Run Course

Discipleship Questions

Starting the Way

What is a 'disciple' and where do we see discipleship today?

Being a disciple is not just a Christian idea. Before and after Jesus, people were and had disciples. Plato was a disciple of Socrates in ancient Greece. Many Jewish teachers (rabbis) had a set of teachings, known as their “yoke”, and disciples whom they would invite to “follow” them.

 

Most Jewish people saw Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher – the name they give Him 90 times in the gospels – with disciples whom He invited to, “Come, follow me”.  Whereas the word ‘Christian’ only appears in the Bible three times (as an insult!), the word disciple is used 268 times.

 

Right at the beginning of His work the first thing Jesus did was to call disciples to be with Him:

 

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”  At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets.  Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

 

And right at the end of His work, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples.”

 

The call was not to, ‘Believe in Him,’ but to ‘Follow Him.’  To be a disciple of someone is about being someone who “learns as they follow.” It is about having a close relationship with someone in which we are increasingly being with them, becoming like them, and doing the things they do. To be a disciple is to follow, and the nature of that discipleship is defined by the One we follow.

 

One writer says that, “Being a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a definite and obvious kind of thing. To make a mystery of it is to misunderstand it. There is no good reason why people should ever be in doubt as to whether they themselves are his students or not.”

 

Many churches, especially today, emphasise discipleship. Pope Francis says that the church should be a “community of missionary disciples.”

Why is being a disciple a good way of life?

There are five good reasons to be living as a disciple:

 

We all follow someone.

 

The examples of superfans might be unusual, but the truth is we are all centring our lives on something or someone. We live in a time when we are being constantly encouraged to put possessions and consumption at the centre of our lives. We are not living in a neutral world. We are potentially all being discipled by advertising, shops, media etc. 24 hours a day. As one writer puts it, “…if we don’t disciple, then the culture sure will, and it’s doing a good job of it. Consumerism is the alternative religion of our day.” Alan Hirsch. The question isn’t “Am I a disciple?” The question is “Who or what is shaping me?”

 

Adventure.

 

Christians believe being a disciple leads us to a purpose and calling. As Bear Grylls puts it, “When we pursue an adventurous path through life, inevitably we are going to have moments of hardship, doubt, struggle and pain. It goes with the territory. But for me, my simple faith has so often brought light to a dark path, joy to a cold mountain and strength to a failing body. Believing doesn’t mean we have to suddenly get all religious. I am not. And Jesus certainly wasn’t. It has taken a while in my life to understand that faith is a journey, and as we trust and lean on Him, He leads us to the light – to a freer, more centred existence, free from guilt, free from crippling fear and free to start living.”

 

Becoming fully human.

 

Someone once said that Jesus did not come to make us more religious but came to make us fully human. Orthodox Christians have a beautiful understanding of being a disciple called “theosis”. It’s not that we can “become God”, but that as we draw close to God and reflect His love and life more fully, we become alive, more human as humanity was intended to be, because we have allowed God’s life to fill and eventually overwhelm us. Discipleship takes us along this road until eventually the (human) mirror is no longer seen, but only the reflected glory of God.

 

It’s the best life you can find!

 

Cyrille Regis was the third black player to be capped by England, and a pioneer in the fight against racism in football. He played 614 matches and scored 158 goals in a 19-year professional career with Coventry, West Brom, Aston Villa and Wolves, which also saw him make five appearances for England. He became a Christian when he discovered that “… the penny drops. It really sinks in that Christ loves me. He died for me and He rose again from the dead and this awesome sense of peace comes over me.” He became a sports agent and remained passionate about sharing his story of faith. He said, “I meet people all the time, some famous, some not who are all looking for hope and peace. I have learned that money cannot buy peace of mind so I simply tell people how I found hope and peace in God. The great thing about it is that anyone can have the peace that I have, you just need to know God.”

 

Being and making disciples is the Church’s central task.

 

The writer Robert Warren states, “The best way to grow the church is to grow people.” In the Roman Catholic Church, writer Sherry Weddell says, “…we have seen it happen over and over. The presence of a significant number of disciples changes everything: a parish’s spiritual tone, energy level, attendance, bottom line, and what parishioners ask of the leaders. Disciples pray with passion. Disciples worship. Disciples love the church and serve her with energy and joy. Disciples give lavishly. Disciples hunger to learn more about their faith. Disciples fill every formation class in a parish or diocese. Disciples manifest charisms and discern vocations. They clamour to discern God’s call because they long to live it. Disciples evangelise because they have really good news to share. Disciples share their faith with the children. Disciples care about the poor and bring about issues of justice. Disciples take risks for the kingdom of God.”

 

So the truth is if we focus on being and making disciples first, the rest will follow. Can we agree with this…? “The best decision anyone can ever make, at any point in life, in any circumstances, whoever they are, wherever they are, is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Archbishop Justin Welby.

What was the life of a disciple in Christ’s day? What’s the aim of discipleship?

In Christ’s day, and in the early church, disciples would live with and follow their rabbi so closely it was difficult to know where the life of the rabbi ended and the disciple’s life started. Jewish people said, “May you be covered with the dust of your rabbi…” May you be walking so closely with them, listening from them, watching them that at the end of each day you would be covered with the dust they kick up from the road in front of you. Discipleship-following would lead to change – a transformation involving every aspect of who we are, how we think, how we act. The best way of describing what this feels like, is to think of being an apprentice to someone. This would involve three things:

 

Being with: Obviously if you want to learn from a “teacher” the first thing will be that you spend as much time with them as possible.

 

Becoming like: Over time you will start to become like them – their character will shape yours, their responses and thoughts become part of the way you tick. Character change is a key part of being a disciple, and in fact, of being more fully human. This is precisely the hope that Paul expresses to the early Christians. “May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God.” Philippians 1:9-11, NLT

 

Joining in with: The apprentice will gradually take on the work of the teacher, and do things the way the teacher does them. An “important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.” Dallas Willard.

 

The aim of discipleship is always about change. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul exclaimed, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5.17).  For Christians today, as we consistently and intentionally live every aspect of our daily lives in being apprentices to Christ, we expect change in our lived experience – becoming like Him and doing the things He does.

 

This is completely at the heart of Anglican Christianity, which, “from its roots in Celtic and Augustinian spirituality and shaped by the European Reformation, has always been a lived-out (not a purely intellectual or spiritualized) faith. It is about following and living the ways of Jesus.” (from: Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making, Anglican Communion)

How are these aims reflected in the Way of Discipleship?

The Way of Discipleship is helping people to become apprentices, who are being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit. There is information, but this is much more about changing as we live, and learning as we follow. The four modules are focussed on these three aspects of being an apprentice, and having ‘Bible confidence’ by understanding how the Bible works, how to listen to God through it, and how the story of your life is shaped by God’s story.

 

If you do the four modules, you will begin to be changed in these ways:

 

Knowing who you are: growing in your identity in Christ, and in relationship with Him.

 

Becoming more who God made you to be: Growing more fully human through the transformation of your character in Christ

 

Being secure in your purpose: Growing more secure in your calling and purpose in Christ

 

Understanding what you bring: Beginning to discern and understand your gifts so that you might share them with others

 

Sharing faith: Growing in being able to disciple others.

 

Taking responsibility: being shaped to walk the way of discipleship for the rest of your life.

 

I understand becoming like Christ and joining in doing the things God does, but how do I grow in being “with God”?

It’s easy to see how the early disciples could be ‘with Jesus’, but what do we mean by being with God now, in our daily lives?

 

Firstly, it’s important to know that God is already with you. While Jesus could only ever be in one place at one time, before He went to His Father he promised, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. …  On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. …My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

 

God is with us all, everywhere, because He is Spirit. The Spirit is in creation, including in each of us. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Because of the Spirit, Jesus stops being removed from us, and starts being together with us. In the words of James Allison, using God’s voice – ‘we (meaning God as a trinity) will come to them and make our home with them’. (from Knowing Jesus, by James Allison)

 

Our part every day in being ‘with God’ is to be aware of His Spirit. Making time to ‘abide’ in Jesus (John 15). Dallas Willard puts it this way:

 

‘The first and most basic thing we can and must do is to keep God before our minds. This is the fundamental secret of caring for our souls… as we take intentional steps toward keeping God before us. Soon our minds will return to God as the needle of a compass constantly returns to the north. If God is the great longing of our souls, He will become the pole star of our inward beings.”

 

If God is always with us, the first thing an apprentice does is to pay attention. Listening to God and responding to Him IS the heart of being a disciple. Our first module is all about this, and as we journey together, we will always be seeking to help each other pay attention. That’s why Archbishop Rowan Williams believes, being a disciple means to be someone who keeps watching, listening and learning. There’s no magic, or celebrity, or certificates to it. Just watching, listening and learning as an ongoing process.

How do disciples grow?

“From my desk at college,” writes Shane Claiborne, “it looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it. If we are to make disciples, we must do more than help people acquire biblical and theological information. Our task is not simply to study the Word of God; it’s to get it off the page and into our lives. The Bible itself often tells us this. ‘Don’t read it, eat it,’ God said to the prophet Ezekiel. ‘Don’t speak it, live it,’ he said to Hosea. ‘You claim to know what it says, but you have no understanding of its power,’ Jesus said to the Pharisees. ‘The Word of God is living and active,’ said the writer to the Hebrews; it is meant to change us and change the people around us.”

 

To grow in this way there are (at least) four important elements.

 

We need the information and to be taught. Jesus’ method has parallels in the way people learn a new language. Firstly, it obviously involves knowing some vocabulary and grammar. There is a body of information to be absorbed. Similarly, Jesus taught His apprentices in that He gave them information. The Sermon on the Mount, Lord’s Prayer, parables, the greatest commandment. They needed their minds shaped to understand what relationship God wanted with them, and the mission they were invited into.

 

By and large, we are very good at this in church circles and in society. But what is more helpful in actually being able to use a language is being able to listen to people speaking it, and to imitate them, sometimes with unintended results. Information alone won’t make you a speaker.

 

Modelling and imitation is at the heart of apprentice-style learning. Jesus inviting his disciples to live life as He lived it.  He demonstrated everything He taught – how to pray, to heal, to teach, to love enemies.  They learnt by observing Him.  Most famously He did this at the last supper, when having washed their feet He said, “  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” I would say that the people who have had most influence on me are the ones whose lives I have sought to imitate. Discipleship is more caught than taught.

 

But I’ll tell you how language learning really improves. By living in the country! When you have to actually use your knowledge, improvise, immerse yourself in the culture, down the market, in the college, the words you have read on the page, and repeated after other people, actually start to become a living language.

 

Jesus taught his apprentices, he demonstrated, but then He sent them out on His mission. They learnt on the way. It’s common educational wisdom in action: as the proverb says, “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”

How is that reflected in the Way of Discipleship? How do the modules "work"?

Because the aim is transformation, each session combines this mixture of content, modelling, and follow-up action…with some feedback to each other (over time).

 

Incidentally, the modules are shaped around apprenticeship, but they also reflect how we know God – as Father (Being with God), as Son (Becoming like Christ), as Spirit (Joining in with the Spirit).

 

The modules shape us in knowledge, character, and skills. All the material is online for you to access, and there is plenty more material on each area should you want to pursue more.

Can I really be a disciple?

If we are not asking this question sometimes, then we are probably not paying attention…But the answer is, of course!  These ideas may help…

 

The disciples Jesus chose came from the bottom of the social ladder.

 

God always starts where you are at – you never need to wait until you are ‘ready’.

 

They were called disciples from day one – learners as they followed.

 

We come to God, and we grow, in different ways.

 

There are four stories in the book of Acts which illustrate some of these different journeys Some come because of the influence of a particular person – see Philip and the Ethiopian – Acts 8: 26-39. Some grow up as disciples, inheriting faith from their family – see the Philippian jailer story in Acts 16: 22-34. Some are gradually drawn into church and start the Way of Discipleship step by step – see the life of the early church in Acts 2: 42-47. Some hear a message and the penny drops in a moment – see Paul preaching in to people who have never heard before in Acts 17: 22-34. We go through different stages in life, and on our faith journey.

 

Finally we change through training, not trying. The Way of Discipleship is about training us in ways of life that help us transform over time.

 

Peter’s story is helpful – it’s a timeless story of change and growth. He starts his relationship with Jesus as one of his enthusiastic followers, ready to die for Him, and always there with the ‘right’ answers. But He betrays Jesus three times in the dark of night. Yet after Jesus is raised, He reinstates Peter, putting him in charge of His followers, forgiving him, and helping him grow through mistakes. Most apprentices will be similar – times of wild passion, then doubt, or failure…eventually shaping us as we become more like our rabbi. Be encouraged by knowing… Like Peter, most of the disciples had their successes and failures.

Can we really disciple each other?

Jesus told us to “make disciples”. The call was given to every disciple. The writer Bob Ronglien says, “…followers of Jesus are meant to look like a sheep from the front and a shepherd from the back. They look like a sheep from the front because they are following someone who is helping them learn how to follow Jesus. Likewise, they look like a shepherd from the back because they’re helping others learn how to follow Jesus.”

 

But we may worry that we don’t have the right to apprentice others, as we either don’t feel worthy, or we don’t want to judge others. There is a balance here. We certainly can’t judge anyone, both because of our own state, and because we can never truly know what is happening in someone’s heart.

 

But just because we can’t see what’s happening inside, as Sherry Wedell writes, “This does not mean that no fruits of personal faith are observable from the outside. And it certainly does not mean that a dramatic and widespread absence of these fruits in the community overall cannot be recognised and addressed.”

 

She continues, “…let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey.”

 

We can help others, or we can hinder them. Paul knew that he was a model for others, so when writing to his disciples in Corinth he said simply: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

 

Bob Ronglien writes, “The call to make disciples is a call to point people towards Jesus by the fallible example of our lives. If people are only imitating us, they will get a degraded version of Jesus. People don’t need a perfect example of Jesus – they just need a living example. Paul would not let Timothy use his age as an excuse for not inviting people to imitate him.”

What will this mean for my life?

If you want to grow in being an apprentice – being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit, there needs to be something intentional about it. As Sherry Wedell writes,

 

Discipleship is never unconscious. No one voluntarily sheds his or her job, home, and whole way of life accidentally or unconsciously. Simon Peter’s drop the net decision is what we mean by intentional….Going with Jesus meant visiting places these fishermen, and the women who accompanied them, would probably never have visited otherwise.”

 

If we make that choice, day by day, He will transform us. The spirit of the Way of Discipleship is to respond to the exciting, life-changing vision that someone like the priest Robert Capon set out:

 

“If Christianity is simply about being nice, I’m not interested. What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous?

 

What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went? What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion and gratitude, and who every day were unable to get over the grace of God?

 

I’m ready for a Christianity that ‘ruins’ my life, that captures my heart and makes me uncomfortable. I want to be filled with an astonishment which is so captivating that I am considered wild and unpredictable and … well … dangerous. Yes, I want to be ‘dangerous’ to a dull and boring religion. I want a faith that is considered ‘dangerous’ by our predictable and monotonous culture.” (“Dangerous Wonder” by Mike Yaconelli, Hodder & Stoughton 1999)

Discipleship and God

What is at the heart of a disciple’s relationship with God?

The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love your neighbour as yourself. So before we say anything else about God or ourselves we start here: it’s about love. Note that lots of people believe in God. But the way of discipleship is to grow in being loved by God, and in loving God.

 

God has made you for the kind of relationship that St Augustine described, when he wrote, “you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Who loves first?

Augustine also wrote: “You were with me, and I was not with you…You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. … I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”

 

John wrote, “We love because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19. So before we can begin to love God, we need to begin to experience the depths of His love. If you think about it, how would we know about love in the first place if God didn’t reveal it?

What is God’s love like?

While there are many things we can say to describe God, the most defining statement about God is in 1 John 4: God IS love. In other words, love is not something God chooses to do. He is love itself – He cannot do anything else except love. God puts aside everything else about Him – His complete power, His complete knowledge, His Lordship – compared to loving His creation, including us. His love always shapes everything else. His love can be defined as self-giving love – love which will always give to others at cost to Himself, even if they don’t receive or want it.

