Saved and Sent (Luke 8:26-39)

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The story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Luke 8:26-39 begins a bit like a horror movie. Jesus and his disciples get out of their boat after going through a severe storm on Lake Galilee. There they are confronted by a man possessed by so many demons that they identify themselves as ‘Legion’ which means ‘many’. This man had been driven from his home, was living among the dead in a cemetery, had broken chains that had been used to try to restrain him with superhuman strength, was naked and shouting at Jesus as he approached him.

We might not feel a strong connection with this story because it can sound very different from the reality of our lives. For most of us, our experience of the demonic is probably more from watching movies than day to day life. So when Jesus cast the demons into the pigs and then sent the man home to tell them how much God had done for him, we might think it’s a nice story but not really get anything out of it for ourselves.

However, if we look closer at the story, we can find that by casting the demons out of the man, Jesus did much more for him than we might initially see. Jesus freed him from the demons that were tormenting him. Jesus covered his nakedness, which is often associated with shame in the Bible, so that when the people found him at the end of the story, he was clothed (v35) showing that Jesus had covered his shame. Luke also tells us that the man was ‘in his right mind’ (v35), which means that his mental health was restored and he had control of his rational faculties again. Through his encounter with Jesus, the man no longer had to live in the tombs and the cemetery but was restored to the world of the living to resume his life again. In doing this, Jesus reconnected him in his relationships with his family and his community.

When we start to think about what Jesus did for this man in these terms, then it becomes easier to see ourselves in this story and to find God’s goodness in Jesus for ourselves. God is able to do all these things for us as well through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. God can free us from our demons. These might be literal demons, or they might be other things which torment us. They might have names like Guilt, Fear, Regret, Addiction, Anxiety, Insecurity, and so on. God covers our shame by entering into our shame through the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and freeing us from shame by covering us with the clothes of Jesus’ righteousness and purity. God gives us the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit so we can find a healthier state of mind and more control over our thoughts and mental faculties, which Paul says is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Jesus lifts us out from living among the dead as he gifts us with new and eternal life through his resurrection. Death does not define us through Jesus, but the new life of the Spirit of God which is given to us through faith in Jesus. This new life overcomes our solitude and loneliness as God brings us into new relationship with himself and incorporates us in the community of faith, the family of God, the living, breathing body of Christ in the world, also known as the church.

When we encounter Jesus like this and we find God’s goodness at work in us through the Holy Spirit, then we have good news to bring to the world. In the same way that Jesus told the man to return to his home and tell how much God had done for him (v39), Jesus also tells us to go into the world to tell people how much good he has done for us.

One significant thing about Jesus’s instructions is that he tells the man to go back to his home. The mission of God begins in our homes as we pass on to those closest to us how much God does for us by setting us free, covering our shame, renewing our minds, giving us new lives to live, and restoring us in our relationships and in community. God’s mission doesn’t stop there obviously, but it starts in our homes and families as we share with them what God has already done for us, as well as the promise of what God can also do for them in Christ Jesus through the power of his Spirit.

Jesus tells us to share with others what God has already done in our lives through Jesus. I wonder sometimes whether we have been told to go out and witness to others about our faith before we have encountered the goodness and power of God in our own lives. In this story, Jesus gives the man something good to share with others. The good news the man had to share was his story, the way God had been at work in his life. Before we start telling others to go out and tell others about Jesus, maybe some of us need to be finding the life-changing goodness of God in our own lives through a deeper relationship with Jesus. When we find his goodness for ourselves, then we have a story to tell that can bring good news to others.

It would be easy to finish this message by repeating Jesus’ last words to the man he had set free from Legion, and telling you to go out and tell how much God has done for you. I want to ask you a question first: if someone asked you what God has done for you, what would you say? Some people in our church have stories of what God has done for them in Jesus and are happy to share that story with others. God bless you as you bring good news to others. If you don’t have a story yet, or don’t know what your story is, I hope and pray that over time, God will give you a story to tell as he works in your life to set you free, cover your shame, renew your mind, give you a new life to live, and restore your relationships and community.

Then you’ll be able to tell others how much God has done for you through Jesus.

More to think about:

  • What questions do you have about this story? What doesn’t make sense to you or are you not sure about?
  • Do you find it easy or more difficult to talk about your faith to others? Why is that?
  • If you were the man in the story, would you have told others about what Jesus had done for you? Explain why…
  • I’m suggesting that when we look closer at the story, we can see that Jesus frees this man from what is tormenting him, covers his shame, renews his mind, gives him a new life to live, and restores him in his relationships and community with others. Is there something like any of these that Jesus has done for you in your life? Is there one in particular that you need Jesus to do for you? Or is there something else you need Jesus to do for you?
  • Do you believe it’s possible that a growing relationship with Jesus can help you find what you’re looking for? Share some thoughts about how that might happen… (please let me know if there’s any way I can help)
  • If someone asked you about what Jesus had done for you, what would you say?
  • Who is one person you can tell about what Jesus has done for you this week?
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Easter 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Confession (James 5:13-20)

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Some words in the English language can be very hard to say. For example, it took a long time for my children to say ‘animal’ instead of ‘aminal’ – and sometimes they still get it wrong. Our family always has a giggle every time characters in Finding Nemo try to say ‘anemone.’ I had to practice how to say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ when I was younger so I could impress my university friends with what I’ve been told is one of the longest words in the English dictionary.

But it seems like one of the hardest words in the English language to say is ‘sorry.’

It is easy to read the word ‘sorry’, but if you think saying it is easy, try going to someone you have wronged in the past and telling them you’re sorry for what you did. We can find it difficult to do that for a range of reasons. Maybe we don’t think we have anything to apologise for because whatever happened was their fault. Maybe we are so ashamed of what has happened that we would prefer not to face it. Or maybe we just don’t want to take responsibility for what we have done. No matter what our reasons might be, saying ‘sorry’ to someone we have wronged can be very hard to do.

When James encourages us to confess our sins to each other in 5:16, he is reminding us that confession is more than turning up to church and saying ‘sorry’ to God. One reason why it’s important to have time in worship where we confess our sin to God and God speaks his word of forgiveness to us is that there is a strong tendency in our humanistic culture to think that we’re good people who don’t need to be forgiven. However, when I look at my life, I know that I fail to love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength, and that I fail to love others in the same way that God loves me through Jesus. Hearing God’s words of forgiveness helps me to remember that my identity is found in his forgiveness, not in my failures. Hearing a word of forgiveness helps us grow into the people God is making us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased.

When we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, then we will also be willing to go to the people we have wronged and tell them that we are sorry. This isn’t something that we have to do in order to get God’s forgiveness. Sometimes we can have a very mechanical understanding of God’s grace where we think that we have to say we are sorry before God will forgive us. There is a much more dynamic relationship that exists between our confession and God’s forgiveness. As a church that practices infant baptism, we believe and teach that God forgiveness us even before we are able to confess our sin. Because God forgives us on account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, we are free to go to each other and confess that we have wronged each other. We can trust that God’s final word to us in Jesus will always be a word of grace and forgiveness. If God has vowed to forgive us and make us clean through the gift of his Holy Spirit, then why wouldn’t we ask to receive that forgiveness from and extend that same forgiveness to each other?

The promise God gives us through James’ words about confessing sin and forgiving each other is that we will find healing. We might think about physical healing, and there is no reason why almighty God can’t heal those he chooses to. However, healing can also take other forms. When we wrong others, our hearts can be wounded as we carry the burden of guilt and shame. This can effect our emotional and sometimes even our physical wellbeing. I have known people who had been suffering mentally and even physically because of a wrong they had committed in the past, but they hadn’t connected what they were experiencing with what they’d done. When we identified the connection, and the wrong was confessed and forgiven, then their wellbeing improved. This isn’t the case with every illness, and Jesus warned us not to assume a direct connection between illnesses or disabilities and a particular sin (John 9:1-3). However, in some cases I have seen how confessing and forgiving sin can help to heal people’s hearts and even their body.

Another way to understand the healing that James talks about is in our relationships. Sin and doing wrong damages relationships, but when we confess our wrongs to each other and forgive each other in Jesus’ name, these relationships can be healed. We can be reconciled to each other in the same way that God reconciles with us in Jesus and heals our broken relationship with him. This can be really difficult to do for a whole range of reasons, but the promise of God that we hear through the words of James is that our relationships can be healed and restored when we admit when we are wrong and ask the people we have wronged to forgive us. The healing of the relationship we have through the forgiveness God gives us in Jesus can flow through into the other damaged relationships we have in our lives so they can be healed as well. This isn’t easy to do. It requires a lot of humility, courage and faith. However, James tells us, and I have seen in my own life, that when we confess our wrongs to the people we have wronged and ask them to forgive us, not only can our relationship be healed, but we can find healing and wholeness in ourselves as well.

To whom might we need to confess our wrongs, either to restore our relationship with them or just to find healing and peace for ourselves? If there is something in your life that you’re carrying, don’t be afraid to go to someone you might have wronged, or to another sister or brother in Christ, and confess what you might have done. Find healing and freedom through the grace of God working in the words of forgiveness they speak to you. Because that’s what God wants for us – to live each day as God’s forgiven and healed children.

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.