The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

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

Luke 24v13-35 Road to Emmaus 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Setting Our Sights (Colossians 3:1-4)

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When I went to camps as a teenager, I loved going on night hikes. We felt a real sense of adventure as we headed off in the dark down unfamiliar country roads, trying to dodge potholes, tree branches and other obstacles and we attempted not to fall, trip or get lost along the way.

While it was fun walking in the dark, we were still relieved when the lights of the campsite would come into view and we could see our destination. Knowing where we were heading made the walk easier. We could see the endpoint of our journey and it gave us the hope of being warm, safe and sometimes even dry with a cup of hot Milo to enjoy. Being able to see the lights of our destination helped us get through the darkness that surrounded us.

This year we won’t be able to gather in worship at sunrise on Easter Sunday for our annual dawn service. I’m disappointed about that because it’s a highlight of the year for me. There’s something special about getting up in the dark, and meeting together outside in worship as the dawn breaks and the sun rises. It is a way of connecting with the first Easter morning when the women went to the tomb and were greeted by the angels with the good news of the resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

For the women and men who followed Jesus, the news of his resurrection from the dead was like light bursting into a dark place. They had been grieving Jesus’ death since Friday. They must have felt lost, confused, uncertain about the future, and afraid of what might happen next. In their darkness, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection must have been as welcome as the morning sunlight. It gave them hope. It gave them joy. It gave them purpose. The resurrection of Jesus gave them life!

In our own time and place, a lot of us can feel like we are in dark places too. Everything that’s happening with the COVID-19 virus is upsetting our regular way of life and generating uncertainty about the future, fear, anxiety and worry. In addition to these, many of us are also coping with illness, grief, disabilities, mental illnesses, addictions, broken relationships, and so much more. I can understand that at times life can feel like a night hike which seems to go on without end as we struggle in the dark from one day to the next.

The message of the resurrection of Jesus is still good news for us today. When we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we don’t just remember something that happened two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. The resurrection isn’t even just about going to heaven when we die. Instead, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection casts life-giving light on our lives right here and now.

In Colossians 3:1-4, the Apostle Paul writes,

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT)

The way Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection is significant because he writes that we ‘have been raised to new life with Christ’ already! Through faith in Jesus we are united with him in his death and resurrection. The life of the risen Christ is God’s gift to us by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith. No matter what else is going on around us or within us, we carry the life of the risen Christ in us. That shapes and determines our reality.

Paul encourages us to set our sights on Jesus and the new life he gives to us. Like seeing the campsite lights when we were on our night hikes, the light of the angel’s words helps us see where we are going. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection helps us to see our destination. Its light also helps to illuminate our path through life so we can see each step we take a little more clearly. When we set our sights on the risen Christ and look beyond what’s happening in us or around us to see the future Christ has for us, it helps us find our way in this world.

It doesn’t mean that we ignore the realities of this world, that we pretend they don’t exist or try to escape from them. Setting our sights on the reality of heaven doesn’t mean that we deny or minimize the difficulties and challenges of this life. What it does mean, however, is that we see them from a different perspective. When we set our sights on where we are going and the future God has for us, we can see through our current struggles or problems to a better tomorrow in the faith that Jesus is carrying us there. That makes it possible to put one foot in front of the other, following Jesus into a better future, in the faith and hope that the source of our lives is the risen Christ. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t ignore or escape from the darkness of this life. It gives light to our path so we can be confident that Jesus will get us through.

We set our sights on heaven’s reality by reading God’s word and listening to what the Bible has to say to us. Story after story tells us how heaven’s realities broke through into different people’s lives so they could live in the light of the goodness of God and the life Jesus gives through his Holy Spirit. As we read or hear their stories and the ways that setting their sights on heaven’s realities made a difference in their lives, God will provide us with what we need to set our sights on our common destination. That’s when we will find the help we need and the courage that comes through faith in the risen Jesus to keep going.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

This message was good news for the women when they went to the tomb as the new day was dawning all those centuries ago. It was good news for Jesus’ followers as it drove away the darkness of fear and uncertainty. It is still good news for us as we experience the darkness of life in this world in a lot of different ways. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is a light in our darkness, showing us where we’re are heading, giving us a destination to hope for as we live in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and his victory over the darkness.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even tried to find your way in the dark? What was it like for you? How did it help to have light to help you find your way?
  • As you look at the world around us at the moment, where do you see the darkness of fear, worry or uncertainty? Where do you experience darkness in your own life?
  • How do you think the good news of Jesus’ resurrection can bring light to the darkness we are going through at this time?
  • How do you react when you hear Paul say that ‘you have been raised to new life with Christ’ already? What sounds good about that? What is difficult to believe?
  • How might you see what’s happening around you or within you differently if you look at it from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection and the reality of heaven?
  • What might you do different today in the faith that the hardships you might be experiencing will pass away, but the life of Jesus in you will last forever?

The Open Way (Hebrews 10:16-25)

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At this time, we are living with a lot of restrictions on our lives. These restrictions are affecting almost every aspect of our lives. They include the places we can go, the people we can see, the way we shop, the way we work, even if we are able to work or not. Most of us haven’t experienced and probably never even imagined that we would be living with these restrictions. However, every day it seems like we are living with more and more ways in which our lives are restricted.

Have you given any thought to what life will be like when these restrictions are lifted? Some people I’ve spoken to think that life will never go back to the way it was and that this is our ‘new normal’. I wonder, though, what will happen when the danger of the virus has passed and is no longer a serious threat. Assuming that one day these restrictions will be lifted, how will we live our lives then? Will we continue to live as though the restrictions are still in place, not shaking hands, not hugging, keeping 1.5 metres away from others, and so on? Or will we live in the freedom that will come when the restrictions are removed?

Of course, we are not the only people in the history of the world to live with restrictions. One group of people who lived with a lot of restrictions were the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. They had rules, requirements and commands which placed restrictions on just about every aspect of their lives – who they could meet, what they could eat, when they could work, what work they could do, and so on.

The greatest restriction they lived with was around the presence of God. They believed that God’s presence lived in a room in the temple in their capital city of Jerusalem. This room was known as the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. This was a restricted space that only one person, the High Priest, was able to enter on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement. What separated this restricted space from the rest of the Temple and the world surrounding it was a thick curtain. This was the barrier that divided the Holy of Holies from everything around it.

When we come to Good Friday, the day on which Jesus was crucified and died, we read in Matthew 27:50-51,

Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (NLT)

When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain which separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the world was torn into two pieces from top to bottom. What this meant was that the restrictions around the presence of God were lifted. All people now had access to the presence of the living God because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews talks about this event in the following words:

And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22 NLT)

This is saying that the restrictions around the presence of God have been lifted and, because Jesus’ death makes our hearts and bodies, in other words our whole selves, clean, we can go right into the presence of almighty God. What amazes me is that Hebrews doesn’t tell us to go into God’s presence timidly or cautiously, but boldly and in faith. Jesus has opened up for us a new way into God’s presence so we can talk with him, listen to him, be with him in a new relationship as his cleansed and purified people.

The question I asked before also applies to when the restrictions around the presence of God are lifted: how will we live our lives? Will we continue to live as though the restrictions are still in place? Will we continue to live as though God’s presence is a restricted space where only a few are good enough to enter? Or will we live in the freedom that comes with full access to the presence of God being granted to all who trust in Jesus?

Hebrews goes on to show us what a life lived in God’s presence looks like in the following verses. It is a life that hangs on to hope in the faith that God’s promises can be trusted and he will do what he says he will (v23). It is a life in which we ‘motivate one another to acts of love and good works’ as we follow the example Jesus gave when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:12-17). In this life, we will continue to meet together, either physically or in other ways as current restrictions allow us, in order to encourage each other (v25) that Jesus will get us through this. A life lived in God’s presence is also lived in the presence of his people as we are united in faith through the Holy Spirit. As each of us enter into the presence of God through the saving work of Jesus on the cross, we find each other there as well so we can share in the unrestricted presence of God together.

