St Michael’s and St Barnabas 6th June 2010
Good news! We are proud to inform you that you have won $500,000 dollars in the Nigerian State Lottery. All you have to do is forward $10,000 dollars to the following bank account and the prize will be yours!
Good news! Independent scientific research has confirmed that our revolutionary new Smear-It face cream reduces the effects of ageing in woman by on average 10, yes, 10 years!!
Good news! Thanks to the determined and rigorous pursuit of our economic goals, the country is now enjoying unprecedented growth and prosperity. This shows that it is only our party that can be trusted with running with the nation’s affairs.
There are so many people out there who try to persuade you they have good news, aren’t there? And the trouble is, so often what they make out to be good news, isn’t. Their claims, at the end of the day, are really just an excuse to get you to part with your money or buy their product or vote for their party. And rightly, we have on the whole become highly sceptical of anyone at all nowadays who is promising good news. If it seems to be good to be true, then the chances are, it is.
In my previous career I worked for six years doing the accounts of used car dealers and I think during that time I saw most of the tricks of the trade to persuade folk to buy a heap of scrap metal that would break down the moment you drove it off the forecourt. For example, you might think you were buying an incredible special offer or taking advantage of a great deal, but really the price had only been reduced because the car had been standing unwanted and unloved for the past few months, and the dealer needed to get rid of it quick.
And now in my current profession as a vicar I’m always aware just how reluctant folk are to believe the Christian faith is good news. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones I believe is that we have become tired and suspicious of big promises and grand ideas. Yet despite this, there are still certain Christians who seem to think the best way of promoting the faith is to take on the trappings of the advertising agent or the used car dealer. You mention the word “evangelist” to someone in the street, and what do they think of? Someone in a sharp suit, with a gold watch, who is all out to get you to part with your money.
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I believe we as a church face real problems if we are to show folk that the Christian faith is good news. So let me put forward three simple, no-frills statements to help us understand why the claims of the gospel are so important and why they demand a response.
First of all, the Christian faith really is good news. That, after all, is what the word “gospel” means. It is the proclamation of something positive, something life-changing, something that is well worth believing. Now I guess to some of us this is obvious, but that’s hardly the impression you get when you turn on the news. If there are any stories at all about the Christian faith, they are normally about the failings of the church, or the naughty deeds of errant vicars, or disastrous investments by the church commissioners. Of course, this is partly because it is bad news that sells, and the media on the whole tends to ignore the huge amount of good being done by churches up and down the land. But the fact remains the simple good news of the gospel has become obscured by a fallible, human institution which at times seems more concerned with protecting its status and privilege and power than sharing the story of Jesus Christ.
And sad to say, often people’s experience of the local church has also often been similarly negative. We have over the past few months been running a course called Everybody Welcome which has I think been an excellent resource to help us at St Barnabas and St Michael’s think how we could become more welcoming as a church. But the fact the course exists at all is I believe a salutary reminder that over the years many local churches have not been welcoming. They have not greeted the newcomer or welcomed in the nervous onlooker. They haven’t explained what is going on in the service, or thought how to communicate with those unfamiliar with what’s happening. In fact they have given the impression they are a rather obscure kind of club where only those who know the rules may join in. Maybe this is why – at least according to the people who wrote the course – 90% of people who attend church for the first time never come back.
The early church we read about in Acts didn’t have any buildings, or investments, or even any dioceses. But in contrast to so much of the church today it was a growing, vibrant, healthy church. Why? For the very simple reason it stuck to the core task which it had been given right from the very beginning – to proclaim the astonishing fact that Jesus of Nazareth had died on a cross and risen from the dead. And those who proclaimed this message let nothing and nobody get in the way of what they were doing – not even persecution or stoning. They knew they had good news to share, and they would do all it would take to spread it, irrespective of the cost.
And I believe there is a real challenge for all of us here today who call ourselves Christians. Because the resurrection of Jesus is not an e-mail scam, or a dodgy piece of science, or a political statement, but the most researched and most substantiated historical event of the ancient world. And if this is true – and the evidence is overwhelming – then this changes everything. It means we need to let go that distracts us from proclaiming this good news, whether it is church politics or the busyness of daily life, or even the traditions we cling on to so dearly.
And if you are here today as someone who wouldn’t call yourself as a Christian, then I would urge you to consider what it means that Jesus has risen from the dead. It might of course be you have never thought about the resurrection. After all, plenty of people think being a Christian is about a good person, or living the right kind of way. Well, the Christian faith is partly about this, but the central claim of the gospel is that 2000 years ago a carpenter from Nazareth was nailed on the cross and 3 days later rose again. You need to decide whether to accept that claim, and I would urge you before you make that decision to look at the evidence. You may just be surprised by what you find.
