Most people reading the title above will wonder what the debate is about—but in different directions. Some will say ‘of course is it’ and others ‘of course it isn’t’. The latest title in the Grove Ethics series explores this vexed question and is a powerful and important stu
Apparently, nearly 9 out of 10 people in the United States say they believe in heaven, according to a recent ABC News poll. But what exactly do people think of when they think of an afterlife and what do they believe is required to get there?
Almost every culture has wrestled with the question of an afterlife, and most have come to a similar conclusion: the bad end up going to somewhere bad – hell, the good go to somewhere good – heaven. This doesn’t really help much though – it kind of begs the question, “ok, but what is heaven?” And then of course, there is another question – “how might our answer to that question change in light of a faith in Christ?”
I think it’s quite likely if we asked that same question – what is heaven? – of people in our community they would come up with a range of very different answers. These might include:
- Angels with harps sitting on a cloud
- A ‘higher place’
- A place of eternal bliss, whatever that means
- A place of peace and tranquility
- God’s home
- A promise made by God to be with him
- A place where people are more real, and to stay one has to give up one’s abiding sin
- A cross between a perfect beach and the Lake District – before tourism
- Same place as hell
- A place where people are happy, dancing in nice gowns, don’t have any problems and pains and can feel Gods neverending love and comfort.
- Nothing – there is no heaven – echoing John Lennon’s famous song Imagine in which he said “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.”
I don’t know if you were aware that (according to the Wikipedia article) John Lennon was apparently inspired to write that song after reading a Christian prayer book. When asked about the song in one of his last interviews he said “The concept of positive prayer…If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true…the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” So although we may understand from this that he was challenging the division of religions, he wasn’t questioning religion per se. And if you take religion out of the equation, then it is hard to see how you can be left with any concept of heaven and what it might be like. In light of this, I don’t think it is easy at all to imagine there is no heaven!!!
Why is it that the majority of people – nearly 9 out of 10 – in that poll expressed a belief in heaven, even though fewer than 9 out of 10 people even professed a faith? Questions like “where are we going?”, “what happens next?”, “what happens to me when I die” are questions that everyone grapples with, whether consciously or subconsciously, whether professing a faith or no faith.
Does the Bible paint us a picture of heaven?
When we turn to the Bible, it does paint us a picture of heaven, but we have to scratch beneath the surface a bit to see. We do “see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now we know in part; but then shall we know even as also we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and even if that picture was totally clear to see, I think it would completely blow us away and we wouldn’t have the capacity to fully understand or appreciate it.
In Ecclesiastes, we are told “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is interesting in light of that to read about the God gene hypothesis which proposes that a specific gene (VMAT2) predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences. It looks like science sometimes takes a while to catch up with religion and theology!
In his great book ‘Surprised by Hope’, Bishop Tom Wright poses two questions “First, what is Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven’, of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions appear as unrelated. But if the Christian hope for God’s new creation, for a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to answer the two questions together.”
The point is as Christians we should not be confused about matters of eternity, about hope or about heaven; more rather as Christians we should be excited by hope, and the prospect of heaven. We need to live our life and faith shaped by eternity, not simply by the here and now. “Among the early Christians, there is complete uniformity about the hope that Christians confess – our hope is in God restoring creation, the new heaven and the new earth, not in God whisking us off to a disembodied eternity on a cloud somewhere!” I think it is all too easy for us to live our life and faith in ignorance of the astonishing consequences of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. “Jesus’ appearing will be, for those of us who have known and loved him here, like meeting, face to face someone we have only known by letter, or perhaps email.”
So when we consider our readings today, I want to first set the scene with our reading from the Book of Revelation before looking at the Gospel reading and see how they help us to grapple with these questions and matters of faith and reveal to us something of heaven and hope. Some points to consider:
- There will be a new heaven and a new earth.
This world that we live in is not a mistake – God does not make mistakes. There will be a coming together of heaven and earth. Tom Wright again – “The Bible does not teach that the end of the story is that Christians go off to heaven as naked souls. Rather the Bible teaches that the new heaven and the new earth come down to earth.” This world will be taken, transformed and redeemed – because that is what God does. That is the work that he began through his Son, our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ. This is the work that he will take to completion, and is an integral part of his Kingdom having come, his Kingdom coming or breaking in now and his Kingdom fully coming in the future when Jesus Christ returns. It is like worlds colliding. It is where God takes this world and shakes the hell out of it.
2. We will be God’s people and God will dwell with us.
This speaks of relationship, fellowship, unity, restoration, love, and intimacy. It has undertones of the bringing in of peace – the Shalom – wholeness, completeness, rightness that Jewish people speak of; but also of justice and fairness.
