An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

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When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!

Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

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What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

Little Things (John 13:1-17,31b-35)

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Whenever we have a meal, there is at least some work that needs to be done. This work includes preparing the meal, serving it and then cleaning up again afterwards. Even if we eat take out, someone still needs to order the meal, collect the meal and then clean up again afterwards. These aren’t glamorous jobs or duties that attract a lot of acclamation or praise. They are just ordinary, everyday things that we do in order to feed ourselves or others that we share a home with.

Just before Jesus was about to be arrested, put on trial and crucified, he shared a meal with the disciples with whom he had spent the last three years. This was no ordinary meal – it was the ancient Passover meal which commemorated God’s liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and God saving them from the angel of death. At this meal together, known as the Last Supper, Jesus did a few very significant things. One was that he instituted the meal of God’s New Covenant with his people, the meal we know as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.

While they were sharing this meal, another significant thing Jesus did was to give his disciples a new commandment. They were no longer to live under the old Jewish Law. Instead, Jesus taught his followers a new way to live by loving one another in the same way that he loved them (John 13:34,35; 15:12,17).

Jesus had given his disciples an example of that his love looked like earlier in the meal. The love that Jesus was teaching his disciples, which is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, wasn’t demonstrated by a fancy event, or a congregational program, or raising funds for charity work, or any of the things we can usually associate with activity in the church. Instead, Jesus gave us an example of how his love looks by using a bowl, some water and a towel.

The example Jesus gave us to follow was washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:15).
There are some important things we need to recognise in this example Jesus’ gives. Foot washing was something every household did to welcome guests into their home. It was usually the responsibility of the household slave or servant with the lowest status. It was necessary because people had been walking on hot, dusty roads all day in sandals, so feet were usually pretty dirty and smelly. It was a household job that needed to be done, but not one that people usually volunteered for.

This is the job Jesus volunteered for to show us what his love is like, and to show us how to love each other.

During this time of restrictions because of the COVID-19 virus, I have heard some people suggest that the church will have to put all of its ministry on hold. I disagree. Instead, I believe that this is a chance for us to return to the example Jesus gave us and to rethink what it means to live as Jesus’ followers in faith and love. This Maundy Thursday, as we hear again the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, as we witness him washing the feet of this followers, and then teaching us to love others in the same way we have a chance to rediscover what it means to live as Jesus disciples and learn to love in Christ-like ways.

If we are honest, how many of us like to be served rather than serve? How many of us would prefer that people do things for us rather than we do things for people? If we are happy serving, how many of us do it to gain a sense of self-worth or personal satisfaction? What is significant about Jesus’ example is that he does it purely for the sake of others and not for himself. What was important to Jesus as he washed his disciples’ feet, was that his disciples benefited from his actions, not himself. Jesus’ love is all about the other, done out of faith in the love of the Father.

As we live under the COVID-19 restrictions, we still have countless opportunities to serve others in love the way Jesus showed us. It won’t be through programs or events or fund raising or any of the things we might usually associate with church. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it gives us a chance to really embrace the kind of love Jesus shows us. It probably won’t involve washing feet, either. Instead, it might look like cooking dinner when we normally wouldn’t. It might look like clearing the plates or doing the dishes when we’d usually expect someone else to do it. Loving in the way Jesus taught might mean taking out the rubbish, cleaning up after the pets, tidying up around the house or cleaning the bathroom without being asked, not arguing with a sibling or letting it go when someone does something to upset us. If we live on our own, it might mean contacting someone who is also on their own, offering a listening ear to someone who is struggling, or dropping some Easter eggs in to a neighbour. In countless ways every day we have countless opportunities to love each other in the way Jesus showed us in the little things we say and do that can make a difference to the lives of the people around us.

