This is what we call an Invitation Service. Which means you may be here because someone’s invited you – you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, but you’re willing to give Christianity a look. And, if that’s you, can I say thanks for coming. Then, there’ll be others here, also ‘just looking’, who’ve been coming for a while – because it generally takes more than one service to find out what Christianity is about and to decide whether or not you believe it. And then, obviously, there are others here who’d say they definitely are Christians.
Well, what we try to do with our Invitation Services is to gear them for the ‘just lookers’. And I guess there are two kinds of ‘just looker’ here tonight. On the one hand, you might be the kind of ‘just looker’ who’s simply thinking, ‘Well there might be something in it, it could just be true, so I ought at least to give it a look.’ You’re not here because you feel any great need – you’d say that life’s good right now – you’re just here to check it out. But on the other hand, you might be the kind of ‘just looker’ who does feel a particular need right now - and you’re here because you’re wondering, ‘If there is a God, could he somehow meet that need?’ Eg, it may be that you’re feeling life is pretty pointless or even that you’re in a mess. It may be that you’re feeling guilty, or a complete lack of self-worth - or whatever it is. And you’re thinking, ‘If there is a God, can he somehow help me with this need?’
Now if you’re the first kind of ‘just looker’, my job tonight is to show you that even if you’ve got no particular felt need right now, you’ve got one massive need that needs sorting out – which is that (like I was when I started looking into Christianity) you’re currently in the wrong with God - not relating to him as you should. Now you may not feel that, but this isn’t the only area of life where what we feel can be totally out of touch with what is real. Eg, I went to the dentist a while back and he asked me if I’d had any problems and I said ‘No – everything’s fine’ – thinking, ‘This will just be a quick check-up.’ And he took a couple of x-rays and told me I needed a fairly serious filling.
On the other hand, if you’re that second kind of ‘just looker’, my job tonight is to show you that God can meet your felt need - but only by meeting your root need – which is that you, also, are currently in the wrong with him - not relating to him as you should. And that is the problem behind all other problems. So, eg, my Mum went to the doctor a while back because the vision in one of her eyes didn’t seem quite right. And she said to him, ‘Maybe I just need a new pair of glasses,’ but the truth was she needed surgery on a tumour (which, thankfully, went fine). The problem wasn’t her eye. It was the tumour behind her eye. And the problem behind every problem, the root need behind all felt need, is being out of relationship with God.
And Christianity, quite simply, is about what God has done to bring us back into relationship with him again.
Now Christians believe that God has made himself known through Jesus – this person who really lived, died and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago. We believe he was God’s Son come into this world as a man. And the obvious problem for us is that we weren’t there. However, others were, and in the Bible, we have their eye-witness record of what Jesus said and did. Now one of the people who wrote one of those records was called Luke. And he wrote two books of the New Testament part of the Bible – Luke’s Gospel and a book called Acts (the one we’ve had read from tonight). And in fact, they’re not so much two books as two volumes of the same biography of Jesus.
Now on my shelves, I have a two-volume biography of a guy called Martyn Lloyd Jones – one of the greatest Christian leaders of the last century. And I want you to guess: where do you think Martyn Lloyd Jones dies? I don’t mean geographically, I mean where in the two-volume biography. Well, the answer is, as you probably guessed, at the very end of volume two. So, where would you expect Jesus to die in Luke’s two-volume work? You’d expect it to be at the end of volume two. But where, in fact, does Jesus die in Luke’s two-volume work? The answer is: at the end of volume one – because, unlike Martyn Lloyd Jones, and unlike any other man who’s ever lived, Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of his story. Because three days after he was crucified that first Good Friday, Jesus’ tomb was found empty and he was witnessed bodily resurrected from the dead. And Luke’s volume two – the one we’ve had read tonight – is about what Jesus did after he rose from the dead. And what he did was to appear to those first disciples of his to convince them that he was alive again. And then those appearances ended as he went back permanently to the heaven from which he’d come. But before he went he basically said this: ‘Up until now I’ve been with you physically and you’ve been able to see me, hear me, touch me. From now on, I won’t be with you physically, but I will come and be with you spiritually, by sending my Spirit to you. So you’ll still be able to relate to me in a personal way.’
