More Than Enough (Matthew 14:13-21)

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Imagine you were having a picnic with family or friends. What would you do if you met some people you hadn’t seen for a while, you got to talking and then realised that it was time for lunch? Would you keep talking with them in the hope that they would soon leave so you could eat? Would you subtly tell them that it was lunch and probably time for them to move on? Or would you invite them to stay and share your picnic even though you might not really have enough for everyone?

Would your answer be the same if you were talking with five people? What if there were fifteen? Would you share your lunch with fifty? What if there were five thousand extra people who wanted to join your picnic? Would you share your food with them?

In some ways, this scenario starts to sound silly when we begin thinking about more than five people. However, when we ask ourselves if we would share our picnic with five, fifteen or even fifty people, then we might begin to understand the disciples’ reaction when Jesus told them to feed the five thousand men, plus women and children, in Matthew 14:13-21. Can you seriously imagine sharing your food with more than five thousand other people? The idea sounds ridiculous! It is impossible for us to imagine that five loaves of bread and two fish could feed that many people. However, the disciples trusted Jesus enough to give him what they had, and with his blessing on the food, it not only fed all those people but there were twelve baskets of leftovers!

People usually hear this story telling us that we should share what we have with others. Some people understand it saying that we should literally share our food with people who are hungry. I know of churches that started ministries in response to it, taking left-over bread to people. These ministries are good and can be a meaningful expression of grace from the congregation to those who are in need. However, John’s version of the story in chapter six moves into an extended reflection on who Jesus is as the eternal Bread of Life. This suggests to me that maybe the miraculous feeding of the five thousand isn’t actually about food at all. What if it’s about something much deeper…?

For example, over the last couple of months our congregation has been on a journey with our worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. After being fully online for a couple of months, we started meeting in groups of twenty to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in our hall. Then, as the restrictions eased, we have had services with larger numbers gathering until the people who worship at our early service were able to move back into the church building. This week, our later service will also be moving back into the church for the first time since March. Along the way I have been inviting feedback from people connected with our congregation about what we have been doing and what our possible next steps could be as we resumed our congregation’s various ministries. Generally, as people responded to me, what I heard people telling me was what they wanted, what they liked, or what suited them. I don’t want to sound critical of these responses – I understand them and want to hear what people think – but I wonder if they can also tell us something about our human condition.

How might we have responded if we were the disciples who brought the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, and he instructed us to give them to the five thousand men plus women and children who were with us? Would we have trusted Jesus and shared what we had with the crowds of people who were there? Or would we have preferred to keep the food for ourselves and let someone else look after the others?

An hour or two on Sunday morning isn’t a large amount of time. It is pretty small, like a meal of five loaves and two fish. But one thing I hear in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children) is that Jesus receives the little things we give him, blesses them, and is able to make a big difference in the lives of lots of people through them. Jesus promises that however little we might have, when we offer it to him in faith and share it with others in love, Jesus can provide for a lot of people through it.

With our conversations around worship over the last few months in mind, this story leads me to wonder: What might the worship life of our congregation be like if we did the same with our Sunday mornings? What might happen if, instead of coming to worship just with the desire or expectation to be fed, we gave this time to Jesus and asked them to bless it so that others could be fed? If we think about Sunday mornings as the loaves and fishes, I can understand that our default position might be to want to eat first and let others have whatever is left. The faith I see in the disciples who gave their food to Jesus, though, is that they trusted him and gave what they had first so others could be fed. The result was that there was more than enough for everyone, and there were still leftovers! Is it possible, if we offered our Sunday mornings and what we do in worship to Jesus first, we might find that not only we are fed, but others are fed with God’s grace and goodness and there is still enough to provide for us throughout the week?

