Sunday, 24 November 2013

What kind of ruler is Jesus?

Today is officially the last Sunday in the churches calendar. Next Sunday is Advent Sunday, and we start to think of preparing for Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world.
And the title that has been given to this Sunday is Christ the King.

We remember that Jesus is the King.

And yet we have this strange reading – Jesus on the cross

You’d think they might choose the passage when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to have a baby, and that the child to be born to her would be the Son of God and ruler, and that he will be given the throne of David (David was the great king in Israel’s past – a sort of Queen Elizabeth 1st figure – and God had promised that one of David’s descendants would be his special and eternal ruler).
Or they might have chosen one of those many passages which speak of how Jesus had authority over wind and waves, over sickness, over evil spirits, even over death.
Or they might have chosen that passage when Jesus stands in front of Pilate: and Pilate says to him, ‘Don’t you realise I have the power of life and death over you’, and Jesus answers, ‘You would have no authority if it had not been given you from above’.
You’d think they might have chosen that passage at the end of Matthew when the risen Jesus stands in front of his disciples and says to them, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all people’.  
Or they might have chosen that passage when Jesus speaks of how he will one day return, in glory, to judge all people.

But they didn’t. The chose the passage where Jesus gets crucified. It is the most unkingly-like thing that you can imagine.

It is madness.

Kings, real kings, do everything in their power not to get themselves crucified.
If they are crucified, then it proves that they were not very effective kings.

Think of the people who mock Jesus as he hangs on the cross:

V35: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah’ (The Messiah was the name that they gave to the one they longed for would come as God’s king)
V36: ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’
V39: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

Kings, real kings, do not forgive the people who reject them.
They mark who they are, and when they come  back to power, they get them. They can’t risk having their authority challenged.

And yet today’s reading is inspired.

Because it tells us about the nature of Jesus’ kingship, and it tells us about the choice that we have to make.

a. It tells us about the nature of Jesus’ kingship

All of the things that I have said about Jesus are true:
·         He is the eternal Son of God, who was there in the beginning with God.
·         He does have complete authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death.
·         He is the ruler of rulers
·         All authority has been given to him
·         And one day he will return to judge this creation

But this king is different to all human rulers who we know or have known.

1. He is full of love.

He cries out, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do’

I thank God that he says ‘them’ when he prays that prayer. He doesn’t pray, ‘Forgive those who are crucifying me now’ for they do not know what they do. He doesn’t pray, ‘Forgive the Jews’ or ‘forgive the Romans’.

He prays ‘Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing’.

And that ‘them’ can include us.

It is a prayer for all who do not know what we do when we reject Jesus;
It is a prayer for all who are blind to the reality that this one who was nailed to the cross is in fact the eternal Son of God, and God’s ultimate ruler of this world.

It is a prayer for people like you and me who live life as if there is no God, even if we profess to believe in God.
What we are really looking for is a genii in the bottle. Not a ruler, a monarch, but a servant. We want someone who will grant us our wishes, and get us out of trouble; who will be there when we need him – but who will be conveniently invisible and impotent at all other times.

Jesus’ prayer is a prayer for you and me – if we are prepared to include ourselves in the ‘them’.

On that final day, when we stand in front of Jesus Christ, and we see him in his glory: and we fall to our knees and say,
‘I just didn’t realise.
I didn’t realise what I was doing when I lived life as if it all rotated around me and my family. I didn’t realise that you have made us in your image, and that I when I ignored or ridiculed or rejected or used or abused other people, I was ignoring, ridiculing, rejecting, using or abusing you.
I didn’t realise that when I was ashamed to talk about my faith to my neighbour, I was being ashamed of you’. 

Most kings would screw us up and throw us away

But our king will say, ‘I died on the cross for you’. And when I hung on the cross, I prayed for you: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’.

And the reason that he prays forgiveness?

This is a king who loves his subjects, who delights in you, who sees what you could become, and who longs that you will be with him in his kingdom.

The hard thing, of course, about this teaching, is that for those of us who – like the demons - do know who Jesus is, and who still choose to reject him, who refuse to live under his loving and life-giving and just rule, who refuse to come to him for mercy, who say that I know you are God’s King and you died for my forgiveness, but I don’t want you to be King and I don’t need your forgiveness - there is no forgiveness.

2. This king shows immense courage

Kings do not usually die for their subjects. Subjects die for their king.

But Jesus did not come so that human beings might do battle for him.

That is what we expect of rulers. If Jesus had reigned in a palace, had absolute power, had all the rulers of the world bow before him, taken the wealth of nations for himself, had peoples sacrificed for him – then we might have recognised him as a true ruler. Because isn’t that what true leadership is all about?