I don’t know how long we will need to live with the restrictions placed on us because of the COVID-19 virus. I understand that these restrictions are for our own good and to keep other people safe. However, they aren’t making life easy for us, and so when they are lifted I’m looking forward to living in the freedom we will have again.

In the same way, the restrictions around God’s presence were lifted when Jesus died on the cross and the curtain was torn in two. There are now no restrictions to being in God’s presence and living in relationship with him through faith. So how are we going to live our lives – as though God still restricts the people who are able or good enough to come to him? Or do we live every day in the presence of our God who loves us enough to send us his Son for us, and who gives us unrestricted access into his presence by dying for us and making us clean?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Where are some places you might see a ‘Keep Out’ sign? What do you think it would it be like to have a ‘Keep Out’ sign on a church – would that be good or bad? Why?
  • For a long time, people had to keep out of God’s presence because of sin. Would that make you happy or sad? Why might it make you feel that way?
  • In Hebrews 10:19-20, what takes away the ‘Keep Out’ sign and makes it possible for us to go into God’s presence? How did that happen?
  • Hebrews 10:22-25 describes some of the things we can do now that we have access into God’s presence. What are they?
  • What are some practical ways you can do these things now, even though we are separated from each other because of the COVID-19 virus?
  • What other questions do you have about Jesus’ suffering and death for us?

Little Things (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

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Whenever we have a meal, there is at least some work that needs to be done. This work includes preparing the meal, serving it and then cleaning up again afterwards. Even if we eat take out, someone still needs to order the meal, collect the meal and then clean up again afterwards. These aren’t glamorous jobs or duties that attract a lot of acclamation or praise. They are just ordinary, everyday things that we do in order to feed ourselves or others that we share a home with.

Just before Jesus was about to be arrested, put on trial and crucified, he shared a meal with the disciples with whom he had spent the last three years. This was no ordinary meal – it was the ancient Passover meal which commemorated God’s liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and God saving them from the angel of death. At this meal together, known as the Last Supper, Jesus did a few very significant things. One was that he instituted the meal of God’s New Covenant with his people, the meal we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.

While they were sharing this meal, another significant thing Jesus did was to give his disciples a new commandment. They were no longer to live under the old Jewish Law. Instead, Jesus taught his followers a new way to live by loving one another in the same way that he loved them (John 13:34,35; 15:12,17).

Jesus had given his disciples an example of that his love looked like earlier in the meal. The love that Jesus was teaching his disciples, which is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, wasn’t demonstrated by a fancy event, or a congregational program, or raising funds for charity work, or any of the things we can usually associate with activity in the church. Instead, Jesus gave us an example of how his love looks by using a bowl, some water and a towel.

The example Jesus gave us to follow was washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:15).
There are some important things we need to recognise in this example Jesus’ gives. Foot washing was something every household did to welcome guests into their home. It was usually the responsibility of the household slave or servant with the lowest status. It was necessary because people had been walking on hot, dusty roads all day in sandals, so feet were usually pretty dirty and smelly. It was a household job that needed to be done, but not one that people usually volunteered for.

This is the job Jesus volunteered for to show us what his love is like, and to show us how to love each other.

During this time of restrictions because of the COVID-19 virus, I have heard some people suggest that the church will have to put all of its ministry on hold. I disagree. Instead, I believe that this is a chance for us to return to the example Jesus gave us and to rethink what it means to live as Jesus’ followers in faith and love. This Maundy Thursday, as we hear again the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, as we witness him washing the feet of this followers, and then teaching us to love others in the same way we have a chance to rediscover what it means to live as Jesus disciples and learn to love in Christ-like ways.

