He Was Raised and We Can Meet Him (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

This morning we gather together to celebrate an extraordinary, and astonishing, and overwhelming, and totally unexpected event.

It’s hard for us to think ourselves back into the situation of the first disciples of Jesus on that Sunday morning so long ago. We’ve heard the stories of the resurrection so many times that they’ve become commonplace to us. And we’ve seen pictures and movie depictions that make Jesus into some sort of resurrected therapist who comes to his early followers with the perfect bedside manner, speaking to them in hushed tones and telling them ‘Don’t be afraid’. It never seems to occur to us that there was a reason he told them not to be afraid!

Just think for a moment about what it would be like if you met a person you knew to be dead. Imagine this person was your friend, and you had seen him executed in a way that left absolutely no doubt that he was dead, and you had seen the place where he was buried. Imagine you went to visit the grave two days later, and found it empty, and then, on the way back, you met your friend again, obviously alive and perfectly healthy. Would you believe it? Would you think you were going crazy? How would you respond to your friend? Would you touch him, or would you be afraid to touch him? And what would you think it all meant?

This is the situation of the women in our gospel reading for today. These women have a very special place in the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus; they are the very first evangelists – a New Testament word that means ‘those who pass on good news’. The fact that the gospel writers all record that women were the very first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is quite surprising in the culture of that day. In those days, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses, and their testimony was not admissible in court. If the early Christians had been making up the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and wanting to convince people it had actually happened, they certainly would not have included women as the first witnesses. To me, this is a very strong indicator that their stories are true.

So these very first Christian evangelists are given a commission, first by an angel at the tomb, and then by Jesus himself. Look at verses 5-7:

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’. This is my message for you”.

And again in verse 10, the risen Jesus says to these same women,

“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

These commissions contain three things: first, a reassurance – “Do not be afraid” – second, an announcement – “He has been raised…come, see the place where he lay” – and third, an invitation – “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

We’ve already talked about the reassurance – ‘Don’t be afraid’. Let’s go on to the announcement: Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This is the reason why the New Testament was written in the first place. It’s the reason why there’s a Christian Church today. A Jesus who had been crucified on Good Friday and stayed dead would never have inspired a joyful and dynamic movement that swept across the ancient world like the early church did. The Messiah was meant to save God’s people from their enemies. He wasn’t meant to be killed by them. To the early disciples, his death would have been conclusive proof that they had been wrong about him: he was not the Messiah after all. Do you think they would have gone on to start a preaching mission to go all over the world and tell everyone they had been wrong, and Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? I don’t think so.

No, it was only the resurrection of Jesus that got the Christian movement started on its amazing journey across the ancient world. It was these incredible eyewitness stories of people who said, over and over again, “We have seen the Lord!”

We have to admit right away that these stories don’t agree on every detail, and some of them are quite confusing to try to fit together. That shouldn’t surprise us; that’s often the way with eyewitness stories, especially stories of an amazing and unprecedented event, written down after the fact. Not surprisingly, some confusion about details creeps in.

But fortunately for us, all four gospel writers agree on the basic outline. They all agree that the burial of Jesus on Friday afternoon was rushed, and that various women agreed to come back to the tomb on Sunday morning to finish the job. All agree that when they arrived, they found the stone rolled away and the body gone. All agree that there was a messenger, or messengers, at the tomb, who told the women that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Matthew and John add the detail that Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene, or to Mary and another woman, on their way back to the upper room, although the chronology is a bit unclear. When the male disciples heard the story, Peter and John went to the tomb to investigate for themselves, and they found it just as the women had said. Other meetings took place in the afternoon: a meeting with Peter, and with two others on the road to Emmaus. Then in the evening there was a meeting in the Upper Room described by Luke and John, at which all the disciples were present (although according to John, Thomas was absent).

So began a series of encounters that lasted for about six weeks, some in Galilee and some in Jerusalem. Some of them happened to individuals and some to groups. Paul tells us that at one time Jesus appeared to a group of five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians twenty years later. Some of the encounters were short, and some were long.

It’s worth noting that none of the early Christians claimed to have actually seen the moment of resurrection. In some of the fictional accounts that were written later, they did, but the four canonical gospels don’t make this claim. What they do claim is that they knew Jesus was alive, because they had met him. And these were not just meetings with a ghost; some of the gospels mention that they touched his body, and that they watched him eat a piece of broiled fish.

And this leads us to the final part of this commission that was given to the first evangelists, the women at the tomb. They not only passed on the announcement that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they also passed on an invitation: they told the other disciples where they could go to meet with Jesus. The angel said to them:

“Go quickly, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’” (v.7).

And Jesus repeated this message:

“Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v.10).

Do you sometimes feel a little twinge of envy here? I know I do! Wouldn’t it have been amazing if we could have been part of that little group of first century Christians who actually went to Galilee and met the risen Lord there? Surely that would answer all our doubts, wouldn’t it?

