‘Thirsty for God’ (a sermon on John 7.37-39)

Tonight I’m going to be flying across the Atlantic to the U.K., but the first time I made that journey I was going in the other direction; it was September 1967, I was nine years old, and we were travelling by ship. Tonight it will be a journey of about eight and a half hours, but then it took five days to go from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!

Of course, centuries ago those trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous line in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did try salt water; of course, this only made things worse, and they died even sooner because of it.

Psalm 42:1-3 says:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”’.

In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful image for our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organizations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired a sub-theme of longing for the end of this present evil age – the great final harvest, when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin – the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people.

Every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47: the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert, bringing new life and fruitfulness wherever it goes.

In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:37-39).

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me, and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.

 

Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).

God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols – God-substitutes that claim to be able to fill God’s role, but actually they can’t.

One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win – they just die.

A second very common idol, often linked to the first one, is success. A lot of people gauge their self-worth with this one: if I can just get ahead in my career, so everyone will see I’m doing well, then I’ll find the satisfaction I’m looking for. Sometimes the worse thing that can happen to these folks is to actually achieve that goal; they feel satisfaction for a few days, maybe, but finally they realize it isn’t giving them the lasting happiness they were hoping for. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for – whatever it is.

A third idol that’s quite common is the liking and approval of others. This is especially seductive to people who have problems with self-esteem. ‘If I can just get people to like me and approve of what I’ve done, then that inner ache will go away; I’ll be able to relax and know I’m a worthwhile person, because other people like me. But wait – some of ‘me’ isn’t very likeable, so I’ll just hide my shadow side and pretend to be something better than I really am, so I can get people to like me’. This is the lie the idol persuades us to believe, but it never works. We still feel the emptiness, the spiritual thirst – and we also carry around the burden of having to continually fool people about who we really are.

Sad to say, the institutional church can also become an idol for some. The church is meant to be a community of faith, gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some people have never made a connection with the risen Lord, and so they turn to the church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – church attendance, baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – but stop there, without making a real connection with the risen Christ.

I think this might be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship this idol think they’ve tried Christianity and found it wanting. But in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.

All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, I know that nothing can take God’s place, and in fact I’m really thirsty for him”. Good – let’s think about drinking!

 Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (John 7:37b-39a). So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.

You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. Then, if you haven’t been baptized at some point in your life, get baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, as most of us have, then the commitment of faith is all you need to complete the process.

Some people find this idea of a commitment of faith intimidating; they’re not sure they have enough faith to make it work. Don’t worry about that; Jesus once said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. Here’s how I see it. Imagine I’ve made a series of poor choices in my life and as a result I’m experiencing significant health issues. So in desperation I make an appointment to see my doctor. He examines me, and then he sits me down and says, “I know how we can get you out of this mess and back to heath. It’s going to take a while, but we can do it. Will you let me help you?”

How do you reply to that? I think the simple word “Yes” is enough, don’t you?

And this is where we’re at. We find ourselves struggling to connect with God and find the way of life we were designed for. We’re addicted to all sorts of negative behaviours and we know we’re chasing after the wrong things. So we go to Doctor Jesus and ask him to help us. His reply is, “Yes, I can help you. Will you follow me?” Faith is simply saying “Yes” to that invitation. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.

But of course, that’s not all it takes to continue the process. If we want to have our spiritual thirst quenched – to go back to the original metaphor – there needs to be a daily drinking. Let me suggest a couple of things for you.

First, pray daily to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we all have the Holy Spirit, but we need to ask him each day to fill us. I once heard a good illustration of this. An old fashioned gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.

Sometimes this happens in a dramatic way. That’s how it was for the apostles in our first reading today, when they experienced tongues of fire and speaking in other languages, and it was so dramatic that a crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. But it doesn’t always happen in a dramatic way – in fact, that’s not all that common. Mostly it’s quiet: a gentle sense of connection with God – a joy that’s there in the background even when we don’t notice it – the experience of finding ourselves equal to challenges we were sure would be too much for us.

So before you start each day, take a few minutes to pray and ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit for the day ahead. You’ll be surprised how much difference that simple prayer can make.

Then there’s the daily experience of keeping in step with the Spirit. In our pew Bibles, Galatians 5:16 is translated as ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the original Greek says ‘Walk in the Spirit’, and the NIV has the lovely translation ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’. I love that! It gives me the sense of the Holy Spirit as a companion walking beside me. I’m not sure which way to go, but the Spirit knows, and if I watch and listen, the Spirit will guide me.

One way the Spirit will guide me is through the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 90% of the guidance I need for living my daily life is already there in the Scriptures. There are lots of stories of people setting bad examples to avoid! And sometimes we come across good examples to follow. There are simple commands that revolutionize our lives: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’ – ‘stop lying to each other’ and so on.

But there are also little nudges we get from the Holy Spirit sometimes. With me, it often takes the form of a person coming to mind, with the little thought that I need to call them or send them an email. Sometimes it turns out to have been a mistake, but more often than not it doesn’t. What I’ve noticed is that if I obey those little nudges of guidance, they tend to come more often. But when I don’t, they stop coming. Simple lesson there? If I want to experience more of God’s guidance, I need to be sure I pay attention when it comes!

One last thing. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit – if we want to drink of this ‘river of living water’ that Jesus is talking about – then we will want to pray. And when I say ‘pray’, I don’t just mean ‘Come to Jesus for five minutes every day with a shopping list of wants’.

We’re all busy people, but I have discovered that my days go much better if I start them in prayer, and if that prayer includes a healthy portion of silence. So I try to get here earlier than I need to most days, and then I can sit in quiet for a few minutes. I don’t necessarily say very much. I just sit in a chair and pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes it’s a struggle; my brain is buzzing and there are so many internal distractions. Usually it takes longer than five minutes to get past them. Usually, after about ten or twelve minutes of silence, I begin to feel like I’m getting through. But I’m not trying; I’m just sitting and paying attention. And eventually, most days, I do get a deeper awareness of God’s presence and more joy as I go into my day.

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7.37-38). Notice the direction here: out of the believer’s heart. We might have thought it would be the other way – into the believer’s heart – but it’s an outward flow. And so it is for us. When we come to Jesus and drink of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become a refreshing presence in the world around us. The blessings of God flow out from us, touching other people and giving them a sense of God’s love for them as well. That’s God’s will for all of us. I can experience it and so can you.

So – will you come to Jesus and drink?

‘You Will Be My Witnesses’ (a sermon on Acts 1:1-11)

Some years ago I was leading a small group Bible study in a rural parish. The folks at the Bible study were mainly older ladies, and we were talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it really is. At one point in the study I asked them this question: “If you had to sum up the Christian message in no more than two sentences, how would you do it?” There was a long silence while everyone looked at the floor with frowns on their faces, and then one of them said, “You ask such difficult questions!”

But why did they find it a difficult question? After all, a good number of them were members of what was then called ‘The Reform Party’, and I suspect if I’d asked them to sum up in one or two sentences what the message of Reform really was, they’d have had no difficulty! So it was a real damning indictment against the work of the Anglican Church that after belonging to it for their whole lives, those folks found it next to impossible to sum up its central message in one or two sentences. I include myself in that, because I’d been their rector for several years at this point. What on earth had I been doing wrong, if after several years of my ministry they still couldn’t articulate the central gospel message in a couple of sentences?

So let me ask you this: in the face of all the pain and suffering in the world, do we have a message from God to share – a message that will make a difference, and bring hope to people’s lives? Because if we don’t, we really have no reason to exist, except to be a kind of spiritual country club for our members. A strong church needs a strong message to share with the world.

What is our strong message? As I listen to people in the Anglican Church talking, I sometimes get a sinking feeling about this. I sometimes get the sense that our message is ‘We have beautiful worship that dates back to the time of Henry VIII, and a nice loving community where you can get a sense of acceptance and belonging’. Well, I’m sorry, but have you noticed that not too many people are interested in Henry VIII these days? And if all you have to offer is a sense of community, there are lots of alternatives on the market that don’t require you to volunteer and tithe! So we’re going to have to do better than that!

