Invitation Service

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Please do have a seat. But then imagine that, instead of asking you to sit, I’d asked you to arrange yourselves in a line from the front of the building to the back. Imagine I’d said, ‘Please come to the front if you’d say you definitely are a Christian; head to the back if you’d say you’re definitely not; and make for the middle if you’re not sure.’ Now, don’t panic: I’m British and wouldn’t ask you to do anything so embarrassing. But I wonder where you’d stand?

Well, from time to time we have services like this which we call invitation services, and they’re geared for the ‘not sures’ and the ‘definitely nots’. So my aim is simply to explain what a Christian is, and how to become one. And my hope is that it’ll leave each of us clear in our own minds where we stand with God, and what we need to do in response to him. And to do that, we’re going to look at that reading we had earlier from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5.27-32). It’s taken from one of the four Gospels – one of the four accounts in the Bible about Jesus – and it was written within (probably) 35 years of the events. So the eye-witnesses who’d been with Jesus were still alive and Luke got his information from them.

But as we read about Jesus, we’re not just reading about a figure of the past, like Queen Victoria or Gandhi, because the Gospels give us the evidence that, after his death on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead – as the great sign that he really was and is the Son of God, as he claimed. So this isn’t just about a figure of the past. We’re going to be reading about the Son of God, who stepped into our world as a man 2,000 years ago, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead, who’s alive in heaven right now, and whom each of us will meet as our Judge at the end of our lives. And the Christian message is that we all need to come into a right relationship with him before that happens. And this passage from Luke is the account of one man, Levi, who did that – who ‘became a Christian’. And I want us to see how what happened between Levi and Jesus back then can happen between you and the risen Jesus today. So let me re-read the whole thing before we work out what it’s got to say to us, today:

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" 31 Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
(vv27-32)

Now there are two main things we need to take on board from that passage tonight:


First, JESUS IS CALLING SINNERS

That’s how Jesus himself sums up why he came into the world: he says in v32, ‘I’ve come to call sinners’ – ie, to call people who are currently living without reference to God to come back into relationship with God. And Levi is exhibit A. Look back to v27:

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.(vv27-28)

Now, to feel the impact of that, you have to know that tax collectors back then were seen as morally the lowest of the low – because they basically ripped everyone off. I remember asking someone in our church what he did for a living and he said, ‘I lie, I cheat and I steal.’ As you can imagine, there was a slightly uneasy silence and then he said, ‘Ie, I’m an estate agent.’ Well, in Jesus’ day, tax collectors had that kind of stigma, plus, plus, plus. They were the really bad people who made you feel good by comparison. The equivalent for us might be sex-offenders. So God – God the son – walks up here to the really bad person and says, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and will accept you just as you are.’ And that’s a real shock to folk who think that Christianity’s just for good people, that it’s all about trying to be good enough for God. And you meet those folk as you read on. Look at v29:

29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to [Jesus’] disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" (vv29-30)

So the Pharisees are the churchgoers of the day. And they think you can divide the human race into two: the good people like them, and the bad people like Levi. And they think that when God finally judges, he’ll condemn the bad people but say to the good people, ‘Come in. You’ve earned your place.’ So it’s really offensive to them that far from condemning Levi, Jesus says to him, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and will accept you just as you are.’ And Jesus has to tell them they’ve got it all wrong. Look at v31:

31 Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous [by which he means those who think they’re right with God on their own merits. ‘I have not come to call the righteous], but sinners to repentance." (vv31-32)

I’m hopeless with injections and usually faint afterwards. Last time I did, I keeled over in the waiting room of my doctor’s surgery and I came round lying on my back with a toddler standing over me with eyes full of terror. I guess Mum had spent the whole morning reassuring him that the doctor was nothing to be afraid of – and now he’d arrived to find a corpse on the floor. But as I was kept there under surveillance I read all the posters, one of which said: ‘Are they really sick? Only call out the doctor if absolutely necessary.’ And that’s what Jesus is saying. He’s saying, ‘Look, just like a doctor, I wouldn’t have ‘come out’, I wouldn’t have stepped from heaven into my own creation, if you lot were all right – or could put yourselves right. But you’re not. You’re all sick.’

