Faith Alone (John 6:29)

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When I sat down last Friday to write my message for Sunday’s services, I had a clear idea what I was going to say…

As we continue through our Reformation Month, my plan was to talk on the principle of Faith Alone. I was going to talk about how, for Martin Luther, faith is more than believing that there is a God, and more than believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a factual historical event. I wanted to make the point that, for Luther and the Reformers of the early 1500s, a saving faith means trusting that Jesus lived, died and is risen again for you.

Then I was going to say that faith in Jesus doesn’t come naturally for us. We need the Holy Spirit to be creating and growing this faith in us. That’s why Luther said, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, that the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is to call us by the gospel, enlighten us with his gifts, sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.

belief value attitude behaviour 01I was then going to explain that this faith in Jesus, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in our lives. Our behaviours grow out of our beliefs, as this diagram suggests. I was going to explain that this is what Jesus meant when he talked about trees and fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), vines and branches (John 15:1-17) and others knowing we are his disciples by the way we love each other (John 13:35). This is also the pattern Paul follows in his letters when he proclaims the good news of Jesus and then goes on to explore how this faith makes a difference in our lives, our relationships and our communities of faith.

And that was basically my message …

… until Sunday morning. I was reflecting on what I was planning to say when it dawned on me (please excuse the pun) that I was describing what faith looks like, but I had kind of missed the point.

Faith isn’t just an idea that we discuss and debate. Instead, the challenge that constantly confronts me as a pastor and a servant of the gospel is how to help others grow in their faith so that it makes a difference in their lives?

I regularly come across two main problems in my experience in working for the church. The first is that I know good people who have been going to church their whole lives who are still trapped in guilt or fear. The good news of Jesus is that he died on the cross and is risen again to free us from guilt and fear and a living faith in him gives us that freedom. So how do I help people find and grow in this faith so they can live in joy and peace instead of fear and guilt?

The second problem I encounter is that a lot of what we do in the church seems to focus on the top triangle in this diagram – our behaviours. We tend to focus on what we should or should not be doing, or what we think others should or should not be doing, in one way or another. Because our behaviours reflect our beliefs, what does our preoccupation with behaviours say about what we believe? If we really were operating from the Faith Alone principle, how might we prioritise faith over behaviours and activities?

There are a couple of conversations that we have been having in our congregation over the last year or so on discipleship, Simple Church and Growing Young. It occurred to me early on Sunday morning, that these conversations are, essentially, all about Faith Alone.
For example, most of the discipling books I read talk about following Jesus in terms of our behaviours and assume a saving faith. However, our first step in following Jesus needs to be to the foot of the cross and empty grave where we witness Jesus giving his life for us on the cross and overcoming death through his resurrection. A Lutheran perspective on discipleship needs to start with experiencing God’s grace and trusting that Jesus died and is risen again for me. And so our conversation about discipleship is about prioritizing Faith Alone in our congregation.

Our discussion around becoming a Simple Church is about looking at the busyness of our congregation and asking how much of it helps people grow in their faith as followers of Jesus. If our programs and activities are not helping people grow in their faith or equipping them to live their faith out in their relationships, then are we living by the Faith Alone principle? And so our conversation about becoming a Simple Church is about prioritising Faith Alone in our congregation.

Working through the book Growing Young was about asking how being disciples of Jesus and simplifying the busyness of our congregation can help us in our ministry to young people. They learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be living in ways that are consistent with our faith so our young people can to see the difference following Jesus makes in our lives. There is research from Mark McCrindle which argues that what attracts people most to ‘religion and spirituality’ is ‘seeing people who live out a genuine faith’ (The Faith and Belief in Australia Report). It is vital for us in our ministry to our young people, as well as our witness to the world, that we see faith in Jesus as something that shapes and transforms our lives.

When we encounter the grace of God and trust his grace to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit shapes us into more grace-giving people. When we trust that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, we become more forgiving people. When we believe in God’s love for us in Jesus, the Spirit of God makes us into more loving people. The more we grow in our faith in God’s goodness to us through Jesus, the more the Holy Spirit shapes us into loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22,23). We don’t become this way by being told to be this way. Instead, the more our faith in God’s goodness grows, the more his goodness will show in our lives.

This is why the Reformation teaching on Faith Alone is still so important for us. It is too easy for us to think that faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines, instead of being a bold and confident trust that Jesus lived, died and risen again for me which makes a difference in my life. This is my hope and prayer for our church: that we can rediscover the importance of living by Faith Alone, so we can find the freedom, hope and joy which comes through faith, and so others can experience the goodness of God through us.

