This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday for our local Service of Christian Unity based on Bible text – John 4:4-42
Good evening everyone, it’s wonderful to be together to worship, isn’t it?
I hope you’ll forgive me for beginning with a joke ...
How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Charismatic: Only 1 - Hands are already in the air. Pentecostal: 10 - One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness. Presbyterians: None - Lights will go on and off at predestined times.
Roman Catholic: None - Candles only.
Baptists: At least 15 - One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.
Anglican: 3 - One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.
Methodists: Undetermined - Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Bring a bulb of your choice to the Sunday lighting service. Traditionalists: None - we don’t believe in change.
I hope you’re not too offended and that you were able to laugh at yourself just a little. One of our problems is that people perceive that we take ourselves too seriously but we simply don’t take Jesus seriously enough. We are seen as being divided by wrangling over doctrine and the style of the way we worship and over other perceived petty things when what holds us together is far greater than what divides us. And in a world where in the past week alone, we’ve had bloodshed at the hands of Muslim extremists in Paris and more shockingly in Northeast Nigeria, where over 2,000 people were reported to be killed, and also in the Central African Republic, where so-called Christian Militia are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, the world needs a united church more than ever. After the terrorist attacks, the hashtag “JeSuisCharlie” was tweeted 5 million times all over the world as a sign of defiance and of the defence of free-speech. Actually, the world doesn’t really need me to be Charlie – because I’m not sure that the publication of offensive images is necessarily to be celebrated – although their right to do so should be defended. The world doesn’t need me to be Charlie. The world needs me to be Jesus.
The world needs the more than 2 billion people who call themselves Christians to stand up and say in our words and actions, #jesuisJesus.
If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”
That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so- called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.
And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,
“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”
An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'
We’re called to be like Jesus, who is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. Offensively inclusive, because he reaches out to the worst of sinners and causes great offense to religious leaders. He even hangs out with this Samaritan – this Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times and is shacked up with a man she’s not married to. Jesus knows all this about her, and he still talks to her, showing her genuine respect. Jesus throws open the doors of the kingdom to sinners of all stripes, and by doing so condemns us for our self-righteousness. Jesus is offensively inclusive.
The inclusive posture of Jesus poses a challenge to the church today, just as it did for the Pharisees two thousand years ago. Until the radically offensive inclusiveness of God’s grace seeps into our bones, we will never join Jesus at the margins of society, welcoming and blessing repentant sinners of all kinds, like ourselves.
But Jesus is also offensively exclusive. He tells the Samaritan woman, “salvation comes from the Jews”, and he makes it very clear that he alone can offer the living water that truly satisfies. He reveals himself as the Messiah, and the only Saviour of the world. In a pluralistic world he dares to say, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He makes an even more extreme statement when he declares, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In this pluralistic world where our rights and choices to live life the way we want to are king, Jesus’ demands and claims are offensive. He calls me to submit my will to his, to trade in my personal agenda to his kingdom agenda, to submit to him in the way I use my time, skills and money, how I live, how I love, how I worship, how I behave sexually, how I speak, how I follow Him as Lord.
So, Jesus is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. He alone is the Saviour, he alone is the hope of this world. He is the one we’re called to represent. The world needs Jesus, and we, his church are his hands and feet. We’re called to be like Christ. Sadly, left to our own devices, this is impossible. We know we’re called to be like Jesus, but don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.
'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'
And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. But we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. It’s a journey we’ll never finish – whether we’re 8, 18, 48 or 88, we’re still on that journey, and we’re called to a life of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you. Allow his living water to flow in and through you. Is there division between our churches of which we need to repent? Then let’s sort it out. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.
And let’s find ways of working together to build God’s kingdom. It’s great to know of some of the ecumenical projects that are springing up, but I think there’s more that can be done. Perhaps there’s scope for working together in practical mission. I’m currently involved in the early stages of setting up a project called Besom, which seeks to help us make a difference to the lives of others and to make it easy for us to do so. If you’d like to hear more, and may be interested in getting involved, please chat to me afterwards.
There may be other projects we may set up. Whatever we do, may we see Christ proclaimed as we reach out into all corners of the communities whom we’re called to serve. Whether our endeavours mean that people become part of the church community of Limbrick Wood or St Christopher’s, or St Andrews’, Our Lady, St John Vianney, or St James’, then the Kingdom is growing.
Two years ago, this service was blighted by the snow that made getting to St Andrew’s rather difficult. When one snowflake falls to the ground, it melts. But when many snowflakes fall together, they stop traffic. This is the power of unity.
Now more than ever, the world needs Jesus. He has the living water, and his living water flows through us. Let’s not be afraid of either his offensive inclusivity or offensive exclusivity. The world needs Jesus. Our communities need Jesus. In his strength and in the Spirit’s power, may it be said of us, #jesuisJesus