Sermon for Evensong on 12 March 2017
Numbers 21:4-9; Luke 14:27-33 

How do you feel about kids’ rugby? On Sunday morning? Or, if it’s a nice day, popping in to church for the 8 o’clock service so that it leaves the rest of the day free? What about those churches which put on a special 4 o’clock service so that you can play sport or go to a match and still go to church later? The evening will still be free. Or what about that vexed question what the right time for Mattins should be? Is 11:30 too late: does it get in the way of making the gravy for your Sunday roast?

It’s a tough one, if you are a vicar and you have to organise your church’s schedule best for its ministry. What is going to appeal to the most people? What is going to put those bums on the seats? Maybe the answer is related to feeding people, literally as well as spiritually, for example in the way that the Alpha course does. They give you a meal as well as Bible study. But remember the poor old Israelites in the wilderness, complaining about the food; even the heavenly manna wasn’t much cop – it wasn’t very interesting. [Num.11:6] Maybe a nice meal isn’t it. 

We are great ones today for giving people choices. ‘One size fits all’, or Henry Ford’s ‘You can have any colour so long as it is black’, just won’t do today. Even 3,000 years ago, the Israelites were complaining to God, or at least to God’s representative, to Moses the prophet. ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.’ Loatheth it. It’s no good for you to just dump us here in the wilderness where the food is such rubbish! What’s the point? 

In Saint Luke’s Gospel it’s the other way round. God is not being spoken to, but he is Himself speaking to his people – Jesus, who is God, is talking to his disciples. He’s talking about relative values. The seemingly awful passage about hating one’s father and mother comes just before our lesson tonight. And then the rather odd-sounding stuff about building a tower or setting out with an army to make war: it seems to me as though the contrast is between almost reckless commitment, throwing oneself into discipleship even at the expense of your love for your family, on the one hand, and preparing accurate bills of quantities before undertaking a building project, or detailed strategic calculations of the forces required to win a battle. 

In the Gulf War the US Army devised a strategy of a need for overwhelming force, called ‘Shock and Awe’, as a prerequisite for action: Jesus’ hypothetical leader planning to take on 20,000 men, with a army of half this number, would not have satisfied US Army rules. It all adds up to your commitment to become Jesus’ disciple being very carefully weighed up – but, if you accept the call, nothing, absolutely nothing, will come before your loyalty to Jesus. 

Compare it with becoming a vicar in the Church of England today. First you have months of regular meetings with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, who delicately and tactfully teases out of you the level of your commitment; then you go off for a country house party, called a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, for three days – rather similar to what the Diplomatic Service used to inflict on their candidates. 

Then at last – you don’t get ordained: you need two or three years of academic training first. It’s not quite ‘hating your father and mother’, but it has a flavour of the same absolute dedication.

But wait a minute: supposing you say, I’m just a member of the congregation. I do have a life to run. I may indeed have to fit church in around rugby training. Does that mean that I’m no good as a Christian? Surely not. Well truly, we don’t know; we don’t know whether Jesus would have accepted a rather less keen category of Christians. We hope so.

Maybe there’s a distinction to be drawn between full-on disciples, people who had given up all their creature comforts, left family and friends and followed Him on the one hand, and people like the five thousand, or four thousand, who did love the Lord and did follow Him, but who still took their kids to rugby training.

Another thing is this. Let’s say you do get it, you do realise that being a Christian is more than just going to a show in church each week. You do recognise what Jesus is: God, the Son of God, ‘almighty, invisible, God only wise’. What is Jesus commanding us to do in response? Is it just making sure you go to church? 

Have a look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 5:22, ‘ …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, … 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.’ ‘Walking in’ means doing; let us ‘do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.’ [Communion Service, Common Worship Order Two/BCP 1928]. That means doing good works.  

The thing is, have you been ‘saved’? Are you ‘in the Spirit’, as St Paul put it? You hear people talking about Jesus dying ‘for our salvation’. How does it work? He died, we are told, in order that we ‘might have eternal life’. How would I explain that to someone who refused to believe it? After all, we do all actually die eventually, whether we’re Christians or not.

This is the heart of the Easter story. It is a demonstration, a revelation, that God exists, and that He cares for us. ‘Greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13), is part of it. Jesus was condemned to death for no reason. Pilate could find no crime that He was guilty of. I suppose you could argue that the Jews saw the Christians as a challenge to them. They wanted to rub them out. They could have rounded up Jesus’ followers and had them all killed. 

The Romans could have bought into this as a way of combatting ‘terrorism’. At least one Disciple, Simon the Zealot, was a member of a militant sect opposed to Roman rule. But Jesus was willing to accept the ultimate punishment on behalf of, instead of, all of them. Think of Father Maximilian Kolbe, the monk who volunteered to be starved to death in Auschwitz in place of a man with a family who had been singled out by the Nazis. He died so that the other man could live.

Jesus died in place of sinful mankind. As St Paul put it in Romans 5:6-11, (NEB)
“6 … Christ died for the wicked. 7 Even for a just man one of us would hardly die, though perhaps for a good man one might actually brave death; 8 but Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s own proof of his love towards us. 9 And so, since we have now been justified by Christ’s sacrificial death, we shall all the more certainly be saved through him from final retribution. 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!”

All through the Old Testament there is the theme of man’s rebellion against God. ‘Sin’ means, being separated from God. Worshipping other gods, complaining against God’s prophets, (as we saw in our first lesson), and catalogues of debauchery, violence and immorality – breaking, or just ignoring, the Ten Commandments. God the Creator could surely have cast His creation adrift, torn it up and started again. Astronomers and physicists tell us that there are countless other ‘worlds’ beside ours. Maybe God has created better ones, where there is no war, no hunger or oppression. 

But the Israelites, maybe just the ‘remnant’, the ones who didn’t give up on God, expected that eventually they would be saved. Look at Isaiah 49, 
“Thus saith the LORD, In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages”.

I am uneasy about an understanding of Christ’s death which sees it as a buying-off of God’s wrath. Christians have always used that language; in the Comfortable Words, “He is the propitiation for our sins”. ‘Propitiation’ (ίλασμον) is sometimes translated as the “atoning sacrifice”. But would a loving God be so cruel?

It is certainly true that, as between Jesus and ordinary mankind, Jesus could not be blamed, did not deserve any punishment: whereas ordinary mankind certainly were guilty of all sorts of sins. Although today we probably might be reluctant to say they ‘deserved to die’ for their sins: after all, humans were made that way. 

But what we can say is that, whatever the whys and wherefores of Jesus’ death, his Resurrection is the point at which we can see God at work. If Jesus was a typical human, in one sense, if he entered into our humanity – and died – then by being raised again He changed the game entirely. An awful lot hangs on this. If the Resurrection was just a ‘conjuring trick with bones’, as someone once put it, misquoting Rt Revd David Jenkins, [see then the Sunday rugby crowd can sleep easy and continue to ignore what goes on in church. But if not?

If not. What if you do get it, what if you are ‘in Christ’? That needs even more thought, as we approach Easter. If you can get beyond Sunday rugby, what then? Is going to church the whole story? We can all think of people, in politics or other leadership roles, who are quite happy to be known for going to church, but who still do things which certainly don’t look very Christian. Think of all the nice churchgoing MPs who voted to bring the Dubs scheme for welcoming refugee children to an end, when only about 300 children had been saved, instead of the 3,000 originally promised. Is that like Sunday rugby – you know, you’ve just got to be ‘practical’?

Is that it? But what, what if it is true?