A sermon by Michael Jensen
Well: so what? You might agree that there is a God who created the world and all that is in it; that the gospels that describe his entry into the world in the life of Jesus of Nazareth are historically reliable; that the best explanation of the empty tomb of Jesus is that he was raised from the dead.
But a legitimate response at this point might be so what? I may accept that these are true, but what difference does it make, to me as an individual and to the world? Because there are indeed truths about the world that are inert truths.
That is, they might be ‘quite interesting’, as the BBC’s Stephen Fry likes to say, but they don’t actually make any call on me; they sit inertly in the world minding their own business, just happening to be true – but that’s about all they do.
I went to the website ‘uselessfacts.net’, which slowed down the preparation of this talk by about half an hour. Did you know that it is illegal to hunt camels in the state of Arizona? Or that Charlie Chaplin once came third in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest?
Well that fact about Charlie Chaplin is interesting, but it’s scarcely compelling. Inert facts don’t involve us.
But the truths that we have been discussing are of a somewhat different kind.
Today I should like to suggest in fact that the truth of the Christian gospel is a dynamic truth. That is: knowing Jesus works to change individuals and societies vastly for the better. He makes powerful sense of our experience. And while we have also to admit that Christians have not always acted well, we can also see that there is powerful evidence that Christianity has made and continues to make an extraordinary impact on the world and on individual lives.
So I want to look at, first, the way in which the good news changes individual lives; and secondly, the way it has transformed whole cultures.
The message of Jesus Christ changes the lives of individuals
When we meet him, Zaccheus is a figure of ridicule and derision: a chief tax collector and therefore someone rich through corruption and disloyalty, and so laughably short that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus passing by. It’s hard to feel sorry for Zaccheus, really: he’s certainly not poor, and if he’s a social outcast it is his own fault.
The point of the story seems to be the impact that this meeting has on Zaccheus. The people standing around are grumbling because of Jesus’ willingness to consort with so obvious a sinner. But Zaccheus makes an amazing and bold declaration in the hearing of everyone: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”.
It is an extraordinary reversal. The greedy hoarder of coins becomes generous. Zaccheus not only becomes generous, he becomes humble and repentant, and seeks to restore those he has cheated, four times over. Such is the change wrought in him that this gracious excess seems to flow entirely naturally from him now.
Luke has included the story of Z in his narrative because he wants to show us that meeting Jesus makes a difference to individuals even as hardened as Zaccheus. Jesus says in explanation at the end of the story: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”.
That’s who Zaccheus was: the lost. And yet, says Jesus, it is for exactly this kind of wretched sinner that have come. Look at the difference in him now! He once was lost, but now was found.
And that’s a story that’s been repeated many times down the ages. The most famous convert in the Bible is of course Paul, who went from being the persecutor of the church to the most famous missionary of the first century, a man who himself risked everything for, and was persecuted for, Christ. And yet, there is no trace in his letters of the murderous determination that once gripped him. The Paul we know is full of joy, even when he is chains for the gospel.
We can trace this line all the way to the present day, and it’s my own experience too.
How can we explain this power to change people? In the first place: it feels powerfully right that we are not simply random. We are not simply accidents. We are created beings. We are dependent on the creator for our very existence.
But there is also a dark cloud that hangs of us. We are not what are supposed to be. We are tragic creatures, we human beings. Our sin is like the smear that spoils a beautiful work of art. And again, this is one of the things we know about ourselves, if we are honest.
But here is the miracle: the gospel tells us that the creator has not abandoned us to our tragedy. The story of Jesus is the story of how the creator went searching for his creatures, and found them; and in their helplessness, died for them, bearing on himself the cost of restoring us to him.
The Bible uses a number of ways to describe the experience that follows from this. We are ‘born a second time’; we are free, where once we were slaves, prisoners of our own nature; we have hope, where once we were without hope; we are in the light, where once we hid for shame in the dark; we have victory where once we knew defeat; we have forgiveness where once we faced condemnation.
If you know this as a personal reality, it changes everything. It enables you to see the beauty of the created world and human life, and to receive them with thanksgiving. It enables you to see why things are not the way they are supposed to be, in the world and in me. And it enables us to see how things can be different, by the power of God. It presents to you the joy of forgiveness, and the prospect of a future eternal joy with Christ. And this knowledge frees you to be different person – to do extraordinary things for God in the world.
Because it changes individuals, we can also see that the gospel of Jesus Christ has had a marked impact on cultures. It works not only for individuals, but for societies as well.
This was true from the beginning of the Christian movement. The sociologist and historian Rodney Stark of the University of Washington argues that in the first decades of the church, it made a noticeable impact on Greco-Roman society because of their treatment of the sick, their care for the poor and their status of women.
They did not abandon the sick during an epidemic, as Roman doctors did, but stayed with them – and thus had a higher rate of survival. They did not practice abortion, which was frequently lethal to women, and they protected women from abandonment and widowhood. They were famous for their generosity to the poor – to the extent that the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate is supposed to have said in frustration: “It is disgraceful that . . . while the impious Christians support their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!”
Closer to our own times, we readily forget that the great institutions or our society – the law, education, medicine and government – all owe an inestimable debt to Christianity. To take just one of these: Anglicans for a long time have been used to praying to the ‘Almighty and most merciful God’ – recognising both his justice and his mercy as foundational qualities.
I began by asking ‘so what?’ The gospel may be distantly true, but does it work as a way to live?
The experience of many individuals and the evidence from the history of societies touched by Christianity tends to confirm it. Like nothing else, the good news of forgiveness and new birth can bring about a new way of living that enriches the world for others.
Why not try it on?