If we are honest, how many of us like to be served rather than serve? How many of us would prefer that people do things for us rather than we do things for people? If we are happy serving, how many of us do it to gain a sense of self-worth or personal satisfaction? What is significant about Jesus’ example is that he does it purely for the sake of others and not for himself. What was important to Jesus as he washed his disciples’ feet, was that his disciples benefited from his actions, not himself. Jesus’ love is all about the other, done out of faith in the love of the Father.

As we live under the COVID-19 restrictions, we still have countless opportunities to serve others in love the way Jesus showed us. It won’t be through programs or events or fund raising or any of the things we might usually associate with church. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it gives us a chance to really embrace the kind of love Jesus shows us. It probably won’t involve washing feet, either. Instead, it might look like cooking dinner when we normally wouldn’t. It might look like clearing the plates or doing the dishes when we’d usually expect someone else to do it. Loving in the way Jesus taught might mean taking out the rubbish, cleaning up after the pets, tidying up around the house or cleaning the bathroom without being asked, not arguing with a sibling or letting it go when someone does something to upset us. If we live on our own, it might mean contacting someone who is also on their own, offering a listening ear to someone who is struggling, or dropping some Easter eggs in to a neighbour. In countless ways every day we have countless opportunities to love each other in the way Jesus showed us in the little things we say and do that can make a difference to the lives of the people around us.

The day after he shared his last meal with his disciples, Jesus gave us the greatest display of God’s love for us by dying on the cross. I think it’s important to understand that Jesus didn’t point to his death as the example he wanted his followers to imitate. Jesus’ death on the cross was unique as the Son of God sacrificed everything out of love for us. As we trust in the perfect and infinite love he shows us by dying for us, though, Jesus wants us to follow his example and love others in ways that are similar to the way he washed his disciples’ feet. None of us can die for the sins of the world – that’s something only Jesus can do. But we can follow his example and show his love to the people closest to us every day of our lives in even the little things we do for each other.

More to think about & discuss:

  • When you read this story, what questions do you have about it?
  • What does washing the feet of his disciples say to you about Jesus?
  • What might you have been thinking if you were one of the disciples as Jesus was washing your feet?
  • What does this example tell you about the way that Jesus loves us?
  • What does this example tell you about the way Jesus wants us to love each other?
  • What are some practical ways you can do that tonight? Tomorrow? Into the future…?

‘Hosanna!’ (Matthew 21:1-11)

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One week out from Easter, on a day we know as Palm Sunday, Christians commemorate an event in Jesus’ life which points towards the culmination of his ministry. Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, and as we read in Matthew 21:1-11, a very large crowd gathered to welcome him. they lay their outer garments and tree branches on the road in front of him as Jesus rode on a donkey. Then the crowd acknowledged Jesus as the heir of King David who would come to save them by shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 NIV)

This word Hosanna has been used in lots of different Christian songs and hymns over the centuries, particularly in those written for Palm Sunday or which acknowledge Jesus as King. But what does it mean? Like a lot of words we can use in Christian conversations, songs, hymns and worship, it can be good for us to give some thought to its meaning and why we use it.

Literally Hosanna means, ‘Save!’ It is used in Psalm 118:25 to ask God to send his Messiah to liberate his people and give them ‘success’ (NIV) in all they did. When the people of Jerusalem used it to welcome Jesus to their city, they were using this ancient term to point to him as the one who would save them by freeing them from tyranny and restoring them as the people of God.

When I think about how we use the word ‘save’ in our place and time, there are aspects to its meaning which can help us understand more about what the word Hosanna means for us. For example, as I wrote this message out on my computer, I will regularly ‘save’ my work so I don’t lose it but can keep it to send out to you. When I go to the beach to swim, there might be a ‘life-saver’ to look out for me and rescue me when I get into trouble. When I go to the shops, I will generally look for specials so I can ‘save’ some money off my grocery bill.

However, most of the time when I hear the word ‘save’ I tend to think about money boxes. These are boxes of various shapes and sizes which we can use to save our money, especially our coins or small change. We save coins in money boxes because they are valuable to us. We save them because we might not want other people in our household from taking them from us. We might also save them because, when we add them to other loose change we have saved in our money box, they become part of something greater than themselves and are able to purchase something more expensive than if they had remained on their own.

