Equipped (Acts 2:1-21)

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I love the story of the Apostle Peter. He began life named Simon and worked as a fisherman, an ordinary working man, until Jesus called him to be his disciple. As Simon followed Jesus for the next three years, he saw Jesus perform amazing miracles, witnessed his heavenly glory in the Transfiguration, and listened to Jesus teach about love, forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter often acted impulsively, literally jumping into deep water, and promised to stand by Jesus even if it cost him his life. Jesus gave Simon the named Peter, which means ‘Rock,’ when he confessed his faith that Jesus was God’s chosen Messiah.

When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter denied him three times. Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter returned his old ways and went fishing. Jesus met him there, cooked him breakfast, and re-established his relationship with him. In John’s gospel, Peter was among the disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the people who had killed Jesus. At the end of Luke’s gospel, Peter was one of the disciples who went back to Jerusalem to wait for power from heaven. I wonder whether Peter was still afraid and uncertain as they waited for Jesus to keep his promise and send them the Holy Spirit.

Then came the day of Pentecost when Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples with the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. Many people focus on the Holy Spirit giving the disciples the ability to speak in tongues in the Pentecost story. I wonder if there is another miracle here which can be overlooked. That miracle was the way the Holy Spirit transformed Peter.

On the day of Pentecost, Simon Peter changed from being afraid and uncertain, to witnessing publicly to Jesus’ saving work. The power of the Holy Spirit equipped Peter with everything he needed to speak about Jesus, telling people about the wonderful things God has done in him, and bringing the gospel to the people of Jerusalem. Because of the way the Holy Spirit equipped Peter and the other disciples, about three thousand people came to faith and were baptised on that day (Acts 2:41).

One of the key ways the Holy Spirit equipped Peter to witness to Jesus was through the grace he experienced. The picture we get of Peter in the gospels is of a person who had good intentions, but who got things wrong along the way. Jesus never abandoned Peter or gave up on him. Jesus stuck with him, held him up above the waves, sometimes rebuked him, but forgave him, reconciled with him and restored him. Peter was able to witness to the grace and love of God through Jesus because he had experienced it for himself.

In the same way, when we experience God’s forgiveness, grace and love in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to be his witnesses. Like Peter, God knows that we often have the best of intentions, but we get things wrong too. We mess things up, make mistakes, and damage relationships. But Jesus never abandons us. Through Jesus, God stays with us, keeps our heads above the waves, sometime rebukes us, but always restores our relationship with him through the forgiveness and grace he extends to us in Jesus. Through all of our mistakes and shortcomings, the Holy Spirit keeps us in God’s grace and love, equipping us to be witnesses of the good news of Jesus in our lives.

This witness doesn’t have to be like the witness Peter and the other disciples gave at Pentecost. We are not all called or gifted to preach publicly about Jesus. In Peter’s first letter, he gives advice to Jesus’ followers who are living in a culture that can be hostile to the faith on how to witness to what God has done for us in Jesus. Peter writes:

… even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:14-16a NLT)

Peter’s way of witnessing to Jesus starts with living in a way that is consistent with who God has made us. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and makes us God’s holy children, we witness to what God does for us by living holy lives. As we receive God’s perfect and infinite love for us in Jesus, we witness to God’s saving love by loving others around us. As people who are made righteous through faith, we witness to God’s goodness by trusting him in all things and doing what is good and right. According to Peter’s letter, our witness begins with how we live, the ways in which we talk to and about others, and how we treat others in our relationships. Then, when people ask us why there is something different about us, we are in a position to share the hope we have in Jesus who changes us by the power of his Spirit.

To witness like this, we need to be equipped by the power of the Holy Spirit, just Simon Peter. We hope and pray that all of God’s people would be equipped to be effective witnesses to Jesus in our lives. That is why we included Equipping as the third aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. We want to see all of God’s people given the tools to be able to witness to what God is doing in our lives through Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. In time our congregation will be offering courses, studies and other programs to help equip us all as Jesus’ witnesses. In the end, though, we will need the Holy Spirit to be equipping us so that, like Peter, we can change from being afraid or uncertain of where God is leading us to being effective witnesses for Jesus.

Imagine what our church could be like if all of us were equipped by the Holy Spirit’s power to witness boldly and confidently to God’s saving work in our lives through Jesus, just like Peter and the other disciples. What could be possible if we witnessed the goodness of God in everything we said and did, in all of our relationships and interactions with other people, in every aspect of our lives? Not all of us are called to preach publicly like Peter did on that first Pentecost Day. However, as Peter writes in his letter, when the Holy Spirit equips us to live holy lives, doing what is right and good, and to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have to all who ask us, we will be Jesus’ witnesses in our communities, in our nation, and to the ends of the earth.

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Growing (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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I’m not the world’s most dedicated or skillful gardener. However, I like to have plants around our home that are healthy and look good. At times, some plants don’t seem to be doing as well as I had hoped, so I’m faced with a question: is this plant still alive or is it time to take it out and put something else in its place?

My way of trying to work out if a plant is still living is to look for signs of growth. If it is growing, I will continue to look after it and try to help it grow. If it isn’t growing, however, then it’s time to take it out so something else can grow in its place.

It’s a simple idea: growth is a sign of life.

Maybe that’s why the Apostle Paul prays that the early Christians is Ephesus ‘might grow in (their) knowledge of God’ (v17 NLT). Just like the plants in my garden, growth is a sign of life. He prays for them, and as we hear these words also for us, because when we are growing in our ‘knowledge of God’ then something is alive in us that is producing that growth.

It’s important to understand, though, that when Paul talks about ‘knowledge’ he isn’t talking about something that is primarily intellectual or academic. In this information age, we usually understand ‘knowledge’ as facts, figures or data about any given person or topic.

For pre-modern people, however, ‘knowledge’ was much more relational. It is the difference between knowing a whole lot of information about a person and actually having a relationship with them. For example, I can know everything there is to know about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but that won’t get me an invitation to their wedding. For that to happen, I would need to know them and be in relationship with them. This is how the Bible understands ‘knowledge.’ It is much more a relationship with people than just information about them.

What Paul is praying for, then, is that we are growing in relationship with God. Essentially, the Christian faith is relational. God welcomes us into relationship with him as his children and he asks us to call him ‘Father.’ Jesus, the Son of the Father, became one with us, died and is risen from the dead to restore the broken relationship with God. Jesus’ command to love others in the same way he has loved us is at its heart relational – we can only love God or other people when we are in relationship with them.

My relationship with my wife, children, other family members and friends will grow and change over time as we go through life’s challenges and joys together. In the same way, Paul is praying that our relationship with God will continue to grow as we journey through life in relationship with him. As we go through the ups and downs of life with God, giving thanks for the good times and looking for his grace in the tough times, we will be growing in our relationship with him as we learn to trust him in all circumstances of life.

Paul continues his prayer by asking that this growing knowledge of God would show itself in the lives of God’s people in two ways. The first is hope (v18). In a world where people are struggling for a lot of different reasons, we could all benefit from a greater sense of hope. Paul’s prayer is that we might grow in hope through a growing relationship with God.

The second is understanding ‘the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him’ (v19 NLT). Paul describes this as the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and raised him up to share in God’s authority in his ascension. This is the power of God to bring light into dark places, to lift us up when we are at our lowest points, to bring us out of isolation into restored relationships with others, and to give us life when everything around us is trying to rob life from us. This power of God can show itself in lots of different ways, depending on what’s happening in our lives. It makes me wonder how God might display this power in your life…

We grow in our relationship with God the same way that we grow in any other relationship. We grow in our knowledge of God by making time for him in our busy lives, as we listen to his words of promise and grace in the Bible, as we talk honestly with him in prayer, and as we grow in our relationships with other Christians in community and especially in worship together. As we exercise these and other spiritual disciplines, and as we learn to love brothers and sisters in the faith and be loved by them, our relationship with God will grow as we participate in the body of Christ, which is the church (Ephesians 1:23), and journey through life together.

Our growth in knowing God is vital to our life as his people, so we included it as the second element of our congregation’s discipling plan. Because growing is a sign of life, we want to help people grow in their relationship with God. I pray, along with the Apostle Paul, that the members and friends of our community of faith, along with all who read these words, would be growing in their knowledge of and relationship with God, so that together we might also understand more and more the hope to which he has called us, and the incredible greatness of his power for us who trust him.
So, how can we help you grow?

Laying Life Down (John 10:11-18)

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While I was a full-time student, I worked a few jobs in retail. During our training for each of these positions, we were told that if we were ever to be held up, we were not to argue with the person robbing us but we were to open the cash register and give the money over. Each time the reason was the same: our lives were much more valuable than the money. The cash could be replaced, but our lives can’t.