But Jesus did not come so that human beings might be sacrificed for him. He came in order to sacrifice himself for human beings. He came in order to do battle for us. The war he fought was not a war to maintain his sovereignty, his glory, his status and his wealth. The war that he fought was for us. And it was not against people, but against Satan and the power of sin and death.

Jesus came so that he might do battle for them.

And it was a battle. We read of the climax of the battle here. Only he could fight it, because only he was good enough. He stood firm in the face of rejection and hatred and cruelty and unimaginable pain. He did have all power. He could have come down from the cross. But he didn’t. In his own words, he drank the cup of the wrath of God right down to its bitter dregs.

When the criminal says, ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ he didn’t realise what he said.

He could have saved himself. But then he would simply have become a ruler like all other human rulers. But there could have been no forgiveness, and because the Son of God had given in to the fear of death, it would have shown itself a more powerful force than God.

But by being obedient to his Father, by dying on the cross, Jesus brought salvation to millions upon millions. He offers salvation to you and me. We really can begin to be set free from the power of sin and death.

b. This story tells us how we should respond to our king of love and of courage.

All Jesus asks us to do is to turn to him and entrust our lives into his hands.

That is what the other criminal on the cross does.

We don’t know why, but he recognises that Jesus is God’s king, and that although Jesus reigns now, his visible rule will be in the future.  

He doesn’t blame the system – even though if anyone had a right to blame the system it was a person who was the system crucified. He doesn’t make any excuses for himself.
He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is: someone who, under the law of that land at that time, deserved to die.
He simply turns to Jesus, and probably in one of the few last lucid moments that he would have had before he finally surrendered to the hell of pain and insanity that crucifixion would have brought on, he places himself in the hands of Jesus.

He doesn’t say, ‘Rescue me’.
He doesn’t say, ‘Forgive me’. Maybe he thought he was beyond forgiveness.
He simply says, ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’
And Jesus answers him with possibly the most gracious words that are in the New Testament: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’.

I do hope and pray that you will entrust yourself into the hands of our King of love and our king of courage while you still have many years of service still on this earth.

It is about recognising that you have a ruler, who is bigger than you, and he calls you to follow him. It is not just about you, or about your work, or your family, or about coming home and putting your feet up and going on the computer or watching telly. It is not just about next year’s holiday or one of the children’s weddings or a peaceful retirement when you can do what you want.

It is actually about him. Getting to know him; really getting to know his word; it is about making worship of God with his people not just a priority in your life, but THE priority. It is about reaching out to others, in his name.

And following Jesus will require at times immense courage and perseverance. This is not for wimps. He calls us to follow him, and for some that will lead to a literal cross. And following him will mean that your eyes are opened – you will begin to see things and people in a completely different way – as he sees them.  And you will see that you are not on your own. Our King of love and our king of courage is walking beside us. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's new community

Ephesians 2:11-22

Often people will say when they come into this building, ‘What an amazing church’.

I usually reply, slightly provocatively, ‘Yes, it is an amazing church, and the building is quite impressive as well’.

The New Testament understands that the Church is the people, and it was only later that the word ‘Church’ also came to mean the place where the people met.

Every month before attending my Bible study at church, I would tell my 3-year-old son, Chad, we were going to God's house. Each time we walked through the quiet sanctuary on our way to the nursery, Chad looked around in awe. One particular day, he stopped abruptly and asked, "Mummy, if this is God's house, how come He's never home?"

But what I’d like to do this evening is to use this building as my visual aid for helping us understand what Paul is saying here about the church, the people of God.

In the previous verse, Paul has been speaking of how we have been saved. It is by faith through grace. We are saved as we put our trust in the Lord Jesus. And that of course is very individualistic, because faith is personal.

But God’s plan is not simply to save individuals.
God’s plan is to save individuals from individualism and to create a new community of people.

The human tendency is to build up walls. I guess it goes back millennia, when families had to build walls around their little hamlet – both to keep animals and children in, and to keep wild beasts or, more seriously, outsiders out. In many villages the church building would be the only one to have brick walls. It was the place of safety to which villagers could retreat in time of danger.

But we also build up walls in our self-centredness and fear. I’m taking a funeral of someone who had an incredibly painful childhood, and who went through some pretty devastating experiences. And as a result they had built up around themselves a really strong shell. It was hard; it was extremely judgemental. It was extremely hard to penetrate, although when you did, you saw glimpses of vulnerability.

God’s plan is to break down those walls: the walls that we build against other communities, and the walls that we build to protect us from being hurt by others. And he plans to create a new open community, in which there is no place for fear and much place for love.

