Giving Up Our Feeble Excuses (a sermon on Matthew 22.1-14)

I suspect that a moment ago, when our gospel reading ended with the words ‘This is the gospel of Christ’, a few of you had difficulty replying ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. You might even be thinking “I was told the word gospel meant ‘good news’. How is it good news that God loses his temper, destroys people and burns their city? How is it good news that people get bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How can that possibly be the gospel of Jesus Christ? It sounds more like Donald Trump on a Tweet storm!”

Usually when we react viscerally to a scripture reading like this, it means we need to find a different way into it. Sometimes when we look at something from a different direction, the view can suddenly be transformed. So instead of taking the role of God’s judge and jury in this reading, maybe we should take a different point of view. Maybe we should put ourselves into the story as the ones who refused the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. Maybe the question we should be asking is “Why do we do that? Why refuse God’s invitation to the greatest joy imaginable to human beings? And what sort of feeble substitutes do we prefer instead?”

Let’s set the scene for a minute. This Gospel reading follows on closely from the second half of Matthew chapter 21. The scene is the temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. The chief priests and elders have come to Jesus where he’s teaching in the temple courts. “Who gave you authority to do this?” they ask.

In reply Jesus reminds them of his baptism by John at the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit filled him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son”. He then begins a series of parables. The first concerns two sons. The father came to each of them and asked them to go work in his vineyard. One of them said he would, but then did nothing about it. The other refused, but later changed his mind and went out to work after all. “Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John”, Jesus said; “They turned away from their sins and accepted his message, but you people did nothing about it, despite all your fine words” (see Matthew 21:23-32).

Then comes a second parable, a well-known one in ancient Israel. A landowner has a vineyard and he lets it out to tenants, hoping for a share of the crop as his rent. “Ah”, the hearers would have thought, “We know this story – it’s in Isaiah! The landowner is God, and the tenants are the leaders and people of Israel”. But then Jesus gives the story a twist: when harvest comes the tenants refuse to pay the rent. When the landowner sends servants, they beat them up, and when he finally sends his son, they kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. Remember, this story is told in the Temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. Let the reader understand!

Jesus ends the story by asking the question, “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Good thinking, priests and elders! Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (see Matthew 21:33-46).

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is the Son of God, sent by God to the tenants of his vineyard, asking for the fruit of holiness and faithfulness. But what does he get instead? Leaders who are in love with their own power. People who assume they’re on the inside track with God, but there’s very little real love of God in their hearts, and very little practice of love in their lives. They have the name of God’s people, but actually they love something else more than God. And because of that, the vineyard will be taken from them and given to someone else. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the message of Jesus had gone out to the Gentile world, and Gentiles were pouring into the church, full of the joy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the majority of the original invitees – Israel – continued to reject Jesus and his message.

And that brings us to today’s parable. A wedding banquet was a common symbol for the kingdom of God in the time of Jesus. This is the marriage of earth and heaven! For so many people God seems far away; his presence is just a dream they long for, not a daily reality! But Jesus has come to change that; he’s come among us to reconcile us with God and one another. Already the work of reconciliation has begun; Jesus has gone to the Cross out of love for all people, forgiving us rather than taking revenge on us. Now the invitations are going out to all the world: Come to the feast! Any day now, it’s going to take place!

In the time of Jesus there were no clocks, so you couldn’t say “Come to the wedding banquet next Saturday at 3.00 p.m.” Preliminary invitations would go out, but when the actual day came people just had to make sure they were ready. When the food was cooked and everything was prepared, the servants would go out again: “The feast is ready – come and enjoy it!”

That’s what happens in Jesus’ story. The original invitees are the people of Israel, and especially their leaders. They know there’s a seat at the banquet for them, ready to be claimed. But when the time actually comes, suddenly they aren’t interested. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (vv.5-6). Luke’s version of the story goes into more detail:

‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come”’ (Luke 14:18-20).

So these are folks who have accepted the original invitation, but when the day arrives, they suddenly find that they have something better to do. Their love for the King and his Son takes second place: there’s business to take care of, land to buy, people to please. God will understand, won’t he?

Let me ask you: who is really being hurt here?

Consider this: Long before anything existed – long before there was even a ‘long before’ – there was God. God has always existed. God is three in one and one in three, a perfect community, full of love and totally satisfied. It’s impossible to imagine God being dependant on us for happiness. God had no needs that God could not take care of. All joy, all love, all life, was in God, to a degree that would fry our brains if we tried to imagine it.

But then God decided to create. And what God created was vast. We can’t even take in the sort of numbers involved. Millions of light years. Billions of stars. Fourteen billion years between the big bang and us. Stars spinning. Planets orbiting. We feeble little humans have only begun to explore it all, even with all our modern scientific knowledge.

This is the God who in joy decides that earth needs five hundred thousand species of beetles! The God who puts the most beautiful creatures on the planet down in the depths of the ocean where it’s totally dark, where no one can see them except him. The God who designed the incredible mystery of DNA. The God who created Mount Robson, who thought dinosaurs were a cool idea, who defies artistic rules and paints the skyline in orange and gold in incredible sunsets.

Wouldn’t you love to know a God like that? I mean, it’s a scary thought, given how much power he must have, but the thought of actually having a relationship with that God – learning from him – living your life in his company – doesn’t it get your heart beating just a little bit faster?

Well, the Bible says, that’s exactly what God wants! That’s exactly why God created you! God wants you to live for all eternity in his presence. He created you for the pleasure of knowing you, and he wants you to have the pleasure of knowing him. And as you begin to know him, you will gradually discover that it’s the most absorbing and thrilling and fulfilling experience you can have in your life. Getting rich can’t compare to it. Being successful can’t compare to it. Sex can’t compare to it. They’re all fleeting and temporary pleasures. What he’s offering is something that starts much more quietly and unobtrusively, but gradually grows into a joy we can’t begin to imagine right now. When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, he’s saying “This is what life is all about. Find this, and you’ll find the very reason you were born. Nothing less than this will satisfy”.

But to be honest, I don’t always believe him.

In a sermon preached during World War Two, C.S. Lewis said these words:

‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

We’re offered the wedding banquet, and we choose the five yoke of oxen instead. I mean, oxen can be cool, but do you really want to choose plodding through a muddy field behind oxen, rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet? Really?

Well, this is me. Maybe it’s you, too, I don’t know, but I know for sure that it’s me.

Let’s get real here. Let me tell you about a conversation that plays itself out in my head from time to time. “I’m late this morning, Lord, and I’ve got work commitments. I’m going to have to take a rain check on prayer this morning”. “Why are you late, Tim?” “Well, I accidentally stayed up too late last night, Lord, and I overslept this morning”. “Why did you stay up late, Tim?” “Um, I’d rather not say, Lord”. “Come on, Tim – are you seriously trying to fool me. You do remember who I am, right?” “Oh – all right, I was on the computer, Lord!” “Doing what, Tim? Reading about the suffering of refugees, or feasting your mind on thrilling theology?” “Er – not exactly…” “Well, then…?” “Oh, if you must know, I was on Facebook! Someone on Facebook was wrong, and I had to correct them!” “And what time did you finish correcting them?” “2 a.m.!”

So who’s suffering in this scenario? Me, of course. I’m the one building the mud pie in the slum. I’m the one choosing the muddy field and the five yoke of oxen rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet.

I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t think God has to cast me into the outer darkness. Usually, I’m the one who casts myself there. I choose the oxen in the muddy field, and then I experience the consequences of it. God doesn’t take away my joy; I can do that all by myself.

So in this parable Jesus is giving us a loving warning: choices have consequences. I’m sorry, Great Big Sea, but there is no such thing as living ‘consequence-free’! If I choose to live my life without taking time each day for prayer, the consequence is going to be that God is a distant rumour to me, not a living Father. If I only go to church on Sunday when I don’t have a better offer, then I’m going to miss out on the consistent experience of listening to the scriptures, praying with God’s people and being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. If I choose the couch and the TV rather than caring for the lonely and cultivating better relationships with my family members, then I’m going to experience more and more loneliness and depression myself.

This is not about fear of punishment. It’s about being offered everlasting joy, and choosing something less than that. I wonder what your favourite joy substitute is? And I wonder how it stacks up against the King’s wedding banquet?

So here’s the challenge. The invitation has been sent out. It’s in your hands and mine. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) or “in all its fullness” as the NIV says. The banquet table is set. Your seat is reserved. Now’s the time to come.

Don’t put it off. Don’t leave it to tomorrow – or when the kids get a bit older – or when you retire and have more time. You have all the time in the world to do the things God is asking you to do.

He does not ask you to do the impossible.  We all have the same number of hours each day; we all make choices about how we use them. The question is not about how I’m going to use next week, or next year, or ten years from now. It’s about what I’m going to do today. Mud pies in a slum, or the joy of the beach and the ocean? Five yoke of oxen in a muddy field, or the wedding banquet of the king? The joy of gradually growing closer to the God whose love keeps all of creation in existence, or the quiet desperation of realizing that my favourite excuse isn’t nearly as attractive as I thought it was?

Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Who knows whether or not they have a tomorrow? I don’t, and neither do you. The only day we have is today. So today, let’s accept the invitation from the king and come to his wedding banquet.

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Selfish Generosity (a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

When Marci and I started our married life, I was working in the parish of Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan. Arborfield was a farming community and Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations reserves. There was a lot of driving involved. On Sundays we had a 10 a.m. service in Arborfield, I went home for a quick lunch, then left at noon for the 1.30 service at Red Earth – that was a 60 mile drive, about 40% of it on gravel roads. After the Red Earth service I then drove another 25 miles on gravel to Shoal Lake for the 3.30 service, after which I drove home just in time for a 6.00 supper. During the week I spent one day in Red Earth and one day in Shoal Lake, so you can imagine that I got to know the inside of my car fairly well!

To get to the two reserves from Arborfield I had to drive through a larger community, Carrot River. A couple of years after we moved to Arborfield a man called Marvin started a Christian bookstore in Carrot River. This was years before Chapters thought of putting a coffee shop in a bookstore, but Marvin always had a pot of coffee on, and I got into the habit of stopping in there from time to time when I was going back and forth to the reserves.

Marvin was always glad to see me and before long he started giving me books for free. It got a little embarrassing after a while. I remember saying to him one day, “Marvin, the Christian bookstore business in Carrot River can’t be very lucrative. You’re never going to make much of a profit if you keep giving me books for free”. And he smiled and said, “I know, but I’m having a lot of fun doing it!”

Marvin, you see, had discovered the secret of selfish generosity.

That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? What do I mean by ‘selfish generosity’? Let’s explore it together for a few minutes.

Our epistle for today is the last part of a unit in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – a church Paul had founded himself a few years before. In these chapters Paul is writing to his friends in Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. If there is one phrase that sums up the theme of these two chapters, it would be ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (9:7). We’re sinful human beings and so our natural tendency is to be grudging givers; Jesus, on the other hand, is working on renovating our hearts, and so he wants us to learn that one of the great secrets to a joyful and happy life is generosity.

When you go home today I would encourage you to read through the whole of 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 to get the context. In these chapters Paul points to Jesus as the great example of gospel generosity: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). He talks about generosity in the context of our total Christian commitment, talking about his friends in the churches in Macedonia and using them as an example for the Corinthians: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (8:5). He talks about the principle of kingdom equality: ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’ (8:15). And he also talks about generosity in poverty: the Macedonian Christians were poor but they gave anyway because they loved to give. In other words, if we wait until we think we can afford it, we’ll probably never start!

Today’s passage comes at the end of the section and our theme is ‘Selfish Generosity’. The question Paul is considering is this: Yes, there’s an obvious payoff for the Jerusalem Christians in the Corinthians’ generosity, but is there a payoff for the Corinthians, too? Is their giving for their benefit as well as Jerusalem’s? Paul thinks it is, and he spells out that payoff in our passage. Listen to verses 6-9:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor, his righteousness endures forever’.

Now I would suggest that this is not the normal way we think of ‘giving to charity’. Suppose I get one of those phone calls from STARS ambulance or cancer research or whatever, asking me for a donation of $100. Now, I’m a selfish human being like anyone else, so my first thought is going to be ‘What had I planned to spend that $100 on?’ I’m in competition with the charity, you see? If I keep the money, it can be of benefit to me. If I give it to them, it will be a benefit to them, which will probably be a good thing, but I won’t get anything out of it.

Paul challenges this way of thinking. The farmer who plants seed in the ground isn’t making a donation, he’s making an investment. The food he’s able to grow will be a benefit to others because they’ll be able to eat and not starve, but it will also be a benefit to the farmer, because it will bring him an income. Paul is challenging me to rethink my perspective on generosity. My gifts to the poor are not a donation; they’re an investment in the work of God’s kingdom. That work will benefit others, but it will also benefit me. I’m not just giving gifts, I’m sowing seeds, and in good time I’ll be able to reap a harvest.

