Listening to Jesus – Again (John 10:22-30)

 

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A few months ago I flew to Melbourne for a day to talk with people about a position I was offered there. After arriving at the airport which is on one side of the city, I needed to drive to the church offices on the opposite side of Melbourne. I don’t know my way around Melbourne very well, so I hired a GPS with my rental car. I knew that I needed to listen carefully to the GPS as it guided me through the busy Melbourne streets if I was to arrive at my destination. If I didn’t pay proper attention to it, I knew I would get lost.

We can all feel a bit lost at times. Some can feel like there’s no way out of feeling lost and alone. There are a lot of voices in our society that promise to be able to lead us into a full and satisfying life. Any promise of help to guide us into something better can sound like good news to us as we search for meaning in our lives, or a sense of identity, belonging or purpose.

Jesus comes to us to lead us into a better life when he says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life’ (John 10:27,28a NLT). Jesus knows that life can be hard and he also knows what it will take to get us through it, to be able to find ourselves, our place in the world and a reason to live. Like my GPS guided me through the streets of Melbourne, Jesus can guide us through the craziness and confusion of life to find security and peace. Jesus is able to do this because he has lived the human experience, he has suffered at the hands of the worst life can throw at us, and he has emerged victorious in his resurrection. As the One who suffered, was crucified and now is risen from the dead, Jesus teaches us to listen to him, to follow him, and to find the life that God intended for us from the beginning.

What makes the voice of Jesus different from the others I’ve heard is that speaks unconditional grace to me. Every voice I’ve heard which promises life has told me that I can find the life I want if I make my life all about me. They talk about what I have to do, how I can achieve what I hope for, what I can have if I place myself at the centre of my existence and make everything about me.

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, though, he teaches a different path. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches us that the way to find life is to put God at the centre of our lives by loving him with all our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, and loving others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). In John’s gospel Jesus, teaches us to love others in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34,35). That means that we can only love others when Jesus’ love is at the centre of our lives, shaping us and all we do. Paul explains the way of Jesus as living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6) – trusting that God will give us with everything our hearts, minds and bodies need for life in this world and the next for the sake of Jesus so we can focus on the needs of others. The New Testament talks a lot about the way of Jesus to help us apply it to different situations of our lives, but it can be understood most simply as trusting Jesus with every aspect of our lives by keeping him in the centre of our lives, and learning to love others in the same way that he loves us.

What makes the way of Jesus so difficult for us is that it is completely counter-intuitive. The voices which tell us that we can do it ourselves connect with people because we like to keep ourselves at the centre of our lives and think that we can find our own way. Jesus is the only voice I’ve heard that offers to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Learning to listen to his voice and trust what he says enough to live like it’s true isn’t easy for any of us. That’s why living as a disciple of Jesus, following the way of faith and love he teaches, is really hard for us. However, Jesus promises that when we listen to him like sheep listen to their shepherd and follow in his way, he will lead us into a better life which will never end.

A couple of weeks ago we listened to John telling us that he wrote his gospel so that we might believe in Jesus as the Messiah and find life in his name (John 20:31). I asked how I can help you find that life. In John 10:27,28 Jesus tells us that finding life begins with listening to him. We’ve talked a fair bit about listening to Jesus in our congregation recent months. I wonder how many of us are taking the time to listen to him, or how well we’re hearing Jesus’ words of grace and truth to us.

So I would like to make an offer to people who are connected with our church. If you are feeling lost, or if you know someone who is feeling lost, or even if you would like to explore the life Jesus promises us more, I would like to start meeting with you to learn to listen to Jesus through the words of the Bible, so that we can be following him together as he leads us into the life he has for us. Of course, I can’t meet with everyone individually on a regular basis, but if you want to learn to listen to Jesus to follow him into the life he has for us, let me know and we can look for a way to do that together.

The GPS I hired in Melbourne got me to where I was going. I need Jesus every day to guide me in his way of faith and love so I can find the life God has for me. We can all feel a bit lost at times. As we travel through life together, by listening to Jesus’ words of grace and truth and following in his way of faith and love, God will bring us into his life which is stronger than death and which never ends.

More to think about:

  • Do you use a GPS to find where you need to go? Why / why not?
  • What are some of the ways you have heard people say we can find a better life? Do you think they are right? Explain why you think that…
  • Do you make time to listen to Jesus’ voice regularly? Why / why not?
  • There are different ways people say we can listen to Jesus’ voice. What might be helpful or not helpful about learning to listen to Jesus’ voice in the Bible?
  • I’ve suggested that the simplest way to understand the way Jesus teaches is faith in him and love for others. Do you think that is an accurate way of summarizing the teaches of Jesus and the New Testament? Explain your reasons for that…
  • How might your life be different if you put Jesus at the centre and learned to live in his way of faith and love? What might change? How might life be better? How might it be worse?
  • How can I help you to listen to Jesus’ voice and follow him…?
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A Giving Culture (Luke 6:27-38)

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What do you think is more important in life – what you give or what you get?

When I posed this question to our congregation last Sunday, people replied in a variety of ways. One person said that while we know the ‘right’ answer is that giving is more important that getting, life isn’t always that simple. When we start thinking about ‘giving’ or ‘getting’ things can get a little complicated and the balance isn’t always easy to find.

This is an important question for me because I tend to hear more talk around the church about what we get than what we give. For example, I hear people asking how we can ‘get’ more people into vacant leadership roles, or ‘get’ people to fill the empty spaces on our rosters, or ‘get’ people to increase their financial giving. I regularly hear parents or grandparents whose children or grandchildren have disconnected from church asking how we can ‘get’ them back to worship. Even when we do talk about giving, it seems that the conversations are largely about what we’re expecting people to give to the church!
There is a big difference between these conversations and the teachings of Jesus. When we listen to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading (Luke 6:27-38) for example, I hear Jesus talking a lot more about giving rather than getting. He teaches us to give:

  • the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a to people with whom we are in conflict
  • good things to the people who hate us
  • blessings to people who might curse us, or say bad things about us or to us
  • prayers for those who hurt us
  • the other cheek if people slap us across the face
  • our shirt if someone demands our coat
  • to anyone who asks anything of us, and to not try to get back what people take from us

Jesus continues in verses 32-34 by saying that if we love people who love us and only do good to people who do good to us then we are no different from anyone else. Then, in case we missed it the first time, Jesus goes on to teach us to give:

  • love and good things to our enemies (again!)
  • loans without expecting to be repaid
  • compassion and mercy in the same way that God gives us his compassion and mercy
  • freedom from judgement and condemnation
  • forgiveness to those who wrong us

Jesus concludes this part of his teaching by saying that when we give to others, our gift will return to us so that we receive a lot more than we gave out.

If we read these teachings of Jesus through a ‘getting or giving’ filter, Jesus seems to be a lot more concerned with what we give than what we get. Each of these describe an outward flow of grace from the person who is ‘willing to listen’ (v27) to Jesus and live in the way he teaches. Whether the gift we are offering is love, goodness, blessing, prayer, compassion, physical possessions or forgiveness, Jesus is challenging us to see the needs of the people around us and be ready to give to others whatever their need may be.
Adopting this other-focussed, giving attitude does not come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is more towards what we get than what we give. For us to prioritise what we give over what we get is something that God’s Holy Spirit needs to be working in us as we come into relationship with the giving God and receive everything we need from him through faith.

We can see this in Jesus’ teachings in places like verse 35 where he says that when we give without expecting a reward, then we ‘will truly be acting as children of the Most High for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’ (NLT). Jesus points us to the nature of God who gives generously to all people, whether they deserve it or not. God gives us what we physically need as our Creator. (I know this opens up the question about people around the world who are in need. There are no easy answers to this problem, but I need to ask if problems like poverty are God’s fault or humanity’s for not sharing what God has given us with those in need?) God gives us his life through Jesus as our Redeemer so we can have a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God gives us the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier so we can live in union with God in the life of the crucified and risen Christ. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we can see that God’s nature is to give everything he has and everything he is to us as a pure gift with no strings attached.

What amazes me is that God doesn’t give to us expecting anything in return. Instead, God asks us to live out our identity as his children and give witness to his giving nature by giving what he has given us to others. When we trust that God will give us everything we need for life in this world and the next, and when we believe in the extreme generosity God has shown us especially in the gift of Jesus’ life for us on the cross, then giving to others will just come naturally. Giving to others grows out of the faith that we have a God who gives everything to us and promises to give to us more than we need for the sake of Jesus.