The day after he shared his last meal with his disciples, Jesus gave us the greatest display of God’s love for us by dying on the cross. I think it’s important to understand that Jesus didn’t point to his death as the example he wanted his followers to imitate. Jesus’ death on the cross was unique as the Son of God sacrificed everything out of love for us. As we trust in the perfect and infinite love he shows us by dying for us, though, Jesus wants us to follow his example and love others in ways that are similar to the way he washed his disciples’ feet. None of us can die for the sins of the world – that’s something only Jesus can do. But we can follow his example and show his love to the people closest to us every day of our lives in even the little things we do for each other.

More to think about & discuss:

  • When you read this story, what questions do you have about it?
  • What does washing the feet of his disciples say to you about Jesus?
  • What might you have been thinking if you were one of the disciples as Jesus was washing your feet?
  • What does this example tell you about the way that Jesus loves us?
  • What does this example tell you about the way Jesus wants us to love each other?
  • What are some practical ways you can do that tonight? Tomorrow? Into the future…?

Looking at the Heart (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

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My message for this Sunday changed significantly since the start of the week. I was going to look at 1 Samuel 16:1-13, exploring the differences between outward appearances and what lies at the heart, the external and internal, in regards to people and what we focus on.

Then things started changing with growing concerns around the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Australia, and in particular the ban on indoor gatherings of 100 people or more.

Many congregations that I’m aware of are cancelling most or even all forms of ministry that involve personal contact, including regular worship, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the need to be careful and responsible in our contact with each other to minimize the spread of the virus as an act of love. What is sitting rather uncomfortably with me, though, is the way ‘doing church online’ seems to have become the Christian church’s default option without exploring other ways of connecting together as sisters and brothers in the faith.

If there’s one thing we need right now as we face the threat of the virus is to be building each other up in faith and love so that fear and isolation don’t overwhelm us.

That’s where I start to hear the story of Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaking into our circumstances. I believe that we have had a superficial perspective of church for far too long. In the culture of my particular church organization, our understanding of church has revolved largely around attendance at Sunday worship, being a member of a congregation and maybe being involved in some committees, rosters or activities in the congregation. When I listen to what Samuel says in v7, I can’t help but view these activities as the outward appearance or function of church.

What God looks at, of course, is at the heart. This includes the heart of what it means to be church.

There are lots of ways people define what it means to be ‘church’ and there is usually something good we can find in most of them. My favourite definition is one that Martin Luther wrote about five hundred years ago, that the church consists of ‘holy believers … who hear the voice of their Shepherd’ whose ‘holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith’ (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 13). The way I read this is that whenever God’s people gather around his Word in faith, that is the church.

This sits well with what is written in Hebrews 10:23-25 which says,

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (NLT)

If there’s one thing our world needs right now to combat and overcome the fear people are experiencing about the COVID-19 virus, it is hope. As the people of God who trust in the life-giving promises of Jesus, we have hope to offer all who need it. The challenge I face pastorally is how to help the people of our church grow in the hope which comes through faith so we can be people of hope, bringing hope to people who have none. Part of God’s solution, according to Hebrews 10:23-25, is to keep meeting together.

Exactly how we are going to do that in these days of limits and requirements of how many and where we can meet will a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We can meet together around God’s word in faith in family groups, in a few families getting together, in our regular small groups, with a friend or two, or in larger worshiping groups, and so on. Maybe we need to be offering more services which cater for groups of smaller numbers of people meeting together in worship at different times, not only on Sundays but even during the week. How we will do this belongs to the ‘outward appearance’ or the externals that Samuel talks about. Why we gather together, to encourage and build each other so our hearts are full of faith, hope and love, becomes the more important question.

We can look for ways of gathering together in the freedom the gospel gives. It’s significant that when Samuel met David, he saw that David ‘was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes’ (v12 NLT). God didn’t accept him because he was good-looking, but he didn’t reject him for being attractive either. God was interested in David’s heart and that he trusted in God. Likewise, in our current situation, how we meet together really is an external thing. Why we meet together – to hold on to the hope Jesus gives us, to motivate each other to love and good works, and to encourage each other in difficult times – this is the heart of what it means to be church and what is really vital.

