JONATHAN CLARK’S FINAL SERMON AS RECTOR OF ST GEORGE'S
Verse 24 played a big part in my conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. I was 18, at school in York, when a Christian came into school, to do a lunchtime talk. His name was David Watson and God spoke to me through him. God was saying, ‘I know you and I love you, and if you want, you can live your life knowing me’. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘God wants to know me and has a plan for my life, that’s amazing!’ But I needed to check out the facts, was Jesus true?
So I read David’s book, My God is Real, and it made sense. Then I thought, ‘I’d better read the Bible’, so I started with Matthew’s gospel, and read right through until I came to this verse, Matthew 16.24, ‘whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves’. I thought to myself, ‘what will I have to deny myself?’ Instantly I knew; it was a relationship that was not going where God wanted it to go.
So, I did what any young person today would do, and what most human beings would do, I tried to have both, the love of God and the love of my girlfriend. It didn’t work. By the end of the year I’d given up on God, and so I went to Uni not a Christian. I wasted 2 years; but thankfully, the story didn’t end there. God, in his mercy, spoke to me again, when I was 21 and travelling in North America. When I got home from my travels, I took the Bible off my shelf, it was still sitting there, and I went to this verse, and then I read rest of the gospel right to the end, taking in Jesus’ horrible death, and his resurrection. I then knelt at my bedside, and spoke to Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, I’m sorry, for being stubborn & selfish & wasting my life; thank you, that you still love me, and died for my sins on cross. Please forgive me and come into my life, and come to stay. Amen’.
That was when my life really got going, it was a new life. The first thing I did was to go and find some Christians I trusted, to show me how to live this new life. Like Simon Peter, I still had a lot to learn, and I knew it. I still do.
I want to answer 3 questions in this passage: Who is Jesus? What is Jesus doing now? How can we join in?
Who is Jesus?
This is the most important question we can ask; it’s the question Jesus asked (v13), ‘What are people saying about me? What are the options?’ But then v15 Jesus asks, ‘and what about you? What do you say?’
It’s the question Jesus is still asking, it’s the question these New Testament documents always pose. What will you answer, what will you say to Jesus?
This is where Christian faith begins. Those doing Alpha right now have many questions, but it all boils down to this one question, who is Jesus? If Jesus is who He says He was, and who He knew himself to be, the Son of the Father, then all the answers that there are, are found by following him.
Simon Peter was the first person ever to blurt out correct answer, he was the first Christian. The others were still thinking it, wondering, when Simon Peter said it. Leaders go first. Simon Peter gets there, and Jesus encourages him (verse 17a), ‘Well done, you got the right answer’. But then Jesus humbles him (verse 17b), ‘Simon, don’t start thinking you’re clever, ‘cos you’re not. This is God’s revelation, God has shown you who I am.
What is Jesus doing now?
The answer is in Verse 18a, ‘on this rock I will build my church’. Jesus is building his Church, the community of those who believe in Him. There are 2 aspects to the Church Jesus is building:
First, the Church is One Big Global Family - the family of many nations, backgrounds and languages. The Church has grown from these 12 disciples. Jesus has been building his Church, across the globe, and across history. Mary & I are looking forward to travelling and seeing more of it, where it’s young & growing, and needs to mature; where it is stuck & needs renewal; and where there remain cultural barriers to the good news of Jesus that still need to be crossed. That’s the worldwide family.
Second, the Church is Millions of Local Families - like this fellowship of 12 disciples and Jesus. It is important to be part of a local Church- an actual group of real disciples, or learners, which is another name for disciples. Then you get the benefits of real spiritual community. There is nothing like it: learning together how to do life. Learning from Jesus, with open Bibles, we learn true life. Learning with Jesus, because he’s alive and gives His Spirit to all who ask, we experience full life.
This is the life Jesus gives us: sharing insights, & sharing this world’s goods and necessities; supporting each other by listening, and praying for each other; and then working together, doing the works of Jesus - Sharing Life, Loving Leeds.
There is nothing like this shared life, there is no substitute, nothing better; which is why it’s hard to leave. You are our family, our Spiritual Community. Yes, there are a few weirdos…In fact, once we get to know each other we discover we’re all weirdos!
Mary and I won’t find another spiritual community like this one, There’s only one St George's Leeds! But we will find we will find another spiritual community in Bangkok, at Christ Church. It will be different, very different, with 30+ nationalities, speaking varieties of English. It will be very transitional, with lots of people on the move, many staying only short term. This will limit what we can do, and it will make it harder to make relationships, so, please, do pray for us. But we will make relationships, because we know this is what Jesus wants, a family. Jesus wants millions of Spiritual communities across all nations, to make- in the end- a Family of the Nations. There’s a long way to go, he hasn’t finished yet, but Jesus is building his Church.