 

For Christians, as we shall see, the supreme way we know and see this love reaching out to us is through the self-giving coming as a human, death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

God’s love is revealed more and more through the story of the Bible. For example, in the book of Hosea, God reveals His self-giving love with these words,

 

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them….My people are determined to turn from me….How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.”

What kind of relationship does God want with me?

If God IS love above all else, the kind of relationship He offers us will be

 

Personal. Throughout the Bible numerous people are recorded as “walking with God.” Jesus told His disciples that there would, “realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

 

Honest. In Genesis 3, God is pained by the idea that Adam and Eve are hiding from Him. He asks them, “Where are you?” We can feel ashamed and think we have to “hide from God” – that He won’t love us as we are. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before people will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin…”

 

Secure. Because God loves us, we can be completely secure, whatever happens. For example, in John we read, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” In other words, Jesus was able to live out His calling to serve and go to the cross, because He was secure in the love of God His Father.

 

Julian of Norwich was a medieval Christian who had a vision of the security of God’s love. She wrote, “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’

 

I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God….In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

 

Transforming. When we know God’s love it will begin to change us. This is because the way of discipleship is not just knowing about God’s love – it’s a deeper kind of knowing – like when Adam knew (yada) – Eve, and she conceived. If we are not willing to begin to love God, we will have no chance of understanding Him. Growing in knowing God’s love is less about understanding ideas, and more about touching Him. We can’t split Truth about God from life itself.

 

“It’s not enough to claim to know the truth as if it can be contained in a mere idea. If I want to claim something to be true in the religious sense particularly then it must have changed my life, or my life itself will be communicating that I don’t really believe it to be true.

 

As theologian David Tracy says, “There is never an authentic disclosure of truth which is not also transformative.” There is a three minute video on the love of God with Archbishop Justin Welby and others you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvA6hwDnB6Q&t=19s

Why do we love God?

Very simply – because He is God, and God is love. The more we can love God for who He is, rather than how He answers our prayers or what He does, the more we will be genuinely loving Him. St Bernard put it like this:

 

“The reason for our loving God is God. God is the initiator of our love and its final goal. He is himself the occasion of human love; he gives us the power to love, and brings our desire to its consummation. God is loveable in himself, and gives himself to us as the object of our love. He desires that our love for him should bring us happiness, and not be arid and barren.

 

His love for us opens up inside us the way to love, and is the reward of our own reaching out in love. How gently he leads us in love’s way, how generously he returns the love we give, how sweet he is to those who wait for him!” Bernard Of Clairvaux (1090–1153)

How is this love relationship mostly described in the Bible?

One of the greatest themes throughout the Bible is the word Covenant which describes the love-relationship God invites us into. Throughout the Old Testament, God makes covenants again and again – with Noah, with Abraham, with David. Each covenant is God taking the initiative to restore the love relationship with His people. In a covenant, God offers Himself completely in love to His people, in a way that nothing can break, and He invites them to offer themselves to Him. “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

 

Even when people turn away from Him, God keeps His covenant with them. This defines the relationship He wants with us. It is the deepest relationship of self-giving love, and God always initiates it with us.

 

It’s like a marriage (in which people say to each other, “All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.”) In fact, as we read the Bible we find that we are called “God’s Bride”.

 

As the Bible progresses, there is a pattern. God makes a covenant with His people and gives reminders of the relationship through, for example, temple worship…the people break it…God restores it…until eventually He promises through a prophet, Jeremiah,

 

“The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel.. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them…This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

 

When Jesus came, He lived fully in this covenant relationship with God, and invites disciples into exactly the same relationship: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)

 

This loving covenant relationship was revealed fully and achieved by Jesus’s death and rising again. God’s commitment to us is forever – it is written in the blood of Jesus. As we share in the “Covenant” meal that Jesus gave, we are reminded of this – the bread and the wine help us remember who He is, and who we are.

 

How does this shape who I am as a disciple?

Because your identity is defined by the covenant God makes with you through Christ. You are a child of God, “born again” into a new family, given a new name and a new identity. The New Testament teaches that when we are baptized we embrace our new identity. Jesus connects us to God and defines who we are. We share his Name: “Christ-ian”, and everything He has is ours. This means God – our Covenant partner – wants to give us everything He gave Jesus.

 

Because your motive for loving God is defined by this covenant. The New Covenant means that God’s code of behaviour for his people—”the Law”—is now written in our hearts. Now we are free to love AND obey God because this is truly a reflection of who we are. We choose to obey because this is the most consistent way of expressing our identity. …Obedience is always an act of love.

 

It is so important that things always start with our covenant identity. If we try and approach God only through obeying Him, rather than recognising who we are, we will fall into the trap of the Pharisees whom Jesus encountered. We will try and “prove” our identity by what we do, and become anxious, driven and insecure before God. We won’t be disciples who are loving God.

 

Can I really know God? How is that possible? Isn’t God beyond us?

We have started with the importance of loving God above all things. But it’s important to ask, as human beings, how much we can really understand or know God, or how we can really say anything about God at all.

 

From the beginning, God is a God of covenant love. Yet when Moses approached the burning bush in the desert (Exodus 3) and asked to know God’s name he got two replies: 4 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

 

God is reminding Moses of the covenants He made. But He is also refusing to give His name. The meaning of his name is best translated as I will be there as I will be there. In other words, you can only come so far, know so much about Him – He refuses to be tied down by any human idea. Far from being a problem, this is something which helps us approach God as God. As St Aquinas said, “a comprehended God is no God at all.”

 

CS Lewis put it this way, “…my idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself.” That is why in Scripture God is often revealed as spirit and fire-things that cannot be contained or easily approached.

 

For everything we say about God, there will always be more to be said. It is most helpful to see our knowledge of God about trying to point in the right direction, rather than giving a final answer. We can say, “The truth is in this direction, and not that way.” Paul put it like this,

 

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” This is why we say we believe in God, and have faith, rather than knowledge which comes from complete proof.

 

So, perhaps a better question to ask is…

How much can we know?

We can discover aspects of God’s character in various ways:

 

By looking at creation – what does the way the world and universe works reveal?

 

By examining ourselves – what do our longings for beauty, truth, justice and meaning point towards?

 

By looking at the way God is revealed and acted in Scripture.

 

And ultimately by looking at Christ, who is the “image of the invisible God.”

 

Over time, we have come to see that, even without the whole picture, there are aspects of God’s being and character that we can know to be true. Some of these things (attributes) describe God’s powers and some His personality. Or to put it another way, some reflect His greatness, and others His goodness.

 

And while some describe who God is, some can only describe who He is not (such as, for example, saying He does not change).  As we have said, God’s defining attribute is self-giving, covenant love. But a further list might include this definition: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism)

How does this help me to be a disciple?

It stops you making God in your own image. The act of “making gods in your own image” i.e. that you can humanly understand, is seen as dangerous in the Bible, and is known as idolatry. It is making gods too small, too human, too much what we need. Not only are idols dangerous because they are a poor reflection, and rejection of God, but those who worship and base their lives on them gradually get changed into slaves, becoming like the thing they worship.

 

It helps you to keep wondering at and exploring God. Augustine said, “If you understand, it is not God. God is ever greater, always bigger, than anything we think we know of him.” Another writer puts it like this: “God introduces us into this mystery, but not in such a way that it simply stops being mysterious. It cannot be exhausted by being revealed;….Every aspect of God’s mystery that he gives us to understand is surrounded by mystery and opens into greater mystery .” The wonder of God is there is always more to be explored!

 

It gives you the right balance in your relationship with Him. Solomon wrote in his Proverbs: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. This fear isn’t because we can’t trust in God’s love or goodness, but it’s the kind of awe and deep respect we have for a being who is, “beyond my utmost heights and more inward to me than my inmost depths.” (Augustine).

 

We are drawn towards God’s wonder, but we cannot fathom Him. Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it like this: He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” God is both holy and completely unapproachable – filling us with awe and wonder – and completely within and around us, closer to us than we can understand. We call these qualities God being transcendent (above everything and mysterious) and immanent (within and alongside us, available at all times). He holds the whole universe and knows every atom. We tremble before Him AND draw close to Him in intimate love.

 

There are times in our lives as disciples when we need to remember the fear of the Lord. There are times when we need to draw close to His intimate love. Both are true, and both are needed. Different churches emphasise different approaches to God. Some are very aware of His transcendence in the way they worship and live. Others reflect the closeness of God’s love. It’s good to experience both in being with God. This balance is actually in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer. We call God, “Our Father”, a description of trust and love, and then say, “Hallowed be your name.” In other words, this God who is not “tame” has a name which should be honoured and respected.

 

It gives you humility with others. As a disciple you will find yourself disagreeing with other disciples, and wanting to pray, worship and act in different ways. For example, there are over 25,000 Christian denominations! Understanding that there is always more to be discovered should enable us to listen and learn from each other with humility.

Why is my “picture of God” so important?

While we are always aware that we cannot possibly know everything, or even much, about God, what we do know makes all the difference. The writer A W Tozer puts it like this,

 

“What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Were we able to extract from any person a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that person.”

 

There are many false directions and ideas about what God is like that can lead us away from the relationship of covenant love we are made for and towards a destructive fear. Many people, even Christians, either subconsciously, or consciously, might believe that:

 

God punishes and blesses us according to our actions – this both leads to us feeling unable to please Him all the time and/or raises questions about those who suffer for no reason.

 

God punishes us eternally for a single sin – this makes God worse than a human parent.

 

God only loves us according to our behaviour – this leads us to believe that God is not generous, and does not genuinely delight in us.

Why is God “Father, Son, Spirit”?  

Early Christians came to experience and understand God in three main ways – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons in one. This understanding is not set out in the Bible as a teaching – the word Trinity is not used – but its reality can be seen through both the Old and New Testaments – God is three-in-one from the beginning.

 

Jewish people would pray the Shema morning and evening, at the end of each day and at the time of death, saying “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord.” (Deuteronomy 6: 4) But God is also described with various names and as distinct persons:

 

The Word of God. God’s “Word” exists separately from God, but comes from God, speaking life, guidance, and salvation into being. (e.g. Isaiah 55:10–11). The Word creates.

 

The Spirit of God. Right at the beginning of Genesis (1:2) the Spirit hovers over creation – God’s presence and power. The Spirit comes upon people at various times and in various ways. The Spirit empowers.

 

Wisdom (especially in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes) who is described as a female figure, alongside God but dependent on him (e.g. Proverbs 9:1–6) and who acts in the world.

Where is the Trinity in Jesus’ life and the New Testament?

With Jesus, his followers came to understand that God was doing something that was both new – a New Covenant which completed all the promises God had made His people through Jesus – and continuous with what had gone before. They already had categories for understanding God but began to see Him in new ways.

 

Father: The God Jesus taught His disciples that the God He knew as “Father” was the God of Israel, and He related personally to Him as a distinct being.

 

Son: Jesus, who was fully human, also acted in ways that only the God of Israel could do – healing, and offering forgiveness of sins. His followers used ways of describing Him that were divine – the glory of God, or the wisdom of God. John described Jesus as being “with God”, but also said He “was God” – one, but also distinct.

 

Spirit: The Spirit was the presence through which people could be born again, whom Jesus promised to send, and who came at Pentecost. The Spirit is the person through whom the love of the Father and Son can be known. The three persons already described could be known and understood in the life of Jesus, sometimes clearly active in one event, and sometimes in different ways. For example, at the one event of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), the Spirit comes down on Jesus, and the voice of the Father describes Him as my “beloved Son.”

 

Romans chapter 8 is full of the language of Father, Son, Spirit. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God….And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”… Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”

 

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14) describes God in a few sentences as, “The Father who chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” The one who, “predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ…(aiming) to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” And that, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” 2 Corinthians ends with these words, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Where did the word “Trinity” come from and what does it protect us from?

Loving God as Father, Son and Spirit was a lived reality, in the ways that people worshipped, prayed, baptized, and knew God before it became a teaching. The teaching evolved over a few centuries, and has provided a strong and reliable way of speaking of God – not as a way of “tying God down” or controlling God (who is an eternal mystery”), but as a way of protecting us from some of those false and damaging pictures of God, or ways that we can “make Him in our own image” as an idol:

 

It protects us against thinking God has multiple or split personalities: the Trinity does not mean that God sometimes shows himself to us as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Spirit. He is all three at the same time.

 

It protects us from only knowing God in smaller reduced ways: such as believing that God could only be separate and distant from us, or could only be within us, or could only be a “divine human being”. The Trinity helps us to hold all these things together.

 

One document says that the Trinity, affirms that God in his own divine self really is such that God can share himself with his creation. God is not only the utterly other, who infinitely transcends creation; God can also be deeply and intimately present within creation, as the Spirit, and God can also be one of us, a genuinely human person, as Jesus Christ the Son. Therefore God can and does open his own life for his creation to share.

How does the Trinity help me be a disciple today?  

The Trinity means God is a relationship of love. In the Trinity, God gives and receives within God’s very being. That is why we began with the truth that God IS love. God is always in relationship – never solitary. As Mike Lloyd puts it, “This is the fundamental fact of all that is. You can divide up a molecule. You can split an atom. But you can never divide up the love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father, and the Father for the Spirit, and the Son for the Father, and the Spirit for the Son. That is the surest thing that is. We stand on holy ground and the view from here is stunning.”

 

Rublev’s icon is an ancient and famous picture of the love that flows within God’s very being.  When looking at it, the writer Henri Nouwen said, “Notice the movement from the Father towards the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit towards the Father. There is a circle of love where all relate to one another. Draw an imaginary line from the tree through the Son to the little opening in front of the table. Draw another line linking the heads of the three figures. You now have a cross as well as the circle: the cross becomes the means by which the world can be drawn up into the everlasting circle of the love of God.”

 

The Trinity means God invites us into this relationship of love. God’s self-giving love does not run out and is not exclusive. In the icon, this is shown by the fact that there is a fourth place at the table, for you, the viewer. The nature of God’s love is that God can share his life even with those created beings, ourselves, who are alienated from God and opposed to God.

 

Through the Son and Spirit, God enters our reality of evil, suffering and mortality, shares our pain, carries that pain for us and restores us, walks with us in our human everyday struggles and shapes our lives so that we can know the Father as the source and goal of our being. “The point isn’t to understand. The point is to know and be known by this God so that we can participate in his love.”

Why do we call God “Father”?

An early Christian saint called Cyprian wrote this, “Those who have been born again and restored to God through grace say “Father” at the beginning of all prayer because they are already beginning to be his sons and daughters. None of us would presume to do this had not Christ himself taught us to pray in this way.”

 

Jewish people knew that God is neither male nor female, but spirit without body or gender, but they understood God to have the loving qualities of a parent. Psalm 103 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.”

 

Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”

 

But Jesus lived and taught that we should, through Him, know God as Father. This was entirely new. The most important relationships we have are our relationship with Jesus as Lord and our relationship with God as our father.

What kind of father?

When Jesus addressed God, he used the word “Abba”. Later on, Paul writes in Romans that we cry out to God, “Abba, Father” when we pray. A helpful translation is, “Dear Father.” A term of intimacy and trust, but also holding a sense of obedience. The word Abba shows that Jesus knew God as intimately involved in His life, and not distant. The writer CFD Moule says, “The intimate word conveys not a casual sort of familiarity but the deepest, most trustful reverence.”

 

For some people calling God Father might be difficult for various reasons, and we need to be sensitive, But, rather than abandoning the word, the writer James Smith offers some helpful advice, “…when Jesus describes God as his father we have to let him define what fatherhood means. Barth is helpful here:

 

“….it is not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse; true and proper fatherhood resides in God and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived. The solution is not to abandon the term father but to let Jesus define it.”

 

What will help me experience God’s love?

As we journey through the Way of Discipleship the aim is to form us as people who can grow into Being with God in our daily lives and experiencing His love. Two final thoughts can reassure us.

 

We hide from God – He doesn’t hide from us. While there are things that can get in the way of us experiencing God, and there can be times in our lives when God seems more distant, God is always wanting us to know Him. At the beginning of the Bible, it is human beings who hide from God – not the other way round.

 

The writer Balthazar said that Scriptures show: “When people seek God, God is long before in search of people, and like the woman looking for her lost coin, God turns the house of man upside down. People may hunt for God like one pursuing a deer with bloodhounds through fire and water, against lance and pike, but God’s hunt for people is even wilder.”

 

God is always present – we need the eyes to see Him. In Genesis 28: 13-16 Jacob has a dream at night in which God promises him the land. He wakes up and thinks, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” God is above all things, but also within all things. One writer, Barbara Taylor Brown, says how this transformed her experience,

 

“I could no longer see myself or the least detail of my life in the same way again. When the service was over that day I walked out of it into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth. Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me- begging to be watched, to be listened to, to be handled and examined. I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow: locusts shedding their hard bodies for soft, new winged ones; prickly pods of milkweed spilling silky white hair; lightning spinning webs of cold fire in the sky, as intricate as the veins in my own wrist. My friend taught me to believe that these were all words in the language of God.”

What does daily discipleship look like?

What does daily discipleship look like?

Whether or not we call ourselves Christians, we are all growing into being certain kinds of people. The ways we are being formed are shaped by

 

• the things we give most attention to

• the choices we make

• the influence of the relationships we have.

 

To be a disciple is to welcome God to be the centre of all of these, growing into the people that He desires us to be – being with Him, becoming like Him, and joining in with Him.

What does this mean day by day?

On a daily basis how we put God at the centre is shaped by three things:

 

What we give attention to: Being open to God’s presence and paying attention to what He is saying, which leads to

 

The choices we make in what we do: Responding to what He is saying in loving obedience, which leads to

 

The character we are becoming: Enabling God to change me from the inside out to become more like Christ by putting into practice regular ways of living which open me up to the work of His Spirit. (This is the focus of module 2 – Becoming like Christ) This session focusses particularly on the first two: How do we pay attention to God day by day? And what are the best reasons to respond in obedience to what He is saying?

Why is paying attention to God at the heart of being a disciple?

We are constantly paying attention and responding to different voices in life. As we have seen, being a disciple at its most basic is growing in responding to God above all else. Jesus said God’s word is more important than food: “Humans do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

 

He had a deep sense that His life was shaped by God’s leading: “”I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. (John 5:19).

 

One writer put it like this, “We are what we hear from God.” (Emil Brunner.) The meaning of the word “church” is to be people who are “called out” – in other words, those who respond to God’s call.

How does Jesus’ first “sermon” describe this?

In Mark 1: 14 we read, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” When Jesus started His ministry, He began by telling people two important things:

 

That this was a particular moment to pay attention. This was not just “ordinary”, minute by minute time (chronos), this was a time when God was acting in a new way. When He said, “The time has come” the word for time (Kairos) is a specific time of opportunity. He told them that this moment was a time when, “The kingdom of God has come near.”

 

All that God wants in the world is now close – His love, His presence, His healing. God is not far from people – and the whole of the gospels are full of people responding to God (as we saw in the story of Jacob from Genesis 28.)

 

From the beginning, Jesus is showing how at the heart of being a disciple is wanting to be open to His presence by recognising the moments where God is close, and how He is working. In our daily lives, the kingdom of God in God’s world is near.

 

It may be that certain events – positive or negative become the doorway to us recognising it, and asking, “God, how do you want me to respond?” God may speak through our successes or failures, through things we see, hear or read; large or small happenings, things we do or are done to us. The disciple will be growing in paying attention in all these things.

 

That this was the time to “Repent” and “Believe” – to respond to what God is doing by Changing their way of thinking – repenting means to “turn our minds” from seeing things our way to seeing things God’s way. Starting to live differently – believing here is deeper than what goes on in our minds.

 

It is starting to let our choices and relationships be shaped by how God is acting and calling us, demonstrating in our lived experience what we are really trusting in. From the beginning Jesus is describing the heart of being a daily disciple as paying attention to God in moments of opportunity and responding by living in new ways.

What does this mean in my lived experience?

It means daily discipleship is a close relationship: In the words of Pope Benedict 16th, “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him even more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”

 

It reinforces the point that daily discipleship is growing in seeing where God is present in your life: Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness … is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.”

 

The whole of this module is about helping us be disciples who grow in paying attention to God and responding to Him. As we journey together, our expectation will be that God’s kingdom is near, and that each week He will be giving us the opportunity to respond.

Why is knowing God’s teaching and putting it into practice at the heart of being a disciple?

It’s possible to pay attention to God’s presence, and to get to know His teaching, yet for that to make little difference in our lived experience. In a sense that’s like “repenting” (changing the way we think), without believing (changing the way we live.)

 

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us a large amount of teaching on what the life of discipleship looks like. But, crucially, immediately after this there comes the parable of the wise and foolish builders. One builds on rock, and when, “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house…yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”

 

But the other builds on sand. When the storm comes, it “fell with a great crash.” Both builders have heard God’s words and received His teaching. But that is not what makes the difference. The wise person in the parable, whose house remains standing, is the one “who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.”

How does this relate to the difference between faith and belief?

The Greek word for faith, pisteuo, means putting faith into action. Faith is not having a mental list of beliefs but trusting someone enough to give them control of our lives.

 

Martin Luther distinguished between belief and faith using the image of a ship. Standing on the seashore, pointing at a ship, and saying that you think it will take you to the other side of the sea is a statement of belief. Your life does not depend upon the ship. Getting on the ship and trusting it to take you to the other side of the sea is an act of faith. This faith is justified when the ship is reliable and takes you safely on your journey.

 

When Jesus called people to believe, it was with this sense of faith – He was calling them to entrust their whole lives to God in this way. At the heart of a daily life of discipleship is both paying attention to God and learning to put what He is saying into practice.

 

Because both these things matter, the ‘Way of Discipleship’ offers teaching, but importantly it is also about the ways we put that teaching into practice. (In every module the first sessions focus on the content of teaching, helping us to grow in understanding, and the following sessions are helping us live out that teaching in our daily lives).

What are the best motives for paying attention to God and responding to Him in the way we live (1)?  

As a response to God’s love and grace. We have seen how God is a God of love who calls us into covenant relationship. That we obey God because He is God. But as we go further, it’s crucial that our daily obedience is only about responding to God’s grace. Imagine if you gave someone you love a gift for their birthday and they asked you, “Why did you do this?” Now imagine you reply, “Because I had to.” Or, “Because I was afraid you would be angry if I didn’t.” Wouldn’t you have missed the whole point?

 

The only good reason for giving a gift is love. Similarly, obedience and response to God which doesn’t come from love is not only destructive for our lives but undermines our sense of God’s great love for us. The first and greatest commandment is to “Love God.” Julian of Norwich put it like this, “The greatest honour we can give to God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of His love.”

Why is living in God’s grace so essential?

It is easy for our “putting God’s teaching into practice” to slip into duty or legalism. This can crush our spirits, make us bitter and judging of others, and as we shall see, fail to transform the heart.

 

This is why Jesus criticised the Pharisees – not for their lack of obedience, but for their legalism. This is the message of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who becomes embittered, and ends up serving his father, not out of love, but out of duty. But the motive for being a disciple can only because we are loved, forgiven and accepted by God, even before we think about obeying Him. “We love, because He first loved us.”

 

Scripture calls this undeserved, unconditional love grace. We have explored how God is love. His grace is the quality of love God has for us, and that Jesus’ life and death demonstrated, that gives complete and utter worth to anyone, regardless of who they are or how they live. The starting place for obeying God can only be this: the more we grow in receiving His grace, the more we will want to pay attention and obey.

 

Responding to God in obedience is therefore effort, but it is never earning. We are already loved, whether we obey or not. As Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

 

This is the jewel of Christian discipleship. As one writer puts it, “Christians affirm a foundation of identity that is absolutely unique in the marketplace of spiritualties. Whether we realize it or not, our being is grounded in God’s love. Love is our identity and calling.

 

“Neither knowing God or knowing self can progress very far unless it begins with a knowledge of how deeply we are loved by God….In order for our knowing of God’s love to be truly transformational, it must become the basis for our identity…..And identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.”

 

Jesus was fully obedient to God His Father, even to death. Scottish theologian Thomas Smail says that the motive for this was “not legal obedience driven by commandment but trusting response to known love.”

Why is this so hard, but so important?

We live in a world of conditionality and are trained from childhood that good behaviour leads to reward, while bad behaviour leads to punishment. We can therefore easily slip into experiencing discipleship as religiously trying to build a bridge to God (which is perhaps a little arrogant!). The reality of grace however is that God has, through Christ, built a bridge to us. Christ was clear that it is only those who know they need to receive God’s grace that will truly turn to Him:

 

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Author Brennan Manning calls this the “revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, addicts, IRS agents, and even used car salesmen…”

 

In a reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable which demonstrates God’s unconditional love like nothing else, Rob Parsons says that the message of the story is that you can always come home. Whatever you have done, whoever you are, “There will be a Father waiting, and there will always be a light on.” 

 

Author Kathleen Norris has a moving realization of God’s grace at an airport: “One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight. It was beautiful to see.

 

Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.”

 

It is only God’s grace that can give us the assurance that we are loved, and the motivation to serve Him. As an old man, the preacher Charles Simeon rejoiced in this love, saying, “Soon (my eyes) will behold all the glorified Saints and Angels around the throne of my God and saviour, he has loved me until death, and given himself for me; then I shall see him whom having not seen I have loved; In whom, though now I see him not, yet believing I rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Of the reality of this I am as sure as if I were there this moment.”

What are the best motives for paying attention to God and responding to Him in the way we live (2)?

As a way of living into our true identity.  It’s hard in the contemporary world for people to know “who they are” – I can try and discover identity through “losing myself” or “looking within”. But it’s worth repeating that in daily discipleship, one of the best reasons for responding to God is not to gain an identity but because He has already given us an identity.

 

In fact, while the world of consumerism might try and seduce into building our own identity through what we own, Christians believe that it is only God who can truly tell us who we are. It’s only by receiving this identity that we will truly change – the more we realize how God sees us, the more we will want to obey Him and to become our true selves. One writer puts it like this, “We are never free until we submit our hearts and minds in obedience to Christ, and we are never so much our true selves as when becoming more like him.”

Who am I and what difference does it make?

Most people realize that there is a gap between who they are, and what they could be. There is a chasm between the way we know the world should be, and the way it is. For Christians, this is not just “the way things are”, but the sign that our real condition is a longing to be restored to our true selves.

 

The Bible reveals how God originally intended us to know who we are and to live in that freedom. The story of Adam and Eve describes how God put His imprint on us.  He made us for Himself as covenant-partners. As we have seen, covenant is an agreement that establishes a relationship between two parties. In a covenant we say to each other, “Who I am and what I have I give to you.” (Marriage is one of the few covenant relationships that still exist.)

 

So our original identity is found in God’s covenant with us. Yet the story of Adam and Eve also describes a very real reality – that as human beings we often don’t accept God’s covenant and instead place ourselves at the centre of life. (This is the root of sin). The result is that we lose the sense of identity and have been searching for it ever since. We cannot find it ourselves – though we may try.

 

Yet because God is love, and He cannot be untrue to who He is, the story of the Bible reveals how He continues to make covenants with His people at various times, and in various ways. The problem was that these Old Testament covenants failed to recover the identity-producing relationship God had with Adam and Eve in the garden. So God promises a new covenant through Christ, which, if we can receive it, restores our identity completely.

What is the effect of my identity in Christ in my daily life?

Our true identity is restored to us by being “in Christ”. While human beings fell from our original covenant identity, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.’

 

The result is that in this final covenant everything that is true of Christ becomes true of us. In the same way that the children in the Narnia books are made kings and queens, and then start to grow into that identity, so as disciples we are crowned with our identity in Christ, and then invited to respond. Among other things, in my daily life, I can have two things:

 

Restored confidence in obeying: One of the reasons I respond to God is because although I am not divine like Jesus, because I share in the same restored identity revealed in Jesus I do things “in His name” – authorised as a covenant-partner to act on His behalf. This gives me an incredible dignity and motivation. Pete Greig puts it like this: “I am no longer sitting in a world of troubles looking up to God for help; rather, I am seated with Christ, looking down from the same vantage point He has.”

 

Restored desire to obey: As you live into the identity God gives you as a disciple, there is a freedom in serving God, not out of a sense of duty, but out of love. Paul described this by contrasting a fear-based slave mentality that comes from trying to please God in our own strength, with growing in our desire to God’s will as we realize our identity as His “adopted children”. “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by whom we cry Abba father.”

 

Being with God in Worship

I want to grow in being with God and becoming like Christ...how does this happen?

In every Way of Discipleship module the first sessions help shape our understanding while the next sessions are much more focused on how we live because of that understanding. We have seen how being a disciple is about staying close to the ‘rabbi’ – being with Him, becoming like Him, joining in with Him. Paying attention to God and responding to Him, putting God’s teaching into practice in our choices.

 

Being with God means keeping Him before our minds. How does this happen? Put simply, on a day by day basis, we get to experience this being with God by developing the kinds of habits, practices or rhythms that develop this focus. So as we look for the rest of this module at the everyday practices of worship, prayer, Bible reading and a balanced life, we will be learning and experiencing ways of living that help us to ‘Be with God’.

 

We do not have to make this up from scratch – these habits are ways in which disciples have grown for millennia and are ways of living found in Jesus’ life. Sometimes they have been called “spiritual disciplines”. These days, more people are adopting the language of habits or practices to avoid splitting life up into a “spiritual” and a “non-spiritual” part (God calls us to be with Him in all of our lives), and to avoid making “Being with God” sound like a duty.

 

What are practices?

We are familiar with the idea of good and bad practices. Things that over time become a natural part of our lives and focus the way we live. These habits are the ones which draw us into a life of love and joy with the God who loves us! The other things practices do is change us. (This is obvious in our physical bodies in terms of our eating, exercising, personal care habits, but it is just as true for our inner person as well). We will explore this in more detail in the Module ‘Becoming like Christ’, but we have already seen if something is genuinely true it will transform us.

 

As disciples we learn in order to become like our teacher. Paul and other New Testament writers describe this as changing into the image or pattern of Christ. The hope is that everyone can grow to be “mature in Christ”. God doesn’t want us to be people who can just do the right thing in our behaviour.  Most people find it hard to keep to every rule!

 

The picture the Bible gives us is that He wants to do something far deeper – to change our inmost being (the heart). Over time we do the things Christ does because they become things we want to do, and the natural choices we make will be to do what He would do if He were in our situation, in the strength that He gives. Our habitual thoughts, feelings and actions will become more like His.

 

This isn’t cloning – God made and loves variety. Instead, as each human being becomes more like Him, we become more fully the people God made each of us to be. This is what Paul means when he prays that Christ would be “formed in you”. Daily discipleship is gradually becoming the kind of person who will naturally live a life like the Master. If joining the Way of Discipleship has no impact on shaping us to become more like Christ, then it will not be discipleship.

How does this change happen?

Most people want to change in some way. But 95% of New Year’s resolutions do not last past the end of January. We can’t change by just saying, “I want to change.” Most people know that while we might be able to tweak our behaviours a little, for the deeper patterns of our personalities to change we need a power beyond ourselves. (See the AA Twelve Step programme). Genuine change is a lifelong journey of letting God transform us.

 

Very briefly, disciples are changed as two things happen. Our minds are renewed so we see the world and people more and more as God sees them. To have the “mind of Christ”. The Way of Discipleship offers this.

 

Our innermost selves (hearts) are changed by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out. In Luke 6, Jesus points out that “there is no good tree which produces bad fruit…. Men do not gather figs from thorn bushes….” (vv. 43-44) It is the inner nature of the tree that determines its outward product. Likewise, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” (v. 45)

 

Habits and practices are about giving space in our lives for God’s Holy Spirit to shape our minds and our innermost desires, so that over time our natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ. They give us ways of “abiding in Him”, or “walking in the Spirit.” As we do so, as well as knowing what to do, we gradually want to do it. James Smith writes, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”

 

Practices change us indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We can see this reality in any physical training. The more you train, the easier it becomes to, for example, run a marathon. And the more natural marathon-running will be. As we are being with God through worship, prayer, study and rest, we become the kind of people who want what God wants. Sometimes we get transformed in moments of ‘breakthrough’, like Saul on the road to Damascus. But most of the time it is through the process of living.