The story of the Ascension can help us with this. What is the message of the Ascension? It’s simple and provocative: Jesus Christ is Lord of all. That’s what Ascension Day means.

We sometimes think of the Ascension as the day Jesus left the church: one minute he was with the disciples, the next minute a cloud took him out of their sight, and he was gone. But nothing could be further from the truth. Peter gives the true meaning of the Ascension in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, where he says that Jesus has been ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). The right hand of God is the place of authority and power.

Do you know which Old Testament passage the New Testament writers quote most often? It’s Psalm 110:1:

‘The LORD says to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.

The New Testament writers believed that this is what God the Father had done for his Son Jesus Christ: he had raised him from the dead and given him ‘the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11). They believed this to be objectively true: whether we acknowledge it or not, God the Father has made his Son Jesus Christ ‘Lord of all’. At the moment his rule is hidden, but one day it will be revealed to all people, on the day when ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

This message is ‘good news’ because it gives us hope. So often, in the world as we know it, the forces of evil seem to have the last word. The tyrant tells us ‘resistance is futile’ – sooner or later, his death squads are going to get you. The chairman of the multinational corporation plants his business beside your small town, and within a few years all the little ‘mom and pop’ businesses go belly-up. The people of good will are working hard on a peace plan, but the terrorists on either side plant their bombs, and off we go again for another round of ‘you kill one of ours and we’ll kill ten of yours’. And so it goes on.

Ascension Day tells us that one day this endless cycle is in fact going to end, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and one day his lordship will be revealed to all. And this means the last word in the universe will not go to the ones who think that profit justifies walking all over the little people, or the ones who kill and murder and oppress. The last word will go to the one who taught us the way of love and compassion, the one who loved us and gave his life for us – Jesus Christ our Lord. This gives us hope for the future – and it also gives us strength for the present, as we choose to be faithful to the way of life he taught us, even though much of the world around us doesn’t think it’s such a good idea.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all; this is what the Ascension tells us. This is the message of hope that we are called to ‘declare’. Which leads us to our role in God’s plan: this passage tells us that we are Jesus’ witnesses.

How is Jesus’ kingdom spread? The apostles had a plan for this; in verse 6 we read: ‘So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ In other words, ‘Lord, if you will just make Israel into a superpower, then our armies will be able to enforce your authority everywhere!’ And we can understand their perspective, can’t we? If you’re going to end genocide and fight against tyranny, you need a powerful army to do it. That’s been the standard way of changing the world since day one: meet the sword with the sword.

But our reading from Acts tells us that Jesus has a different plan to change the world – the coming of the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Look at verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’.

‘You will be my witnesses’ – this is Jesus’ simple plan. He calls disciples and he takes them out with him in mission. He trains them in the new way of life of the Kingdom of God, and then he sends them out to tell other people what they have seen and heard.

Do you remember right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus starts calling people to follow him?

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me” (Mark 1:16-17).

A lot of people would like it if the quote ended there, but of course it doesn’t. What comes next?

      And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.

You see, ‘fishing for people’ wasn’t an added extra: it was the purpose of discipleship. We become Christians, we are trained in the art of following Jesus, for the very purpose that we can pass it on to others. This isn’t a luxury; this is the very purpose for which the Church exists. If we’re not doing this, we’re not doing the thing Jesus had in mind when he called us to follow him in the first place. This is how the kingdom of God spreads: through the work of faithful witnesses.

In fact, the work of passing it on to others doesn’t wait until the training is over. The training takes place as Jesus is spreading the message to others; he takes the disciples along with him, and while they’re doing the work with him, he trains them to follow him. In the Gospels you don’t grow as a disciple of Jesus by sitting listening to sermons; you grow by going along with Jesus as he lives and shares God’s love with others.

And that’s still true today. In the western world we still tend to see churchgoing as the non-negotiable bare minimum of the Christian life, but Jesus didn’t say ‘Go into all the world and make all nations into churchgoers’. He said ‘make all nations my disciples’ – and we’ve seen that discipleship includes joining him in the work of spreading the message. Churchgoing may be one of the things disciples do, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing. It barely gets a mention in the New Testament. Being witnesses, on the other hand – spreading the gospel to others – is mentioned many times.

So – what do witnesses do? Witnesses share the story of what they have experienced. Witnesses for Jesus tell others what they know about him, the things that are real to them, the good news about him that they have experienced in their daily lives.

One of the first recorded Christian witnesses in the New Testament is Andrew. Andrew apparently used to hang around with John the Baptist, but one day Jesus passed by, and John pointed him out. “Look”, he said, “here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). Andrew and another follower of John heard him say this, and they took off after Jesus. Here’s what happened next:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter) (John 1:38-42).

So Andrew gets to spend the day with Jesus, and he’s so excited about Jesus that he immediately goes and finds someone he loves – his brother Simon – and tells him about it. He’s so persuasive that his brother’s curiosity is aroused, and so he goes to meet Jesus too. And the rest, as they say, is history. On the Day of Pentecost Simon, now commonly called Peter, preached a powerful sermon and three thousand people became Christians. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t preach a sermon – he was just a faithful witness, and the result was that one person became a Christian. But the sermon would never have been preached without that one word of witness.

How can I be like Andrew? Well, the simple question for us is, what good news about Jesus have I experienced, that I want to share with others? And if the only honest answer is ‘nothing’, then we need to earnestly pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us and open our eyes and make the risen Christ real to us. And we should not be satisfied with just praying this once and then giving up in despair. We need to keep on praying until we receive the gift the Father promised, as Jesus told us in our gospel for today.

This leads us to the third thing this passage shows us: we can’t be Jesus’ witnesses without the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:4-5 we read:

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’.

They are to ‘wait’. Only the Holy Spirit can make Christians witnesses, as we already saw in verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…’. So they need to be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means ‘to sink’, like a ship sunk under the ocean – they need to be immersed, surrounded, and totally filled, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit, like sponges soaking him up! And when this happens, it has an amazing effect on people’s lives, as we see in Acts where a group of scared disciples is transformed into a band of bold missionaries who preach and heal without fear in the name of Jesus.

The Church has always remembered that the Holy Spirit is essential to our task. In the service of Confirmation the bishop lays hands on the head of the person being confirmed, and prays, ‘Strengthen, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit; empower him or her for your service…’ The Church has always known that without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is impossible.

But the Church has often forgotten the little word Jesus uses here: ‘Wait’. We pray the prayer, and then we move on to the next part of the liturgy, because our Sunday lunch is calling us, and we’ve got other commitments to go to! But might God be saying to us “Wait! Do you really mean it? Do you really want it? How badly? Are you willing to stop for a while? Are you willing to fast, and pray, and not to let go until you get what you’re looking for?”

So let me leave you with this challenge. The Christian Church really does have a message to share, something really good: the great news that Jesus our Saviour has defeated the power of evil, and one day in God’s good time he will bring in his kingdom in all its fulness. The world needs this good news, shared by people whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus at work among us even now.

So: Has the Holy Spirit filled you and made you one of Jesus’ witnesses? And if not, are you willing to ‘wait’ until he does? Are you willing to pray persistently, without giving up, until you experience what those early Christians experienced on the Day of Pentecost – a baptism, a drenching, a complete immersion, in the power of the Holy Spirit?

Living and Sharing Christ’s Love (a sermon on 1 Peter 3:14-16)

Today I want to talk to you about living and sharing Christ’s love, and I want to begin by telling you a story many of you will remember.

In October 2006 a lone gunman called Charles Roberts entered a single schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania.  By the time he was finished that morning, five young Amish girls lay dead along with their killer. It was a scenario that has been repeated with frightening regularity in the past few years; a gunman enters a public place and starts shooting, innocent people get killed, everyone bewails the increasing violence of our society – and yet it goes on.

Except that this time, something different was going to happen. Within hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were reaching out to the killer’s family, giving food and raising money for his wife and children. “We have to forgive,” an Amish woman told the Reuters news service; “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us”. Another Amish man said of the family, “I hope they stay around here and they’ll have a lot of friends and a lot of support”. This attitude remained consistent in the days ahead. The media were fascinated with the attitude of the Amish and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not it was a good thing. The Amish themselves were clear about it; they believed their children were in heaven, they believed the perpetrator also had family members who needed care, and they believed faithfulness to Jesus meant doing the hard work of forgiveness and love in action.

