Friday 24 May 2013

A sermon preached at Priory Methodist Church, Bedford, on Sunday 26th May 2013

Turning to verse 3 of the gospel reading except you be converted and become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is here saying you have to show the same humility, that same dependence that a child has in its parents you will have to have in God.

I realise it is Trinity Sunday and understand I might have been expected to preach on that subject. However, in view of the aggressive secular attack on Christianity, aided and abetted by the government, we should all be sure that our Christian faith is firm and solid. You might feel confident it is so, but Charles and John Wesley felt confident and were ordained priests in the Church of Ebgland for 3 and 12 years before their spiritual awakening in May 1738.

A lot of people get confused regarding the word ‘conversion’. It is used widely in everyday life, such as converting from one bank to another, or from type of energy supply to a different one.

Many years ago now the nation changed its energy supply from coal gas to natural gas. This did not cause any great disruption as all the pipes remained the same, the structure was not altered, it was just that supply was better, more effective and powerful. So likewise a spiritual conversion is a change in your lifestyle, your body is the same, it a matter of how the way you lead your life, a change in direction and thinking, and believing. Your life is now filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that new fulfilling power enabling us to be more effective as Christians.

The Bible teaches that you must be converted to enter heaven and this is taught all through the Bible. Conversion means you have a new heart and nature, and God says He will give you a new heart.

The Bible states that we have all fallen short of what God expects and we are all sinners. People find this hard to accept, thinking as they live moral lives, are honest and try to help others they can’t possibly be sinners.

A Vicar once placed a notice outside his Church saying ‘this Church is here for sinners’. The following Sunday two thirds of his congregation were missing. But we have all broken at least one commandment and this is like breaking a link in a chain, you break one link and the whole is broken. God cannot accept us when not in a righteous state.

I have taken many hundreds of funerals over the years and one of the most regular statements made to me by relatives of the deceased was to the effect that he/she was not religious or went to Church, but she was a Christian. I believe the Church is in a way responsible for such thinking. We allow people to think being a Christian is a nominal matter, no cost or commitment needed. We have indiscriminate infant baptism in which we permit people to make vow and promises which we know they have no intention of keeping, and declare they are Christians. Going through any amount of ceremonies will not in itself make you a Christian, you have to meet the risen Christ and make a commitment.

One of the favourite Bible passages people ask for at funeral services is from John 14, where it speaks of there being many mansions, and I have been told frequently that statement assures them there is a place in heaven waiting them. If possible I try to avoid having it as the true meaning does not give the cover all assurance imagined, and I don’t like seeing being led along false paths.

If a person does not attend Church, read the Bible, regularly pray or follow Christ’s teachings, not only can they not be Christian, in the truest and biblical sense, they would find heaven a very uncomfortable place.

But this state of mind is not confined to non believers. A lady approached me who had been a faithful Church attender for many years and said she had heard a man on Songs of Praise say he had just become a Christian although he had attended Church for years. She asked me what he was talking about. She genuinely thought Church attendance was all that was needed.

People can be very religious and still be following a way of life which includes doing and saying things which are totally incompatible with the standards God requires. People may attend Church for years without being fully converted.

And people join a Church for different reasons; to just be with a friend, to be seen attending, for business purposes, or just tradition. There was a very senior police officer who once attended a Methodist Church in Liverpool and when it became known it was amazing how many policemen suddenly realised they too were Methodists.

It was once said, “the great need today is for the conversion of religious people who, though they believe in God, are heading away from Him and not toward Him.”

How then can we determine if a person is a Christian or just a church member? There must be more than just coming to Church each Sunday, reciting the creed, singing hymns; there must be a commitment. Christianity is a religion of conversion; you don’t have to stay as you are for God can radically change your life.

This morning we are remembering Charles and John Wesley. Both brothers went through a period of spiritual depression, and whilst both thought themselves Christians each went through an experience of spiritual renewal; Charles on what he called a day of deliverance on 21st May 1738. John whilst attending religious meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, on May 24, 1738, listening to a study of the Epistle we read today, had an experience in which his "heart was strangely warmed." After this spiritual conversion, which centered on the realization of salvation by faith in Christ alone, the ministries of both men were completely transformed, and Charles wrote two of the hymns we are singing today in recognition of that experience.

Jesus calls conversion a being born again. God comes in the person of the Holy Spirit to live within us. This was the message of Jesus when He spoke with Nicodemus. John’s gospel tells that Jesus was visited one night by Nicodemus and told him, ‘you must be born again’, which means born of the Spirit or born of God.

Being "born again" in the New Testament refers to something God does when we turn to him with repentance and faith. We are born into God’s family and have a new relationship with God as our Father and are part of a worldwide family of (Christian) brothers and sisters. We can look forward to a spiritual home in heaven.

