Return of the Christ Pt 2: Faithful (Matthew 25:14-30)

silver coins 02Last week we began looking at three parables of Jesus in Matthew 25 about the end of time and Jesus’ return. Last week’s parable, the Ten Bridesmaids, reminds us to be prepared for Jesus’ return by taking a view of life that goes beyond the here-and-now, and living every day from the point of view of an eternity with him.

There are parts of this second parable, often referred to as the Parable of the Talents, which are easy to understand. The ‘man going on a trip’ (v14) is Jesus, who leaves this world when he ascended into heaven. We are his servants – the people of his church who are left behind in his absence. He has entrusted his ‘money’ (NLT) or his ‘wealth’ (NIV) to us while he is gone, ‘dividing it in proportion to (our) abilities’ (v15 NLT).

Usually what the man ‘entrusts’ (v14 NLT) with his servants are called ‘talents’ and are interpreted as our gifts and abilities. However, Matthew uses the Greek word talanton which was a unit of weight. A footnote in one of my Bibles says a talanton was about 34 kilograms, which another says was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wage. These tell us that just one talanton of silver coins was a significant amount of money. Imagine what the reaction might have been from the servant who received five! What would you do with more money than you could earn in two working lifetimes?

Which brings us to the more significant and puzzling question of this parable: if interpreting these bags of money as our abilities or what we can do is a misunderstanding of the text, then what do they represent?

One way I like to approach this parable is to ask what was most valuable thing Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven? There are a lot of ways we could answer this question and I sincerely think it’s worth thinking about. For me, though, the most valuable thing Jesus has given to us is the good news of his grace. I don’t just think of Jesus’ grace as forgiveness so we can get to heaven, but everything we need for life in this world and the next. To me, the gospel is a multi-faceted diamond where every aspect shines brightly with the goodness of God to us. This means there are a range of ways we can view grace, but it all comes from Jesus.

Like diamonds, grace came at a high price. The value of the gospel, as well as the gifts Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven, is shown by the price Jesus paid in order to give them to us. Jesus gave his own life for us one the cross to give us forgiveness, love, mercy, hope, and a whole new life from him. These are some of the aspect of his grace that he entrusts to us in the time between his departure and his return on the last day.

Then the master returns to see what his servant had been doing with what he had entrusted to them. It raises the question: what are we doing with the grace Jesus has entrusted to us? Are we putting his forgiveness, love, mercy and hope to work by investing it in others? Or, like the third servant, are we burying it in the dirt?

What’s actually more important about this parable is why we are doing what we do with God’s grace. Jesus doesn’t tell us how the first two servants doubled their master’s money, but he does tell us why the third servant buried what was given to him. He tells his master, ‘I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth’ (v25a NLT). He hid his master’s money because he was afraid of losing it. In contrast, the master praises the first and second servants by calling them ‘good and faithful’ (vv21,23 NLT). They were faithful with what they were given. They were full of faith! As a result of this faith, they took chances with what they were given, doubled the amount, and earned their Master’s praise!

Like the first two servants, Jesus wants us to be ‘faithful’ – full of faith – with what he has given us! He wants us to take chances with his grace, to be risky with his love, maybe even to gamble with his forgiveness by giving it to people who need it the most and deserve it the least. This parable tells me that Jesus wants us to put his grace and love to work in the lives of others by being full of faith in the goodness of the One who entrusts his grace to us and in the value of the gift of grace itself.

Especially as we face an uncertain future as Christians in Australia, now is not the time to bury what God has given us, but to boldly put it to work in the faith that God has already given us so much and that good will come when we invest his grace in the lives of others. I know people who are afraid of what the change of the legal definition of marriage will mean for Christians in Australia. I know others who are afraid of the future because we are a declining and ageing church. If we respond with fear, we are just like the servant who buried his bag of money and lost it all. But if we are full of faith in the message of the gospel and live confidently in the good news of Jesus’ redemption of sinners and love for broken people, then we have something good to offer people around us.

In the end, I believe this parable is about our approach to everything we do as God’s people and servants of Jesus while he is away. Are we hiding away the grace Jesus has given us because of fear? Or are we living each day full of faith in God’s goodness, trusting in his grace and putting his love to work in the lives of the people around us? When Jesus returns, will he find us living in faith or fear? If it is in fear, then the message of this parable is that even what we have will be taken from us. But if we are living in a bold and even risk-taking faith, then we will share in our Master’s happiness for eternity (vv21,23 NLT).

