St Michael’s and St Barnabas 13th May 2018
Readings – 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Matthew 5:21-26
On the surface the church in Corinth was an exciting place to be. The services were full of the Holy Spirit. Men and women would regularly stand up to prophesy. People frequently prayed in tongues. The sermons were full of eloquent rhetoric and those outside the church spoke well of its leaders.
But if you dug a little deeper, you would soon find that the church faced all kinds of problems. For a start, each leader attracted their own group of followers and the church was splitting into factions. When the church came together for a meal, some brought lots of food to eat, and some brought nothing, showing the huge gap that existed between the rich and the poor. There were some who resented Paul’s leadership and spread rumours he wasn’t the man he claimed to be.
So when Paul sat down to write to the church in Corinth, he knew had to deal decisively with this issue. He was well aware that whenever there are splits, factions or divisions within a church, that church is less than God intends it to be. No matter how exciting the services, no matter how impressive the leaders, if there was no unity, then the work God wanted to do in and through the church was being undermined.
In 1836 a committee got together to address an issue which was undermining the witness of the Anglican churches in Devonport. The underlying problem was pew rents. You see, the way new churches had been built in the area up to that point was by charging an annual fee for the right to have your own pew. It was the church planting strategy of the 18th and early 19th century, and it did mean some lovely churches were built. The problem, of course, was that such strategy excluded the poor. It sent out a message that the Anglican church wasn’t for them, unless they wished to crowd into the balconies and the galleries.
So this committee had the vision of providing a poor man’s church in the area. The Lord of the Manor provided a field between Navy Row and the end of Tamar Terrace. And after some setbacks, the foundation stone of St Michael’s church was laid on 29th September 1843. In the end, only half of the 1100 pews were free of rent, but that original vision of St Michael’s church being the poor man’s church has been kept alive to this very day.
Now over the past 175 years St Michael’s has seen probably more changes than most other Anglican churches. But it is part of the strength of the church that despite all these changes St Michael’s has continued to include people from every background and every walk of life, and to preserve its unity. Yet even as I say this, I am also aware that we are in a spiritual battle. The evil one loves to see splits, divisions, factions in God’s church, because any kind of division undermines the good news that we are seeking to proclaim.
As Paul makes clear in our first reading, the theme of reconciliation is central to the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us on the cross so that you and I could be reconciled to God our Heavenly Father, and to each other. He came to bring peace at the very deepest level, to bring healing and forgiveness, to replace hate with love. And in an age where so often there is so little reconciliation, where so many relationships are broken and hurting, it really is essential we understand this good news.
You see, the bad news we have to face up to is that without Jesus Christ we all are hopelessly cut off the from the God who made us and cares for us. And we need to take that stark fact on board. Sometimes in our services we can give the impression that sin is simply about doing naughty things, and that when we say sorry to God, everything is OK. Actually sin goes deeper than that. Sin is active rebellion against God. It is telling Him we don’t want Him to rule over our lives. And all of us in our own different ways are rebels against God. We know what God wants but we like to see what happens when we don’t do what He says. We hear God’s voice and we ignore what He’s telling us. We pretend God isn’t there and instead do whatever we like. And the ultimate price of such rebellion against God is death. In the end, we are cut off from God forever. God gives us exactly what we want – full and total separation from Him, forever.
Of course this rebellion against God doesn’t mean that we try to be bad all the time. Sometimes we do set out to obey God for a while, and live lives that are respectable and good. But our heart has this stubborn, independent streak. We like to pride ourselves somehow we are better than other people, or we’re doing by own efforts pleases God. Actually as rebels none of us can truly be at peace with God. God our King has a perfect standard of justice, and no-one has been or ever will be able to match up to it.
Yet amazingly this bad news is not the end of the story. Although we are all by nature rebels against God, He still continues to reach out and save us. Listen to these wonderful words from 2 Corinthians 5:19: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. When you have truly grasped the depth of our sin against God, then these are utterly amazing words. By right all of us should come under judgement. But God chooses not to abandon those He has created. He sends His son to die in our place for the wrong we have done, so that when we put our faith and trust in Him, our rebellion against God is no longer counted against us.
I hope by now you are beginning to see why the Christian faith is such wonderful good news. Now I realise we live in an age where we don’t like to talk about sin and judgement and separation from God. But unless we are honest and recognise the bad news of life without Jesus, we will never really see why life with Jesus is such good news. It is the promise of hope, of life, of forgiveness, of peace, to those who have no hope, who are facing spiritual death, who are separated from God, who know no forgiveness. And although we as a church can make ourselves busy doing 101 other things, our core task over the years has to remain the proclamation of this same good news from generation to generation.
Now it may be there is someone here today who has never heard of this good news, or ever understood it was for them. My simple message to you is no matter who you, no matter what you have done, is to come to Jesus and find peace with God. We have a God who loves rebels, who lives sinners, even you. He is only ever a prayer away. Tell God that you believe Jesus died for you, and ask Him to give a fresh start. And this morning you will discover the power of God to make you new, and the love of God to make you His child. Just come to Him as you are, believe and receive. There really is nothing better that you can do.