The main way Christians often think about being ‘saved’ is going to heaven when we die. I wonder, though, when we sing Hosanna this Palm Sunday, we might be calling on Jesus to save us in ways that aren’t too different from the ways we can save our coins.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us because we are valuable to him. 1 Peter 1:18-19 tells us that God didn’t save us with perishable things like silver or gold, but with ‘the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God’ (NLT). Jesus rode into Jerusalem to save us because we are worth more to God than all the silver and gold in the world. God gives the most valuable thing he has, the life of his own Son, to make us his own because that’s what you are worth to him. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us because to him we are worth it.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus also saves us because he wants to keep us safe. Especially during this time when our church buildings are closed, we’re practising social distancing and we are isolated from each other, it is good for us to trust that Jesus saves us to keep us safe. Whether we are afraid of how COVID-19 might affect us or our loved ones, we are anxious about the future, or feeling lonely and disconnected from others, Jesus keeps us safe by embracing us in his resurrection love and surrounding us with the light of his good news. It doesn’t mean the we won’t have problems or suffering in life, but when they do come, we can be confident that they won’t overcome us and we have Jesus’ resurrection life in us. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by keeping us safe.

Like my coins, when we call Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us a part of something bigger than ourselves. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as King, not of a temporary, earthly kingdom, but of the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus makes us part of his Kingdom which includes all people who are saved from every time and every place. This is the family of God, the body of Christ, the community of God’s holy people, the Christian Church. As we face a period of isolation because of the COVID-19 virus, we are never truly alone. God brings us into community with other believers so we can encourage each other, build each other up in faith and love, strengthen each other and walk with each other until God brings us through this time and we can be physically present with each other again. When we cry Hosanna, Jesus saves us by making us citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, his living, breathing body on earth.

This Palm Sunday, what does it mean to you to be saved? A greater sense of self-worth? Being kept safe from things that might take life from you? Being part of something bigger than ourselves, even while we might be isolated or alone? Or it might mean something different. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as God’s chosen King who comes to us here and now to give us his saving help. Where do you need his saving help in your life?

As we sing Hosanna, Jesus comes to save us all…

More to think about & discuss:

  • When you read this story, what questions do you have?
  • How do you understand what it means to be ‘saved’?
  • When we think about being saved like coins in a money box, what connects more with where you are in your life: Jesus giving you value, keeping you safe or connecting you to something bigger than yourself? Or something else? Explain why…
  • How might trusting that you are a saved child of God help you see what you are going through right now a bit differently?

God’s Breath of Life (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Mr Potato Head pieces

One of the toys I loved playing with as a kid, and still do now that we have our own children, is Mr Potato Head. If you’re not familiar with this toy, it has a potato-shaped body with a lot of different arms, legs, eyes, ears, noses, ears, hats and other body parts or items which you can mix and match. The idea behind the toy is that you can make a huge number of different potato people using all the different body parts.

Can you imagine what it would be like, though, to be able to bring Mr Potato Head to life? What would your reaction be if someone told you to speak to the wind and tell it to breathe life into your Mr Potato Head so it could come alive?

People who love the Toy Story movies might think that would be awesome! Others might think I’ve gone a bit crazy. Whatever your reaction might be, I wonder if we would react like Ezekiel when God asked him if the dry bones God showed him could become living people again (Ezekiel 37:3)? I know that there are some significant differences between a Mr Potato Head toy and dried-up human bones, but the principle is pretty much the same – can something which has no life in it become a living, breathing being?

As Ezekiel’s story continues in chapter 37, God does something miraculous. God tells Ezekiel to speak a prophetic message, which he does, and the bones reconnect and are covered with muscles, flesh and skin. However, there is still no life in the bodies. Then God tells Ezekiel to speak again, to tell the four winds to breathe life into the dead bodies. When Ezekiel speaks God’s message, breath enters the dead bodies, they come to life and stand up on their feet.

