One Life Evening Welcome Service

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John 19-20

Well if you're here through an invitation, can I say thanks for coming – especially if it's your first time.

I heard the story of a young boy's first time in church. It was an older place than this – with a war memorial on the wall. And half way through, this boy whispered to his Dad, 'What are those names up there?' And Dad whispered back, 'They're the people who died in the services.' And wide-eyed, the boy said, 'What, the morning services or the evening services?'

Well, we have a one hundred percent record of people coming out of services alive. But we need to face the fact that none of us will stay that way, will we? As George Bernard Shaw famously said,

"The statistics about death are very impressive. One out of every one dies."

And yet when did you last think about what happens when we die, and what difference that makes to how we live? It's such an important question, but it's hardly talked about – I guess because most people don't have an answer; just wishful thoughts, maybe.

Whereas the Christian message says there is an answer and it's not just wishful thinking – it's based on things that really happened that first Easter time.

But before we look at that, let me mention the two answers I most hear today to the question, 'What happens when we die?' And the first is: 'Well, death is the end of you, isn't it?' That's what Stephen Hawking, the atheist scientist, believes. He said:

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. And there is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

But it needs saying that he has no evidence for that: he has telescope that can see through death and prove that. It's just his personal belief.

But then the other answer I most hear is: 'Well, I hope death isn't the end.' So for example one poem often used in secular funerals goes like this:

Perhaps if we could see
The splendour of the land
To which our loved are called from
You and me
We'd understand.

Perhaps if we could hear
The welcome they receive
From old familiar voices –
all so dear –
We would not grieve.

And so on. And on the one hand, I guess most of us would wish that was true. But, on the other hand, we know we can't believe something just because we want it to be true, rather than because it is true.

Well, here's what C.S.Lewis said about that:

"I agree that a wish may lead to false beliefs. But what does the existence of the wish suggest? Surely hunger points to there being such a thing as food. And if we weren't designed to eat, we wouldn't wish for food. So why do we wish for more than the material? If you really are just a product of a material universe, why don't you feel at home here? Are fish surprised that the sea is wet? Or if they complained about that, wouldn't it strongly suggest they weren't destined always to be just aquatic creatures? And yet we are constantly surprised and disturbed at Time. ("How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up and married! I can't believe it!") Why is that? Unless, in fact, there is something in us which belongs outside time. (In a letter from C.S.Lewis quoted in A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken)"

I think most people share the wish – even the intuition – that there is life beyond death. But is there any solid evidence for it?

Well, the Christian message is unique because it says 'Yes'. And it says, 'The evidence is that Jesus Christ died and then rose to life-beyond-death – to show us that that's real.'

So let me show you that evidence. It's in the three Bible readings we've had from John's Gospel. John was one of Jesus' twelve disciples. And his Gospel is his eye-witness record of what happened that first Easter. Let me re-read from John 19.16:

"So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others--one on each side and Jesus in the middle."

So crucifixion was the Roman Empire's death-penalty: they tied or nailed offenders to a cross and left them to die. Which begs the question: why did that happen to Jesus? After all most people would say he was a good man and moral teacher – and you don't get put to death for that. Well, the answer is: Jesus was put to death for what he claimed about himself. Which was that he was God's Son become man on this earth, and the rightful ruler of our lives. And his miracles pointed to that being true.

But the Jewish leaders didn't want it to be true – they didn't want to recognise him as their rightful King. So they accused him of blasphemy, and got the Roman authorities to put him to death. So let's read on, verse 19:

"Pilate [the Roman governor] had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews', but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews." Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

So when they crucified someone, they wrote a sign to say why they'd been crucified. And to spite the Jewish leaders, Pilate wrote exactly what Jesus had claimed. So actually, that sign said exactly why Jesus was crucified: it was because people heard his claim to be their rightful King – but didn't want him to be.

And when we look at the cross, we actually see our own, natural attitude to God mirrored there. Because consciously or subconsciously, we've all said to God, 'I don't want you to be King of my life – I want to live my own way.'

So Jesus was put to death. And then, as our second reading (John 19:38 onwards) said, his body was wrapped in grave clothes and laid inside a tomb cut out of rock. And that was then sealed with a stone over the entrance. And the Jewish leaders were very keen to show that Jesus was dead and discredited. So they got a guard put on the tomb, so that no-one could move the body and start any rumours to the contrary.

That all happened on Good Friday. Saturday was their rest day, when no work was allowed. So it was first thing on Easter Sunday when some of the women who'd followed Jesus, led by Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb to finish the burial. So let's pikc up what John says again in chapter 20, verse 1:

"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved [that's John himself], and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!""

People often ask, 'Can you really trust the Gospels? After all, Mary and Peter and John never did science at school. So weren't they a bit gullible and a bit too likely to try to explain things with a miracle?' But that's not how Mary comes across, is it? She doesn't leap to the conclusion that he's risen from the dead. She thinks someone's moved the body. Let's read on:

"So Peter and the other disciple [John] started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen."