My plan at the time of writing is to ask our congregation who will worship on Sunday how we might be able to gather together in the future. We need to accept that different people will be looking for different ways to connect together around God’s word in faith, according to their circumstances, and to give people the freedom and the opportunities to do that. God is looking beyond the externals to see our hearts, and wants to fill them with faith, hope and love through his Holy Spirit. We will find these as we gather as his church around his Word in faith. Then we will have real hope to bring to the world.

If you have any thoughts about how we can be helping you to gather around God’s word while we watch and wait for further developments as the virus takes its course, please let me know. I really see this as an opportunity to get past what can often be superficial, external appearances of church to really get to the heart of what it means to be the people of God in the world, living with hearts full of faith, hope and love, to bring God’s blessings to everyone we meet.

More to think about & discuss:

  • In what ways do you see people focussing more on the outward appearance than what lies at the heart, or, in other words, on what something looks like instead of what it really is?
  • In what ways might we do that as church?
  • Why do you think God is more interested in what’s at the heart instead of the outward appearance?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on other people’s hearts than on how they look or what they do?
  • How might your life be different if you focussed more on your heart trusting God than on what people see?
  • How can our congregation help you through this time to:
    • gather with others around God’s word?
    • hold on to the hope we have in Jesus?
    • motivate one another to love and good works?
    • encourage one another to trust in Jesus?

Loved Sinners (Romans 5:1-11)

Romans 5v8 God's love 02

How do you show someone that you love them?

There are probably more ways to show people that we love them than I can count. Some of these ways might be romantic gestures such as giving flowers, a card, chocolates or jewellery. We can show love to the people around us in very ordinary ways such as taking out the rubbish, doing the dishes after a meal, or cleaning the toilet. We can also show love in a deep commitment to other people, sticking with them in difficult times and supporting them when they really need it.

However you might show love to others, can you imagine showing that same kind of love to someone who doesn’t deserve it or who has hurt you in some way? It can be hard enough loving people you get along with, but have you ever tried loving someone who has wronged you, or has wounded you, or doesn’t deserve your love for any reason.

If we can imagine how difficult it would be to love someone who has wronged or hurt us, then we begin to get a glimpse of what Paul was thinking when he wrote Romans 5:6-8. It can be easy for us to talk about how God loves all people. However, Paul doesn’t just settle for a nice platitude when he talks to the early Christians in Rome about the love of God that he encountered in Jesus. Paul’s message was that God doesn’t love people because we do good, or we are nice, or even if we are in church on Sunday. Paul sees the love of God as so great because God loves people who are hard to love, who don’t deserve to be loved, but who need his love.

God showed how massive his love is in the death of Jesus for all of us who have wronged God.

No matter how nice or good we think we might be, we all do wrong. Jesus left us with just one command: to love (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34). We have all failed to love God and love other people in the way God wants us to. Our natural tendency is to think more about ourselves than God or others. We prioritise ourselves and our wants more than the needs of the people around us. We all have the desire to be at the centre of our own little universe, expecting others and even God to revolve around us. Humanism likes to tell us how good we are, but in the end we all carry flaws, failures and the brokenness that comes with being human.

I don’t say this to make people feel bad about ourselves. Instead, in order to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love for us in Jesus, we need to recognize and acknowledge our limitations and our inability to love in the way Jesus taught us. Loving someone who is easy to love is no big deal. However, loving someone who is difficult to love, who doesn’t deserve it, or who has done wrong, is something very special.

I don’t believe that Paul wrote Romans 5:6-8 to make his readers feel bad about themselves either. Paul knew what it was like to do wrong. What changed his life, however, was the love of a gracious God who knew Paul’s wrongs but still loved him. Paul found that love in the cross of Jesus. His words in Romans 5 are focused on pointing people to that same love so we can know and trust in Jesus’ life-changing love. I understand that we can see evidence of God’s love in nature, in the trees and sunshine and rainbows, and in the nice or beautiful things of this world. Nature has a dark side, however, so we need to also recognise that it is hard to see God’s love in storms, earthquakes, pandemics and other natural disasters. Paul points us to the way that God showed us his love by giving the most precious thing he had for us – the life of his own Son.

