Last week I asked you to think about what was at the root, or the start, of your own faith journey; your own Christian walk.
This week I want to ask you a related question. I would like to invite you to think back to the earliest time you can remember thinking of yourself as a Christian. Now – this might be easier for some of us than for others. I myself, for example, can’t really remember a time when I didn’t consider myself to be a Christian, as I was born and raised in a Christian household. But I certainly do have memories of a time in childhood when I realised that it wasn’t normal to be a Christian! I remember when I realised that there was something unusual, something rather strange about being a Christian in a world where the majority of people had long since given up going to church. Perhaps you have similar memories.
But others of us may have strong memories of a conversion experience, or at least a clear moment in time when they started to think of themselves as a Christian. I’m really interested in this; for those of us who can remember such a time or such an occasion, I wonder what you then thought or realised that you needed to do in response?
Perhaps there was a realisation that you now were expected – or even better – that you now wanted to attend church. Perhaps you thought you had better pray regularly, or try to read the Bible regularly. Perhaps you even thought that you had better make changes in your life and your behaviour that reflect this new way of being, or changes that reflect your gratitude for the great gift of love and hope that you had received.
I wonder what changed, for you, when you became a Christian? Perhaps, if we are honest, there are those of us who might say that nothing much actually changed ‘on the outside’ (as it were) of our lives, but that the changes were all ‘on the inside’, that is, changes to our hearts and minds. And that is an interesting point; because for as long as there have been Christians, it seems that there have been Christians wrestling with the question of what exactly should change ‘on the outside’ of our lives in response to what Jesus has done for us.
We see it in the book of Acts, where we find the first followers of Jesus, some of whom actually knew Jesus himself, wrestling with questions of who can become a follower, and what they should do about it – what they should eat and drink and whether or not they needed to become ‘full Jews’ (with all that that entails - look away now, Gentlemen!). We see it in the letters of Paul; St Paul who seemed to spend a lot of his time writing to church communities who were wrestling with the same questions. How do we live? How do we worship? What now?
We see Paul himself wrestling with this question, as apparently he moved from the urgency of believing that the return of Jesus would be imminent – almost immediate – in his early letters, to a more patient view that gave more though to questions of church structure and authority later on.
‘So we are Christians’, many people seemed to be saying; ‘What now?’
And we are, perhaps, not that sure ourselves these days. Imagine answering a brand new Christian who asked you questions like these:
Can I still drink?
Can I still play the lottery?
Can I still sleep around?
Can I still tell those little white lies that so often seem essential in social situations?
Do I have to give my money to the Church?
Do I even have to go to church?
Do I have to forgive people who have hurt me?
Do I have to apologise if I hurt someone?
Do I have to be nice to people I don’t like?
I don’t actually have to love my enemies, surely?
I wonder what your response would be if you were asked these questions? Perhaps you would instinctively feel that there were clear answers to most (if not perhaps all) of those questions in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. But perhaps you would also instinctively feel that just to answer those questions directly (if indeed it were possible) would be to miss the point. Perhaps you would instead say something like ‘but of course it’s all about your heart, really’ or words to that effect.
And of course in many ways you would be right to do so. Jesus really doesn’t present us with a simple list of Do’s and Dont’s. And where he does give simple commands, we might suggest that in some ways those commands are pretty impossible. Famously, and for example, commands like these:
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (especially when he then defines ‘neighbour’ as a National Enemy whom your culture has formed you to detest and despise).
Or indeed ‘Love your enemy’.
Or how about ‘Take up your cross and follow me’?
Or even ‘Whoever wants to be first among you must be the servant (or slave!) of all’.
How many of us ‘time-served’ Christians are getting all of these right, I wonder?
So at this point, everything is seeming pretty impossible, I expect. I mean, why would anyone even want to follow commandments like these? How would anyone become a ‘good Christian’ if this is what is required?
But of course, if this is how we think then we are missing the point. And missing it pretty spectacularly!
You see, like Philip and Nathanael in our Gospel reading today (John 1.43-end), and like Andrew and Simon Peter in the verses before that, we are commanded to Follow first of all.
The first disciples were not given a list of instructions or commands by Jesus, and then left to ‘get on with it’. No indeed! They were called to follow Jesus – to literally follow him; to walk alongside or right behind him, to stay where he stayed, to eat with him, to listen to him and to learn from him.
He quite clearly did not expect them to ‘get it’ all straight away. But rather he spent years with them, living and eating and laughing and teaching and instructing and showing and leading. And loving.
And not forgetting Inspiring: ‘This is what it is like’, he said, when trying to describe to people what living God’s way (in God’s ‘Kingdom’) would be like: ‘it would be like finding a treasure so marvellous that you would literally go off and sell everything else that you own in order to buy it’.
In the Gospels we see that Jesus didn’t just teach and lead and command his followers – he also gave them a vision of what it would be like to actually follow those commandments, from a place of love and grace and freedom, and therefore to change the world around them. In our other bible reading today (Revelation 5.1-10) we see a heavenly vision of saints, from every tribe and language on the earth, worshiping God in wonder and utter joy. It is good that we have such visions in the Bible, either in the words of Jesus, or elsewhere, that show us that God intention for his followers is not blindly following unpleasant commands, but lives of joy and companionship with God, where such commands are simply natural responses to what God has done for us, enabled by the power of God’s Spirit in us. God intends for us to walk with Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, to read his words and the words of the tradition he was responding to and to reflect and to listen and to learn, and to gradually grow into the people he invites us to be. With no doubt many a slip-up and a wrong choice along the way, but hopefully, worshipfully, and joyfully growing up into the followers we are called to be. And yes, I certainly do believe
So rather than asking for the answers to a list of questions that form a comprehensive set of Do’s and Dont’s, we must ask different questions. Questions like these:
What does it mean for me to be a follower of the way of Jesus?
How can I spend time seeking his presence and dwelling with him?
How can I read and reflect and start to respond to his words and what he did for me?
How can I life a life of freedom and joy that reflects the way he called his followers to be?
So let me ask you this – do you expect that this day, in fact every day, the risen Christ invites you to follow him, to dwell with him, to share your day and your journey with him. To see things is his way, in his light. To dare to respond to things as he might, to receive his great love and forgiveness that you can pass it on to others?
You are invited!
You are invited into companionship, into joy, into walking with God.
And yes, you are invited into holiness (which is what that first list of questions is all about, really).
To get there, we need to start exploring, together, what it means for us to be followers of the way of Jesus.
This is our task, our joy, and this will be a central part of our vision going forward:
Our vision is that St Paul’s can be a place where people can:
Experience the presence and vision of God in their lives, through worship, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Explore what it means for them to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Engage with an authentic and loving community, where divisions and differences are overcome.
Or to put it more succinctly:
Engage with community.