Given the choice between putting our lives on the line to protect what was in our care and letting it be taken by someone who was threatening us, it makes sense to save our lives and let go of what we are looking after.

However, sometimes it’s not that simple. For example, a few months ago there was a shooting in a school in the USA. A security guard at the school was heavily criticised afterwards for remaining outside the building when he could hear gunshots inside the classrooms. I don’t know why he didn’t go in to confront the shooters, but I wonder if he was possibly following the instructions I received in my retail training – that you don’t put your life at risk because you can’t get it back.

We all have an inbuilt desire for self-preservation. What my retail trainers were telling me and what the security guard at the school in the USA shows is that our natural tendency is to want to save our lives, even if it comes at the expense of others. My intention is not to be critical or condemning, and I do not want to make anyone feel guilty for making a choice like this. Instead, I want to show that there is a stark contrast between our natural human tendency and Jesus, who willingly laid down his life for us.

Jesus makes this contrast in John 10:11-18 when he describes the difference between a hired hand who is employed to look after a flock of sheep and himself as the Good Shepherd. The hired hand follows my retail training by leaving the sheep when they are threatened by a wolf. The Good Shepherd, however, knows the sheep and values each sheep so much that he willingly lays his life down for the sheep.

When you stop to think about it, this is a pretty disturbing image. Jesus isn’t saying that the shepherd he scares the wolf away or fights it off. Instead, the Good Shepherd places himself between the sheep in his care and the wolf that is threatening them. He willingly lets the wolf kill him and, assuming the wolf is looking for something to eat, feast on his carcass so that the sheep can escape to safety. This is not exactly a child-friendly image. But Jesus is wanting to show us the lengths that he will go to for those in his care because he values each of his sheep so much. That is the way he values each of us…

This idea of sacrifice for others is deeply embedded in our Australian culture. Each year on April 25th we pause as a nation to remember the men and women of our defence forces who have died for our country in war. ANZAC Day is an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us so we can live in peace and freedom. It is an important part of our culture as a nation and vitally important that we honour those who have given their lives to protect us.

Even though we live in relative freedom in Australia, we still face threats which want to rob us of life. In the verses preceding Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd, he talked about thieves who come to ‘steal and kill and destroy’ the ‘rich and satisfying life’ (v10 NLT) that Jesus gives us. We all face wolves in our lives who want to rob us of life. Sometimes those wolves might be fear, guilt, anger or hopelessness. At other times they might take other forms, but their intention is still the same – to rob life from us.

That’s when the Good Shepherd steps in. He knows what threatens to rob life from us and he places himself between us and the wolves that threaten us so we can find safety and freedom through his sacrifice for us. When we are threatened by fear, Jesus our Good Shepherd takes the worst of this world’s evils on himself in his suffering and death so we can find comfort in his presence with us. When we are threatened by guilt, Jesus takes all of our guilt on himself and dies with it on the cross so we can find forgiveness in him. When we are threatened by anger or hatred, Jesus takes the full force of this world’s anger and hated on the cross, as well as our Father’s wrath, so we can find peace. When hopelessness approaches, our Good Shepherd who died for us comes to us as the One who is risen from the grave to give us his love and life which are stronger than anything we will face in this world. No matter what may threaten to rob us of life, Jesus our Good Shepherd steps up for us, and takes the full force of the threat so we can live in his protection, freedom, peace and hope.

He does all of this because each one of us is so valuable to him. Matthew ends his version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep with Jesus saying, ‘it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish’ (18:12-14 NLT). Each and every sheep in the flock is precious to the Good Shepherd. It can be easy for us to understand that Jesus would give his life for others, but often it can be more difficult to trust that he did that for me, or for you. This is the heart of faith: trusting that each of us is so precious, so valuable, so essential to our Good Shepherd that he would lay down his life for us so we can live.

It would be easy to go on at this point to how we should also give our lives for others, but I’m not going to do that. We know we should be willing to lay down our lives for others, but we still have this thing within us that asks what’s in it for me, or what do I get out of it, or what is it going to cost me? It is part of our natural human condition. That’s why Jesus’ love still amazes me. He knows us well enough to know that it’s not in our nature to be willing to give our lives for others unconditionally, but he still does that for us. For me. For you. That’s why he’s the Good Shepherd.

And that’s why I reckon he can be trusted and why he’s worth following…

Identity (1 John 3:1-7)

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If you were meeting someone for the first time and they asked, ‘Who are you?’ how would you answer?

