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…

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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)

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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…

The Suffering Son (Hebrews 5:5-10)

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One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over my years of ministry is, ‘Why do people suffer?’ For a lot of people, including Christians, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then it would seem to make sense that God would not want people to suffer and would get rid of evil in the world.

I am not aware of any place in the Bible which gives a philosophical explanation for why God allows suffering in the world. It just assumes that there is suffering because of the existence of sin. However, the Bible does talk about the reality of suffering and God’s relationship with people in our suffering.

For example, in Hebrews 5:8,9, we read that Jesus learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering so that he could be ‘the source of eternal salvation’ for all who obey him. There are some key words in here that really deserve a message in themselves to understand what is being said because each of them can be understood in a few different ways. However, one way we can interpret what’s being said is that, as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he was learning to trust in his Father in heaven. This is what Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 – that ultimately God wants us to love and trust him more than anything else, and that trust will show itself in the way we live our lives. When Jesus went to the cross, all he could do was trust that his heavenly Father would hear his ‘prayers and pleadings’ as he asked his Father to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Even as he died, he was still trusting that his heavenly Father would keep his promises and raise him to life as he promised in the Old Testament (see Psalm 16:9,10).

This ‘obedience of faith’ then ‘qualified’ Jesus ‘as a perfect High Priest’ because it completed the task that God had sent him to accomplish. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’ is not so much being morally flawless, which is how we can sometimes think about perfection, but instead more about being brought to completion or reaching a goal. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because God completed him as our saviour and high priest as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father fully in the middle of what he was suffering. Jesus reached his goal by experiencing the full weight of suffering in our world so that, when we are suffering, we can go to him as the one who has suffered more than we could imagine but has also trusted our heavenly Father in ways that we can’t.

To obey Jesus, then, means to trust him like he trusted our heavenly Father. We all suffer in some way in our lives, to one degree or another. However, our society sees suffering as something that should be avoided at any cost, so we spend much of our time, effort and money trying to avoid suffering and pursue happiness. We do that in lots of different ways – relationships, material possessions, life experiences, entertainment and social media, even involvement in church can be a way of avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness.

When we look at the suffering of Jesus, however, especially through this text, we get a different perspective on suffering. When we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, which means that God suffers with us in him. God’s answer to human suffering isn’t to rid the world of suffering, but to become part of human suffering and share in our suffering with us. Whenever we suffer in any way, Jesus, the Immanuel – God with us – suffers with us as well. So we are never alone in our suffering, not matter how alone we might feel.

In the same way that Jesus learned the obedience of faith in suffering, we can also learn this same obedience in our suffering through faith in him. When we are experiencing pain or suffering of any kind, it can feel like it’s all out of our control. To learn the obedience of faith in our suffering means to trust God with those things that are out of our control and causing our suffering, just like Jesus did when he suffered. This is where we find an important aspect of faith: trusting God in all circumstances, even when it seems like he is a long way away.

This is also how God shapes us and perfects us as his holy people. When we find the grace to trust God in the middle of our suffering, he moulds us into people who are able to be his presence in the world. When we suffer, we can find God with us in our suffering through Jesus, and then we can become the presence of God in the lives of others in their suffering. God can use the hurts and pain we experience to bring us closer to him in a relationships of faith so that we, in turn, can bring hope and comfort to others who are suffering as well. In the same way that God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust him and complete him as our saviour, so God can and will use our suffering to teach us to trust him in all the circumstances of life, to grow our faith in him, to equip and then send us to bring his good news of peace and salvation into a suffering world.

None of this means that God inflicts suffering on people. Suffering is part of living in a fallen and broken world, and because we fail to love each other in the way God wants us to. Suffering isn’t God’s fault, but he doesn’t stand by doing nothing while we suffer either. The life and death of Jesus shows us that God is intimately involved in our suffering, as he suffers with and for us. In his creative power, God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust his heavenly Father and to perfect him as our great High Priest and saviour. When we suffer, then, we are never alone. God uses suffering to teach us to trust him as the one who is with us in our suffering, to grow our faith in him, and to equip us as his agents of peace and hope in a suffering world.

God’s Saving Love (John 3:14-21)

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There is a renovation show on Australian television called The Block where contestants move into properties that are run-down and derelict. Over the following few months, the contestants turn these properties into million-dollar residences. It is quite amazing to see houses, motels and even warehouses, which have been condemned as unfit for people to live in, saved from demolition and made new through hard work, sacrifice and a bucket load of money.