When we read this story, it helps to know that the Hebrew language of the Old Testament has one word which mean breath, wind and spirit – ruach (pronounced roo-ach with the ch sounding like it does in school). It might be a good idea to read the story again, taking note of all the times it mentions spirit, breath or wind. Each time, this one word ruach is used. It is the same word used in Genesis 1:2 when God’s Spirit, or ruach, was hovering over the waters. In the Ezekiel story, God’s Spirit worked through the word God gave to Ezekiel to create new life where there had been death.

We can read this story in the light of the resurrection of Jesus to hear how God can raise the dead and will raise us along with all believers to new life when Jesus returns at the end of time. That is the ultimate hope we have in Jesus as God’s people.

However, God originally told Ezekiel to bring this message to his people who were exiled in captivity in Babylon. They were the ones who were saying, ‘We have become old, dry bones – all hope is gone’ (v11 NLT). This story isn’t just about eternal life in heaven. It is God speaking hope to people who were in exile, isolated from their homes and loved ones, who had lost their national identity and sense of community.

This is where this story can speak to us as well. We are facing a time which could be thought of as a kind of exile. As more people self-isolate because of the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus, we are at risk of becoming like old, dry bones and losing hope. I have seen how destructive fear and isolation can be to people’s well-being and mental health. However, I have also seen how powerful hope, and especially the hope that comes from faith in Jesus, can be as the antidote to fear and isolation.

As we self-isolate to protect ourselves and others from the threat of the virus, what will prevent us from becoming like old, dry bones is the life-giving breath of God, the Holy Spirit of God, which God gives to us through his Word. In the Old Testament times, prophecy was more about bringing a word from God that foretelling the future. The prophetic message God gave to Ezekiel and the other prophets was to speak his word into a particular circumstance. In this story, the word God gave Ezekiel to speak filled the dead with new life as God breathed his Spirit into his people. God’s life-giving Spirit, working through the Word God gave to Ezekiel, brought the dead back to life and gave hope to God’s people in exile – that God would bring them through the exile, give them life, and they would return home again.

As we face an uncertain future and the possibility of our own, personal exiles in our homes, this story becomes God’s prophetic message to us. COVID-19, and the fear and isolation it brings, has the potential to rob us of life. But God’s Word is stronger and more powerful than a virus. No matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will continue to work through God’s life-giving Word to breathe the life of Jesus into us so we can live in the hope that God will get us through this, we will return to our families and communities of faith, and we will live again.

Please consider putting a bookmark in your Bibles at Ezekiel 37. If there are times during the coming months when you begin to feel like you are becoming like old, dry bones, please read this story again. The Breath of God, his Holy Spirit, will continue to work through God’s prophetic Word to breath the resurrection life of Jesus into you, so you will be able to live in the hope that God will bring you through this time and we will be united again as a community of faith in Jesus.

I might not be able to breathe life into Mr Potato Head and make it live, but God can do that for us and for others through us!

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have of this story, or what doesn’t make sense to you?
  • What do you think your reaction might have been if you were Ezekiel and God asked you if a valley of dry bones could become living people again? Why might you have reacted that way?
  • What do you think about this story being more about hope for the future than the resurrection of the dead? How might that change the way you understand the story?
  • As we face time when we will effectively be in exile from each other, what do you hear God saying to you through this story?
  • What scares you most about the spread of the COVID-19 virus? What in this story can give you hope?

Looking at the Heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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My message for this Sunday changed significantly since the start of the week. I was going to look at 1 Samuel 16:1-13, exploring the differences between outward appearances and what lies at the heart, the external and internal, in regards to people and what we focus on.

Then things started changing with growing concerns around the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Australia, and in particular the ban on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more.