3. He will wipe every tear from our eyes
There are times when we encounter the brokenness of this world that we feel like crying a river of tears. If we feel like this, imagine how God must feel? The Bible speaks of God as the Comforter. This is brought out so well in the songwriter Michael Card’s beautiful song called the Job Suite in which he sings the story of Job:
“Lord, send a Comforter now to my door,
So that this terror will frighten no more:
A Counsellor between us, to come hear my oath;
Someone who could lay a hand on us both.”
We are created in God’s image and likeness; in some small measure, I believe we can empathise with God in those times when we are closest to him. It is good to share one another’s burdens and comfort one another, as God seeks to comfort us by his presence. In having that empathy, we are reminded that God has searched us and knows us. He knows “when we sit down and when we rise up; he discerns our thoughts from far away. He searches out our paths and our lying down, and is acquainted with all our ways.” (Psalm 139:1-3)
Our very tears are precious to God. I have come to understand that as my children grew up; you know, those times when they wept and I kissed away their tears and told them it would all be ok – and it was? In the Psalms we are told: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (Psalm 56:8). God doesn’t forget. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
4. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away
One of the most powerful statements I think that Jesus ever made was “It is finished” (John 19:30). As a result of what Jesus did for us on the cross, he conquered sin and death. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. We must live our lives in the knowledge of that truth. There WILL come a time when in God’s grace we fully embrace that reality.
5. I am making everything new!
I like to think of this in this way…everything that is broken and wrong will be fixed. Hallelujah! And let’s be clear, it used that fully inclusive word, EVERYTHING. In God’s economy nothing is wasted. He can take, transform and redeem everything – even the most broken, most desperate and bleakest situations and things.
6. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life
We are powerfully reminded here about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman – the woman at the well – “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15). Are you world-weary, and feeling spiritually impoverished? If you are, drink and drink deeply so that your thirst might truly be quenched.
In light of these thoughts on that incredible passage from the book of Revelation, we look at our Gospel reading – perhaps with fresh eyes:
- Mary had had an encounter with death and was heartbroken – she was utterly and doubly devastated – not only because of losing her brother, but also because deep down she knew that Jesus could have prevented it – had he been there. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
- Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. We must never think that God is unaffected by suffering, injustice and the wrongs of this world. Jesus wept, we are told, and continued to be deeply moved.
- Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Can you hear his voice now saying the same thing to you? He also says “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). God has made promises to us…if we believe and trust in him – and unlike us, he ALWAYS delivers and comes through.
- Lazarus was not resurrected at that time; instead he was raised from the dead. There is a huge difference between being raised from the dead and resurrection. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was stood there alive as he always had been. When Lazarus later died, in coming to the resurrection he would have a resurrection body – recognisably him, but different. We must get away from the unhelpful picture of a soul – and bear in mind that we are flesh and blood – we are embodied, as well as spiritual beings. That is precisely why we have the capacity to love God with all our heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intellect, mental capacity) and strength (physicality). But what we see here is Jesus’ not so subtle clue that he really did come to conquer sin and death.
There are circumstances in life that cause us to lose hope, to lose sight of eternity and lose that connection with God. It may be that we have lost loved ones, and are keenly aware of their absence. It may be that we encounter grief for many other reasons – unfulfilled hopes and dreams, relationships that have not worked out or the many challenges in life. As a consequence, we may feel like we are dead inside, almost as if we have given up and lost hope. It is into these situations that Jesus comes and commands that the grave clothes are taken off and we are set free – to be all that we are called to be in him. That is a people deeply loved by God, in close friendship with him, a people who believe and trust in him – a people not destined for death, brokenness and pain but a people who one day will see life in all its glory like 3D HD Technicolor compared to B&W.
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” Is it? Is it really that easy? I think not. Amen
In the first sermon in this series on discipleship, one of the things I said was “our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him.” And so in this sermon today, I wanted us to spend some time together looking at role models of faith – people who had those grace-touched moments in their lives when their understanding of and belief in Christ was revealed in how they responded to him, and the subsequent impact it had on their lives.
This is something we will all hopefully find to be both challenging and encouraging in our walk of faith and growth as disciples. The aim is that by considering role models of faith who we wouldn’t necessarily first think of, whose experiences can nonetheless give us food for thought, we might be encouraged to examine:
- What we believe, and what is our understanding of Jesus Christ?
- What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
- How we might respond in light of that belief, and so…
Be encouraged to reflect on and review what impact being a Disciples of Jesus has in our lives.
If you want a concrete example of the impact that role models of faith have in our life, think of the times when people from the congregation have stood up and shared testimony with us here, and the way in which it has been deeply moving and / or encouraging and how it has helped to shape and inform our identity and character as a church.
Some of my role models
With that in mind I want to share with you some role models of faith from my journey:
John was an elder from a housechurch I attended for three years in Birmingham. He was like a second father to me. It is hard to explain why, but we simply connected. John was someone who mentored me, who was always happy to discuss the things of faith I struggled with and not stick to script on the church discipleship course all members were supposed to take.
I got to know Judy roughly 7 years ago as I began to get involved in a Fresh Expression of church that involved a form of online ministry. Despite the fact that she lives in America, and for the first 6 of those years we never met in flesh and blood, we made a connection. Judy became one of my accountability partners, someone who is constant and true, a ‘critical friend’; someone who sees Christ in me, and even though we have some profound theological differences, she has deepened my walk of faith and my journey of discipleship and always been there through my darkest and lightest times. She has seen me at my best, and at my worst and still loves me like a sister loves a brother.
Barbara was a member of my former congregation who I used to visit and take home communion to. I always used to ask her if there was anything specific she wanted prayer for, and without exception her request was always for someone else and never about herself. She was always self-effacing, and never once complained about anything. She had a deep faith that was built on solid ground. One day when I visited she said she had something she wanted to share with me; she told me that she was dying from cancer and had been aware of it for quite some time. She wanted me to know because she had to go into hospital and didn’t want anyone to wonder where she was. Her faith, even to the end, was unwavering. She was grace-touched, deeply aware of the presence of Christ and ready to meet her maker. I was humbled.
These are some, but not all of my role models of faith from my lived experience. Now, if I asked you who might be our role models in the Gospel accounts, we certainly may well think again of the disciples. Don’t get me wrong – I think that rightly the disciples can and should be amongst our role models. If you remember last time when I spoke about failure and grace, I said that one of the reasons Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.
Despite this, it is still all too easy to set people on a pedestal. It is easy to think about the up-front public ministries as being of more importance than other forms of ministry. But show me someone who is an encourager, a helper, an intercessor or a nurturer any time – you know who I mean – the person who comes alongside you at just the right time and speaks words of truth, encouragement, life and affirmation to you, or the person who helps set up and clear away the tables and chairs or helps to wash up, the person who diligently prays for the people in this church and our local community without drawing attention to themselves, and the people who gently inspire those new to faith in the faith. All of these people are people who are grace-touched and have that revelation of Christ. You see something of Christ in them.
My role models from Mark’s Gospel
With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to 3 of my role models from Mark’s Gospel who were not disciples, at least not at first! These were people who simply got it!
- The man with an evil spirit (Legion) – Mark 5:1-20
- The man was in a terrible and desperate place few if any can ever really understand. He had been treated as sub-human, often bound in chains. The state of his affliction was horrific – he had lost control due to possession, and incapable of living with the dignity and esteem of his humanity. He was tormented and controlled by the forces of evil. He was possessed by an unclean spirit, and lived in the tombs amongst the dead bodies which would have been considered unclean, and his condition and circumstances meant that he was alienated from the society he was part of.
- He was deeply disturbed – tormented. He self-harmed, and would cut himself with stones and cry out. For anyone witnessing that it must have been deeply disturbing.
- When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. We see Jesus’ power and authority at work – even though evil, the unclean spirit both recognised and acknowledged Jesus’ divinity. It is a powerful reminder to us that Jesus has the power, the authority and the victory.
- The man went on a journey of profound transition – from captivity to freedom, insanity to sanity, despair to hope, devastation to restoration, and unclothed to clothed. It was such a profound transition, that people who had witnessed how the man had been before were afraid.
- Jesus told the man “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
- Do we ever write off people because we are judgemental, and have a lack of faith that God can and does transform lives? Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace is sufficient for us?
- The woman with the issue of blood – Mark 5:21-43
- The woman had undergone all manner of treatments from physicians over the course of 12 years; she had spent all she had. She was triply outcast from society because she was in poverty, unclean (and could never undergo ritual purification (Leviticus 15:19ff) and she was a woman (and therefore considered lesser in a patriarchal society). And yet, she had heard about Jesus and expressed an incredible faith. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” She didn’t need or expect to have Jesus’ full attention; she didn’t need or expect to be in the limelight and the focus of his attention. In some way she had a revelation of Christ where she recognised his power and holiness.
- She responded to Jesus with humility, reverence and honesty. She “…came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” When people “got” Jesus and had the deep encounter and revelation of him they tended to fall to their knees in worship.
- Jesus spoke of her as a “daughter”, i.e. no longer an outcast but one of the family. He affirmed her, blessed her and assured her. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
- The widow’s offering – Mark 12:41-44
- This short passage speaks volumes about the heart-attitude that the woman had. We see in her actions a true act of sacrifice and commitment. In our giving, it is not the amount that we give that matters to God, it is the attitude with which we give it. This doesn’t simply apply to our financial resources, but to our time and talents too.
