Standing Straight (Luke 13:10-17)

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The account of Jesus releasing a crippled woman on a Sabbath in Luke 13:10-17 might look like just another healing story when we first read it. However, when we listen carefully to the language Luke uses to describe the event we can find that there is more going on under the surface.

The Synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he broke the Sabbath rules. About fifteen hundred years earlier, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God gifted his people with a day off each week. This day of rest, known as the Sabbath, was so important that God enshrined it as one of the Ten Commandments – ‘Remember to observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy’ (Deuteronomy 20:8 NLT). In order to protect this gift, subsequent generations of Israelites began defining what they regarded as ‘work’ so they knew how not to break this commandment. By the time of Jesus, the gift of the rest day had become an expectation, lost under a complicated system of rules about what a person could and could not do on that day.

The synagogue leader got upset with Jesus because he viewed releasing the woman from her illness as work and so Jesus had broken this commandment in his eyes. Jesus challenged the leader’s understanding of God’s purpose for the Sabbath by pointing to the way he would untie his donkey or ox in order to lead it out for a drink of water. This action was also ‘work’ according to the synagogue leader’s Sabbath regulations.

This is where the language of the story becomes very significant. In verse 12, where the New Living Translation has Jesus saying, ‘you are healed of your sickness,’ the Greek text uses a verb which means more like ‘released’ or ‘let go’. In the same way, the word Jesus uses in verse 16 which is translated as ‘released’ is the same word he uses in verse 15 when he talks about ‘untying’ a donkey or an ox to lead it out for a drink of water. Luke used this language is to tell us that Jesus came to untie or release us from the effects of sin which tie us up, weight us down and prevent us from living in the ways God originally intended for us.

The Synagogue leader was effectively tying people up with rules, traditions and expectations around the Sabbath-day of rest. In contrast, Jesus saw an opportunity on this particular Sabbath to untie the woman, set her free and release her to live the life God intended for her.

When we gather together on our day of rest, I wonder who we more closely resemble? Are we living in the freedom that Jesus gives us through faith to find release from the things in life that tie us up, weigh us down and keep our eyes looking towards the ground? Or are we tied up with rules, traditions and expectations, passing those things that tie us up on to others? As people join us in worship, do they encounter rules that bind them or the grace of Jesus which sets us free?

We all have things that bind us. For some, like the woman in the story, it might be a physical disability which ties us up and prevents us from living the life God intends for us. If that’s the case, the good news of this story is that Jesus has the power to release us from our physical weaknesses and infirmities. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has the power to make all things new, including our bodies. Some miraculously experience this healing and release in this life. Others wait their whole lives for it in faith and hope. Either way, Jesus asks us to trust him because ‘faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us the assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

This woman’s physical disability also signifies something deeper that can happen within all of us. We can easily get tied up in things like guilt, fear, shame, anxiety, loneliness, other people’s expectations, the need to please others, and the list can go on and on. They bind us in ways that are very similar to the woman in the story because they restrict us and prevent us from living the ‘life to the full’ which Jesus promises us (John 10:10) in the love, joy, peace and hope that God intends for us. The things that tie us up keep us looking at the ground in front of our feet, making us stumble our way through life instead of having eyes that are lifted up to see Jesus in faith and others in Christ-like love. For us to live the life that God promises us, we need to be set free from the things that tie us up so we can stand straight and strong in the love and grace of Jesus.

That’s what Christian community it meant to be about. Our purpose is not to keep people tied up in expectations, human traditions or rules. That was what the synagogue leader was doing. Jesus’ purpose was to release people, to set us free, to give us life in all of its fullness. As a community of faith which carries the name of Christ, our purpose is to be finding and living in the love of God through Jesus which releases us, and then extending that same liberating love and grace to others. For a lot of people who grew up in churches which emphasised the importance of certain behaviours, customs, human traditions and expectations, this is a significantly different way of thinking about church.

But what might our community of faith look like if we understood our purpose as helping people find freedom from what binds them in life through a living and growing faith in Jesus?