Verse 18b - ‘I will build my Church’. This is a very definite statement of intent, Jesus is confident about it. V18c says, ‘I will build my church and the Gates of Death- literally the gates of Hades (the place of dead), will not overcome it. These are strong forces. The picture is of a castle, with drawbridge & strong gates & a tower, and the invading army comes along…will the gates stand? Will they prevail? Will they overcome the invading army? They will not, because Jesus is leading the invading army. The kingdom of God is advancing & the movement Jesus began will not stop.
What are the Forces of death we face in modern world- here & in Bangkok? Loneliness; addiction to drugs & substances that kill, mental illnesses that rob life, the abuse of sex that ruins relationships & erodes self-confidence; crime & violence & lack of love & respect for people; lack of positive family relationships and a lack of love. These are the powers of death at work in our world, and behind them all is the devil, who tempted us from beginning to rebel against our loving creator God.
Jesus came to free us from these powers of sin & death, & to free us from God’s righteous judgement against our sin, ‘For the wages of sin is death’, the Bible says, death is the inevitable and just consequence of our rebellion, ‘but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’. In Jesus, God has been gracious, he has paid the bill, and we are forgiven and free to live again.
When Jesus died on a Roman cross, he was carrying that burden of sin & death for us. But it looked as though death had won, & many times since then, it looks as through death wins; but death didn’t win, because on the 3rd day the tomb was empty & Jesus is alive. So, Jesus wins, and love wins; and Jesus says, ‘I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it’ (verse 18).
Jesus is building his Church today, and I hope that you can see that over last 13 years of our time together. Jesus has done some pretty amazing things: we have grown, we have grown younger; we have grown among those who are older; we are growing more diverse, more international; we are growing as good news proclaimed to the poor through the Crypt & the Lighthouse, as they work together in harmony.
We are growing as freedom is proclaimed to captives- including those addicted to various drugs, through 12-step programmes, like Spacious Places, and the Growing Rooms at Faith Lodge. We are growing as we start new forms of Church for those ‘who’ve been through the storms of life, and are battered and bruised’, the Lighthouse; and new Networks for young adults, and the Farsi Network, and the English language classes Network. We are growing as we look outwards, and send out our best leaders- to start Riverside Church where there was no church & share our best leaders- with Wrangthorn, sending teams with Joanna to renew the Church where the faithful remnant knew they needed help, to be the church of Jesus Christ today and grow again.
So, we have not only grown here at St George's, we are Sharing Life & Loving Leeds. We can see it with our own eyes; but now there is more to do, and you won’t feel ready. It won’t be long before the Bishop is talking to Mark & Kathryn Harlow about going out with a team from StGs, to another parish which wants to be renewed, & grow again. So, life is not going to slow down. Thankfully Joanna will be back in July, with re-enforcements, & ready for a whole new phase in her and Che’s ministry.
Jesus has done it all. Did I plan it? No not at all. I just knew what he wanted, and tried to see what He was doing, and join in. I also knew he wanted you to join in too, and that you all had gifts, and a willingness to serve where you are needed, to play your part and make a difference. So, it’s been team work, 13 years of great fun, and trials & errors, and tests & challenges & losses as key members of the team died & left us, they fought the good fight & finished the race, staying faithful. Through it all, we have seen great fruitfulness; because Jesus Christ is faithful & true; and he said, ‘I will build my Church’.
How do we join in what Jesus is doing today?
- We believe in Jesus - it all begins with a personal commitment to him.
- We join his Church - we become part of a church that wants to grow.
- We make the tough calls - the costly decisions to follow Jesus (V24), ‘whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves’.
Now who wants to be a leader and go first? It is not easy learning God’s ways. When I was 18 I got it wrong, but Jesus gave me another chance. At age 59, I think I can say now, that in giving my life to Jesus, I found true life.
When we make tough choices, to do things His way, it is often harder in the short term, but it turns out to be the best way. Jesus Christ is still the same, he is calling people to follow him; and when he calls you he will involve you in growing his Church, he will have a job for you. But there is no avoiding tough decisions, in fact, that’s how real growth happens. Sending teams out to bring new life sounds romantic, but the reality is not easy. It’s hard work for those who go, and it’s costly for those who encourage them to go, who send them. But it brings life (verse 25), ‘for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’. This is a Kingdom principle.
Since my first decision to follow Christ, which took me 3 years, the decision to leave StGs has been the hardest decision I have ever made. Not the biggest decision; the biggest was to marry Mary, but that wasn’t hard! But the decision to resign my job here, a job I have loved, working with people I love, when there’s still more to do, that has been hard. It’s hard for you too. There’s a lot of work to do, & now there’s some uncertainty, & the challenge of finding my successor, & then mapping out the future with them, all amongst constant change & busyness as people come & go…
It's not easy following Jesus, but it leads to life, life for us, & life for others, life for the world. Jesus said it best, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into ground & dies, it remains just a single seed; but if it dies it produces many seeds’
Let’s be encouraged today, for the fruit that Jesus grows, is fruit that lasts. Amen.