Sometimes we upset people

Stephen was one of the seven, appointed as a Deacon in the early Church.  We are told that he was full of the Spirit and wisdom and in addition described as being full of faith.  In this passage he is described further as being “full of grace and power.”  So, there are 5 aspects of Stephen’s life and ministry: the Holy Spirit, wisdom, faith, grace, and power.  The source of his power was his relationship with God and the faith that he practised and professed.

Have you ever noticed that God’s power, manifest through truth is almost always accompanied by grace?  We see this in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

I think it is very easy for us to lose sight of that; we may become fervently convinced about the truth, but speak it (at least as we see it) in an absence of grace.  When you have been convinced that you are speaking the truth, has it always been accompanied by grace? Think about times when you have spoken the truth as you see it but in an ungracious way.  If you have, then there is a clear need and call for repentance.

Grace is transformative.  It is the redemptive love of God reaching out to the lost and bringing them to conversion. It is manifest when we show love to those we struggle to love, when we seek to journey with people we disagree with or have little in common with.  We have all fallen short, but God gives us grace and power to accomplish His will.  And when we think about a hallmark of God’s truth we should remember that God’s truth sets us free.

When advocates of error are defeated in discussion and don’t get their own way, they often resort to slander, or to violence. They tried both against Stephen.  In the face of malicious persecution and back biting, it would have been very easy for Stephen to respond in an ungracious way that would have been unedifying to the Church and to God.  Stephen responded to persecution by forgiving his enemies.

If we enter in to a discussion with people, we should not try to ungraciously beat them into submission with words that undermine or ridicule.  We should seek to exercise grace and truth and bring out transformation and freedom.

All Stephen wanted to do was bring glory to God and invite people into a relationship with his Lord, Saviour and Redeemer.  He wanted to help people. He was living in obedience to Jesus and was sharing the good news of God’s forgiveness with everyone he could. Unfortunately, he was falsely accused, just like Jesus was.  Unfortunately, he upset the people he was seeking to serve.  It wasn’t because he said things in a deliberately provocative way, it wasn’t because he said the wrong things, or that he was ungraciously trying to undermine people; it was more because the receivers of his message felt threatened by what he shared.  Their response, rather than listening and seeking to understand his heart, was to make false accusations against him.

Have you ever been falsely accused of something? How did that make you feel? People generally feel indignant when they are accused of something they did not do. It is a difficult thing to deal with when you are misunderstood and misjudged

How should we deal with false accusations? How we deal with faults in other people and face our own faults reveals our character and whether we have the mind of Christ.  Different situations may call for different reactions, but I believe we can find some principles to guide us as we look more closely at the verses we read. We should seek to:

  1. Maintain our integrity;
  2. Be faithful to keep on doing what we genuinely believe God has called us to do;
  3. Be discerning; is the accusation from someone who clearly has issues and does not speak in grace and truth? The people who Stephen brought his message to “stirred up the people” against him, and engaged in back biting and false and malicious allegations.  The way in which people make accusations or handles a disagreement is in itself a clear indicator of where they are in their faith and in their heart.  We know that “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them”;
  4. Rebase ourselves by always coming to the foot of the cross and to be refilled with the Holy Spirit;
  5. Keep our eyes focussed on God
  6. Be willing at all times to forgive those who wrong us

Maybe we’ve had trouble forgiving someone for something they’ve done to us in the past. Maybe it is still going on, so we really don’t feel like forgiving them. But let me share something with you which I have learned in life and ministry; our lack of forgiveness probably doesn’t affect them all that much, but it will destroy us. If we continue to allow bitterness to have a hold in our life, it will ruin our life. Bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at our spirit until there is nothing left but the shell of who we were.  That is precisely why we are invited to be in unity and to make our peace with one another in a way that brings glory to God.  Again, grace and truth at work.

Even though Stephen was full of wisdom and the power of the Spirit, it did not keep opposition or false accusations away. What his tremendous faith and conviction achieved helped him to remain constant and true to focus on what the Lord wanted him to do.

