Sunday, March 08, 2009 @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
How much do you love Jesus?
How much do you love Jesus? When you see the beauty of a sunset, when you hold a new-born child in your hand, or when you marvel at some amazing scientific discovery, how much do you give thanks to Jesus who has made all this possible? I went running through Central Park on Monday morning. It was absolutely beautiful with the frost on the ground and the mist rising through the trees. And it struck me that if it wasn’t for Jesus none of this would be possible. He is – as Paul says in Colossians 1:15-16 – the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Stunning words which remind us all we can see around us is not the product of chance, or evolution, or even an unknown mysterious being, but a God who can be known personally.
So, how much do you love Jesus?
Or again, when you read the gospels and see the man so wonderfully described on every page, what is your response? That there could be a person so full of love and truth and grace, and that He is alive and living with us right here by His Spirit should surely be a cause of continual thanks and praise and worship. I never cease to be amazed by people who call themselves Christians and yet have never read an account of His life, or have any apparent desire to do so. Surely to be a Christian is to respond to someone who is so attractive, so compelling that we can only want to find out more about Him.
So, how much do you love Jesus?
Or again, when you take bread and wine, or when you think about the cross and Jesus dying for you, isn’t there something that thrills your heart? In one sense, of course, Jesus didn’t have to die for us. Paul has already established in the first 2½ chapters of Romans that all of us have fallen short of God’s standards and justly deserve His wrath. Yet God didn’t choose to leave us under judgement, exposed to His righteous condemnation. He gave us Jesus as Paul writes in Romans 3:25 as a sacrifice of atonement to quite literally make us at one with Him, by the shedding of that most precious blood. And although there may be some mystery as to how Jesus could do all this, surely the greater mystery is that He actually decided to do so, and walk the path of obedience even unto His arrest and trial and crucifixion.
So, how much do you love Jesus?
Or again, when you think about the empty tomb, about Jesus’ ascension into heaven, about the fact He is now seating at the right hand of God actively praying for us, aren’t you excited by the fact He is the firstfruits and guarantee of eternal life? So many people, it seems to me, live without real, genuine hope, and face the future with all kinds of doubts, uncertainties, worries, and while we as Christians are not immune from them, doesn’t it make all the difference to know that Jesus has gone ahead and prepared a place for us? Not only that, but this gift of eternal life is already now, and that our life in the Spirit is just a foretaste of what is yet to come.
So how much do you love Jesus?
Because if you love Jesus, then certain things will follow:
Our love and our faith
First of all, your love for Jesus will affect what you believe. From time to time I come across people who say, “Well, I just know Jesus is there”. Which of course leads on to the question, “How do you know He is there?” “Well, I just know”. That, I’m afraid won’t quite do. Because although in one sense Jesus is always there, we only really know His presence in our life by taking an active step of faith. That gift of the Spirit, that forgiveness of sins, that eternal life is only available to those who are willing to make a response. As Paul says in Romans 3:22 – a verse all of us should know by heart – This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to who? All who believe. And unless you have taken this step of faith, unless you have asked Jesus to come into your life as your Lord and your Saviour, the danger is that what we think is our faith is actually just a feeling, or an experience, which is likely to be shaken or blown away by the cares and pressures of this life.
Now of course there are many things in this life we believe. We believe for example that the gravitational acceleration of objects at the Earth’s surface is 9.8 metres per second, or we believe that the distance from the earth to the moon is 384,000 kilometres, but these kinds of beliefs rarely make an impact on our daily lives. Is that also true when it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ? Sadly, there are too many people for whom their faith in Jesus Christ appears just an intellectual exercise, where they know all they need to know about Jesus and the Bible and the way they are supposed to live, but where somehow this information has never travelled down from their head to their heart. And one reason why we are taking such a close look at Jesus’ suffering and death this Lent is that I believe all of us need to have a renewed passion and a renewed desire in our faith. Living for Jesus is not just about having the right answers, or knowing the right things, but having that fire of the Spirit burning deep, deep within us as we gaze in wonder at what Jesus has done for us, and respond with thanks and praise.
Our love for Jesus must result in an act of faith that engages every part of us, heart and mind and soul. And I should also add that this act of faith is meant to be so much more than a one-off commitment, or transient experience. I think that as a church we have been very good at calling people to come to faith, but we have been less good at explaining what coming to faith means. Putting it technically, that Greek word we translate “faith” can also have the meaning of “faithfulness” – it’s one and the same concept in that language. And so when we talk about coming to faith, it’s about making a faithful, enduring commitment to stick with Jesus through thick and thin, when times are good and when times are bad.
So please don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking once you believe in Jesus, that’s it. Faith is something that has to grow, to deepen, to develop as we learn to live out what we believe, and on another day I would draw out the many links the New Testament draws out between faith and perseverance. But I would just say for now that this perseverance is only possible when we know what we believe and when we have that fire of the Spirit burning deep within us. Faith, you see, is not an escape from the real world, or a way of getting a spiritual high. It’s about a passionate commitment to the one whose body was broken for us and whose blood was shed for us, and deciding that whatever comes our way He will be the one we will follow, the one we will serve. So our love for Jesus will affect what we believe.
