Keep things simple

Sermon at St James’, Colwall, Sunday 12 February 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

To listen to the sermon recording as you read:

Start with the known and keep things simple

Most of you will know the rules of cricket as explained to a foreigner. They are printed on tea towels in gift shops across the land and they go like this:

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

If you have ever tried to explain cricket to an American, you will appreciate this.

Now I remind you of this, because I have often worried that our Christian faith seems as complicated to an outsider as cricket does to a foreigner. After all, the majority of us have lived our lives surrounded by this belief of ours and it is not easy to see how we are perceived from outside.

Is what we do here Sunday by Sunday understandable to someone who knows nothing of Christianity and what would he make of our statements of faith? Certainly the old creeds and the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer Communion service would be utterly confusing to him. And what about the doctrine of the Trinity? Would he easily understand how a young Jewish man’s death 2000 years ago could bring him forgiveness? And how could this man be the Son of God – what does that mean?

So let me put the issue another way. If you found yourself as a missionary speaking to a few people who have had no contact with the Christian faith, where would you start in explaining it to them? What is the essence of your faith, from which everything else follows? Would you begin with the idea of a supreme God? Would you go first to the life of Jesus and his death and resurrection? Would you make his teaching about love your first port of call?

I’m asking these questions because in today’s epistle we are reminded of the work of St Paul as a missionary. He has to write to his converts at Corinth because they are confused. They have had two teachers – Apollos and Paul – and some are following Apollos and some Paul. It would be like some of us here in Colwall following Melanie and others Barrie or Ken or Andy. Paul has to explain that he and Apollos are in their different ways working for the same end. Paul planted, Apollos watered and God gave the growth.

So how did Paul plant the good news of the Gospel into men and women who had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth? He was certainly aware of the difficulty and when he first went to Corinth, he found a fellow Jew called Aquila and with Aquila he visited the local synagogue, where he tried to convince the Jews there, that Jesus was their expected Messiah. In other words, he started with Jews and their old faith in God, before moving on to Gentiles.

This had been different, though, when Paul visited the great city of Athens. Here he first wandered around the great city as a tourist, until he found amongst all the Greek temples an altar dedicated ‘To an Unknown God’ and this became his starting point. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

It was simple – Paul began his preaching in Athens at the point where his listeners found themselves.

And our Lord, Jesus, did the same. In the part of the Sermon of the Mount which was today’s Gospel, he is explaining his way of love. What he does is to start with the old law and then build on it. “You have heard what was said in ancient times ……. but I say to you this. You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’.” And he uses this tactic a number of times.

Perhaps, then we should use this method ourselves. Keep things simple and begin with the common ground. When a neighbour or family member is inquisitive about why we go to church, we have to find a starting point. For some it might be their sense of wonder at the wonderful world around them – the unknown God of the Greeks – for the others it might the standards by which we live, just as our Lord harked back to the Jewish Law; but always as with St Paul at Corinth, we will have to recall history and the historical events of the life of Jesus, the Messiah, from which our faith flows.

We really do need to avoid the kind of confusion and complication of the rules of cricket in our liturgy and in our creedal statements and keep our faith simple and straightforward. This is as much for ourselves as it is for others.