There is a lot more going on in this story that just another healing miracle. Through the words of this story, Jesus gives us the promise that he can untie us from whatever binds us in life so we can stand straight, seeing his love and grace and seeing others around us who also need his love and grace. This story also challenges us to think about our own community of faith. How can we be a community where people can encounter the love of Jesus which releases us from what ties us up, so they can find the freedom which comes through faith too?

More to think about:

  • What questions or thoughts do you have about the story in Luke 13:10-17?
  • What are some of the things that can tie people up in life?
  • Has your experience of ‘church’ been more about being tied up with rules or expectations, or being set free through grace and love? Maybe share some examples.
  • What ties you up in your life?
  • Do you think it is possible for Jesus to untie you from the things that tie you up like he did for the woman in the story? Discuss your answers…
  • How might your view of ‘Christian discipleship’ be similar or different if you thought about Jesus calling you to follow him means that he wants to lead you into greater freedom from the things that tie you up in life?
  • How might your view of Christian community or church be different if you saw it more as followers of Jesus walking together into greater freedom through a growing faith in Jesus?
  • You might like to talk with Jesus in prayer, giving him whatever might be tying you up in life and asking him to untie you from it…

Living Free (Galatians 5:1,13-25)

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I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that every aspect of our lives has rules. We might call them different names, or try to present them in various ways, but in one way or another every part of our lives carry expectations or requirements for what we should or should not do.

I can understand, then, why people see Christianity the same way. It is our natural human tendency to want to know what we can get away with, what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, and then either conform or rebel against them. The main way people from outside the church perceive the Christian message is that if you’re a good person you’ll go to heaven when you die, but if you’re a bad person you’ll go to hell. It’s tragic that I’ve met people inside the church who think something similar: if you keep the rules you’ll go to heaven, but if you break the rules you’ll go to hell.

The beauty and the scandal of the Christian message is that the rules don’t determine our relationship with God or our place in God’s kingdom. If they did, we’d all be in deep trouble because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do (Romans 3:23). Instead, God brings about a new way of living in relationship with him as members of his Kingdom through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). God loves us and accepts us because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, not because we keep the rules.

What that means is that God can’t love us any more if we keep the rules, and he won’t love us any less if we break the rules!

This faith gives us freedom. This is Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian church. There were people there who were making the Christian message and membership in the Kingdom of God conditional on whether or not people kept the rules, in particular the Old Testament rule about circumcision. Paul’s main idea in Galatians is that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Living as a Christian is not about keeping or breaking the rules. The only thing that counts is trusting that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us a new relationship with God as his children and living out that faith in Christ-like love for other people.

The big danger of this message is that we like using our freedom for our own benefit. Paul recognises this so he writes, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love’ (v13 NLT). When we use our freedom for our own gain or in selfish ways, we forfeit our freedom because we become slaves to sin again instead of living as God’s free people. The way to exercise our freedom is to use it to trust in Jesus’ love for us and love others in the way that Jesus has loved us.

That is why it is so important to be recognizing the love of Jesus in our lives and remaining in Jesus’ love (see John 15:4). As we grow in his love for us, the Holy Spirit equips us to love others in the same way. We won’t need rules to tell us how to love others because love will flow freely and naturally. Love isn’t something that you can command. It flows from the experience of being loved. As we learn the way of Jesus’ love, the Holy Spirit will guide us in this love so we can extend this love to other people.

That’s why Paul tells us to ‘let the Holy Spirit guide our lives’ (v16a), to be ‘directed by the Spirit’ (v18) and to be ‘living by the Spirit’ as we ‘follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’ (v25). Living in faith and love doesn’t come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is to trust ourselves more than to trust in Jesus. We tend to want what suits us instead of loving others. So we need the Spirit’s guidance and leading in our lives so we can trust Jesus and love others in every aspect of our lives.

This is different to looking for the Holy Spirit to tell us what to do in life. If being guided by the Spirit means looking for God to tell us to do one thing or not do another, this can easily become another set of rules to live by. The freedom Paul talks about isn’t looking for the Holy Spirit to tells us what to do. It’s looking for the Spirit’s guidance in living in faith and love in all of our life’s circumstances.