So on the run they'd have been thinking, 'Who could have moved the body?' And there was only one answer. Because, like I said, the Jewish leaders had the tomb guarded (Matthew's Gospel tells us that). So the Jewish leaders were the only ones who could move the body. But there's no way they would have done – because they wanted to make absolutely sure it stayed put, to show Jesus was dead and discredited.

So Peter and John knew: the only people who could have moved the body wouldn't have done. But then as they looked inside the tomb and saw only the grave clothes, they began to sense that no human being at all had moved the body. Because who would ever have taken the grave clothes off? And in verse 8, John describes the moment he began to believe the body had moved supernaturally:

"Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed."

So fact no.1: Jesus really was dead and buried.
Fact no.2: Jesus' body was gone.
And then fact no.3 is that: Jesus appeared alive again, bodily risen from the dead.

And to see that, let's look at John 20:10 onwards:

"Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him."

And that's a snapshot of what bereavement does to us – it tears apart the relationships we build our lives on, and rocks our foundations. But Mary is about to discover there's one relationship which death can't tear apart or break. Verse 14:

"At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."
Jesus said to her, "Mary."
[And whether it was that he knew her name, or that she suddenly recognised his voice, she realised it was Jesus.]
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).
Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

So Mary has grabbed hold of Jesus, because she's thinking, 'I've got him back here!' But Jesus says, 'No, let go of me. Because I haven't come back from death into this life, again. I've gone through death into life-beyond-death. And I now belong there – back in heaven, with my Father. And that's where I ultimately want to bring you.'

So Stephen Hawking says: heaven is a fairy story made up by people who can't face the reality that death is the end of us. Whereas John says: Jesus Christ died and then rose to life-beyond-death, to show us that heaven is real.' Who do you believe?

But Jesus didn't just die and rise from the dead to show us that heaven is real. The Bible says: he had to die and rise from the dead, so we could go there, too. And here's why. We were made to live in relationship with God, looking up to him and letting him tell us what life is for, and how to live it. But like I said earlier, consciously or subconsciously, we've all turned away from that and said to God, 'I don't want you to be King of my life – I want to live my own way.' And that attitude is what the Bible calls sin. And it brings us under God's judgement. And the judgement my sin deserves is that I should be kept out of heaven. After all, heaven is God's kingdom, and you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the king.

But that isn't how God wants the story to end for any of us. So in his love, he made a way for us to be forgiven back into relationship with him. And that way was Jesus dying on the cross. Because Jesus was God's sinless Son, become human on this earth, who lived the only perfect life ever lived. So he never sinned and never deserved the judgement of being cut off from his Father. But on the cross, out of love for us, he took responsibility for our sin, and took the judgement we deserve, so that on the one hand we could be forgiven, and on the other hand, justice would be done.

So Jesus died for us, rose again, and returned to heaven. And now he wants us to respond to him and ask his forgiveness and begin this relationship with God that lasts through death, into heaven forever.

I wonder what you make of all that?

Imagine I were to draw a line that covered where everyone here stands in relation to God.

At one end will be those who can say, 'I have already been forgiven and begun this new relationship with God.' And there's nothing better than being able to face life and death confident of that.

But then at the other end would be those who are saying, 'I'm not yet sure this is true. I might like it to be – but I need time to look into it and make my own mind up.' And if that's you, can I say, 'Why not keep coming along to hear more?' Because we don't think church is just for the committed. And you're welcome at any of our services. But as well as that, for people still just looking and wanting to get their own faith clear, we lay on this short course called Christianity Explored. So why not come and give just the first session of that a go?

But you may be in the middle of my line. You know it's true. And maybe you've been around church for a while. But you haven't actually responded to Jesus. So, I'm going to end by giving you the chance to do that. I'm going to say a prayer that would be a way of responding to Jesus properly for the first time. So before we pray, let me run it past you so you can work out whether it would be appropriate for you. Here's the prayer:

Lord Jesus,
I'm sorry for living my own way, as if you were not King.
Thank you for dying for me to put that right.
Please now forgive me, and help me to live for you from now on.

Now you may be further back, and not ready to pray like that. Or you may already have begun this new relationship with God – and don't need to begin again. But if you want to respond to Jesus like that, you could echo that prayer to him in your mind as I lead us now. Let's pray:

Lord Jesus,
I'm sorry for living my own way, as if you were not King.
Thank you for dying for me to put that right.
Please now forgive me, and help me to live for you from now on.

Let me say a few last things. Earlier in John's Gospel, Jesus promises this:

"Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away." (John 6.37)

In other words, 'Whoever comes to me, I will accept them and then never give up on them.' So if you have prayed that prayer and meant it, that promise applies to you.

And if you have just prayed it, can I encourage you to do two other things. One is to tell another Christian – because they can make some suggestions about what would help you, going on from here (especially what there is at this church). And the other thing is to take and read a copy of this booklet 2 ways to live which is about that step of responding to Jesus. And in fact, whether or not you just prayed, that's a very helpful thing to read if you want to get clearer about where you stand with God right now.

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