The great cloud of Christian witnesses

I preached this message at Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay on Sunday 7th August 2016.  Our readings were 2 Chronicles 7:11-22, Hebrews 11:1-12:2 and Matthew 13:44-45.  We sang three hymns: “Immortal, invisible”; “Just as I am”; and “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”.

I want to talk to you today about the importance of our witness for Christ, both to the not-yet-Christians in wider society and to fellow Christians within our community.

I regret that we appear to be living in a period that is very hostile to the preaching of the gospel message, and that somehow it is seen by wider society that being a Christian is somehow anti-intellectual.  As both a Christian and a scientist, I can assure you that it is possible to be both, as many of my colleagues are, and I know that you will agree with me that we don’t need to suspend our mental faculties in order to believe the gospel – indeed, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – yet this is not a message the world wishes to hear.

Perhaps the best example of how the western world wishes to view Christianity – and religion more generally – is exemplified in the book “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, which is an award-winning book and film.  The hero is a young Indian boy who decides as a child that he likes elements of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and that he can take the parts that he likes of each as his religion.  The story is told with him many years later narrating an incredible voyage across the open sea after the cargo ship he is on sinks, but he also provides a more believable but less compelling tale of his journey and asks the reader explicitly to decide which story we prefer – explaining that we have that same choice with respect to our religious beliefs.  Thus, Christianity is seen as one possible alternative amongst equals on a supermarket shelf of innumerable possible alternative beliefs and all we need to do is to choose the one we like best.

It is a nice fairytale, perhaps, to believe that we need simply to choose the lens through which we view life, but as Christians, we know that the fairytale is simply not true.  We know that Christianity is not simply a choice amongst equals, but that Christianity has a historical, intellectual, emotional, experiential truth and explanatory power that none of the alternatives possess.  But the myth pervades society and has damaging consequences for our Christian witness.

I am going to relate to you an example from my community of Dawlish that shocks me and I am sure will shock you also.  In two weeks’ time, there will be an event in Dawlish organised by the owner of a local New Age shop that includes mediums, healers and selling magical items – and a significant portion of that event is taking place in one of our local church buildings.  Now I agree that we have to engage with the wider community, as Jesus did.  But while Jesus associated with prostitutes, he did not invite them to ply their trade in the temple.  Indeed, he overturned tables and expelled unscrupulous traders from the temple, declaring that it was not to be turned into a den of thieves.

Such apostasy by wider society in general and the church in particular is nothing new – indeed, it has been a sad feature of the history of God’s people that we regularly turn away from God and are deceived into compromising on God’s principles and standards for us.  The Israeli nation repeatedly took up sorcery and the worship of idols and was repeatedly punished for it.  And here we must not read our bible with rose-tinted spectacles – as our reading from 2 Chronicles declares, God promises great blessings for his faithful people, but there are accompanying curses for the apostate and those who seek to compromise on God’s holy standards.

As Christians we have an individual and collective responsibility to be good witnesses for God’s perfect holiness; that whilst promoting the gospel message of unbounded love, mercy and grace, we are called also to be a “holy nation”, “set apart” and “a perfect offering acceptable to God”.  One way or another, God will demonstrate his holiness through us – either by the good witness we make to His glory, or by making an example of us to others.

In our witness to both Christians and not-yet-Christians, we need to live out the standards God declares for our lives.  If through the use of our church buildings, or our bodies we are deceiving people into believing that unholy practices are acceptable to God, then we are not fulfilling our duty as witnesses.  Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians stresses the importance of being good witnesses in order not to lead the people around us astray.  Paul gives the example of eating meat sacrificed to idols – if our fellow Christians find it intolerable and likely to lead those weaker in the faith astray, then we should refrain from an inadvertent public witness that seemingly declares idolatry to be inconsequential.

In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the author indicates how we are part of a great tradition of faithful witnesses to the glory of God and that, just as they provide examples of that faithful witness to us, we are to play our part in being faithful witnesses to others.  Many of the witnesses mentioned – Abel, Abraham, Moses – did not live to see the full fruits of their faith, which was bestowed on others.  But their faithful witness speaks clearly and reassuringly to us now through the ages, perhaps more so to us given the passage of time than to their contemporaries.