More to think about:

  • I have heard it said that everyone believes in something or someone. Do you agree with that? Explain why or why not.
  • What do you think of the idea that saving faith is not just believing there’s a God, or the historical truth of Jesus’ death & resurrection, but that Jesus did that for you? How does that compare with how you understand what faith is?
  • Can you think of examples where there is a close connection between what people believe and what they do? Would you agree that belief shapes behaviour, and what we do reflects what we believe? Explain your reasons for thinking that.
  • How important is it for Christians to reflect our faith in our behaviours, words and actions? When you look at the Christian church, what do our behaviours say about what we believe to you? To your family, friends or others?
  • How can your church community help you grow a deeper & stronger faith in Jesus? Do you have any suggestions for me about how to prioritise Faith Alone in our church?
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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?

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?

Called to Discipleship (Matthew 4:12-23)

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In the latter half of last year our congregation began a conversation on becoming a ‘simple church.’ The idea of simplifying ministry in congregations is something I’d been thinking about for a few years. Then, about a year or more ago, I came across a book called Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger. The authors argue that, based on their research, effective churches focus all their ministries on a simple and clear discipling process. They argue that Jesus’ Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19) means that churches need to simplify what we are doing and keep Jesus’ directive to make disciples our one and highest priority.

As we began to think about becoming a ‘simple church’ by formulating our own discipling process – the way in which we will grow as disciples ourselves, as well as help others to become and grow as followers of Jesus – we asked what does ‘discipleship’ actually look like? There are dozens of books written on discipleship, all with their own approach and emphasis on what it means to be Jesus’ followers. In the tradition of the Reformation, it will be important for us to go back to the source of our faith and listen to what Jesus and the New Testament writers teach us about discipleship. With this in mind, at last November’s Annual Business Meeting our congregation adopted the theme of Exploring Discipleship to help us formulate our discipling process.

The discipleship journey in Matthew’s gospel begins here as Jesus calls his first disciples (4:18-22). What I find amazing about this story is that when Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James and John to follow him, they leave their work, their boats and nets, even their family in obedience to their call. Over the years, I have had a number of people tell me that this story has nothing to say to us because we can’t leave our jobs, homes and family to go off and follow Jesus. I agree – if that was what Jesus was doing, then we would end up with a situation like the Middle Ages where people thought they had to join a monastery or convent to dedicate their lives to Jesus.

Thankfully, the Reformation taught us that we don’t have to become monks or nuns to follow Jesus, but that we do it in our homes, families, work and all our relationships. So if this story is about leaving something behind and following Jesus’ call to be his disciples, what are we being called to walk away from?

We will all come to this conversation about discipleship with our own particular view on what it means to be Christian, or a member of a church community, or how to reach out to others. I am wondering at this time, as we begin our discussions on our discipling process, if Jesus is calling us to leave behind what we are currently doing to follow him into a new way of being his disciples and discipling others. Just as Andrew, Peter, James and John left what they were doing to follow Jesus into an unknown future, maybe Jesus is asking us to do the same.

That will mean listening to Jesus’s words and the teachings of the New Testament with fresh ears. We need to be listening to Jesus as though we were hearing it for the first time so we can really hear what he is saying, rather than trying to make Jesus’ words fit in with what we already think. That will be risky and a little bit dangerous, because it will challenge ideas and beliefs we may have held for a long time, maybe even most of our lives. However, if we are going to follow Jesus faithfully, instead of going our own way and expecting him to come along with us, we will need to do our best to really hear what Jesus is saying and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how we can grow and help others to grow as Jesus’ disciples.

To help us think through how Jesus discipled others, each week I’m going to try to distil the reading for the day into one simple idea about what God’s word is saying about discipleship. Today, as we hear the story of Jesus calling the four fishermen to follow him, I’m thinking that…

Discipleship is…
… leaving what you’re doing & following Jesus into a new way.

I wonder if Andrew, Peter, James and John would still have followed Jesus had they known what was ahead of them. It is always safer and more comfortable to stay where we are and keep doing what we are doing. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter went back to what was safe and comfortable for him when he went fishing. But Jesus called him again to follow him into an unknown future (John 21:1-19). I wonder if, at this stage of our congregation’s life, Jesus is asking us to do the same.

Are we willing to leave behind what we are currently doing, and listen to Jesus with fresh ears? Are we willing to learn from him how to live as his followers, and how to help others become and then grow as his disciples? As we journey through this year, we will also be journeying with Jesus, listening to his voice, asking the Holy Spirit to give us fresh insights into what it means to be Jesus’ disciples, so together we can grow as his followers who fish for others.

More to think about:

  • How have you usually understood Jesus’ call to follow him? Have you thought about his call being purely for fulltime church workers or for all Christians?
  • Do you think it would be easy or difficult to listen to Jesus’ teachings with fresh ears? What might get in the way of listening to him clearly? What might help you listen to him clearly?
  • If you were to be faithful to Jesus’ call to follow him, what might you need to leave behind?
  • Does the idea of following Jesus into an unknown future scare you or excite you? What might worry you about it? What might be something you could look forward to?
  • How might following Jesus faithfully look for you this week?