An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

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When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!

Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

Dispersed Disciples (Luke 24:44-53)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

You can find a video version of this message here.

God bless!

A Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:2-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

Generous Giving (2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

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I imagine that life would have been risky for farmers in ancient times. Each year they would have harvested a certain amount of grain. Then they would have had to decide how much of the grain they were going to use during the year and how much they were going to sow for the following year’s crop. If they kept a lot to use for the coming twelves months, and planted only a little of it, they might not have a crop large enough to provide for their needs in the following year. However, if they re-planted too much of it, they might not have enough to get them through the year.

Sowing the seed the farmers had harvested was an act of faith. They had to trust God to do two things. Firstly, that God had provided them with enough grain to get them through the year to the next harvest. Secondly, that God would provide a harvest that was large enough to provide them with what they needed for the following year and into the future.

When Paul said to the Christians in Corinth that ‘a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop’ (2 Corinthians 9:6 NLT) he was describing what a life of faith in Christ is like. Every day of our lives, God provides many of us with so much that is good – in fact more than we need. It is good, then, that once a year we set aside a Sunday, traditionally known as Harvest Thanksgiving, to focus on the good that God gives us and to thank God for his goodness to us in all its forms.

As we give thanks to God for his goodness to us, Paul’s words challenge us to consider what we do with the good God gives us. God provides us with more than we need. Paul explains that God does this so that we can share with others who are in need. He writes, ‘you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous’ (v11a NLT). God doesn’t bless us with his goodness so we can be self-indulgent with it. God gives us good things so we can share the good he has given us with others who need what we have been given.

In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 Paul is talking specifically about money. He is raising funds from the churches in Greece to bring back to the Jerusalem Christians who were in need (see v12). However, he is also talking about God’s grace in all of its forms. We can see that in verses 14 where Paul uses the Greek word for grace (charis). This is the grace God gives to us in Jesus so our sins are forgiven, we are united with Christ through faith by the Holy Spirit and we receive the gift of new life. God gives us every other good thing in our lives because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us. God doesn’t give us good because we somehow deserve it. Instead, he gives us his goodness because he favours us because of what Jesus has done for us and because he lives in us.

The main question this passage challenges us to think about is what are we doing with God’s good gifts to us? We can thank God for his gifts to us, but what happens then? Do we just take our things home and keep them safely locked away? Or do we listen to what Paul is saying and trust God by sowing what he has given to us into the lives of other people?

We need to hear what Paul says in verse 6: that if we only plant a little of what God has given us into the lives of others, then we are only going to see a little result. We can follow that through to the point where if we are sowing nothing of what God has given to us, then we are going to see nothing happen. However, God’s promise to us through Paul is that if we trust God enough to sow generously into the lives of others, then we will see a generous or plentiful result.

We need to remember this when we talk about the ministries of our congregation and the hopes we have for the future of our church. These don’t just happen by themselves. Instead, ministry only happens when people are willing to give of themselves to see those ministries grow and flourish. Our hopes won’t miraculously fall from the sky if we just sit back and wait for them. If we are sowing sparingly, we will only reap sparingly. However, if we are willing to sow our time and energy in relationships with each other, then we will see a generous harvest in our congregation.

This is critical in our ministry with young people. I think just about all of us would like to see more young people in our church. But are we willing to sow into the lives of our young people for that to happen? Maybe one of the reasons we don’t have the young people in our church that we once did is because of what we sowed into their lives. If we are sowing little to nothing into their lives, then we will see little to no result. One way we can understand the Growing Young research is that young people remain connected to congregations that are willing to sow the goodness of God into their lives. This happens when we hand over leadership responsibilities, empathise with young people, take Jesus’ message seriously, fuel a warm, relationally rich community, make our young people a priority in our lives, and be the best neighbours. If we sow nothing of God’s goodness and grace into the lives of our young people, that is exactly what we will see happen – nothing. However, as we listen to Paul’s words, if we sow generously into the lives of our young people by giving them our time, our energy, our listening ears and our supportive, caring relationships, then in time we will see a generous harvest.

Each year, ancient farmers faced a decision – how much would they use for themselves and how much would they sow for next year’s crop? Paul didn’t tell his readers how much he wanted them to give because it was up to each of them to decide, depending on their circumstances. I’m not going to tell our congregation how much they need to give to the ministries of this congregation or to our young people either. Instead, like Paul, I want us to remember that if we sow little to nothing of God’s goodness into the lives of the people around us, that’s exactly what we will see in the future. However, in the faith that God gives us every good thing we need, and he gives us more than we need, we can show our thanks to God for his goodness to us by sowing his goodness and grace, love and hope generously into the lives of the people around us. That’s when we will see a generous harvest in our church.

