Learning to Love (Exodus 20:1-17)

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Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus and asked him what was the most important commandment. In a religious context where people were expected to memorise and keep 613 different rules, I can understand why they would ask Jesus which one he wanted them to prioritize the most. The writers of the gospels differ slightly in the way they tell the stories, but they all agree that Jesus said that loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and loving our neighbours like we love ourselves was the essence of what God wants us to do (see Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:39-41; Luke 10:26-28).

Jesus’ shift from a highly developed system of rules to one command to love challenges us to think for ourselves. When we have rules, we can either follow them or react against them without giving much thought to what we are doing. With Jesus’ command to love, however, we need to start asking ourselves some difficult questions. Who are our neighbours? How we do love them in real, practical ways? Is love for God something we feel? Is it just about the songs we sing? Or is loving God something more?

In teaching us his number one command, Jesus also gives us a way to interpret all the other commands through the Bible. Essentially, they are commentary on how God wants us to love him and love other people. Especially when we read the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17, we can see how God wants us to love him in the first three, and how to love the people around us in commandments four to ten.

(At this point it might be good to explain that I’m following the traditional Lutheran numbering of the 10 Commandments. While other parts of our Christian family number them differently, I’m happy to accept that there are different interpretations without debating which is correct.)

A gift we have in Martin Luther’s explanation of the Commandments in his Small Catechism is the way he explores how they teach us to actively love God and other people. We could spend a lot of time delving into each commandment. They open up so many ways for us to live out Jesus’ command to love that our entire lives can be dedicated to doing the good works that they teach. (If you’re interested in learning more about what Luther taught about good works and the 10 Commandments you might like to read his Treatise on Good Works).

For example, when we hear the Commandments teaching us how to love, God wants us to:

  1. respect and trust him above everything else, because whatever we love most of all is in fact our god
  2. use his name to pray, praise and thank him for the good he does for us and gives to us
  3. take time in our busy lives to rest, firstly because it’s physically good for us, but also so we can grow in our identity as his children by participating in a community that gathers around his word
  4. honour and respect those in authority, even if we don’t think they deserve it
  5. provide for the physical needs of our neighbours
  6. be pure and honourable in our sexual relationships, keeping the promises we have made as married couples and helping others to keep their promises to each other
  7. help others to protect and improve their property and possessions
  8. speak well of others and explain their actions in the kindest ways, no matter what they might be saying about us
  9. do what’s best for others in regards to their personal possessions
  10. do what’s best for others in regards to their relationships

When we interpret these Commandments as showing us how to love God and the people around us, they are very challenging. They ask us to look beyond ourselves and what we get from others, to focus on God and other people, and look for ways that we can bless and benefit them.

What is critical about re-interpreting the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love, however, is asking why we are doing what we do. I regularly come across the idea that people have, both inside and outside the church, that we need to keep the commandments if we want to get to heaven. The paradox in understanding the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love is that if I’m trying to keep them for my own benefit, then I’m actually breaking Jesus’ command because my focus is still more on myself than on God or other people.

The only way to keep Jesus’ command to love is to trust that God will take care of us in every way so we can focus on him and others. Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus began his public ministry, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven had already come near (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). In a similar way, Paul tells us that through faith in Jesus we have already been raised to new life in the resurrection of Christ (e.g. Colossians 3:1). We don’t have to keep the commandments to get to heaven because the life of Jesus, which is stronger than death, has already been given to us through faith in him by the power of the Holy Spirit. That faith sets us free from having to focus on ourselves and shifts the entire focus of our lives towards the God who saves us and the people around us who need his love. When we trust God to take care of us and provide us with everything we need for this life and the next for Jesus’ sake through the power of his Spirit, we can love God because of his love for us in Jesus, and extend his love to others. Through faith in Jesus, we can follow his teaching on love. The 10 Commandments show us how we can do that in real, practical ways.

In the freedom God gives us through faith in Jesus, how can we better show our love for God who saves us and who loves us perfectly in his Son? How are we able to extend God’s love to the people around us, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most, by following what the Commandments teach us? Loving in the ways the 10 Commandments teach isn’t always easy, but we can be sure that, when we live by them in the faith the Holy Spirit provides, we are doing the good that God wants us to do.

