This week we had the first of three sermons to help us think about Mission. The mass was then followed by a 30 minute discussion over coffee for people to contribute their own answers to the question posed in the sermon. Inevitably some of the sermon will only make sense to members of St John’s so I apologize for that and hope that those who read this who aren’t church members will find the rest helpful.
You’ve just received an email. You haven’t opened it yet, but the subject line says in capital letters with an exclamation mark at the end: GOOD NEWS!
What could it be? What could this good news be? What would be good news for you? What would you most like to read when you open it? Well, let’s assume that it isn’t the good news that someone in Nigeria has decided to send you five million pounds if only you will send them five thousand pounds first! It really is good news – but what would you like that good news to be?
Perhaps good news for you would be a big win on the national lottery. Perhaps it’s an email from the doctor telling you the results from that last test are clear. Perhaps an old friend you haven’t seen in years is coming to visit. Perhaps it’s to tell you that you’ve just landed that dream job. Or your son or daughter are getting married – and to someone you really like! Good news. We all like to hear good news. What would be good news for you?
Well, we’ll come back to good news in a moment. For now, I just want to explain why we’re thinking about good news this morning.
Today, we begin a series of three sermons to help us think about how we plan for mission. Mission is at the heart of what we do as Christians and as a Church, and the diocese asks each parish to have what is called a Mission Action Plan. We have one which we put together after the away day we had two years ago, and we are now reflecting on it and revising it for the year ahead.
Mother Anne-Marie has written about this process in this month’s magazine. She explains how according to our Diocesan Missioner, Canon Stephen Hance, a good Mission Action Plan addresses the bigger questions that we never get around to thinking about. And he goes on to suggest three specific questions to help us with our planning for mission. It’s the first of those questions which we are thinking about this morning. The PCC has to finalise our Mission Action Plan for the coming year. But we really want to hear your ideas too, so after the service over in the church hall you can grab a cup of coffee and then join in for a 30 minute discussion as we respond to today’s question.
Which is: How are people in our area going to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
How are people in our area going to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I started by talking about good news – what would be good news for us, what good news would we like to hear? Canon Hance talks about people hearing about and responding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That word ‘Gospel’ probably doesn’t convey to you its real meaning. When you hear the word ‘Gospel’ you probably first of all think of the first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the books that tell us about the life of Jesus. We call them gospels.
But the word ‘Gospel’ doesn’t mean a book of the Bible. And a bit of me wishes Stephen Hance hadn’t used that word. Originally in Old English it was ‘Godspel’ – god meaning, not God, but good, and spel meaning news – good news. So we are actually talking about people hearing and responding to the good news of Jesus Christ. But what is good news? What is the good news of Jesus Christ? And why do we take it as a given that as Christians we want people to hear and respond to it? Why do we think that telling people about Jesus might be good news for them?
Stephen Hance’s question assumes that we know what the good news of Jesus is. But if we are going to find answers to his question we need to be really clear in our own minds as followers of Jesus what the good news is. And you’ll be pleased to know that there is a very straightforward answer – and one that is all to do with the reason for the coming of Jesus, God’s son, two thousand years ago and what we mean when we talk about being a Christian. So – what is the reason Jesus came, and what do we mean when we talk about being a Christian. Why do we need people to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus?
Many people, if you ask them what being a Christian means, will talk about people behaving in a particular way – in the way they relate to those around them, loving and caring perhaps, involved in good works in some way. I’ve heard so many people over the years talk about someone being ‘a Christian person’ when what they mean is ‘a good person’. And for many people Jesus is simply seen as being a great teacher – teaching us how to live our lives and showing us by example. And in this version of Christianity the good news is that as long as we are good enough we can go to heaven when we die.
But that’s not why Jesus, the Son of God, came. For essentially the good news of Jesus Christ is not that we can go to heaven by being good people – for in the end none of us can ever be good enough. If it were down to us then none of us would go to heaven because we are all in need of forgiveness for all the things we have done that are contrary to God’s will for his people and for his creation.
The good news is about – not what we get in return for being good, but about what Jesus does for us. The good news is that Jesus gives us the gift of eternal life when we can never earn it ourselves. Even though none of us can ever be good enough God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. The words of Jesus to Nicodemus. Anyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but may have eternal life
The problem is that many people, including many Christians, are not happy with, or feel comfortable with, the idea that you need to believe in Jesus to obtain salvation. Far more comfortable to believe that either you get there by keeping your head down and being nice to people, or even that everyone is going to get there no matter what because God is too nice to turn anyone away. The reality is that the good news of Jesus is not about leading a good life, and it’s not about Jesus simply saying that everyone can go to heaven no matter what – he never says that. He clearly does not say that to Nicodemus, rather he talks about the need to believe in him.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a someone – a committed churchgoer from another church – about a family funeral. She said: I don’t want the bit from John’s gospel read where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.” I asked why not. “Because I don’t believe that,” she said, “everyone can come to the Father however they like.” My only response could be that she was free to believe what she liked, and have what reading she liked, but that the words were still part of Holy Scripture and what the church believes.
Saint Paul affirmed the importance of understanding why Jesus came. God wants everyone to be saved, he says. Of course God wants that – how could he not. I want that. I hope you all want that. But – and it’s a big but – he goes on to say: There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all. It is through Jesus who gave his life for us that we come to God the Father – there is no other way. And contrary to the way some people think, that is actually good news!
Because none of us is going to heaven under our own steam. We do not get there by our own efforts. We can’t ever get there by our own efforts. None of us can ever be good enough. Only belief in Jesus, as he said himself, is needed, and it is Jesus who then takes us by the hand and leads the way. And the amazing thing is that it doesn’t matter what kind of person you are – good, bad, whatever – believe in Jesus and accept him as your Lord and Saviour and everything Jesus promises is yours. If that’s not GOOD NEWS! with capital letters and an exclamation mark I don’t know what is.
But people need to hear if they are to believe. And they need to respond. Because if there’s one thing that the New Testament is clear about, if there’s one thing that the first Christians were clear about, if there’s one thing that Jesus himself was clear about – and you can see it in his teaching, in his parables – it is that heaven, eternal life, is not an automatic consequence of living through an earthly life and dying. Assuming that we’ll all end up there so we don’t really have to worry about it is one of the most dangerous assumptions to make.
And that’s why after the resurrection Jesus commanded the disciples to go and make disciples, not just to lead good lives, and today it is our task as his followers to help people discover the sheer joy that comes from knowing the good news that all they need to do is believe in the Son of God who died for the forgiveness of their sins and who rose again and who assures us of our place in heaven. And to allow him to become the Lord of their lives.
Which brings me back to our question this morning: How are people in our area going to hear and respond to the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ?
How? Well, if you’re expecting me to give you the answer then I must tell you that this morning that’s not going to happen. What we are going to do is try and find the answer together. And we’re going to do that by considering another question, one which we’ll try and answer together after the service, over coffee. It’s a question Canon Stephen Hance poses as a response to his three main questions: What do we need to do – and to stop doing – to make all this possible?
What do we need to do – and to stop doing – to make it possible for people in our area to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ?
Please join in over coffee and together work out how we can share the good news of Jesus.
Please don’t go straight home after the service – come and join with each other and let’s see if we can come up with real, tangible, practical things we can do to reach out into our local community so that everyone can hear and respond to that GOOD NEWS!