There are times in our church when people talk about ‘getting’ others to do things or things from others when I’ll ask them to rethink that from a ‘giving’ perspective. Some might say that I’m just playing with words, but I believe that the language we use goes a long way in communicating what’s at our heart. If we are to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, it’s important that we use the language of ‘giving’ much more than the language of ‘getting’.

So I wonder, to whom could we be giving this week? I have found it very helpful to read this passage slowly, asking myself who are my enemies to whom I can give love, who hates me to whom I can give good, who might be cursing me that I can bless, or who has hurt me for whom I can give prayers, and so on. When we are connected with the giving nature of God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, then being giving people, living in mutually giving relationships as a giving community will show in everything we do and say.

Love Over-All (Colossians 3:12-17)

 

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How do you decide what to wear each day?

Some people are very careful when they choose their clothes each day. They might take into account the weather, what they will be doing, who they will be with, and possibly even what’s in fashion to decide what they will put on in the morning. Others don’t give it much thought and might just grab whatever is on top of their drawers or in their wardrobe.

No matter how we decide what clothes we are going to wear, we all have one thing in common – we all wear something.

In Colossians 3:12-17, the Apostle Paul uses the fact that we all wear clothes of some kind to encourage followers of Jesus to put on certain qualities each day with the same consistency and intentionality with which we put on our clothes.

The qualities he includes are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. He then encourages Jesus’ followers to put up with each other when differences arose and problems came up in their relationships, extending the same forgiveness to each other that God extends to us through Jesus. Paul then tells his readers to put on love over all of these virtues, binding them, as well as God’s people, in perfect unity and harmony (vv12-14).

In our congregation’s work with Growing Young, we have been challenged to be taking Jesus’ message seriously (core commitment #3). As we listen to the words of Scripture, we can hear what Paul is saying as coming from Jesus. God wants us to be compassionate towards others, which means to suffer together with others. This doesn’t just mean people who are in desperate need, but with anyone we know who is suffering. God wants us to be kind to the people around us, even if or when they might not treat us well. God wants us to be humble in our relationships with each other, not trying to be more important than others or wanting to get our own way, but making ourselves lower than others in the pecking order, willing to serve others. God wants us to be gentle in our dealings with each other, not rough or abrasive in what we say or what we do. God wants us to be patient with each other, even when others can frustrate us. God wants us to ‘make allowances for each other’s faults’ (NLT) and forgive others freely who might wrong us in any way. Over all of these, God wants us to love each other as we look and work towards what is in the best interest of others, no matter what the cost to us personally.

Have you ever tried living like this? If we are honest, we will probably find that living in this way is not easy. At times it’s just impossible. If you don’t believe me, here’s your challenge for the week: write these out as a list – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love – and put the list somewhere you will see it as you get dressed or undressed. Then, at the start and end of each day ask yourself how you’ve gone. During the day have you been compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient with others, forgiving those who have wronged you, and loving the people God has brought into your life? Or have you fallen short of living the life God has called you to?

Because, if you’re anything like me, living up to this standard is impossible on our own.
I think about this text a lot in my own life. I actually own a t-shirt with ‘compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience’ written on it to remind me that this is how God wants me to live. To be honest, most days living up to the lifestyle God has called us to is out of my reach. I know this is how God wants me to be living, but it’s hard, and sometimes the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience I’m supposed to be putting on just aren’t there.

So where do we go to find these clothes Paul is describing?

We’re not going to find them in a shopping centre or online store. We can’t just buy them from a shop like normal clothes. Instead, we can find them in relationship with God who provides for us what he wants from us through Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is one of the main ways I think about grace: God giving to us what he wants from us. In this text, then, God has everything we need to be able to grow in and extend to others the attributes Paul talks about.

When we are lacking compassion for others, God is always compassionate towards us. When we are unkind towards others, God never stops showing kindness towards us. When we try to get the upper hand in our relationships with others or to get our own way, God is humble towards us, becoming our servant to provide us with everything he wants from us. When we are rough and abrasive towards others, God is always gentle with us in return. While we lose our patience with others, God is infinitely patient with us. When we find it hard to forgive others, God is always forgiving us. When we are unable to love the people around us, God continues to love us with perfect and unlimited love. All this he does for us for the sake of Jesus who gave everything for us on the cross and continues to give the Holy Spirit to us so we can live each and every day in God’s compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Earlier I challenged you to keep the qualities Paul describes in front of you to see how you live up to them. If you’re looking for them but can’t find them within yourself, keep the list where you can see it. Each morning, as you get dressed, ask God to clothe you with them through the Holy Spirit. Find what you need in Jesus’ relationship with you.

Being compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving and loving towards others doesn’t come naturally for us. When we’re looking for them, we won’t find them in a store or online. We find them in our relationship with God and his grace to us in Jesus. As we grow in our faith in God’s compassion, kindness, humility, gentles, patience, forgiveness and love in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit will produce them more and more in our lives.

Grace and Truth (John 1:1-14)

 

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There are times in life when it can be really hard to ask for help. Many of us have been taught from childhood that we need to be able to stand on our own two feet, not to rely on others, to be self-sufficient, and to learn how to handle any situation. There are many self-help plans and personal improvement programs what work on this same idea – that we should, although sometimes maybe with a little bit of help, be able to handle anything that life throws our way.

What happens, however, when we find that we just can’t do what we think we should be able to do? Where do we go when it all gets to be too hard and we can’t cope? When life gets too difficult and the stresses, demands or difficulties are too much for us, what happens then?

There are a range of ways in which theologians understand the idea of grace that we read about in the Bible, for example in texts such as John 1:14. It’s a word that Christians can use a lot. There have been a few times in my life when I’ve had to stop and really ask what we mean when we talk about grace.

After a lot of thought and contemplation, one of the ways I understand God’s grace at this point of my life is that God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then gives us the benefits of what he has done so they become our own.

We read in John 1:14, and again in verse 17, that when Jesus was born into our world, he came to us ‘full of grace and truth’ (NIV). The way we can understand grace here is that Jesus came into the world to do for us what we are not able to do for ourselves. In Jesus, God entered into human existence to accomplish for us what we are unable to achieve because of our flawed and broken humanity.

For example, I often hear people say that we need to be able to love ourselves before we can love others. I understand what they’re saying, and it’s not a bad thought, but what happens if, for some reason, a person just isn’t able to love themselves? The good news of God’s grace to us in Jesus is that he does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. God loves us in Jesus enough to be born into the world, go to the cross and die for us. Whether we are able to love ourselves or not, this love remains true. In the grace of God who loves us even when we can’t love ourselves, then, we can find a love that makes us lovable, and then gives us the capacity to love others in the same way.

Another example is forgiveness. Again, I hear people say that we need to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others. I also understand this idea, but sometimes I’ve known people for whom this has been impossible. For a range of reasons, they can’t find within themselves the ability to forgive, either themselves or others. That’s when the grace of God in Jesus becomes so powerful as God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Because of Jesus’ birth and life, his death and resurrection, God forgives us. Jesus has carried everything that needs to be forgiven to the cross and nailed it there so we are free from it. By pointing people to the grace of God who forgives us even when we can’t forgive ourselves, we can find the freedom that comes through the forgiveness he gives us in Jesus, as well as the ability to then forgive others.

There are many ways in which God continues to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves as acts of grace for us in Jesus. God is patient with us when we lose our patience with ourselves or others. God is kind towards us when we find it impossible to be kind to ourselves or others. God is compassionate towards us when we are unable to be compassionate. God is gentle with us even when we are rough on ourselves or others. God sets us free, even when we can’t liberate ourselves from those things in our lives that bind and control us. Whatever we need, whatever our lives are lacking, God’s grace means that in Jesus he does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and then he gives what he has done to us as a free gift so they become ours.

This grace gives us the freedom to find truth. We don’t need to pretend to be anything we’re not. We don’t have to aspire to be anything different than what we are or maintain a façade of perfection or flawlessness. We can be truthful and honest with ourselves, with God and with others about our struggles and our weaknesses, our flaws and our mistakes, because we know that whatever we’re done, whatever we might be struggling with, whatever might be weighing us down, God gives us grace in the person of Jesus. As the body of Christ, then, we have the opportunity to bring God’s grace to each other as we forgive each other, as we love each other, as we are kind, compassionate and gentle with each other. We can extend God’s grace to each other in Jesus, just like he extended grace to us when we needed it.

When Jesus was born, he didn’t enter the world to give us a new set of rules to live by. He didn’t come as a self-help guru to show us a multi-point plan to achieving everything we hoped for. Jesus was born to show us grace, to do for us in his life, death and resurrection what we can’t do for ourselves, and then to give us the benefits of what he’s done through his Holy Spirit. Jesus was born to gives us grace and truth, so we don’t have to pretend any more, but we can rely on him and trust in the grace he gives.

Priorities (Mark 10:17-31)

 

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A couple of times in my life I have really wrestled with Jesus’ words in the story of the rich man in Mark 10:17-31. I was looking for God’s direction in my life and wondering if following a particular path would mean selling everything I had. That was hard to contemplate because I like my stuff – my books, musical instruments and motorbike – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sell them in order to follow where God might be leading me.

So I can identify with the rich young man of the story and sympathise with him as he walks away sad. He couldn’t give away his possessions, and I’m not sure if I could either.

But maybe that’s the point of the story.

There are two main dangers we can face when we try to unravel this story. The first is taking Jesus’ words about selling everything we have too literally, and thinking that we have to do it to enter into eternal life. Monks and nuns have been doing that for centuries, but I’m not sure how many of them got closer to God by doing it. The second danger is not taking Jesus’ words seriously enough and ignoring what he’s trying to teach us. We can get lost collecting more and more stuff in a meaningless consumerism and miss out on the grace Jesus has for us in this story.

The third strategy of the Growing Young research from the Fuller Youth Institute is to take Jesus’ message seriously. As Christians who want to follow Jesus faithfully, taking Jesus’ message seriously might sound kind of obvious. But when it comes to stories like this with the rich young ruler, how do we do that?

Maybe taking Jesus’ message in this story might mean looking carefully at our priorities in life. When Jesus challenged the man to sell all he had, and when I was challenged with the possibility of selling everything I owned to follow God’s call, it challenged us ask to think about what matters in life. Is Jesus the most important thing to us? Or are the things we own more important? Do we love Jesus enough to be willing to give everything we have up for him? Do we trust him to provide for us each day? Or do we want to hang on to our possessions because we find a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and some sort of meaning for life in them?

Jesus is challenging us to reorganise our priorities around him, our love for him and our trust in him, rather than in the things of this world. There may be times when that might mean giving everything away, but it could also mean that we look for a sense of who we are, what we’re worth and what gives our lives meaning in our relationship with Jesus rather than the accumulation of material possessions.

This challenge from Jesus also teaches us something about ourselves. We all like to think that we’re good people. However, if Jesus’ standard of ‘good’ means giving everything away to help others and totally trusting in him to provide for us on a day-to-day basis, then who of us can live up to that? Remember that the man’s question at the start is what he did he have to do ‘to inherit eternal life’ (v17). He was thinking that he could somehow work his way into eternity. However, Jesus showed him, and us, that if we want to work our way in to eternal life, then it will cost us everything.

Can we do that? If we’re trying to work our way into eternal life as ‘good’ people, are we able to be so ‘good’ that we give away everything we have to others to provide for them in their poverty, and rely on God giving us what we need from one day to the next? Like the person in the story, I think this would probably be the point that most of us would walk away too.

But, as I’ve said already, maybe that’s the point.

The disciples were perplexed by what they witnessed as well, so they asked Jesus, ‘Then who in the world can be saved?’ (v26). And Jesus gives us the good news when he said, ‘Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God’ (v27).

Jesus is telling us that it is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life. However, what is impossible for us is possible with God. Only God has the power to give us a life that is stronger that death which will last literally for ever.

This is one way we can understand ‘grace’: that it is God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It is impossible for us to work our way into eternal life, so God does the impossible for us by doing what’s needed and then giving it to us as a free gift.

This is the good news of the story: that Jesus came to do the work of salvation for us. While it was impossible for us to sell all we have and give it away, and when we recognize that it is impossible for us to live up to Jesus’ standard of being a ‘good’ person, then God did the impossible by sacrificing everything for us in the person of Jesus to save us and give us eternal life as the ultimate act of grace. We can find it hard to give up our stuff, but Jesus gave up his place in heaven, the thing every religious person in the history of the world is trying to gain. Jesus gave up all of his heavenly glory to be born as a humble and helpless baby in a manger. He gave up all his possessions to live homeless and unemployed. Jesus did the impossible when he gave up everything, including his life, and went to the cross to die in our place. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, God did the impossible make it possible for us to live forever as his children in perfect relationship with him and with each other.

