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?
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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)

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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?

Son of David (Matthew 21:1-11)

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Over the season of Lent, people from our congregation have been reading through the gospel of Matthew and listening to what Jesus teaches us about discipleship. From the very beginning of book, we saw that Matthew points us to Jesus as King David’s descendant who was promised in the Old Testament to reign over God’s people and establish his eternal kingdom.

This theme began in chapter one when Matthew used Jesus’ family history to show Jesus’ connection with David and the royal house of Judah. When we come to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in today’s reading, then, we see the crowds welcome Jesus in the hopeful expectation that he really is the king they have been waiting for, and that he will establish the kingdom of God on earth.

As we have read through Matthew’s gospel, I’ve been thinking about how the two themes of discipleship and the kingdom of God fit together. It seems to me that…

Discipleship is … living with Jesus as our king.

We can often think of kings as being tyrants who are removed from the everyday life of their subjects and who only use their power for their own self-interest. Especially in Australia, we tend to have a strongly anti-authoritarian views of those in positions of power, and so we can be suspicious and cynical of anyone who claims to be a king.

Jesus is a totally different kind of king. It is important to hear the crowds in Jerusalem welcome Jesus as the descendant of David, who was to rule in the same way that David ruled. When we read the stories of David’s reign in 2 Samuel, we see a king who made mistakes and who didn’t always use his power wisely. However, David was thought of as being the greatest king of Israel because he was a king who looked after God’s people like a shepherd looks after the sheep entrusted to him.

This is the kind of king Jesus is. He uses his authority and power for the benefit of those in his care, not for his own personal gain. Like a shepherd, he provides for his people, protects his people from harm and danger, leads his people to green pastures and good waters, and takes care of them in all their needs. When we read through the great shepherd psalm composed by David, Psalm 23, we have a great picture of what our shepherd-king does for us as he provides us with everything we need for this life and the next.

That was why the crowds in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus with the cry ‘Hosanna!’ (v9) which literally means ‘Save us!’ They were hoping that the shepherd-king would save them from their enemies and bring in a new era of peace for God’s people. As a people who were occupied by a foreign and often brutal empire, they looked to Jesus as the promised deliverer who would free them from their oppression.

This is what our shepherd-king does for us. Jesus brings us saving help, not just for the life to come, but also in all the circumstances of life in this world. Matthew points to Jesus as the king who is with us in every situation of life (see Matthew 1:23 & 28:20b) to give us the help we need. We can find freedom from fear, guilt, shame and worry through faith in Jesus the shepherd-king who has all authority in heaven and earth (28:18) and who uses his authority to forgive, heal, make clean and bless. All the way through the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is bringing life to people as their shepherd—king as he gives his saving help to everyone who needs it.

To live as Jesus’ disciple and a member of his kingdom is to look to him and trust in him as the one who brings God’s saving help to us, whatever we might need. We can be critical of the people of Jerusalem who were welcoming Jesus as their king on that first Palm Sunday, but who then called out for his crucifixion only five days later. We are not that different if we turn up to worship, or even in our own private worship, sing Jesus’ praises as our king, but then fail to look to him as the source of our saving help in other aspects of our lives. It is too easy for us to look to ourselves, other people or other places for the help we need instead of to Jesus. To live with Jesus as our king is to live each moment of each day, looking to him, our shepherd-king, as he brings us saving help in all the circumstances of life.

As we journey through Holy Week towards the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, we witness what our shepherd-king was willing and able to do for us to provide us with the freedom and saving help that we need. Jesus isn’t a king who sits on a throne in a castle and sends others to fight his battles for him. Jesus is a king who enters into our battles, who embraces our suffering, to take on the enemies we face that would rob us of the life God wants to give us, and who triumphs over them on the cross and in the empty tomb. As we celebrate the events of Easter, we see what our shepherd-king did for us in defeating sin, death and the devil’s power, and the victory he gives to us as his disciples and citizens of his kingdom.

With Jesus as our king, his victory is ours, every day of our lives.

More to think about:

  • What comes to your mind when you think about a ‘king’? Do you usually think of kings in positive or negative ways?
  • When the crowds in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday welcomed Jesus as their king, what do you think they were hoping for?
  • Why do you think public opinion towards Jesus changed so dramatically between this event on Sunday and his crucifixion on Friday? What changed their minds?
  • What do you think of the image of Jesus as a shepherd-king who has saving help for us in all the circumstances of our lives? In what areas of life do you need help right now? How might Jesus be able to help you as your shepherd-king?
  • If you were to live everyday with Jesus as your king, would it make a difference? In what ways? or Why not?

Discipleship is Believing (John 11:1-45)

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I wonder what Jesus’ disciples were thinking as they stood with him outside Lazarus’s tomb and heard him call the dead man to come out.

As they followed Jesus through John’s gospel, his disciples had seen him do some amazing things. He had turned water into wine (2:1-12), heal the son of a government official (4:43-54) and a man who could not walk (5:1-15), feed 5,000 men plus women and children (6:1-13), walk on water (6:16-21), and give sight to a man who had been born blind (9:1-41). However, raising a man who had been dead for at least four days was different. In the moments that followed Jesus calling Lazarus out of his tomb, I wonder if they believed he could do it, or if some of them were thinking that this time Jesus had gone too far.

One theme that runs through this story, and in fact the whole gospel of John, is believing in Jesus (see 20:30,31). Early in the story, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe’ (v15 NLT). It sounds pretty harsh that a person had to die so that Jesus’ disciples could believe in him, but it also tells us something about the nature of Jesus’ work. He wasn’t just a great moral teacher. Jesus is in the business of raising dead people to new life.

We can Jesus’ words in the same way Martha understood them. When Jesus was talking to her about resurrection, she replied, ‘he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day’ (v24 NLT). However, Jesus seemed to have something else in mind when he answered her,

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.
Do you believe this, Martha?’ (vv25,26 NLT)

The Apostle Paul saw resurrection as more than what would happen at the end of time when Jesus will return. Paul understood resurrection as something real for believers in Jesus now. In Ephesians 2:5 he writes, ‘even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead’ (NLT). Paul shifts our focus from the disciples outside of Lazarus’ tomb to the dead man inside the tomb and points to his story becoming our story through faith in Jesus. Again, in Colossians 3:1, Paul writes,
‘Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honour at God’s right hand’ (NLT).

Paul is saying that, like Lazarus, we have been raised with Christ who calls us out of our tombs to live a new life as his disciples by believing in him.

We can understand this spiritually, in terms of sin and redemption, but this also makes an impact on how we live our lives here and now. When Lazarus lay in his tomb, he was alone, in the dark, and tied up in his grave-clothes. In one way or another, at different times in our lives I think we can probably identify with Lazarus. We may have known loneliness and isolation from others. Maybe we have felt like we have been trapped in the dark, with no light to shine on us or guide our way. It is possible that we have been tied up or bound in our lives by fear, guilt, shame, addiction, or something else that has robbed us of the life that Jesus came to give us (see John 10:10).

The good news of this story for us is that when we identify with Lazarus, Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs and into the light of new life with him. Believing isn’t just standing outside the tomb and trusting that Jesus can do what he says. Believing is hearing Jesus calling us our from our tombs, from our loneliness and isolation, our darkness, and the things that tie us up and bind us. Jesus calls us into a new relationship with our heavenly Father and into the community of believers who become our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus calls us into the light of his love and grace, given to us in his death and resurrection for us. Jesus calls us into the freedom that comes through faith in his forgiveness, acceptance, approval and peace. Jesus’ answer to Martha, and Paul’s emphasis that we have already been raised to new life, point us to the reality that the resurrection has already begun in Jesus, and we are a part of it by believing in Jesus.

All this helps us see that, even before we do anything as Jesus’ followers,

Discipleship is … believing that Jesus calls us into a new life with him.

As we stand with Jesus’ disciples in the time between hearing Jesus words to come out of the tomb and the final resurrection of the dead at the end of time, I wonder what we will think. Will we assume that Jesus has gone too far this time, and that he can’t really do what he says? Or will we hear him calling us out of our isolation into community, out of our darkness into the light of his love and grace, and out of what binds into his freedom? And in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, will be believe and follow him into the new life he has for us?