Many congregations that I’m aware of are cancelling most or even all forms of ministry that involve personal contact, including regular worship, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the need to be careful and responsible in our contact with each other to minimize the spread of the virus as an act of love. What is sitting rather uncomfortably with me, though, is the way ‘doing church online’ seems to have become the Christian church’s default option without exploring other ways of connecting together as sisters and brothers in the faith.

If there’s one thing we need right now as we face the threat of the virus is to be building each other up in faith and love so that fear and isolation don’t overwhelm us.

That’s where I start to hear the story of Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaking into our circumstances. I believe that we have had a superficial perspective of church for far too long. In the culture of my particular church organization, our understanding of church has revolved largely around attendance at Sunday worship, being a member of a congregation and maybe being involved in some committees, rosters or activities in the congregation. When I listen to what Samuel says in v7, I can’t help but view these activities as the outward appearance or function of church.

What God looks at, of course, is at the heart. This includes the heart of what it means to be church.

There are lots of ways people define what it means to be ‘church’ and there is usually something good we can find in most of them. My favourite definition is one that Martin Luther wrote about five hundred years ago, that the church consists of ‘holy believers … who hear the voice of their Shepherd’ whose ‘holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith’ (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 13). The way I read this is that whenever God’s people gather around his Word in faith, that is the church.

This sits well with what is written in Hebrews 10:23-25 which says,

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (NLT)

If there’s one thing our world needs right now to combat and overcome the fear people are experiencing about the COVID-19 virus, it is hope. As the people of God who trust in the life-giving promises of Jesus, we have hope to offer all who need it. The challenge I face pastorally is how to help the people of our church grow in the hope which comes through faith so we can be people of hope, bringing hope to people who have none. Part of God’s solution, according to Hebrews 10:23-25, is to keep meeting together.

Exactly how we are going to do that in these days of limits and requirements of how many and where we can meet will a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We can meet together around God’s word in faith in family groups, in a few families getting together, in our regular small groups, with a friend or two, or in larger worshiping groups, and so on. Maybe we need to be offering more services which cater for groups of smaller numbers of people meeting together in worship at different times, not only on Sundays but even during the week. How we will do this belongs to the ‘outward appearance’ or the externals that Samuel talks about. Why we gather together, to encourage and build each other so our hearts are full of faith, hope and love, becomes the more important question.

We can look for ways of gathering together in the freedom the gospel gives. It’s significant that when Samuel met David, he saw that David ‘was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes’ (v12 NLT). God didn’t accept him because he was good-looking, but he didn’t reject him for being attractive either. God was interested in David’s heart and that he trusted in God. Likewise, in our current situation, how we meet together really is an external thing. Why we meet together – to hold on to the hope Jesus gives us, to motivate each other to love and good works, and to encourage each other in difficult times – this is the heart of what it means to be church and what is really vital.

My plan at the time of writing is to ask our congregation who will worship on Sunday how we might be able to gather together in the future. We need to accept that different people will be looking for different ways to connect together around God’s word in faith, according to their circumstances, and to give people the freedom and the opportunities to do that. God is looking beyond the externals to see our hearts, and wants to fill them with faith, hope and love through his Holy Spirit. We will find these as we gather as his church around his Word in faith. Then we will have real hope to bring to the world.

If you have any thoughts about how we can be helping you to gather around God’s word while we watch and wait for further developments as the virus takes its course, please let me know. I really see this as an opportunity to get past what can often be superficial, external appearances of church to really get to the heart of what it means to be the people of God in the world, living with hearts full of faith, hope and love, to bring God’s blessings to everyone we meet.

More to think about & discuss:

  • In what ways do you see people focussing more on the outward appearance than what lies at the heart, or, in other words, on what something looks like instead of what it really is?
  • In what ways might we do that as church?
  • Why do you think God is more interested in what’s at the heart instead of the outward appearance?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on other people’s hearts than on how they look or what they do?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on your heart trusting God than on what people see?
  • How can our congregation help you through this time to:
    • gather with others around God’s word?
    • hold on to the hope we have in Jesus?
    • motivate one another to love and good works?
    • encourage one another to trust in Jesus?