KINGíS ACRE CHURCH, 30 MARCH 2003
ďFOR WE ARE HIS WORKMANSHIPĒ
Such lovely readings as they have set for today, havenít they?† That wonderful, wonderful passage in Ephesians, and then that very famous passage in Johnís Gospel.† Old friends, both of them, and Iím not sure how much new there is to say about them, but letís see.
So, firstly, the passage from the letter to the Ephesians.† This is one of the most wonderful letters in the New Testament, I think.† It may have been a circular letter, meant to go to churches in places like Laodicea as well as Ephesus, and I have heard that some scholars arenít totally sure that it was written by Paul.† Put it this way: they arenít as totally certain that Paul wrote it as they are certain that he wrote the letter to the Galatians, for instance, or the one to the Romans.† Not that it matters too much, of course; the fact that it was decided to include it in our Bibles means that its message is authentic, even if its author is a little dubious.† On the other hand, though, itís quite possible that this was one of the letters that Philemon took with him when we went home from Rome; we know that he had the letter that bears his name, and the letter to the Colossians, and also the ďletter to the LaodiceansĒ, and itís quite possible that this was it.
Anyway, what a letter!† If youíve never read it, today would be a good time to sit down and do so.† It is a wonderful message of hope and love and unity, with some practical instructions for Christian living Ė some of which have perhaps been seriously misunderstood down the ages Ė and concluding with that lovely picture of ďThe whole armour of GodĒ.
In the passage that was read just now, Paul is talking about our life in Christ.† He reminds us that once upon a time we were "dead"† spiritually, and enslaved to ďthe ruler of the kingdom of the airĒ, in other words, the devil.† And the devil still rules over those who have rejected the call to faith, the disobedient Ė but not, by implication, over Christians. †"All of us", both Jews and Gentiles, once lived self-centred lives, apart from God's redemptive power.† We were descendents of Adam, and as such in danger of Godís wrath against sinners, because we had not yet turned to God.† Even if we reckoned we were doing a pretty good job of being human Ė which we probably were, letís be fair Ė spiritually, we were dead, separated from Godís love for us.†
Now, the next bit is probably more memorable in Greek than it is in English; Paul tells us that even though we were separated from God, God loved us so much that he brought us life together, raised us together and enthroned us together - "with Christ" ††And in Greek, those verbs all start with the same syllable, ďsynĒ, like in our word ďsynergyĒ. †A nice bit of alliteration, which doesnít show up in our translation!
Anyway, we have been given new status, new life and new freedom, and totally renewed through Jesus. †Paul stresses that this is nothing to do with anything we could have done Ė even our faith is a gift from God. †Our job now is to go on being Godís person, and to find out what God wants us to do. †For we, we are told, are Godís workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So much for Ephesians. †Iíll come back to that in a minute, but for now, letís turn to that wonderful and familiar passage from Johnís Gospel. †Jesus, you may remember, is talking to Nicodemus, the lawyer, who has come to him to ask about salvation.† And Jesus says that one must be ďborn againĒ, and goes on to explain that the Son of Man Ė he means himself Ė must be ďlifted upĒ so that people can look at him and be made whole.
Jesus is harking back to the passage in Numbers here; itís the first reading on your sheets.† We didnít have it read this morning, but you remember the story, Iím sure.† The people of Israel were in the desert, on their way between Egypt and the Promised Land, and they began grumbling about their quality of life, saying it had been so much better in Egypt and they were sick of quail and manna, which was basically what they ate, and they wished they hadnít come, and yadda, yadda, yaddaÖ.† And God sent a whole load of poisonous snakes among them, which you would have thought would only make them grumble more.† Anyway, if they got bitten by the snake, that was about fatal, but Moses was told to make an image of a snake, in bronze, and put it up on a pole where it could be seen by the whole camp, and anybody whoíd been bitten only had to look at the snake and theyíd be healed.† Itís rather a weird story, and I donít like it much; it seems to be so strange that Moses should be commanded to make an image of a snake, given that making images was one of the things Jews mustnít do.† Plus I donít like the idea of God sending snakes like that.† Mind you, Iím reminded of† when kids are grizzling and their mother says, ďIf you donít stop that, Iíll give you something to cry about!Ē
Itís quite probable that they found the image of a snake in the Temple, perhaps brought in during one of the times when Israel worshipped other gods, or tried to worship God in ways that were more suitable to worshipping other gods, and this story arose to explain it.† But it is a good illustration for Jesus to use, all the same.
