What Christians have in common.
Great to be together at this joint service
God has a restoration programme! Not a building – more personal and more cosmic.
He wishes to restore humanity – so that we become the people who he made us to be - and, through us, restore creation so that creation is as it was supposed to be.
God is in the business of making a new people.
That is what Ezekiel 36.24-28 is all about
1. He gathers us.
He is speaking to Israel, to his people in the Old Testament. They have been scattered. They had been exiled to the North and East, Babylon, and to the South and West, Egypt.
And this verse was fulfilled when the Jews returned from exile to the land of Israel.
But that was just a small preview, a taster, of what God is going to do.
When he sends Jesus, his unique and only Son, into the world, God does a new and amazing thing. He draws together not only Jews, but people from all nations, Jews and non-Jews.
Jesus says that when he is lifted up – and we understand that to be his being lifted up on the cross and his being lifted up in the resurrection and in his being lifted up in the ascension – he will draw people to him.
It is the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus who unites us.
Last week Moscow International Choir performed an amazing concert here. It is a choir which draws together people from many different nations. Music is one of those things which can draw us together.
But music also divides. Music from one culture can seem very unattractive to people from another culture. And we like some types of music and dislike other types of music. Vicars know that! Music unites but it also divides.
And religion divides. And you don’t even need to look to other religions: Christianity divides. Our expression of Christianity is too intertwined with our history and culture. I spent half a year in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Religion became the marker that people hung their identity on. I’m a Catholic. You’re a Protestant. And people killed each other because of that. It is tragic when Jesus prayed that we would be one.
But he really is the key. It is not religion or music or sport or food that will ultimately draw us together.
It is the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus who can unite us.
He died for all and he died for you.
He rose to destroy death, which has power over us all
And he ascended to be Lord – not just your Lord, but Lord of all: of all time, of all places, of all things and of all people.
I’ve been spending some time reflecting on our banners. They are worth spending time with.
The banner at the back right is called priesthood – and I take it to talk about the priesthood of Christ and the call of the Church to be a holy priesthood. The crucified but risen Christ is lifted up, and people gather to praise him - for his love, for his death for us, for his resurrection, for the gifts that he has given us, for his promises and his presence with us.
And as we praise him we are are drawn to him – whatever our music or style or culture - and we find that we are standing next to each other. He is the one who gathers us to himn and who gathers us together
2. He forgives us
That happens when we put other things at the centre of our lives and forget God.
But now God says, I will bring you back and I will forgive you.
I’ve been struck again at how important the forgiveness of sins is in Christianity.
After the resurrection, Jesus appears to his followers.
The first thing that he tells them to do is to call people to repentance and to declare the forgiveness of sins.
And he gives to the apostles, and through them to his Church, the power to declare that sins are forgiven.
Dan isn’t here, so he can’t contradict me, but he said to me last week that one of the things that he loves about our service is that every week - both at MPC and at St Andrew’s - someone, near the beginning of the service, after you have confessed your sins, stands up and tells you that you are forgiven. It is a reminder.
Whatever we have done, whatever dark thoughts or doubts that we have had, whatever resentments or fears or bitterness control us, however many people we have failed or let down, however far we have walked away from God, if we are prepared to confess and believe in Jesus, then we are forgiven. Not because we are sorry enough; but because Jesus died for us.
And Ezekiel says, ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses’ (v25)
That idea looks back to the sacrifices in the temple, when an animal was sacrificed and its blood was thrown over the people – it was quite messy!
And it looks forward to the New Testament when we are washed in water in baptism, as a picture of the fact that Jesus has died as our sacrifice, and that we have been washed, forgiven.
Look at another banner.
Here the person stands in the flowing, life giving water and welcomes it.
Their head is turned up and their hands are open.
You’re dirty and sweaty and sticky and you stand in the shower and allow the water to wash over you - you welcome the water.
When we lived St Petersburg in the seminary, there was a shower on our corridor. That was some shower. It was like having a bath of water thrown onto you. You had to take deep breaths before going under it. Well this image is like this. God washes away our sin, he makes us clean. And notice in the banner how the water and the fire are connected, so that as the water pours over you, the fire of God enters you.
So this gathered people are first and fundamentally a forgiven people.
There is no place for superiority in this new community of God’s people. I can’t look down on you and think that I am better than you: I am only here because I have been forgiven.
We are all here because we have been washed in the love and mercy and sacrifice of Christ.
3. He gives us a new heart
That is not particularly flattering.
He is telling us we have stone hearts. He is telling us that we are dead; that we are cold and hard and incapable of real love; that we cannot respond. That we have rigor mortis extremis
But he also tells us that God will give to the people who he gathers heart transplants. He will take out our hard heart and give us a heart of flesh: a living heart that is able to respond to his love.
Of course, there are problems about having a heart of flesh. A heart of flesh can be hurt; it can bleed and be broken. A heart of flesh is heart that is beginning to love; it can weep for others; it can see in the other the outline, the pencil sketch, of the beauty and glory of God and it longs, and it prays, and it sacrifices itself so that that outline becomes reality.
In other words, when God gives to us a heart of flesh, he gives to us life - eternal life.
And along with this heart, God says that he will put his Spirit in us.
‘I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (v27)
God himself will come and live in us.
The fire of his Spirit will overwhelm us, and it will make us become fire.
And as we welcome his Spirit and allow his Spirit to work in us, so he will change our minds and our wills, so that we begin to do what he asks, to live his way; not because we are compelled or forced to do it, but because the Spirit in us now desires to do his will, delights to do his will.
We pray the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
I used to think that we were praying that God’s will should be done perfectly here on earth as it is done perfectly in heaven. But I think we are much closer to getting what Jesus means when we realise that in heaven they delight to do God’s will - and when we pray that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying that people will choose to do God’s will freely and with great joy.
4. God gives to this people a new land, a new home.
But with Jesus the promise becomes so much bigger:
All who gather to him, all who are drawn to him, are promised a new home, a new land: a restored heaven and earth where Christ reigns.
For those of us who live in a country that is not our home, the idea of exile and longing for a different place that is home is quite easy to get.
Even more so if you’ve been away for many years, and you return to the place that we thought of as home. You discover that it has moved on. It is no longer home for us.
All of us who have been gathered by Jesus will at times know that we are aliens and strangers, exiles, here on earth. We will know that this is not our true home. And we will long for a new land, where what is unseen will become seen, where life reigns over death, and the infinite potentiality of this creation explodes into flower, where people delight in God and in the will of God, where we know that God is our God and that we are his people.
What is that holds us together?
Not music, culture or language.
And it has got nothing to do with us and what we’ve done. We have no cause to be arrogant or proud or superior.
It is all about what God has done and is doing:
I will take you and gather you
I will sprinkle you
I will cleanse you
I will remove and give you
I will put my spirit within you
I will make you follow my statutes
And it is because of him that we have been gathered together, forgiven, are being given a new heart and a new spirit, and we have a shared home, a shared destiny.
That is why it is so good to meet together.
(The illustrations are from the banners in St Andrew's, created by Sr Mary Stephens CRSS)
(The illustrations are from the banners in St Andrew's, created by Sr Mary Stephens CRSS)