Sunday, September 1, 2013

'Those who spoke the Word of God to us' (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Hebrews 13:7-8)

As most of you will know, my father died on August 12th. Of course, that sort of bereavement is always going to have an effect on a person, but for me it’s even more significant because my Dad was the one who led me to Christ. He was the one who challenged me and prompted me to commit my life to Christ when I was a young teenager. So if it hadn’t been for him, I probably would not be standing here in front of you as a pastor this morning.

Of course, there were a number of different factors that led to that night in 1972 when I gave my life to Christ: a churchgoing home, parents who prayed with me and taught me the Bible story, confirmation classes, and the Christian books that Dad had been lending me for some months. But it all came to a head that night when he said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” He was right, of course, and so later on that night I did just that: I sat down on my bed and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Christ.

Not long after that, Dad lent me a little booklet called ‘Seven Minutes with God’, which was a way of teaching a simple prayer discipline to people who’d never been in the habit of praying before. It showed how to have a short time of Bible reading and prayer, including the four main parts of prayer – worshipping God, confessing your sins, thanking God for his blessings, and asking for things, for yourself and for others. Again, that little booklet got me started on a habit of daily prayer and Bible reading that I’ve kept up to this day.

So you’ll understand why I see my Dad as not just my Dad but also as my spiritual mentor, the one who got me started on this whole business of following Jesus, and who helped me take my early steps as a Christian. And that’s why I thought of Dad when I read these two verses from our reading from Hebrews today:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:7-8)

The context makes it clear that the writer isn’t referring to the people who are the present leaders of the congregations he’s writing to; the word ‘spoke’ is definitely in the past tense. The New Living Translation says, ‘Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God’, and the Good News Bible says, ‘Remember your former leaders, who spoke God’s message to you’. Most likely this refers to the missionaries who first brought the good news of Jesus Christ to these people, whoever they may have been.

So who are our ‘leaders, who spoke the word of God to us’? Who are the ones who first taught us the good news of Jesus? Who are the ones who helped us, not just to go to church, but to put our faith in Jesus Christ and commit our lives to him? Who are the ones who you can look back on and say, “Well, if it wasn’t for him or her, I probably wouldn’t be a committed Christian today?” And what would it look like for us to ‘consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’?

I suspect that many of us would probably put our parents in the category of ‘those who spoke the word of God to us’. My parents were certainly united in their commitment to Christ and in their desire to bring me and my brother up as followers of Christ. I never, ever remember any sort of discussion in our house about whether or not we should go to church on Sunday; whether it was a holiday weekend or not, whether the weather was good or bad, my Dad and Mum went to church and took us with them. ‘God comes first’, they said. They taught us the stories of the Bible, prayed with us, and did their best to pass on the Christian faith to us. And as I’ve said, when the right time came, the Holy Spirit used my Dad’s witness to bring me to personal faith.

But not all of us grew up in Christian homes, and of those of us who did, not all of us accepted the Christian message that our parents tried to pass on to us. So, if you are in that category: who was it that passed on the good news of Jesus to you and helped you come to faith? Was it a friend who shared the Christian message with you in the context of a trusting friendship, or who perhaps invited you to come to church with them? Was it a Sunday School teacher or a pastor? Was it perhaps the author of a book that really spoke to you? Take a moment to think about this: who in your life has fulfilled the role of a person who taught you the message of Jesus and helped you begin to follow him?

Actually, I want to come at this verse today from two sides. First, as the verse suggests, I want us to think about those who led us to Christ: what would it mean for us to ‘remember’ them, to ‘consider’ their way of life, and to ‘imitate their faith’? But then I want to turn the question around and ask ‘How we also can be the ones who pass on the message of Christ to others?’ Are there people in your life who would point to you and say, “If it wasn’t for him or her, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian today”?

So, first, let’s ‘remember our leaders’. Allow me to obey the teaching of this verse and ‘remember’ my Dad’s faith story with you for a moment.

My Dad was born in the city of Leicester in central England, and he was one of five siblings. His father was a churchwarden at St. Barnabas’ Church, and he – my grandfather, that is – would often ride his bike down to the church on weekday mornings to join the vicar for 7.30 a.m. Morning Prayer.

My Dad did his two years of national service in the Royal Air Force and then went to work as a commercial artist. All the time he was a regular churchgoer and a member of the church choir; he had always loved music and singing. As far as I know, he was never an atheist or an agnostic or anything like that, but there was definite time in his life when his faith came alive in a personal way. It was in the Holy Week of 1954, when he was 22 years old.

This is how it happened. St. Barnabas’, like many churches, had services every day during Holy Week; at St. Barnabas’ those services were early in the morning. My grandfather was in the habit of attending, and Dad decided to go with him. He told me that it was the readings of scripture each day of the week that spoke to his heart; somehow the story of the death of Jesus, read from each of the gospels in turn as Holy Week progressed, reached in and affected Dad in a way that nothing had before. By the time Easter came at the end of the week, something had changed for him; he always spoke of it afterwards as a conversion experience.

