The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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When I went to birthday parties as a child, we used to play a game called pass the parcel. If you have never played this game, what happens is children sit in a circle and pass a parcel wrapped in lots of layers of paper from person to person while music is played. When the music stops, the child holding the parcel removes a layer of paper, and then passes the parcel on again when the music resumes. The child who removes the last layer of paper wins the prize in the centre of the parcel.

The game has changed a bit since I was young. Then, there was only one prize underneath all the layers of paper. Now that our children are playing it, there is usually a small prize under each layer of paper so every person who participates wins something.

Sometimes I wonder if the church is a bit like a pass the parcel. We often think about church in different ways and when we use the word, many various images can come to mind. These diverse understandings can contribute to the overall character of church. However, if we were to peel away the layers, what lies at the centre of the church?

Six weeks ago, we looked at the story of Samuel anointing David to be king and we heard how God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:1-13). I suggested that not being able to meet together in worship and suspending most of our church activities due to the COVID-19 restrictions might give us a chance to look past outward appearances to explore what is at heart of being church. Acts 2:42-47 gives us a glimpse of what early Christians living in Jerusalem considered to be at the heart of their church.

In Acts 2:42 we read that this early community of faith ‘devoted themselves’ to four key elements: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (NIV). A lot has been written on these verses and there is much we could discuss in them. I would share a few thoughts and explore what they might mean for us as a community of faith in our context.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to these four elements. As we read through Acts, we see that this community of faith was doing lots of things, but it made these four its priority. Like a pass the parcel has multiple layers, so does our life together as church. We have buildings, an organizational structure with committees and rosters, things to guide us in ministry such as our Discipling Plan and Growing Young, and different forms of worship. These are all good and helpful, like the prizes in the outer layers of a pass the parcel, but they are not the main thing. The main thing to which the early Christians devoted themselves was what lay under these layers: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

There are a few ways in which we can understand the apostles’ teaching. We can think of it as doctrine and what the church teaches about the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who they are, the way they are at work in our lives, and how that is good news for us. For example, the Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the apostles’ teaching from which we can always learn a lot. However, we can also understand the ‘apostles’ teaching’ as discipling us to live in faith and love as God’s people. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus commissioned his eleven remaining disciples to teach his followers to obey all that he had commanded them. If we read this through Jesus’ New Command to love one another in the way he has loved us (John 13:34,35), then we can also understand the apostles’ teaching as learning to live in the way of love that Jesus taught.

The early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. The word used here is koinonia and means much more than a social gathering. This koinonia fellowship is a deep communal relationship where every person is cared for by others and who also cares for others. We get a picture of these mutually giving relationships in the following verses where people were willing to give to provide for each other’s needs, even if it meant selling property to support them. This kind of koinonia fellowship can show itself in lots of different ways, but it involves having such deep relationships with each other that we know about each other’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and we give what we have to meet those needs. This flows from the deep koinonia fellowship we have with God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third element to which the Acts church devoted themselves was the breaking of bread. Biblical scholars interpret this phrase in different ways, such as communal meals or Holy Communion. A widely held view is that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the early church as part of a shared communal meal. Whatever our understanding of ‘the breaking of bread’ might be, it tells us that the communal meal is central to any community of faith. This is a real challenge for us while we cannot gather in worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, when we are able to meet together again in corporate worship, it will be vital for us to remember that what is at the heart of our existence as church is not what happens around the meal, such as the order or liturgy, songs or hymns, but the meal itself.

The fourth element to which the early Christian community devoted itself was prayer. As a community of faith, prayer will always be central. It sounds obvious writing that, but it can be good to be reminded. Sometimes I wonder if people think that prayer is the pastor’s job and not something they can do, or if people are afraid to pray because they might get it wrong in some way, or if we get just get too busy and forget to talk with our loving heavenly Father. We can find lots of excuses not to pray as a community of faith, but the one great reason to pray is that Jesus promised to hear and answer us! Have a look at John 14:13,14 and 15:16 and listen to what Jesus is saying. Talking with God in prayer, both individually and together as a community, will always be central to being church.

During this time of COVID-19 restrictions, we can still function to a large degree as the church. Even without our buildings, our forms of worship and other activities, we can still devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to supporting each other in koinonia fellowship, and to prayer. The day will come when we will be able to break bread together and share in the communal meal we have in communion with God and each other. Until then, I encourage you to keep peeling back the outer layers to get to the heart of what it means to be church.

