St Michael’s and St Barnabas 12th May 2013
Well, tomorrow it’s going to be the big day. After years and years of going through the youth teams and the reserves, tomorrow you are finally going to make your debut. You’ve just had a call from the manager. Your name is on the teamsheet. You are about to fulfil your dream.
So what are you going to do? First of all, you are going to make sure you have completed your fitness routine. Maybe you need one last work out in the gym, maybe you need to make sure your muscles are properly toned and massaged. You don’t want to be substituted half way through because you’re off the pace. You want all those hours and hours you spent building up your stamina and speed to pay off, so you give your very best.
You’re also going to have an early night. Of course, you want to go out and celebrate. But that has to wait till afterwards. You don’t want to be hung over or bleary eyed when you board the team bus. You know too many stories of players who have been dropped at the last minute because they’ve been out in the wee hours. They’ve let themselves and the team down.
But before you turn in, you’re also going to check all your kit one last time. You don’t want any little details affecting your performance. You want your boots to fit perfectly, you want to make sure the laces are the right length, you want to check the studs are all in order.
And then if you can, you try to sleep, imagining what will happen when the big day comes…
The day is coming
Over the past few weeks we have been looking at Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ. We have seen that the hallmark of our life together as the body of Christ is love. We have thought what it means to love God, to love each other and to love those in the wider world, even our enemies. But why is this teaching in the end so important? What difference does it make whether or not we choose to follow Christ?
The ultimate answer is that at the some point we will all stand before the throne of God. In our reading from Romans Paul calls that particular point of time “the day”. It is, if you like, when we get our call-up, and make our appearance before our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And the one question that we will be asked is this: “How have you responded to the love I showed you on the cross?”
And let’s be clear. Jesus won’t be looking for a theoretical answer, or an intellectual argument, any more than a manager is looking for his players to write an essay on the art of playing football. Jesus will be wanting to know how we have used the love He has given us to impact on the world around us. Have we gone out and done the business for Christ? It really is as simple as that.
Because the day is coming, we need to obey God’s commandments
Paul writes in our reading this morning: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law. Of course, you could be asking, if the Christian faith really is so simple, why do we have quite such a large book to give us the teaching that we need? Why has God chosen to give us 66 books, 4 gospels and 2 testaments, if really it is all about love?
Well, as I seem to be thinking about football this morning, perhaps it’s helpful to give another analogy from what is sometimes called “the beautiful game”. Because, in essence, the game of football is very simple. It’s about 11 men or women on a pitch trying to score more goals than the other team. But in order for the game of football to take place, there needs to be rules and regulations to govern the play. The goal has to be a certain width, the pitch a certain size, the match a certain length. All simple things, you may say, but you need them written down and agreed to make sure the game runs smoothly.
It’s a bit like that when it comes to all the other teaching we find in the Bible. As Paul goes on to say in verse 9:
The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
And really it’s so important we understand that.
Some people think that those other commandments are there so we can earn favour with God, so when we stand before His throne, we can present our achievements as something to impress Him. As I hope you’ve understood by now, there is nothing we can present to a pure, perfect and holy God that will impress Him. We can only ever be saved by His grace and His love.
Some people think God gave us these commandments as a big stick to punish us, so every time we break them we are supposed to feel guilty and realise how unworthy we are. Of course we do need to recognise that we fall short of God’s standards and need to be forgiven. But God takes no delight in wilfully punishing us, or making us feel bad about ourselves. He never meant us to labour under the yoke of a gloomy, grim religion where we are punished every time we step out of line.
No, God gave us those commandments so that when Jesus asks us “How have you responded to the love I showed you on the cross?” none of us can turn round and say, “I didn’t know what to do”. The law God has given us is the rulebook that enables us to love as Christ first loved us. But as Jesus makes clear, when it comes to serving Him, it’s not only the things that we do out on the pitch that count. It’s also the attitude of our hearts.
So if you’ve been listening to what Paul’s saying and thinking, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone” or “I’ve never committed adultery”, then you’ve missed the point. As Jesus makes clear in our gospel reading, we are in a sense guilty of murder if we hate our brother. Or guilty of adultery, if we look lustfully at a woman. And unless we realise this, we will never be able to truly love your neighbour as yourself in the way that God intended.
Because the day is coming, we need to be ready
One day Jesus will ask us how we have responded to His love. So will you be ready?
I was listening the other day to the final matches in the championship this season, to the game between Watford and Leeds. In the warm up Watford’s goalkeeper got injured. Twenty minutes after kick-off the reserve goalkeeper got injured as well. Suddenly a young goalie who had never played in the first team was thrust out onto the pitch, in the most important match of the season. What a time to make your debut!