As a parent, I am always telling my young children what to do or not do. However, I don’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do for the rest of their lives. As they grow and mature, I hope that they will do what is right and good on their own because they love me and they what to do what is right and good. This is living in freedom – not doing good because they have to or because I tell them to, but just because they can. Living in the freedom that Jesus gives is the same. I hear Paul saying that our loving heavenly Father wants to free us from having to be told what to do. God wants us to trust him and his love for us in Jesus so we live in love for others. This is what we call becoming mature followers of Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus promising to send us the Spirit of truth to guide us into truth. One way we can understand God’s truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us is that God wants us to live as his free, mature children. This freedom and maturity don’t mean living by a set of rules or being told what to do. The freedom Jesus wants us to live in is faith and love – trusting that his life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves, and loving other people in the same way Jesus loves us.

Keeping the rules won’t make God love you any more. Breaking the rules can’t make God love you any less. All that matters now is trusting that good news, and expressing that faith in Christ-like love for others.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘freedom’? What does it look like in your life?
  • From what you know of the Christian message, do you think of it more about following rules or living in freedom? Can you explain why?
  • what do you think Paul means when he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV)? What do you think the ‘freedom’ is that he is talking about?
  • How is the ‘freedom’ Paul writes about similar or different to how you usually think about freedom?
  • What is your reaction to the statement that ‘Keeping the rules can’t make God love you any more and breaking the rules won’t make God love you any less’? Would you agree or disagree with it? Explain why…
  • How is living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6b) different from living by a set of rules? Which way would you prefer to live? Why?
  • How might your life look different if your starting point in any decision was to ask  the Holy Spirit to lead you in the way of faith and love by trusting Jesus and loving others? How might your relationships be different? How might your church be different?

Saved and Sent (Luke 8:26-39)

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The story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39 begins a bit like a horror movie. Jesus and his disciples get out of their boat after going through a severe storm on Lake Galilee. There they are confronted by a man possessed by so many demons that they identify themselves as ‘Legion’ which means ‘many’. This man had been driven from his home, was living among the dead in a cemetery, had broken chains that had been used to try to restrain him with superhuman strength, was naked and shouting at Jesus as he approached him.

We might not feel a strong connection with this story because it can sound very different from the reality of our lives. For most of us, our experience of the demonic is probably more from watching movies than day to day life. So when Jesus cast the demons into the pigs and then sent the man home to tell them how much God had done for him, we might think it’s a nice story but not really get anything out of it for ourselves.

However, if we look closer at the story, we can find that by casting the demons out of the man, Jesus did much more for him than we might initially see. Jesus freed him from the demons that were tormenting him. Jesus covered his nakedness, which is often associated with shame in the Bible, so that when the people found him at the end of the story, he was clothed (v35) showing that Jesus had covered his shame. Luke also tells us that the man was ‘in his right mind’ (v35), which means that his mental health was restored and he had control of his rational faculties again. Through his encounter with Jesus, the man no longer had to live in the tombs and the cemetery but was restored to the world of the living to resume his life again. In doing this, Jesus reconnected him in his relationships with his family and his community.

When we start to think about what Jesus did for this man in these terms, then it becomes easier to see ourselves in this story and to find God’s goodness in Jesus for ourselves. God is able to do all these things for us as well through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God can free us from our demons. These might be literal demons, or they might be other things which torment us. They might have names like Guilt, Fear, Regret, Addiction, Anxiety, Insecurity, and so on. God covers our shame by entering into our shame through the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and freeing us from shame by covering us with the clothes of Jesus’ righteousness and purity. God gives us the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit so we can find a healthier state of mind and more control over our thoughts and mental faculties, which Paul says is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Jesus lifts us out from living among the dead as he gifts us with new and eternal life through his resurrection. Death does not define us through Jesus, but the new life of the Spirit of God which is given to us through faith in Jesus. This new life overcomes our solitude and loneliness as God brings us into new relationship with himself and incorporates us in the community of faith, the family of God, the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, also known as the church.

When we encounter Jesus like this and we find God’s goodness at work in us through the Holy Spirit, then we have good news to bring to the world. In the same way that Jesus told the man to return to his home and tell how much God had done for him (v39), Jesus also tells us to go into the world to tell people how much good he has done for us.