More to think about:

  • Which do you think would be easier to live by: lots of rules for different situations or one command for every circumstance? Which would you prefer to live by?  Why?
  • What do you think about interpreting the 10 Commandments as explaining how to fulfil Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others? Do they help you understand how God wants you to love him and others? Or do you think they make it more difficult? Explain your thoughts…
  • Luther explains the 10 Commandments both negatively and positively – what we shouldn’t do as well as what we can do to show love for God and others. Does this help you see ways in which you can love God and others?
  • Which of the commandments is most difficult for you to keep? How can the forgiveness and freedom we have through faith in Jesus help you to keep that commandment better?
  • Who do you know that needs the kind of love the 10 Commandments teach? How might trusting God help you love that person better this week?
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Losing it All (Mark 8:31-38)

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For the last couple of years our congregation has been talking about simplifying our busyness and activity around a clear discipling focus, and being more effective in our ministry to our young people. Pretty early in these discussions, some people began to realise that if we are going simplify what we do and how we do it, and if we are going to prioritize ministry to young people, then there will be things in our congregation that will change. And that has made some people uncomfortable.

I came across an idea a few years ago that what worries people most about change isn’t the change itself, but what they could lose through the change. This idea makes sense to me because, in a congregational context, we connect with a particular church because we like what that church has to offer – its style of worship, its programs, or the way it does things. To think about changing any of that can be unsettling because why would we want to change something when it’s what we like? It makes sense that our natural reaction will be to resist any changes which could result in losing what we like or what we value, what matters or what’s important to us.

But then we come to Jesus’ teaching about following him in Mark 8:31-38. As we have discussed discipleship in our congregation over the last couple of years, I’ve been side-stepping the words of Jesus in verse 35 because they are extremely confronting and challenging. However, maybe it’s time that we listen to what Jesus has to say to us here. If we are serious about living as Jesus’ disciples and making disciples of others, and if we want to take Jesus’ message seriously (Growing Young, pp126-162) then we need to hear what Jesus is teaching us in these words.

I really struggled with these words all last week. I understand how they applied to early Christians who risked being killed for following Jesus, or how they apply to our sisters and brothers around the world today who face serious persecution for their faith. However, in our affluent, consumer culture, what does it mean for us to lose our lives for Jesus and for the gospel? Does it mean we need to join a monastery or convent to spend all day, every day in prayer and meditation? Or do we need to give everything up to become pastors in the church?

Our problem is that we tend to look for life in places that don’t actually give us what we need. We look for our sense of identity, belonging and purpose in things that don’t last or aren’t reliable, such as possessions, relationships, social media or experiences. Even in congregations, we can try to find our identity by belonging to a church organization, our belonging by having a pigeonhole in the church foyer or a shared family connection, and our purpose by being on a committee or a roster. If we try to find our lives in what we do for the church, then we will resist change if it looks like we will lose what’s important to us.

However, if we are willing to lose what we value, or what’s important to us, or what matters to us, if we are willing to lose where we try to find our identity, belonging or purpose, then Jesus promises that we will find something much better. In our children’s talk on Sunday, one young girl told me how she lost her Elsa and Anna dolls (the two main characters from Disney’s movie Frozen), but then she was given all of the Disney princess dolls in their place. That’s kind of what Jesus is saying to us – when we lose what’s important to us, what matters to us, or what we value, or when we lose wherever we are trying to find our identity, value or purpose, then we find something much better in him.

To ‘save’ our lives isn’t just about going to heaven when we die. Jesus promises us a ‘rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10 NLT) in this world as well. When we are willing to lose what’s important to us, we can find a new and better life in relationship with him because Jesus has already lost everything for us.

I wonder what it would have been like to have been one of Jesus’ disciples, to see the things they saw, to witness the miracles Jesus performed and hear his teaching on the Kingdom of God. Then, for Jesus to look at them and tell them that he needed to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, be rejected, crucified and die, and be raised to new life on the third day (v31). I can understand Peter’s reaction in verse 32 because it’s our natural tendency to want to hang on to life, not lose it.