- We are reminded of this in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
So there you have it; 3 of my role models of faith from Mark’s gospel. The full list of my role models in Mark’s Gospel is a long one! But I hope that these insights have given you food for thought.
Introductory Activity and Questions
- In 2’s or 3’s, share with each other examples of people who have been your role models of faith in your own personal journeys of faith – people who you have encountered who have inspired you or encouraged you in your faith. Can you share who these people were?
- What was it about them that inspired or encouraged you?
- If you could make a list of the hallmarks or characteristics of a role model or Christian mentor, what would it include? Here is what mine includes:
- Humility – grace-touched, with a gentle spirit
- Aware of the love of God for them and others; someone who gives God the glory
- Someone with a grateful heart
- Affirming and encouraging – not possessing a critical spirit
- Challenging – able to speak the truth in love
- Availability and hospitality
- Good stewards of all God has blessed them with (time, talents and resources)
- Maturity of faith, and attitude – balanced and experienced, grounded in God’s word and secure
- Transparency – someone who is honest and genuine
- Good track record – a person of integrity, someone who practices what they preach, and is consistent across all walks of life
- Someone who is real and recognises that they are a work in progress
- What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
- How we might respond in light of that belief – what three things could we do between now and Christmas to deepen our faith OR the faith of others?
The man with an evil spirit (Legion)
- Think about any people you may have encountered who have gone through a massive change in their life as a result of coming to faith and share this in 2’s or 3’s.
- The people who saw the change in the man were afraid, perhaps doubting that the man really had come to a place of healing and wholeness. How do we avoid being judgemental and sceptical about people who have gone through a huge U-turn in life to come to a place of faith in Christ?
- We are all likely to have seen examples of where God has transformed people’s lives (including hopefully our own). When people don’t seem to grow or respond, what are the likely reasons for that?
- Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace really is sufficient for us? Do we ever feel inadequate, not good enough, perhaps held back by events in the past? How can we encourage each other to enter into that deeper relationship with Christ? How can we develop tenacity and sticking power, to “run the race” – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
The woman with the issue of blood
- In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
- What does holiness mean? Discuss in 2’s or 3’s.
- How does our belief, and our view of Christ affect our worship?
- Is Sunday the end of the week or the beginning of the week for us? What is our hope and expectation of worship on a Sunday? Is it all about us, or is it all about God? Remember the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship and fellowship with God.
The widow’s offering
- In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
- Discuss the following passage in 2’s or 3’s.
“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)
What does being a disciple mean to you?
At the beginning of this series on discipleship, I asked the question “What does being a disciple mean to you?” and together we explored how we might complete the sentence “A disciple is someone who…” Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience.
It is very easy for us to think about the life and ministry of the disciples and in some ways set them on a pedestal, and to almost come to some sort of subconscious belief or view that we would never make the grade…or think that we aren’t good enough to be disciples. But perhaps surprisingly when we think about words we might associate with discipleship, another word I believe we should include is failure.
The Missionary George Smith
Many years ago, a Moravian missionary named George Smith went to Africa. He had been there only a short time and had only one convert, a poor woman, when he was driven from the country. He died shortly afterward, on his knees, praying for Africa. He was considered a failure. But a company of men stumbled onto the place where he had prayed and found a copy of the Bible he had left. Shortly after they met the one poor woman who was his convert.
A hundred years later his mission counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith.
How Mark portrays the disciples
I don’t know if you have ever worked through Mark’s gospel and looked at the way in which he chose to depict the disciples. Some theologians say that of all of the Gospel accounts, Mark’s Gospel is the most critical about the disciples. It is easy at first glance to see why:
- The disciples failed to understand Jesus’ parables (only Mark 4:13; cf. Matt 13:16-17, 51)
- When they spoke with Jesus in the boat, they didn’t understand what he meant (Mark 8:14-21; cf. Matt 16:5-12; Luke 12:1)
- After the first Passion prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter (Mark 8:32-33)
- The disciples were unable to perform an exorcism (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matt 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43a)
- After the second Passion prediction, the disciples argued about which of them was “greatest” (Mark 9:33-34)
- After the third Passion prediction, James and John asked for “seats of honour” (Mark 10:35-40)
- Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities (Mark 14:10-11, 18-21, 41-46)
- Peter denied even knowing Jesus (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72)
- All the disciples ran away after Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-52; cf. 14:27)
- The women left the empty tomb in fear and silence (Mark 16:8)
Their track record certainly leaves a lot to be desired doesn’t it? Are these the kind of people we should really put on a pedestal? Are these the kind of people we should aspire to be?
