As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, There is no I in Church, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday 12 February, 2017. The Reading was Matthew 5:21-37.
The Vicar and the Ember
In a small village, somewhere in England, so the story goes, there was a man who had been going to church all his life, and had thought that he had heard every sermon that there was to be preached. So, one day, as his wife got ready for church, he decided that instead he would prefer to sleep in. His wife, though concerned, didn’t think much of it, thinking it was only one week.
The next Sunday came around, and the husband thought to himself – I’ve been reading my bible every day, and saying my prayers, but I really don’t want to go to church today. So, he announced to his wife that he wasn’t going to go to church again, and instead he was going to go fishing. And his wife, again concerned, hoped that it was just that week, and thought nothing of it.
The next Sunday came around, and the man, having been reading his bible and saying his prayers, and being – in his opinion – a good Christian man, declared to his wife that he didn’t need to go to church anymore, and instead he was going to go play some golf. Now at this, his wife was very concerned, and decided to ask the Vicar to come and talk to her husband.
Now, as I believe is want to occur in England, what had been a beautiful sunny day on Sunday then swapped to a blisteringly cold and windy Monday. The vicar called by to see the husband, while the wife was out at Choir practice.
“Vicar, I know why you’re here, and I’m sorry to tell you that you won’t be able to change my mind. It’s not that I don’t like you, or your sermons. But I just feel like I can be a better Christian if I have this time to myself. You know, to go out into the river and do some fishing – you know a few of those Apostles knew how to fish. And sometimes I feel like it’s good for me to go and walk around the golf course – you know, Jesus walked pretty much everywhere, and well, if I’m walking around the golf course, I may as well take my clubs and have a hit. Now, I still read my bible daily and I say my prayers morning and night, but I just don’t see why I need to go to church any more. I’m sorry to say this, but my mind is made up and there’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.”
The vicar listened to him, and looked into the fire. The man, drawn by the gaze of the vicar, also stared into the fire, listening in the quiet to the crackle of the wood.
After a couple of minutes, the vicar picked up the tongs and proceeded to remove a small ember from the fire. He placed it, on the edge of the fireplace, removed from the main fire, and placed the tongs down.
As the man watched, he noticed the flame of the ember turn into a glow, and then that glow slowly diminish until it sat there, black and lifeless.
The vicar then grabbed the tongs again, and picked up the ember, and placed it back into the fire. The man watched as the ember jumped back into life, its cold blackness turning into a glow and then that glow jumping into a flame once again.
The vicar sat there for a moment as he watched this happen, and then got up to leave. The man jumped up to show him to the door, and as he got to the door (coincidentally, just as his wife arrived home), said to the vicar, “Thanks for the fiery sermon Vicar, a real eye opener. I’ll see you at church on Sunday.” The wife thanked the vicar on his way out, and wondered what it was that could have changed his mind.
The world is looking at Christians
I’ll come back to that story in a bit.
The world is looking at Christians – and they’re not liking what they see. In a world that is increasingly wary of religion, Christians are increasingly being seen in a bad light.
Just this week, we have had revelations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual abuse which stated that 7% of priests who worked in Australia between 1950 and 2009 have been accused of child sex crimes, with 4,444 alleged cases being surveyed. People look at that, and think that all priests should be tarred with the same brush.
The world is looking at the Pro-Life Christians, who they see marching and protesting to save unborn babies, but are then silent on issues such as saving the lives of Asylum Seekers.
But when Christians do get together and take a stand for the less fortunate, the praise comes from everywhere. Whenever Love Makes a Way – a group of Christian leaders who seek to shine light into the offices of Politicians by praying in their offices until the asylum seeker children are released from detention, there are multiple comments along the lines of “I’m an atheist, but if this is what being a Christian is all about, then I’m all for it.”
The reality is that the world is looking at us – and we know what they are looking for. They are looking for Christians who do what the bible says. The bible is the world’s most published book. There are over 20 million bibles sold in the United States every year. One study found that 92% of Americans owned at least one bible. And with the internet, people are able to read the bible more than ever – and they are seeing what’s in this book, and seeing that not all Christians are living up to the standard.
Now, I may be going a bit hard here. But this is the reality we face. Being a Christian in today’s society is really tough, because we are the face of Christianity to everyone who knows that we’re a Christian. And when people know that we’re a Christian, they hold us to the standard that they read in the bible.
Christ taught us how to act
Christ, knowing that the world would be looking at the Church, taught his disciples how they needed to act. And it’s a really tough standard – and many would say it’s a higher standard than the world would expect. We see in the passage we read today that Jesus is calling his disciples to go above and beyond what the law required.
