The Open Way (Hebrews 10:16-25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about & discuss:

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

Easter 2019

 

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Maundy Thursday: ‘As I Have Loved You’ (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

This year’s Maundy Thursday service was held in our hall. The chairs were arranged in the round with a table in the centre on which was placed the bread and wine for Holy Communion. As people entered, they were offered the opportunity to have their feet washed. I always find it interesting to watch people’s reactions to the offer. Some accept and are thankful to have someone wash their feet. Others, however, are not comfortable with it and decline the invitation.

I can understand why they do that. we can be very sensitive about our feet. We often think of them as unattractive, dirty, smelly or something we just don’t like other people seeing or holding. We are can feel shame because of our feet and so don’t like others to be close to them or to see them as they really are.

We often think of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before their last meal together (John 13:1-17) as an example of how we should serve each other. I wonder whether there was more to it. As I reflected on how reluctant people often are about others seeing or touching their feet, I thought about the areas of our lives which we don’t like others knowing about. We carry things in our hearts and lives that are unclean, or unacceptable, or shameful. They might be things we’ve done, things that have been done to us, either sins we’ve committed or that have been committed against us. We can try to keep them hidden from others like smelly feet, but they’re still there and we carry them with us everywhere we go.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he was showing that he is able to make the dirtiest, smelliest, most shameful parts of our lives clean and fragrant again. Jesus’ death and resurrection for us removes all our guilt and shame so we are able to live in God’s presence as his holy children. Jesus is able to do this because he knows everything about us – all the things we try to keep secret, we don’t want anyone else knowing, or we are ashamed to admit even to ourselves. We can’t hide anything from him. But he sees who we are, he takes our guilt, our shame, our dirt to the cross and puts it to death. Then he washes us clean in his blood so we can be clean, righteous and good people through faith in him.

Imagine what it would be like to be in a community of people who knew everything about you, even the things that you’d prefer to keep secret, and who still loved you unconditionally. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant when he gave his new command, to love each other like he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17). We experience real grace when we reveal our ‘dirty feet’ to each other and still continue to accept, forgive and love each other in the same way that Jesus accepts, forgives and loves us. If we aren’t honest with each other about our flaws, wrongs or wounds, then we won’t experience the full healing and life-giving power of the grace Jesus extends to us in his death and resurrection. To love each other like he loves us means being real about the dirty, smelly, shameful parts of our lives, and then accepting, forgiving and loving others who are really just the same as we are.

That’s when Jesus’ love becomes real for all of us.

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Good Friday: ‘Listening to Jesus from the Cross’ (Luke 22:39-23:56)

On Good Friday morning we gathered in the church to listen to the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and burial from Luke’s gospel. As part of the reading, three people from the congregation shared personal reflections on what they heard when Jesus spoke from the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus said three things as he was being crucified:

  • “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NLT)
  • “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NLT)
  • “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” (Luke 23:46 NLT)

When we listen to Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke’s gospel, we can hear him praying for forgiveness, promising Paradise, and trusting God to take care of him. These words amaze me, because so often we don’t do what Jesus did. When people hurt us, how often do we want to do the same or worse to them as they have done to us? When we are suffering or in pain, how often are we critical or judgmental of others? When life is out of our control and going badly, how often do we try to take control ourselves?

Jesus’ words of forgiveness, promise and trust from the cross show me that he was much more than just an ordinary bloke. I don’t think any of us could have done what he did. That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t just give us an example of how to live our lives. It would be easy to turn these words into a morality message like, ‘We should all forgive, promise and trust like Jesus did.’ While there’s some truth in that, the reality is that it’s hard, sometimes even impossible, for us to do that. We need to acknowledge that our natural tendencies are to do to others like they do to us, to criticise and condemn, or to try to control those things around us that are making life hard.

We need to listen the words Jesus says as though he was saying them to us. When we are treating others badly because of something they’ve done to us, Jesus prays for us to be forgiven. When we are suffering or have been hurt by others, Jesus promises us a place in Paradise with him. When our lives are out of control or going in directions we don’t want them to go, Jesus entrusts us and everything in our lives in the safe and loving hands of our heavenly Father. Grace means that Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then gives us the benefit as a free gift. So when he prays for forgiveness, promises paradise and trusts God with his future, we can hear him speaking to us, saying and doing for us what we often can’t say or do ourselves because of our human condition.

When we hear Jesus speaking to us and for us, that’s when we find new and better words to say to others. When we hear Jesus speak words of forgiveness, promise and trust, then we, with Jesus, can pray for forgiveness, promise a better future to others, and entrust everything into the Father’s gracious and loving care.