Evangelism often gets a bad name in our society today, but when I watched the Amish sharing their faith and living it out with such integrity before the watching world, I saw evangelism in the true sense of the word. And it made me think of three verses from our epistle for today.

‘Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3:14-16).

In the middle of the most awful grief people could ever face – the senseless murder of their children – the Amish of Nickel Mines were able to hold onto their Christian hope. And when they were called on to give an account of the hope that is in them, they were able to do it with gentleness and respect. That’s a positive Christian witness. And as a result, light came out of darkness and hope replaced despair.

So where do actions like come from? Two things stand out for me in these verses from 1 Peter: ‘Hope’ and ‘Loyalty’.

Right from the beginning, Peter’s first letter has been all about hope. At the beginning of chapter 1 he says,

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1:3).

What’s this ‘living hope’ all about? It’s about the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. At the moment we do not always see God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. All too often, we see the forces of evil on the rampage. Yes, there is love and generosity and goodness, but all too often it gets shouted down by cruelty and hate and anger.

This must have been what it felt like to be an Israelite slave in Egypt in the time of Moses – forced by the Egyptians to do hard labour, never getting a rest, never getting a break. And then finally, when the Egyptians let them go free after the tenth plague, they got as far as the Sea of Reeds, and suddenly when they turned around, there was the Egyptian army behind them again! Pharaoh had changed his mind! There was no way out – deserts on either side, sea in front of them, soldiers behind. But then, in a miraculous act of deliverance, God opened the sea up for them and they were able to escape. What was humanly impossible was possible for God, and they were saved.

In later years the Israelites were often tempted to despair, but when they did, they looked back on this Exodus story. “God can do it again!” they thought. “That’s who he is – a God who cares for the downtrodden and delivers them!” So when they were going through their hard times, this story gave them a sense of hope.

Imagine the early disciples the day after Good Friday. They had been so excited about Jesus and his ministry, and they had begun to catch a vision of what he was up to, a vision of the coming kingdom of God. But then he had been arrested and tried and murdered by his enemies, and God had not delivered him. Surely God wouldn’t have abandoned the true Messiah? Like the Israelites coming up against the Sea of Reeds in front and the Egyptian army behind, Jesus had run head on into the immovable force of the power of the Empire, and all his wise and loving words and deeds of power hadn’t saved him. Now he was dead, and the disciples had no hope left.

Until Sunday morning, that is. Then, as the stories began to come in about meetings with the Risen Jesus, they began to grasp the enormity of what God had done. He had done the impossible! Tyranny and death no longer had the last word! And when the disciples were convinced, they went out boldly with the message of Jesus and they were totally unafraid of death. Why should they be? God had shown that he could raise the dead, and Jesus had promised that they would be raised too. So they were not intimidated; they went out with joy to spread the gospel, and when they were persecuted, they thanked God for the privilege of suffering as Jesus had suffered.

This is why the Resurrection matters! This is why we celebrate Easter, and sing Easter hymns and listen to Easter readings for fifty days, from Easter Sunday all the way to the Day of Pentecost. St. Augustine says, ‘We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!’ Because of Easter we have an indestructible hope of resurrection. And we also have an indestructible hope in the power of God to change things for the better. So when the going gets tough we don’t give up, and we don’t give up on difficult people, either. We have placed our hope in the power of God, and because of that, we can keep on going.

So hope is one of the most important forces shaping our actions as Christians. Loyalty to Christ is another one. Look at verses 14-15:

‘Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’.

‘Jesus is Lord’ was the basic Christian confession of faith in New Testament times. Today, it rattles off our tongues so easily, but what happens when we actually have to put it into practice? Think of the Amish of Nickel Mines again for a minute. The Amish are Anabaptist Christians, and Anabaptists put a lot of emphasis on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. At the end of that Sermon Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). To sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart means much more than just mouthing words with your lips; it means obedience. It means believing that Jesus truly has taught us the best way to live, and then setting yourself to learn to practice that way day by day.

This is the first issue for Christians: who is the Lord of our lives? Today it seems to me that we sometimes look on Jesus as kind of like a personal butler: his job is to anticipate my needs and meet them. He’s ‘my personal Saviour’, one of my accessories, a convenient aspirin to take my pain away so that I can get on with enjoying myself.

But that kind of religion would never have prompted the Amish to reach out in love to the family of the man who had murdered their children. If they had believed in that kind of religion they would have said something like “How can we even think about reaching out to others? Right now our own pain is just too much!” But because they really believed that ‘Jesus is Lord’ they were able to hear his call to be there for others as well, and as they followed Jesus faithfully they experienced his help along the way.

What’s going to happen as we Christians live out our stubborn hope and our primary loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ? What’s going to happen is that people will notice. The media noticed when the Amish of Nickel Mines didn’t react in the usual way to a gunman who killed their kids. They had noticed the same thing back in 1999, in Taber, Alberta, when the Rev. Dale Lang and his wife lost their son in a high school shooting. They also turned to their Christian faith for the strength to reach out in love and forgiveness to the perpetrator of that awful act.

I hope that you and I never have to go through such horrors to demonstrate our gospel hope and our loyalty to Jesus. But day by day we are called on to live out our hope and our loyalty before the world. Years ago when we lived in Aklavik in the western Arctic, Marci and I had a lot to do with a family in town with a long history of alcohol problems and jail sentences. One day one of the local Mounties said to me, “I think you and your wife are the only people in Aklavik who haven’t given up on that family”. I don’t share this with you to boast. I actually had never thought about giving up on them; it honestly hadn’t entered my mind. I share it with you just as an example of how, when we follow Jesus, people will notice. They might say something, or they might not, but they will notice.

What then? Peter says,

‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence’ (15-16a).

This wording in our NRSV pew Bibles actually sounds rather harsh: ‘Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting…’. I like the NIV better:

‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’.

For most of us, that ‘reason’ will involve some kind of story; you and I are following Jesus today because of a certain series of events. Perhaps it involved parents sharing the Christian faith with us, or the witness of friends, or an experience of God’s help when we were going through a difficult time in our lives.

After the Nickel Mines tragedy, one of the leaders of the Amish Community mentioned the formative effect the Lord’s Prayer had on their life together. He said, ‘We pray it seven times a day!’ He was specifically referring to the words, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. But his explanation of the distinctive lifestyle the Amish were demonstrating involved telling a story about their life together and about God’s work among them.

We all have a story of faith – a story about God’s work in our lives. I am a Christian today because of the witness of my parents. They took me to church every Sunday from before the time that I could walk; they had me baptized, prayed with me and taught me the Bible stories. But they didn’t only do that. When I was thirteen my Dad challenged me to make a personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ. I did that on March 5th 1972, and it was the beginning of my life as a conscious follower of Jesus. That life grew and was nurtured in a lively church in southeast Essex in which I learned to pray, to read scripture, to worship with others and to live as a Christian. That’s my story, and I’m excited about it. I love telling it to others.

But we don’t only tell our story; we also tell God’s story, the story of the good news of Jesus. This is the reason we have hope! We have hope because God loved our world so much that he made himself vulnerable, and came and lived among us as one of us to spread his love and light. By his life and teaching Jesus showed us what God is like and what it means to follow him. By his death he has demonstrated God’s unconditional love for all people: we can kill him, but we can’t stop him loving us. And by his resurrection he has shown us that hate and anger won’t have the final word: love really is stronger than death. God raised Jesus from the dead and so there’s no longer any need for us to be afraid.

As I talk to friends who aren’t Christians, this is one thing that stands out for me: many, many people are afraid of death. I don’t just mean ‘afraid of the act of dying’ – all of us are afraid of that, I think. I mean ‘afraid of the state of death, of the end of our lives, of non-being’. I remember a time when I was afraid of that, too, but I very rarely feel that any more. As my faith has grown, that fear has receded, and I’m very thankful for that.