Well, maybe, although I note that later in this chapter, when the disciples met the risen Lord in Galilee, even though they were staring right at him it still says that ‘some doubted’ (Matthew 28:17). So seeing doesn’t necessarily make believing easier – sometimes you hardly dare to trust your eyes!

But it’s also clear that the people who wrote the New Testament didn’t think later generations of Christians would be under any disadvantage. They didn’t think Jesus was just a historical character; they thought he was alive, and had sent the Holy Spirit to fill his people, and that through the work of the Spirit we could continue to live in fellowship with him, even today, two thousand years later.

Those early women evangelists told the first disciples where they should go to meet the risen Lord. What if I stand with them this morning, as an evangelist, and tell you where you can meet him?

I need to be careful about this. Jesus isn’t like a slot-machine god: slot in the right prayer, and out comes Jesus! He’s totally in control, and it’s entirely up to him how he wants to make himself known to us. Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of his presence and his power; at other times, our Christian lives seem more mundane. We need to leave that up to Jesus, trusting that he knows best.

Nevertheless, down through the centuries, Christian people have testified that there are some places, or some situations, where Jesus does tend to make himself known. Let me list a few for you.

Let me invite you to meet him in the place of faith and commitment. When I was thirteen years old, I sat down on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. I can’t say that anything dramatic happened that night; Jesus didn’t appear to me, or anything like that. But looking back now, I know that simple prayer was the beginning of a whole new life with Christ for me. I’ve spent my life since then learning to know Jesus better and to follow him more closely. But it all began with a moment of decision: was I going to keep my life for myself, or was I going to give it to Jesus, the Lord of all, trusting that he loved me and wanted the best for me? That was my first real moment of faith and commitment.

Have you had a moment of faith and commitment – or more than one of them? Have you had a time when you’ve sensed that Jesus is real and you want to give yourself to him? Don’t be afraid; don’t hang back. Just tell him that you love him and you want to put your life in his hands, and ask him to help you know God. Sometimes that’s all it takes to spark a whole new relationship with the living God.

Let me also invite you to meet him in his sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. Jesus tells us that baptism is the way we become disciples of Jesus, and Paul tells us that in baptism the Holy Spirit joins us to the Body of Christ. Luke tells us that when two of Jesus disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, they didn’t recognize him until he ate with them, and then their eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus. They went back to tell the others how the Lord had been made known to them in the breaking of bread. And we too experience this, when we gather around the Lord’s table together, and the bread is broken and the wine poured out. As we receive the bread and wine, we feed on him in our hearts by faith, and he draws us closer to himself.

If you haven’t been baptized and you’d like to be, come and talk to me. Or if you’ve been baptized and would like to renew your commitment, we can talk about confirmation. And if you are a baptized believer in Jesus, don’t hold back from this Holy Table. Prepare your heart to receive him and then come forward, holding your hands out in faith. We don’t know exactly how it happens, but we have been promised that it does happen: Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!’

So we can meet him in the place of faith and commitment, and we can meet him in his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Finally, let me invite you to meet him in the scriptures and in prayer.

Imagine this: your tasks are all done for the night. You’re starting to feel like it might be time to head for bed. But there’s still some time, and you have this hunger inside to get close to God.

So you make yourself a cup of tea, you find your Bible and you go off by yourself to some part of the house where you can shut the door for a few minutes. You sit down and take a sip of tea. You still yourself and take a minute of silence, closing your eyes and focusing your mind and heart on God. You intentionally turn away from all the concerns of the day. “God, I want to meet with you. Jesus, come and be with me. Holy Spirit, fill me with God’s love”.

After a minute you open your Bible to the place you left off the day before. You read a passage – a few verses, or perhaps a chapter. All the time you’re listening: ‘What does God want to say to me?’ Maybe you have some questions up your sleeve. What’s this passage telling me about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about what’s important and what’s not important? Is there a promise in it for me? A warning of some kind? Is there a command for me to obey, and if there is, what would it look like if I put it into practice? Is there a good example for me to follow, or a bad one to avoid? Is there a person in this story I identify with? Why?

So you use your mind to meditate on Scripture, and maybe at the end of that time you’ve got one thought you want to take with you, to ‘sleep on’, as they say. Finally, you take a few minutes in prayer. You thank God for the good things you’ve received that day. You remember the times you failed God and other people and you ask God to forgive you. You pray for people you love who need God’s help, and for the needs of the world at large, and your own needs too. You worship God and praise God for his goodness and love. Maybe you finish off by saying the Lord’s Prayer quietly.

As you finish your prayer time you probably haven’t felt anything spectacular; you haven’t had any amazing mystical experiences. But I’ll be surprised if you don’t notice that you’re calmer somehow; you have a sense of peace you didn’t have when you started out. And you can go to bed and sleep easier because of it.