 

Because we are covenant partners, we have a part to play in this. We make ourselves available and open. But it is God who does the work, through His Spirit. “Without Him we can’t, but without us He won’t.” We are making an effort, but we aren’t earning. We are training, but we aren’t trying. Richard Foster calls this ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.” All the practices create the environment for the Holy Spirit to change us.

What is worship and why do we do it?

Worship is the first practice of any disciple. Maureen Collins is a modern example of a worshipping creature. Her home is a shrine to Barry Manilow, and she is so obsessed that she doesn’t have time for full-time employment. The walls are covered with posters from different parts of Barry’s career. She doesn’t listen to music by any other artist, she has seen him all over the world and written him hundreds of letters. She has a scrapbook filled with newspaper and magazine cuttings, and calls radio stations all over the UK requesting his songs. Her family and friends have long since given up trying to dissuade her from her obsession.

 

While Maureen may be a somewhat extreme example, she illustrates a point: People from all tribes, cultures and nations worship and have been worshipping someone or something since the beginning of humanity. Some worship out of awe, some out of fear, some to keep their gods happy (or at bay), some out of duty, some out of love. In reality everybody worships something.

 

The English word ‘worship’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weorthscipe’ which literally means to ascribe worth to something. You worship what you most love, give attention to, or desire. Worship is how we respond to what we value the most. Who or what we worship is the deepest expression of our humanity.

 

Who we worship also shapes us. This is why the Bible warns against idolatry so often. Psalm 115 says, “…their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands….Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” The things we base our lives on are the things which make things normal for us. If you worship money, greed becomes normal. If your god is violent, killing becomes normal. Worship expresses what we value, but also shapes it.

Why do we worship God?

God (alone) is worthy of our worship. Throughout the story of the Bible when people encounter God, they worship. Abraham offers a sacrifice. Moses leads the people out of Egypt so they can worship. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, offers a song of praise as she dedicates him. David dances. Forty one psalms say “Sing to the Lord!”. Job praises God in the midst of trials. Mary worships when she becomes pregnant. The wise men worship the child, the disciples worship the Messiah, Peter and John praise God after being flogged, Paul and Silas sing hymns in prison.

 

Endless crowds in the book of Revelation sing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”  Worship is the only appropriate relationship we can have when we see God for who He is. As Matt Redman writes, “When we face up to the glory of God, we find ourselves face down in worship.

 

In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people are told, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” and “serve him only and take your oaths in his name. …14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you.” The writer to the Hebrews encourages people to , “offer sacrifice of praise to God continually…let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28–29)

 

Worship is the deepest expression of who we are. As we have seen – everyone worships (gives ultimate worth) in some way. Worship is the practice that makes us most human and reveals our deepest longings. The Christian faith says, “I worship, therefore I am.” We are made for God. The human heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.

 

When we worship God, we are expressing in the deepest way the relationship we are made for with Him. As the famous statement says, “The chief end of people is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To worship is a natural response to God which completes our enjoyment of Him.

 

C.S. Lewis puts it like this. “But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. … The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game. … I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

 

Worship is the opposite of sin. Pope Francis has said, “The most dangerous idol is our own selves when we want to occupy the place of God.”  The original human problem, and the root of all the brokenness in society, is the way we have replaced God with ourselves, living our lives, and ruling the world, as if He does not exist. To worship God is to reverse this, by placing God at the centre.

 

When Jesus said we should worship “in spirit and in truth” He wasn’t recommending any method or place, but showing how God was looking for the worshipping people who will truly make Him the centre of their lives. That’s why, William Temple, an archbishop, wrote,  “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing, and that is worship.”

 

True worship does not look for any benefit to ourselves (that would be repeating the problem) but worshipping God for Himself. St Augustine explained, “The heart is not pure if it worships God for a reward. What then? Shall we have no reward for the worship of God? Certainly we shall, but the reward will be God himself whom we worship. God’s very self will be our reward.”

 

Worship is joining in with the activity of earth and heaven, now and forever. To worship God is to join in with a creation which gives glory to God, making us more at home with the rhythms of earth. “All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” (Psalm 66:4) “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars.” (Psalm 148:3)

 

It is also to join in with the unseen parts of creation, ‘the heavens’ God made – spiritual beings such as angels, who are revealed as living lives of worship. “And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’” (Revelation 7:11-12)

 

To worship is also to anticipate the time when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” We get glimpses of that future in some Old Testament prophecy, which paints God’s promised new creation as a feast: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6) It will be a time when, “the ransomed of the Lord will return And come with joyful shouting to Zion, And everlasting joy will be on their heads.” (Isaiah 51:11)

 

In the picture-language of Revelation this worship is never-ending and involves everyone, as God’s glory is seen fully. To worship now is to both join in with this unseen reality, and look forward to its fulfilment.

 

Worship connects us with God and changes us.  When we worship, we seek to give our full attention to God, and to place Him at the centre. As this happens, not only is our love expressed, it is also strengthened, and we open up our lives to the work of God’s Spirit. Worship changes us, as it helps us grow in love for God.

 

A writer called Baron von Hugel said worship is like kissing his daughter. He kissed his daughter to show he loves her (expressing), but as he kisses her his love grows (strengthening). So while the English word for worship describes how it is about ascribing worth to God, the Greek word in the New Testament describes worship as connecting intimately with God.

 

The word (proskyneo) literally means to come towards and kiss the back of the hand. It’s a word of intimacy and reverence. Worship connects us to God, aligning what we want with what He wants, submitting who we are to Him. As we draw close in this union, God can change us from the inside out. One writer says, “Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.” James K.A. Smith.

 

This is why when people in the Bible worship God, they have an expectancy that His presence will become real to them. There is a sense in which God “delights in and inhabits the praises of His people”.  Our worship gives God a ‘place’ to live in our lives. When the early church prayed and worshipped, they experienced the room shaking. They had a deep sense of God’s presence.  It is not that God is an egotist who needs our praises, but for all the reasons above God knows we are shaped, completed, and drawn into His love through worship, and He delights in that relationship.

 

The practice of worshipping God is strongly linked to the practice of celebration and to joy. In a time and culture in which many struggle with anxiety, stress and depression it is important to experience the practice of worship as key to better mental health and well-being. The early church “ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.” (Acts 2:46/7)  Nehemiah tells the people, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

How does God’s character encourage joy?

As we explore more fully in ‘Becoming like Christ’ the greatest insight we have into what God is like is through looking at Christ – He is the “image of the invisible God”.  To understand God’s character, then, we look at Jesus. A common perception is that Christ has little to say about joy or happiness. Yet, while He was prophesied to be a “man of sorrows”, fully aware of the world’s pain, he was also foretold to be “anointed with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” In other words, the most joyful person alive!

 

And while Jesus experienced the full force of evil and sadness, it was in the context of knowing that joy was set before Him – that it had the last word. In his life we see the joyful character of God in the extravagance of His first miracle, making water into the best wine. It was in creating this celebration that He ‘revealed God’s glory’.  We regularly read about Jesus parties, eating and drinking to the extent that he’s accused of being a “glutton and drunkard” (Mt11: 19).

 

Of course he wasn’t these things, but the point was He was so celebratory that He created that impression. He told His disciples that His joy would be in them, and that it would be complete – literally “full to the brim”. (John 15). God wants disciples to be as joyful as Him – the God who announced at creation “It is good!” again and again.

What are two ways to grow in joy?

Whereas pleasure is responding to something in the moment, and so is temporary, joy is a deeper commitment that comes through ways we live and attitudes we have. So while it’s possible for this joy to come upon us unexpectedly as a gift, there are ways God gives us to cultivate joy in our lives.

 

In a specific sense, God called His people to worship Him through festivals and celebrations. For example, three times a year they were to celebrate for seven days. They were to spend a tenth of their income on one celebration and make sure it was accompanied by strong drink! (Deuteronomy 14: 22-27). While as Christians we might not obey that joyful command so accurately, there are a number of celebrations and feast days spread throughout each year for the same reason – the most famous being Easter and Christmas. The more important ones have a long period of preparation.

 

In a general way, God calls us to worship and celebrate by giving thanks in all circumstances, and at all times. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say: rejoice,” Paul wrote from prison.

What is the effect of doing this?

It’s important to say that some people have a genetically more cheerful character than others. Worship and celebration is not about pretending to be a different person. Nevertheless, numerous writers affirm that worshipping God by choosing to be thankful and to celebrate opens us up to being more joyful.

 

William Law: “If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.”

 

Henry Allen Ironside: “Thanksgiving is the enemy of discontent and dissatisfaction.” Thanksgiving stops us from taking ourselves too seriously and opens up space for God. It reminds us that life is a gift. It helps correct ways in which we see God negatively and instead expresses our trust in God’s goodness. Thanksgiving is the least selfish prayer.

 

As William Temple wrote, “It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centred in part, at least, in its interest; There is something which we hope to gain by our prayer. The backward-looking act of Thanksgiving is free from this. It is quite selfless. It is akin to love. All our love to God is in response to his love for us.”

How do I worship God on my own?

We often think of worship as something we do with others in church. But God is present in all of our lives, and can be worshipped through all of our lives. Worship doesn’t split life up. In fact, to worship God in church, but not to offer that worship in the rest of life is a contradiction.

 

St John Chrysostom (c.347–407) preached, “Do you wish to honour the body of the saviour? Then do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honour it in church with silk vestments while outside you are leaving it numb with cold and naked. He who said, ‘This is my body’, and made it so by his word, is the same that said, ‘You saw me hungry and gave me no food. As you did it not to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it not to me.’ Honour him by sharing your property with the poor. What God needs is not golden cups but golden hearts.”

 

In Colossians we read, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him….Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3: 17;23)

 

To worship God in our everyday tasks is to do it in His name. In other words, for His glory and not ours. At the Glastonbury Festival in 2019, with millions of people watching him, the artist Stormzy said, “Let all the glory go to God.” There is a humility in worshipping God, in which we don’t need recognition, but want others to see Him in what we do. The composer Bach was not widely recognised in His lifetime. Whenever he wrote a piece of music he would always sign it ‘S.D.G.’ “To God alone be the glory.” (Soli Deo Gloria)

 

To worship God in our daily tasks is to “work for the Lord”. We express God’s worth in our tasks by making obeying Him the priority. The poet George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘The Elixir’ – a potion which changes ordinary things into something wonderful. The ‘elixir’ is worship. He writes that doing things “for Thy sake” can make “drudgery divine”.

What habits make worshipping God in daily tasks more likely?

Worship will only be our priority if we choose to make it so. God does not force us to worship him. Richard Foster writes, ‘If the Lord is to be Lord, worship must have priority in our lives.” While we often find it hard to control our emotions and feel joyful, feelings generally follow thoughts, and we can make choices about what we set our minds on. We can’t will joy. But we can will a thought life that opens us up to joy. These habits may help:

 

Focussing our attention on what is good. It is too easy for our minds to be dominated at the beginning and end of the day by negative headlines – news thrives on conflict, difficulty and challenge. But constant bad news is not an accurate picture of the world. While not ignoring difficult things, we can resist letting our news feed set our emotional temperature, Paul writes, “…brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Cultivating this habit above all else will help us be with God in worship.

 

Slowing down. It can take time to notice the goodness of God. To consciously give Him glory as we go about our tasks.

 

Being childlike. Matthew writes, “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children have humility, but in terms of worship they demonstrate a great capacity for wonder. This wonder is at the heart of gratitude and worship.

 

Seeing worship as a gift rather than a task. It is easy to experience worship as something we do. Going to church, reading the Bible, praying, helping people, giving. This can burn us out – we are never finished – but also runs the risk of putting ourselves at the centre of worship. A different way of looking at worship is as a gift and a privilege. As C. S. Lewis says, “In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”

 

Why do I worship God with others?

In contrast to a culture which can be about the individual, from the beginning, God calls a people to be the best sign of His presence in the world. This continues through the gospels as Jesus forms a community of disciples. The early Christians clearly had a habit of worshipping together: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.…” (Acts 2: 46-47)

 

Paul has a clear expectation that Christians will come together: “In the first place, when you come together as a church…If, therefore, the whole church comes together.” (1 Corinthians 11:18; 14:23) When he encourages Christians to “Rejoice!” he uses a plural verb – in other words he is speaking to them as a community. Among the many good reasons for worshipping God with others, key reasons would be:

 

As those who are united with Christ, we are a sign and image of Him by being together. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)  Jesus’ final prayer was that we may be one. Worshipping together is an expression of this unity, and the fulness of His image in us as His body.

 

When we worship together it encourages an expectancy of God’s power and presence in our lives. When Moses entered the tabernacle he knew he was entering the presence of God. In the early church when people prayed and worshipped together, sometimes the buildings shook. Coming together can heighten our awareness of God, and help us to focus on Him.

 

As we worship together, we can encourage each other to continue to worship God in our individual lives. The letter to the Hebrews encourages Christians to worship together with these words: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

What is important in worshipping with others?

Worshipping together involves everyone. The word which describes the script or form of group worship is liturgy. The original meaning of the word is “the work of the people.” Paul describes what should happen when Christians worship together by saying, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)

 

The more worshipping together includes and involves everyone the more we reflect the fulness of being Jesus’ body. Our ‘Common Worship’ resource echoes this by emphasising, “Holy Communion is celebrated by the whole people of God gathered for worship. The unity of the liturgy is held together by the president, who in presiding over the whole service holds word and sacrament together and draws the congregation into a worshipping community.” (from the General Notes introducing Common Worship Holy Communion).

 

Worshipping together involves all of who we are. The greatest commandment is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) In other words, to joyfully use every part of who we are – mind, body, spirit – in worship. For example, Paul says, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” (1 Corinthians 14:15) In other words, there may be times when I am worshipping when I allow parts of myself which I don’t understand or control to worship God.

 

Worshipping together celebrates variety. For this reason there are many different ways to worship God together, which involve different parts of who we are, and are more natural to who we are. Some are more physical, some are more cerebral, extrovert or introvert. It can be easy to be threatened by this, or to feel that other ways of worshipping God are not as valid. For example, Saul’s daughter, Michal, saw King David “leaping and dancing before the Lord” in a worship procession, and “she despised him in her heart”. (2 Samuel 6:16)

 

It is extremely unlikely that everyone in our church will naturally express worship in exactly the same way. The best group worship would enable people to express their love for God fully without embarrassment or judgment, and to rejoice at variety.

What will worshipping together always involve?

Whether worshipping together by eating round a table, confessing, praying, studying the Bible, singing, or sharing bread and wine, these elements will always be present in some way:

 

Being gathered – we are coming together as Christ’s body.

Hearing God’s word – we are here to encounter God.

Being at peace with God and each other – we are here to remember who God is, and who we are as His people.

Thanksgiving – we are here to give thanks together.

Being sent out – we come together so that we can be sent out to be with God in the rest of our lives.

 

 

Why do we worship by singing together?

While singing in choirs has become more popular in recent years through TV programmes, and people sing at concerts and sports events, regular singing in a group is unusual for most people. Yet worship through singing is shown as a natural expression throughout the Bible, with Paul writing that we should address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord”. (Ephesians 5:19) In an interview (which is available as a handout in the Extra Resources) John Bell explains that we worship God in song

 

Because everyone can join in doing it. That sense of being a corporate body comes out in the song of the church more than anything else. We are doing something together for God.

 

“Congregational singing is an identity-shaping activity. In the past…we defined our communities by the songs that we sang….I think we now are in an era in which communities can be reshaped by what we sing. It will also tell us whether we are male-dominated or whether the body of Christ is made in God’s image as much through its female members as its male members.

 

“The church’s song also reminds the world that voices are meant to do other than just talk. A repeated phrase in the Psalms is: Sing to God a new song. The expectation is that this directive applies to everyone, not just the choir or the temple musicians.

 

“You sing primarily to give a gift to God, but you also sing to shape discipleship. If a song is specific about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the 21st century, it should lead to a change in the way we behave. My frustration is that the church’s singing is full of churchy words. We don’t have songs with a word like economics in them, or a word like kitchen. A substantial amount of biblical witness tells us God is interested in economics. We know that much of Jesus’ time was spent in kitchens. But we are disenfranchised from singing about some realities in his and our lives.”

Why are sacraments important in worship and being with God?

A significant way of worshipping God, indeed for some Christians the central way of worshipping God, is though sacraments. We can’t see God, or fully understand Him. Sacraments are a way in which, though physical and material realities which we can see and take part in, we can meet with God in worship. They are a gift which reveals God’s love in making it possible for us to worship Him in ways we can understand and relate to. They also remind us that the world God made is good because He is pleased to use material things to be with us and among us.

 

Jesus would often link His words with actions that showed the reality of those words. For example, having told a paralysed man that his sins were forgiven (which shocked the religious leaders) he demonstrated it by telling him to take up his mat and walk. (Matthew 9:2-5) The action showed that the spiritual change was real. Sacraments are a combination of word, sign and action.

 

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward sign of an inward grace. It is more than a symbol (which links to something by having an association or quality similar to what it represents) because through a sacrament a person can meet with God in such a real way that they are changed and equipped as a disciple.

 

There are many things that are ‘sacramental’ in that they draw us towards God’s presence. But when we worship together there are two main sacraments that focus us on what God is doing – baptism (the sacrament that reveals our covenant identity as God’s children) and regularly sharing in the breaking of bread and wine.

Where does breaking bread and sharing wine at Holy Communion come from?

Jesus had a habit of breaking bread and sharing it – two of his disciples at Emmaus recognised Him after His resurrection as He broke bread. But it was at His last supper with His disciples that He associated the bread and the wine with his own death and gave to them a significance that continues to shape us.

 

The first Christians met regularly in the Temple at Jerusalem, but they also took part in the “breaking of bread”, probably weekly, in their homes. They would have a shared meal, during which they would pass round the bread (probably at the beginning) and the cup (probably at the end). Before passing round the bread and the wine they used a particular form of Jesus’ words and imitated Jesus’ actions remembered from the Last Supper.

 

They were accused of being cannibals – their defence was that their leader was not dead! In doing this, Paul said, they wanted “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. This is very early practice – the description of the meal from 1 Corinthians 11, which quotes the words of Jesus (known as the ‘Words of Institution’) (1 Corinthians 11:26) from the Last Supper was written before the Gospels.

What was Jesus doing at the Last Supper?

On the night he was arrested, three out of the four gospels say that Jesus was celebrating a Passover meal with His disciples. This was the annual meal in which Jewish people remembered how God had rescued them from slavery. Importantly, through bread and wine they remembered how the blood of a lamb (they ate lamb at the meal, and used bread and wine to act out the story) was used to mark their homes, and save them from death as it ‘passed over’ them.

 

At the Last Supper, Jesus shockingly reinterpreted the Passover meal to reveal how God’s purposes were being fulfilled in Him. Jesus identified the bread with his body; the cup, his ‘poured out’ blood – pointing to what was going to happen to him on the cross. The words and actions Jesus used to reinterpret the bread and cup became the foundation for the Lord’s Supper in the early Church. The handout ‘Jesus and the Passover’ explores the links more fully.

Why is remembering so important?

Jesus told His disciples that now, when they broke bread and drank wine, it would no longer be to remember being rescued from slavery in Egypt, but, through Him, being rescued from death. It was no longer to remember the defeat of their Egyptian enemies, but to remember that through His death God’s victory over evil was going to be achieved. (We will explore this more in module 2.)

 

He told them, “Do this to remember me.” It is a remembering of what God had done, telling the story again (and it is often good to be reminded), but it is far more than that. It is more than something symbolic like a ring. It is more than a visual aid. It’s more than a sign that points to something different. It is an active remembrance. In the Passover meal everyone who took part was imagining themselves to have personally being part of the rescue from Egypt. People would say you should tell your son that “I am celebrating Passover because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.”

 

Remembering like this is taking part in a living way in that same story of being rescued. It is similar to receiving a piece of wedding cake through the post if you were unable to be at the ceremony. As you eat it, you receive more than a reminder of the event – you are able to take part in the experience of it in a tangible way. So remembering Jesus in bread and wine is our way of receiving Christ’s victory in the present. It’s a sacrament that carries with it the living reality of what it signifies.

What are the meanings of breaking bread and sharing wine?

Over time, the way we share bread and wine has developed in various ways – from simple and informal to more complex and structured. There are common elements to each expression (Word / People – peace / Sacrament / Sending out) but different names have been used which highlight the many gifts of this sacrament.

 

Breaking bread. As Luke writes in Acts (about A.D. 70) the early Christians used this description. The fact that they celebrated weekly showed that the link with the annual Passover meal was soon replaced. Nevertheless, for Christians the sense of the sacrificial act celebrated through bread and wine is central, with some seeing it as an actual sacrifice. In the Eucharistic Prayer, our worship is called ‘this our sacrifice of thanks and praise’.

 

Lord’s Supper. Paul used this in his letters from 45-60AD to describe the meal which included a liturgical recital of the words of Jesus.

 

Eucharist. This comes from a Greek word meaning ‘Thanksgiving’. It is found in an early document known as the Didache (Teachings) from as early as 60 AD. By 90AD this was the usual title being used, and the celebration no longer took place within a shared meal but as an act of worship on the first day of the week. (See the quote from Justin [100-165 AD] with a description of how the eucharist was conducted). It emphasises that at the heart of sharing in it is gratitude to God. We give thanks for all He has done, is doing and will do, and we give thanks to God for all our life experiences as individuals and a community.

 

Mass. This name was possibly used as early as the 5th century, but definitely by the 7th century. It probably comes from a word meaning sent. It emphasises how gathering to receive bread and wine leads to us being sent out to be with God and be disciples in the world. As Pope Francis says, “Worship is not worship if it doesn’t change us.”

 

Holy Communion. To be holy is to be set apart, and to commune is to have union with. This emphasises how when we share in the bread and wine that has been set apart, our union with Christ and with each other is strengthened in our lived experience. We are not observing something, but we are guests who are fed spiritually.

 

Love Feast or ‘Agapé’ (a Greek word meaning ‘love’) meal. By the second century this would be a shared meal, separate from the Eucharist, often linked with providing food for the poor. It died out by the eighth century, but was revived by Methodists in the 18th century. It emphasises the hospitality of God – how in sharing bread and wine we are a family where all are invited in. A table signifies that you are welcome and that there is a place for you. It’s very human and it brings people together.

 

Through the Eucharist God gives us a sacrament in which we find

 

Healing. In the broken bread, Jesus’ brokenness is remembered, and we can identify our brokenness with his. But through His brokenness He brings salvation (or wholeness of life) and continues to do so. So, as we identify our brokenness with Christ’s, we can meet with Him through bread and wine in a way that can lead to wholeness again.

 

Hope. At the last Supper Jesus looked forward to when He would “feast” with His disciples again. A common picture in the Bible of our future hope beyond death is one of a banquet. For example the prophet Isaiah writes that, “the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:6) In the same way that for Jesus the Last Supper was a way of looking forward to a time when He could drink with His friends “in my father’s kingdom”, sharing bread and wine can point us to our promised future banquet with God. Sacraments should help us imagine the world differently as the creation God is in the process of renewing.

 

Everyday life is valued. Jesus takes ordinary things like bread and wine, transforms them and gives them out. In the same way the ordinary stuff of our lives is taken up into Jesus and given back to us.

 

A heightened sense of His presence. God’s presence is everywhere, all the time. So how are sacraments different? They remind us specifically of how He has and is acting in our lives to make us whole. And they can intensify our ‘being with Him’. If God’s presence in creation is like fire, sacraments can perhaps be like the tip of a bunsen burner flame – the same presence, but experienced in a focussed way. (Yet it’s also good to know that the Eucharist doesn’t split life up – the result of encountering God here should be that we become more aware of God’s presence in our everyday lives, not less.)

How is this presence known?

Christians have different understandings of exactly how God’s presence is known in bread and wine.

 

For some it is about a heightened sense of memory, and the presence of Christ is known through the whole service, and His people gathered together. The word and the sacrament are linked together. (Luther called the sacrament a ‘visible word’.)

 

For others, the presence is particularly located in the bread and wine itself in a spiritual sense.

 

For others, the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Christ during the thanksgiving prayer.

 

While this had led to disputes down the centuries, within the Anglican church these perspectives are held together.  It is possible to hold all or a combination of these beliefs together.  The key thing is that through sharing in the bread and wine we can be with God in a unique way.

 

Being with God in Prayer

What is prayer?

The starting point for discipleship is simply what this module says – Being with God.  So far, we’ve explored how being with God is about being attentive to Him in our daily lives, and responding to what He is doing.

 

Prayer is simply the ‘love language’ which helps us to connect with God in this way.   There are many aspects to prayer, and various practices that help with this, just as there are many different ways we relate to each other as human beings.  This session we start with the simple idea of being in active relationship with God.  (We will explore the asking and wrestling aspects of prayer later on).

 

Prayer is ‘talking with God’, but it’s much more than ‘saying our prayers’ – it’s doing whatever helps us deepen our friendship with God, in a life-giving, regular way.  It’s ‘practising the presence of God’.

 

Brother Lawrence, a monk who came up with that phrase, said, “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave him not alone.”

 

Pete Grieg, writer of the Prayer Course, says, “I am convinced….that our constant activity is fruitless without first making that humble act of kneeling to pray. I am convinced that prayer is not only our greatest privilege, but also our greatest source of power.”

 

Abraham Lincoln put it like this: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go; my own conviction and that of those around me seemed insufficient for the day.”

How did Jesus pray?

Prayer was completely central to Jesus’ life.  He prayed by himself, with his disciples, in the synagogue, before big decisions, for his disciples, as part of His ministry, in every kind of situation. He went into the desert to pray, He prayed for long periods and during the night.  He taught His disciples to pray.

 

He battled in prayer.  He often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:15-16)   He prayed honestly and in anguish “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

 

His last words were a prayer: Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:34)  He prayed naturally and out loud: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me….I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  (John 11:41-42)

 

He prayed out of deep sense of being loved, and loving, His Father (John 17:13-26).  He did nothing without praying – for Him it was neither a duty nor a burden.  You can read everything Jesus said about prayer on a handout.

Why is it difficult?

The paradox of prayer for us is that, while it is the most natural thing as people who yearn for God to pray, it is at the same time something that needs to be learnt.  That is why His disciples asked, “Teach us to pray.”  We might feel we don’t really enjoy prayer, or feel guilty about how little we pray.

 

We might find it hard to know where to start, or get distracted.  The good news is that God delights in our simplest attempts at prayer (much like a parent gets excited about a child’s first steps).   Cardinal Basil Hume said, “Trying to pray is prayer and it is very good prayer.”

 

As disciples, we are all learners, and there is a lot of wisdom and resource we can draw on.  This session will give a number of suggestions for growing in Being with God in prayer.  At its heart is something very simple, which this story might help us to experience.

 

A man’s daughter had asked the local vicar to come and pray with her father.  When the vicar arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows and an empty chair beside his bed.  The vicar assumed that the old fellow had been informed of his visit.  “I guess you were expecting me,” he said.  “No, who are you?”  “I’m the new vicar at your local church,” the vicar replied.  “When I saw the empty chair, I figured you knew I was going to show up.”  “Oh yes, the chair,” said the bedridden man. “Would you mind closing the door?”

 

Puzzled, the vicar shut the door. “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man. “But all of my life I have never known how to pray. At church I used to hear the vicar talk about prayer, but it always went right over my head.”

 

“I abandoned any attempt at prayer,” the old man continued, “until one day about four years ago my best friend said to me, ‘Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair; place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. It’s not spooky because he promised, ‘I’ll be with you always’.  Then just speak to him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’

 

“So, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful, though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.”

 

The vicar was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the man to continue on the journey. Then he prayed with him, and returned to the church.  Two nights later the daughter called to tell the vicar that her father had died that afternoon. “Did he seem to die in peace?” he asked.  “Yes, when I left the house around two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me one of his corny jokes, and kissed me on the cheek.

 

When I got back from the shops an hour later, I found him dead. But there was something strange, in fact, beyond strange—kind of weird.  Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on a chair beside the bed.”

 

This picture is ‘The Creation of Adam’ from Chartres Cathedral in France.  How do you think it may help us to understand how God sees us in prayer?

 

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com; www.fhlglobal.org

What do I need to know that will help me? 

Before we even start to pray, these three perspectives may help.

 

God cares about our daily needs, and knows every hair on our heads.  We can trust in the goodness of God’s character.  The Lord’s Prayer shows us something of that goodness in every line (see the two page handout) and encourages us to pray for our “daily bread” – in other words, for the simple things we need every day. (This is also teaching us to pray for “enough” – just what we need for the moment, our real wants as opposed to our wishes. As we grow as disciples who are being with God, our concerns will be much more focussed on what God wants, rather than ‘shopping list’ type praying.)

 

As we have seen, prayer is much more about a transforming relationship, rather than ‘twisting God’s arm’ to get results. Yet even if we have genuine needs, we do not need to approach God with anything apart from trusting love, as He longs to bless us.

 

We can be completely ourselves before God without pretence.  CS Lewis said that the prayer that comes before all other prayers is, “May it be the real me, speaking with the real You.” We don’t need to pretend to be more holy or pure than we are. We don’t need to wait until our motives are right – God knows the heart. This honest, 1 minute prayer makes the point very plainly:

https://twitter.com/i/status/1250289906967957510  Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 describe the heart attitude we can bring to prayer. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others….And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

 

He is describing prayer as coming before God without a mask (not like a hypocrite), as being able to pray with the straightforwardness of a child addressing a parent, as losing any sense of having to “impress” God by getting it right, as not having any sense of having to persuade God by performing because we trust He is good

 

God wants us to pray with total honesty about the things we find hard – we call this lament.  You can find a very honest 3 and a half minute video prayer here, in which someone uses Psalm 23 to ask all kinds of questions of God.   https://www.facebook.com/100003018377804/posts/2678257242284862/?d=n  It is possible to be respectful of God, and yet completely honest about our doubts, fears and anger.

 

In the book, ‘The Good and Beautiful God’ the writer describes a very honest prayer from an orthodox priest for someone’s two year old daughter who was suffering terribly,  “Our thoughts are not Your thoughts O Lord, and our ways are not Your ways. We confess to You that we cannot see Your divine hand in the suffering of Madeline. Help us, we beg You, to see that in this evil there is some purpose, beyond our grasp and comprehension.

 

“Our minds are confused. Our hearts are in distress.  Our wills are lost and weak, and our strength is gone, as we see this innocent creature caught by the sins of the world and the power of the devil, a victim of senseless suffering and pain.

 

“Have mercy on this child, Lord, have mercy! Do not prolong the agony! Do not allow the pain and suffering to increase! We know not what to ask You; give us the grace only to say, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

 

“Give us faith, for we believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. Be with Your child Madeline, and suffer with her; heal her and save her, according to Your own saving plan, established before the creation of the world.

 

“For you are our only hope, O God, and in You we take refuge: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

 

God is praying in us.  Because we are covenant-partners with God, He prays in us.  He can take the tangle of thoughts in our heads, or our deepest longings, as prayer.  This is the meaning of Romans 8: 26 “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

Does my personality affect the way I pray?

God has chosen to make us all different from one another, and doesn’t want us to be clones in the way we pray.  Just as there are many different personality types, so there are many ways we can connect with God.  There are many different ways people pray in the Bible, and it’s another sign of God’s grace that we may simply start to pray “as we can, not as we can’t.”

 

The Connecting with God in Prayer Survey will help you to discover which particular ways of praying with God you might find most helpful – it comes from a book called ‘The Nine Sacred Pathways’.

