When I was a boy, not only did I go to a church school and sing in the church choir, but I also used to attend Sunday School for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon. So my introduction to Christianity began at a relatively early age and was fairly intense — even though most of it simply went over my head. However, there is one young man I particularly remember, and I am going back more than 60 years now so he must have made a real impression. His name was Derek Johnson and he was probably only in his early 20’s. For a while he was my Sunday School teacher but he also used to invite a couple of us lads round to his house for a coffee, or a glass of squash, and a chat — now there’s something that we can’t do these days. There must have somehow been something which was very sincere in what he said because I would say that it was he, more than anyone else, who set me on my Christian journey. He wasn’t a great theologian, he was just a young man who was willing to share his own beliefs, his doubts and his fears and help us to pray.
I won’t bore you with the detail of the intervening years but it was much later, in 1976 in fact, that Yvonne and I moved to Ashton Hayes. Our first daughter was on the way and we wanted to be part of the community — the church community. Revd Barnes was vicar at the time and he made us very welcome but because of our new family and other fresh commitments we were very much on the fringes: we attended church most weeks and Yvonne became a member of the choir, but that was about it — I think of those as our fallow years.
It was much later again, when Simon Marsh became vicar here, that I began to get more involved. I suddenly became a churchwarden and started attending his occasional Bible Study meetings.
I recall that it was during one of those meetings that Simon said something about the ministry of women that I totally disagreed with, but I didn’t argue with him during the meeting, I was too unsure of my ground, I simply went away to read up in order to improve my own understanding and, if I am totally honest, prove him wrong! … And that was the start of the next chapter of my spiritual journey, a journey which has continued with its twists and turns until this very day. But one thing that I have continued to notice is that there has always been someone standing like a sign post, every time the path had deviated, to provide momentum or direction.
You see, I never intended to be standing here: I am here because of those people whom God placed in my path, and if you think about your own individual spiritual journeys I dare say that you will also find that people have been equally important to you as your own faith has developed.
Saint Paul knew that, and ever since he had met with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he had spent his life telling others about the Good News. He wanted people to know that the God who had created this world, still loved it, and wanted to reintroduce justice and hope for the fallen and the lost. And to do that, he sent his own son, his second self if you like, to suffer the fate of a rebel before being restored to glory.
It was a message that Paul was willing to proclaim boldly, both by speak directly to people and in his letters. And in verse 16, of this morning’s text he says that it was his “priestly duty” to help people on their way towards the one true God. That is a priestly duty which each of us now share because of the Great Commission which Jesus has passed on to us.
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me [he said].Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
That is an incredible statement for a number of reasons, let me mention just two.
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to do that, or be continually carrying a Bible in your right hand in readiness for hitting someone over the head with it: you simply need to be willing to tell your own story, walk beside others for a while, make the most of those opportunities where your paths cross, even if it is just for a brief moment, and live your lives as a visible example of God’s love. But, equally, that doesn’t mean you should dodge the difficult questions … just be honest … if you don’t know the answer, say so, or offer to find out, possibly even by working together.
The enormity of what is being asked can appear daunting — but it doesn’t have to be. It is our job to reach out to the least, the lowest, the last and the lost to the best of our ability but not beyond our abilities. In John’s Gospel, chapter 15, verse 16, Jesus reminds us that,
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
All we have to do is step out in faith. All of us have got to where we are today via very different routes: the things we have been taught, the things we have experienced and the things we have come to believe may be very different but that should not stop us, nor should it get in the way when we reach out to others even if we begin with very different views — listen to each other.
Paul wrote to say that he had been longing to visit the church in Rome for many years, a church which had been set up by … well some believe it may have been initiated by Saint Peter; others say that Christianity may have arrived in the province rather more systemically due to ordinary Christians who were just passing through, people like you and I, the names of whom we shall never know. However it came about, it is clear that the church in Rome was well established. In verse 14 Paul writes:
“I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.”
Although it is equally clear that they tended to stray a little from time to time because Paul continues,
“I have written to you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again.”
But even he understood that theological differences of opinion could exist because he says,
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
It is clear that he saw himself as a founder, and not a builder — continuing to build where someone else has started to build is far more difficult if you don’t have the original plans. But if you go right back to verse 12 of the first chapter this letter he make it clear that he is not going there to evangelise because he says,
“I want us to encourage one another in the faith we share.”
That is something we need to do too. And here again today, in verse 30 onwards, he writes,
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me ... so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed.”
He was intending to stop over in Rome for a while on his way to Spain to seek refreshment and encouragement. Another lesson for us all: we are also here to support one another. But let’s not use that as an excuse to ignore our primary duty of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God,
“so that [the unchurched, the unknowing and the unloved] might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
Very grandiose words for proactively sharing God’s love in our world whilst we go about in our normal lives so that …
‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’
Remember, you don’t have to be able to think profound thoughts, you just have to be sincere and share your faith as you understand it … if you remember, that is exactly what Derek Johnson did for me … oh, and perhaps I should add, be equally ready to learn from those to whom you speak!
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