We will face times when people hurt us, misunderstand us, mistreat us, falsely accuse us, and so on. How should we live in response? Live with integrity. Be faithful to keep on doing what God has called you to do. Ask God to give you wisdom and to fill you with His Holy Spirit. Entrust your future with the One who holds tomorrow, because nobody can lay a hand on you without God knowing. And finally, forgive those who hurt you.

Maybe God is talking to you about one or more of these areas. If you are feeling like you need His help with something we’ve talked about, would you ask God to help you? Be honest with Him and let Him know how you feel, but submit yourself to Him, and tell Him you want to do things His way. Ask the Lord what He wants you to do about the area He is talking to you about. Ask the Lord to bless you with His grace and power.  Then, step out in faith and do it. Obey the Lord.

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Do not lose heart

Have you ever felt like giving up?  You know those times when everything just becomes too much?  Sometimes, and especially when we are under great pressure or stress, in times of great challenge and adversity, we may feel like giving up, especially when the source of that adversity is from people we might least expect.

St Paul had invested a huge amount of time in building up the church in Corinth; he remained with them for over a year and a half, had been in dialogue with them for around three years; he had invested of himself, exercising apostolic oversight, pastoral care, leadership and nurture.  And now in our reading today we learn how he finds himself in bitter conflict with those who had become his opponents in Corinth.

People who Paul had cared for and loved accused Paul of giving up on them and losing heart, despite his visits and his letters and all his efforts.  I don’t know about you, but if I had been Paul I would have been so tempted to have said in a huff “Fine then, you’re on your own!”  I would probably have given up.

But sometimes, sometimes we can’t walk away.  Sometimes we shouldn’t walk away, and I say that as one who does not like using words like shouldn’t, or ought not!  We always need to step back and remember why we do what we do, why we are what we are and actually who we really are.  You see, we don’t exercise ministry or try in our brokenness to live out our Christian faith for ourselves.  It is not about us; it never is.  We exercise ministry, albeit with faltering steps, in the hope that somehow in God’s grace He might be glorified, and when we stumble and fall, that yes, in his grace He might even be glorified by that too!

Paul remembers that it is by God’s mercy and God’s mercy alone that he exercises the ministry he is called to.  If you are confident in your calling and faith in God’s mercy, no matter how the world might buffet you with storms, you may be able not to lose heart.  Have you ever met someone who has lost heart?  Have you ever lost heart yourself?  Try and remember what you might have said to them and perhaps what people said to you if you have found yourself in that place.  Have courage, do not lose heart, God is with you and will not leave you.

And then Paul sets out some of the areas which the church in Corinth was in error and had drifted away doctrinally.  They became arrogant and proud and began to align themselves with false teachers and false prophets, and they called into question with Paul the very things that they themselves were guilty of.  They projected their own issues onto Paul rather than acknowledging or accepting that those issues were their own:

  1. a) They engaged in secret and shameful ways
  2. b) They used deception
  3. c) They distorted the word of God

Furthermore, some members of the Corinthian church that Paul was dealing with had, like Paul, come from a Judaic background – but unlike Paul they had not had a Damascus road experience.  They had not had that revelation of or encounter with Christ and I want to be clear here that Paul did not simply have a vision – his writing makes it clear that he was a direct witness to Christ – he had gazed into the face of Christ himself.  We too need to gaze into the face of Christ and embrace that light and glory of God.

Paul wanted the Corinthians to hold fast to Gospel truth…and to declare it plainly.  Paul wanted them to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  If you want to see God, look at Christ.  No wonder God the Father said to his son “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”  Paul wanted them to have that light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  In what we say as preachers and pastors, are we faithful to Gospel truth, hard sometimes as that truth might be to hear?  We are to exercise a ministry of righteousness that comes from God, a ministry of reconciliation, and a ministry in the Spirit. If we commend ourselves that commending should point to God and God alone, and not to us.  Paul has a spirit of openness, transparency and honesty.  He declares that he is their slave for Jesus’ sake. Paul’s apostolic work required that he should share in his Lord’s humiliation in the confidence that he will also share in his triumphant life.