 

It’s not the only personality-based tool out there, but it is a good start in that it will help you reflect on whether you find it most natural to connect with God in prayer in these ways:

 

Through appreciating the beauty of God’s creation (Naturalist).

By experiencing God with your physical senses or imagination (Sensate).

By using time-honoured spiritual traditions and practices (Traditionalist).

By abstaining from comforts to make more space for God (Ascetic).

By actively working with others to serve the poor and needy (Activist).

Through offering God’s compassion to those who are hurting or struggling (Caregiver).

By celebrating God’s goodness with thanks and praise (Enthusiast).

By completely focussing on God in silence and solitude (Contemplative).

Through learning and developing insights about God and discipleship (Intellectual).

 

It’s important to note that exercises like this are not about putting people into boxes – there may be a number of ways we pray – and it’s not about comparing ourselves with others.

 

Our differences don’t make us better or worse than other people.  However, in thinking about your own approaches, it may be that you recognise how people in your own church pray differently and that you have something particular to bring.

Is being a physical person a help or a hindrance and how do I deal with distractions?

Being a disciple is not about becoming less of a physical person, in order to somehow be more ‘spiritual’.  Sadly this idea has sometimes been brought into Christianity, as people have seen the body as a burden, or even the enemy, and so flesh and spirit need to be kept apart in prayer. Perhaps this is why pews can be uncomfortable – as a way of emphasising this!

 

It’s true that we can become enslaved by appetites and addictions, and that the Bible refers to this unhealthy, sinful relationship with the body as “the flesh”.  But our bodies are a good gift, and important in our praying.  God said that all creation, including bodies, was good.

 

Jesus became flesh, he didn’t turn away from it.  Our bodies will be resurrected. In prayer, God invites us to bring our whole selves – body, mind and spirit. Before we spoke, we expressed ourselves through moving in our mother’s womb – it is our first language.

 

And when we communicate, only 7% of what we express is through words – gestures, tone, facial expressions, posture make up the rest.

 

We get distracted in prayer – we are learners. Henri Nouwen, a spiritual writer, said that when we pray, our thoughts can be “like monkeys jumping around in a banana tree”.

 

Thinking about how we use our bodies can be a help, not a hindrance. We might kneel, lie down, walk, dance, think about how we are sitting, hold out our hands, cross ourselves. This is all part of prayer.

 

When thoughts come uninvited into our minds when we pray, this is part of prayer too. Rather than being frustrated, we can simply notice the distraction, and ask the Lord to receive it as part of our prayer.

What will help me get into prayer? 

This is more of a “how to” section, in which a number of practices and tools will be offered, drawn from centuries of experience.  The idea is not that you do all of them, but some might help.  There are handouts and articles available for a number to help you explore.  First some principles:

 

Giving time  Thomas Merton wrote,  “If we really want prayer, we’ll have to give it time.  We must slow down to a human tempo….The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving.  This is a real sickness.  Today, time is a commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged…we must approach the whole idea of time in a new way.”

 

Finding a daily pattern.   The fact is, like all practices, prayer needs us to be intentional, and a regular habit is part of ‘training, not trying’. By praying regularly, I become a praying person. Brother Lawrence wrote: “I worshipped him as often as I could, keeping my mind in his holy presence and recalling it back to God as often as I found it had wandered from him… by often repeating these acts they become habitual and the presence of God becomes something that comes naturally to us.”

 

With a daily routine, it’s important that prayer doesn’t become a transaction with God, but about connection with God. Nevertheless, Jesus taught His disciples to pray for their “daily bread” – anticipating that they would pray every day. Daniel prayed three times a day. In Psalm 119:164 the writer prays seven times a day. The early Christians met for prayer at the Temple regularly at ‘the hour of prayer’. (Acts 3:1)

 

While some find the mornings difficult, making prayer the first part of the day enables us to have fewer distractions, sets our hearts and minds on God at the beginning, and is also psychologically good for us – the first thing you think about has an impact on the rest of the day.

 

Jesus often got up early in the morning to pray. A church in Australia encourages its members to #wintheday in prayer. In other words, before looking at any screens, phones, messages, news, emails to begin the day by praying.

 

Four key practices: silence, solitude, fasting, meditation.  We will be exploring these in more detail in later modules, but being silent, being alone (Being with God session 7), reminding ourselves of our dependence on God through fasting (Joining in with the Spirit session 5), and meditating on God and His word (Being with God session 6) can all help create the environment in which we can grow in being with God in prayer.

 

Praying with others.  As covenant-partners, we are always called as a people, as a community. As we have seen, God is a community, and always calls people together.

 

Throughout the Bible people prayed together – the people of Israel often prayed together, the Psalms are prayers and songs mostly to be used by groups of people. Jesus often prayed in front of others – that’s why we have some of His prayers written down, and why His disciples were prompted to ask, “Teach us to pray.”

 

Most profoundly, when Jesus gave them His prayer, He began it with the words “Our Father”. It’s a prayer for a community. The early church met together to pray every day, they would often pray together at times of challenge. Praying with others is the best way of learning to pray – God does not intend that we should grow on our own.

 

Praying with others can increase our awareness of God’s presence. “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20). It can help us because prayer is modelled to us – we learn by doing, and we can model it for others.

What different ways are there to help me pray?

Using our own words to be with God.   While there are many tools in this section, it’s probably most helpful to think of them as scaffolding to help you pray from the heart.  No one else has your personality, your experience, and precisely your relationship with God.

 

God desires to connect with each of us as we are.  Therefore the more these tools can help you be confident in expressing your inner thoughts to God, with your words, the more useful they will be.  Some people find writing their prayers a good way of being able to do this.

 

Some people find firing off short and regular prayers throughout the day helpful.  These are sometimes referred to as “arrow” prayers – short, one line prayers which just cry out to God.  One writer says there are three prayers she needs, “Thank you.  Sorry.  And Help!”

 

Using other people’s words to be with God.  Because of the unique relationship God wants with us, some people find the idea of using other written prayers, even as ‘scaffolding’, unhelpful.  But, perhaps particularly for Anglican Christians, written prayers have become a resource which forms our identity in significant ways.  Here are four types of written prayers which are a gift to us:

 

The Psalms  Jesus prayed the psalms, most significantly using the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) on the cross. They are the most quoted book in the Gospels and Acts. The word probably means ‘a collection of songs’. They were written for particular situations, but can be used by anyone. They are the work of more than one person (including King David), and while they began as separate collections, they were put together as the 150 psalms in the Old Testament, divided into five sections. There is a one page graphic summary of the Psalms from the Bible Project. There are many different kinds:

 

Psalms in praise of God, about Him, to God from individuals, prayers in times of trouble for individuals or the whole nation.

 

Psalms for people going up to worship on pilgrimage, psalms about how to live well before God, psalms about the King.

 

They focussed on themes like God’s concern for the poor, God’s law and God’s grace, the difference between a righteous and a foolish life.

 

They described God as creator, the way He delivered His people, how it felt to be in exile, and expressed hope for the future.

 

They express every emotion from joy to despair and doubt, from love to hatred.

 

One Jewish poet wrote, “We are born with this book in our bellies. It is not a long book: 150 poems, 150 steps between death and life; 150 reflections of our rebellions and our fidelity, our agonies and our resurrections.  This is more than a book; it is a living being who speaks, who speaks to you, who suffers and cries out and dies, who is raised again and who sings, on the threshold of eternity.”

 

Getting to know and use the psalms can give us a vocabulary for prayer, helping us to bring the range of our emotion and experience to God. This is why in a lot of Anglican worship, the psalms continue to be prayed each week or each day.

 

Liturgy.  As we have seen, prayers written by others which give a structure to prayer and worship are “the work of the people”.

 

Liturgy can be formal or informal, simple or complicated. Some find it liberating, some find it dead. Sometimes the words of liturgy can be seen in opposition to the life of God’s Spirit. Of course, any written, repetitive prayer can become lifeless.

But at its best liturgy gives a framework for the Spirit; and the Spirit gives life to liturgy.  A handout “The gifts of liturgy” from David Runcorn’s book “Spirituality Workbook” unpacks how liturgy gives resource

that is not dependent on our various moods,

can broaden our prayer vocabulary,

can free us from the constant need to be making it up,

can give us a good way of praying with the Bible,

can helps us memorise Scripture,

can provide beautiful language and ideas,

and can keep us praying in ordinary life.

 

Runcorn says liturgy can work with the way people tick – children thrive with repetition which gives space for play, and adults are creatures of routine.  He points out how in “heaven” worship is a bit liturgical, with God receiving praise through the words, “’Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:8)

 

Liturgy that leads to living prayer, he says, is like jazz music. Liturgy gives the basic melody upon which we can improvise.

 

There are all kinds of daily structures which can help – there are handouts on various phone apps which can help you pray each day, a handout from 24/7 prayer on how to have a regular quiet time with God, and a Shalom (Wholeness) Prayer, which gives words to bring every part of who we are to God.

 

Jesus Prayer.  This is a very simple prayer which can be used repetitively to help us ‘pray at all times’, and to practise God’s presence – there is a handout on this.

 

The Lord’s Prayer.  When His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Jesus gave them the attitude of prayer (see above) but He also gave them the words of prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer is not a mantra to be prayed mechanically but a journey of prayer which helps us to approach God with love and reverence, and to pray all that needs to be prayed.  As a daily way of praying it provides a perfect route, and there is a logic in how it starts and develops.  See the handout to give you a simple guide as to how to get the most from praying the Lord’s Prayer.

 Four other ways into praying....

Icons and pictures.  The Greek word ‘eikon’ means image.  In a very visual culture, pictures or icons can help us visualise the reality of God’s presence.  From the beginning pictures of Christ, the apostles, or saints have been used for public and private prayer.   Commonly painted in a Byzantine style, every part of the icon — colours, figures, clothing, hand gestures, objects, and lettering — has a specific meaning.

 

They are often called ‘windows into Heaven’, and are designed with that goal in mind. The artist does not want the Christian to admire the icon as a beautiful piece of artwork, but to use it to be drawn into prayer, raising the mind and heart to God. This is why icons are not signed by the artist.

 

Speaking in tongues.  The gift of tongues is a heavenly prayer language, given by the Holy Spirit, praying through us in words we cannot understand (though sometimes they can be interpreted as a message if used publicly).  When you speak in tongues you surrender control of your prayer to God, praying with your spirit, instead of your mind.  Not everyone has this gift (it is not a status symbol), but Paul desired that everyone should be able to have it.  In terms of ‘Being with God’ the gift of tongues can be a wonderful way of praying when we don’t have the words to express how we feel.  We will explore it more in Module 3 – Joining in with the Spirit.

 

Singing  “…speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts…”  Ephesians 5:19.  Singing, or listening to songs, can unlock prayer whether on our own, or with others.

 

At the end of the day:  Using the Examen.  The idea of being with God as being attentive to God and responding to Him is expressed well in the simple practice called the examen, which can be used at the end of the day to recognise where God has been present, and been at work.  A handout gives a way into using this prayer.

 

Being with God in Scripture

How do we hear from God and understand what He wants? 

At the heart of discipleship is paying attention to God.  As we have already explored, in a general way our main focus is to “keep God before our minds”. (Dallas Willard)  In a more specific way we are to be “watching, listening, learning” because “The master is going to speak”. (Archbishop Rowan Williams).

 

“We are what we hear from God” (Emil Brunner), and, as apprentices of Christ, we are those who hear His words and put them into practice day by day.  The prophet Samuel is a good model for us – his first real prayer was perhaps, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

 

As we have seen, God communicates in a general way (general revelation) through His creation and through the qualities within human beings such as conscience or self-awareness which point to His existence.  But God’s covenant relationship with us is personal – He calls us to “be with Him”, and He has communicated, and does communicate with us in two very specific ways (specific revelation).

 

Firstly it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we are able to see and understand God’s purposes.  And secondly it is through the gift of the Bible that we are able to both keep God before our minds and hear what He says to us personally.  Christians understand that the Bible contains the complete foundational content of what God wants His people to know, and so when God uses the Bible to speak to us today He does so not to add anything new to what it reveals, but to enable us to apply it to our lives.

 

St. Isidore (c. 560-636), the Archbishop of Seville in Spain, said that reading the Bible was the chief way in which God talks to us: “Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. If we want to be always in God’s company, we must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us. All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.”

 

As we shall see, the practices of meditation and study help this to happen.  The Bible can become a way in which God can communicate with us personally, and through which our minds can be renewed so that we increasingly see the story of our lives, and the story of the world, as God sees them.

 

God has always wanted covenant-partners who are ‘being with Him’ in specific, real, personal, and transforming ways, and still does today. The amazing claim is that through feeding on the Bible we have access to the chief way in which He can communicate with us.  As Jesus said, the question is, “Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear?”

How is the Bible different from other books?

2 Timothy 3:16 is the perhaps the verse within the Bible which best explains its significance:  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”

 

The phrase “God-breathed” reveals that the Bible is different because it is divinely inspired.  In other words, the many human authors of the various parts of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writing.  The early Christians came to accept these writings as uniquely God-given, and drew them together in the form which we have today.

 

The theologian Calvin put it like this:  “This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, that we know that God has spoken to us, and are fully convinced that the prophets did not speak at their own suggestion, but that, being organs of the Holy Spirit, they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare.”

 

In the same way that Christians believe Jesus was fully human and fully God (we shall explore this more in module 2), the Bible is a fully human book (with all the messiness that can mean) and a fully divine one.  The creation of the Bible is another way in which God ‘covenant-partners’ with His people, cooperating with those who have been willing to serve Him through writing His story faithfully throughout many centuries.

 

Because it is uniquely inspired by God, the Scripture is “profitable” for teaching us – showing us how to know God better – rebuking and correcting us – showing us where and how we need to change – and training us in righteousness – helping us to live the ‘Way of Discipleship’.

 

Even without necessarily believing the Bible was inspired by God, for Gandhi it was far more than just a book: “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”

 

Once Jesus was challenged by the Sadducees (a religious grouping) who were trying to trap Him.   He replied, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)  For Christ, it is those who “know the Scriptures” who will know how to live.  As Tom Wright says, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.”

 

In 2020, Pope Francis preached, “To follow Jesus, mere good works are not enough; we have to listen daily to his call…He, who alone knows us and who loves us fully, leads us to push out into the depth of life…That is why we need His word: So that we can hear, amid the thousands of other words in our daily lives, that one word that speaks to us not about things, but about life.”

How does God shape me through the Bible?

In our life journey of discipleship the Bible can be a foundation through which we can grow in being with God, becoming like Christ, and joining in with the Spirit.  Various pictures and images are used throughout Scripture to unpack how it may shape us.

 

Being with God. 

 

Drawn to God:  In an early version of the Bible (1611) the translators emphasised how the Scriptures “can make us wise unto salvation”.   They were echoing the letter of 2 Timothy again in which Paul writes, “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:14–15)  God offers a life of covenant love in which we are being forgiven and restored.  To be saved ultimately means to be made completely whole again.

 

For Christians this is through Christ, and particularly through the cross (as we shall unpack in module 2).  While God may speak to many people through general revelation, it is uniquely through the Bible people can be brought into a relationship with God through Jesus.   It is through the words of Scripture that we can be first drawn to God’s loving offer.  They can give us the wisdom to come to faith.

 

Fed and renewed by God:  Jesus said, “People do not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  In other words, it is possible to be physically alive, but spiritually dead, lacking the things that give ultimate meaning.

 

The words of God can feed us spiritually, emotionally and mentally, bringing us into a life-giving sense of God’s presence and purpose.  Another image from Psalm 1 offers a picture of someone whose delight is in the law of the Lord, (meditating on it) day and night, as being like a tree with its roots in flowing water.  They will always be bearing fruit, staying alive and flourishing.

 

Spoken to and guided by God:  St Augustine described the Scriptures as “our letters from home.”  If you have ever had a hand-written letter from someone you love you will know the experience of connecting not just with the words on the page, but having a deeper experience and reminder of their presence.  In the same way this session explores how God can speak to us personally through the Bible.

