This talk was given by Chris Green at an evening service at St James Muswell Hill.
A few years ago I had a lovely holiday in New Zealand, and one of the things I did – if you know the South Island, fabulous place – one of the things I did, was what was called the Triple Challenge. And what the Triple Challenge is in this area of astonishing beauty – first of all, you get a helicopter deep into a ravine and then you take what they call a jet-boat, which is those very fast speedboats that work in very shallow water and you spend about an hour going up the river on these things. And the third part of the Triple Challenge is that you get inside a raft and you white-water raft for a couple of hours down the river. And I paid out for this, I thought – adrenaline-fuelled day. I wasn’t married at the time, so there was no one to tell me off, so I thought that would be fun.
About two-thirds of the way through I discovered that pretty much everyone with me wasn’t doing the Triple Challenge. They were doing what was called the Awesome Foursome, and the Awesome Foursome came between the boat going up and the raft coming down. And it was, at the time, the world’s highest commercial bungee-jump. There was a bridge across an impossibly high ravine. So I thought, that’s all right, I’ve paid for the Triple Challenge, not the Awesome Foursome, and I stood back. And it turned out there were three of us out of this huge company – three of us – not doing the bungee jumping. There was me, a heavily pregnant woman – I thought, good planning, I thought, good planning – and a very giggly girly girl, who was then persuaded by her sister to do the bungee jump. So it was me and a pregnant woman. And I was thinking, this is not looking good. So for the sake of my personal dignity and knowing that, if I didn’t do it then, I would have to go back to New Zealand at some stage and do it, going to have to face that particular demon in the future. I stood there, and having watched everyone else did it, I then stood and they tie stuff round your legs to make sure you can’t run away and tie plastic bands around you so you really can’t run away. And you stand on a plank and you have to leap out and fall over. And I did it and I never have to do it again, and that’s fine. Some things in life, once is enough. And I’ve even got a little movie of it, so I can watch it. And it’s very clever, they’ve got all sorts of professional bungee jumpers leaping off bridges on bicycles and on rafts and on tandems – and then up the screen comes, “And now it’s your turn.” And it cuts to me, standing on a little plank jutting out over a bridge. And Gaz was talking just now about the bag where you say what you’re like on the outside and the piece of paper where you say what you’re like on the inside. Well, on the inside, I was absolutely terrified, and on the outside, I was absolutely terrified. So I stood there and I watched it. But that little phrase, “And now it’s your turn” has kind of stuck with me. As that moment of decision when you’ve watched other people do stuff but there comes a moment sometimes when you have to do it yourself.
And tonight I want to talk to a very particular kind of person, not everybody here tonight, but a very particular kind of person. And it’s the person – you may have had questions, and questions are great. If you’ve got questions, we’d love to talk them through with you and to discuss stuff with you. You may have issues, you may have problems, all sorts of things with what Christians say and believe. But it may be that you’ve reached the point where you say, “Actually, I’ve got to decide. There’s enough watching other people jump off the bridge. I’ve got to do it myself. I’ve got to be decisive. It’s your turn.”
And tonight I want to talk through how and why you become a Christian. Just like me on that bridge, no one’s going to push you. It’s your own decision if you do it or not. But I just want to explain it so we all know where we are.
First question, then. Why should I become a Christian?
It’s not a lifestyle choice, you see. It’s not like becoming a vegetarian, or choosing which political party you vote for or deciding to run the marathon this year rather than never. It’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s to do with truth. And actually it’s not about you. The answer to the question, Why I should become a Christian, isn’t about you, it’s about Jesus. And we can see that in the story we just read. If you look carefully, you’ll see how it works. It’s quite straightforward. Luke has compiled this story about Jesus’ death to make a number of quite straightforward statements.
The answer to why I should become a Christian isn’t about you, it’s about Jesus.
And here’s the first one. Jesus really lived.
You see, with all the stuff about things like The Da Vinci Code – and you’ve got pretend historians going around saying Jesus didn’t exist, he was made up four, five hundreds year later – if you ask a real historian, they have no question. Jesus was a person who existed – he’s entirely at home in the thought-world of his day. Luke is a bit of a historian himself. He begins his life of Jesus saying that he is. And he’s populated our story here with real people. There’s Pilate, and he checks out. We know about him. There’s Herod – he checks out, we know about him. And there’s real places. So Herod’s palace; archaologists know about that. Pilate’s place – archaeologists know about that. The High Priest’s house earlier on in the story – archaeologists know about that. It checks out in terms of real history.
