Return of the Christ Pt 3: The Least of These (Matthew 25:31-46)

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The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the last of three parables Matthew 25 which end Jesus’ public teaching in the gospel. Like the previous two, it tells about the end of time when Jesus will return to the earth to complete his work of redemption. Also like the previous two parables, it sends a clear message that there are those who will enter into eternal life with God, and those who will not. However, there are still a couple of surprises in the parable that we can miss if we’re not paying close enough attention.

I am cautious about preaching on this parable because over the years I have heard people misuse and even abuse this story. I have heard this story used to tell me that I should be doing good things, such as giving money to a charity, participating in some sort of program or being part of an organised mission trip to another part of the world, to avoid being numbered with the goats at the end of time, and to ensure that I’ll be counted with the sheep.

I support a number of organisations that ask for our help to make people’s lives better. These groups are able to go places and do things that I can’t, and so I believe that God is clearly at work through them. However, if we think that this parable is just about giving money to professional organisations whose funding is linked to the amount of support they get from donors such as ourselves, then we have missed the point of Jesus’ words.

Ultimately, this parable is about people – people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, ill or imprisoned. We can hear Jesus’ description of people in need in a literal, physical sense, and meeting people’s physical needs is important for us to give a faithful witness to the love of God we encounter in Jesus. However, we can also hear Jesus’ description of people in need in spiritual or emotional ways. In an affluent culture such as our own, this can be where Jesus’ words hit much closer to home.

For example, there are people who were at worship on Sunday or who might be reading these words who are hungry for hope, thirsty for acceptance or a sense of self-worth, or who feel like they are strangers and need a community where they can belong. Others may be experiencing the shame that comes with having our deepest secrets or sins exposed to the world, or suffering from mental illness, or imprisoned in addiction, fear or guilt. It is easy and a lot more comfortable for us to identify the people Jesus is describing as suffering children overseas, and I don’t want to take away from our efforts to provide relief and care for them in their need. However, neither can we overlook the spiritually or emotionally hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, ill or imprisoned people with whom we go through life every day. It’s easy to donate money to a professional charity, but it’s a whole lot harder to invest our time, our energy, our love, or, as we heard last week, the grace and goodness of God which Christ gives to us, in the lives of the people who are closest to us.

That’s where we find the real surprise in this parable. All three parables from Matthew 25 are about the time between Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his promised return at the end of time. They assume an absent Jesus who has left us and will come back one day. In this parable, however, Jesus comes back ‘in his glory, and all the angels with him, (and) he will sit upon his glorious throne’ (v31 NLT) as the King to judge the entire world. Then he drops the biggest surprise for us all: he was with us all the time! The King was still present with us, but not as a glorious and powerful monarch. Instead, he was with us in those around us who are hungry or thirsty, in the stranger that crosses our path, in the naked, ill and imprisoned. The King walks among us, hiding among those who are in need physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To use the words of the King himself, he is among us in ‘the least of these’ (vv40,45 NLT).

This shifts the focus of the parable from the good works we are supposed to be doing to asking, ‘Where are we looking for the presence of God?’ There is a strong emphasis among some elements of popular Christianity to look for God in his heavenly glory and to want to be raised up to meet our King there in our worship. If we listen carefully to Jesus’ parable, however, it points us to the presence of Jesus in the time between his ascension and return in the least of those around us. The King is present with us in the people that often fly under the radar because we’re too busy looking up for God in his heavenly glory. Jesus is telling us to look around us, to see the people beside us who are in need of any kind, and to recognise the presence of God in them. When we find Jesus in those in need, in the least of these, that’s when we also find the God who reveals himself to us in a vulnerable baby in a manger, and a beaten, bleeding, naked man nailed to a cross. This is how God reveals himself to us, and who is still with us in ‘the least of these.’

So continue to give to charitable organisations who strive to make the lives of people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, ill or imprisoned. They are doing God’s work in the world. However, don’t forget that ‘the least of these’ also include the people right next to us who are emotionally or spiritually hungry, thirsty, alone, exposed, ill or trapped. Because the message I get from this story is that when Jesus returns, he won’t be asking how much money we gave to charitable organisations. He’ll be looking for how we treated him in ‘the least of these’ people around us.

