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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Becoming ourselves

This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon preached on this Sunday three years ago.  In view of the tragic events in Paris which took place on Friday, 13 November, it did change a bit.

I also unexpectedly preached a children's sermon, which I didn't record.  I asked them to tell me the story of the Good Samaritan, which one of them did, very efficiently, and then I reminded them that a Samaritan was a person of a different race and often Jewish people hadn't wanted to know about them.  But I said the point was, he had helped, and when they saw  upsetting news stories on television or in the papers, always to look for the helpers - the police, the fire service, the ambulances, and the ordinary people, like you and me, who are helping - because that's what Jesus would do. 

“So, friends, we can now –
without hesitation –
walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.”
Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God.
The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.
So let’s do it –
full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.
Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going.
He always keeps his word.”

That's a modern translation of part of our first reading today,
from the letter to the Hebrews.
I don't know how much you know about this letter;
it's thought to date from around the year 63 or 64 AD,
before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed
and before the Eucharist became a widespread form of Christian worship.
Nobody knows who wrote it, either;
arguments about its authorship go back to at least the 4th century AD!
Probably one of Paul's pupils, but nobody actually knows who.

The Temple in Jerusalem is still standing when this letter is written.
The author uses it to contrast what used to be –
in the olden days only the High Priest could go into God's presence,
and he had to take blood with him to atone for the people's sins and his own.
Nowadays, it is only Christ, the great High Priest, who can go into God's presence –
but he can and does take us with him.
We can go with Jesus into the very presence of God himself, confidently,
just like you'd walk into your own front room.

The thing is, of course, that it's all because of what Jesus has done for us.
We can't go into God's presence, as the prayer says,
“trusting in our own righteousness”.
If we are to go in with any degree of confidence,
it is because of what Jesus has done for us,
arguably whether or not we recognise this.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ takes us in there in his own body.
I don't know about you, but for me that rather helps clarify what St Paul said about our being part of the Body of Christ –
and in that Body, we can go into God's presence.

There is nothing we can do to make it any easier or any more difficult;
it is all down to Jesus.
We are made right with God by what Jesus has done, end of.
It isn't about whether we have confessed our sins –
although I hope we have faced up to where we have gone wrong.
It isn't about whether we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord –
although I very much hope we have done so.
Neither of those things will save us.
Only God will save us –
and as soon as we reach out a tentative finger to him,
and sometimes even before, he is there,
reassuring us that we are loved,
we are saved,
we are forgiven.

The trouble is, all too often we focus on sin as though that were what Christianity were all about.
We even tend to think the Good News goes
“You are a sinner and God will condemn you to hell unless you believe the right things about him.”

Erm, no.
Just no.
We do things like that.
We are quick to condemn, especially people in public life.
Just read any newspaper, any day.
We are slow to forgive –
we don't believe people can change, we keep on bringing up episodes in the lives of our nearest and dearest that might have happened a quarter of a century ago!

But God is not like that.
God is love.
God is salvation.
We don't have to do anything, only God can save us.
Yes, following Jesus is not an easy option, we know that.
If we are Jesus' person, we are Jesus' person in every part of our lives –
it isn't just something we do here in Church on Sundays.
It affects who we are when we are at work,
or at home with our families,
or going to the supermarket.
It affects what we choose to do with our free time,
who we choose to spend it with –
not, I hope, exclusively people who think the same way as we do.

You see, the thing is, you never know exactly what God's going to do.
An acquaintance of mine is a fairly well-known author whose books have been published both here and in the USA.
She is just a little older than I am, and three years ago she announced on
her blog that she had met Jesus and was now a Christian.
You don't really expect people to become Christians just before their 60th birthday, but it happened to her.
God reached out to her and, as she put it, everything changed.

Yet she was still herself.