The Bible teaches that you must be converted if you wish to enter heaven; it makes clear that this is what God intended and sometimes uses the word turn. Lives may be quite sinful from the habits adopted over many years, yet when Christ enters your life this is all changed. Actions and words which you once considered acceptable you realise are not worthy of a Christian

How does it happen? The word converted simply means to turn around, turn to God, that is what it is all about. The word turn is used 39 times in the New Testament and in 18 of those instances it is used to mean turning away from sin and turning to God. You have been thinking one way, now you have changed your mind, turning from something to someone. There is a real determination about the way you think, talk and act. Conversion in biblical terms means refusing to get involved with those things that offend God so destroying your relationship with Him and instead giving Him total primacy in your life, putting Christ at the centre of life.

Conversion; repentance; turning; changing one’s ways is what we are expected to do when become Christians. In other words, we offer our whole allegiance to God.
When we become converted, first God does something, and we respond. God wants all men and women to be saved but salvation begins when He moves into our hearts. God uses His Word to reach us, which is why it is so vitally important that the preaching of God’s Word is done faithfully, as it is written in Holy Scripture. That however is increasingly not done as the liberal tendency finds Scripture embarrassing and restrictive in the way it condemns modern behaviour and morality.

When we submit our lives to Jesus, the first thing he will do is to forgive our wrongdoing. Paul is fond of using the word "justify", which is a legal term meaning that we are acquitted of all the charges against us - declared innocent. As you heard in the Epistle, we are justified by faith. This is an essential doctrine of the New Testament, but one not generally understood.

God created mankind into a perfect world, but God demanded obedience. The two people God first created disobeyed and so I judgement were condemned. So by one man sin entered the world and death came through sin. Mankind has always disobeyed God and committed sin. But God sent Jesus into the world, who on the Cross took our sins upon Himself and by that sacrifice God redeems all who by faith accept Jesus as their Saviour. God promises to remit our punishment on the condition we turn and accept that death was for us, and we take by faith. No more condemnation, we are made righteous in God’s sight by His grace, no longer separated from God, justified by that faith and now in fellowship with God, and have peace with God. Only Jesus can bring us into the presence of God, He alone is the way. Some Christians, including clergy, find this hard to either say or accept, but it is the Bible’s message, no one can come to the Father except by Jesus Christ.

There is a story of a soldier wounded in the American civil war who went to Washington to see Abraham Lincoln but the guards would not let him through the gates of his home. The soldier sat on a seat in a distressed condition and was seen by Lincoln’s son who asked him why he was so upset. The son took him and led him straight in past the guards and said to Lincoln, ‘father this man wants to speak to you.’ Only the son could get the man to the father. Only Jesus can get you to His Father.

The Christian life begins with conversion! Without conversion there is no Christian life. And if you are not converted, you are not really a Christian at all. Either you are converted or you aren’t. You have turned or you haven’t.

If you do not go to heaven, the inevitable question that follows is what happens to you when this earthly life is over? The Bible offers a choice, and however unpleasant, unacceptable and politically incorrect it may be for many people, in plain terms you are faced with eternity in heaven or eternal punishment. I have been told it is unpopular and improper to say this, but how can one preach with integrity and ignore Scripture?

The doctrine of eternal punishment for those who have rejected Christ appears to be thoroughly biblical. This is not an easy teaching or one that brings us joy. But the unpleasantness of a doctrine should not cause us to deny biblical truth.

The Bible certainly teaches us of a very real and very terrible place of punishment for those who keep Christ out of their lives. The gospels quote Jesus using parables and statements on twelve occasions when He gave people this choice, and the Epistles give eight other occasions.

C S Lewis, the famous Oxford and Cambridge Christian writer, once stated no one had more to say about hell than Jesus Christ.

The early Church based its way of life on the teachings of Jesus Christ, but as time has gone on and especially today, it has been forgotten how it all began at Pentecost. The Church was baptised with the Holy Spirit and was led by the Holy Spirit, and so was faithful to God’s calling. Belief and doctrine have become something to be debated rather than shared and taught, but there are some who see the Church as a pathway to power rather than a desire to preach the gospel.

There is a marked reluctance to get down to basics for fear of upsetting those of liberal beliefs. We need the fire and fervour once displayed by both Charles and John Wesley who make much of the preaching we hear today seem very anaemic.

So to conclude this sermon on conversion, fittingly, I quote from John Wesley in his sermon on ‘the way to the kingdom’, which incidentally, bears out what I have said in even more forthright manner.
"Now cast thyself on the Lamb of God, with all thy sins, how many soever they be; and "an entrance shall" now "be ministered unto thee, into the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