Sermon for Easter 5 – 2013 – Year C
SERMON PART 1
SERMON PART 2 WITH SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE FROM ORIGINAL
That our Life together brings glory to God
“Are you a real Christian?” . . . I wonder how many of us have been brought up short by such a question. I remember in my early years at University being troubled deeply by that question, usually on the lips of very eager believers, who wanted to know ‘Are you Saved?’ ‘Really Saved?’ ‘Very Very Saved so that you know deep within your heart that you are a Christian??’ One could always walk away from such well meaning folk, although the question still ran around in your mind and troubled you at night.
I remember an atheist famously questioning my faith as he knew the Bible far better than I. And so I went seeking security, I went seeking security. The story went on after I had ‘Chosen to follow Christ’, for then the question was – ‘but you were baptised as a baby! How can you Really be a Christian . . .’, so one evening I went along to a local church where we had a special service for ‘Renewal of our Baptismal vows, and full immersion’, but then . . . the questions came from another angle – ‘do you speak in tongues?’ For ‘this is The authentic sign that you Are a child of God.’ Like many of my and earlier generations I sang with Gusto the song ‘He lives he lives Christ Jesus lives today, he walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He Lives. He Lives. Salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart . . .’ but all the while the questions, one after the other, and not just from individuals challenging me, but also from the pulpit.
“Are you a real Christian?” I wonder how many folk here flinched, thinking ‘here we go again! My faith is going to be called into question, is it the real thing?’ “Are you a Christian?” I hope I have not preached such a sermon here, but I know I have preached them elsewhere, and I have come to understand that this is wrong, very wrong. Not because our faith is a personal thing and shouldn’t be called into question – but because it is a meaningless question. For the measure of the Reality of the LIfe amongst us cannot be found in anything that we have done. Rather it is in what God has done in Christ and the Risen Christ is doing among us . . . “Are you a real Christian?” is actually a very poor question. It is a question which assumes we are all individuals and that the church is nothing more than a collection of individual believers, which it is most certainly not. As always, our real need is not for answers but for better questions
You will remember that last week I made reference to a friend who was troubled in this particular respect. Ruth is someone I know from my previous parish, someone who has always prayed, who has always understood herself as a child of God. Although she lived away from home, she came to her mother church to be married, and I prepared her and her fiance and found her to be a thoughtful Christian woman. But when she contacted me, she was troubled, and her worries seemed all too familiar.
Following the birth of her children had gone along to her local Anglican church to seek baptism for the child. Well they had a good priest there who invited both Ruth and her husband along to Baptism classes. To cut a long story short, Ruth now is involved in giving these classes. But she was troubled because folk in her church were saying in effect ‘to be a Real Christian, you need to have given your life entirely to Jesus’ . She wanted to know what I thought.
My response was that at the end of John’s gospel, when Jesus asks Peter the first two times, ‘Do you love me?’ he is saying in effect ‘have you given your life entirely to me?’ – and Peter responds ‘actually no, but I am trying to be a friend’. Finally Jesus asks him ‘are you trying to be my friend’ Peter says yes. Put another way – Jesus asks him twice ‘Are you a real Christian’ Peter twice shies away from it, Jesus then asks him, ‘are you any kind of christian at all?’ Peter says ‘yes this is what I’ve been saying all along, I’m a really rubbish Christian’ and Jesus makes him the first pope 🙂
We would think that Jesus would only entrust his church to someone of such monumental integrity and honour, someone who was completely ‘sold out for Jesus’, someone who had abandoned EVERYTHING, someone who WOULD die with him – but no. Jesus picks Peter to be the Rock on which he builds his church . . . And still 2000 years on, the church hasn’t begun to understand this . . . Anyway, Ruth was very happy with that answer – well I think it was my answer. It might have been my offer to punch the lights out of anyone who said she wasn’t a Christian. 🙂
Now its helpful to continue to think of Peter for a moment, it’s always helpful to think of Peter – for our reading from Acts finds him up against something which sounds very familiar . . . to put it into this ‘Are you a Christian language’ Peter is relating the story of his call to go to the house of Cornelius – called to a bunch of ‘God fearing Gentiles’ But people who could not possibly be Christians!! (Actually for Peter read ‘God’s people’) They are outsiders – they are Not God’s people. Of course they could convert and become ‘Jews’ – that is in the understanding of those first believers, there is something they could do to become ‘God’s people’.
