Friday, 23 June 2017

At the right time - God's call and our response

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist –

(Exodus 19.2-8a; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.23)

The Gospel reading we’ve just heard is a sermon in itself - on how to live out our Christian discipleship and how to go about sharing what we believe. Perhaps it’s all too much to take in. But there’s one sentence in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which should leap out and tell us the point of it all. If the Gospel passage tells us how to live as Christ’s disciples, it’s the passage from Romans that tells us why. And this is it (chapter 5, verse 6):

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Can we take that in? The Gospel is not about what we must do if we are to be worthy of Jesus. The Gospel is about what God does for us even though we are not worthy. The whole of Paul’s great letter to the Romans deals with the question of how we - frail, sinful, sinning, wayward creatures - are put right in our relationship with God. At the beginning of the passage we’ve read this morning, Paul has reached the point where he has made his case that the Christian is “justified by faith.” In other words, to know God’s love you don’t need to earn it. You can simply believe it that God loves you. I think we have to be careful that we don’t make the “faith” or “believing” bit a condition of the deal. Salvation is not a reward because we have decided to believe… as though it’s a quality that we’ve worked hard to possess for ourselves. Rather, we can believe because we are saved by God’s merciful action. It’s God who has taken the first step, as St. Paul tells us now:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

We would go on through life without direction, weak and foundering, if it weren’t for the fact that God has put his Son into our human picture. He has taken the initiative. He has found us to be hopeless cases. But he loves us to the extent that Christ gives his life for us on the Cross.

This is the heart of the Gospel. God’s unconditional love for the people of this world; the readiness of Jesus to die for us. For St. Paul it raises the question, “who would you die for?” If I asked you individually, I think the answer I’d get most frequently would be, “for my child / for my children.” I guess Paul didn’t have children. So he’s thinking a bit more remotely: “perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Perhaps… You’d want the sacrifice to be worth it. You might think of the firefighters in the terrible fire last week in London - or police officers, paramedics and nurses who run towards danger in the midst of a terrorist attack. Is it worth it, we ask? But the remarkable thing that St. Paul notices is that Jesus dies for us even though we might think we are not worth it:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (5.8)

Can we take that in? Can we make our response to that love which God shows us? There’s the love to be seen. We only have to let it into our lives, and that’s “believing” / being “justified by faith” / “finding peace with God.” The sad thing is the state of the world we live in, which distracts us from what is truly important.
Ours is a society where we seem badly to have lost sight of what is truly important. Where many people don’t seem even to expect to find meaning. Where selfishness is the first principle on which they act. And we might wonder, how can God love a world like this?

That question perhaps provides a way into today’s long Gospel reading:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9.36)

If we think life is bad now, how different was it in the time of Jesus? But he has “compassion” for these poor hopeless people, not just misguided but without any sense of direction. And so we can dare to hope that he feels for us also. It will come down to that one verse in which St. Paul sums up the ground of our faith:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

And this is not something merely to be believed. Jesus issues a call to action, and it’s here in today’s Gospel reading. He needs “labourers for the harvest” - people who will join him in bringing hope into this hopeless, heartless world. And his first step is to summon twelve disciples. This is not just an event in history. We’re told the names of these twelve disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas Iscariot. It’s been said that if you were drawing up a shortlist of people to head up the management of a new venture, these disciples would be a pretty useless bunch and the only one who would probably get through the recruitment process would be Judas Iscariot. But Jesus doesn’t work through management procedures. He calls people… real people. The recording of their names shows they are people just like us. Try putting your name alongside theirs, and ask: how can I live out my discipleship? how can I make a difference where I am? In Baptism we use the names by which people will be known. The point is that they are known to God. We are known to God, and he calls us to join in his work.

Jesus needs people - he needs us. And then he tells us how to go about doing his work:

7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…

Doing God’s work will take faith and courage on our part. And it will take self-denial and restraint. It’s not for people who want material rewards. If we’re serious about wanting our world to be a better place, perhaps first we have to recognise that we can’t necessarily have everything we want. No payment by results for the first disciples, no unnecessary baggage, and they needn’t worry about having a full wardrobe. What does that say to us in a world of energy crises and global warming, where we see the need to cut down on carbon emissions so long as we can still have that cheap flight for our holidays, fuel for our cars and the central heating on full? What are the possessions we really need as opposed to those we simply accumulate? I realise that one of the most worry-free times in my life was the gap year I spent living in Jerusalem with only the luggage I could carry onto the plane - and now I live in a big house and wonder where to store things!

There’s a final point in today’s Gospel. God’s love is given freely. It’s there in the compassion of Jesus and in the giving of his life on the Cross. You can reach out and take it. But it also will require courage, endurance and the readiness for self-sacrifice. “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” ((10.22). But along the way there will be fallings-out, betrayals, persecution. That is the world we live in - in all its harshness. But even so - in that world - we can hear Christ’s call. Today’s Bible passages made me think of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of another man who had been sentenced to die in a Nazi concentration camp. St Paul writes: “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Maximilian Kolbe was there when ten men were condemned to death because one other prisoner from their camp had disappeared. One of the men cried out about his fears for his wife and children, and Kolbe took his place in a bunker where they were denied food and drink for over two weeks until he was killed by an injection of carbolic acid. He didn’t need to give his life. It was not his life that had been required, but he gave it.

And in this act of giving we can see a reflection of Christ’s love, which we can never earn but only receive - that love which then we seek to live.

No comments: