I don’t know how often you find yourself in church like this. A friend of mine was brought up to go every Sunday and he never listened to what was said because he assumed they were just telling people to try to be good. So instead, he counted the bricks in the front wall – and he’d get to about 1,000 in the average sermon. And he did that for years, until one day he was so bored that he thought to himself, ‘The sermon can’t possibly be more boring, so I’ll give it a listen for once.’ And I remember him saying, ‘I got the surprise of my life, because I’d been expecting the bloke up front to be telling me what I ought to do and not do. When in fact he was telling me what God had done to bring me back into relationship with himself.’
Well, I wonder what you were expecting to hear tonight – because plenty of people do just think that Christianity’s about trying to be good so that God will accept you. But in fact, Christianity is not about us doing things to make ourselves acceptable to God. It’s about the one, great thing God has done to make us acceptable to him –and that is: the death of his Son Jesus on a cross that first Easter.
Most things these days have a logo, don’t they? And a few years ago the Church of England asked an advertising agency to come up with a logo for them. So after much thought and a hefty fee, they came up with... a cross. Trust the Church of England to pay someone to state the obvious, because look at what Christians wear round their necks, or at the shape of their buildings, or on top of a hot cross bun, and you can’t miss it: the logo is the cross. Because the most important thing about Jesus is not his life – his teaching or his example – but his death.
So, why is that, and what’s it got to do with us, 2000 years later? Well, to answer that, we’re going to look at the bit of John’s Gospel we had read earlier – John 19. These words were written by the apostle John – one of the eye-witnesses who spent three years with Jesus up to his death and resurrection from the dead. And this is John’s description of Jesus dying on the cross. So have a look at John chapter 19, v28:
28Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19.28-30)
And you can understand a dying man saying, ‘I am finished.’ But what Jesus said was, ‘It is finished’ –and in the original language, that was just one word. It’s the word they used for saying, ‘Job done’, like when you’ve finished an essay or a bit of DIY (which is hypothetical, in my case). And it’s the word they used to write across bills or debts, ‘Paid in full’. And as Jesus died, that’s the word he used to explain what was going on – as if to say, ‘In dying, I’m finishing the job I came to do – which was to pay off a debt in full.’
And in a nutshell, what Christianity says is that Jesus was God’s Son and came into the world to bring us back into relationship with his Father. And to do that, he had to pay for our forgiveness on the cross. So I want to ask and answer three questions:
Firstly, WHAT’S GONE WRONG BETWEEN US AND GOD?
After all, if Jesus came to bring us back into relationship with his Father, the assumption is: something’s gone wrong. Well, I was talking to a friend who’s not a Christian, and I asked him if that was because he didn’t believe in God. And he said, ‘No, I know there’s a God.’ (And the Bible says we all know that, deep down, regardless of what we call ourselves – ‘atheist’, agnostic’ and so on.) So I said, ‘Well, if you know God is there and that he made you and that he’s the key to knowing what life’s all about – wouldn’t you want to be in relationship with him if you could be?’ To which he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t want him interfering in my life.’ And that shows exactly what’s gone wrong: it’s that, consciously or subconsciously, we’ve all said to God, ‘I don’t want you telling me how to live. I don’t want you to be king; I want to be.’ That’s our natural attitude to God. And nothing’s ever shown that up more clearly than when he sent his Son to bring us back into relationship with him – because the response was: to crucify him.
Just look back to John chapter 19, v16:
16…So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17Carrying his own cross [the Romans’ method of capital punishment], he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. 19Pilate [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. 21The chief priests of the Jews [who were responsible for getting Jesus crucified] protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews." 22Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written." (John 19.16-22)
When they crucified people, they would fix a sign to the cross to say why they’d been crucified – what the charge was that deserved the death-penalty. And to spite the people who got Jesus crucified, Pilate wrote on Jesus’ sign exactly what Jesus had claimed – namely, that he’s our rightful King, that he’s God’s Son who came to reclaim our lives as God’s rightful property. And the irony of that sign above Jesus is that that’s exactly why Jesus was crucified: because people heard his claim, but hated it. And when we look at the cross, we see our own, natural attitude to God mirrored there – ‘I don’t want you to be my king.’
