‘Welcoming God’ (Matthew 10:40-42)

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It’s always good to feel welcome. I’m really thankful whenever I am visiting people that, firstly, I have the right address, but also that people are generally welcoming to me. It’s a real blessing to be invited into a people’s homes, to spend time with them over a coffee, and to talk with them about life and the journey of faith that we’re all on. That is why it is important for us as a congregation to be a welcoming community, so that people can feel at ease when they connect with us, and they can find a sense of belonging with us through the welcome we offer.

This text from Matthew 10 comes at the end of Jesus’ instructions to his Twelve Disciples before he sent them out on their first missionary journey. Jesus warned them that not everyone would welcome them and receive the message they brought (vv13b,14). However, Jesus said that those households that did receive them would also receive the peace of God (v13a). Then, at the end of his instructions, Jesus went even further by saying that those who welcomed his disciples also welcomed him, and by receiving him, they even welcomed the presence of God among them.

Stop and think about that for a moment…

On the one hand, these were Jesus’ specific instructions to a certain group of people at a particular time and place. However, as followers of Jesus whom he also sends out into our time and place, Jesus is also saying that when people welcome us, they welcome him and the presence of God with us.

This becomes really important because so often I have heard people ask where God is in the world. When people are hurting, confused, struggling or broken by life’s circumstances, God can often seem to be absent and uncaring. Jesus is saying here that God is present in the struggles, pain, uncertainty and joys of life in the presence of his people. As we live in the good news of God’s present and coming Kingdom, and as we participate in God’s mission to bring his peace into the world, God is present in the living, breathing body of his Son in the world. God makes himself known and extends his healing, life, cleansing and freedom through our words and actions.

This leads me to ask: do our words and actions reflect the grace and love of Jesus and our heavenly Father? As people welcome us into their homes and lives, is the presence of our forgiving and peace-giving God made real in their lives through us?

This becomes our goal as Jesus’ disciples: to grow in the peace of God as members of his Kingdom so that we can be bringing his peace, grace and love to everyone that we meet. The aim of being Jesus’ disciples is less about getting to heaven, and more about making the Kingdom of God real in our world by extending God’s gracious and life-giving presence to everyone who welcomes us. This might be in our homes, our work places, our schools or universities, anywhere we are welcomed and received by other people. The promise of Jesus is that as they welcome him as they welcome us, and by welcoming him they also receive the presence of God who is the source of all life. This is the same God who forgives sinners, who shows grace to those who need it the most but deserve it the least, who brings the light of new life out of the darkness of death, who washes the feet of his followers, and who gives us his all in his self-sacrificing love of the cross.

As we begin a new week, spend some time thinking about who will be welcoming you this week. How can you be the peace-filled and grace-giving presence of God in their lives? Ask the Spirit of God to keep you close with Jesus through faith so that, as people welcome you this week, they might also welcome Jesus in you, and through you they might find peace in the presence of our gracious and loving God.

An Attitude of Thanks (Luke 17:11-19)

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Our congregation celebrated Thanksgiving Sunday later than usual this year. With its origins in a more rural culture, there are a lot of churches that have a Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday early in the year before Lent to thank God for produce of the land. We held our Thanksgiving service later this year for two reasons. Firstly, the readings before Lent followed the Sermon on the Mount, and, with our discipleship focus this year, I wanted to focus on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5. Secondly, our church is more suburban than rural, so we’re not tied to the rural rhythm of the harvest.

I believe that it is still good to set aside a special Sunday each year to give thanks to God for the good things he gives to us each and every day. We live in a culture that makes being thankful for what we have very hard. We face unrealistic expectations from the media about our identity, appearance, relationships, possessions, probably just about every aspect of our lives. The consumer culture in which we live aims to make us dissatisfied and unhappy with ourselves and our lives so we will buy more to make ourselves feel better. The problem is that this constant search for new or better products, experiences or relationships doesn’t actually make us happy. Instead, because of the dissatisfaction that our consumer culture generates, we end up feeling discontent and unhappy.

Jesus teaches a very counter-cultural way of living. It begins with giving thanks for what we already have and recognising that every good thing we have is a gift from a God who loves us and wants the best for us. This is a theme that runs right through the Bible. We find it in the refrain of the psalms which call us to give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and whose love endures forever (see Psalms 106, 107, 118, 136). We have the story from Luke 17 in which the healed leper who returns to thank Jesus for his grace receives deeper healing and wholeness. Paul’s letters talk about being satisfied with what we have and giving thanks to God in all circumstances of life (see Philippians 4:12,13; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; 1 Timothy 6:6-8). As followers of Jesus, we are called to have thankful hearts for the good things God gives us each and every day, rather than focusing on what we don’t have and pursuing whatever appears to be new or better.