 

A personal aspect of being with God as a disciple is in being willing to be guided by Him – in our general growth and sometimes in specific moments.   In one Psalm the writer experiences God’s word being like a “Lamp to my feet and light to my path”.  (Psalm 119:105)

 

Becoming like Christ. 

 

Discovering who we are:  An early Pope, Gregory the Great, described the Bible as “…like a mirror before our mind’s eye. In it we see our inner face. From the Scriptures we can learn our spiritual deformities and beauties. And there too we discover the progress we are making and how far we are from perfection.”

 

This is because, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “the word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

 

The point here is that anything that can divide “soul and spirit” is capable of being completely precise in how it exposes things.  If the first step of becoming like Christ is to have a true understanding of ourselves, though the stories and teachings of Scripture we are offered a way of seeing in what ways and how we can change.  As one writer puts it, “I don’t read the Bible.  The Bible reads me.”

 

Discovering how God works in people:  As we shall see more in module 4, the Bible is full of stories of real people, with real failures, sin and brokenness.  Again and again God works in and through them to bring change.  As these stories shape our regular thinking we can be inspired and informed about how God can continue to shape us.

 

Joining in with the Spirit. 

 

Seeing what God is doing:  Everyone has a way of looking at reality (a worldview) even if it is largely subconscious.  Our worldview will shape the decisions we make, the things we focus on, the purpose of our lives.  It tells us who we are (what kind of creature am I?), where we are (what kind of world is this?), what is wrong and what the solution is.   As disciples, the more conscious we are of having a ‘biblical worldview’, in other words, seeing reality as God sees it, the more likely we are to spend our lives doing the things which God desires.

 

Because our worldview is constantly being shaped by the voices and ideas we focus on, the more we are growing in our understanding and knowledge of God’s story and reality, the more we are likely to have a worldview which is Christian.  Paul talks about us “being transformed by the renewing of our minds” – being changed because what we think about is so saturated in God’s life-giving reality.

 

Being equipped to join in:  Similarly, the more we are familiar with the Bible, the more likely it is that we will not only know what God wants in the world, but as we see how He has acted through Jesus and others how He calls us to join in.  The verse we quoted at the beginning continues like this:  “All Scripture is God-breathed….so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16–17)

What is at the heart of the Bible? 

The fantastic resource The Bible Project describes the Bible as “a unified story that leads to Jesus.”  While the Bible has many parts, and tells a long story, He is at the centre of its meaning and purpose.  Any individual section will only be understood through the lens of Christ, and the purpose of any interpretation is to find Him.  As Martin Luther put it, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.”  Or as Hugh of St. Victor expressed it, “…the whole of scripture is one book, and that one book is Christ.”

 

How do we know this?  This was something Christ Himself claimed, saying that all the earlier books of the Bible point to Him: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46)  After His resurrection, Jesus taught two of His disciples about what had happened in this way: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

 

In what would have been shocking at the time, Jesus assumed He had authority to replace teachings of the Old Testament with his own. For instance, while the Old Testament commands people to make oaths in God’s name (Deuteronomy 6:13), Jesus forbids it (Matthew 5:33-37).

 

This approach is confirmed elsewhere.  During what is known as the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John see Jesus’s ‘glory’ and Moses and Elijah talking to him. They hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:33)  It is clear that Christ relates to the earlier teachings of the Old Testament, but is greater than them.

 

In the same way the writer of Hebrews says that while God spoke in a variety of ways in the past, Jesus supersedes all these past revelations (Hebrews 1:1-3).  At the end of John’s gospel it is made clear that the purpose of the Scriptures is found in Christ:  “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

 

He is the ‘controlling centre’ how we understand the whole Scripture.  This is important because it enables us to both understand how to read the Bible, but also to know how not to read the Bible.  The Bible in itself is not the Word of God.  Jesus is the Word of God.  The Bible is a book which is useful only if it helps us grow as disciples who are being with Him.  As one writer puts it, we might say that Jesus is “the Word” of the words.

 

It is possible to become too attached to knowing the Bible and yet lose sight of knowing God.  Jesus confronted religious leaders who did exactly that:  “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

 

Jesus wasn’t saying there was anything wrong with their careful study of Scripture or with the correctness of their beliefs.  The issue wasn’t about what these leaders believed but the way in which they believed it.  He was showing them that knowing and even believing the Bible was fruitless unless it leads to Him.  To miss this is to run the risk of turning Bible-knowledge into an idol.

What is in the Bible and how was it written?

As we have seen, the Bible is a “unified story” told over a long period of time.  The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia meaning books – it is actually a collection of 66 books (39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament) written over 1200 years (1100BC to 100AD) by 40 different authors.  The Bible is full of different kinds of writing, reflecting all of life.

 

About 43% of the Bible is made up of stories, from history to parables. Approximately a third of the Bible is poetry and a quarter of the Bible is prose – laws, sermons and letters.  We have explored how the Bible uniquely claims that God uses the words of human authors to speak His message, and that through this divine mind speaking through many people in many ways a unified message and story is revealed in history.

 

There are of course big questions that arise from believing this:  How ‘error free’ is the Bible?  How can we trust the accounts as being accurate?  Why are there different interpretations?  Who decided what should be in it and why? How do we make good decisions in today’s world based on what the Bible says?  We will look at these in more detail in module 4 “Knowing the Story and having Bible Confidence”, but for now it’s worth noting a key idea which helps us accept the ‘human side’ of the Bible.

 

Because God loves the people He is in covenant with, He never overrides the free will or humanity of those who wrote, or who were in, the Bible.   Because of this genuine relationship and partnership one of the wonderful truths about the love of God is that it always leads Him to work with our weaknesses and mistakes, not despite them.

 

For example, we see this in the way that God acts through the cross, but also lets Himself be acted upon on the cross.  The sometimes challenging aspects of the Bible, in what and how it is written, are a reflection of this loving truth – God has allowed His words to come via imperfect people, and amazingly can still communicate with us.

How am I meant to read it?

Some common ideas about how we read the Bible might include seeing it as some kind of mysterious ‘magic book’ giving us answers to things like who we should marry, or as a moral guidebook, or a philosophical text.  While there is moral guidance and philosophy in its pages, for disciples the Bible is a way we “listen” to God.

 

The morning and evening prayer of the people of Israel was called the Shema – a word which means “Hear”.  Shema is far more than hearing with the ears – it means paying attention to something with a view to obeying.  For disciples, using the Bible is about this kind of listening.

 

It is possible to read the Bible like any other book as a piece of literature or history.  Whole books have been written with this historical-critical approach.  While we can gain a lot from this kind of literal knowledge (for example, by studying the archaeology of places in the Bible) as Christians who believe it is divinely inspired we will always also read it to listen for the fuller meaning, and to pay attention to God.

 

One question is should we read it through our thoughts, or our feelings, or both?  Is it ever helpful to bring our feelings into the way we read Scripture?  A man called Ignatius believed it was essential to do both.  We need to understand God’s story with our minds, but, in order to be able to make a true response to it, we know to also understand our feelings and desires.

 

In ‘A Spirituality Workbook’ David Runcorn points out how the part of our brain which reacts when we think is actually the same part that is affected by our feelings.  In other words, there is no thinking that is not emotional, and no feeling that is not thoughtful.  He says it is helpful to know that we have an ’emotional mind’.

 

Just as the Bible invites us to love God with our “heart (feelings, desires, motives) and our mind (thoughts, ideas, worldview)”, so we will listen well to God through the Scripture if we can do both in the way we read it.    The two practices that can train us to ‘be with God’ in Scripture are study (mind) and meditation (heart).  It’s good to be able to practise these on our own, but also with others.

How do I read with my mind?

Having faith is not about turning off the mind or stopping asking questions.  Teaching was at the heart of the life of Israel –  God told them to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates…” (Deuteronomy 11: 18-20)

 

Jesus’ ministry was marked by teaching crowds and individuals, Paul taught and persuaded people wherever he went, writing in Philippians to guard what they focus their minds on: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)

 

This is the reason why in most of our sessions we use the Discovery Bible Study method. One of the aims of it is to encourages us to engage with our minds and hearts.  The other is to learn by doing that studying the Bible is not just for a few people.

 

To begin growing in the practice of studying the Bible it is good to start by doing it with other people – supporting each other and learning from the way in which others do it.  While there are different techniques that can be used (see below) an effective study will always involve regular elements:

A sense of repeating the experience over time to build up knowledge and understanding.

Putting aside time and making effort to concentrate on the Bible.

Finding ways to understand what God is saying.

Always looking for the personal significance of what you are studying (the listening for the fuller meaning).

 

If you are starting out, these thoughts might help:

 

It’s important to remember Bible study is not a test of how clever you are – remember the mistake of those who had a lot of knowledge, but missed the point of coming to Jesus.

 

Not every part of the Bible is equally relevant for every stage of life or situation.   You don’t need to start with the more difficult parts.  In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul wrote, “I fed you with milk, not solid food.”  In other words, he knew that different people benefit from studying different things depending on their stage of discipleship.

 

Some techniques to get you started (most of these are better done with others):

 

You can use the Discovery Bible Study questions for any passage of Scripture (there is a handout with some suggested passages to get you started).

 

You can read the same passage using two or three different translations of the Bible to explore different emphases this reveals.  Online you can use bibegateway.com to place different translations side by side.

 

If you are with others, you can read larger chunks, and then try and summarise what they are saying.

 

You can take individual verses, which might be harder to understand, and try and see whether reading the verses before or after them help make the meaning clearer.  Ask: what might this verse mean when I read it on its own and what might it mean if I read the verses before and after it?

 

You can read books called Commentaries, which are written to explain books of the Bible in more depth, or Bible dictionaries.

 

The Bible Project gives amazing video introductions to each book of the Bible, as well as studies on some of the Bible’s themes.

How do I know I am reading it right?

To a certain extent it is impossible to read anything without interpreting it, and this is equally true of the Bible.  God doesn’t remove our own individual way of reading when we come to the Bible – He meets us where we are.  But this means we have to interpret Scripture, and when we do looking through two lenses will help:

 

How do we understand what the Bible meant in the time and place it was written, to the audience who received it (this is known as exegesis)?

 

What is God saying to us here and now, with the particular experience and background we have (we call this hermeneutics)?

 

Being able to pay attention to both these lenses will help us to read well.  It enables us to see the way in which the Bible may have had a particular meaning for those who originally read it.  But it may also help us to understand how its story and message is relevant for now, and indeed, for eternity.

 

While we may apply the Bible to situations that the original authors could not have imagined (cars!  Robots! The internet!) it is always true that a biblical text can never mean what it never could have meant to the author or her readers.  And the fact that the Bible was written into a very different world from ours doesn’t make it irrelevant.  In fact, it can be a help in that it helps us to listen to what God is saying beyond our own 21st century experience, and to think about God’s bigger picture through all time.

 

Here are five ideas which will help us interpret the Bible as well as possible:

 

We come with humility.  Isaiah talks about people “trembling at God’s word”.  (Isaiah 66:2)  We are not the ones who create the message of Scripture – God is.  And, as we have seen, because God is God, we can never know His truth completely.  But we can know it enough to live faithfully.

 

It’s always good to read each part of the Bible through the lens of the whole story.  It is a unified story, and the more we can interpret parts by looking at how they relate to others the more balanced our interpretation will be.

 

It’s good to be aware that the Bible is made up of different kinds of writing – story, poetry, fact, image, letters.  When we interpret it’s always good to think about what this particular piece of writing was doing.  If we try and interpret a parable of Jesus as a historical fact, for example, we will miss the point because we are looking at it in the wrong way.

 

The Bible is also an evolving story (called a progressive revelation).  The complete picture, which is fulfilled by Jesus, is not given all at once, but was the result of people listening to God over centuries.

 

Which means that anything we read in the Bible, particularly within the Old Testament, can only be fully understood in the way that they point to Jesus.  Difficult passages earlier in this evolving story will be consistent with the direction of the whole story, but may not be the complete picture of God’s character.  Whenever we read something which doesn’t resonate with God’s love, the best way to interpret it will always be to find, in whatever way possible, how it points to Christ.

How do I read with the heart? 

In the Bible the ‘heart’ is the place of real change and connection – it is the centre of our being, from where all our desires come. ‘Heart’ and ‘soul’ are often used as alternatives.  Psalm 119 talks about laying up God’s words “in my heart.”  The writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that as we allow God’s words to get into our hearts we really change:

 

“And just as you do not analyse the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all…Do not ask, ‘How shall I pass this one?’ but ‘What does it say to me?’ Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”

 

In our culture people can be sceptical about “God speaking to us” personally.  We might struggle with the way in which, throughout the Bible, God communicates with those who have the spiritual capacity to hear and see spiritual realities.  But throughout the Bible we consistently see an expectation that God will speak to each individual, through the heart.

 

The practice which helps us to grow in this is meditation.  The part of us that helps us to meditate is by using our imagination as we read the Bible.  Meditating on the Bible regularly was often seen by early Christians as the normal foundation of a spiritual life.

 

The aim is not so much to learn about God in the Scriptures, but to meet God through the Scriptures.  Through our imaginations we can read the story as if we are present.  This is not make-believe – because Jesus is not bound by time the event we are reading about on the page is a living present-tense experience for Him.

 

Meditating with the Bible starts with us wanting to meet with God – it is hard to meditate well if we don’t have this desire.  It’s very important to have enough time to do it in a relaxed way, to be comfortable in our place and in the way we are sitting, kneeling or standing.

 

A simple technique, which is being widely used today, is known as ‘holy reading’. (Lectio divina in Latin)  It’s an old practice of meditation (hence the Latin title!).  Regularly learning to use lectio divina can help us read the Bible, and be with God, in our hearts.  There is a handout about Lectio divina.

 

It involves reading the text slowly and repeatedly, using our imaginations and perhaps a number of questions to help us see ourselves, and God in it.  We first prepare to meet with God by relaxing our breathing and centring our thoughts on Him.  Then we read, reflect with questions, respond to what God is saying to us, and finally rest in His presence.

How do I read the Bible with others?

Before the printing press most Christians could only read the Bible together, and often did so in large chunks.  While there are many ways we can read individually, coming to the Bible with other people offers three important advantages.  It helps us to build the spiritual practices of studying and meditation.

 

The fact is that left to our own devices we can often find reading the Bible hard.  This is not only because it is long and sometimes hard to understand, but because there can be an element of spiritual struggle involved in even opening it – we will explore that more in module 3.

 

Reading with others can help us build rhythms of being with God in the Bible.  We can learn from each other how to approach the Bible.  The best way to learn something is by watching others do it, and then trying yourself.

 

The more we can read the Bible with those who have more experience, and are willing to empower us, the more we will grow in confidence.  We can help each other interpret the Bible well.  God always uses people in community, and by reading His word with others we can aid one another in arriving at as faithful an interpretation as possible.

 

Preaching and teaching are ways in which we explore the Bible in community – they are related but slightly different.  Preaching comes from the word herux, which was someone who would come into a town to let everyone know good news (a bit like a town crier).  Preachers announce the good news of Christ, particularly to those who might not have heard it before, aiming for a change in their lives.

 

Teaching is more about explaining things that people might not understand and showing people how to live in the light of it.  While a preacher might announce the good news to people that they have been released from prison by the King, a teacher will explain to them how this has happened, when it will happen, where they will live now, what they do next.

Where do I start?

There are many suggestions for being with God through Scripture in the practices of study and meditation in this session and in the handouts.   The best final advice comes from Bernard of Clairvaux, who suggests we read the Bible regularly, in bits we can manage for the stage we are at, and often with others:

 

“Think of the word of God in the way you think of your food.  When bread is kept in a bin, a thief can steal it, or a mouse can find its way in and gnaw it, and eventually, of course, it goes mouldy.  Once you have eaten your bread, you have nothing to fear from thieves, or mice, or mould!  In the same way, treasure the word of God….

 

Feed on it, digest it, allow its goodness to pass into your body so that your affections and whole way of behaviour is nourished and transformed.  Do not forget to eat your bread and your heart will not wither.  Fill your soul with God’s richness and strength.”

 

Being with God in a balanced life

What quality of life does God want for me?

