St Francis of Assisi, Petts Wood

For it is in giving that we receive.


What does it mean to follow Jesus?

To some people looking in, it’s grinding your way through a wordy service sitting on a hard pew on a Sunday morning.  So that by Sunday lunchtime, you’ve done your duty and can get on with your life.  On these terms, God is a boring hobby you just need to get on your life CV to leverage access to heaven.

Getting beyond this view is an early step to take in following Jesus, but there is another caricature to overcome, one that causes people a lot of hesitation.  This is the fear that in giving your life to God, you will be subject to a life of coercive control where God intervenes regularly to stop you enjoying stuff.  The Canadian author Douglas Coupland, most famous for writing the novel Generation X, said his greatest fear in life is that God exists but he’s actually quite nasty.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus said: I have come so that you might have life in all its fulness.  It is the paradox of the Gospel: to give our lives to God is to receive them back in spades – renewed, full of life, purpose, and possibility.  God does not wish to control us.  If he did, we would not have so much freedom in life. 

In one part of the Bible, it says we should work out our own salvation.  This is liberty, not control.  God wants us to figure out our lives with his help.  He has a goal, which is to bring us to full salvation in Christ in the world to come.  And he will get us there.  Every day we make choices about how we live, but when we live for God, he guides us to this goal with the certainty of a Sat Nav, including the course corrects when we make a wrong turning.  But ours is not a driverless car, where we sit back in the passenger seat; we have control of the wheel.   We have the capacity to live well for God and others, or to live selfishly.  A life lived for God is made up of thousands of individual days where these choices are made.  After all, we can only meet with God in the present moment.

For our confirmation candidates, I want to say the following things about how we do this.  None of it is rocket science.  You have heard this stuff before, but as sports coaches always say, it’s doing the basic things well that make for winning habits.

1.   Don’t ignore the Bible.  We face a special problem when it comes to paying attention to the things that matter. The world now creates as much information every ten minutes as the first ten thousand generations of humans combined.  And the sites we visit online are pretty much all geared to keeping our attention as a way of selling advertising revenue.  In other words, we are distracted like no other generation before us.  There’s lots of interesting and funny stuff out there online, but most of it evaporates like breath in winter.  We need to develop behaviours that build us up, and making a habit of reading a bit of the Bible each day – starting with the life of Jesus in the Gospels – is vital if we are to figure out how to live.  Those who dip into scripture only when they turn up to church are semi-starving themselves.  What we read really does feed us, and it changes us.

2.   Don’t just pray when you’re panicking.  Prayer is basically talking to God about stuff.  It doesn’t have to be done a certain way – it’s just you, talking like you do, laying it all out there before God.  And it’s not just about you, it’s about others.  There are so many people who need our prayers, that sometimes keeping a list can help.  But we can overload our prayers, too.  Official news of victory in the Battle of Waterloo took three days to reach England.  Today, we hear about every awful thing that happens in our world within minutes of it taking place.  That can aid our prayers, but it can also demoralise us as we become bewildered by so much need. Sometimes, focussing on what’s going on around us is the place to start.  Who needs God’s peace today, his healing, his protection?  Praying for other people is one of the most selfless things we can do.  And as we pray, we start to realise it’s a conversation, where we have listening to do, as well as talking.  It’s another habit that takes time, but God teaches us how.

3.   Don’t go it alone as a Christian.  It’s pretty fashionable today, to do things our own way.  We have smartphones, so we figure lots out for ourselves.  We don’t join groups as much as we used to.  And some decide to be a Christian without meeting with other Christians.  It’s tempting to think this is a modern thing, but even as early as when the New Testament was being written, it was said: some have given up the habit of meeting together.  It’s not just a Christian thing.  When people get together in any context, they feed off one another, sparking ideas, imagination, creativity.  They give encouragement, affirmation, and love.  We all need these things, but we don’t get much of them by cutting ourselves off.  And when we’re deciding whether to meet with other people for worship on a given day, the smart question to ask isn’t: what will I get out of meeting with other people today?  It’s: what will other people get out of meeting me today?  We are the blessing God is wanting to bless others with.

4.   Live in a way that shows God is alive in you.  To be a follower of Jesus is to spend your life on others.  In his parables about wealth, Jesus does not give the participants a name, except for one: Lazarus.  There is something subtle here that we easily miss.  In life the poor are often nameless while the rich are celebrated, yet here it is the poor man who has a name and the rich men who go nameless.  In disregarding Lazarus, the rich man forfeited his own name because it’s in our relationships, not in what we own, that we find our true status – and our salvation.  Jesus said we should take up our cross and follow him.  Looking out for others is how we do this in practical steps.  We get noticed for what we do in life, not for what we say.  But when people see what we do, they are more likely to listen to why we do it.  That’s how sharing the Gospel works best.

And all this happens because God is alive in us by his Spirit.  Pray every day to be filled with this Holy Spirit, for this is how we are changed into the people God is calling us to be.  In a short while I will lay my hands on the heads of each candidate and pray that God will confirm their faith with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Candidates, open your hearts to God at that moment, for he is coming to stay.