On All People (Acts 2:1-21)

acts 2v17 all people 01

I think a lot of people in our communities rejoiced a few weeks ago when local council libraries opened again. They had been closed for a while because of the COVID-19 restrictions which meant that many people’s access to books, videos and CDs was cut off during a time when not much else was available to them. The re-opening of our libraries has meant that we are now able to return to them, explore lots of different resources, and borrow them again.

I spent a fair bit of time in libraries when I was younger but only visited our local library a few years ago with our children. I was surprised and amazed at the wide variety of good things I could borrow! There were so many books, graphic novels, CDs, videos, and other items we could take home, not just for the kids but for adults as well. Of course, the problem with libraries is that we don’t get to keep the good things that we find. We can only have what we borrow for a limited amount of time, and then at some stage it needs to go back to the library.

What do you think it would be like to be able to go to the world’s greatest library, to find the best books, videos or CDs, and to be able to take it home to keep, absolutely free of charge? Would you go to that library to find what you were looking for? What if this wasn’t just available to you, but to every person in the world?

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament worked something like a public library. God gave the Holy Spirit, often referred to as ‘the Spirit of the Lord’, to certain people for a limited time to do something specific or to achieve a particular purpose. For example, we read in Numbers 11:24-30 that God gave the Holy Spirit to seventy elders of the nation of Israel. The story continues that ‘when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But this never happened again’ (v25b NLT). Here and in other Old Testament stories God ‘loaned’ the Holy Spirit to certain people to help them do something, but then the Holy Spirit returned to God when that task was completed.

Then, about five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Joel made an amazing claim. He wrote,

‘Then, after doing all those things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on servants – men and women alike.’ (Joel 2:28,29 NLT)

This was radical for a few reasons. Firstly, Joel deliberately included women this prophecy. There had been a few women in the Old Testament who had received the Holy Spirit but here Joel was saying that what had previously been the exception would become the norm. Also, God would pour out the Holy Spirit on all people, not just a select few for a limited time. Instead of being like a public library where the books that have been borrowed would need to be returned, now all people could receive the Holy Spirit who would remain with them permanently.

Joel’s words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter specifically referred to Joel’s prophecy to show that God was fulfilling his message by giving the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus fifty days after his resurrection and ten days after his ascension. Pentecost was a spiritual game-changer as God poured out his Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, giving them what they needed to witness to Jesus and participate in God’s mission to the world. God wasn’t just loaning them his Spirit. God was giving his Spirit to them as a gift to go with them everywhere they went and to give them the power to be the living presence of the resurrected and ascended Jesus in the world.

Pentecost started a whole new way in which God was at work in the world. We continue to celebrate Pentecost because it reminds us that God began something new on that day in Jerusalem which he continues to do in us and through us. As Jesus’ disciples in our time and place, God pours his Holy Spirit into us so that we can have the power we need to be the physical presence of the risen Jesus in the world as well.

Over the last few weeks, we have talked about being Jesus’ witnesses in the world, being ready to explain the hope we have in Jesus, standing between God and the world to bring them together as holy and royal priests, and being a community of faith dedicated to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. All of these are only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our relationships, and our community of faith. If we try to be all these things on our own, we will struggle and probably fail. However, God gives us the dynamic power to be his people in community with him and with each other, and to bring his goodness to the world by pouring the Holy Spirit into our lives and gifting us with everything we need to participate with God in his saving work in the world.

We can go to God like we go to the local library, looking for everything we need to live as his people and be part of God’s mission to redeem and restore the world, and the Holy Spirit will gift us with what we need. What the Holy Spirit has to offer us, though, is much better than books, CDs, and videos. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the faith we need to trust in the life-giving love of God for us in Jesus no matter what we might be going through in life. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the grace and goodness of God so we can produce fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23) in our lives. The Holy Spirit gifts us with everything we need to live together in Christ-centred community, to serve God and each other as his holy and royal priests, to be ready to explain to others the hope we have in Jesus, and to witness to the life-changing love of Jesus in our whole lives, in both our words and actions.

We can find everything we need to live as God’s people and followers of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Unlike a library, God won’t want us to return the Holy Spirit. The miracle of Pentecost is that God gifts the Holy Spirit to all of his people, men and women, young and old, to give us the power we need to be the people he is calling us to be, to do what he is calling us to do, and to be the physical presence of the risen and ascended Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, with no return date, so we can be united with Jesus in faith and we can bring the goodness of God we encounter in Jesus to the world.

More to think about & discuss:

  • When was the last time you were in a library? What were some of the good things you found there? How did you feel about having to return them?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to live as a child of God and a follower of Jesus? What would help you trust Jesus in every part of your life and live in the way he taught?
  • What is your reaction to Joel’s prophecy that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all people? Have you ever thought of yourself as included in ‘all people’? Give some reasons for your answer…
  • Have you considered asking the Holy Spirit for what you need to trust Jesus and love others in the way he teaches? What might happen if you looked for what you need in your relationship with God, sort of like you might look for a book or video in a library?
  • The Holy Spirit can act in ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’ ways, but also in ways that look more everyday and ordinary. Where can you see the Holy Spirit at work in your life?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/j6xK2NV2gYo

God bless!

Dispersed Disciples (Luke 24:44-53)

Luke 24v44-53 seed spreader

When we moved into the manse after accepting the call to the congregation we serve, almost half of the backyard was dirt and nothing was growing in it. After some discussions about what we were going to do with the area, we decided to sow grass in it so our children could run around and play in the space.

I had never sown a lawn before, but I knew that I couldn’t just dump all the seed in a pile in the corner of the yard and expect the grass to spread across the dirt patch. Instead, I needed to spread the lawn seed over the whole area. To do that, I bought a seed spreader. This device has a small bucket which holds the seed and drops it into a spinner that spreads it around when its handle is turned. The purpose of this seed spreader is to disperse the seed evenly over the area so the grass can cover the whole patch of earth.

When Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:44-53) he told his disciples that they were going to be his witnesses to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The way they were going to witness to him was by spreading the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection wherever they went. They were going to act like seed spreaders, bringing the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to people who needed the life Jesus was offering them. They weren’t going to just spread this good news over a patch in their back yard. Instead, they were going to spread it to all the people of the world in the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. This led to the second thing Jesus told them: to remain in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the sequel to Luke’s gospel, the Book of Acts, we start to see how the disciples were able to spread the good news of Jesus beyond their own backyard. There were some individual evangelists such as Paul who played a significant part in spreading the gospel. Another way the gospel was spread was by the people from ‘every nation’ (Acts 2:5 NLT) who heard Peter’s Pentecost message and came to faith. When they returned to their homes from Jerusalem, they took the good news of Jesus with them and spread it in their hometowns as they shared it with others. A third way the disciples spread the gospel was when the early followers of Jesus were dispersed because of the persecution that happened after Steven was killed. In Acts 8:1 we read,

A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (NLT)

In his creative power, God even used the persecution of his people to spread the good news of Jesus beyond Jerusalem so others could hear the gospel and find life through faith in him.

As we live with the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 virus, I can imagine that there might be some people who might focus on Jesus’ instructions in this reading to wait. Most of us are probably waiting for life to return to something like normal when the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. We can also be waiting for church to return to what we were used to, for the doors of our church buildings to reopen, services to resume, and programs to begin again, pretty much like they were before the restrictions started.
I can understand why people are waiting for these things, but I also wonder if, in hearing Jesus tell his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, we are missing something important in the words Jesus spoke to his disciples.

Jesus told them to wait because they were going to receive the power of the Holy Spirit which they would need to spread the gospel to all nations. When we celebrate Pentecost next week, we can remember that we have already received the Holy Spirit. The words of Jesus at his ascension that we can be hearing, then, is not so much to wait, but to witness.

We saw in Acts 8:1 that God can even use a crisis like persecution to spread the good news of Jesus to people who need to hear it. Ever since the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, I have been wondering if God is giving us an opportunity to spread the gospel of Jesus to a hurting, fearful and broken world. With our doors closed, our programs stopped and the regular activity of the church put on hold for a period of time that could go on for months, suddenly many of us have much more time on our hands. Can we be using this time to have deeper conversations with family, friends, loved ones and others in person, online or by other means? Is God presenting us with opportunities to care for each other in Christ-like love and give witness to our faith in the life-giving power of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Jesus never intended the gospel to be confined to buildings or religious observances held within four walls. Instead, as we listen to the words Jesus spoke to his disciples at his ascension, he commissions us to spread his good news wherever life takes us. As Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples, Jesus wants us to be his witnesses outside of our church buildings and empowers us to give a witness to his life-giving grace and love in our lives and in our relationships through the Holy Spirit. If we are just waiting for the doors of our buildings to re-open and services to resume, then we might miss what is really important in Jesus’ words. He calls and empowers us to be his witnesses by spreading the gospel beyond our backyard like seed spreaders, starting with our families, friends, and other people that we know. The gospel of Jesus is good news for all people! Our ascended King Jesus commissions us to spread his good news wherever we go in the world, to whomever we meet along the way.