More to think about:

  • What would you have been thinking if you were standing with Jesus’ disciples hearing him call Lazarus to come out of his tomb? Would you be expecting Lazarus to come out? Explain why.
  • Do you think of resurrection as something that will only happen at the end of time when Jesus returns, or as something we participate in now? How do you understand Paul’s words about having been raised with Christ from Colossians 3:1?
  • In what ways might you be able to identify with Lazarus’ experience of loneliness/isolation, or darkness, or being tied up/bound?
  • In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9) the voice from heaven said to listen to Jesus (v5). What do you think of the idea that when Jesus told Lazarus to come out of his tomb, he also calls us out of our isolation, darkness and bonds to a new life in him?
  • By believing that Jesus calls you into a new life as his follower, how might your life be different?

Born Again (John 3:1-17)

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A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie called Fury about an American tank crew towards the end of the Second World War. At the start of the movie, one of their crew members had been killed and he was replaced by a recruit called Norman who was trained to be a clerk typist. As he was being introduced to the rest of the tank crew, one member, nicknamed ‘Bible’, asked him if he was born again. Norman looked a bit puzzled before answering that he grew up a Roman Catholic. So ‘Bible’ asked him again if he was born again.

It got me thinking – if someone asked me if I was ‘born again’, what would I say? If someone asked you if you were ‘born again’, what would you say?

The reason I ask is because the term ‘born again’ can be understood in a few different ways. For some, being ‘born again’ means having a particular conversion experience, displaying certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, or belonging to a specific branch of the Christian family. However, when we hear Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in this reading from John’s gospel, it sounds like his understanding of being ‘born again’ is broader than how we might understand it.

When each of our three children were born, it really hit me that life is a gift. None of us chose to be born, or worked for it, or made a commitment to be born. We talk about ‘giving birth’ because life is a gift that was given to us when we were born. In the same way, Jesus is saying here that the new life we have as God’s children is given to us by our heavenly Father. It comes from him as he begins a new relationship with us as his children.

This new birth is given to us through water and the Spirit of God (v5). We understand Jesus’ reference to water and the Spirit as pointing to baptism. This is where we believe God gives new life to us. We don’t make a distinction between water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit, but believe that in the gift of baptism, we are ‘born again’ as God’s children through water used with God’s Spirit in his word. That is why, in Galatians 3:26,27 Paul writes,

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (NLT)

Paul identifies here that in baptism we are made children of God and are ‘clothed’ in Christ’s righteousness and goodness. As baptised people, we have been born into a new relationship with our heavenly Father, given new identities as his people, and given a new life to live as God’s children.

Another thing that really struck me as I held each of our three children just after they were born was that they have a whole life to grow into. Birth is the start of something new, a journey that will take a lifetime and, by the grace of God, will continue after they leave this world and go on to the next. The new life we have as God’s ‘born again’ children is the same. Baptism is not just about a once-off event. Baptism is the start of something new that we grow into every day of our lives.

There are a lot of different ideas about what this life looks like, and what it means to live by the Spirit of God. Paul again gives us a good idea of what living by God’s Spirit looks like when he writes this in Galatians 5:22-25:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (NLT)

According to Paul, then, to live according to the Spirit of God as people who have been born again by water the Spirit, is to be growing in and displaying the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It means producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives and in our relationships with each other. To live the new lives God has given us as his born again children is to be growing in these qualities every day, moment by moment.

This is the journey of disciples of Jesus who have been given this new life through water and God’s Spirit. As we continue to explore Discipleship, then, we can be thinking that

Discipleship is …
… following Jesus into the new life God gives us as his born-again children by the power of the Holy Spirit.

By following Jesus, we can learn how to live as God’s children who live by the Spirit and bring God’s goodness into the world.

If we think about being ‘born again’ as people who are given a new life to live as children of God, then being ‘born again’ is much broader than how some Christians understand it. Being ‘born again’ is about our identity as God’s children and growing into his gift of new life to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit. The life of a disciple, then, begins at our baptism where this new life is given, as Matthew says (28:19), and is a lifelong journey of growing into the life the Spirit gives us.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If someone asked you if you are ‘born again’ how would you answer that person?
  • What would your answer say about how you understand what it means to be ‘born again’?
  • List a few words that describe the life of Jesus. If we think of birth as the start of a new life, what does it mean to you that his life is now your life? (see Galatians 2:20)
  • When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of what it means to live as God’s child. How might keeping your eyes on Jesus and following him help you grow into the new life God has given you as his born-again child?
  • If you had the chance to start your life over, what would you do differently? As a born-again child of God we are able to start every day fresh. How will you live your life differently today?