So what exactly are those benefits? Paul points out three things. First, he promises that if we are generous to others, God will provide for our needs as well. In verse 8 he says,

‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And in verses 10-11 he goes on to say,

‘He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’.

Note carefully what Paul says here. He doesn’t make an unconditional promise that God will give us everything we want. In fact, in other places in the New Testament Paul works hard to reduce the list of things we want; in 1 Timothy he says that godliness with contentment is great gain, and he defines contentment as being happy with food and clothing (I think if he’d lived in Alberta he would have added ‘a warm house’ as well!).

So he isn’t saying, ‘If you give generously God will reward you by pandering to your materialistic lifestyle’. Rather, as the New Living Translation puts it in verse 8, ‘God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others’. Do you see God’s priority here? It’s not that I’ll be able to buy an even nicer and more expensive guitar! It’s that I’ll always have enough to provide for my basic needs, and then to continue to be generous to the poor. So it’s not an extravagant payoff, but it is a payoff!

So the first benefit is a promise that God will provide for our needs too. The second benefit is the enduring benefit of a righteous character. In verse 9 he quotes from Psalm 112, which talks about the righteous person:

‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever’.

The Bible has a lot to say about the difference between a benefit that is only temporary and one that lasts forever. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out with us – nothing material, that is. You’ve heard the story of the two millionaires who were discussing a friend of theirs, also a millionaire, who had died recently. One of them said, “I wonder how much he left?” The other replied, “Everything!” When we stand face to face before our maker, the size of the bank account that our relatives are fighting over won’t make a bit of difference. What will make a difference is our righteous character.

And what does righteousness mean? This quote from Psalm 112 makes it clear that it includes generosity to the poor. ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. It’s not just about doing our best never to harm anyone; as someone once said, ‘a fence post can be a good Christian by that standard’! It’s about practical love for those who really need it. If we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the kind of people whose greatest joy is to be generous toward those who are in need, that is a benefit that will be with us forever.

Think about it for a minute; everyone thinks that when they die, they want to go to heaven. But what sort of a place is heaven? In heaven there’s no selfishness, no greed, no ownership of any kind. What kind of person can enjoy that sort of place? Can a selfish and greedy person enjoy it? Isn’t it more true to say that a selfish and greedy person who went to heaven would find it to be hell? So shouldn’t we consider it an urgent priority to ask God to change our hearts so that we can be the kind of people who will find heaven to be heaven and not hell?

Are you beginning to see how generosity can be a real benefit to us? I hope you are.

Paul has pointed out two benefits to us: God will provide for our needs, and we will have the lasting benefit of a righteous character, which will make us the kind of people who can arrive in God’s eternal kingdom and actually enjoy it! But there’s a third thing: the benefit of the prayers of those we have helped. Look at verse 14:

‘…while they (that is, the Christians in Jerusalem) long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

Actually, there are two sides to this. In verse 12 Paul refers to prayers of thanksgiving, and in verse 14 to prayers of intercession. It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind. This wonderful gift arrives in Jerusalem, and the poor Christians there are filled with joy, because they realize that they aren’t going to starve after all. “Thank you, God, for those wonderful Christians over in Corinth!” they say; “Thank you for their love and generosity. Please bless them and give them all they need, and help them grow as followers of Jesus too”.

The most wonderful gift anyone can give us is to pray for us. As I sit at the front of the church week by week, I listen to our intercessors leading the prayers of the people, and they all do such a great job. I’m especially grateful to those who pray for me and for my family as part of their prayers. And I’m grateful for my Mum, who prays for me every night; I send her my calendar every week and I know she uses it in her prayers and asks God to bless the specific things I’m doing in this parish. And she always asks me if there’s anyone else in this parish she can pray for. You can’t put a dollar value on that; it’s priceless.

So, here are three benefits Paul points out to us: this is the payoff for our growth as joyful givers. First, God will provide for our needs too, so that we can continue to be generous. Second, we’ll be growing in righteous character, so that when we finally arrive in God’s Kingdom we’ll be the kind of people who can enjoy it, rather than finding it to be hell on earth. Thirdly, when the poor receive our gifts their hearts will overflow with thanksgiving to God and with prayers for us, and those prayers are worth more than a million dollars in the bank.

So what is our response? Let me close by pointing out to you the three things that Paul recommends to us.

First, he recommends that we give generously. Verse 6 says, ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. This is obvious: if the farmer wants a big crop he has to scatter a lot of seeds; if he only plants a little, he’s only going to have a small crop.

A word of caution here, though. A rich person may give more dollars than a poor person, but the gift is no sacrifice to them, because they’re still giving from their spare change. The point is not how much we give, but how much we have left over. Generous giving is sacrificial giving, giving that means there are things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of it. That’s what Paul is recommending.

The first guideline is to give generously. The second is to give freely. Verse 7 says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’. It’s possible to give generously with the hand but to continue to grasp the gift with your heart, and to wish you’d never given it. That sort of generosity may be a benefit to the recipient, but it won’t be a benefit to the giver. Note what Paul is saying here: no one can judge another Christian for how much they give. It’s true that in the Old Testament 10% is the standard, but what’s important is not a legalistic attachment to percentages – what’s important is that my heart is transformed so that I become the sort of person whose greatest joy is generosity. When that happens, percentages will be unimportant; I’ll be giving all the time because it brings me joy.

And that leads to the third guideline: give generously, give freely, and give cheerfully. Verse seven says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. God isn’t trying to make us all into miserable people who can’t even buy an ice cream cone for ourselves without feeling guilty about all the poor people who could have been helped by that $3.50! No – God is longing to increase our joy! He wants to make us happier, more cheerful people, and he knows that generosity is an infallible way to do that!

Do you want to have more joy in your life? Do you want a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to be able to go to sleep at night with a sense of joy in having made a real difference in the lives of people? Well, sisters and brothers, God wants that for you as well! Here’s an infallible rule: misers are miserable (funny how the two words are related!), but generous people are full of joy. So not just for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit too, let’s pray that God the Holy Spirit will change our selfish hearts into generous hearts. Will you pray that for me? I’ll pray it for you, too, and then we can continue to work on it together.