One significant thing about Jesus’s instructions is that he tells the man to go back to his home. The mission of God begins in our homes as we pass on to those closest to us how much God does for us by setting us free, covering our shame, renewing our minds, giving us new lives to live, and restoring us in our relationships and in community. God’s mission doesn’t stop there obviously, but it starts in our homes and families as we share with them what God has already done for us, as well as the promise of what God can also do for them in Christ Jesus through the power of his Spirit.

Jesus tells us to share with others what God has already done in our lives through Jesus. I wonder sometimes whether we have been told to go out and witness to others about our faith before we have encountered the goodness and power of God in our own lives. In this story, Jesus gives the man something good to share with others. The good news the man had to share was his story, the way God had been at work in his life. Before we start telling others to go out and tell others about Jesus, maybe some of us need to be finding the life-changing goodness of God in our own lives through a deeper relationship with Jesus. When we find his goodness for ourselves, then we have a story to tell that can bring good news to others.

It would be easy to finish this message by repeating Jesus’ last words to the man he had set free from Legion, and telling you to go out and tell how much God has done for you. I want to ask you a question first: if someone asked you what God has done for you, what would you say? Some people in our church have stories of what God has done for them in Jesus and are happy to share that story with others. God bless you as you bring good news to others. If you don’t have a story yet, or don’t know what your story is, I hope and pray that over time, God will give you a story to tell as he works in your life to set you free, cover your shame, renew your mind, give you a new life to live, and restore your relationships and community.

Then you’ll be able to tell others how much God has done for you through Jesus.

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have about this story? What doesn’t make sense to you or are you not sure about?
  • Do you find it easy or more difficult to talk about your faith to others? Why is that?
  • If you were the man in the story, would you have told others about what Jesus had done for you? Explain why…
  • I’m suggesting that when we look closer at the story, we can see that Jesus frees this man from what is tormenting him, covers his shame, renews his mind, gives him a new life to live, and restores him in his relationships and community with others. Is there something like any of these that Jesus has done for you in your life? Is there one in particular that you need Jesus to do for you? Or is there something else you need Jesus to do for you?
  • Do you believe it’s possible that a growing relationship with Jesus can help you find what you’re looking for? Share some thoughts about how that might happen… (please let me know if there’s any way I can help)
  • If someone asked you about what Jesus had done for you, what would you say?
  • Who is one person you can tell about what Jesus has done for you this week?

No More Night (Revelation 21:10,22-22:5)

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Riding a motorbike at night can be a challenging experience for a few reasons. Firstly, a rider needs to see where a corner is going in order to take it well. This is difficult at night when the headlight only shows what is in front of the motorbike and not around the corner. Another challenge is that you never know what’s in the dark, beyond what you can see in the headlight. The possibility is always there that a kangaroo, wombat or something else might emerge from the darkness in front of the motorbike and cause an accident.

When I was riding my motorbike home from our District Pastors’ Conference last week along a dark country road, I gained a better understanding of why my children like to have nightlights on while they sleep. The dark can be a scary place. As both children and adults, we are naturally afraid that there might be things in the dark that can harm us. Whether they might be kangaroos jumping out from the side of the road or monsters living under the bed, we have a natural tendency to be afraid of things we can’t see but could still hurt us in some way.

A major idea which runs throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is that the dark represents the place where evil lives. I can understand why ancient people, living without the aid of electric lights of any sort, would see the dark as the place where monsters, demons or other forms of evil exist. It reflects our natural tendency to fear what we can’t see and to be afraid of the dark.

As we continue to read John’s vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to establish God’s home on earth, we can see that there are a number of things that are missing from the holy city. John describes how this city has no temple (21:22), no sun or moon (21:23), no night (21:25, 22:5), nothing that is impure (21:27 NIV) or evil (NLT), and no curse exists there (22:3). Each of these are significant and really deserve a message in themselves to explore their meaning properly, but what struck me as I read this passage is that John mentions that there will be no more night more than once. The vision he gives is that there will be no more darkness in the holy city because the glory of God and the light of the Lamb will be the source of its light (21:3).