More to think about:

  • If you have come across this parable before, how have you heard the ‘talents’ interpreted? How might it change your understanding of the parable if we think of the ‘talents’ as huge bags of silver coins instead of our gifts and abilities?
  • When Jesus left us to ascend into heaven, what do you think were the most valuable things he left with us? Or, another way to think of it: what did Jesus purchase for you through his death on the cross that he gives to you as a gift?
  • Do you tend to think of the gospel simply as forgiveness so you can go to heaven when you die, or more like a diamond with many different aspects or facets? How might your understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus be different if you thought of it more as a precious diamond?
  • With the changes going on in our church and in our culture around us, are you more inclined to be afraid or full or faith?  What might a life that is full of faith in Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, love and grace look like for you?
  • Who do you know that needs Jesus’ grace the most but deserves it the least? How can you invest what Jesus has given you into their lives this week?
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Return of the Christ Part 1: Prepared (Matthew 25:1-13)

Matthew 25v1-13 02

Anyone who has gone shopping recently will know that Christmas is just around the corner. Christian churches which follow a liturgical calendar dedicate the four Sundays before Christmas preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a season called Advent. The readings for the Sundays leading up to Advent have a focus on Jesus’ promise to come back at the end of time to complete his work of redeeming the world. When Jesus returns, evil will be overcome once and for all and creation will be restored to the way God intended it in the beginning.

So for the next three weeks we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings about his return from Matthew 25. This chapter is part of a longer section of Matthew’s gospel which began in chapter 24 when his disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world. Jesus concluded his teaching with three parables: the ten bridesmaids or virgins, the three servants, and the final judgement between the sheep and the goats. Today we will begin by looking at Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

I remember thinking as a child that Jesus must have made a mistake in this parable. I was taught that it’s always good to share, so I figured that the bridesmaids who didn’t share their oil with those who didn’t bring any must not have been good Christians.

However, this parable isn’t about us sharing what we have with others. Instead, one way we can understand this parable is that it is about whether we think short-term or long-term about our salvation.

The five ‘foolish’ bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra oil were thinking short-term. They had received and accepted the invitation to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus here describes as an eternal wedding feast. However, these girls are like people going on a camping trip who don’t take spare batteries for their torches. You never know when your old batteries will run out, so normally you would take spares. These girls weren’t expecting to wait so long for the bridegroom, so when he eventually turned up to take them into the eternal wedding feast, they failed to greet him because they are busy looking for more oil. The end result was that they are locked out of the party.

On the other hand, the five wise girls who took extra oil with them were planning for the future. They were so joyful about being invited to the wedding feast that they would do anything to make sure they got in. They took extra oil with them just in case the bridegroom was late, so they wouldn’t miss out on the party. These girls wanted to be ready for his arrival, so they thought about the future, prepared for what might happen, and were ready when the bridegroom arrived.

One message that comes through in all three parables in this chapter is that not everyone makes it into the party. I know a lot of people who think that a loving and forgiving God would never exclude anyone from an eternity with him. The good news of Jesus tells us that everyone is welcome to be part of God’s Kingdom, but these parables, as well as other teachings of Jesus, tell us that not everyone makes it. Remember, all ten of these girls were invited to the wedding reception. The five who eventually made it into the feast were those who were prepared and ready when the bridegroom arrived. Those who weren’t ready for him missed out, not through the bridegroom’s fault, but because they weren’t prepared. The message Jesus is giving us is that everyone’s welcome, but if we’re not ready for him when he returns, then we are the ones who are responsible.

So how do we prepare for Jesus’ return? We start just be thinking beyond the here-and-now and getting ready for Jesus’ return now. It is easy for us to get caught up in everyday concerns, pressures and problems. However, in this parable we can hear Jesus telling us to lift our attention beyond the here-and-now and keep in mind that he will return one day.

In one way, that means working out our salvation now. We can get so focused on the here-and-now that our spiritual lives can slip. The busyness, pressures and demands of life can mean that we don’t prioritise spiritual disciplines like worshipping with our Christian family, listening to God in his word and talking with him in prayer. One way we prepare for the coming of Jesus is to remain constant in worship, in reading our Bibles, in prayer, and in meeting with other Christians. When we practice these disciples, the Holy Spirit keeps our spiritual tanks full so our lights can burn brightly in faith and in love.

