Sermon preached at St Pauls in Remuera, Auckland
What Really Matters?
Scripture: Matthew: 13: 44 – 53
Our scripture reading from Matthew this morning contained three mini parables. The first two may well be familiar, one being about the discovery of some treasure in a field, with the discoverer then selling everything he has in order to buy the field and so legitimately possess the treasure. The second is about the pearl of great price. Here the character at the centre of the parable on discovering the pearl sells all that she has in order to acquire this one truly precious thing. The message Jesus has for us is clear. The kingdom of God is a treasure, and it is worth giving our all to obtain it.
The third mini parable is different. It pictures fishermen pulling in a net teeming with fish. All kinds of fish from which they pick out the really valuable, and throw the rest back into the sea. Here the message is not so much about giving all to get the one truly precious thing, but rather on discerning out of a mass of things what is really valuable, what really matters. The message is learn to discern what is truly important in life and toss the rest away.
For most of us I suspect life is like that third parable. Life throws up a multitude of competing options, multiple choices, the good, the bad, the indifferent. Confronted by those, says Jesus, our task as Christians is to exercise wise discernment, so that ultimately we hold on to what is truly valuable and discard the rest. This morning I want to focus on that, particularly in the context of our Christian faith.
As some will know I have been an ordained Methodist for some 40years. Now I invite you to come with me as I ask the question: have I learnt anything about Christian faith in all that time? Have I found some things to really treasure and some others to toss aside. I invite you to think about your own faith as we go. What do I as a Methodist Christian truly value now? Here is my response:
My first treasure is strongly rooted in Wesleyan Methodism. It is this -
First, Christian faith is not a passive inheritance but a personal experience. I was born into a Methodist family. My Dad was a local preacher for many years. My Mum who was originally a member of the Church of Ireland, the Irish version of the Anglican Church, was also very involved in Church life. Consequently I was baptised as an infant, regularly attended Sunday School, and later Bible Class, and Youth Group. But till I was about 16 I had what could be called a hand me down faith, rather than a personal faith of my own. Up till then my faith I suspect was rather like that of John Wesley before his heart warming experience at Aldersgate Street. That changed at an Easter Camp in North Canterbury (one of the nine in a row that I attended) for it was there that I experienced Christ in a personal, heart warming way. There the faith came alive for me. No longer did I have a passive inherited faith, now I had a living faith that I owned. I guess that like Wesley my heart had been strangely warmed.
The second thing about Wesley “warmed heart” that I really value is that it reminds me that Christian faith is not primarily a matter of the intellect. It is experiential. Christian faith is a faith that definitely involves the emotions as well as the head. How could we expect it to be otherwise when we are talking about love. Human love is not simply a head trip, and nor is the love of God.
When John Wesley returned from his year in the American colonies almost totally disillusioned, unsure if he was even a Christian, his friend Peter Bohler gave him some wise advice. He said to John “preach faith until you have it”. It was like saying to us wrestle with God until something happens. Wesley was looking for an assurance that God loved him, forgave him, accepted, loved him.
Wesley had a sharp mind, he had an MA from Oxford, and he was certainly not anti-
This experience is a bit like becoming a parent or grandparent for the first time. People can tell you all they know about being a parent; you can carry out all the research in the world, but until you actually experience it for yourself you will never know what it feels like. The heart warming experience is like that. It doesn’t mean seeing angels, or having visions of Jesus, or even experiencing what the world calls miracles, though some may experience such things. It is much more likely that God will come into our life as that “still small voice” that the prophet Elijah spoke about centuries ago. The Bible itself is not an intellectual argument for the existence of God – instead it is the story of God touching human lives – it is a book about people experiencing God in a whole variety of ways. As Methodists we are people of the warmed heart – people who have experienced God in our lives whatever form that experience may take.
That then is my first treasure: we are people of the warmed heart not cold intellectual belief.
My second treasure is this: I hold to a Christian faith that is evangelical but not fundamentalist. The Methodism I grew up in was not only the Methodism of the warmed heart, it was also a warm, outgoing and inclusive faith. And it was evangelical in the best sense of that word. It concerns me that that the word evangelical has become a negative word for some Christians in the 21st century. It disturbs me that we have allowed the literal fundamentalists, particularly in the USA, to hijack the word evangelical – a perfectly good word – meaning people of good news!
