The Church is hardly out of the media these days for one reason or another. Numbers in the pews are dropping off the cliff and, depending on your point of view, the Church is either too closely aligned with the views of the world, or too much at odds with them. Regardless of where you stand it is fair to say that the church is afraid. Are we actually afraid of the truth of the Gospel? Have we forgotten that Christ comes to set his people free? And yet this freedom is not absolute, it is a limited freedom. The church has always stated that certain behaviours or actions are not in keeping with the Christian way of life. The church has proclaimed certain moral truths: that life is sacred from conception to a natural death, that the only proper place for sexual activity is between a man and woman who are married to each other, based on Holy Scripture as the revelation of God’s will to promote human flourishing. As an ordered society it has the right to discipline its members, for their own good, and the good of their souls, to regulate their behaviour so that it conforms with wth Scripture and ultimately the will of God.
It is not popular to stand up and do this. It never has been, nor will it ever be popular to bear witness to the truth. The prophet Ezekiel has a difficult task: to call the wicked to repent from their evil ways, or to be responsible for them. Through the prophet God calls his people back to Him. Though they are wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. Sin can separate us from God and each other, it is divisive, it wounds, whereas the kingdom of God is a place of healing. As Christians we believe that Our Lord and Saviour died upon the Cross bearing the weight of our transgressions: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who once and for all deals with the problem – human sinfulness and its effects upon us and the world. Under the New Covenant St Paul can repeat the same message. Earlier, at the start of Chapter 12 he has reminded the Roman Christians ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,’ (Rom 12:2). He has criticised where they have gone wrong in the past and is looking to a future where they can put such immorality behind them. He is insistent: ‘Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Rom 13:11-14) . For the Church after Pentecost we await Our Lord’s Second Coming as Judge of All. While He is merciful, for those who reject Him there remains the possible of Hell for eternity.
It is why at the beginning of his public ministry Christ proclaims the same message as John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’. To repent is to turn away from sin, to turn towards God, to be healed and restored by him. It is why our acts of worship as Christians often start with the recognition that we have fallen short; that we need constantly to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness, for the strength to live the kind of lives which lead to human flourishing. It affects each and every one of us, you and me, and we need help – we simply cannot manage on our own, we’re not strong enough. One can and should point out where someone is going wrong, but unless there is a conscious recognition of having fallen short, it is as though the grace of God can be resisted. Such stubbornness is part of the human condition, and it is why for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the Love and Forgiveness of God, and its message can always be lived out better in our lives. The Church exists to continue to call people to repentance, to carry on the healing and reconciling work of Jesus, here and now. It is offered freely, and may be rejected – God is after all not a tyrant who forces us.
We can recognise the problem and its effects but also be assured of a solution in the person of Jesus Christ, whose forgiveness is for all, who gives us baptism so that we might have new life in Him, and gives himself under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we might feed on His Body and Blood to be healed and restored by Him.
This is neither cosy nor comfortable. But it is rather a radical transformative message, one which has the potential to change not just us, and who and what we are, but the entire world. This is the Good News of the Kingdom. Here in the Eucharist we are soon to be in the presence of the God who loves us, and who saves us, who heals and restores us. We have a foretaste of heaven; we can come far closer to God than Moses did on Mt Sinai. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives.
At the end of this morning’s Gospel we see a promise made by Jesus firstly that prayer will be answered and of his presence among us. Part of repentance, the turning away from the ways of the world, is the turning towards God in prayer, listening to Him, being open to his transforming love in our lives, so that God’s grace can perfect our human nature, and prepare us for heaven here and now – so let us live the life of the Kingdom, having turned away from all that separates us from God and each other, with tears of repentance and a resolve not to sin, and with tears of joy that God gives himself to suffer and die for love us. We cannot be lukewarm about this: for it is either of no importance or interest to us whatsoever, or the most wonderful news which should affect who we are and what we do.
There can be no complacency, no simply going through the motions, turning up to be seen, to provide a veneer of social respectability. It is a matter of life and death, whose repercussions are eternal. We have a choice to make. Do you wish to follow the ways of the world, the ways of sin and death? Or would you heed the warning?