So statement number one: the Christian faith is good news.
Statement number two: this good news is relevant to us today.
And really this follows on from the first statement. Because if it is true that the tomb where Jesus was laid was empty, this has massive implications. It means, for a start, and most simply, that Jesus is alive. This is the truth that Thomas discovered when Jesus appeared to him in the upper room just after the resurrection. But it also the truth that countless of people have discovered over the years. That Jesus is not just the founder of a religion many centuries ago, or a dead prophet, but someone who meets with us, who can be known personally, who is right with us by His Spirit.
And because Jesus is alive, this means also that He has the power to change lives. I don’t know what you made of our reading from Acts when the man in Lystra suddenly found he was able to jump up and walk. You may dismiss it as a piece of make-believe or historical fiction. But the reality is, many, many people have discovered the difference Jesus makes in their lives. Some of them are here today. One or two have a story of a dramatic healing, others of encountering Jesus when there seemed no hope left in life, others of simply knowing His presence leading and guiding over many years. But in whatever way, there many folk here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas who can tell their story of Jesus working often in the most surprising and unusual of ways in their lives. Because Jesus is alive, He is in the business of changing lives for good. Has He, I wonder, changed yours?
But thirdly, because Jesus is alive, this also means He has the power to hold us to account. Now when I ask people what they think God is like – which I do frequently in baptism preparation – it is striking how many are comfortable with the idea of God being a shepherd, or a friend, or a rock. But where they struggle is with the idea of God being king or judge. Yet if Jesus is alive, if Jesus really has defeated the ultimate enemy, death, then surely this shows that He has the authority and the right to judge us. We may not like the thought of judgement, we may want to believe that God will accept us exactly as we are, but if Jesus really is that great, then we have no option but to submit before Him and accept His rule over us.
This week the queen was aboard HMS Ocean paying a visit to the crew and their families. You might well ask what right she has to inspect our armed forces and to see how they are doing. The answer, of course, is that she is their head, and she has that position by virtue of her royal birth. In the same kind of way, Jesus has the right to inspect us, because He is our head, not only by His birth as Son of God, but by His mighty death and resurrection. I wonder if you have ever thought of Jesus in those terms before.
The Christian faith is good news. This good news is relevant to us. And thirdly, this good news has to be believed.
Now of course you may say Thomas had it easy. He actually met the risen Lord Jesus in bodily form and when that happened, you might well think he didn’t have that much option other than to say, My Lord and my God. But of course, for us, it’s that much harder, isn’t it? We can’t actually see Jesus and we don’t have the evidence of His resurrection before our eyes. Wouldn’t all this talk about believing the good news be so much simpler if we too could have the risen Lord Jesus before us?
Well, there’s a simple answer to this question. Because if we did indeed come face to face with Jesus, then all of us would quite simply be overwhelmed with His might and majesty. When the apostle Paul met with Jesus on the Damascus road he was blind for three days. When the apostle John glimpsed something of Jesus on the isle of Patmos he fell at his feet as if dead. Jesus is not some cosy idea we tuck away in a box for special occasions, or when we are going through a difficult patch in life. He is Lord and Saviour and Judge. But because He is also love, and He loves us more deeply and more fully than we can ever realise, He allows us to know Him through faith and belief and trust in Him.
And why is this so important? At the end of our gospel reading, John explains why he has written down his account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Now this week all of us have been reminded in the most shocking and brutal of ways how easily life can be taken away, and there are no easy answers to the horror we have witnessed on our TV screens. But what I do know is that when the risen Jesus promises us life, He is promising a life in relationship with Him that can never be broken, not even by death itself. Jesus calls this life eternal life and the wonderful thing is that it starts the moment we put our faith and trust in Him.
Of course, you might say, this is all very well, but do I really need to think about Jesus right now? After all, I’m not religious, I’ve got other things to worry about. Well, we believe that one day all of us will stand before the risen Lord Jesus and when we do so, His question to us will be not “Did you try and live a good life?” or “Do you have a degree in theology?”. It will quite simply be, “Do you recognise me?” And if we reply “Well, I went to church on special occasions” or “I got myself christened”, then, frankly, that answer won’t be good enough. The only way we will get into heaven is if we believe and trust in Jesus in this life.
That’s why the questions we ask in the baptism service are so important. “Do you repent of your sins?” “Do you turn to Jesus as Lord and Saviour?” You see, in Jesus there is good news for everyone. It’s not a scam, or a dodgy piece of advertising. It is the ultimate reality. And it falls to each and every one of us how we respond. Not just the person sitting next to you, or the person at front. But you. Do you believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Do you know what it means to have life in His name?
Those are the questions all of us need to answer.