As one of the outstanding leaders of the 18c evangelical revival John Wesley would be deeply disturbed to think that the movement he, and his brother Charles, and George Whitefield led under God – was no longer imbued with a warm hearted evangelicalism. For me being evangelical does not mean being a literalist or fundamentalist.
I well remember that as a young Christian I dabbled in literal fundamentalism when it came to the Bible. The idea that all Scripture, being God inspired is of equal value. I no longer hold the view that all of the Bible is of equal value. Indeed I now see that this view far from strengthening faith in Christ can lead people into putting their faith in a book, the Protestant infallible Bible as a match for the Catholic infallible Pope. That may satisfy our human longing for infallibility but instead of leading us into faith in Christ who is himself the living word of God, it can lead us into placing our faith in the words of a book, the Bible.
In my youth I used to think that the Bible was a level playing field – a book in which every word was virtually as important as every other word. Now I see that the way to read the whole Bible is with Gospel eyes, by that I mean as far as possible through the eyes of Jesus. When I do that I see that God’s revelation does not reach its fulfilment till we come face to face with Jesus Christ. That means that parts of the Bible are clearly pre-
It is clear to me that Jesus himself was not a strict literalist or fundamentalist. Jesus himself said, quoting from Exodus 21, you have heard it said, an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” but I say unto you do not resist the evil doer, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” In other words Jesus himself tacitly acknowledged a progressive revelation in the Bible.
Does the Bible speak to me? Yes, it certainly does, but through the good news of Jesus Christ not as the result of some externally imposed theory of infallibility. The Bible I treasure is essentially a warm hearted evangelical word, not the word of a dogmatic fundamentalist.
I treasure the evangel, the good news that is in the Bible, both in the OT and the NT and want to see it shared with the world. I treasure a Christian faith that is evangelical but not fundamentalist.
My third treasure is this : I hold to a Christian faith that is for the world and not just for the Church. As deeply committed to the Church of England and the Methodist movement as John Wesley was, as a dynamic leader and pastor he was even more committed to the world. His life mission was to provide a ministry to people who were beyond the reach of the traditional church. He said: “the world is my parish”. He would be deeply concerned to find that some today have chosen to make “The parish their world”.
As Methodists we need to remind ourselves that John Wesley was far from being a man with tunnel vision. While his overwhelming desire was to share the love of God with people he was open to all sorts of ways of doing that. For him it was word and deed, preaching and practical action. So he visited the prisons of his day, so he sat with prisoners even on their way to the gallows. So, he set up alms houses, soup kitchens, places where the poorest members of society could be fed. So, he encouraged the establishment of schools again with the poorer members of society in mind. So, he wrote tracts about the evils of his day, and challenged the powers that be.
In his day Wesley challenged those engaged in the lucrative horse trade with France believing that this only helped the rich get richer. He argued that it would be much better for all if the landed gentry were breeding cattle and sheep thereby providing food and clothing for the wider community instead of wealth for themselves.
This too is a treasure. Part of our heritage, we do well to remind ourselves that the world is our parish rather than the parish being our world. The Bible itself reminds us of this – there would be no Church if the apostles had simply been an inward looking holy huddle. They took the message, and with the deacons they took compassion, out into the world.
Three things then – three treasures, three fish to be greatly valued while others can be tossed back into the sea:
Hold to a faith that is centred on a warmed heart not on cold intellectual belief
Hold to a faith that is evangelical but not fundamentalist
Hold to a faith that is for the world and not just for the Church.
It is good to remind ourselves that ours is a joyful, compassionate, warm hearted, outgoing, faith, not some kind of fossilised, sterile, head trip;
It is good to remind ourselves that ours is not a faith locked into literalism,
It is good to remind ourselves that ours is not a faith restricted to the Church.
These then are my discoveries from 40years in ministry, my treasures. At the centre of it all there is Jesus Christ – the greatest treasure of all.
What today are your treasures? Amen.