Jesus’ Vast Love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

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One of my most favourite things to do is travel. When I get the chance, I love to pack a bag, throw it on the back of my motorbike and explore this vast, beautiful country of Australia. Over the years I have been blessed to be able to travel along just about every major highway and a lot of secondary roads as well. It always amazes me how big and how beautiful this nation is. And there are still more roads I’m looking forward to riding in the future…

When I hear Paul’s prayer for God’s people in Ephesians 3:18, I think of exploring God’s love the way I’ve been able to explore Australia. Paul’s hope is that we will be able to grasp with both hands and our whole heart just how enormous God’s love is for us, especially in the person and work of Jesus. Like riding this nation’s highways and back-roads, God’s love is enormous and full of amazing beauty. Even though we might think that we have seen everything, we can turn another corner and be blown away by the majesty and grandeur of what we encounter. With each and every changing circumstance of life, we have the opportunity to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of how vast and truly awesome God’s love for us is in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. As we connect God’s love for us in Jesus with every new situation we face in life, we explore the infinite width, length, height and depth of God’s perfect love for us.

This is important for us because God’s love changes us. I received an email on Friday morning with a link to an article entitled Why sometimes love is the best parenting solution. The author, who isn’t Christian as far as I can tell, wrote:

When you’re having a tough day with your child, one thing that can reduce everyone’s stress and overwhelm is to focus your mind on love…
Before deciding that’s too simple, remember the research on feeling loved being at the foundation of self confidence, happiness and resilience.
Next time your children are driving you mad… Stop thinking, steady your breathing, don’t worry about the next moment and make your next move an expression of LOVE.
Love reconnects. Love forgives. Love renews. Love energises…

How much greater is the possibility for us to be growing in love, to be changed by love, and to extend love to others when we have direct access to the infinite and perfect love of God in Jesus. I agree with the author that in all our relationships, not just between parents and children, the best solution is love. In our relationship with God through Jesus, we have access to love that is so wide, long, deep and high that we can spend our entire lives exploring its beauty and life-changing grandeur, and never reach its limits. Like riding the roads of Australia, we can spend our whole lives discovering it and there will still be more to see.

And I haven’t even started talking about traveling overseas yet!

A problem we can face as Christians is we can be like people who watch travel shows on TV or go to information events about different tours and think that we’ve seen what we wanted to see. There is a big difference between seeing a TV show about a destination and experiencing its sights, smells, tastes and its beauty for ourselves. Paul’s prayer is that we will ‘experience the love of Christ, even though it is too great to understand fully’ (v19a NLT) for ourselves. It’s not enough to sit on a couch or a pew, listening to someone else who has seen it or been there. Following Jesus is not a spectator sport! The life of faith is about getting off our metaphorical posteriors and exploring ‘how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love is’ for ourselves. It’s only when we are willing to get out of our comfort zones, open God’s word, listen to his promises of love in the Bible, and connect them with the realities of our lives that we start to explore the infinite goodness of God’s love for ourselves.

That is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. In particular, when we talk about Growing we mean exploring how wide, long, high and deep God’s love is for us in Jesus so that we can grasp it with both hands and experience it’s life-changing reality for ourselves. Just about everything I do is geared towards this one hope: that by opening God’s word together, listening to his promises of love, praying together and being Christian community together, you might be able to encounter God’s love in a new way and grasp a little more how his love can make a difference in your life.

Paul’s promise is that, as we explore the width, length, height and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit changes us. Paul writes that as we explore the vastness of God’s infinite love for us in Jesus, and as we experience the love of Christ, we ‘will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God’ (v19b). Try to imagine what that could be like: to be made complete with the fullness of God’s life and power. The NIV puts it a slightly different way: ‘that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’ It boggles my mind to start thinking about the difference being filled with God’s fullness can make to our lives…

In all of life’s joy and challenges, difficulties or stresses, how would you like to be filled with ‘the fullness of God’s life and power’? Paul is saying this is possible when we are exploring how wide and long, how high and deep God’s love is for us in Jesus, and when we are experiencing the reality of that love in his word and in Christian community.

So, what kind of traveller are you? Do you like to watch travel shows in TV that give you a glimpse of a destination through someone else’s eyes? Or do you like to pack a bag and get out on the road to experience all of the joys, the challenges, the beauty and the wonder which come with exploring our country and the world? There is so much to explore within and beyond our borders. But that’s nothing compared to the life-changing beauty of the infinitely wide, long, high and deep love of God for us in Christ Jesus.

Don’t just sit on a pew on Sunday. Open your Bibles, hear what God promises us through Jesus, and come with me as we explore the width, length, height and depth of God’s love, so we can experience the life-changing reality of Jesus’ love for us and be filled with the fullness of God’s life and power together.

Growing (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

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Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?