How did you become one of God’s people? What did you have to do? To put it in the language of our question ‘How did you become a real Christian?’ The answer was – you were circumcised’ [Of course this was adult circumcision 🙂 not infant circumcision 🙂 It is strange that there never seemed to be a dispute over which type of circumcision was ‘better’ :), ‘Oh I chose to be circumcised . . .’ ‘I’ve given myself totally to God, unlike those of you who just found yourself circumcised . . .]
So when Peter goes back to Jerusalem where the Apostles, those ’really on fire for Jesus missionary Christians’ . . . whom we note haven’t got out of Jerusalem yet, even though great persecution has broken out 🙂 . . . when he goes back they don’t say – Great! The Gentiles are God’s people now also. They criticize Peter “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did you go to those who are not God’s people? Why did you share food with them? To put it another way, why did you share in Life with them?
So Peter tells them – he recounts the story of the dream – about not calling unclean, that which God has declared clean. And going to Joppa, and then he recounts what happens . . . And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” What does he see? He sees the LIfe of God poured out and present amongst these people – they have been made God’s people – they didn’t get circumcised, they didn’t line up and ask Jesus into their heart. They do Nothing! And God makes them his people, indiscriminately – they haven’t even prayed the sinners prayer!!!
And the sign, How does Peter know that God has made them his people? The Life of God amongst them – The Holy Spirit fell on THEM not just one or two, here or there, not those who have responded in their hearts, All of them. As God saved the people of Israel from Egypt as a job lot – warts and all – this is how he continues to work. Just making people his people. For the Proud Western individualistic mindset this is the hardest thing to accept, that we do nothing – it is all grace and it is Communal . . . remember last week? The story of the community in Fiji? How their witness was that ‘We are grateful that the gospel was sent to Us . . .’ ‘We share everything we have with one another . . .’
The Chief did not say to us ‘You must give your life to Jesus, entirely . . .’ He said – We became Christians and now we share everything we have with one another. As I said last week one of the few occasions I have Seen the Kingdom of God Clearly.
What is the sign? The life of God amongst them. What is the sign, not that ‘you’ or ‘you’ or ‘you’ is a Christian. Indeed if you are asked by that the simple reply is that by baptism I was made a member of the church, therefore I am a Christian. But that is a bad question – the real question is ‘Are we God’s people . . .’ and the evidence??
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus says, people will not know ‘You’ to be a Christian apart from your brothers and sisters – By this EVERYONE will know that you are my disciples because you love one another as i have loved you.
Jesus is not interested in you ‘being a Christian’ – he never told anyone to ‘be a Christian’. Rather he formed a community of people by commanding them to follow Him, a people whose life was his life. The question is not ‘Have I given my life to Jesus’ Actually when we truly Hear the gospel it puts an end to our questions. Peter tells the Apostles and other believers 7If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. the questions come to an end And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” It is not the question ‘have I given my life to Jesus’ It is the Fact ‘God has given his life to us. The shift from I to We – the biggest shift we need in the Church – He gives us something to do . . . get baptised? Jesus wants us to entirely give our lives . . . to each other
As I told my friend Ruth, I have yet to meet this mythical Real Christian, the one who has utterly given their life to Jesus. From time to time I hear a rumour of one, but I suspect that if one does exist, living the fully surrendered life, we would not hear of it, for only Jesus would be visible . . . no all I meet is a bunch of folks who like me are stumbling along, trying to make sense of this whole thing, but many of whom are labouring under a misapprehension, that there’s something they still haven’t done to be a Real Christian . . . but my brothers and sisters that is not the point . . . Yes, there Is something to do, not to be REALLY saved, No. NOw that God has given this Life even to us , Now he has saved us, Now He has made us christians – WE are to live it. WE.
So when I say – ‘we cannot live the Christian life on our own’, we modern individualists might hear me saying – we need each other so that as individuals we can live the life. That is not what I mean. We need each other because the Christian Life is Loving one another as Jesus has loved us. In other words, the needing one another IS the life of Jesus. Sharing Life, is Sharing HIs Life. Church is not a place where we get equipped to better go live the Christian Life – no it is the community where the Christian Life is known. And God is glorified in that way. For here, with one another, We are by Grace, God’s people. The Church is not a means to individual salvation, it is the place where Salvation is encountered. It is not a place where we come to get help with our individual lives – it is the Community where true Life is found.