Because what might our church be like if we looked past the outward appearances, and, with our brothers and sisters in Acts, devoted ourselves first and foremost to the apostles’ teaching, koinonia fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer?

More to think about & discuss:

  • When someone uses the word ‘church’ what do you think of: the building, organisation, worship, community? Or something else?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on the way you understand the four key elements of church from Acts 2:42:
    • The apostles’ teaching
    • Fellowship
    • Breaking of bread
    • Prayer
  • What does each of these mean to you? How is your understanding similar or different from the way I’ve described them? What are some other ways people might interpret each of these?
  • When we are able to gather again as a congregation after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, how might our community of faith look if we dedicated ourselves to these four elements of church? What might be the same? How might our congregation be different?

Persistent in Prayer (Luke 18:1-8)

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When I was serving as a pastor in Lutheran schools, there were times when I would be teaching a class and students would ask me for things such as going to their locker, getting a drink, sitting with their friend, and so on. If my answer was ‘no’ it usually wouldn’t take long before they would come and ask me again. If my reply was still ‘no’ they would come back to me again and again in the hope that I would give them what they were asking for. I wondered sometimes whether my answer of ‘no’ was interpreted as ‘not now, but if you come back enough times you’ll get what you’re asking for.’

These experiences in the classroom, and more recently as a parent, helps me to understand the perspective of the judge in Jesus’ story. The widow kept coming back to him, asking him for the same thing, until she got what she wanted. The big difference between the widow and the students in my classes was that their requests were usually for things to make their life easier or more convenient. The widow in the story, however, was asking for justice.

We don’t know exactly what the ‘justice’ was that the widow was asking for from the judge. What that does, though, is give us room to read the injustices that we experience into Jesus’ story to help make it our story. In some way, though, the widow had been wronged. Something had happened to her or been done to her which was unjust and not right. She was looking for someone to make the wrong she had experienced in her life right again. Her desire for justice was a hope that someone with more authority than she had would do for her what she couldn’t do for herself and make right the wrongs that had been done to her.

There are times in our lives when we can probably identify what she was going through. We all witness or experience wrongs of one kind or another. This is because the world is not the way God intended it to be. When we read the creation story from Genesis 1, at the end of each day (however you want to interpret that period of time) God saw that what he had created was good. When we look at the world now, though, it seems a long way from that goodness. We can see conflicts and natural disasters happening all over the world. Closer to home, our nation is suffering from social, cultural and environmental wrongs. Our relationships can go wrong for a range of reasons, either what we have done or has been done to us. Even within ourselves, there are things that are wrong that might not be our fault, but still take life from us and from others. Wherever we look, we can see that there is something wrong with the world in which we live.

This wasn’t how God intended life to be, so in Jesus he did what was needed to set the wrong things right again. This is one way we can understand the biblical role of a judge. When we read the Book of Judges from the Old Testament, we can see that they were not people who sentenced offenders in a court of law. Instead, the Old Testament judges were people God raised up to right the wrongs that were being done to God’s people. This flows from an understanding of God as judge, who makes the wrong things in the world right again through his justice, grace and love.

Ultimately, God establishes his reign of justice in the world through Jesus. When he was born, he entered this world-gone-wrong and took its wrongs on himself. Jesus embraced everything that is wrong with us, our relationships and our world on himself, and takes it to the cross where he puts it all to death. This is one way of understanding the idea that Jesus takes away the sin of the world – he overcomes all that is wrong with this existence in his crucifixion, even death itself.

Jesus then restores us and all creation to its original state of being good and right in his resurrection. When Jesus was raised to new life, he triumphed over the wrongs of the world and set things right again so that we can live in right relationships with God, ourselves, other people and all of creation. This is what is called ‘the righteousness of God’ – his gift to us of making everything that is wrong in us right again through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can also call this God’s justice as Jesus removes the wrongs that infect us and all creation and fills us with God’s goodness.

As long as we live in this world we will still encounter its wrongs in one way or another. That is why Jesus encourages his followers to ‘pray and never give up’ (v1). The widow in his story kept asking the unjust judge for justice because she believed that he could make the wrongs in her life right again. Jesus is encouraging us to believe that God is good and just, that he can and will bring about justice for us as well. Jesus is contrasting the character of the unjust judge with our just God and saying that if the judge in the story ended up providing justice for the widow, how much more will God bring justice for us when we look to him for it?

Where do you see or experience the injustice of this world? In what ways are the wrongs of this world robbing you of the life God has for you in Jesus? God can and will bring justice to the world and to our lives. In Jesus, God embraces all that is wrong with us and our world and makes us right again through his grace.

When we believe that, when we trust that good news, then asking God to set the wrong things right again will be a natural thing for us to do. Things are what they are, but they don’t have to continue to be that way. In Jesus, God makes all things new and sets things right again. This faith gives us good reason to always pray for God’s justice to reign in us and never give up.

Learning to Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

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Good communication is vital for any healthy relationship. If our connections with each other are going to be constructive and life-giving, we need to be communicating well. This means both talking and listening to each other.

Our relationship with God works the same way. If we are going to live as God’s children and find life in our relationship with him, we need to be communicating with him. This happens in two ways: by listening to what God says to us in the words of the Bible and by talking with him in prayer. That is why these are the two most basic spiritual disciplines for disciples of Jesus: learning to listen to what he says to us through his Word and talking with him in prayer.

Unfortunately, we haven’t always learned healthy ways of talking with God in the church. For example, as a young person growing up in the church, the main ways of praying I witnessed were formal, pre-prepared pieces of writing which were read by the pastor in church or by our Dad at home. I understand that there is a time and place for a more formal way of praying, but when Jesus talks about God as our loving heavenly Dad, there is also room for us to talk with God like our Dad in heaven who just wants to listen to what’s going on in our lives.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the young Pastor Timothy, he urged him to make prayer his first priority. That’s why he says, ‘I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people’ (v1 NLT). Prayer might be the first of a number of concerns that Paul is addressing in his letter to Timothy, kind of like the first thing on a list of things to talk about. However, these words can also mean that praying for all people is to be at the top of Timothy’s pastoral to-do list. It would be like Paul writing, ‘I urge you, most importantly of all, to pray for all people.’ This interpretation would show that Paul also regarded prayer as one of the most important things that Jesus’ followers can do. As we ask God to help us and other people, as we intercede for others, speaking to God on their behalf, and as we give thanks for all the expressions of God’s grace in our lives, we will grow in our relationship with God and bring his blessings to the people we pray for, our nation and its leaders, and the world in which we live.

One of the most important ways that we learn anything is by watching others do it. As we see other people modelling behaviours, actions and practices, we learn by watching them and how they do them. In particular, young people learn more from what we do than from what we say. If our actions are not consistent with our words, then they will learn more from what we do than the words we use.

When it comes to prayer, then, young people in particular, but also other Christians, will be learning about the importance of prayer in our lives and how to pray from the ways in which we pray. This is one of the reasons why it is important for us to be praying together as members of God’s family. Prayer is not just an individual thing. If we take that kind of approach to prayer, then other people might miss out on an important part of our relationships with our heavenly Father and each other. However, when we are praying together, we will be more like a family getting together to talk with their Dad in heaven. When we pray together in our homes, in small groups, and in our corporate worship, we will be teaching two really important things to the young in age and the young in faith. Firstly, we will be modelling that talking with our Dad in heaven is an important part of our relationship with him. Secondly, we will also be modelling good, healthy, life-giving ways to pray in which we are praying for all people, asking for God’s help, interceding for others and thanking him for all the good things he gives to us every day of our lives (1 Timothy 2:1).

Talking with God isn’t about getting the words right. I hope my children will see that just talking with me is more important than using the right words, and I believe God thinks the same when it comes to the ways we talk with him. Our first priority, then, as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, and as followers in the way of Jesus, is to pray. God wants to be hearing what’s going on in our lives and in the lives of others. God wants us to trust him with everything that’s happening in our lives and in the lives of others. If you don’t know how to do that, or if you’re not comfortable in doing that, part of our church’s Discipling Plan is to help us grow as praying people.

Who can you be praying for this week? Try praying for a different person each day. Ask God to help them with what’s going on in their lives. Intercede for them by speaking up for them before God. Thank God for them being in your life and for the good God is giving to them and to you through them. We’ve actually stuck the four parts of 1 Timothy 2:1 – Pray for all people, Ask God to help, Intercede and Thank God – on our fridge to remind us. Maybe you could do something similar to help you develop the spiritual discipline of prayer.

However you do it, just talk with God, because it’s a vital part of our relationship with him and God loves it when his kids take the time to talk with him.

A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

When I posed this question to our congregation on Sunday I got a range of interesting answers. Some people said that we are always changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. No matter what is going on in our lives, our circumstances are continually shaping us. Another perspective put forward was that in some ways we are who we are and that doesn’t change. I have known some people who were preparing to be married that expected their partners to change. The changes they were hoping for never happened and it placed a lot of pressure on their marriage.

So what do you think – can people really change?

The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20 gives me hope that God can change us for the better. At the start of the story Saul was an enemy of Jesus. Earlier in Acts we read the story of the death of Steven, a disciple of Jesus who was the first of his followers who was killed for his faith. Acts 8:1 tells us that Saul was there, approving of Steven’s murder. In Acts 9, Saul was intensifying his persecution of Jesus’ followers by going to Damascus to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.

Something miraculous happens along the way. The risen Jesus appears to Saul and it completely changes his life. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, his encounter with the risen Christ changes Saul into a follower of Jesus. This change is so dramatic, by the end of the story Saul is going to the Jewish synagogues, not to arrest Jesus’ followers, but to tell other Jewish people that Jesus is in fact the Messiah! Saul, whom we also know as Paul, then spent the rest of his life traveling the known world, telling people about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the way it could change their lives, too. Most of our New Testament was written by Saul to these communities of Jesus’ followers, encouraging them in their faith and helping them to live the new life he had found in Jesus.

As we read Saul/Paul’s writings, we get a picture of the change Jesus worked in him, as well as the kind of changes Jesus wants to be working in us. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 talks about the way Jesus wants to make us more loving people. In Galatians 5:22,23 Paul writes about the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in people who reach maturity of faith. Paul talks about the difference it can make to our lives when we are clothed in Christ in Colossians 3:12-15. Here, as well as in other passages of the Bible, Jesus shows us the kind of people he wants to shape us into as we encounter his grace and grow in his love.

I have recently been coming across the phrase that the Bible is more about transformation than information. While the Scriptures give us information about Jesus and the way God has worked in people’s lives in the past, I agree that sometimes we forget that God wants to transform us into new people who are living the life of the risen Christ. For example, in Romans 12:2 Paul writes, ‘Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). Paul, who knew himself the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus, is encouraging all of us to be transformed into new people through our encounters with Jesus so we can live the new life he gives us through his Spirit.

Saul had a dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’ve never had an encounter with Jesus like that, but we can still learn from Saul’s story about how Jesus meets us to change us into the people he is calling us to be.

Firstly, we meet Jesus when we spend time in his Word. This brings us back to the theme we’ve been running with a lot this year – the importance of listening to Jesus in the words of the Bible. The Apostle John identifies Jesus as the eternal Word of God in the opening verses of his gospel. When we read the Bible and listen to what Jesus is saying to us, our encounters with him are just as real as Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.

The second thing we can learn is the importance of prayer. When Jesus sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, Saul was praying (v11). I’m curious to know the content of Saul’s prayer, but just that he was praying shows prayer is a vital part of the way God wants to change us. When we are talking with God about what’s happening in our lives, wrestling with how Jesus’ words connect with our lived experiences, and bringing everything that’s happening in our lives to God through prayer, then God will use that to shape us into more faith-filled, loving people.

The third thing we can learn from Saul’s’ story is the significance of Christian community. Jesus didn’t leave Saul to try to work out the changes he was making in his life on his own. Jesus was reaching out to Saul through Ananias, connecting with him and embracing him in a community of faith. We read in verse 19 that ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus’ (NLT) which shows us that right from the start he knew the importance of being connected to a community of believers. Many of Paul’s letters were written to communities of Jesus’ followers to help them live the life of Christ in their relationships with each other and in the context of the surrounding non-believing culture.

One of the problems we can face as followers of Jesus today is the belief that we can change on our own. When we look at Saul’s conversion story, he was shaped into the person Jesus was calling him to be through an encounter with Jesus, prayer and being part of a community of faith. This story tells me that Jesus wants to work in our lives in a similar way. Jesus wants to meet us in his Word, talk with us in prayer, and shape us through contact with his flesh-and-blood body, a community of believers. By exercising these basic spiritual disciplines, Jesus will be at work in our lives through his Holy Spirit, shaping us into the people he is calling us to be, changing us into people who trust him, love others, and are producing the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

  • Do you think people can change? Maybe share some stories where you or someone else you know has changed, or stories where you haven’t seen a change you were hoping for.
  • What is your reaction to the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20? What do you like about the story? What do you not like about it? What questions do you have?
  • When you read Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22,23 or Colossians 3:12-15, do they sound like the life you’re living now? Do they sound like a life you’d like to live? Explain why…
  • Do you tend to read the Bible more as information or for transformation? How might the way you read your Bible change if Jesus wanted to change you by speaking to you through it?
  • Do you make time for talking with God in prayer? How might your approach to prayer be different if you saw prayer as your chance to talk with Jesus about what’s happening in your life?
  • Do you connect regularly with other Christians in some way? Would you be more willing to connect regularly with other Christians if that was a key way that God was going to shape you into a more faith-filled, grace-giving, loving person?
  • Are there things in your life that you would like to be different?
  • Do you believe that Jesus can change you like he changed Saul? Explain why…

‘Believe and Live!’ (John 20:19-31)

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How do you tell the difference between fake news and what’s real?

There was a time when people would read the newspapers in the good faith that what they were reading was a trustworthy reporting of the facts. With the rise of social media and ‘fake’ news, it is becoming harder and harder to be able to distinguish between what is real and fake news, between what is truth and what isn’t. So, when you read an article or news story online or in the paper, how do you tell if it is real, fake, or merely one person’s perspective of the truth to try to influence the reader’s opinion?

It would be easy for us to read John 20:30,31 and think this is an editorial spin or even fake news. John says that he wrote down the ‘miraculous signs’ of Jesus ‘so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name’ (John 20:31 NLT).

This is an extraordinary promise. John is saying that his reason for writing his gospel wasn’t so he could have a number 1 on the Jerusalem Time bestseller list. Neither did he write his gospel to justify Jesus after he had died a criminal’s death. John’s intention wasn’t to con anyone or use Jesus’ story to fund a multi-million-dollar megachurch. John states clearly that he recorded what Jesus did so that future readers could hear about the signs which pointed to Jesus being the Messiah who had been promised throughout the Old Testament. By hearing about what Jesus did, John’s hope was that his readers would put their faith in Jesus, and through that faith find the life that Jesus came to give us.

It is important to hear the connection John makes between the Word of God, faith in that Word and the life that God gives through that faith. In the opening verses of his gospel, John identified the Word of God with the person Jesus. The words he was writing point us to the eternal Word of God who became human in the person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit uses this Word to create, sustain and grow faith in the people who listen to it. That’s why it’s so important to be connected with God’s Word, as Jesus teaches with the analogy of the vine and the branch in John 15:1-17. We can only trust God’s promises when we are listening to his promises in his Word.

This faith which the Holy Spirit gives and grows through God’s Word results in a new kind of life in us. The New Testament gives us pictures of what this life is like. We might think of it as life which will last forever in heaven, but it is much more than that because it shapes the lives we are living now. It is life lived in full relationship with God, knowing him as our loving heavenly Father. It is a life in which we can know God and be fully known by God. It is a life that is defined by and overflowing with unconditional love. It is a life in which our identity, belonging and purpose are all defined by and lived in Jesus’ grace and love. Yes, this is a life to be lived forever in heaven but it is also a life to the full (John 10:10) which we can live now in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

All of which might make John’s promise to us of life lived through faith in the Word sound like an editorial exaggeration, or even fake news. So how do we know? How do we know that what John is saying is trustworthy or not?

Sometimes, the only way to find out is to give it a try. I’m not talking about using intellectual arguments to try to convince anyone of the historical accuracy of the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead, I’m talking about verifying the validity of John’s claims by giving a life of faith a go and seeing if it makes a difference. Jesus didn’t come to just give us new information. He came to lead us into a new way of living, a way that is about trusting him and loving others. One way or another, every New Testament writer points us to this way – loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), loving one another like Jesus has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12,17), living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6), or showing our faith through our works (James 2:18). It’s all pointing us to the way of Jesus using different language.

Maybe, then, the way of validating what John write is to live like what Jesus said is true and see if it makes a difference to our lives. Psalm 34:8a encourages us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (NLT). When a new product comes out at the supermarket, the only way to find out if it’s any good is to try it. Maybe finding out if John’s promise about finding life through faith in Jesus is fake news or not is to give it a go, to taste it and see if it really is as good as he claims it is. This means committing to reading God’s Word and learning to listen with others to what God is promising us. It means learning to pray to Jesus, trusting him with both the good and bad which is happening in our lives. It means committing to meet with other Christians in public worship around the meal Jesus gave us and in smaller groups where we can wrestle with the bigger questions of faith. It means committing to follow Jesus by trusting him in all the circumstances of life and loving others in the same self-giving, other-centred way that he loves us. Some people have called this a leap of faith. Others call it trying before you buy. It basically means giving the Way of Jesus a fair dinkum crack, embracing a life of faith, trusting what Jesus said enough to live like it’s true, and finding out for ourselves if the way of Jesus really does lead to a better life or not.

In a world of fake news, it’s easy to dismiss what John says for a lot of reasons. But what if it’s true? What if, by being connected with God’s Word, we can find a faith that leads to a better life? Is this something you might hope for? Is this something that maybe Jesus can lead you into? It’s a massive claim, but John wrote his gospel in the full conviction that by writing the stories of Jesus, people for thousands of years would come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and through faith in him, would find a life which is full to overflowing of infinite, perfect love and is stronger than death.

More to think about:

  • How do you tell the difference between real and ‘fake news’? How do you work out what can be trusted or not?
  • When you read John 20:31, does this sound like something that can be trusted or fake news? Give some reasons why you think that way.
  • Based on what you know of the Bible and/or the teachings of Jesus, what do you imagine the life that John talks about looks like?
  • Is this the kind of life you’d like to be living? Can you explain why or why not?
  • What might happen if you committed to learning to live in the way of Jesus by reading your Bible and talking with God in prayer every day, as well as meeting with other Christians regularly either in worship or a small group, for a month? What difference might it make to your life?
  • Are you willing to give it a go…?

Growing (Ephesians 1:15-23)

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I’m not the world’s most dedicated or skillful gardener. However, I like to have plants around our home that are healthy and look good. At times, some plants don’t seem to be doing as well as I had hoped, so I’m faced with a question: is this plant still alive or is it time to take it out and put something else in its place?

My way of trying to work out if a plant is still living is to look for signs of growth. If it is growing, I will continue to look after it and try to help it grow. If it isn’t growing, however, then it’s time to take it out so something else can grow in its place.

It’s a simple idea: growth is a sign of life.

Maybe that’s why the Apostle Paul prays that the early Christians is Ephesus ‘might grow in (their) knowledge of God’ (v17 NLT). Just like the plants in my garden, growth is a sign of life. He prays for them, and as we hear these words also for us, because when we are growing in our ‘knowledge of God’ then something is alive in us that is producing that growth.

It’s important to understand, though, that when Paul talks about ‘knowledge’ he isn’t talking about something that is primarily intellectual or academic. In this information age, we usually understand ‘knowledge’ as facts, figures or data about any given person or topic.

For pre-modern people, however, ‘knowledge’ was much more relational. It is the difference between knowing a whole lot of information about a person and actually having a relationship with them. For example, I can know everything there is to know about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but that won’t get me an invitation to their wedding. For that to happen, I would need to know them and be in relationship with them. This is how the Bible understands ‘knowledge.’ It is much more a relationship with people than just information about them.

What Paul is praying for, then, is that we are growing in relationship with God. Essentially, the Christian faith is relational. God welcomes us into relationship with him as his children and he asks us to call him ‘Father.’ Jesus, the Son of the Father, became one with us, died and is risen from the dead to restore the broken relationship with God. Jesus’ command to love others in the same way he has loved us is at its heart relational – we can only love God or other people when we are in relationship with them.

My relationship with my wife, children, other family members and friends will grow and change over time as we go through life’s challenges and joys together. In the same way, Paul is praying that our relationship with God will continue to grow as we journey through life in relationship with him. As we go through the ups and downs of life with God, giving thanks for the good times and looking for his grace in the tough times, we will be growing in our relationship with him as we learn to trust him in all circumstances of life.

Paul continues his prayer by asking that this growing knowledge of God would show itself in the lives of God’s people in two ways. The first is hope (v18). In a world where people are struggling for a lot of different reasons, we could all benefit from a greater sense of hope. Paul’s prayer is that we might grow in hope through a growing relationship with God.

The second is understanding ‘the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him’ (v19 NLT). Paul describes this as the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and raised him up to share in God’s authority in his ascension. This is the power of God to bring light into dark places, to lift us up when we are at our lowest points, to bring us out of isolation into restored relationships with others, and to give us life when everything around us is trying to rob life from us. This power of God can show itself in lots of different ways, depending on what’s happening in our lives. It makes me wonder how God might display this power in your life…

We grow in our relationship with God the same way that we grow in any other relationship. We grow in our knowledge of God by making time for him in our busy lives, as we listen to his words of promise and grace in the Bible, as we talk honestly with him in prayer, and as we grow in our relationships with other Christians in community and especially in worship together. As we exercise these and other spiritual disciplines, and as we learn to love brothers and sisters in the faith and be loved by them, our relationship with God will grow as we participate in the body of Christ, which is the church (Ephesians 1:23), and journey through life together.

Our growth in knowing God is vital to our life as his people, so we included it as the second element of our congregation’s discipling plan. Because growing is a sign of life, we want to help people grow in their relationship with God. I pray, along with the Apostle Paul, that the members and friends of our community of faith, along with all who read these words, would be growing in their knowledge of and relationship with God, so that together we might also understand more and more the hope to which he has called us, and the incredible greatness of his power for us who trust him.
So, how can we help you grow?

Growing in Prayer (Mark 1:29-39)

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It had been a very busy day for Jesus. It began simply enough as Jesus went to the local synagogue to teach. While he was there, Jesus drove out an unclean spirit from one of the locals. Then he went to the home of Simon and Andrew where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a serious fever. Word about Jesus must have spread through the village, because as soon as the Sabbath restrictions ended at sunset, people brought their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus. What had started as a quiet Sabbath day of rest for Jesus ended up with an overwhelming flood of people looking to Jesus to help them.

What strikes me about this story is that, after a frantic day of teaching and healing, Jesus didn’t try to sleep in the next morning, or head to the local coffee shop to read the paper or check his social media. Jesus didn’t go fishing, or for a ride on his bike, or any of the things we might like to do after a busy day. Instead, Mark tells us that ‘before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray’ (v35 NLT).

There might be a number of reasons why Jesus wanted some time by himself. I’m thinking at this stage that maybe Jesus knew that he couldn’t handle the pressures and demands he was facing by himself, and he needed his Father if he was going to get through what was coming. By going out to pray, Jesus was trusting that his Father had everything he needed to do what he was called to do, and that his Father would provide him with what he needed. Jesus’ early morning prayer was an act of faith.

What do we do when life seems too hard, or there’s too much to do, or the pressures and expectations of the people around us are overwhelming us? Do we just try to keep our heads down and push through on our own? Or do we look for a break, to escape from the chaos even for just a few minutes, by going out for a coffee, checking our social media, staying in bed, or watching TV? When it feels like life is overwhelming us, do we tend to work harder or run away?

Jesus did neither of these things. Instead, Jesus’ response was to get out of bed earlier than normal, go to a quiet place, and pray.

What if we did the same? What if, instead of working harder or trying to escape from the realities of life, we took everything that’s going on in our lives to our loving heavenly Father in prayer as our first priority?

There is a crazy promise from God in Romans 8:32 where Paul writes,

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (NIV)

The promise in this text is that God has everything we need for life in this world and the next, and for the sake of Jesus we will give us everything we need! When you think about what’s going on in your life at the moment, especially if there are things that are looking to be too hard, too much or too overwhelming, what difference could it make if we trusted that God will give us everything we need? God has brought us into a new relationship with himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and wants to provide for us like loving parents provide for their children. Jesus knew that and so took what was going on in his life to his heavenly Father in prayer. As his followers, that’s what he’s teaching us to do as well – to trust God with what’s going on in our lives by bringing it to him in prayer.

Learning how to pray will need to be a key aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God is connecting with us by the power of his Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus. As we are growing in that connection, we will also be growing in our willingness and ability to trust God with what’s going on in our lives. We will also need to be equipping each other by learning how to pray, just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). After giving this message on Sunday, a woman in our congregation told me that she had never learned how to pray other than the set prayers she recites every morning and at night. Formal prayers have their place – I use them regularly – however we also need to be able to talk with our heavenly Dad like we talk with our best friend or someone close to us. Good communication is a sign of a healthy relationship, both with people and with God.

This year for Lent we’re coming together with other Lutheran churches in our part of the city to offer workshops on different topics to help grow and equip God’s people. When I was asked to lead a workshop, it seemed to me that spending four weeks focusing on listening to God’s word in the Bible and talking with him in prayer might be a good idea. We need to be learning how to exercise these spiritual disciplines and make them part of our daily rhythm so our faith can remain strong. Like Jesus in this story from Mark 1:29-39, we need to be praying as our first priority, not as a last resort, because God has everything we need and will give it to us because of the new relationship we have with him through Jesus.

Jesus believed that his Father had everything he needed in the pressures and demands of life in this world. This trust led him to look to his Father for what he needed in prayer. If your prayer-life is struggling, maybe Lent is a good time to commit to finding time each day to talk with God about what’s going on in your life. When we do it and how we do it aren’t as important as that we do it. If you want some help, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. Almighty God has everything we need to do what he calls us to do. Jesus believed that and took what was going on in his life to his Father in prayer. When we follow Jesus and trust God enough to take what’s going on in our lives to him, he promises that he will always give you what you need.