Of course, gathering together as the family of God is important for our new life in Christ. We read that in Acts 2:42-47 and discussed it a couple of weeks ago. Is it possible that God wants to use this time to remind us that the place where we live out our faith is not just in our buildings, programs or other activities, but in our lives, relationships and communities outside of the church buildings? It is vitally important that we are not just waiting for the doors of our buildings to reopen or services to resume, but that we are witnesses to the love and life of Jesus everywhere we go.

Let’s use this time and the opportunities it presents us to spread the good news of Jesus wherever the Holy Spirit leads us, so the new life Jesus gives us through the gospel can cover the world.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you ever used a seed spreader? Why is it helpful or important? What might happen if you didn’t use one?
  • What is your reaction to Jesus’ disciples being like seed spreaders? Does the analogy work for you? How might you be like a seed spreader for Jesus in your life?
  • As we live with the COVID-19 restrictions, are you waiting for the doors of our buildings to reopen, programs to begin again or services to resume? Or are you looking for opportunities God might present to spread his grace, love and goodness into the lives of others? Maybe a bit of both? Explain why you answered that way…
  • Have you ever pictured yourself as a witness for Jesus? What is your reaction to thinking of yourself as a witness for Jesus?
  • Witnesses usually tell others about something they have experienced themselves. How have you witnessed the goodness, grace or love of Jesus in your life? Who is someone with whom you might be able to share your story?
  • What opportunities might God be giving you this week to be Jesus’ witness by trusting him and showing Christ-like love to someone else…?

You can find a video version of this message here.

God bless!

A Recipe for Hope (1 Peter 3:13-22)

1 peter 3v15 ready to explain your hope 01

While we have been isolating because of the COVID-19 restrictions, I have heard about families who have been spending time cooking together. Baking or cooking is a great way to connect with each other, doing something that is enjoyable with a tasty result at the end. The added bonus is that when we cook together, we have something good to share with others, whether they are our kids who come home from school at the end of the day, family members we live with, or others we might know who would appreciate a spontaneous gift.

I am not a chef, but I do know that whenever we cook, we need to prepare. There have been times when I have started making something without first preparing properly and have realized part way through that I did not have some of the necessary ingredients. If what we are cooking is going to produce something good that we can offer other people, we need to get ready and prepare first.

The Apostle Peter encourages Christians to prepare so we can be ready when people ask us about the hope we have in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15). Since the opening of his letter, Peter has talked about our hope as people who have been raised with Jesus through faith. We have new birth into a living hope through Jesus’ resurrection (1:3). We can put our hope in the salvation Jesus will bring when he comes again (1:13). We can trust God because he raised Jesus from the dead (1:21). For Peter, faith in Jesus’ resurrection goes hand in hand with a life-giving hope.

In 3:15, Peter now says to be prepared to explain the hope we have in Jesus to anyone who asks us. There is a lot we can get out of these few words, but our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic gives us a specific context to find meaning in his words.

Since the pandemic started and restrictions were put in place, I have witnessed a lot of worry and fear in people. One clear example was the panic-buying of essential items like toilet paper and non-perishable foods. As the people of God and followers of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has gifted us with the antidote to the worry and fear people are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic or any other reason. God’s antidote is hope. This is not a vague hope that things will get better, or that if we look after each other we will get through these tough times. The hope the Holy Spirit gifts to us is specifically in the resurrection of Jesus.

When we live as people of hope in the middle of so much worry and fear, it will show in our lives and in our relationships. That is why Peter urges us to be ready to explain the hope we have in Jesus. When people notice that we are living in hope, not worry or fear, and they ask us why we are living that way, we can share with them the goodness of God we find through faith in Jesus. Just like I will prepare before I start cooking to make sure I’m ready with everything I need, Peter wants us to prepare to share the hope we have so that others can find hope in Jesus’ resurrection as well.

So how do we get ready to give the reason for the hope we have in Jesus’ resurrection? I would like to share with you the simple recipe I use to prepare to share the hope I have in Jesus.

The first step is to identify what makes us worry or be afraid. We might not like to admit the causes of our worries or fears because we can sometimes think that we should be able to handle them on our own. If we are going to find real hope in the middle of our fears, worries or anxieties, though, we need to know what they are. A good way to identify our fears or worries is to talk with someone that we trust about them. So, the first question I ask to prepare to give the reason for our hope is, what is making us worry or afraid?

The second step is to explore how the good news of Jesus speaks into that specific worry or fear. God promises us that he will give us everything we need for life in this world and in the next for the sake of Jesus (see Romans 8:32). For example, if we are afraid of being isolated and alone because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Jesus promises that he will always be with us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5), and this promise is made tangible in the community of faith as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15,16). If we are worried about loss of income and financial hardship, Jesus promises to provide us with every physical thing we need for life in this world (Matthew 6:25-34). Even if we or our loved ones were to catch COVID-19 and possibly die, Jesus promises us that his love and life and stronger than death and he will give us eternal life through his death and resurrection (eg John 11:25,26). Exploring how the message of Jesus is good news for us can be challenging, but it helps us see that the gospel is not just an off-the shelf message, but, like a homemade recipe, it speaks specifically and directly into our personal worries and fears. So, my second question is, how is Jesus’ message good news for us with our worries or fears?

