Quite a difference this week. Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a Baptist church and was given half an hour for the sermon. You may have noticed the sermon was longer than usual. Tomorrow it’s an Anglican church where a friend is the priest in charge, and my limit is fifteen minutes.
When my sister left home for college, she went to study in York. It wasn’t very long before her North London accent gained a North Yorkshire twang. We seem to have a knack for picking up other people’s accents in our family.
Then one summer she went on placement to Ipswich. One Saturday afternoon I took a phone call. There was a strange-sounding young woman on the other line. It took me a minute or two to realise this was my sister. London plus Yorkshire plus East Anglia made for a confusing accent, further magnified by the telephone line. Perhaps my sister above all exemplifies this family trait of picking up accents.
As Christians, we are called to pick up an accent, too – the accent of Jesus. Not that I mean we should speak in a first century Palestinian dialect – as if we could know what that sounded like anyway. But rather, our calling as disciples is to pick up the accent of his life. The New Testament says we are to imitate him.
So I want to take today’s Gospel reading and ask about the ways in which we might imitate Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus is filled with the Spirit. He has come out of the wilderness temptations and the first thing we hear is that ‘filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee’ and that created a stir (verse 14). When he enters the Nazareth synagogue, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins reading from what we call chapter 61, with the words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (verse 18).
And if you’ve been reading Luke not in little chunks like we do on Sundays, but from cover to cover, you’ll get this message even more clearly. Jesus has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism he has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t get away from Luke telling us an important point: whatever Jesus’ special divine status, he conducts his entire ministry dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.
And if he does, how much more do we need to do the same. If the Son of God needed to live this way on earth, what price us?
But what does this mean for us? After all, the Spirit of God dwells within each of us from the time our faith in Christ begins. We cannot allow that fact to lull us into complacency. Too many churches and Christians work on auto-pilot. So much of what we do and how we behave is little different from any other organisations or individuals.
So certainly we should all make it a matter of prayer that God would fill us with his Spirit, again and again. None of us can trade on past glories. As has often been said, the church is always just one generation from extinction.
Yet also we cannot sit around simply waiting for a powerful spiritual experience before doing anything for the kingdom of God. What strikes me about Jesus and the Spirit in this passage (and generally in Luke) is that, having received the Holy Spirit, Jesus gets on with what the Father wants him to do. There is no bargaining. He knows he has received the Spirit, and he sets to work. Perhaps some of us know perfectly well what God has called us to do, but we keep employing delaying tactics. Yet if we have received the Spirit when we found Christ, why are we doing that? Truly Spirit-filled people make a difference for the kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus has a message of freedom. It seems to me that ‘freedom’ is a major theme of the verses Jesus reads from Isaiah. The obvious examples are ‘release to the captives’ and ‘to let the oppressed go free’, but ‘good news to the poor’ and ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ are kinds of freedom, too. (Verse 18)
We know that Jesus put this manifesto into action. He dignified the poor by proclaiming the good news to those beyond the pale. He set the captives and oppressed free when he commanded demons to go. He healed the blind and the sick. His was a wide-ranging message of freedom that was proclaimed in word and deed. He evangelised. He healed and delivered. And while he wasn’t directly political, the implications for social justice are present in his ministry.
Our imitation of Christ, then, is to be bearers of a message of freedom. It comes in the gospel theme of forgiveness. The Greek word translated ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘set free’, and that is what forgiveness is. When we forgive somebody, we set them free from the obligations they are under to us. They are no longer bound to us. Not only that, when we forgive, we set ourselves free. For the alternative is bitterness, and that binds us tightly.
We bring freedom to others when our hearts are moved with the compassion of Christ for their plight. For some, that may involve the ‘miraculous’. For others, it may mean trailblazing a way forward in care for those in need. Why do we have hospitals today? Because Christians of earlier generations invented the infirmary. Why does Karen, your priest, conduct funerals for all and sundry in the parish? It isn’t simply because the Church of England is the Established Church in this country. It’s also because in the earliest days of Christianity, disciples of Jesus took pity on those who could not give their loved ones a proper burial.
Or what about this? The other day, our six-year-old daughter discovered that some of her friends wouldn’t play with another girl, because she was black. Our daughter set out to be the black girl’s friend. Even at six, she knows racism is wrong in the sight of God. Now if a six-year-old can do something in Christ’s name for justice, what about us? Ours is the precious message of freedom, as we imitate Christ and anticipate God’s new creation by showing glimpses of God’s kingdom.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus brings the fulfilment of God’s promises. In just over six months’ time, we shall be leaving Chelmsford for a new appointment. The profile of the appointment is very close to what I feel I can offer as a minister. My wife can see where she can get involved on behalf of the church in the community. The schools look quite promising. The manse (which being translated to Anglicans is ‘vicarage’) is more suitable than the one we live in here.
So there’s a level of excitement I feel – but we have to wait until early August when we move!
The Jewish people had been waiting, not for six months, but for centuries, for the promised Deliverer, the Messiah. Now Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). You don’t have to wait any longer, he says.
We imitate Jesus by bringing a message of fulfilment, too. All around our communities and across the world are people waiting for something or someone that will give them hope. They may be damaged by the hurtful actions of loved ones. They – or someone they love – may be bound by dreadful illness or bereavement. They may be victims of injustice. There may just be an aching emptiness in their hearts, because they have believed our society and bought one possession after another in pursuit of happiness, only to find they might as well be chasing the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And we have the privilege to say to such people, you don’t have to wait any longer. Your emptiness, your pain or your brokenness can be healed, because there is a God who loves you. He loves you enough to give up his only Son for you.
Now that is exactly why we hear calls to be a ‘Mission Shaped Church’ – because unless the church is about mission, she is not truly the church. It is why our two denominations – and now also joined by the United Reformed Church – co-operate on the Fresh Expressions project to reach out to people within their own cultures. It’s why although not every Christian is an evangelist, every Christian is a witness. Each one of us can speak about our experience of Christ.
Because that’s what happens when – like Jesus – we are filled with the Spirit and have a message of freedom. The time is now.