Priorities (Mark 10:17-31)

 

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A couple of times in my life I have really wrestled with Jesus’ words in the story of the rich man in Mark 10:17-31. I was looking for God’s direction in my life and wondering if following a particular path would mean selling everything I had. That was hard to contemplate because I like my stuff – my books, musical instruments and motorbike – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sell them in order to follow where God might be leading me.

So I can identify with the rich young man of the story and sympathise with him as he walks away sad. He couldn’t give away his possessions, and I’m not sure if I could either.

But maybe that’s the point of the story.

There are two main dangers we can face when we try to unravel this story. The first is taking Jesus’ words about selling everything we have too literally, and thinking that we have to do it to enter into eternal life. Monks and nuns have been doing that for centuries, but I’m not sure how many of them got closer to God by doing it. The second danger is not taking Jesus’ words seriously enough and ignoring what he’s trying to teach us. We can get lost collecting more and more stuff in a meaningless consumerism and miss out on the grace Jesus has for us in this story.

The third strategy of the Growing Young research from the Fuller Youth Institute is to take Jesus’ message seriously. As Christians who want to follow Jesus faithfully, taking Jesus’ message seriously might sound kind of obvious. But when it comes to stories like this with the rich young ruler, how do we do that?

Maybe taking Jesus’ message in this story might mean looking carefully at our priorities in life. When Jesus challenged the man to sell all he had, and when I was challenged with the possibility of selling everything I owned to follow God’s call, it challenged us ask to think about what matters in life. Is Jesus the most important thing to us? Or are the things we own more important? Do we love Jesus enough to be willing to give everything we have up for him? Do we trust him to provide for us each day? Or do we want to hang on to our possessions because we find a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and some sort of meaning for life in them?

Jesus is challenging us to reorganise our priorities around him, our love for him and our trust in him, rather than in the things of this world. There may be times when that might mean giving everything away, but it could also mean that we look for a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and what gives our lives meaning in our relationship with Jesus rather than the accumulation of material possessions.

This challenge from Jesus also teaches us something about ourselves. We all like to think that we’re good people. However, if Jesus’ standard of ‘good’ means giving everything away to help others and totally trusting in him to provide for us on a day-to-day basis, then who of us can live up to that? Remember that the man’s question at the start is what he did he have to do ‘to inherit eternal life’ (v17). He was thinking that he could somehow work his way into eternity. However, Jesus showed him, and us, that if we want to work our way in to eternal life, then it will cost us everything.

Can we do that? If we’re trying to work our way into eternal life as ‘good’ people, are we able to be so ‘good’ that we give away everything we have to others to provide for them in their poverty, and rely on God giving us what we need from one day to the next? Like the person in the story, I think this would probably be the point that most of us would walk away too.

But, as I’ve said already, maybe that’s the point.

The disciples were perplexed by what they witnessed as well, so they asked Jesus, ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ (v26). And Jesus gives us the good news when he said, ‘Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God’ (v27).

Jesus is telling us that it is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life. However, what is impossible for us is possible with God. Only God has the power to give us a life that is stronger that death which will last literally for ever.

This is one way we can understand ‘grace’: that it is God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life, so God does the impossible for us by doing what’s needed and then giving it to us as a free gift.

This is the good news of the story: that Jesus came to do the work of salvation for us. While it was impossible for us to sell all we have and give it away, and when we recognize that it is impossible for us to live up to Jesus’ standard of being a ‘good’ person, then God did the impossible by sacrificing everything for us in the person of Jesus to save us and give us eternal life as the ultimate act of grace. We can find it hard to give up our stuff, but Jesus gave up his place in heaven, the thing every religious person in the history of the world is trying to gain. Jesus gave up all of his heavenly glory to be born as a humble and helpless baby in a manger. He gave up all his possessions to live homeless and unemployed. Jesus did the impossible when he gave up everything, including his life, and went to the cross to die in our place. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God did the impossible make it possible for us to live forever as his children in perfect relationship with him and with each other.

As people to whom God has gifted the eternal life of Jesus, we are left with the question of how to take this teaching of Jesus seriously. I’m going to leave that up to you to work out with Jesus. It might mean selling what we have to follow God’s call on our life. It might mean reprioritising our lives so we find who we are, what we’re worth and the meaning of our lives in our relationship with Jesus instead of our material possessions. It might mean seeing what we have as the way God wants us to serve others, such as our families, friends or church community. It might even mean accepting that we’re not as good as we think we are and trusting the goodness of God’s grace to us in Jesus.

No matter how we might interpret this story, one way we can all take this teaching of Jesus seriously is to live every day in the faith that with God, nothing is impossible.

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Confession (James 5:13-20)

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Some words in the English language can be very hard to say. For example, it took a long time for my children to say ‘animal’ instead of ‘aminal’ – and sometimes they still get it wrong. Our family always has a giggle every time characters in Finding Nemo try to say ‘anemone.’ I had to practice how to say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ when I was younger so I could impress my university friends with what I’ve been told is one of the longest words in the English dictionary.

But it seems like one of the hardest words in the English language to say is ‘sorry.’

It is easy to read the word ‘sorry’, but if you think saying it is easy, try going to someone you have wronged in the past and telling them you’re sorry for what you did. We can find it difficult to do that for a range of reasons. Maybe we don’t think we have anything to apologise for because whatever happened was their fault. Maybe we are so ashamed of what has happened that we would prefer not to face it. Or maybe we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we have done. No matter what our reasons might be, saying ‘sorry’ to someone we have wronged can be very hard to do.

When James encourages us to confess our sins to each other in 5:16, he is reminding us that confession is more than turning up to church and saying ‘sorry’ to God. One reason why it’s important to have time in worship where we confess our sin to God and God speaks his word of forgiveness to us is that there is a strong tendency in our humanistic culture to think that we’re good people who don’t need to be forgiven. However, when I look at my life, I know that I fail to love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength, and that I fail to love others in the same way that God loves me through Jesus. Hearing God’s words of forgiveness helps me to remember that my identity is found in his forgiveness, not in my failures. Hearing a word of forgiveness helps us grow into the people God is making us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased.

When we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, then we will also be willing to go to the people we have wronged and tell them that we are sorry. This isn’t something that we have to do in order to get God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can have a very mechanical understanding of God’s grace where we think that we have to say we are sorry before God will forgive us. There is a much more dynamic relationship that exists between our confession and God’s forgiveness. As a church that practices infant baptism, we believe and teach that God forgiveness us even before we are able to confess our sin. Because God forgives us on account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, we are free to go to each other and confess that we have wronged each other. We can trust that God’s final word to us in Jesus will always be a word of grace and forgiveness. If God has vowed to forgive us and make us clean through the gift of his Holy Spirit, then why wouldn’t we ask to receive that forgiveness from and extend that same forgiveness to each other?

The promise God gives us through James’ words about confessing sin and forgiving each other is that we will find healing. We might think about physical healing, and there is no reason why almighty God can’t heal those he chooses to. However, healing can also take other forms. When we wrong others, our hearts can be wounded as we carry the burden of guilt and shame. This can effect our emotional and sometimes even our physical wellbeing. I have known people who had been suffering mentally and even physically because of a wrong they had committed in the past, but they hadn’t connected what they were experiencing with what they’d done. When we identified the connection, and the wrong was confessed and forgiven, then their wellbeing improved. This isn’t the case with every illness, and Jesus warned us not to assume a direct connection between illnesses or disabilities and a particular sin (John 9:1-3). However, in some cases I have seen how confessing and forgiving sin can help to heal people’s hearts and even their body.

Another way to understand the healing that James talks about is in our relationships. Sin and doing wrong damages relationships, but when we confess our wrongs to each other and forgive each other in Jesus’ name, these relationships can be healed. We can be reconciled to each other in the same way that God reconciles with us in Jesus and heals our broken relationship with him. This can be really difficult to do for a whole range of reasons, but the promise of God that we hear through the words of James is that our relationships can be healed and restored when we admit when we are wrong and ask the people we have wronged to forgive us. The healing of the relationship we have through the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus can flow through into the other damaged relationships we have in our lives so they can be healed as well. This isn’t easy to do. It requires a lot of humility, courage and faith. However, James tells us, and I have seen in my own life, that when we confess our wrongs to the people we have wronged and ask them to forgive us, not only can our relationship be healed, but we can find healing and wholeness in ourselves as well.

To whom might we need to confess our wrongs, either to restore our relationship with them or just to find healing and peace for ourselves? If there is something in your life that you’re carrying, don’t be afraid to go to someone you might have wronged, or to another sister or brother in Christ, and confess what you might have done. Find healing and freedom through the grace of God working in the words of forgiveness they speak to you. Because that’s what God wants for us – to live each day as God’s forgiven and healed children.

Embracing Children Embracing God (Mark 9:30-37)

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Just about every church I go past has a sign out the front telling people that they are welcome. Almost anyone who is involved in a church will be able to tell you that it is important that we are welcoming communities. We want people who connect with us in one way or another to feel welcomed and accepted when they come through our doors, or participate in one of our events or programs. Welcoming is so important to us that we have an entire roster dedicated to making sure that when people come to worship on a Sunday morning, they are met with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and a friendly ‘Good morning.’

When Jesus talked about welcoming, he wasn’t talking about a sign out the front of our church or a roster of people to say ‘Good morning.’ The Greek word which Jesus used and is often translated as ‘welcome’ is more about receiving a person who knocks on our door, for example. To welcome or receive them means inviting them in, spending time with them, getting to know them and being in relationship with them. That’s why this word can also be translated as ‘accepted’ or ‘embraced.’ To welcome someone means to invite them into our lives and embrace them, possibly physically like a hug, but definitely in relationship.

One thing about that really hits me about Jesus’ words in Mark 9:37 is who Jesus encourages us to welcome or embrace in relationship with us. Jesus says,

‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ (NLT)

We might be familiar with the times Jesus points to the children and tells his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to people like them (see Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). However, Jesus’ message here is different. He is saying that when we welcome little children, we actually welcome him, and we welcome God with them. Jesus is saying that as we embrace our children as a community, and as we establish and foster relationships with them as our younger brothers and sisters in the faith, we are also embracing Jesus in those relationships.

Think about that the next time you give a child a hug or hold a baby. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we are embracing him in our relationship with that child. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to hug God? Maybe Jesus is pointing us to a way of doing that.

Another thing that strikes me about Jesus’ words is that I couldn’t find him saying this about anyone else in the New Testament. Jesus talked about people welcoming him through the disciples he sent out as missionaries (Matthew 10:40 NIV; John 13:20 NLT) but I couldn’t find Jesus saying that we welcome him through any people other than children. It’s significant that Matthew (18:5), Mark and Luke (9:48) all report Jesus saying the same thing. I tend to think that if one gospel writer includes something Jesus said, then it must be important. If two writers both have it, then it’s even more important. If three or more gospel writers record Jesus saying the same thing, then we’d better be listening. Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain these words about embracing Jesus and our heavenly Father as we embrace our children, we had better be paying very close attention to what Jesus is saying to us here.

This is why our work with Growing Young is so vital for our church. It gives us 6 strategies through which we can be welcoming and embracing children in our congregation, and welcoming and embracing Jesus in them. We welcome and embrace children and young people when we:

  • Hand over leadership positions and responsibilities
  • Empathise with them
  • Take Jesus’ message seriously
  • Fuel a relationally warm community
  • Prioritize young people and their families everywhere in the congregation
  • Are the best neighbours towards others, both locally and globally

One reason why Growing Young is so important for us is because it encourages us to recognize the presence of Jesus in, with and through the children and young people of our community. If what Jesus said is true, then we need to ask if Jesus would feel welcomed by our congregation. It is too easy for us to prioritize what we want for ourselves rather than what will embrace young people. I hope for a congregation where children and young people are surrounded by more mature sisters and brothers in the faith who will care for them, walk with them through the joys and struggles of life, and will apprentice them into living in the way of Jesus so they can grow into the faith, hope and love that come with being his followers. Growing Young is about growing as a congregation which recognises Jesus in our children and young people, which welcomes and embraces them as the presence of Jesus with us, and through whom we might find the grace and peace of Jesus.

There is something very different about what Jesus says in this text. Nowhere else in the gospels do I hear Jesus saying that we welcome him through other people in the same way that we welcome him in our children. Maybe he wants us to give them special attention, special care, to receive and embrace them in the same way we would receive and embrace him.

Our family is very thankful for the ways in which this congregation has welcomed and embraced us over the three years we have been here. In particular, we are very thankful for the way you have welcomed and embraced our children. I hope and pray that every child and young person who has a connection with our congregation would experience that same kind of welcome and acceptance. As we welcome and embrace the children and young people God gives us, we also welcome and embrace Jesus, and we welcome God.

Because God comes to us in a special way through our kids.

Taming our Words (James 3:1-12)

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Have you ever tried putting toothpaste back into a tube?

There have been a couple of times when we’ve been teaching our children to brush their teeth when they have squeezed the toothpaste tube too hard and it has gone all over the bathroom sink. What a mess! Because we want to teach our children not to waste, we then tried to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It didn’t work. No matter what we did, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, nothing can put it back in.

This is a well-known illustration about how we can’t take words back once we say them. Probably all of us have said things in our lives that we have regretted and wished we could take back. But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, when we say damaging or hurtful things, or when we talk about people behind their backs and they hear about it, there is nothing we can do to put those words back in the tube.

God knew the importance of the words we say when he gave us the 8th Commandment: ‘You must not testify falsely against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Martin Luther explained this commandment means that

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray them, slander them, or hurt their reputations, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Small Catechism, alt.)

Basically, the way Luther interpreted this commandment was the same as what my Mum used to tell me as a child: if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.

It sounds good in theory, but have you ever seriously tried to do this? How do we go when we endeavour to only say positive, constructive, life-giving words to and about each other? This is where James 3:1-12 becomes really important for us to hear. It seems like James wasn’t very hopeful about people’s ability to speak well of each other. Especially in verse 8 where James wrote, ‘no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison’ (NLT), he appears to have a very pessimistic view of our ability to be able to keep our tongues in check, and for the words that come out of our mouths to be constructive and life-giving.

On the one hand, we need to listen to James and recognize the dangers that come with speaking to or about other people. Once our words come out, we can’t put them back in. To use James’s image, once our words light a fire, it can burn the whole forest down before we know it. It can easily happen in the church where a thoughtless or even well-intentioned comment about someone can spread like wildfire. Before you know it, relationships are damaged and a congregation can be split. We need to be careful about what we say to and about people, and that we are explaining our neighbours’ actions in the kindest possible way.

Secondly, we also need to realize that this doesn’t always come naturally. James’s words remind us that it is too easy for us to use words to and about each other in destructive ways. At some stage we will all say things that we wish we could take back or put back into the tube. When this happens, we need to be showing grace to each other and forgiving each other as God has forgiven us through Jesus (see Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), no matter how difficult it might be to do that.

Something inside us needs to change if we are to be continually speaking well to and of each other. Jesus taught that the things we say actually come from the heart when he said, ‘What you say flows from what is in your heart’ (Luke 6:45 NLT; see also Mathew 12: 34,35; 15:18). Our problem is not just the words we say, but it’s a heart problem. When our hearts are wrong, our words will be hurtful and destructive. However, when our hearts are full of the life and goodness of Jesus, then our words will also be good and bring life to others.

If our words are to be constructive and life-giving, what we really need are hearts that have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do this ourselves. We need God to do it for us as an act of grace. That is why King David’s prayer from Psalm 51:10, asking God to create clean hearts in us, becomes such an important prayer for all of God’s people. When God’s Holy Spirit cleans our hearts out, removing everything that is hurtful, deceitful and destructive, then our words will stop being hurtful, deceitful and destructive. When God gives us hearts that are good, true and full of the life of Christ, then our words will also be good, true and life-giving.

God gives us the Holy Spirit through his word. God speaks two kinds of words to us: words of law which show us that we are a long way from the people he wants us to be, like he does here in James 3, but also words of grace which speak the love, mercy and life of Christ to us. When God speaks the good news to us, God promises us new hearts which beat with the life of Christ and are in synch with his compassion, mercy and love. When we hear words of forgiveness and new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit works on our heart to make them new. From these, new hearts come the words of forgiveness, love and life that we are able to speak into the lives of others. As James says, we might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new hearts by the power of his Spirit for the sake of Jesus, then good and live-giving words will flow from our hearts into the lives of others.

I haven’t been able to get the excess toothpaste back into the tube yet, so I hope what comes out will be good for those who will be cleaning their teeth with it. In the same way, my hope and prayer is that the words which come out of our mouths, the things we say to and about each other, will be constructive and life-giving as we defend each other, speak well of each other, and explain each other’s actions in the kindest possible ways.

We might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new and good hearts through Jesus by the power of his Holy Spirit, then the words which come out of us will be good as well.

Outsiders (Mark 7:24-37)

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One of the games we play on our youth ministry nights is to place some hula-hoops on the floor and play some music. When the music stops, the young people need to stand in one of the hoops. If a person can’t fit in a hoop, or if people fall out of the hoops, then they’re out of the game.

This game illustrates what we often do in our relationships with others. We can set up lines or boundaries that determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ like the hula hoop in the game. Those lines can be a lot of different things, such the way people look, how they dress, what they own, where they live, or even what football team they support. As I was growing up in the church, I saw some hard and fast lines being drawn based on the denomination of the church people attended, their theological perspective or the way they interpreted the Bible. I’ve even known people who have felt excluded from churches because their surname didn’t fit in with the church’s cultural origins.

People in Jesus’ day did exactly the same thing. In the time the New Testament was written, there were very hard and fast rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ based on their race and their observance of their religious laws. If people were descended from Abraham with a family history that proved that connection, and if they kept the rules and religious traditions, then they were considered to be in God’s chosen people. If not, then they were seen to be outside of God’s love and blessing.

The stories from Mark 7:24-37 are great examples of how Jesus crossed the lines the religious leaders of his time constructed to extend God’s grace and love to people who were considered ‘outsiders’. The first is a woman from the area of Syrian Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The second was a man from another non-Jewish area who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Both of these were considered outsiders for a whole range of reasons, but Jesus crossed the lines people had put up to give them freedom, healing and wholeness, and to include them in the Kingdom of God.

To what extent do we also construct lines or boundaries that distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? Our culture talks about valuing tolerance and inclusivity, but I still hear a lot of talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both the church and wider society. We can set up barriers that separate us from others based on our age, gender, cultural background or opinions about almost any topic. We still tend to construct lines that divide the insiders from the outsiders around issues in the church such as worship, ordination or even moral standards. We might be critical of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and we might like to think that we are inclusive and tolerant, but to one degree or another don’t we all set up boundaries between the insiders and outsiders?

Jesus deliberately crossed geographical, religious, socioeconomic and even moral boundaries in order to bring the life-giving and liberating grace and love of God to those who needed it the most. He met outsiders on their territory so they could find a sense of value and self-worth through their connection with him. When Jesus was crucified, he identified with everyone who has ever felt like or been judged as an outsider. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and left there to die, he became the ultimate outsider as he suffered a form of death reserved for the worst of the worst of Roman society. Jesus didn’t only meet outsiders during his ministry. Jesus became an outsider in order to bring all the outsiders of the world into a new relationship with God and make them insiders in the Kingdom of God.

This is so important for us because, according to the religious view of Jesus’ day, we are outsiders. I don’t know of anyone in our church who is Jewish by birth. None of us keep the religious law that the people of Jesus’ day were expected to keep. We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments the way we should. We like to think that we are good people, but when we construct lines that divide ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ in any way, we fail to love each other the way Jesus teaches us to. We were all outside of a relationship with God until Jesus met us as the ultimate outsider, gathered us into himself and carried us as members of his body into a new relationship with God as our loving heavenly Father, a new identity as God’s children, and a new place to belong in the Kingdom of God, (see Ephesians 2:11-18).

As people who have been on the out but have now been brought in to a new life through Jesus, we are his loving and grace-giving presence among those whom the world considers outsiders. Jesus calls us to break through the barriers that are constructed to separate the insiders from the outsiders, no matter what those barriers may be.

This week, think about the ways in which you might consider people to be either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. Is it age, gender, cultural background or morality? Do our views on worship, ordination, interpretation of the Bible or faith generally divide us? If so, then break through whatever barriers might come between those who are considered ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Worship at a different time or place next week. Talk to someone who is one or two generations younger or older than yourself. Make contact with someone who you might not have seen for a while because of their moral or lifestyle choices and ask how they’re doing. In one way or another, recognize the boundaries that we, our church or our society have constructed, and spend some time with a person who exists on the other side of those boundaries.

Because when we break through the boundaries and sit with the outsiders, we just might find Jesus is already there.

Doing the Word (James 1:17-27)

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We all know how important it is to follow the directions when we need to take medication. If we are sick, it doesn’t help us to go to a doctor, get a prescription, listen to how we are to take it, but then put it on the shelf and forget about it. If we are going to get better, we need to trust that the medicine will do what the doctor promises, follow the directions and take our medication.

When it comes to medicine, it makes sense to both listen and do. It is the same for us as followers of Jesus. One of my greatest concerns as a pastor is that it can be easy for us to turn up to worship, hear a message, thank the pastor for the message at the door, but nothing changes after that. I have actually had a couple of people tell me over my years of ministry that they don’t want to think too much or be challenged in their faith. All they want is to come to church and hear a nice sermon.

Seriously.

That’s why James’ words about not just listening to God’s word but doing what it says are so important for us. We all carry an illness called sin. While it may not be popular to talk about sin in our contemporary Western culture, the reality I see is that we’re all suffering from the effects of sin in our lives in one way or another. We all suffer from broken relationships, illness, death and other maladies which come from carrying sin in us like an infection that we can’t get rid of.

Like a medication prescribed to give us health and life, God’s word is the remedy for sin. Every story in the Bible, from the creation of the world in Genesis 1, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to the fulfilment of God’s salvation in Revelation, points us to a God who brings light and life to the world and everything in it through his word. The centre of these stories, the person of Jesus, makes new life possible by carrying all our sin in himself to the cross, putting it to death once and for all, and giving us the gift of new life through his resurrection. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s way of giving us healing, wholeness and life in a similar way that medication gives us healing, wholeness and life when we face a specific illness. That’s why James writes that God’s word has the power to save us (v20 NIV). God’s word isn’t just information about God. It is the power of God to heal us from sin and give us life that is stronger than death (see Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

If God’s medication for our condition is the good news of Jesus, then his directions for taking that medication is faith. One of the mistakes we can make is to think that God’s word is a long set of moral rules and ethical commands, and that doing what the word says means keeping all these rules. Instead, the directions Jesus gives us is to trust the good news of his sin-conquering, life-giving love. I tend to interpret the words of the Bible through what Jesus says in John 6:29. Some people had come to Jesus to ask him what the works were that God wanted them to do. Jesus replied, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (NIV). If the good news of Jesus is the medication, his directions are to trust him. That’s it. The rest of the Bible tells us what this faith looks like, and how it can make a difference in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

If we listen to James’ words about being both hearers and doers of God’s word from this perspective, we can understand them saying that it is vital that we not only hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, but that we live like it’s true. When we find God’s love in the gospel, then ‘doing the word’ means loving others, even when it’s hard or we don’t think they deserve it. When we encounter God’s grace, ‘doing the word’ means being grace-filled in our relationships with others. When we experience God’s mercy, forgiveness and peace in the gospel, ‘doing the word’ means being merciful, forgiving and peace-making towards everyone we meet. Following Jesus isn’t just about finding his goodness for ourselves. Being ‘doers of his word’ means extending the goodness of God we find in Jesus towards everyone in our lives through all we do and say.

This week, I want to challenge you to be hearers as well as doers of God’s word in your lives. If you’re not a regular reader of the Bible, doing God’s word might start with making time each day to listen to the good news God wants to speak into your life. It really doesn’t matter how we’re reading our Bibles. What’s important is that we’re listening for God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness and new life in his word for ourselves. If you need help doing that or not sure where to start, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Being a doer of God’s word might also mean praying regularly. Last week we heard Paul write, ‘pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere’ (Ephesians 6:18 NLT), so prayer is an important part of doing the word. We can also ‘do the word’ by being ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (v19 NLT). You might want to practice this during the week by listening more than talking in your conversations with others. Try it and see what a difference it can make. Or, if you’re looking for a more serious challenge, listen to what Jesus says about telling the difference between our human traditions in the church and God’s commands (Mark 7:5-8), and imagine how prioritizing what God wants over what you want for your church might look.

In whatever ways we endeavour to be doers as well as listeners of God’s word, what is essential is that they are acts of faith in God’s life-giving love for us in Jesus, not attempts to try to get his love. That love is already yours, for Jesus’ sake.

The medication, God’s remedy for sin, is already ours as an act of grace from the God who loves us. We wouldn’t receive medicine from a doctor and leave it on the shelf. We’d follow the directions so that it can make us healthy and whole again. In the same way, we can’t just listen to the word of God that gives life and then do nothing with it. That doesn’t help anyone. By being doers of the word, listening to God’s promises and living like they are true, extending his grace and love to others by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can find healing, wholeness and a life that is stronger than death.

Our Struggle (Ephesians 6:10-20)

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Most people who have grown up in the Christian church would be familiar with the image of the armour of God. For people who may be new or unfamiliar with Paul’s metaphor, however, it might sound very strange. When we think about the violence done to people in God’s name, using military metaphors to describe the life of faith might be challenging or even offensive.

So why Paul did use this image and what does it say about living as disciples of Jesus? Why do we need to put on the armour he describes? Why are they important in a life of faith as we follow the way Jesus taught?

Paul helps us to understanding the image of the armour of God in verse 12 where he writes,

… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (NIV)

Paul assumes that living as followers of Jesus will be a struggle. The Greek word Paul uses literally means ‘wrestle’. He wasn’t thinking about the carefully choreographed spectacle we might see on TV, but the kind of wrestling that is a sport at the Olympic Games where people are locked into a closely fought physical contest.

Paul tells us that followers of Jesus are constantly struggling or wrestling with ‘rulers’, ‘authorities’, ‘powers of this dark world’, and ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ These struggles can take a wide variety of forms, from demonic attacks or spiritual oppression, through to more ordinary experiences such as trying to trust in God’s goodness and love when life is hard, or loving someone who has wronged us or is difficult to love. No matter how we might understand the idea of spiritual warfare, Paul assumes that all of God’s people are involved in a struggle with the forces of evil in one way or another.

This can be very different from the sort of Christianity people look for. We can often want an easy, convenient and comfortable faith where we get what we want and it’s simple to follow. If this is what we’re looking for, then maybe, based on what Paul writes, the devil has already won. To trust the goodness of God’s love for us in Jesus will be a struggle because often what we see and experience actually tell us the opposite. We will always struggle to love others in the same sacrificial, self-giving way as Jesus because we are essentially hard-wired to put what we want first, even if it comes at other people’s expense, and we live in a culture that tells us that being self-centred is good. Whether you believe that the devil is real or not, to live each day trusting in God’s goodness and love, and loving others in a Christ-like way will always be a struggle because it goes against our human nature and the way the world around us operates.

Following Jesus will be a struggle for us because he struggled, too. Jesus didn’t choose an easy, comfortable or convenient way of life. Jesus knows the struggles that come with a life of faith because he has already experienced them during his life on earth. When we read the gospel stories of his life, as soon as he was baptised, Jesus’ struggles began as he was lead into the wilderness and tested by the devil. Throughout the three years of his ministry, Jesus struggled with the same forces Paul mentions, and in every case he showed he was more powerful. We see Jesus fully embracing our struggles when he wrestled with his approaching suffering and death in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he experienced pain and suffering before and during his crucifixion, and when he felt like he had been abandoned by his heavenly Father on the cross.

Jesus’ struggles were the path to a greater end – his resurrection from the dead and the gift of life to all who believe in him! In the same way, our struggles of faith lead us deeper into the life of the risen Christ. As we struggle, we learn to trust in God’s goodness and love. When our struggles appear to be overwhelming or too much for us, we have others who are struggling with us and for us to help us find the life of Jesus in the middle of our struggles. When we are willing to give up a safe, easy and comfortable form of Christianity to embrace the struggles that go with following Jesus, then we not only grow in the life of Jesus for ourselves, but we meet others in their struggles and help them find God’s strength as well.

It is vital to recognize that all of the verbs in this passage are plural. Paul is telling his readers to be strong together (v10), to put on God’s armour together (vv11,13), to stand together (vv13,14), to take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit together (vv16,17), and to be persistent in praying together (v18). The life of faith is not an individual pursuit of a ‘me-and-God’ relationship. It is a life together with other disciples of Jesus in community as we struggle with and for each other, standing with and for each, finding God’s mighty power that overcomes all our struggles with each other and for each other.

This idea of struggling in faith and love for each other becomes critical when we talk about ministry with our young people and being part of God’s mission to the world. Maybe our biggest failure as church is that we have preferred an easy, comfortable, convenient version of Christianity over the struggles that come with following Jesus. We have been more concerned with how things might impact what we want than how we can be Christ to others. If all we’re concerned about is what’s comfortable and convenient for me, then the devil has already won because we are reflecting the way the world works. To follow Jesus means being willing to struggle with trusting God in all the situations of life and living in self-sacrificing love for others, not matter what the cost may be to ourselves. This will never be easy for us. It will always involve struggle.

So I’m left asking: will you join in the struggle for the hearts and souls of others? Will you embrace the struggles that goes with following Jesus faithfully in order to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus yet, or who are themselves struggling to find the goodness and love of Jesus in their lives? Are you willing to give up a safe, comfortable, convenient version of church and embrace the struggle of faith for the sake of the young people of our church?

When we are willing to give up our own comfort and follow Jesus into the struggle of faith and love, that’s when we are strong in the Lord and his mighty power, covered head to toe in the full armour of God.