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.

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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)

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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.

Generous Grace (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

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What do you believe is more important: what you get or what you give?

I suspect that most of us would think the correct answer is that giving is more important than getting. We applaud and admire people who are generous with what they have, such as Bill Gates who donates a significant percentage of his fortune to those in need. I think that most of us would agree that it’s better to give than to get.

However, that’s not always the reality in our day to day life. In our consumer-driven culture, what we get can often end up being more important to us than what we give. For example, we can see this in relationships which break down because one person isn’t getting what they want from another. We can see it in our work where we look for greater job satisfaction or personal meaning out of what we do. We can also see it in the church, where people’s involvement with a community of faith depends on whether or not they are getting something out of it.

I actually hear the language of ‘getting’ a lot around the church. I hear it from people who want to ‘get’ something meaningful, relevant or enjoyable out of their experience of church. I hear it when we want to ‘get’ people more involved, ‘get’ them on positions of leadership, ‘get’ them on a roster or serving in some way, or ‘get’ people to give more money. I also regularly hear it from parents or grandparents who want to ‘get’ their children or grandchildren back to church.

In contrast, Paul wanted Christian congregations to be giving, not getting, communities. When he wrote his second letter to the church in Corinth, he talked about money he was collecting for Christians in Jerusalem who were in need. The Corinthian Christians had previously offered to give some money and Paul was encouraging them to fulfil their commitment. He wanted to test the sincerity of their love for Jesus by comparing their giving with what other congregations were contributing. Paul’s point is that Christian communities are meant to be places where people encounter the grace of Jesus through the giving of God’s people. God wants us to be giving communities, not getting communities.

Paul argues that giving is an act of faith. He gives two reasons for this. The first is that when we are willing to give to others in their need, we are trusting that God will give to us when we are in need through the people around us. Paul writes,

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
(v14 NLT)

When we trust that God will give us what we need through others, we participate with God in his grace by being the means by which he provides for others. Believing that God will always give us what we need makes us more willing to give to others. This means that we also need to learn how to receive from others. We have opportunities to participate in God’s grace through what we both give and receive. In this way, the equality Paul talks about is realized as we live in mutually giving relationships and communities. Grace isn’t just about how much you give. It’s also about the ability to receive God’s grace through others.

The second reason why Paul talks about giving as an act of faith points us to Jesus. Paul uses a financial transaction as a picture of how Jesus won salvation for us when he writes,

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.
(v9 NLT)

As the eternal Son of God, all of creation belonged to Jesus because he made it with the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up for our sake. He literally became poor when he was born in a manger. Jesus depended on the generosity of others throughout the three years of his earthly ministry. He died as a penniless pauper on the cross as the soldiers divided his clothes, Jesus’ only earthly possessions, between them. Jesus did all that so that we could become rich in the grace and love of God.

Imagine what it would be like for the richest person in the world to give everything he owned to you because he thinks you are worth it. That kind of generosity might be hard for us to comprehend, but it is a picture of the generosity of God’s grace to us in Jesus. He totally emptied himself of everything he had by going to the cross, and he gives all of himself to us as an extravagant act of selfless love. This is Paul’s understanding of grace: Jesus giving everything up so that we can live in the riches that come with being children of God whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased!

How do we grow as a community which reflects this kind of generous grace? How do we participate in the giving nature of Jesus so that others can encounter and experience Jesus’ generous grace in their relationship with us? My hope is that we might grow as a church which is known for its giving heart. There are so many opportunities to give our energy, our time, and our money so others can encounter God’s grace through us. Our congregation can only exist and do what we do because of the generous grace people show through your gifts of time, effort and money. On behalf of the congregational leadership, thanks to everyone who contributes to the life of our church for what you give!

We all give to our families, friends, work, social groups and others in many different ways. My intention is not to ask you to give to our church at their expense. Instead, Paul’s words are a reminder that we are called to be a giving community so people can experience God’s grace in relationship with us. There are many opportunities to give our congregation, from cleaning the church or serving morning tea after worship, to contributing to our financial commitments, to learning to live in the way of Jesus together in small groups. As our faith in God’s generous grace to us in Jesus grows, we will also grow in our willingness to give what God has first given us so everyone who connects with our church can experience the generous grace of God in community with us.

What is one way you might be able to ‘excel also in this gracious act of giving’?

Growing in Freedom (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

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Over the last year or so, people in our congregation have been discussing the future of our ministry with teens and young adults using Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) as the basis of our conversations. This resource presents 6 strategies that the FYI research has identified as central to effective ministry with young people. The chapter on one of these strategies, Prioritize Young People (and Families) Everywhere, begins with this question:

How much would you and your church give up to reach young people? (p196)

It’s an excellent question because it challenges us to work out what we value and where our priorities lie. If we are unwilling to give up what’s important to us, such as our time, money or expectations, what we’re doing or the way we’ve done things, then we send a clear message to our young people that we don’t value them. However, if we are willing to give up those aspects of our church culture which are important to us in order to reach young people with the gospel, then we are saying that we value our young people and they are important to us.

When we look at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, what Paul was willing to give up for others constantly amazes me. Admittedly, he’s writing into a different context. Paul isn’t talking about ministry to young people, but about Christians whose faith allowed them to eat or not eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. However, the key point is that Paul didn’t tell one group that they were right and the others were wrong. Instead, he tells Jesus’ followers that what is important is what they are willing to give up so that others can be built up in faith (v1).

I have friends who are vegetarian or vegan, so the impact of what Paul is willing to give up for others might be lost on some. For most Australians, however, to be willing to give up meat so that another can experience the grace of God is a major sacrifice. I would find it incredibly difficult to permanently give up lamb chops, sausages, schnitzels or steak for another person. As part of my message last Sunday I asked people what they would find hard to give up. Some answers I received were things like coffee, chocolate, music, television, social media, and so on.

The point is that if Paul was willing to give up meat so that he wouldn’t be an obstacle to others in their faith, what are we willing to give up which might be an obstacle to our young people in their faith?

When we follow Jesus, he leads us to the cross where we witness what he gave up for us. Jesus’ whole existence was about sacrificing for others. He gave up his place in heaven to become one with us in this imperfect and broken world. He was constantly giving up his time and energy to serve others during his ministry on earth. Ultimately, Jesus gave up his whole life for us on the cross out of love for each of us so that we can encounter the grace of God through his sacrifice. When I look at this question from Growing Young from Jesus’ perspective, asking how much he was willing to give up for the sake of our young people, the answer is ‘everything!’ Jesus didn’t just give up meat or coffee, his time or a portion of his weekly earnings. Jesus gave everything up for us on the cross so that we can experience grace. That is how great his love is.

Paul’s willingness to give meat up for the rest of his life so that he wouldn’t cause other Christians to stumble in their faith was because he trusted in what Jesus had already given up for him. His actions were a natural outflow of God’s grace to him so that others could experience God’s grace through him. Because that’s a big part of what grace is – giving to another and for the sake of another person just because they need it, no matter what the cost.

Which brings me back to the original question from Growing Young: how much would we and our church give up to reach young people? When we are willing to give up what is important to us for them, we extend grace to our young people. When we are willing to sacrifice our preferences, our traditions, our expectations and our power for other people of any age, we are showing them the same grace Jesus showed us by giving up his life for us. This isn’t about giving young people what they want. My children think they know what they want, until something else comes along, and then they want that. Instead, this about surrounding and embracing our young people in a community of grace so they can experience the grace of God in Jesus through what we are willing to give up for them.

Because if our young people don’t encounter grace through giving relationships with their sisters and brothers in Jesus, the living, breathing body of Christ, then where will they?

That’s why growing in faith is a key element of our Discipling Plan. Part of what it means to grow in faith is trusting more and more in what Jesus gave up for us in his birth, life and death on the cross. As we grow and mature in our understanding of his sacrifice for us, we will also grow in our willingness to give up what is important to us so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationship with us.

Jesus gave up everything on the cross to extend God’s grace to us. Paul was willing to give up meat for the rest of his life so that others might find grace in him. How much are we willing to give up so that others might experience God’s grace in their relationships with us?

Return of the Christ Pt 2: Faithful (Matthew 25:14-30)

silver coins 02Last week we began looking at three parables of Jesus in Matthew 25 about the end of time and Jesus’ return. Last week’s parable, the Ten Bridesmaids, reminds us to be prepared for Jesus’ return by taking a view of life that goes beyond the here-and-now, and living every day from the point of view of an eternity with him.

There are parts of this second parable, often referred to as the Parable of the Talents, which are easy to understand. The ‘man going on a trip’ (v14) is Jesus, who leaves this world when he ascended into heaven. We are his servants – the people of his church who are left behind in his absence. He has entrusted his ‘money’ (NLT) or his ‘wealth’ (NIV) to us while he is gone, ‘dividing it in proportion to (our) abilities’ (v15 NLT).

