What is the Gospel?

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I wonder how you'd describe your relationship with God? For some of us, it may be like our relationship with the Queen: for example, I sang the school song to her when she visited, and she sent my Granny a 100th birthday telegram. But I wouldn't go so far as to call that friendship. The Queen is basically a distant figure with whom I have no personal relationship at all.

And at one time I'd have said the same about God. I come from a non-Christian home: Dad was an atheist; Mum's agnostic. And they only ever took me to church twice – once for a funeral; and once for a wedding (at which, embarrassingly, I was a page boy, and of which I'd love to destroy all photographic evidence). And yet without any encouragement to believe in him, deep down I knew God was there – as we all do. I just didn't have a clue how I could relate to him – until I was invited to something like this, and heard what God did that first Easter to make that possible.

And that's what I want to talk about – from those readings we had earlier. So would you find that first Bible reading (John 19.16-30)? And this isn't fiction – it's from one of the eye-witness accounts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And let me read from the start, verses16-18:

"So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him…"

That was the Roman Empire's death-penalty – they nailed offenders to a cross and left them to die. So that's what happened to Jesus that first Good Friday. And if you understand why, you'll have the answers to three of life's most important questions. And the first is:

1. What's gone wrong between us and God?

I have a brother called Niall. He's pretty senior in Vodafone, so if you're with them, thanks for subsidising my Christmas and birthday presents – he's overpaid but generous with it. He doesn't share my faith in Jesus, but I asked him once, 'Do you believe there is a God?' And he said, 'Yes, definitely.' So I said, 'So, if it even might be true that he's made himself knowable through Jesus, wouldn't that be worth looking into?' And he said, 'To be honest, I don't want to.' And I said, 'Why not?' And he said, 'I just feel a real antipathy towards God.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'I guess I just don't want him interfering in my life.'

And Niall doesn't normally use big words like 'antipathy' (unless maybe he's playing Scrabble and trying to get a 'P' on a triple letter score). But it was a very well-chosen word. Because if we're honest, deep down, that is our natural attitude to God, isn't it? We're 'anti'. We don't want him interfering in our lives. We don't want him telling us what's right and wrong, and where we need to change.

And at one level, that's why Jesus died on the cross. Because he came into the world both saying and showing that he was God's Son and the rightful ruler of our lives. But the Jewish leaders of the day rejected that claim – because they didn't want him to have that place in their lives. And by political manoeuvring, they got the Roman governor, Pilate, to crucify Jesus – to get rid of him (or so they thought). So look on to verses 19-22 in that reading:

"Pilate also wrote an inscription [or sign] and put it on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews', but rather, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

So when they crucified someone, they wrote a sign to say why they'd been crucified. And to spite the people who got Jesus crucified, Pilate wrote exactly what Jesus had claimed – which was that he's our rightful, divine ruler. So the irony is: that sign said exactly why Jesus was crucified: it was because people heard his claim, but didn't want him to be their king. So when we look at the cross of Jesus, the first thing we actually see is our own, natural attitude to God mirrored there – 'I don't want you to be my king.' And I wonder if that's where you are right now in your relationship with God?

I never realised that's where I was until friends started inviting me to Christian events like this. Because when they did, I consistently said, 'No.' We were at a boarding school at the time, and on Sunday morning there was compulsory chapel followed by this voluntary Christian Union. And Thursday or Friday most weeks, one faithful but un-tactical friend would invite me to the Christian Union – which gave me time to fix a game of squash or something for after chapel, so that I could then get back to him and say sorry, I was busy. But one week, he played dirty and invited me just as we were walking out of Sunday chapel. And the only reason I said 'Yes' is that I couldn't think quickly enough of an excuse to say 'No'. Now in God's kindness, I actually came to faith in Jesus through that very first Christian Union talk I heard. But looking back, all my saying 'No' to that friend was really because I was saying 'No' to God.

And on the one hand, you may be willing to admit that's where you are, right now: you're with my brother – living on your definition of what's right and wrong – and you don't want God interfering in that. But on the other hand, you may be saying, 'I don't see myself like that at all: I'm not anti-God – I've tried to live a good life.' But the question is, 'Have you tried to live for Jesus his Son – by his definition of what's good?' Because if the answer's 'No' then however good you've been relative to others, relative to God you've still committed the ultimate offence of living in his world as if he didn't exist and as if he'd never made himself known.

And the Bible calls us to admit that, consciously or subconsciously, we've each said 'No' to God being king of our lives. And the Bible warns us that if we keep saying 'No', to the end of our lives then, with no pleasure at all, God will have to say 'No' to us – 'I can't have you in my kingdom of heaven – you'll stay outside forever.' That's the judgement he'll pass – because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King. So that's: 'What's gone wrong between us and God?' Then the second question is this:

2. What has God done to put it right?

And here's where Christianity is unique. People often say, 'All religions are basically the same', don't they? But that's a bit like saying, 'Instant coffee and real coffee are basically the same' – it just shows you don't know the first thing about coffee. And when it comes to the other religions, none of them even asks the question, 'What has God done to put us right with him?' They ask, 'What do we have to do?' They're 'DIY' – 'Do It Yourself' – religions.

So, for example, I was doing a dinner event with a talk like this, and after I'd spoken I sat down and turned to the nice Muslim woman next to me. And I decided just to plunge in, so I said to her, 'So if on the way home you were knocked down by a bus and had to face Allah tonight, how do you think would it go?' (My usual light, after-dinner banter.) And she said, 'Well, we believe he'll judge us on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad.' So I said, 'And how do you think that's looking right now?' And she very honestly said, 'Not good.' So I pushed my luck and said, 'And do you think that'll change before you die?' And after a long pause she very honestly said, 'No.' And it turned out she was living in quiet despair about how to make herself acceptable to God, and she was deeply afraid of him.

And, along with feeling anti-him, that's our other natural feeling towards God, isn't it? Fear. So maybe right now you're fearful you've done something so bad that there's no way back into relationship with God for you. Or maybe you're fearful it's too late in life for you. An elderly relative once said to me, 'I wish I had your faith, but I've left it too late.' She had the pension plan idea of God – the idea that you've got to pay in enough instalments of goodness throughout your life for God to accept you in the end. But that's not the way it is. Because what's unique about Christianity is that it doesn't say, 'Do it yourself' but 'Done'. It says: God has done, that first Easter, everything necessary to bring us back into relationship with him. So look on in that reading to verses 28-30:

"After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), "I thirst." A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, "It is finished", and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."

Now you can understand a dying man saying, 'I am finished.' But what Jesus said was, 'It is finished'. And it was the word they used back then for saying, 'Job done' – like when you've finished an essay or a bit of DIY. It was the word they used to write across bills or debts when you'd settled them – 'Paid in full'. And as Jesus died, that's the word he chose, to explain what he was doing – as if to say, 'In dying, I'm finishing the job I came to do – which was to pay for all the forgiveness you need, for saying 'No' to my Father and living your own way.'

Now I'm often asked, 'But why did there have to be some kind of payment or sacrifice – why can't God just forgive like us?' And the answer is: because he's not like us. He's God. Which means he's ultimately responsible for upholding justice in this universe. So he had to provide a way of forgiving us that wouldn't look as if he was just sweeping our wrongdoing under the carpet. And that way was the cross.

So imagine with me that history has just ended and it's the day of judgement. And the Christian message promises that, if I turn to Jesus and accept him as king, he'll not only forgive my entire past and accept me as I am; he'll also keep forgiving me whenever I need it, and accept me for the rest of my life – until he welcomes me into his kingdom of heaven.

So imagine we're there, at the day of judgement. And Jesus is just welcoming me, when someone says to God, 'You can't accept him: you've got to do justice on everything Ian Garrett did wrong.' And because of the cross, God will be able to say, 'I have done justice on everything Ian Garrett did wrong – when my Son died in his place.'

So imagine this white file in my hand stands for the record of Jesus' life – the only perfect life ever lived (because he was God-become-man – the only one who could ever pull off perfection), the only life that never deserved judgement. And now imagine this black file stands for the record of your or my wrongdoing – which does deserve the judgement of being left out of his kingdom. And the Bible says that on the cross, Jesus took our place and took the judgement for the 'black file' of every one of us – so that on the one hand we could be forgiven, and yet on the other hand justice would still be done.

So, back to our scene on the day of judgement. There's someone saying, 'You can't accept Ian Garrett and let him in!' So God says to a nearby angel, 'Go and get Ian Garrett's record.' And the angel comes back with this white file with my name on it. And God says, 'Did you find anything else?' And the angel says, 'There was a black file next to it but it only had one sheet of paper inside.' And God says, 'What did it say?' And the angel says, 'Paid in full.'

When Jesus said, 'It is finished', he meant: his death has done everything necessary to see you forgiven for everything. So whoever you are, whatever you've done, however long you've been keeping God at arm's length, he could forgive you and have you back in relationship with him right now. Or I should say, he would love to do that – because that's why he gave his Son to die for you, and why his Son was willing to come. It was out of love for us. And I wonder if you're beginning to believe that? I know you know your own badness more than anyone, but will you dare to begin to believe what I've just said? And then my final question is:

3. How do we need to respond?

My wife, Tess, and I have just had a wedding anniversary. It was nine years back that I was standing down there and was asked, 'Ian, will you have Tess to be your wife?' And I said, 'I will.' At which point I'd done everything necessary for Tess to be married to me. But that didn't automatically mean she was. The question still had to be answered, 'Tess, will you have him?' And in giving his Son to die for us, God has said his 'I will' – 'I will forgive and have you back, whoever you are, whatever you've done.' But that's not automatic. The question still has to be answered by each of us, 'Will you have Jesus – will you ask his forgiveness and accept him as your King?'

Because although Jesus died, he's not dead. Because, that first Easter, he rose from the dead. And right now he's in heaven and calling you, through his words in the Bible, to respond to him. So to end with, we'll look briefly at one bit of that second Bible reading we had (John 20.1-18) – to see what Jesus is offering us today.

So, Jesus' dead body was put in a tomb on Good Friday. Saturday was their rest day, so nothing happened. So it was Easter Sunday morning when his followers came to give the body its final burial treatment – only to find the tomb open and no body; just the grave clothes left behind. And then Jesus began appearing to them, bodily resurrected from the dead. So look at John 20.16-17, where the resurrected Jesus appears to a follower called Mary. And the last time that she'd seen him was as a corpse.

"Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me [presumably she's grabbed him], for I have not yet ascended to the Father [i.e. returned permanently to heaven]; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'""

And to anyone today who trusts in Jesus like Mary and those first followers, Jesus also says, 'My Father is now your father.'

We've got friends who've just adopted a baby girl. They already had a little boy of their own. And if he'd been old enough to think like this, then on the day she arrived in their home, he might have looked into her cot and said to her, 'You know, my father is now your father.' A year earlier, she had no relationship at all with that father – didn't even know he existed. And now thanks to adoption, she can call him Daddy. And thanks to his death for us on the cross, Jesus can bring us from having no relationship at all with God, to calling him Father – from being anti-him, and in fear of his judgement, to knowing him as the one perfect Father whom we really can trust with our lives.

Well let me end like this. Imagine I drew a line of where everyone here stands in relationship with God. At one end would be those who can say, 'I do know God as my Father – I know I'm forgiven, I'm trying to live for him in response, and I know I'll ultimately be with him in heaven.' And there is nothing better in life than to be able to say that.

Then at the other end would be those who can't yet say any of that – those who are not yet sure that what I've said tonight is true; those for whom, right now, God is just that distant figure like the Queen – where there's no personal relationship at all. And if that's you, can I say: thanks for coming – and do please keep coming and looking into the Christian message. Because God has made himself known through Jesus, and he does want you to know him as personally as others here do.

But maybe tonight you're in the middle of my line. You know it's true – you've crossed that half of the bridge. But you've not yet crossed the other half – you've not yet responded to Jesus. So I'm going to end with a prayer which you could use to respond to him, if you want to. You may be further back than this prayer – or further on, in which case you don't need to be spiritually 'adopted' all over again. But if you want to respond to Jesus, you could echo this prayer to God in your mind right now:

Father God,
Thank you for your love in sending your Son to die for me.
Please forgive me and accept me as your child.
And please help me live for you as my King from now on.

I prayed something like that on 27 September 1981 – at the end of that Christian Union meeting I was so keen not to go to. And if you've just prayed that and meant it, can I encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it – and that will become real and clear in your experience, as it did in mine. And if you have just done that, can I also encourage you to tell another Christian? Because that will help you start being public about your faith. And they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.

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