A Fresh Start

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Some questions in life are easy to answer – eg, ‘Are you married?’ Whenever I ask people that they always say either ‘Yes’ or, ‘No.’ I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I’m not sure,’ or, ‘I try to be,’ or, ‘Well, I do go to weddings.’ But it’s very different when I ask people, ‘Would you say you’re a Christian?’ Some people give a straight ‘Yes’ or No’. But I’ve often had people say, ‘I’m not sure,’ or, ‘I try to be,’ or, ‘Well, I do go to church.’ Which shows there’s a fair bit of confusion about what makes someone a Christian. So some people think that having Christian parents and growing up Christianly makes you a Christian. Some people think that trying to live a good life makes you a Christian. And some people think going to church makes you a Christian. But actually none of those things makes you a Christian. The truth is: that just like what makes someone married is having a relationship with a husband or wife, what makes someone a Christian is having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now that may sound strange to you – because, after all, Jesus lived and died 2,000 years ago. But Christians are convinced that he didn’t just live and die, but that he rose again from the dead. That’s our biggest reason for believing his claim to be the Son of God. And if that’s true, then he is alive and relating to him and his Father in heaven isn’t just possible, it’s the whole point of life.

So what I want to do is simply to answer the question, ‘What makes someone a Christian?’ And my hope is that, by the end, you’ll have a clear answer to the question, ‘Are you one?’ – and a clearer idea of what being a Christian is all about – what Jesus offers, and what it’s like to accept. And to do that, we’re going to look at the bit of Luke’s Gospel we had read earlier – Luke 7.36-50. So this is from one of the Bible’s four historical accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And the claim of Christianity is that as we read about Jesus, we’re actually reading about God become human – and seeing what God is like and how we can relate to him. And in this incident, two people make big discoveries about where they stand with God. One is a man – who thinks he’s in relationship with God but discovers he’s not. The other is a woman – who thought she was too bad for God to relate to her, but discovers that he not only can, but wants to. And maybe you’ll make one of those two discoveries tonight.
So, let’s start in at v36:

One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. (v36)

So the Pharisees were people who took God’s law – the ten commandments and so on – very seriously. Eg, they came up with a list of 39 things you shouldn’t do on the Sabbath – including tying knots. So what you did about shoe laces, I’m not sure – tie them the night before and wear them in bed, maybe. Anyway, one of them invites Jesus for dinner. And in those days it would have been at a low table, like our coffee tables; and as it says here, they ‘reclined’ – ie, lay down with heads towards the table and feet away, for obvious hygiene reasons. So read on:

And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (vv37-38)

Now I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘sinner’. I saw a tabloid headline a while back which said, ‘Corrie Star’s night of sin.’ And Coronation Street fans will know better than me what that was about. But ‘sin’ for the tabloids is something like a bit of naughty sex. And using sex other than God intended is one symptom of sin. But the Bible defines sin simply as living without reference to God. So to qualify, you don’t have to jump into bed with someone you shouldn’t. You just have to be saying to God – consciously or subconsciously – ‘I don’t want you telling me how to live; I’m going to live the way I want to.’ Which the Bible says is all of us, by nature. So when Luke says this woman ‘was a sinner’, he’s not putting her in a special category – as if the rest of us aren’t. He just means she was the kind of person that others regarded as morally the lowest of the low. I guess in our culture that would be the sex offender.

Anyway, she gatecrashes this dinner and blows this whole bottle of Chanel no.5 on Jesus. And this Pharisee is looking at her like she’s something the cat dragged in. But he doesn’t first and foremost pass judgement on her, but on Jesus:

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet [ie, if he were from God in some way], he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” [And, by implication, would never have accepted her.] (v39)

So what idea of God lies behind that? It’s the idea that God accepts people on the basis of their performance. It’s the idea that you can arrange the human race along a line. And down the bottom end are the really bad people – like sex offenders. And up the top end are the really good people – like doctors working for the Red Cross. And there’s a cut-off point above which God says, ‘You’re good enough – I accept you.’ And Simon thought he was safely up that end, and that this woman would never make the cut.