The other way we can prepare for the return of Jesus is to view our lives now through the lens of what is to come. Life as we know it will not last forever, even thought it might seem like there is no way through the struggles, pains or difficulties that we experience in this world. In this parable Jesus is reminding us that we have something far, far better to look forward to: an eternal wedding reception with ‘the best of meats and the finest of wines’ (Isaiah 25:6 NIV) in perfect fellowship with God and his people. We prepare for Jesus’ return by living in the faith that this is our future, our eternal destiny. We will still have struggles, difficulties and suffering in this life, but when we see them from an eternal perspective, we can also find the hope and joy we need to get us through.

Are we living as wise or foolish people? Are we so concerned about the here-and-now that we forget about Jesus’ return and the blessings he will bring? Or are we looking ahead to when Jesus will come back and open the way for us to enter into the eternal wedding reception he promises? As we hear and reflect on these parables from Matthew 25, God wants to prepare us for what is to come, because when Jesus returns, he wants us to be part of what he will bring with him.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to be a person who plans for the future? Or do you tend to focus more on things that are happening in the short-term? What are some advantages of each perspective? What are some problems with each?
  • If you were one of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, do you think you would have taken extra oil with you or not? Explain why you might have done that?
  • Why do you think Jesus calls the girls who took extra oil ‘wise’? Why do you think he calls those who didn’t ‘foolish’? Would you agree with him? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might today look different to you if you looked at it from the point of view that one day Jesus will return? How could that help you find hope or joy for today?
  • What can you be doing now to help keep your spiritual ‘tank’ full of faith in Jesus & love for other people?

Blessed are the Persecuted? (Matthew 5:1-12)

Matthew 5v10 blessed are the persecuted

A couple of weeks ago I was at a breakfast for local Christian ministers and pastors. Two guest speakers were also there to talk to us about their efforts to stop the change of marriage legislation in Australia. The language they used, which reflected a lot of the language I have heard coming from the conservative Christian right during this campaign, was very war-like. They talked about battles, winning, trenches, fighting, control, and so on. They also shared stories from countries who have allowed same-sex marriage, and warned us that religious freedom of Australian Christians will be lost if this legislation is changed.

Over the last few months, as I have listened to Christian brothers and sisters who are opposing the change of our legal definition of marriage, I have become increasingly concerned that their campaign has been about generating fear. My concern was reinforced as I listened to the guest speakers warn us that if same-sex marriage is allowed in Australia, our religious freedom will be lost, pastors’ messages will be censored, our children will be corrupted and Christians in Australia will become a persecuted minority.

Christians have enjoyed a privileged position in European society since Emperor Constantine made practising Christianity legal in the Roman Empire in about AD313. Before that, Christianity was an underground movement. Jesus’ followers sometimes even worshipping secretly in catacombs where the Romans buried their dead. Early Christians regularly suffered persecution as their worship of Jesus as Lord brought them into conflict with the decree of some Roman Emperors that their subjects were to worship them as gods.

During this time, Christians didn’t talk about fighting for their rights, or winning battles to influence their society, or controlling the government. Instead, their language reflected the language of Jesus, such as in the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. Here Jesus talks about being humble, thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being pure-hearted, and working for peace. The language of Jesus and the language of the gospel is not about winning battles or controlling political processes. Instead the language of Christ and of the gospel is peace, humility, grace, love, and sacrifice.

Jesus warns us that when we live faithfully to him and to the gospel, we will encounter persecution. In verses 10 to 12, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be mocked, persecuted, lied about and have evil things said about us for his sake. Throughout the gospels and the rest of the New Testament we are told that following Christ will bring us into conflict with the world, and we will suffer as the result.

Most of the New Testament was actually written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The authors of the New Testament were writing to encourage Christians who were suffering for their faith in Jesus, sharing the good news with them that in Jesus they had a Messiah who suffered for them, and who was suffering with them, but who has overcome suffering and death through his resurrection.

It should be no surprise, then, that we could face the reality of persecution of one sort or another in our own country when we follow Jesus faithfully in what is becoming an increasingly post-Christian culture. When we suffer for Christ’s sake and for the gospel, we are united in the suffering of Jesus who was insulted, harmed physically and abused, whose freedom was taken from him as he was arrested and crucified, and who was crucified because of who he is.

However, we do not just believe in a God who suffers with those who are persecuted for his name, but a God who has triumphed over the persecution by rising again from the dead and defeating the forces of evil. Throughout history, God’s people have suffered persecution without compromising their faith because they have believed that death is not the end for the people of God, but we have a life to look forward to that will be free from suffering and evil. When the Apostle John saw the multitude worshipping before the heavenly throne in Revelation, he was told that ‘these are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white’ (v14b NLT). For followers of Jesus, persecution does not end in defeat, but a victory that goes beyond what we imagine, a victory that is far greater than any postal vote or political process. This victory is ours because Jesus was victorious on the cross and through the empty grave. Jesus gives this victory to us through faith in him, and it is a victory which will last for all eternity.

It is vital, however, to listen to Jesus’ words that if we suffer, we need to suffer because we are Jesus’ followers. There are people campaigning in this postal vote who are saying that they are being persecuted who are actually fighting a worldly, political battle with worldly, political weapons. This is not suffering for Jesus’ sake. To suffer as a follower of Jesus means that we are living as citizens of his kingdom which is not of this world (John 18:36). The weapons God has given us to use are qualities like grace, compassion, humility, forgiveness and Christ-like love. As followers of Jesus, we are not to use fear or threats or intimidation to achieve our goal. Instead, we are called to return threats with prayer, insults with blessing, conflict with peace, and hatred with self-sacrificing love.

don’t know how the issue of same-sex marriage will play out in Australia. I don’t know if our religious freedoms will be eroded or if we will start suffering persecution for our faith. I don’t know what the future holds for us or for our children. But I do know that we don’t need to be afraid. I believe that Christ suffers with all and for all, and he calls his followers to be ready to suffer for his sake. I believe that when we are mocked or persecuted or lied about or evil things are said about us, not because we are arrogant or hardhearted, but because we love Jesus, then we can be glad because we have a great reward waiting for us in heaven.

Because ultimately, I believe that Jesus’ love is stronger than hate, God’s acceptance is stronger than political tolerance, and the life Jesus gives us will never end.

More to think about:

  • Would you consider Australia (or your own nation) a ‘Christian’ country? What do you think makes a country ‘Christian’ or not?
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus says that those who are humble (v5), who hunger and thirst for justice (v6), who are merciful (v7) and who work for peace (v9) will be blessed. Whatever your views on same-sex marriage might be, how can you display these qualities when discussing the issue with others who hold a different view to you?
  • Jesus makes it clear that if we are to suffer, it needs to be for his sake (see v11). How is this different from suffering because we are harsh, condemning, or hostile in our language or actions?
  • There are some who talk about the postal survey being a battle that Christians need to win. How can the victory that Jesus gives us through faith in him help us approach this issue in a way that can build people up in faith and love?
  • If we lost our religious freedom in Australia and Christian start to suffer persecution, what do you think might happen to your faith? To the health of the church? How can we approach this possibility in faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13)?

Christ Alone (Romans 3:19-28)

All-focusOver the last 5 weeks we have been looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. So far we’ve looked at the church continually being re-formed, becoming like the picture of the church God gives us in Scripture Alone, as we live by God’s Grace Alone which we receive through Faith Alone.

What ties all this together and lives at the heart of all we have been looking at this month is the person of Jesus. He is central to the story of the Bible as the Old Testament points forward to his coming, and the New Testament proclaims his coming and this difference this good news makes. It is only because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that God shows us grace by giving us all we need for this life and the next. As we read in Romans, it is through faith in Jesus that God’s gifts of forgiveness, freedom and new life become ours and we receive the benefits of what Jesus has done for us through the Holy Spirit. It is through faith in Christ Alone, the last of the principles we are looking at, that God gives us his grace.

I don’t think anyone who identifies as Christian would disagree with keeping our focus on Christ Alone. However, there is a big difference between seeing Jesus as an example for us to follow, or as a gift that is given to us.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said that he was setting an example for us (John 13:15). It is important that, as Jesus’ followers, we are following the example he set for us. However, if that is all Jesus is, then he is no different from any other moral teacher who sets us a good example to live by, but who can’t help us when we fail. We might believe that Jesus died and is risen again for us, and that he will come again at the end of time, but if he is only an example for us, then right here and now he isn’t able to help us.

It’s like going for a swim at the beach, getting caught in a rip, and being dragged away from shore. If we are caught in a situation like that, with the waves crashing on top of us and the rip pulling us farther from the beach, do we need someone to tell us what we need to do to save ourselves? Or do we need someone who is going to plunge into the water, meet us where we are, and carry us back to shore? Do we need someone to tell us what to do, or someone to save us?