As people to whom God has gifted the eternal life of Jesus, we are left with the question of how to take this teaching of Jesus seriously. I’m going to leave that up to you to work out with Jesus. It might mean selling what we have to follow God’s call on our life. It might mean reprioritising our lives so we find who we are, what we’re worth and the meaning of our lives in our relationship with Jesus instead of our material possessions. It might mean seeing what we have as the way God wants us to serve others, such as our families, friends or church community. It might even mean accepting that we’re not as good as we think we are and trusting the goodness of God’s grace to us in Jesus.

No matter how we might interpret this story, one way we can all take this teaching of Jesus seriously is to live every day in the faith that with God, nothing is impossible.

Outsiders (Mark 7:24-37)

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One of the games we play on our youth ministry nights is to place some hula-hoops on the floor and play some music. When the music stops, the young people need to stand in one of the hoops. If a person can’t fit in a hoop, or if people fall out of the hoops, then they’re out of the game.

This game illustrates what we often do in our relationships with others. We can set up lines or boundaries that determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ like the hula hoop in the game. Those lines can be a lot of different things, such the way people look, how they dress, what they own, where they live, or even what football team they support. As I was growing up in the church, I saw some hard and fast lines being drawn based on the denomination of the church people attended, their theological perspective or the way they interpreted the Bible. I’ve even known people who have felt excluded from churches because their surname didn’t fit in with the church’s cultural origins.

People in Jesus’ day did exactly the same thing. In the time the New Testament was written, there were very hard and fast rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ based on their race and their observance of their religious laws. If people were descended from Abraham with a family history that proved that connection, and if they kept the rules and religious traditions, then they were considered to be in God’s chosen people. If not, then they were seen to be outside of God’s love and blessing.

The stories from Mark 7:24-37 are great examples of how Jesus crossed the lines the religious leaders of his time constructed to extend God’s grace and love to people who were considered ‘outsiders’. The first is a woman from the area of Syrian Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The second was a man from another non-Jewish area who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Both of these were considered outsiders for a whole range of reasons, but Jesus crossed the lines people had put up to give them freedom, healing and wholeness, and to include them in the Kingdom of God.

To what extent do we also construct lines or boundaries that distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? Our culture talks about valuing tolerance and inclusivity, but I still hear a lot of talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both the church and wider society. We can set up barriers that separate us from others based on our age, gender, cultural background or opinions about almost any topic. We still tend to construct lines that divide the insiders from the outsiders around issues in the church such as worship, ordination or even moral standards. We might be critical of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and we might like to think that we are inclusive and tolerant, but to one degree or another don’t we all set up boundaries between the insiders and outsiders?

Jesus deliberately crossed geographical, religious, socioeconomic and even moral boundaries in order to bring the life-giving and liberating grace and love of God to those who needed it the most. He met outsiders on their territory so they could find a sense of value and self-worth through their connection with him. When Jesus was crucified, he identified with everyone who has ever felt like or been judged as an outsider. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and left there to die, he became the ultimate outsider as he suffered a form of death reserved for the worst of the worst of Roman society. Jesus didn’t only meet outsiders during his ministry. Jesus became an outsider in order to bring all the outsiders of the world into a new relationship with God and make them insiders in the Kingdom of God.

This is so important for us because, according to the religious view of Jesus’ day, we are outsiders. I don’t know of anyone in our church who is Jewish by birth. None of us keep the religious law that the people of Jesus’ day were expected to keep. We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments the way we should. We like to think that we are good people, but when we construct lines that divide ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ in any way, we fail to love each other the way Jesus teaches us to. We were all outside of a relationship with God until Jesus met us as the ultimate outsider, gathered us into himself and carried us as members of his body into a new relationship with God as our loving heavenly Father, a new identity as God’s children, and a new place to belong in the Kingdom of God, (see Ephesians 2:11-18).

As people who have been on the out but have now been brought in to a new life through Jesus, we are his loving and grace-giving presence among those whom the world considers outsiders. Jesus calls us to break through the barriers that are constructed to separate the insiders from the outsiders, no matter what those barriers may be.