And that idea of God leads either to pride or to despair. If we think we really are good enough for God, it leads us to pride. Eg, The Times had a thoughtful article about why sex offenders like Jimmy Saville make such news. It said:

‘We focus on them because they make the rest of us feel secure. If we can brand one group of people as evil, we can reassure ourselves that we must be in a different category altogether.’ (The Times, Comment)

But if we’re more honest, the idea that God accepts us if we’re good enough can only lead to despair. Eg, you may have heard me tell the story of a Muslim woman who heard me give a talk like this, and sais to me afterwards, ‘Look, I basically think we believe the same.’ So I said, ‘I disagree.’ And she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Well, just imagine that on our way home tonight we were both knocked down by a bus and killed (my usual light, after-dinner banter). On your belief, you’ll meet Allah. How do you think it’ll go?’ And she said, ‘Well, I believe he’ll weigh my good deeds against my bad deeds and accept me accordingly.’ So I said, ‘And how do you think that’s looking right now?’ And she very honestly said, ‘Not good.’ So I pushed it and said, ‘And can you see that changing?’ And after a long pause she very honestly said, ‘No.’ And it turned out that she was living in private despair of ever doing enough, or making up for what she knew she’d already done wrong.

And if God has started showing you what you’re really like, what your life really looks like to him, you’ll be able to relate to that. And the message of this incident will come as better news than you could ever have hoped. Because what it says is that God doesn’t accept us on the basis of our performance – but on the basis of his forgiveness of everything we get wrong. So look on to v40. Simon has just said to himself, ‘If Jesus really was from God, he’d never accept this woman’,

And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain money-lender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”(vv40-43)

So Jesus is holding up that little story as a mirror, for Simon to see himself and this woman in. Look on to v44:

Then turning towards the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
[Ie, ‘You didn’t offer me any of the basic courtesies of the day – no handshake, no drinks and nibbles – nothing – whereas this woman made this extraordinary gesture of love. Verse 47:]
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Now it’s important to get what Jesus is saying there. He’s not saying, ‘Because this woman has shown me this love, therefore as a reward I’ve just this minute forgiven her.’ He’s saying, ‘This love she’s shown me is a response to the fact that I’ve already forgiven her – on a previous occasion. Because you can tell who’s had their debt cancelled by whether they love the debt-canceller.’

So this woman had already heard and responded to Jesus. She’d heard him saying that he was the rightful ruler of her life, and that it was time to stop living as if he wasn’t God, and to come back into relationship with him. And she’d heard him saying that if she did that, he would forgive and accept her back whatever she’d done. And through the Bible, the risen Jesus Christ is saying exactly the same to us tonight.

So look on to v48. To assure her of where she now stands with him,

[Jesus] said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (v48)

And I wonder if you’re sure, yet, that those words can be written over your life – ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Or I wonder if you’d like to be – I wonder whether your problem is not seeing yourself as a sinner, but wondering how God could ever forgive you. Well, read on to see how – v49:

Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” (v49)

So remember: sin is saying to God, ‘I don’t want you telling me how to live; I’m going to live the way I want to.’ And you can’t overstate how offensive that attitude is to God, along with all the ways we hurt others and ourselves as a result. So the people in v49 have a point, don’t they? Who is Jesus to think he can forgive offence against God? After all, only the offended party has the right to forgive. Eg, just imagine that after the service Miles (our organist) had a falling out with one of the band. After all, music can be a bone of contention and you may know the old gag, ‘What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?’ – ‘You can negotiate with a terrorist.’ So just imagine Miles has a falling out and throws a punch and there’s a drummer or guitarist clutching a bleeding nose – and I come over and say to Miles, ‘That’s OK – I forgive you.’ That would be completely out of order. Because I’m not the offended party.

But when it comes to our offence against God, Jesus claimed the right to forgive us – for two reasons: no.1, because he is part of the offended party – he is God the Son; and, no.2, because the whole reason he came into the world was to secure our forgiveness by his death on the cross.

Just think of the biggest thing you’ve ever had to forgive. You’ll know from experience that to forgive someone, you have to do something: you have to deal with your natural reaction to hold whatever it is against the other person, and to punish them by withholding your love or cutting them off. Instead of letting all that out at the other person, you have to keep it in and overcome it. And to forgive us, God had to deal with his natural reaction to our sin – which is to cut us off from himself in this life and beyond it. And instead of letting that judgement out at us, he had to find a way of keeping it in and overcoming it. And the Bible says he did that at the cross. It says that when Jesus died on the cross, God the Father was pouring out his judgement on our sin, and God the Son was taking it in our place – so that on the one hand our sins could be forgiven, but on the other hand justice could still be done on them.