The point is, the Israelites didnít have to do anything with the snake in order to be healed; all they had to do was look at it.† How hard is that?† And in the same way, Jesus says, all we have to do is believe.† ďFor God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.Ē
No, believing and looking, here, arenít really two different things; after all, the Israelites had to believe that looking at the snake would cure them, or theyíd not bother crawling outside their tent.
However, Jesus doesnít stop there.† He goes on to explain that those who believe have already passed from death into life; we donít have to go through any form of judgement, when the time comes.† And those who turn their noses up are already condemned, simply by virtue of the fact that they chose not to believe.
Hmmm Ė chose not to believe?† Well, I think it must be, mustnít it.† St Paul tells us that the faith we need to believe is actually a gift from God.† And while I do know that some Christians think that this means God has limited his love to a minority, thatís not what we believe as Methodists.† Or as Anglicans, for that matter!† We proclaim that everybody both can be, and needs to be, made whole by God.† All need to be saved; all can be saved; all can know they are saved and all can be saved to the uttermost!† So if the faith we need to be saved comes from God, then how come some people donít believe?
Well, the answer is, I donít know!† Perhaps some people really do choose not to believe; perhaps others donít really want to; others still may have never thought about it.† All of us have our moments of doubt, of course, thatís normal and healthy!† But thereís a difference between not being too sure and going on trying to be Jesusí person anyway, and just not bothering about it.
Of course, some people just simply donít know about Jesus.† How can they learn?† They donít go to church, they donít really learn about him at school, and they probably donít learn about him at home.† So how can they possibly know theyíre supposed to believe in him?
Well that, of course, is where we come in.† If our friends canít learn about Jesus any other way, we have to tell them!† How else are they going to learn?
Of course, what is important isnít so much what we say Ė some of us arenít good at putting things into words, and would be horrendously embarrassed if we had to try to explain our faith Ė what we say isnít always important, itís who we are.† Itís not, as they say, how you talk the talk, but how you walk the walk that matters.† We can actually be horribly off-putting if we rabbit on about our faith and yet it doesnít match up with the way we live.
We can take comfort from the last sentence of our first reading:† For we are Godís workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We are Godís workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. †God has prepared the way for us and if any friend actually needs telling in words about Jesus, then we will find the words!† We are Godís witnesses, simply by virtue of the fact that the Holy Spirit has come.
Our job, then, is to keep on walking with Jesus.† Iím sure all of us here this morning have said ďYesĒ to Jesus Ė if you havenít, and would like to, see me or Henry or someone afterwards, and weíll help you Ė we may have said ďYesĒ to Jesus, but it isnít a once-and-for-all experience.† We have to go on renewing that commitment day after day.† Each year, we make our formal commitment in the Covenant service, and each week we implicitly renew that when we make our Communion and when we say ďAmenĒ to the prayer of confession, acknowledging that things have, perhaps, gone pear-shaped between us and God and we need to have them put right.† And sometimes, Iím sure youíve found, we need to do that each day, or several times a day, or even several times an hour when things are really tough!
But let us never forget that, when all is said and done, it is God who loves us first and foremost.† All of us.† Even the ghastliest person you know.† Even Saddam Hussein.† Even George W Bush!† It was all Godís idea, not ours.† We are Godís workmanship, and God loves us.† Amen.