It is a community that is centred on a person, that knows peace and that has a purpose.

1. It is community centred on a person: Jesus Christ
This Jesus is one who has brought people who were far off near

V13: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Jesus’

Let me illustrate this by looking at a simple sketch of our building

 The world turned its back on God, and as a consequence they were cut off from Him.

But God had created people to love him and to be this new community, and he wasn’t going to give up on us quite that quickly.

So God chose a people to be his special people. He called them to be his people. He gave them his promises. And because they were his people, he gave them his law.

The law was a gift of love. Yes, many of the Old Testament laws were specific to the people at a particular time, and were not for all time and all places. It is why we don’t worry so much about mildew, or many of the food laws. One of the tasks of Christian ethics is to read the New Testament and discover which of the Old Testament laws are true for all times and all places, and which can be put to one side.
But the Jewish people were called to receive the law as a gift of love, and to live lives of love, based on the law. They were meant to be a witness to all the other peoples. Right from the very start when God called Abraham, he says to him, ‘And all nations will be blessed through you’.
So people would look at the Jews, see their community, and be drawn to God.

But what happened was that the law, which was good, became not a pathway to God, but a barrier.

The Jews, instead of looking to God, looked to the law.
They said: it is the law that makes us special; if we keep the law then we will be OK and God will love us.
So they studied the law, they developed the law, they kept an awful lot of the details of the law – but they missed out on the origin and the purpose of the law. They forgot God.

Now, says Paul, in Jesus God has ‘abolished’ or ‘put aside’ the law of commandments expressed in ordinances and created one new man in place of the two’ (v15)

One new man: to replace the Gentile and the Jew. To bring those who were far off, and those who were near – together (v13)

He did it by being born as a Jew, by taking the full weight of the law onto himself and dying. The passage talks of his blood (v13) and the cross (v16)

So here we are, Gentiles, blind. In our sinfulness we wander in any and every direction. And here are the Jews, who were meant to be a signpost to us to God. But they in their sinfulness turned the law into a barrier.

So for instance, God in his love gave the people the mark of circumcision. It was meant to be a mark to them that they were different, set apart by the love of God, to draw other people into his love. But they turned it into a mark of exclusion. So what became important was not that God loves me, but that I have been circumcised.

Jesus, the Jew, who understood the law as it was meant to be understood, and who lived the law as it was meant to be lived, took onto himself the full weight of the law, and in his death abolished/set aside the law.

It is as if the rood screen has gone. The distinction between Jew and Gentile has been shattered. All we have instead is this one man, standing here, in the presence of God: obedient to, trusting, loving God.
And Jesus is faithful to the task he was given. He invites us to come to him so that we  too, whether far away, or near, can turn again and stand in the presence of God.

So at the heart of this new community there is a person

2. In this community there is peace

V14: He is our peace
V15: He makes peace
V17: He preaches peace

Peace between God and humanity: for through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit
But also peace between people.

When we come for communion we come as individuals.
We come to the communion rail, recognising our need for Jesus, for his forgiveness and mercy and strength.
We bring nothing to this party – only our brokenness.
We come simply to receive.

And when I am kneeling down here, I am in no position to judge you.

Tony Campolo writes, “Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"

She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.

We come as individuals to Jesus, but we go away as a people.

When we realise that we are saved by grace – it gives peace.

We discover that we have nothing to prove to God or each other, because we can prove nothing.
And as we begin to see others, not through the glasses of our laws or customs or habits, but as people who are made in the image of God, who are uniquely precious and special because of Jesus, so we are set free to begin to love them.
We come together with very little in common, but we go away with a common past – it’s been forgiven – a common identity – and a shared destiny.

One of the most powerful communions I attended was in India. People from all castes ate and drank from one cup.

And as we begin to realise just how much we are loved, we can begin to take down some of those walls that we have built up, brick by brick.

That is why Paul can speak of Christians being fellow citizens (Jews with Gentiles), of being members of one household (v19)

3. This community has a purpose
We are being joined together to become a building. Built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ and on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.                                                                                                               

You are a brick – and your neighbour is a brick – and God is putting us together.

Personalities, gifts, interests, likes and dislikes: if we allow him he will build us up together.

But this building has a purpose. It is a temple. And a temple is designed for God. It was built as a place for God to dwell.

And in that sense there is a very big difference between our church buildings and the OT temple.

This is a very special building. It is God’s house, but only to the extent that many people over many centuries have worshipped here. But it is no more or no less God’s home than any other place on this planet.

God now does not dwell in buildings; God dwells among people. And in answer to the little girl’s question, God is at home when his people are gathered together, in the name of Jesus, to worship him.