I’ve assumed that this time of prayer is taking place last thing at night. Actually, it never does for me, because I’m a morning person! So I get up in the morning, make my tea and have my time of prayer. The time doesn’t matter; what matters is the invitation to meet the living God and his Son, our Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

So to us, just like those first disciples, the evangelists come with good news.

Their good news includes reassurance. Don’t be afraid. God is in control. God is working his purpose out in ways you never expected.

Their good news includes an amazing announcement: Jesus is alive and he always will be. He is Lord of all, and all authority has been given to him.

And their good news includes an invitation: come and meet him. Meet him as the place of faith and commitment. Meet him together with his other disciples in his sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Meet him day by day in the scriptures and in prayer.

Don’t be afraid. He’s alive and he’s calling you to come and meet him. Are you ready to accept his invitation?

Random Lent Thought for the Monday in Holy Week: ‘When I Am Lifted Up’

Yesterday in the liturgy for Palm Sunday I read these words:

‘Today we greet him as our King, although we know his crown is thorns and his throne a cross. We follow him this week from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection by way of the dark road of suffering and death. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life’.

Many churchgoers like to skip from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection without going through the dark road of suffering and death! Although our attendance at St Margaret’s on Good Friday is usually pretty strong, still there are those who choose not to attend that service in which we celebrate the central reality of our faith – the self-giving love of God pouring his life out for us on a cruel cross.

The cross is such a counter-intuitive way of saving the world! Jesus says in John’s Gospel:

“Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32 NIV 2011).

And John adds,

‘He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die’ (v.33).

Paul says that the message of the cross seems like weakness and foolishness to the world, but to us it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). This message of the Son of God choosing to go all the way to a cruel death rather than turn back from doing his Father’s will – choosing not to take vengeance on his enemies, but rather to pray for their forgiveness – and somehow winning the decisive victory in the battle against evil by the sacrifice of his own life – this message has spread around the world and won the hearts of millions.

It’s not a message of power and glory that draws people to Jesus. It’s the beauty of his self-giving love shown in the ugliness of the crucifixion. This week in the Christian Church we lift high the cross. Yes, of course, we’re going to celebrate the resurrection with glory and trumpets – but not yet. For a few days, we’re going to stay at the cross.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 29th: Love Your Enemies

When I first started getting interested in the Anabaptist tradition of Christian spirituality, I thought loving your enemies was a peripheral practice, but now I see that I was wrong. Loving your enemies is not peripheral: it’s right at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel story is a story of a God who loves his enemies.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).

This is what God is like. He doesn’t check to see whether we’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he lets the sun shine down on us. He doesn’t investigate whether we love him or hate him before he sends us rain. God pours his love out on everyone, whether they love him or not.  That’s why he came among us in Jesus and gave his life for us on the Cross. As Paul says:

‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!‘ (Romans 5:6-10, italics mine).

This is the heart of the Gospel. This is what is happening on Good Friday. In order for reconciliation to take place, someone must decide not to strike back. Someone must say, “Rather than take the revenge which is my due, I will choose to absorb the evil – even though I don’t feel like doing it – and respond with love instead”. On the Cross, God says, “That will be me. That’s what I will do”. We reject him and vilify him and crucify him, and his response is “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. We can kill him, but we can’t kill his love for us.

“Be perfect”, in the original language, meant something like “be complete”; Luke renders it “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Jesus’ meaning is “As your heavenly Father’s love is complete, leaving no one out (not even his enemies), so you are to imitate him and love your enemies too”.

Tomorrow we’ll think a little more about what this might mean for us.

Upside-Down World (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12)

In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.

But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.

Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.

The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?

There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.

 

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.

Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.

The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.

The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.

The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.

So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.

So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.

The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.

(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).

The Hope of the Kingdom (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for the funeral of Win Rees)

We’re gathered together today on a day that is full of significance. In the Christian year, this is All Souls Day, a day when many Christians reflect on the lives of those who have gone before them, and give thanks for all the blessings they’ve received from them. And of course, as many of us here know, today would also have been Win’s 97th birthday. She is undoubtedly the oldest member of our congregation, and the newest member of the company of the saints in light. So we gather today to give thanks for her life and for all the blessings we received through our friendship with her, and to commit her into the hands of the loving God in whom she believed and put her trust.

There are many memories for us, and David has shared a few this morning already. It would be presumptuous of me to add to the list, but I will say that I always got a lot of enjoyment out of Win’s obvious delight in foods that were bad for her – whether it was fish and chips coated in batter, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or her love of chocolate bars – one of the many things that she and Marci had in common! Also, as someone married to a person of Welsh descent, I enjoyed her enjoyment of being Welsh and the fact that every year she liked having St. David’s Day recognized in the church, and she liked the fact that we often sang ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ on that day, using that great Welsh tune Cwm Rhonda.

But it’s not my role at the service this morning to offer a second eulogy, but rather to reflect on what God might want to say to us as we gather here this morning, thinking about Win’s life and death and our own life and death as well. We chose to read the Beatitudes as our gospel reading for today, and the message of the Beatitudes is a good one as we think about the future hope Christians share. So let me direct your attention for a few minutes to Matthew 5:1-10.

