Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 29 April 2018.
It must be almost 50 years ago when I read a book by Max Hastings called ‘The System’ in which he described, in full detail, how the British form of public administration, especially at central government, was designed to be as ineffective and incompetent as possible.
I hope that I am not misrepresenting him but this is my abiding memory. Maybe he might be gratified that I remember his book at all.
But there is something of a truism when people say that it does not matter which side wins an election, the government always gets in.
There is this profound sense of alienation, that whatever we do it can never be enough, there is always more to be done and there is always another form to fill in or to get wrong.
And this breeds a deep and abiding sense of anger and resentment. If we can never win, then why even try? Why not opt out?
And it is not only the government that generates this sense of moral fog. It is there in all the interests and groups that have their own sense of grievance and their own claims against society. Somehow there is always someone else who must pay, or put things right or take the blame.
But our lessons point us in a completely different direction. In the book of Acts we read how before anyone else had even said or done anything more, the Holy Spirit fell on the people gathered in Cornelius’ home and engulfed them with His blessing. Peter had not even finished his speech or made a call to repentance or to the altar or to anything else – but the Holy Spirit came upon the people and validated both Peter’s message and the responses in the people’s hearts.
The people did not have to do anything else – for they had evidently received the gospel message where it mattered – in the heart – and Peter was left to come along afterwards and complete what was left over.
Peter gave the message, the people heard and the Holy Spirit validated the whole proceeding.
Then there is the word that John puts into his letter as he also looks at the pressures that the world places on people and at how they can indeed overcome it.
His answer is simple but effective: to believe in Jesus Christ is to enter a new realm of victory, where we live in the world but are not owned by it or defined by it or in the providences of God, judged by it (even if it would like to do all of these).
The mechanism is simple for in believing in Jesus Christ is to be given the power of victory over the pressures that the world may want to force upon us. It does not have to dictate our faith or our eternal destiny.
It does not forgive sins and it does not give the comfort of the presence of God. It does not lead us into prayer or answer those prayers. And it certainly does not deal in the love of God.
But by focusing what we are and have and believe and trust in Jesus Christ then for all its demands the world is still stripped of its power over our hearts and souls. It is not that it will not win – it is that it cannot win.
In the gospel, Jesus says the same thing, even more simply: ‘Abide in My love.’ Not just in Jesus Christ as a person, but in His personal love and commitment and sacrifice. Especially as the disciples relate to one another.
For to love Him is also to love His brethren – and that means one another. Those who are of the household of faith, who also have that same kind of relation to Him and the knowledge of sins forgiven.
Jesus never came in order to install a new regime of rules and regulations. That is not love and it certainly is not the kind of self-giving that led Him to the cross.
The ways that our faith leads us in our lifestyles and priorities come out of that faith and they can never be a condition for it.
It is our faith that leads us into Christian serving and giving, and which helps us to see our relationships and loyalties in a new way – and faith can never possibly be the reward for many acts of self-generated sacrifice or good works. That is not how it works and if it were then this would never be faith but manipulation or even an attempt at buying or earning the favour of God.
So what do we do to be saved? Believe in Jesus Christ before all else. The rest of our lifestyles will be revealed and will develop in response to our faith and as an out-working of it.
Receive the blessing and the love and the favour of God as they come, freely and fully, overflowing any limited vessel that we can possibly put out to catch it.
Indeed, there is only one vessel that we can offer to receive the fullness of God’s love and extravagance and that is our lives – just as we are and to the fullest extent to which we can open them.
All God wants is an open heart – He will do the rest. In fact, He already has.