Monday, November 20, 2006

Why is faith important?

or should that be 'why faith is important!' ?

Well it's certainly not because of 'religion', or 'tradition', or beautiful churches, or singing hymns, or small groups, or even Christians - although all these things have a place in the tapestry of what it means to be a Christian. Following on from my thoughts in the 'labels' post below - it comes back to Jesus...

So here's a sermon on the theme, from yesterday morning:

Hebrews 10.11-25
Mark 13.1-8

Jesus, holy and disturbing one

Great honour to be invited as guest speaker, thank you to Chris for allowing his old Team-mate to come and be a part of worship here in Hook.

Also something of a risk, as the most boring sermon I have ever heard in my life was a guest preacher at my college, who having been asked to preach specifically on one thing started on a different tack altogether and proceeded to disappear off for a very long time on a journey that very few of us managed to keep up with…

Chris does know me, though, so hopefully I will manage both to keep to time and to keep on track with the readings for this week…

And another thing I want to say at the start is that I am into Jesus! I’m sure you are glad to hear that there are clergypersons in the Church of England that make such statements, but I want to stress this, I am really into Jesus.

For as long as I can remember my theological study has focussed on the person of Jesus, on theologies of Jesus, on what it means to talk of Jesus being two natures in one person, of the divinity and humanity of our Lord and saviour – my special interest in my theological studies has been Incarnational Theology – considering what really happened when God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a fascinating and rewarding study, particularly as it constantly draws me back to the documents of the early Church and to our Scriptures. It is something that never ceases to amaze and enthral me and for someone with my slightly anorakish nature theologically, it’s fun. As part of this I’ve been spoken about incarnational theology at Greenbelt arts festival, and in a couple of Cambridge College Chapels. Again, not meant to be a boast, but a statement of how seriously I take this study.

But in this past few months and years I have had to take a step back.

I have been reminded by God that all of this study is fine, but it is not knowing about Jesus that is crucial to my faith, to my relationship with God through his Holy Spirit. It is knowing Jesus that is the most crucial part of Christian faith.

And knowing Jesus means grappling not just with theology and intellectual arguments about him – it means encountering him, in prayer, through Scripture, in worship, in contemplation and even in the very least of our brothers and sisters.

And when we learn to open our eyes and look again at Jesus, we can be surprised, comforted and very disturbed…

Our readings for this Sunday give us both sides of the story, and help us to build a fuller picture of the one whom we follow, worship and serve.

In our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews we have what we might think of as a classical theological statement about Jesus – referring to him as the high priest who offers his one sacrifice for the sins of the world. Now its easy to become detached from that – high priests aren’t part of our everyday experience now – unless Chris has taken on a whole new way of being Vicar since he moved to Hook then we won’t have the knowledge of what it means to have a priest who offers animal sacrifices and can only enter the most holy place once a year.

But the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wants us to consider the effect this has on us, to make it real in verse 19 he says
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (emphasis mine)
This isn’t detached theological speculation but something that is to have real effect on our lives of prayer and the way we feel about ourselves and other Christians – the result of the promises taken from the book of Jeremiah in verses 16 and 17 of this chapter – that God will write his law in our hearts and minds, that God will not remember out sins and lawless acts any more…

We are forgiven, we are new people in God’s sight, we do have the promise of God’s spirit in our lives leading us to sanctification, through the blood of Jesus and the law of love that needs to sink through into our bones that we become the people God has called us to be.

Yet alongside these words of comfort, and these important theological concepts we have a very earthy, perhaps even shocking picture of Jesus in our Gospel reading.

It all starts simply enough, after worship in the temple one of the disciples comments on how impressive the building is to which Jesus responds, effectively ‘well it won’t last’. He then goes on to speak of the tribulations which will at the end of the earth and – in the part of the passage which immediately follows the Gospel reading for today – explains how the lot of those who follow him will be to be persecuted and condemned.

This is a Jesus who pulls no punches, who is blunt, and in some ways frightening. When I first read St Mark’s Gospel all the way through (and I recommend you read it all the way through in one sitting if you have an hour to two to spare) I was shocked by the Jesus who I saw there – like the Jesus referred to by Philip Yancey in the book ‘The Jesus I never knew’ or in Brian McLaren’s ‘Secret Message of Jesus’ – I saw again the bold, challenging, disturbing Jesus who spoke out in anger at hypocrisy, who overturned established thoughts about religion and faith, who – through the passion and power of the Holy Spirit – fought against injustice and oppression by word and deed. This was the Jesus who so antagonised and distressed the authorities that they condemned him to death by torture on the cross. The Jesus who is unafraid to speak about the cost of love and faith. The Jesus willing to give himself even to death for that love and faith.

And in our Gospel reading for today we see a Jesus who knew what was important, that the things we tend to rely on – whether buildings or traditions in religion, whether its our comfortable living conditions or luxuries – all these things are transient, and what is most important is to cling fast to him. As it says so wonderfully in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews Chapter 10 verse 23
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful
May we be those who are both comforted and disturbed by Jesus, inspired by God’s Spirit to live those lives of faithfulness we are called to and secure in the love and forgiveness that leads to new life. Amen.

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