That is why the Bible points to Jesus as God’s gift to us, not just as an example. God plunges into the realities of human existence as Jesus is called ‘Immanuel’ – ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). Jesus makes his home with us through the word of God and his promises in it (John 1:14). Jesus unites himself with us through baptism so that he lives in us, we live in him, and we are one with him in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). When Jesus said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19,20; 1 Cor 11:23-25) he was promising to be with us in every situation of life, in the middle of the waves and rips, giving himself to us in love, and giving us the fullness of God’s goodness (Colossians 1:19). This view of Jesus as gift makes Paul’s talk about the church being the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-31) much more than just a nice metaphor. Instead, the faith that Jesus is gift means that we are the living, breathing presence of Jesus in the world as we re-present him to those around us, and as others experience God’s grace in and through us.

When we trust in Christ Alone as gift to us and not just as an example, we find everything we need to live in freedom, peace, hope and love as God’s people. Through faith in Jesus as God’s grace-filled gift to us, we find a God who is with us in every situation and who gives us what we need most in those circumstances. When we are trapped in guilt, the presence of the crucified Jesus gives us the freedom of forgiveness and new beginnings. When we are lost in darkness, the gift of the presence of Jesus who overcame death gives us the light of hope. When we feel abandoned or rejected, the gift of the presence of Jesus who suffered abandonment and rejection means we are never alone. When we trust in Jesus as gift we can find our identity, belonging and purpose in relationship with him. He gives us an identity as children of God (Galatians 3:26), he gives us belonging as members of his body (1 Cor 12:27), and he gives us purpose as he ends us into the world to be the salt and light of God’s goodness in all we say and do (Matt 5:13-16).

Luther city church altarpiece

In a lot of ways this was the focus of Luther’s Reformation 500 years ago, and still needs to be our focus today. When you go into the city church in Wittenberg, the church where Luther did most of his preaching, there is a piece of art showing Luther in the pulpit on one side, pointing people on the other side of the painting to Jesus in the centre. This is what we, as God’s people in the world and as church, are called to do: to point each other to Christ Alone as God’s gift for each of us. Through faith in him, we can find grace, love, freedom, peace and hope and everything we need for this life and the next. Five hundred years from Luther’s Reformation, as we enter what is being referred to as a post-Christian culture, we still need to be pointed back to Jesus so we can give a faith-filled witness to the world.

Because for people in our time and place, the message of Jesus as gift for us is still good news.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to think more of Jesus as an example or a gift? Why do you think of him that way?
  • If you were caught in a rip at the beach which was pulling you out to sea, would you want a surf lifesaver to give you instructions from the beach, or to jump in to the water to rescue you? How is Jesus like a lifesaver who swims out to rescue you?
  • How does that make Jesus different from every other moral or religious teacher?
  • A Lutheran perspective of Christianity stresses that in Jesus God is with us in all our circumstances through his Word, as well as the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Instead of just being doctrines to be debated, how can this teaching give us comfort, peace, hope and joy?
  • In your experience of church, do we focus on Christ Alone or do we get distracted by other things? How might church be different if we just focused on the good news of Christ Alone?

Faith Alone (John 6:29)

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When I sat down last Friday to write my message for Sunday’s services, I had a clear idea what I was going to say…

As we continue through our Reformation Month, my plan was to talk on the principle of Faith Alone. I was going to talk about how, for Martin Luther, faith is more than believing that there is a God, and more than believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a factual historical event. I wanted to make the point that, for Luther and the Reformers of the early 1500s, a saving faith means trusting that Jesus lived, died and is risen again for you.

Then I was going to say that faith in Jesus doesn’t come naturally for us. We need the Holy Spirit to be creating and growing this faith in us. That’s why Luther said, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, that the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is to call us by the gospel, enlighten us with his gifts, sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.

belief value attitude behaviour 01I was then going to explain that this faith in Jesus, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in our lives. Our behaviours grow out of our beliefs, as this diagram suggests. I was going to explain that this is what Jesus meant when he talked about trees and fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), vines and branches (John 15:1-17) and others knowing we are his disciples by the way we love each other (John 13:35). This is also the pattern Paul follows in his letters when he proclaims the good news of Jesus and then goes on to explore how this faith makes a difference in our lives, our relationships and our communities of faith.

