Readings: Philippians 3: 1 – 12 and Matthew 6: 25 – 34
‘Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.’
Well you may or may not have heard of the name, John Stuart Mill but he was a philosopher in the 19th century who wrote about a variety of things. And as part of my recent holiday reading I came across something he said that really caught my attention and made me stop and think, in fact, I found it rather disconcerting. And it was because in 1859 John Stuart Mill wrote an essay in which he was trying to explain the process by which words lose their meaning. And in seeking to illustrate his argument, he came up with the view that the best example he could give of this were Christians. And he said this:
‘Christians seem to have the amazing ability to say the most wonderful things without actually believing them.’
And he then went on to give a list of things that Christians actually say: things like – blessed are the poor and humble; it’s better to give than to receive; judge not, lest you be judged; love your neighbour as yourself and so on. He then concluded by suggesting that as far as Christians were concerned, the sayings of Jesus seemed to produce hardly any effect in them at all beyond saying that they believed them. Well whether you agree with what he says or not I’ll leave you to think about.
But it certainly began to make me think once more of how I, personally take to heart the words of Jesus and act on them. Just how seriously do I take the teaching of Jesus? Am I selective and just take the bits I like and then gloss over the others? And I find myself constantly being challenged along these lines by various Christian social activists. People like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis and many others. In fact, I went to hear to Tony Campolo speak at York Minster a couple of years ago. And he often refers to himself as one of those ‘Red Letter Christians.’ And you’ve probably seen those Bibles where the words of Jesus are printed in red, in fact, Janet has one. And Tony Campolo says this:
‘The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: to take Jesus seriously by endeavouring to live out his radical counter-cultural teaching as set forth in Scripture and committing ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said; especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.’
And so as we proceed with our sermon series looking at some of our basic Christian beliefs it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the things we say we believe and how seriously we do take them and the extent we may put them into practice. And just think of the difference it would make in our world if we truly began to act on all that Jesus teaches in those red lettered verses.
And so what I want to do this morning is to pick up on those words of Jesus which I started with and where Jesus says: ‘Seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness.’ And it’s the second part of that phrase I want to look at and what it really means ‘to seek God’s righteousness?’ And that’s our theme for today and I have three simple points.
And so firstly let me suggest it means seeking to be in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ. And do you remember that bit in our first reading from Philippians where Paul, the author is reflecting on some of the things in his past and which others of his day would regard as a sign of success and to his credit. And he says “look I consider all these things as nothing compared with knowing Christ.” He says:
‘I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.’
And knowing Christ is what’s important – that living relationship we can enter into with him. And we can only begin to know him and be in that relationship with him when we turn to him in faith and repentance – and as the rest of the New Testament shows us; that means faith specifically in what Jesus did for us on the cross. And it was there that he bore the guilt of our sin in himself so that we might share in his righteousness and be right with God. And it was on the cross that Jesus did for us what we could do for ourselves; our sins were laid on him and his righteousness was accounted to us – and we accept it by simple faith. It’s not something we can achieve through our own efforts – it’s the free gift of God – and that’s what grace is all about.
And we see this principle operating in the Old Testament as well. And so if we go way back into the book of Genesis we see God making certain promises to Abraham. And it says: ‘that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ And we see the Apostle Paul reminding his readers of this very same point in his letters to the Romans and Galatians.
2. And then secondly, righteousness not only means being in a right relationship with God but it’s also living out that right relationship with God through obedience to him. We can’t just say: “well if salvation is a free gift from God, what does it matter how we live?” But it does matter – it matters immensely. And look at what Jesus says in John’s gospel – and again it’s in red letters. “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home in them.” And this obedience should not be seen as some kind of unwelcome imposition on us from above; no – it is a loving response to all that Jesus has done for us.
And James in his New Testament letter tells us that faith that stops at words is not really faith at all. We can’t claim to have faith if our lives remain unchanged. Where faith is real it will spill over into what we do and how we behave. It will manifest itself in our personal moral integrity, in obedience and in seeking to do what is right before God. Faith without deeds is useless says James. The evidence of true faith shows itself in a commitment to love and serve others and following the example of Jesus.
And if we go back again to our Old Testament example of Abraham again we see that he was not only counted as righteous by God because of his faith but he lived out that righteousness through his obedience. And we see that in Genesis 26 when the original promise to him by God is renewed through his son Isaac, and as it’s renewed as God says: “it was because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements”
3. And so we have looked at righteousness on a personal level – as seeking to be in right relationship with God through faith in Jesus. And also at righteousness as living out that relationship with God through obedience to him.
And now there’s a further aspect of righteousness which we need to consider and that brings me to my third point which is the social dimension of righteousness. And it relates to doing all we can in seeking justice and pursuing righteousness in an unjust world.
And I am given to understand that in the original bible languages the words justice and righteousness are almost a single word. They are virtually interchangeable and have a similar meaning. And they are words that recur time and time again throughout the whole of Scripture.
And so when Jesus says: “Seek God’s righteousness” his original hearers would instinctively have known, from what we call the Old Testament, what he meant by it. And that it meant active concern and action on behalf of the poor and the needy, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the hungry and the naked. And they would also have known that it meant honouring and obeying God’s command that such disadvantaged people should be looked after and cared for. And I love those words of the Old Testament where the prophet Isaiah says:
‘Learn to do good! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.’
And so once more, we can go back to the example of Abraham. He was not just counted righteous by God for his faith and or for his personal obedience but we also see this other aspect of righteousness as well when God gives his own reason for calling and choosing him. This is what God says to him in Genesis 19:
‘For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.’
And then something else we see in the Old Testament, is the prophets who are passionate about justice and righteousness; about freedom from oppression; about the promotion of civil rights and justice in the law courts; about integrity in business dealings and about honour in the home and in family affairs.
And this is why it is important that as Christians we support missions and agencies like Christian Aid; Tear Fund and many others and all those which we support as a church, which campaign for justice and seek to alleviate suffering in a world in which there is so much injustice.
And it’s part of our mission as Christians to this hurting world. All our mission flows from the mission of God and it’s what Jesus commissioned us to do; it’s part of building for his kingdom. And yes there is a day when God is coming to put things to right when Jesus comes again; when heaven and earth become one and when as the prophet Isaiah puts it:
‘when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
But we are not called to just sit back and wait for that to happen we are called to live now in the light of what is still yet to come. And this is what Tom Wright says in his book ‘Surprised by Hope.’ He says this:
‘What we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt and energised by the Spirit is to build for the kingdom.’
Well it’s time for me to finish so let me briefly recap on what it means to seek God’s righteousness?
1. Well firstly it means seeking to be in right relationship with God through faith in Jesus.
2. Secondly it means living out that right relationship through obedience to him.
3. And finally it means doing all we can to seek justice and pursue righteousness in an unjust world.
Philip Newell – Reader
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby Holy Communion on Sunday 22nd March 2015 (am).