There are some interesting and important angles on the Christian life in today’s readings.
In the Romans passage this morning St Paul refers to the commandments – you shall not commit adultery, steal, murder, covet. Personally I find these relatively easy to keep. I do not covet that flash BMW parked across the road and I would certainly never steal it even if I did. I have never seriously contemplated murder and adultery isn’t even on my radar! But the next bit “Love your neighbour as yourself” sometimes that is the really hard part I find. Be honest, don’t you, at least sometimes?
But what a wonderful World it would be if everyone really followed the new Commandment Jesus gave to his disciples and to us. If everyone loved their fellow human beings as themselves. If everyone thought about others’ needs and interests, how great it would be, how easy it would be to love one another. If everybody followed Jesus example, there would be no conflict, no war, no terrorism, no family disputes, no misery. Everyone would live in peace and harmony.
Do you remember the old John Lennon song “Imagine”? Bits of it make no sense to me at all, I certainly do not wish to imagine there is no heaven and above us only sky. I would not want to be without my faith. How could either of these ideas make me happy? They couldn’t. But his basic premise “Imagine all the people living life in peace, sharing everything with no need for greed or hunger” is not far from the ideal Jesus wanted us to follow. Imagine – Lennon said – it is easy if you try. Oh, yes, it is easy to imagine, but how difficult to bring to reality.
There are many people out there who are lovable and easy to get on with and to care about, but there are an awful lot who are not, who are nasty, mean, spiteful, rude, cruel, filled with hate and awfully hard to love. It is not easy to love them, but Jesus tells us we must. We must love the human being in there behind all the nastiness. And then we get another message coming through from these readings today. We should try to change them. Through our love we should help them to see the wrong they are doing, help them to see the love of Christ and have hope in him. The Ezekiel passage says we should take no pleasure in the death of a wicked person, but our aim should be to make the wicked turn from the error of their ways and to find new life. The same principal is found in Jesus’s words – try to get them to change.
So one of the major points of today’s message is that we need to care about everyone. As Christians, we need to be involved in the cares and needs of the World. We need to help where we can, do what we are able to help anyone in need and to help them to share the feelings of joy that we have. But there is a subtleness in all this. We are called to love, but not necessarily to like. Every person is a child of God, created by God, we need to love and try to see the image of God in them. But we are not called to necessarily like the person they are – if they are mean or cruel or just plain horrible, we are not called to like their unpleasant personalities. But we are called to try to encourage them to change to become more kind, more charitable, more just, to be better people, prepared for the coming of the Kingdom, prepared to meet God – because then they may become more likeable and, kinder and shine forth more of God’s love in their hearts. And show they are children of God.
Love is much needed in the world. As Christians, we experience the gift from God of love in Christ Jesus—a gift that we should not just keep to ourselves to hoard and treasure like a miser, but a gift that we should freely share with others. And in sharing that we need to be seen to shine as beacons of light in the World.
The world has a great need for light. The light of kindness, of understanding of tolerance and love. Light that which enables us to serve God well, to behave as Christians, as messengers of the light, as worthy recipients of the love we have received through Jesus. We cannot live in darkness – imagine your home without light bulbs or even candles. It would not be long before you stumbled over and hurt yourself, broke something valuable, felt lost and helpless.
As a Christian, please sit there and try to imagine living life without the light which Christ has brought into your life. Imagine nobody ever told you about Jesus, imagine being left in spiritual and moral darkness without His light. Imagine! (Pause) Sadly, there are an awful lot of people out there who are in that state. In this once Christian country there are many young people who know nothing about Jesus, and not because they have chosen not to follow him, but because they do not know about him. Two or three generations ago one could pretty well have guaranteed that almost anyone in this country would have at least known the basic principles of Christianity. But during the Twentieth century and since that has dissipated. I once read that the First World War should be known as the war that killed Christendom as the horrific impact on so many families of that war meant that some people started turning against God; felt that a loving God could not have allowed something like that to happen. And with the changes in society in the last century many people felt less socially obliged to go to church. They started not to teach their children about God, did not send them to Sunday school and this, coupled with such damaging phenomena as Sunday morning sports, meant fewer and fewer people knew about Jesus. I read something somewhere that said that within three generations this country had turned from God and returned to being pagan, Godless, knowing little and caring less about Jesus. And in the media this week was news of a report that claimed that less than half of the population now have any form of religious belief, only 41% count themselves as Christians, only 15% of the population count themselves as Anglicans and only 3% of 18 to 24-year olds think of themselves as being members of the Church of England. Not only depressing and worrying, but this might also account for the lack of courtesy, consideration, love for one’s fellow people that seem to be much more prevalent now than when I was a child.
But can one blame human’s inhumanity to human on a loving God, who has given us free will? As God’s message to us is to love one another then presumably no, we can’t.
So let us look at the Gospel passage in a bit more detail for a minute. This passage was intended to give the early church some guidance on how to deal with conflict and broken relationships. And it makes clear that the first step toward understanding and reconciliation is the ability to listen and heed what is being said to us when we are in the wrong. It requires the person who is at fault to acknowledge his or her wrong and be given the chance several times to make things better. But if they don’t or refuse to do so, Jesus is quite clear, the offender is to be treated as someone outside the community. Now this is not rejection, Jesus loves all sinners. He is not telling us we should reject such people, but that we should try to be reconciled with them and get them to repent of their sins. His entire ministry revolved around bringing outsiders into the kingdom by reconciling them to God. But I think he is telling us as individuals and as a church, that we should not be pushovers; we should have standards and not just ignore it when people will not admit their offences, admit when they are wrong and have hurt others. If it appears that we are being told to exclude people in this passage, perhaps it is only acknowledging publicly that an offender has already placed himself or herself outside our circle by refusing to admit when they are wrong. There must a price for arrogance, self-importance and being offensive to others. While continuing to love someone who has caused offence, there is nothing wrong with walking away from them if they will not change. The hope and prayer is of course that they will be motivated to take steps to change and come back. And we should always regard him or her as a mission field to try to welcome them back.
Reconciliation is vitally important to ending conflicts. Without reconciliation we cannot move forward, hope for spiritual growth, be fully at ease in our acceptance of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for us. By the Cross Jesus reconciled us to God, it is our responsibility, when we accept that, to also accept that we must work for reconciliation with our fellow humanity.
Jesus isn’t really interested in who is right or who is wrong. He only cares about getting broken relationships sorted out. However, much someone has hurt or offended us, however much we feel we are in the right and they in the wrong, however much we might feel it is for them to make the first move, we are not really following our Lord’s example if we do not ourselves make that first move, to which we hope they will respond. It may not be easy, it may take a lot of prayer and a biting of tongues, but we have to do it. It is not easy to be a Christian in many ways and this can only be one of them. And it cannot be easy to be Jesus.
So, in our lives as Christians, we are called to forgive, to love, to care for everyone, because Jesus does and, in accepting his forgiveness, we need to forgive, to be reconciled with others who accept his forgiveness. Because, if he can forgive so much, we can forgive as well. Hallelujah!
Intercessions 10 September 2017