Crows Nest Uniting Church
Lent 4 • 15 Mar 2015

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Rev. Chris Udy

A few years ago
a Christian website called ‘Ship of Fools’
ran a competition to find and rate
the very best contemporary
religious jokes and stories.
This is the story that received the most votes.
I was walking across a bridge one day,
and I saw a man standing on the edge,
about to jump off.
So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said.
I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
He said, "Like what?"
I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?"
He said, "Religious."
I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
He said, "Christian."
I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, Me too! Are you an Anglican or a Baptist?
He said, "Baptist!"
I said, "Wow! Me too!
Are you Baptist Church of God
or Baptist Church of the Lord?
He said, Baptist Church of God!"
I said, "Me too!
Are you Original Baptist Church of God
or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!"
I said, "Me too!
Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God,
Reformation of 1879,
or Reformed Baptist Church of God,
Reformation of 1915?"
He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God,
Reformation of 1915!"
I said, "Die, heretic scum!"
and I pushed him off the bridge.”   (Originally by Emo Philips)
I’m not sure that the joke’s all that funny -
I find it quite sad -
but unfortunately it also rings very true -
and it describes an issue that’s also raised
in our readings for today.
Today’s readings
contain two of the nuggets of Christian faith;
two of our most significant
and powerful religious affirmations.
If we wanted to tell our neighbours
what the essence of the Gospel is,
these two statements
would have to be part of what we’d say -
And that leaves us with a problem,
because - on the surface,
and as many Christians use them -
these two statements contradict each other.
The first one is so well known,
and so often used
that many of us
could probably say where it comes from
without looking it up.
It’s often used - even just as a reference -
as a kind of creed -
and at sporting events all over
the English-speaking world
there are people who sit in the crowd
with just that reference
as an evangelical banner - John 3:16.
"For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish
but may have eternal life.”
For many, many people -
both Christians and non-Christians -
that statement almost says it all.
Christian religion - they say - is about ‘belief’.
It’s about affirming the truth
of a set of words and ideas:
that there is a God;
that God has a Son - Jesus;
and that Jesus was sent by God
to provide a way through death
to eternal life.
Those who believe -
those who affirm those words and ideas as truth -
and who keep on believing until and as they die -
those people - and those people only -
will survive to eternal life.
So salvation -
for both Christians and non-Christians
who think like this -
salvation is the reward we get for believing -
our ticket to heaven -
but it only works
if we happen to be believing as and when we die;
it only works if our words and ideas
are correct and in good order,
and if we’re affirming that they’re true
as we finally slip away.
So it’s not a good idea
to be experimental in what you believe,
and it’s especially dangerous
to have a wobble in your faith
if you’re in danger of dying anytime soon.
That’s obviously a caricature -
but for many, many people
it’s the caricature that they reject -
or, even more sadly,
it’s that caricature they then use
to exclude and condemn anyone
who doesn’t see the world exactly like them.
But thankfully there’s a different way
to understand Christian religion,
and that’s summed up
in the second affirmation
from our readings for today.
Again, this affirmation
was the slogan behind a great division
in the Christian community
during the Reformation
when, for many reasons, not all of them laudable,
national Churches in western Europe
broke away from the Roman Catholic Church.
It was this affirmation
that writers like Martin Luther seized on
to insist that the beliefs and practices
of the Roman Catholic Church
had moved too far from the faith
of Jesus, and Paul, and the early Church.
The Reformers said the Church’s teaching,
instead of leading people
to the liberty and freedom of salvation,
had locked them into fear
and superstition, and oppression.
The people of God didn’t need
to have a priest’s blessing
to be born or to die;
they didn’t need the Church’s permission
to get married or be divorced;
and trying to buy God’s forgiveness
with works of penance
or expensive indulgences
or through fighting in crusades
was absolutely pointless -
according to the Reformers -
and they found support and encouragement
especially from Kings
who wanted - for example -
to divorce the wife they had
and marry someone else.
And the affirmation the Reformers used
to rebel against these beliefs and practices
was the one we read
from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“For by grace
you have been saved
through faith,
and this is not your own doing;
it is the gift of God -
not the result of works,
so that no one may boast.”
We have been saved by grace through faith -
said Paul and the Reformers -
and nothing that we do,
no works of any kind -
not the way we say our prayers
nor the money we put in the plate
nor even the nice things that we do
for our families and neighbours -
nothing that we do,
no creed we can recite
or public service we provide
or even suffering we endure -
nothing that we do -
no work we can offer or accomplish
can earn salvation -
and by the same token,
nothing that anyone else can do -
no punishment or pronouncement of the Church,
no curse or threat or malice from anyone else -
nothing that anyone else can do
can cut you off from salvation.
Salvation is - as Paul writes -
“the gift of God”.
No-one else can give it to us,
and no-one else can ever block it
or take it away.
It’s an amazingly generous,
wonderfully open affirmation.
Imagine what it means:
you are, and I am,
right now, without doing anything
to earn or win or be worthy
of God’s welcome and God’s love -
we are, right now, and will always be, saved.
We might need to work out
what being saved might mean,
but whatever it is,
according to Paul and the Reformers,
we are it - we are saved,
and nothing and no-one
can take that away from us.
Salvation is the gift of God,
and God gives it - God has given it -
freely, without limit or condition -
“you have been saved”;
you are saved by grace -
“by God’s unmerited favour”
was the way the Reformers described it.
Of course, that also means
that people who disagree with us,
even people who might not think
we’re saved by grace
are also saved - by grace.
If salvation is God’s gift in grace
it isn’t what we do, or say,
or even what we think is true that saves us.
It’s God’s grace that saves us -
not what we do, or say, or think -
or even believe -
if by ‘believe’ we mean what we think is true.
What saves us is God’s grace,
and God’s grace - God’s unmerited favour -
has made us and sustained us
and been calling us
from before the earliest moments of creation.
It’s written into the fabric of existence;
it was there - God’s unmerited favour -
when we first became human,
and formed our first words,
and first began to wonder
what the meaning and purpose
and promise of life could be.
It was there - God’s grace -
long before we began to fear
either judgement or death,
and it was ours long before people used our fears
to manipulate and exploit and divide
the people God has always loved -
and will always love -
into cults and sects and religious denominations.
It’s God’s grace -
the love God has for the world -
that moves us beyond
our superficial differences
in religion or race or politics -
because in God’s love - in God’s grace -
we come to understand
that those we consider dangerously different -
those we might think of as ‘heretic scum’
are also much-loved daughters and sons of God.
It’s sobering to realise
that often those we judge and condemn most harshly
are those who are most like us -
those closest to us -
and those we fear and despise
often reflect some truth about ourselves
that we are almost desperate
not to see.
Maybe, like the serpent in the wilderness
for the people of Israel -
or like Jesus broken and dying
and raised up on the cross
for all of us -
maybe its only
when we can look directly
at whatever we’re most afraid of,
and recognise that there’s something of God
in those we want to reject and exclude,
that we will be set free from our fear
and the poison and illness
it brings into our lives -
set free
to live in the peace and hope
of the loving grace of God -
and maybe, after all,
that’s exactly what it means
to have been saved.