The third step to preparing to give the reason for the hope we have in Jesus is to find hope in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When we trust God’s promises to provide us with everything we need for this life and the next for the sake of Jesus, it helps us to see through our current worries and fears to the possibility of a better tomorrow. Paul writes that this hope is for both this life and the life to come (see 1 Corinthians 15:19,20). Whatever our fears or worries might be, when we find the ways in which God’s promises and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection bring God’s goodness into our lives, no matter what we are experiencing, we can find hope. When we have found this hope for ourselves, we can share that hope with others. So, my third question is, how does Jesus’ good news give you hope?

In many cooking shows, they will display an example of what they were cooking which they had prepared earlier. This shows us that they had done their preparation, and everything worked as it should. As Peter encourages us to be ready to answer everyone who asks us about the hope we have in the risen Christ, I encourage you to take some time this week to prepare what you could say when someone asks you about your hope. You might do this is by following my simple recipe: What worries or fears do you have? How is Jesus’ message good news for you with your worries or fears? How does Jesus’ good news give you hope?

There is a lot of worry and fear in the world right now because of the COVID-19 virus and for other reasons. God gives us the antidote to worry and fear through the hope we have in Jesus. Will you be ready to give your reasons for the hope you have in Jesus when someone asks you?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What are some examples you have seen in the last few weeks about people’s worries or fears about the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Do you find hope something that comes easily, or do you struggle with it? Try to explain why that might be the case for you…
  • Would you like to live as a person of hope? Give some reasons for your answer.
  • What worries or fears do you have at the moment, either in connection with COVID-19, the restrictions that are in place, or anything else that might be happening in your life?
  • How can Jesus’ message be good news for you in your situation right now?
  • How can trusting Jesus’ good news help you to find hope in your life? What might a better tomorrow through Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of his life to you look like?
  • If someone asked you to explain the hope you have in Jesus, what might you say?

A Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:2-10)

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In the weeks since we have been unable to publicly worship together and I have been posting my messages online, some people have asked if I could say a prayer or give a blessing in the videos. There are a few reasons why I haven’t been doing that which I’m happy to discuss more if you’d like to contact me. This week’s reading from 1 Peter 2:2-10 gives me an opportunity to explain one of my reasons in more detail.

Peter addresses the people who are reading his letter in several ways in this short passage. I want to focus on the way he calls his readers ‘a holy priesthood’ (v5 NIV) and ‘a royal priesthood’ (v9). To understand what Peter is talking about when he uses the term ‘priesthood’ we need to go back to the Old Testament and the sacrificial system of worship in the Tabernacle and then the Temple.

God originally created people to be in relationship with him (Genesis 1 and 2). However, that relationship was broken because of sin (Genesis 3). To establish a way for this relationship to be restored so that the people of Israel could connect with him again, God chose a group of people from the tribe of Levi to be priests (see Exodus chapters 28 and 29). Their role was to stand between God and his people, not to keep them apart but to bring them together. These priests offered sacrifices, firstly in the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem, so the community of faith could have access to God and receive his mercy, grace and blessing. Through the ministry of the Old Testament priesthood, God’s chosen people were able to live in relationship with God and receive his goodness.

Then Jesus came and changed everything. Parts of the New Testament, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, refer to Jesus as our great High Priest who fully opened a new way for all people to have access to God’s presence and blessing (Hebrews 10:19-25). He did not do this by offering the same sacrifices as the Old Testament priests. Instead, Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus took away all sin and everything else which gets in the way of a relationship of love with our Father in heaven. Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, stands between humanity and God as our great High Priest to bring us together and unite us as one. This ended the Old Testament priesthood and gave all people access to God through faith in Jesus.

Peter uses this picture of the Old Testament priesthood to tell us that, because we are God’s chosen people through faith in Jesus, we become the way that God connects with the world and people can have access to the presence and blessing of God. We are united with Jesus through faith, and so, just as he stands between God and humanity to bring us together as our great High Priest, now we also stand with him between God and humanity to bridge the gap and connect the world with God’s presence and blessing. As a holy and royal priesthood through faith in Jesus, God gives us as the body of Christ, the holy Christian church, the responsibility and the opportunity to represent God to the world, and the world to God.

