Sermon - 6th March 2016
He is in it with us
Scripture - Philippians 2:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The set Gospel reading for today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is the parable of the Prodigal Son, one which most of us will have heard many times. The essence of the story is the amazing love and forgiveness demonstrated by the father upon the return of his wayward son, despite the son having squandered the family inheritance he insisted upon receiving early.
Here in the UK, the fourth Sunday of Lent is also always Mother’s Day, a day on which we demonstrate and give thanks for our own mothers’ love. Some of our congregation may not be present today, as they will be away visiting their own mothers. For some, this day is a day tinged with sadness, memories of a woman no longer with us; others, for whom, mother is far away on a distant continent.
Unconditional love is the central theme of God’s message to humankind; however, that message has become distorted. The mainstream churches and many of the so-called free churches have abused God’s created diversity of human sexuality and gender identity, and they have abused God’s word in the Bible as a weapon against LGBT people. Some us may also have had the experience of painful rejection by family and friends, rejection fuelled by the anti-gay rhetoric of so-called Christian leaders who have themselves lost sight of God’s unconditional love for all.
The country in which we now live is largely un-churched: the church and Christian belief are increasingly seen as irrelevant, and the LGBT community for the most part shuns belief. In the last 150 years, human society has changed the world for ever and largely for the better, and to varying extents across the world, for some of which Christians have been a part; but, all too often, the mainstream Christian churches have sought to hinder these changes.
Slavery has been abolished; women have become equals; imperialism has given way to democracy; the class structure has faded; and LGBT people are now increasingly accepted as equals.
Towards the end of my sermon last week, I mentioned that perhaps the greatest challenge for LGBT Christians is for us to proclaim the message of God’s unconditional love to other LGBT people.
Today’s reading is taken from St Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, located in Northern Greece, founded around 25 years after Jesus time. In many ways, the Greco-Roman city of Philippi was very much like the UK of today. Founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE, named after his father, Philip, Philippi was a very Roman city, one without a significant Jewish population. St Paul visited Philippi twice during his missionary journeys. The people there knew nothing of God, and certainly nothing of Jesus.
Just like the majority of people today in our country who know nothing about the real Christianity’s true message of God’s unconditional love, the inhabitants of Philippi were spiritually hungry. Glimmers of God satisfying the spiritual hunger can be found everywhere: last week, The Telegraph newspaper reported that at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, choral evensong is increasingly popular – with its silence, beautiful music and the centuries-old language of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer from 1662. Congregations of just a handful of people a few years ago now number in excess of 150! Our own church is growing, and, last week, our First Wednesday group saw its largest ever attendance of 52!
So in today’s reading, St Paul, writing to Europe’s first church in Philippi, wrote of how we might live, to embody the love of God, just as Jesus became human to demonstrate God’s love. For us, we have found and experience what it is to know God’s love: it is our task to tell others. Even though Jesus's time on Earth was some 2000 years ago, the experiences He had among us are no different to the experiences we have today. By becoming fully human, He knows what it is to be us: He is in it with us.
These are the things which Paul would have told those early converts in Philippi and won over their hearts and minds. These are the things we need to tell those in our society. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus was an asylum seeker: Herod sought to kill him; in fear, his earthly parents fled with him to Egypt. They knew what it was like to be in a foreign land, far from family and friends. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus knew what it was to be tempted: we all face temptation in so many ways - some big, some small – sometimes in our personal lives with others; sometimes in our work lives. Jesus was tempted to food when it was not His for the taking, and to abuse His power. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus cared for the ill in body: He sought out the blind, the deaf, the lame, the paralysed; those with diseases, the leprous whom no-one would touch, the woman who suffered for 12 years with bleeding, the Roman Centurion whose male lover lay dying. Jesus was there for them: He is in it with us.
