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7th February 2021

Change the world or change myself?

Passage: 1 Corinthians 9;16-23


You know, some people choose to support a totalitarian state or a hard-line religion. They are not coerced into it. Of their own free will they adopt a life governed in every detail by the people in charge.

I suppose that, in a turbulent, unpredictable world, it can be reassuring to put someone else in charge of your life. It gives a sense of security and saves you from lying awake at night worrying about choices you have made. Presumably, if you can trust someone else to take charge of every aspect of your life, you also trust them to look after you and you believe that the system will work to your advantage.

I guess that, to a certain extent we all accept the need of rules for living. The same law that presents you with a speeding ticket when you drive at 90mph down the motorway is also there to protect you from the dangers of other drivers going at 90mph. We need structure in society. And clear teaching and sound rules for living in any religion give you a framework for your day to day life; a discipline which will keep you aiming for the highest standards: surely what religion is about? Did not Paul just say that being a Christian is like being an Olympian athlete?

Paul did a lot of heart-searching over rules. He himself had been rigorously trained as a young man in a strict, legalistic form of Judaism. The structures of his religion had created a strong faith community and a distinct cultural identity. But now Paul was a Christian- a follower of Jesus Christ. He was proclaiming a new faith to which people of all different backgrounds and cultures were coming. So surely you had to have some kind of structure or the whole thing would fall apart? Paul spent a lot of time, then, writing these letters to churches in towns around the Mediterranean, trying to get a system of church order which works in a multi-cultural faith.

He quickly realises that he is up against it.
First, it has to be said, Jesus Christ himself did not help when it came to creating rules. When asked questions, he tended to answer with another question. Remember that woman caught being unfaithful to her husband? The religious authorities brought her to Jesus, quoting the law of Moses that she should be stoned to death (and that is what the law of Moses says). What did Jesus say? He said, “Which of you has never done anything wrong? You cast the first stone.” Brilliant answer but not one to make religion straightforward.

Second, Paul was uneasy himself about a legalistic religion.
He saw what it had made of him- a proud, arrogant man, so confident in what he believed to be right that he waged a one-man “holy war” against anyone suspected of Christian sympathies.
He saw what it had made of his religious culture- an exclusive community, from which wrong-doers and outsiders were barred.
He saw what it had made of the men and women who had failed to live up to the expected standards, become outcasts and fell into despair and self-destruction.
He saw that people did not always get what they expected from their faith; that keeping all the laws did not necessarily protect them from sickness and injury and persecution and injustice. And the question “why?” was never answered satisfactorily.
He found out for himself that not only did life seldom go according to plan, nor people always react according to plan but that even he, did not behave according to plan- why do I want to do good and end up doing bad?

His religion then, despite much that was good about its codes of practice, had not always succeeded in producing wiser, better or happier people. And this bothered him. It probably bothers us too because I bet we can all think of people who claim to have no faith who are a whole lot kinder and happier than some we know who do.

In the passage we just heard, Paul is trying some lateral thinking, looking at his faith and his life from a different angle. Rather than focussing on the structures needed to ensure a strong faith community, he asks himself ‘what do I get from my faith? What is most important to me about the Christian church?”
And he comes up with swift answers: I love preaching the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. I could not stop if I tried. And no, ((to the devil’s advocate peeping over his shoulder) I don’t do it for the money, and I don’t do it for the ego trip. I do it because I am so thrilled at what Jesus Christ has done for me, at how he has changed my life, that I have to tell everyone else.

OK, but there is still a challenge. George Eliot wrote of an elderly Victorian clergyman, safe in a village parish where everyone attended church weekly because it was expected of them. He had two years’ worth of sermons written and, at the end of every two years he simply turned the pile over and started again. She did not mention whether anyone in the congregation noticed…
But with a new faith, in a multi-cultural society, Paul was going to need a great many sermons directed at totally new groups of people every week. There was no “one size fits all” sermon package. How was he going to know what to say?
I know what to say by getting alongside these people. I do as Jesus did. I live their life, I go to the places they go, I learn to talk their language and, rather than expecting them to keep listening to what I say, I encourage them to talk to me.

Right, so now, what does the church community mean to Paul? It means a community of people equally passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world, encouraging and building each other up. It means a space into which friends, neighbours, even those I might have called “enemies” are welcomed. It means a visible proof to the world that God’s kingdom is about love, justice and peace.

Paul is working out that what he most needs to do with his Christian life is to preach the Gospel message, both in word and in action. And what he most needs from the church is a community to encourage him, help him to grow in faith and provide a space in which his preaching ministry to others may develop. Yes, every community still needs structures but maybe the structures should develop from the needs and not the other way around.

Paul did loosen up a lot on church structure and theology. He learned to allow for differences of culture, differences of faith background, differences of ability. But the one thing he persistently maintained was that being a Christian was a needing the commitment levels of an Olympian athlete.
Jesus did not invite people into a totalitarian religion. He invited them into a relationship with God, founded on God’s everlasting love and mercy. And this relationship, like any relationship, would grow and deepen and develop. This relationship would not rob you of your personal freedom. Rather, it would enable you to grow and deepen and develop your freedom as a person beloved by God.
And relationships-as we all know- need working at. They also need support. There is now an additional promise in our wedding service. The guests are asked whether as friends and family of the bride and groom they will promise their support to this marriage. And the couple need that support.

The title I chose for this sermon is “Change the world or change yourself?” We all want to see changes in the world. We all want to see changes in the church. And the first step in both cases is to acknowledge what is changing or needs to change in ourselves. Where are we going to find the passion, the joy, the hope, the confidence we need to make things new? Let’s face it, most of us are exhausted and, going back to the beginning, most of us can see definite advantages in having someone else tell us what to do.

OK, but just to finish, this week we heard of the death of Captain Sir Tom- the man whose hit the headlines several times over the last year. And I was thinking of what he set out to do and why.
He was fired up, quite simply, with love for his country and with concern for our National Health Service. Rather than fret about the limitations imposed on him, by his age and physical frailty, he looked about for something he could do. He could walk around his garden with his Zimmer frame and invite friends and family to sponsor him. That was all. He was not looking to start a political and social revolution. He did not set out to raise millions of pounds. He did not intend to become a media celebrity.

He just started with a passion and allowed that passion to show him his-quite literally- next step. The rest was out of his hands.
Maybe that is an example to follow.
The task of getting our country back on track and our church life revitalised are huge and daunting ones.
But let us invite God to revitalise our lives with his Holy Spirit.
Let us focus on encouraging and nurturing each other in faith and in love.
Let us look at what each one of us can do for our world and for our church.
Let us find our own deep longing and passion and offer it to God.
Then, who knows what might happen?
God bless and keep you all. Amen.