Sermon: Lent 4, 11 March 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St. Aidan’s West Epping, 11th March 2018

AMAZING GRACE

(Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 103; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:16-21)

“The church is full of hypocrites!” It’s a criticism that has been around for a long time, and not without reason. Sadly the widely reported child abuse and apparent toleration of sexual abuse within the church has reinforced this impression. How do we respond to a criticism like that, especially when we have heard so much about the church to justify the accusation?

I suppose that a clever response is to say: “No, the church is not full of hypocrites. There’s always room for one more. You’re welcome to join us.” I doubt however that that would work brilliantly!

Why do people make these criticisms of the church? Why do they seem to have higher expectations of the church than other organizations and groups? One reason perhaps is that they think that Christianity and the church’s message is all about “being good”. Perhaps they get the impression that Christians see themselves as better than other people – and as we are regularly being reminded, we far too often don’t seem to measure up.

Of course, Christians ought to live good honest decent lives. Our character ought to be godly. We ought to be known as people who love their neighbour. But we Christians certainly have our faults, sometimes glaring ones. It would be nice to think that the faults of Christians are less than they might be if they were not Christians: but you can’t prove that one way or another! And you certainly can’t say that Christians are free from hypocrisy.

Most of us have sides that we try not to display too obviously, things about ourselves that we’re not too proud of. If we were totally open before people, we would sometimes show a different face. I guess you could describe that as a form of hypocrisy: play-acting, which is the literal meaning of the word. I’m certainly guilty of that. I know of nothing I’ve done that would cause a front-page scandal, but there is a certain image that I prefer people to have of me, and it feels good if people think of me as better than I really am. And my guess is that many of us would have to admit something similar.

I am well and truly imperfect, and so are the rest of us. And that is part of the essence of being a Christian. Every Christian acknowledges that he or she is definitely an imperfect person. So if you’re not perfect, church is the right place to be. In fact a significant part of this service is the confession, as we acknowledge our failures before God. We are encouraged to be honest enough to own up to our sinfulness and our disobedience to God.

For the heart of Christianity is not how good we are. And Paul makes that clear in our reading from Ephesians 2. He gets to the heart of the Christian faith as he explains what we are all like, and what God has done to help us.

Paul uses pretty graphic language to describe our human failings. Phrases like “dead through your transgressions and sins”, “following the ways of the world”, “gratifying the passions of the flesh and following its desires and thoughts”. He says that by nature, we are deserving of God’s wrath or judgement.

Very dramatic! No wonder people think that Paul got hung up on sin! But we need to understand his point. We are not too far from the truth if we think of sin as self-centredness. It is the attitude “I want what I want”, “I will do what I want”. It is setting ourselves up as the one in charge of our lives, rather than acknowledging God, our Creator and Ruler, as rightly having first place. It is doing what I want, even if it is not what God wants, even if it is not loving towards others.

Sin is going our way, rather than going God’s way. And that means that far too often our neighbour is hurt, or at least left out. It means that we keep God at a distance, so that he doesn’t get in the way. And sadly, by cutting ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from his life and from his kingdom.

The natural result of this is all the evil we see in the world: it is seen in the lives of people everywhere, from all nations and backgrounds, from religious and irreligious alike. We are all sinners: far too consistently we choose our way rather than God’s. That’s what Paul says we are all like. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know he’s right.

And if that were all Paul had to say on the subject, we might indeed say that he was “hung up” on sin. However, in verse 4 of our ten verses there is a very important word: the word “but”! I remember a lecturer at Moore College saying that when you see the word “but” in the Bible, look closely because something significant is being said!

And that’s certainly the case here. For having talked about the human problem of sin, Paul gets on to what God has done about it! He goes from the bad news to the good news.

What has God done? He has brought us from death to life. He has raised us from the darkness of sin and given us a seat in the kingdom of heaven. And he has done it through Jesus Christ: above all through his death and resurrection.

Despite our sin, God has forgiven us. Despite our spiritual deadness, God has raised us to life. Despite our alienation from him, God has restored us to fellowship and given us a place in his kingdom. Despite our inability to get ourselves out of the mess, God has rescued us. And he has done it in the person of Jesus Christ: God himself, coming to share our human life – living, dying and rising for our sakes.

As those famous words we heard from John’s Gospel say: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, God did it because of his love, because of his great mercy, because of his amazing grace.

Today is Mothering Sunday. We know what we expect mothers to be like. We expect them to love their children. Yes, we hope than they will guide and discipline their children in a loving way. But mothers don’t stop loving their children because they have been disobedient, or haven’t done well enough at their examinations, or don’t tidy their rooms, or put on a tantrum. Many children test out their mother’s love, but it takes a lot for any real mother to actually stop loving their children. Sadly, however, for all sorts of reasons of course, it does sometimes happen.

But what about God? God loves us humans even when we reject his love. God loves us even though we don’t deserve it. Paul refers to God’s grace and that’s what grace is all about: God’s kindness, which reaches out to us even though we don’t deserve it. God doesn’t love us because we’re good or moral or religious: he loves us because that’s the sort of God he is. He is a God of love. We can never earn God’s grace. We can’t pay for God’s grace. It is a gift, an infinitely generous gift, an expression of his infinite love.

And how do we respond when a gift is offered to us? Surely the best thing is to accept it with thankfulness. Not to ignore it. Not to refuse it. Certainly not to try to pay for it!

We simply and thankfully accept God’s gift. And that is what faith is all about. Opening up to God’s grace: accepting God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of salvation.

Paul in our passage is saying that in our sinfulness we are spiritually lost and blind. But through Christ we find God’s welcome and see God’s light.

In faith we open up to God’s wonderful love, his amazing grace. We place ourselves in his loving hands with all our faults and failings and weaknesses, and we open up to his Spirit to lead us through life.

Faith then is opening up to God and his amazing grace. And it’s the heart of being a Christian. Not being good or moral or kind or religious. But simply trusting the God who loves and welcomes us through Christ.

And that’s is why true Christianity can set us free from hypocrisy. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. We don’t pretend that we’re perfect. Certainly not that we’re better than other people. We take sin seriously but we don’t need to be obsessed by it, for God has graciously dealt with it through Christ.

But remember that God’s grace reaches out with a purpose in mind. Paul says that we are created, created anew, in Christ Jesus, “to do good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. God has good things for us to do: acts of kindness and love, deeds of generosity and service, decisions based on wisdom and honesty and righteousness and generosity, words and actions that bear witness to the love and goodness of God. Our faith doesn’t make us superior, but if it is for real, it certainly makes a difference in our lives.

Christians certainly aren’t perfect. But by God’s grace we accept in faith his gift of forgiveness and salvation, and we seek to consistently follow Jesus who shows us the way to life, and the way of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver