‘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.

An Out-Going Church (Acts 1:1-11)

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We all know what happens when you throw a stone into a body of water like a pond, lake or dam. When the stone enters the water (or when the water embraces the stone, depending on how Zen you want to be) it causes ripples to go out, starting from the point where the stone went into the water, and moving out towards the edges.

Ripples naturally move outwards, starting from the stone and moving out to the edges of the pond or lake.

When Jesus was talking to his disciples at the start of the book of Acts, he described what would happen after he had ascended into heaven. In the power of the Spirit, his followers were going to be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving outwards to the surrounding countryside of Judea, then to the neighbouring country of Samaria, and continuing outwards to the ends of the earth (v8b). What Jesus was describing can be understood as a ripple effect of the gospel as people took the good news of Jesus outward from where they were, and into the whole world.

Grace naturally moves outwards, starting from Jesus and moving out to the lives of people of all nations.

Grace always causes a ripple effect because the gospel is an outward-moving event. From the birth of Jesus, God was moving from where he was in heaven to be one with us in this world and the realities of human existence. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, this outward flow continued as Jesus gave healing, hope, life and forgiveness to the people he met. Jesus’s death was an outward flowing event as his blood literally flowed from his veins on the cross, and he gave all of himself to us and for us in his death. Jesus’ resurrection was an outward-moving event as he defeated darkness and death and brought new life and light into the world by walking out of the tomb. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus caused a big splash in human history, but the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost then put this outward movement into effect in the lives of the disciples. They were able to witness to what they had seen and heard as the Spirit of God led them out from Jerusalem in ever-widening ripples that extended to the entire world.

We are caught up in these outward-flowing ripples when we also become witnesses to the grace and goodness of God in the gospel. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness God’s perfect and infinite love for us. As Jesus leads us to the cross, we witness the new life he gives us, a life that is stronger than death. The outward movement of God’s grace begins in us as the Holy Spirit gives us faith in Jesus’ work of salvation for us. We get caught up in the outward movement of the ripples of God’s grace as we witness to the grace we have encountered in all we say and do. We don’t need to travel overseas to do this. Just as the disciples began by witnessing to their own city of Jerusalem, so our witness begins in our homes, our work places, our schools and universities, our sporting teams, or wherever God leads us in life.

At this point, I could tell you to get out there and witness. However, I get concerned that at times we know we should be better witnesses, but we aren’t sure what we should be witnessing to. Being a witness involves two key elements: first, witnesses need to encounter an event, and then they are able to give a witness to what we have encountered. Before we can give a witness to Jesus, we first need to witness his grace for ourselves.

That becomes a vital element in being disciples. We need to follow Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb so we can witness for ourselves the life-changing love of God in the gospel. Once we have encountered God’s grace for ourselves, then are we able to ride the outward-moving ripples of God’s grace in the power of the Holy Spirit into our homes, our work, our schools and universities, or wherever God might lead us.

When was the last time you stood on the banks of a pond, lake or dam, threw rocks into the water, and watched the ripples move out to the edges? Find some time this week to do it. Throw some rocks into water and watch the ripples move out. As you do that, think about how God has dropped the stone of his grace and love into your life by connecting you with Jesus through the power of his Spirit. And then think about how he is carrying you along, in the power of his Spirit, in the outward-moving ripples of his grace, so you can witness to his grace and love in all your words and actions.

More to think about:

  • In your experience of ‘church’ (however you understand that), do you think we tend to be more inward-looking or outward-flowing? Why do you think that way?
  • Compare your experience of church with Jesus’ words about his disciples being his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8 NLT). Would you rather be part of a church that looks inwards, or is caught up in the outward flow of God’s grace? Give a few reasons for your preference…
  • Do you agree that people need to witness something for themselves before they can witness about it to others? Explain why you think that…
  • Where have you witnessed God’s grace for yourself? In what ways would you like to witness more of God’s grace?
  • We don’t have to go on overseas mission trips to be part of God’s outward flow of grace; it starts right where we are. How might you be able to give witness to God’s grace in your life today?

Faith & Discipleship Articles

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A couple of articles came through my facebook news feed earlier today. The first is from McCrindle Research on Faith and Belief in Australia. The second is from the Fuller Youth Institute about making discipleship a priority for our church (they’re the same people who are behind Growing Young which we’ll be looking at later in the year).

What connects them is McCrindle’s finding that, for a lot of Aussies, ‘the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality and religion is seeing people live out a genuine faith.’ How do we equip & help people to ‘live out a genuine faith’? We usually call that ‘discipleship’.

Coincidence? Or maybe God’s trying to tell me something…?

What do you reckon?

Disciples are Sent (John 20:19-31)

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I often hear Christians talk about what we have to do to get people into our churches. The discussion might be about evangelism, outreach, mission, fellowship, programs or any one of a large number of topics. The general focus, however, usually centres around what do we have to do to get people who are ‘out there’ so they can be ‘in here’ with us.

Jesus had a very different focus. As we hear in this reading from John 20, when he appeared to his disciples on the evening of his resurrection, Jesus did not give them instructions on how to move people from ‘out there’ to ‘in here.’ Instead, listen to what Jesus said to his followers in verses 21 and 22. Jesus sent his disciples ‘out there’ in the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive sins.

As we talk about simplifying the work of our congregation by developing an intentional discipling process and aligning what we do with that process, we need to listen what Jesus is telling us. As Jesus’ disciples, he is calling us to participate in God’s mission in the world by sending us out into the world. This continues the same movement our Father in heaven began when he sent Jesus into the world to redeem the world. The Father sent Jesus, and Jesus sends us on the same mission.

This gives us a totally different way of thinking about the work of our congregation. Instead of running events, programs or courses to try to get people from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’, if Jesus wants us to be sending people into the world to continue Jesus’ work in the world, then, as a congregation, we need to be preparing, growing, and equipping each other for this work. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11 & 12 that God gifts his leaders as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers ‘to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ’ (NLT). Paul recognises that if Jesus sends his followers into the world to participate in God’s mission to the world, then we need to be equipping each other for that work.

What might our congregation look like if we started re-thinking who we are and what we do from this perspective? How might things be different if we thought less about how to get people into our church, and instead thought more about how we can send you out to be part of God’s mission in the world in your families, among your friends, in your workplaces, schools or universities, or wherever God leads you during the week? This is really the key to our Simple Church conversation. If, as Jesus’ disciples, his intention is to send us into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit in the same way that our Father in heaven sent him, how do we prepare and equip you for that mission?

As we continue our conversation about simplifying our congregation’s activity with a strong discipling focus, this text becomes critical to that conversation. As the risen Christ meets us, breathes the Holy Spirit into us and gives us authority to be forgiving people, he sends us out as his representatives to participate in the mission of God. Disciples of Jesus follow him to participate with him in God’s mission of redeeming the world.

How do we as a congregation prepare and equip you for this mission? It starts with a change in thinking from trying to get people ‘out there’ to join us ‘in here’, to Jesus sending us out just as the Father sent him.

More to think about:

  • Has your experience of conversations in the church been more about getting people from ‘out there’ into the church, or sending God’s people into the world? Why do you think that is?
  • What is your reaction to the idea that Jesus sends you out to be part of God’s mission in the world? What is challenging, exciting, scary about it?
  • Sometimes people understand Jesus’ words about sending us as a call to overseas mission or church planting, but we can also think about Jesus sending us into our everyday lives as his followers to make a difference where we are right now. How might you view your home, work, school/uni, sporting club differently if you saw it as the place Jesus is sending you in the power of his Spirit to be a forgiving person?
  • When Paul says that ‘Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:11,12a NIV), what do you think these ‘works of service/ministry’ might be? How might our activity as a church be different if we thought of ‘ministry’ as what happens outside of our congregations (in our homes, paid & unpaid work, schools/unis, community, etc) rather than inside?
  • What do you need to be prepared & equipped to be sent into the world as Jesus’ followers to participate in God’s mission? How can we as the church give you what you need?

What God Wants (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

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Have you ever wondered what God’s will is for your life?

When we talk about God’s will for us, or what he wants for us in our lives, it is important that we start with what God has told us he wants in his Word. We can look for his will in other ways, but it helps if it grows out of what God has already told us about what he wants for us and what he wants from us. The more we are familiar with what God has already told us about his will in the Bible, the easier we can find what he wants for us personally.
In this text from 1 Timothy, Paul tell us what God wants for us and for all of humanity: God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Talking about truth in a post-modern society which often makes truth relative can be difficult. However, Paul goes straight on to tell us what the truth is that he is talking about here: that there is one God, that Jesus bring us into a new relationship with God as our mediator with him, and this is achieved through the ransom he paid by dying on the cross (vv5,6). If we understand that this it God’s truth for us, then the main purpose of the church is to make this truth known so people can be saved through faith in this message.
While we may know that, the big question that confronts us is how do we achieve that? Over the decades there have been programs and campaigns and other things produced by the church to try to help people bring this good news to the world and fulfill what God wants for us. At times it seems like their success has been limited, so we are still confronted with the questions of how do we effectively do what God wants?

The first step is to align what we want with what God wants. We need to constantly be asking the Holy Spirit to align our wills with the will of the Father so that his desire to see all people saved and come to know the truth becomes our desire as well. Part of the idea behind Simple Church that I’m starting to talk about is to imagine what our congregation could be like if we cut back on our busyness in order to focus more on what God wants for us, specifically discipling people to live in the way of Jesus so that all can be saved and grow in his truth.

In the opening verses of 1 Timothy 2 Paul links God’s will that all people be saved and come to know the truth with prayer. He encourages us to be people of prayer, as individuals but also when we come together in worship. We have time in our services dedicated to praying together is largely because of this verse. We need to be praying for all people to come to know the truth of Jesus, but also for our governments. In Australian we are quick to criticize or make fun of our political leaders, but when was the last time you prayed for our Premier, Prime Minister, or the members of our state and federal parliaments? When we look at the political situations of other countries, such as the USA, Syria, Great Britain, and South Sudan for example, these are people and nations who need our prayers so that people of every nation can live in peace and come to know the truth of Jesus.

Paul then talks about being people who ‘live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ (v2 NLT). The mission strategy of the New Testament is that when we are living ‘peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ in the way Jesus taught, his kingdom comes into the world through us and his will is done in us as we connect his grace with the people around us. Ultimately, people do not come to know the truth about Jesus through programs or campaigns. People encounter the living truth about Jesus by encountering Jesus and his love in us, through our words, our actions, our relationships. Program and campaigns can help those relationships grow, but the most powerful place where people meet the truth of Jesus in us.

We had an example of how to live ‘peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity’ a few weeks ago in the concluding instructions from the letter to the Hebrews (13:1-8,15,16):

  • Love each other as brothers & sisters
  • Show hospitality to strangers
  • Remember those in prison or being mistreated
  • Honour & remain faithful in marriage
  • Be satisfied with what you have
  • Remember those who taught you the Word & follow their example
  • Offer a continual sacrifice of praise
  • Do good & share with those in need

What becomes important is that we are living faithfully as Jesus’ followers, always ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Jesus for anyone who asks us (1 Peter 3:15).

It is important for us to be continually looking for God’s will in our lives. A good starting point is what God has already told us about what he wants for us in the Bible. In 1 Timothy 2:3 & 4 God is clearly telling us that wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth of Jesus. It is good for us to keep this in focus so that everything we do as individuals and as community grows out of this understanding of God’s will for us. As we pray ‘Your will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying that all people are saved and come to know the truth of Jesus. We are also praying that God’s will is done in and through us.

More to think about:

  • When you think about what God’s will for your life is, how often do you start with what God has told us about his will in the Bible? How might that help you find what God wants for you in other areas of your life?
  • What do you think of when you pray ‘Your will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer? How might this text help you when you pray this prayer?
  • How often do you pray for others? How often do you pray for our political leaders or the leaders of other countries? Try spending some time each day praying through what you might read in the newspaper, online news reports or even during the TV news (remember: being a disciple involves discipline).
  • How might your life be different if the starting point for your understanding of God’s will for you is that he wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth of Jesus? How might this faith shape your relationships with others?
  • How might the faith that God wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth of Jesus shape the purpose, character and activity of your congregation? Spend time asking God how his will might be done in your church.