I know from my own experiences that when we start thanking God for the good things he is already giving us each day, our attitude towards the challenges we face in life change. This attitude grows from the faith that is God providing us with everything we need for life in this world and the next as an act of pure grace. This grace is seen most clearly when we look at the cross of Christ and see the love of God there as he gives us his all and holds nothing back so that we can live in a new relationship with him as his children. As we grow in this relationship with God through Jesus, trusting that he is our loving Father in heaven who ‘provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day’ (from Martin Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism), we can see the little blessings and the small graces he extends to us each and every day of our lives. When we recognise God’s love for us in the relationships, possessions and other good things we already have which he gives to us for the sake of Jesus, then his Holy Spirit grows thankful hearts and we can find contentment and joy in all the circumstances of life.

This isn’t natural for us and it doesn’t always come easy. That is why we need to be part of communities of faith which will embody the goodness of God for us and in which we can give thanks to God for all of his acts of loving grace to us. So we continue to celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday, not just for the harvest the farmers reap each year, but for all the good things God continues to give to each of us every day of our lives for the sake of Jesus.

More to think about:

  • Do you generally find yourself focusing on good things you already have or things you don’t have? Why do you think that is?
  • Do you think having more or better or newer possessions, relationships or experiences will make you happier or more content? Explain why you think that is…
  • Do you think it is possible to find something good from God in every circumstance of your life, like Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18? Explain your reasons.
  • If God loves you enough to give you his Son, how might that faith help you to see other good things your loving heavenly Father gives you every day?
  • What are some things that God has already given to you that maybe you have forgotten or can take for granted? Make a list & then read through your list, thanking God for each of them.

An Out-Going Church (Acts 1:1-11)

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We all know what happens when you throw a stone into a body of water like a pond, lake or dam. When the stone enters the water (or when the water embraces the stone, depending on how Zen you want to be) it causes ripples to go out, starting from the point where the stone went into the water, and moving out towards the edges.

Ripples naturally move outwards, starting from the stone and moving out to the edges of the pond or lake.

When Jesus was talking to his disciples at the start of the book of Acts, he described what would happen after he had ascended into heaven. In the power of the Spirit, his followers were going to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving outwards to the surrounding countryside of Judea, then to the neighbouring country of Samaria, and continuing outwards to the ends of the earth (v8b). What Jesus was describing can be understood as a ripple effect of the gospel as people took the good news of Jesus outward from where they were, and into the whole world.

Grace naturally moves outwards, starting from Jesus and moving out to the lives of people of all nations.

Grace always causes a ripple effect because the gospel is an outward-moving event. From the birth of Jesus, God was moving from where he was in heaven to be one with us in this world and the realities of human existence. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, this outward flow continued as Jesus gave healing, hope, life and forgiveness to the people he met. Jesus’s death was an outward flowing event as his blood literally flowed from his veins on the cross, and he gave all of himself to us and for us in his death. Jesus’ resurrection was an outward-moving event as he defeated darkness and death and brought new life and light into the world by walking out of the tomb. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus caused a big splash in human history, but the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost then put this outward movement into effect in the lives of the disciples. They were able to witness to what they had seen and heard as the Spirit of God led them out from Jerusalem in ever-widening ripples that extended to the entire world.

We are caught up in these outward-flowing ripples when we also become witnesses to the grace and goodness of God in the gospel. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness God’s perfect and infinite love for us. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness the new life he gives us, a life that is stronger than death. The outward movement of God’s grace begins in us as the Holy Spirit gives us faith in Jesus’ work of salvation for us. We get caught up in the outward movement of the ripples of God’s grace as we witness to the grace we have encountered in all we say and do. We don’t need to travel overseas to do this. Just as the disciples began by witnessing to their own city of Jerusalem, so our witness begins in our homes, our work places, our schools and universities, our sporting teams, or wherever God leads us in life.

At this point, I could tell you to get out there and witness. However, I get concerned that at times we know we should be better witnesses, but we aren’t sure what we should be witnessing to. Being a witness involves two key elements: first, witnesses need to encounter an event, and then they are able to give a witness to what we have encountered. Before we can give a witness to Jesus, we first need to witness his grace for ourselves.

That becomes a vital element in being disciples. We need to follow Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb so we can witness for ourselves the life-changing love of God in the gospel. Once we have encountered God’s grace for ourselves, then are we able to ride the outward-moving ripples of God’s grace in the power of the Holy Spirit into our homes, our work, our schools and universities, or wherever God might lead us.