Peter says there are two important ways in which we do this. The first is in verse 5 when he refers to Christian as a ‘holy priesthood’ and talks about ‘offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (NIV). He uses similar language to Paul in Romans 12:1 who encourages his readers ‘to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’ (NIV). We can offer our whole lives to God to thank him for the life of Jesus he gives us through faith. These ‘spiritual sacrifices’ can also mean acts of worship such as our prayers for each other, the Church, our nation and the world, in fact anything we offer God in faith and love for everything he has given us in Jesus.

Peter then writes that as ‘a royal priesthood’ we can ‘declare the praises of him who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (v9 NIV). Our spiritual sacrifices are how we bring the world to God. We also bring God to the world by declaring his praises to the world. Praising God is more than telling God how good he is or how much we love him. We also praise God by telling others about the good that God has done for us. In particular, we declare God’s praises by telling others what he has done for us in Jesus – his love grace, mercy, peace, hope, and more. We function as God’s priests when we tell others about how God calls us out of the dark places of life into the light of his love, joy, peace and hope through faith in Jesus.

It is vital that we understand that this is not just the job of our pastor or minister. One of the reasons why I am not including prayers, benedictions or blessings in my messages is that you do not need me to do that for you. In public worship our congregation has called me to do these things on behalf of our community of faith, but God calls every Christian to function as his priests by offering spiritual sacrifices like prayers and declaring God’s praises by blessing others. I see this time when we are unable to worship together as an opportunity God has given us to do what Paul says is the role of the pastor in Ephesians 4:11-13, namely to equip Christ’s people to do the work of ministry. It is not the job of the pastor to function as a priest for you. According to Ephesians 4:11-13, the pastor’s role is to equip God’s people for the work of ministry so that you can function as God’s holy and royal priesthood by bringing the world to God through your spiritual sacrifices and by bringing God to the world as you declare his praises in your lives.

So pray for each other and for the world. Bless each other and bring God’s blessings to the world. Declare God’s praises by speaking words of grace and love and forgiveness and peace in Jesus to each other. Stand between God and the world, not to keep them apart but to bring them together as you offer spiritual sacrifices and declare God’s praises. Be the holy and royal priesthood God has chosen and called you to be. Because right now, with everything going on in the world and in people’s lives, we, as God’s holy and royal priesthood, have an unprecedented opportunity to bring a struggling and hurting world to God, and God’s infinite and perfect goodness to the world.
More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you ever been in a situation where you have been able to bring two people together? Share your story and describe what it was like for you to be able to bring them together.
  • When you think about the role of priests in the church, what comes to mind? How is that similar or different to the role of the Old Testament priests? How is it similar or different to what Jesus does for us as our great High Priest?
  • Can you imagine yourself in the biblical role of a priest? Explain why or why not…
  • How much do you rely on your pastor to do the work of a priest by offering spiritual sacrifices and declaring God’s praises for you? What is your reaction to the idea of being equipped to do this more in your life? Do you like the possibilities it offers you or not so much? Please explain why…
  • What are some spiritual sacrifices you can be offering God in your life?
  • How can you declare God’s praises in your life this week?

The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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When I went to birthday parties as a child, we used to play a game called pass the parcel. If you have never played this game, what happens is children sit in a circle and pass a parcel wrapped in lots of layers of paper from person to person while music is played. When the music stops, the child holding the parcel removes a layer of paper, and then passes the parcel on again when the music resumes. The child who removes the last layer of paper wins the prize in the centre of the parcel.

The game has changed a bit since I was young. Then, there was only one prize underneath all the layers of paper. Now that our children are playing it, there is usually a small prize under each layer of paper so every person who participates wins something.

Sometimes I wonder if the church is a bit like a pass the parcel. We often think about church in different ways and when we use the word, many various images can come to mind. These diverse understandings can contribute to the overall character of church. However, if we were to peel away the layers, what lies at the centre of the church?

Six weeks ago, we looked at the story of Samuel anointing David to be king and we heard how God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:1-13). I suggested that not being able to meet together in worship and suspending most of our church activities due to the COVID-19 restrictions might give us a chance to look past outward appearances to explore what is at heart of being church. Acts 2:42-47 gives us a glimpse of what early Christians living in Jerusalem considered to be at the heart of their church.