However, it is through losing his life that Jesus gives us life. He was willing to sacrifice everything for us because what matters most to Jesus, what he values most and what is most important to him, is us. Even when we are so reluctant to lose what matters to us, Jesus lost everything by giving his life for us on the cross because he would rather die than see us lost in a world that promises us life in so many shallow and superficial ways, but ultimately can’t deliver. Each and every one of us is so important to Jesus, so valuable and so precious to him that he preferred to lose his life so that we can find life in him.

Faith in this good news changes our whole lives. We can find our identity in Jesus as he embraces us in a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. We can find a place to belong as members of the body of Christ, and sisters and brothers in the community of believers. We can find purpose for our lives as God calls us to participate with him in his work of redeeming, restoring and renewing all of creation. When we are willing to lose everything that matters to us in the faith that Jesus lost his life for us on the cross and in order to embrace others with the good news of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus, then we find a life that is full of God’s goodness, which is even stronger than death.

Jesus lost everything for us on the cross to bring us into a new life as God’s family and members of his body. We can find who we are, where we belong and what we’re here for in him because of what he lost for us. Then Jesus calls us to follow him along the same path, so others can find a new life in him as well.

What are we willing to lose for Jesus and for the good news?

More to think about:

  • Generally speaking, do you tend to embrace or resist change? Can you give an example of a time when you have done that? What were your reasons for either embracing or resisting that change?
  • What do you think of the idea that people don’t fear change as much as what they might lose through the change? Would you agree or disagree with that? Can you explain why?
  • What do you think Jesus meant when he said that whoever loses their life for him and for the gospel will save it (v35)? What might it look like for you to lose your life for Jesus and for the gospel?
  • Where do you look for your identity, belonging and purpose? If it’s not in Jesus, how might finding your sense of who you are, where you fit and what you’re here for be different if you looked for them in your relationship with Jesus?
  • What would you find easy to lose in your experience of church? What would you find difficult to lose? How might losing them help someone else experience grace?

Saving Water (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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Over the years I have had a number of friends who belonged to churches from different Christian denominations. As we discussed the differences and similarities in our faith, at some stage we would begin to talk about baptism. No matter how much we had in common, one key difference we had was our understandings of baptism.

The difficulty was usually around the question of whether baptism saves a person or not. My friends argued that baptism doesn’t save people because lots of people who have been baptised don’t live in ways that are consistent with believing in Jesus. For my friends, salvation comes through a decision we make for Christ, and then baptism gives a public testimony to that salvation. That could be why the New Living Translation describes baptism as ‘a response to God from a clean conscience’ (v21). The belief behind this translation of the text is that people’s consciences are made clean when they are saved and baptism is their response to that salvation.

However, Peter clearly says that baptism saves us (v21). To illustrate this salvation, he points to Noah and his family who were saved from a world that ‘had become corrupt’ and ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11 NLT) through the flood. Peter argues that this becomes an illustration of how the water of baptism saves us by washing us clean of everything that makes us unacceptable to God and giving us new and clean consciences through, as the English Standard Version puts it, ‘an appeal to God.’

The problem we face is that the Greek word for ‘response’ (NLT), ‘pledge’ (NIV) or ‘appeal’ (ESV) is very difficult to translate, so we naturally prefer the interpretation which fits better with how we understand baptism. When we look at other texts in the New Testament, however, a strong case can be made that God saves people through baptism.

For example, Peter goes on to say that baptism saves because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (v21). This is consistent with what Paul writes in Romans 6:4, that

we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (NIV)

For both Paul and Peter, in baptism people are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why we can have a clear conscience: Jesus made himself one with us, putting all of our sin and brokenness to death by taking it to the cross, and then raised us up with himself to a new life as God’s children.

We find this idea of adoption into God’s family through baptism in Galatians 3:26,27 where Paul writes,

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)

For Paul, we are given a new relationship with God through baptism as his children when we were washed clean and given the family clothes of Christ. This isn’t something we do for ourselves or a decision that we make. Instead, it is the saving action of God in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work through the water of baptism and the word of God that is spoken with it.

The danger with identifying baptism as something we do for God is that it removes God from being the one who saves and places ourselves, along with our words, actions or decisions, in God’s place. If we are to trust in the God who saves that we meet in the person of Jesus, then we need to allow him to save us by whatever means he decides, including the water of baptism, just like he saved Noah and his family through the waters of the flood.

This can sound very theological and theoretical, and some may wonder how it makes a difference in our lives. How we understand baptism is important because if our consciences accuse us of things we have done wrong, or if we begin to doubt our salvation because of a guilty conscience, we can remember that Jesus has taken our sin, our wrongs and our brokenness from us. Our baptism is God’s pledge to us that we are forgiven for the sake of Jesus and we can live every day with a guilt-free conscience. This grace isn’t something to be misused or abused, but instead is a gift from God so we can stop worrying about our own salvation and start loving the people around us the way he wants us to.

It is also important to remember that baptism is the start of a new life as God’s children, not a free entry, ‘access all areas’ pass into heaven which we can ignore during our lives and then pull out when we die. If we think about baptism as an adoption, it gives us a new identity into which we grow as we learn more and more about who God has called us to be as Jesus’ disciples. We can also think about baptism in terms of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God doesn’t want us to connect with him and leave it at that. Instead, he connects with us through baptism in order to grow us as his children, to equip us for the work he is calling us to do, and to send us into the world to work with him in his mission to restore, redeem and renew all of creation.

Ultimately, the question of whether baptism saves or not comes down to whether we see baptism as something we do for God, or something God does for us. I understand the reasons why people have difficulty with the idea of baptism saving us, but it seems to me that the problem is not so much with God’s work in baptism, but our own misuse and abuse of the grace God gives us. Noah and his family didn’t live perfect lives after God saved them through the flood, and one of them was cursed as the result (see Genesis 9:20-25). After the Israelites followed Moses into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, all but two failed to enter into the Promised Land because of their lack of faith (Number 14:39,40). In a similar way, what we do with the new life God gives us through baptism doesn’t mean his saving work in baptism is invalid. Baptism saves us because it gives us clean consciences and incorporates us into the resurrected life of Jesus.

As people who have been saved through the waters of baptism, then, what are we doing with the new life Jesus has given us?

More to think about:
I know from first-hand experience that discussing baptism can be a very emotive & potentially divisive exercise. My hope in offering these questions for discussion is that we might be able to learn to listen to each other’s perspectives, understand the different points of view we have as sisters and brothers in Christ, and ultimately point to the God who saves lost & broken people in Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Do you tend to understand baptism as something through which God saves people or more something people do as a response to being saved? Or is there another way you think of baptism? Can you explain why you view baptism that way?
  • We can usually think of Noah’s ark saving his family from the flood more than the waters of the flood saving them. Why do you think Peter may have interpreted Noah’s story in this way?
  • Peter has previously written that ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18 NIV). How might Jesus use baptism to bring us to God?
  • Do you think it is possible for a baptised person to lose their salvation? If we think of baptism as adoption into God’s family, is there hope for sisters or brothers who have fallen away from the family? (maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 can help us)
  • Why is it important for us to be living as God’s adopted children in the world?

The Light of God’s Glory (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

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There are plenty of ways for us to communicate in a digital age. We can send text messages, email, use social media of various types, video call, or we can even use more traditional technology and talk with someone on the phone.

However, there is nothing quite like seeing someone face to face if we are going to really get to know them.

When we see someone’s face, we get a lot of information that aren’t there when we use electronic communication. There have been a number of times when I’ve been trying to say something to another person through text message or email when my words have been misinterpreted because the other person couldn’t see the look in my eyes, or hear the inflections or tone in my voice. When we talk face to face, there are a lot of things in our faces and voices that not only help to communicate clearly, but give the other person a better understanding of who we are.

The same is true in our relationship with God. Hebrews 1:1 tells us that there were lots of ways God communicated with his people over the centuries, especially through the prophets that he sent to his people. There were a few occasions in the Old Testament when we are told that some people were able to see God (eg Exodus 24:9-11) but generally God spoke with his people through mediators because God’s holiness meant that people could not see God and live (see Exodus 33:20).