We are part of that same witness to generations of Christians to come – perhaps to our children and grand-children, to members of our church, to the next generation of preachers and church leaders.  What will the testimony to our faith say?

One of my church leaders used the following simile recently, which I find to be quite instructive.  I think we have probably all heard of the term “our Carbon footprint” … it is an indication of how much energy we use in our daily lives.  From switching on a light or a kettle, watching the television, using the car or public transport, heating our home, cooking our meals – they all use energy mostly derived from gas or coal or oil, or other carbon-based fuels.  It is called a “footprint” because it leaves a mark, and as a global population that mark can be detected quite easily by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide being put back into the atmosphere.  So the corresponding question is: “What is our Jesus footprint?”  What are the visible, measurable signs for all to see that Jesus is at work in our lives, that we are His and that we are working for His glory.

Even though they hadn’t yet seen the fulfilment of God’s promise to send a Saviour to crush the serpent once and for all, it was Noah’s faith that led him to build the ark despite the mockery of his contemporaries and his “Jesus footprint” is the preservation of humanity and the animal kingdom in the face of the devastating effects of the flood.  Abraham’s “Jesus footprint” consists of his many descendants both physically and spiritually, even though he was prepared through faith to sacrifice his only son at the altar.  Moses’ faith led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into freedom and his “Jesus footprint” was the nations of Israel and Judah, from whose line David and eventually Jesus was to come.

Much more recently, Martin Luther’s “Jesus footprint” is the existence of the Protestant churches, and the recognition that we are saved by grace alone.  Wycliffe and Tyndale’s “Jesus footprints” are our English bibles.  My “Jesus footprint” is unlikely to be as large as those I have mentioned, but whether it is the impact on our family and friends, or wider still, we all have a “Jesus footprint” – what is yours?

Analogous with our “Jesus footprint” are our “Jesus fingerprints”.  Fingerprints are personal, unique to every individual and much harder to spot – you have to get close up and examine them carefully.  “What do your Jesus fingerprints say”?  What is the personal impact of Jesus Christ in your life?  The things that people can’t see easily, but that are there just as importantly in private – sometimes these are things that matter more to us personally than what is visible as our “Jesus footprint”.  Perhaps it is that personal relationship we have with God, that closeness we feel in our times of private devotion to Him.  Perhaps it’s the way we feel and experience His Holy Spirit when we sing praises to Him, perhaps it is the part we know He has played time after time in our lives that everyone else just puts down to good fortune.

Footprints and fingerprints are those public and private witnesses to Jesus working in our lives.

I have this lovely little book by William Barclay titled “The Master’s Men”.  It tells the story of each of Jesus’ disciples and the witness they are to His life and works.  What came through for me most clearly as I read through their stories, was how “ordinary” they were, but how powerfully Jesus worked to transform their lives.  The gospels and other books of the New Testament don’t hide their human flaws – their pride and selfish ambition, their lack of faith, their cowardice, their inability to comprehend what they are witnessing despite living and working with Jesus on a daily basis.  And yet, in His presence and particularly in the presence of the risen Lord, they are transformed.  Peter, who denies Jesus three times at His hour of greatest need, becomes a warrior for His new church, fearlessly proclaiming Jesus’ divinity to his own martyrdom; John, previously dubbed one of the “thunder twins” for their fierce, argumentative nature, becomes known to his own followers and to us as the apostle of love; Thomas, firmly sceptical of the testimony of the other disciples, collapses to his knees in the presence of the risen Jesus and proceeds to proclaim Him further afield than any of the other apostles.

We too are flawed people – in ourselves unworthy witnesses to the glory of Christ – but He transforms us and our witness, making something remarkable out of something dearly loved but otherwise unremarkable.  Whenever we feel that we are not “good enough” to do God’s work, it is worth reminding ourselves of who He chose as His disciples – none of them “good enough” in their own strength, but transformed by the power of His Holy Spirit.