In Acts 2:42 we read that this early community of faith ‘devoted themselves’ to four key elements: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (NIV). A lot has been written on these verses and there is much we could discuss in them. I would share a few thoughts and explore what they might mean for us as a community of faith in our context.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to these four elements. As we read through Acts, we see that this community of faith was doing lots of things, but it made these four its priority. Like a pass the parcel has multiple layers, so does our life together as church. We have buildings, an organizational structure with committees and rosters, things to guide us in ministry such as our Discipling Plan and Growing Young, and different forms of worship. These are all good and helpful, like the prizes in the outer layers of a pass the parcel, but they are not the main thing. The main thing to which the early Christians devoted themselves was what lay under these layers: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

There are a few ways in which we can understand the apostles’ teaching. We can think of it as doctrine and what the church teaches about the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who they are, the way they are at work in our lives, and how that is good news for us. For example, the Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the apostles’ teaching from which we can always learn a lot. However, we can also understand the ‘apostles’ teaching’ as discipling us to live in faith and love as God’s people. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus commissioned his eleven remaining disciples to teach his followers to obey all that he had commanded them. If we read this through Jesus’ New Command to love one another in the way he has loved us (John 13:34,35), then we can also understand the apostles’ teaching as learning to live in the way of love that Jesus taught.

The early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. The word used here is koinonia and means much more than a social gathering. This koinonia fellowship is a deep communal relationship where every person is cared for by others and who also cares for others. We get a picture of these mutually giving relationships in the following verses where people were willing to give to provide for each other’s needs, even if it meant selling property to support them. This kind of koinonia fellowship can show itself in lots of different ways, but it involves having such deep relationships with each other that we know about each other’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and we give what we have to meet those needs. This flows from the deep koinonia fellowship we have with God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third element to which the Acts church devoted themselves was the breaking of bread. Biblical scholars interpret this phrase in different ways, such as communal meals or Holy Communion. A widely held view is that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the early church as part of a shared communal meal. Whatever our understanding of ‘the breaking of bread’ might be, it tells us that the communal meal is central to any community of faith. This is a real challenge for us while we cannot gather in worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, when we are able to meet together again in corporate worship, it will be vital for us to remember that what is at the heart of our existence as church is not what happens around the meal, such as the order or liturgy, songs or hymns, but the meal itself.

The fourth element to which the early Christian community devoted itself was prayer. As a community of faith, prayer will always be central. It sounds obvious writing that, but it can be good to be reminded. Sometimes I wonder if people think that prayer is the pastor’s job and not something they can do, or if people are afraid to pray because they might get it wrong in some way, or if we get just get too busy and forget to talk with our loving heavenly Father. We can find lots of excuses not to pray as a community of faith, but the one great reason to pray is that Jesus promised to hear and answer us! Have a look at John 14:13,14 and 15:16 and listen to what Jesus is saying. Talking with God in prayer, both individually and together as a community, will always be central to being church.

During this time of COVID-19 restrictions, we can still function to a large degree as the church. Even without our buildings, our forms of worship and other activities, we can still devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to supporting each other in koinonia fellowship, and to prayer. The day will come when we will be able to break bread together and share in the communal meal we have in communion with God and each other. Until then, I encourage you to keep peeling back the outer layers to get to the heart of what it means to be church.

Because what might our church be like if we looked past the outward appearances, and, with our brothers and sisters in Acts, devoted ourselves first and foremost to the apostles’ teaching, koinonia fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer?

More to think about & discuss:

  • When someone uses the word ‘church’ what do you think of: the building, organisation, worship, community? Or something else?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on the way you understand the four key elements of church from Acts 2:42:
    • The apostles’ teaching
    • Fellowship
    • Breaking of bread
    • Prayer
  • What does each of these mean to you? How is your understanding similar or different from the way I’ve described them? What are some other ways people might interpret each of these?
  • When we are able to gather again as a congregation after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, how might our community of faith look if we dedicated ourselves to these four elements of church? What might be the same? How might our congregation be different?

On the Road with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35)

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With the COVID-19 restrictions in place I’m seeing a lot of people out for walks. It’s good to see because getting outside and engaging in some exercise helps both our physical and mental health. There is also a social aspect to walking with someone which is very important for us. When other ways of socially connecting have been cut off, walking with someone can have a lot of benefits for us.

Sometimes I wonder what people talk about while they walk. They might be catching up on what’s been happening in their lives, talking about who has been doing what, or maybe discussing the weather. I wonder whether their conversations ever go deeper to the more meaningful things such as their struggles or hopes, their joys or disappointments, maybe even to questions of faith.

I can understand why two of Jesus’ disciples, as they were walking the 11 or 12 kilometres from Jerusalem to Emmaus, were discussing the events of Jesus’ suffering, death and the rumours of his resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). It was the day of Jesus’ resurrection and they had a lot to process. Their conversation began with the events that had happened, but when Jesus turned up, even though they didn’t recognise him, he took the conversation to a whole different level. We read in verse 27 that,

Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (NLT)

Jesus didn’t just talk with them about what had happened. Jesus talked with them about the meaning behind his suffering, death and resurrection from the grave. Luke tells us that Jesus explained the meaning of Scriptures to them and how they pointed to him. The word Luke uses is the word from which we get our English word hermeneutic which is about interpreting or finding the meaning of something. In ‘opening’ the Scriptures to the disciples (v32 NIV) Jesus was interpreting the words of the Bible for them and giving these new meaning for the disciples’ lives.

As we journey through the impact that COVID-19 is having on our world, this story is significant for us in a few ways. Firstly, like these two disciples, we are moving into an uncertain future. They didn’t know what the future had for them after their teacher’s crucifixion and rumoured resurrection. The road to Emmaus can be understood as a metaphor for travelling into an uncertain future. In the same way, we don’t know how long the COVID-19 restrictions will be in place or what life will be like when the start to be relaxed. We are on our own road, travelling into an uncertain future.

Like the disciples, we do not travel alone. Our risen Lord Jesus walks with us into this uncertain future. We may not always recognise his presence, just like the two disciples in the story, but not recognising him doesn’t mean he’s not there. We might be feeling isolated and missing the contact with other people but Jesus continues to walk with us in a spiritual way as well as a more tangible way. As we live out our identity as the body of Christ in our relationships with each other, and as we remain connected as the Church, we embody Jesus’ presence with each other as we travel through this time together. As we walk together through these restrictions, Jesus walks with us, whether or not we recognise his presence.

As we travel with Jesus, we can be listening to him open up the words of Scripture for us. We can read the Bible as a book which communicates information to us about events of the past, kind of like the way the two disciples were talking about the events of Easter at the start of this story. However, there is much more to the Bible than that. This story is telling us that Jesus wants to open Scripture up for us and lead us into a deeper understanding of its meaning for us and our lives. Jesus did this for the disciples in the story as he opened their eyes to see how the writings of Moses and the prophets pointed to himself. Jesus wants to do the same thing for us. He wants to open our eyes so we can see that the Bible is more than stories about the past. All of Scripture points us to Jesus and the meaning behind his suffering, death and resurrection so we can live in the reality of this good news.

Like the disciples, when Jesus opens Scripture to show us how it points to him, he changes our lives. At the start of their walk to Emmaus, I imagine the disciples would have been sad about the death of their teacher, afraid of the people who had killed him, uncertain about what they were going to do next and confused about what it all meant for them. After their walk with Jesus, though, their lives had turned around. They were full of faith, hope and love as they went back to tell the other disciples about what had happened. Jesus wants to make the same changes in our lives. He wants to fill us with faith, hope, love and the other fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) as he opens the words of Scripture for us and speaks his good news to us. Jesus does all this by his Holy Spirit who breathes resurrection life into us through the words of the Bible and his gospel.

When we last met together in worship about 5 weeks ago, I was reflecting on the story of Saul anointing David (1 Samuel 16:1-13) and I suggested that this time under the COVID-19 restrictions might be giving us an opportunity to peel back the external layers of the way we think of ‘church’ and re-discover what is at the heart of being Church. This story of the disciple’s walk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus gives us a picture of the heart of being church: walking with Jesus, listening to him open up Scripture for us and living in the reality of the gospel. It doesn’t mean that we have to do a Bible study every time we go for a walk. What it might mean, though, is changing how we read the Bible. It’s not just information or stories from the past. Instead, the Bible points us to Jesus who was born, suffered, died and is risen again to give us life! At the heart of being Church is walking with Jesus, listening to him talk to us through Scripture, hearing the good news he has for us, and living in the faith, hope and love that they give.

This week, I encourage you to go for a walk with someone. As you walk, talk about what’s going on in your lives, but also include Jesus in your walk as you discuss the deeper things of life and share the good news of Jesus with each other.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If you go for a walk with another person, what might you usually talk about?
  • If you were walking with Jesus, what might you like to talk with him about? What do you think he might want to talk about with you?
  • When you read the Bible, do you tend to read it more as information or do you listen for what God might be saying to us through those words? Why do you read it that way?
  • How might it change the way you read your Bible if you looked for what it said to you about Jesus and his good news for you?
  • How can you find time this week, either on your own or with a few other people, to read your Bible and look for the good news that God is saying to you through it?
  • Who is someone with whom you can go for a walk this week to talk about the deeper things of life?

A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

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There is a park across the street behind our church property with a playground in it. As our children have grown up over the years, we have spent a lot of time at that playground. It has been amazing to watch our children move from the playground’s simpler elements to attempting the more difficult parts until they were able to confidently play on all of the equipment.

Every time our children would attempt a new part of the playground we could see that it was a kind of trial for them. They weren’t sure about whether or not they could get through the obstacle to the other side. So my wife and I would walk with them through it. As adults, we are too large for the play equipment so we would stand outside it with our hands reaching inside, either holding our children’s hands to keep them steady or with our hands in a position to catch them if they lost their balance or fell. Trusting that their parents were with them and ready to catch them gave our children the confidence they needed to put one foot in front of the other and work their way through the obstacles to arrive at the destination they were hoping to reach.

We all face trials in our lives. From one perspective, some might seem less threatening or easier to find our way through, but when we are confronted with these trials, like our children on the play equipment, they can all appear daunting, threatening or scary. These trials might be caused by the restrictions in place because of COVID-19. They might be ongoing concerns like problems with our physical or mental health, relationship breakdowns, addictions, loneliness, or whole range of other things. Whatever the trials might be that we’re facing, when they are in front of us or we are in the middle of them, they can cause a lot of fear, anxiety or dread as we wonder how we will ever get through them. In my experience, just about everyone faces a trial of one kind or another at some time in our lives. For each of us, these trials are real. For each of us, like my children on the playground, these trials or obstacles in life can be scary!

It’s our natural tendency to either think we have to get through these trials on our own, or to keep telling ourselves that we can overcome them. However, that isn’t always true. I have seen people get overwhelmed by particular trials in life because they took them on by themselves and then found that they were too big or too difficult for them. It is sort of like one of my children trying to get through a part of the playground on their own, and then realizing half-way through that they can’t do it. That is when we can realize that we need help. Hopefully that is also when we start looking for help.

When Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering serious trials for their faith in 1 Peter 1:3-9, he encouraged them that they didn’t have to try to get through on their own. A big part of having faith as Christians is trusting that whatever trials we might be facing or going through, Jesus can and will help us. As the Son of God who entered the world as a flesh and blood person, Jesus knows the trials and challenges we face in life because he has been there before us. In his suffering and death, Jesus went through more than I can ever imagine, even experiencing total abandonment by his heavenly Father. However, Jesus continued to trust his Father’s promises to get him through and the Father kept his promise to his Son by raising him to new life on the morning of the resurrection. What that means is that now our crucified, risen and ascended Jesus stands outside our trials, sort of like my wife and I stand outside the play equipment, but is still able to reach in to hold us as we go through our trials.

The faith the Holy Spirit gives us is that Jesus is with us in our trials, but he also stands outside our trials, so he can hold us in his nail-scarred hands, keep us safe, and carry us through our trials until we can stand securely again. In 1 Peter 1:7 we read that our faith is being tested and purified through our trials as we learn to rely on Jesus, to trust in him, and as God grows us in the confidence that Jesus is with us and he will get us through our trials in his resurrection power.

This faith gives us hope. No matter what trials we may be facing or enduring, we can find hope in the faith that Jesus has endured his own trials in his suffering and death, and that he came through them in his resurrection. In the same way, we can live in the hope that he can and will do the same for us. Peter describes this as a ‘living hope’ (v3 NIV) because the one in whom we hope is alive! This hope gives us life! We can hope in Jesus because he endured his own trials in his suffering and death. We can hope in Jesus because he is risen from the grave and holds us in his nail-scarred hands. Because Jesus is alive, his Spirit will keep this hope alive in us so we can find life in the middle of our trials through faith in his resurrection for us.

Whatever trials we might be facing or going through, we don’t have to do it alone or in our own strength. My children wanted to show that they could do each part of the playground on our own because we like to think we can do anything. That’s part of our human nature. All the while, though, my wife and I would be ready with arms outstretched and hands wide open, ready to catch them if they fell or steady them if they lost their balance. All we asked was that they trusted us.

I think God wants the same. We don’t have to do life on our own. As we trust in Jesus, who stands outside our trials and reaches in to hold us in his nail-scarred hands, we will find everything we need to put one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time, until Jesus brings us through our trials to safety. This faith gives us a living hope, as we trust in our risen Saviour and hope in him who was dead but is now alive again. This faith will give us hope that makes us really alive!

More to think about:

  • What trials are you facing in your life right now?
  • When you face trials of any sort, do you tend to want to get through them on your own? Or do you look for help? Why do you think you do that?
  • Do you think of faith more as agreeing with the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection or trusting in the crucified and risen Jesus to get you through your trials? How might each of these look in a person’s life who is going through trials?
  • How important do you think it is to have a ‘living hope’ right now? How do you think faith in Jesus might be able to give you that ‘living hope’?
  • God gives us hope when we exercise basic spiritual disciplines like listening to his Word and praying to him. If you don’t already, how might you start doing those this week?
  • Do you look to Jesus for help as your last resort or first option? What difference might it make to your life if you went to Jesus as your first option?