That is what makes the Transfiguration of Jesus an amazing event. When Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain and revealed his heavenly glory to them, they were seeing something that very few people had ever seen. Jesus gave his three closest disciples a glimpse of his heavenly glory to help them understand who he is. While Jesus is an ordinary person according to his humanity, his transfiguration showed his followers that there is much more to him than meets the eye. Jesus was the presence of God with them. He brought the fullness of God’s goodness to them so they could know God face to face rather than having to rely on what others said about God or who they thought God might be. In the face of Jesus, we see the face of God – not what God looks like, but who God is.

Understanding the nature and character of God through the person of Jesus became critical for the Apostle Paul. When he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, Paul described the ‘glorious light of the Good News’ being the ‘message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God’ (v4b NLT). For Paul, seeing God’s glory in the face of Jesus means that we can know God and have a relationship with God through the person of Jesus. He gave a glimpse of this glory to Peter, James and John in his Transfiguration, and to us as we hear this story. As Paul says, if we want to see God’s glory, the place to look is the face of Jesus (v6).

We see the full glory of God not so much in the transfigured face of Jesus, but in the human face of Jesus. That is where we see a God who does what no one else has ever done. Jesus is different from every other religious, philosophical or political figure I have ever come across. He reveals to us the glory of a God who meets us in our broken humanity. Jesus shows us a God who doesn’t try to explain why people suffer in the world, but instead enters into our suffering. In Jesus we meet a God who would rather die than see his children separated from him by sin and death. Jesus shows us how high, how wide, how long and how deep God’s love is for us by sacrificing everything for us on the cross. In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s love is stronger than death, and nothing in this world can overcome God’s love for us. The ‘glorious light of the Good News’ (v4) of Jesus shows us a God who is compassionate and kind, who forgives sinners and justifies the unrighteous, who does everything to reconcile with those who have turned away from him and restore broken relationships. The glory of God we can see in the bruised and bloodied face of a crucified man is the glory of the God who sacrifices everything in love for people who deserve it the least but need it the most.

This is a very different way to think about glory. Usually we think about God’s heavenly glory, seated on his throne, surrounded in light with angels singing his praises. When Paul points us to look for God’s glory in the face of Jesus, though, he wants us to see the glory of the God who suffers with us, who suffers for us, who gives everything out of love for us. Paul wants us to see the face of the God whose love is stronger than anything in this world and who promises us something better than what we are experiencing right now. As Paul knows from his own personal experience, seeing this kind of glory in the face of Jesus can change our lives.

To see God’s glory in the face of Jesus gives us a new way to connect with God. We don’t need to find our way to heaven to try to connect with the Divine, or to try to find some spark of the Diving within us. Instead, God makes himself known to us through the person of Jesus. Just as every good relationship means spending time face to face together, when we grow in our relationship with Jesus, and with the body of Christ that is our Christian family, we also grow in our relationship with God. This growth equips us to live as people who carry the light of God’s glory into the world by living and loving others the same way Jesus did, full of forgiveness, compassion, mercy and grace. This connection, growth, equipping and sending is what it means to live with the light of God’s glory in us.

We can try to get to know God in lots of different ways, but most of them are like trying to get to know someone through text messages, emails, social media or even phone calls. There’s nothing like seeing someone face to face. In Jesus’ transfiguration, we see God’s glory face to face as we encounter the God who sacrifices everything to overcome the distance between us and who gives us new life as the people he loves.

Growing in Prayer (Mark 1:29-39)

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It had been a very busy day for Jesus. It began simply enough as Jesus went to the local synagogue to teach. While he was there, Jesus drove out an unclean spirit from one of the locals. Then he went to the home of Simon and Andrew where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a serious fever. Word about Jesus must have spread through the village, because as soon as the Sabbath restrictions ended at sunset, people brought their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus. What had started as a quiet Sabbath day of rest for Jesus ended up with an overwhelming flood of people looking to Jesus to help them.