Mark is also critical about the ways in which the disciples responded to Jesus because of their lack of insight and understanding:
- The disciples “pursued” or “hunted for” Jesus despite Jesus having got up early for a quiet time to be with His Father (only Mark 1:36)
- They were afraid during a storm and were reproached for lacking faith (only Mark 4:40; cf. Luke 8:25)
- After Jesus walked on water, they didn’t understand about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (only Mark 6:52; cf. Matt 14:28-32)
- They had eyes that didn’t see and ears that didn’t hear (only Mark 8:18-19; cf. Matt 16:12)
- The disciples didn’t believe the resurrection witnesses (Mark 16:13, 14, 16)
Hope in the midst of failure
One of the most striking examples of failure in Mark’s Gospel can be found in the account of Peter’s denial of Christ. “You will all fall away… before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” Even in the starkness of this passage, we see something of God’s grace which at the time probably went completely over the heads of the disciples. It is easy for us to miss it too. Jesus said “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” In other words, despite knowing how the disciples would desert him, and despite knowing that Peter would disown him three times, Jesus still gave an assurance that they would come back together once again after he had risen. And as we know from the Gospel accounts, Peter was indeed forgiven, reinstated and also transformed. God’s strength was made perfect in his weakness – he was grace touched for the rest of his life and ministry, and Jesus’ prophetic words about him became true… “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
I think one of the reasons why Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too. And when, like the disciples, our track record leaves a lot to be desired and we too show a lack of insight and understanding, Jesus will be right there waiting for us – strength to prevail, and grace and mercy when we fail.
One of the things that saddens me the most is when I see people who are too paralysed by fear – fear of so many things – to even try, people who can’t let go and let God. And one of the things that perpetuates that fear is how critical the church – and I mean the church in general – can sometimes be. Jesus said “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) People who are critical often have critical spirits and are not at peace with themselves or with God; if they were grace-touched, and were truly aware of their poverty of spirit, they would also be grace givers. We are called to disciple each other, and spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Faith is being able to risk failure…“faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)
A journey into grace
Mark’s portrayal of the disciples reminds us that we are not called to follow the disciples who have gone on before us, or even the disciples we journey with now; we are called to follow Christ and Christ alone. The writer and Senior Pastor Revd Michael Foss said “Leaders in the church should not have disciples. When they do, the community of faith all too often degenerates into a personality cult. When the leader leaves, the church falls apart. The leader’s call is not to gather people around himself or herself, but to gather them around Jesus.” If you go into any church and expect to see perfection when you look at its leadership, then you will find your expectations dashed. If you go into a church and hope to see a leadership that is grace-touched, hope-filled, alive with a knowledge of God’s awesome love with a heart to work out faith with fear and trembling, then you may find your hopes realised. It is said there is no such thing as a perfect church and no such thing as a perfect congregation either.
People have dignity when they can make decisions and then live with the consequences of those decisions, even if the decisions that they have taken were wrong. But when we have the freedom and ability to make decisions, we need to be clear we MUST accept responsibility for making them and be prepared to live with and journey through the consequences, as uncomfortable as it may make us.
Of equal importance is realising that in God’s economy it is only when we are in that place of failure can we acknowledge more fully our dependency on and need for God and his love and grace. It is only when we recognise the depth of the poverty of our spirit that we can recognise and appreciate the enormity of God’s lavish grace. If there are times when you feel that you aren’t good enough, the reality is none of us are…not one. “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a). In the knowing, the deep knowing that we are not good enough, there is an even deeper truth we must write on the tablet of our hearts – we are infinitely loved by a God who made us. Sometimes we have to journey to come to a realisation of that.
The mark of a genuine disciple is someone who journeys well with and through failure, someone who in the depth of their brokenness can say like Job in all integrity “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
Michael Foss also said “Modelling discipleship means being honest and transparent about one’s own life of faith, admitting difficulties where they exist, owning up to mistakes, and making amends – but never as failure! In a discipleship church, failure is not failure if we learn from it, grow from it, and change as a result of it.” The mark of a disciple is when we are no longer in fear because we know the love of God.
The culture we must seek to foster together in being disciples is a culture of grace, forgiveness and self-sacrificial living; we must seek to put away “…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2) Yes, there will be times when we might say something to each other that “gets our back up”; there might be times when we cause offence, and likely there will be times when we fail to live up to expectations. But I ask you to exercise grace, I ask you to love each other sacrificially, I ask you to seek to look at one another as God sees you – as beloved children. And I ask you to remember, always remember, this:
“He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
So when we go out this week, let our memory verse be this: “Go and learn what this means…I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
I hope you are encouraged by this aspect of discipleship. I hope that you approach Mark’s gospel with a different perspective. I hope you realise that God call people just like them, just like you, and just like me. I hope you find courage to step out in faith, to try…God knows your heart. He knows mine. And every time we fail, as at times we will, then together let’s journey into a deeper knowledge of God’s love and grace. And let’s celebrate those glorious times we truly shine with the light of Christ and his strength really is made perfect in our weakness.
