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Sermon from Sunday 17th June

2 Corinthians 5: 6 - 17

Mark 4 : 26 – 29


It was the final day of the Swiss football season and for the team I supported, Geneva Servette, it was a tense and nervous climax.  They went into the final game needing to win to be sure of avoiding relegation.  Naturally, I wanted to get to the game and cheer them on, but there was a problem.  That same day I had a conference with 120 church leaders from around the world, and I was due to lead a service for them in my church at the end of the event.  Of course I put my duty first, and after a long day I left the church at 7.30 in the evening to go straight to the match.

I missed the kick off, but it was worth it, because we played well and won 4-0.  I was struck with how relaxed and laid back everyone seemed to be about this, but I was thrilled – having seen the team do enough to ensure their survival for another year.  At least, that is what I thought I had witnessed.  On the way home I saw an intriguing headline from that morning’s newspaper “Servette, sauvé avant même de jouer” roughly translated - “Servette saved even before they play”.  Having been busy all day I hadn’t seen any news and had no idea what that was about, so on arriving home and doing some research, I found out that two other teams in the same division had financial problems and would not be able to continue in the league.  It had been announced that morning that those two clubs would lose their places in the league and that there would therefore be no relegation that season.

There were 4,555 spectators in the ground that evening.  I now suspect that 4,554 of them understood exactly what was going on.  I, on the other hand, had enjoyed what I thought was a mighty triumph in blissful ignorance, the only person who was not aware that the result no longer had any real significance.  I had gone to the game confident that the team would do well and that safety from relegation would become a reality.  When in fact that hope already was reality and was affecting how the players played the game and how the crowd saw the game.  I thought I knew what I was watching that night, I thought I was part of an important and decisive evening.  But I was missing a vital piece of information which meant that I misinterpreted everything that I saw.

Saved even before they play”.  I don’t imagine that the headline writers had any theological concepts in their minds when they came up those words, but they express something which is remarkably in tune with the theology of Paul.  For that is his message about Christian faith.  In all his writing, and not least in the passage that read this morning, he is saying that there is a vital piece of information that we need to know if we are understand what is going on in the world.  And he is saying that the outcome has already been settled, and its impact is already being felt.

Christ has died and been raised again.  The kingdom of God broken into the world in a new way.  The Spirit of God is at work in human lives.  For Paul this is the vital piece of information that we all need know if we are to understand what we see unfolding in the in the world.  And if we go through life without that information, we are going to get it all wrong, misinterpreting what we see, making false assumptions and wrong decisions.

Now watching a football match with a completely wrong understanding of what is going on has no serious consequences.  I might have felt a little silly, but no one knew about my foolishness and of course I wouldn’t ever tell anyone!  But life is not a game and we are no mere spectators.  Understanding or not understanding what is going on does matter, and being out of touch, being out of tune, leads to so much unnecessary stress and fear and conflict.

We know in all sorts of ways that a piece of news can change everything.  We might be having a happy and carefree day, enjoying the warm sunshine and beautiful scenery.  Then we get news of an accident to a loved one, or a crisis in the family, and suddenly everything feels dark and heavy.  The sun has not lost any warmth or the outlook any of its splendour, but they have been robbed of their power to make us happy.  Likewise we might be having a terrible day, overwhelmed by problems and worries.  But then we get the news that a sick relative has got better or an old friend has got in touch, and everything feels lighter and brighter.  The problems that overwhelmed us have not gone away, but they have lost their power to overwhelm us.  On the surface our receiving a piece of news like that doesn’t change anything, but we know inside that it changes everything.

For Paul the news of Christ crucified and risen, and just as much the news of God’s Spirit being at work in the world, changed everything.  The world still looked exactly as it had done before.  There were still as many wars, still as much oppression, still too much hunger and disease.  But now it all looked different, no longer overwhelming.  Now he could work with hope rather than reacting with fear.  So he writes that he is “always full of courage”.  This is not an arrogance based on personal success or a comfortable life.  It is not the fragile confidence that we might gain when we do well for a while, but which can quickly evaporate things go wrong again.  He has a deep assurance based on his belief that the crucial triumph has already been won, and that what he is taking part in is not a struggle for victory but a working out of the implications of that victory.

Certainly he hopes for a future experience of heaven that will be immeasurably greater than anything he has known so far.  But his experience of God in the midst of his current, troubled life has been like a glimpse of that future, because the future has already begun.  As if the Spirit of God has encouraged him by giving him a taste of what's ahead.  And the same can be true for us.  The Spirit of God places just a little bit of heaven in our hearts so that we'll never settle for less.  So the deep confidence that faith brings is not because we hope that God will do something in the future to put right all that has gone wrong with his creation.  It is because we discover that the change has already begun, the result is already known, even though we cannot yet see the full effect of it.

That is why we can live with confidence here and now, today and tomorrow.  Knowing that piece of information made a huge difference to the way Paul was living his life, and the purpose of his writing is to convince us of it, so that it might make a similar difference to the way we live our lives.

Of course we can’t always see the change that has already begun.  It is small and silent and grows almost unnoticed, just as Jesus said it would be.  As if someone has scattered seed on the ground, seed which, even among the weeds that obscure it is sprouting and growing so silently that we don’t even notice.  It is like something so tiny that it looks insignificant but which will grow into the greatest thing of all.  But the point is that it has happened and it is happening.  It has begun even if we have not yet noticed.  “Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come”.  Not will become a new being… the old will be gone… the new will come…  It is all present tense, all here and now, all part of our current reality.  And once we get that vital piece of information, we can start to make a little more sense of all that we see and hear and experience.  Once we get that vital piece of information, we can start to be part of the new creation that is already bursting into bloom round about us, even as we wait for the full consequences of it to be worked out.

Saved, before they even play.  It has stuck in my mind all these years because it struck me as a statement about a much greater truth than the journalist could have had in mind.  For something has been done for us before we could ever know about it, something has been done for us which we could never do on our own, and when we know it, and put our trust in it, it changes the way we see everything.

The hope already is reality.  Our calling is to live it, to reveal it, to celebrate it.  Here and now, today and tomorrow.