What will you sow into the lives of the people around you?

What God Is Looking For (Micah 6:1-8)

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What do you look for in a good breakfast?

When it comes to the meal that starts the day, which some people consider to be the most important meal of the day, some people look for a breakfast that’s healthy with all the latest superfoods to give their day a balanced start. Others look for a breakfast that tastes good, with all the artificial colours and additives that help to kick the day off with a sugar-fuelled bang. There have been people I’ve known who have looked for a coffee and cigarette to start the day, while others prefer to skip the meal all together.

What we look for can also be thought of as the things that we require. They might be what we have for breakfast, but also for just about anything – for example the possessions we buy, relationships we might hope for, our paid or unpaid work, the church we belong to or attend, and so on. When we are looking for something, we usually have a set of requirements that help us determine whether or not they are what we want or hope for.

What do you think God looks for in us and in our lives? Sometimes when I hear people talk about grace it can almost sound like God doesn’t have any requirements of us at all. If we have our own requirements of something as simple as our breakfast, however, it makes sense that God would also have requirements of what he’s looking for in us and in our lives.

Micah 6:1-8 gives us a good indication of what God is looking for in our lives. Micah reminds his readers of the good God had done for the Jewish people by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and giving them the Promised Land. As signs of their thanks for what God had given them, Micah explains that God doesn’t want empty religious rituals like sacrifices. Instead, Micah tells us that what God requires of his people and what he is looking for in our lives is ‘to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8b NLT).

How does that sound to you? Does this sound like a good way to live?

On the one hand, having three requirements, three things that God is looking for in our lives, might sound simple. When we start digging into these ideas, though, there is a lot to them.

To begin with, ‘To do what is right’ as the NLT translates it, can also be translated as to ‘act justly’ (NIV). Justice is firstly about making sure that we are doing what is right by other people, not just for ourselves, so it includes a focus on others and their wellbeing. It also includes working for others so they experience justice in their own lives. We can look to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament for how ancient people sought justice. God sent people to liberate those who were being oppressed and to right the wrongs that they were experiencing. Acting justly isn’t just about having a moral compass that helps us to decide what is right or wrong for us. It is doing what we can to make the wrong things in this world right again and helping others find justice when they are wronged in any way.

‘Mercy’ can be understood as showing kindness and goodness to others. To ‘love mercy’ then is to have our hearts set on being kind and doing good for all the people in our lives. What makes mercy even more challenging is that it is reserved for people who don’t deserve it but who still need it. Mercy is often interpreted as ‘undeserved kindness’ and so it’s about treating people better than they deserve, or than we might think they deserve, and doing good for others no matter who they are or what they have done. We can think of ‘mercy’ as indiscriminate kindness to all people, including those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

‘To walk humbly with our God’ means that we are constantly in step with God in every aspect of our lives, reflecting the goodness and character of God in everything we say and do. Sometimes when I hear people talk about God walking with them I wonder if we think that gives us permission to go in any direction in our lives that we want and expect God to follow us. Let’s face it, sometimes we can act like children who run away from their parents, not because we’re being vindictive or spiteful, but just because something has grabbed our attention and it is a lot more important to us than the parent or adult who is with us. ‘To walk humbly with our God’ means to remember who we are in God’s presence, that we get things wrong, that we need him in our lives, and to learn from God a new and different way to live our lives which is faithful to him and in step with who he is (see Galatians 5:25).

When we start exploring these three requirements which Micah gives us, we can see that there is a lot of depth to them. However, we don’t need to feel daunted or overwhelmed by them. One explanation of grace that I’ve come across is that God supplies us with what he requires of us. When we explore God’s grace to us in Jesus, we can find what God is looking for in our relationship with Jesus. God acts justly in our lives as he makes what’s wrong in us right again by forgiving us through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God loves mercy by treating us better than we deserve, showing us unlimited kindness and goodness for Jesus’ sake even though we don’t deserve it but we desperately need it. God walks in humility with us throughout our lives in Jesus who came to us from his heavenly home to become one of us, take on our humanity, serve us by suffering and dying for us, and to journey with us throughout our lives in all of our joys, successes, difficulties, suffering and uncertainties. In Jesus we encounter our God who does what is right for us, who loves to show us mercy, who walks in humility with us, and who gives us everything he is looking for as a gift through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

How might your week look if you were to commit to live in the ways God is looking for? How might you be able to do what is right, not just for yourself but also for others around you, and to act justly in everything you do? How might you be able to show mercy, undeserved kindness, to people who might not deserve it but who still need it? And how might you be able to walk humbly with your God, not just going your own way and expecting him to keep up, but learning a new way as you walk in step with Jesus as his disciple?