Well said…and let’s pray that all in attendance may come with a heart for unity, a passion for Christ, and a desire to listen, both to God and one another
It was announced yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited the Primates of the Anglican Communion to Canterbury in January 2016 to discuss the (futures) of their relationships and organisation.
Note that he has ‘invited’ them. This has been translated into media-speak as ‘summonsed’. First, he cannot summons them or demand that they come. He is not a pope. So, the translation from invitation to summons is either lazy journalese or deliberate obfuscation.
Secondly, contrary to much reporting, he has not decided on these futures, but has put everyhting on the table in order that the Primates together can discuss and decide on their future shape.
What is so hard to understand about this?
It seems to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown some clear leadership here by (a) insisting that the continuing and debilitating Communion issues now be confronted and addressed and resolved, and (b) that…
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As I was thinking and praying about this particular theme, it really struck me that in the context of discipleship there are often pairs of words that very much go together; words like “calling and following” “commissioning and sending”, and “failure and grace” – which will all feature in this series.
My hope and heartfelt prayer is that this series would stir us all up and encourage us to live more intentionally as Disciples of Christ, and give us a passion to deepen our relationship with God and along the way have some of those lightbulb moments when perhaps we may have some revelation about discipleship that we hadn’t had before.
And so our series begins today as we look at calling and following.
I wanted to begin by asking you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what your response to the following question might be “What does being a disciple mean to you?”. You may even wish to jot your responses down on a piece of paper.
Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience. Jesus didn’t simply call his disciples and then say “ok, now you have responded, on your way…get on with it.” Instead once they had responded to his call, Jesus commissioned or equipped and then sent them. Next week’s service will take a look at the nature of commissioning, and being sent.
It is interesting how the Evangelists give a realistic portrayal of good and bad traits in the disciples; Mark in particular tends to cover the many failures of the disciples, and we will be looking at that in more detail when we think about failure and grace in this series. All however also show how Jesus:
- Taught them (Mark 4:10–12),
- Corrected them (Matthew 16:5–12),
- Admonished them (Matthew 17:19–20),
- Supported them (Luke 22:31–34),
- Comforted them (John 20:19–22) and
- Restored them (John 21:15–19).
In turn the disciples could become examples of what Jesus desires to do for the church (Matthew 28:19–20). In becoming disciples ourselves, if our expectation is that we will enter in to that relationship with Christ and remain unchanged, then we are deluding ourselves.
When we are shaped and moulded by God it is because ALL of us are works in progress…none of us are the finished article. The paradox is, as we draw closer to a holy and awesome God and we begin to capture a vision of his holiness, we recognise our own poverty of spirit…and the enormity of his grace and love. I hope people can see that I am grace touched. I hope people might see how Christ has made a difference in my life despite me; but I hope even more that he would continue to make an even bigger difference in my life as I seek to follow him.
The difference in how we respond
If I asked you the question “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” I would certainly hope that the response would be a unified “Yes”. And if I then asked the question “Do you follow Christ”, then again I would certainly hope that the response would be another unified “Yes”.
The thing is, our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him. There are some people who merely think that Jesus was a prophet, a wise and gifted person. That paints a very different picture to believing that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Depending on whether we believe the former or the latter, the way we live our faith and our very world view will be changed.
There were those who followed Jesus because they were called, and they subsequently responded and believed. But there were also those who followed Jesus because of sensationalism – the crowds. He called both the crowd and his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The crowd in the main may have followed in the absence of belief. There were many who followed Jesus and yet not all believed and some even fell away because the price – the sacrifice they had to make – the cost of discipleship – was too great.
It is also possible to someone to believe and choose not to follow. Even Satan believes in Christ. Yet Satan does not follow Christ. Whereas the disciples followed as well as believed and the faith and belief they had in Christ, which took time to develop in each and every one of them resulted in the growth of Christianity as we know.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry his disciples were called to “follow” Jesus, and in responding they demonstrated a conscious and intentional allegiance to his person. Now, Jewish disciples would typically follow their master around, often literally imitating or emulating him. But there were some striking differences about Jesus and his disciples:
- Jewish disciples would choose and approach the rabbi they wanted to follow and be disciples of, and if and only if the rabbi agreed could they become his disciple. In contrast, Jesus chose his disciples. He called them and invited them to respond. He does that with us too…we are all called, we are all invited to respond. And so rather than the disciple taking the initiative in choosing the master, as was characteristic among the Jews, Jesus emerges as the central figure who dominates the scene and calls his own disciples by means of his call. It isn’t likely that Jesus had had previous personal encounters with those he called to be his disciples…nor had opportunities to befriend them makes the significance of his call stand out even more along with the disciples response.
