A Different Way (Luke 5:1-11)

 

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I wonder how Peter replied to Jesus when he told the fisherman to go out into deeper waters and let his nets down to catch some fish (Luke 5:1-11). Thanks to Luke we have what Peter said, but I wonder about the way in which Peter said them.

Was he full of confidence, sure that if Jesus told him that he would catch some fish, then he would be successful?

Was Peter tired but still hopeful that following Jesus’ instructions would bring a positive result, even though his own efforts had resulted in empty nets?

Was Peter being sceptical and maybe even sarcastic? After all, Peter was an experienced fisherman but Jesus was a carpenter’s son – what would he know about catching fish?

I wonder about this because Peter had been fishing his whole life. In his mind he was probably sure that he knew what he was doing. Then along comes Jesus who, as far as we know, didn’t have any fishing experience. Then he starts to give Peter advice about how to do his job. If you were Peter, what would you do? Would you be open to some new ideas and willing to try something different? Or would you smile politely, thank Jesus for his advice, but keep doing things the way you’ve always done them?

These are important questions for me because I’ve been where Peter was. At times during my years of fulltime ministry in the church I’ve felt tired, discouraged and even a little cynical because what I’ve been doing hasn’t seemed to be producing the results I’d hoped for. I believe strongly in the mission of the church and the difference God can make in people’s lives through the good news of Jesus, but sometimes it has seemed like the nets have been empty and all my work has been for nothing.

So I understand when people are reluctant to try something new in the church. After decades of struggling with mission and ministry, we can all feel like Peter after a night of hard work to some degree. Our church has tried a lot of programs, events, campaigns and other ministry resources to try to be effective in our work for God’s kingdom. However, we are still an aging, declining church. We can easily begin to wonder if the time, effort and money has been worth it when they haven’t seemed to bring about the results we’ve hoped for, and our nets are empty.

There are two reasons why, like Peter, I keep heading out into deeper waters and letting down the nets in ministry. The first is because Jesus calls us to. If we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, as one of the core commitments from Growing Young encourages us to, then we need to be listening to Jesus’ call to head out into deeper waters and let down our nets. If Jesus is calling us to go fishing for him, then he has what we need to do it effectively and he will provide the catch. All he asks of us is to listen to him and to trust him enough to follow his call.

The second reason I continue to head out into deeper water and let down my nets is that I believe God is giving us a new set of nets to use. In my past experience in the church, we have relied on programs, events and other organizational activities to do the mission and ministry of the church. These worked well for a particular generation and I thank God for the lives he has touched and the people who have found grace through them. However, in recent decades we have found that they are not as effective any more. Instead, what connects people to Jesus is honest, Christ-centred relationships and a community of faith where they can experience the life-changing reality of grace. This is why another of the Growing Young core commitments is to fuel a warm community. We head out into deeper water and let our nets down when we connect with people relationally and embrace them in Christ-centred community. That is where people can encounter the grace of God and the kind of love which Jesus embodies and Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

On the one hand, this doesn’t sound very complicated. However, moving from an organisationally driven, program based culture to one where relationships are central requires a significantly different way of thinking about mission and ministry. Thankfully there are resources available to help us put our nets down into these waters. I have found Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute to be an invaluable resource in helping us think through how to do mission and ministry in a relational way, especially with young people. Next weekend, we will be very blessed to have Jake Mulder from the Fuller Youth Institute and a co-author of Growing Young with us to help us in learning to fish in a new way. If you are part of our congregation at St John’s, please make yourself available this weekend to learn from him with us.

Last Sunday I distributed a document which outlines Ten Ways to Connect with Children and Teens in your Church. Its advice is relatively simple, but again a significant shift in thinking about how we can be involved in a more relational mission and ministry. What it says is helpful in our relationships with people of all ages, not just children and teens. I encourage everyone in our congregation to identify one person you know, of any age, gender or background, and start putting them into practice. Can you imagine what our congregation could be like if we were all involved in fishing with Jesus like this?

I can understand how Peter felt as he washed his nets at the start of the story because I’ve been there. But I also hear Jesus’ call to head out into deeper water and let our nets down one more time. Just as Peter shouted to the other fishermen for help to bring in the catch, I’m asking the people of our congregation for help in this work for God’s kingdom as well. It can’t be up to one or two people alone. Instead, when we’re all listening to Jesus and following him faithfully, he will teach us how to fish for people.

Are you ready to go fishing?

Embracing Children Embracing God (Mark 9:30-37)

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Just about every church I go past has a sign out the front telling people that they are welcome. Almost anyone who is involved in a church will be able to tell you that it is important that we are welcoming communities. We want people who connect with us in one way or another to feel welcomed and accepted when they come through our doors, or participate in one of our events or programs. Welcoming is so important to us that we have an entire roster dedicated to making sure that when people come to worship on a Sunday morning, they are met with a warm smile, a hearty handshake and a friendly ‘Good morning.’

When Jesus talked about welcoming, he wasn’t talking about a sign out the front of our church or a roster of people to say ‘Good morning.’ The Greek word which Jesus used and is often translated as ‘welcome’ is more about receiving a person who knocks on our door, for example. To welcome or receive them means inviting them in, spending time with them, getting to know them and being in relationship with them. That’s why this word can also be translated as ‘accepted’ or ‘embraced.’ To welcome someone means to invite them into our lives and embrace them, possibly physically like a hug, but definitely in relationship.

One thing about that really hits me about Jesus’ words in Mark 9:37 is who Jesus encourages us to welcome or embrace in relationship with us. Jesus says,

‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ (NLT)

We might be familiar with the times Jesus points to the children and tells his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to people like them (see Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). However, Jesus’ message here is different. He is saying that when we welcome little children, we actually welcome him, and we welcome God with them. Jesus is saying that as we embrace our children as a community, and as we establish and foster relationships with them as our younger brothers and sisters in the faith, we are also embracing Jesus in those relationships.

Think about that the next time you give a child a hug or hold a baby. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, we are embracing him in our relationship with that child. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to hug God? Maybe Jesus is pointing us to a way of doing that.

Another thing that strikes me about Jesus’ words is that I couldn’t find him saying this about anyone else in the New Testament. Jesus talked about people welcoming him through the disciples he sent out as missionaries (Matthew 10:40 NIV; John 13:20 NLT) but I couldn’t find Jesus saying that we welcome him through any people other than children. It’s significant that Matthew (18:5), Mark and Luke (9:48) all report Jesus saying the same thing. I tend to think that if one gospel writer includes something Jesus said, then it must be important. If two writers both have it, then it’s even more important. If three or more gospel writers record Jesus saying the same thing, then we’d better be listening. Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain these words about embracing Jesus and our heavenly Father as we embrace our children, we had better be paying very close attention to what Jesus is saying to us here.

This is why our work with Growing Young is so vital for our church. It gives us 6 strategies through which we can be welcoming and embracing children in our congregation, and welcoming and embracing Jesus in them. We welcome and embrace children and young people when we:

  • Hand over leadership positions and responsibilities
  • Empathise with them
  • Take Jesus’ message seriously
  • Fuel a relationally warm community
  • Prioritize young people and their families everywhere in the congregation
  • Are the best neighbours towards others, both locally and globally

One reason why Growing Young is so important for us is because it encourages us to recognize the presence of Jesus in, with and through the children and young people of our community. If what Jesus said is true, then we need to ask if Jesus would feel welcomed by our congregation. It is too easy for us to prioritize what we want for ourselves rather than what will embrace young people. I hope for a congregation where children and young people are surrounded by more mature sisters and brothers in the faith who will care for them, walk with them through the joys and struggles of life, and will apprentice them into living in the way of Jesus so they can grow into the faith, hope and love that come with being his followers. Growing Young is about growing as a congregation which recognises Jesus in our children and young people, which welcomes and embraces them as the presence of Jesus with us, and through whom we might find the grace and peace of Jesus.

There is something very different about what Jesus says in this text. Nowhere else in the gospels do I hear Jesus saying that we welcome him through other people in the same way that we welcome him in our children. Maybe he wants us to give them special attention, special care, to receive and embrace them in the same way we would receive and embrace him.

Our family is very thankful for the ways in which this congregation has welcomed and embraced us over the three years we have been here. In particular, we are very thankful for the way you have welcomed and embraced our children. I hope and pray that every child and young person who has a connection with our congregation would experience that same kind of welcome and acceptance. As we welcome and embrace the children and young people God gives us, we also welcome and embrace Jesus, and we welcome God.

Because God comes to us in a special way through our kids.

Already, but not yet: Living in the tension with young people

Already But Not Yet

I came across this article from Caleb Roose of the Fuller Youth Institute today entitled Already, but not yet: Living in the tension with young people. It’s worth a read if you know a young person (or anyone really) who has tough questions or going through a challenging time in life…

United (Acts 4:32-35)

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Can you imagine being part of a community of faith like the one described in Acts 4:32-35?

Here we have a picture of a group of people living in the reality of Jesus’ victory over death. They had been following Jesus and witnessed his resurrection They were so convinced of God’s goodness and life-giving love in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit that they were totally focused on the needs of the people around them. They were willing to do whatever it took to take care of others, even if it meant that they sold their homes or property to do it. All of this resulted from the unity the believers had in heart and mind. Their faith in the resurrection of Jesus brought their community together to the point where they were able to prioritise the needs of others because they trusted that God would provide for their own needs.

