St Barnabas 2nd May 2010
Well, on Thursday it will finally be over. After all the campaigning and all the party political broadcasts and all the endless debates, it will be our chance to decide who will govern us. We will weigh up the issues, decide which party has run the best campaign, consider who might make the best leader, and then hopefully we will go down to our local polling station to cast our vote. And even if politics is not your thing, and you don’t feel any particular connection with any one party, please can I urge all of you to use your vote.
I was watching a documentary the other day about someone making a secret visit to Burma, risking arrest and imprisonment and possible torture to do so. It seems to me one of the great privileges we have in this country is the ability to take part in free and fair elections, and it’s one that perhaps we all too often take for granted. In places like Burma or parts of the Middle East there are thousands, almost certainly millions of people, who would do almost anything just to be able to fill in a ballot paper and chose who would rule over them. So on Thursday just take a little time at some point in the day to find out where to vote, and take advantage of the opportunity offered to you. I think especially in this election every vote could make a difference.
Now of course it would be wrong for me to tell you how to vote, just as it is equally wrong for politicians to tell us what we ought to believe. But – and I hope you’ll see the point I’m making in a moment – I just want you to think what it is actually involved in casting your vote. Because you go into the polling booth, you look at the list of names, you decide who you are going to vote for and then …what do you do? That’s right – you put a cross against the candidate you have chosen. That cross is the sign you have made your choice. It is your cross that shows which person and which political party you have gone for.
And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to see a parallel here with the baptism service that is foundational to our Christian lives. Because in baptism we choose – either directly or though parents and godparents – Jesus to be the one who has authority over us. And the way we show this is, you’ve guessed it, by making the sign of the cross. But of course the difference here is that the cross is more than simply a mark which shows the decision you’ve made, a convenient way of indicating your choice. The cross is actually a reminder of what Jesus did in dying and rising again for us, the reason why He deserves to be Lord of our lives. It is the cross that tells us Jesus is the one who has conquered death, who can forgive us our sins, who can give us a new relationship with God as Father. So that when the parents and godparents respond, as they will at St Michael’s this morning – and say I turn to Christ what they are saying – at least in theory – is that they recognise Jesus’ right to rule over them, and that they are turning to Him in faith and trust.
But what does all this actually mean in practice? Well, while on one level it is of the greatest importance who forms the next government, on another it is true to say that whoever is elected won’t have that much immediate impact on our everyday lives. They will for the most part be based not in Plymouth, but up in London. We might notice the price of a few things going up, or the amount of pay we take home going down, but many of the new laws it passes won’t directly affect us, at least not in the short term. We will still wake up in the same way on Friday May 7th, do the same job of work, see the same people, eat the same kind of food. Life will pretty much go on as before.
So what about the real, practical impact of the promises that are made in our baptism service? Experience tells me that many of the people who say I turn to Christ do so in all sincerity and genuineness, and I am sure that the Lord honours their words. But, if I might put it this way, their view of God is rather like that of the government at Westminster. Real, yes, but rather remote, far removed from the concerns and pressures of everyday life. A God who gives us laws and commands which, if we’re honest, don’t have that much impact on what we do in the rush and busyness of each day.
But that isn’t at all what it means to follow Jesus. Now I have here a torch. It’s quite a nice torch, even if it’s a bit dirty. It has a strap, and a button you can click on and off. But in its current state it’s not that much use. Why not? Because, of course, it doesn’t have any batteries. It is the batteries, the power inside, which turns the torch from being an interesting object into something useful.
And I’m going to put it to you that what turns our faith from being more than words or something we say in a church service is actually having the power of the risen Lord Jesus in our lives. Because this Jesus we are talking about isn’t simply a good person who walked this earth 2000 years ago, or even the Son of God who died and rose again in about 30 AD. This Jesus we are talking about is the one who is alive and with us now, right here, right in this place. And what He longs for us to do above else is to recognise His presence with us, and invite Him into our hearts.
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus says these words: If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Because that’s what Jesus wants to do with each and every one of us. He wants to become real to us in a special, personal way and He wants to be not just Lord over all, but also Lord in our hearts, filling us with His power and His presence and His peace. So that, just as the torch is lit up when we put the batteries in it, we too become filled with the light of Christ in our lives.
We call this special presence of Jesus in our lives the Holy Spirit, and it is the Holy Spirit who turns our faith in God from a rather vague belief in someone out there, into a living, personal relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. And it’s important to realise that without the Holy Spirit saying I turn to Christ is only a matter of words. But on the other hand with the Holy Spirit saying I turn to Christ is the start of an exciting, life-changing journey where we are changed and transformed by the love of Jesus.
Now I am being very deliberate this morning in the way I am talking about the work of the Holy Spirit. Because I have known that too many churches who without perhaps even realising it separate the work of the Holy Spirit from the person of Jesus Christ. There are some good, sound upright churches who quite rightly focus on Jesus and who faithfully teach week by week the good news of His death and resurrection. But they scarcely ever mention who the Holy Spirit is or what He does, with the result that their teaching all too often seems dry and lifeless, and lacking any real power to change lives. On the other hand there are some other good, lively churches who apparently spend all their time focusing on the Holy Spirit, where church members have wonderful experiences of His work in their lives. But despite all their vitality, and all their energy, somehow these churches lack a certain stability and a certain continuity. Why? Because they all too rarely focus on the cross of Christ and the need for a Saviour to die for our sins.
What is striking in our reading from John’s gospel is that as Jesus begins to talk about the work of another Counsellor, the work of the Spirit of truth, he starts by saying If you love me. Because if you want to truly know the Holy Spirit, you have to love Jesus. And let’s not downplay the force of the word “love”. Jesus isn’t asking us to agree that He is a good idea, or to accept His teachings are a positive force for good, or even that He is some kind of inspiring role model. He is asking us to love Him, to respond to His death and resurrection for us with joy and thanksgiving and praise.
Perhaps therefore it would be good for all of us this morning to ask ourselves if we really love Jesus. You may remember at the end of John’s gospel Jesus asks Simon Peter do you truly love me? And of course Simon Peter says “yes”. But Jesus goes on to ask the same question a second time, and then a third time. The reason I think He does this is that we all too easily say, “Yes, I love Jesus”. But if we’re honest, if I look at my own life, I can easily see that no, I don’t love Jesus as much as I ought. I tend presume on His death and resurrection for me. I lose sight of the sacrificial love that took Him to the cross. I forget that I am sinner justified only by sheer, amazing grace.
And let’s be clear what love for Jesus actually means. It doesn’t just involve standing up and singing lots of worship songs. It doesn’t mean saying a quick prayer each morning as we stagger out of bed each morning, or reading our Bible when we have an odd five minutes. It means a practical, real desire to do what Jesus wants of our lives, as we surrender ourselves in thanksgiving and praise to His will. That’s why Jesus says in verse 15: If you love me, you will obey what I command. And just in case we haven’t understood what He is saying, He says again in verse 23: If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.
Now I appreciate that the word obedience isn’t one that’s very fashionable nowadays. I’ve said it before and no doubt will say again that obedience training is something that we tend only to do to dogs. But actually the proof that we have met with Jesus personally as Lord and Saviour is that we have taken on board His demand to take up our cross and follow Him. That we put His agenda above our agendas, that we are prepared to stand up and be counted as His disciples, even when we invite ridicule or apathy or embarrassment among our family and friends. Not because we want to be known as awkward, or want to attract attention. But because Jesus is the most precious thing in our lives and we know there is no-one else who is more worthy of worship and service.
Of course, you might well ask what exactly is this teaching Jesus refers to here. Well, the simple answer is found a few verses back in those famous words of John 13:34 where He says: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Jesus is in other words teaching us that if we love Him, then we must love one another as He has loved us.
Sounds simple? Well, one level it is. It is not a command that is hard to understand. We don’t need to investigate the finer points of New Testament Greek or delve through the annals of church history to make the sense of these words. We must love another as Jesus loved us. Full stop. End of argument. Not love one another subject to the following terms and conditions. Not love the other person providing we like them or they’re our sort of people. No, we must simply love another, freely, unconditionally, totally just as Jesus loved us freely, unconditionally, totally, through His death on the cross for us.
And when you put it this way, you begin to see just what a challenging and daunting proposition Jesus’ command is. Because how realistically can we ever hope to do this? Well, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. John 14:23 again: If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Because the whole reason why Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit is not so that we have a nice, warm experience or see all kinds of miracles performed, but so that we can receive the strength and the power to live for Him day by day. Jesus, you see, doesn’t want us to rely on our efforts to put His command into practice. He wants us to rely completely on His Spirit, His presence living on us. So that when others see us, they don’t see someone with an interesting set of beliefs, but they see us shining with the light and love of Jesus.
So who then is the Holy Spirit for? One thing I find time and time again when I talk about Him is that there are folk in church who don’t really think the Holy Spirit is for them. The Holy Spirit is for special Christians, Christians who have particular gifts or abilities, or who have particular levels of understanding. But that’s not what Jesus says. He says the Holy Spirit for anyone. Anyone, that is, who puts his faith and trust in Jesus and who genuinely loves Him. And that includes you. Not just the person at the front of the church, or the person sitting next you. It includes you. If you have decided to follow Jesus, then you have the Holy Spirit in your life. You may not feel any different, you may not had any particular spiritual experience, but that doesn’t take away from the objective reality that God the Father and God the Son have chosen to live in your heart. And maybe what you need to do is to learn to accept and recognise His presence in you and discover just what God can do in and through you.
Now I realise that our main reading this morning is supposed to be from the book of Acts, and I am finally getting there. Don’t worry – I’m not going to give a detailed explanation of this passage now. But the whole reason why we are studying this book is for one simple reason. That as the church grew and reached out into new situations and encountered different groups of people and different cultures, she too had to learn this lesson that the Holy Spirit really was for everyone.
You see, in our particular passage Peter was under attack because he had gone off to Caesarea to spend time with a Roman centurion and his family. He had broken Jewish food laws, and made himself ceremonially unclean. Now we might find the exact accusation levelled at Peter rather obscure and hard to understand today, but I don’t think we have to look too hard to find a similar kind of mindset today. That the Christian faith is really only for religious people, for people who obey the laws of the club, and heaven help those who dare to break the rules. Peter’s testimony however was that God’s saving power was not bound by religion or law or ethnic background. But that it was for everyone. He had seen the Holy Spirit come upon the Roman centurion exactly as the Spirit had come upon him as Pentecost. And he had come to understand that the Spirit’s work could not be contained by human barriers, and indeed that if we try to contain that work we are actually acting in opposition to God.
And this leads me on the final point: that God’s greatest desire is that all those who are not with us in church this morning, those who live in the streets and parishes around us also come to love Jesus and be filled with His Holy Spirit.
Now at the moment there are politicians of every persuasion claiming they will bring change. I leave up to you to decide whether or not we need a change of government. But what I hope we can all agree on is that if anyone wants real change they need, if I might put this way, to vote for Jesus. To say “yes” to the message of the cross, and to say “yes” to the gift of His Spirit. Now it might be we have been praying for many years for folk around us. We may have been seeking to put Jesus’ command into practice and we may have struggled with the lack of response we have encountered. But God is faithful and we should never fall into the trap of thinking that because this or that person or group of persons has resisted for so long, somehow they can never be touched or changed by the love of Christ. Jesus’ love can change anyone. After all, He changed you. And He changed me. And if we really are set on loving others as Jesus loved us, then who knows what might happen?
Well, God knows, and maybe as we embark on our summer outreach and anniversary celebrations, what He is calling us is to respond with an unambiguous “yes” to the question, “Do you truly love me?” and to go out with a new sense of His Spirit in us to live and witness for Him. So that as others encounter the love of Jesus shining in us and through us we might praise God and say, as those who heard Peter’s testimony So then, God has granted even Joe and Fred and the noisy neighbour next door repentance unto life.