I think this passage is often misunderstood because it’s seen as a sort of checklist of Christian spirituality. What sort of person makes a good disciple of Jesus? What sort of person can be assured of eternal life? Well, it’s a person who’s ‘poor in spirit’, who’s a ‘mourner’, who’s ‘meek’, who’s ‘hungry and thirsty for righteousness’, who’s ‘merciful’, who’s ‘pure in heart’, who’s a ‘peacemaker’, and who’s ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’.

Does that strike you as a strange list? I know it does me. Some things make sense to me: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, in the much more helpful translation of the Revised English Bible, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail’: yes, I can see that. It’s a good and blessed thing to work for a better, more just and righteous world, and those who do so deserve to be rewarded. Likewise, the merciful, and the pure in heart.

But ‘those who mourn’? Is Jesus saying that we have to be sad all the time in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? And what about ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’? We in the western world hardly ever experience persecution; do we need to move to the middle east in order to qualify?

I think it’s important to recognize that in all eight of these Beatitudes, the blessing is in the second half of the verse, not the first. Let me explain what I mean. We need to remember that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ does not mean ‘when they die, they’ll go to heaven’. That’s not what Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew uses that phrase in exactly the same way as Mark and Luke use ‘the kingdom of God’. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’. This prayer looks forward to a time in the future when God will heal the world of evil and sin and restore it to his original intention for it: a place of justice and compassion and love. This work has already begun through the ministry of Jesus and his people, but it is a long, long way from being complete.

Our hope as Christians is that one day, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us too, into a new earth where justice and righteousness prevail. This will not be a purely ghostly experience; it will involve physicality as well. And truly this will be a time of joy.

But when Jesus spoke the Beatitudes it was not such a time of joy. I imagine him looking out over the crowd; maybe there were people in it he had known since he was a boy. Maybe he recognized a mother whose son had been murdered by Roman soldiers; she was mourning, but he knew that in the kingdom of God she would receive the comfort she needed. Maybe he saw some little people, some helpless people, some people who were always getting trampled on and were afraid to stand up for their own rights. They were the meek, and too often in this world they get excluded from the positions of power. ‘You see those people?’ Jesus is saying; ‘They will inherit the earth!’ Them, not the politicians or the dictators or the corrupt CEOs of multinational corporations, but the meek!

And so it goes on as Jesus looks around. Those who are pure in heart, who long for God’s kingdom above all else – those who are poor in spirit, who fall short of what they should be and know it, and who cry out to God for forgiveness and strength to do better – those who are merciful to others, not angry and judgemental – all these and many more are represented in the crowd in front of Jesus. They all have a longing of some kind in their heart. One day, Jesus is telling them, that longing will be fulfilled. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.

So this is not a list that’s meant to intimidate us. It’s a list that’s meant to include us and comfort us. Whatever the condition of our hearts, whatever we are, whatever we hope for, whatever we suffer, we will find what we’re looking for – we will find true blessing – in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit aren’t blessed because they’re poor in spirit – they’re blessed because ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. The meek aren’t blessed because they’re meek – they’re blessed because ‘they will inherit the earth’. The mourners aren’t blessed because they’re mourning – they’re blessed because ‘they will be comforted’. And those who are persecuted aren’t blessed because of their sufferings, but because, again, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

And this morning, as we gather together, we’re a group like that as well. We come from very different circumstances. Some of us are old and some are young, some are healthy and some are struggling with health issues. Some are full of faith, some are full of doubt. Some are full of joy, and some struggle with depression. Some are confident and bold, some are shy and fearful. Jesus welcomes us all, and assures us that whatever the deepest longings of our hearts, they will be fulfilled in the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. In that coming Reign of God, we will find the blessing we long for.

So today we rejoice because Win is a member of this company of the blessed. The last few years have not been easy for her, and it’s not been easy for us to watch as she struggled with the physical challenges of advancing age. But now we say to her – well, what do we say? The world says, ‘Rest in peace’, and certainly there’s truth in that. The New Testament talks about the faithful dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and there are weary days when I’m really looking forward to that sleep!

Nevertheless, there’s more to the Christian hope than that. Our wish for our sisters and brothers who have died is not just ‘Rest in Peace’, but ‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!’ We believe that the God who made this earth has not abandoned it to suffering and despair, and that the God who made Win has not yet come to the end of his purposes for her. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians about ‘things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagination, all prepared by God for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9 REB). This is not just talking about floating around on clouds playing harps. This is a new heaven, and a new earth, and a restored creation, where ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14). This is what we look forward to, for Win and for ourselves. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Amen.