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Resurrection Sunday: ‘A Strange New Word’ (Luke 24:1-12)

One of the things we can look forward to at Easter is the giving and receiving of chocolate eggs. Christians often use the hollow egg as a symbol of Jesus’ empty tomb. However, for most people, Easter eggs just taste good, especially if we have given up chocolate for Lent.

Imagine waking up on Easter Sunday morning and finding that your largest, most delicious egg was broken. What would you think, though, if you put it away in a cupboard while you ate the rest of your chocolate, then, few days later, you went back to the cupboard and found that the egg had been made whole again? What would your reaction be if what was broken had been made whole again?

Even as I write this, the idea sounds like nonsense. Broken things don’t spontaneously become whole again. It’s not the way the world works! Some things can heal over time, such as broken bones, and the human body has an amazing capacity to mend itself. But most things can’t be restored to their original condition once they have been broken. To suggest they do sounds like nonsense.

One thing I love about Luke’s telling of the resurrection story in Luke 24:1-12 is the amount of confusion. When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb early on the first day of the week, ‘they stood there puzzled’ (v4) because the body they had expected to be there wasn’t. Then, when they told Jesus’ remaining disciples about his resurrection, ‘the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it’ (v11 NLT). For the women to tell Jesus’ disciples that he was risen from the grave would kind of be like me telling someone that their broken Easter egg had been made whole again. It doesn’t make sense because it’s not part of our regular experience.

How much sense does the message of Jesus’ resurrection make to us? We might connect the story with the promise of eternal life in heaven, but, there is a lot more to it than that for us. For example, Paul writes that through baptism we have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, so we ‘should consider (our)selves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ’ (Romans 6:11 NLT). Paul is saying that the resurrection of Jesus makes a difference in our lives now! We have already been raised with Jesus and we live as people whose defining reality is not the brokenness of this world, but the healing and wholeness that Jesus gives through his Spirit in the promise of his resurrection.

An important part of living as Jesus’ followers means making sense of the resurrection in whatever is happening in our lives right now. We all suffer from brokenness – in our bodies, minds or hearts, in our relationships and community, in our world. The burning of Notre Dame in Paris and the bombing attacks in Sri Lanka are recent examples of that. In Jesus’ resurrection, God makes his mission known to us. God’s plan of salvation is to put the broken pieces of this world, our relationships and our lives back together again, restoring all of creation to its original condition. God’s mission to bring healing and wholeness was put into effect with the resurrection of Jesus and will continue until the last day. Then his saving work will be completed as the dead are raised with new, imperishable bodies and creation is returned to the way God intended from the beginning.

Until that day we can participate with God in his mission to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world in two ways. The first is to make sense of the resurrection in our own lives by looking for God to heal us and make us whole from our brokenness. Our wholeness will be completed when Jesus returns, but the healing can start how through Jesus’ resurrection power. The second way we can participate in God’s mission to restore a broken world is by looking for ways to bring his healing and wholeness to others. As I read the Scriptures, it seems to me that the mission of the church is less about converting people to our way of thinking, and more about bringing the life-giving message of Jesus’ resurrection to broken people living in a broken world in all we say and do.

This message might make about as much sense as a broken Easter egg becoming whole again after a few days in the cupboard, but it didn’t make sense to Jesus’ disciples when they first heard it either. The more we make sense of Jesus’ resurrection as the defining reality of our own lives, the more it will make sense to others as they see Jesus’ healing and wholeness in us.

More to think about:

  • Do you think the idea of someone washing your feet? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think it would be like for someone to know everything about you and still love you? How is that like Jesus’ love for you?
  • Who can you show this kind of love to in your life?
  • What do you hear Jesus saying to you when he prays for forgiveness, promises Paradise and entrusts himself into God’s hands?
  • What is it like to think he says these words to & for you?
  • To whom in your life can you speak a word of forgiveness, promise or trust?
  • What doesn’t make sense to you about the resurrection of Jesus?
  • Where do you experience brokenness in your life?
  • How might the resurrection of Jesus bring you healing or wholeness?

Our Easter Journey

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This year I asked the people of our congregation who gathered for worship over the Easter weekend to imagine themselves going on a three-day journey, following Jesus along the path of his last supper, suffering, death and resurrection.