Ed Yamauchi – he’s not a name you’ll know, but he’s one of the leading archaeologists of this period in the world today – he says this: “From time to time some people have tried to deny the existence of Jesus. But this really is a lost cause. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus did exist, and these hypothetical questions are really very empty and fallacious.” Jesus really lived. Like us, really. Billions of people. The point about Jesus is that his life was significant.
Did you notice the titles that pop up in that story we just read. Look with me. Verse 35. He’s called the Christ, or in some versions, the Messiah. And again in verse 39: Christ. In verse 35, he’s called “the Chosen One”. In verse 36 and 37, he’s called “the King of the Jews”. These are all titles pointing to one individual in history. God’s moment, God’s decisive plan coming to fruition. This is the turning point of God’s plan for humankind, focusing on Jesus. It’s not just that he lived but that his life was uniquely significant.
But there’s more than that. Jesus really died. And I’m always struck by the fact that, when you look at the life of Jesus in the Gospels, it’s really quite muted. You see, crucifixion was incredibly gruesome. And if you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, you will know just how violent and gruesome it is. But the writers of the Bible gloss over that. I think because one emotion we’re not supposed to have is pity for Jesus. He’s the still-calm centre of the story. Pity is completely inappropriate; it’s not what they’re trying to do for us at all. But it was a death, a criminal’s death, a definite death. So what? Billions of people die. Ah, says Luke, but Jesus’ death was significant. And this is where this passage really begins to show its worth.
Did you see how one particular word kept coming up? It’s a word that Luke has used throughout his book, if you ever read it right the way through. It’s the word “save” or “salvation”, something like that. But it comes through with real intensity. Look with me, verse 35. You almost need a little highlighter. “The people stood watching and the rulers ever sneered at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself, if he’s the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’” And down in verse 37, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And down in verse 39, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Somehow, Jesus’ death and salvation are really linked together.
But we can go even further than that, and this really is extraordinary. I don’t know if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies – it’s the second one of her sequence about Thomas Cromwell. The title Bring Up the Bodies is from a phrase that was used in Tudor times for how you referred to a criminal on the way to the execution block. “Bring up the bodies” means “bring up the criminals who are about to be executed”. And because they’re about to be executed, you no longer treat them as people – they are corpses. Bring up the bodies. Or if you go to movies, you’ll remember the Tim Robbins / Susan Sarandon movie, Dead Man Walking. Why is he a dead man walking? Because he’s had the death sentence passed on him. He’s on Execution Row. He’s as good as dead.
Now here, we have two people – three people in fact, two criminals and Jesus – in very similar circumstances. And something absolutely incredible happens. Just imagine them – don’t go for the gruesome, but just imagine them in your head – this picture of Jesus, nailed to a cross, and either side of him one, and then the other. One of them, one of the bodies, one of the dead men, asks the other one a favour. Isn’t that extraordinary? One of the bodies asks another body a favour. Look at what he says. “Jesus,” he says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” When! King of the Jews, we’ve seen, that’s one of the titles used of this special person in history, the turning point of God’s plans. And one of the bodies refers to the other body as the king of this kingdom. And says of a body, there’s a future ahead of you, and it’s a fantastic one. You will have a kingdom. And when you come into that kingdom, corpse, remember me.
And then it gets even weirder. Because Jesus – who’s another one of the bodies, remember, another one of the dead men – he makes a promise. Now when did you last hear somebody on the brink of death make a promise? But that’s what Jesus does. Look at it again, at verse 43, the very end of our reading. He says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is another word for his kingdom, for heaven, for something eternal and wonderful. And Jesus kind of says, “Yes, you’re right, there’s a kingdom. Yes, you’re right, I’m the King. And I promise you, body, corpse, that you’ll be with me tomorrow – or today, in fact, later on. I promise you.” All while they’re pinned to their crosses.
So why should you become a Christian?
Well, Jesus lived, and his life was significant, and he died, and his death was significant. There’s much, much more we could say – that’s enough for us to chew on this evening, isn’t it?