Searching for the Lost (a sermon on Luke 15:1-10)

I once had a call from a car thief who needed counselling. I am not making this up; this is a true episode from my life as a rural pastor. He called me in desperation; ‘Alliance’ was the first church he could find in the local phone book, but the Alliance pastor was out, and ‘Anglican’ was next on the list! He had left his girlfriend in a fit of temper, driven over five hundred miles in one day and tried as best he could to stop drinking, cold turkey. When he came to see me it was obvious that he was barely hanging on to his sobriety.

At first he didn’t tell me he was a car thief. He told me about his alcoholism and his destroyed relationship with his girlfriend, all of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Still, I was able to get him hooked up with Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the next two weeks I drank more coffee than I ever have in my life before or since, because every day he wanted to get together to talk at the local greasy spoon.

It was during those conversations that I found out he was also a car thief. Well, not strictly a car thief; he actually made a good living by stealing heavy machinery – graders, gravel trucks, combine harvesters – that sort of thing. Obviously, the other people drinking coffee in the restaurant didn’t know he was a thief, but a few months later they discovered that he was a disreputable character because he was arrested and charged with growing marijuana! One of my older AA friends, who had spent a lot of time with this man, just shook his head and said “One day he’ll learn!”

If I had been having these conversations with my car thief friend in Jesus’ time, no doubt the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would have been muttering about me, too: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (v.2). And we need to remember that they weren’t taking this attitude because they were bad or malicious. They were taking it for the same reason we tell our children to be careful about the company they keep. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ is the old saying; if you want to stay on the right road in life, watch the crowd you run with. Run with the wrong crowd and you can get into trouble. Bad company ruins good morals. These are all things we were told by our parents, and no doubt most of us who have children have said something like that to our kids as well.

This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t want to associate with the people Jesus was associating with – the loan sharks, the prostitutes and thieves and Roman soldiers and all the rest. Their motives were good – they wanted to stay pure from sin and holy in God’s sight. But in order to do this there were some very important things they forgot. I want to give you a list this morning of four things the Pharisees forgot. And of course this isn’t just a history lesson; I’m sharing them with you because I think sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting them too.

So here we go. First, they forgot that everyone is a sinner. Hopefully this is obvious to any Christian who reads the New Testament, but in Jesus’ time many people would have denied this. They would have divided the world into two camps – the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners, the ones who were in and the ones who were out. If you made an honest attempt to live by the commandments, kept away from bad company and followed the Jewish ritual laws, you were ‘in’. If you didn’t, you were ‘out’. As far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned, they were ‘in’, but Jesus and his friends were ‘out’.

But in fact the situation is much more complicated than that. Some sins are obvious for all to see – murder, or adultery, or stealing cars. Other sins are not so obvious, but Jesus treated them just as seriously – the love of money and the things it can buy, lack of love for the poor and those in need, covetousness, self-righteousness and so on. Jesus summed up the law of God with two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If you fall short of these two commandments, you have sinned. Do you qualify? I know I do; therefore I am a sinner.

And we need to remember this, because it gives us an appropriate sense of our own need. I love the way people introduce themselves as A.A. meetings: ‘Hi, I’m Ken and I’m an alcoholic’. That serves as a good reminder that they aren’t gathered together on the basis of their strengths but on the basis of their weaknesses. And we Christians are the same. We don’t come together each week because we’re good; we come together because we know we fail, and we need God’s help and the help of our fellow Christians to kick our sin addiction. I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness; so are you. There’s no room for me to look down on you. There’s no room for you to look down on me. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

So the first thing the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot was that everyone is a sinner. The second thing they forgot was that every person is important to God. Not just as a part of the crowd, but as individuals. God loves each one of us, notices when we stray away, and goes out looking for us to bring us home. He would not do this if we weren’t important to him.

God’s math, you see, is a little different from ours. If we had gathered ninety-nine sheep together we would probably have weighed up the risks of leaving them and going out to search for the one that was lost, and decided “I’ll stick with the ninety-nine”. Or if we still had the nine coins we might be tempted to chalk up the loss of the tenth to bad luck and leave it at that. Not so in Jesus’ stories. Every single person is significant to God. You’re not just a statistic that he can write off; you’re a person made in God’s image, a unique individual, precious in his sight. When you stray away, he feels the loss deeply, and he wants to find you and bring you home.

Jesus, you see, did not look on these tax-collectors and sinners with a condemning eye. He said that they were ‘lost’; in his parable he compared them to a sheep that wanders away. Most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! Their problem is that they’re so concerned about the need of the present moment – grass – that they take their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with so many people. We don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment – a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there – that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

So that’s how Jesus sees people – we’re like lost sheep, and he’s coming to look for us. He came all the way from heaven to earth, and gave his life on the Cross for us. As he says in John’s version of this story, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul the great missionary says ‘The Son of God…loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner; they forgot that every person is important to God. The third thing they forgot was that love leads to change, not change to love. What do I mean by that?