Who Does Jesus Think He Is? (a sermon on Matthew 21:23-32)

On Friday night we had the opening service of our diocesan synod at All Saints’ Cathedral. Earlier in the evening in the foyer of the cathedral there was a lot of activity – registration tables, a light supper, some displays and information for delegates to take in. People were milling around, many of them rather smartly dressed, and as we got closer to the starting time some people in robes started to appear. There was the bishop, wearing her cope and mitre, obviously a rather important person. Eventually the service began with an opening procession into the cathedral – the choir, the leading clergy of the Diocese, followed by the bishop. In processions like this, the person who comes last is always the most important person, and in this case there was no doubt who was in charge!

Now – imagine that about half an hour before the service a well-known religious rebel comes into the cathedral foyer. He’s not ordained, has never been to any seminaries, doesn’t have any official position in the Diocese of Edmonton, but he’s got a name for clever teaching and spending time with the poor and needy. Imagine he sets up a display in the foyer with a microphone and starts addressing the people as they come in to register for synod. He just assumes he’s got the right to do this, even though he hasn’t asked permission beforehand. Pretty soon a huge crowd is gathering around because he’s a good speaker and he knows how to get their attention. Before long no one is paying any attention to anything else going on, and archdeacons and cathedral deans are looking nervously at their watches, wondering when he’s going to stop so that they can begin the opening service of Synod. And the question on the minds of all the people in authority is the natural one: Who does this guy think he is, waltzing in here like this and taking over our Synod service?

And that’s the question in the back of people’s minds in our gospel for today. We’re close to the end of Jesus’ ministry; the cross is only four days away. For months rumours about Jesus have been buzzing around. He’s a wonderful teacher who can hold the attention of an enormous crowd. He’s got the common touch; ordinary people love listening to him. He’s done hundreds of amazing miracles, healing sick people and even raising the dead. He’s broken all sorts of barriers, spending time with women and children and Roman soldiers and tax collectors and sinners.

So who does he think he is? A lot of people see him as a prophet, sent by God with a message for Israel at this point in her history, but some of the leaders see him as a false prophet, trying to make a name for himself and leading Israel astray. A true prophet wouldn’t be so soft on outcasts and sinners like Jesus is! Some people are even using the word ‘Messiah’ – the king like David who would set God’s people free from their enemies and establish God’s righteous kingdom on earth. But Jesus wasn’t behaving like a politician or a king; he wasn’t raising an army or proposing policies or leading a rebellion against the Romans. He himself used the term ‘Son of Man’ for himself – a very ambiguous phrase. It might just mean ‘human being’, but in the book of Daniel there’s a mysterious passage about ‘one like a Son of Man’ who comes before the throne of God and is rewarded with power and authority and an everlasting dominion over all the people on earth. Is that who Jesus thinks he is? And if it is, is he quite right in the head?

Then comes what we now call ‘Palm Sunday’. Jesus and his disciples are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover; they’ve been gathering a crowd as they’ve made the journey from the north, and when they get to Jerusalem Jesus stages a triumphal entry into the city right out of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Zechariah 9:9).

So Jesus rides into the city on a donkey’s colt; his disciples cut palm branches and shout ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ A huge crowd gathers to greet him. Once he’s in the city he goes straight to the Temple and totally disrupts it; he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out all the buyers and sellers, quoting Jeremiah to them: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 20:13).

And for some reason the authorities do nothing. Maybe it’s the presence of the huge crowd; maybe they sense that if they try to oppose this popular young prophet, they might be taking their lives in their hands, even though there are Roman guards to back them up, just a stone’s throw away in the Fortress Antonia. The last thing they want is a riot in the temple courts; the Romans will not be pleased if that happens. So the leaders fume, and do nothing.

And now it’s Monday morning, and this insufferable young man is back in the Temple again! There’s already a crowd there, but the leaders can’t restrain themselves any longer. There he is, sitting down in the Temple courts with a huge crowd listening as he teaches them. He’s acting as if he owns the place! So the chief priests – the ones who really own the place! – march up to him and ask the question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23).

Now, you’ve been listening to Jesus for a while in this church. Tell me, how likely is he to give a direct answer to a direct question? Not very likely, right?

Except here, there’s method in his madness. You see, the question they really want to ask him is “Are you the Messiah?” If they can get him to say, ‘Yes’, then the Romans will be on board with their agenda right away, because ‘Messiah’ is a political word. The King who sets God’s people free and restores justice and righteousness to Israel is not a popular idea among the oppressors! Any would-be Messiah is deadly dangerous, and the Romans had a lot of practice in crucifying them without mercy.

So what they really want Jesus to say – in public, with hundreds of witnesses – is “You ask me by what authority I’m doing this? Well, duh! Can’t you see? I’m the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king of Israel. God has sent me to set his people free. And you know what, I just happen to be a descendant of the royal house of David, so that’s a nice piece of serendipity, isn’t it?”

But Jesus is too smart by far to do that. He knows there’s a cross ahead for him, but not yet; he’s got a few more things he wants to say and do first, so he’s not about to deliver himself into their hands.

And so he says, “Let me ask you a question in return. When John the Baptist was baptizing people – was that just something he made up out of his own head, or was it God’s work? Was his baptism from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

I can imagine the chief priests and elders looking around nervously at the crowd. John the Baptist had been a very popular figure, and most of the common people saw him as a true prophet of God. But he had been arrested and executed by King Herod Antipas, who was in bed with the Romans, and this had left a very bad taste in most people’s mouths. For the chief priests and elders to denounce John as a false prophet in front of that whole crowd might have been to sign their own death warrant. Jerusalem crowds could be very volatile, and who know whether Jesus would stir them up or not?

So answering their question with this question was a very smart move on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t just arbitrary. He had a personal connection with John the Baptist. If you remember back at the beginning of the gospel story, Jesus had joined the crowd around John at the Jordan River, and had gone down into the water himself to be baptized. And do you remember what happened when he came up out of the water? Yes, the Holy Spirit came down and rested on him, ‘anointing’ him with God’s power and authority for his ministry. The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. So if Jesus truly is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, then John the Baptist is the one through whom the anointing came. So if the chief priests and elders could not recognize the authority of John – if they couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he might have been speaking for God – then they were unlikely to be able to recognize the authority of Jesus either.

But there’s another piece of evidence Jesus is ready to point to, and so he tells the little story of the two sons. Their father goes to the first son and says “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “No way!” the young man replies – but later on he changes his mind and goes. The father then goes to his second son. “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “Sure!” the young man replies – but does nothing about it. His obedience is all words, not actions.