This isn’t just about worship. I am using Sunday morning worship as an example because it is a question that has been simmering in our congregation for the last few months. We will continue talking about the form of our worship services as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and we look towards the future God intends for our congregation. The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (plus women and children) is basically about faith. In every area of our lives, do we believe that when we give even the smallest things to Jesus, he will bless them and provide more than enough for us so we can share God’s goodness and grace with others? Do we trust him to give him what we have, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, so Jesus can bless, provide for, and feed others through what we offer?

I’m not sure what I would do if my family’s picnic was crashed by others. I hope I would share our food with them, but I also know that sometimes our own desires and appetites can get in the way. The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells me that the One who gave everything out of love for us, not just his lunch but his whole life, has the power to take something small, like some loaves and fish, or a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, and do amazing things with them. What might happen if we gave what we have over to him in faith, asked him to bless it, and then shared it with the people around us?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Discuss or reflect on what you would do if five people you hadn’t seen for a while turned up unexpectedly at a picnic you were having. Would you share your food with them? What if it was fifteen, fifty, or five hundred people?
  • How do you honestly think the disciples might have reacted when Jesus told them to share their loaves and fishes with the crowds that day? Do you think they would have responded enthusiastically with unshakable faith? Or do you think they might have had a few doubts? Discuss your reasons for your thoughts.
  • Where do you see the disciples acting in faith in this story? Where do you see them acting in love for others?
  • I have used our congregation’s Sunday morning worship as an example of how we might sometimes think more of ourselves than others first. What are some other areas of life you might have seen people do that?
  • What are some things in your life that you would rather hang on to than give to Jesus so he can share them with others?
  • Why do you think we can find it hard to give what we have over to Jesus?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on what might happen if you gave something over to Jesus, no matter how small it might seem, in the faith that he would bless it and provide for other people through it…
  • What is something you can give to Jesus as an act of faith in him and love for others?

You can also see a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/VrEkBvq7_S8

God bless!

Worship Fully (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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A few months ago I was discussing with the small group leaders of our congregation what we might be able to look at as we entered the Advent season leading up to Christmas. One of the suggestions was the Advent Conspiracy. This resource uses the four weeks of Advent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth by challenging participants to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All. After looking at the Advent Conspiracy material, we decided to give it a go this year and begin to re-imagine how we might celebrate Christmas differently by putting Jesus’ birth at the centre of everything we did.

Last Sunday we began Advent by looking at what it means to Worship Fully. I find that any discussion about worship is challenging because it seems like everyone has an opinion on how, when and where Christians should or should not worship. We all have personal preferences about just about every aspect of worship such as the styles of music we sing, whether we have a formal, responsive liturgy or not, and a whole lot of other things. Personally speaking, I get concerned whenever people start voicing their opinions about worship because most of the time it is very easy to miss the point of what worship is supposed to be all about.

The word worship comes from an Old English word which can mean to give someone or something worth or value. The things we value most in life, then, can become the objects of our worship. That might be God or some other deity, but it might also be our material possessions, our relationships, our work or even our favourite sporting team. Usually, we value these things because we look for our own sense of self-worth or value in them. For example, we might value our possessions because owning them might give us a sense of self-worth. We might value our relationships because they make us feel valued and significant. A lot of people value their work because it helps them feel useful and worthwhile. Belonging to a sporting club or supporting a team can help us feel like we belong and give us a purpose to our lives.

The problem comes when the things that we value and in which we look for value come to an end, are taken from us, or fail to give us what we hope for. When we look for our self-worth in the things we own, we can spend our lives trying to get more and more as newer and better versions of these possessions are produced. When we look for our value in our relationships, we can end up feeling worthless if those relationships end or become increasingly dysfunctional. I know a lot of people who struggle with their own self-worth when they lose their jobs, retire from full-time employment, or are too old to do the things they used to do. If we’re looking for our value in our sporting teams, what happens when they lose or don’t achieve what we hope they will?