But imagine the scene that happened a few minutes or an hour or so after this. Just imagine it, because up ’til we’ve been dealing with history, I don’t know – we’ll just imagine for the moment. But imagine the scene, where you’ve got – like we have on the cards, just a cartoon – imagine you’ve got heaven’s pearly gates, yes, and someone’s knocking on the door. The criminal’s knocking on the door of the gates of heaven. And God’s on the other side and God’s standing with a great big clipboard of things that you should do and things you shouldn’t do. And he says, “And what kind of person have you been?” And the criminal says, “I’ve been a criminal, guv.” “Right! Have you done anything good?” “Well, I’ve done one or two things, I suppose, but by and large, no.” “And you were executed, yes?” “Yes.” “And was this execution just?” “Oh yes, I had done what they said I had done. It was a just execution.” “And after that, did you do anything to make it good?” “No, I didn’t, I was pinned to a cross, I couldn’t do anything.” “But you met my Son, didn’t you?” “Yes.” “Were you baptised?” “Well, I couldn’t, I was pinned to a cross.” “Did you have a quiet time?” “No, I couldn’t, I was pinned to a cross.” “Did you tell your friends about Jesus?” “No, I couldn’t, I was pinned to a cross. There was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better.” And God says, “So why should I let you into my heaven?” And the criminal says, “Because he said I could.”
It’s the only ground, isn’t it? The only way he could get in. There was nothing he could contribute at all, other than the promise of Jesus and the fact that he believed it.
There was nothing he could contribute at all, other than the promise of Jesus and the fact that he believed it.
I just look at the story and see how it goes. Did you see Jesus’ innocence, underlined time and again? Verse 14, it was before we read. But it is Pilate, the Roman governor, and he says in verse 14, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I’ve examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.” Neither has Herod. He’s done nothing to deserve death, verse 15. Down in verse 22, “For the third time Herod spoke to them. ‘What crime has this man committed? I found in him no grounds for the death penalty.’” And even the criminal on the cross, verse 41: “We’re punished justly. We’re getting what our deeds deserve. This man has done nothing wrong.” So you’ve got Jesus’ innocence underlined. And somehow Jesus’ innocence is connected with forgiveness. Almost the most famous words Jesus said up there in verse 34: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus’ innocence, and people being forgiven. And somehow that comes together in that great bucket of things that we call salvation.
Now I’ve run through them before, but hear these words again from people and notice the irony. Look again at verse 35 with me. “The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he’s the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’” But of course, for Jesus, he can’t do both. He can’t save others and himself. For Jesus, it’s an either/or. Verse 37, “If you are the King of Jews, save yourself!” “No,” says Jesus, “I’m the King of Jews and I’m doing this to save others.” Verse 39. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” “No,” says Jesus. “I’m not going to save myself. I’m going to save you instead.” Dripping with irony. Says Luke in this story: Jesus died to save people.
I said at the beginning that becoming a Christian is not a lifestyle choice. It’s not like becoming a vegetarian or running a marathon. It’s about Jesus. You can see why now – it’s about Jesus, not about us. But there are implications for us. We’re kind of part of this story as well. Because the way Luke describes it, we are like those criminals as well. That’s how we fit into the story. Now you might say, “Woah, woah, Chris. I’m nowhere near as bad as that.” And I really hope you’re not. But still, compared to Jesus and this underlined innocence, we have to say we’re damaged goods, don’t we? You buy something from Marks and Spencers, and you take it home, and you discover that on this brand-new shirt, there’s a rip. Now, it wouldn’t show too much, it would be underneath your jacket. But you don’t say, “I’ll live with that.” You say, “I’ll take it back because I wanted a shirt without a rip in, not one with a rip in that I can live with.” Now if we do that with shirts, what does God do with us? That’s his standard, that’s what he’s like. We are in the same position as this criminal. We may not have done the worst possible things but we’ve done enough to say we’re not innocent. And one day we’re going to be in the same position as this criminal. One minute from our deaths. We’re going to be helpless. We can’t escape, we can’t undo anything we’ve done in the past. We can’t do anything at that point. We’re just stuck there. And our only hope is to dwell on the choice that the criminal on the cross had as well. Verse 39. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.” And we have to dwell on the fact that Jesus said, “No. I won’t save myself. I will die innocently to save others.” To save us. And so as we lie there, one minute from death, like this criminal, we’re saying that we believe he’s the king. And he has made us a promise of his kingdom, of his paradise.