So what difference does it make to you to be a follower of Jesus? How are you aware of God at work in your life? What makes it worthwhile for you to continue to practice your Christian faith? Our answers to these questions are the story that God wants us to share with others. But we aren’t to tell our stories in an offensive or pushy way. Peter says in verse 16 ‘yet do it with gentleness and reverence’. My brother used to have a humorous poster on his wall that said, “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do!” It was a joke, but we all know there are people in the world who actually believe that! That’s not the attitude in which we ought to share our Christian stories.

Let’s go round this one last time. We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and we believe his promise that one day he will raise us too. One day his kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And so we don’t give up on the future of the world, and we don’t give up on ourselves or other people either. We don’t give way to fear; we’re not intimidated. We commit ourselves day by day to Jesus as our Lord, and we ask him to help us each day as we try to obey him in our daily lives. And the more we do this, the more we find it to be a joy to us.

As we live like this, we find that gossiping the Gospel becomes a natural part of our everyday lives. Evangelism isn’t a scary thing; it’s not a program we run in the church or a training course we have to go on. It’s not something we have to make happen by our own efforts. Jesus makes a difference to us, and people notice that difference, and if they trust us, this leads to conversation. And in that conversation we can give ‘the reason for the hope that we have…with gentleness and respect’ (v.15 NIV).

I sometimes enjoy reading Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible that he calls The Message; it’s a bit quirky, but sometimes it has a memorable way of rephrasing the old familiar words in a way that grabs our attention. Let me close with his version of our text for today:

‘Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick’.

May God fill us with the Holy Spirit today and give us strength to put these words into practice. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Faithful to the End (a sermon on Acts 6 and 7)

I know there are some people in this church who have visited Westminster Abbey in London over the past few years. If you have, you might have noticed a striking new set of statues on the outside of the church, above the main doors. They are statues of martyrs of the twentieth century – people who followed Jesus faithfully and paid for it with their lives.

The statues include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the underground opposition to Hitler; he was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945. Father Maximilian Kolbe is there too; he was a Catholic priest and Auschwitz inmate who willingly gave his life in place of another prisoner condemned to die. There’s also Janani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda who was shot and killed by General Idi Amin. Oscar Romero is there too; he was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador who was murdered by government death squads as he was celebrating Mass.

Of course there have been many others who have paid with their lives for their allegiance to Jesus. I remember five men whose stories made a great impression on me when I was a young Christian: Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully and Pete Fleming. They were missionaries who were killed by Guarani tribesmen in Ecuador in 1952. I think of Tom Fox, a Quaker and a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who was murdered by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade in Iraq in March 2006. I think of the thousands of Christians who have been killed by extremists of various kinds in recent years. It has been said that in the twentieth century more Christians gave their lives for the Gospel of Christ than in all nineteen previous centuries. They remind us that martyrdom is not a thing of the past: it is still with us today.

And of course we need to acknowledge at this point that the Church has a sad history of persecuting others too. Christians have burned other Christians at the stake as heretics. Christians have imposed state-endorsed forms of Christianity on others. Christians have perpetrated oppression and violence and murder against Jewish people. This is a sad part of our history and completely contrary to the teaching of Jesus, and we need to acknowledge it, repent of it and ask forgiveness for it.

This morning in our reading from Acts we meet the first in the long line of Christian martyrs, Stephen. Who was he?

We don’t actually know a lot about him. We know that he was a ‘Hellenistic’ Jew – in other words, although he was a Jew by race and religion, he had probably been raised in a Greek cultural context, and his first language was Greek, not the Aramaic spoken by most of the Jerusalem Christians.

We’re told in Acts that those early Jerusalem Christians lived a lifestyle of voluntary communism, sharing all their possessions and giving to the needy, especially the widows and orphans among them. This included a daily distribution of food to believers who couldn’t support themselves. Apparently there was some rumbling about the Hellenist widows being neglected in this daily distribution. The apostles wanted to make things right, so they appointed seven Hellenists to be in charge, and Stephen was one of them. But Stephen’s talents weren’t confined to administration; he was also a gifted evangelist. He’s described in Acts 6 as ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (6:5), and we’re told that ‘Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people’ (6:8).

But not everyone was happy with Stephen’s message, and some actively opposed him. They accused him of blasphemy, and he was arrested and brought before the same ruling council that had condemned Jesus. Luke tells us ‘They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us”’ (6:13-14).

This story is told in Acts chapters 6 and 7; our first reading for today comes at the very end and doesn’t really make sense unless you know the rest of the story! Most of Acts 7 is taken up by Stephen’s defence – a long, rambling sermon about Jewish history that has many Christians yawning for most of the chapter! But Stephen’s not wasting his time; he wants to make two points. First, you can’t tie God down to a Temple made of stone; he’s always on the move. Secondly, God’s people have always rebelled against his voice, the most recent example of that being the way they rejected Jesus. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” Stephen asks; “They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (7:52-53).

Not surprisingly the leaders were angry at these accusations, and they quickly turned into a lynch mob; they took Stephen out of town and stoned him to death, as we heard in our reading. Luke doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat this tragedy. I don’t get the impression that Stephen had a morbid desire for death, and his Christian friends certainly mourned for him; Acts 8:2 says ‘Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him’.

But if we look a little closer at Luke’s story we can see God bringing good out of this tragedy. First, the one who held the coats of the executioners was a young man named Saul; later on, of course, he became better known as the Apostle Paul. Many scholars have speculated that when Saul saw the faithful way Stephen met his death, it might have been the first link in the chain that eventually led him to Christ. Secondly, that day a severe persecution broke out against the Church and most of the Christians were scattered. However, Luke tells us that ‘Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (8:4). So the action that had been intended to stamp out Christianity only succeeded in spreading it!

I find that the story of Stephen challenges me in several areas of my life. Perhaps as I share them with you, you’ll be challenged too.

First, the story of Stephen challenges my desire to be popular and to have an easy life. I have a good friend who used to teach a workshop called ‘Sharing Your Faith without Losing Your Friends’. It was intended to reassure people that there’s a way of talking to your friends about your Christian faith that won’t automatically lead to you losing all your friends! But it is kind of ironic that for most of us, the biggest disaster that could result from our telling others about Christianity is losing our friends! That was the least of Stephen’s worries!

The fact is, of course, that there’s a comfortable version of Christianity that sees the Christian faith as one of many good stress-reduction techniques. Churchgoing, Bible reading, and prayer will help me cope with the pressures of my busy materialistic life. But I don’t need to go public with it, and I certainly don’t need to change the basic orientation of my life to practice it.

In the New Testament things are very different. The basic message of the early Christians was ‘Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all’, which was kind of ‘in your face’ of them, since the Roman emperor already claimed that title! The early Christians didn’t expect Caesar or his followers to jump for joy over the news that Jesus had dethroned him! But the good news they announced is that the true Lord of the world is not a corrupt politician or a self-serving millionaire, but the Lord who loves us so much he was willing to die for us. The challenge comes when he calls us to turn from our previous allegiances and commit ourselves to him in joyful obedience. Our false gods – whether popularity or greed or nationalism or whatever they might be – must be renounced, and these impostors aren’t likely to cheer about the fact that they’re losing followers.

The late Pope John Paul II understood the cost of allegiance to Jesus. As a young man he lived through the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, in which almost twenty percent of the nation’s Catholic priests were murdered by the invaders. Catholic youth organisations were made illegal, but young Karol Wojtyla risked his life by taking part in them. Later he joined an illegal underground seminary to study for the priesthood, once again risking his life to respond to the call of Christ. He understood that a Christian has a higher allegiance, and may be called on to pay the ultimate price for it – just as Jesus paid the ultimate price out of love for us.

It’s totally unrealistic for us to think we can follow Jesus faithfully without upsetting anyone. If we follow Jesus, there will be a price to be paid. Please understand: I don’t mean that we disciples of Jesus should be going out of our way to offend people; far from it! But no matter how loving and gracious we are, the offence of the Cross of Christ is still there. The Christian message challenges our self-centredness. It calls us to turn from our sins and live in joyful faith and obedience to Jesus. People aren’t all going to cheer for this. Some will reject it, and they will reject its messengers and those who practice it as well. Faithful disciples of Jesus aren’t surprised by this: we understand that it’s part of taking up our cross and following him.