Jesus chose those from every walk of life. Jesus called Peter, a hot-head, a man with a temper who rushed to conclusions; Judas, a man with his fingers in the purse, and a man who would ultimately betray Him; Thomas, who would doubt the Resurrection; Matthew, a social outcast, as a tax collector; Paul, the writer of today’s reading, persecutor of the early Church; John, of whom we know little other than the Gospel tells us he was “the man whom Jesus loved”. Jesus knows what it is like for us in our living and working with others: He is in it with us.
Jesus knew what it was like to lose a loved one. Jesus sought out the bereaved; He wept when He heard of His friend, Lazarus’, death. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus knew what it was like for the authorities to be against Him. He was viewed with suspicion and hatred, just as asylum seekers are so often vilified in the media and by extremist political groups, and just as LGBT people were so often discriminated against, and still are. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus cared for those who were ill in mind and spirit. They called it demon possession, but His presence and prayer brought calm and healing to many, so that they could resume their lives. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus knew what it was like to be unwanted in His homeland. The people of Nazareth dismissed him, one Gospel even says they tried to kill him. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus understood how foreigners feel estranged. He sought out the Canaanite woman and healed her sick daughter. He understood how powerless she felt in a foreign land. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus challenged the inflexible authorities; He refused to accept their hardness of heart and argued with the teachers and enforcers of the Jewish law. Jesus knows what it is like to fight against seemingly impossible circumstances. He is in it with us.
Jesus understood the need to combat hunger. His miracles of feeding thousands may be just allegories or myths, but their message is that the Earth brings forth sufficient food for everyone’s need. He is in it with us.
Jesus understood the life dominated by money and wealth. He sought out the tax collectors, Matthew and Zacchaeus. He offered advice to the rich young man that to save his soul he would need to abandon his preference for wealth. His parables frequently spoke about the emptiness of earthly wealth. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus understood human relationships. He taught about marriage and the love between two people, but He also understood human weakness, how we change as people and go our separate ways. He taught us the transitory nature of relationships, and how there is no marriage in heaven. And for those who remain single, Jesus was unmarried. He is in it with us.
Jesus understood power. He rode into Jerusalem, and the crowds proclaimed Him King and Messiah. He could have abused that to lead an insurrection. As today’s reading tells us: He gave up His power to be in it with us.
Jesus understood children and their innocence. He did not dismiss them, but invited them to come to Him. He had the harshest words for those who might seek to corrupt or harm them. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus understood what it is to be let down by others. All His male disciples fled when He was arrested; Judas betrayed Him; Peter denied him. Alone, He faced His accusers. He is in it with us.
Jesus understood the unequal position of women at the time. Even though they condemned Him for it, He befriended Mary, a prostitute, and she had the honour of being the first person to speak with Him following the Resurrection. Jesus sought out the foreign, Samaritan woman, married six times, the Canaanite woman we have already mentioned. He is in it with us.
Jesus understood what it is to be alone and that it can be a good thing. Jesus spent time in the wilderness; He often withdrew and chose to be alone. But He also understood the pain of aloneness in the Garden of Gethsemane, and when He hung dying on the Cross, crying out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus went against the flow: He saw that people are more important, not following the letter of the law. Time and time He challenged the authorities, and they hated Him for it, eventually killing Him on the Cross. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus did not shy away from the reality that we will all die. He challenged us about how we live our lives. He spoke clearly about Salvation and the choice we all have in respect of our own souls. He spoke in simple ways, using stories and parables; He offered us glimpses into heaven, bringing hope into our human hearts. Jesus, He is in it with us.
Jesus loved us from the start. His whole time on Earth was driven by love: love for the poor and needy, love for the ill, bereaved and broken-hearted; love for women, men and children; love for the foreigner and the estranged, love for those looked down upon by society, love for the rich and the proud; love for each one of us.
So when you are asked about what church and faith is all about, tell them this: Jesus, He is in it with us. Tell them this story, tell them His story, that He came to teach us how to live. In Paul’s words to the Philippian Church:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mind-set as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
This is the greatest gift to humankind. Jesus, He is in it with us.