Christ’s messengers are consigned to a life of humiliation and risk but knowing that whatever may be thrown at them they are not alone and Christ is with them. Christ is with you.  And this is in order to leave the unmistakable impression that the power of the message we proclaim does not derive from the ingenuity and skill of the pleaders but comes solely from the inherent truth of the message as God’s word.  There is nothing in myself that commends you to this; but may you know the grace and mercy of the Lord in my life that you might believe.

So do not lose heart.  It isn’t simply about some far off distant hope; it is the reality of Christ being with us right here and right now.  Our troubles, heavy as they may seem, are light and momentary.  They will pass.  Sometimes the fear and anxiety we feel outweighs the worst possible outcome we might face.  I have had the privilege of walking with people in their faith as they have approached death and for many I have been humbled by the joy and the expectancy that they have shown – they were ready to meet their maker and that veil between heaven and earth was so very thin.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

And now for a moment, I would like to invite you all to close your eyes and imagine if you will that we stand together and journey slowly to the foot of the cross of Christ.  You can feel the ground beneath your feet, and you can feel the wind on your face.  Eventually we reach the cross and there we kneel.  We can reach down and run our hands through the earth which holds the cross.  And slowly we lift our eyes up to the cross, and there is a momentary shock because our Lord is not there.  But we are aware of his presence and suddenly we see him there beside us.  He stops by each one of us in turn, places his hand on our shoulder, and we feel compelled to gaze into his face.  As we gaze into his face, he speaks something to each of us.  They are his words for you…his truth.  A truth to hold, a truth to carry with you.  Finally he has stopped with each person and then as we all gaze at him he says “Do not lose heart.  I will be with you to the end of the age.”  So come Lord Jesus…come into our lives, come into our hearts, and may we shine with your light.

As you have come before the face of Christ, gazed into the face of Christ and heard the words of Christ, hold on to whatever those words were that were said to you and for you.  And remember that we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  Amen

The Canaanite Woman

When Jesus first sent out his disciples, he told them “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).  We can clearly see from that instruction given by him at the beginning of his ministry, that his initial focus was on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the people of God.  The reason why the Israelites were the initial focus of Jesus’ ministry was because it was always part of God’s plan that they would be a light to the nations.  We see that in Isaiah: “I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved.” (Isaiah 49:6)  Jesus wanted the Israelites to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world.

Today’s Gospel reading comes later and is one of several that serve as a stepping stone in the way in which Jesus’ ministry subsequently develops.  It points to the outreach of the Gospel beyond Judaism; God’s people had had an opportunity to hear the Good News.  Now it was the turn of the Gentiles – the other nations.  The reading provides us with a glimpse of the Gentile mission which would soon prove so widespread and so successful – a mission which ultimately would be summarised by “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the reading, Jesus and his disciples were miles away from Jewish land – in Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area.  It would have been unlikely that Jesus would even have been heard of in this area, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why he went.  Jesus had to step down into darkness, to bring about transformation and show the disciples the way.

It is here that a Canaanite woman approaches him and begins to cry out.  To do this she had to overcome three barriers that would have very much placed her on the fringe or even beyond the society in which Jesus lived.  These barriers were:

  1. She was a Gentile, someone who coming into contact with would make an Israelite unclean or defiled;
  2. She was a Canaanite, a people who historically had led God’s people astray, who in addition the Israelites had been told to wipe out!;
  3. She was a woman.

The woman in our reading demonstrated courage, self-sacrificial love and a willingness to push through barriers which were not of her choice or making.  Her motivation was simple – that of the deep love a mother has for a child, and a heartfelt desire of a mother yearning to see her daughter healed – in this case, her daughter who was “tormented by a demon.”  There are few other motivations that can be more powerful than the love a parent knows for a child.  I think that the woman also recognised deep down that the barriers she faced were quite simply wrong.  We can sometimes find ourselves held back in life and even oppressed by inappropriate barriers caused by prejudice, misunderstanding and discrimination.  We too need to have the courage to break through those barriers to be all that we are created to be.

The woman overcame these barriers in four astonishing ways – probably without even consciously thinking of how:

  1. She went ‘against the grain’ in approaching Jesus
  2. She acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah
  3. She acknowledged Jesus as her King and Master by calling him Lord
  4. She poured out her heart and threw herself upon Jesus’ mercy

It is important to recognise that the Canaanite woman did something quite unusual in pushing through those barriers.  Her words suggest that despite being a Gentile, she had some familiarity with Judaism – her opening words are typically Jewish “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  We know that the title “Son of David” was a Jewish title reserved for the one who was the Messiah, and three times she calls Jesus “Lord”.  We are not told how she had become familiar with Judaism.

Her act was driven by profound need and that incredibly powerful love a parent has for a child.  The woman was filled with deep concern – she was trying hard to capture Jesus’ attention by crying out for mercy with sincerity.  She refused to give up.

I am not sure how I would have reacted if someone I had never met before came up to me and said “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  I am not sure how I would have responded at that time and in that context, with an encounter with a Gentile, a Canaanite at that and a woman.

Jesus responded in three very different challenging ways.  Perhaps surprisingly Jesus, we are told, at first simply gave no answer. “Jesus did not answer a word.”  I want you to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were that woman, and you had cried out in desperation and got no response.  I want you to think about times you have prayed when you have not sensed a response.  I wonder if you have ever encountered someone who was distressed and desperate and in confronting you, at first you remain silent?  Don’t you find that people can say a lot by simply not replying?  What was Jesus trying to achieve by his lack of a reply?  I wonder who it was that had to come to faith – the woman, or Jesus’ disciples?  Jesus broke through the Jew/Gentile wall of division. Jesus dealt with Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering the “caste” system of His day—and shocking His Jewish brothers.  What Jesus was about to do would be an anathema to his disciples…they had to be in a place where they could accept what he was about to do.

And yet this absence of a response did not dissuade the woman.  She persisted and kept crying out after him – she was impassioned by the circumstances of her daughter.  Her faith was unwavering and constant.

In speaking to his disciples and also perhaps to the woman, Jesus then makes clear the initial focus of his mission and purpose “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Was this statement a half question rather than a statement of closure, along the lines of ‘Was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?’  His statement invites further dialogue rather than closes it.

How the woman responds to this rebuff is nothing short of remarkable.  She began to worship Jesus as she came before him and knelt before him saying “Lord, help me!”  She was without any doubt, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  She presented herself to him humbled with an empty hand of need, from a position of selflessness and integrity.

Jesus’ third response was to say “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” which reflected the Jews’ universal assumption that the Kingdom of God was their exclusive right and preserve only, although some also expected that the overflow of God’s bounty would be made available to ‘righteous’ gentiles who kept the law.

Her response – “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” – reminds me of the Prayer of Humble Access from our communion services:

We do not presume

to come to this your table, merciful Lord,

trusting in our own righteousness,

but in your manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy

so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But you are the same Lord

whose nature is always to have mercy.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,

so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ

and to drink his blood,

that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body

and our souls washed through his most precious blood,

and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.

It seems that the woman was aware of this overflow and wanted to claim that truth for her daughter’s sake, and also the word ‘dogs’ literally means ‘puppies’ so we must ask ourselves is Jesus’ response really half-affectionate?  Jesus is then moved with compassion by the constancy and persistence of the woman’s faith ““Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I may not be a Gentile, a Canaanite or a woman of that time – but I know I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This encounter tells us something about the nature of intercessory prayer and the persistence which we too may show as we come before the Lord burdened and aching for him to act.  We do that coming just as we are, mindful that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  We must ask ourselves, are our desires for an outcome in prayer sincere, impassioned, and filled with selflessness and integrity? Or do we come before God with a completely different agenda?

This encounter also serves to remind us that we too are to be willing to have encounters in places outside of our comfort zone, as we seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in serving our community.  Like the Israelites, we too are to be a light to the nations; in our communities, and our places of work.

We KNOW Jesus is the Messiah, we KNOW he is the Lord; we know what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  So let us come before the Lord just as that woman did; with hope and expectancy, with persistence and faith and with all that we are.  Let us pour out our heart in silent prayer and throw ourselves on his mercy.

Let us take a few moments in silence to offer up our own prayers to the Lord now.  Come just as you are, and share with him what is on your heart. Amen.