Now, at the beginning I said that there were two questions. One was, why should I become a Christian? And the other was, how do I become a Christian? And we’ve started to think about that. We’ve started to think about the fact that it’s mulling on, dwelling in and embracing that promise of Jesus. It’s saying, “Yes, there’s two columns if you like. Guilty and innocent. I cannot save myself. But Jesus died to save me. I can’t undo anything I’ve done which was wrong. I can’t do anything extra which is good.” But we can trust that promise and we can say, “We want to take part of that kingdom.” And we can say, with that criminal, “I want you as my King, and my Saviour forever.”
Now I find that as I talk about this with people, there are basically four reactions which I call, to make it easy, ABCD.
A stands for Absolutely. And perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, absolutely, I’ve believed this since I was about two. Thank you very much for telling me this, Chris, but I already knew it. I agree, absolutely. And to which I say, thank you very much indeed for not walking out or falling asleep. Thank you very much inded.
And D stands for, Don’t believe a word of it. This does not work at all, does not fit with the way I see the world. Well, again, thank you for not walking out or throwing anything at me. With respect, I do have to say I think you are mistaken. And I’ve got a couple of resources I’d love to lend you if it would be of interest. If you’re the kind of person who thinks, I’m not sure about how there can be a good God if there’s so much evil in the world? And what about other religions? Is there any kind of God? If you’re a philosophical kind of person, you’ll really enjoy this book, called The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It’s my personal copy, so I want it back, but I’m very happy to lend it to you. [This might be impractical unless you live near St James, but you can pick up a copy here or here.]
If you’re the kind of person who says, I’m not sure about Jesus – I think he probably was a made-up historical figure, I’m not sure we can trust what the New Testament says – then this book is really good. It’s called The Case for Christ and that interviews all sorts of leading historians, archaeologists, the guy I quoted just now. It’s from in here. Again, this is my copy, I’m happy to lend it but I want it back again. [Again, this mightn't be practical if you're not in Muswell Hill – but you can buy it here or here!]
Maybe you’re not a D, a ‘Don’t believe a word of it’. Maybe you’re a ‘Considering’. Considering, I’m not there yet, but I’m considering it. Well, we’ve still got spaces on the Six Course so that would be lovely to have you join for that. But if that’s a bit too sudden for you, then as I said, we’ve got copies of Luke’s Gospel. I’ve got some on the back on the welcome table. Do come and grab one of those. And if you’ve want to underline stuff, ask questions and so on, there’s a version of it that looks like one of these fancy Moleskin books with a little strap and on it. And it’s got space for you to take your notes. It’s got links to websites to handle all your questions. This is really good book to help you think through, and I and some others would be happy to chat it through once you’ve had a look and see what you think.
Absolutely, Don’t believe a word of it, Considering it, and – then maybe there’s somebody here tonight, who’s saying – it’s like that thing with the bungee, isn’t it? Bingo. I’ve got to do it. Tonight is the night I’ve got to do it. If you don’t like bingo – beginning.
What do I do to become a Christian? Just put yourself in the place of that criminal and say back to God the things that you can imagine him saying.
I’m going to put that – what I’ve just said to you, a few minutes ago – I’m going to put that in the form of a prayer. And if you’re at that B point, and you’re going to say, “Yeah, actually, tonight I’ve got to make a decision, tonight.” Then just quietly, in your heart, echo what I say as I say it. And that’s all there is to it.
Will you close your eyes? And if you wish, pray with me.
Dear Heavenly Father, there’s so much I don’t understand. And there are so many questions I still have. But I do know that I have to make a decision. I do know that, like this criminal, I’m guilty, not innocent. And I can see that I can’t save myself, but that Jesus chose not to save himself either. I can’t undo anything wrong I’ve done. I can’t do anything good enough to make up for that. But thank you that Jesus’ death brings forgiveness. Thank you that he promises that I will be in his kingdom forever. And please help me to love and serve you as my King and Saviour. Amen.
If you did pray that prayer, it would be lovely to meet up with you and talk further about what it means to be a Christian, and how you can be sure. [Don't live anywhere near St James? Get in touch with us and we'll be happy to recommend a church near you where you can find out more.]