Now let’s start to look at the part of tonight’s Bible reading that’s printed out on the sheet of paper you were given on your way in. The apostle Peter, one of those eye-witnesses who was actually there, is speaking to a crowd of people in Jerusalem just weeks after Jesus was crucified there. So let me read the first two verses. Peter says:
32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (vv32-33)
Ie, Jesus has gone away physically but he’s sent his Spirit so that people can still relate to him personally. And that’s really the definition of a Christian: a Christian is someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus. And that’s what I’d say I have. Now if I told you I had a personal relationship with Martyn Lloyd Jones, you’d think that was fairly odd. At least I hope you would, because he’s dead - you’d begin to wonder whether I was playing with oija boards. Now I’d certainly say Martyn Lloyd Jones has an influence on me, but I’d never say I have a relationship with him. And yet that’s exactly what I’m saying and what all Christians are saying about Jesus. And this Bible reading is saying that, whether we’ve so far felt it or not, the root need of every one of us is to come back into that relationship ourselves. So just look at it again:
32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. [Now skip to v36:]36 "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ [ie, God’s King, ie Ruler of all]." (vv32, 36)
What had happened was this. Jesus had turned up on the scene of history claiming to be God’s Son. And his message was basically this: ‘Your root problem is that, consciously or subconsciously, each of you has said to my Father, ‘I don’t want you to be the Ruler of my life; I want to run it and live it as I please.’ And I have come on my Father’s behalf to bring you back into relationship with him.’ And the reaction Jesus got shows the human nature of us all - because they crucified him. They rejected his claim for the obvious reason that they didn’t want God to have his rightful place over them - they wanted to keep running their own lives how they pleased. And so they got rid of Jesus. Or so they thought - because three days later his tomb was empty and he was seen alive again from the dead. It’s as if in crucifying him, the human race was saying, ‘We reject his claim to be our rightful Ruler; we don’t believe it’s true.’ And in raising him from the dead, it’s as if God was saying, ‘I uphold that claim. And it is true. Jesus is my Son and he is your rightful Ruler.’ That’s what Peter was preaching in the verses we’ve just looked at.
So those of you who were the first kind of ‘just lookers’ – the ones with no particular felt need – you need to realise that you do in fact have a massive need, because Jesus is your rightful Ruler –ie, you should be treating Him as your Lord and your God. But you’re not. And you may feel that’s not a great problem, that life’s going OK on that basis. But if for a moment you could see it from God’s point of view, you’d realise it was a massive problem. You’d realise how massively it offends God that we should say, ‘I don’t want you to be Ruler of my life. I want the life you’ve given me but I don’t want you interfering with my independence to live it as I please.’ And you’d realise that if you keep saying that until the end of your life, then (with no pleasure at all) God will have to say, ‘Then I can’t have you in my kingdom, of heaven.’ Because you can’t have the kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
And for those of you who were the second kind of ‘just lookers’ – the ones who do have a particular felt need – you need to realise that that felt need stems from this root need, of being in the wrong with God. Eg, maybe you feel guilty. And the world would say to you, ‘Well, it’s really false guilt. Maybe it’s because of an overdeveloped self-criticism, or your upbringing; maybe you’re being too hard on yourself; maybe you just need to move on.’ But that doesn’t get at the need behind the need – like the tumour behind the eye. Because the need behind the need is that you need forgiveness from God – because it’s your sense of him and his standards that’s making you feel guilty. Or if you’re finding life pointless, you’re absolutely right – without God, it is. If we’re just here by chance, we’re born, we die and in the middle there’s absolutely no point. Or if your need is self-esteem, the fact is that we can’t give ourselves esteem, and even the best of human relationships can only give us some of the sense of worth we need. Only relationship with God can give us the full sense of worth that we need – that comes from knowing he made us and loved us to the point of sending his only Son to die for us.
So if you’re at least beginning to see what the real need might be, where does the Christian message go from there? Well, look on to v37 of that reading:
37 When the people heard this [ie that Jesus is really Lord and that they’d rejected him], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" (v37)
And Peter’s answer is very simple. He says: 1) accept Jesus as Lord, and 2) ask Jesus’ forgiveness. And I want to say a word on each of those and then end by trying to give you 3) an idea of what it would be like to be in this relationship with Jesus. So, in answer to the question, ‘What shall we do if we want this relationship with Jesus?’ Peter says:
First, ACCEPT JESUS AS LORD
Look on to v38:
38 Peter replied, “Repent...” (v38)
That word literally means ‘change your mind’. And Peter means, ‘Change your mind about who is really in charge of your life. Stop thinking that you are, and accept the fact that Jesus should be.’ Ie, accept Jesus as Lord.
So, imagine your life is like a house, with all its various rooms – work and home and money and sport and relationships and sex and family and all the rest. Peter’s saying we all start out life thinking we’re the landlord; and becoming a Christian means accepting and welcoming in Jesus as the landlord and letting him change everything he wants to. So, eg, I’ve now been married for eleven weeks. And Tess, my wife, moved into the house that I’d been living in. And although she’s not my Lord, the changes have been profound. The bathroom has already changed colour. An invisible and ruthless hand has been through my wardrobe (so now is not the time to look for fashionable bargains in Jesmond’s second-hand clothes shops). Carpets have been startled by the hitherto unknown experience of being hovered. And hideous pieces of furniture with which I had become entirely comfortable have been thrown out.