More to think about:

  • When life gets difficult or overwhelming what do you tend to do more: try harder to get through, or escape from the pressures or demands? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to pray? Do you have a set time or place to pray each day? Or is it a discipline you find hard to maintain?
  • Why do you think Jesus got up early, went to an isolated place and prayed? Do you find it strange that he would do that? Or do Jesus’ actions make sense to you? Can you explain why?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe God’s promise in Romans 8:32? Why do you think that is? How might your life be different if you were able to trust that God has and will give you ‘all things’ (NIV) for Jesus’ sake?
  • What’s going on in your life right now that is difficult, demanding or overwhelming? Have you taken it to God in prayer? If you find praying difficult to do, how can we, or another sister or brother in Christ, help you do that?

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.

Asking, Seeking, Knocking (Luke 11:1-13)

ask seek knock 01Over the years, one question I have been asked a number of times is if God knows what we are going to pray for before we ask (see Matthew 6:8) then what is the point of praying?

From a human point of view this question makes sense. For a lot of people, prayer can be very difficult, and when we are busy with a lot of commitments, finding time for prayer can be a serious challenge. However, prayer is an essential part of a relationship with God and so we still need to prioritize it. So how do we find time for prayer in our lives which are often very busy and difficult?

An important place to start is with why we pray in the first place. When we look at Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the gospels, for example in Luke 11:1-13, his starting point is that we have a loving Father in heaven who wants to hear our prayers and give us every good thing we need for life in this world and the next. Jesus revolutionized people’s approach to prayer when he taught his disciples to call God ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer, and then to picture God as a father who wants to give good to his children (e.g. Luke 11:11-13). When we believe that we have a loving Father in heaven who wants what is best for us and who wants to do what is best for us, then we have a good reason to pray. Prayer becomes an act of faith that God loves us, will hear what we have to say to him, and will give us all we need for this life and the next.

If we go back to our original question which asks why we should pray when God already knows what we will ask, we can answer it by saying that praying shows that we trust God for everything we need. We can pray in the faith that God is the source of everything good and he will give us what we need. When Jesus teaches us to ask, seek and knock, he wants us to trust that God will give us what we ask for, that he will reveal himself and his goodness when we seek it, and he will open the doors of heaven to us when we knock.
Trusting this promise and praying like God will do what Jesus says is difficult for us because it is not normal for our human natures to trust God like this. When we add experiences we may have had of times when it seemed like God has not come through for us when we needed him, praying like Jesus teaches can be a real challenge for us. However, that is why Jesus’ teaching on prayer is important for us to hear. Jesus want us to be free and willing to approach our Father in heaven for everything we need, in the faith that he has all we need and he wants the best for his children.

This is why Jesus also teaches us to be persistent in prayer. When he says to ask, seek and knock, the language he is using is continual, on-going action. Jesus doesn’t want us to ask once and then stop if it seems like God has not heard us, but to keep on asking in the faith that God is hearing us and will answer us for Jesus’ sake. It is the same with seeking him and knocking on the door of heaven. Even if it seems as though God is not answering our prayers, Jesus wants us to be persistent, continually asking, seeking and knocking on the door of heaven for all the good blessings he has for us and for the people around us.

Obviously, there is a lot more we could say about prayer in the life of the child of God than we have time or space for here. However, in Jesus’ teaching from Luke 11:1-13 we can learn some basics about prayer on which we can build a healthy prayer life. Jesus wants us to view God as our loving heavenly Father who wants the best for his children and who has every good thing we need for this life and the next. When we believe that, prayer will be a natural way for us to bring our needs and the needs of other people to him. Asking, seeking and knocking becomes the on-going ways in which we actively pursue God’s goodness and blessing through prayer in faith and hope. As the children of God whom he loves, then, we can keep on asking our heavenly Father for what we need because Jesus says we will receive what we need. We can keep on seeking in the faith that we will find the goodness of God by the power of his Spirit. We can keep on knocking on the door of heaven through prayer because Jesus has opened the way for us through his life, death and resurrection.

More to think about:

  • What do you find most challenging or difficult about praying regularly?
  • How might your praying change if you took Jesus’ words seriously when he says: ‘Ask and it WILL be given to you; seek and you WILL find; knock and the door WILL be opened to you. For EVERYONE who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened’? (emphasis mine)
  • What is something you need most in your life? Remember to bring it to God persistently, in the faith that he will hear and answer you for Jesus’ sake…