Parable of the sower

One of the most well-known stories that Jesus shared is the parable of the sower.  I am sure some of us will have heard it many times before; but maybe this morning it’s your first time at Church ever, or even for a long time.  Maybe for you it’s the first time you’ve heard this story. Whatever the case, it’s great to see you here today for this special service of baptism, and I hope that these words I share with you give you food for thought.

We often find in life that when people – perhaps friends or family – share some advice with us – some words of wisdom – we have a choice.  We can either accept that advice and take on board those words of wisdom, or we can decide to reject that advice and do our own thing.  I know when I was a teenager, at times I was quite headstrong and rebellious and I often wanted to do my own thing – even if at times I had to learn the hard way by the consequences of my actions, particularly where my choices didn’t turn out so well.

The Bible tells us that God’s word – what we read in the Bible – is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.  It can help us to make good choices in life and shed some light on where we find ourselves in life and faith.  I think for me, reading the Bible can sometimes be like holding up a mirror to ourselves, giving us an opportunity to see things clearly.  It can bring hope and healing, comfort and challenge.  And in the middle of that, God always presents us with an invitation and a choice – to accept Him or reject Him. Jesus comes alongside us and always extends an invitation, an invitation to come to know him, to walk with him and to be his friend.  Earlier in the service, I said “we all wander far from God and lose our way; Christ comes to us and welcomes us home.  In baptism, we respond to his call.” And in this reading today, we see different ways in which people might choose to respond to that call.

  1. Jesus begins by saying “Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ call and the new life and blessings that he offers but either don’t understand or choose not to understand.  That lack of response gives no opportunity for the seed – that invitation – to bear any fruit.
  2. He then says “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ invitation and at first say all the right things, but don’t follow through.  I did that with my parents when I was a teenager.  I said, ok, I’ve learned – I won’t do it again.  But then a few weeks later, I was back just where I started.  The seed falls on rocky ground without much soil, and when the busy-ness of life and other distractions kick in, the seed withers away.  It is the easiest thing in the world to find excuses not to respond to Jesus’ invitation. At the end of the day, you can’t have a friendship by not investing yourself in that in friendship.
  3. In Jesus third example, he says “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” This is an illustration of people who are quite simply battered by the brokenness of this world and life events, perhaps won over by the false promises that the world can often present to us, or distracted by the lure of wealth. The seed – Jesus’ invitation – falls among thorns, and circumstances of life prevent that seed from ever bearing fruit.

To give you an example, some time ago I had a long conversation with a man who very openly spoke about challenges and issues he had in life associated with substance abuse and addictions.  He clearly had talents, but he found himself in a place where he was surrounded by “thorns” of life and he was struggling to get free.  I spoke to him about various organisations that could help, and I spoke to him about how I would be prepared to support him pastorally, practically and spiritually.  I extended a hand of friendship and give him that invitation.

If you think about recovery programmes for addictions, and especially those that follow the 12-step programme developed by the AA, the very first step is for people to admit that they are powerless over the substance they are addicted to and that their lives had become unmanageable.  The second step is for people to come to believe that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.  The third step is where people make a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.  The tragic thing was that this man was unable to embrace these initial steps and reach out.  The thorns of life choked the seeds, and he couldn’t accept that invitation.

  1. In Jesus’ final illustration, he says “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” This speaks thankfully of those times when the seed that we might scatter falls on good soil and bears fruit in an incredible way – a hundredfold, some sixty, or some thirty.

I believe wholeheartedly that we are hard wired to bear fruit in life.  It is tragic when we see people who have such potential and yet are unable to live that potential.  The most precious thing we can give to each other is ourself; God did precisely that in sending his son Jesus.  I believe that God’s truth is something that can set us free, it is something that can cut away the thorns of life, it is something that can strip out the rocks from the rocky ground of our life.  It may well take time, but God promises to be with us, we heard some of those promises in the words of this service today.  And it comes back down to a choice.  Do we accept or reject his invitation?  How do we respond to his call?

In coming along to this baptism, inevitably we find ourselves encountering that invitation and making a choice.  We find ourselves hearing about God’s promises, and how he yearns to know us, and for us to be his friend.

Where do you find yourself this morning?  It is a question that God asked in the very beginning of creation…where are you?  Are you like the path, the rocky ground, surrounded and choked by thorns or are you open to hearing God’s call and accepting his invitation?

What does love look like?

Deep down I think that all of us feel a need to belong.  When we are at school and through adolescence we can experience incredible pressure from our peers – whether it is about the latest fashions, clothes, mobile phones, games and accessories, or makeup.  In some respects that pressure continues into adulthood – have you heard that expression ‘keeping up with the Jones’?

Many years ago now, when I was planning on moving across the Pennines with work I went to check out some houses that were for sale in different areas around Warrington.  One house was located on a leafy estate and as I pulled up outside, I noticed that almost every house on the estate looked practically the same and every house had a BMW in the drive.  It was a little disconcerting; but what was most disconcerting was how at practically the same time several of the owners of these houses came out and started to wash their cars.  It felt like we were in a clone village.  It seemed a little like keeping up with the Jones’ taken to an extreme.

Another illustration would be to consider how we are defined by where we were born.  Sometimes people might ask us where we come from.  With years of being away, it has been fascinating for me to see how people responded when I said I was from Yorkshire.  Even though the period of the War of the Roses dates back to the 15th century, for some people there is still an odd tension with those ‘from across the Pennines’ – and it wasn’t until I moved to the North West that I heard how some people consider Yorkshire folk to be tight.  On the other hand, I would say that some of the most generous hearted, loving and giving people I have ever known are from Yorkshire.

Thinking about these illustrations, it seems to me that it all comes down to what defines and shapes us, and our identity, and what we feel a need to conform to.  There are some things that we could well do without – such as living in a clone village, or the tremendous peer pressure we can all experience.  We are not called to be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings.  We can sometimes pay too great a price to ‘belong’.  I think Paul speaks into this in our passage from Romans which sets out for us the basis for Christian living, the marks of a true Christian and what should be central in what defines us – LOVE.

Sometimes people pay such a price to belong, to conform, that they lose sight of their very identity and personhood, and they lose sight of God.  No wonder Paul urges us, because of God’s mercy, to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  And in that there is a double bonus.  God delights in us making that sacrifice AND in being all that we are created to be, and we realise our true worth – which is not defined by this world in which we live in.  Instead it is defined by God’s love.

We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  Christ himself is both the pattern and source of this renewal and transformation, Christ who can help us to see the world through his Father’s eyes.  One author wrote “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.”   You see, it isn’t until we are able to see the world through the Father’s eyes that we are able to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Today’s passage (Romans 12:9-21) is a tough passage, a big “ask” and at first reading it is easy for us to feel inadequate.  But these challenges should be what we genuinely aspire to.  It raises the question…when the rubber hits the road, what should love look like?  How do we live out our faith and work out our salvation?

  • Love must be genuine and sincere. One translation says “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” How do we know if love is genuine?  How do you know I love you?  How do you know God loves you?  We know if someone really loves us by the “being” and the “doing” – the things they say, the things they do and in that there is consistency and constancy.  Genuine love is self-sacrificial.
  • We must outdo one another in showing honour. What does honour look like?  It seems to me that we don’t hear much about honour any more.  It features in the marriage service though…the groom is asked “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”  The Bible tell us we are to honour our parents, honour those in authority, honour our Church leaders, honour one another and of course honour God.  There is a difference between honour and respect.  In a worldly sense, honour is often given on the basis of position, status, or wealth, but it can also be granted on the basis of character.  For me to honour someone goes beyond that…it is to acknowledge that they are created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of dignity and value.  We give weight to someone’s presence and existence.
  • We are to be patient in suffering. Put your hand up if you are gifted at being patient in suffering.  I am anything but patient in suffering, as those who know me well recognise.  And I think that in those times we begin to lose patience, we need friends who come alongside us and remind us that we are not alone and God is with us.
  • We are to bless those who persecute us; and not curse them. The response from the child in me to this is “It’s not fair.  Why should I bless those who persecute me?”  If you have ever fallen out with someone, did you feel like blessing them at the time?  I think in the brokenness of this world, we often want revenge or payback.  We see it all the time, and often when people want to impose their sense of justice and be satisfied – like a tit for tat.  The question is, if we are mean to someone as I am sure at times we will have been, would we like to be blessed or cursed?  If we cannot practice grace and mercy, how can we possibly expect to receive grace and mercy?  If we are truly honest with ourselves, would we like to be judged by our own standards?
  • This is emphasised still further when we are told “We are not to repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And “We are never to avenge ourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  And finally, “We must not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  It seems clear that the reason why so much emphasis is placed upon this, is because it is really important.  How many times are we called to forgive?  We must not bear grudges.  We have to let go.  That might mean that every single day we give the person who has wronged us to God.  It is costly. But in it is freedom. I say again “We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”  Our imperative must be to overcome evil with good, and that is precisely what Christ did.
  • Last of all, we are not to be haughty, but associate with the lowly. We are not to claim to be wiser than we are. For me that means we must acknowledge our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another.  In acknowledging our dependence on God, we are saying we cannot do this alone.  And in that dependence there is no space for pride and no space for haughtiness.  We are beggars seeking to lead other beggars to find the bread.