I guess the first thing most of us would say would be our names. However, if that person was wanting to learn who you are and not just what your name is, then what would you say?

Many different influences all combine to help shape the people we are – our choices, actions, work, and relationships are just a few. However, to some degree or another all of these begin with the basic building-blocks of our identity which were given to us at birth. While our identity grows and changes over time and through our experiences in life, the foundations of who we are begin with those characteristics which were given to us by our parents and then shaped by our families.

These words from 1 John 3:1-7 can go a long way to help us discover our identity as they point us to a place where we can find who we are through a relationship with God. John tells us that God has given us his love by calling us his children because that is who we are! God pours out his love into our lives by wanting to be in the closest possible relationship with us, so he welcomes us as his children and gives us all of his perfect and infinite love.

We find the love John describes in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus, God clears the way for a new relationship with him. God’s love for us is so great that he took on our identity by becoming human, and suffered more than we can imagine in order to remove every obstacle to becoming his children. Then, through the gift of his Holy Spirit, God our Father adopts us into his family and makes us his children.

God intentionally and deliberately seeks us out, chooses us and welcomes us into this new relationship with him as his children. God gives us a new identity as his children whom he loves unconditionally so we can find who we are in our relationship with him.
As we get to know Jesus, we also get to know who we are. Because Jesus is God’s own Son, when God adopts us, we begin to discover who we are as God’s children because he gives us the nature of Christ. This is what John means when he writes that God

has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is (v2 NLT)

John gives a glimpse of who Jesus is, and who we are becoming as God’s children, when he writes that ‘all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure’ (v3) and ‘when people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous’ (v7). These are two attributes that God gives to us when he welcomes us into relationship with him as his children: purity and righteousness. Basically, along with the gift of identity as God’s child, our loving Father also cleans us out and makes right everything in us that was wrong.

As God’s children whom he loves, then, our journey of faith is to grow into the identity he has given us. God has given us the basic building blocks to our identity as his children whom he loves. In all the circumstances of life, we can continually come back to this promise. However, there are a lot of other factors which shape us and form us into the people we are becoming.

That is why Christian community is so critical in our growth as God’s people. No one forms their identity in isolation. Instead, through our relationships as God’s family of believers, we are formed into our identity as God’s children as we experience the love God has for us in community together. Christian community is also the way in which we help others find their identity as God’s children through their relationships with us.

We need each other – to be giving experiences of God’s love for us in our relationships together and experiencing God’s love for us in our relationships together as God’s children. When we view our congregation’s Discipling Plan from this perspective, it helps us to think of our congregation less as an institutional organisation and more as a family who are growing in the identity God has graced us with as his children. God is connecting with us by making us his children and embracing us with his love, so that we can be connecting with each other as brothers and sisters in God’s family. We can all be growing in our understanding of who we are as God’s children and how his love shapes us in every situation or circumstance of life. As God’s maturing children, then, we can be equipping each other to live out our identity as God’s children in our relationships with others so they can experience the love of God our Father through us. God is then sending us out into the world as his children to bring his love to everyone we meet and to connect with others who haven’t yet discovered their identity as God’s children.

On Sunday three young people received Holy Communion, the family meal Jesus gave to us, for the first time. I wonder what will be the main influences in shaping their identities as they enter their teenage years? Will it be the shallow, individualistic, consumer culture of the society we live in? Or will we step up as their sisters and brothers in Jesus to help them find who they are as children of God who have been given the perfect, infinite and unconditional love of their Father in heaven?

Whatever age we might be, we are all growing into our identities. There may be times when we wonder who we are in the middle of the confusion and struggles of life. In the grace God gives us in Jesus, we can always be strong in what John tells us. Whatever is happening in our lives, we can see the great love God has for us because he calls us his children – and that is who we are!

United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?

Easter 2018

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For Christians, the Easter weekend is one of the most important periods of the year as we journey with Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection from the grave. This year, our congregation tried a few different things in our services to try to help people connect with the events that are central to our faith and to find a greater sense of meaning in them. Rather than write out each message in detail, I’m going to provide a brief summary of what we did and what I said at each service.

We began on Maundy Thursday in the hall. This service commemorates Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his death, so we wanted to try to help people experience the Lord’s Supper as the family meal for the people of God. We welcomed worshippers in the church foyer where we offered to wash their feet, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. From there, people moved into the hall where chairs were arranged in the round. At the centre was a table on which were the bread and wine for Holy Communion. The service order was very simple, with Bible readings and prayers being done by people from their seats. We closed with Psalm 88 being read as we removed what was on the table and reflected on what Jesus suffered after the meal.