In one way I’m not entirely happy with this picture of eternity. No night usually means no sleep, and, as a father of young children, I really like my sleep! This makes me wonder, then, whether John had something in mind other than a literal picture of heaven when he described this never-ending day…

If darkness in the Bible represents the place of evil and other things we can fear, then it is possible that the absence of the darkness of night in the holy city can mean that everything of which we can be afraid has been driven out by the glory of God and the light of the Lamb. Imagine what that would be like – a life where there is nothing to fear because everything that can harm us has been driven out by the light of Jesus. There will be nothing to fear anymore because the light of God’s grace, forgiveness and love will illuminate every corner, under every bed, every roadside, every place where darkness lives. In the same way that turning on a light drives darkness out of a room, the presence of God and the resurrected Jesus with his people brings light to the whole city and drives out the darkness. There is nothing to fear because everything is brought to light by the truth of the gospel. All that remains is the goodness of God given by the Holy Spirit.

At this point it is important to recognize that there are two main ways in which people interpret John’s revelation. One is that John is giving us a picture of what will happen at the end of time and the eternity we have to look forward to. However, another way of interpreting Revelation is that John is revealing to us what our current reality looks like from God’s perspective. From the first point of view, we can look forward to an eternity with God where there will be nothing left to fear because the light of God’s goodness will drive away all evil. If we take the second interpretation though, recognizing that God’s presence is with his people now through Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, can these words also mean that we can find freedom from fear as the light of Christ gives light to our heats and lives right now?

Fear can stop us from living the life that Jesus gives us through faith in his resurrection and the gift of his Holy Spirit. However, like riding along a country road in the dark on my motorbike, most of the things we fear aren’t actually there. The light of Jesus, the Lamb of God, can actually illuminate our lives to show us that most of what we fear doesn’t exist, and Jesus is stronger than the darkness. He entered the darkness of this world in his crucifixion and defeated the darkness in his resurrection, showing us once and for all that we don’t need to be afraid because of his victory. Through faith in Jesus, the light of his forgiveness, grace and love drives all darkness out of our hearts and lives so there is no place left for evil to hide. We can live every day in the light of the Lamb who was slain and is risen again, and the peace which comes from faith in his goodness and grace.

More to think about:

  • Can you imagine what it would be like to live without fear in your life? Discuss with others what it might be like or write out your thoughts…
  • What is your biggest fear right now? Why are you afraid of it?
  • Does whatever you fear actually exist? Or is it the possibility of something going wrong which might not actually be there, like a kangaroo on the side of the road?
  • How might the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus help you to see what you’re afraid of differently? How might things look in the light of the forgiveness, grace, love and mercy that Jesus gives us?
  • Sometimes, shadows disappear when we get closer to the light. How might you be able to get closer to the light of Jesus so the darkness or fears you experience can be driven out?

Confession (James 5:13-20)

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Some words in the English language can be very hard to say. For example, it took a long time for my children to say ‘animal’ instead of ‘aminal’ – and sometimes they still get it wrong. Our family always has a giggle every time characters in Finding Nemo try to say ‘anemone.’ I had to practice how to say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ when I was younger so I could impress my university friends with what I’ve been told is one of the longest words in the English dictionary.

But it seems like one of the hardest words in the English language to say is ‘sorry.’

It is easy to read the word ‘sorry’, but if you think saying it is easy, try going to someone you have wronged in the past and telling them you’re sorry for what you did. We can find it difficult to do that for a range of reasons. Maybe we don’t think we have anything to apologise for because whatever happened was their fault. Maybe we are so ashamed of what has happened that we would prefer not to face it. Or maybe we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we have done. No matter what our reasons might be, saying ‘sorry’ to someone we have wronged can be very hard to do.

When James encourages us to confess our sins to each other in 5:16, he is reminding us that confession is more than turning up to church and saying ‘sorry’ to God. One reason why it’s important to have time in worship where we confess our sin to God and God speaks his word of forgiveness to us is that there is a strong tendency in our humanistic culture to think that we’re good people who don’t need to be forgiven. However, when I look at my life, I know that I fail to love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength, and that I fail to love others in the same way that God loves me through Jesus. Hearing God’s words of forgiveness helps me to remember that my identity is found in his forgiveness, not in my failures. Hearing a word of forgiveness helps us grow into the people God is making us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased.

When we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, then we will also be willing to go to the people we have wronged and tell them that we are sorry. This isn’t something that we have to do in order to get God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can have a very mechanical understanding of God’s grace where we think that we have to say we are sorry before God will forgive us. There is a much more dynamic relationship that exists between our confession and God’s forgiveness. As a church that practices infant baptism, we believe and teach that God forgiveness us even before we are able to confess our sin. Because God forgives us on account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, we are free to go to each other and confess that we have wronged each other. We can trust that God’s final word to us in Jesus will always be a word of grace and forgiveness. If God has vowed to forgive us and make us clean through the gift of his Holy Spirit, then why wouldn’t we ask to receive that forgiveness from and extend that same forgiveness to each other?

The promise God gives us through James’ words about confessing sin and forgiving each other is that we will find healing. We might think about physical healing, and there is no reason why almighty God can’t heal those he chooses to. However, healing can also take other forms. When we wrong others, our hearts can be wounded as we carry the burden of guilt and shame. This can effect our emotional and sometimes even our physical wellbeing. I have known people who had been suffering mentally and even physically because of a wrong they had committed in the past, but they hadn’t connected what they were experiencing with what they’d done. When we identified the connection, and the wrong was confessed and forgiven, then their wellbeing improved. This isn’t the case with every illness, and Jesus warned us not to assume a direct connection between illnesses or disabilities and a particular sin (John 9:1-3). However, in some cases I have seen how confessing and forgiving sin can help to heal people’s hearts and even their body.

Another way to understand the healing that James talks about is in our relationships. Sin and doing wrong damages relationships, but when we confess our wrongs to each other and forgive each other in Jesus’ name, these relationships can be healed. We can be reconciled to each other in the same way that God reconciles with us in Jesus and heals our broken relationship with him. This can be really difficult to do for a whole range of reasons, but the promise of God that we hear through the words of James is that our relationships can be healed and restored when we admit when we are wrong and ask the people we have wronged to forgive us. The healing of the relationship we have through the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus can flow through into the other damaged relationships we have in our lives so they can be healed as well. This isn’t easy to do. It requires a lot of humility, courage and faith. However, James tells us, and I have seen in my own life, that when we confess our wrongs to the people we have wronged and ask them to forgive us, not only can our relationship be healed, but we can find healing and wholeness in ourselves as well.

To whom might we need to confess our wrongs, either to restore our relationship with them or just to find healing and peace for ourselves? If there is something in your life that you’re carrying, don’t be afraid to go to someone you might have wronged, or to another sister or brother in Christ, and confess what you might have done. Find healing and freedom through the grace of God working in the words of forgiveness they speak to you. Because that’s what God wants for us – to live each day as God’s forgiven and healed children.

Law Breakers (Mark 2:23-3:6)

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When we hear the story of Jesus’ disciples eating grain they had picked on the Sabbath day of rest in Mark 2:23-28, we might wonder what the Pharisees were so upset about. The disciples weren’t hurting anybody and I’m sure that the people who owned the field wouldn’t have missed a few stalks. So what’s the problem?

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, God said explicitly that his people were not to do any work on the seventh day of the week (vv8-11). What was called the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest. In order to define what was ‘work’ so the Jewish people could keep this commandment, a complicated set of rules developed which defined what a person was and was not allowed to do. From this perspective, picking grain from a paddock was considered ‘work’ and so the disciples were breaking God’s command.

The Pharisees’ reactions might appear to be a bit extreme, but do we sometimes react in a similar way? Most Christians have our own ideas about how we should observe our own day of rest. We might not have them written down, but most people I’ve known in the church have their own set of rules about what and how we should do what we do. I’m meaning things like what songs or hymns we should or shouldn’t sing, what liturgies we should or shouldn’t use, when we should sit and when we should stand, how people should dress, how children should behave, and the list could go on. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but most of us have a set of rules that we think people should follow in the church. Then, if people don’t do what we think they should, we can start to be critical of them, kind of like the Pharisees were of Jesus’ disciples.