“You guys are like that second son”, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders. “John the Baptist came to you in righteousness with a challenge from God – to repent – but you ignored him. But these tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and they turned from their sins and turned to God because of his preaching. They’re like that first son, the one who refused to obey but later changed his mind and went. And that’s how we know that John’s ministry was from God: he touched the lives of people and brought transformation”.

And this is where this parable hits home for us today, isn’t it?

After all, we believe in Jesus. We’re pretty sure we’ve got the right answer to that question “By what authority are you doing these things?” We know who he is! In our epistle for today Paul says,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

By what authority is he doing these things? By the authority of God! We know that in Jesus God has come among us in a unique and powerful way. When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of God through him. This is what we Christians believe. In a few moments we’ll stand up together and announce it yet again: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord”.

And we’ve heard his word of grace. Remember, ‘grace’ is the Bible word for God’s unconditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. We’re not disqualified from it because our skin’s the wrong colour or we were born in the wrong country. This ‘amazing grace’ comes even to ‘a wretch like me’ – even though I fall far short of God’s plan for me. I might not look outwardly like one of those tax collectors and prostitutes, but there are lots of less visible ways that I haven’t loved God with all my heart and my neighbour as myself.

But that’s okay. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What we’ve done – or failed to do – in the past does not disqualify us from receiving God’s invitation. God starts with everyone right where they are. “Come to me”, he says, and that invitation goes out to everyone.

But we do have to come. We can’t just sit there and say, “Isn’t it wonderful? God sent Jesus to call us back to him! He’s the real Messiah, you know!” – and then do nothing about it!

This is particularly important for those of us here who have made baptismal promises – and most of us here have made those promises, either at our own baptisms or someone else’s. In those promises we committed ourselves to turning away from sin and evil. We said we would turn to Jesus, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and follow him as our Lord. In other words, his teaching and example would be the pattern for our lives, and we would commit ourselves to learning to follow that pattern – always knowing that when we failed, his forgiving love would be ready there to catch us.

But here’s the danger for liturgical Christians like us: these words on the page can be – well, just words on the page. We can say them with our lips, but not believe them in our hearts or live them out in our lives. And if we do that, they’re not really worth anything.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about people who try to follow Jesus and fail – we all do that. I’m talking about people who mouth words with their lips but have no intention of practising them. People who stand for the gospel reading on Sunday and say ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ when they hear the words of Jesus, but then go out on Monday with a knowing smile and say to themselves “Well, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t really work in the business world, does it?” Or, “I’ll get to it one day – but today is not that day!”

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? Who is the wise man who builds his house on the rock? Just the one who hears the words of Jesus, or recites them? No: the one “who hears these words of mine and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24). May God give us grace today to do that.

Suffering and Joy (a sermon on Philippians 1:12-26)

In John Ortberg’s book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, I found a story written by a pastor named Tom Schmidt. Tom was visiting regularly in a convalescent hospital where he got to know a remarkable woman. Here’s how he tells the story:

‘As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and the white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was nearly deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discoloured and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly… I learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

‘I don’t know why I spoke to her – she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day”. She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know; I’m blind”.

‘I said, “Of course”, and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus”.

‘That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. Later I wheeled her back to her room and learned more about her history. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died. Then she ran the farm alone until 1950 when her blindness and sickness sent her to the convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and sicker, with constant headaches, backaches and stomach aches, and then the cancer came too. Her three room-mates…screamed occasionally but never talked. They often soiled their bedclothes, and because the hospital was understaffed… the stench was often overpowering.

‘Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box near her bed. Some days I would read to her from the Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns…

‘During one hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about – hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?” And she said, “I think about my Jesus”.

‘I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately… “I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know… I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied… Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me”…

‘How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it? The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power’.

This story is an extreme case, but the experience behind it is not uncommon. Many pastors could tell stories of visiting dying people and coming away with their own faith strengthened; the dying ministered to their pastors, rather than the other way around! Apparently Christ can take hold of a person in the midst of suffering and somehow transform them, giving them joy where we would have expected only pain and despair – not by taking the suffering away, but by somehow lifting them above the suffering into his presence.

This was the case with the Apostle Paul toward the end of his life. His letter to the Philippians was probably written from Rome, where he was in prison for preaching the Gospel. His Christian friends in Philippi heard about this; they were concerned, and so they sent a messenger, Epaphroditus, with a gift of money to help Paul provide for his own needs. But Epaphroditus had gotten sick and stayed in Rome a lot longer than expected. Now he was recovered and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with a letter to thank and encourage his friends there – and also, being Paul, to teach them a bit!

Paul can hear the questions in their minds: “If God is in charge, why has he let Paul by arrested? What happens if Paul is executed? Is his message about Jesus really true?” He wants to reassure them that God is in control, and all will be well – not in a sense of ‘whistling in the dark’, but rather of looking into the darkness without fear and finding Christ there.

He starts our reading today in a strange way. He’s basically saying to them, ‘All the bad things you heard about my situation are true – but don’t worry, because they can’t take away my joy!’ There are three kinds of suffering he’s experiencing.

First, in verses 12-14 he says, ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m in prison’. Remember, this is a travelling missionary speaking here – someone who loves nothing better than moving around from place to place telling the story of Jesus to new people. But now he’s in prison so he can’t travel any more. Can you imagine the frustration? How can the Gospel spread when he can’t travel to spread it?

But Paul isn’t frustrated, because God has the last laugh here. First, Paul says, all the guards here know that I’m in prison for Christ, so the Gospel has gotten a much higher profile in the army because of my imprisonment. And if you ask, “How do all the guards know that?” the answer’s obvious, isn’t it? They know because Paul told them! Every time the shift changed a new captive audience arrived to hear the Gospel! Paul must have loved it! He wasn’t going to the world; the world was coming to him!

And that’s not all, he says; the other Christians here have seen that the Lord has strengthened me in my suffering, and they’ve gotten more confident in what he can do for them, too. So they’ve been speaking out more boldly, spreading the Gospel to their friends and neighbours. The Romans may have jailed the missionary, but the Gospel isn’t in jail!

So he’s in prison, but he’s enjoying himself. Another thing that’s happening is that other missionaries are getting a higher profile than he is; he talks about this in verses 15-18. He knows that there’s no such thing in this sinful world as completely pure motivation; even his own motivation isn’t completely pure. It seems that there were other Christian preachers who were jealous of Paul’s success and were competing with him. Now he’s in prison they’re delighted, and they even send word to him about their successes, just to rub it in. “Messenger from Aristarchus, Paul – ‘I preached at the forum today and five hundred were converted’”. Aristarchus expects Paul to be jealous, but instead Paul thanks God. The Gospel is being passed on, even if the motivation leaves a lot to be desired.

