From time to time, during the course of my career as a lay preacher, it seemed to me that we need to be reminded of who we are, what we’re about and the attributes and attitudes we should exhibit as professed followers of Christ. When you live and work in a close knit community you see the faces of those in your congregation on weekdays and not just on a Sunday, in other words, you see how attitudes can slip and you can catch glimpses of real people living their daily lives and not just the Sunday façade that they put on for church.
As with most sermons that I composed my approach to the message was to try to be subtle but defined at the same time, so not a bashing over the head with the Bible a la fire and brimstone, but neither a beating about the bush in a vague manner manner either. Not easy to do but then again I often felt this was the advantage of having a more limited time frame in which to work as it forced you to be strict with your words and to be quick to get to the point. I can’t say that I was always successful, mind you.
This evening it’s my intention to look at the reading that we had read to us from the New Testament taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In this passage Paul has set out before us a summary of the characteristics of a true church, and subsequently what it means to be a Christian. You know, when I first started to ponder on the meaning and relevance of this passage for us as a church here in Birtley, I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether this was about getting to know God or whether it was about what it means to be a Christian. Then it dawned on me that actually the two are related and one is very much a part of the other. Being a Christian is about getting to know God. And Paul in his usual subtle way says three things which I think we need to hear both as a church and as individuals.
The first is this, he says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.” Right away, wasting no time, he draws our attention to the top two commandments. If you know your New Testament you’ll remember that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds to a trick question from a lawyer like this: the question is which is the greatest commandment in the law? And Matthew writes that Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” So why’s this important for us? Because we’re encouraged to put our trust in God. We have to. If we don’t, then we can’t really call ourselves Christians or even members of the church. The mark of a true church is its loyalty to Christ and its love toward all people. The mark of a true Christian is his or her love for Christ and his or her love toward all people. If I asked you to describe who or what a Christian is I wonder what you’d say. If you were here at the confirmation service the other week, you’d have heard Bishop Michael say that as Christians we know that we’re sinners and that’s why we come to church. But sometimes I wonder if that’s really true all of the time. Isn’t it true to say, and I include myself in this, that we often pick and choose the services that we go to because we like or prefer the way that they’re done. We like the ceremony of one and not the lack of it in another. I think that it’s possible for us to get caught up in the rigmarole and the ceremony of church worship. In doing so we place too much emphasis on our life in the church building and not enough on our life outside of it. Surely we come to church not because we’re trying to impress other people with our uprightness and goodness, that would be like going to hospital to show how healthy we are. We come because church is like an outpatients’ department in a hospital for the spiritually and morally sick. I love that quote from Garrison Keiler, the contemporary American author, who once said, “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than sleeping in your garage makes you a car.”
We must remember the commandments that were left to us, which we hear every Sunday, “The first commandment is this, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your sole, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Perhaps we’ve got cotton wool in our ears or some kind of sight impairment which helps us to filter the message so that we end up saying “I’ll love the Lord my God only on the first and third Sundays of the month when there’s communion. Oh, and by the way, who is my neighbour?” That’s the wrong question to ask. It shouldn’t be “Who is my neighbour?” but “To whom can I be a neighbour?” Another question that often comes up is “Is the church still relevant to us today?” Surely it should be the other way around and the question we should be asking is “How can we be relevant to the church?” John said, “If a man says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar.” All to often the word Christian gets watered down in it’s meaning. I’ve heard of people who are agnostic or atheist in their beliefs, still described as being as good a Christian as you or me. By which is meant that these people are good people, so the word “Christian” is used as a compliment. But if that were the correct use of the word then it would be intolerable for anyone to say “I am a Christian,” because that would be the worst kind of boasting. But as followers of Christ we don’t mean “I’m a specially good person” when we claim to be a Christian. This word “Christian” began its life in the New Testament, and it’s used not as a compliment but as a description. It describes a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and who – often unsuccessfully – tries to follow him and worship him.
So we come to Paul’s second point, that faith and love are continuous. Following Christ and worshiping him are continuous acts, things that we do over the course of our lives. Coming to church and loving our neighbour isn’t something that happens just once and then that’s it, these are things that we do through time. In the same way getting to know God and understanding him happens as we live our lives. If I met someone for the first time and introduced myself to them, they wouldn’t immediately know everything about me and I wouldn’t immediately know everything about them. It’s through the course of the relationship and the experiences of that, that we come to know and understand each other and we mature. And so it is with God. Paul says to the Ephesians, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.” He doesn’t say “when” you come to know him, or even “if” you come to know him, but “as” you come to know him. This is an ongoing process. We can’t immediately hope to know everything about God. We have to have faith first before we can have understanding. It was St. Augustine who said, “Faith is the first step in understanding; understanding is the reward of faith.” It’s through the experience of trusting God and loving our neighbour that we mature as Christian people. And we should remember that experience is not what happens to us; it’s what we do with what happens to us. There’s a lady from Exeter by the name of Betty Tudor. At the last count she had clocked up 273 hours of driving lessons. In that time she’s exhausted nine instructors and been banned from three driving schools. She’s taken the driving test seven times, but has failed them all. On the last attempt she went the wrong way round a roundabout, and the examiner was so terrified that he insisted on driving the vehicle back to the test centre himself. Some Christians go their grave in ripe old age with their L-plates still attached. I think that God longs for us to mature! There’s a kind of adage that goes like this. When a person of experience meets a person with money, the person with experience will get the money. And the person with the money will get experience.
Finally, and very briefly I want to look at Paul’s third point which is this. The church is the body of Christ. At the end of the passage he says, “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him (Christ) the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” When we come to the Peace during a communion service we hear it said, “We are the body of Christ. In the one spirit we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.” And that’s the reason the church exists. Because it’s a living fellowship in which we, as the body of Christ, worship him in unity. Fellowship means that we’re concerned about one another. And that phrase “one another” is used throughout the course of the New Testament to describe how we as believers, should minister to each other. We’re not only told to love one another, but also to submit to one another, to encourage one another, to care for one another, to forgive one another, and even to edify one another. If we want the church, our church to continue to exist, then we need to realise that as the body of Christ we both belong to each other and need each other.
So, as I close, I leave you with a final thought which is a quote taken from a letter written by an unknown hand in the second century.
You can’t tell a Christian from a non-Christian by where he lives or the way he speaks or how he dresses. There are no “Christian towns”, there is no “Christian language”, and they eat, drink and sleep just like everybody else.
Christians aren’t particularly clever or ingenious, and they haven’t mastered some complicated formula like the followers of some religions. But while it’s true that they live in cities next to other people, and follow the same pattern of life as they do, in fact they have a unique citizenship of their own. They are, of course, citizens of their own lands – loyal ones, too. But yet they feel like visitors. Every foreign country is their homeland, and their homeland is like a foreign country to them.
- Are You “A Christian” Or Are You “Christian”? (stevensawyer.wordpress.com)