We can be so amazed at the disciples’ willingness to sell their homes and property that we miss the reason why they were willing and able to be so generous. What is crucial to this story is that they were united in heart and mind. During the years I spent growing up in the church as well as my years of ministry as a pastor, I have seen too many communities of faith divided over a range of issues. Particular aspects of the congregational activity were important to some and not to others. Some had very strong opinions about what the congregation was doing or how it should have been done. The result was divisions in the church as factions developed and relationships broke down.

I’m not saying this to be critical of the church. Instead, I believe we need to be honest about the realities in our churches before God if things are going to get better. When we compare the dis-unity and fractures that exist in our church with this community of believers in Acts 4:32ff, it is easy to see that we are not what we could be. As a result, just as the community in Acts was able to testify powerfully to the resurrection of Jesus and ‘God’s grace was … powerfully at work in them all’ through their unity, so our witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the flow of God’s grace is often impeded by our arguing, infighting and disputes.

Acts 4:32-35 gives us a glimpse of God’s vision for his church. Instead of adopting a consumer, individualistic attitude to the faith where our prime concern is what’s good for me, the vision that God gives us in this text is a community of people who are so convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection that they are all willing to do whatever is necessary to look after each other, no matter what the cost to themselves.

This is what Paul describes in Philippians 2:2-5 when he writes:

… make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (NIV)

Paul was imploring the Christians in Philippi to be ‘like-minded’ with each other and with Jesus, just as the believers were in Acts 4:32-35. As members of the body of Christ, he wants them to give a faithful witness to the love of Jesus by ‘not looking to (their) own interests but each of (them) to the interests of the others.’ This is what was happening in Acts 4. This is the vision God has for our communities of faith. We give the most powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus when we are able to put aside our own priorities, preferences or agendas, and come together as one by the power of the Holy Spirit to provide for the needs of others.

This is what faith is about: trusting in the giving nature of God so that we become giving communities. Faith in God is about trusting that our heavenly Father loved us enough to give us his one and only Son, that Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us on the cross, and that the Holy Spirit loves us enough to breathe the life of the risen Christ into us so we share in his life now and forever. Through this faith, we share in the nature of God so we become giving people. Faith in the giving nature of God will always shape us to become giving people, both as individuals and as a congregation, just like it did in Acts 4:32-35.

As I prepared this message for our congregation on Sunday, I kept asking myself, do we believe this is possible? It’s easy to read this story from Acts 4 and think it’s wonderful that they were so united in heart and mind that they were able to provide for the needs people had in their community, but is this just a nice story from a time long-gone? Or do we believe that the Spirit of the risen Christ can bring us together in heart and mind, to give us the heart and mind of Jesus, so we can live in unity with each other and live for the needs of those around us?

I’d like to believe it is. I’d like to believe that Jesus, who has overcome sin, death and the power of the devil, can also overcome our selfishness, our pettiness and our disunity to bring us together as one. Every person in a congregation or faith community has needs of one kind or another. The way God wants to provide for those needs is through the living, breathing body of the risen Christ – through you and me and the grace he gives us. The needs may be different from the needs in Acts 4, but the needs people in our communities have are still real. The way God wants to meet those needs is through us, people who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

In Growing Young, one of the essential strategies for a congregation to be effective in its ministry with young people is fuelling a warm community. When I listen to this story about the early church being one in heart and mind and their willingness to share whatever they had with each other, I can see a community of believers that is warm with the love and grace of Jesus. Sure, they ran into problems, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira explains (Acts 5:1-11), but there was still unity among them which lead to God’s grace being powerfully at work among them.

How would you like to be part of a community like this? Do you believe that such a community is possible here and now? If the Spirit of the living God can raise Jesus to life, then I believe that he can also unite the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus in his grace and love. Like Jesus said, for people this might be impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Which leaves me with one final question: what are we willing to give for this kind of community to exist in our communities of faith?

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?

Faith Alone (John 6:29)

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When I sat down last Friday to write my message for Sunday’s services, I had a clear idea what I was going to say…

As we continue through our Reformation Month, my plan was to talk on the principle of Faith Alone. I was going to talk about how, for Martin Luther, faith is more than believing that there is a God, and more than believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a factual historical event. I wanted to make the point that, for Luther and the Reformers of the early 1500s, a saving faith means trusting that Jesus lived, died and is risen again for you.

Then I was going to say that faith in Jesus doesn’t come naturally for us. We need the Holy Spirit to be creating and growing this faith in us. That’s why Luther said, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, that the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is to call us by the gospel, enlighten us with his gifts, sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.

belief value attitude behaviour 01I was then going to explain that this faith in Jesus, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in our lives. Our behaviours grow out of our beliefs, as this diagram suggests. I was going to explain that this is what Jesus meant when he talked about trees and fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), vines and branches (John 15:1-17) and others knowing we are his disciples by the way we love each other (John 13:35). This is also the pattern Paul follows in his letters when he proclaims the good news of Jesus and then goes on to explore how this faith makes a difference in our lives, our relationships and our communities of faith.

And that was basically my message …

… until Sunday morning. I was reflecting on what I was planning to say when it dawned on me (please excuse the pun) that I was describing what faith looks like, but I had kind of missed the point.

Faith isn’t just an idea that we discuss and debate. Instead, the challenge that constantly confronts me as a pastor and a servant of the gospel is how to help others grow in their faith so that it makes a difference in their lives?

I regularly come across two main problems in my experience in working for the church. The first is that I know good people who have been going to church their whole lives who are still trapped in guilt or fear. The good news of Jesus is that he died on the cross and is risen again to free us from guilt and fear and a living faith in him gives us that freedom. So how do I help people find and grow in this faith so they can live in joy and peace instead of fear and guilt?

The second problem I encounter is that a lot of what we do in the church seems to focus on the top triangle in this diagram – our behaviours. We tend to focus on what we should or should not be doing, or what we think others should or should not be doing, in one way or another. Because our behaviours reflect our beliefs, what does our preoccupation with behaviours say about what we believe? If we really were operating from the Faith Alone principle, how might we prioritise faith over behaviours and activities?

There are a couple of conversations that we have been having in our congregation over the last year or so on discipleship, Simple Church and Growing Young. It occurred to me early on Sunday morning, that these conversations are, essentially, all about Faith Alone.
For example, most of the discipling books I read talk about following Jesus in terms of our behaviours and assume a saving faith. However, our first step in following Jesus needs to be to the foot of the cross and empty grave where we witness Jesus giving his life for us on the cross and overcoming death through his resurrection. A Lutheran perspective on discipleship needs to start with experiencing God’s grace and trusting that Jesus died and is risen again for me. And so our conversation about discipleship is about prioritizing Faith Alone in our congregation.

Our discussion around becoming a Simple Church is about looking at the busyness of our congregation and asking how much of it helps people grow in their faith as followers of Jesus. If our programs and activities are not helping people grow in their faith or equipping them to live their faith out in their relationships, then are we living by the Faith Alone principle? And so our conversation about becoming a Simple Church is about prioritising Faith Alone in our congregation.

Working through the book Growing Young was about asking how being disciples of Jesus and simplifying the busyness of our congregation can help us in our ministry to young people. They learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be living in ways that are consistent with our faith so our young people can to see the difference following Jesus makes in our lives. There is research from Mark McCrindle which argues that what attracts people most to ‘religion and spirituality’ is ‘seeing people who live out a genuine faith’ (The Faith and Belief in Australia Report). It is vital for us in our ministry to our young people, as well as our witness to the world, that we see faith in Jesus as something that shapes and transforms our lives.

When we encounter the grace of God and trust his grace to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit shapes us into more grace-giving people. When we trust that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, we become more forgiving people. When we believe in God’s love for us in Jesus, the Spirit of God makes us into more loving people. The more we grow in our faith in God’s goodness to us through Jesus, the more the Holy Spirit shapes us into loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22,23). We don’t become this way by being told to be this way. Instead, the more our faith in God’s goodness grows, the more his goodness will show in our lives.

This is why the Reformation teaching on Faith Alone is still so important for us. It is too easy for us to think that faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines, instead of being a bold and confident trust that Jesus lived, died and risen again for me which makes a difference in my life. This is my hope and prayer for our church: that we can rediscover the importance of living by Faith Alone, so we can find the freedom, hope and joy which comes through faith, and so others can experience the goodness of God through us.

More to think about:

  • I have heard it said that everyone believes in something or someone. Do you agree with that? Explain why or why not.
  • What do you think of the idea that saving faith is not just believing there’s a God, or the historical truth of Jesus’ death & resurrection, but that Jesus did that for you? How does that compare with how you understand what faith is?
  • Can you think of examples where there is a close connection between what people believe and what they do? Would you agree that belief shapes behaviour, and what we do reflects what we believe? Explain your reasons for thinking that.
  • How important is it for Christians to reflect our faith in our behaviours, words and actions? When you look at the Christian church, what do our behaviours say about what we believe to you? To your family, friends or others?
  • How can your church community help you grow a deeper & stronger faith in Jesus? Do you have any suggestions for me about how to prioritise Faith Alone in our church?