Now some of us will accept that. You know it’s true – and maybe certain areas of your life show it pretty obviously. But others will find that hard to accept. You may be thinking, ‘I’m not against God.’ Whereas the Bible says, by nature, we all are. A friend was preaching about this, and to make the point he said, ‘Would you raise a hand if you’ve ever told a lie?’ And all hands went up. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Now would you raise a hand if you consider yourself to be a liar?’ And hardly any went up. So he said, ‘Isn’t that interesting? You’re all prepared to admit that you’ve lied. But few of you will admit that you’re liars.’ ‘So,’ he said, ‘What do the rest of you think you are? Because if you were really truthful by nature, you’d never lie. So the fact that you do shows that you’re really untruthful by nature.’
And you can widen that out and say: if you and I were really giving God his rightful place, we’d never do anything wrong. So the fact that we often do shows that we are by nature against him. It shows we’re saying to God, ‘I reserve the right to live as I want. I don’t want you to be king.’ And the Bible says: if we keep saying that to God right up to the end of our lives, then with no pleasure at all he’ll have to say to us, ‘Then I can’t have you in my kingdom, in heaven. You’ll stay outside forever.’ That’s the judgement he’ll pass, because it stands to reason that you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King and his ways and his will for your life.
So that’s what’s gone wrong
Second, WHAT’S GOD DONE TO PUT IT RIGHT?
And this is where Christianity is unique. People often say, ‘All religions are basically the same.’ But that isn’t true, because none of the other religions even asks the question, ‘What’s God done to put things right?’ They all ask, ‘What do we have to do to make God accept us?’ They’re ‘DIY’ – ‘Do It Yourself’ – religions.
So, for example, I was doing a dinner event with a Christian message, and after I’d spoken I sat down and turned to the Muslim woman next to me and I said to her, ‘So if on the way home you were knocked down by a bus and had to face Allah tonight, how would it go?’ (My usual light, after-dinner banter). And she said, ‘Well, we believe he’ll judge us on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad.’ So I said, ‘And how do you think that’s looking right now?’ And she very honestly said, ‘Not good.’ So I said, ‘And do you think that’ll change before you die?’ And she even more honestly said, ‘No.’ And I’ve never met anyone of another religion who could say they were sure God accepts them, because in ‘DIY religion’ you can never do enough to be sure.
What’s unique about Christianity is that it says not, ‘DIY’ but ‘Done.’ It says God has done everything necessary to bring us back into relationship with him. And he did it at the cross. So look at John chapter 19, v30 again:
30When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." [‘Job done’, ‘Paid in full’.] With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19.30)
And the job was paying for the forgiveness we need. Because what’s wrong with ‘DIY religion’ is the idea that good deeds can both make up for bad deeds and put a relationship right. But they can’t. I mean, just imagine we got talking over coffee afterwards. And first you spill yours on my jacket and just say, ‘Well, you needed a new one – it’s a bit of a rag.’ And then a bit later I tell you I originally come from Basingstoke and you say, ‘I am sorry. I guess someone has to.’ And you just offend and offend and offend me. Well, later on you could try to be nice to me – buy me chocolates and so on. But nothing makes up for bad deeds, and the only thing that puts relationships right again is the offended party being willing to forgive.
And the truth is: we have all offended God – more than we can possibly imagine. But amazingly, he is willing to forgive. So, speaking personally, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, I believe God has forgiven me everything I’ve done wrong in the past, and that he will forgive me whenever I need it in the future – so that when I finally meet him on the day of judgement, he won’t condemn me (as I deserve) but welcome me in (as I don’t deserve).
But just imagine that day, and someone objecting – someone saying to God, ‘You can’t do that: you’ve got to do justice on everything Ian Garrett did wrong.’ Well, God’s answer will be: ‘I have done justice on everything he did wrong – when my Son died in his place.’ So just imagine this white file I’m holding stands for the record of Jesus’ life – the only perfect life ever lived – and the only one that never deserved condemnation at the end. And now imagine this black file stands for the record of your or my wrongdoing – that does deserve the condemnation of being left outside. And the Bible says that on the cross, Jesus took our place and paid the penalty for the black file of every one of us – so that we could be forgiven and yet justice still be done.
So, back to our imaginary scene on the day of judgement. The objector is saying I can’t be accepted. So God says to a nearby angel, ‘Go and get Ian Garrett’s record.’ And the angel scurries off and comes back with this white file with my name on it. And God says, ‘Did you find anything else?’ And the angel says, ‘There was a black file but it only had one sheet of paper inside.’ And God says, ‘What did it say?’ And the angel says, ‘Paid in full.’
When Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, he meant his death has done everything necessary to forgive us back into relationship with God. So what’s unique is that Christianity doesn’t say, ‘Do it yourself’. It says ‘Done.’
Third, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
My wife, Tess, and I have just had a wedding anniversary, and we went away overnight for the first time without our two-year old twins. So we enjoyed little luxuries like opening a packet of crisps in the car without an instant chorus from behind instantly saying, ‘Me’s (which, apart from being rude, is grammatically incorrect). So it was four years back that I was standing down there in this building and was asked the question, ‘Ian, will you have Tess to be your wife?’ And I said, ‘I will.’ At which point I’d done everything necessary for Tess to be married to me. But that didn’t automatically mean that she was. The question still had to be answered, ‘Tess, will you have Ian to be your husband?’
And in giving his Son to die for us, God has said his ‘I will’ to us – ‘I will forgive you and have you back, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.’ But that’s not automatic. The question still has to be answered, ‘Will you be forgiven and have Jesus as your King?’
Now that may sound strange to you – a bit like asking, ‘Will you have Churchill as your Prime Minister?’ After all, isn’t he dead? Well, Churchill, yes; but Jesus, no. Because according to that second reading we had from John (John 19.38-20.18), they took his dead body down from the cross that first Good Friday, wrapped it in burial strips plus a headcloth, and laid him in a tomb. Then on Easter Sunday they found the tomb minus one body:
1Early 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. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) (John 20.1-9)
So imagine you got a balloon in the shape of a full-size body, blew it up, wrapped it in burial strips plus a headcloth, lay it down and then popped it with a pin – so the strips and headcloth just fell apart, flat on the deck. That’s what they saw when they went into the tomb.
And then they saw Jesus bodily risen from the dead – starting with Mary:
10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13They 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.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15“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.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. (John 20.10-17)
So she grabs him – maybe to double-check that she wasn’t just seeing things, that it wasn’t just too much cheese the previous night – and Jesus says, ‘Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet returned to my Father.’ So he appeared enough times to convince them (and us through their written testimony) that he had risen from the dead. But now he’s back with his Father in heaven, waiting for your answer: will you be forgiven and have him as your king? I wonder what your answer is right now?
Many of us can say, ‘I have already accepted him, been forgiven and started trying to live for him. For others, there will be different answers. You might be saying, ‘I’m not even sure any of this is true.’ In which case, can I say you owe it to yourself to look into it and decide whether or not it is. We run Christianity Explored to help people do that. And it starts with a ‘taster session’ – so you can just come once to see whether it would be any good for you.
But you might be saying, ‘I don’t really want Jesus as King – a bit like your friend who said he didn’t want God interfering in his life.’ So your issue is the cost of coming back into relationship with God – what would have to change.’ In which case, can I say: if he loved you enough to die for you, why wouldn’t you trust him with the running of your life? Hasn’t he shown every evidence of having your best interests at heart?
Or, you might be saying, ‘I don’t feel I need forgiving – if it turns out there is a God, I think I’ll be good enough.’ But if that were true, why on earth would God have given up his Son to die for us? Or you might be saying, ‘I don’t think I can be forgiven. You don’t know what I’ve done, what I’m really like.’ But when Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ he meant forgiveness for every sin, including yours, was paid for.
I don’t know what the next thing for you would be if you want to take this further. Maybe picking up one of the Gospels to read – or this booklet Why Jesus? They’re both free from the Welcome Desk at the back. Or maybe trying out our next Christianity Explored taster session after Easter. But you may be saying, ‘I’ve done my thinking and asking questions; what I need to do is respond.’ So I’m going to end with a prayer that would be a way of responding to the risen Lord Jesus. Now you may already have done this, or you may be much further back – not ready to pray anything like this. But if you want to respond to the risen Lord Jesus – if you want to be forgiven and accept him as king – you could use this prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I admit I have not lived for you as King, and so deserve your judgement.
Thank you for dying for me, so I could be forgiven.
Please forgive me all that is past.
And come into my life to help me live for you from now on. Amen
If you have prayed that prayer and meant it, can I encourage you to trust that the risen Lord Jesus has heard and answered it. And what would help you most, now, would be to tell another Christian what you’ve done, so that they can help you get going as a Christian. And if you’d like us to contact you with details of the next Christianity Explored group that might suit you, please do just let us know.