Coming to Jesus really is the start of a new life. But at the same time it is also worth reminding everyone here today that the Christian faith is more than just about an initial commitment. Sometimes I hear folk who will talk movingly about meeting Jesus twenty, thirty, forty years ago and their stories are great. My question however is this: what has Jesus been doing in your life since? Becoming a Christian is not just saying you believe in Jesus and then carrying on as if nothing has changed. In fact, believing in Jesus should, if we have understood the good news correctly, change everything.
You see, turning to Jesus involves nothing more and nothing less than dying to an old way of life.
What do I mean by this? Let’s look at verse 14: For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. At first glance, that is a very puzzling statement. The church in Corinth was very much alive, and not even the sermons sent them to sleep! But we need to remember that Paul here is talking to believers who had been baptised as adults. When they turned to Christ in faith, they were plunged underwater as a sign they were saying goodbye to their old way of life. When they were pulled back up to the surface, their baptism was a visible sign they no longer wanted to live as rebels against God their King but as loyal subjects.
So when they went to work next day, when they went round to their neighbours, when they went down to the local taverna, they were no longer giving to live like anyone else. Their old way of life was gone. From now on they were going to live under the authority of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. That was what their commitment to Jesus meant.
However it seems that some in Corinth had forgotten what their step of faith involved. They were slipping back into old habits, into old ways of judging people, into making themselves number one again. So Paul reminds them in verse 15: And He (that is, Jesus) died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again.
Now I wonder, does anyone here this morning need this reminder? Maybe it is a long time since you came to faith. Maybe the excitement of that initial commitment has faded. Maybe you no longer sense the Holy Spirit working in your heart. And perhaps other things have gotten more important than living for Jesus. Perhaps you have started a new relationship. Perhaps you have put all your time and effort into your family. Perhaps you have begun to drink again, and to stay out late. Whatever exactly has led your faith to slip, today I want to challenge you to return, to make a fresh commitment to live for Jesus who died for you and was raised again.
You see, we have an ongoing duty to live lives that show we have been reconciled to God. That means, among many other things, seeking to find out what He wants for our lives, by reading our Bible and prayer. It means relying on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in every decision that we make. It means resisting the temptations to go back to an old way of life and fitting in with the crowd. You rose to a new way of life with Christ when you put your faith in Him, so live it! Not just for now, but for whatever lies ahead, no matter what challenges and opportunities come your way.
Because we have put our faith and trust in Jesus, we need to live lives that are reconciled to God. But secondly, and just as importantly, we need to live lives that show we have also been reconciled to each other.
Now back in Corinth the leaders of the church were judged by how many followers they had. The rich judged the poorer members of the congregation by how much food they brought along. Some judged Paul by how well or how badly he spoke in public.
Paul’s message to this church could hardly be clearer: So from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. You see, the reason Jesus died for us is not only that we could have a new relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. Jesus also died for us that we could become part of His family, the church. Therefore once we put our faith in Jesus, we should start to see our fellow church members in a different light. We shouldn’t judge them by whether they are rich or poor, or how many Facebook followers they have, or whether they are great in conversation. We should see them as precious brothers and sisters in Christ for whom Jesus died. Because after all, that is how God sees them. And indeed, it is only when we learn to see the person sitting next to us as someone for whom Jesus died that we truly become the community God wants us to be.
Listen to Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Now if you belong to a certain generation the words of a well-known chorus from the 1970s might well come to mind at this point. The problem is, that when we start to talk about love, we all too often imagine warm fuzzy feelings towards our fellow believers, about smiling warmly when we share the peace, and making sure we have a cup of coffee with them.
But Jesus’ words about love have a far sharper, a far more practical edge. Listen to these words from our gospel reading, from Matthew 5:21-24:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “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.
That is what loving one another means in hard, practical terms. It is about seeking peace and reconciliation wherever and whenever you can. It is about making a commitment that when you upset your brother or sister in Christ you will do something about it. It is about being careful with the words you say to them and about them. And Jesus’ words aren’t an optional extra for a few. They are words we are all called to obey if we are serious about living out the good news of Jesus Christ.
So today let me ask: is there anyone here who needs to repent of their anger? or deal with words that they should have not spoken? or repair a relationship that is broken? For the love of Christ, I urge you to deal with it today. Every relationship that is unhealed, every split, every faction, every division makes us less than the church God wants us to be.
You see, our task as a church is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. How can we do this if we are living for ourselves and not for Him who died for us? How can we do this if we are judging one another by worldly standards?
The vision of the founders of St Michael’s was that this would be a place where the poor would not only hear the good news, but see it in the visible presence of a church for them. Our calling in this generation is to keep that vision alive, by living lives that are reconciled to God, that are reconciled to each other. For it is only in that way that others will hear and see the good news of Jesus who was reconciling the world to Himself.
And let’s be clear – there are still so many who have never heard that good news, so many who have heard who have never realised it is for them. How would this parish, this town of Devonport, this city of Plymouth be transformed if when people looked at St Michael’s and St Barnabas they could see and understand the power of Jesus to change lives?
As Paul puts it in verse 21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Or as the Message so helpfully puts it: God put the wrong on Him who never did anything wrong, so that we could be put right with God.
So before we go out from here and share that good news, let’s make sure we are right with God. Let’s make sure we are right with one another, so that through us others turn from being rebels against God and in Christ become His subjects.
Let’s therefore gather this morning to seek the forgiveness of our sins, and know that reconciling power only Jesus can bring into our lives. For His name’s sake. Amen.