2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Matthew 4:18-22
Today we start a series of services and sermons trying to express a vision – the vision of the Archbishop of York and his staff – for the Diocese of York in particular, but a vision that ought to be one that all churches – all Christians – should share. A vision of being a growing church – growing in five specific areas – it’s definitely not just about getting more bums on pews, though one would hope that would be the end result. Something that is not growing is, pretty much by definition, either dying, or not alive in the first place, and the same could be said of a church.
The Diocese of York is calling this vision, “Generous Churches Making and Nurturing Disciples” – which sounds a bit of a mouthful, but I don’t think there’s much to disagree with in it – we are called to be generous churches that make and nurture disciples. What was it Roy Searle called us to at our away day last October (which I will keep banging on about!)? It was the great commandment and the great commission of Jesus – love god and make disciples. This vision is not so different – be generous people – loving people – loving God and neighbour – generous with what we offer to God and what we offer to our neighbour; and to make and nurture disciples who will be generous loving people too.
The vision of the diocese is to have each church to grow – to grow in five areas in particular – to grow in Christ-likeness, commitment, partnership, influence and, yes, in numbers, the Five Marks of Growing. Today we begin with the first of these – growing in Christ-likeness.
Being a disciple of Jesus means first of all being like Jesus. A disciple seeks to imitate whoever it is they follow. In our Gospel reading Jesus said to his disciples, “Follow me!” He didn’t say, ‘Come and be religious.’ He didn’t say, ‘Come and learn lots of clever ideas about how to answer questions about life the universe and everything.’ He didn’t say, ‘Come and be good people.’ He said, “Follow me!”
In his last sermon in 2007: John Stott, one of the great Christian thinkers, writers and preachers of the modern age, said, after all his theology and biblical interpretation he said at the end, ‘…I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God’.
St Paul wrote that as Christians on earth we are the body of Christ. To be the body of Christ we have to look like Christ, act like Christ, be like Christ – even be Christ. Obviously it’s not about all growing long hair, beards and wearing white robes! I had a friend in training college who used to win the award every year for ordinand who looked most like Jesus! Obviously it’s not about physical appearance, it’s about how our lives look. This is about much more than occasional tweak in our behaviour – asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ in each situation – though I don’t think that would go amiss. It’s more about allowing the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God which is the Spirit of Jesus, to work deeply in us and change us from inside out.
But what is it to be Christ-like – to grow in Christ-likeness? You have probably known some very good people over the years. Some, what you might call, ‘saintly’ people. But is there a difference between ‘good’ and ‘Christ-like’? You clearly do not have to be a Christian to be good, but do you have to be a Christian to be ‘Christ-like’? I’m not sure even that is true. I’d say Gandhi was Christ-like. But, to turn it round, can you be a Christian and not try to be Christ-like – not be interested in being Christ-like? There, I’d say you have a problem! To be a Christian is to be someone who has heard Jesus’ voice saying’ ‘Follow me!’ Come and be like me. To often people say, ‘I’m a good person! I’m a Christian person.’ They may be good, but if they’re not interested in following Jesus and learning about him in order to become more like him, the word ‘Christian’ isn’t really being used aright. How can you be a Christian without any interest in Christ?!
Back in the beginning when God made us, the book of Genesis says, He made us in His image. We were able to think, we were able to create, we were able to feel. Most importantly we had a relationship with Him. Sadly instead of being content with being a reflection of God and His character we wanted to create ourselves in our own image. This is very much a prevailing attitude today with people wanting to be ‘their own person’! In our first reading, St Paul, writing to the Corinthian Christians, tells us that “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Jesus himself is the image of God, he is what we were made to be, so we need therefore to become like Christ to be what we were created to be. We won’t be satisfied or truly fulfilled until we start to grow in Christ-likeness because that is what, in the heart of our being, we were created to do. Just as a flower can’t be satisfied until it grows towards the light, we won’t feel our lives are going in the right direction until we are growing towards being like Jesus – the image God – because we are made in the image of God that Jesus perfectly reflects.
We don’t know what we’re talking about, really, when we use the word ‘God’. God is a mystery of colossal proportions. If it wasn’t for Jesus we wouldn’t know what it meant to be created in the image of God. We wouldn’t know how to be who we are. Christianity believes that Jesus made the mystery of God accessible. He gave a human face to God.