Of One Mind (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

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On the five Sundays since Christmas, our congregation has been gathering for one worship service each Sunday. This is different from our usual practice of having two weekly services: an earlier service with more traditional liturgies and an organ, and a later service with less formal orders and a band.

One of the reasons for having one service on the Sundays after Christmas was the desire some people in our congregation express to have one common service more often. Some have told me that they are concerned that having two services divides the congregation and it would be good for us to worship together at one time and in one place to make us more united.

I understand their point of view and see some merit in it. Over the last month people have told me how much they have enjoyed the services and appreciated the chance to worship with people from our other service. However, if our goal is a deep sense of unity in the congregation, maybe there are other ways to achieve that. Worshiping together in one service can be a visible form of unity, but it needs to reflect a deeper unity we have as the people of God.

The Apostle Paul addresses this deeper unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. He appeals to the Corinthian Christians in the name of and ‘by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other’ (v10a NLT). These words tell us that the unity of the church is not a trivial thing. Unity is something we need to take very seriously. Paul goes on to instruct his readers to ‘be of one mind, united in thought and purpose’ (v10b NLT).
The unity Paul is talking about runs much deeper that simply having a combined worship service. Looking at the Greek words he uses, Paul is talking about being in the same mind and in the same intention. He mentions this ‘mind’ a little later in his letter when he tells his readers that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16). When the Holy Spirit gifts us with the life of Christ we are also gifted with a new mind, the mind of Jesus.

This ‘mind’ gives us a whole new way to think about God, ourselves, our relationships with other people, the world around us, in fact our whole existence. Paul uses this same word for ‘mind’ in Romans 12:2 when he writes, ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). A key element of the unity God is looking for in our congregation is that we are in the mind of Jesus and we are learning to think in the way of Jesus together.

Another aspect of this unity is that when we are in the mind of Christ together, we will also be in the same purpose or intention. This has to do with why we are here as a congregation, what our reason is for existing, what God is calling us to do and where he is leading us into the future. Paul is urging us to be united in our understanding of who we are, why we are here and where we are going as God’s people in this time and place. This is closely connected to and grows out of being in the mind of Christ and learning to think in the way of Jesus. When we are united in our purpose or intention, we will be looking at our circumstances from Christ’s perspective and not just thinking about what is good for ourselves as individuals, what we like or how we can get our way. Instead, being united in purpose is about finding our purpose in Jesus and then living together in his purpose as his people in the world.

It is vital to recognise that unity is not the same thing as conformity. Conformity happens when one person decides that everyone should be like they are and do the same things they do. The church in Corinth wasn’t like that. As we saw last week, for example, there were a wide variety of gifts among the Corinthian Christians. Living with this diversity caused tensions in their community of faith but it was necessary for them to function faithfully as the body of Christ. In the same way, when we look for our unity in our minds and purpose we will be able to embrace diversity in our congregation as we see people who are different from us as people who are also part of and who contribute to the body of Christ as a whole. To try to enforce an external form of unity only leads to conformity as we attempt to get everyone doing the same thing. We’re not the same. Part of the mind and purpose of Christ is accepting that and accepting the people around us with our differences (Romans 15:7). Our differences are vital for the church to be the body of Christ in the world.

With all of our differences, then, it is possible for us to aim for the harmony Paul points us to, being united in the mind of Christ and our purpose as his church. At this point I could go on to describe what I believe that looks like, but I’m not going to. Part of our growth to maturity as Jesus’ followers is to work that out together. As we get to know Jesus more, we learn more about his mind and the Holy Spirit transforms our minds to be like his. As we listen to God’s word in worship, in small groups, in our families and on our own, the Holy Spirit shows us more and more who Jesus is and how he thinks. The Bible is the way in which we meet God through Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses its words, stories, poems and letters to continue to share the mind of Christ with us, transforming our thinking to be like his. As we remain in God’s word together and as we pray together, the Holy Spirit will continue to gift us with the mind of Jesus so we can participate in Christ’s purpose and move closer to the harmony God wants for us.

This unity can be evident when we worship together in one service. It can also be evident if we have multiple services in a number of different places. Worshiping together needs to be the fruit of being united in thought and purpose because trying to achieve these by enforcing things like one worship will only result in external conformity and not the kind of deep unity God is looking for. The unity God wants, the unity Paul is pointing us to and the unity that is possible in our congregation is being united in the mind of Christ, when thinking the way that Jesus thinks is the most natural thing for us, and participating in Jesus’ purpose for his church.