But then there’s a third thing, the most sinister of all: there’s a real possibility that he might be executed. He talks about this in verses 18-26. There’s a good chance the Romans will decide that he might be better off dead. And Paul agrees with them: he would be better off dead! To depart, he says, would be ‘to be with Christ’ – not that he isn’t ‘with Christ’ now, but dying would usher him into a more immediate experience of Christ’s presence – and no more whippings, no more imprisonments, no more long and lonely journeys. “Wow!” he thinks; “Bring it on! Living is Christ and dying is gain!”

Paul knows this isn’t an exhaustive list of the kinds of suffering people can face; he doesn’t mention bereavement, for instance, or physical illness. He knew about physical illness, of course; in his letter to the Galatians he mentions how an illness had first brought him to Galatia to preach the Gospel, and God had brought good out of that, too! He isn’t claiming to have suffered everything there is to suffer. Rather, what he’s saying is “This is what I’ve suffered, and the good news is that I’ve found it can’t quench the joy of the Lord”.

So – ‘All the bad things are true, my friends, but I’m still rejoicing in Christ. And more than that, here’s what I want you to know: the only thing that really matters is knowing, serving, and exalting the Lord Jesus Christ’.

The verse that sums it all up is verse 21: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’. This is the kind of language lovers use about each other, isn’t it? ‘As long as we have each other nothing else matters; we can be happy even if we’re dirt poor’. And it’s true; they can!

That’s how Paul felt about Christ. He says in chapter three, ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings’. He doesn’t say “I want to know about Christ” but “I want to know Christ”.

Another of his characteristic phrases is the idea that we’re ‘in’ Christ and Christ is ‘in’ us. This is mystical language, describing the closest possible connection between the risen Lord and his people. How is it possible? It’s possible because God has given us the Holy Spirit to connect us to the Risen Jesus.

This is the way for us to discover joy in the midst of our sufferings: to cultivate this union with Christ. It’s not just about a feeling somewhere in our gut. When Paul decided that living is Christ, that also meant taking on Christ’s priorities. Those priorities didn’t involve him becoming rich, or living a life of ease. They meant living a penniless life as a missionary, travelling around the world, and going through suffering for Christ’s sake.

For me to experience the truth that ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’ is incredible comfort but also incredible challenge. In his first letter, the old apostle John says, ‘By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 John 2:6). Seeking first the Kingdom of God, living a simple and generous life, forgiving and loving our enemies, keeping our hearts pure – this is the road we’re learning to walk on. As we walk it together, that’s when we discover that living is Christ and dying is gain. We won’t discover that if we live in greed, materialism, and pride.

That was the source of Mabel’s strength. All she had was Jesus, and Jesus was enough. She was like a cancer-stricken woman Archbishop George Carey visited when he was a young priest. The woman greeted him with a smile and said, “Don’t look so worried; I’m only dying!”

Let me finish by noting how Paul’s view was different from two views that were popular in his day, and are still around today.

In Paul’s day the Stoics said, ‘Life is tough, but it’s short. Suffering comes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the will of the gods, and all you can do is resign yourself to it, square your shoulders and look forward to extinction. All we are is dust in the wind’.

On the other hand, the Epicureans said, ‘There’s no time to think about suffering – there are too many parties to go to! Have a good time, eat, drink, sleep with the girls, and rock on as if life will never end. Who knows – maybe it won’t!’

One approach pretends there’s no suffering, and when it comes these folks are outraged and see it as an insult and a denial of their right to happiness. The other approach is absorbed in suffering, faces it squarely, but sees no hope, only resignation.

Paul’s view is dramatically different. Suffering is real: people get unjustly imprisoned, their life’s work is taken from them, they lose their loved ones, and they could even lose their own lives. But Paul looks right into the heart of all that darkness, and what does he find there? The light of Christ who went through the suffering of the Cross and came to the glory of the resurrection.

So the conclusion of the matter is not, ‘Know Christ and you’ll be preserved from all suffering’. It’s ‘Know Christ, focus on Christ, serve Christ, see Christ as your greatest treasure – and you’ll be able to have joy in him in the midst of suffering’. This is what Paul experienced. This is what Mabel experienced. And when my time comes, I want to experience it too.

‘For me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (v.21). The challenge of this verse for me is this: how absorbed am I in Jesus, and the God who he revealed to us? Is knowing and loving Jesus the great story of my life? Is following him the thing I love most? If it is, then, like Mabel, I may be surprised one day to discover that when it’s my turn to go through the valley of the shadow of death, I will ‘fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4).

Unlimited Forgiveness (a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of telling the world about it we should go to them quietly, raise the issue and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). Probably what’s in view here is a situation where we’ve gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt and asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, who’s in view here? Our NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘my brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

The second item of definition is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the emotions, but that wasn’t the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the ‘bowels’; in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is often a metaphor for the choices, the will – the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness is not first of all about healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving way toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus.

What does it look like? Well, Paul spells it out for us in Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse – whether we feel like it or not.

So Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which of course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit – he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry, and I’m determined never to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough; any reasonable person would agree.

Jesus’ response to Peter is to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together. Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in many different ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help someone else. I live in luxury while the majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on a regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis. I’m not always conscientious about keeping my word. I don’t reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It’s overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that’s exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master didn’t give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? It’s a ridiculous idea, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us today? So often, we’re so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we’re debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we’re really asking is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I’m doing? We humans have an incredible capacity to mess things up! The reality is that change is very hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Yes, change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

But this is the wonder of the Christian gospel: God doesn’t answer my prayer! He doesn’t give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer like this: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Have you? No – every day, up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer seems to have been answered. That’s what ‘grace’ means: love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an enormous sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longer”.

Why would the slave refuse to forgive in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we’re going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of what we deserve, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Remember, we’re not talking about the healing of hurts here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action, to be a blessing to them. Jesus doesn’t specify what form the love should take in a given situation. He doesn’t say, for instance, that a woman being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

I want to say that if you struggle with this, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. God knows that the person who says “I know I should forgive, and I’m doing my best, but there are days when I find it very hard” is in a very different spiritual position from the person who says “That SOB has it coming to him; he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I will never, ever forgive him, no matter what the Gospel says. I want revenge, and it’s my right”. The first person is trying hard to do what Jesus commands, and often failing. The second person is refusing even to try. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of God’s forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I’m in debt to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love others as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us.