And that was basically my message …

… until Sunday morning. I was reflecting on what I was planning to say when it dawned on me (please excuse the pun) that I was describing what faith looks like, but I had kind of missed the point.

Faith isn’t just an idea that we discuss and debate. Instead, the challenge that constantly confronts me as a pastor and a servant of the gospel is how to help others grow in their faith so that it makes a difference in their lives?

I regularly come across two main problems in my experience in working for the church. The first is that I know good people who have been going to church their whole lives who are still trapped in guilt or fear. The good news of Jesus is that he died on the cross and is risen again to free us from guilt and fear and a living faith in him gives us that freedom. So how do I help people find and grow in this faith so they can live in joy and peace instead of fear and guilt?

The second problem I encounter is that a lot of what we do in the church seems to focus on the top triangle in this diagram – our behaviours. We tend to focus on what we should or should not be doing, or what we think others should or should not be doing, in one way or another. Because our behaviours reflect our beliefs, what does our preoccupation with behaviours say about what we believe? If we really were operating from the Faith Alone principle, how might we prioritise faith over behaviours and activities?

There are a couple of conversations that we have been having in our congregation over the last year or so on discipleship, Simple Church and Growing Young. It occurred to me early on Sunday morning, that these conversations are, essentially, all about Faith Alone.
For example, most of the discipling books I read talk about following Jesus in terms of our behaviours and assume a saving faith. However, our first step in following Jesus needs to be to the foot of the cross and empty grave where we witness Jesus giving his life for us on the cross and overcoming death through his resurrection. A Lutheran perspective on discipleship needs to start with experiencing God’s grace and trusting that Jesus died and is risen again for me. And so our conversation about discipleship is about prioritizing Faith Alone in our congregation.

Our discussion around becoming a Simple Church is about looking at the busyness of our congregation and asking how much of it helps people grow in their faith as followers of Jesus. If our programs and activities are not helping people grow in their faith or equipping them to live their faith out in their relationships, then are we living by the Faith Alone principle? And so our conversation about becoming a Simple Church is about prioritising Faith Alone in our congregation.

Working through the book Growing Young was about asking how being disciples of Jesus and simplifying the busyness of our congregation can help us in our ministry to young people. They learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be living in ways that are consistent with our faith so our young people can to see the difference following Jesus makes in our lives. There is research from Mark McCrindle which argues that what attracts people most to ‘religion and spirituality’ is ‘seeing people who live out a genuine faith’ (The Faith and Belief in Australia Report). It is vital for us in our ministry to our young people, as well as our witness to the world, that we see faith in Jesus as something that shapes and transforms our lives.

When we encounter the grace of God and trust his grace to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit shapes us into more grace-giving people. When we trust that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, we become more forgiving people. When we believe in God’s love for us in Jesus, the Spirit of God makes us into more loving people. The more we grow in our faith in God’s goodness to us through Jesus, the more the Holy Spirit shapes us into loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22,23). We don’t become this way by being told to be this way. Instead, the more our faith in God’s goodness grows, the more his goodness will show in our lives.

This is why the Reformation teaching on Faith Alone is still so important for us. It is too easy for us to think that faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines, instead of being a bold and confident trust that Jesus lived, died and risen again for me which makes a difference in my life. This is my hope and prayer for our church: that we can rediscover the importance of living by Faith Alone, so we can find the freedom, hope and joy which comes through faith, and so others can experience the goodness of God through us.

More to think about:

  • I have heard it said that everyone believes in something or someone. Do you agree with that? Explain why or why not.
  • What do you think of the idea that saving faith is not just believing there’s a God, or the historical truth of Jesus’ death & resurrection, but that Jesus did that for you? How does that compare with how you understand what faith is?
  • Can you think of examples where there is a close connection between what people believe and what they do? Would you agree that belief shapes behaviour, and what we do reflects what we believe? Explain your reasons for thinking that.
  • How important is it for Christians to reflect our faith in our behaviours, words and actions? When you look at the Christian church, what do our behaviours say about what we believe to you? To your family, friends or others?
  • How can your church community help you grow a deeper & stronger faith in Jesus? Do you have any suggestions for me about how to prioritise Faith Alone in our church?

Grace Alone (Romans 5:15-19)

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This month, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we are looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation. This week we are exploring the principle of Grace Alone.

Grace can be one of those words that Christians use a lot without really being sure about what it actually means. It has a rich depth of meaning and nuances which can it difficult to define. However, in Romans 5:15-17, for example, Paul uses the Greek word for ‘grace’ (charis) with two words for ‘gift’ (charisma and dorea). This leads me to think of grace as a gift which God freely gives to us.