Another fairly well-known author –
well, well-known to me, anyway,
but if you don't read science fiction or fantasy you'll not have heard of either of these lovely women –
confirmed in the comments on this blog that she, too, is a believer,
although you couldn't have actually read some of her books and not realised that.
And one of her comments read, in part:
I'm still who I was, probably more so. . . . I was scared of the other –
of becoming the cookie fresh from the cutter, just like every other cookie.
But individuality and diversity appears to be built in to the design concept.”

Individuality and diversity appear to be built into the design concept.
God has created and designed each one of us to be uniquely ourselves.
When we are told that we will become more Christ-like as we go on with Jesus,
it doesn't mean we'll all grow to resemble a first-century Jewish carpenter!
We will, in fact, become more and more ourselves, more and more who we were intended to be.
Incidentally, my friend is now in urgent need of our prayers as her husband, another fantasy and mystery author, who is a very great deal older than she is, has had a stroke and is now in a care home.
So we will remember Robin and Peter in our intercessions later.

Salvation comes from God, through nothing you or I can do, although we are, of course, at liberty to say “No thank you!”
But if we say “Yes please”, as I suspect most of us here have said, at one time or another, then everything changes.
I've spoken before, although not, I think here, about the consequences of healing.
For make no mistake, my friends, when God touches our lives, things change.
Sometimes it is our behaviour which changes –
perhaps we used to get drunk, but now we find ourselves switching to soft drinks after a couple of glasses.
Perhaps we used to gamble,
but suddenly realise we haven't so much as bought a Lottery ticket for weeks, never mind visiting a bookie!
Perhaps we used to be less than scrupulous about what belongs to us, and what belongs to our employer,
but now we find ourselves asking permission to use an office envelope.

Very often these sorts of changes happen without our even noticing them. Others take more struggle –
sometimes it is many years before we can finally let go of an addiction, or a bad habit.
But as I've said before, the more open we are to God,
the more we can allow God to change us.
Sometimes, of course, we cling on to the familiar bad habits,
as we don't know how to replace them with healthier ways of acting and thinking, and that's scary.

But the point is, when God touches our lives, things change.
They changed for my friend, I know they changed for me,
and they will have changed for many of you, if not all of you, too.
So where does this leave our reading?
Jesus, in our gospel reading, reminded us that we mustn't go running this way and that way,
convinced of doomsday scenarios every time we hear a news bulletin.
Yes, the world as we know it is going to end some day –
it wasn't built to be permanent, just ask the dinosaurs!
We don't know how and why it will end;
in my youth, I would have assumed it would end in a nuclear war that would destroy all living things.
These days that is less probable,
but what about runaway global warming or an asteroid strike?
Or just simply running out of fossil fuels and unable to replace them?
The answer is that we simply don't know.
Unlike the first Christians,
we don't really expect Jesus to return any minute now –
although I suppose that is possible.
We do, however, accept and appreciate that this world is finite and that one day humanity will no longer exist here.

And we mustn't be scared all the time, either.
Yes, our news headlines can be very scary –
but isn't God greater than terrorists?
Isn't God greater than Islamic State?

And we musn't get bogged down in details, either.
There has been such a silly row in the USA this week because Starbucks haven't put Christmas symbols –
not Christian ones, but snowflakes and so on –
on their red cups this year.
Too silly – the God we worship is so very much bigger than whether or not a corporation has decorations on its cups.
There are many good reasons not to go to Starbucks, but that really isn't one of them!
And what about the rows in this country about people who chose not to wear a poppy, or how deep the Labour leader bowed when he laid his wreath.....

It is all so unimportant when we are also taught that we will be raised from death and go on Somewhere Else.
We don't know what that Somewhere Else will be like,
nor who we'll be when we get there –
although I imagine we'll still be recognisably ourselves.
But we do know that Jesus will be there with us,
and that we will see Him face to face.

But eternal life isn't just pie in the sky when you die, as it is so often caricatured.
If we are Christians, we have eternal life here and now;
so often, it's living it that's the problem.
So I'm going to conclude with part of the quote from Hebrews with which I began:
Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice,
acting as our priest before God.
The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.
So let’s do it –
full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.”

Let's do it!