The best way of explaining it is to refer to another ‘lost and found’ story from Luke, the story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19. We’re told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, and very rich. He wanted to see Jesus when he passed through Jericho, but he was so short that he couldn’t see over the heads of the other people in the crowd. So he climbed a tree and looked down on Jesus from up above. But Jesus saw him up the tree, called him down and went to have a meal at his house. Again, the Pharisees and teachers of the law started grumbling that ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’ (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus, however, responded to the love of Jesus by giving away half his possessions to the poor, and repaying all the people he had ever cheated four times the amount he had cheated from them. Jesus’ comment was ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).

That was quite a transformation in Zacchaeus’ life. I think the Pharisees and teachers of the law had probably been trying to make that happen for years. I can take a good guess at their tactics, too: I’ll bet they had scolded Zacchaeus, told him he should be ashamed of himself, warned him that he would go to hell if he didn’t repent and so on. None of this had any effect at all when it came to changing Zacchaeus’ heart. What changed Zacchaeus was when Jesus came to his house, loved him just as he was, and communicated by his actions that God loved him too. Once this message got hold of Zacchaeus’ heart, he was so thankful that he began spontaneously to repent and get his life in order.

And that’s the way the Christian Gospel works. God didn’t wait for us to smarten up and get our act together before he came to save us. Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The message of legalism is that people first have to obey God’s laws and get their act together, and then, if they are able to achieve a satisfactory standard of righteous living, they will be accepted by God. The message of Jesus is the very opposite; while we are still sinners, God comes to us in Jesus, loves us as we are, and then helps us to turn away from our sins and become the holy and loving people he wants us to be. We don’t have to change in order to earn God’s love; God loves us first, and when we accept that love, it helps us change. Love leads to change, not change to love.

So we’ve seen that the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner, and they forgot that every person is important to God. They forgot that love leads to change and not change to love. One last thing they forgot: They forgot that shepherds look for sheep, and not the other way around. The proper movement is for the Church to go out looking for the lost, and not for us to wait for the lost to come to us, because, as Will Willimon says, ‘The last time I went down to the farm, it wasn’t the job of the sheep to find the shepherd’. That’s why Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners; he was the good shepherd, going out to find his lost sheep. He was the woman sweeping the house and searching until she found her lost coin.

The God of the Bible is a God who goes out in mission. The word ‘mission’ is about ‘sending’, about ‘going out’; it’s not about waiting for people to come to you! A church that worships this missionary God can’t help being in mission itself. We are learning to see people as Jesus sees them: lost sheep who have strayed away from the Good Shepherd. We are praying that God will help us to demonstrate his love in the way we live our lives, and to take every opportunity to explain the Christian message in a way that people can understand and relate to. We are the Shepherd’s assistants – his sheepdogs, if you like. It’s our job to go out and find the lost sheep, not their job to come and find us.

So I suspect that this passage has comfort in it for us, but also challenge. God is telling each one of us this morning that we matter to him. We are so important to him that he left the glory of heaven and came among us in Jesus; the Good Shepherd laid down his life so that you and I, his lost sheep, could be saved and come home again to him. We are all sinners, but he died for sinners, so we all qualify. And he doesn’t wait for us to measure up to a certain standard before he loves us; he comes to us as we are, loves us and helps us learn to walk in the new way of life he teaches us.

But the challenge to us is this: if we’ve discovered this love of Jesus in our own lives, we have a responsibility to share it. There are plenty of other lost sheep out there, and not too many of them are finding their way to the door of the church. You and I will have to make the first move, take the initiative, leave our comfort zone and look for the lost until we find them. I doubt very much if Jesus will be impressed by the argument that ‘Lord, we told them what time the service was, but they wouldn’t come!’

We have received the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd has found us and brought us safely home. He wants us to rejoice in that. But he also wants us to know that there are thousands more who haven’t found their way home yet. Every single one of them is important to him. There is absolutely nothing that is more important on his agenda than finding them and bringing them home. And he’s calling for our help in that. Are we willing to answer his call?

The Fellowship of Forgiven Debtors (a sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

When I was a teenager I remember hearing my dad say that he’d like to have a sign on the door of his church that said ‘This Church is for Sinners Only’. I think some people were shocked and surprised when they heard him say that; it sounds so strange and counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You tend to think of the church as a place where we learn not to sin, not as a place for sinners. But to Dad, these words were an important reminder of the gospel of grace, which tells us that we all fall short of God’s will for us – we’re all sinners, in other words, whether we should be or not – but that God reaches out to us in love whatever we’ve done, and invites us to turn to him and be forgiven.

This reminds me of the famous words of John Newton’s well-known hymn:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound),
that saved a wretch like me!’

To John Newton, this was his own story. He had spent the early years of his life as a sailor and a slave trader. He had lived in complete disregard for God’s commandments, not only abandoning his own faith but also trying to undermine the faith of others. But gradually the Gospel message had broken into his life. A two-week long storm at sea became the catalyst for the beginning of his conversion, and eventually in his late thirties he became a Church of England minister and a preacher of the very Gospel he had once tried to discredit. He felt that, like Saint Paul, he had been ‘the chief of sinners’, but God in his grace had forgiven him and made him a preacher of the Gospel to others.

