Sermon for Patronal Festival
St John the Evangelist, Roslyn
1 John 1
The glorious gospel of Jesus Christ
Years ago, whilst training for ordained ministry, I was struck by the opening of one of the books I read. Indeed I wasn’t so much struck by it as haunted by it – as it’s memory has stuck with me down through the years, and it seems that today as we celebrate our Patronal Festival (almost exactly 6months late 🙂 ) it is a good place to start our consideration of the scriptures.
The book, ‘Telling the Story’, by Andrew Walker, professor of theology and education at King’s College, London opens with these words
‘In 1983, Lesslie Newbigin’s first draft of his book, The Other side of 1984, was being discussed in the British Council of Churches by a distinguished group of churchmen and women, including bishops and leading theologians. The question arose: ‘Well, what is the gospel anyway?’ Only two of the people present were prepared to hazard a guess’
Walker continues ‘This is shocking, but it is not so surprising’.
One can readily imagining a church meeting – or indeed a sermon where the question is put – ‘What is the gospel, anyway?’ And we would all break into little groups and discuss it and possibly there would be scribes who would write down our answers. The conversation would I guess go something like this ‘Well, for me, the gospel is . . .’, and ‘For me, the gospel is . . .’ You may like to think about that question briefly? And I wonder how many of our definitions when carefully questioned would be devoid of any mention of Jesus Christ . . . but I pray that they would not, here of all places
On this our Patronal festival, it is first of all worthwhile remembering the full ascription of our church. To all and sundry we are known as St John’s, Roslyn. But our full ascription is ‘St John the Evangelist, Roslyn’ St John the Evangelist. St John the one who declares the Evangel, the Good News, the Gospel. We above all should know what the Gospel is
St John, the one commonly thought to be he who lay at the breast of Jesus at the last supper – close to the heart of Jesus – declares to us the very heart of the Gospel – and John’s message is simple. The Gospel John proclaims is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ Is the good news. He comes not to declare some message from God, he does not come to suggest to us the right way to live. Jesus does not come to announce the Gospel – He Is the gospel. It is His Life which is offered both to God and to the world.
What is it that John says in the opening to the first epistle, to which we have just listened?
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.
What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands – this Life.
Herein is one of the greatest challenges for us as the people of God in this age. In an age which is increasingly solipsistic, that is that lives in its heads, that thinks truth is a set of propositions about which we may agree or disagree over a dinner table yet still live together as we have always lived, and moreover which thus perhaps more than ever before, spiritualises the gospel that we may escape its concrete demands on our life, our challenge is this – that John, the one who is accused, and indeed in some of the early church writings lauded for writing a spiritual gospel – identifies the gospel with ‘Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth’. The Light of the World, The Bread of heaven, The Good shepherd of the sheep, The Way, The Truth, The Life. All these Wonderful ascriptions are no mere Ideas, they are not timeless truths, They are to be seen, heard and touched in Jesus. The Living Word of God is made Flesh.
John proclaims no vague ‘spiritual gospel’ No ‘message’ or ‘timeless spiritual truth’ His gospel is the flesh and blood and bone and breath material reality that is Jesus Christ
And that the Life is declared – the gospel is announced – so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is declared as the Life that comes from God, that we might share in the life Of God. ‘Now this is eternal life – that they might Know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’
We must wonder at those churchmen and theologians who could not put the gospel into words – who did not know What it was. We must wonder, ‘Did they not know Jesus Christ?’
For He is our Life – the entirety of it – as Jesus says to us ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ Might we suggest that the church is in the unhealthy state it is, because increasingly it has less and less to do with Jesus, her risen Lord and the entire content of her being? As St Paul says ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Christ Is our Life. Apart from Him we have no good thing
Do we know this? That Jesus Christ is our Life? As John puts it in Chapter 3vs16-17 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’ That there is Life only in the name of Jesus.
Just a week or so ago, many church folk were astir at the ‘once in a lifetime’ visit of the Dalai Lama to Dunedin. Understandably so in some respects. A man of international standing and widely admired . . . but, brothers and sisters, not once in a lifetime – but Every week we gather here to meet with Jesus Christ, the Lord of history, the one through whom ‘All things [have come] into being,’ The one without [whom] not one thing came into being.’ He comes to us – His is the life we share – It is His word we hear proclaimed – it is His body and blood upon which we feed. We sometimes speak about ‘Going to church’ as if it were somehow just another even in the week. Sometimes we enjoy it, sometimes we don’t, sometimes the choice of hymns suits our tastes, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the sermon is to long for us, sometimes we wished it were longer 🙂 But ALWAYS Jesus Christ is present amongst us – ALWAYS we receive forgiveness of our sins through his blood – ALWAYS The Lord is HERE!!! Think folk about that just for a moment. I was left wondering why there was so much excitement about the visit of the Dalai Lama, and seemingly so little Joy amongst the people of God Sunday by Sunday – when we meet with Jesus Christ our Life. We may want to ponder that for just a moment. Do we, the flock of Christ here in this place Know him?
John shows us unambiguously that we cannot flee to the vacuous subjectivity of ‘the spiritual’ – handily divorcing faith from the concrete commands of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth Is the gospel – and this is not just John – Jesus the Good News of God is the subject of all of scripture – that Gospel is proclaimed throughout all the pages of Scripture. Moses, it seems to me sees Christ far more clearly than we who bear his name often do.
As God in his mercy reveals a little of himself to Moses – Moses realises that the people cannot live apart from the presence of the Living One as he intercedes with God ‘Consider too that this nation is your people.’ The LORD said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Come to me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I shall give you rest . . . And [Moses] said to [the LORD], ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? The disciples have to be told by Jesus that apart from Him they can do nothing, apart from Him they Are nothing, but Moses pleads in effect – Do not leave us In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’ In this way, we shall be distinct . . . from every people on the face of the Earth.
The reduction of the Gospel to a spiritual message – carefully crafted to offend none – stripped of its true content, Jesus Christ – leaves Christians utterly indistinct from every people on the face of the earth. ‘Oh you are spiritual? So are we – how lovely!’ But how can we know what Spiritual means??? Apart from Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh. Apart from that core understanding that apart from the Life of the Living One in our midst we have nothing, we are nothing, we gain nothing. Yet knowing Him, we have Everything.
The words Follow Me – are addressed through Peter to the whole church – to live our live in and through and with Jesus Christ
Next year – 2014 – we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the first preaching of Christ upon these shores. As a diocese we will together be called to a corporate act of identification with Jesus Christ. Across the Diocese there will be a renewal of our baptismal vows – a reminder to us all that we have seen the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and we have died in baptism with him, and that our life is hid with Christ in God. Following that, the bishop will embark on a Diocesan wide Hikoi – proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the Otago and Southland.
When as it is to be hoped such proclamation of Jesus Christ stirs up our neighbours to ask of us ‘What is the gospel anyway?’ May we not be ashamed to bear the name of Jesus. May we not shy from naming him as our Life – May we not be left as those churchmen and theologians were embarrassedly struggling for words – especially here in the Church that bears the name of the one that has written these things that we might believe, and believing might have Life in and through Jesus Christ.