So the story of Stephen challenges my desire for popularity and the easy life. Secondly, the story of Stephen speaks to my fear. I’ve already mentioned Jim Eliot, one of the five missionaries murdered by Guarani tribespeople in Ecuador in 1952. Some years before, Jim had written these words in his journal: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’. In other words, he had already faced the possibility of death, looked it squarely in the eye, and didn’t blink.

Death is our last great enemy. The greatest weapon used by tyrants is the fear of death. But the early Christian martyrs don’t seem to have worried very much about it. Why is that?

Well, put yourself in Stephen’s place. A short time before the events of this story, the authorities had arrested, tried, and crucified Jesus. That seemed to be the end for him. But then the Resurrection happened! Death had done its worst, but God had overcome the worst it could do. And Jesus had promised his followers that the same thing would happen to them: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:40).

What did Stephen see when he stared death in the face? ‘But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look”, he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”’ (7:55-56). By the way, we needn’t dismiss this as fanciful nonsense; there are many stories of people near death who seem to see familiar faces coming to meet them. But the most interesting detail here is the reference to Jesus ‘standing’ at the right hand of God. In every other case in the New Testament where Jesus’ place at the right hand of God is mentioned, he is ‘seated’, but here he’s ‘standing’. Was he standing to welcome his faithful follower? We don’t know, but what we do know is Stephen looked into the face of death and saw God’s warm welcome there.

This is what it means to be an Easter people, a people who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. It means that the very worst thing evil can do to us is only temporary. Jesus has promised us a warm welcome into the Father’s presence and a glorious resurrection on the last day. That’s why, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being taken away to be hanged, he said to his friends “Don’t be afraid. This is the end – for me, the beginning of life!”

So the story of Stephen challenges my desire for popularity and the easy life, and it touches me at the level of my fear.  Finally, the story of Stephen challenges my anger.

I’ve already referred to the five Ecuador martyrs of 1952. All five of them were married, and some had children. You might have expected their loved ones to lash out in anger after the men were murdered, but this didn’t happen. Nate Saint’s sister Rachel, and Jim Elliot’s widow Betty, continued to live and work in the area. Eventually they themselves moved into Guarani territory, sharing the Gospel and establishing a church there. Nate Saint’s son Steve has continued through the years to serve the people who murdered his father.

One of the most challenging verses in the Bible is James 1:19-20: ‘You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. Stephen understood this well. What were his last words? ‘Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. When he had said this, he died’ (7:60). No doubt the spirit of steadfastness and love with which he met his death made a great impression on the people around him – not least, upon Saul.

So this story challenges me to let go of my anger against people who speak and act against my Christian faith. It reminds me that angry words don’t achieve anything. Rather, like Jesus and Stephen, I’m to respond with love and forgiveness. As Paul says, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’ (Romans 12:14, 20a).

So, to sum up: First, the story of Stephen challenges me to put my loyalty to Jesus ahead of my desire for an easy life. Second, it calls me to give up my fears and put my trust in God who raises the dead. And third, it challenges me to let go of my anger against those who oppose the Gospel, and to respond with love and forgiveness.

So our call, you and I, is to continue to be faithful to Jesus, even when not everyone in our lives is jumping for joy about it. We’re called to reach out in love with the good news of Jesus. We’re called to rejoice with those who respond positively to it, and to continue to love those who don’t. And we’re called to entrust ourselves above all to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has promised that he will not let us down, even in the face of death; rather, he will bring us through death to our own glorious resurrection.

The Good Shepherd (a sermon on John 10:1-11)

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a big fan of the Robin Hood stories. As most of you will know, Robin Hood is a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the late twelfth century in England during the time of the Crusades. King Richard the Lion Heart was away leading a crusading army, and his brother Prince John was ruling the kingdom on his behalf; in the Robin Hood stories Prince John is a self-serving tyrant who is taxing the people to death. Robin and his band of merry men live in Sherwood Forest, and they often confront Prince John’s local representative, the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin and his men have been driven into the outlaw life, and they spend their time robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, in anticipation of the day when King Richard will return to do away with corruption and put everything to rights.

So, at least, goes the legend! However, historians know that this is a very romantic view of Richard the Lionheart; he actually cared very little for the people of England, except as a tax base to support his very expensive foreign crusades. He was king for ten years but spent only a few months of that time in his own country; the rest of it was spent in the Holy Land or journeys there and back. That includes a time when he was kept prisoner in France and his people were taxed to raise an enormous ransom to set him free! So if the people were putting their hope in Richard to set things right, they were going to be disappointed. Like many political leaders, he turned out to be a self-serving adventurer who didn’t have the true welfare of his people at heart.

Of course, we’re no strangers to the political Messiah syndrome in the modern world either. Over and over again we’ve had political leaders using overblown rhetoric to persuade us to vote for them; if they get in they’ll ‘drain the swamp’ and give us ‘change we can believe in’. And over and over again, it’s been ‘welcome to the new boss – the same as the old boss’. It seems to be very hard for weak and sinful human nature to withstand the temptations of greed and self-aggrandizement and the love of power.

Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with the Easter season, and with John chapter 10 and the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Stay tuned: all will be made clear!

In the message the early Church preached, one of the meanings of the Resurrection is that Jesus is the true Lord of all. On the day of Pentecost Peter preaches to a huge crowd in Jerusalem; here’s one of the things he says to them:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

‘The right hand of God’ is the place of authority. So it’s Jesus, and not Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate or Caesar off in Rome, who has ultimate authority. Jesus, and not some earthly pretender, is the true Lord of all. As Peter goes on to say, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). This is what the Resurrection means.

And this is also what John chapter ten means. In biblical times the image of the shepherd was a royal image; the kings and leaders of ancient Israel were thought of as shepherds of God’s people. This idea goes all the way back to King David, the shepherd boy who God chose to be ‘shepherd’ of his people Israel. We see it at the end of Psalm 78:

‘(God) chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

Later on, in Ezekiel chapter 34, the prophet delivers a thundering judgement against the corrupt kings of Israel:

‘Thus says the LORD God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals’ (34:2b-5).

This is what Jesus is talking about in John chapter 10. To claim to be ‘the Good Shepherd’ – not just ‘a’ good shepherd but ‘the’ Good Shepherd – is to claim to be a better king than the self-serving political and religious leaders who were exploiting the people of God instead of caring for them. Jesus was claiming to be the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who would care for the people of God.

And yet, I hear you saying, was Jesus really a king? He didn’t grab political power, he didn’t run a government, and he didn’t lead an army; instead, he proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and told people that the way to be greatest in the eyes of God was to be the servant of all. All of that is definitely true, and so we have to go on to say that we can only call Jesus a ‘king’ if we are changing the definition of kingship. To him, it’s more to do with spiritual and moral leadership based on the love the King has for his people, and their commitment to following him.

But many people prefer to follow a worldly political leader. Presidents and prime ministers and dictators can get use their power to things done! They can command budgets of trillions of dollars, they can send powerful armies on crusades to set things right, and they can do practical things to make the lives of people better. Isn’t it better to put our hope in these people to bring lasting change in the world, rather than in a romantic idealist like Jesus?

I can understand the attraction of that line of reasoning. But the problem is that all political leaders turn out to be disappointments in the end; even the best of them are imperfect people, with sins and weaknesses and skeletons in the closet. Even though they talk as if they’re going to build the new Jerusalem, it ends up only being New York! Even those who start out claiming to have the welfare of the people in mind – like the Bolsheviks in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century – often end up being just like the evil tyrants they replaced. And of course, even the best of them retire or die one day, and then a lot depends on those who follow them; will they continue on the same path? And so the psalmist says,

‘Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4).

Jesus says he is not like these people; he is the Good Shepherd. What makes him so good? Let’s look at today’s gospel reading to get an answer to that question. One thing we’ll notice as we look at these verses is that Jesus is a very unusual shepherd. In fact, all three of the characteristics we’re going to mention are not things we’d usually find in a shepherd at all.

The first thing I want to mention is what he has in mind for his sheep. Look at John 10:9-10.

(Jesus said) “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.