And that is a picture of what happens when you accept not simply a wife, but Jesus as Lord into the house of your life. Some things that are wrong will have to go - like pride, envy, popularity-seeking, sex outside marriage, being untruthful, drunkenness, and so on. (What’s wrong in us won’t go completely, this side of heaven, but the process of getting rid of them will begin.) And other things will have to come – like being willing to be known as a Christian and to stand up for Christ. And we need to count the cost of that. And it may be that’s one of your big, if not your biggest, sticking points with all this. In which case, can I remind you there is a cost the other way? If we say ‘No’ to Jesus as Lord, it doesn’t mean he isn’t. It doesn’t mean he never lived, never died, never rose from the dead and that we’re not going to meet him as our Judge at the end of the day of our lives. We can’t ‘unbelieve’ facts away like that.
So, that’s one side of Peter’s answer to the question, ‘What shall we do if we want this relationship with Jesus?’ – ‘Accept him as Lord. Decide and say to him that you’re willing for him to be in charge of your life.’ But Peter then says:
Secondly, ASK JESUS’ FORGIVENESS
Look at v38 again:
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (v38)
I’ll explain some of the detail in that, but even without further explanation, it’s pretty obvious that Peter’s saying we need forgiving - because if the problem is that Jesus is Lord and I haven’t been treating him as Lord, I not only need now to accept him as Lord, but I also need to ask his forgiveness for the way I haven’t related to him as I should in the past. Now for the detail. What Peter says is:
be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (v38)
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a baptism. To put it really simply, a baptism involves words and water. The water part is that whoever’s getting baptised either has some water sprinkled on them, or if there’s a pool, they might get dunked. And the water is a visual aid: it stands for forgiveness – ‘washing the record clean’, as we would say. And then the words are a prayer for forgiveness. So what happens in a baptism is simply that there’s a prayer for forgiveness and a visual aid of the forgiveness that’s being asked for. Words and water. And pretty obviously, the words are the important thing. Eg, I came to faith in Jesus – ie, began this relationship with him - on 27 September 1982, when I prayed at the end of a talk like this and basically said to the risen Lord Jesus, ‘I want you to be my Lord, please forgive me and come into my life.’ I wasn’t baptised (‘watered’) until the following March - but the visual aid (or sign) that I’m a forgiven follower of Jesus isn’t the important thing. It’s like when Tess and I got married. We said the words to one another and at the same time put rings on one another as a sign of the marriage. But it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d put the rings on days or weeks or even months later. It’s the words that are the important thing and establish the relationship.
So, Peter was inviting his hearers to come out there and then, to pray to the risen Lord Jesus for forgiveness and to have some water thrown on them as a visual aid of the forgiveness they were asking for. What we do (like many churches), is to encourage people to pray to start that relationship with Jesus anytime – and then we have a baptism service from time to time. Because you don’t have to do the water bit at the very same moment you strike up relationship with Christ.
So, stepping back from the detail, Peter says the other side of starting this relationship is to ask Jesus’ forgiveness. He says ‘be baptized [ie, ask for] the forgiveness of your sins in the name of Jesus Christ.’ It’s like when you go out for a meal at a pub and you say ‘Can I open a tab?’ So that instead of paying for drinks and nibbles and then the meal and then coffee bit by bit, they just put it all down on a sheet with your name on, and you pay at the end. And if it’s in your name, someone else in your party might go to get some more drinks and you just say to them, ‘Tell them to put it down in my name.’ By which you mean, ‘It’s on my account. I’ll pay.’ Well, forgiveness ‘in Jesus’ name’ means forgiveness on his account. Because when he died on the cross and took the judgement we deserve on himself, he paid the price for our forgiveness. And there’s no sin you have on your conscience that he hasn’t paid to be able to forgive.
So that’s what Peter says to those who want this relationship with Christ. He basically says, ‘Pray to him. Tell him you’re willing to accept him as Lord. And ask him to forgive you for not relating to him as Lord so far.’ But,
Thirdly, WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF I DO?
You might be wondering, ‘If I were to pray like that, sincerely, for the first time tonight... what would happen? Would anything happen? How do you know you’re not just speaking into thin air?’ Those were certainly the kind of questions going round my head during that talk which brought me to faith on 27 September 1982. And the answer is at the end of v38:
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (v38)
Now what on earth does that mean – ‘you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’? Well, remember, as I said earlier, that Jesus had told his first disciples, ‘I’m going away physically, but once I’ve risen from the dead and returned to heaven, I’ll be able to be with you spiritually – by sending my Spirit into your lives.’ And in that talk which brought me to faith, the speaker turned us to a verse in the last book of the Bible – the book of Revelation – which contains a vision of Jesus as he is in heaven. And in this verse, our lives are pictured as a house, and the risen Lord Jesus says this:
20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3.20)
So that’s what ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ means – it means the risen Lord Jesus coming into your life spiritually in a way he wasn’t before. That’s what it means. But what does it feel like? What should you expect to experience? How can you tell that this is real? Well, I remember sitting in that talk which brought me to faith and thinking, ‘This sounds true. In fact, I think it is true. But I’ll only know if I put it to the test and actually pray as this speaker’s suggesting.’ I was studying sciences at the time, and I have quite a scientific outlook, so I remember thinking, ‘Hypothesis – Experiment – Result – Conclusion... So, Hypothesis: this is all true – Jesus is there and if I ‘open the door’ to him, he will come into my life in some way. Experiment: ‘open the door’ and ask him in as Lord. Result: well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘If nothing happens, no-one will ever know that I made a fool of myself.’
