verses 14 and 15 are a universalist text. They are not saying that everybody is saved: God respects each person’s decision, even if accepting it means breaking his heart, but they are saying that the love of God is universal. It is for each person.
And it is that love of Christ which must motivate us:
Not just the love of Christ for me – but the love of Christ for you.
Why are you so precious and valuable?
Why do I need to take you seriously?
Why should I be prepared to lay down my life so that you might be reconciled to God?
Not because I love you. I’m not compelled by my love. My love is pretty pathetic. But because Christ loves you.
And that leads me on to my second thing that we have in common (and I am only going to mention two!)
2. We have a common task.
‘And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5.19)
The story goes that a young man applied for a job as an usher at a theatre. The manager asked him, "What would you do in case a fire breaks out?"
The young man answered, "Don't worry about me. I'd get out OK."
That, I’m afraid, is what we often think about our faith. It is personal and between God and me. And I’ll be OK, and that is really all that matters.
But that is not OK. We have been given a commission, a task: to be reconcilers. To reconcile men and women to God. To introduce people to Jesus so that they can be put right with God
Look at the passion of Paul in these verses. ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God’. (2 Cor 5.20).
Listen, he is saying to us, if God loves people, if God so longs for people to come to know him, to live for him and with him, and if Christ was prepared to die for them – what are you going to do about it?
Evangelism, the sharing of the good news that because of Jesus’ death, our friends, our family, our colleagues can know that they need no longer live for themselves, but for God, and know intimacy with God is not something to be left to the Christian fanatics.
You certainly don’t need to do it any particular way.
You are very right to be wary of a glib or exploitative message.
But if we have begun to grasp the eensiest-teensiest bit of the love that God has for all people, then you like Paul will implore people to be reconciled to God.
You may have heard me speak of Tony Rutherford, who was a member of this church. He died last year. He was in hospital, and he had quite a remarkable last few days. Every time I went, he would keep on repeating the word - ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’. And then he said, ‘I have let people down. If I had known it was as amazing as this, I would have told everyone about Jesus’.
St Mary’s has, for many years, been known as an evangelical church. People have asked me what that means. And they are a bit cagey. Perhaps we have been put off by the American tele-evangelist.
But evangelical literally means ‘good news’, and when we say that we are an evangelical church it means that we are a good news church.
We are a good news church because we can tell people that the seen, the physical, is not all that there is. That is good news for people who suffer dreadfully, for those facing death, for those who are despised and ridiculed and mocked, for those who have everything stripped away from them here.
We are a good news church because we can tell people of a God who loved them, and who shows us that love by going to the cross and dying for us. We can tell them that they are beloved.
We are a good news church because we can tell people who are burdened with sin that there is forgiveness. It tells us in black and white, ‘he doesn’t hold our sins against us’. And the brilliant thing is that because you know that there is a God who loves you, despite all that you have done, you can begin to be real with yourself, and face up to the muck and deal with the muck.
We are a good news church because we can tell people that there is a new way of living. We can escape from the self-centred prison that we have built around us, and we can begin to live for him who loved us. We can become new people. When we turn to him a new beginning explodes into life in us.
We are a good news church because we can declare that because Jesus rose from the dead, death is not the end
I appreciate that this is not the sort of sermon that people expect from our pulpits.
In the last couple of years I have been away to several cathedrals (I'm not speaking about our neighbours). I have heard three sermons. They were high quality and memorable. The first told me to be good. The second told me to be political correct and respect all people. The third told me to be less selfish. It is what we expect from church.
Forgive me, but I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be good. I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be politically correct and respect people. I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be less selfish.
The thing is, I know you and I know myself. I know that I cannot be good. I know that I do not respect all people irrespective of who they are. I know that I cannot be less selfish.
And if I preach those things, all I will be doing is make those of you who think you are good and do respect all people and are not selfish, smug. Or I will be adding further burdens on those of you who know you cannot do it. And you will be crushed.
But what I will do is to use this pulpit to preach Jesus and to urge you to be reconciled to God. Because Jesus knows you and he still loves you; he died for you; and he longs for you to come to him, to know him, to receive his Spirit and to become a new person. It doesn’t matter whether you have been coming here for 1 year or 5 years or 35 years. Ask him into your life. Ask him to become your Lord, your rescuer and your closest companion. You won’t become perfect overnight. You will constantly need to depend on his mercy and grace. But you will begin to change and become like him.
So we are a church who I pray will firstly be motivated, not by our own love, because that is pretty weak, but by the love of Jesus.