I preached this last night at an evening service at Holy Trinity, Darlington, Diocese of Durham. Here’s my account of what I’ve learned about what Christianity is and isn’t since my conversion. Readings: 2 Corinthians 3, Exodus 34.29-35
I want you to come with me on a journey tonight. We’ll be stopping off and exploring various points along the way, but trust me, we’ll end up at a really great place where we’ll discover that it’s in Jesus alone that we find freedom.
Let’s start in Afghanistan on a very cold night in an army outpost. We won’t linger here long- shivering in the dim light of a few lamps, the persistent grumble of the diesel generator in the background, cold dusty earth under our feet, and a cumbersome rifle slung over our shoulder- but long enough for me to tell you that it was here, in this far off land in 2012, that I had an experience that totally shook my world view, that challenged who I thought I was and what life was all about.
It was here in a shipping container that I came to the wonderful, awesome, comforting and terrifying realisation that God exists.
I became a believer.
But in the following days and weeks, after my initial jittery elation that God really had created the whole universe and had known me since before my birth, I came up against some big personal struggles.
Not to do with God, but with religion.
Because, if I’m honest, up until that moment I’d scoffed at religious folk. I’d felt pity for people that I thought were being duped into believing a fairy tale. I’d felt anger towards people who used religion to control and oppress the vulnerable. And I’d felt baffled by people who seemed to follow all the rules and look down on others, but couldn’t actually give a reason for their faith.
People trapped by rules and customs but who didn’t seem to know Jesus. Religion seemed boring and restricting. I was wary of signing myself up to Christianity if it was just about having to abide by lengthy lists of rules.
I felt so torn, because part of me wanted to be sure of all the laws first, and exactly what would be expected of me, but the much bigger part of me was just so excited to know that Jesus was God’s son, and I loved Him so much, that I wanted to forget about the rules that I didn’t yet know, and throw my lot in with the guy from Nazareth.
So I did.
OK we’re still in Afghanistan and I’m desperate to know Jesus better. And to get to know Jesus, I have to read the Bible.
And fortunately, when I begin reading my Bible in my tent, I see, with great relief, that what Jesus seems so much more concerned with, isn’t following all the religious laws at all. It’s being right with God.
To the people around him, he seems to be a rebel. He’s challenging the status quo at every corner. And this really angered the sorts of people who prided themselves on following all the religious laws.
I read that, one day, several of these religious types, these Pharisees, including an actual lawyer, tried to test Jesus.
They asked which commandment is the greatest.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Wow, I thought. Could it be that all the rest of the rules pale into insignificance if you could just keep the first two?
All those things carved in stone, all the rules about fasting and keeping the Sabbath and tithing, and circumcision and sacrificing animals and eating the right foods, and praying the right way. Don’t they matter so much?
It’s seems not. The more I read my Bible, the more I saw that Jesus had a way of turning the picture upside down. Looking at a situation with totally new eyes. Challenging systems and beliefs, but not because He was a rebel, because He was God’s Son. He was perfectly obedient to the will of His Father. It’s just that he saw that people were against the will of his father. So He spoke out about it. A lot.
And then I read about that time Jesus and his friends were walking in the fields on the Sabbath, when some of them ate some corn. The Pharisees were furious that they’d broken the Sabbath rule, equating the picking of some corn to harvesting, which was ridiculous. And Jesus said so. He said “If you’d known what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Then the Pharisees tried to catch Him out in the temple when a man with a shrivelled hand turned up for healing. The Pharisees asked if what He was doing was lawful.
So He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
He touched and healed lepers, He talked to women, He ate with sinners, He bypassed rules about temple sacrifices by healing sins. He challenged the authorities and spoke out.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Jesus came to abolish the idea of trying to please God through religion. When religious rules get in the way of mercy, compassion and justice they should be overridden.
Jesus didn’t break rules to be rebellious, He broke rules to show that people mattered more than rules.
The basics of Christian discipleship are about loving God entirely with every fibre of our being, and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves
That’s what I was beginning to learn 4 and a half years ago in Afghanistan.
Come with me again on our journey, back further in time, to about 2000 years ago. To Corinth in Greece. The newly established church who’d received Paul’s letter, part of which David read out.
Paul was reminding this church plant that Jesus had revealed the new covenant, the new law. A new way of looking at religion. Jesus revealed mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to those who have ears to hear. The church in Corinth needed to hear it, and we need to hear it.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be like Pharisees, banging on about our dutiful deeds with loud prayers and pious solemn faces, bragging about our righteousness and condemning others whose lives are a mess.
He doesn’t want us to do religion for the sake of doing religion.
Jesus wants us to put Him at the very centre of our lives. To be every day Christians. Disciples at large in our communities. Challenging the status quo. Being so loving and caring and set on fairness and equality and compassion that it surprises people. Our faces are shining radiant and bright in the knowledge of freedom in Jesus. It makes people sit up and take notice.
“Why does she give up so much of her time for others?”, “Why is he bothering to sit with that homeless guy who’s clearly on drugs?” Because we are every day every minute Christians. We’re not called to be carved-in-tablets-of-stone people. We’re called to bring-God’s-kingdom-on-earth people.
I think the very lives we lead are the best advertisement for religion. The people we are in our communities as followers of Jesus is the best way to convince people (like me!), that Christianity isn’t dead, old, boring; just a set of restrictive rules. It’s about how our lives are transformed by the Spirit of God and knowing we are freed in Jesus our saviour.
I’d like to finish with those reassuring words from Paul in his letter to the new church in Corinth.
Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiselled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.