To Worship Fully at Christmas is much more than singing Christmas carols or going to church. It challenges us to ask what we value most about Christmas and where we look for our self-worth at this time of year. For some, we might find our value in the giving or receiving of presents. It might be in the family dinner and the gathering of relatives. For others, it might be in the activity that goes on around a lot of churches during the festive season. There are lots of ways we can look for self-worth at Christmas in the things that we value most of all. As I said, the problem is whether or not they are able to give us a sense of self-worth if we lose them or they are taken away from us.

When we look for our value in Jesus, we can find a sense of self-worth which can’t be taken from us and which we will never lose. One way we can understand the meaning of Christmas is that God gave us the most precious gift he had, his only Son, because he thinks we’re worth it! God values each and every person so much that he enters into the reality of human existence by being born to a teenaged girl in Bethlehem. God’s plan is to rescue us from our superficial and flawed attempts at finding our self-worth in the things we own, the things we do, or the people we are trying to be by giving us a value that can’t be calculated. God values us so much that he enters our lives and unites himself with us in Jesus. He takes our sin and brokenness to the cross because he values us more than we will ever understand in this world. Jesus defeats death, overcomes the grave and rises from the dead to show us how precious we are to him. The entire plan of salvation, from Jesus’ birth to his death, resurrection and ascension all point us to the value God places on each and every person. God does everything that is necessary to give our lives value and meaning by accepting us as we are, adopting us as his children and welcoming us into a new relationship with him.

Basically, Jesus enters the world as an infant at Christmas to save us because he reckons we are worth saving!

When we find our value in Jesus and his birth, life, death and resurrection for us, it is natural for us to worship him – to give him worth for everything he has done, is doing and will continue to do for us. This is what it means to Worship Fully, especially at Christmas. We can find a deep and lasting sense of our self-worth, not in the decorations or presents or meals or any of the other superficial trappings of this time of year, but in God’s gift of himself to us in the baby Jesus. When we trust that God gives us a sense of self-worth in Jesus, then we can worship him fully by making the birth of Jesus the one thing we value most about the Christmas season.

What do you value most about the Christmas season? What might that say about where you look for your sense of value and self-worth? How might you celebrate Christmas differently with your family, friends or church community if you intentionally looked for your value in the birth of Jesus and then valued him most of all? The other things aren’t wrong or bad, but how might they look different if we valued Jesus most of all as we find our value in him?

When we find our self-worth in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, then we can worship him fully with our whole lives, not just at Christmas.

Law Breakers (Mark 2:23-3:6)

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When we hear the story of Jesus’ disciples eating grain they had picked on the Sabbath day of rest in Mark 2:23-28, we might wonder what the Pharisees were so upset about. The disciples weren’t hurting anybody and I’m sure that the people who owned the field wouldn’t have missed a few stalks. So what’s the problem?

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, God said explicitly that his people were not to do any work on the seventh day of the week (vv8-11). What was called the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest. In order to define what was ‘work’ so the Jewish people could keep this commandment, a complicated set of rules developed which defined what a person was and was not allowed to do. From this perspective, picking grain from a paddock was considered ‘work’ and so the disciples were breaking God’s command.

The Pharisees’ reactions might appear to be a bit extreme, but do we sometimes react in a similar way? Most Christians have our own ideas about how we should observe our own day of rest. We might not have them written down, but most people I’ve known in the church have their own set of rules about what and how we should do what we do. I’m meaning things like what songs or hymns we should or shouldn’t sing, what liturgies we should or shouldn’t use, when we should sit and when we should stand, how people should dress, how children should behave, and the list could go on. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but most of us have a set of rules that we think people should follow in the church. Then, if people don’t do what we think they should, we can start to be critical of them, kind of like the Pharisees were of Jesus’ disciples.

What is ironic is that Christians are breaking the Sabbath law just by worshiping on Sunday. Biblically, the Sabbath day of rest is Saturday – just ask someone from the Jewish community or a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church. There are two main reasons I’m aware of why Christian changed it to Sunday. The first is that the early followers of Jesus met together on the first day of the week to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The second reason was because they wanted to send a clear message that we are no longer under the law but under grace. As people whose relationship with God and eternal futures are not based on whether or not we keep the law, we are free to meet together and worship whenever is good for the community of faith.

That is why Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying that ‘the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath’ (v27 NLT). Jesus teaches us that people were not created to be slaves of the law along with its rules and expectations. Instead, God gave us the law to serve us. Rules are meant to be a blessing, not a burden, especially in Christian community. If our rules are no longer serving God’s people, or if they are becoming a burden to God’s people, then we need to ask whether they are fulfilling God’s purpose. If that is the case, then maybe it is time to set those rules aside in the freedom the gospel gives us.

What seems to matter most to Jesus, not just in this story but all the way through the gospels, is people. If the rules get in the way of people finding grace or healing, love or forgiveness, then Jesus breaks the rules to give them what they need. This is what made the Pharisees so angry with Jesus, and even here, at the start of the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time are already starting to wonder how to get rid of him. They begin planning to kill him because Jesus prioritizes people over their rules. For Jesus, people are much more important that religious rules and laws.

What would our communities of faith be like if we took the same approach? I understand that we all have our preferences about when and how we worship, the style of music and liturgy (or lack of it), how people should dress and behave when they come to church. But how might our churches be different if we were willing to put our preferences and expectations aside and made people our priority?

In our congregation we have two worship services each Sunday: an earlier service with a more formal liturgy and hymns played on an organ, and a later service with less structured liturgy and a band playing more modern songs. I put the challenge out on Sunday for people to think about what things might be like if we prioritized the people of the other service – the young, the elderly, and everyone in between – over and above our own set of rules about what worship should or shouldn’t be. If we took Jesus’ words seriously about God giving us a Sabbath day of rest for our good with people being what matters most, how could we show others how important they are to Jesus by prioritizing them?

We need to remember that Jesus prioritizes each and every one of us by giving his life for us. We extend and communicate grace and love to each other when we prioritize each other and are willing to make others in our community of faith more important to us than our rules, laws and expectations. When we understand that Jesus prioritized people over rules, no matter what their age, background or gender might be, then we begin to embrace them in God’s grace and love as we follow him and do the same.

I have been serving this congregation now for almost three years. There are people in our church who think I am changing too many things too fast. There are others who think I’m not changing things quickly enough. This is the life of a pastor – it is impossible to keep everyone happy. However, the change I’m really working towards and hope to see is not about service times or styles of music or liturgy. The change I hope for is in our hearts. I would like us to recognize that rules were made for people, not people for rules, and that Jesus prioritized people over rules.

As followers of Jesus, then, I hope that we will make people our number one priority, even if it means breaking some rules to do it.

Easter 2018

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For Christians, the Easter weekend is one of the most important periods of the year as we journey with Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection from the grave. This year, our congregation tried a few different things in our services to try to help people connect with the events that are central to our faith and to find a greater sense of meaning in them. Rather than write out each message in detail, I’m going to provide a brief summary of what we did and what I said at each service.

We began on Maundy Thursday in the hall. This service commemorates Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before his death, so we wanted to try to help people experience the Lord’s Supper as the family meal for the people of God. We welcomed worshippers in the church foyer where we offered to wash their feet, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. From there, people moved into the hall where chairs were arranged in the round. At the centre was a table on which were the bread and wine for Holy Communion. The service order was very simple, with Bible readings and prayers being done by people from their seats. We closed with Psalm 88 being read as we removed what was on the table and reflected on what Jesus suffered after the meal.

My message was based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul was passing on to the Christians in Corinth what he had received from Jesus – the words used whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For almost two thousand years, these words have been passed on from generation to generation of Jesus’ followers as they have proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ death which brings life to those who have come after them. The promise we receive through these words is the real presence of Jesus with us in all the circumstances of life, and the gift of his life which is stronger than death. The challenge these words present to us is to pass them on to the generation that is coming after us. Will we, as the family of God and the body of the living Christ, be willing to do whatever is necessary to pass on the good news of Jesus’ death and the meal he gave us to the next generation so they can live in the love and grace of Jesus?

On Good Friday morning we gathered outside the church and then moved as a group to five different areas around the church grounds to hear the story of Jesus arrest, suffering and death from Mark 14:32-15:47. We divided up the story into five scenes – Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the Jewish High Council, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, and then his crucifixion and death. Various people read the words of the different characters in the story and there were one or two props at each place to help set the scene. It was all kept very simple to give the congregation a chance to imagine what it may have been like for Jesus and his followers. After the story, I gave a short message, we spent some time in prayer, and people were welcome to remain for some time of reflection and meditation.

Our hope for the service was to help people move from being spectators to participants in the story by following Jesus the way the crowd might have done. When we spectate at sporting events, theatre performances or concerts, there is a divide between us and the participants. The same can happen with Jesus’ suffering and death – when we are just spectators of the events, a divide exists between us and Jesus. However, Jesus overcomes the divide between us and God through his death, signified by the tearing of the curtain in the Temple (Mark 15:38). Jesus invites us to participate in his death through faith in him, so we can also participate in the life of God through his Holy Spirit. As long as we are spectators of Jesus death, we miss out on its benefits in our lives. When we participate in Jesus’ suffering and death through faith, we can find life in all its fullness.

On Easter morning more than sixty of us met at the picnic ground at Anstey Hill Recreation Park for a dawn service. Like we did on Maundy Thursday evening, we gathered around a table with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection and remembered that the life of the risen Christ is our life through his gift of his Holy Spirit. We were blessed with a beautiful sunrise as people who had gathered participated in the Bible readings, including the resurrection story from Mark 16:1-8, an affirmation of Baptism, resurrection songs, and prayers. Then some of us went back to church for breakfast and to continue celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at our regular worship times.

I realised early in the year that Easter Sunday was going to be on April Fools’ Day. When the women who were first at Jesus’ empty tomb had gone back to the disciples, I wonder if they thought that the women were trying to fool them. The news of the resurrection of Jesus can sound like an April Fools’ Day joke because in our experience dead people don’t come back to life. From a worldly point of view, the message of Jesus’ resurrection sounds pretty foolish. A group of Christians, sitting in a park, singing songs at dawn probably also looked foolish to the early morning walkers who saw us. Paul tells us that the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection will sound foolish to people who don’t believe (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). However, we can trust the message of the resurrection of Jesus because Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 that more than five hundred people saw the risen Jesus, including himself. This wasn’t just a story Jesus’ followers made up, or a hope that Jesus would somehow live on in the memory of his disciples. They saw him and were even willing to die for the truth that Jesus is risen from the grave. In our own lives, too, faith that Jesus’ resurrection gives us a life which is stronger than the difficulties, pains, uncertainties and struggles we might be experiencing, can give us a hope that gets us through the darkest and most difficult of times. This hope says to me that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead makes a real difference for us.

I was over at the shops this morning. All the Easter decorations have gone already. As followers of Jesus, though, our Easter celebrations have just started. For the next six weeks, we will continue to rejoice in the good news that Jesus suffered, died and is risen again for us to give us life that is stronger than death. Whatever you might be going through in life, what we experience in this world will one day come to an end. The life of Jesus that is yours through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit will never end.

As the sun comes up each day, I hope and pray you can find that hope in him.

Transformed Minds (Romans 12:1-8)

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Transformers are a popular line of toys and move franchise where giant alien robots disguise themselves as machines to live among us. They blend in as cars, trucks, planes and other machines, but when they are defending the world from other alien attackers, they transform to work for good and defeat evil. Transformers make great toys as you change them from cars or planes, and back again.

When Paul writes to the church in Rome about God transforming them, he is talking about something similar to us being Transformers. He tells Christians to ‘not conform to the pattern of this world’ (NIV). It is easy for us to want to blend in to the way the world thinks and lives by copying the ‘behaviours and customs’ (NLT) of the world in which we live. It can be hard for people to see anything different about us as we adopt the attitudes, morals and values of a world that is essentially self-serving and makes what is good for me as my first priority. Like the Transformers, we can want to blend in so we don’t stand out and people don’t recognise who we really are.

However, Paul tells us that God wants to be transforming us into something different than what the world sees. This text is a pivotal part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. To this point he has been explaining the mercy God shows us in Jesus. Now he states that, based on that mercy, we are called to be different to the world, to stand out as God’s people by offering our bodies to God as living sacrifices that are holy and pleasing to God, as our act of on-going worship. For us to do this, we need to be changed from the inside out as God renews our minds and makes us more and more into people whose lives resemble Jesus.

This transformation isn’t something that we do. Paul uses what is known as a ‘divine passive’ when he writes ‘be transformed’ to show that it is something God does in us by the power of his Holy Spirit. As we engage and wrestle with God’s word, God transforms us by:

  • showing us who we can be – all of Scripture, and the New Testament in particular, shows us who God wants to be and the people into which God wants to transform us; Paul gives us a picture of the transformed life of a Christian in the following chapters of Romans
  • calling us to repentance and faith in the gospel – this was the basic message of Jesus (see Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 24:47, John 6:29) as he called people to a new relationship with God through faith
  • forgiving us and renewing us – forgiveness isn’t just wiping our spiritual slates clean from sin, but it makes us new people as God gives us the righteousness of Jesus to makes us righteous people so we can live righteous lives (Romans 3:22, 4:5)

God continues to transform us throughout our lives. It isn’t just a one-off action. The verb Paul uses describes on-going action as God continually works on us to shape us into the people he wants us to be. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we or other people get it wrong and fall short of the kind of life that God wants to work in us. Instead, by experiencing grace is critical to God’s transforming work. When we fail to live as the people God calls us to be, as we turn to God as the source of everything that gives life, and as we experience grace through God’s promise of forgiveness and in relationship with each other, the Holy Spirit is at work, refining us, growing us, transforming us into the individuals and the community that he intends us to be. Some call this transformation ‘sanctification’ as God purifies us as his holy people. We can also call this transformation ‘discipleship’.

What kind of person do we want to be? Do we want to be people who conform to the world around us by adopting the behaviours and customs of our culture? Or do we want to be transformed– people whose minds are made new by the power of God’s Spirit through the gospel of Jesus, who offer our bodies as living sacrifices through which God will work in his unfolding plan of redemption? The Transformers in the movie regularly save the world when they take their true form, even though they stand out as being different. When God transforms us, we will be different to the people around us, but we will also be participating in God’s plan to save the world through Jesus.

More to think about:

  • Would you prefer to be someone that blends in with other people or are you happy to stand out as someone who’s different? Why do you think you tend to do that?
  • In what ways is it easy for us as Christians to conform to the ‘behaviours and customs’ of our society? Why do you think we do that?
  • Why do you think it was important for Paul that Christians didn’t conform to their culture, but were transformed into a new person?
  • I’ve described this transforming work as something God does in us as a continual process. Why is it important to focus on what God wants to do in us through his word by the power of his Holy Spirit rather than think that we need to do it?
  • Read the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans. What do these chapters tell us about the kind of people & community God wants to transform us into?

Intergenerational Worship

I came across this blog post on Why Intergenerational Worship? & thought I’d put it out there for people to read & comment on. In it, the author writes:

‘… churches that encouraged intergenerational connections and worship and youth that felt involved and connected to the larger church had a much greater chance of remaining in church post high school.’

What do you think? How can we become more intergenerational in our worship?