Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 2 July 2017.
Among memories of childhood religion was the formality of the church and the sense that whatever I wanted was bound to be wrong.
Marxist sociologists came to refer to religion as the opiate of the masses as it provided a form of social control, and promised pie in the sky when you die.
In those days there was little of the sense of the church as the Body of Christ, and none of it being the image of Christ in the community where it was set.
It was the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s which stressed the corporate life of the church and of life in the Spirit in receiving the gifts of the spirit and in yielding the fruits of the Spirit, which were distinct aspects of the life of faith.
But our readings are all quite serious and even daunting, for they all in one way or another deal with living the life of faith and with coping with the pressures to conform to the desires and demands of self.
These start with the story of Abraham being called on to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. Isaac, the child of Abraham’s old age, longed for and yet long delayed.
Isaac, who would carry Abraham’s name into posterity, and the son on whom the fulfilment of God’s glorious promises rested. Now to be killed as a religious sacrifice.
Such sacrifices were not unknown in the times of the Old Testament particularly among the Canaanite tribes whose kings would ritually sacrifice their children on particularly significant national occasions.
Yet one of the lessons of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was that he was specifically NOT to imitate the godless customs of the Canaanites, especially where the murder of their children was involved.
This still resonates today as commentators have pointed out that God gave His only begotten Son for us that we may life – not that we are expected to sacrifice our children for Him. Some religious systems today seem to doubt and even flout this proposition.
But Abraham was being tested within the depths of his heart and soul as he was asked to lay before God that which was dearest and most precious to him. And yet he trusted that even in this crisis of faith, God would deliver him, and he told his servants that he and Isaac would return to them.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans the same issue is set out rather more deliberately.
The issue was now presented in terms of the life of sin and the life of holiness. The question was the principle of life to which the members of the church belonged: was it the life of self, and the satisfaction of the demands of the flesh – or was it the life of the spirit, lived in the light of the holiness and righteousness of God?
This was to be far more than the simple denial of the demands of the flesh – whether this is in the appetites of the stomach or of sex or of self-image or of personal security or well-being. It could apply to the sense of advantage over others, control of all relationships or just the simple pleasures of malicious and unfounded gossip.
For each of us there are areas of self that we have to recognize and which try to impose themselves on what we know to be what is right or on the performance of our duties or the maintenance of our relationships in family or among friends or colleagues.
But in the final analysis Jesus did not condemn some sins more than others – if there is anything then it is the deliberate rejection of faith when presented with clear ground for belief. If there was any sin that resisted repentance then it was deliberate, sustained unbelief.
But in the gospel Jesus said far more. If all are called to discipleship, then those who are outside the faith but who honour God’s disciples will indeed be rewarded.
If there are any engaged in works of mercy because they are Jesus’ disciples, then any who assist in those Godly works will also be rewarded for the sake of those works of mercy.
Indeed, anyone who knowing you to be one of Jesus’ disciples offers you a parking space, helps to carry the shopping, opens the door for you or shows any other act of kindness will also be rewarded for the sake of the Kingdom of God and its witness by its servants.
Of course that means allowing it to be known that despite being sinners and sinners engaged in a lifetime of repentance, you are also His disciples, seeking to pursue His service.
That may mean losing some aspects of our security or even our reputation. It may mean living more on the edge and allowing that life of faith to take us by surprise, leading us in directions that we had never expected.
It may mean speaking out when we never expected to and indeed finding that the words we needed were indeed there as we needed them.
All these things are aspects of the lives of Jesus’ disciples – His prophets and apostles, His pastors and teachers, His administrators and all the other forms of service in the life of the body of Christ. And all who assist in these will be rewarded.