St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 25th October 2015
Readings – Hebrews 10:19-25; Mark 12:28-34
How many people here have ever heard of Winston Bogarde? Hmm… as I expected, not many. Winston Bogarde was a Dutch footballer who played for a number of clubs across Europe and signed for Chelsea in 2000. This was just at the point when Chelsea changed their manager, and the new manager decided he didn’t want Bogarde in his team. The only trouble was, Bogarde had just signed a four year contract. So for four years, Winston Bogarde drew his salary and turned up to training every day, without actually ever playing a game for the club. He was a Chelsea player but he never played. I leave you to decide what that says about the nature of Premier League football, but that is not really what I want to discuss this morning.
Today we are coming to another baptism service at St Michael’s, and I expect by now many of you are very familiar with the words that we use here in this church. But if you have an order of service in front of you this morning, can I just ask you to pick it up at this point and look at it. Because there’s something very important about the way the service is structured that we all need to understand.
On the first page you will see there is a section marked the decision. This is where the parents and godparents make a personal and individual decision on behalf of their children to follow Jesus, as I ask them, “Do you turn to Christ?” “Do you repent of your sins?” “Do you reject evil?” And really no-one else can answer these questions except the people who are standing by the font. That is why before baptism I spend so much time with the parents exploring what they are actually saying. This is the part of the service which goes right to the heart of the Christian faith, and I believe it is crucial everyone is clear what is being asked of them at this point.
But the individual decision is only one half of the service. If you turn over your sheet, you will see there is a declaration of faith, which is made not just by parents and godparents but by the whole church. That is why I ask all those who believe and trust in Jesus to stand and say these words. Because this declaration of faith is a reminder that when we choose to follow Jesus, we join a team called the church.
And if there’s only one thing you take away from this service, it’s that being part of Jesus’ team is not an optional extra. We can’t sign up in a baptism service and then not play. God calls us to follow Jesus and to be part of His people, the church. Being a follower of Jesus and belonging to God’s church are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, if you read the Bible carefully, you will see that nowhere is there is any mention of a solitary believer or of a purely personal faith.
Now I realise it isn’t always easy being part of God’s team. We all face many pressures on our time, and being committed is hard in today’s day and age. I’m also very realistic and recognise that the church is made up of very imperfect people. We do sometimes get things wrong, and we are not always the church God wants us to be. Belonging to church is not about joining a club of people who think they are better than anyone else, but rather joining a community who are very honest about their weaknesses and imperfections. In that sense, we are far more like Torquay United than Chelsea!
So how we help one another stay committed to one another and encourage one another to stay part of God’s team?
You’re probably wondering why I have five lettuces here. I am very tempted to answer, “Just cos”, but I won’t. Rather in our reading from Hebrews, the writer gives us five very practical ways we can support and encourage one another.
First of all, let us draw near to God in worship.
All throughout the book of Hebrews the writer wants to show that thanks to Jesus the way into God’s presence is open. That means we can and should approach God our Heavenly Father at any time. Not just on Sundays or in emergencies, but on Monday mornings and in the daily tasks we face hour by hour. The mark of someone who has made a Christian commitment and is baptised is that they will pray often and regularly, sometimes in a formal setting like a church service, sometimes when out and about doing other things, like walking the dog or doing the washing-up. Talking with God our Heavenly Father should be a natural, everyday part of our lives.
And as part of God’s team we should not only be praying for ourselves, and those that we love, but also other members of the squad. So let me make all this very real, very practical. This morning find someone here who you don’t know very well. Find out their name, what they do, where they live, and try to remember just one thing about them. And then during the coming week, pray for them. “Thank you, Lord, for Bert. Please bless them and help them to know your love”. So next time you come to church find out how they are doing and discover how the Lord has blessed them. Hopefully Bert will also have been praying for you, and together you will be able to share stories of how God has been at work in your lives.
Secondly, moving on, let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.
