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.

How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God – a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, to him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

To their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded at the strength of this man’s faith.

‘When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. The elders say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (vv.4-5). But when the centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random – he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if information about the things I feel most guilty about was posted online, or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even see them as a barrier keeping us away from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. According to St. Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As the Apostle John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? Faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier and so he understood all about authority:

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and may even have seen some of his healings himself. It was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short and so omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.

 

“Do You Love Me?” (a sermon on John 21:1-19)

I once heard Keith Miller talk about the failure of his marriage and the devastating effect it had upon his ministry as a Christian speaker, writer, and conference leader. You’ve probably never heard of Keith, but in the early 1970’s he wrote a superb book called The Taste of New Wine, in which he told the story of his encounter with Christ and his experience of the grace of God. This was followed by other books, and he began to travel and speak at Christian conferences and retreats. He was involved in the ‘Faith Alive’ movement which was a mission movement amongst lay people in the Episcopal Church in the USA. As an intelligent and committed Christian layman, Keith was a huge gift to the church and God used him to bring many people closer to Christ – including me.

But there was a price to pay, and ironically, the man who had often encouraged people to slow down and take time to love their families found that he was unable to do that himself. He had his first extra-marital affair in 1974, and eventually in 1976, after a time of struggle and counselling, Keith and his wife were divorced. He faced the future with only a sense of failure and uncertainty. Many years later, I heard him say, “I knew that if I was ever going to have any sort of Christian ministry in the future, it would only be through the grace of God and not through any expertise or strength of my own, because I had none. I felt I had nothing left to offer to God”.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? I wonder if you’ve experienced some spectacular failure in your Christian life that has left you thinking, “Well, that’s the last God’s ever going to want to see of me!” Or perhaps it hasn’t been anything really spectacular at all – just a sense that God couldn’t really use you, because you don’t measure up to your idea of what a really good Christian ought to be.

If you’ve ever felt like that, then you can understand how Simon Peter felt after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of all the disciples, Simon Peter was the one who had promised most strongly to follow Jesus no matter what the cost. Mark tells us that at the Last Supper Jesus had warned his disciples, “You will all become deserters”, but Peter had protested, “Even though all become deserters, I will not” (Mark 14:27, 29). John tells us that Peter said, ‘“Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times”’ (John 13:37-38).

I think some of us instinctively warm to Peter here, because there are times we’ve felt like there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for Jesus. Maybe we’ve had a time in our lives when the love of God has seemed so real to us, when the Holy Spirit has seemed so close, when the joy of Jesus has come flooding in. Maybe at that moment we found ourselves thinking, “This is it! It’s me and God together, and nothing can stop us now!”

I don’t know whether Peter honestly felt that, deep in his heart. Maybe he did, or maybe he just liked to sound confident in order to impress the others. But whether he really felt it or not, later on that night harsh reality broke in for him, and he discovered that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself.

Oh, he was brave at first! When Jesus was arrested, Peter followed him as the guards led him to the high priest’s house. He even went into the courtyard and stood there for a while with the servants and the others; John’s Gospel tells us that they were warming themselves around a charcoal fire. But there, Peter’s courage ran out. When he was confronted and accused of being a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times to save his own skin. And then he ran away.

So I find it easy to imagine the conflicting emotions in Simon Peter on that first Easter Sunday, as the reports of meetings with the risen Jesus start to come in. The gospels actually hint that on the Sunday afternoon Jesus appeared privately to Peter, although no one has ever recorded the details of that meeting. But I would guess that Peter probably felt the same way that Keith Miller did, after his marriage fell apart because of his own sinful choices and compulsive busyness: “If I’m ever going to have any sort of ministry after this, it can only be because of grace, not through any expertise or strength of my own”. In fact, I would be surprised if the idea of grace even entered Peter’s head at all. I expect he thought he was finished, plain and simple.

And so we come to the story recorded for us in today’s gospel. We don’t know exactly when it happened; it would have been some time in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, but the exact chronology wasn’t important to John.