The journey began on Thursday evening as we followed Jesus to the table. We were welcomed by people who offered to wash our feet in the same way that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at his last supper with them. The washing of feet shows us that Jesus comes to us as a servant, taking on the role of the lowest household slave, doing the scummiest job in the house for us. In doing this, Jesus gives us an example to follow (John 13:15), and teaches us that his followers will adopt the same posture in relationship to others.

Then, Jesus gives us a new command – to love each other in the same way he loves us (John 13:34). We can only know how to love others in Jesus’ way after we have experienced the love Jesus has for us. That means allowing him to wash our feet, and maybe even to allow others to wash our feet on his behalf. That’s not easy. We often like to think discipleship is more about what we do that what Jesus does for us, but it leads us into the rest of this weekend’s journey, as we encounter Jesus’ love so we can then show that same love to others.

In a lot of ways, that’s discipleship: learning to love like Jesus by being loved by Jesus.

Jesus continues to show us his grace-filled love on the Thursday evening as he then adopts the role of the host of the meal. He serves us again as our host, physically giving himself to us through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. This simple meal is Jesus’ self-giving act of love to us. We can hold back parts of ourselves in our relationships with others, but not Jesus. He gives all of himself to us and fills us with his goodness by making us members of his living, breathing body in the world.

We then followed Jesus to the cross on Friday morning. As we again heard the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering, death and burial, we followed him in faith to witness his sacrifice for us all.

crucifixion 05Everything in the gospels leads us to the cross so that we can experience the grace of God. As we follow Jesus to the cross we can find grace that frees us from guilt, regret and shame. We can find grace that heals our wounded and broken hearts and souls as the Son of God enters into our brokenness, is wounded for us, and gives us healing with his love. We can find grace that gives us hope in dark times, as the Son of God experiences being abandoned by his Father, finds us when we feel abandoned by God, and is the presence of God with us in even the darkest of times. We can find grace that gives life as Jesus takes our death on himself, because if he takes our death on the cross, then all that is left behind for us is life.

I believe this is the ultimate goal of discipleship: to follow Jesus to the cross to encounter his life-giving and life-changing grace.

We saw how strong his love and life is, then, when we followed Jesus to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning.
We can think of Jesus’ resurrection as an historical event, or as the promise that one day Jesus will return to raise our bodies from our graves to eternal life. However, we can also understand the empty tomb the way Paul describes the resurrection in Colossians 3:1 where he writes:

empty tomb 02Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand. (NLT)

Here, and in other places (such as Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:4-6), Paul talks about the resurrection as a present reality for those who are in Christ Jesus through faith. That means that Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection!

To be a follower of Jesus means following him to the empty tomb to see that we have been given a new life as God’s resurrected people through faith in Jesus. That is where one journey ends, and another begins. Our Easter journey concluded as we saw that the life of Christ is stronger than anything in this world, and so, whatever we are experiencing in this life, God’s final word to us is life! But a new journey starts for us as Jesus’ followers as we begin to discover what this resurrection life looks like in the day-to-day realities of this world. This is a life that is lived by faith, trusting that Jesus’ life is stronger than anything we might encounter along the way, and then living like this is true. Paul describes the resurrected life of Christ as consisting in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love (like 1 Corinthians 13 describes), peace and thankfulness (Colossians 3:12-15). Discipleship in the light of the empty tomb means learning to live this kind of life as God’s resurrected people in this world.

Over the three days of Easter we followed Jesus to the table where he served us with his love, to the cross where we encounter his grace, and to the empty tomb where we see that we have been raised to a new kind of life in him. Our discipleship journey will continue, always in the light of the table, the cross and the empty tomb, as Jesus goes ahead of us into whatever the future holds, and as we follow him in his love, grace, and life.

More to think about:

  • People are often reluctant to let us wash their feet on Maundy Thursday. Why is it hard for us to allow others to serve us? Why is it vital for Jesus’ followers to learn what it is to be loved by Jesus before we can love others?
  • I have described discipleship as basically learning to love like Jesus. What do you like or dislike about this definition? How might your life be different if it was all about learning to love like Jesus?
  • When Jesus called people to follow him, ultimately he led them to his cross so they can find grace. How can the experience of God’s grace to us in Jesus give us what we need to show that same grace to others?
  • Do you tend to think of Jesus’ resurrection as something that is more about the past, present or future? How might today look different to you if you approached it as a person who is risen to new life with Jesus?
  • What do you like or dislike about the idea of discipleship as learning to live every day as a person who has been raised to new life with Jesus? How might your life be different if you lived like Jesus’ resurrection was real for you now?