We can also see God’s love most clearly in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just give us flowers or chocolate or jewellery to show us he loves us. Jesus doesn’t just take out our rubbish, wash our dishes or clean our toilets, although he does wash feet (see John 13:1-5). The way Jesus shows his love for us is by giving us his all. In dying for us in the cross Jesus gave everything he has for us and to us. Jesus held nothing back when he went to the cross and sacrificed everything out of love for us so that we can know what it is like to receive infinite and perfect love. Jesus knows all our flaws and failures, all our weaknesses and brokenness, and he still gives his all for us and to us because that’s how epic and crazy his love is for us.

Knowing and trusting in the love of Jesus can make a big difference in our lives. I learned that in my teenage years when discovering the love of Jesus gave me a new sense of who I am and what I’m worth. Decades later, I’m still working out how this love is shaping me and my relationships. That’s what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus – to be continually learning how Gods’ love for us in Jesus can shape our identity and our relationships, our belonging and our purpose. I’ve also seen how the love of God in Jesus can make a huge difference in other people’s lives. When the Holy Spirit pours the miracle of God’s love into us, it can give us a whole new perspective on who we are, where we fit and what we’re here for. For example, as Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, knowing and trusting this love can produce endurance in us when we are suffering, character from endurance, and hope from this character which does not disappoint us. All this is from God’s love for us in Jesus which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts through the good news of Jesus.

How do you show someone that you love them? Would you be able to do that for someone who has wronged you? If your answer is no, don’t feel bad – that’s our shared human condition. But it also shows us something about God’s love. God loves us in a way that we can’t. But when we know and trust his love for us in Jesus, the love that gives everything to the people who deserve it the least but need it the most, then we can live in the reality of a love that can change our lives. Then, by God’s grace, this same love which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts can and will overflow from us into the lives of the people around us (see John 4:13-14).

Christmas 2019

advent conspiracy ending slide

For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our congregation prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus by participating in the Advent Conspiracy. You can find more information on the Advent Conspiracy in previous messages but its basic purpose is to help us find greater meaning in Christmas by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

As our church gathered in worship on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the times I had been to our local shopping centre over the last few weeks. A couple of kilometres from us is Tea Tree Plaza, the biggest shopping centre in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide. It is one of the most popular places in Adelaide for people to shop so there is always a pretty strong flow of people through it. This flow turns into a torrent around Christmas as people flock to it to do their Christmas shopping.

During a couple of my visits to the Plaza before Christmas, I saw people who were wearing very Christmassy t-shirts with words like ‘Peace’ and ‘Joy’ on them. However, when I looked at their faces, they didn’t seem to be displaying a lot of peace or joy. Instead they looked worried, concerned, stressed, and frantic.

I find it ironic and, to a larger extent, tragic that the season which is supposed to be about peace and joy ends up producing exactly the opposite.

What if Christmas didn’t have to be that way? What if the things that we identify with Christmas such as peace, joy, hope and love didn’t have to be merely slogans on the clothes we wear or cards we purchase, but could be the realities in which we live and which we give to the people around us?

Instead of just talking about peace, joy, hope and love, the goal of the Advent Conspiracy is to help us find greater peace, joy, love and hope by bringing us back to what Christmas was originally all about. At Christmas we journey to the manger in faith to witness how God has entered into our existence, taken all our worries, anxieties, failures and brokenness on himself in order to free us from them, and given us life in all of its fullness. The celebration of Christmas was never intended to burden us with stress, worry and anxiety. Jesus came into the world to free us from those things and give us greater peace, joy, hope and love.

The four themes of the Advent Conspiracy are to help us on our way of finding these gifts at Christmas. When we worship fully, we keep Jesus at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, remembering that he came into the world to bless us with a deeper and longer-lasting peace, joy, hope and love. We can spend less money, freeing us from the burden of unmanageable debt, to help people who have less than we do, from our own neighbours to others around the world. We can give more of ourselves, celebrating our relationships with each other and building stronger connections with people who are closest to us or that we have a hard time relating to. And we can love all, being as inclusive with our love as God is by including us in his love through Jesus.

This isn’t just something that we can be part of at Christmas. On Christmas Day I continued with the Advent Conspiracy theme by pointing out that the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation wasn’t just a one-off event. The way I hear some people talk about Christmas, it seems like they celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a land far, far away – but that’s it. I’ve been surprised this year by the number of people I’ve heard refer to Jesus’ birth as just an historical event, almost like it was confined to a moment in the past.

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the infinite God took on human form by becoming a flesh-and-blood person, is something that is a continuing reality for us. The mystery and the miracle of the Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, is that since the birth of Jesus God has been immediately and intimately involved in human history as a real person. Something changed in the universe when Jesus was born and God began to experience what it is like for us to be born, live and die.

In a way, we can think of every day as Christmas. We focus on God becoming human in the infant Jesus at Christmas, but we share in the blessings he brings us every day of our lives. Imagine what it would be like to enjoy the best things of Christmas each and every day of the year. When we were talking about this in our service on Christmas Day, some were worried that if we have all the things that make Christmas special every day, such as decorations, food, carols and gifts, then they would become ordinary and stop being special. But what if we could wake up every morning with all the best things about Christmas there for us to enjoy, and they would never stop being special? How good would that be?

The Advent Conspiracy was never meant to be just a Christmas thing. It is there to help us re-orient our worldview at Christmas so we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All for the other forty-eight weeks of the year as well. As we look for Jesus and the mystery of ‘God with us’ during the whole year, we can find deeper and lasting peace, joy, hope and love all year round. These aren’t just nice ideas for a particular time of year, but gifts that we can carry with us and draw on throughout the year, especially when we or others around us need them the most.

God is with us in Jesus through his Spirit for the entire year. God didn’t just take on human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God continues to take on our human existence, becoming flesh and blood as he is born in us, just as Jesus was born in the manger. Jesus comes alive in our hearts as we hear the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection for us. The same Holy Spirit who created the life of Jesus within Mary creates his new life in us through the faith the Spirit gives us. When we gather together as God’s people to celebrate the meal that Jesus gave us, he is there, giving us his incarnate self through the bread and wine to live in us, to unite us in relationship with our loving heavenly Father, and to join us with other believers as his living, breathing body in the world.

God’s gift of his Son to us wasn’t just an event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God gifts his Son to us through the Holy Spirit every time we read or hear his Word, the good news of Jesus, and as we receive the meal Jesus provided for his followers. That means that every day is Christmas as God becomes one with us and gifts us with his life-giving presence.

As we came to the end of the Advent Conspiracy for this year, we gathered in worship to hear the story of Jesus birth and to live in the faith that God who embraced human existence is still embracing us and our humanity. Because of this good news, we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All as we live in the peace, joy hope and love that Jesus gifts to us every day of the year.

God’s Nearby Word (Deuteronomy 30:9-14)

Old fashioned vintage book on wooden background

In last week’s message, I left our church with a couple of questions:

  • In what area of your life would you like to know more of God’s peace?
  • With whom can you share God’s peace this week?

I wonder how they went answering or even thinking about these questions. Were they able to identify areas of their lives where they hoped for a greater sense of God’s peace? Were they able to share the peace of God which passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7) with someone they know who needs it?

A couple of people during the week asked me where they can find the kind of peace that we were talking about. It’s a fair question. Sometimes it can be hard to find peace in the middle of the chaos, craziness and confusion of life with all of its stresses, worries and anxieties. Where do we go to find God’s peace?

It’s a question that can be asked of all the fruits God promises to produce in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Where do we find the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that God promises his Spirit will produce in our lives (Galatians 5:22,23)?

There are lots of courses, seminars, workshops and practices that people offer to help us find this kinds of life. For a lot of people, they can seem out of reach and impossible to find, so we can settle for lives that are a long way from what we hope they could be, and from what God promises they can be.

In Deuteronomy 30:9-14, however, God promises us a better life. Moses was addressing the nation of Israel at the end of their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, just before they were about to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses gave the Israelites a choice between ‘life and death, between blessings and curses’ (Deuteronomy 30:19 NLT). Either their future would be a good one, full of the life that God had promised them, or it would be pain and struggle. Moses urged the Israelites to ‘choose life’ so that they and their descendants might live.

Many of us who grew up in the 1980s might remember the t-shirts that were in fashion for a while that featured the slogan ‘Choose Life!’ I wasn’t a fan of the band that made them popular, but it struck me then, as it does now, that our world is looking for the very thing that Moses was promising the Israelites – life! Jesus promised the same thing when he told his followers that he came to give them ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10 NLT). The New Testament talks a lot about what this life looks like, but I’m going to take as my starting point what Paul says about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 – that the life Moses and Jesus promise us is immersed in and overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the life God promises us and wants to give us through his Spirit, not just for our benefit but so others can find life in God’s grace through us as well.

What Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that this life isn’t hard for us to understand and it’s not beyond our reach. It isn’t up in heaven so someone has to get it to bring it down to us, and it isn’t across the oceans so someone has to go to find it. Instead, Moses tells us that we can find the life God promises us in his message to us, in the Word of God, which is very close at hand. In fact, the message contained in God’s Word is already on our lips and in our hearts so we can follow it and find life in it.

We can find the life God has for us in the message of the Bible. We have a tendency to want to over-complicate the Bible’s message, but it is actually very simple. For example, we hear it when an expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the two-sided command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. John gives us his version of the way to life when Jesus gives his followers a new command, to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). Paul’s version of the way to life can be summarised by what he wrote to the Galatians, that the only thing that counts for those who are in Christ Jesus is faith in a loving a grace-filled God which shows itself in love for others (Galatians 5:6). All of these passages are saying basically the same thing – that the path to life as God intends is by loving the God who loves us enough to sacrifice everything for us, trusting in his perfect and infinite love, and then loving other people in the same way in the freedom that faith brings.

It isn’t a complicated message. It’s something we can call understand. It’s right here, in the words of Scripture, on our lips and in our hearts, so we can obey it by trusting Jesus in all the circumstances of our lives and living like what it promises is true.

This is the way to find real peace in our lives, in our relationships, and in our communities. This is the way to find the life that Jesus died and is risen again to give us. The message of Scripture is the way the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of God’s love for us so we can be growing in his love and producing the fruit of faith in our lives. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, God gives us a choice. As people he has adopted and set free, God asks us to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. The way to life to the full which Jesus came to give us can be found by following in the way of faith and love that he teaches. We find this way through the words of the Bible – hearing them explained in worship, discussing them with others in small groups, and listening to God on our own.

So where do we go from here? Do we continue to live our lives as they are, without the hope of anything getting better? Or do we open our Bibles together, listen to what God has to say to us, learn to live in the way of faith and love from Jesus, and find the life God intends for us…?

Living Free (Galatians 5:1,13-25)

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I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that every aspect of our lives has rules. We might call them different names, or try to present them in various ways, but in one way or another every part of our lives carry expectations or requirements for what we should or should not do.

I can understand, then, why people see Christianity the same way. It is our natural human tendency to want to know what we can get away with, what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, and then either conform or rebel against them. The main way people from outside the church perceive the Christian message is that if you’re a good person you’ll go to heaven when you die, but if you’re a bad person you’ll go to hell. It’s tragic that I’ve met people inside the church who think something similar: if you keep the rules you’ll go to heaven, but if you break the rules you’ll go to hell.

The beauty and the scandal of the Christian message is that the rules don’t determine our relationship with God or our place in God’s kingdom. If they did, we’d all be in deep trouble because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do (Romans 3:23). Instead, God brings about a new way of living in relationship with him as members of his Kingdom through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). God loves us and accepts us because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, not because we keep the rules.

What that means is that God can’t love us any more if we keep the rules, and he won’t love us any less if we break the rules!

This faith gives us freedom. This is Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian church. There were people there who were making the Christian message and membership in the Kingdom of God conditional on whether or not people kept the rules, in particular the Old Testament rule about circumcision. Paul’s main idea in Galatians is that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Living as a Christian is not about keeping or breaking the rules. The only thing that counts is trusting that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us a new relationship with God as his children and living out that faith in Christ-like love for other people.

The big danger of this message is that we like using our freedom for our own benefit. Paul recognises this so he writes, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love’ (v13 NLT). When we use our freedom for our own gain or in selfish ways, we forfeit our freedom because we become slaves to sin again instead of living as God’s free people. The way to exercise our freedom is to use it to trust in Jesus’ love for us and love others in the way that Jesus has loved us.

That is why it is so important to be recognizing the love of Jesus in our lives and remaining in Jesus’ love (see John 15:4). As we grow in his love for us, the Holy Spirit equips us to love others in the same way. We won’t need rules to tell us how to love others because love will flow freely and naturally. Love isn’t something that you can command. It flows from the experience of being loved. As we learn the way of Jesus’ love, the Holy Spirit will guide us in this love so we can extend this love to other people.

That’s why Paul tells us to ‘let the Holy Spirit guide our lives’ (v16a), to be ‘directed by the Spirit’ (v18) and to be ‘living by the Spirit’ as we ‘follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’ (v25). Living in faith and love doesn’t come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is to trust ourselves more than to trust in Jesus. We tend to want what suits us instead of loving others. So we need the Spirit’s guidance and leading in our lives so we can trust Jesus and love others in every aspect of our lives.

This is different to looking for the Holy Spirit to tell us what to do in life. If being guided by the Spirit means looking for God to tell us to do one thing or not do another, this can easily become another set of rules to live by. The freedom Paul talks about isn’t looking for the Holy Spirit to tells us what to do. It’s looking for the Spirit’s guidance in living in faith and love in all of our life’s circumstances.

As a parent, I am always telling my young children what to do or not do. However, I don’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do for the rest of their lives. As they grow and mature, I hope that they will do what is right and good on their own because they love me and they what to do what is right and good. This is living in freedom – not doing good because they have to or because I tell them to, but just because they can. Living in the freedom that Jesus gives is the same. I hear Paul saying that our loving heavenly Father wants to free us from having to be told what to do. God wants us to trust him and his love for us in Jesus so we live in love for others. This is what we call becoming mature followers of Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus promising to send us the Spirit of truth to guide us into truth. One way we can understand God’s truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us is that God wants us to live as his free, mature children. This freedom and maturity don’t mean living by a set of rules or being told what to do. The freedom Jesus wants us to live in is faith and love – trusting that his life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves, and loving other people in the same way Jesus loves us.

Keeping the rules won’t make God love you any more. Breaking the rules can’t make God love you any less. All that matters now is trusting that good news, and expressing that faith in Christ-like love for others.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘freedom’? What does it look like in your life?
  • From what you know of the Christian message, do you think of it more about following rules or living in freedom? Can you explain why?
  • what do you think Paul means when he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV)? What do you think the ‘freedom’ is that he is talking about?
  • How is the ‘freedom’ Paul writes about similar or different to how you usually think about freedom?
  • What is your reaction to the statement that ‘Keeping the rules can’t make God love you any more and breaking the rules won’t make God love you any less’? Would you agree or disagree with it? Explain why…
  • How is living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6b) different from living by a set of rules? Which way would you prefer to live? Why?
  • How might your life look different if your starting point in any decision was to ask  the Holy Spirit to lead you in the way of faith and love by trusting Jesus and loving others? How might your relationships be different? How might your church be different?

Dynamic Faith (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

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The Apostle Luke gives us two versions of the story of Jesus’ ascension. One thing Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 have in common is that both of them have Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus because he returned to the presence of his Father in order to be with his followers around the world and throughout time, and to give us power through his Spirit.

We can understand the word ‘power’ in a few different ways. Coming from Adelaide, a lot of people immediately think of one of our local Australian Football League teams, Port Adelaide Power. When many people of my generation and younger hear the word ‘power’ we often think of governments or other authority figures who use their ‘power’ for their own benefit or to control others. However, when the Bible talks about ‘power’ it means something different.

The New Testament word for ‘power’ is the same word from which we get our English words ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamite’. It means strength or an active force which makes things happen. When Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, he was telling them that he would send them his Spirit to give them the ability or strength they would need in order to do the work he was sending them to do.

There is a lot we could discuss about the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, but right now I want to focus on the task Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension. In both Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit was to give them what they needed to witness to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.

It is significant that Paul also uses the word for ‘power’ when he talks about what the gospel of Jesus can do in a person’s life. In Romans 1:16 he writes that the good news of Jesus is ‘the power of God at work’ (NLT). In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that the message of the cross is ‘the very power of God’ (NLT) for all who are being saved. These passages tell us that the Holy Spirit uses the good news of Jesus to work the power of God in us so we can be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.

The idea of witnessing to Jesus can be scary for a lot of Christians for a range of reasons. There have been a lot of programs and campaigns developed to try to help churches be more effective in our witnessing. I’m wondering, though, based on what Jesus says in the ascension stories, whether being his witnesses might be a lot simpler that we might think it is.

If the gospel is the way God gives us the Holy Spirit’s power, then it seems to me that living in the good news of Jesus would give us Holy Spirit power to witness to what Jesus has done for us. For example, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel that we will bring the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to receive this forgiveness through faith, then the Spirit would also give us the power to forgive others in the same way. Witnessing to Jesus, then, means forgiving people who have wronged us in the Holy Spirit’s power just like God has forgiven us.

We can witness to Jesus in other ways, too. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to believe that God loves us for Jesus’s sake, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to love others in the way Jesus teaches. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s grace for us in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to extend that same grace to others. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to accept others in the same way. I could go on and on, going through each of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or Paul’s definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a) to show how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s goodness and the power to display his goodness in our lives and in our relationships.

The ways in which we live our lives and treat other people are much more authentic and effective ways to witness to Jesus than preaching on a street corner or knocking on doors. There will be times when we will be asked to explain why we live in ways that are different to other people (see 1 Peter 3:15) but even then Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say (see Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). We really don’t need to stress about being Jesus’ witnesses because the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need in whatever opportunities God might give to us.

I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by the possibility of witnessing to others to start with the gospel. Where do we need God’s grace in our lives? Are we looking for forgiveness or healing? Are we lacking love, acceptance, hope or something else in our lives? When we find what we need in Jesus, in his suffering and death for us, or in his resurrection from the dead, God encounters us through the gospel, giving us his Holy Spirit and the power we need to witness to Jesus, not as a theological idea but as our lived reality.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about the power of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, but that’s for other times. As we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, it is good for us to remember that we are witnesses to his grace and love in the world. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to both believe in his grace and to live out his grace in all our relationships.

That can be a powerful witness.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘power’? Does it usually mean something good for you or not? Explain why…
  • What comes to mind when you hear people talk about the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’? In what ways have people told you the Holy Spirit’s power is shown?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to witness to Jesus? Why is that?
  • What do you think about the idea that the way we live our lives can be a powerful witness to Jesus? Would you agree or disagree? Explain why…
  • Believing in the gospel does not come naturally for people, but we need the Holy Spirit’s power to believe. Would you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your thoughts.
  • Sometimes the most effective witness to Jesus we can give is how we treat people and by forgiving, loving, accepting and showing grace to them just like Jesus does to us. Do you agree that we need the Holy Spirit’s power to do that? Explain why…
  • To whom can you witness to Jesus by forgiving, loving, accepting or showing grace in some form to this week? Don’t forget to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power if/when it gets difficult…