This week, think about the ways in which you might consider people to be either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. Is it age, gender, cultural background or morality? Do our views on worship, ordination, interpretation of the Bible or faith generally divide us? If so, then break through whatever barriers might come between those who are considered ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Worship at a different time or place next week. Talk to someone who is one or two generations younger or older than yourself. Make contact with someone who you might not have seen for a while because of their moral or lifestyle choices and ask how they’re doing. In one way or another, recognize the boundaries that we, our church or our society have constructed, and spend some time with a person who exists on the other side of those boundaries.

Because when we break through the boundaries and sit with the outsiders, we just might find Jesus is already there.

Sufficient Grace (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

2 Cor 12v9 03

I gained a new appreciation for this text one day a number of years ago when I was working in my garden. I was trying to prune some roses without wearing gloves and a thorn got lodged in one of my fingers. It was such a small thing but it constantly irritated me for days. I couldn’t get it out because it was so small, but it was consistently painful no matter what I did. I was amazed that such a small thing could hurt so much and for so long.

Biblical scholars have a lot of theories about what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was. Over the years, I’ve read people arguing that it might have been poor eyesight, a physical disability, mental illness, struggles with his sexuality, or demonic oppression. I like that Paul doesn’t tell us what his ‘thorn’ was. It means that we can hear what Paul is saying from the perspective of our own ‘thorns’.

Just about all of us have something that makes life hard or causes us to suffer. If you’re not, then please stop to thank God for his blessings to you. However, if you’re hearing Paul’s words about his ‘thorn’ and can identify with his struggle, then it might be disappointing to hear God’s reply that his grace is all you need.

When we are suffering from thorns, it’s fair and right to ask God to take them away, just like Paul did. It makes sense to think that because God loves us, he wants us to be happy. We can also assume that because God is all-powerful, he can take away any thorn. When he doesn’t take the thorn away, no matter what the thorn may be, we can start to doubt the love and goodness of God. We can begin to question if he cares, or if he is able to do what he promises, or even if God exists at all. When God fails to take away our thorns, we can start to feel like God has failed us.

When God says that his grace is all we need, he’s asking us to look for him beyond our immediate experiences. Rather than focus on our own subjective understanding of God and what he can do, God wants us to look to the most complete expression of his grace – the person of Jesus. When we contemplate Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we can encounter the grace of God in three main ways:

  1. God is with us with our thorns because Jesus suffered from his crown of thorns, the metal ‘thorns’ of the nails that held his hands and feet to the cross, as well as the spiritual thorn of being abandoned by his Father. No matter how isolated we might feel, we are never alone because Jesus has shared our thorns and still carries their scars in his flesh.
  2. Jesus trusted his heavenly Father even while he was enduring his thorns. He never gave up on God and so, as ‘the champion who initiates and perfects our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2 NLT), Jesus will carry us through the times when we find it hard to trust in God’s goodness and love because of the thorns we are enduring.
  3. Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can look forward to the time when our thorns are removed and we are free from their infliction. As we heard a couple of weeks ago from 2 Corinthians 4:18, what we endure now will pass away, but the life we have to look forward to through the resurrection of Jesus will last forever. That life will be thorn-free!

It would be poor pastoral care to say to someone who is suffering their own particular thorns not to worry about them because God’s grace should be enough. It can trivialize both the thorns they are enduring as well as the grace of God. However, I do believe that whatever our thorns may be, God’s grace in Jesus has everything we need to not only endure the thorns we may be experiencing, but for God to work good through them in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. Paul’s thorn was given to him so he would rely on God’s grace rather than his own experience. What if it is the same for us – that God allows us to carry our own thorns so that we would learn to rely on his grace, grow in that grace, and become more grace-giving to the people around us?

The challenge for us, then, especially when we are carrying thorns in our lives, is to dive deeper into the grace of God for us in Christ Jesus. We talk about Growing as the second stage in our congregation’s Discipling Plan. One way we can understand that is growing in our understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus and how it has all we need for our lives with all their thorns. As we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus, God also equips us to bring his grace to others who are also carrying their thorns.

Over the last decade or so in the church I have witnessed a desire for ‘more.’ I’m not really sure what people want ‘more’ of. If people are looking for ‘more’ of God’s grace in Jesus, then I’m all for it! Paul believed, with his own particular thorn, that all he needed was God’s grace to get him through. What if that is true for us, too? What if, no matter what our personal thorns might be, all we need is the grace of God in the person of Jesus. Then maybe, the more we find God’s grace in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, the more we’ll find that his grace has everything we need with the thorns we carry.