In the story, some of the disciples have gone fishing on the lake, but they’ve caught nothing all night. In the morning as they come in to shore someone is standing on the beach, and he calls and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. They do, and they catch a huge amount of fish – a hundred and fifty-three, says John, but the net wasn’t torn. Peter swims to shore, convinced that it’s Jesus, and so it turns out. Jesus is standing on the beach beside a charcoal fire. This is the only time in the New Testament that the specific word for a charcoal fire is used other than that earlier story of how the servants stood around the charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard, and don’t you think that the smell of it immediately takes Peter back to that night – that painful, awful night – when he had denied Jesus three times? And then Jesus asks him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” ‘Simon’, not ‘Peter’. ‘Simon’ is his original name; ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’, but the rock has turned out to be not quite so rocky after all.

This is a very strange conversation! Jesus is about to give Simon Peter a commission to be a shepherd of his people; he’s about to tell him to feed his lambs and look after his sheep. And what question does he ask him? It’s not, ‘Show me your resume, Simon’; it’s not, ‘How many wild animals have you run away from?’ It’s not ‘How many churches have you led into growth?’ It’s not ‘What’s your record of resisting temptation?’ No – he doesn’t ask Simon about his strengths or his skills or his successes or failures; he asks him about his heart’s devotion to him. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16, 17)

Peter doesn’t even feel like he can give an unqualified answer. When Jesus asks the question, the word John uses for love in the Greek language is ‘agapé’; this is not a feeling love, but an action love, the sacrificial love Jesus showed by giving himself on the cross. But when Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, the Greek word John uses for love is ‘phileo’ – a lesser word, more about friendship than committed and sacrificial love. Of course, Jesus and Peter would have been speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don’t know what the exact nuances were, but we can guess that Peter is feeling a lot less self-confident now. “Lord, you know everything”, he says to Jesus – and we can guess what he means. Lord, you know what I did; you know how weak I am. I can’t pretend to be anything other than the failure that I am.

But Jesus is not finished with Peter. Peter was always an enthusiastic follower, the sort of guy who volunteered for all the jobs without looking in his calendar, the sort of guy who would always speak up, even if his brain wasn’t quite in gear yet. And Jesus warmed to that, I’m sure. Jesus loved the enthusiasm and wholeheartedness of Peter’s discipleship.

But now Peter has another priceless qualification – an awareness of both the true cost of discipleship, and of his own weakness. He now knows that following Jesus can cost you your life, and he now knows that he should be careful about promising what he can’t deliver. And Jesus is quite up front with him about where this path is going to lead; he tells him quite plainly that the day is going to come when he, Peter, will also be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then Jesus says to him again, “Follow me” (v.19).

So what’s it like for us ordinary, fallible human beings – who have let the Lord down, not once but many times – what’s it like for us to have an encounter with the risen Lord? Nowadays our encounters with Jesus tend not to be as dramatic as in those early days after his resurrection. We don’t live in that forty-day period when Jesus was still walking the earth in a physical resurrected body, inviting people to touch his wounds and to watch him as he ate and drank in their presence.

And yet, the New Testament does tell us that a meeting with the risen Lord is still possible for us, in a spiritual or mystical sense. Paul talks in dynamic language about it: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’ (Philippians 3:10). He even talks of us being ‘in’ Christ, and Christ being ‘in’ us, and he prays for the Christians in Ephesus ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). This will happen, he says, as we are ‘strengthened in (our) inner being with power through (God’s) Spirit’ (Ephesians 3:16).

So what’s this like? Well, of course, it goes without saying that it’s a joyful thing. We read in today’s gospel of these poor tired disciples who’ve been fishing all night long, and then, completely unexpectedly, on the advice of a stranger, they suddenly have a bumper catch of fish. Maybe something like that has happened to us, too. Maybe we were starting to get interested in Jesus, and we started reading his story in the gospels. Maybe some command of his spoke vividly to us, and we thought, “Wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before! I’m going to try that out”. So we did – we ‘cast our nets to the right side of the boat’, so to speak – and to our surprise it worked out well; perhaps a relationship was healed, or we found strength to do something we’d never been able to do before. We were amazed and excited, joyful and fearful. We thought, “Wow – I’m playing poker, not solitaire! There really is someone else out there getting involved in my life!” And this realization wasn’t just scary; it was a joyful thing too.

We see that joy and excitement quite clearly in this gospel reading. When Peter realizes that it’s the Lord standing there on the lakeshore beside the fire, he can’t help himself – he leaves his companions in the boat to look after the fish, while he jumps in the water and swims ashore as fast as he can! How like Peter! But we shouldn’t imagine the others didn’t feel the same way; they may not have been a demonstrative as Peter, but they must have felt their hearts leap for joy too, when they saw the Lord they loved.

But it’s not just about joy; it’s also about honesty, because an encounter with the risen Lord is also an encounter with our own true selves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we will be unable to have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord unless we are willing to reveal our true selves to him – or rather, that the genuineness and depth of the encounter will depend on how genuine we are prepared to be with him. “Lord, you know the whole story; you know I’m your friend, but you know I’ve failed you too. I can’t hide anything from you”.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? God wants to have a relationship with me – with the real ‘me’, not the fake persona I create in order to impress the people around me. This is not rocket science! The Old Testament people knew it well; they wrote psalms asking God to curse their enemies, or complaining about how God had abandoned them, or lamenting their own wickedness. They were not putting on masks and pretending to be holier than they really were. No – their prayers are the prayers of people who know that God sees the secrets of our hearts: ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden’.

That’s what we need. No alcoholic can make any progress through the Alcoholics Anonymous program until they’re willing to start with Step One: ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable’. You never get past that awareness; week by week you go to the meeting and start by saying, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic”. Imagine if our liturgy asked us to do that each time we gathered together; “My name is Tim and I’m a sinner”.

Oh, right – it does! “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves”. Trouble is, it’s too easy for those words to roll off our tongue. Truly meeting with the risen Jesus – truly following him each day – will confront us as never before with the reality of our own weaknesses and failures. The good news, of course, is that those weaknesses and failures are not news to him. He already knew Peter would deny him three times, and he loved him anyway.

So the risen Jesus meets with Peter on the shores of the lake, reminds him of that threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and then asks him again three times, “Do you love me?” Despite his failures, Jesus gives Peter a new job description: “Feed my lambs” (v.15), “Tend my sheep” (v.16), “Feed my sheep” (v.17). Jesus has already described himself in John’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd; now he invites Peter, the failure, to share with him in that shepherding ministry. And at the end of the paragraph, after warning him about the price he will pay, he says to him again, as he did when he first called him, “Follow me” (v.19).

That’s the third thing about an encounter with the risen Lord: if it’s real, it will lead to a deeper life of discipleship, of following Jesus. In other words, we will be asking Jesus each day to teach us to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. And we will do this, knowing that there will be a price to pay: not everyone in our life will be jumping for joy because we are following Jesus, and some of them will let us know about it, in no uncertain terms. We may not have Peter’s experience of paying with our lives for our allegiance to Jesus, but there will be a cross for us to carry too, make no mistake about that. And we will accept that cross joyfully, because we know it’s worth it; as Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

So yes, it is possible for us – even today, even though we have failed the Lord many times – it is possible for us to know the risen Lord as he lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. He knows very well that we have failed him and let him down, but this need not disqualify us. Failure was not the end for Simon Peter, and failure is not the end for us either. After all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus takes his failures and makes them his fellow-workers!

So don’t count yourself out. Don’t say, “Because I’ve done this or that, I’ve disqualified myself and Jesus could never want to have anything to do with me or use me to serve others”. Don’t say, “I don’t have any qualifications he could use”. Jesus knows all about your failures and he isn’t asking you about your qualifications. He has one simple question he wants to ask you: “Do you love me?” If the answer to that is “yes”, then we’re in business.

Do you love him? Are you his friend? Will you follow him? Those are the most important questions any of us can face. And if we understand them properly, the most eloquent prayer we could possibly pray this morning may Peter’s prayer of total honesty: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I am your friend”. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s an honest answer, and with that honesty, we’re back on the road to a genuine relationship with the risen Lord.

Announcing the Good News in a Tight Corner (a sermon on Acts 5:27-32)

I notice that when baby announcements are made in families, no one has to be reminded to spread the news! The parents make the initial announcement, and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls, and then just as they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Aunt Susan – you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always called her ‘Aunt’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Aunt Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard – your mother called me an hour ago!”