He revealed to us, in a way we could understand, what God is all about. If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus. Jesus once said an astonishing thing. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus is what God is like – that is what Christians believe. The great German Christian thinker, Karl Barth, put it that, “in God there is no un-Christ-likeness at all.”
But does all this mean that to be ‘Christ-like’ we need simply to copy Jesus behaviour, to be good and kind, and wise and just? Surely that would be just an outward show? We need instead to get to the root of what it is to be Christ-like, the real heart of the matter.
What was it that made Jesus who he was? As we peel away all the different layers of those things that made Jesus such an amazing human being we eventually come to his relationship with the Father.
When lost as a young boy he was found in the temple talking about God as his Father; when he began his public ministry he withdrew to spend an extended time alone with God; whenever pressure built and things got busy he would look for a place to pray to God. And God spoke to him. When he was baptized the Holy Spirit came upon him and he heard God say, “You are my beloved son.”; when things started to come to a head Jesus went up a mountain with a select few of his disciples to pray, and God sent him Moses and Elijah; when he sweated blood praying in the Garden of Gethsemane God sent him an angel to strengthen him (Luke 22 v 43). We have several accounts of him in the temple or synagogues. He knew the scriptures. He could discuss them and was always quoting them in appropriate or thought provoking ways. He had a close and intimate relationship with his Father and this relationship produced the wonderful deeds that he did.
Jesus’ call to Simon Peter and Andrew was to ‘follow him’ – to leave what they were doing and to ‘follow him’. He went on to give the same challenge to James and John and 8 other disciples. Over the next three years they did just that and it transformed them. They had to battle with very human characteristics: pride, envy, fear, doubt and jealousy. They argued over who was the greatest and Jesus had to show them that that honour belonged to a little child. They wanted to know who would sit next to Jesus in his Kingdom. They ran away when Jesus faced his darkest hour. Even after the resurrection when Jesus had forgiven Peter for abandoning him Peter still was concerned about comparing himself to another disciple to whom Jesus was particularly close. They were never perfect.
But they also learnt from Jesus, he taught them new things about the nature of God, sometimes things he shared publicly like in the sermon on the mount, sometimes private talks for which only they and the close group of men and women around Jesus may have been ready. He explained to them things from the scriptures both before his death and after his resurrection. At their request, impressed no doubt by his relationship with his Father, he showed them how to pray in the words of ‘Our Father….’
And being around him rubbed off on them. And after Pentecost they were filled with his Spirit and started doing the things he did, living with his character. They were so like him they were able to do the same miracles he did and people flocked to them. How they would flock here if we were really Christ-like! If we could offer folk a way of being more Christ-like themselves we would satisfy the deepest hunger in every human soul.
So how do we go about growing in Christ-likeness? It would be easy to make a list of the characteristics we would like to see from Christ-like individuals or Christ-like churches.
Generous, sharing, thoughtful, loving, just, supportive. But this could also describe the local football team or WI group. They too are very good at rallying round when there is a need and often even when there isn’t. What we need are churches inspired by the relationship of their members with their God and creator. Women and men made in the image of God and renewed in the image of Christ. Men and women of Prayer. Women and men of all ages, from young ones onward who soak up the scriptures, think them through and apply them to life today. People who spend time with their heavenly Father just as Jesus did. People who follow Jesus in this and all things.
What we need is followers of Christ, whose relationship with God is shown in their actions. Just a small group of ‘Christ-like’ followers turned the world upside down in their day. It would be great if we could do the same – starting here! Why not?! There was nothing special about those first disciples. They were ordinary working men. But they followed Jesus and desired to be like him, until they were.
Let’s start today. Perhaps there’s some characteristic of Jesus that impresses you? His humility and honesty, his servant heart – serving others, his love that was willing to pay a price, his integrity, his perseverance in the face of opposition or discouragement, his faith, his willingness to forgive, his courage? Is there something you could do – one step you could take to becoming more like that? You won’t fix everything wrong in your life all at once, but if you start to follow, and keep following, you won’t need to – you can change gradually day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, decade by decade.
Jesus said once, “Remain in me, as a branch remains in a Vine, and you’ll bear fruit.” (My paraphrase of John Chapter 15) Stay following, stay plugged in to him like a branch and his sap, his life will flow through you. Let his Spirit flow through you and day by day you’ll become more like him… I promise. If you don’t sue me! All you need to start growing in Christ-likeness is to want it. And if you understand what it means you will want it.
13.1.12 – 10am – St Laurence’s