When was the last time you stood on the banks of a pond, lake or dam, threw rocks into the water, and watched the ripples move out to the edges? Find some time this week to do it. Throw some rocks into water and watch the ripples move out. As you do that, think about how God has dropped the stone of his grace and love into your life by connecting you with Jesus through the power of his Spirit. And then think about how he is carrying you along, in the power of his Spirit, in the outward-moving ripples of his grace, so you can witness to his grace and love in all your words and actions.

More to think about:

  • In your experience of ‘church’ (however you understand that), do you think we tend to be more inward-looking or outward-flowing? Why do you think that way?
  • Compare your experience of church with Jesus’ words about his disciples being his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8 NLT). Would you rather be part of a church that looks inwards, or is caught up in the outward flow of God’s grace? Give a few reasons for your preference…
  • Do you agree that people need to witness something for themselves before they can witness about it to others? Explain why you think that…
  • Where have you witnessed God’s grace for yourself? In what ways would you like to witness more of God’s grace?
  • We don’t have to go on overseas mission trips to be part of God’s outward flow of grace; it starts right where we are. How might you be able to give witness to God’s grace in your life today?

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?

Jesus Knows (John 4:5-42)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would mean that we could think of discipleship as …

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

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

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

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

When the King Returns (Luke 19:11-27)

bag-of-coins-01In some ways, this parable doesn’t seem too hard to understand. The nobleman is Jesus himself who leaves this world to be crowned king in his ascension into heaven. The time between Jesus’ departure and his return from heaven is the age we are living in now. God’s people, including us, are the servants who are given a bag of sliver to put to work while he is gone. A key point of the story is that one day the King, namely Jesus, will return to the earth and he will want to see what we have been doing with what he left with us.

It is at this point, however, that the parable throws up some challenging questions for us to think through…

For example, how did the first servant turn one bag of silver into ten???

I’m almost half way through my working life, so I’m starting to think about retirement and having enough to live on. I want to talk to this person to find out how he multiplied his investment by ten because that is the kind of nest egg I want to retire on. Imagine multiplying what you have now by ten!

I’m thinking that this servant is either a very shrewd businessman or he is involved in some very dodgy dealings. Either way, you don’t multiply your investment by ten without taking some significant risks. Even the second servant who only multiplied his investment by five must have taken some risks to achieve that return.

Which raises the question of what the bag of silver represents. We could understand it as money or the physical things God has given us in this life. We could also understand these bags of silver to be the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us. Matthew’s version of this parable (25:14-30) talks about a unit of weight called a talent, which is why a lot of people interpret this parable as using your gifts and abilities for the Kingdom of God. Another way we can think about these bags of silver is to reflect on everything Jesus gives us: his peace, love and joy, his righteousness, forgiveness, new life, identity as God’s children, and so much more. In short, we can think about the bags of silver as the grace Jesus gives us, with each coin in that bag representing another aspect of his grace which we can pull out and marvel at.

This brings us to the parable’s big question: what are we doing with what Jesus has given us? Do we turn up to church on Sunday, but then keep his grace hidden during the rest of the week out of fear like the third servant? The warning in the parable is that if we are doing that, God’s grace can be taken from us. Or, like the first two servants, do we receive God’s grace with joy and put it to work by investing it in the people around us? That might mean taking some big risks with the grace Jesus has given us by showing grace to the people we know who need it the most but deserve it the least. If the first two servants multiplied their bags of silver by taking risks with them, are we following their example and living lives of bold, risk-taking faith by investing the grace Jesus has given us by showing grace to others?

Ultimately, like the nobleman in the parable who gambles his bags of silver by giving them away, that’s what God does with us. He takes a huge risk on us by giving us the grace of forgiveness and new life as his children. Then he asks us to put what he has given us to work by living lives of bold, confident, risk-taking grace in our relationships with others.
So who is the person you know who deserves the grace of Jesus the least, but who needs it the most? How can you put the grace Jesus has given to you to work by showing grace to that person? In the end, what’s most important is not the return we get – both the servants who achieved a five-fold and a ten-fold return were praised by the king. What is important is that we do not keep the grace Jesus has given us buried, but we are living bold, confident, risk-taking lives of grace, investing what Jesus has first given us into the lives of the people around us.

Because, when the King returns, what will we have to show for what he has given us?

More to think about:

  • What is the ‘bag of silver’ that Jesus has given you – possessions, time, life, grace, forgiveness, or something else?
  • How do you think the first two servants were able to multiply their investments by five and by ten? Did they do that by playing it safe or by taking some risks? Explain why you might think that.
  • What does it mean to you that Jesus says to put your ‘bag of silver’ to work while he is away? Are you keeping it safe? Or are you doing something with it?
  • What might be the riskiest thing you could do with what Jesus has given you? What might you lose? What might you gain?
  • Who is someone in your life that is hard to love or might not deserve God’s grace? What are some ways in which you could invest Jesus’s love and grace in that person’s life this week?