That's a modern translation of part of our first reading today, from the letter to the Hebrews. I don't know how much you know about this letter; it's thought to date from around the year 63 or 64 AD, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and before the Eucharist became a widespread form of Christian worship. Nobody knows who wrote it, either; arguments about its authorship go back to at least the 4th century AD! Probably one of Paul's pupils, but nobody actually knows who.
The Temple in Jerusalem is still standing when this letter is written. The author uses it to contrast what used to be – in the olden days only the High Priest could go into God's presence, and he had to take blood with him to atone for the people's sins and his own. Nowadays, only Christ, the great High Priest, can go into God's presence – but he can and does take us with him. We can go with Jesus into the very presence of God himself, confidently, just like you'd walk into your own front room.
The thing is, of course, that it's all because of what Jesus has done for us. We can't go into God's presence, as the prayer says, “trusting in our own righteousness”. If we are to go in with any degree of confidence, it is because of what Jesus has done for us, arguably whether or not we recognise this.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ takes us in there in his own body. I don't know about you, but for me that rather helps clarify what St Paul said about our being part of the Body of Christ – and in that Body, we can go into God's presence.
There is nothing we can do to make it any easier or any more difficult; it is all down to Jesus. We are made right with God by what Jesus has done, end of. It isn't about whether we have confessed our sins – although I hope we have faced up to where we have gone wrong. It isn't about whether we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord – although I very much hope we have done so. Neither of those things will save us. Only God will save us – and as soon as we reach out a tentative finger to him, and sometimes even before, he is there, reassuring us that we are loved, we are saved, we are forgiven.
The trouble is, all too often we focus on sin as though that were what Christianity were all about. We even tend to think the Good News goes “You are a sinner and God will condemn you to hell unless you believe the right things about him.”
Erm, no. Just no. We do things like that. We are quick to condemn, especially people in public life. Just read any newspaper, any day. We are slow to forgive – we don't believe people can change, we keep on bringing up episodes in the lives of our nearest and dearest that might have happened a quarter of a century ago!
But God is not like that. God is love. God is salvation. We don't have to do anything, only God can save us. Yes, following Jesus is not an easy option, we know that. If we are Jesus' person, we are Jesus' person in every part of our lives – it isn't just something we do here in Church on Sundays. It affects who we are when we are at work, or at home with our families, or going to the supermarket. It affects what we choose to do with our free time, who we choose to spend it with – not, I hope, exclusively people who think the same way as we do.
You see, the thing is, you never know exactly what God's going to do. An acquaintance of mine is a fairly well-known author whose books have been published both here and in the USA. She is my age – a little older than me, in fact, as she was 60 on Friday and I won't be 60 for another 6 months and 25 days!
And two months ago, quite unexpectedly, she met Jesus. As she describes it on her blog*, “'you know Who I am, don’t you? It’s time. It’s over time. Stop dithering and follow Me.’ And she adds that everything changes. Everything.
It was, I think, incredibly brave of her to “come out” like that on her blog. What if half her fan base would disappear, snorting that she'd totally lost it and would no longer be worth reading? She is a solitary introvert, and now has to find a church family! She writes: “A friend pointed out that there’s a perfectly good tradition of solitary whatever in Christianity, and there is, but that’s not where I’m being led/dragged/shoved like a balky kid going to her first day of kindergarten.”
Yes, everything changes. Another fairly well-known author – well, well-known to me, anyway, but if you don't read science fiction or fantasy you'll not have heard of either of these lovely women – confirmed in the comments on this blog that she, too, is a believer, although you couldn't have actually read some of her books and not realised that. Anyway, I loved her particular comment on Wednesday, which read, in part: “I'm still who I was, probably more so. . . . I was scared of the other – of becoming the cookie fresh from the cutter, just like every other cookie. But individuality and diversity appears to be built in to the design concept.”
Individuality and diversity appear to be built into the design concept. Yes. God has created and designed each one of us to be uniquely ourselves. When we are told that we will become more Christ-like as we go on with Jesus, it doesn't mean we'll all grow to resemble a first-century Jewish carpenter! We will, in fact, become more and more ourselves, more and more who we were intended to be.
So where does this leave our reading? Jesus, in our gospel reading, reminded us that we mustn't go running this way and that way, convinced of doomsday scenarios every time we hear a news bulletin. Yes, the world as we know it is going to end some day – it wasn't built to be permanent, just ask the dinosaurs! We don't know how and why it will end; in my youth, I would have assumed it would end in a nuclear war that would destroy all living things. These days that is less probable, but what about runaway global warming or an asteroid strike? Or just simply running out of fossil fuels and unable to replace them? The answer is that we simply don't know. Unlike the first Christians, we don't really expect Jesus to return any minute now – although I suppose that is possible. We do, however, accept and appreciate that this world is finite and that one day humanity will no longer exist here.
But we are also taught that we will be raised from death and go on Somewhere Else. We don't know what that Somewhere Else will be like, nor who we'll be when we get there – although I imagine we'll still be recognisably ourselves. But we do know that Jesus will be there with us, and that we will see Him face to face.
But eternal life isn't just pie in the sky when you die, as it is so often caricatured. If we are Christians, we have eternal life here and now; so often, it's living it that's the problem. So I'm going to conclude with part of the quote from Hebrews with which I began: “Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.”
Let's do it! Amen.