Organic Faith (Luke 13:6-9)

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Comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant might sound like a stupid thing to do. There are a lot of things that are obviously different about them. For example, an eggbeater is a machine. You turn the handle, which moves cogs which, in turn, rotate the beaters. It’s a simple machine, but it still involves a mechanical process which is predictable, controlled and results in a particular outcome.

A pot plant, however, is organic and not mechanical. It is alive which means it is less controllable than a machine and can grow in ways which aren’t always predictable. I can leave my eggbeater in the utensil draw of our kitchen and it will still work when I go looking for it. However, my pot plant requires constant care and nurture if it is going to stay alive, continue to grow and produce flowers, especially in hot and dry weather.
My reason for comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant is to ask whether faith is more like an eggbeater or a pot plant? Is faith more mechanical or organic?

It seems to me that we can at times taken a more mechanical view of faith in the church. We have tried to construct processes in the church which we expect people to move through and assume that they will result in spiritual maturity. When I listen to some church leaders, spiritual growth almost sounds like a production line which begins with baptism, moves through Sunday School or another form of children’s ministry, through to First Communion, Confirmation, and youth group into adult Bible studies or other programs that the church might offer. We can approach the Christian life like an eggbeater with a simple cause and effect relationship, thinking that if we do this event or run that program, then people will come out the end as mature Christians.

When I listen to the teachings of Jesus, however, I hear a much more organic approach to faith. Jesus tells lots of stories that use plants, trees and other living organisms to illustrate faith and the Kingdom of God. For example, in Luke 13:6-9, the gospel reading for New Year’s Eve, Jesus talks about a fig tree that wasn’t producing any fruit. Instead of applying a mechanical process to the fig tree, the gardener’s approach is understandably organic as he talks about digging around the tree and fertilizing it. The goal of both the owner of the vineyard and the gardener are the same: they both want the fig tree to produce fruit. The gardener understands that if that is going to happen, then he needs to nurture the tree, care for it and feed it. He does that with no guarantee of success. This isn’t a mechanical process where the production is controlled and the outcome is predetermined. Instead, the gardener takes a chance on the tree by investing time and resources into the tree hoping that it will grow into a strong, mature tree which will produces the fruit they are looking for.

How do we approach spiritual growth in our church? Do we try to put people through programs which are intended to produce predictable outcomes? Or do we take a more organic approach to faith, looking to nurture and grow faith in people? What might happen if we saw faith less as a process and more a longer-term growth? In our own lives, do we expect faith to happen as we go through the motions of a religious life? Or do we look to God to grow us by feeding and watering us so we can produce the fruit of faith in our lives? Are we then willing to be like the gardener from Jesus’ story in the lives of others, nurturing their faith so that it grows and produces fruit? Or do we rely on processes the church has in place to produce faith in people’s lives?

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When our congregation adopted our Discipling Plan of Connecting, Growing, Equipping and Sending, we deliberately chose an image with a young plant in it. We understood from the teachings of Jesus that maturity in faith doesn’t come through a process, but through organic growth. We want to be connecting people with the gospel in the same way that we plant a seed in fertile soil. We want to be growing people in their faith in the same way the gardener from the story wanted to grow the fig tree to maturity. We want to be equipping people to serve others in faith, producing the good fruit that God wants to see on his mature children. And we want to be sending people into the world, into God’s garden, to continue his work and to work with him in cultivating faith in the people we meet every day.

As people who live in a culture that has a modernist, mechanical mindset, it is easy for us to think that faith happens through processes and programs. We do need good processes and procedures for the sake of good order in the church, but real, sustainable, vibrant spiritual growth is a lot more like my pot plant than my eggbeater. My eggbeater is much more simple than my pot plant because it is easily maintained, produces a predictable result and I can leave it on its own for months and it will still work. Plants are much more difficult. They are unpredictable. They require more maintenance and care, especially when the heat is on. And there’s no guarantee that the effort we put in will produce any visible results.

Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about plants instead of machines. He understands that our faith is a living thing, that it’s fragile and needs constant care. But maybe Jesus also knew that the results are worth the effort. Jesus knew the beauty that is produced by a living faith, whether it is a fig we can eat or a flower whose beauty we can admire. As we end this calendar year, we can thank God for the ways he has continued to care for and nurture the faith within us and our loved ones over the past twelve months. As we begin a new year, it is good for us to remember that faith is organic. It is a living thing, and so needs to be cared for, looked after, nurtured, fed and watered.

This year, we will have the responsibility to take an organic approach to our own faith, making sure it is kept healthy and growing to maturity, as well as opportunities to care for the faith of others, nurturing them through the grace God gives and the love he shares in the gospel of Jesus.