At the end of last week’s service, I don’t know if I picked this up right, but I thought I detected a glimmer of disappointment in church. I’d been talking, you’ll remember, about how we sometimes feel we’re the ones needing transformation and healing, with little confidence in our ability to do God’s work. I tied that in with John the Baptist wondering whether he’d got it all horribly wrong, sending his friends to ask Jesus whether he really was God’s chosen leader, or whether they should still be waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. And then right at the end, I asked you: Where have we in our own experience found the new life that comes from God’s spirit? That’s when I sensed – maybe wrongly – that I’d lost your interest. For maybe what I said had wandered away from experience into theory, from reality into theology. And however interesting theory and theology may be, they can’t flesh out God’s promises, or point to God’s presence in the lives we live.
Well, in my first comment this morning I shared with you the experience at the heart of my own explorations in theory and theology – and my apologies to any of you who have heard it before, for a story that important to me is bound to come up in my conversation from time to time. My guess is that some of you may have similar stories to tell, but that you may feel shy about sharing them, for fear of disbelief or ridicule, even in church.
However, though what happened to me thirty years ago is at the foundations of my trust in God, it might also be rather off-putting for you if you concluded: well, if that’s what you have to go through to be a Christian, I haven’t a chance – for nothing remotely like that has ever happened to me. So I want to make it clear God isn’t only to be found through words of the Bible coming alive or in strange experiences. Indeed, if we look at our readings this morning, we find many different ways people encounter God – which is only reasonable, given how many different sorts of people God has seen fit to create.
In our reading from Isaiah, we hear God’s promise to the people of Israel, God’s servant, that because of them other nations will come to God. And I suspect many of us have found life in God through the lives of others we love and respect, who have made a big impression on us. Before I ever became a Christian, way back when I was a Guide, I knew our local vicar just because he tested my photography badge. And ages before I ever thought Christianity could make sense, I remember the love that shone in his face. You’ll have your own role models who made you want to follow Jesus just by who they were. And maybe, though you don’t know it, you’re a role model for others, encouraging them on their Christian journey. It’s not that we’re perfect: it’s that our living points other people towards God.
Another way we may encounter God in our own experience is through apparently random encounters with people we don’t know becoming invitations to discover something new and lifegiving about God. When John’s disciples heard him speak of Jesus as God’s lamb, the final sacrifice that would stop the need for any more sacrificing, they could have smiled and said politely,
That’s nice, John – now go on telling us about how you think we should live. After all, they already had a teacher. They had someone who knew about God and could tell them what was what. Why chase after this other guy? And this business about lambs and sacrifice must have sounded seriously weird. But they took a chance, took John’s hint, and started up a conversation with Jesus. And then they went further out of their own comfort zone by accepting the invitation to go and see him where he lived.
I’m not suggesting we chat up every passing stranger, let alone wangle an invitation to tea and biscuits. But have there been times in your life when you got a totally new perspective on things from talking with someone you didn’t know, someone who made you rethink what you reckoned you understood? Sometimes when we’re out of our own churchy territory, when we aren’t the ones who know just what’s what, that’s when God can get a word in edgeways – or at any rate, that’s how it’s often worked out for me. So like Pat, I find it fascinating listening to other people’s stories, for hearing how someone has met joy or challenge or loss can suddenly become holy ground.
Does any of that ring a bell with you? Or are you thinking: that’s all very well for someone to say who’s paid to be hanging around all day talking to strangers. We’ve got enough to do just finding the time and the strength to keep this show on the road – and getting the plumbing to work or balancing the books or sorting the Powerpoint in time for Sunday doesn’t feel much like experiencing God’s new life. We may even be tempted to say with Isaiah’s servant: ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.’
But according to Paul, it is precisely that everyday faithfulness that makes you a saint: together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Now as you’ll remember from reading Paul’s letters, the church in Corinth was by no means perfect. They couldn’t decide whether to eat meat sacrificed in temples to other gods or go veggie. Some of them reckoned that sexually anything went, from visiting prostitutes to shacking up with your own mother-in-law.
Others were so keen to get on with Communion that they completely ignored the needs of working slaves who had to rush halfway over town just to get there in time for the leftovers.
But basically, they were your common-or-garden Christians, trying to work out how to live the way God wanted in the middle of a society that thought they were weird even for trying. And it was these people Paul describes as saints. He told them God’s unconditional love had already made them billionaires in the only way that counts eternally – knowledge of God, love of God, gifts from God to strengthen each other while they awaited the coming of God’s kingdom. As our modern translation this morning says, God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.
So when I asked you last week about the new life that comes from God’s spirit, it wasn’t mystical experiences I was thinking of – though they happen too. The sort of thing I had in mind was the love for others that keeps you caring for them, whatever the cost; the trust in God’s continuing care for all, that makes you ready to try new ways of expressing that love; your ongoing readiness to listen to Christ’s call and to decide again, day by day by day, to follow him. The sort of thing you will find in Pat’s life as you get to know her better. The sort of thing I see in your lives here and now. God’s new life, fleshed out in daily living.