What strikes me about this story is that, after a frantic day of teaching and healing, Jesus didn’t try to sleep in the next morning, or head to the local coffee shop to read the paper or check his social media. Jesus didn’t go fishing, or for a ride on his bike, or any of the things we might like to do after a busy day. Instead, Mark tells us that ‘before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray’ (v35 NLT).

There might be a number of reasons why Jesus wanted some time by himself. I’m thinking at this stage that maybe Jesus knew that he couldn’t handle the pressures and demands he was facing by himself, and he needed his Father if he was going to get through what was coming. By going out to pray, Jesus was trusting that his Father had everything he needed to do what he was called to do, and that his Father would provide him with what he needed. Jesus’ early morning prayer was an act of faith.

What do we do when life seems too hard, or there’s too much to do, or the pressures and expectations of the people around us are overwhelming us? Do we just try to keep our heads down and push through on our own? Or do we look for a break, to escape from the chaos even for just a few minutes, by going out for a coffee, checking our social media, staying in bed, or watching TV? When it feels like life is overwhelming us, do we tend to work harder or run away?

Jesus did neither of these things. Instead, Jesus’ response was to get out of bed earlier than normal, go to a quiet place, and pray.

What if we did the same? What if, instead of working harder or trying to escape from the realities of life, we took everything that’s going on in our lives to our loving heavenly Father in prayer as our first priority?

There is a crazy promise from God in Romans 8:32 where Paul writes,

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (NIV)

The promise in this text is that God has everything we need for life in this world and the next, and for the sake of Jesus we will give us everything we need! When you think about what’s going on in your life at the moment, especially if there are things that are looking to be too hard, too much or too overwhelming, what difference could it make if we trusted that God will give us everything we need? God has brought us into a new relationship with himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and wants to provide for us like loving parents provide for their children. Jesus knew that and so took what was going on in his life to his heavenly Father in prayer. As his followers, that’s what he’s teaching us to do as well – to trust God with what’s going on in our lives by bringing it to him in prayer.

Learning how to pray will need to be a key aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God is connecting with us by the power of his Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus. As we are growing in that connection, we will also be growing in our willingness and ability to trust God with what’s going on in our lives. We will also need to be equipping each other by learning how to pray, just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). After giving this message on Sunday, a woman in our congregation told me that she had never learned how to pray other than the set prayers she recites every morning and at night. Formal prayers have their place – I use them regularly – however we also need to be able to talk with our heavenly Dad like we talk with our best friend or someone close to us. Good communication is a sign of a healthy relationship, both with people and with God.

This year for Lent we’re coming together with other Lutheran churches in our part of the city to offer workshops on different topics to help grow and equip God’s people. When I was asked to lead a workshop, it seemed to me that spending four weeks focusing on listening to God’s word in the Bible and talking with him in prayer might be a good idea. We need to be learning how to exercise these spiritual disciplines and make them part of our daily rhythm so our faith can remain strong. Like Jesus in this story from Mark 1:29-39, we need to be praying as our first priority, not as a last resort, because God has everything we need and will give it to us because of the new relationship we have with him through Jesus.

Jesus believed that his Father had everything he needed in the pressures and demands of life in this world. This trust led him to look to his Father for what he needed in prayer. If your prayer-life is struggling, maybe Lent is a good time to commit to finding time each day to talk with God about what’s going on in your life. When we do it and how we do it aren’t as important as that we do it. If you want some help, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Almighty God has everything we need to do what he calls us to do. Jesus believed that and took what was going on in his life to his Father in prayer. When we follow Jesus and trust God enough to take what’s going on in our lives to him, he promises that he will always give you what you need.

More to think about:

  • When life gets difficult or overwhelming what do you tend to do more: try harder to get through, or escape from the pressures or demands? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to pray? Do you have a set time or place to pray each day? Or is it a discipline you find hard to maintain?
  • Why do you think Jesus got up early, went to an isolated place and prayed? Do you find it strange that he would do that? Or do Jesus’ actions make sense to you? Can you explain why?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe God’s promise in Romans 8:32? Why do you think that is? How might your life be different if you were able to trust that God has and will give you ‘all things’ (NIV) for Jesus’ sake?
  • What’s going on in your life right now that is difficult, demanding or overwhelming? Have you taken it to God in prayer? If you find praying difficult to do, how can we, or another sister or brother in Christ, help you do that?