Because one of the main points that comes out of this book of the Bible is that this new relationship with God our Heavenly Father isn’t just something for the here and now. If we believe and trust in Jesus, we can look forward to a secure and certain hope beyond this life, because Jesus promises that one day He will return and be with for us forever. As we read a couple of weeks ago in Hebrews 9:28:
Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
And don’t we need this message of hope particularly in today’s world? When we look at the headlines, when we hear some of the stories that are coming out of places like Syria or Afghanistan, I find for one find it such a comfort to know that in Jesus we have the promise of eternal life where one day all will be well.
Of course all of us go through times when it is hard to hold on to this hope. We may find it hard to be hopeful when things go wrong, or some big tragedy hits our lives. That’s why one of my big aims for the church is that it becomes a community where we can be real with one another, where we can share our burdens, our trials and sometimes our plain confusion as to what’s going on. Church, you see, isn’t meant to be a place where we escape from what’s going on out there, but where we feel safe and secure enough to support and encourage another, to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. But of course, we can only really do that if we are committed being there for each other.
Thirdly, let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.
Now in our gospel reading we heard Jesus giving us the two great commandments, to: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and Love your neighbour as yourself. This all may sound simple enough but actually putting Jesus’ teaching into practice is a lot harder than it might first appear. Because the reality is, we all fall short of loving God and other people as we ought. That is the reason why Jesus had to come as our Saviour in the first place, to pay the price for all the times we loved ourselves more than our neighbour, all the times we turned our back on God.
And just because we have professed a faith and been baptised doesn’t mean that we will necessarily find it any easier to obey these commands. Sometimes loving God, and loving our neighbour can be hard work, and if just want to know how costly love can be, consider how much it cost Jesus to love us. That’s again why we can be there for one another, to help one another to show love to the difficult person at work who seems to have it in for us, to the family member who keeps upsetting us, for the person next door who never gives us a moment’s peace. We can’t hope to love like Jesus if we aren’t helping and encouraging another to do this.
Which leads on to the fourth, “Let us”: Let us not give up meeting together.
We began this morning by talking about football and please bear with me if I return to that image again. Because I want to imagine what it would be like if for the big match each week only half the squad turned up. You’d hardly expect the team to be a winning one, would you? It’s a bit like that with the church. We are called to follow Jesus and to be part of God’s people. And just as in a football team, there is a goalkeeper and a centre forward, and also back up staff like the physio and the groundsman, so in the people of God we all have a part to play. It may be a big public role, it may be in some vital supporting capacity.
So if we choose not to play our part, it’s a bit like the centre forward having to spend time mowing the pitch, or the physio having to go in goal. Because other people will have to fill in to do the jobs we are called to do, and the life of the whole church suffers. We cannot be there to bless another by praying for one another, by encouraging one another to hold on to our hope, by helping one another to love the Lord, and our neighbour as ourselves. We will miss out on the blessing the Lord wants to give us, while others will miss out on the blessing we can be to them.
Finally, then, let us encourage one another.
As I can hope you can see by now, encouraging one another is far more than saying, “You’re all doing very well”. It’s about being there for one another, in very real and very practical ways. Because amazing as it seems, the way the Lord works in the world is through the local church. He chooses imperfect people who don’t have all the answers and He uses them to share the good news of Jesus who loves us so much that He died for us. And the reason why I am stressing so much the need to belong to the local church is not because I am trying to do some kind of sales pitch for St Michael’s, but because when we realise just how special the church is to Jesus, we will want to join in and be part of it. At the end of the day the church is nothing less than the body of Christ, the visible presence of Jesus right here in the local community, called to share the good news of His love in the midst of a broken and hurting world.
So today as we declare our faith as one church, will you commit to being part of this church regularly, to serve the Lord and to serve one another? So that through our life together many more will come to find the hope that is ours in Jesus and also want to join the team. For His name’s sake. Amen.