My message was based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul was passing on to the Christians in Corinth what he had received from Jesus – the words used whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For almost two thousand years, these words have been passed on from generation to generation of Jesus’ followers as they have proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ death which brings life to those who have come after them. The promise we receive through these words is the real presence of Jesus with us in all the circumstances of life, and the gift of his life which is stronger than death. The challenge these words present to us is to pass them on to the generation that is coming after us. Will we, as the family of God and the body of the living Christ, be willing to do whatever is necessary to pass on the good news of Jesus’ death and the meal he gave us to the next generation so they can live in the love and grace of Jesus?

On Good Friday morning we gathered outside the church and then moved as a group to five different areas around the church grounds to hear the story of Jesus arrest, suffering and death from Mark 14:32-15:47. We divided up the story into five scenes – Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the Jewish High Council, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, and then his crucifixion and death. Various people read the words of the different characters in the story and there were one or two props at each place to help set the scene. It was all kept very simple to give the congregation a chance to imagine what it may have been like for Jesus and his followers. After the story, I gave a short message, we spent some time in prayer, and people were welcome to remain for some time of reflection and meditation.

Our hope for the service was to help people move from being spectators to participants in the story by following Jesus the way the crowd might have done. When we spectate at sporting events, theatre performances or concerts, there is a divide between us and the participants. The same can happen with Jesus’ suffering and death – when we are just spectators of the events, a divide exists between us and Jesus. However, Jesus overcomes the divide between us and God through his death, signified by the tearing of the curtain in the Temple (Mark 15:38). Jesus invites us to participate in his death through faith in him, so we can also participate in the life of God through his Holy Spirit. As long as we are spectators of Jesus death, we miss out on its benefits in our lives. When we participate in Jesus’ suffering and death through faith, we can find life in all its fullness.

On Easter morning more than sixty of us met at the picnic ground at Anstey Hill Recreation Park for a dawn service. Like we did on Maundy Thursday evening, we gathered around a table with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection and remembered that the life of the risen Christ is our life through his gift of his Holy Spirit. We were blessed with a beautiful sunrise as people who had gathered participated in the Bible readings, including the resurrection story from Mark 16:1-8, an affirmation of Baptism, resurrection songs, and prayers. Then some of us went back to church for breakfast and to continue celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at our regular worship times.

I realised early in the year that Easter Sunday was going to be on April Fools’ Day. When the women who were first at Jesus’ empty tomb had gone back to the disciples, I wonder if they thought that the women were trying to fool them. The news of the resurrection of Jesus can sound like an April Fools’ Day joke because in our experience dead people don’t come back to life. From a worldly point of view, the message of Jesus’ resurrection sounds pretty foolish. A group of Christians, sitting in a park, singing songs at dawn probably also looked foolish to the early morning walkers who saw us. Paul tells us that the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection will sound foolish to people who don’t believe (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). However, we can trust the message of the resurrection of Jesus because Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that more than five hundred people saw the risen Jesus, including himself. This wasn’t just a story Jesus’ followers made up, or a hope that Jesus would somehow live on in the memory of his disciples. They saw him and were even willing to die for the truth that Jesus is risen from the grave. In our own lives, too, faith that Jesus’ resurrection gives us a life which is stronger than the difficulties, pains, uncertainties and struggles we might be experiencing, can give us a hope that gets us through the darkest and most difficult of times. This hope says to me that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes a real difference for us.

I was over at the shops this morning. All the Easter decorations have gone already. As followers of Jesus, though, our Easter celebrations have just started. For the next six weeks, we will continue to rejoice in the good news that Jesus suffered, died and is risen again for us to give us life that is stronger than death. Whatever you might be going through in life, what we experience in this world will one day come to an end. The life of Jesus that is yours through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit will never end.

As the sun comes up each day, I hope and pray you can find that hope in him.

Climbing Down (Philippians 2:5-11)

ladder 02

We can use ladders in lots of ways – for example when we are cleaning the gutters, painting a house, or getting a ball which your child has thrown onto the roof.

Ladders can also be used as a metaphor for getting ahead in life. We can talk about climbing the ladder of success. We hope that our football team will be higher on the ladder than other teams. We can also use the picture of a ladder to describe a person’s journey towards heaven, paradise, nirvana, enlightenment, personal fulfilment, or any other name for the ideal spiritual state.