Growing in Freedom (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

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Over the last year or so, people in our congregation have been discussing the future of our ministry with teens and young adults using Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) as the basis of our conversations. This resource presents 6 strategies that the FYI research has identified as central to effective ministry with young people. The chapter on one of these strategies, Prioritize Young People (and Families) Everywhere, begins with this question:

How much would you and your church give up to reach young people? (p196)

It’s an excellent question because it challenges us to work out what we value and where our priorities lie. If we are unwilling to give up what’s important to us, such as our time, money or expectations, what we’re doing or the way we’ve done things, then we send a clear message to our young people that we don’t value them. However, if we are willing to give up those aspects of our church culture which are important to us in order to reach young people with the gospel, then we are saying that we value our young people and they are important to us.

When we look at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, what Paul was willing to give up for others constantly amazes me. Admittedly, he’s writing into a different context. Paul isn’t talking about ministry to young people, but about Christians whose faith allowed them to eat or not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. However, the key point is that Paul didn’t tell one group that they were right and the others were wrong. Instead, he tells Jesus’ followers that what is important is what they are willing to give up so that others can be built up in faith (v1).

I have friends who are vegetarian or vegan, so the impact of what Paul is willing to give up for others might be lost on some. For most Australians, however, to be willing to give up meat so that another can experience the grace of God is a major sacrifice. I would find it incredibly difficult to permanently give up lamb chops, sausages, schnitzels or steak for another person. As part of my message last Sunday I asked people what they would find hard to give up. Some answers I received were things like coffee, chocolate, music, television, social media, and so on.

The point is that if Paul was willing to give up meat so that he wouldn’t be an obstacle to others in their faith, what are we willing to give up which might be an obstacle to our young people in their faith?

When we follow Jesus, he leads us to the cross where we witness what he gave up for us. Jesus’ whole existence was about sacrificing for others. He gave up his place in heaven to become one with us in this imperfect and broken world. He was constantly giving up his time and energy to serve others during his ministry on earth. Ultimately, Jesus gave up his whole life for us on the cross out of love for each of us so that we can encounter the grace of God through his sacrifice. When I look at this question from Growing Young from Jesus’ perspective, asking how much he was willing to give up for the sake of our young people, the answer is ‘everything!’ Jesus didn’t just give up meat or coffee, his time or a portion of his weekly earnings. Jesus gave everything up for us on the cross so that we can experience grace. That is how great his love is.

Paul’s willingness to give meat up for the rest of his life so that he wouldn’t cause other Christians to stumble in their faith was because he trusted in what Jesus had already given up for him. His actions were a natural outflow of God’s grace to him so that others could experience God’s grace through him. Because that’s a big part of what grace is – giving to another and for the sake of another person just because they need it, no matter what the cost.

Which brings me back to the original question from Growing Young: how much would we and our church give up to reach young people? When we are willing to give up what is important to us for them, we extend grace to our young people. When we are willing to sacrifice our preferences, our traditions, our expectations and our power for other people of any age, we are showing them the same grace Jesus showed us by giving up his life for us. This isn’t about giving young people what they want. My children think they know what they want, until something else comes along, and then they want that. Instead, this about surrounding and embracing our young people in a community of grace so they can experience the grace of God in Jesus through what we are willing to give up for them.

Because if our young people don’t encounter grace through giving relationships with their sisters and brothers in Jesus, the living, breathing body of Christ, then where will they?

That’s why growing in faith is a key element of our Discipling Plan. Part of what it means to grow in faith is trusting more and more in what Jesus gave up for us in his birth, life and death on the cross. As we grow and mature in our understanding of his sacrifice for us, we will also grow in our willingness to give up what is important to us so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationship with us.

Jesus gave up everything on the cross to extend God’s grace to us. Paul was willing to give up meat for the rest of his life so that others might find grace in him. How much are we willing to give up so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationships with us?

