At the start the New Year and this Foundation Service we should be looking both backwards and forwards. So by way of introduction first let’s look back to Richard Clayton in whose memory this church was founded and to the world of his time.
The world then, as today, was in trouble. Born in 1802 Richard Clayton was brought up in the aftermath of the French Revolution that had sent shock waves throughout Europe. In Clayton’s early years people in Britain were frightened by the threat of Napoleon. Also intellectually and morally there was a growing anti-Christian radicalism.
On the positive side, however, the Clapham Sect (or better, “the Clapham Saints”), with William Wilberforce at the centre, was nationally having effect. Wilberforce’s aim was not only the abolition of the slave trade and, then, slavery itself for which he is famous. His other aim, as he tells us, was “the reformation of manners” (in those days “manners” meant “morals and lifestyles”). Wilberforce saw this as requiring fundamentally, as Richard Clayton would put it (I quote):
“a sound conversion to God; justification of the soul in the sight of God; and sanctification of the soul.”
But Wilberforce saw State action (with Christians involved) also, having a part to play. What was the result? Not only was slavery abolished but the world began to see amazing humanitarian changes in Britain. That was when the Evangelical Lord Shaftesbury took over Wilberforce’s mantle a little later.
Clayton, sadly, died young in 1856 aged 54. The authorities, however, would not appoint an Evangelical clergyman to continue Clayton’s ministry at St Thomas’ Haymarket – the church he helped establish as a large church, influencing thousands. So the majority of the congregation decided to build and start a new church in memory of Clayton – this church. They were opposed; but they “kept calm and carried on”. And how we must thank God for that. But what was the wider context of these mid-century-founding-years?
Well, 3 months following the January 1861 Consecration of this Church, in April the first shots were fired in the American Civil War. 2 years earlier, Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1859. 3 years before that (the same year as Clayton died, 1856), Freud was born (just as Britain’s dreadful Crimean War was ending). And 8 years before that, Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1848.
So this whole period was confusing and challenging. For a start, there was mass migration from the countryside to the cities with the industrial revolution. In Clayton’s time, in the wider Church, there was ferment through a Conservative Catholic reaction with people arguing that the 39 Articles didn’t mean what they said. In our Founders’ time the ferment was through a Liberal Modernist reaction with people arguing that the Bible didn’t mean what it said.
But Clayton and our Founders, in spite of all this, were able to make a difference that affected the second half of the 19th century. And so must and can we, I believe, under God, make a difference in this first half of the 21st century.
It is a fact that Marx and Freud have generally been debunked. True, Darwin has had a new lease of life, because people like Richard Dawkins seem simply unaware of much modern philosophy of science. This doesn’t deny all Darwin said, but sees key elements as mythology and not history. On balance, the intellectual task is actually easier for us than for our Founders. That is why we must and can, trusting God, carry on with what we were founded to be, namely:
“a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth.”
And being “sound” involves our vision for Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain.
This morning, therefore, I want to be very basic and encourage you for Godly Living with the words of Hebrews 12.1-2. And my three headings are, first, WHAT TO KNOW, secondly, HOW TO PREPARE, and, thirdly, HOW TO WIN.
So, first, WHAT does Hebrews 12.1-2 say you need TO KNOW for Godly Living?
Let me mention four things.
First, Godly Living, as God intended it, means running in a “race”. The writer is picturing ancient games like the early Greek games at Olympia. These we know had 200 and 400 metre races but also a long distance 5000 metre race, which perhaps is in mind here. But – and it’s an important “but” - you must understand this metaphor in the light of what has previously been written in Hebrews.
For this makes it clear you are not running to get right with God. As the verses around our galleries remind us from Hebrews 10:19-23, our confidence and assurance with God is not through the results of this running. Rather, our confidence and assurance is through the blood of Christ (that is, his sacrificial death for us at Calvary) and his new priesthood. For, as we trust him, we are right with God without us having to atone by our efforts for the wrong we do. Let me read those gallery verses in the ESV translation:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19-23)
That means already forgiven and accepted, we run and do the good involved in running. The very next verse in Hebrews 10 (verse 24 and not on the gallery) says this:
“let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24)
So we are to run and do good works not to get right with God. Rather, we are to run and do good works because we are right with God. Knowing and trusting that God wants the best for us, we obey him and run the race.
With that as an essential assumption, let me now make one observation about running.
At least running means moving forward. That is important for individuals, churches and the nation. For spiritually no one can stand still. Either you will drift with an anti-God flow and go backwards or you will “run” and go forwards. Hebrews 2.1 says:
We must pay more attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (Hebrews 2:1)
Over Christmas it is always interesting reading those letters from old friends. But it is sad when you come across, as you do, people who have clearly been drifting spiritually away from God. And some, because in their drift they have turned around, think they are going forwards while in reality going backwards. They are moving but in the wrong direction. Is there anyone here this morning like that?
Be warned! For Godly Living means running and going forward towards the finishing post, which is Christ and heaven and not this world and hell.
So Godly Living involves “running”.
Secondly, we are to know that such running means a struggle.
The word for race in the original is the word for “conflict” and could apply to boxing, which also featured at the early Olympics. You see, if you are going against the tide of this world, it will be hard and costly in so many ways. Also it will be costly because you can’t choose your race.
For, thirdly, it is the race “set before us”. I am very conscious of that fact.
Forty years ago this was the last place I dreamed of, or, being ignorant of the North East, wanted to come to. But the Trustees and Churchwardens were desperate to find someone. There was only a week to go before the living reverted to the Bishop. Although they wanted someone much older, I was the only option! So although the Archdeacon said the church would probably have to shut in six years, in the providence of God I could see that this was “the race set before me (and Joy).” So here I still am and realise how right this has been and thank God for the privilege of being here; and we have so enjoyed the North East.
