Lent Talk Four 29th March 2017
Romans 6: 3-11
John 14: 18-24
Last week’s and this week’s titles take us to the heart of what it is to be Christian: dying and living. The Christian faith pivots around those two ideas. You could sum up that passage from Romans we just had read to us, by saying that Paul has both bad news for us and good news. The bad news is that we are dead, all of us. The good news is that we are alive.
Paul comes back to this time and again “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” And that passage in Romans 6: “If we die with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
It’s important to understand what Paul means by this. It’s partly, as Graham reminded us last week, that we will all die. That is the reality about every one of us, and we must live with it. Of course our minds bounce off it, but as Graham so sensitively reminded us last week, we have to face it and accept it’s consequences.
But Paul goes further. He sees humanity having a kind of contract with death. And it must have been abundantly clear in his day. The Roman Empire used death as a weapon of politics. Killing people and leaving their bodies lying around was a way of intimidation. That was how they managed to govern a huge area with relatively small forces.
We would like to feel we have moved on from that, and in some ways we have. But we have our own particular contracts with death, perhaps more subtle and more easily missed. There is the way people use Social Media to take people down, and vilify them, sometimes threatening them so that people become frightened for their lives. And on another level we should recognise how much of our prosperity in the West is at the expense of parts of the world that are locked into poverty, where people have a far shorter life expectancy than we do. Think of the cheap clothes in our high streets and the sweatshops of Bangladesh from which they come. The man who attacked parliament had his own contract with death. But we have our contract with death in our response to so called Islamic state in our bombing of parts of Syria. This is not a political point. This is the way we choose to do things as human beings. And it’s not just “some people”. It’s our humanity – yours and mine that does it. That’s the point. We all end up complicit.
And Paul sees all of this all of this coming into sharp focus in the crucifixion. Because there our human contract with death comes face to face – literally – with the love and the compassion of God in Christ. And that love is so immense, so infinite that the hatred and malice simply falls away. It’s powerless in the face of it. The desire to instil fear is of no avail whatsoever, when, as the nails are knocked in someone says, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing……..”. We have nothing to say in the face of such undeserved love.
This is love that is stronger than death. And it is the immensity and power of this love we should see. This is of course the inner story of the Damascus Road when Paul, seeking to arrest Christians and stone them like Stephen, encounters the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road. And for Paul the miracle here is also the way this love flows outwards from the cross into the lives of those who recognise this and changes them – as he discovers it changed him. This is for him the gift of life – God’s life as Jesus lived it.
So Baptism for Paul is the decision to accept that new reality of God’s forgiving love. We are baptised into the death of Christ. We die, as it were, to our human contract with death, and chose to move into a totally new contract – a contract with life. And the result of this for Paul is an entirely new way of being human. It is, he says, a new creation, where the life of God pulses in us.
Our font cover reminds us of that every time we enter the church. It is so designed that the words “New Creation”. are the first words we see as we come through the door. That is who we are as Christians: we are God’s New Creation. When Roger was designing the cover, we went back to the original Greek of 2 Corinthians 5:17 to get a good translation. If you look at it as a sentence, in the original Greek, somehow the syntax does not quite hold together. It’s as if Paul, when he is talking about this is overtaken by the wonder of it all, and loses hold of the way he can talk about it. “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation. The old has gone – behold – the new is born.” Actually the Greek says: “Old gone…..New born”. And the “behold” in the middle is almost like an intake of breath in amazement!
And it’s IN us. The New Testament is emphatic about that. “Christ in me, the hope of glory.” “Christ in you the hope of glory” Paul says elsewhere. And in that Gospel passage from John again the same: “You in me and I in you”. We are gifted with this life, you and I! The life of God in Christ – given in our baptism, given in our prayers, sustained in our life together and in this Eucharist.
So – finally – that is what Christian living is: living out of the life that God gifts to us.
But here (I often think) the unexpected happens. Given that power – life changing power – Paul describes, you almost expect that his next call would be for Christians to rise up and storm the gates of Rome or something, and establish Gods kingdom of justice and peace. But that is not what happens, because Paul knows this is not about that kind of power. Instead it emerges in a life of delight in people and in creation. It creates a life of love and compassion, where peace and forgiveness become a natural response. Not as something we make ourselves be, but arising naturally from God’s life within us. This is about humanity living as God always intended we should live.
What Jesus and Paul both seem to envisage is the creation of communities living in this way, which will infectiously grow, drawing people to them, until finally the whole world is put to rights through the simplicity and true humanity of this way of living.
But we always have to be making the choice for this, between living in the kingdom of love, or lapsing back into our easy contract with death. And the question is, I suppose, how can we best do this? The short answer, always to remember, is that this new life is a given. It is there in us, and nothing will take it away. But it is worth remembering that the question of how we live with such a strange truth, has always been there. When Mary learned she was to carry God’s son she asked the angel “How can this be?” The answer was “With God nothing is impossible.” In other words, “Learn to live in a miracle.” That is what we must get used to. That is the dimension of life that makes being a Christian totally different: we live in a miracle.
The great French spiritual writer de Caussade says that we will always know what to do in any given situation – know what the will of God is – because if we trust this life of God in us, it will always prompt us towards the right thing. There will be a kind of nudge, a push in a particular direction, a sense, from deeper than our thinking minds, of what we should do or how we should respond.
Rather like a sailor in a boat, sitting at the tiller, being aware of the way the wind blows, steering the boat in accordance with its direction. We can’t see the wind. But a fine tuned awareness allows us always to know where it is blowing. Our life as a Christian is rather like that, driven forward by the love of God. And like the boat riding before the wind, it’s a life of freedom and joy.