Ie, the human race is not divided into two – those who are good enough for God and those who aren’t. He’s saying we’re all spiritually sick – in that we’ve all failed to give God his rightful place in our lives and live to please him. Now different people show different symptoms of that – eg, Levi’s were more blatant than the Pharisees’; a sex-offender’s are more blatant than yours or mine. But the underlying sickness is the same: we’ve all failed to give God his rightful place in our lives, and we consequently face his judgement. And Jesus is saying: we need him to heal our relationship with God – and only he can. And that’s why he came out, ‘on call’ if you like, from heaven to earth, to die on the cross. Because as he died he was taking on himself the judgement we deserve for our sin – so that we could be forgiven.

So, that’s the first thing to take on board: Jesus is calling sinners. He’s saying to everyone of us here tonight, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and will accept you just as you are.’ Which begs the question: will you admit that you’re a sinner who needs Jesus?

Some of us may be thinking, like these Pharisees, that we’re OK with God as we are – thinking, ‘ I don’t need Jesus and faith; I live a decent life.’ Well, if that’s you, can I say: you do need a better idea from the Bible of God’s standards, by which he’ll judge you. And you also need to ask yourself, ‘Why would he send his Son to die for our forgiveness if that really wasn’t necessary, if you and I really were OK as we are?’

But others may be thinking, ‘I know I do need Jesus; I just doubt that he’d have me.’ But, again, Levi is Exhibit A to show that he will: Levi stands for the worst of people, and if Jesus will have a Levi, he’ll have you, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done. Jesus is calling sinners. And the only people he can’t help are those who won’t admit they need him.

The other thing we need to take on board from this passage is this:


Secondly, JESUS IS CALLING SINNERS TO REPENTANCE

We’ve seen who Jesus is calling – namely, anyone prepared to admit they need him. And we’ve seen what basis he accepts people on – namely, his forgiveness, not our goodness. But what is he calling us to? Well, look at v32. Jesus says:

32 "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (v32)

Now ‘repentance’ is one of those Bible words that needs pinning down. And it basically means ‘turning.’

David, our vicar, appears from time to time on radio and TV. And one morning he was driving south across the Tyne Bridge, and he switched the radio on and tuned in to BBC Newcastle just in time to hear the announcer say, ‘Coming up next, the news. And then after that, our morning debate, between whoever-it-was of the British Humanist Society and the Reverend David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond Parish Church here in Newcastle.’ Which David had forgotten all about. So what did he do? He repented. He did a U-turn across the four lanes of the Tyne Bridge and went speeding – metaphorically of course – up to the BBC.

And when it comes to God, repentance means doing a U-turn from living your own way without reference to God, to giving God his rightful place in your life and living to please him. And again, Levi is Exhibit A. Look back to v27:

27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. (v27)

So up to this point, he’s been living as if God wasn’t there – lying, cheating and stealing. And you may know that you’ve basically done the same up to this point in your life – albeit with maybe very different symptoms. But then in v27 comes repentance-point:

"Follow me," Jesus said to him, [v28] and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (vv27-28)

And from here on, his aim is to live to please Jesus as his Lord.

So what might repentance involve for you, if you did what Levi did here, and became a Christian? Might you have to leave your job? Is it basically negative – all about giving up things – as it’s often portrayed by the non-Christian world? What would it involve? Well, it basically means: your life being under new management. It means you’ve said to the risen Lord Jesus, ‘I want to live from now on to please you. So, would you help me understand your will from the Bible, and help me live it out?’ And as you do that, yes, some things that were part of your life before will have to go. For Levi, eg, lying, cheating and stealing had to go. For others, eg, sex outside marriage has to go; or an unforgiving attitude to someone close to you; or a complaining spirit at work, and so on. On the other hand, some things that weren’t part of your life before will have to come in. The obvious one is being known publicly as a Christian: standing out from the crowd – eg, by not getting drunk or taking a moral stand at work; or, eg, by inviting friends along to Christianity Explored or church or the CU Missions coming up – and accepting that that will bring at least some negative reactions.