In our Christian life, as well, we never know when we are going to receive our call-up. But whenever that takes place, whether in a short while or many years from now, we need to make sure we are prepared as possible. As Paul puts it in verse 12: The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.
Because – and this is something we all too often forget – the choices we make now have a long-term effect. We may think it’s a good idea to go out and get drunk, or pick up a partner, or stay at home and download some explicit content onto our computer, but all these things will affect our performance as a Christian, even more than a late night or a hangover will affect how well a player performs out on a pitch.
Of course our mates will no doubt tell us all these things are just harmless fun. They will say everyone else is doing it, so why not you? The simple answer is, that none of these are harmless. Some of them involve real, actual harm to fellow human beings, even if we only see them as an image on a screen. Some of them lead to a loss of self-control. All of them are incompatible with saying that Jesus is Lord, and that we live by His rules.
Why? For the very simple reason, that, as Paul describes them, they are deeds of darkness. They are the sorts of things that the evil one uses to gain a grip on our lives. We think we can choose whether or not we take part in them, but the reality is, they soon turn into addictions and obsessions. The statistics, for example, about online pornography, are absolutely mindblowing, even among Christian leaders.
That’s why I know of at least one group of Christian men who have formed an accountability group. Each person is able to see what the other members of that group are currently viewing over the Internet, and they all have permission to challenge another about what they are watching. Could you, I wonder, be part of such a group? Our duty to love Jesus goes even into the most private parts of our lives, into the realms of our dreams and imaginations where no-one else goes. Because it is the desires of our hearts that shape our daily lives. And if we are serious about being ready for that day when we appear before Jesus, we need to give Him those desires, and let Him mould and shape them into a desire for His glory.
Now I am not saying that any of this is easy. The Christian life is not a game. It is a battle. And, yes, Jesus has won the ultimate victory through His death for us on a cross. If we believe and trust in Him we will one day be able to stand in confidence before His throne. But in the meanwhile, as Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:8: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
Because the day is coming, we need to become more like Christ
That’s why, to use the language of Paul, we need to put on the armour of light. We have to make sure we are adequately protected against the temptations of the evil one, and even more than that, able to take up our weapons and fight against him. And in order to do this, we have to be thoroughly prepared. We need, so to speak, to put on our spiritual kit, to get into the habit of regular prayer, of reading our Bibles, of meeting together for fellowship and worship. Not so that they become ends in ourselves, or means by which we make ourselves virtuous, but so that we can sustain an ongoing, living relationship with Jesus Christ and learn to become more like Him.
And if that sounds all a bit too theoretical, a bit too hard to pin down, let me give a practical example of what that might involve from our gospel reading this morning. You are in church one day. You’ve had an argument with someone close to you, and you know you are in the wrong. What do you do? You could simply carry on in the service as if nothing has happened. You could sit there trying to justify your behaviour. Or you could act on the words of Scripture and do something about it, even though it may involve actually personal inconvenience to yourself.
As Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
You see, I would suggest that the person who acts on Jesus’ teaching is someone who has heeded Paul’s command in Romans 13:14 to clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Because being clothed with Jesus Christ is about becoming more like Jesus Christ in our thoughts and our disciplines, eager to forgive and to seek forgiveness, willing to bear the cost of following Him, wanting to be pure and holy.
And how do we become more like Jesus? By reading His word, by listening to what He is saying to us, by meeting for worship with our fellow believers. So when we face a choice as to what to do, we are able to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us and do as Jesus would have us do. Seeking reconciliation with someone we have wronged, and not giving in to dissension and jealousy – something Paul warns us against in verse 13. Behaving decently when with friends, and not giving in to the temptations of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – something else Paul talks about (in not so many words) in verse 13.
So I hope by now you can see how all Paul’s teaching in this passage has a direct, practical relevance. One day we will all stand before Jesus and He will ask us “How have you responded to the love I showed you on the cross?” At that point you can’t phone a friend or go 50:50. But if you have taken Paul’s teaching on board I hope at least you can show, as far as it lay with you, how you have lived out His commands to love your neighbour as yourself, how you put off the deeds of darkness, how you clothed yourselves with Christ. Not so that you can boast of what you have done, or try to gain entry to heaven by your own merit, but so that Jesus can turn to His Heavenly Father and say, “This one has understood what it means to believe and trust in me. He’s part of our team. It’s time to welcome him home”.