What is ironic is that Christians are breaking the Sabbath law just by worshiping on Sunday. Biblically, the Sabbath day of rest is Saturday – just ask someone from the Jewish community or a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church. There are two main reasons I’m aware of why Christian changed it to Sunday. The first is that the early followers of Jesus met together on the first day of the week to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The second reason was because they wanted to send a clear message that we are no longer under the law but under grace. As people whose relationship with God and eternal futures are not based on whether or not we keep the law, we are free to meet together and worship whenever is good for the community of faith.

That is why Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying that ‘the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath’ (v27 NLT). Jesus teaches us that people were not created to be slaves of the law along with its rules and expectations. Instead, God gave us the law to serve us. Rules are meant to be a blessing, not a burden, especially in Christian community. If our rules are no longer serving God’s people, or if they are becoming a burden to God’s people, then we need to ask whether they are fulfilling God’s purpose. If that is the case, then maybe it is time to set those rules aside in the freedom the gospel gives us.

What seems to matter most to Jesus, not just in this story but all the way through the gospels, is people. If the rules get in the way of people finding grace or healing, love or forgiveness, then Jesus breaks the rules to give them what they need. This is what made the Pharisees so angry with Jesus, and even here, at the start of the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time are already starting to wonder how to get rid of him. They begin planning to kill him because Jesus prioritizes people over their rules. For Jesus, people are much more important that religious rules and laws.

What would our communities of faith be like if we took the same approach? I understand that we all have our preferences about when and how we worship, the style of music and liturgy (or lack of it), how people should dress and behave when they come to church. But how might our churches be different if we were willing to put our preferences and expectations aside and made people our priority?

In our congregation we have two worship services each Sunday: an earlier service with a more formal liturgy and hymns played on an organ, and a later service with less structured liturgy and a band playing more modern songs. I put the challenge out on Sunday for people to think about what things might be like if we prioritized the people of the other service – the young, the elderly, and everyone in between – over and above our own set of rules about what worship should or shouldn’t be. If we took Jesus’ words seriously about God giving us a Sabbath day of rest for our good with people being what matters most, how could we show others how important they are to Jesus by prioritizing them?

We need to remember that Jesus prioritizes each and every one of us by giving his life for us. We extend and communicate grace and love to each other when we prioritize each other and are willing to make others in our community of faith more important to us than our rules, laws and expectations. When we understand that Jesus prioritized people over rules, no matter what their age, background or gender might be, then we begin to embrace them in God’s grace and love as we follow him and do the same.

I have been serving this congregation now for almost three years. There are people in our church who think I am changing too many things too fast. There are others who think I’m not changing things quickly enough. This is the life of a pastor – it is impossible to keep everyone happy. However, the change I’m really working towards and hope to see is not about service times or styles of music or liturgy. The change I hope for is in our hearts. I would like us to recognize that rules were made for people, not people for rules, and that Jesus prioritized people over rules.

As followers of Jesus, then, I hope that we will make people our number one priority, even if it means breaking some rules to do it.

Jesus Knows (John 4:5-42)

woman at the well 02

All of us have probably done things in our lives that we would prefer other people didn’t know about. They might be things we have done, or things that have been done to us. Whatever these secrets might be, we tend to keep them will hidden. The only times we might confide in another person about what we have done is when we trust that person won’t use our secrets against us, think less of us, or reject us because of what has happened.

The Samaritan woman in this story was experiencing a lot of shame. Jesus gets to the source of her disgrace when he asked her to get her husband (v16). Her reply, that she didn’t have a husband, was only the tip of the iceberg. Having had five husbands, and living with a man who wasn’t her husband, meant that this woman was outside of how ‘respectable’ women lived in that time and place. She had to come to the well in the hottest part of the day because her shame prevented her from mixing with the other women of the village. Her relationships with men had made her an outcast from her community.

When Jesus reveals her shame, though, something happens to her. Whenever I read this story, I am always surprised about the message she takes back to the village to tell people about Jesus. In verse 29 we read that she returned to the village saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” This doesn’t sound like good news for a person whose life resulted in her experiencing social shame. However, in the presence of Jesus, her shame was changed to joy because Jesus knew everything about her, but he still valued her enough to talk with her, to give her time, and to value her as a person. Jesus knew everything about her, but instead of experiencing shame, this woman found grace in the presence of Jesus.