The thing that makes this unusual is that Jesus is entirely devoted to the well being of his sheep – not for what he can get out of them, but just for their own sake. Let’s be honest: most shepherds want healthy sheep, but it’s because of what they can get out of them. Whether they’re keeping sheep for the sake of their wool, or because they want the meat, they aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re trying to make a living, and that’s what the sheep are for. In other words, most shepherds look after their sheep in order to exploit them.

Some politicians talk the talk about caring for their constituents, but they don’t walk the walk: when we watch their actions, we know that in the end it’s their own well being they’re dedicated to. Jesus is different; he’s committed to the well being of his sheep. His vision for us is that we might have life, and have it abundantly – or, as some translations say, ‘life in all its fullness’. Jesus isn’t interested in taking things away from you unless they are things that ultimately diminish your life. But what he’s really about is adding to your life; he wants to add the joy and peace and sense of purpose that come from knowing God, from having the Spirit living in you, from learning the ways of God. He came to give us life: that’s his vision for his sheep.

The second thing I want to mention is the depth of his commitment to his sheep. A hired worker has no personal investment in the sheep; they’re just working their hours and earning their wages. If some of the sheep get lost or sick or die, it might be a bad reflection on the hired worker but it doesn’t have a personal impact on them.

The shepherd in Jesus’ parable is the owner of the sheep; they belong to him, and he has a huge personal investment in them. This means he’s even willing to sacrifice himself on their behalf; as Jesus says in verse 11: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. This perhaps would have strained the credulity of Jesus’ hearers a little; I doubt if they’d known too many shepherds who were willing to die to protect their sheep. All the more reason why Jesus is such a Good Shepherd; his sheep are so important to him that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf.

In the first letter of John we read: ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). In the world we live in, it’s easy to get jaded about empty words. Businesses say they really care for their customers, and we’ve heard politicians talking about how their constituents are so important to them, but all too often the actions don’t match the words. But John goes on to say, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). This is what Jesus did; he didn’t just speak words of love, but gave his life on the Cross for us, so that we could be saved.

That’s the value God sets on each one of us. Sometimes we don’t feel as if we’re worth very much; sometimes we might even wonder if God knows we exist at all. If we feel that way, we should look to the Cross, where Jesus died, and say to ourselves, ‘That’s how much God loves me. That’s how far Jesus was willing to go to save me’. He is the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

We’ve seen what he has in mind for his sheep, and the depth of his commitment to his sheep. The third thing I want you to notice is the intimacy of his relationship with each individual sheep. Look at John 10:3-4:

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for (the shepherd), and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”.

There’s a two-way relationship here: the shepherd knows his sheep by name, and the sheep know their shepherd and the sound of his voice.

I had the privilege a few times to meet Ted Scott (he was Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986). The first time was at a clergy retreat in Saskatoon in the spring of 1980; he was the retreat speaker, and he and I had a conversation on the first evening of the retreat. Our next meeting was five years later, at a clergy conference in the Arctic. On the first evening of the conference I saw him looking at me; the next morning he said to me, “I don’t remember your name, but I’ve met you before, haven’t I?” I was amazed at his memory and I quickly reminded him of my name. I saw him at national meetings several times after that, and he always remembered my name. I found that really impressive; as Primate of Canada he must have met thousands of people every year, and yet somehow he was able to treat each one as an individual and remember their names.

Jesus does not treat us as members of a collective. Jesus is the good shepherd; he knows your name, and he knows my name too. Again, I suspect this is unusual; I don’t think there are many shepherds who know their sheep by name, but Jesus does.

But it works the other way too, and this is perhaps the challenge this reading has for us. Jesus says, “the sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). The challenge is for us to get to know the voice of our good shepherd – our true King – so that we may be sure it’s really him we’re following and not a stranger who cares nothing for us.

The most important way for us to get to know the voice of Jesus is by hearing what he has to say in the gospels. The gospels give us a vivid and compelling picture of Jesus; it’s not hard for us to form an impression of the sort of person he is and the sort of things he has to say. You know this is true. For instance, if someone were to say to you ‘Jesus told his disciples that if they followed him he would make them rich’, you’d shake your head and think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say!’ So you see, you’ve already begun to get to know his voice. Keep reading the gospels, keep meditating on what Jesus has to say there, keep doing your best to put it into practice in your life, and you’ll find yourself getting a better and better sense of what his voice sounds like.

So we have a shepherd king with a compelling vision for us: he wants to give us life in all its fullness. We have a shepherd king with an absolute commitment to us: he was willing to lay down his life so that we could be saved. And we have a shepherd king who wants to have a close personal relationship with each of us, a relationship in which he knows us by name and in which we get to know the sound of his voice and learn to follow his leading.

One last thing: many pastors and priests see these words of Jesus as a model for their ministry, and to a certain extent there’s nothing wrong with that. But the trouble is that pastors and priests are only human, and inevitably we fail. If you treat your pastor or priest as the Good Shepherd, you’re going to be disappointed.

So don’t do that. Don’t fall into the trap of turning to a human pastor for the shepherding that only the Good Shepherd can give you. Remember the words of David in our psalm for today; he had priests in his life, but he doesn’t say ‘The priest is my shepherd’. He says ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. So pray that the Holy Spirit will fill you and help you get to know the real Good Shepherd, who gave his life for you and who knows you by name. And then give major time and attention to soaking up what the Gospels say about his life and teaching, so you can learn to know his voice and follow his leading. And when you get discouraged, remember his ultimate vision for you: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

‘Open Our Eyes, Lord – We Want to See Jesus’ (a sermon on Luke 24:13-35)

We sometimes sing a worship song around here that goes like this:

‘Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen;
open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus’.

This song expresses the longing of our hearts in this Resurrection season. At this time of year we read the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection, and maybe when we read those stories we feel just a little envious; maybe we think, “I wish I had been there. I wish he would appear to me too. Then I’d believe in him and I’d never doubt again”.

There are some people today who tell stories of mystical encounters with Jesus. John Sherrill has a story like that in his book They Speak with Other Tongues. He talks about how he was in hospital recovering from cancer surgery. He was lying awake at night, in some pain; there was a boy in the room with him too, tossing and turning and sleeping fitfully. And suddenly, in the night, there was a light in the room; it seemed to be centred on the far ceiling. John watched it for a few minutes, curious, and then he said one word: ‘Christ?’ The light didn’t move, he said, but it was as if it enveloped him, and the pain from his wound eased.

John’s roommate turned on his bed, moaning a bit with pain. John said, ‘Christ, could you help that boy?’ And it was as if the light enveloped the boy too, and immediately he slipped into a peaceful sleep. And then the light was gone.

This was obviously a real encounter with the risen Christ that was so powerful that it changed the rest of John Sherrill’s life; he says in his book that for months afterwards, when he tried to tell people about it, he choked up with tears. And again, when we hear stories like this, we might find ourselves just a little bit envious. “Why can’t I have an experience like that? If Jesus is alive, why doesn’t he show himself to me, in a way that’s clear and unambiguous?”

But wait a minute – in the gospels, the resurrection appearances of Jesus weren’t always clear and unambiguous. Let me remind you of a detail that we often forget: when he appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead, they often didn’t recognize him at first. When Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus beside the empty tomb, she ‘saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 20:14); she didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name, “Mary”. Later on, in John chapter 21, after the disciples had been fishing on the lake all night long, we read that ‘Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 21:4). We might think it was because the light wasn’t very good, but a little later on, when they were sitting and eating breakfast with Jesus, John adds, ‘Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”’ (21:12) – a very strange thing to say if it was absolutely clear who he was.

We get the same thing in our gospel reading for today, the story of the walk to Emmaus. The two disciples – perhaps they were a married couple? – were walking on the road. ‘While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (Luke 24:15-16). It wasn’t until he was sharing a meal with them later that evening, and he ‘took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, that ‘their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”’ (24:30-32).

Luke isn’t just telling us about something that happened on the day of Jesus’ resurrection; he’s using the story to instruct us about how we can meet Jesus today. The appearance will not be unambiguous; we’ll need to have the Holy Spirit ‘open our eyes’ so we can recognize his presence in the scriptures and the breaking of bread. But you can be sure that Luke knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s writing his gospel for a generation of Christians who have not seen the Risen Jesus; he wants them to know that this does not mean they can’t experience his presence with them. And that includes us; our eyes can be opened too, so that we can see him in places where at first we didn’t recognize him. And two of the most common of those places are the Scriptures and the breaking of bread, or Holy Communion.