Newton never forgot his early life of sin, and he never lost his sense of God’s continuing mercy toward him, despite his many failings. This gave him a tender attitude toward the sins and failings of others. He often said that when you know how much God has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you every day, you can’t help having the same forgiving attitude toward the people around you.

Our Gospel reading today has this same emphasis. We read that one of the Pharisees, named Simon, invited Jesus for a meal at his house. Dinner parties like this were very public. What we know today as ‘private life’ didn’t exist in those days; doors were left open all the time during the day and people wandered in and out at will. The dining table would have been in a U-shape, with guests not seated on chairs or the floor, but reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hands to reach for food and eat. The couches would have been angled away from the table so that the feet of the guests would be behind them.

There was a strict etiquette about these formal meals. As each guest came in, the host would greet him with a kiss of peace. As the feet of the guests would be dirty and tired from the dusty roads, the host would ensure that water was provided and the servants would wash their feet. Olive oil might also be given to anoint the heads of the guests. These were the unwritten laws of hospitality; these were the ways the hosts would show respect and honour for their guests. Luke does not let us in on the secret yet, but later on in the story he will tell us that none of this had been done for Jesus. Simon had invited Jesus to this meal, but had then given him a public snub by not honouring him as he would an ordinary guest.

The NRSV translates verse 37 ‘And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…’ One commentator thinks this should be translated as ‘a woman who was known in the city as a sinner’. ‘Sinner’ here would have meant at least that she had lived a promiscuous life, if not that she was actually a prostitute.

We can read between the lines that this woman had already had an encounter with Jesus which had transformed her life. Verses 40-47 explain that a person who has been forgiven a huge number of sins will respond to this forgiveness with great love. Jesus explains the woman’s acts of love by the fact that she has been – past tense – forgiven a great many sins. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (v.47). It seems reasonable to infer that Jesus has already met this woman and has declared God’s forgiveness to her, perhaps even that very day; she has come to Simon’s party to say thank you to Jesus for all he has done for her.

The woman seems to have been temporarily deflected from her original purpose; we read that she ‘brought an alabaster jar of ointment’ (37) to anoint Jesus’ feet, but she does not immediately use it. She stands behind Jesus – remember that he is reclining on a couch with his feet extended away from the table. She is overcome with emotion and begins to weep, bathing his feet with tears, wiping them with her hair and only then anointing them with the ointment. In those days, this would have been scandalous behaviour. Women in Israel at that time kept their hair covered and only let it down in the presence of their husbands in their own bedrooms. To let down your hair in public and use it to wipe the feet of a man you were not married to was shocking; in the eyes of the people at the feast, this woman would have been acting like a prostitute with one of her clients.

This is certainly the way Simon the Pharisee interprets her actions. He even questions Jesus’ status as a prophet; a true prophet would know what kind of person this woman was! The unspoken inference is that if Jesus knew she was a prostitute he would not allow her to touch him or even be near him. Evil was seen as highly contagious; the only way for good and holy people to preserve themselves from evil was to avoid evil people altogether. The woman had come into Simon’s house like a contagious disease; it was Jesus’ duty as a prophet to rebuke her and send her away, and he was not doing so.

Note that Simon did not voice this opinion to Jesus; Luke tells us that he ‘said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v.39). Prophets know things other people don’t know, and they use that knowledge, in Simon’s view, to declare God’s judgement. However, Jesus is about to demonstrate to Simon that he is indeed a prophet. Simon has not spoken out loud, but Jesus knows what he is thinking! And he uses that knowledge to rebuke Simon, not the woman, and to invite him into a different way of seeing reality. Simon is wrong; Jesus knows ‘what kind of woman this is’. He knows that she’s made in the image of God, she’s a forgiven sinner overcome with gratitude for the grace of God, and in her gratitude she is expressing her love for Jesus, who has made it possible for her to be forgiven.

So Jesus tells the little parable of the two debtors; one owes the creditor five hundred denarii – that is, about eighteen months’ wages for an ordinary labourer – the other fifty. Neither of them can pay, so the creditor cancels the debts of both. Which one will love the creditor more? Simon can’t avoid the conclusion: the one who was forgiven the greater debt will feel the most love for the creditor.

There is more to this little story than meets the eye. Let me ask you this: do you think Simon sees himself as a debtor to God? Probably not! In his view, the woman is a sinner; he is not. And even if he is, he certainly doesn’t see himself as someone who ‘can’t pay’; he’ll work harder, make the right sacrifices and ritual actions, obey the laws, and in time he’ll pay what he owes. Jesus is inviting Simon to see himself as being on a level with this woman; they’re both sinners owing a debt to God, and neither of them can pay the debt. Simon’s debt may be small and the woman’s may be great, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both bankrupt! As someone once said, if you line up a bunch of swimmers on the coast of California and ask them to swim to Hawaii, it won’t matter in the long run whether some of them are better swimmers than the rest! Some may drown after a mile, some after thirty miles, but none of them are going to reach Hawaii!