So, some things have to go, some things have to come, but it basically means all areas of your life being under new management, and it involves gradually re-learning, through the Bible, how Jesus as your Lord wants you to live in each of them. Take work, for example. A friend of mine became a Christian when he was brand manager of Smirnoff vodka. Now I think it is possible for a Christian to be in some parts of the alcohol trade; Sam Smiths brewery is owned by a Christian I know. But six months after he became a Christian, Tim left Smirnoff, because as he reflected on some of what he was promoting, and as he asked himself, ‘Is this the best way of using my working life for Jesus?’, his answer was: no. (He’s now brand manager of Colman’s mustard – such is the change that Jesus brings to peoples’ lives.)

But I should say: that change is never perfect this side of heaven. You may be thinking, ‘The problem is: if I did become a Christian, I know I’d never change overnight and that I’d be bound to mess up – and then where would I be?’ Well, the answer is: in very forgiving hands. A Christian is someone who both consistently aims to live to please Jesus as Lord, and consistently fails to. But the good news is that Jesus died not only for our past sins but also for our future sins, and he forgives those who follow him whenever they need it, whenever they mess up.

So repentance means: life under new management, and the obvious question people ask is, ‘Is there a cost to that?’ Well, at one level, yes. Eg, I guess all the Christians here would rather not get negative reactions to their faith – that’s a cost. I guess all the Christians here would say they struggle in some areas of obedience to Jesus where there was no struggle before they became a Christian – that’s a cost. But at another level, no, there’s no real cost, as in real loss, at all. Eg, whenever Jesus calls us to give up something, it’s only because it’s not good for us – it’s like taking a sharp knife away from a little child. Eg, sex is only truly good for us within the marriage context it was created for. And in calling us to turn from anything else, Jesus is out not to spoil our enjoyment of life but to protect it.

But it needs to be said that there is a cost the other way – the cost of rejecting Jesus. Because if we reject him, it doesn’t make him go away: even if you say, ‘I don’t believe in Jesus – even that he existed,’ your beliefs can’t change reality; you can’t change the fact that he really lived, really died, really rose from the dead and that you will really meet him at the end of your life. And Jesus himself said that, if up to that point we’ve said ‘No’ to him, he, with no pleasure at all, will have to say ‘No’ to us being in his heaven. Because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King. So at one level, there is a cost to doing the U-turn of repentance. But the cost of just driving on towards judgement, in the wrong with God, is infinitely higher. And the whole reason Jesus came to die on the cross for us and rise again was to save us from doing that.


Thirdly, RESPONDING TO JESUS

Well, I said at the start that my aim was to explain what a Christian is, and how to become one – so each of us can be clear where we really stand with God, and what we need to do to respond to him. So let me wrap this up:

What is a Christian? Someone who tries to live a good life? No, plenty of Muslims and atheists do that. Someone who goes to church? No, I went to church for years before becoming a Christian. A Christian is someone like Levi: someone who’s been forgiven by Jesus and who’s now trying to live to please Jesus in response. So can I ask: is that you? Can you say to yourself, ‘I’m a forgiven person, and I’m aiming, day by day, to please Jesus as Lord of my life’?

And then, how do you become a Christian? The answer is: by admitting you need forgiveness for living without reference to God, and by accepting Jesus as your Lord from now on. And the way to do that is to speak to the risen Lord Jesus in prayer. So I’m going to end now with a prayer. Let me read it out first so that you can think whether you’d want to make it your own prayer. I’ll pray:

Risen Lord Jesus,
I admit I’ve lived without reference to you, and need forgiveness.
But I believe you died for me and will accept me as I am.
Please forgive me and come into my life by your Spirit,
and help me live for you as my Lord from now on.
Amen

You may not be ready to pray that to begin as a Christian; or you may have done so already and don’t need to begin again. But if you are ready and do want to begin as a Christian tonight, you could echo it in your own mind as I lead us now. Let’s bow our heads to pray:

Risen Lord Jesus,
I admit I’ve lived without reference to you, and need forgiveness.
But I believe you died for me and will accept me as I am.
Please forgive me and come into my life by your Spirit,
and help me live for you as my Lord from now on.
Amen

Well, if you’ve just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can rest assured that God has heard and answered it. And if you have, can I encourage you to trust that, like Levi, you’re now a forgiven person and under new management. And can I also encourage you to tell another Christian what you’ve done, so that they can make some suggestions about how to go on in the new life you’ve just begun with Jesus.

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