Well good morning folks. I have here a set of crutches. I've had to use these a few times recently, but the most memorable time was when I tore ankle ligaments when I was 21. It was a football related incident, so please don't get your handkerchiefs out – I don't expect any sympathy.
It happened while I was in prison – and I need to hastily add that I was there not being held at the pleasure of her majesty, but was playing in a charity football tournament. It was a bone crunching tackle I received, but it wasn't the inmates who got me. Neither was it the prison guards. It was the team of Roman Catholic priests who nailed me, in the first minute of our match just to show how much they meant business! I still remember the pain in my leg being seriously outweighed by my shock that I had been so savagely taken out by a little bald man who looked like Fryer Tuck – I kid you not!
But the first question I want to ask this morning is: How do you actually define one of these? What is it that makes something a crutch? Well I think there are 3 things:
1. A crutch is an artificial means of support – I needed a crutch because my natural means of support, i.e. my leg, was not working properly.
2. A crutch is only needed by a few people – Normal healthy people don't need a crutch. It's only needed if there is something wrong with you.
3. A crutch makes life easier in the short term – And it was a great help to me for those few weeks that I spent recovering from my brush with the turbulent priest, but one of the things I remember the doctor saying to me was: "The sooner you get off these crutches & back on your own 2 feet again the better." I mean nobody wants to be on crutches for the rest of their life.
Well the assertion that Christianity is a psychological crutch, was first raised by Sigmund Freud, who was the founder of psychoanalysis in the 19th Century. He said that the Christian idea of God as Father is in fact an imaginary crutch. It is a projection of our need for our parents once they're gone. Even when we grow up our inner child still longs for the security our parents gave to us and so subconsciously we project that need onto a heavenly Father in the skies. It's understandable, Freud says, but it's merely wish fulfilment. (The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud).
And he would have said, as others have said to me that Christianity is like a crutch:
1. It's Artificial – It's imaginary & it's only for the gullible.... just praying into thin air
2. It's only for a Few people – Who can't cope with real life without a prop
3. And It's Escapist – it's there to make life easier for people. It's just cosy short-term help.
This morning I'm going to look at those claims in order. So let me start by asking:
(1.) Is Christianity Just An Artificial Support?
In other words: Is it just imaginary? Or could it be true?
Well the truth of the Christian faith all depends not on a feeling or an experience, but on a person. It all depends on who this guy Jesus Christ is. And that was precisely the question being debated in that Bible reading we had from Mark 8 earlier on in the service.
Do you see that in Mark 8.27 – have a look at that with me:
"And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets."
Now isn't that exactly what happens today? If you went down to Northumberland Street or into the Metro Centre and shoved a microphone under folk's noses and asked, "Who do you think Jesus was?" Some people would say, "He was a prophet." Others would say, "He was a great teacher." Others "He was a religious leader." Same thing today as it was then – People watching from a distance know he's someone special, but they are not quite sure who he really is.
And it's like that when it comes to anyone's identity, isn't it? If I was to ask you 'Who do you think I am?' Some of you don't know me from Adam so you'd be completely stumped. Others of you have been coming to the church for a while, but we've never really spent much time together so you might know some bits and pieces about me, but it's only my closest friends who really know me and would be able to answer the question and tell you who I really am. They would all answer immediately, without hesitation: "Male model, Body builder, King of Comedy, Leadership guru." Or at least… in my dreams they would!
But you get the point. You can't really know who someone is if you come at them from a distance. And the crowds heard about and watched Jesus from a distance, just like many do today; not getting too close, keeping him at arm's length, relying on second-hand truths and opinions, rather than checking him out for ourselves.
But Peter, and Jesus' other disciples saw him up close. So when Jesus turns to them in Mark 8.29 and asks:
"…But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ.""
For 3 years he lived, talked, ate and slept in close proximity to Jesus. So he was there when Jesus tamed a raging storm at sea by simply saying to the wind and the waves, quiet "Be still!" (Mark 4.39)– like you'd tell a puppy to sit. The difference being, the storm sits.
He was there when Jesus raised a 12 year old girl from the dead, as if he were just waking her up from a nap. He was there when a man completely out of control in the grip of some personal force of evil is completely restored, when a cripple got up and walked, when a leper was healed and a blind man saw.
Now can I just say if you're just looking into Christianity for the first time the possibility of miracles might seem implausible but it wasn't just the Bible writers that speak of them. A non-Christian historian of the time – a fella called Josephus, calls Jesus "a doer of wonderful deeds" in his writings. (Testimonium Flavianum by Josephus ben Matthias) And there are many other non-Christian historians of the time who record the claims of the early Christians.
But Peter was actually there, seeing Jesus up close and personal, so when Jesus asks him in Mark 8.29:
"…But who do you say that I am? [His conclusion was simply] you are the Christ."
Now that word "Christ" isn't just Jesus surname. You won't find it under 'C' in the Nazareth phone book. No! It means 'God's anointed King'.
So do you get what Peter was saying here? He is saying to Jesus: "You are the King that God promised in the Old Testament to send into the world to put an end to evil and put all things right. You're not just another prophet saying the King's on his way. You're him." Now Peter said that because of what he'd witnessed, but you and I can still read about it in the rest of Mark's Gospel.
And can I just say that's what each one of us needs to do if we're not just to make judgements about Jesus from a distance – trusting what others say. We need to check it out for ourselves. So please do take a free copy of Mark's Gospel from the display racks around the church as you go. And I'd also like to invite you to come to a Pub Discussion we're holding at The Fox and Hounds Pub on Monday 5th June at 8pm. We'll grab a drink and then have a look at a bit of Mark's Gospel and then you can ask any question you like.
For when it comes to this phrase: "You are the Christ" (Mark 8.29), if that's true, that Jesus isn't merely a great figure in history as the crowds said, but that he is the Lord of history… He's God himself, then Christianity can't be artificial. As it's based on historical evidence. There's a mountain of evidence that can be investigated there.
What do you think? Why don't you join me in the pub on 5th June to wrestle with it?
Well if it isn't artificial…
(2.) Is Christianity Just For The Weak?
A crutch is after all only for a few people, who need it because their legs aren't working. Is that true of the Christian faith? Is it just for those who can't cope with life without something to prop them up?
Well have a look at Mark 8.31:
"And he [that's Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again."
Now can I just say that the Greek word "must" here means "necessary for certain great ends". So Jesus says I am the son of man: I "must" suffer, I "must" be rejected, I "must" be killed, I "must" rise. He is adamant that these things had to happen… because we needed him to do that. In other words every single man, woman or child in the world needs what he was going to do on that first Easter Friday and Sunday.
Now the mere fact that we have a need and there is something that will satisfy that need, does not make that something a crutch. Let me give you an example: We need food, don't we? So is food therefore a crutch? Well you might say that some people can do without food for a long time. For 2 to 3 months. But after that, I've been reliably informed, you do begin to feel quite hungry. We all need food.
Or what about water? Is water a crutch? You can't survive more than a week without water. Or air? Is it a crutch? We'd be in bigger trouble even quicker without air! And speaking as someone with chronic lung disease, I'd be in trouble sooner than most of you!
"But Ken," you might say, "those are all physical things. If you don't have those things you're going to die. It's not like if you don't have Christianity you're going to wind up dead."
Well actually… that's precisely what Jesus is saying. Either he dies or we do. You see he "must… be killed" not to meet our physical needs, but to meet our spiritual ones. So that I can be forgiven and saved from spiritual death.
I mean, we all have a sneaking suspicion that there is a God, and he's a good God. And the Bible confirms it to us, but the Bible also makes it clear that each one of us has taken his good gifts: gifts of life, love, laughter, food, family, friends, finance, fun, they're all from him… and yet we take his gifts and ignore him the giver. Whether consciously or subconsciously we've all dethroned God from his proper place in our lives. And when we treat God in that way, all we deserve from him is his judgement.
A few years back, a friend took a girl out for a meal on a first date. And at the end of the evening he realised he had no cash on him. So he gave them a credit card and back they came to the table saying it had been refused (which always makes you feel criminal, doesn't it? And looks great on a first date…).
So desperate thinking, then a brainwave. He said to the young lady that he just needed to nip out to the loo, under cover of which he actually nipped out and raced down the street to a cash-point, where his debit card was also refused. So, back to the restaurant, slip in at the table (strangely out of breath for what was just a trip to the loo), more desperate thinking… When he suddenly realised she was smiling at him. "It's OK," she said, "I've paid."
Folks we owe God a life of living with him as our King, and none of us have done that. Morally and spiritually, each of us is in debt. We deserve judgment for that, and the only way for us to avoid judgement is for someone owing nothing, someone infinitely in credit with God, being willing to step into our shoes and pay for us. The Bible says that's what Jesus came to do. He became a man in order to die under the judgment we deserve.
Through Jesus' dying and rising again, God is saying loud and clear, "It's OK. I've paid. You can be forgiven." and ever since then, the Risen Jesus has been calling on people to ask for the forgiveness he paid for, and come back into the relationship with God for which we were made.
Now you might say: "Well hold on Ken I lived a decent life." But if living a decent life is enough, then why did he sent his son to die? No, we desperately need forgiveness. We all do!
Not just because of the way we've treated God in the world that he's made, but because… well because of what Jesus says in Mark 8.38. Do you see? Now hold onto your seat here as this is where it gets very confronting, as Jesus says:
"For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
In other words, Jesus is saying: "I am coming back to judge this world and those who stand in judgement on me and reject me now, I will stand in judgment on them and reject them then." He's coming back, and if we don't listen to him now what hope will there be for us then? There are huge issues for us here, aren't there?
Do you see? Christianity can't be a crutch just for the weak, because we're all weak and we all need what Jesus has to offer, just as much as we need food and water and air.
So finally, let me ask…
(3.) Is Christianity Escapist?
Does Christianity make life easier? Just like a crutch makes life easier because your leg isn't working, does Christianity make life easier? That's the question.
Well can I ask you what you make of Mark 8.34. Does it look like escapism? Does it look like it makes life easier? Have a look down:
"And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
So does that sound easier? Does it sound escapist? Well only if you're some kind of masochist. You see what he says? He says you must deny yourself and denying yourself means saying no. Jesus says you must say no to self-rule, no to self-gratification, no to selfishness. He says: "Actually the heart of this is that I've lived for others to serve them, and you must do the same." You must live to serve others.
And can just I say as Christians, I'm sorry when we haven't done that but that's not the way of the master. If we've treated you badly then we need forgiveness from you and from God, because anyone who claims to follow Jesus should love as Jesus loved. They are going to have to "deny [him]self and take up their cross and follow [him]".
Let's be honest, this is the real reason folks choose not to follow Christ, it's not because it isn't true, but because they know it will be hard.
I met a student off and on for 3 years who was absolutely fascinated by Jesus, and as he looked into the evidence he became utterly convinced that he died on Good Friday, rose on Easter Day, that he's Lord and God, but Jesus was cast off into the suburbs of his life because there was pleasure, power and popularity that he wanted instead of him. He knew it was true, but he didn't want to stand with Jesus in a world that stands against him.
And I know many folks like that. Which makes you wonder... if it's those things; pleasure, power and popularity that are stopping you from confronting and living with the truth of who Jesus is are they not the crutch? If you are leaning on those things and not going the way of truth.
Following Jesus is clearly not escapism. It doesn't necessarily make life easier, but it does make it better. For amidst the fact it's saying no to self, Jesus says Mark 8.35:
"For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
That's so counter intuitive, isn't it? But do you see the incredible promise Jesus makes to us here, he says: "I'll tell you what, as you lean into me, as you lean on me, as you give your life away for me and the gospel, what you are doing is you are aligning yourself with me at the centre of the universe where I should have been in the first place and as you do that you find yourself. You will find your true place in the universe too. And joy! You will find great joy. Human happiness is external, so you've got to get all external things right to get a taste of it.
Christian joy is internal, and it comes from knowing and following Jesus Christ in the hardest of circumstances, which is why the early Christians at one point when they were being thrown to the lions were asked to stop singing, because it was putting the lions off. Even in those circumstances there was this joy amongst them! It was staggering as they out-loved everyone. If there was an abandoned baby that was left (as often happened in those days) outside the city to die, the Christians gathered it up and took them into their home. They gave their lives to serve. Just like the Master did. And in it they found a true purpose to life and inexpressible joy.
Folks, could this be true; that if you give your life away, you find it? If you try to save it, you will lose it? Do you ever feel as you chase more life, more happiness, that it is just slipping away from you?
Well I must conclude, but here are the three things we've been looking at this morning:
· Christianity is not a crutch because it's not artificial, it's true.
· It's not needed only by a few people. We all need the forgiveness Jesus offers.
· And it's not an easy way out. It's tough, but in it there is great joy, to know Jesus Christ who has made us, and has died for us, and has risen again.
For above all, the symbol of Christianity is not a crutch. It's a cross and Jesus says to each one of us from the cross: "Who do you say that I am?" And if you say: "The Christ." Then he says: "Follow me."
Let me pray for us:
Father God, I pray for each person here today as we battle to make time amidst all the pressures of life to wrestle through the identity of Jesus. Oh please Father, give us open hearts and minds to check this out for ourselves and not to let anyone else do it for us. And Father as we do that we pray that we would find life – life in all its wonder. Amen.