Let’s explore this passage a little more. I can imagine this couple walking home to Emmaus, ‘talking with each other about all these things that had happened” (v.14). And then along comes a stranger, and he asks them what it is they’re talking about. Out comes the sad story of Good Friday:

“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (vv.19b-21a)

In other words, “We thought he was the Messiah, but he obviously can’t have been, because if he was, God wouldn’t have abandoned him like that. But he was such a good guy; we really loved him and believed in him”. But then the story goes on:

“Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him” (vv.22-24).

What do you hear in their words? I hear bitter disappointment, anger at the authorities, confusion about who Jesus really was. I hear a desire to believe in the resurrection, but also a fear of false hopes, and almost a sense of “I told you it was too good to be true!” – “but him they did not see”.

Sometimes when we come together for worship each week, we come like these two disciples – confused, disappointed, wanting to believe but finding it harder than we thought it would be, hurt by the wounds the world has given us. Maybe we remember a time when faith was easy, and we wonder why it’s so difficult now. Maybe we wonder why bad things happen to good people. Maybe we wonder why we seem to find it so hard to have any real sense of connection with the living God. Maybe we even ask those really threatening questions: “Does God really care? Is God silent? Is God even there at all?”

You see, this isn’t just a story of two disciples who met Jesus on a road long ago: it’s a story about us, too. Let’s go on.

The fellow traveller comes and walks with them, and Luke tells us ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (v.16). This is our experience today too; often Jesus comes to us, but our eyes are kept from recognizing him. After all, we can’t see him, and it’s sometimes hard to believe in someone you can’t see! I’m reminded of the story of a mom who was reading a bedtime story to her little girl, and the doorbell rang. The mom got up to answer the door, but the little girl said, “Don’t leave me by myself, mommy; I’m scared”. “There’s no need to be scared”, says mommy; “Jesus is here with you”. The very wise little girl thought for a minute, and then said, “Send Jesus down to answer the door; you stay here with me”!

As we come together today, I think of Jesus’ promise that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). But we often forget that, because we can’t see him. We need to ask God to open our eyes and realize that he is coming to us, particularly in the two main parts of this service: the word, and the sacrament.

Look at verse 32: after the risen Jesus had been revealed to the two disciples, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They were referring to what had happened to them earlier in the day; after they had opened their grief and confusion to the stranger, who they didn’t know was Jesus, he said to them,

‘“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things, and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures’ (vv.25-27).

What an amazing experience that must have been! In those days most Jewish people would have been familiar with the story the Bible tells, and would have had some parts of it memorized. But the problem these two had was confusion about the role of the Messiah. They believed the Messiah was going to ‘redeem Israel’ – in other words, lead an army and set them free from their enemies. They heard the stories of King David and prayed that God would send them another one like him. But they hadn’t noticed Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…they have pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:1a, 16) – or Isaiah 53:

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

So Jesus led them in a Bible study, all from memory, going through all the scriptures and pointing out the things that had been fulfilled in his death and resurrection.

Martin Luther once said that ‘the Bible is the cradle where we find the infant Christ’. That’s why each week we read big chunks of the Bible – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel. This is important. Some people think it’s just the appetizer, with Communion as the main course, but it’s not! When the Word of God is read and preached, Jesus is present in it, meeting us, teaching us, opening our eyes to his truth. And often we find, as those two found on the road, that he sort of ‘sneaks up’ on us; we don’t realize until afterwards that our hearts were burning within us as we listened to the message of the Scriptures.

Well, going on with the story, the three travelers on the road finally reached the village of Emmaus. The two invited the stranger into their home, and they sat down to eat together.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (vv.30-31).

Strictly speaking, this was not a Communion service – it was an evening meal. But still, when Jesus did those actions from the Last Supper, something powerful happened – something supernatural, that Luke could only describe as ‘having their eyes opened’ – and they realized that Jesus had been with them all the time.

My friend Terry, from my last parish, tells a story of something that happened to him not long after he became a Christian. He had struggled with anger issues in the past, and one day he had an experience – I won’t go into detail about it – that he expected would make him very angry, but to his surprise, it didn’t. He puzzled about that for a few days, until he came to church the following Sunday. He told me afterwards, “I was still wondering about it, until I went forward for communion, and when you put the bread in my hands, I suddenly remembered: ‘Oh yeah – I have help now!’” Like the disciples in Emmaus, when the broken bread was put into his hands, he realized that Jesus had been with him all along.

Holy Communion is Jesus’ gift to us. He commanded us to ‘do this in remembrance of him’. He told us that the cup was the new covenant in his blood, pointing to his death as the sacrifice for our sins. He told us that if we eat and drink, we will have his life in us. We’ll spend our whole lives trying to understand these things, but we’re never going to completely get our heads around them! If we wait until we’ve got them figured out, we’ll wait forever, because Communion is one of those things that you can really only understand from the inside. And even then, we won’t understand much of it – but maybe, as the bread is broken and we receive it, we’ll realize Jesus is with us, like those disciples in the house in Emmaus, and like my friend Terry did.

Well, there are many more things we could say about this wonderful reading, but I need to stop now. So let’s just go round this one last time.

We come here each Sunday longing to meet the risen Jesus. Maybe our week has been tough, like these two disciples on the road; maybe we’re hurt, or confused, or angry, or doubting. So Jesus comes to us here and meets us. As the scriptures are read and preached, he opens our hearts and minds to understand what’s written there. But it’s not just an intellectual thing; it’s relational as well. “Our hearts burn within us” as he opens up the word to us. And then comes the sacrament: his body is broken, his blood poured out, and in the bread and wine those gifts are given to us. So we come in faith, holding out our hands, not understanding, but trusting that he will keep his word. And he does: whether we feel anything or not, he has said it, so we can rely on it.

Let’s pray that this will be real in our experience – so real that we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves, like the two at Emmaus, who ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Faith in the Risen Lord (a sermon on John 20:29-31)

At some time or other, most of us have probably used the phrase ‘Get a life’. If you’re a literal thinker, that’s actually a rather strange thing to say. All the people we say it to are, in fact, already alive: their hearts are beating, the blood is coursing through their veins, and their brains are more or less in working order.

But of course, that’s not what the phrase is all about. We all know instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive – ‘alive’ in the medical sense – and yet not to be enjoying everything life has to offer. It’s possible to get so caught up in foolishness and deception that we’re missing out on the most important things. And so we say ‘Get a life’, meaning ‘Smarten up! Don’t sweat the small stuff! Make sure you concentrate on the best things, the most important things’. After all, as my friend Harold Percy says, no one wants to be in the situation where God writes on their tombstone the words ‘Brilliant performance, but she missed the whole point!’

This is what John is talking about in our gospel reading for today:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:30-31).

John wants us to ‘get a life’, and he says the way to do that is to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If we believe in him and follow him, we will experience life to the full, the way God intended when he created us in the first place.

But there was a problem with ‘believing in Jesus as the Messiah’ for the first followers of Jesus. The word ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek) meant ‘the king God promised to send to set his people free’. In popular Jewish belief in the time of Jesus, ‘Messiah’ didn’t mean ‘someone who came to die on a cross so we could be forgiven’. It meant King Arthur, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or King David – a powerful military leader who would raise an army in the name of God, drive out the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom on earth by force. If you were the true Messiah, God would help you do this. On the other hand, if you were defeated – if you were killed by your enemies – that was a pretty good sign that you were faking it: you weren’t the true Messiah.

That’s why the Resurrection was so vital to the faith of those early Christians. If Jesus had stayed dead, they would probably have abandoned their belief in him as God’s Messiah. The Christian movement would never have gotten started, and Jesus would have been an interesting character studied by historians, but certainly not worshipped as the Son of God by two billion people around the world today.

But the New Testament witness is that those early Christians saw Jesus again in the flesh, alive and well, after they had seen him die. All four gospels record eyewitness stories. So does Paul in 1 Corinthians. Mary Magdalene saw him. So did Peter. So did the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the ten disciples in the Upper Room (and probably a few more with them), and Thomas the doubter, and a group of them fishing on the lake of Galilee, and another group of five hundred of them all together at once. These are some of the eyewitness stories recorded, or alluded to, in the New Testament.

