This is a two part sermon. I used to do a lot of two-part sermons but some reason I stopped. Each scripture reading is followed by a talk and the two talks are also separated by a hymn. In addition to being a two-part sermon, this is something of a narrative sermon in the first person. Something different for a change.
The first part is based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
I’m Paul. Paul of Tarsus.
At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a letter to the Christian Church in Corinth. “And now I want to remind you, my brothers and sisters, of the Good News which I preached to you, which you received, and on which your faith stands firm.”
The Gospel message is the key to our faith as Christians and it is central to what we are all about. But I think that sometimes we can take this message for granted or it becomes so commonplace that we hear the words but they don’t have the same impact that they did when we first heard the Gospel. That’s why it’s important for followers of Christ to keep reminding each other of the Gospel message.
I know that my brothers and sisters in Corinth are perfectly familiar with the Gospel message, but I hope that by reminding them of it that they can hear it in a fresh way:
“Christ died for our sins as written in the Scriptures, he was buried, was raised to life three days later as written in the Scriptures; he appeared to Peter, and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than 500 of this followers at once. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared also to me.”
What’s that? You say that this sounds more like a recitation of events than a statement of belief? Well, we in the first century church believe that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried and that he rose from the dead. That he appeared to so many people after his death is just proof of the resurrection. I think you have a creed now that says much the same thing, don’t you?
What’s that you say? Ah yes, the resurrection! That’s a tough one for a lot of people! Don’t think that it was any easier to believe in my day than it is in yours. We weren’t all a bunch of superstitious primitives you know. I’ll bet the Greek philosophers could give your 21st century scholars a run for their money! Some of them didn’t even believe in an after-life.
Hmm, but you do bring up a good point. I think I will have to write a bit more about resurrection next. I’ll probably point out that belief in the resurrection is essential to the Christian faith but that no-one knows exactly what the resurrection life will look like or what sorts of bodies we will have after the resurrection. I need to give it a bit of a think but I do insist that ‘resurrection’ is an important part of our faith; If Christ was not raised, then our faith is in vain. Oh! That sounds good; must make a note of that for later.
But in the meantime, my point is that because of Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s forgiveness of our sins, humanity has a real and concrete hope for the future. And disciples of Jesus like you and me have been initiated into a church that believes in real and concrete hope for humanity.
Being a follower of Jesus isn’t just about having some sort of religious experience today. This is what some of the Corinthians seem to think and where they have taken their eye off the goal. They’ve not really been behaving like people who are hoping for a realised Kingdom of God in the future. They’ve been focussing on the minor things like spiritual experiences and whether or not being a disciple of Apollos or Peter brings one better spiritual gifts.
There have been rivalries and factions among them, each faction claiming that members of their group are better disciples of Christ than the others. Of course, I had hoped that the church would have been beyond factions by the 21st century, but it can be so hard for us human beings to grasp the meaning of the Gospel.
Anyway all this focus on who is the best sort of Christian or what sort of spiritual experiences a Christian has to have completely misses the Good News of the Gospel of Christ. The point is that we are all forgiven sinners. We are all sinners. And through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are all forgiven by God! The life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrate God’s transforming power and this power can transform human society as well as individual lives.
Do you want proof of God’s transforming power? Look at me. I get the feeling that some of you in the 21st century have conveniently forgotten the fact that before Jesus appeared to me on the road to Damascus, I had made it my life’s work to murder Christians. When I say that I am the least of all apostles and unfit to be called an apostle, I’m not just mouthing pious words. As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling the truth. I murdered people. I murdered Christians.
When Jesus appeared to me, the first shock I had was the painful understanding that far from being a righteous man, I was actually a sinner. The chief of all sinners. That was a horrible experience, let me tell you. I had dedicated my life to trying to serve the Lord of Heaven and then, in a blink of an eye, I understood that I was persecuting him instead. But thanks be to God, immediately after that, Jesus revealed to me that his mission here on earth was all about reconciling God and humanity and that God offered me forgiveness.
It was then that I understand that I am a forgiven sinner – that we are all forgiven sinners. That might sound like a contradiction in terms – being a forgiven sinner – but it’s actually a wonderful freedom!
Human beings don’t have to try to play the impossible game of trying to earn God’s forgiveness. Christ has made forgiveness possible on our behalf. And we don’t have to try to hide our sinfulness from God either; he sees us as we are and, in Christ, he offers us the grace of his forgiveness.