Learning to Fish for People (Mark 1:14-20)

Vacations

I never learned how to fish.

Some might by surprised or horrified by my confession because often people think that fishing is an essential pastime for a pastor. I have some friends who love fishing and constantly tell me how much they enjoy fishing and all the fish they catch. So when – or if – the time comes when I want to learn how to fish, what will be the best way?

I could buy a book & read all about it, or watch YouTube clips, or maybe even try to work it out on my own. When I put this question to my congregation on Sunday, just about everyone agreed that the best way to learn how to fish is to go fishing with someone who knows what they’re going.

Generally speaking, that’s how we learn: by watching others and following their example.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him as his disciples, he called them to learn from him a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom (v15). Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom wasn’t a long way off, either in distance or in time. Instead, Jesus said that it is near. This Kingdom is God’s power, breaking through into our world by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, righting the wrongs of a fallen creation and restoring things to the way God intended from the beginning. Because God does all this in the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, as he restores, redeems and renews all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples who followed Jesus learned what living in God’s Kingdom is like. They learned it by being with Jesus, hearing his parables, seeing his miracles and witnessing his disputes with the religious leaders of his time. Most of all, though, they learned about the Kingdom of God in their own relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ followers encountered the reality of God’s coming Kingdom through the perfect and infinite love and grace Jesus displayed through his death on the cross. They also encountered the power of God’s coming Kingdom in Jesus’ resurrection. That’s where they saw that God’s love for us in Jesus is stronger than anything we encounter in this world, even death.

We can understand discipleship, then, as Jesus calling us to learn to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love everyday of our lives. In all the situations we face in life, both good and bad, when Jesus call us to follow him, he wants us to learn from him how the grace and love he extends to us through his death and resurrection can shape us, our relationships with each other, and our community of faith. Learning to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom means encountering Jesus’ perfect and infinite love for us each and every day of our lives, and learning the difference it makes. We don’t learn this from a book or YouTube clip. We learn about the transforming power of God’s coming Kingdom by walking side by side with Christian sisters and brothers around us, just like Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples learned it by walking with Jesus to the cross and empty grave.

This is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. Last year, as we were discussing our plan for the future of our church, we spent a lot of time learning about discipleship by reading the gospels to see how Jesus discipled others. In the same way that Jesus connected with these four fishermen on the banks of Sea of Galilee, we hope that people will connect with Jesus and with each other as we learn together what it means to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

It is significant to see that when Jesus called these disciples, he already had their destination in mind. Jesus wanted them to learn about the reality of God’s coming Kingdom so they could then teach others. That’s why Jesus said that he was going to show them ‘how to fish for people’ (v17 NLT). In the same way, our Discipling Plan begins with our destination in mind as we aim to send people out to ‘fish for people’ in our lives, too. To achieve this, we are planning to grow in our faith, just as Peter and the other disciples learned to trust Jesus, and to be equipped for the work Jesus is calling us to do, just like someone who goes fishing needs the right equipment. We find everything we need to fulfil Jesus’ calling when we follow him and learn from him to live in the day-to-day reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

This becomes especially important when we are talking about our ministry to young people in our congregation. Whether we like it or not, our children, grandchildren and others who are new to the Christian faith are learning from us – our words, our actions and our relationships – what the Kingdom of God is like. We need to be asking ourselves what they are learning from us? Are our young people learning that the Kingdom of God is about turning up to church? Or are they learning that God’s Kingdom is about going on a roster or a committee? Worshipping together and being organized are important elements of Christian community, but they aren’t the main thing in God’s coming Kingdom. What we learn from Jesus as we follow him to the cross and empty grave is that his grace and love for us is better and stronger than anything else in this world. My hope and prayer for our young people is that they will learn from us that living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom each and every day brings hope and joy and peace, and that they will also learn for themselves how to fish for others.

The best way to learn to fish is to find someone who knows how to fish, and then go fishing with them. Are we willing to learn a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love from Jesus? As we learn from him, then others – and our young people especially – will learn about living in God’s coming Kingdom from us, as Jesus teaches us to fish for people together.