But how can this be? How can Simon be a sinner? After all, he’s a Pharisee! He’s been circumcised, he’s kept the Sabbath, he gives tithes of all he earns, he carefully observes the food laws and keeps away from bad company! He is an upright man!

Yes, but Jesus says the heart of the law is the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And on that very day, in his own house, Simon has offended against the second commandment. He has not loved his neighbour as himself; he’s snubbed his guest by refusing to extend the traditional courtesies to him. He didn’t give Jesus the kiss of peace when he came into the house – which is as if Jesus had come into your home today, extended his hand in greeting to you, and you had stubbornly kept your hand at your side. He hadn’t provided water for the foot washing or oil for the anointing of the guest. In this way Simon has not loved his neighbour as he loved himself; he has not done to others as he would have them do to him. So he too is a sinner, and he too stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So do I. I may be a churchgoer; I may have been faithful to my marriage partner, I may never have killed anyone or stolen anything or cheated on my taxes. But have I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, with nothing held back? Have I loved my neighbour as myself? Of course not, not perfectly. These commands are the debt I owe to God. I have not kept them perfectly; therefore I too am a sinner.

This is the first way in which Jesus’ story challenges Simon’s worldview; like the woman, he is a debtor who cannot pay what he owes. Like her, he’s entirely dependent on the mercy of God if he’s ever going to receive eternal life.

The second way the story challenges his worldview is in his interpretation of the woman’s actions. No, Simon, this is not a prostitute trying to allure Jesus into an inappropriate sexual liaison. This is a woman in the grip of God’s grace. She had always assumed that her sins barred her from coming into the presence of God. But the grace of God had invaded her life, bringing her the free forgiveness she had never dared to hope for. Of course she wasn’t in command of her rational faculties! She was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who had forgiven her and to the man who had spoken that word of forgiveness! And of course her actions were open to misinterpretation – just like the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and the bystanders said, “These men are drunk!”

The story ends before Simon has a chance to respond. We don’t know what he said or did. Jesus is challenging him: this woman whom you dismiss as a sinner is in fact your sister in God. Like you, she was made in the image of God. Like you, she had a debt of sin she could not pay. God has forgiven her sins and accepted her. Will you also accept her, despite her reputation? Luke leaves the story incomplete to challenge you and me; we’re invited to supply the ending in our own lives.

Let me close with these two final words of application.

God knows everything about me. There are embarrassing stories about my life which I have been brave enough to tell some of you, but you can be absolutely sure that there are others I would never dare tell you. If they were broadcast on a screen in front of you all, I would hang my head in shame. We all have those stories. I know you have them, and you know I have them. And God knows them all.

How does God respond? He comes among us in Jesus as one of us; Jesus is the walking embodiment of God’s love for all people. But what do we do with him? Through our political and religious leaders, we reject him, scourge him, mock him and kill him on a cross.

What comes next in this story? If this church is not for sinners only, surely the next act is an act of revenge and judgement. But no: the Gospel tells us that God is a God who loves his enemies, and so Jesus’ response is to pray for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, he models the unconditional love of God for all people. It’s nothing to do with how deserving we are. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you more than you can ask or imagine, and nothing can change that.

Do you believe that? The woman in our story believed it. Jesus said to her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. He wants you to go in peace this morning too. No matter what that sin is which is troubling you so much, he wants you to bring it to him this morning, leave it at his cross, and dare to believe that it is forgiven. We can do that this morning as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The broken bread speaks to us of Jesus’ body broken on the cross; the wine poured out speaks to us of his blood shed for us. To come to the Lord’s Table is to come to the cross; we come with faith, we hold out our hands, and we eat and drink the forgiveness that God offers us.

And having received this free forgiveness, he wants us to look at each other with different eyes. Simon looked at this woman and saw a despicable sinner; Jesus looked at her and saw a woman made in God’s image, overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace.

What do you see as you look around the church this morning? Christian congregations are like families, and like any family we accumulate resentments. Also, we express our love for God in different ways, and some of those ways look a little strange to others in the congregation! But Jesus is calling us to learn to see each other with his eyes. C.S. Lewis reminds us that, next to the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes, the holiest thing we will look at this week is our neighbour, and we should treat him or her accordingly.

You and I are debtors who couldn’t pay our bills, and we have been freely forgiven. What should be our response? Delirious joy, of course! Who cares what other people think of us? We just want to thank this Jesus who has brought such love into our lives! And then our second response is to have a gentle attitude toward our fellow debtors who have also been forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. How many times do we pray that prayer without thinking about it? Now’s the time to think about what it means, and to ask God’s help so that we can live by it.