I have an older brother called Niall. And we used to play that game where you’d balance something on top of a door and then try to lure the other through so that it fell on him. So Niall once got me with a full bucket of water – which he thought was clever until he realised there was a lot of wet carpet to explain to the parents. And I once got him with the four volume encyclopaedia of knowledge our parents had just given us – which probably did the opposite for his brainpower than they’d intended. But the thing about that game is that once one person has been through the door and whatever it is has fallen on them, it’s then completely safe for anyone else to go through. And when Jesus died on the cross it’s as if he was walking through that door of death ahead of us, in our place. And all the condemnation that should have fallen on us fell on him. So that if our faith is in him, it’ll be completely safe for us to walk though the door when the time comes. No condemnation will fall on us, because it’s already fallen on him. And that’s why Jesus could say what he says in v50:

And he said to the woman, “Your faith [ie, your trust in my ability to forgive you] has saved you; go in peace.” (v50)

So he’s not only saying, ‘Your past sins are forgiven.’ There would be no peace with God if all he said to us was, ‘Your past sins are forgiven – but now you’re on your own, so don’t’ blow it again!’ No, Jesus is also saying to us, ‘I’ve anticipated all your future sins, and dealt with them at the cross, so that I can forgive you whenever you need it in future. And that’s why you can go in peace with me, knowing that when you fail in trying to live for me, I won’t give up on you; I’ll forgive you.’

So what makes someone a Christian? Simply the two things you see here in this woman: trusting Jesus for forgiveness, and loving Jesus in response.

Now I don’t know where you stand in relation to Jesus tonight. But imagine I were to draw a line. And at one end are the people who’d say they are trusting Jesus for forgiveness and, albeit imperfectly, trying to live for him in response. At the other end are the people who’d say, ‘I’m still just looking into this. I’m not sure it’s true. And I certainly don’t know enough to respond.’ And if that’s you, can I say: please do keep looking. Do make use of the Sunday services. Do give our Christianity Explored course a try – you can just come for one session and see if you think it would be good for you. Or at the moment we’re encouraging people to use something called Uncover – which takes a look at six bits of Luke’s Gospel including the bit I’ve used tonight. Maybe if a Christian friend invited you along you and they could use Uncover together.

But it may be that you’re in the middle of my line. You know this is true. You know enough to respond – and maybe that it’s time you did. And your question is, ‘So, what do I have to do?’

Well, three things.

No.1, you have to admit you’re a sinner – in need of being forgiven and put right with God. And for some of us here that’ll be the hardest thing because, relatively speaking, we’re nice, decent people – the kind of people anyone would wish for as next door neighbours – and we find it difficult to believe that we’re actually not the people God wants us to be.

No.2, you have to believe that Jesus will forgive you – and for some of us here that’ll be the hardest thing because there are things on our consciences that seem, to us, unforgivable. But the truth is that there is nothing we can admit to God that he didn’t deal with at the cross and that he can’t forgive.

No.3 you have to come to Jesus – like I said at the start, we’re convinced he rose from the dead and is alive in heaven – and that you can come to him in prayer and ask him to forgive you and come into your life by his Spirit. And that’s the experience of many of us here – that what I’m saying is true and real.

And I’m going to end with a prayer that you could use to make that response, if you want to. You may be much further back down the line and your next step is to do more looking into this. Or you may already have begun relationship with God and don’t need to begin again. But if this prayer is appropriate for you, you could use it now:

Lord Jesus,
I admit that I am a sinner deserving judgement.
But I believe you died that I might be forgiven.
And so I come to you and ask you to forgive me,
and to come into my life to help me live for you.

If you’ve prayed that prayer and meant it, can I encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it. In which case, the words Jesus spoke to that woman now apply to you: “Your sins are forgiven.” “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And if that’s you, can I encourage you to pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? – which goes over the step you’ve just taken. It’s on the stand by the door on your way out. And can I also encourage you to tell another Christian what you’ve just done, so they can suggest what will help you to go on from here.

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