It might be that you have found yourself struggling, struggling to love, struggling to forgive, and struggling not to be conformed to the pattern of this world.  It’s ok to acknowledge these struggles and invite God into the middle of them.

God’s intentions for human relationships and community

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the “silent treatment”.  Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00am for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00am.” He left it in a prominent place where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00am and he had missed his flight.  Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, “It is 5:00am. Wake up.”

Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests!!

Although that may be a funny illustration, for some people it may be a reality, a little close to home.  When we become dysfunctional in a relationship, it can be incredibly hard to get ourselves out of the rut we find ourselves in.  I recognise that not all of us are married, but even if that is the case we are all in a relationship of one form or another.  We all have relationships in common.

So what is “God’s intentions for human relationships and community.”  The two passages from Genesis that we have heard today speak firstly into how we as human beings are created to be in relationship with God, secondly how we called to relate to one another and in community, and thirdly into the nature of a loving relationship between a man and a woman.

I love the book of Genesis.  There is something about it that speaks into the very core of my being and somehow it restores in me a hope for humanity.  It speaks into where we are, and where in God’s grace we will be.  Every time I pick up the Bible and turn to it, I just see a loving God with such an incredible desire to bless us and be in relationship with us.  Genesis reminds us of how we are created to be.

Some things perhaps emerge from this.  As we were originally created, and before the Fall, we had no knowledge of good and evil.  That must be our starting point of understanding how we are called to be.  Being created in God’s image and likeness means that:

  1. We are created with the ability to do good, and to do the right things
  2. Within this, we have free will and the ability to make choices, our own choices
  3. Of all of God’s creation, we are unique and set apart with a specific purpose
  4. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with God. That is the primary reason for our existence
  5. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with one another. That is a consequence of the primary reason of our existence.  We are hard wired to be in community.
  6. It is God’s desire for us to be fruitful, to live our potential, to be all that we were created to be in Christ.
  7. We all share a common origin and a shared humanity.

It all began to go wrong as a consequence of the Fall, and after lengthy reflection I think there are two key causes that typically lie at the root of this. These causes are power (which is often linked to pride) and fear (which is often linked to shame).  I can probably count on one hand the number of people I have met in life who have been able to wield power and authority well and in a Godly way:

  1. We fail to see ourselves through God’s eyes; we don’t live in the knowledge that we are children of God, and loved unconditionally by God. You see this in the creation account when Adam and Eve experienced shame for the first time.
  2. We fail to see one another through God’s eyes; we are more caught up in me, me, me rather than God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pride gets in the way of many things in life.
  3. We fail to acknowledge that all of us are created in God’s image and likeness. Even in the 21st century, it is abhorrent that we still live with slavery, oppression of women, and oppression of minorities – the list goes on.  These all have in common an abuse of power and often an unrealistic fear.
  4. We fail to even understand the implications of that and what it means to be in God’s image and likeness and with the responsibility that that imposes on us. It is almost as if we live in denial.
  5. We struggle to wield power and authority in a Godly way, and don’t properly understand what it means to have dominion over something. There is a fine line between leadership and coercion, between a right use of power and abuse.
  6. We live with fear; fear that we are good enough, fear that others are good enough and so on
  7. We live under the consequences of the Fall, rather than in the light of Christ and the New Life that he invites us into

All of these can result in broken and fragmented relationships – with God, with one another and in how we perceive ourselves.  The solution to this is love: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” And love involves sacrifice, leaving no space for pride and power struggles, instead opening the door for grace.  Love also involves accountability.  We have an accountability first and foremost to God, but we also have an accountability to one another.

I want you to think about some of the things that you might have said to someone you simply might not like or get along with, whether in anger, or frustration.  I would like to invite you to ask yourself three simple questions and be prepared to answer honestly.

  • When you said whatever it was that you said, did you look upon the person you were speaking to in the knowledge that they are created in God’s image and likeness?
  • Could you imagine Christ saying what you said and in the way that you said it?
  • After you had said it, did you give any consideration to the impact that what you said had on that other person or were you so focussed on getting your point across?

Sometimes we say something with little regard for the damage that those words might have. If you couldn’t imagine Christ saying what you said, and if the reality is that what you said left that other person upset, and distressed…do you think that you were looking upon that person through God’s eyes?  Did you see before you someone who is worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image and likeness and a child of God?  Or did you lose sight of this reality in the words that you said?

It might be that the root cause of this is because you are struggling with some unresolved issue and have a need for spiritual healing.  It might be that you struggle to deal with power and authority – neither of which are a right, but a privilege and a privilege to be used wisely and to the glory of God.  It might be that you hold a fear and that you subconsciously project that fear onto others.

If we lose sight of that, we often find that we abuse power and subconsciously appoint ourselves as judge, jury and executioner.  God’s truth does not cause people to become bound and in chains; God’s truth sets people free to be all that they are called to be in Christ.  We must live in the knowledge of God’s truth, secure in the reality of his love and grace.

All of us need to be honest about where we hide behind roles in a bid for security, to allay fear or hold onto them as a means of power and control. Neither does us credit.

Christ didn’t come simply to restore the balance.  Christ came to set us free from sin and death, to bring wholeness and healing, dignity and value and restore in us a vision of us being created in God’s image and likeness.  We may experience dysfunctionality in our relationships with one another – our friends, our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ; but also in our relationship with God.  If you are struggling with a relationship in whatever context, I invite you to bring it to the foot of the cross, bring it to the Lord in prayer.

Let’s take a few moments of silence as we think about these words.

Imagine there’s no heaven: All Souls Service

Introduction

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.”

Revelation 21:1-6

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:

  1. 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.

John 11:32-44

In light of these thoughts on that incredible passage from the book of Revelation, we look at our Gospel reading – perhaps with fresh eyes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

Discipleship: Role Models of Faith

Introduction

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

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.

Judy

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

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!

  1. The man with an evil spirit (Legion) – Mark 5:1-20
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. 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?
  2. The woman with the issue of blood – Mark 5:21-43
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.”
  3. The widow’s offering – Mark 12:41-44
    1. 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.
    2. 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.

Group Discussion

Introductory Activity and Questions

  1. 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?
  2. What was it about them that inspired or encouraged you?
  3. 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:
    1. Humility – grace-touched, with a gentle spirit
    2. Aware of the love of God for them and others; someone who gives God the glory
    3. Someone with a grateful heart
    4. Affirming and encouraging – not possessing a critical spirit
    5. Challenging – able to speak the truth in love
    6. Availability and hospitality
    7. Good stewards of all God has blessed them with (time, talents and resources)
    8. Maturity of faith, and attitude – balanced and experienced, grounded in God’s word and secure
    9. Transparency – someone who is honest and genuine
    10. Good track record – a person of integrity, someone who practices what they preach, and is consistent across all walks of life
    11. Someone who is real and recognises that they are a work in progress
  4. What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
  5. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. What does holiness mean? Discuss in 2’s or 3’s.
  3. How does our belief, and our view of Christ affect our worship?
  4. 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

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. 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)

Discipleship: Failure & Grace

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.

Amen