Well if you're here on the strength of an invitation, can I say thank you for coming - and for overcoming the apprehension of wondering just what this place is like. A friend of mine worked in a church as a curate for a very traditional Vicar. And when the 5-year-olds from the school came to visit, the Vicar dressed up in the standard ghost outfit: cassock and surplus and so on. Anyway, the children were waiting in the Hall and being somewhat naughty, so the Vicar swept out in his robes, read them the riot act, and then disappeared back into the church. At which point my friend appeared and found this hall-full of 5 year-olds sitting in absolute silence, looking very apprehensive indeed. So he said, 'What's happened to all of you, then?' And a little girl piped up and said, 'Well, God just came out of his house and he was very angry. He told us off and said he'd be coming back to get us any minute now.' I hope, if you're here for the first time, that tonight's experience is a little more friendly. From time to time in life you find yourself asking someone the question, 'Are you married?' And there are certain answers I've never got. No-one's ever said to me, 'I think I am.' They always seem to be sure. No-one's ever said 'I try to be.' It seems you either are or you aren't. And no-one's ever said, 'Well, I do go to weddings.' I've been to lots of weddings and I've never once come away married. In my experience the bloke at the front with the smart outfit and the flower always gets the girl. The only answers I've ever had to that question are: yes, or no. Or sometimes, sadly, I used to be. And the reason is: we all know what makes someone a married person. So it's not hard to work out whether we are, or we aren't. But ask people the question, 'Are you a Christian?' and in my experience there's confusion: 'Are you a Christian?' - 'I think I am.' 'Are you a Christian?' - 'I try to be.' (ie, 'I think a certain code of behaviour makes you a Christian.') 'Are you a Christian?' - 'Well, I go to church from time to time.' (Ie, I think certain activities make you a Christian.') Well the question this evening is: 'What makes you a Christian?' The Bible often uses marriage as an illustration. It says that to be a Christian is a bit like being married. It's a restored relationship - with God, through his Son Jesus. Not a code of behaviour - although like all relationships, it changes you. Not a set of activities like going to church - although like all relationships, you make time and space to spend with the other person, with God. It's a relationship. And just like you have to get married to be married, you have to become a Christian to be one. You can't be born one. No-one 'pops out', 8lbs 3oz's and Christian, any more than you can pop out 8lbs 3oz's and married. That doesn't mean that everyone who is a Christian can pin-point exactly where they took that step. But there is a step to take. I became a Christian just before lunch on Sunday 27th September 1981. It was at school, through a talk at the Christian Union. And in the space of 20 minutes I'd made the two most important discoveries of my life. On the one hand, I discovered that I wasn't actually a Christian. That was a great help, because in my experience it's very hard to become a Christian when you're so confused that you think you already are one. I was the pretty average decent bloke, so I felt pretty Christian. And since going to this boarding school, I'd had to go to chapel 6 times a week. It was compulsory, and by September 1981 I'd been to chapel about 500 times so I felt pretty Christian. I felt pretty 'churched'. And I went along to this Christian Union talk and was told that what makes you a Christian is: having a restored relationship with God, through Jesus. And it become obvious to me in the space of a few minutes that I wasn't one. That was the first important discovery: that I wasn't one. And the second was: how to become one. And my hope this evening is that I can do what the speaker that morning did for me. He explained who Jesus was, why he came, and how it's possible to come into friendship with God through him. And it was all news to me. So, what makes someone a Christian? We're going to let a passage of the Bible answer that question for us - it's the passage on page 3 of the service sheet, and it would be a real help if you had it open as we go. I'm sorry about all the stuff that's been put into your hands - it's a bit like looking for the TV page in the Sunday papers, but it's the white bit, and it's page 3. Luke 23.32 onwards. Luke was a doctor who became a Christian. He had direct contact with the people who'd been with Jesus. His Gospel is a collection of eye-witness accounts from those people. (See Luke 1:1-4) And Luke 23 is like the diary entry of someone who witnessed the last day of Jesus' earthly life - a Friday in April about the year AD30, which has come to be known as 'Good Friday'. Cast your mind back to another day. 14th July 1789. The day they stormed the Bastille prison in Paris and the French Revolution was let loose. Some time ago, the diary of a French cobbler was discovered. His name was Jean Mornet. His house and workshop was three blocks away from the Bastille. Let me read you his diary entry for the 14th July 1789: 'Rose at 6am to a full day's labour. 14 repairs, 12 orders, Herve off sick. Retired early without venturing out. No visits or post. Nothing of any significance happened today.' I love that. The French Revolution breaks out 3 streets away and: 'Dear diary, Nothing of any significance happened today.' Well cast yourself back to that Friday in April around the year AD30. You're in Jerusalem for the public holiday and the only excitements in the early part of the day are a few executions that are going on. It's like TV documentaries on the death-penalty. You tell yourself you don't really want to watch that sort of thing, but you end up turning it on out of a weird sort of curiosity. And so it is you find yourself standing just outside the Jerusalem city wall, watching three naked men being nailed to pieces of wood. Verse 32:
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood, watching. (Luke 23.32-35)
And had you known nothing more about the man on the middle cross, you might well have written in your diary that night something like this. 'Usual crowds here for the holiday. Picked up some cheap sandals in the market on the way to see the crucifixions before lunch. Hotel food as bad as ever. Nothing of any significance happened today.' So how is it that of the thousands of people crucified in those years, you and I have all heard of just one? And how is it that, 2000 years later, his name has been on the lips of billions of people throughout the world today? Could it be that there's more to this man on the middle cross than meets the eye? Last year we had a Parish Assistant called Charles working here on the staff of the church. One Sunday Charles saw this youngish bloke in church: didn't know who he was; hadn't seen him before; thought he'd go and sit next to him, and introduce himself. It was in fact Jonathan Edwards, the world-record holding triple jumper. 'Hello,' said Charles. 'My name's Charles.' 'Hello,' said Jonathan. 'I'm Jonathan.' 'And are you new here?' said Charles. 'I come occasionally.' 'And do you work in Newcastle?' 'Yes, I do.' 'And what do you do?' 'I'm an athlete.' 'Really?' said Charles, struggling for his athletics small talk. 'Um Are you any good at it?' 'Enough to make ends meet,' was the modest reply. (This was just after the offer of the Ferrari and the Mercedes, and the various other sponsorship deals, I think). 'And what kind of athletics do you do?' said Charles. 'I jump.' At which point Charles thought he could begin to sound slightly more knowledgable about the subject: 'Oh, high jump or long jump?' 'Triple jump,' said Jonathan Edwards. And so it went on. It was only the next day that Charles realised who he'd been speaking to. Well, is there more to this man on the middle cross than meets the eye? Who was it that died on that middle cross? That's the first most important question in the world to answer. Verse 35:
The people stood, watching. The rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ if God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar [a perverse thing to do to someone dying of dehydration] and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." There was a written notice above him which read, 'This is The King Of The Jews'. [Heavy sarcasm, there.] One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him. "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us." (Luke 23.35-39)
They knew what Jesus had claimed for himself, these people. They just didn't believe it. He'd claimed that he was sent by God, from God's side; that he was God's Son, God's King over human affairs. They knew it. They just didn't believe it. So why didn't they just laugh him off, like we all laughed off David Icke? Do you remember David Icke? 1st career: goalkeeper for Coventry City. 2nd career: BBC sports commentator. And then he announced his 3rd career: he'd come to realise that in fact he was the Son of God. But we never took him seriously. Because he never did anything to make us even think twice that he might be who he claimed to be. And he's now in quiet, embarrassed retirement on the Isle of Wight. The reason they didn't laugh Jesus off was that you couldn't. Verse 35: even his enemies had to concede "He saved others." (Even non-Christian writers of the time refer to his miracles). Earlier in Luke there's an account of how Jesus breaks up a funeral by walking up to the coffin, touching it and telling the corpse to get up (Luke 711-17). And Luke says, 'The dead man sat up and began to talk.' Well, I'm sure that Joseph had showed him how to make a coffin in his time, at Nazareth. But I guarantee Joseph never showed him how to empty one. That sort of power doesn't come on human genes. You have to be God. That's why they couldn't just laugh Jesus off. Here was a man claiming to be God's Son, from God. Andwith the credentials to match. And when God makes himself that obvious - which he has - the human race can't stand it. You hear people talking about man's search for God. The singer Prince once said, 'God must be quite a dude because everyone's looking for him and no-one can find him.' But he's wrong. By nature not one of us is looking for God. That Christian Union meeting I went along to: I didn't go along because I was looking for God. I went along because it was becoming embarrassing saying 'No' to the Christian friends who had the care and the courage to keep inviting me. I had a Bible to read. But I didn't read it. I had Christian friends to ask. But I didn't ask them. The truth is: I wasn't looking. None of us are. The Bible says, 'There is no-one who seeks God, all have turned away.' (Romans 3.11-12). That's the truth about all of us, by nature: we're quite happy for God to be up there and out there somewhere, running the universe, doing his thing. But we don't want him involved down here, thanks very much. We don't want him interfering. And consciously or subconsciously we've all said to him, 'My life is my life. Please keep out of it. I want to run it how I please.' So when God's Son stepped out of eternity into time, and made God obvious beyond all reasonable doubt, they crucified him. Put litmus paper into a solution, and see it go red. That tells you, you have acid. God sends his Son into human history and we crucify him. That tells you what is our real attitude towards God. It's not that the claims and credentials of Jesus are unclear - then or now. It's that they're too clear. They're not what we wanted to hear. There's a story of a farmer in the United States. He was widowed young and left to bring up his only child - a boy called Sam. This farmer had no qualifications and no money, really, but his great ambition was that his son would go through high school and on to college. And he poured himself into that dream. And it finally came off. The son eventually left for a college up north. At first there were letters most days, then weekly, then just few and far between, then nothing. And nothing for long enough that this farmer decided to travel to the university town where his son was. He arrived and found the house. There was loud music and laughter coming from inside - the standard student thing. He knocked on the door and a face he didn't recognise answered. 'Is Sam there?' 'Yes,' said the guy at the door. 'Why, who wants him?' 'Could you tell him it's his father?' So the guy went back inside and told him. And the son came to the door, and looked through his father and said, 'I'm sorry. You must have the wrong house. I don't think we've met.' That's the blindness our desire for independence can bring. And that is our blindness when it comes to the things of God:
"Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God." (v35)
"If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." (v36)
But they're looking through him, they don't see what they have every reason to know - because they don't want to know. They don't want a God who comes near, who gets involved, who spells the end to running our own lives our own way, the end to our spiritual singleness. Who was it that died on that middle cross? God's Son. And all of us, by nature, reject him in turn. Whether we're the respectable like the people in verse 35. Or the unrespectable like the guy in verse 39. You can do it as a decent middle class professional, you can do it as an IRA terrorist. It's not the way we do it, how spectacularly we do it, how nastily or nicely we do it, as society judges. It's the fact that we do it. 'My life is my life,' we say to the God who gave us life. 'Please, keep out.' But then if the man on the middle cross was God's Son, the second most important question in the world to answer is this: What was he doing there on that cross? To most of the eye-witnesses there that Friday, the crucifixion was the ultimate disproof of Jesus' claims. As these people watched him die, they must have thought to themselves, 'Well, that's the end of that argument.' But the argument wasn't won there. The argument was won three days later, when all they could find in the tomb they put him in was the grave clothes - collapsed like the chrysallis a butterfly leaves. And people were beginning to report that they'd seen him alive from the dead. That Good Friday, little did the enemies of Jesus know that the ultimate put-down - the crucifixion - would simply provide God with the opportunity for the ultimate demonstration that Jesus was his Son - the resurrection. The saying goes, 'You can't keep a good man down', and they were about to discover that you can't keep the God-man down. But on Good Friday, the cross looked like the ultimate disproof of everything Jesus had claimed:
"Let him save himself if he is the Christ of God." (v35)
"If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." (v36)
"Aren't you the Christ?" [Apparently, not, if that's where you end up!] (v39)
In other words, if you are the Son of God, if you did come from God, if you're supposed to be the King in this world, what are doing up there on a cross? How do you expect people to believe in you there, Jesus? "He saved others, let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God." And in all their sarcasm they were closer to the truth than they realised. Several years ago, an airliner taking off from Washington DC in the States crashed into the Potomac River. It was winter. The river was full of ice. The crash happened near a major road-bridge so the TV cameras could see everything. And millions of viewers watched as a helicopter let down a life-belt on a line to a man struggling in the water. He grabbed it, swum to a survivor just by him, clipped the woman in and they hoisted her up. They let the line back down again. He did the same thing, Swam to someone else; got them out. He got four or five people to safety before he drowned. Imagine you'd been one of the millions watching him. And imagine you'd said to yourself, 'Why doesn't he save himself?' The answer is as obvious as it is mind-blowing. He didn't save himself because he was out to save others. It was him or someone else. His death, so that others could live. And that is also exactly why God's Son died the death he did that first Good Friday. Only this time, we're not involved as distant spectators. We're involved. Because the death Jesus died that day was caused by us. And it was for our benefit. One chapter back in Luke's gospel is the account of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples. (Luke 22.1-38) As a visual aid, he took a piece of bread and broke it and gave it to them to eat. And he said, 'This is my body, given for you.' And he took a cup of wine and gave that to them and he said, 'This cup is the new covenant [the new commitment from God to you] in my blood, which is poured out for you.' And then he quoted from an Old Testament prophecy: 'It is written, "And he was numbered with the law-breakers"'. And then he said this: 'And I tell you, this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfilment.' Let me read you a little more of the prophesy he quoted. It's about him. It's about his death. It says:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not. But he was pierced for our law-breaking, he was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each one to his own way. And the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.' (Isaiah 53.3,5-6)
Those words are the key to what God's Son was doing dying on a cross. Some careers are over early, of necessity. Witness Eric Cantona's decision to quit football. Some careers peak later. Jesus' career was to die. That is why he came. Not to live. But to die - under a judgement that we ought to face. But which we need never face if we accept what he achieved there. I don't know whether you ever watch the program 'A Question of Sport.' It's a quiz program and there's one round called 'What happened next?' where they play a clip of sporting action, freeze the picture before the crucial moment and ask the teams to guess what happened next. Well, on this occasion it was football. A striker was through into the penalty area, with the ball, and the goalkeeper was coming off his line. There were no defenders in sight and it looked like a certain goal. Freeze the frame. 'What happened next?' Well, the teams made their usual wild guesses: Did the striker's contact lens fall out at the last minute so that he misfired? No. Did the floodlights fuse so that the ground was plunged into darkness? No. Was he concussed by a toilet roll thrown onto the pitch by an exuberant fan? No. What actually happened was this. The goalkeeper came out and brought the striker down with what basically looked like a rugby tackle. In the process, he did two things. He both gave away a penalty and broke an arm. There was no question of him playing on, so the substitute came on in his place to face the penalty. He hadn't caused it. He wasn't to blame for it. But he faced it There is, ultimately, a penalty for the attitude to God that says, 'Please keep out of my life.' The penalty is that he does exactly that - in this life, and beyond the grave. And the word the Bible gives to that penalty - of being left alone by God, without God - is: death. That is the judgement we deserve. That is the penalty which we ought to face. And the message of the cross is this: God's own Son took our place to face a penalty he never deserved, so that we could be forgiven justly. It's as if he stepped into my shoes and said to his Father, 'Treat me as Ian Garret ought to be treated, so that you can treat Ian Garret as though he were me.' It's as if the one person who was infinitely in credit with God died to pay off the moral overdraft of the world. That's what happened on Good Friday. Your sins and mine paid for, so that we can come back forgiven into God's friendship. Verse 35: "He saved others. Let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God." But that's just the point. He couldn't save others and himself. It was certain judgement for him, or certain judgement for us. He might well have said to them, 'I am saving others at this very moment, if you could only see it.' And I'm asking: can you see it? Instead of looking through Jesus and failing even to recognise him. Instead of looking at the surface - the soldiers, the spears, the nails, that have nothing at all to do with it. Can you see the simple truth that he died for you? Our sins put him there. And our sins can be forgiven there. And a relationship with God forever can begin there. Who died? God's Son, at our hands. Why did he? So that we could be forgiven justly. Which brings us back to our original question: What makes you a Christian? The answer is: Jesus does. Which side of Jesus and his death you stand on, is what makes you a Christian, or a non-Christian. Reconciled to God. Or unreconciled. In relationship forever or out of it forever. I want to end by explaining how a person becomes a Christian. One person did so that first Good Friday. He began the day in a prison cell as a condemned criminal. He ended the day in heaven as a forgiven, welcome member of God's family and kingdom. What happened in between is what has to happen to anyone if they're to change sides and come into relationship with God. 1st: there's something to admit. I have to admit that I am in the wrong before God. Verse 40:
But the other criminal rebuked the first one. "Don't you fear God?" he said, "Since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." (v40-41)
This guy had no decency to hide behind. And at the last moment, God opens his eyes to see himself as he really is. That whatever friends or society might think of it, his life has been wrong before God. God has never had the God-place that is his by right. And that's the root problem in all of us, before Jesus gets to us. Only the outward symptoms differ - between this man, you, me, anyone. We have to see ourselves as God sees us: as rebels who've been actively or passively telling him to keep out of our lives. So, I need to ask: are you willing to admit that, and that it's time things changed? A friend of mine came to a talk like this. He was a very successful and respected Oxford student - rowed for the University, the lot. He collared the speaker afterwards because he wasn't prepared to admit what God calls on us to admit. And after a long conversation, the speaker simply said, 'Mark, you are too proud to become a Christian.' And he went away seething. Because he knew that was true. Something to admit. 2nd thing: there's something to accept. I need to accept that Jesus died for me, for my sins, in my place. Now this guy in verse 40 wouldn't have understood that at the time. He seems to have recognised who Jesus really was, but he hardly knew then that the death taking place next to him was for him. But he's had 2000 years in heaven to try to take it in, and I guess he's still trying, as all of us will be who are there. Having admitted I'm wrong, I simply need to accept that that wrong is covered by the death of Jesus. You can be forgiven, whoever you are, whatever you've done. After watching another friend's year-long struggle to come to terms with all this, I finally asked him what was stopping him coming to God. He said simply, 'I'm not good enough.' Not too proud, this time. But too bad. Or so he thought. But there is no such thing, in God's book. 'Christ died for sins once for all, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, to bring you to God,' says the Bible. (1 Peter 3.18) 'Once for all' - for all sins for all time. And not just to make up for what you can't do, or get you half way. 'To bring you to God'. All the way. From wherever you are. Something to admit. (Which can seem too hard to do.) Something to accept. (Which can seem too good to be true - but it is.) 3rd thing: something to ask. I have to come to Jesus as my rightful King and ask him to forgive me and have me back. It all starts with a prayer. Like a marriage, it starts with two people speaking to one another. That's basically what this guy does in verse 41:
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (v42)
In other words, 'Jesus, when we meet the other side of our deaths, please have mercy on me. I realise you are God's King, and that all along I should have been in your kingdom, but haven't been. Please forgive me and have me back.' And listen to the promise he gets (v43)
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise."
And that man set off a forgiven man to live for Jesus as his Lord in response for what Jesus had done for him. That's all the Christian life is: loving someone who's already loved you beyond belief. In his case, he had maybe only hours to go. Nailed to a cross, there wasn't much he could do to show his love for Jesus. But he didn't waste what little time and energy he had. He spoke for Jesus to those around him. He sided with Jesus for as long as he had left. And that illustrates an important truth: in asking Jesus to forgive me, and have me back, I'm not just asking for a new start. But for a new Master. Someone to live for. Someone I should have been living for all along. Let me end where we began: with the illustration of marriage. Imagine a wedding: two people up the front here, with the minister asking each in turn the question, 'Will you?' A friend of mine was conducting a wedding where the couple had insisted on the old prayer book, with 'Thee's and 'Thou's and 'Shalt's and so on. This friend asked the groom, 'Wilt thou have whatever-her-name-was to be your wife?' To which came the reply, as he gazed across at her: 'I wilt'! The reality of things between us and God are just like that threesome at the front. It's as if God the Father turns to his Son and says, 'Saviour, will you have this sinner back?' Well, what do you think the cross says? 'Yes', or 'No'? The answer from the cross is an unequivocal 'Yes'. There is no unwillingness on God's side at all. Understand what happened on the cross, and you'll see that he is quite literally dying to have you back. It's as if Jesus has said: 'This state of separation between us will carry on only over my dead body.' 'I will' says God. And then the question comes to us: 'Sinner, will you have this Saviour and King?' Sinner, will you admit you're life is all wrong before him? Will you accept he died to forgive that wrong? And will you ask him to forgive you and enter your life by his Spirit to be your King, as he should be? Sinner, will you?' I'm not assuming that the fact you've come along tonight means you're ready to take that step. At one end of the scale there will be people who need to investigate whether it's really all true. Or you need to investigate what the Christian life involves - it's a commitment to come to terms with. And I wouldn't encourage anyone to make a step that is premature. At the other, there are many who've already taken that step. But in a gathering like this there may be some people who know these things are true, and that it's time they responded. Those steps are steps you're willing to take, and more time is not the issue. In fact, more time maybe ducking the issue. If that is you, I'm going to pray a prayer that is just a different version of what that criminal on the cross prayed. Let me run it past you first, so that you can guage whether it would be right for you to take the step of praying it tonight. I'll pray this:
Father God, I admit that I have lived wrongly, keeping you out of the very life you have given me. Thank you that you have loved me nonetheless, even to the length that you sent your Son to die for me. Lord Jesus, please forgive me, accept me back, and give me your Spirit to enable me to live for you as my King from now on.' Amen.
If that is an appropriate prayer for you, and you want to pray it, why not echo it in your own mind as I say it out loud? Just a word more. If you have just taken that step, listen to this promise that Jesus made on another occasion to anyone and everyone: I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned. He has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24) If you've heard, believed, taken that step, you are now a forgiven person. That is a promise of Jesus to take on trust. But you will also find as you go on that he has actually entered your life and will begin to answer that prayer that you might be enabled to live for him. And it may be that the first thing he enables you to do is to tell someone that you've taken that step tonight - to start to side with him publicly. You may have taken that step tonight. Or you may have taken it recently, but haven't really found help with how to go on. I'm going to be down in the choir seats on this left hand side in five minutes or so. I'm going to say just a few minutes on whereto go from here if you have begun, and offer something to read which I think is helpful. So, if that's you and you'd like to join me down here, please do. If you're just at the investigating stage, can I say thanks for coming and listening. Do come again - we try to make what we do here every Sunday useful to people who are just looking into things. But can I also encourage you to pick up one of these leaflets about our 'Just Looking' groups - the next one's starting in 3 weeks time. If you're a student, we realise you're heading off around the world, or to graduate fame and fortune in a couple of weeks time, so there's just a one-off tea this Friday for finding out a bit more. Red card. Highly symbolic. Strawberries and cream. And the chance to find out and ask more.