On 15th January this year Steve preached about Jesus’ invitation to the first disciples and suggested that we might issue an unconditional invitation to people we meet in our everyday lives to come to All Saints or St Mary’s and see what we do. If they do come we have to convince them that the Christian message is still a relevant one.
Two thousand years ago Christianity started when people were attracted to the personality of Jesus. The crowds gathered not to be given a creed but to meet and listen to him. Our movement was started when Jesus invited people to be his disciples with the simple words, “Follow me”. He asked them for their unreserved loyalty, to give up everything, at once, without a word of excuse or protest, and go after him. “Follow me” was the sum of all that he had to say to them.
That invitation still stands. But how can people follow Jesus today? Many people recognise Christian teaching and generally approve of it and say that they’d like to be able to conform to it and to see others, nations as well as individuals, do the same. But there are difficulties.
One of them is in relating Jesus to the concrete situations in which they find themselves today. How does the twenty-first century Briton emulate a first century life? We live in a highly complex, mechanised, industrialised and competitive society, whereas Jesus lived in one that was largely rural and pastoral. And the character of life was different. He wasn’t married, didn’t have to set up a home. He left the carpenter’s shop to become an itinerant preacher. The simplicity of his life and the excellence of his character make an unfailing appeal. But today, with family claims, business interests, and property concerns, people want to know whether it’s possible to transfer any pattern of behaviour from his life to their own.
Is the teaching of Jesus relevant nowadays? Can people get the direction they need to grapple with the moral dilemmas of our complex modern world? There are people who appear disappointed by what seem to them the limitations and inadequacies of Jesus’s teaching in this respect. So many of their problems, they say, aren’t mentioned in the Gospels, especially the problems of public life – the possession of property, the nature of government, and the policies of nations in their dealings with one another.
But they don’t understand what Jesus came to do. They look at Jesus’ teaching and expecting to find a set of rules, a code, an ethical guide-book covering every contingency in life and providing rule-of-thumb directions for all ethical dilemmas, personal and social. There is no such code in the Gospels.
Jesus wasn’t a lawmaker. He didn’t try to provide a complete compendium of moral duties. He described a way of life and by his words and actions showed that it was do-able. The value of his teaching is not in telling us how we ought to behave in every circumstance and in every relationship, but in describing a way of life to be worked out in personal character and social relationships.
So long as this is remembered no one is likely to label Jesus’ teaching as antiquated or irrelevant. Too much can be made of the difference between his world and ours. In many ways it was a world strikingly like our own. Then as now there were people organising their grievances in self-righteous pressure groups – insisting on their rights, aggressive, grasping. Then as now the Haves were ranged against the Have-Nots and there was suspicion, animosity and friction. Then as now there wars and rumours of wars, and a background of exploitation, oppression, and unrest. Christ lived in a world which in the basic essentials was extraordinarily like our own.
The truths he taught and the issues he dealt with are timeless. The human heart has not changed with the years – its loves and hates, its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows, its temptations, passions and failures. He spoke about sin, and how deliverance from it can be found; about the cares and anxieties of daily existence and pointed a way to a simple, un-harassed life. He spoke of the human soul, of its worth, its rights, its possibilities, its responsibilities. He spoke confidently and convincingly of God as the Father of men, answering and satisfying the deepest craving of their spirits.
What is there in this that is irrelevant today, that would justify us chaining Jesus to the first century and denying his validity now? You cannot date Jesus. “Heaven and earth,” he said, “shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” His words are as alive with spiritual appeal today as when they were first spoken. Has there been any age when the Beatitudes, or the parable of the good Samaritan, or the Golden Rule weren’t deeply relevant?
There is, however, another and greater difficulty. Some people, although they know Jesus offers a solution to the problems of our lives, doubt the practicability of the solution. The way of life is beautiful and noble but isn’t it too idealistic, high and hard for ordinary people? They persuade themselves that there must be an easier way, something less demanding or perfectionist, and that the honest thing is to own up to not being a Christian. They may say that there would soon be an end to all our troubles if only people would act in accordance with the teaching of Jesus. It is a big “if”. It would be a wonderful world if everybody lived by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, but with those principles so demanding, with the world and human nature what it is, what prospect is there for such a world?
Yes, Jesus does set us high standards. Let me name some of them. We are: to put God and not self first; not to be anxious about food or clothes or money; to be absolutely honest; to love our enemies; to forgive always ‘those who sin against us’; to be perfect as God is perfect. What claims Jesus makes on human nature! What an optimist he is! Men didn’t always show him their best side but he believed in them and their ability to meet his challenge. He never gives up on humanity. He is always calling on people to be bigger, braver, wiser and more God-like in the living of their lives. He never speaks as though evil is permanently rooted in the order of things. It is because he sees us as children of God that he makes such exacting demands and pitches things so high.
We need a faith like that today. There are too many among us who view the mean and debasing elements in humanity as impossible to correct, who view any talk about the Golden Rule and a warless world as being a waste of breath.
Of all the obstacles standing in the way of a better world this is the most powerful, this cynicism about the possibility of changing human nature. There was no such cynicism in Jesus. He wasn’t blind to the evil in people, but there was something else he never lost sight of – the wonderful latent goodness in ordinary men and women.
He saw hidden possibilities in everybody he met and believed they could be called into life. His standards are high, but he doesn’t expect us to attain them without help. We aren’t left by ourselves. God is always at hand enabling the person who turns to him to do things which are impossible to mere human nature. Jesus repeatedly emphasised that – that if we’d get in touch with God we’d receive the power to rise to finer and better things.
If that way of life is to become a reality for us, we have to learn to live by the help and grace of God. That was Jesus’ secret. He lived by the help and grace of God, and taught that all of us, day by day, hour by hour, may do the same.
To follow Jesus isn’t easy. But if we want to follow him, and will turn to God for strength, a power will take possession of us that will enable us to dare and do the impossible. This is not romancing. It has happened in previous generations and is happening to men and women today.
I know there are some of us who are drawn to the Christian life but are afraid of failing to reach Christ’s standards. We must remember that we are not alone. God is with us and we can draw on his Spiritual resources. Remember what Jesus said when his disciples thought his demands were so hard and high that nobody could rise to them, “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Get those invitations out!