Usually what the man ‘entrusts’ (v14 NLT) with his servants are called ‘talents’ and are interpreted as our gifts and abilities. However, Matthew uses the Greek word talanton which was a unit of weight. A footnote in one of my Bibles says a talanton was about 34 kilograms, which another says was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wage. These tell us that just one talanton of silver coins was a significant amount of money. Imagine what the reaction might have been from the servant who received five! What would you do with more money than you could earn in two working lifetimes?

Which brings us to the more significant and puzzling question of this parable: if interpreting these bags of money as our abilities or what we can do is a misunderstanding of the text, then what do they represent?

One way I like to approach this parable is to ask what was most valuable thing Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven? There are a lot of ways we could answer this question and I sincerely think it’s worth thinking about. For me, though, the most valuable thing Jesus has given to us is the good news of his grace. I don’t just think of Jesus’ grace as forgiveness so we can get to heaven, but everything we need for life in this world and the next. To me, the gospel is a multi-faceted diamond where every aspect shines brightly with the goodness of God to us. This means there are a range of ways we can view grace, but it all comes from Jesus.

Like diamonds, grace came at a high price. The value of the gospel, as well as the gifts Jesus left with us when he ascended into heaven, is shown by the price Jesus paid in order to give them to us. Jesus gave his own life for us one the cross to give us forgiveness, love, mercy, hope, and a whole new life from him. These are some of the aspect of his grace that he entrusts to us in the time between his departure and his return on the last day.

Then the master returns to see what his servant had been doing with what he had entrusted to them. It raises the question: what are we doing with the grace Jesus has entrusted to us? Are we putting his forgiveness, love, mercy and hope to work by investing it in others? Or, like the third servant, are we burying it in the dirt?

What’s actually more important about this parable is why we are doing what we do with God’s grace. Jesus doesn’t tell us how the first two servants doubled their master’s money, but he does tell us why the third servant buried what was given to him. He tells his master, ‘I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth’ (v25a NLT). He hid his master’s money because he was afraid of losing it. In contrast, the master praises the first and second servants by calling them ‘good and faithful’ (vv21,23 NLT). They were faithful with what they were given. They were full of faith! As a result of this faith, they took chances with what they were given, doubled the amount, and earned their Master’s praise!

Like the first two servants, Jesus wants us to be ‘faithful’ – full of faith – with what he has given us! He wants us to take chances with his grace, to be risky with his love, maybe even to gamble with his forgiveness by giving it to people who need it the most and deserve it the least. This parable tells me that Jesus wants us to put his grace and love to work in the lives of others by being full of faith in the goodness of the One who entrusts his grace to us and in the value of the gift of grace itself.

Especially as we face an uncertain future as Christians in Australia, now is not the time to bury what God has given us, but to boldly put it to work in the faith that God has already given us so much and that good will come when we invest his grace in the lives of others. I know people who are afraid of what the change of the legal definition of marriage will mean for Christians in Australia. I know others who are afraid of the future because we are a declining and ageing church. If we respond with fear, we are just like the servant who buried his bag of money and lost it all. But if we are full of faith in the message of the gospel and live confidently in the good news of Jesus’ redemption of sinners and love for broken people, then we have something good to offer people around us.

In the end, I believe this parable is about our approach to everything we do as God’s people and servants of Jesus while he is away. Are we hiding away the grace Jesus has given us because of fear? Or are we living each day full of faith in God’s goodness, trusting in his grace and putting his love to work in the lives of the people around us? When Jesus returns, will he find us living in faith or fear? If it is in fear, then the message of this parable is that even what we have will be taken from us. But if we are living in a bold and even risk-taking faith, then we will share in our Master’s happiness for eternity (vv21,23 NLT).

More to think about:

  • If you have come across this parable before, how have you heard the ‘talents’ interpreted? How might it change your understanding of the parable if we think of the ‘talents’ as huge bags of silver coins instead of our gifts and abilities?
  • When Jesus left us to ascend into heaven, what do you think were the most valuable things he left with us? Or, another way to think of it: what did Jesus purchase for you through his death on the cross that he gives to you as a gift?
  • Do you tend to think of the gospel simply as forgiveness so you can go to heaven when you die, or more like a diamond with many different aspects or facets? How might your understanding of God’s grace to us in Jesus be different if you thought of it more as a precious diamond?
  • With the changes going on in our church and in our culture around us, are you more inclined to be afraid or full or faith?  What might a life that is full of faith in Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, love and grace look like for you?
  • Who do you know that needs Jesus’ grace the most but deserves it the least? How can you invest what Jesus has given you into their lives this week?

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

Luther Door 01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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