So, I prayed a prayer just like the one I’ll give you an opportunity to pray at the end of this talk. And what happened was this. Almost immediately I felt forgiven. I walked away from that talk knowing for the first time in my life that God accepted me. It felt like the invisible, spiritual ceiling that had hung over me, between me and God, had been taken away. And I walked home with a very light heart. So, I felt forgiven. I also felt Jesus was with me: I had, and have continued to have for the last 25 years, a sense of his presence in a way I never had before. I’ve certainly doubted what I believe along the way, and I’ve been lonely; but I’ve never actually felt alone – that sense that he’s with me has been there all along. And the other main thing I felt was the desire to please him in a way I’d never done before. And I think that just flowed out of those first two things – feeling forgiven and having that sense that he was always there with me and that he saw everything I thought and said and did. And I found I wanted to please him. And I remember, within days of ‘opening the door’ to him, realising that a whole lot of things I’d never even thought were wrong actually didn’t please him. And I wanted to give them up. And, although not perfectly (as is still the case), I changed.
It is real. A girl who was a student here a while back ‘opened the door’ to Jesus. That same day, she realised he wasn’t pleased with her sleeping with her boyfriend, so she went to the boyfriend and told him that would have to stop. He said he wouldn’t accept that, so she promptly announced to him that they were no longer going out. He was in church the next Sunday and he said to one of us, ‘I’m here because I want to know what’s got into my girlfriend.’ And the answer is: Jesus had, by his Spirit. It is real. Another student – a guy this time – ‘opened the door’ to Jesus and over the next term his priorities changed so dramatically that I had his father on the phone, complaining that he’d changed beyond recognition. And his exact words to me were, ‘I just don’t know what’s got into him.’ And the answer is: Jesus had, by his Spirit. It is real. Another guy, when I first got to know him, was on serious drugs, drinking heavily and totally messing up his degree (he was sliding towards a Third). He ‘opened the door’ to Jesus and it was extraordinary to see the change – gradual and sometimes painful. But the Lord Jesus got him off drugs, off drink, and out of what was damaging him and smothering his personality and gifts. And he ended up getting the top First in his year.
Relationship with Jesus is real. And it can be yours if you want it.
So let me wrap up. You may be a ‘just looker’ who still needs to be convinced that this is all true. After all, if Jesus never really lived or never really said and did the things the Gospels say he did, or never really died and rose from the dead, then you have to say that people like me and those three Christians I’ve just described, and all the other Christians in the world today are deluded. And you have to find some psychological or sociological explanation for how we’ve changed. But you may be a ‘just looker’ who’s happy that its all true; your issue is still finding out what accepting Jesus as Lord would involve – what the cost would be. Well, that’s a good thing to do. But can I gently say: don’t take forever to do so, because you haven’t got forever. And can I gently remind you that there is a cost both ways. But lastly, you may be ready and wanting to do exactly what Peter was calling on people to do in this bit of the Bible we’ve looked at tonight. You may be ready and wanting to accept Jesus as Lord and to ask his forgiveness and begin life over again in relationship with him. Well, for anyone in that position, here’s a prayer that you could use to make that response to the risen Lord Jesus:
I admit that I have not treated you as I should, as my rightful Lord. I now want that to change.
Thank you for dying for me, for rising again, and for speaking to me and ‘knocking on the door’ of my life.
Please forgive me and come into my life as my Lord by your Spirit.
If you have prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that the risen Lord Jesus has heard and answered it – and the reality of that will become clear in the days ahead, as it did for me (although your experience won’t necessarily be just the same as mine). For now, I simply want to say: trust that promise - ‘If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in...’ (Revelation 3.20). And if you have just begun that relationship with Jesus, you’ll need help to go on from there. So, if that’s you, may I encourage you to do three things? One is: to take away and read a copy of Why Jesus? (available from the Welcome Desk at the back). The next is: to tell another Christian what you’ve done – they can then make some suggestions of what would be helpful to you in getting going as a new Christian. And the other things is to keep coming back here on Sundays, to hear more about the Jesus with whom you’ve just begun the most important relationship in life.