The gospel is at the heart of Christian Unity.
A talk given at the Bury St Edmunds Come Together event.
Great to be here, together with other brothers and sisters.
For the last 1000 years, Christianity has had a privileged position in this country.
It has been the established religion of our nation
Our monarchs have been crowned by our church leaders
We have bishops in the Houses of Parliament
Many of our laws are rooted in biblical truths
But that is all changing rapidly
I predicted about 25 years ago that in 100 years’ time Christians would be some of those few strange people who – among other things – believed in life long monogamous partnership between one man and one woman. I stick by that prediction, apart from the 100 year bit.
And I would make another prediction. In 50 years’ time Christians will be that strange group of people who make babies the old fashioned way! The new normal will be that sperms and eggs are first frozen, then chosen, possibly genetically engineered and implanted in a uterus. Sex will be purely recreational. And we will live in a society which will think we are socially irresponsible not to give the tablet to our 93 year old parent who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
We face astonishing challenges. There is the population explosion. In 2000 there were 6 billion people alive on this planet. Today, 15 years later, there are 7 billion. There is the development of technology. We’ve had to make up parenting as we go along. The rules that we laid down 5 years ago when our now 19 year old was 14 (he was only allowed to go online on the computer in the main room) are meaningless to our now 14 year old, with smart phones and 24 hour access to the internet. And how do we begin to cope with the idea of robotic bodies controlled by an implanted human mind?
And perhaps as we face extraordinary change, we are tempted to despair.
There is so much that we could disagree on – even on quite fundamental issues.
We struggle to find agreement on the roles of men and women. How do we address bio-ethical issues not even dreamt of 100 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago?
How is the Christian faith going to survive here in the west, when our society has made the individual's freedom to live out their desires its god.
Are we going to tear ourselves apart?
Are we going to be rejected as irrelevant and reactionary?
Or to put this another way:
What will keep us united as we have to cope with issues that make today's divisive issues look like a stroll in the park?
What will keep us firm when the privileges of power are stripped away from us and we face potential hostility and certain ridicule?
We need to turn to Philippians 1. 27-30
‘Live lives worthy of the gospel’. In that way, says Paul, I know that you will stand firm in one Spirit, that you will strive side by side for the faith of the gospel’.
I love that.
What is consistent about what the church offered to the world in AD50, with what we offer to the world today and what we will offer to the world in 1000 years time, if the Lord has not returned by then.
It is the gospel. Paul defines the gospel in Romans 1.3 and in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5. It is the good news that 2000 years ago, God became human in Jesus Christ. It is the good news that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, he was buried and that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared ..’
The gospel, the good news, of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is at our very heart.
It is the message which transforms us.
When a person believes, when a man or woman, boy or girl, puts their trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, God changes our heart. We become new people. We receive a new Spirit. Paul says, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believer’.
It is the message which unites us.
What do we have in common?
Christ died for our sins.
It is the great equaliser. We are forgiven sinners.
There is nothing that you have done to earn forgiveness and acceptance by God. There is nothing you could have done. You are not saved because you are good or clever or significant. Forgive me: none of us is good enough or clever enough or significant enough - and we need to stop pretending that we are.
In my previous church in Holloway, we shared the building for several years with another church, Victory Outreach. We met in the morning and evening. They met in the afternoon. They ran a very effective ministry among drug addicts and prostitutes. On one occasion at the end of our morning service, a teenager came in while we were having tea and coffee. He asked, ‘Is this the church where the bad people go?’ My church warden said, ‘No. They meet in the afternoon’. I have to say I was a bit jealous, so I added, ‘But we’re pretty bad!’
The reason that we can come into the presence of God, the reason that we can begin to receive from him, the reason that we can become sons and daughters of God – is because Jesus died for you and me.
God knows us. He knows our deepest innermost secrets, the things that would make us die of shame if our closest friends knew about them. He knows how we have rebelled against him, lived to satisfy our desires and not his commands. But he still loves us, and he sent his Son Jesus. And because Christ has died for us we are forgiven. Because Jesus was crucified we can become sons and daughters of God.
My dear friends, if our unity is to grow – within our churches and between our churches – we need to live lives worthy of the gospel. We need to live as forgiven sinners.
We do not need to prove ourselves and we have nothing to prove. So we can get off our high horses about being better than the next, or deeper, or more sound, or more spirit filled. You are a nobody who, because of Jesus, has been made somebody. I am a nobody who, because of Jesus, has been made somebody. Why should anybody show me respect? What have I done to deserve respect? All that I have, all that I am, all that I will be is because of Jesus.
There is something very attractive about people who know that they are forgiven sinners. It is the beginning of a liberating humility. We do not need to set ourselves up above others. We are set free to love each other, to build the other up, to delight in who the other is. We are free to rejoice when we see that others have success, happy to play second fiddle when others take the lead, and willing to kneel down – like Jesus – and wash their feet, even when I disagree with them.
It is the message which helps us stand firm.
‘Christ rose from the dead .. and appeared ..’
It is painful to watch a society turn its back on centuries of Christian teaching.
It also hurts to lose privileges, to lose respect and to realise that we have moved from being a moral majority to a missional minority.
And maybe some of you have suffered because of your faith.
But few of us have suffered in the way that many of our brothers and sisters in many countries have suffered, simply because they confess Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
I heard via Open Doors of one believer in Eritrea. Arrested at a Christian wedding reception, along with bride and groom and several of the other guests. They are beaten and imprisoned. He said, ‘For us, as believers, it is not a matter of if we will be arrested. It is a matter of when’.
And Paul knew suffering for the name of Jesus. When he is converted, and he hears what God is calling him to do, Jesus says, ‘And I will show you how much you must suffer for my sake’. So when Paul had first come to Philippi he had been arrested and imprisoned. But the remarkable thing is that we are told that while Paul and Silas are locked in the stocks in the innermost prison, they sing praise to God. And Paul is writing this letter from prison.
And do you notice the language that he uses here: ‘God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing but of suffering for him’.
How can he possibly use that language?
Only someone who has been there, who has suffered for Christ, has the real integrity and authority to say those words.
But he can say them because he has a hope. Christ has risen from the dead. Death has been conquered. What we experience here is nothing in comparison to the glory then.
My dear friends, we face an incredibly testing time ahead of us. Christianity in the West will probably be written off. We are being moved from the centre to the edge. We will be regarded with, at best, amusement and at worst hostility. As we face the major issues that lie ahead of us, we will have to decide how to live in this brave new world that we are facing. Some will respond one way, others another. There is probably a right way, but none of us on our own will get it quite right. And we need to be gracious with each other, to remind ourselves that we are forgiven sinners. That is what it means to live a life shaped by the gospel, worthy of the gospel.
But even if it does go dark, we have been given a treasure, a jewel that shines with an unsurpassed brilliance. The darker it gets, the brighter that jewel will shine. And that jewel is the gospel. It is the message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. It is a message that will never change or need to change: it is about something that happened at one point in history, but it has significance for all of eternity. It is our banner, our standard, our colour. It is our centre, our heart, our purpose and our hope. It is what will shape our lives – as forgiven sinners with the hope of resurrection. It is what will enable us to stand firm in the Spirit of God. It is what will hold us together as we strive side by side. We preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen.