Christianity: Rules or Relationship?

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Well, if you're here through an invitation, or through the Jesmond Festival publicity, can I say it's great to have you with us, and I hope you've enjoyed it. I guess for some of us, the Gospel music tonight has brought out the hidden Nigerian in us – the natural clap-er and sway-er. Whereas, for others it just puts us more closely in touch with our Britishness – as we subconsciously dig our hands deeper into our pockets (maybe allowing ourselves to tap our feet, unseen). Now those are just temperamental reactions, aren't they? But I wonder how you react to the words of Gospel music like this? Because they're pretty emotional and personal, aren't they? You know, saying to God things like: 'I want to be… close to your side.' Or, 'Your name is like sweet perfume poured upon my soul.' And maybe we even find that a bit embarrassing – because it's love-language, isn't it?

It's like that dangerous moment at a wedding, when the groom gets to the bit of his speech where he begins to wax lyrical about his bride. For example, I remember a computer geek friend of mine saying how he wished she had a drop-down menu so that he could click on 'I love you' every day. Which is maybe a bit embarrassing. But it's what people in love should be able to say, isn't it? I didn't get married til I was forty – so as a single person I went to loads of weddings and heard loads of grooms saying things like that. And as an outsider to marriage looking in, I found myself wondering, 'How do you get to that point of being able to say that to someone?'

And maybe tonight you feel a bit like that about Christianity. Maybe right now you're an outsider looking in – you don't yet have the faith in God that others here do. And maybe you know some other Christians, and can see that it's real and personal for them: that they don't just believe in God, they love him – their hearts are in it. And you find yourself wondering, 'How do you get to that point? How do you get from Christianity being just a set of beliefs or a habit of going to church, to being a personal relationship with God?'

Well, that's the question I want to answer, by having a look at that reading we had earlier from Luke's Gospel. It's from one of the eye-witness records of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and it's an incident which shows how you can go from being out of relationship with God to being in – thanks to Jesus. Luke 7.36:

"One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table."

So the Pharisees were the very religious people. And this one asked Jesus to dinner to check out the extraordinary claims he was making. Because here's how C. S. Lewis described Jesus:

"Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let's get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say he was part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you've grasped that, you'll see that what this man said was… the most shocking thing that's ever been uttered by human lips."

(Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis)

And C.S. Lewis was right, because Jesus did claim to be God's Son come into this world as a man, to bring us back into relationship with his Father. So if you're just on the outside of things looking in, that's the big claim you need to check out, by looking at the evidence in the Bible – just like this Pharisee was checking Jesus out. Let me read on from verses 37-38:

"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."

So it looks like this Pharisee was well off and had a good-sized house. And in those days, people like him would throw dinner parties where the invited guests would eat in the middle of the room, and then others were allowed in to sit round the edge and listen in. So this woman wasn't invited, but probably wasn't a gate-crasher, either. She was probably one of the edge people. And in those days, the dining tables were like our coffee tables. So instead of sitting up at table on chairs like we do, they reclined at table, leaning on an elbow and maybe a cushion, head in towards the table, and feet away from it – for the obvious reason that you wanted to leave the cheese course strictly to the end. So the edge people would have been greeted by this forest of feet. And this woman finds Jesus' feet. And she's brought this bottle of Chanel No.5 – the most expensive thing she owns. And her emotions suddenly get the better of her, and she starts crying and kissing his feet, and then finally manages to pour the perfume all over them. That would have been embarrassing enough, whoever did it, but it was especially embarrassing that it was this woman, because Luke says she was…

"a woman of the city, who was a sinner"

Now let me say something about that word 'sinner'. I need to break it to you that the Bible says we're all sinners, because the word 'sin' doesn't mean 'behaving very badly'. It means 'running our lives our own way – as if God wasn't there.' And you can do that and end up behaving very badly (at one end of the scale) or you can do that in a much more respectable, decent, Jesmond kind of way (at the other end). And all points in between. But the point is: the Bible says we all do it. Consciously or subconsciously, we've all said to God, 'I don't want you running my life, telling me what's right and wrong and best – I want to run it my own way.' And this woman obviously had a reputation for doing that pretty blatantly. Maybe she was cheating publicly on her husband. Maybe she was a prostitute. We don't know. But whatever it was, she made people like this Pharisee feel secure in their own goodness.

A while back, The Times had a really thoughtful article about why sex offenders make such news. It said this:

"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."

And this Pharisee felt confident God would accept him because he could say to himself, 'Well, I've never done anything like her. I've lived a good life compared to that.' And maybe that's how you think you stand with God right now: 'I'm OK, because I basically live a good life.'

So it would have been embarrassing enough, whoever did this. But it was especially embarrassing that it was this woman. But it's like the groom's speech. Get past the embarrassing side of it, and it's the most extraordinary, costly, public display of love. In fact, it's a little cameo of what being a Christian is all about. Because it isn't all about having a set of beliefs or a habit of going to church. It's all about a relationship with Jesus the Son of God and with his Father as well.

And I wonder how you react to this woman so far? Maybe, to be honest, she worries you. Because she's like Christians you know who seem to take their faith far too seriously. And you just don't get why people are willing to give so much to Jesus – and give things up for Jesus. But maybe she makes you wistful. Because you know deep down that faith, like marriage, can only be all or nothing. And that if God is there, and he gave you your life, the only right thing to do is to say to him, 'Here it is – all of it – how do you want me to live it for you?' And to be flat out for him. And maybe you wish you could get to that point, and you're wondering how. Well, let's read on to find out. Verse 39:

"Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.""