What’s that, you say? That sounds more like what you call the Gospel message? Well, that’s a relief! I’m glad to see that things haven’t changed that much in the 21st century.
The second part is based on Luke 5:1-11
Shalom, brothers and sisters! My name is Simon but people also call me Peter, or Cephas in Hebrew. That all started when I left everything I had to follow Jesus of Nazareth, my Rabbi and my Lord.
I first came across Jesus in the synagogue when he read from Isaiah and seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah. Everyone spoke well of him until he suggested that the Messiah had also come for the Gentiles and the outcasts, and maybe especially for the Gentiles and the outcasts. Well, I can tell you that that caused quite an uproar among the congregation! People began to chase him out of the synagogue and they tried to stone him. But I was intrigued by this person Jesus who had a strange air of authority about him.
After he left the synagogue, Jesus came to my house where my mother-in-law was lying very ill with a fever. We were worried that she might die but Jesus healed her immediately and she was well enough to get up out of her bed and prepare a meal for us there and then!
Well, I tell you, that certainly increased my curiosity about Jesus even more. Of course, it is not unheard-of for holy men to be healers here in the first century, but I was beginning to entertain the possibility that Jesus might be more than just a holy man. Jesus and I were beginning to develop a relationship and because of that relationship that my regard for him began to grow.
It was the incident with the unexpected catch of fish that changed everything for me. I’d always believed in God but after that experience I realised that God believed in me!
Let me see if I can try to explain this a bit better.
I’m an experienced fisherman. Me and my mates had been trawling all night and we really didn’t catch very much. Do you know what it’s like when you try to do something and fail? You’ve got the experience. You’ve got the knowledge. You try your best but all your efforts come to nothing. If that goes on and on you start to doubt yourself and what you know.
Maybe I’ve lost my ability to catch fish. Maybe I no longer have the right knowledge. Maybe I need different equipment. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. You’re grinning. I think you’ve been there, right? You know what I’m talking about.
So then Jesus comes along. You have to remember that we’re already getting to know each other and that I’m already thinking that there is a lot more to Jesus than just being a rabbi or a holy man. Jesus has got this whole crowd of people following him, hanging on his every word, but he comes to me and to my boat and he asks to go out into the lake.
Now, this already felt like a bit of encouragement. Because when I was cleaning my nets, I was feeling like something of a failure. And then this man who could be the Messiah comes up to me and asks me to do what I do. He trusts me not to sink the boat even though I’m feeling like a failure.
It’s a good job I already knew something about him and about his character, because when he asked me to cast my nets into deep water in the morning, I got my back up a bit. In about a half a second the thought crossed my mind, ‘I’m the fisherman! You’re a Rabbi!’ But then I thought, ‘Why not? The worst thing that can happen is that I end up in the same situation I was in a few minutes ago. And anyway, I already think that there is something special about Jesus. Why not just listen to what he says?’
And so I listened to him and I did something that went against all of my fishing experience. And Jesus was right! My nets were filled with fish. So many that the boat almost couldn’t carry them all back to shore.
And then my eyes were opened. I saw that Jesus was the Messiah and my Lord. I can’t really explain why. The first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ Funny, isn’t it? All those other people had been chasing Jesus around trying to get close to him and now I’m saying ‘Go away from me.’ You just can’t come face to face with pure holiness and not understand that you’re a sinful person. And that’s painful.
But Jesus didn’t go away. More than that, he told me that he wanted me to follow him and be his disciple! Me, a sinner! A simple fisherman with only a basic knowledge of the Torah! No ordinary Rabbi would even consider having me as his disciple, but here is the Messiah, the Son of God, showing me that he believed in me and in the work that I could do with him. Just like we caught all those fish that morning, Jesus showed me that together with him that Jesus would use me to “catch” many people to be his disciples.
Well, you all in the 21st century know the rest of my story. I wasn’t a perfect disciple by any means, but God still used me to build his Church. In my cheekier moments, I like to think that my mistakes and personality quirks can encourage other Christians to realise that God uses all sorts of imperfect people to do his work on earth.
The thing that I learned about God during my life is that God doesn’t work alone. Being Creator of the Universe, he could work alone, but he wants to work with us. Imperfect as we are. Isn’t that amazing? Being a follower of Jesus wasn’t always an easy thing to do - you know I became a martyr in the end - but it was worth it. Well, for me, anyway.
God took me, flawed as I am, and used my life to his glory. God believed in me and I know he believes in you too.