You may be in a situation you wouldn’t have chosen, but it is remarkable how God can use it and you in it. That makes all the difference, especially in those difficult times.
And as we look forward at JPC, I believe there is a race “set before us all”, corporately, in the coming years of growing to be a large church of 5000. Some years ago this seemed to be a consensus at a September leaders’ conference. Of course, that was never going to be in 5 minutes but in God’s time. However, I believe, under God, that over the next 5 years we can move to 2000 from the 1000 where we are now. And this particular race and course is set before us, not because we need it or would choose it, but because this city needs it and God, I believe, is guiding. But it will be costly and it will mean changes.
And that, fourthly, relates to why this race of “Godly Living” requires “endurance”. The end of verse 1 says:
“We are to run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
“Endurance” in the original means standing firm under pressure and not giving up.
Well, so much for what you must know: “the Godly Life means running in a “race”; it is a struggle; it is a race “set before us”; and it requires “endurance”.
That brings us secondly, to HOW TO PREPARE?
Our writer says there are three essentials in the way of preparation, one positive and two negative.
So, first, how do you prepare positively? Answer: you are to prepare in your imagination or psychologically.
Sports psychology seems to be something of a growth industry these days. Research findings suggest the use of imagery, where you create experiences in your mind, helps confidence and performance. Be that as it may, certainly our writer here in Hebrews 12.1 tells us to create something in our minds. We are told that as a matter of fact “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” But then we are to imagine we are in a huge sports’ arena and in the stands are these “witnesses”.
Who are the witnesses? Answer: they are the great heroes of faith of the previous chapter, chapter 11, where only a tiny fraction are listed by name. And these heroes of faith are urging you on in the race that is set before you. There is Abraham, who Hebrews 11.8 says, “by faith … obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
There is Moses, who Hebrews 11.24 says, “by faith … when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”
And there were others, who verses 36 and 37 say, “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated - of whom the world was not worthy.”
So imagine all these people in the stands with God calling us to grow to 2000, with all the costs involved and endurance needed. Or imagine all these people when, in your clinic or school or business or college or home, you have to go against the tide in some way and it is a struggle.
So, first, you are to prepare by being encouraged by men and women of God from Bible times. But also be encourage by those from later, like Clayton and our Founders, and those heroes of faith in the West window at the back of the Church – the Anglican Reformers and the early Celtic leaders and evangelists.
Secondly, you are to prepare by laying aside “every weight”. As you have to take off clothes that weigh you down in a race, so Godly Living means you must give up things that are a hindrance to your spiritual development and your journey towards heaven. These are not always bad things. Heavy clothes are not always bad. In cold weather here in the North East they are necessary. But a winter coat on the running track is bad.
A weight can be caused by anything that you allow to come before God and his purposes for you. Such things as work, family, friends, ambition, money, and leisure are all good but not when they come before God and what he is wanting you to do. But there are some things that are always bad.
That is why, thirdly, you are to prepare by laying aside “sin which clings”. Take those seven deadly sins: “pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth (or idleness or laziness).” They cling to different people in different proportions. And, by the way, you must realise there are more sins than lust.
Yes, currently there is a wicked epidemic of lust in all its sexual forms – heterosexual and homosexual – leading to an erosion of marriage. And you must fight and campaign against all these modern forms of “lust”, especially the proposals for same-sex marriage. But in the strength of God’s Holy Spirit you must “put to death” (to use the biblical phrase) not only lust but also pride, covetousness, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. And at the same time you are to cultivate the traditional, because biblical, virtues of “faith, hope, and love” together with “prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude (or endurance)”. And all that relates to our …
… third and final heading, HOW TO WIN and “Looking to Jesus”
Winning comes as you “look to Jesus”. That means, first, he must be your supreme focus. The most famous Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where I finished my last job, before coming to Jesmond 40 years ago, was W H Griffith Thomas (born incidentally in 1861, the year of our founding). He is known, among other things, for his book entitled, “Christianity is Christ”. To understand that is so vital for Godly Living. You will never run perfectly.
Over the years I have made mistakes and misjudgments and missed many opportunities. And that is true of all of us. Christ alone was without sin. But when you sin after you have already been accepted by God and are running, there is still good news. Hebrews 4.15-16 says, speaking of Jesus Christ:
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4.15-16)
So, of course, you do not have to give up the race when you trip up over something. Nor should you think you have to run entirely in your own strength. For Christ offers you grace to help in time of need. So he is not simply the founder of your faith. He is not just there when, by faith, you start the race as a forgiven sinner, and then he leaves it all up to you. No! He is there all the time perfecting your faith by teaching you lessons, sometimes hard lessons, right to the end. So, first, Jesus Christ must be our focus, as we look to him,
“… the founder and perfecter of our faith” (as the writer says).
Secondly, he must be our example, because, as verse 2 goes on:
“for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame,”
And, thirdly, he must be our Lord. Verse 2 also says, he now …
“… is, seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This year sees not a 40 year, but a 60 year celebration of the Coronation of the Queen. During our Jubilee Service last summer we showed two excerpts from the 1953 Coronation. The words from one of them, the presentation of the Bible, some will remember, I quoted during the recent Carols by Candlelight services. Let me now remind you of the words from the other – the presentation of the Orb to the Queen, where the Archbishop says these words:
“Receive this orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer.”
Christ is risen and the reigning Lord of all. That is the reality.
So may I conclude with this? To live with the consciousness of that reality is at the heart of Godly Living. Paul said in Romans 10.9:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So as we look ahead, may the Holy Spirit (wherever spiritually we are at the moment), enable us all to live by the truth of the Lordship of Jesus Christ - in our individual lives, in the church and in the world.