Almost every spirituality, philosophy or system of human thought that I’ve come across in my life has the goal of climbing a ladder to a higher level of being human. Religions as well as secular humanist ways of seeing life aim to rise above where we are and move upwards towards something better. The goal of a lot of people’s lives is to be upwardly mobile, climbing whatever ladder we think is important, until we reach our objective.

When the Apostle Paul describes the incarnation and life of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-8, however, he points to a person who moves in the opposite direction. When billions of spiritual or religious people over the course of human history and in our own time have been trying to work their way up the spiritual ladder, Jesus, the one who was with God since before the creation of the world, left the comfort and safety of heaven and moved down the ladder to meet us where we are.

Paul tell us that Jesus began his downward journey by not thinking of ‘equality with God as something to cling to’ (v6 NLT). Jesus’ attitude is so very different from our natural tendency to either want to play God, or to look for the divine within us. Instead of trying to hang one to God’s glory and power, Jesus journeyed downwards as he ‘gave up his divine privileges’ and ‘took the humble position of a slave’ (v7). Paul’s use of the word ‘slave’ here is important because slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder in ancient culture. When Jesus became human, his entry point into the human experience was the bottom rung of the ladder. Then Jesus continued to move downwards as he humbled himself even further by ‘dying a criminal’s death on a cross’ (v8). Jesus’ downward journey hit rock bottom as he suffered the most painful and shameful execution which was reserved for the lowest of the low in Romans society.

Jesus moved in this downward direction and endured suffering and a shame-filled death to meet us where we are and to give us the promise of something better. He knows that we can never climb the spiritual ladder to be where God is or to reach heaven. It’s not just because we can’t do enough good or do it well enough. Our whole orientation is wrong. Jesus taught us to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love others like we love ourselves. If we are trying to climb the spiritual ladder for our own benefit, then we are not doing it in love for God or for others, and we have failed form the start. For all our efforts, we get no closer to our goal.

Jesus fulfils God’s command for us by loving us enough to sacrifice everything for us and descend the ladder from heaven to meet us in our human experience, and loving God by trusting that he will raise him up. Jesus embraces us in himself by taking on our humanity and becoming one with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to climb the ladder because Jesus meets us wherever we are, no matter how low or down we may be feeling.

Having embraced us as members of his body, Jesus displayed perfect faith in our heavenly Father by trusting that he would raise him up from the darkest depths of human existence and bring him back to where he belonged. In verse 9, Paul writes that ‘God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names’ (NLT). In his resurrection and ascension, God the Father honoured Jesus’ faithfulness by lifting him up to his rightful place at the top of the ladder again. When we are united with Jesus through faith, God also raises us up with Jesus as members of his body. We don’t have to try to work our way up the ladder because the Father has raised us up with Jesus from death to life eternal (see Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1). This is the essence of the Christian faith: to trust that Jesus meets us where we are, embraces us in his own body and carries us upwards into the presence of almighty God for ever.

Paul introduces this passage by writings that we ‘must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had’ (v5). To trust in Jesus means following him down the ladders of life in the faith that our heavenly Father will lift us up again. The basic human problem is that we still want to work our way up the ladders of our lives. Especially in our relationships with each other, which is how the NIV translates verse 5, we tend to want the upper hand, to be in control of what happens and how things are done, and to see that we get our own way, even if it is at the expense of others. The way Paul says we are to live in our relationships with sisters and brothers in Christian community, however, is to follow Jesus in the opposite direction by serving others, looking to what benefits them even if it comes at our own personal expense, to give up our power and control and do what gives others an experience of Jesus’ downward movement into our lives through grace and love. As members of the body of Christ, we need to be placing ourselves below others in the faith that that is where we find Jesus and that God our heavenly Father will raise us up with him.

In which direction is your life heading? Are you looking for upward mobility with a greater sense of power and control over your life? Are you trying to find a closer connection with God, or looking for the divine within? If we are trying to move up the ladder in any sense, we run the risk of missing Jesus who heads in the opposite direction.

As we walk with Jesus through the events of his suffering, death and resurrection next weekend, we witness his downward movement into the darkest depths of human existence. That is where we find God. When he finds us there, and when Jesus makes us one with him, then our Father promises us, just as he promised his Son, that he will raise us up.

So don’t be afraid to look down…