That’s what seems to happen with good news in the world, isn’t it? No one needs to tell us to spread it. We have some wonderful experience that really enriched our lives, far beyond anything we were expecting, and no one has to tell us to share the story with others. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony were fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be – I know you’d really enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? Well, we would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. Something wonderful and memorable happens to us, or we get word of some really great event that’s going to take place, and we can’t help ourselves – we just have to share it with others.

We get that same sense of excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They had thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered that it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

And so it’s appropriate that every year during the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them had not actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s own personal presence in them and among them, and that same Spirit helped them when they went out to share the joy they’d received with other people.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. The time frame is probably several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem; sick people are being healed, and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the religious establishment – in other words, the collaborators who are in bed with the Romans – are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ.

Morning comes and there is consternation in the ruling council – where are the incarcerated apostles? Word comes that they are back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them the tongue-lashing we read at the beginning of today’s portion: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28).

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage, he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Gospel, the good news he has been announcing. He does this by making three affirmations about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The first affirmation is that God is victorious.

In 1944 C.S. Lewis’ close friend Charles Williams died suddenly. Writing to another friend a few days afterwards, Lewis tried to describe the extraordinary experience of not really being able to feel as if he had lost Williams, even though he was dead. He said something like this: ‘What the idea of death has done to him is nothing compared to what he has done to the idea of death. Knocked it for six! And it used to be a fast bowler!’ If he had been speaking to us North Americans Lewis might have used a baseball illustration instead of one from cricket; he might have said ‘He’s hit death for a home run – and it used to be a fast pitcher’!

Death is the last and greatest enemy. If a criminal wants to intimidate you he pulls a gun on you, knowing that the fear of death is often the strongest persuader of them all. We work hard to avoid the thought of death. We fill our days with business successes, with the accumulation of wealth, with happy family activities. Some of us work hard to keep fit, and use medication to smooth out our wrinkles or paint out our grey hair. And we may be successful for a while – but it’s going to beat us in the end, and we all know it. We sometimes say ‘Love is stronger than death’ – but how can that be, since death seems to end all human relationships?

The answer for us Christians, of course, is that we know love is stronger than death because of Jesus’ resurrection. In verse 30 Peter says “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree”. The Pharisees and Sadducees had used this old enemy, death, to silence Jesus – trusting that the ‘God of their ancestors’ was on their side! But it turned out otherwise. Against all the odds, God did something unheard of: he raised Jesus from the dead. If Jesus was victorious over death – the last, the greatest enemy of all humanity – then nothing in all creation could be beyond his power.

But God’s victory over evil goes even further than that. Did you notice the word Peter uses for the Cross? He says “…whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. Why did Peter call the Cross a ‘tree’? There is a text in the Old Testament that says ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. The apostles of course were well aware of this text, but instead of downplaying it, they proclaimed it boldly. Over and over again, in Acts and in his letters, Peter calls the Cross a ‘tree’. Why? Because he believed that on the Cross Jesus took the curse of our sins, the barrier which had come between us and God, and in winning the victory over evil he removed that barrier forever. Not only is death defeated on Easter weekend – so is sin. The plan of the evil one to separate us from God forever is defeated at the Cross, and instead the way of salvation is opened for all people.

So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is ‘God is victorious over evil, sin and death!’ And this is great news when we stand at the death beds of our loved ones, or when we face our own death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945, turned to his friends as he was being taken away and said “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life!” And in another place he had written “For the Christian, death is the greatest milestone on the road to victory!”.

So Peter’s first Gospel affirmation is that ‘God is victorious’. His second is this: ‘Jesus Reigns’.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth there’s a delightful scene after the birth of Jesus when people are lining up in Bethlehem to be registered in the census. King Herod has sent word that the names of all the newborn are to be noted. Someone asks “Why do they want the names of the newborn?” and another voice replies “It’s no use arguing with them – you just do what you’re told!”

We all know that feeling! It’s the feeling of workers who are the victims of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know that feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name.