Our love and the church
But there’s also another dimension to our love for Jesus, because if we love Jesus, it will also mean we will want to belong to His people, the church. There is throughout the pages of Scripture an unbreakable link between believing and belonging, and we can see that from our gospel reading today. The way Jesus prepared His disciples both for His own death and for their ongoing ministry here on earth was to invite them to share in a communal meal. And whether we call our ongoing celebration of this meal the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Mass or anything else really misses the point. The point is, Jesus here is showing us what our life as believers should be like, a life marked by the deepest possible sharing, where believers eat together, worship together, pray together, as together they are gathered in the presence of their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
So why is it, then, people say, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ then your desire should be to meet with others who share that same love for Christ, whether formally on a Sunday morning, or informally over a hot chocolate in town, or as one helps another with a practical chore that needs doing – like fixing the toilet, or looking after a sick child.
We don’t have in Mark’s account of the Last Supper Jesus’ detailed teaching to His disciples – we have to turn to John to find that. But do you remember how in John’s gospel Jesus tells His disciples, If you love me, you will obey what I command (John 14:15)? And can anyone tell me what new commandment Jesus gave at the Last Supper? That’s right – John 13:34: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. So next time someone says to you, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”, ask them how they manage to love their fellow believers as Jesus has loved them. If they have found some way to do this which involves no contact whatsoever with a church, I would be very interested to know more.
Belonging to a church, you see, is not an option for Christians who happen to have the time, or particularly happen to agree with the vicar. Belonging to a church is the most basic and fundamental way we express our love for Christ. Why? Because unlikely as it might seem, it is through the church that Jesus chooses to make His love known in the world today. As He goes on to say in John 13:35 – immediately after issuing His new command – By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Because although we may be few in number, although we may have few resources, although we may feel we have little to give, if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, then we have the most precious and most important commodity anyone could ever hope to want. And although mission action plans, and priorities, and strategies are important to the life of the local church, what makes the church grow is the way this most unlikely bunch of people, of all ages and all backgrounds, happen to be on fire with the love of Jesus, and show that love naturally, genuinely, spontaneously with each other.
Finally, if our belief is a matter of the head and the heart, if we are committed to belonging to local church, then all this will affect at the deepest level how we behave.
Our love and our actions
After all, if you are truly thankful for all the things Jesus gives you – the gift of the Spirit, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, to name but three – then surely that thankfulness should have a deep, deep impact on the way you live your life. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make in their Christian faith is to imagine that when they put their faith in Jesus they are still free to use their time, their money, their abilities, their possessions as they wish, as if somehow they own them, and it is up to them how much they can decide to give. If we have truly grasped the enormity of Jesus’ love for us, if we have His presence living in our hearts, then the very real and very practical implication should be that we are prepared to give Him whatever He asks of us.
For example, what about our time? I am never ceased to be amazed by people who say they don’t have enough time in the day to read their Bible and pray, yet a few sentences on in the conversation will start going on about the latest TV series they are into. Surely, if we love Jesus, then we will want to find some time to spend with Him, praying, praising, and yes, reading the Bible, and I personally think the acid test of our love for Jesus is just how much time we are prepared to set aside doing this. After all, as someone once observed, you can always find the time for the things you really want to do.
Or how about our gifts? Now don’t get me wrong – we have some tremendously gifted people in our two churches who serve the Lord wonderfully already, and I want to publicly thank them for their contribution. But I think it falls to us from time to time to think about the abilities, the interests, the skills we have been given and look afresh at how we can use them for the Lord. It might even be that as we pray and think about them, we fill find the Holy Spirit equipping us to use them in a new way to serve Jesus and His church. Jesus, you see, doesn’t just love us enough to die for us, and then leave us to struggle on our own. He is a generous, compassionate Saviour who longs to bestow more and more gifts on His people, the church. The question is: dare we ask for them?
And then there’s our money. When I was in Chelmsford Diocese – a huge diocese even bigger than Exeter – someone once calculated that if everyone went onto income support and tithed their resultant income, the financial problems of the diocese would be solved overnight. Now I know that for many people finances are tight, and look like only getting tighter. But if our faith in Christ means anything, it surely must mean trusting Him to provide us with what we need, and to supply us with our daily bread. And that’s why for so many people understanding the joy of giving is so liberating, because through learning to give, they begin to understand more and more of the generous grace of God. Or to put it another way, our motive for giving should not be that the local church needs more money (although it does) or that the diocese faces a huge financial shortfall (750k and rising), but simply a desire to honour God out of a deep, deep love for Jesus.
Now the use of our time, our gifts, our money are each huge subjects in themselves, deserving a sermon in their own right. But really no matter how much teaching I or anyone else gives in these areas, there will be very little effect until we have understood in our hearts just how much Jesus loves us. True, we may start reading our Bibles out of a sense of guilt, or we may put a little bit more into the collection because we feel to do our bit, but if these actions are merely duties, things that weigh us down and not set us free, then very soon our good intentions will come to nothing and the impact on our every day lives will be minimal.
A final challenge
So how much do you love Jesus? Do you love Him enough to make that step of faith I was talking about earlier, to make a commitment to Him as Lord and Saviour your whole life through? Do you love Him enough to be committed to His body the church and to love your fellow believers as Christ has loved you? Do you love Him enough to give Him every area of your life and offer yourself in His service? And if you say that you cannot – for who of us can love Jesus enough – thank God that Jesus loves you anyway and ask this morning for a fresh touch of His Spirit to enable you to make that response of love that you need to make. Let us pray…