Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 8 October 2017.
There is the world of difference between knowing of a person – knowing the person by name – and knowing him or her personally.
We can know all about a person, from Google and the social media, or by reputation, but not know who and what the person is, how he or she thinks and feels and comes across.
It is the difference between a picture and a conversation; a fleeting glimpse and time spent together. It is the difference between a step on the road and the whole journey.
And yet in the Old Testament, we are shown how the children of Israel learned about God at Mount Sinai. They heard the sounds and saw the effects. They heard the thunder and the trumpets, they saw the lightening, and the smoke. But they did not want to know any more.
And so they told Moses to go and speak with God alone while they remained at a safe distance. God was fine so long as they did not have to get too close or personal.
And indeed the law of the 10 commandments were 10 laws, simply stated but which would probe them to the core of their own beings. God would not be known superficially, but they would have to engage with Him at depth.
Even His limited self-disclosure would demand a deep and a life-long response. And even the formality of the law and the principles of worship and sacrifice would make personal demands on them.
And there are parallels in the church, as we use the formularies of liturgy to give shape to our worship. We use the words of Christians of long ago to state our own prayers, even those coming from the depths of our own hearts.
But going into a church does on its own not make a person into a Christian, any more than going into a garage makes a person into a mechanic.
It is indeed the first step, but the first of many, and the steps that come after can indeed be challenging and even sacrificial.
But then Paul has something to say about this as he writes to the Christians in Philippi.
For the thing he stresses is not his heritage as an educated and indeed highly trained Jew fully versed in the law. Neither is it his status as a Roman citizen, and a born citizen rather than one by purchase or assimilation.
Neither does he take any credit in the works of Christian charity or of righteousness and devotion in the service of the gospel. He does not make any claims from the things he has done or earned.
But he does make clear and explicit claims from something quite different. It is from knowing Jesus Christ and indeed of being known by Him.
It is Paul’s personal faith in a personal God, and in knowing that God through the One He has sent and given for us.
What makes the difference for Paul is knowing Jesus Christ, and having the freedom and confidence in approaching Him in prayer, even those prayers in which the answer may be ‘No’.
The whole basis for Paul’s sense of being is that personal and direct faith – and a faith that he has done nothing to earn or to deserve.
It is the gift that God has given him that he may know Jesus Christ personally and directly, and to know Him as Lord and Saviour: even when he has sinned Paul is still sealed by Jesus as belonging to Him, and nobody will take Paul’s life and being out of Jesus’ hands. They are there for keeps, for that is the kind of Saviour and Lord that Jesus is.
And this is the context in which we draw near to the gospel message.
Jesus tells a parable of a landowner entrusting a vineyard to tenants, and of then expecting his share of the produce in due season.
And while it is directed at the nation of Israel, it also has an important message for the church. Both had in their own time been entrusted with the word of God. Israel had the law of the 10 commandments and the remainder of the law, but the church had been entrusted with the gospel message.
Both were expected to yield lives of fruitfulness: of right dealings in the sight of God. Both were expected to be holy before God and just with one another, and a failure in one would surely lead to failure in the other.
Yet if either preferred their own formularies and legalisms and traditions to the living reality of the person of Jesus – either the word of the law or Jesus as the logos of God, then they had directed themselves into dead ends. And the judgment of one points to the judgment of the other.
And this brings me back to the importance of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
It is direct and personal and probing. It is sacrificial and life-long.
But as we place our lives into His hands, He will surely receive and hold them, never letting go.
It is, in the words of Michel Quoist, the Yes that implies other Yesses.