One of them especially stands out in the Gospel for today. We all love ‘doubting Thomas’, because he’s so much like us. “I’d like to believe, Lord, but I just can’t! Just let me see with my eyes – let me touch your wounds – then I’ll believe!” He’s so honest; he’s unwilling to pretend he has one ounce more faith than he actually has! And incredibly, Jesus loves him so much that he gives him what he asks for.

‘Jesus came among them and said “Peace be with you”. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (vv.26b-27).

The story doesn’t record that Thomas actually did that – reached out his hands to touch Jesus. Instead he falls at his feet and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). And then Jesus says something tremendously significant:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29).

That’s us, you see! Verse 20 says ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ – but how can that verse apply to us? We’ve never seen the risen Lord. Like Thomas, we long to see him and touch him. If only he’d appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus! And so when it comes to faith we think of ourselves as second class Christians. We can’t really share the fullness of joy of those first witnesses; we can’t enjoy ‘life in his name’ in the same way they did.

Not so, says Jesus. The same blessing applies to us as to them; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. As St. Paul says in one of his letters, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – and something we all do in certain areas of our lives. For instance, I believe in the existence of a planet called Pluto. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, and I don’t expect to either. I don’t have the time or money to undertake the astronomical study I’d need to do. But credible astronomers have told me that Pluto exists; I believe their testimony, and so when someone asks me, I say, “Yes, I believe in Pluto”.

I also believe my wife loves me. I can’t see love or quantify it, but she tells me she loves me, and her actions seem to confirm the fact.

Well, that’s self-evident, you might say. To which I reply, not necessarily so. She might just have pretended to love me, and married me so she could get rich! All right, I admit that in our case that’s unlikely – but you can see that in some cases it would be an issue. Does Kate Middleton really love Prince William – or does she just enjoy all the attention she gets as Duchess of Cambridge? You see, evidence can sometimes be read in more than one way. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ a man is persuaded to believe in the infidelity of his wife by the lies of a false friend. We, the audience, can’t believe he’s falling for it; Desdemona so obviously loves and is faithful to her husband. But Othello is persuaded to read the evidence differently, and the result is a very sad end for them both.

It’s the same with Pluto; apparently the evidence can be read more than one way. I was raised to believe that there were nine planets, but a few years ago astronomers changed their minds – no, Pluto’s not really a planet after all! And then a few years later, some of them said “Well, it depends how you define ‘planet’!” So again, the evidence can be read in more than one way. It might be persuasive, but it’s not conclusive. In the end, we make a choice about things like this.

So why do we modern Christians, who have not seen the Risen Lord with our own eyes, choose to believe he is alive today? Let me suggest some answers to that question.

Some would say, “I believe it because that’s what I was taught when I was growing up”. And that’s undoubtedly very common and very valid. Many of us Christian parents hope that’s what will happen with our kids. Christ is very important to us – the most important part of our lives, many of us would say – and we want our kids to know and love him as well. So we pray for them, and bring them to church, and teach them the Bible story and the Christian way of life.

But lots of kids part company with things their parents teach them; it’s a natural part of growing up. As we get older, we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. As adults, we decide which parts of our parents’ belief systems ring true for us, and which don’t. I’m a Christian today, but my Christian faith is not exactly the same as the faith of my parents. And that’s as it should be; otherwise it wouldn’t be my faith, it would be their faith, one step removed.

And that’s why I don’t think this can be an adequate answer in the long run. If the only reason I continue to believe in the resurrection is because that’s what my parents taught me, I think sooner or later that faith will fail. We have to go through a process of making that faith our own, and inevitably this will involve questioning and rethinking things.

Why do we believe in the resurrection today? Some would say, “I’ve examined the evidence and I find it compelling”. This was the approach of Frank Morison, a British writer who published a well-known book in 1930 called Who Moved the Stone? The first chapter was entitled, ‘The Book that Refused to be Written’. In it he described how he had been sceptical about the resurrection of Jesus and had set out to write a short paper disproving it. However, the more he read and researched and sifted through the evidence, the more he came to believe that the resurrection was well-founded. The book has been reprinted many times since then, and apparently many people have become Christians as a result of reading it.

Again, this can be very valuable, and I have to say I share Morison’s view. How do we explain the empty tomb? How do we explain the eyewitness stories? How do we explain the change in the disciples? I don’t have time to go into it this morning, but suffice it to say that many of us find the weight of evidence to be very firmly on the side of the truth of the resurrection. It’s not conclusive of course – if it was, everyone would believe – but it’s a lot more persuasive than many people think.

So some believe because that’s what their parents taught them, and some believe because they’ve examined the evidence and been convinced by it. Some, however, are impatient with all these logical arguments. They would say, “I believe because I’ve met the risen Jesus myself”. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was one of those people. He was a medical student in Paris during World War Two, and not a believer. One day, however. he went to hear a talk about the gospels given by a priest, and he was surprised and disturbed to find himself attracted by what the man said. This made him angry, but he couldn’t dismiss it. So when he went home, he sat down at his desk to read the gospel of Mark. He had only just begun to read, he said, when he became strongly aware of a presence in the room with him; he couldn’t see anyone, but he was as sure that there was someone there as he was of his own existence, and he knew instinctively that it was the risen Christ. This experience – not logical argument – was powerful enough to turn this agnostic into a Christian.

Some Christians do have experiences like that. Most of us don’t; our sense of the presence of Christ is more subtle. For me, I find that most of the time he’s there quietly in the background; I don’t tend to notice him unless I stop and pay attention, and then I realize he’s been there all the time. And I find that intriguing. Once again, I can choose to ignore him if I want, and the more I do that, the less obvious he is. But if I choose to pay attention to him, over time, my sense of him seems to grow.

But there’s one more reason for faith I’d like to share with you this morning. For me, this is the most powerful one. There’s a scene in John chapter six where disciples start leaving Jesus because they can’t make sense of what he’s saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; its offensive and revolting to them.

‘So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”’ (John 6:67-69).

These verses really ring true for me. I believe in Jesus because I find his life and teaching so compelling. When he says, ‘What good is it to you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’ my heart is shouting out a big ‘Amen!’ When he says, ‘a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions’, it’s obvious to me that that’s true. When he says that the most important things in life are to love God and love your neighbour, I think, “Well, duh! Of course! Why can’t everyone see that?”

And it’s not just his words – it’s his life too. The way he reaches out to everyone, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. The way he loves the people no one else loves. The way he includes women and children. The way he refuses to hate people his society tells him he should hate, like enemy soldiers or tax collectors. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’, and I believe that to be profoundly true; I just know in my heart that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’.

‘These (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To put your faith in Jesus and follow him is to have life, abundant life. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord, but we rejoice too, even though we have not seen him with our eyes, because we believe he is alive and we are doing our best to walk with him day by day.

Let me close with an invitation; two invitations, in fact.

First, let me to invite you to ask yourself, “Why do I believe in the risen Lord? Is it just because that’s what my parents taught me? Is it because I’ve thought things through, examined the evidence and been convinced by it? Is it because I’ve had an experience of his presence in my life? Is it because I find his life and teaching so compelling? Or is it some other reason?” Probably, for most of us, the answer to that question will include a story of some kind – the story of our faith journey.

Second, let me invite you to make a fresh commitment of faith today. In a few minutes we’re going to join with the parents and godparents of Sloane, Steven and Kai as they make the baptismal covenant with God on behalf of their kids. I will ask them, “Do you believe in God…in Jesus…in the Holy Spirit” and ‘will you commit yourself to the Christian way of life as a member of the Church of Christ?’  Those promises can basically be summed up in the words “Jesus is my Lord, and I will follow him along with my fellow Christians”.

So make that commitment of faith again today. Say the words along with the parents and godparents. And then when we come to communion, dip your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross as a symbol of your faith and commitment to Jesus. And then, when our service is over, you can leave this place with joy, knowing that Jesus is alive, that he is Lord of all, and that your life is in his hands.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.