Dad had left school at sixteen and had never been particularly academic. But after his conversion experience he decided to offer himself for lay reader training. In those days in England this took several years, but the vicar at St. Barnabas’ told the authorities at the Diocese of Leicester that he needed Bob Chesterton’s help now, not three years from now! So he began to use him to help lead services and preach, and after Dad was licensed he also preached and led services in other churches. In fact, Mum told me that in the ten years he served in this way he ministered in seventy different churches in the Diocese of Leicester, many of them rural churches. This, of course, was while he was holding down a full time job and starting a young family as well. Eventually he accepted the fact that God was calling him to ordination; he attended theological college for two years, and was ordained in 1965 at the age of 33.

My Dad always said that he was ‘not a scholar’, but he was a gifted pastoral evangelist. I know that when his funeral takes place next week there will be people present from all over England who took their first steps to faith in Christ because of him. Earlier this week I mentioned on Facebook that I might be preaching on this verse today, and I asked my Facebook friends to reflect on who their spiritual mentors might have been. Tessa, who is my age and who was in the choir with me at St. Leonard’s, Southminster in the early 1970s, wrote, ‘Your Dad, all those years ago in Southminster, little seeds were sown. I am so thankful’. And Jacky, who was also in that parish, wrote this: ‘Bob prepared me for confirmation and led me to find Jesus Christ as my Saviour – best decision I ever made’. I know that there are many other people that he led to Christ and taught to pray and read the Scriptures. He was a great visitor, and I’m sure many of those conversations took place one-on-one, in the context of home visits.

I also want to emphasize that I’m not painting my Dad as a stained-glass-window saint. He was not. One of his sayings that I remember was ‘This church is for sinners only’, and he certainly put himself in that category. He once told me that all his life he had struggled with impatience, and he knew God had a sense of humour because God was always making him wait for things. He also had a wicked temper and I know that at times it led him to say things that he later regretted.

So now I ask myself ‘What would it mean for me to consider Dad’s way of life and imitate his faith?’ Of course, it wouldn’t mean being a carbon copy of him; we’re all unique, and it’s a big mistake for us to try to be like someone else. God designed us all as one-offs, and the best mentors are those who help us find the distinctive call that God has for us. But I know that, in my own way, I want to focus on the gospel of Jesus as my Dad did. I want to be a person who makes the gospel clear to others, and prompts them to make a decision about Christ and to become followers of Christ.

What about you? As you think back on your spiritual mentors, what do you remember about their faith? What was it about their Christian discipleship that impressed you and attracted you? And do you need to go back and revisit those things? Because when we’ve been Christians for a long time we can easily get bored, and get distracted by things that aren’t really important in the long run. Remembering those who helped us take our first steps of faith is a way of coming back to basics, of remembering what it was that attracted us about Christianity in the first place. In other words, asking the question ‘Who prompted me to follow Christ?’ is often a good lead into another question: ‘why am I a Christian? What is it about Christianity that excites me and makes me want to stick with it?’ And questions like that are always worth considering.

Let me finish by looking at this from the other side, as I said I would. Who are the people who we are influencing toward Christ in our turn? Are there people in your life who would point to you and say, “If it wasn’t for him or her, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian today”?

As I said, earlier in the week I posted this verse on Facebook and asked my Facebook friends who their spiritual mentors had been. Steve was in our congregation back in Arborfield in the early 1980s; he was baptized as a young teenager, and later he strayed away from Christianity and got into all sorts of trouble. But eventually he came back to Christ, and this is what he said on Facebook in answer to my question:
That would be you and Marci, Tim. You first planted the seeds that I eventually revisited later in life, and you lived a life that made me remember what real Christian love was.

Now I have to tell you that my memory of our five years in Arborfield was not like that at all! Marci and I were starting a family, and we had all the struggles that young parents have, and I was frantically busy in a three-point parish with 150 miles of driving every Sunday, and away from home at the two other points for two full days every week. I didn’t feel very Christ-like, and I’m reminded of what St. Paul says: God’s power is made perfect in weakness, for when we are weak, then we are strong.

But you see, there’s no particular secret to being a spiritual mentor for someone: it simply means understanding and living the gospel honestly, and taking any opportunities that come your way to speak a word for Christ. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect, and you certainly don’t need the answers to every question ever asked about the Christian faith. All you need is to make an honest attempt to live and share Christ’s love with others.

So: today, let’s remember with thanksgiving the people who God used to help us take our first steps as followers of Jesus. If they are still alive, let’s thank them for what they’ve done for us, and whether they are alive or not, let’s thank God for them and do our best to imitate the good things they taught us.

But let’s also be on the lookout for the opportunities God sends us, in our turn, to help others become followers of Jesus. What has been done for us, we can also do for others. And I can tell you, it’s one of the most wonderful experiences life has to offer: to be an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit as he helps people to connect with our Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t miss your chance to do this!


Kathy Durance said...

Thank you for faithfully posting your sermons, Tim. Today, particularly. I am blessed by the reminder that God is, has been, and will continue to work through those who faithfully try to follow him, fallible though we be. It's easy to think all or nothing: either God' can't do anything without me or God doesn't need my help. When in reality, its sort of both and in the middle. I'm encouraged by your story with your dad, especially the reminder that sometimes the great work of God happens in the most ordinary settings with normal (sinful:), everyday people.

Tim Chesterton said...

Thanks, Kathy!