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful, and as his cult spread around the Mediterranean world more and more people were worshipping him as a god. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’; after all, he was the Lord of the known world, and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees, the ‘realists’, the rich Jewish families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. They were widely seen by ordinary Jews as collaborators and traitors.

Now, in this context, the apostles bring this great Gospel announcement: “Are you tired of this crowd of self-serving oppressors? Well, the good news is that there’s another King in waiting, Jesus the Messiah, the one who in the end will bring justice and peace for all. We thought his death had disproved any idea that he was the Messiah from God, but God changed all that by raising him from the dead. Now he’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true that his rule is hidden at the moment; it isn’t yet made obvious to everyone. But don’t be deceived by appearances; he will have the last word! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

So the good news is that the true ruler of the universe is not a Roman tyrant or a greedy multinational corporation; it’s Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, and so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. And we believe that no sacrifice we can make in his cause is in vain, because one day he will reign forever, and, as the New Testament says in its poetical language, ‘we will reign with him’.

So Peter has given us two Gospel affirmations: first, ‘God is victorious’, and second, ‘Jesus reigns’. His third Gospel affirmation is this: ‘The Holy Spirit has been given’.

When you wear a clerical collar as I occasionally do, from time to time someone will come up to you with the request “Say one for me, Padre!”. I’m quite happy to ‘say one’ for anyone who asks, but it always amuses me that people somehow think my prayers are more effective than theirs. I know my own heart, and I often feel like responding in the words of Paul Hogan’s character in the movie Almost An Angel: “I’ll pray for you if you want, but I don’t know if it’ll do any good; the last time God and I spoke, he called me a scumbag!”

Most religions in history have had this idea of an elite, who are somehow seen as being closer to God – priests, who go between God and the people, representing God to the people and the people to God. In the Old Testament the Israelites saw all the thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, and they came to Moses in fear. “You talk to God on our behalf – we’ll do whatever he tells you – but don’t make us go up there for ourselves!” Negotiating a relationship with God is often seen as so demanding that only a select few are equal to the task.

In contrast, New Testament Christianity announces the astonishing news that God desires an intimate relationship with all who believe and are ready to commit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus – that is the meaning of the word ‘obey’ in verse 32: “…the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him”. The God who made the galaxies wants to live in you, giving you the power to tackle life as a faithful follower of this new King, Jesus. You are not alone! God the Holy Spirit is in you!

You see why this is good news? The common picture of ‘religion’ is of we poor humans gritting our teeth and doing our best to be ‘good’, while all the time God stands over us with a big stick waiting to beat on us for our failures. But the Christian picture is very different: God forgives our sins and comes to live in us by his Holy Spirit, helping us to get free from our besetting sins and to learn his new way of life.

Look at the difference this makes for Peter. Here he is, standing before the Sanhedrin. There really is no equivalent body today; we might envision it as a combination of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada. Imagine a journeyman welder being grilled by such a body of people on his theology and politics! That’s the kind of situation Peter is in. And yet he’s not intimidated; rather, he boldly gives his words of witness about the Good News of Jesus, in the face of possible execution. This is the same man who, on the night before Good Friday, denied three times that he even knew Jesus. See the difference the Holy Spirit’s help is making to Peter now. And the same Spirit is given to you and me today. Each day we can ask him to fill us, to guide us and strengthen us to follow Jesus and spread his love by our words and our actions.

So this is the good news that Peter announced in those few minutes of tension when he was standing before the Jewish ruling council. This is the difference that the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit was making in his life. This morning, let’s hear again his joyful proclamation: God is victorious over evil and sin, so you don’t need to be afraid of death or judgement. Jesus, the loving Lord who washed his disciples’ feet, is the true ruler of the universe, the one to whom all other rulers will one day have to give account. And you can have a genuine relationship with the God who made you, because he promises to give his Holy Spirit to all who will acknowledge Jesus as their King.

Let that good news sink into your heart this morning. Let it transform your life in all its power and wonder. And then this week, if you get a chance to do what Peter did – a chance to share the Christian message in one minute or less – don’t be afraid. The Holy Spirit who was in Peter is in you too. Send up a quick prayer for his help, and then open your mouth and tell others what it means to you that Jesus is alive. You might be surprised at what God does through your words!