So this Pharisee says to himself, 'Jesus can't possibly be from God like he's been claiming – because otherwise, No.1, he'd know that she's blatantly living as if God wasn't there, and No.2, he wouldn't accept her as he seems to be doing – because to accept her is to accept her lifestyle – which God can't possibly do.

And he was right and wrong. He was right about God. He was right that God cannot accept our self-chosen lifestyles, and that we can only have relationship with God on God's terms. And the terms are that he's in his rightful place, running our lives, telling us what's right and wrong and best, and that we bow to that, and are willing, with his help, to change. So he was right about God. But he was wrong about this woman. Because little did he know it, but she was a completely changed person. Because this wasn't the first time she'd met Jesus. She'd met him before, found forgiveness through him, and made a completely new start in life with God. And what's happening here is that she'd come back to say thank you to him. Jesus explains that next. Look on to verses 40-42:

"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 [call it £5,000], and the other fifty [£500]. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?""

So one person's got £5,000 left on the mortgage, another's got just £500. They both lose their jobs and can't make payments, and the man from the Halifax cancels the rest of their debt. Who's going to love him more? Verse 43:

"Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And [Jesus] said to him, "You have judged rightly.""

Because the bigger your debt, the more you'll love the debt-canceller. Verses 44-46:

"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.""

In other words, 'You didn't even give me the customary basics – the welcome handshake, the drinks and nibbles. But she gave me this extraordinary, costly, public display 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 really important to get what Jesus means when he says…

"her sins… are forgiven – for she loved much."

He's not saying that he's literally just that moment forgiven her as a reward for the love she's shown him – as if we have to 'meet God halfway', as if God says to us, 'You clean up your act, you show me some love, and then I'll forgive you what you need forgiving.' That would make it all conditional on us turning over a new leaf. But Jesus is not saying that the love she's shown him is the reason he's forgiven her sins. He's saying that the love she's shown him is the evidence that he's forgiven her sins on a previous occasion – and that he hasn't said, 'Meet me half-way', but that he's come all the way down to where she is, and said, 'I'll forgive and accept you just as you are, and take you on from there.' In other words, he's cancelled her whole lifetime's moral debt. So what does she do? She loves the debt-canceller.

Talking to people who are on the outside of faith looking in, I often find they have this idea that being a Christian is just one long business of having to do a whole lot of stuff you don't really want to do, and not being allowed to do a whole of stuff you really do want to do – like getting drunk or jumping into bed with people, or whatever. But it's not like that at all. Because when you know Jesus has cancelled your whole lifetime's moral debt, it makes you want to love the debt-canceller.

Going back to weddings, it's a bit like something another friend of mine said to his wife in his groom's speech. He said, 'You know me better than anyone else. And yet you're still willing to live with me and love me unconditionally as the idiot I am. And every day, that makes me want to be a better man.' And a Christian believer can say something like this to Jesus, 'You know me better than anyone else – you know what I'm really like and what I've really done. And yet you're still willing to forgive and accept me and be in my life as my Lord.' And that makes you want to love him. Just look down to verses 48-49 to end with:

"And [Jesus] said to [this woman], "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?""

They said this because they knew that sin is against God, so only God can forgive it. So they twigged that this was another of those times when Jesus was claiming to be God's Son come into this world, to bring us back into relationship with his Father. And if you read to the end of Luke's Gospel, it says Jesus died on a cross to make that happen. Because he was the one person, morally speaking, who was infinitely 'in credit' with his Father – because he never sinned. But out of love for us, he took all our moral debts on himself, and paid them off, so that we could be forgiven. He took the judgment that all our wrongdoing deserves, so that if we trust in him we'll never have to face it ourselves. And when he did that, he anticipated everything we'd ever need forgiving for – not just from the start of our lives up til now, but for the rest of our lives as well.

So if, like this woman, you want to be forgiven and make a completely new start in life with God, you can – whoever you are, whatever you've done, however long you've been keeping him at arm's length.

Now you may be further back than that – like Simon in this story – needing to check out Jesus some more, not yet convinced it's true, not yet convinced you're a sinner needing forgiveness. And if that's you, can I say you're always welcome at any of our services and events. Some of them, like this, are geared for people just giving it a look. And we run a couple of courses called Life Explored and Christianity Explored which would be great for you.

So you may be further back. Or you may already have begun with Jesus, like the woman in this story. But you may be right on the edge of beginning. You know it's true. You know enough about what having Jesus in his rightful place would mean – what would have to change, what it would cost. And you know he's calling you to respond to him. So I want to end with a prayer which you could use if you want to respond to him tonight. Let me read it out first, so you can decide whether it would be appropriate for you:

Father God, thank you for giving Jesus your Son to die for me. Please forgive me for living as if you weren't there. And please come into my life by your Spirit and help me live for you from now on. Amen.

So you may be further back, or further on. But if you want to respond to God and make that new start in life with him, you could echo that prayer in your mind now:

Father God, thank you for giving Jesus your Son to die for me. Please forgive me for living as if you weren't there. And please come into my life by your Spirit and help me live for you from now on. Amen.

Let me say three quick things if you've prayed that prayer and meant it. The first is to encourage you to trust that God has heard and answered it – and that that'll become real in your experience, as it did for me. The second thing is to encourage you to take away a copy of this booklet 'Why Jesus?' – which goes over what I've been saying, and would help you be more sure about what you've done. And the third thing is to suggest you tell another Christian that you've taken that step. Because that'll help you start being public about it; and they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.

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