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

‘If Your Brother or Sister Sins Against You…’ (a sermon on Matthew 18:15-20)

I want to begin my sermon this morning by saying that I don’t like conflict and I don’t handle it well.

If someone does something or says something that hurts me, the last thing I want to do is go and talk to them about it. I’d much rather go and complain to someone else about it! I’d much rather blacken the other person’s name to my friends and family members. I’d much rather start a little gossip campaign against them. It’s so much easier to talk about the person who has hurt me with people I like, rather than going to talk to the person face to face.

I know I’m not alone in this. Very few of us do a good job of handling conflict. Some of us blow up, lose our temper at the other person, and vent our spleen on them. Some of us clam up: we hold it all inside, probably making ourselves sick in the process, especially if this is our habitual response to conflict. Some of us spread the poison around, talking to everyone else except the person in question. But very, very few of us actually follow Jesus’ instructions set out for us in today’s gospel reading.

Why is that? Well, I can think of a few reasons in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned.

There are some cultural barriers between this text and our modern twenty-first century world. One of them is the existence of something called ‘personal privacy’. This didn’t exist in the ancient world. Most families lived in small houses in close proximity to each other; private life was impossible. No one ever said anything like “That’s none of your business”, because everyone’s behaviour effected everyone else. Extended families were intimately involved in every detail of each other’s lives.

And churches were too. The early Christians took it for granted that when you decided to follow Jesus, you were joining a fellowship in which people looked out for each other and helped each other follow Jesus. No one in the early church thought it was unusual or offensive for someone to take a fellow-Christian aside and talk to them about something they were doing that didn’t fit with the teaching of Jesus. That was called ‘admonishing one another’, and it was an accepted part of being a Christian in those days; it’s mentioned in several places in the New Testament.

Also, ‘the church’ in those days wasn’t an institution with large buildings and congregations. Most Christian congregations met in houses, which meant they were small. Most of them weren’t led by full-time professional priests; they were led by teams of elders who earned their living in the normal way and worked together to care for the church in their spare time. A group of maybe twenty people would know each other intimately and would have been through a lot together. So if a group of Christians from the same congregation got together to admonish a couple of people to quit quarrelling and be reconciled with one another, this would carry a lot of weight, but it would also be a much less institutional thing than it might be today.

It’s important for us to recognize these cultural differences. Nowadays we live in a different world. ‘Mind your own business’ has become a non-negotiable; I have a right to decide what I want to do with my life, and no one else has the right to talk to me about it. And people have so much more choice anyway; if they’re excommunicated by their congregation they can easily leave it and join another one.

We can’t just pretend none of this matters. For instance, our church isn’t set up to deal with the sort of procedure Jesus describes here. If a couple of people brought their interpersonal conflict to our wardens and vestry, we wouldn’t have any sort of process in place to deal with it; we just don’t expect that sort of thing to happen.

So how do we put into practice the teaching of Jesus in our very different culture today? Well, let’s take another look at what he has to say.

The first half of verse 15, in our church bibles, quotes Jesus as saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault, when the two of you are alone”. I note in passing that this not a very helpful translation of what Matthew actually wrote in Greek. Our NRSV pew Bibles try to avoid using words like ‘brother’ and ‘he’ in order to be inclusive, but what Matthew actually wrote here was “If your brother sins against you”. ‘Member of the church’ sounds far too institutional; we Christians are sisters and brothers to each other, and that’s why conflict is such a huge issue – it splits up the family. So I’m going to use the words ‘brother or sister’, which is how the NIV 2011 translates this passage, rather than ‘church member’.

So what instructions does Jesus give us here? Well, first, Jesus assumes that there will be problems in the church. He says, “If your brother or sister sins against you”, and he gives no indication that he thinks this will be unusual. After all, I’m a sinner and I often fall short of God’s standards; I hurt God and I hurt my fellow human beings by the things that I do. And churches are full of people just like me. So why should we be surprised when there is conflict in the church? We’re not surprised when we find sick people in hospital, so why should we be surprised to find sinners in church? Sins and conflicts will always be present in Christian churches. The question is – how will we handle them?

Second, Jesus says “Go to your brother”, “Go to your sister”. In other words, don’t try to avoid the issue; face straight into it. Don’t speak about your brother or sister to someone else; speak to your brother or sister about what has happened. Why? Because when we complain about someone to a third party, we’re treating them like an enemy and we’re trying to build an alliance against them. An enemy is someone we talk about; a brother or sister in Christ is someone we talk to.

And do it ‘when the two of you are alone’. Why? Because it reduces the temperature. If we’re at a meeting and you ambush me with a complaint I didn’t see coming, I’m going to be on the defensive and I’m going to try to win, because you’re embarrassing me in front of other people. But if we’re alone together and you raise the issue, gently but honestly, it might still be threatening to me but the embarrassment factor is much lower.

This conversation we’re initiating with the other person may go in a direction that surprises us. We start with the objective of being heard, but once a conversation has begun, there may be learning on both sides. The other person may have had no idea what was going on. They may have been completely unintentional in what they did and not be aware that it hurt us at all.

But there may be learning for us too. In this passage Jesus talks about us having something against our brother or sister, but in Matthew 5 it’s the other way around: “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). This is a two-way thing. In our conversation, we may discover we’ve been misinterpreting what the other person said or did. Or we may discover that they have complaints to make against us as well things we weren’t aware of that we need to recognize and deal with. So already the conversation is a healing thing.

Well – sometimes. But of course, the visit won’t always be a success. So the third thing we see is that Jesus lays out a process for dealing with unresolved conflict. If the person doesn’t listen to us the first time, we’re to try again, only this time we’re to ‘take one or two others along’ with us, ‘so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses’ (v.16). They aren’t witnesses to the original offence; they’re witnesses to the conversation going on between us and the person we’re confronting. They give an objective view; perhaps they help us see that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, or perhaps they help persuade the other person of the seriousness of the situation.

If that doesn’t work, Jesus commands us to ‘tell it to the church’; in New Testament times, remember, this would have been a little house church. The congregation gathers together, I can state my case, the other person can respond, and the congregation as a whole can weigh the matter. Jesus assures them that they won’t be doing this alone. In verse 18 he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”, and in verse 20 he goes on, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. This isn’t just about us, you see: it’s about Jesus and his Body. The New Testament tells us the Church is his Body and each of us a member of it. Our conflicts aren’t just private matters; they damage the Body of Christ and tear it apart. So Jesus is intimately involved in this whole process.

