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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Isaac and Ishmael

This was a repeat of this sermon from three years ago.  Obviously things were changed slightly to reflect current events, and also because today is Eid al-Fitr, which needed to be mentioned.  But the text is largely the same.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Put Right with God

I wonder whether you can remember when you first made a conscious decision to be Jesus’ person?

I know some people can’t remember, they have been Jesus’ person all their lives and it would never have occurred to them to do otherwise. And some people know that once upon a time they were not Christians, but their journey to God was such a slow, gradual and yet purposeful one that they can’t point to a given day when they were a Christian, yet were not the day before.

And others have a definite date that they can point to and say “Then. That was the day I became a Christian.” I sort-of have that. In many ways the second Sunday in October, the best part of fifty years ago, was the day for me, but in fact, there was a lot of stuff that went before it, and a great deal more that came after it. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, although it felt a bit like that at the time.

I was just a child then, eighteen years old and on my own in Paris. I was rather lonely and having trouble making friends, and my grandmother suggested I went along to the English church to see whether they had any activities for young people. They most certainly did, and it didn’t take long for me to hear a sermon on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.....”. And this was obviously the thing you did if you wanted to be accepted by this group of people..... so..... I’m so glad God is gracious and loved me anyway!

But the reason I’m raking up ancient history like this is that when you had become a Christian, as it was called, you were expected to attend the weekly Bible Study as well as the more formal teaching sessions which took place on a Wednesday. The Bible Studies were small discussion groups, people roughly the same age, peer-led. The minister stayed away, on the grounds that people needed to learn to read the Scriptures for themselves, not just be taught what to think. And it was noticeable that, very often, if we had got stuck with something, he would talk about the very thing we’d got stuck on in the Wednesday teaching sessions.

This form of studying the Bible was new to me – attending Bible Study and prayer meetings – the two tended to merge, rather – was not something that was done at the school I attended, or at my parents’ church. So I can still remember the very first passage I ever studied with my contemporaries, and do you know, it was that very passage from Romans that we’ve just heard read. We used the Good News Bible, only back then it was only the Good News New Testament:

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith into this experience of God's grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God's glory!”

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith” The trouble is, all those years ago I got the emphasis wrong! I thought it was my faith that mattered, not God’s promises. I thought this was something I had to do, that I had to desperately manufacture faith, and never doubt, not for a single, solitary minute!

Wasn’t I silly! It is, of course, what God does that matters. We believe that God will put us right with him, and so God does. The technical term, which some translations use, is “justification”. All that really means is being put right with God. All the nasty squirmy bits of ourselves that we really don’t want God to look at too closely – and that, come to that, we don’t actually want to look at too closely ourselves – they are – not swept away, sadly, much though we might like that to happen. Quite the reverse; they are brought out into the light so that we can look at them and God can look at them and say – okay, that needs to change. And then, if we are sensible, we allow God to change us.

That, of course, is a very long process, and will probably never be completely finished this side of heaven. That’s what we call “sanctification”, being made holy, being made whole, being made more like God, being made more into the person we were created to be. But the point is, God doesn’t make us wait until we are perfect before he will put up with us. All the nasty squirmy bits, what the jargon calls “Sin”, God decrees they no longer exist. They do, of course, and we deal with them in due course, but the point is, they no longer come between us and God.

I once read a definition that I found really helpful. Suppose there was a law that said you mustn’t jump in mud puddles. Well, who can resist jumping in mud puddles? But you end up no only guilty of breaking the law, but also covered in mud. When we are put right with God – justified – we are declared “not guilty” of breaking that law. And as we become made more into the person we were created to be – sanctified – it is as if, with God’s help, we washed off the mud.

Like all analogies it’s not perfect, but I found it helpful, back in the day, and offer it for what it’s worth.

But I really do think the most important thing that I’ve learnt in all the years since that first Bible study, so long ago, is that I don’t have to do the putting right! As I said earlier, I got the emphasis all wrong, and thought it was all down to me. I ended up thinking I had to be perfect because Jesus died on the cross for me, and how ungrateful would it be ever to sin again?

But it’s not like that. Our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do. We all need to be saved, and we all can be saved – these days, I’m not entirely sure what I mean by “saved”, and it’s one of those words that I suspect we all interpret slightly differently, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, we don’t have to – and, indeed, we can’t – save ourselves. God does that. All we have to do is to reach out, to say “Yes please!” and accept what is on offer. “Listen,” says Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, “Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

Of course, one shouldn’t really take a verse out of context like that, but it is a helpful illustration. All we need do is open the door to Jesus – and then let go. Then we are put right with God by faith, we do have peace with God, and we can relax and allow God to re-create us into the person we were designed to be. That bit isn’t always easy – far from it – but it’s worth it.

Those who know me well know that I often have an illustration of a butterfly somewhere about my person. That’s because it reminds me of how God is working, and will continue to work, in my life. Think how a butterfly is made. How does it start life? And how does it go on? The actual butterfly bit, the beautiful bit, is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.

And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again.

It’s just as well, I think, that butterflies and the like aren’t sentient. Imagine how awful it would be if they were aware what was going to happen to them! Think how terrified you’d be if you knew it was going to happen to you. To be completely remade into something utterly different. Something so different that it uses a totally different medium to move about in, the air. Caterpillars are creeping creatures, that move on the earth and on plants, and the larvae of things like mayflies and dragonflies are water insects, that can’t breathe in the air. Even more different!

And yet, we believe that something of the sort is going to happen to us one day, when we die and are raised from death into our new life. To a certain extent, of course, that happens, and is happening right now, here on earth, which is why God has already started to work in us and to make us into the person we were created to be. But how much more work will need to be done on us before we are perfect! I know John Wesley believed that Christians could be perfect, but I also know I’m very far from! And God still needs to do a great deal of work on me before I fulfil my potential.

But the thing is, and that’s where I got stuck as a young woman, we don’t have to do it. And we don’t have to wait until it’s done before we can get on with our lives as Christians, as God’s people. We have been put right with God through faith, and now have peace with him through our Lord Jesus Christ. So we can get on with our lives. Amen.