When we are feeling insecure in our own witness, it is sometimes tempting to leave everything to God in His infinite power and wisdom – and of course, we have to acknowledge that God is sovereign over all.  But we are called also to be Jesus’ hands and feet – Jesus asks us not only to pray for the hungry and destitute, but to feed and clothe them – our ministry for Jesus is to be practical, as well as spiritual, just as His was during His time on earth.  Teresa of Avila wrote a beautiful verse indicating our witness:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands, Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, You are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

As we read in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus offers us this incredible trade but it is an “all or nothing” deal.  He promises all of Himself, in return for all of ourselves, including our bodies to be His hands and feet on this earth.

Perhaps you’ve seen one of those “life swap” programmes on television, where for a day or a week two people trade places to experience life as the other person.  They are most dramatic and instructive when the people involved have very different lives to begin with – perhaps one poor and the other rich, or a hard labourer swapping with an office clerk.  Perhaps we’ve wondered ourselves what it would be like to experience unbounded wealth for one day.  Jesus offers us the most incredible trade – His perfect and spotless life, the infinite riches of His inheritance and a life forever in God’s presence, in return for our imperfect, grubby, broken lives.  There is no catch, but it is an “all or nothing” deal – we can have the pearl of great price, but the great price is all of ourselves, our ambitions for ourselves, putting our bodies at His service.

It is difficult, because we have a tendency to cling onto parts of our life that we don’t want to trade, particularly as we feel the Holy Spirit transforming us from within.  I find it helpful to remind myself of what it must have been like for a blind man healed by Jesus.  He has spent his entire life in darkness and so, when those first glimpses of daylight enter his healed eyes it must have been exciting, but very quickly become extremely painful.  In the hours and days after the healing, the light itself may have seemed unbearable – perhaps all his body and his mind could think of was to close his eyes and shut out the burning light, to hide in a dark corner somewhere.  You see, whilst we know that in healing him, Jesus was restoring his body perfectly to its intended form and function, it would have been very easy for the blind man subsequently to wish for less – for a half-life of blurred vision that was less intense and more familiar, for a little of Jesus’ power to have fallen on him, rather than a lot.  But Jesus will have it no other way – perfectly restored as He intended, not as we desire.

The strapline for my church in Dawlish is “More people, more like Jesus”, but often we represent Jesus only in terms that we think the wider world will find acceptable.  Dorothy Sayers is dismissive of the church’s tendency to gloss over certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry:

We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for curates and pious old ladies.  To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.  True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites.  He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.  He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.

“More people, more like Jesus” – do we really understand what it is we are asking for?  I welcome this vision wholeheartedly, but the results will be a loving, but fiery ministry as we embrace all that Jesus is and represent him faithfully both in what we say and what we do.

As Jesus’ representatives on earth, we have an obligation also to preach Jesus’ word powerfully and prayerfully to those who don’t yet know about the wonderful offer He has for us – of His life for ours.  And just as different parts of the body have their own function, we will have our different roles in that witness – some through personal testimony, some through acts of charity and love, some through singing praise and worship, some through prayer, and each according to our different giftings, which will often be a mixture of these ministries in varying proportions.

Just as Paul, when confronted with the altar to the unknown God in Athens, preached who it was the Athenians were called to worship, so we must be preaching the truth of who we were made to worship to a world that wants to believe in the fairytale of religious free choice.  Not a coercive witness – that was never Jesus’ way – but a persuasive witness in all its fullness and glory.  Jesus promises us that this will not be without its troubles – we will be mocked and persecuted – but Jesus endured worse for our sakes without complaint.

We all have our part to play and your lives are a testimony to God’s glory and power.  And part of your role is to remind me and my generation of what the gospel powerfully preached is like.  I don’t know what “revival” looks like – I am too young to remember the last time God’s Holy Spirit flooded powerfully through our nation – but I know this isn’t it; there is more to come.  I don’t know what God’s plans are for our local communities, but I know that the present situation where His church is fearful of preaching His gospel message to a hostile society isn’t it; there is more to come.  To those proclaiming that what we see now is God’s kingdom come in power and glory, I say this isn’t it; there is more to come – Jesus is coming back and will establish His eternal rule.  I don’t know what the new heaven and new earth will look like, but I know this isn’t it; there is more to come.  I don’t know what our heavenly bodies will be like, other than being glorious; but this flesh and blood body isn’t it; there’s more.

We know there is more; we long for more; Lord come in power and glory; “Sir, we would see Jesus”.