Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Who is Jesus Christ for us?

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 9.vii.17

Year A - Proper 9

Zechariah 9.9-12;
Romans 7.15-25a;
Matthew 11.16-19,25-30

I’ve spent most of the last week in Whitby taking part in a programme called Missional Leadership for Growth. As I’ve already commented in the social media, the first sign of growth for me was that I put on five pounds in weight during the five days of the course - a sign we were well looked after with three cooked meals a day, the bar open every evening and added cake with a surprise celebration of my birthday in the midst of it all. But church growth was the real aim. What are we doing so that our congregations can grow? How do we go about it? - which entails a lot of challenge to accepted practice. How does that tie in with the sort of people we are? - so there’s a lot of self-understanding and personality type testing along the way. But fundamentally there’s always going to be the basic question: what is the message we are seeking to share? What do we want other people to hear about? What can make a real difference to the way people live?

I’ll be exploring this much more in the weeks and month to come. There’s another residential course later in the year - and work to do as we might explore the implications for us all together in our parishes.

But for now I simply want to take it all back to a question put to me previously by a bishop at another clergy residential: “Most clergy really only have one sermon. So what’s yours?”

In case it hasn’t yet clicked with you… this is it.

The clue is what you’ll find on page 4 of the booklets we use to help us celebrate this Eucharist. Alongside the responses which we use when we hear the Gospel read, I deliberately had that picture of Christ printed - and his words, “But you, who do you say that I am?” When we read the scriptures we need to ask, what do they tell us about Jesus? The Gospel is not just to be read so that then you can close the book and do something else. The Gospels tell us of Jesus and the difference he makes for us and for our world. And we hear those words first put by Jesus to the disciples: “But you, who do you say that I am?” When the other disciples hedge their bets over a question put to them by Jesus, Jesus puts them on the spot - “I don’t want to know what other people say about me. I want to know what you say.”

This is the critical question which for me lies at the heart of my preaching - whether you recognise it or not! From Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” I’ve found the question I have to ask again and again is “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” That question - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” - was put into that form by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at the time that Nazi ideology was taking over his country. Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as an infection which corrupted the heart and soul of his people, which removed their ability to recognise humanity in other people. And of course he was right - once you deny the humanity of someone else, it doesn’t matter how you treat them: Jews, gypsies, gay people, communists and socialists could all be treated as less than worthy of human consideration; there was something “deficient” about them, so for the greater good they could be isolated, mocked, persecuted, locked up and murdered. For Bonhoeffer, there had to be recognition of that question which is the starting point of Christian faith: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” And this is not just a religious question. Because the way we recognise God to be at work in the world gives the clue as to how we can live out our lives in the world. For Bonhoeffer it was to lead him to the path of resistance, leaving the security of a university teaching post, withdrawing from a state-sanctioned Church, and finally giving up his freedom for a prison cell before he was himself put to death. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This was Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Jesus’ invitation to take up the Cross and follow him. Bonhoeffer was to discover the ultimate truth of that for himself. But where we should all start is in asking the question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

We can begin to find the answer in the invitation which Jesus himself issues to us. It’s there in today’s Gospel:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light

Come to Jesus, whatever the burdens we bear, however weary we have grown, and you can learn from him. The answers are not to be found in a textbook, not in any set of rules or printed instructions or recipe for success. The answer is to be found in relationship with Christ - in the one where God and our humanity meet. “All” are welcome to make their response. The burden may be that of exploitation - in a world of inequality and injustice, where even in this country the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow, where in other lands the poor find themselves barely able to exist. The burden may be that of expectation, laid on us by society, family or ourselves - the burden of feeling that we need to achieve. And in all of that there are the burdens which so many carry (most of us?) of guilt, fear and anxiety - the burdens which perhaps people are least ready to share. Bring all of that to me, says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”

Because it is Jesus who meets us in our need, who brings us peace. When prayer seems the last thing to be of any use, we can find through Jesus that prayer grows in us. And it is Jesus who meets us as we are - and where we are. He makes no pre-conditions for that meeting. Simply that already he is there,… so, come!

Jesus is the one who sees us as we are and knows us. It’s tempting to say that in meeting us without pre-condition Jesus meets us also without judging. But actually that’s not true. Judgment - when we find it in Christ - is what truly we need. In Christ we find judgment, yet with mercy. It’s a judgment that we need because we need to be able to listen to the one who truly sees us as we are; only the one who sees what we truly are can discern those burdens of which we need to be relieved. We can come to Christ without pretence, because he knows us… whether or not we admit our failings. If we cannot express our need for ourselves, already he knows.

All of this is the mystery of what Christians call the Incarnation. It’s to say that in Jesus, God comes into our human picture. To say that Jesus is fully God and fully human is to say that he is the one who brings all that we need of God’s purpose and healing into the world, and he is the God who can understand our human need because he shares our humanity.

In Jesus Christ we meet the God who meets us in the fullness of our humanity. That’s the sermon which I hope I always preach. And the fundamental question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us / for me?”… The rest is the working out of this starting point for faith. That God meets me in my need. That God calls me to see others in the light of that humanity he shares with you and me. That in the meeting of the human and the divine in Jesus, we can see the way that lives may be transformed.

“Come to me…” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” We could make those words too comfortable. They call us from anxiety and fear and weariness, but they demand a response as well. It starts when we hear the question Jesus puts to us: “Who do you say that I am?” It asks us to answer the question - and act upon it - “Who is Jesus Christ for us?”

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