Think of some of the church meetings you’ve been at: ones that deal with buildings and finances, for instance. Imagine the difference it would have made if everyone present would have remembered that where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is among them. We’re sitting there in our circle, dealing with our issue, and Jesus is sitting quietly among us, listening, knowing that each person present is a child of God and loved by God. Do you think that would make a difference to the way we do things?

I think it would make two differences. First, it would encourage us to ask for his guidance more. When we’re dealing with a difficult issue, surely we shouldn’t be afraid of stopping the discussion for a few minutes and saying, “Now let’s all wait in silence on the Lord and ask him to give us his perspective on this”. Even with business matters, like a budget or a building plan, we need to do this more often.

But it would also make another difference: I think we would be more gentle with each other. Would we use hurtful and insulting language, or be dismissive and ignore the views of others, if we could see Jesus sitting among us? But surely by faith we know he is sitting with us; that’s exactly what he promises us in this passage. He’s not just with us when we worship and share Holy Communion; he’s here when we meet together to talk things over as well.

Back to our process. The fourth and final step is hard for us to hear: Jesus recognizes that by refusing to listen, the offender has placed themselves outside the Christian community. In verse 17 he says, “if the offender refuses even to listen to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.

That’s a difficult statement, and it’s also ambiguous. Tax collectors and Gentiles weren’t allowed inside the synagogues; Jesus is stating that the offending party has demonstrated their contempt for the Christian community and so should be ejected from it – what later came to be called ‘excommunication’. Excommunication was practiced in all the early Christian communities, and it was common practice through Christian history for a very long time.

So refusal to be reconciled was something Jesus took very seriously, and through the centuries most Christians have taken it seriously too. And yet, when we read his words about Gentiles and tax collectors, we must ask ourselves, ‘How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors?’ He actually spent so much time with them that the religious establishment criticized him for being soft on crime! So while Jesus recognizes that a break has to be made, he still doesn’t see the offender as the enemy. They’re more like a lost sheep, and he’s the good shepherd who will always be going out to find them and bring them home.

Obviously, as I said at the beginning, there are real challenges for us in the modern Anglican church about putting Jesus’ words here into practice. But whatever the specific details, there can be no doubt about the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here. So what are we going to do about it?

There are some things we can do right now. We can repent of our bad temper, our bitterness and resentment, our gossip and talking about people behind their backs. We can resolve that if we have something against someone our first action will be to go and talk to that person alone, instead of talking to everyone else about them. When someone comes to talk to us in this way, we can resolve to learn to listen carefully rather than getting defensive and denying everything. And we can remember that this passage is immediately followed by one that deals with forgiveness, which ought to tell us what Jesus has in mind when our sister or brother apologizes to us.

So as I draw to a close, let’s ask ourselves, “Are we living by this teaching Jesus has given us?” And if the answer is, “Well, not always”, then let’s pray that God would help us grow a culture of honesty, love, repentance and reconciliation in our church. After all, that’s part of what it means to be the Church – a community of Christians learning to follow Jesus together. May God grant us grace to be reconciled to one another as Jesus has commanded us. Amen.

Steering into the Skid (a sermon on Matthew 16:21-28)

Looking around the congregation this morning I see that quite a few of you are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, but somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?

There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car: do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you’d lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a better way to regain control of your car.

Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told! Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.

This is a problem Christians have to face all the time. So often in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?

This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was the right answer and he told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.

Remember: in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem. He would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.

So if Jesus is the Messiah, what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up some more supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we’ll have peace and justice forever. This is how God’s kingdom will come. This is how we will ‘gain the whole world’ (v.26).

But Jesus has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:

‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).

This is really ‘steering into the skid’, isn’t it! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter thinks he needs to set him straight: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (v.24). But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and he says them to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv.22-23).

What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh?

I think it was because it wasn’t the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. This wasn’t just about praying to the devil. This was about becoming like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing, and all for the love of power. And this was a real temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?

The reason it would be wrong is that the Kingdom Jesus came to announce isn’t founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you’re faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. In effect Jesus was saying, “Trust me, people; steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.

This is the challenging thing for us today as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (vv.24-26).

Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he’d never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them, not resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.

It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus is saying “This is the way to really find life”. You think you’ll find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You won’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid – even though it feels totally wrong to do so – and to your surprise things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we’re baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we’re signing up for. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3).  It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.

How do we practice this in our daily lives? We’re not likely to be crucified for our allegiance to Jesus, so what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?

I think two things. First, it means not being ashamed of him. It means not being ashamed to identify ourselves as his followers, not being ashamed to say “Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus”.

Personally, I think it’s important to go further than just identifying ourselves as churchgoers. The Church is an institution, but Jesus is the Son of God, the one we follow as our Saviour and Lord. He’s the one who has revealed God to us. I think it’s important for us to identify with him personally. I’m not a Church-follower; I’m a Jesus-follower, someone who’s learning to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as he taught it.

Secondly, it means that if we get into trouble because of our loyalty to Jesus, we respond with love, not belligerence. There’s a lot of belligerence out there these days, especially in social media. It’s not just the new atheists; there seem to be many people who are angry at the Church, at organized religion, at the people they see as ‘hypocrites’ who go to church but don’t practice what they preach. Identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, and sooner or later these folks will come out of the woodwork.

It doesn’t help for us to respond in kind, and it doesn’t remind people of the Jesus we’re claiming to follow. Jesus has told us clearly how to respond: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Take it up; don’t throw it back at them. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).

This is the commitment we make as Christians; this is the price we pay for our allegiance to Jesus. We don’t tend to talk much about this in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I don’t think we do people any favours by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown over and over again that churches that aren’t afraid to challenge their members – to call them to commitment – tend to be the ones that grow.

Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it’s going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. Jesus is looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.

I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. And it’s true: some people do treat church like that. Yes, let’s go on Sunday once or twice a month; that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church”. That should be enough for God, surely! But we don’t like this talk about total commitment. After all, we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!

In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us that following him will cost everything and give everything. His call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what people say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you won’t regret it. On the contrary: you’ll find your true life.

You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out “Stop!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let’s take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. He assures us that we will find it to be the way of life and blessing, so let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.