People I know have different opinions about whether The Block is good TV or not, but thinking about this text from John 3:17, what happens on The Block is kind of what Jesus does for the world.

Last year when Australia was debating whether or not to legalise same-sex marriage, one thing that stood out to me in many of the voices I heard from outside the church was that people in our society perceive Christians as being largely judgemental and condemning. I often come across the same sentiment when I perform weddings or funerals. At least one person will often joke that the roof will fall in when they walk into the church. These two examples reflect an attitude which is probably held by most Australians that Christians are judgemental and condemning of others.

The Apostle John says exactly the opposite should be true. He writes that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (v17). We can often hear the word ‘condemn’ as a legal term. When a person is convicted of a crime, the judge will condemn the prisoner to a prison sentence, or, either historically or in some parts of the world, to death. However, another way we can think of being ‘condemned’ and ‘saved’ is like those properties on The Block. When our world was run-down and derelict because of sin, when it was broken and falling apart because of neglect and abuse, God made it his home in the person of Jesus. Then this carpenter’s son began the work of saving the world from being condemned by restoring it to its original beauty. In The Message, Eugene Petersen paraphrases John 1:14 as, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.’ When God entered the world in the person of Jesus, he came to save the world from being condemned, not to tear it down, demolish or destroy it.

As people who live in this world which has been saved from being condemned, we can live as people who are free from condemnation. At one time or another in our lives, in one way or another, we can all suffer from condemnation. We can all see ourselves or feel like those run-down, derelict, neglected houses that are falling apart. The good news of Jesus, however, is that we have been saved from being condemned. Jesus has taken our condemnation on himself and has died as a condemned sinner so we can live free from any and all condemnation. That is why Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in adultery that he didn’t condemn her for her actions (John 8:1-11). That is also why the Apostle Paul wrote that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Because Jesus was condemned in our place, we can live free from condemnation every day of our lives through faith in him. When those voices from either within us or from outside us start to judge or condemn us, tell them to be quiet because Jesus was condemned in our place to save us from condemnation. The saving word of Jesus is stronger than the voices that whisper condemnation to us, so shut them up with the promise that Jesus was born, died and is raised again to save you, not to condemn you!

In a world that is quick to judge and condemn others for a whole lot of reasons, this is good news for everyone! The challenge that we face as the church is how to help our society understand that, as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, we are here to save people from the condemnation they experience, not to add to it.

This is the fundamental mission of the church: to join with Jesus is saving a broken world from being condemned, no matter what the cost!

So how do we do that? It starts with each of us living in ways that are free from condemnation. I talk with too many children of God who suffer from feeling judged and condemned for a range of reasons. We need to be pursuing the saving love of God in Jesus that frees us from condemnation and living in that freedom every day of our lives. It might sound simple, and often it isn’t, but this is the foundational purpose of Christian community – to give people a place where they can find freedom from condemnation through the saving love of Christ.

Which leads us to the second way we can bring the good news of Jesus’ saving love to the world: we need to stop condemning each other. When we are speaking well of each other and speaking grace to each other, we give life to each other as members together of the body of Christ. To often we judge or criticise others in the church because we don’t like what they are doing or the way they do things, and too often this results in condemnation. We need to be speaking words of grace and love, hope and joy, peace and blessing to each other in the church. Yes, there might be times when we need to speak ‘the truth in love’ to each other, but we need to be doing it to build each other up in love, not tearing each other down (Ephesians 4:15,16).

The third way we can change our culture’s view of Christians is to speak these same words of grace and love to the people we meet every day of our lives. Each and every day we are with people who suffer from feeling condemned in lots of different ways. Instead of criticising others who think or behave differently to the way we think they should, what if we loved them as people who are part of the world that Jesus came to restore? We might not be able to change the perspective of our society as a whole, but if we can show Jesus’ saving love to one person today, and tomorrow, and the next day, then we are doing our part to work with Jesus in restoring a broken and condemned world.

I don’t think I’ll watch The Block the same way again. I used to see it as people who were desperately trying to make fast money by pushing themselves to the physical and emotional limit. Next time I’m watching it, though, I’m going to see these contestants as people who are willing to do whatever it takes to save a condemned house and make it new again, no matter what the cost.

Just like Jesus did to save a condemned world…