We live in a world that bombards us with words, millions of them on the internet for us to read and millions more to listen to via various media. Words are great for sharing our thoughts and opinions, and our faith, but words alone are not enough.
On Sunday the reflection looked at the need for us to walk the talk of our faith if we hope to make a difference in the world. The readings were psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48.
A few years ago we had a French boy staying with us for 6 months. The idea was that he would be completely immersed in family life in England and would learn the language fluently. Pierre was only 9 years old so this was a very big thing, to leave his home and family and come and live in a totally different place where he didn’t know the language at all. Not only that, but he was living as our own children did, under the rules of our household, which were surely different from the ones he was used to. He was treated in every way as our children were. He went to the same school as our son of the same age, we helped him with his homework, read to him, fed him, decided what time he would go to bed, bought new clothes for him, got him a bicycle so that he could join in with the others and so on. At first he was a bit tearful when he remembered that his mum wasn’t there with him but gradually he seemed happier. He very quickly learnt to speak English, picking up the Yorkshire accent along with the words.
Pierre’s own family sent letters to him and rang him each week. They were not supposed to talk to him for too long on the phone as that might cause distress. They were also not supposed to do things that would influence how Pierre was being brought up in our family. This family did try to avoid the rules though. They regularly sent huge packages of sweets the size of shoe boxes. Our children didn’t eat many sweets at all, just a few after the main meal of the day. This influx of sweets was a major embarrassment to us really. I know Pierre wasn’t happy with our decision, but we chose to take them away from him and let him have a small amount after his main meal, just as our children would.
When the time came for Pierre to return home, he had really changed. No one would have known that he was not an English child. He spoke the language perfectly, he behaved in much the same way as our own children (though he still had his own personality) and he was 14 pounds (6.5kg) lighter! The latter was a huge concern to me. I hadn’t realised he was losing weight for quite a while but then noticed that his trousers were too loose for him. In horror, I checked if he was hungry and not getting enough to eat, though he seemed to have a healthy appetite and was never denied food. He confirmed that he was fine and I realised that it must be the diet without large amounts of chocolate etc in it which had made the difference. So the boy we delivered back to France was a very different one indeed, probably barely recognisable to his family at first.
In terms of the church year we are currently in the 50 day season of Easter, as anyone looking around the Cathedral will realise. During this time we are looking at life in the light of the resurrection. The apostle John had had a long time to think about life in that light by the time he wrote his epistle. He still seems blown away by the impact and exclaims: ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ This is a gift worth far more than all the Easter eggs in the world, though that may surprise some chocoholics among us. The title of ‘Children of God’ comes with a promise that we will be like Jesus, we will be glorified just as he is glorified. St Paul says much the same in his letter to the Romans when he tells of us being adopted into God’s family and being fellow heirs with Christ. We are destined to be conformed to the image of Jesus who is the first-born in this family of God to which we belong.
John says that at the moment we don’t know what we will be like because it has not been made known. However, we get a glimpse of what Jesus was like after the resurrection. Jesus still had a body and was recognisable, albeit sometimes it took people a while to work out who he was. He was able to speak, to eat, to breathe on the disciples. They could touch him physically. The wounds which killed Jesus were still there. And yet, there was something more. Jesus could easily arrive in locked rooms at will and disappear at will also. Jesus after the resurrection was the same as before and yet had something more about him also. If we are going to be like Jesus we can assume that something similar will happen to us although we have no way to fully understand it at the moment. I suppose you could say the same for Pierre when he returned home; he was the same but had something more about him also.
Along with this wonderful gift of being children of God there comes a responsibility. John says that everyone who has this hope purifies himself. If we abide in Jesus we do not keep on sinning. That is quite difficult to understand, especially as John himself says elsewhere that if we say we are without sin we are lying. In this life we will continue to sin but as Christians we are aware of it and know to repent as soon as we realise we have sinned. We don’t just go on without a care, regardless of what we have done. Jesus died to take away our sin, as John tells us in verse 5 of this passage. John the Baptist also said the same: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. We can be transformed because of what Jesus has done. We have the responsibility of growing more like Jesus every day.
In order to be transformed we need the help of the Holy Spirit. We have to make room for the Holy Spirit to work in us and we do that by spending time with Jesus in prayer and Bible study. This gives us the power to overcome sin in our lives. Having intentionally spent time with Jesus, we will abide with him all the time; an awareness of him will be there throughout our day. Brother Lawrence called this abiding, ‘practising the presence of God’. As we go about our daily lives we will hear the voice of God saying to us: ‘this is the way, walk in it’. If Pierrre had not listened to English being spoken around him, he would not have learnt the language. If we do not listen to God’s language in the Bible and in times of prayer, we will not learn his language, the language of love and compassion. If we learn it we will be able to live it, to walk the talk of our faith.
We need to remember that we have huge potential. We were created to be like Jesus, even though the transformation will take a lifetime. We may look at how far we have come and despair as it seems so insignificant, but we need to look at God’s love for us, not at our sinfulness. It’s very tempting to look at ourselves as we are and see only our limitations, not our potential. We will see others who seem so much more gifted than we are, who seem to be ‘good’ people, who are successful – whatever that means. It has been said that faith is spelled R I S K. We have to be prepared to try, to risk getting it wrong. If Pierre hadn’t dared to open his mouth and speak he would never have become able to communicate in English. There had to come a time when he gave it a go. And when he got it wrong, he had to have another go, rather than giving up. As a child I always seem to fall over and hurt myself. I seldom seemed to have knees without grazes on them. I remember to this day my dad saying goodbye to me one day as I set off to visit a friend who lived a little way down the road. His last words were ‘Be careful and don’t fall.’ I turned and said, ‘I won’t, Daddy’ and promptly tripped over, damaging both knees and an elbow. Despite that, I didn’t give up walking believing I was not designed to walk, and in the same way we must not give up walking the truth however risky it feels.
In John’s letter we are told that it is the person who practises righteousness who is righteous. In Rwanda 90% of the population claimed to be Christian. Reflecting on the genocide there, David Gushee said, ‘The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees – they guarantee nothing.’ We have to actively live out our faith, to be prepared to be living sacrifices, to look for ways to do good. It’s not enough just to work on not sinning. John Wesley said, ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’ We have been created to do good works ‘which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ Each day we should pray to be given opportunities to do good, not to buy our way into heaven – that is already taken care of – but to help to change the worlds in which we live, SL and RL.
I’d like to give the last word to John Stott:
‘The call to responsible lifestyle must not be divorced from the call to responsible witness. For the credibility of our message is seriously diminished whenever we contradict it by our lives. It is impossible with integrity to proclaim Christ’s salvation if he has evidently not saved us from greed, or his lordship if we are not good stewards of our possessions, or his love if we close our hearts against the needy.
Lord, give us the strength we need to walk the talk of our faith every day to transform our worlds. Amen