Let me ask you to exercise your imagination for a moment. Imagine it’s Monday morning and you’re on your way to work. I know that for some of the student body that’s already stretching the imagination, but hang in there. You’re on your way to work (or whatever) and suddenly you’re kidnapped, bundled into a car, sedated – and the next thing you know, you’ve woken up in a room in total darkness. You can’t see or hear anything and you’ve no idea whether there’s anyone else in there with you. But you hope there is, because you don’t want to believe you’re on your own. And in fact, after a while, you start telling yourself there is someone else in there. Not because you’ve seen or heard anything. But because you need to believe it, to keep your spirits up.
Now a lot of people think that Christian faith, is like that: just wishful thinking – believing that there’s a God, but without a shred of evidence. So people often talk about faith as a ‘leap in the dark’.
But if that’s what you think about Christian faith, you’re way off the truth. Just go back to that imaginary Monday morning and imagine this second scenario. You’ve been kidnapped and just woken up in that pitch black room. You can’t see or hear anything, so you’ve no reason to believe there’s anyone else there. When suddenly a door opens, a shaft of light falls into the room, and a person steps in and says to you, ‘I’ll get you out of here. Follow me.’ And having wondered whether you’ll trust him, and decided that you will, you get up and follow him.
Well that second scenario is the true picture of what Christian faith is like. It’s not wishful thinking or a leap in the dark. Because Christianity claims that, like your rescuer in that second scenario, God has stepped into this world in the person of Jesus. The claim is that 2,000 years ago, God’s Son became a human being, to show us what he’s like and to call us into relationship with him. And Christian faith is a response of trust in Jesus.
Now there are two big faith-questions people usually ask. The first is this: ‘How can I believe God is there?’ And if that’s what you’re asking, Christianity’s answer is: look at Jesus. Look at how he claimed to be God’s Son become human; and look at his miracles and his own resurrection from the dead – which back up that claim. Now to do that, you have to read from the four Gospels – the accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ life, death and rising again from the dead. And you may be thinking, ‘The trouble is, I don’t trust them.’ To which I’d say, ‘I’m not asking you to trust them straight off – that’s called being gullible. I’m just asking you to give them a look.’ And if trusting the Bible is your sticking point, why not pick up this little booklet which I wrote. It’s called ‘Why Trust Them?’ When it first appeared, one female student, whose boyfriend had just split up with her, came and said to me, ‘I see you’ve written something about men.’ To which I said, ‘No, it’s like it says on the cover: it’s about the four gospels: who wrote? When? And can we trust them?’
So the first big faith-questions is, ‘How can I believe God is there?’ But the other one is, ‘How can I believe God accepts me?’ Can I have a relationship with God and know that I’m loved by God? And if so, how? And it’s that second question I want to look at tonight. And I want to answer it from that reading we had earlier from Luke’s Gospel.
This is an incident in Jesus’ life where two people make big discoveries about where they really stand with God. One is a man – who thinks he’s in relationship with God but discovers that he’s not. And the other is a woman who thought God couldn’t possibly relate to her but discovers that he can and that he wants to. And maybe you’ll make one of those two discoveries about yourself tonight. So let me read from v36:
“36Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table”. (v36)
The Pharisees, as you may know, took God’s law – the ten commandments and so on – very seriously. Eg, to help themselves keep the Sabbath law, they came up with a list of 39 things you shouldn’t do – including cooking, carrying anything and even tying a knot – so woe betide you if your shoelace came undone. And one of them invites Jesus for dinner. And in those days they didn’t sit on chairs. Like it says, ‘they reclined at the table’. It would have been a low table, like our coffee tables, and they lay down with their heads towards the table, propped up on elbows, and their feet pointing away from the table, to avoid the cheese course coming on early. So v37:
“37When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” (vv37-38)
Now when it says she’d ‘lived a sinful life’ it means a particularly notorious one – maybe she’d been a prostitute; or had a whole series of sexual partners; we don’t know. But people regarded her as morally the lowest of the low. In our culture I guess that would be: the paedophile. Anyway, she hears Jesus is at this meal; she gathers up this incredibly expensive bottle of Chanel no.5 and blows it on Jesus, as a gesture of love. And this Pharisee is looking at her like something the cat’s dragged in. But he doesn’t first and foremost pass judgement on her, but on Jesus. Look at v39:
“39When the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet [ie, if Jesus really were from God in some way], he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner" [and wouldn’t dream of associating with her].” (v39)
Now just ask yourself: what idea of God lies behind Simon’s thinking there? Surely it’s the idea that God accepts people if they’re good enough. It’s that idea that you can arrange the human race along a line. And down the bottom end are the really bad people – like paedophiles. 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 needless to say, Simon thought he was safely up that end, and that this woman didn’t have a hope of making the cut. That was Simon’s idea of God – and it may be yours as well. And you can tell whether it is, because if it is, you’ll find yourself either in pride or despair.