In a lot of ways, we still live in a culture of shame. People are regularly shamed on social media for the ways in which they break the rules and expectations of our media-driven culture. Even if we are not on social media, people experience shame for a whole range of reasons. We all tend to keep secrets from others because we can be afraid that if people really knew who we are or what we have done, then they might not want to know us anymore. I regularly talk with people who are reluctant to tell me things about their past because they worry that if I knew, then I would see them differently, or judge them, or condemn them, or reject them.

What the story of the Samaritan woman at the well says to me, though, is that Jesus already knows. He knows the wrongs we have done, the wrongs that have been done to us, our wounds, our grief, or mistakes and regrets. He knows everything, and like the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn’t judge us, condemn us or reject us. Instead, like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives us his time, talks with us, embraces us in a relationship and gives us a value that overcomes all sense of shame or embarrassment. As we continue to journey to the cross during this season of Lent, this story is a reminder that Jesus embraces our shame as he suffers shame like we could never imagine. When Jesus was beaten, mocked, stripped naked and hung on a cross for all to see and laugh at, he knows our shame. In his resurrection, however, Jesus raises us out of our shame as he gives us a new life as honoured, loved children of God. In his suffering and death, Jesus takes our shame and then raises us to a shame-free life in his resurrection. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, but in his love for us, he speaks grace and love into our lives.

The challenge and opportunity we have as Christian community, then, is to give people an experience of grace in the same way that Samaritan woman at the well experienced grace. When we reveal what shames us to other people, when we confess the cause of our shame to others, and when we embody the grace of God in Jesus to each other by forgiving sin and embracing each other in relationship, then we become the means by which the grace of Jesus is made real in the lives of people around us. Imagine what it would be like to have such trusting relationships with others in our congregation that you could be honest about your deepest, darkest secrets, your most hidden cause of shame, and only experience grace, forgiveness and love? This is the path to healing and a shame-free life – being vulnerable enough to allow trusted Christian brothers or sisters into the shame we experience so we can experience grace in our relationship with each other.

This would mean that we could think of discipleship as …

… finding freedom from shame in our relationship with Jesus
and then extending that same grace to others.

Jesus gives us the opportunity to free others from their shame by accepting them in the same way that Jesus has accepted us (Romans 15:7) and the way he accepted the Samaritan woman at the well. He knew everything she had ever done, and all he gave her is grace. In the same way, Jesus knows everything we have ever done, even those things which cause us shame and we would prefer others didn’t know about. He knows, and still he accepts us, loves us, and embraces us in a shame-free relationship with himself. Jesus knows, and he still loves us enough to give us grace.

It changed the Samaritan woman’s’ life, and it can change our lives, too.

More to think about:

Putting this into practice can be difficult & risky. On the one hand, we can find a lot of freedom by confessing things that we carry & try hard to keep hidden to another person. However, we need to be sure that the person we confide in can be trusted & will respond with grace.

If you are carrying something you don’t want to share with another person, maybe consider beginning by writing a letter to Jesus about what you’re carrying, and then give it to him by burning it. As the paper is destroyed in the flames, so our shame is destroyed in Jesus’ death & resurrection for us.

Another way to find freedom from shame is to consider confessing what you’re carrying to your pastor or priest. The practice of private confession is a time-honoured way of giving what we’re carrying over to Jesus and hearing words of forgiveness & healing for that specific sin or wound. That’s what Jesus authorised his followers to do, so it makes sense to receive what he gives us (see John 20:19-23). It would be good to discuss how your pastor or priest views confidentiality before you talk with them if there are legal issues connected with what you want to discuss. Sometimes clergy understand what happens in confession differently (eg the need for mandatory reporting to police or other authorities).

In the end, I believe the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 points to the way Jesus wants to restore us by removing our shame. This takes trusted & grace-filled relationships which take time to grow. I hope & pray that you will find these relationships in Christian community, and you will be able to provide these kind of relationships for others…