In all of the different sections that we read, Jesus calls his disciples above and beyond the law. The law says, Do not murder. But Jesus says that if you’re angry with someone you’ll be liable for judgement – the same punishment that the law gives for murder. He goes on to say that if you say the word “Raca”, which roughly translates to an insult similar to calling someone a feather brain, then you’ll be going to hell. For Jesus, he wants his disciples to be wary of every interaction that they have – because through our interactions, we might either bring someone into the faith, or scare them away forever.
When Jesus talks about Adultery, he quotes the law, and then states that even just looking at a woman in lust is the same as committing adultery. Jesus expects the highest standards, he expects purity of heart.
And when we look at oaths, Jesus again quotes the law, but then says to his disciples to not swear an oath at all, as it means that some of your words are more trustworthy than others. Instead, you should “Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”” meaning that every word we say should be as trustworthy as any other word.
We find true Christianity in Community
The level that Jesus expects is difficult for us to live up to. And when we know that the world is watching us, it is even more important that we live up to this. And this is where we find the truth in this passage. You see, Jesus is forming a new community, something coming out of the Jewish society. He knew that they would be watching them like a hawk, for any slip up against the law that they could use to break them up. So, Jesus instructs his followers to go above and beyond what the law called for.
But it’s important to note that these laws weren’t just for the individual. They were for the community of believers.
You see, while we might be able to hold to some things in our faith when we act individually, the more difficult things – such as these laws – are nigh on impossible when we are by ourselves. And that’s when the community comes in.
When we are part of a faith community, we can hold each other to these high standards, and do so from a place of love, because we know and recognise that we are all faced with the same struggles. We all have struggles with angry thoughts, or going back on our word. In community, we can flourish, and be able to hold to these things.
But if we live our faith isolated from others, if we choose not to come to church, then our faith will eventually be like the ember from the story I told earlier. Sure, we might still do the things like pray and read the bible. But if we’re not involved with the fire, then we won’t be fulfilling what we were designed to do. We might be able to for a little while, but eventually our fire will burn out.
The good thing though is that the grace of God is always welcoming, and it doesn’t take long for our fire to be burning bright once again, once we return to that community.
The Christian life is a difficult one. There’s no doubt about that. The things that Jesus talks about here are difficult to do. Jesus’ message of love for the enemy, of love for all, of welcoming the stranger, giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and company to the imprisoned is something that is difficult to live up to. So many of the messages that Jesus taught are difficult, particularly to society. That’s why they wanted to kill him.
But, despite all of this, we take up this life. Not because it’s easy, but in spite of its difficulty. Because we believe that it is worth doing, for the glory of God.
Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. If we did, we would constantly fail. But, when we have our church community around us, supporting us, encouraging us, giving us the tools that we need to survive this difficult path, then we have a fighting chance to live up to Jesus’ teachings.
Go and live in Community as Christ taught
We aren’t meant to be alone. We are meant to be a part of a Community of faith. But at the same time, we aren’t to exclude ourselves into that community. We need to live in our community of faith, but also in our local community. Because as we continue to strive to live up to Christ’s teachings, others in our community will see that and seek to ask us why. And when these opportunities happen, we will have a chance to share about the love of Jesus, that convicts us to live in this way, no matter how difficult it may be.
All through Jesus’ sermon on the mount, which we’ve heard from the last few weeks, and we’ll hear from again next week, we see Jesus’ counter-cultural values coming through. We saw how the values of the Kingdom of God were different to the values of the world. We saw how Christ calls us to be salt and light – the things that are added to the world to bring forth God’s kingdom. And again, the values that Jesus is teaching here are values that are counter-cultural. The world is fine with anger, and with lust, and with divorce and lying. But Christ calls us to something more.
When the whole world is showing hate, Christ calls us to love.
When the whole world is valuing exclusion, Christ calls us to welcome all.
When the whole world is wanting us to live individualistically, and to just look after ourselves, Christ calls us to live in community, and love our neighbour.
So, go, and live as Christ taught. Strive to meet his commands at all times. And know that you have a cloud of witnesses supporting you and cheering you on to walk this difficult path.
As we spend some time reflecting on what Jesus calls us to do, you’re invited to sing this lovely hymn, Brother, Sister, Let me serve you. As we do so, I invite you to reflect on how our faith is counter cultural, and that it calls us to love, even when it’s tough. How it calls us to serve, even if we feel like we should be served. How it calls us to live for those around us. Because in a world that is watching our every move, our love for our community, and love for each other, and love for our neighbour, will shine through.