9th February 2014: Isaiah 58: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 2: 1–12; Matthew 5:13-20
May the words of my lips and the thoughts of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
We’re going on a journey this morning – back to Corinth in the first century AD. Corinth, a prosperous go-getting city, interested in the arts, new ideas, and making money – a bit like London today.
Anyway - imagine – there you are, sitting in the synagogue on the Sabbath, just as you are sitting here today in church, and, instead of your usual preachers, this little man, gets up. Not a very impressive little man, you think, very modestly dressed, looks a bit travel worn. And he doesn’t read a verse from the scriptures, – but sits down in the preachers’ seat – as they did in those days in the synagogues – and starts to speak.
And he tells you about what happened to him when he was travelling to Damascus a few years ago, how he met the Messiah, Jesus Christ, how his life was totally changed and what Christ has done, is doing for him and all who follow him. And he says Christ is changing their lives, redeeming them, bringing them into the new kingdom of heaven.
And you don’t know why, or how, but his simple words reach straight to your heart and you are strangely moved, filled with longing to know more, to know this Messiah, this Jesus Christ.
And this Christ he speaks of, was crucified, just about the most feared punishment in the Roman Empire, so degrading, so awful – for it to be even mentioned in the synagogue on the Sabbath – unheard of, but you are hearing it now and, again, your heart is moved.
Of course some people aren’t happy – (some people never are!) you can see it, feel it around you. Their faces, mutterings, exchanged glances, raised eyebrows – not what you expect on the Sabbath in the synagogue – talk of the long awaited Messiah’s coming and crucifixion. Well – the man must mad, dangerous, possessed even. And this Jesus Christ, this false Messiah, a common criminal, a rebel fanatic who deserved to be put down.
But you and a couple of your friends, maybe the people sitting next to you, decide the next day to go see this man Paul. You find out where he is staying, and when you get there you find him sitting on the floor plying his trade – he’s a tentmaker. But he puts down his work and tells you about the Way, the little groups of Christians in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Rome even, and not all Jews by any means, gentiles, outsiders as well. Open to all!
And he goes on speaking, very simply, very directly. You can see he does know the Scriptures - very well – you discover that in fact he trained with some of the best known teachers - but he speaks straight from the heart. Sometimes, when you ask a question, he’ll take a little while before he answers you, he seems to fall still and pray a moment – and then his reply comes. And as you all talk together you are aware of a presence, a stillness, and your heart beats faster. What is happening?
And Paul tells you about the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit- God’s greatest gift to the followers of his Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit, who teaches us, shows us, explains to us God’s gifts, and is always with us to show us the Way.
Now, remember you’re still that person from Corinth who’s just met Paul – you and your friends you keep meeting up with Paul, and others join you, talking to him, listening to him as he sits there sewing the tents. You share bread together too – a special meal to remember Jesus’s last supper.
And your world is turned upside down.
You’ve always thought of yourself as a stalwart of the faith. Maybe not quite up to the standards of the Pharisees – who is, after all – but doing OK. You follow the law, attend synagogue regularly, observe the fasts, pray, hear the Scriptures, bring your family up to follow the faith, look after those who work for you and treat them decently – surely that’s enough?
But now you learn that indeed it’s not enough – nothing wrong with what you are doing but you need to take a good look at why you’re doing it – you are, well, sort of missing the mark! Paul quotes you the words of the prophet Isaiah telling you it’s your job to look after the poor and homeless, not just your family and servants: he tells you a story told about a rich man and a beggar called Lazarus, tells you another story about a rich young man who followed the law and came to ask Jesus what else he should do to be redeemed, and he’s told to go away and sell everything he has, and, most of all Paul tells you about God’s overwhelming love which led Him, the Lord God our Father, to come to us here on earth as His Son, Jesus Christ and as His Son to die for us.
Every time you leave the house where Paul is staying, you see the world with new eyes – everything looks different, feels different, you feel different - he’s moved you into a much bigger world. How can you carry this message, God’s good news to everyone around you – what exactly does God want you to do?
And, leaving Corinth behind, coming back to us here in church this morning, we’re left with this same question. We have this amazing gift of the Holy Spirit, to be with us, to guide us. And we each have God’s unceasing, limitless love. What do we do with these gifts? Where should we take them? And, most important, how do we share them? What does God want us to do? What does God want you to do?
In his letter to the Corinthians, written a few years later, after he’s left them, Paul quotes from Isaiah –
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
It’s from Isaiah chapter 64, verse 4, but interestingly, Paul has changed a word in the last phrase. Isaiah talks about what God has prepared for those who wait for him – Paul talks about what God has prepared for those who love him. You could say it comes to the same thing but I think that love is a much bigger word; it includes the waiting but much, much more.
In the Gospel reading Jesus says he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfil it and that is exactly what the love of God does, God’s love for us and ours for God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit as best we can understand them. A blessed gift to us, given freely, whether we deserve it or not.
What we have to do is to allow this to happen, accept this love as best we can, believe, or at least begin to believe. And then really live – and share!
Then, to use Jesus’s image, we will begin to act as the ‘salt of the earth’. When Jesus was saying these words, the Jewish nation was just one small nation in the Roman Empire, but they were still the ones chosen by God to be the first to receive and spread the message brought by Jesus. One light on a mountain can shed its light over many miles - or think of a lighthouse on a stormy night! Or, as Isaiah says, ‘Your light shall break forth like the dawn.’
And that is our position today. We’re here to fulfil the law, spread the message of God’s love in our lives in whatever way God calls us to.
You might look at yourself and your life and think, ‘I do try when I remember but me? Salt of the earth? A light to others? But you are.
Let’s go back to Corinth again for a moment, that small band of new Christians, possibly no more than are here today, trying to follow Christ’s Way, frequently arguing, frequently getting it wrong (hence Paul’s letters!). Such a small band, just meeting in each other’s houses, sharing bread and wine – look how their little light has grown and shone down the centuries.
Ours may seem a very small light but, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it can, does and will still bring light to others.