A sermon preached at Bury St Edmunds' Churches Together Service to mark the beginning of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, January 2017
There is something very special about services like this.
Opportunity to gather together as Christians from different churches in this town.
Although it does remind me of the committee set up to decide what denomination God would be when he returned. The Catholic said he would definitely be Catholic because they were the true church. The Methodist spoke of how he would be Methodist because of the singing. The Baptist said that clearly he would be Baptist because they were so right on believers baptism. And the Anglican after a long silence said, ‘But I don’t really understand why he needs to change?’
Many different things we disagree on: styles of worship, attitude to tradition, liturgy, how long sermons should be! Different attitudes to our sources of authority – Bible, Church, experience and reason – and we will all combine them in different ways. We will have different views on politics, Brexit, human sexuality, pacifism, the environment, Trump (his election does make the game of top trumps slightly awkward and a bit political!).
But I hope that there is something that we do agree on:
And that is that at the very heart of the communities where we worship, and at the very centre of our individual lives 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 have gathered because of him, around him and to meet him.
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)
And I would hope that we are people who are beginning to be motivated, ‘compelled’ by the love of Christ
Jesus loved us and he died for us.
He is the good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep.
He is the woman turning her house upside down to find the lost coin.
He is the Father who runs to his younger son and who, if you notice from the passage, goes out to the older brother.
(I wonder if there is a bit of a Trinitarian structure there)
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, and we assume that the Father represents God and the sons represent us, then it was the younger son’s desires for a life that was lived apart from his Father, 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’ve built up 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. 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 smashed the wall down. 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.
But Jesus also, on the cross, died for you. He died for the Catholics, for the Methodists, for the Reformed, for the independent and non-denominational fellowships, for the Pentecostals and Baptists and Salvationists and Quakers. He even died for the Anglicans.
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 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. 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.
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 those of us who are on the lunatic fringe of the church.
You certainly don’t need to do it our way.
You are very right to be wary of a glib or exploitative message.
But if we have even begun to grasp the eensiest-teensiest bit of the love of God for all people, then you like Paul will implore people to be reconciled to God.
Last year I had the privilege of visiting Tony Rutherford in the last week or so of his life in the hospital. He had quite an amazing journey. Every time I went, and it wasn’t the medication, he would be saying ‘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’.
This really is something that we do better together (to use a phrase that is slightly out of fashion) rather than on our own.
One of the things that is quite remarkable about Bury St Edmunds are the number of initiatives run by Christians from different churches working together – seeking to bring reconciliation to people. I think of, and forgive me if I don’t mention you, Bury Town Pastors, CAP (and the job club), Storehouse and Gatehouse, Bury Drop in, Sporting 87, Bury Christian Youth, Traidcraft, the St John’s Centre, Christian Aid, Crossways. And this year there is the ‘Who Cares’ initiative, when we are all encouraged to ask our people, and to ask those with whom we come into contact, a very simple question, ‘What hurts the most?’ – and it would be great to see you at the launch event in St Mary’s on 25 February.
And it is also when we work together that we can bring greater pressure on the council or pool our resources so that there is adequate provision for those who are homeless, or who struggle with mental health issues, or who have been rolled out of the safety net onto the floor. And I really do pray that as Christians in this town and region we will be known as people who do care, who tear down walls, who go to people who are outside and who actively look for what unites rather than what divides.
But I also pray that in all these works of reconciliation, as we bring people together, we will not lose the sight of the need for that greater reconciliation that Paul writes about so passionately here: the reconciliation of a human being with God. It would be so great if every church represented here was running a course for enquirers – and if you are not big enough to do that on your own, to go into partnership with someone else. And it would be fantastic if we were each praying for the neighbouring churches course.
It was unfashionable to say this, although in an increasingly aggressive secular state I am not so sure now, but it really is at the heart of what it is all about. God loves people; he delights in them, and he longs for intimacy with them. And when a person is reconciled to God, they then begin to have the resources to be reconciled to others. And we are God’s ambassadors charged with the task of teaching Jesus and urging people to be reconciled to God.
It is why Jesus came ‘out’ from heaven; it is why he died on the cross and this is the shared task that is at the heart of our unity.