More to think about:

  • When you read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:31-46, who do you usually think of when you hear him talk about the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned?
  • How might your understanding of this parable be different if we also include people who are spiritually hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill or imprisoned?
  • Do you tend to look for God in his heavenly glory, or in the person of Jesus who identifies with the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, ill and imprisoned? How can seeing Jesus in ‘the least of these’ change our understanding of God?
  • This parable can grow a sense of guilt in us because we can easily feel like we don’t do enough for enough people. That is when we can recognise our own spiritual hunger, thirst, loneliness, shame, illness or imprisonment. How can it be good news for us that Jesus identifies with us when we are in need? How does he feed us, give us something to drink, welcome us, clothe us, heal us and set us free through his promise of grace?
  • In the faith that Jesus identifies with us in our need, who is there in your life, one of the ‘least of these,’ who might be in need this week? How might you treat them differently if you saw Jesus in them?
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Return of the Christ Pt 2: Faithful (Matthew 25:14-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to think about:

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

Return of the Christ Part 1: Prepared (Matthew 25:1-13)

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Anyone who has gone shopping recently will know that Christmas is just around the corner. Christian churches which follow a liturgical calendar dedicate the four Sundays before Christmas preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a season called Advent. The readings for the Sundays leading up to Advent have a focus on Jesus’ promise to come back at the end of time to complete his work of redeeming the world. When Jesus returns, evil will be overcome once and for all and creation will be restored to the way God intended it in the beginning.

So for the next three weeks we are going to follow Jesus’ teachings about his return from Matthew 25. This chapter is part of a longer section of Matthew’s gospel which began in chapter 24 when his disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world. Jesus concluded his teaching with three parables: the ten bridesmaids or virgins, the three servants, and the final judgement between the sheep and the goats. Today we will begin by looking at Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

I remember thinking as a child that Jesus must have made a mistake in this parable. I was taught that it’s always good to share, so I figured that the bridesmaids who didn’t share their oil with those who didn’t bring any must not have been good Christians.

However, this parable isn’t about us sharing what we have with others. Instead, one way we can understand this parable is that it is about whether we think short-term or long-term about our salvation.

The five ‘foolish’ bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra oil were thinking short-term. They had received and accepted the invitation to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus here describes as an eternal wedding feast. However, these girls are like people going on a camping trip who don’t take spare batteries for their torches. You never know when your old batteries will run out, so normally you would take spares. These girls weren’t expecting to wait so long for the bridegroom, so when he eventually turned up to take them into the eternal wedding feast, they failed to greet him because they are busy looking for more oil. The end result was that they are locked out of the party.

On the other hand, the five wise girls who took extra oil with them were planning for the future. They were so joyful about being invited to the wedding feast that they would do anything to make sure they got in. They took extra oil with them just in case the bridegroom was late, so they wouldn’t miss out on the party. These girls wanted to be ready for his arrival, so they thought about the future, prepared for what might happen, and were ready when the bridegroom arrived.

One message that comes through in all three parables in this chapter is that not everyone makes it into the party. I know a lot of people who think that a loving and forgiving God would never exclude anyone from an eternity with him. The good news of Jesus tells us that everyone is welcome to be part of God’s Kingdom, but these parables, as well as other teachings of Jesus, tell us that not everyone makes it. Remember, all ten of these girls were invited to the wedding reception. The five who eventually made it into the feast were those who were prepared and ready when the bridegroom arrived. Those who weren’t ready for him missed out, not through the bridegroom’s fault, but because they weren’t prepared. The message Jesus is giving us is that everyone’s welcome, but if we’re not ready for him when he returns, then we are the ones who are responsible.

So how do we prepare for Jesus’ return? We start just be thinking beyond the here-and-now and getting ready for Jesus’ return now. It is easy for us to get caught up in everyday concerns, pressures and problems. However, in this parable we can hear Jesus telling us to lift our attention beyond the here-and-now and keep in mind that he will return one day.

In one way, that means working out our salvation now. We can get so focused on the here-and-now that our spiritual lives can slip. The busyness, pressures and demands of life can mean that we don’t prioritise spiritual disciplines like worshipping with our Christian family, listening to God in his word and talking with him in prayer. One way we prepare for the coming of Jesus is to remain constant in worship, in reading our Bibles, in prayer, and in meeting with other Christians. When we practice these disciples, the Holy Spirit keeps our spiritual tanks full so our lights can burn brightly in faith and in love.

The other way we can prepare for the return of Jesus is to view our lives now through the lens of what is to come. Life as we know it will not last forever, even thought it might seem like there is no way through the struggles, pains or difficulties that we experience in this world. In this parable Jesus is reminding us that we have something far, far better to look forward to: an eternal wedding reception with ‘the best of meats and the finest of wines’ (Isaiah 25:6 NIV) in perfect fellowship with God and his people. We prepare for Jesus’ return by living in the faith that this is our future, our eternal destiny. We will still have struggles, difficulties and suffering in this life, but when we see them from an eternal perspective, we can also find the hope and joy we need to get us through.

Are we living as wise or foolish people? Are we so concerned about the here-and-now that we forget about Jesus’ return and the blessings he will bring? Or are we looking ahead to when Jesus will come back and open the way for us to enter into the eternal wedding reception he promises? As we hear and reflect on these parables from Matthew 25, God wants to prepare us for what is to come, because when Jesus returns, he wants us to be part of what he will bring with him.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to be a person who plans for the future? Or do you tend to focus more on things that are happening in the short-term? What are some advantages of each perspective? What are some problems with each?
  • If you were one of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, do you think you would have taken extra oil with you or not? Explain why you might have done that?
  • Why do you think Jesus calls the girls who took extra oil ‘wise’? Why do you think he calls those who didn’t ‘foolish’? Would you agree with him? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might today look different to you if you looked at it from the point of view that one day Jesus will return? How could that help you find hope or joy for today?
  • What can you be doing now to help keep your spiritual ‘tank’ full of faith in Jesus & love for other people?

Generous Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

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The other day I was reading a book to our children. In the story, a grandpa and grandma were driving with their grandchildren in their car when they saw a stall on the side of the road selling ice-creams and balloons. The grandpa suggested to his grandchildren that they stop and buy an ice-cream because, he said, they deserved it.

At that point, the first time I read it, I actually paused for about a complete minute. I couldn’t help wondering, why did they deserved the ice-cream?

I know it’s only a children’s book, but it struck me that from a young age our culture is teaching us that we deserve good things, but for no particular reason. It is a message that we hear throughout the media and is a very effective marketing tool. If we are told that we deserve something good, which could include anything from a chocolate bar to an overseas holiday or new car, then we are more inclined to buy the product.

This way of thinking is a double-edged sword. If we convince ourselves that we deserve good things, then we also have to acknowledge that when we do wrong, or fail to do good, then we deserve bad things as well. We tend to focus on the good we think we deserve and ignore the bad, but the reality is that if we want to live according to what we deserve, then we need to accept the bad as well as the good. Just about every worldview, religion, philosophy or way of thinking that I have come across in my life is based on this idea that we should get what we deserve. In the end we are trapped between the good we like to think we deserve and the bad we deserve because of the wrong we do.

Jesus’ parable at the start of Matthew 20 offers us a different way to live. The person who was hired to work at the start of the day was upset because he felt like he deserved more than the workers who only worked for an hour. From a human perspective he has a valid point. If life is based on getting what you deserve, then the person who put in more hours of work deserves to get more than the person who worked less.

The scandal and the beauty of this parable, however, is that God’s Kingdom does not work from a human perspective. At the beginning of the story, the owner of the vineyard promises to pay the workers a ‘normal daily wage’ (v2 NLT). He then promises the other workers he hires during the day that he would ‘pay them whatever was right’ (v4 NLT). At the end of the day, he honoured his pledge by paying them what he promised, not what they deserved.

The key to the story is in verse 14 where the vineyard owner says, ‘I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you’ (NIV). I have used the NIV here because it is closer to the Greek text which uses the word ‘give’ rather than ‘pay’ (NLT). What the vineyard owner gives to the workers at the end of the day is not based on what the deserve, but on what the vineyard owner wants to give.

This is where we see the generosity of the God we meet in Jesus. God gives us what he wants to give us, not what we deserve. This is a God who takes pleasure in giving because it is God’s nature to give. We see this most clearly in the person of Jesus. As the Apostle John tells us, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3:16 NIV). Jesus himself is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s giving nature as God gives him to and for the world. We see God’s giving nature as Jesus gives his life for us on the cross, and then gives his resurrected life to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God also gives us forgiveness, love, mercy, joy, hope, and so much more. God gives us an identity as his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased for the sake of Jesus (Matthew 3:17). God gives us a place to belong as we are made members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and the family of believers (Galatians 3:26,27). God gives us a purpose as he calls us to be part of God’s mission to bring the good news of the Kingdom to the world (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46,47). God promises to give us every good thing we need for life in this world and the next, not because we deserve it, but because he is by nature a giving God.

This faith changes our perspective on everything. I was talking with someone last week who told me that she enjoys having a beer at the end of the day’s work because she feels like she deserves it. I offered a different way of thinking: that when we get to the end of the day we can give thanks to God for whatever beverage we might enjoy because it is his gift to us. It will be the same beverage, but one way of thinking gives me the credit, the other gives the glory to God.

So basically there are two ways we can live. If we live according to what we deserve, or what we think we deserve, we will have to acknowledge at some point that we also need to accept what we deserve for the wrong we do. However, this parable of Jesus offers us an alternative way to live. This is the way of grace, where God doesn’t treat us as we deserve. Instead he gives good things to us just because it is in his nature to give. The first is the way of works, the second is the way of faith.

From a human perspective it’s not fair, but that is what makes it so good…

More to think about:

  • Do you like the idea of getting what you deserve in life? Why / why not?
  • Do you agree that if we think we deserve good, then we also need to accept that we deserve bad for the wrong we do? Explain why you think that.
  • If you were one of the workers who was employed at the start of the day, how would you feel when you saw those who had worked only an hour being paid the same amount as you? How would you have felt if you were one of the workers hired at the end of the day?
  • What do you think of the idea that God doesn’t give you what you deserve, but what he promises? Explain what you like or don’t like about it.
  • At the end of the day, how would you prefer to live – according to what you deserve? or by what God promises to give you?

New & Old Treasures (Matthew 13:52)

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I’ve known people over the years who are always looking for something new. Whether it’s clothes, technology, music or motorcycles, but they pretty much live by the motto, ‘Out with the old; in with the new.’

There have also been people I’ve known who reject anything new and hang on to what’s old as much as they can. The old is familiar, safe and comfortable, so they don’t see any reason to change from the old ways they know and love.

If we think about a spectrum with a desire for the new at the one end and hanging on to the old at the other, where do you think Jesus would be?

I’ve heard people argue that Jesus was all about the new. He came to teach us a new way of relating to God and living as God’s people that was very different from the religious people of his time and place. Where the old ways were about the rule of law and threats of punishment, people like to point to Jesus teaching a new way of grace, love and peace. They can argue that the parables of Matthew 13 are an example of Jesus rejecting the old, law-based ways of religion, and initiating a new relational way of knowing God.

When we get to the end of this series of Jesus’ parable, though, we find that Jesus was not in favour of rejecting the old in pursuing the new, but neither was he ignoring the new in order to hang on to the old. Instead, in verse 52 we hear Jesus say that people who have been schooled in the old ways who are then discipled in Jesus’ new teachings about the Kingdom of God have both new and old treasures.

For Jesus, what’s important is not whether it is old or new. What’s important to Jesus is the treasure itself.

The treasure he is talking about is the Kingdom of God. Jesus has already described the Kingdom as a treasure that a person would sell everything they have to possess in verse 44. This Kingdom is so valuable to us because it gifts us with ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17 NIV). We receive this Kingdom through the presence of Jesus, because he brings the Kingdom to us through the gospel (see Matthew 4:17).

We can find this good news in the Old Testament when we read it through the lens of the gospel of Jesus, and so he doesn’t get rid of the old. Instead we can re-interpret the old ways in the light of Christ to find the ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ there as well. Ultimately, whether the ways are old or new, what matters is Jesus and the coming of his Kingdom through the gospel, because he is the one that gives us life and brings us into a new relationship with God as his children.

This is really important for us to hear as a congregation. We are currently talking about simplifying what we do around a strong discipling focus, as well as re-thinking our ministry to young people by working through the material contained in Growing Young. Some people might see these conversations as an opportunity to discard some of the ‘old ways’ of doing church to embrace new approaches or practices. Others might be afraid that we intend to discard the old ways, and so hang on to them more tightly.

It is critical that we hear what Jesus is saying: what’s important is not whether our treasure is old or new. What’s important is the treasure itself – Jesus and the coming of God’s Kingdom through the gospel.

This treasure is what will gift all people, both old and young, with the grace and love of God. This treasure is what will give us purpose and direction as we seek to communicate God’s goodness to our young and older people alike. This treasure is what will create faith, hope and love in people’s hearts and transform us into the people God is calling us to be. This treasure will grow us as Jesus’ disciples and equip us to participate in his mission in the world. This treasure – the good news of Jesus and the coming of his Kingdom – will give us everything we need for our future in this world and in the next.

Whether we prefer old or new ways of thinking or practice, what matters is the Treasure himself – Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he brings through the gospel. When we treasure him, we find the riches of God’s righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. As we grow with these riches in our life, God’s Treasure spills out from us into the lives of the people around us.

More to think about:

  • Generally, do you tend to prefer things that are new or old? Why is that?
  • What about in your church – do you prefer old traditions or new innovations? Can you explain why they are important to you?
  • Where do you imagine Jesus sitting in the spectrum between the old & new? Closer to one end or the other? In the middle? Can you explain why you think that way
  • What might be the ‘new’ treasures Jesus says the homeowner (NLT) in his parable brings out of the storeroom? What might the ‘new’ treasures might be?
  • If you were to focus on the ‘Treasure’ of Christ & the coming of his Kingdom in your congregation, instead of whether the ‘treasure’ is old or new, how might things be different?

‘Welcoming God’ (Matthew 10:40-42)

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

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

Stop and think about that for a moment…

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

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

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

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

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

Disciples Making Disciples (Matthew 28:16-20)

make disciples 01

For the last six months I’ve been talking a lot about discipleship. We have followed the journey of Jesus’ disciples as he called them to follow him, as he taught and equipped them, and as he led them to the cross and empty grave to witness his grace and life-giving love. Now, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples’ journey culminates with what is often known as Jesus’ Great Commission.

It’s important to realise that the emphasis in Jesus’ words is not on ‘Go’ as a lot of translations suggest. Instead, the main point of Jesus’ instruction is for his disciples to make disciples. He assumes that they will be ‘going’ as a natural part of their lives. Wherever they might be going, Jesus wants them to make disciples. He then explains that the two main elements in making disciples is by receiving people into Christian community through baptism, and then teaching them ‘to obey all the commands’ he has given us (v20).

We are generally pretty good at the baptising part of the Great Commission. However, I get a little uneasy whenever we use this text in our baptism order because I wonder how well we really do in teaching others to obey Jesus’ commands, especially when Jesus’ commands look like this:

  • Repent & turn to God (Matthew 4:17)
  • Love your enemies (5:44)
  • Don’t worry … seek the Kingdom of God above all else (6:25-34)
  • Come to me … & I will give you rest (11:28-30)
  • Turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me (16:24-27)
  • Love God with all your heart, soul & mind … love your neighbour (22:37-40)

How well do these teachings of Jesus reflect your experience of Christian community? Are we living according to Jesus’ teachings? Are we equipping each other to teach others to live in the same way?

Jesus doesn’t give us a set of rules to live by. Instead, he is leading us in a new way of living that leads to life to the full (John 10:10). This is the narrow gate and the difficult road that he describes in Matthew 7:14. It is the solid rock he talks about in Matthew 7:24-27 on which we can build our lives so that, when the storms come, we can remain secure and upright instead of our lives crashing down around us. Learning to live in the way of Jesus is about learning ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG) that give us rest and flow into the lives of others through us.

What might our congregation be like if we took Jesus’ instruction to make disciples seriously? What might it look like if all we did was focus on learning to live the way of Jesus teaches? What might it be like if everything we did was focused on learning to live the way Jesus teaches and to help others live in the same way? This is what lies at the heart of our conversation about becoming a Simple Church. This is the challenge I would like to continue to keep in front of us as we plan for the future God has for us. If the one instruction Jesus gave to his disciples before he left them in Matthew’s gospel, if the one thing he wants us to do, is to make disciples who live in the way Jesus teaches, how do that faithfully?

There are a number of short video clips on YouTube which explain what discipleship can look like in a congregation like ours. You can look at one of them by following this link.

There is a lot more to talk about as we think about how we faithfully follow Jesus’ instructions to disciple others in the way Jesus teaches. For now, it’s worth asking the question: are we willing to live in the way Jesus teaches as his disciples, even if it means giving up some of the ways we think about church? How can we help others learn ‘the unforced rhythm of grace’ so together we can find faith, hope and love as Jesus’ disciples?

The conversation will continue…

More to think about:

  • There’s a lot of talk about discipleship in the church at the moment. If someone who wasn’t a Christian asked you what it means to be a follower of Jesus, how would you explain it to them (in 25 words or less)?
  • When you have heard the Great Commission in the past, have you focused on the ‘go’ or the ‘make disciples’ part? How might focusing on the ‘making disciples’ rather than the ‘go’ change the way you apply Jesus’ instruction in your life?
  • How is the way you have understood Jesus’ teaching similar or different to the 6 examples I included above? What might your life be like if you lived in the way these 6 examples teach us?
  • Discuss why living Jesus’ way is important, especially when you read Matthew 7:13-14 and 24-27? What is Jesus’ promise to us when we live in the way he teaches?
  • How well have you been taught to live in the way Jesus’ teaches? How can we do a better job at helping you to live in the way Jesus’ teaches? How can we help you disciple others to live in the way of Jesus?