On the one hand, if you think your life really is good enough for God, it’ll lead you to pride. There was a very shrewd column in The Times a while back about why paedophiles make such high profile news. And among other things, it said this:
‘We love our paedophiles 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.’
On the other hand, if you’re more honest, this idea, that God will accept you if you’re good enough, will lead you to despair. Eg, I was speaking one time at a dinner party laid on to give people the chance to discuss the Christian message. And a Muslim woman there said she reckoned that what I believed and what she believed was basically the same. So to show he that wasn’t true, 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 you’ll get on?’ And she said, ‘Well, I believe he’ll weigh my good deeds against my bad deeds and if the good outweigh the bad, he’ll let me in; and if they don’t, he won’t.’ So I said, ‘And how do you think the balance is 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, I can’t.’ It turned out that she was quietly in despair. Because of her Muslim idea of God – which is one of many variations on the theme that God will accept you if you’re good enough.
But this incident says: God isn’t like that; and that isn’t the way into relationship with him.
A friend of mine was brought up going to church and he says that Sunday by Sunday he refused to listen to the sermon because he knew all the preacher would do was tell him to be good – which everyone else (from his parents to his teachers) was telling him anyway, so he didn’t see why he needed to hear it again. So instead of listening, he counted bricks in the wall at the front. And during the average sermon he’d get up to somewhere between 900 and 1,000. And it was so boring that one Sunday he thought to himself, ‘The sermon can’t be any more boring than counting bricks, so just this once I’ll give it a listen.’ And I remember him saying, ‘I got the shock of my life: all those years I’d been assuming they were telling me to be good. When all along they’d been trying to tell me what Jesus did to bring me back into relationship with God.’
Which is what the rest of this incident is about. So look down to v40. Simon has just thought to himself, ‘If Jesus really was from God, he’d never accept a person like this.’ And v40:
40Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said.41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him [£50,000], and the other [£5000; adjusting for 2008 prices, although they’ve probably fallen more since I wrote this script. V42:]. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" (vv40-42)
Well for me, my parents have been the great debt-cancellers. You may have heard the story of the couple whose son is away at university. And one day the wife says, ‘When did we last hear from Ben?’ And the husband replies, ‘I can’t remember – I’ll just go and look it up in the cheque-book.’ Well, that was me and my parents. And it does make you want to love them more. So, which of the debtors will love the debt-canceller more? Verse 43:
43Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled."
"You have judged correctly," Jesus said.(v43)
And now he holds up that little story as a mirror, so that Simon can see himself and this woman in it. Verse 44:
“44Then [Jesus] turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. [Ie, you didn’t offer me any of the basic courtesies – no handshake, no drinks and nibbles – nothing – whereas this woman made this extraordinary gesture of love. V47:] 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." [And by implication, he who has not been forgiven doesn’t love Jesus at all.] (vv44-47)
Now Jesus is 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 evidence that I have already forgiven her – on a previous occasion. And you’ve just seen the evidence that I’ve cancelled her moral debt, because, Simon, like you just said, you know who’s had their debt cancelled by whether they love the debt-canceller.’
So let’s do a bit of reconstruction. This woman, v37, ‘had lived a sinful life’. But now she was a changed person. Because she’d met Jesus on some previous occasion, and heard from him both the bad news and the good news which you have to believe in order to come to faith in Jesus.
The bad news is that every one of us is morally in debt to God. To use Jesus’ language, we each ‘owe’ God a life lived the way he wants it lived and we’ve all failed to ‘pay’. That’s why, in his little story, he begins, ‘Two people owed money to a certain money-lender.’ The money-lender stands for God, and what Simon needs to see is that there are actually two sinners in the frame – not just this woman, but him as well. Now, obviously, he’d sinned differently to her – but the point is, he’d still sinned. And the truth is: we’ve got to compare ourselves not with other people but with how God says he wants us to live in the Bible. And Jesus summed that up like this (quote):
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. [Ie, at every moment, in every area of your life, live consciously to please God. Are you going to tick that box? ‘Done that.’ And then Jesus added] ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’[Ie, in every encounter with every other person, treat them as you would want to be treated. Are you going to tick that box?] (Mark 12.30-31)
I remember being driven down the motorway by a friend, Richard, and noticing he was doing about 85mph and I said to him, ‘What about the speed limit?’ And at that moment a Porsche shot by at a good 100mph. And Richard said, ‘Well what about him?’ To which of course the answer is, ‘Well, what about him? You’re speeding and he’s speeding. The only difference is: he’s speeding at a different speed because you’ve only got a Vauxhall Cavalier that wouldn’t know what 100mph was.’ (I didn’t say that.) The point is: what you’ve got to compare yourself with on the motorway is 70mph. And what we’ve got to compare ourselves with when it comes to God is how he says he wants us to live in the Bible. It’s not our self-judgement that matters, or our friend’s judgement that we’re nice people. It’s God’s judgement that matters.
And the bad news – which deep down in our consciences we know - is that every one of us is morally in debt to God. And God is offended.
And this woman heard that, and admitted it. And the question is: have you admitted it? Will you? Because that’s what you have to do on the way to coming to faith in Jesus. Because Christian faith is trusting Jesus to accept you not on the basis of your goodness but on the basis of his forgiveness. So if you won’t admit a need of forgiveness, you’ll never come to faith.
But then this woman also heard the good news from Jesus. She heard him saying, ‘I have come on behalf of God my Father to say I will forgive you all your moral debts. So turn to me and start life again with me in my rightful place as the ruler of your life.’ And that’s still God’s promise and call to each of us. And this woman believed it. So if you look down to the last verse, v50,
50Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith [ie, your believing my promise of forgiveness] has saved you [ie, saved you from a life out of relationship with God, and heading for judgement – to a life in friendship with God and heading for the certainty of a welcome into heaven]. (V50)
Now many people say you can’t be certain like that. Because they have that idea that God will accept you if you’re good enough – which is what you find in all the human religions of the world and all the watered-down versions of Christianity.
What’s unique about Jesus is that he does offer certainty about where we stand with God, because that depends not on our goodness, but on his forgiveness. So look at how he assures this woman in v48:
48Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." [Ie, be assured that everything wrong in your past has been forgiven. And then look onto v50 again:]50Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." [Ie, be assured that God won’t hold any of your future sins against you, either – but will forgive you whenever you need it.’] (vv48, 50)
And between those assurances comes the obvious question, v49:
“49The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" (v49)
Ie, what right does Jesus have to say you’re forgiven? And the answer is: he has the right because he’s God’s Son, and because he came into the world to cancel our moral debt. That’s what Jesus was doing as he died on the cross: the one man who ever lived a sinless life, the one man infinitely ‘in credit’ with God his Father, paid off our moral debt, paid the penalty of God’s judgement which we deserve, so that we could be forgiven.
And this woman believed that, too. And again the question is: do you believe that? Will you? Because Christian faith is trusting Jesus’ promise that through his death all your sins – past and future – will be forgiven, and that you are securely accepted by God from now on.
Now I remember saying that in another sermon, and someone came up to me afterwards and told me, ‘You should never say that.’
So I said, ‘Why not?’
And he said, ‘Because it’ll just encourage people to go out and sin.’
And I said, ‘Why will it?’
And he said, ‘Because you’ve just told them it doesn’t matter what they do.’
And I said, ‘No I didn’t. I told them their acceptance with God doesn’t depend on what they do.’
And he said, ‘But if people believe that, won’t they just go out and do what they want?’
So I decided to say, ‘Yes, they will.’
And he said, ‘So you’re agreeing with me!’
And I said, ‘No I’m not. I’m saying that when people genuinely believe what I’ve just preached, it changes what they want – because it’s just not possible to believe that the Son of God died for you and to go on living for yourself, rather than for him.’
Eg, the story’s told of a group of tourists being shown round one of the cathedrals in Paris. And their tour guide stopped them in front of a huge painting of the crucifixion at the front of the building. And at that moment, the bishop walked by. And he came over to them and said, ‘There’s a story about that painting.’ And he said, ‘About 50 years ago, there were some pretty tough gangs of street boys in Paris, each with their own initiation ceremonies or dares. And he said one boy, a 10-year-old, was set the initiation task of coming into the cathedral, standing in front of that painting and shouting out loud, ‘Jesus Christ, you died for me and I couldn’t give a damn.’ So the bishop said the boy came in, stood in front of the painting, looked up at it and shouted out, ‘Jesus Christ, you died for me...’ and then couldn’t get any further. Just turned on his heel and ran.’ And one thoughtful tourist asked, ‘How did you know about that?’ And the bishop said, ‘I was the boy.’ You see, when like that boy, you grasp that God’s Son died for you because you’re not good enough and needed forgiving, it changes you.
So I remember a friend being on the point of turning to Christ. And I asked him what was stopping him. And he said, ‘Two things: I’m not good enough. And I couldn’t change.’ So I said, ‘Well, on the first one, join the club – which is why forgiveness is such good news.’ And I said, ‘On the second one, it’s precisely being forgiven and accepted by God that changes you and makes you want to live for him in a way you didn’t before.
Well, maybe this evening, like this man Simon, you came thinking you were good enough for God but you’ve realised you’re not. Or maybe, like this woman, you came knowing you’re not good enough but you’ve realised that’s no obstacle to you coming into relationship with him, because of what his Son did for you when he died on the cross and then rose again.
I don’t know where you stand tonight in relation to Jesus. But imagine I were to draw a line that represented the different places we might be. At one end are the people who’d say, like this woman, that they’re trusting in Jesus for forgiveness and, albeit imperfectly, trying to live to please him in response. At the other end of the line are the people who’d say, ‘I’m still looking into all this, still working out whether I really believe it for myself.’ Well, if that’s you, can I say: please do keep looking. If you’re a student, why not join us at the student Christianity Explored course that starts this Thursday in a café just over the way. Or it’s not too late to join other Christianity Explored courses – details are on this leaflet, or do ask at the Welcome Desk, or ask one of us on the staff.
But you may be in the middle of my line. You’ve done enough looking and thinking. You know it’s true. And you know enough. Well, can I say: God is calling you through his gospel to respond to him. He’s saying, as he said to that woman: ‘I will forgive you all your moral debts. So turn to me and start life again with me in my rightful place, as the ruler of your life.’ And I’m going to end with a prayer that would help you to respond to his call – if you’re ready and wanting to. Let me read through the prayer, so that you can think whether it would be appropriate for you to pray in a moment:
I admit that I am I sinner and deserve your judgement.
But I believe your Son died for me, that I might be forgiven.
I now come, and ask you to forgive me,
and to help me live for you as my ruler from now on.
You may be much further back down the line and not ready to respond like that. Or you may already have begun relationship with God with a prayer like that and don’t need to begin again. But if that prayer is appropriate for you, you could echo it in your mind to God:
I admit that I am I sinner and deserve your judgement.
But I believe your Son died for me, that I might be forgiven.
I now come, and ask you to forgive me,
and to help me live for you as my ruler from now on.
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." You came here unforgiven and you’re going home forgiven. You came here out of relationship with God, and you’re going home at peace with him.
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 Welcome Desk and through in student supper. 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. And lastly, if you are trusting in Jesus but haven’t yet been baptised, as a sign of his forgiveness and acceptance of you, then you ought to be. And if you’d like to be, there’s an opportunity in this service in two week’s time – just ask one of us on the door about that.