Although discipleship was a voluntary matter and choice for typical Jewish disciples seeking to follow a Rabbi, with Jesus the initiative lay with his call (Mark 1:17; 2:14; Matthew 4:19; 9:9; cf. Luke 5:10–11, 27–28) and his choice (John 15:16) of those who would be his disciples. The response to the call involves:
- Recognition and belief in Jesus’ identity (John 2:11; 6:68–69),
- Obedience to his summons (Mark 1:18, 20) and
- Counting the cost of full allegiance to him (Luke 14:25–28; Matthew 19:23–30).
Jesus’ calling is the beginning of something new. It means losing one’s old life (Mark 8:34–37; Lk 9:23–25) and finding new life in the family of God through obeying the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46–50).
- Jewish disciples were typically the most educated – the best of the best of the best – who had demonstrated their aptitude and grasp of Torah and the Talmud. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples hadn’t necessarily reached those lofty heights of educational attainment in Jewish society and culture. Jesus’ disciples left their occupations, and James and John also left their father (1:18, 20). Discipleship meant leaving behind their way of life and former ties. The motif of the cost of discipleship intensifies throughout the Gospel. The disciples join themselves to Jesus, to accompany him and to participate in his life (see 3:14) In responding to Jesus call, the disciples began a journey deeper in to faith and a relationship with God that continued for the rest of their life. And they had to learn some hard lessons along the way.
- The goal of these Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves and to have their own disciples who would follow them. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and teacher and to follow him only (cf. Matthew 23:1–12). As they grew as disciples, their life and faith pointed to Jesus and not to themselves. It was a case of “it’s all about HIM, and not it’s all about me.” The disciples of Jesus were to engage in a new vocation—to become “fishers of men” rather than students of the Law. The disciples not only accompanied Jesus but also were enabled by him them to share His ministry and eventually continue it. And so the calling of the disciples was not simply that they would learn and transmit his teaching of the law, as might followers of Rabbis – but that they might become “fishers of men”. It is astonishing that the first disciples were prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus. “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Both being a disciple as well as making disciples is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, for us to fully fulfil what it is to be a disciple we must seek not only to deepen our learning and relationship with God through prayer and Bible study, but also to engage in the making of other disciples. We are called with a purpose.
Response and application
Whenever we think about discipleship we can be encouraged, as well as challenged. We can’t avoid the challenges forever…
In what ways do we recognise our continuing growth as disciples? Do we ever do a spiritual “health check” – perhaps prayerfully reflecting on where we have been and where we are now? Do we follow Christ AND believe? Have we responded fully to his call or have we become complacent in our faith? Are we prepared to take up our cross? We are all called, and we all have a choice about responding – not at all, half-heartedly or whole heartedly – with body, soul, mind and strength.
In what ways in the worshipping life and ministry of this church do we make disciples? Making disciples isn’t just about people coming to faith in Christ, even if it begins with that. It is about that journey into a deeper relationship with Christ and inviting him to be Lord of our life. Discipleship fundamentally involves all of one’s being, not just the mind or intellect.
It isn’t about us taking God to people…it is about us having encounters with people and seeking to see how God is already at work and inviting them to recognise that too.
Jesus always finds people where they are, speaks in a language and context with which they were wholly familiar, but gives it an entirely different significance for them as they ultimately become apostles. Today, we all too often expect unbelievers to make all kinds of adjustments—in dress, initiation into our ways of worship, language and thought —before a proper conversation can begin. Familiarity sometimes causes us to lose sight of how visitors might perceive the encounter they have with us at church. When visitors come, unless they are received with sensitivity and wisdom with a generous spirit of welcome when they are at their weakest and least comfortable, and most disorientated, we will fail to connect with them. In so doing we put so many obstacles between them and the simplicity of the gospel itself. We have much to learn about starting where people are. It has been good for us as a church to think about this on the “Everybody Welcome” course.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I invite you to engage in a spiritual health check and think about where you are in the journey as a disciple. May you recognise the many ways in which Jesus is calling you and may you have the wisdom and the courage to follow. Amen
Anglican Communion News Service
Well said at all levels…
So, the BBC is being hounded again as if the producers are leftie, hand-wringing imbeciles. Songs of Praise is coming from Calais, and some people don’t like it. Nothing to do with the French, of course.
Songs of Praise usually gets slagged off for being … er …Songs of Praise. Often the critique is that it is bland or anodyne. Well, not now it isn’t.
The decision to record in the Jungle of Calais, right at the heart of where migrants are trying desperately to find a new life in a place of safety, is absolutely the right one. There are two reasons for this:
- Christian Faith is about God in the real world, not relegated to some imaginary fairy land where it can’t do any harm or embarrass anyone. The Psalms – the hymn book Jesus used – are full of lament, question, anger, frustration and challenge: why do…
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One of the many things I have really appreciated about coming back to live in Yorkshire is that we live on the doorstep of such beautiful countryside. It is said for example that Skipton is the Gateway to the Dales and I think that the scenery is simply breathtaking.
On days off, when the weather has been kind, I have really valued an opportunity to recharge by driving into the Dales and taking in the scenery, visiting some of the quaint towns and villages and going for walks. On these outings you cannot fail to notice the vast swathes of farmland – cows and sheep for as far as the eye can see.
Springtime this year has been incredible…everywhere you looked there were sheep and new born lambs. And seeing that reminded me of that great series “One Man and His Dog” which featured various sheepdog trials.
As a child I owned a border collie, whose parents were working sheepdogs in the Dales, so it’s probably fair to say that I have a great fondness for sheepdogs and therefore I particularly enjoyed watching that series. And knowing how intelligent my dog was, it was never a surprise to me to see man and dog working together with such synchronicity, even if it was always an astonishing sight to see. What you may not also be surprised to know is that recent scientific studies have shown that sheep are far more intelligent than they have previously been given credit for! No longer should sheep be a by-word for stupidity and mindlessly following the crowd. And if you want proof of that, you only need to look to a farm in Marsden near Huddersfield where sheep taught themselves to roll 8ft (3m) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids – and raid villagers’ valley gardens. Dorothy Lindley, a former Conservative councillor in the historic textile town on the edge of the Pennine uplands in West Yorkshire, said: “They lie down on their side, or sometimes their back, and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.”
I was reminded of all of this recently in a number of different ways…when I spoke with a family recently about baptism I invited them to choose a Bible to be presented to them in the service and they choose the Little Lamb’s Bible which invites us to cuddle up with Little Lamb and know God’s Love! Sounds like a smart little lamb to me. And then this week, I went to visit a member of one of my congregations who like me had owned a border collie for many years – and there was an incredible painting of it in her living room.
The shepherding practice in the Dales is certainly very different to shepherding practice in the Middle East. In the Dales, the sheep are driven by the sheepdog, working closely with the shepherd. Whereas in the Middle East, the sheep follow the shepherd and recognise his voice. It isn’t uncommon to see maybe 5 different flocks of sheep with their shepherds coming together at a well for the sheep to be watered. But what is incredible is that when it is time for a flock to move on, the right sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd even if all the flocks are mixed in together. The sheep follow the shepherd.
In both cases, whether in the Dales or in the Middle East, the care and attention, and the protection given by the shepherd is incredible. Shepherds will know each individual sheep – their markings and features, and even their character. Let’s be under no illusion here, shepherding is a hard, demanding and at times costly life.
In Jesus’ time, the imagery of a shepherd will have been very well known in his culture. And here in our reading today we find Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. And note Jesus doesn’t simply say “I AM the Shepherd”…more than that, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”. And what are the characteristics of a Good Shepherd? We are told the Good Shepherd:
- Lays down his life for the sheep
- Knows his sheep AND his sheep know him
- Brings other sheep from outside of the pen into his care and protection
- Has a flock of sheep that listens to his voice
- Has a flock of sheep that follow him; they respond
- Has one flock
And in other passages that speak of Jesus as the Good Shepherd we learn that he:
- Leads them out to pasture
- Seeks out the lost sheep
- Protects his sheep from danger
Jesus is able to do this because he has the ability and the authority; we see that in the promise he makes…“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
I don’t know where you may be in your faith. I do know that when I heard the call of the Good Shepherd many years ago, I chose to follow him. I chose to respond. It brings me much comfort and assurance in life.
I am sure that we all have hopes and aspirations in our life. And we can choose to express those hopes and aspirations in some very important ways – one being to declare our faith through Baptism or Confirmation. We may choose to seek to get to know Jesus, and enter into a relationship with him…to know God’s love, God’s presence and God’s protection; to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and to hear his voice.
I think I’ve lived long enough, and experienced enough in life to say that to know unconditional love is probably the most precious thing we may ever experience in life. And that is what God offers us. That is what God invites us into. And in that we have a choice…we can only know such love by being in relationship with the one offering it and by accepting it and responding.
People think about life choices at many key points in life…a birth, a baptism, a wedding and a funeral. In a service of baptism we are reminded of the promises that God makes and the promises that parents and godparents have made in response, let’s take a moment to examine where we find ourselves and the choices we have made. Have we heard the voice of the Good Shepherd? Do we know God’s unconditional love? If you want to know more, when we come to our prayers why not say in the silence of your heart “Jesus, I want to know you. I want to hear your voice.” Amen
The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.
I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously…
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