We can understand God’s grace in both narrower and broader ways. As I grew up in the church I understood God’s grace pretty much as the forgiveness of sins so we can go to heaven when we die. Romans 5:15-19 broadens this understanding of grace to include righteousness (God making everything that is wrong in us right again) and living in triumph over sin and death (v17 NLT). Paul goes on to write that God’s grace also gives us a new and right relationship with God which we can live in new ways (v18). So God’s grace gives us more than a place in heaven when we die. God’s grace gives us a new life to live now in right relationships and in freedom.

Paul goes on in Romans 8:32 to explain that God’s grace is even broader when he writes, ‘Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?’ (NLT). The word he uses for ‘give’ here is again from the Greek word charis. By using this word Paul points us to see that every good thing we have is a gift of grace from God. Luther picked this up in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism when he wrote that God gives us everything we need for life in this world ‘only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserve it.’

More than being a doctrine to be debated, this understanding of grace is something we can live every day. It can be so easy for us to become discontent with what we have, and to want more, or newer, or better things or relationships. However, imagine what life could be like if we saw every good thing we have as a grace-filled gift from a God who loves us. This becomes the hope and goal of the teaching of Grace Alone. It is about finding contentment and joy every day of our lives, giving thanks to God for all the good things he gives us as he provides us with everything we need for life in this world and in the next.

However, every gift comes at a price. I can’t just go into a shop and expect them to give me something for free because I want to give it away as a gift. I still need to pay for the gift if I am going to give it as an act of grace to another person. This is why the cross of Jesus is crucial to our understanding of God’s grace. For God to give us all these gifts, someone had to pay for them. That is one way we can think of what Jesus did for us on the cross. When we looked at Scripture Alone, we saw that the central story of the Bible is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect life, his innocent death, and his victory over death in his resurrection, God shows us grace by giving us forgiveness, a new relationship with him, a place in his family, and every good thing we need. Jesus paid for it all by dying on the cross, so we can receive God’s goodness as a totally free gift.

For people who believe in God’s grace to us in Jesus, then, we are called to extend God’s grace to others by living in grace-filled ways with the people around us. If we understand grace as God giving to us, then living as grace-filled people means that what we give to others is more important that what we get from them. This is significant for us as a church which is called to be continually re-forming because I often hear ‘getting’ language in the church – either what we want to ‘get’ from people or what we want to ‘get’ people to do for us. The language of ‘getting’ is not the language of grace. As people who see Grace Alone as one of our foundational teachings, it is vital that we embody the grace of God in our relationships and in our community of faith by looking to how we can be agents of God’s grace to the people around us, both inside and outside of our church. That means using language of giving rather than getting, looking more to what we can give that what we can get. To be a grace-giving church means passing God’s grace on to others, no matter what the cost, especially those whom we think deserve it the least and need it the most, like the people Jesus ate with in Matthew 9:9-13.

Over the years, I have learned that the Reformation teaching of Grace Alone means much more than we are forgiven so we get to go to heaven when we die. It is a whole new way of viewing ourselves, our relationships, our possessions, our church, and the people around us. Grace Alone means that every good thing we have is a free gift from a God who loves us and has given his only Son to die for us. As people who receive this grace from God, the Holy Spirit wants to continually be re-forming us so that we can participate with God in his mission to extend his grace to everyone.

More to think about:

  • If someone asked you what ‘grace’ means, how would you explain it to that person? How do you understand ‘grace’?
  • What do you think of understanding grace as giving? How does that compare with your understanding of grace? Does it help you understand grace better or make it more difficult?
  • Do you think it would be easy or difficult for you to think of everything you have as a gift from a grace-filled and loving God? How might thinking that way change the way you see the things & relationships you have? How might it change the way you see God?
  • Every gift still comes at a price. What is your reaction to the idea that God willingly gave the most precious thing he had, his only Son, in order to show you grace? What are your thoughts about Jesus’ willingness to give his life on the cross for you so you can experience grace from God?
  • Who is someone you know who needs grace from you? What can you do for that person to extend God’s grace to her/him?

Scripture Alone (2 Timothy 3:16)

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Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.

During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.

For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.

This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.

One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.

Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).

As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.

So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.

It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.

More to think about:

  • Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
  • What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
  • When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
  • How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
  • What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?