One of the themes that consistently comes through in the Bible is that it is hard for us to imagine just how much God wants each human being to flourish and grow in love.  Jesus revealed God’s hope for us when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

 

St Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”  While it’s a statement that is more than about just ‘being happy’, it celebrates the total goodness of God’s intentions towards us.

 

Being a disciple is living into this life in all its fullness, a life we can only begin to imagine.  But both the story and teaching in the Bible show that life in all its fullness does not necessarily mean a trouble, pain-free existence.  (In fact, as we shall see in module 3 sometimes discipleship can lead us into being more aware of suffering).  Instead, God has always invited His covenant-partners to be with Him so that we can be fruitful.

 

We are made for fruitfulness – not just existence.  God’s first command in the Bible to human beings is, “Be fruitful.…”In the parable of the servants who are given talents to look after while their master goes away (Matthew 25:14-30) it is the servant who fails to grow his talents that is condemned – he is missing out on life in all its fulness.  Human beings are designed for fruitfulness.

What kind of “fruit” is God hoping for? 

In John 15 Jesus uses the image of grapes growing on a vine to give us a picture of what fruitfulness in life means.  Talking to His disciples He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…”

 

The difference between the fruitfulness that many can chase after through materialism or success is that it is temporary, whereas the fruitfulness God wants to sow in our lives is in things that last forever.  As another of Jesus’ parables shows, it is possible to store away our ‘riches’ for ourselves in barns, but our inevitable death makes it all meaningless.  Instead Jesus encourages us to store up treasures (i.e. to be fruitful for God) in ways that last eternally.  For example,

 

Fruitfulness in character.  Living lives that help us become more like Christ in:  Love – growing in self-giving love towards God and others.  Joy –  a feeling of things being “well with my soul” that is not changed by circumstances.  A growing sense that God is in control and therefore I can praise Him.  Peace – a non-anxious gift of freedom through knowing I am right before God and others.  These are the first three ‘fruits of the Spirit’, a description of the Christlike character God wants to grow in us.

 

Fruitfulness in work.  At the opening of the Bible human beings are given work to do from the very beginning.  To be productive is part of God’s imprint on our lives.  Just as God worked in creating, so He shares that part of His being with His covenant-partners.  Without fruitful work we can fall away from our sense of who we are called to be.  Work can become cursed – affecting us in all sorts of negative ways – but, as we shall see, done in the right way daily work can make human beings fruitful.

 

Fruitfulness in discipling others.  According to Jesus, discipleship and fruitfulness go together:  “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”  The fruit Jesus is referring to is not only the results of daily work, but the outworking of His calling for us to be “fishers of people” who will “go and make disciples”.

Why is being with God at the heart of fruitfulness?

The practices of worship, prayer, study and meditation we have looked at draw us into “being with God” and also become the “training exercises” which help us give space for God’s Spirit to change us from the inside out.  The kind of fruitful life God wants cannot come from us alone – instead it is a partnership with God in which in our daily lives God delights to work in and through us, if we invite Him to.

 

Speaking of growing disciples, Paul had a deep sense that all true fruitfulness comes from God’s work: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6)  While human beings have a part to play, God is the one who grows fruit.

 

In His picture of the vine in John 15 Jesus reinforces this by reminding His disciples that their fruitfulness depends on being rooted in Him:  “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

 

In fact, the kinds of eternal fruitfulness that we have been looking at are so enormous, that to attempt to grow them ourselves, without being rooted in Him, will inevitably lead to frustration and failure:  “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

 

As disciples, fruitfulness that doesn’t spring from being with God is impossible.  We are not gifted, talented, or eternal enough to be fully fruitful in ourselves.  We can see this in our own lives as disciples if we experience ‘religious burn out’.

 

Instead, God’s partnership with us as disciples is a life of balance – between being with God and doing; between listening and responding; between being active and stopping (for example, none of the fruits in our character like love, joy or peace can be achieved by rushing); between giving out from what we have first received.

 

This session is about living into simple rhythms in our daily lives and each week which enable this balanced life to be part of our lived experience.  They are rhythms which God gave His people throughout Scripture and which we see in the life of Jesus.  They are rhythms that not only give God’s Spirit space to make us eternally fruitful, but, in a stressed and anxious culture, help us to live peacefully and be a non-anxious presence in a hurting world.

What can make experiencing this balance so difficult?

The writer Evelyn Underhill once said, “The spirit of Joy and the spirit of Hurry cannot live in the same house.”  But if it is true that God’s work in us is incompatible with hurry, then it is not surprising if the culture we live in makes the idea of taking time to be with God or to remain in Jesus seem like a mountain to climb.

 

The world we live in is mentally and spiritually crowded in a way that can work against us being attentive to God, being able to put Him at the forefront of our minds.  The screens we watch (4 hours of TV a day if we are over 16), the advertising messages we receive (six hundred a day), the bits of information from disconnected sources we absorb daily (more than at any time in history) and the years of our lives we spend on social media (6 years and 8 months on average) can have a profound effect:  unsatisfied desires, FOMO (fear of missing out), anxiety and hurry, workaholism, restlessness and over-busyness.

 

While monks originally invented the clock to regulate prayer throughout the day, our experience of time can be shaped less by rhythm and more by deadline and speed, making it hard to have good priorities and look after our health.  ‘Hurry sickness’ is a recognised phenomenon.  This makes a balanced life all the more necessary.  But it also makes it all the more difficult.

 

The practices we will explore in this session are about intentionally making space for being with God in our daily lives.  We cannot get more time than we have.  But we can make choices to shape time differently around the things that matter for ever.  None of us want to experience discipleship as superficial, or to settle for less than God’s offer of life in all its fulness.

 

But it is worth acknowledging that it can be easy for us to be distracted or over-busy, and that living fruitful lives of being with God will inevitably come up against cultural barriers and call us to make choices about how our time is used.

Why is Sabbath so important for being with God?

The Sabbath (meaning rest) is a complete day of rest in Scripture.  Today, even Christian disciples might struggle to have a rhythm of a day of rest every week, but the balance we need for fruitfulness is established at the beginning of the Bible where in Genesis, even God rests from His work.  Right from the start there is a regular weekly practice in the way the world is that sets out both work and rest.

 

The Sabbath is first named as an explicit commandment by God – the fourth of ten – after He rescues His covenant-partner people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  It is a holy day – to be set apart as vital and important – on which the people specifically remember that they are free – they are not slaves any more.  (Deuteronomy 5: 12-15).

 

Being able to rest on Sabbath is about freedom from slavery – from overwork, from being defined only by being productive, from other people’s expectations or control.  It is a gift, as well as a commandment, because it says there are limits on how much is expected of us.  (In a consumer society this can be a way of saying, “I am, or I have enough.”)

 

The word Sabbath can also be translated as to worship or delight.  God establishes a regular time when, together, we offer praise to Him.  The Sabbath is also a taste of what is to come in our experience of eternal life, when we see God face to face.  God gives it as a way of remembering the freedom He has already given us, but also looking forward to our ultimate freedom.

What are the benefits of Sabbath?

Rest to refresh the whole week.  God wants us to ‘be with Him’ more than one day a week, but the Sabbath creates a day which opens us to a different way of living which can spread into the other six days.  To symbolise this at the end of the Sabbath Jewish people will take the light from the Sabbath candle, representing the rest they have been experiencing, and use that flame to light six other candles for the coming days of the week.  Sabbath rest, worship, and being with God is being taken into the week that is to come.

 

Whereas for some a day off may be a time to escape, or recover after a busy period, for disciples Sabbath as God intended can offer the possibility of working from rest, as opposed to resting from work.  We cannot be fruitful without rest.  This reflects the first experience of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.  As Mike Breen writes, “God created man and woman on the sixth day, setting them in a garden full of wild, wonderful creatures and delicious foods. He gave them instruction on caring for the animals and plants in the garden. He told them to be fruitful.   But on the first full day of existence for Adam and Eve, God rested. All of creation took a well-deserved break in activity.

 

“This was our first full day, a day of rest. Then the work began. From this we see an important principle of life: we are to work from our rest, not rest from our work.”  Breen, Mike. Building a Discipling Culture. 3DM. Kindle Edition.   Regular Sabbath rest can train us to be more restful every day of the week.

 

Not having to be in control, and knowing our limits.  The writer Marva Dawn says, “A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us – not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.”  Sabbath is taking a day a week to remind ourselves that we did not make the world and that it will continue to exist without our efforts.  Stopping in order to be with God reinforces the truth that only God can truly satisfy our desires in a way that our career, possessions or reputation cannot.

 

It is a way of living into the belief that our reputation is God’s business, when we remember that we are loved just because we exist.  It reminds us as well that many of the things we may strive to attain are only loaned to us.  When the businessman John D. Rockefeller died his accountant was asked by a curious person, “I know that Mr. Rockefeller was an immensely wealthy man, just how much did he leave behind?” The accountant quickly replied, “Everything.”   Through Sabbath we can find out how much of our efforts can be about earning something we already have.

 

Being re-created.  Sabbath can create space so that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  One of the translations of the word is ‘to delight’.  Part of being with God is being able to slow down to a speed in which we can notice and enjoy His goodness, and do things we enjoy with gratitude.  A good way to approach Sabbath might be to list the things that you could do for a day that would bring you joy and make you want to praise God.  Sabbath re-creates us because it aims to help us to appreciate and savour the present moment.  According to many spiritual writers, and particularly to Jesus, this is the main secret of living without anxiety.

 

In Matthew 6 Jesus asks His disciples, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  In order to illustrate His point, He points to the birds and the flowers who are here today and gone tomorrow – they have no guarantee of an easy life – and yet are content before God because they live in the present moment.   This is the re-creation King David wrote about in Psalm 23 in which, even in the midst of difficulties, God “…makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

How do I practise a fruitful Sabbath?

There are four translations of the Hebrew word Sabbath which give a framework for a fruitful Sabbath: stop, rest, delight and worship.  It is not necessary to include all these elements in a structured way, but none of them should be completely missing from your lived experience.

 

Stop.  Even if in the midst of busyness Sabbath means stopping from working, and, as much as possible, from all the thinking and worrying that work can mean.  This means making choices not to attend to messages and communications that can distract us, perhaps by turning devices off.

 

Rest.  This can be physical – simply enjoying sleep.  It can be mental and emotional – giving ourselves time to process things that are happening.  It can be spiritual – deliberately resting in a sense of God’s love and closeness.  It is worth being aware that at first, if we are not used to it, resting like this can lead us to feeling low, as our mind, body and spirits settle into a different way of being with God.

 

Delight.  Doing unplanned things as they come into your mind or heart.  Or doing things that create joy, happiness and gratitude – meals, music, games, fun, friends, nature.  Doing something creative that isn’t your job but that needs no justification.  Appreciating the beauty God has made.  Delight in people by having time for relationships.

 

Worship.   While we can worship God in all the above, Sabbath gives us the opportunity to share in praise and adoration of God, offering our life and the coming week to His glory.

 

Preparation.  The key thing is to seek a 24 hour period every week to practise Sabbath – it doesn’t need to be a particular day of the week.  As we have noted, the idea of a full day’s rest to be with God may seem hard, and may be something we have to work towards, rather than arrive at in one go.   We may need to acknowledge that there is never a moment when all our work feels done.  Sabbath is a day for stopping in the midst of the busyness of our lives, not for when we are no longer busy.

 

We will have to make choices,  perhaps finding it helpful to schedule our rest before we schedule work.  If we go on holiday or a trip there is always a lot to do beforehand in getting ready.  No one just walks out of their house without packing at least one bag.  Similarly, the Jewish people had to have a day of Preparation for the Sabbath.  It’s interesting that even in a culture where it was so established, there was a recognition that a full day to stop and be fully present to God and others required effort and choices.

How did Jesus (and others in the Bible) experience 'being with God' in solitude and silence?

While Jesus practised Sabbath, he would also frequently withdraw from people to be with God on His own at other times, and sometimes for extended periods.  This was intentional time to be alone with God, and to listen to His Father.   Disciples down the centuries have imitated these two practices of solitude and silence, particularly at times of change or challenge, in order to grow in being with God.

 

Solitude is being apart from others and from “external noise” with the purpose of being with God.  It is not seeking ’emptiness’ which can lead to loneliness.  Instead it is time on our own intentionally focussing on God with the aim of leading to being fulfilled by His presence.

 

Silence is needed for solitude.  It is not just ‘not talking’, but waiting for my internal chatter and thoughts to stop so I can be in a better place to receive what God might want to communicate.  Both go together.

 

As we read the accounts of Jesus it is striking how often He would go to a quiet place to be with His Father – at the beginning of His ministry He spent forty days with His Father in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).  Before choosing his disciples He spent the night alone (Luke 6:12).  There is a regular pattern of seeing Jesus withdraw, sometimes with His disciples, when things got busy.

 

Even when huge needs were presenting themselves, perhaps especially then, Jesus would find the place of heart solitude with God.  This echoes a strong pattern throughout the Bible of God meeting people in the “wilderness” – a place where they encounter Him in more intense ways.  The Greek word for such a place is ‘eremos’ and occurs 48 times in the New Testament!  The people of Israel wander in the wilderness, recognising their need for food and water.  Moses meets God there in a burning bush and receives God’s name alone on a mountain.  The prophet Elijah hears God’s “still, small voice”.

What are the benefits of solitude and silence?

As we have seen, in John 15 Jesus tells His disciples that the fruitfulness God wants can only come as we work alongside a rhythm of remaining in Him.  He also talks about how times of pruning, being cut back in our activity, or shaped in our character, are part of God’s work in making us fruitful.

 

Times of solitude and silence are a way in which we “remain in Him”, and in which we can experience being renewed by God, allowing the pain of any pruning experiences we are having to enable new growth in our discipleship.

 

In solitude we can be strengthened by experiencing the truth that only God matters.  The wilderness is not a place of weakness, it is a place of strength.  In being alone, we can gain a fresh sense of our own limitations once what we do, who we know and what we own is taken away.  We are alone with God and ourselves.   We are faced with the question of who we are when things that give us significance are not there – and can realise it is only God who is enough.

 

We are faced with the question of who will control things when we are not present – and can realise it is only God who is in control.  The purpose of solitude is to be able to see and hear what God wants more clearly.  We give God space to communicate with us through His Spirit (paying attention to Him is the essence of being a disciple) in the different ways we have explored.

 

This realisation can only help us to surrender to what God wants more.  We become people who are more likely to give out of what we have first received.  Being strengthened like this helps us to be fruitful in that our work and service can spring more fully from God’s leading.

 

The story is told of two woodsmen. One woodsman challenged the other woodsman to an all-day wood-chopping contest. The challenger worked hard all day long, pausing only for a brief lunch. On the other hand, the challengee took several breaks during the course of the day and also took a leisurely lunch.  Well, the end came to the all-day wood chopping contest and the challenger was surprised (and annoyed) to find out that the challengee had cut more wood than he! So, the challenger said, “You cut more wood than I did, even though I worked longer.”  To which the challengee responded, “What you did not realise is that I was sharpening my axe, every time I sat down to rest.”

 

In solitude the ways in which we are being pruned can become fruitful.  In a way, being alone with God can bring us face to face with new challenges.  Jacob wrestled with an angel in the desert.  It was in the desert that Jesus had a fierce struggle with the temptations He needed to overcome at the start of His ministry.

 

Whether our problems are caused by things that happen to us in the sufferings of life, or by our own inner struggles, solitude offers a place where these things can no longer be ignored, but can be brought to God.  It is also vital for our emotional well-being that we have windows in our lives in which to process difficulties.

 

Peter the disciple knew a lot about being pruned.  In silence we can follow His advice by taking the unhurried opportunity to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)  We all experience hardship of one kind or another.  For Jesus, the key question is can we allow these difficulties to become opportunities for pruning for fruitfulness?

 

In silence we can express and deepen our trust in God.  The writer John Main puts it like this, “To be silent with another person is a deep expression of trust and confidence and it is only when we are unconfident that we feel compelled to talk. To be silent with another person is truly to be with that other person.”  True communication with God, or with others, can often feel deeper without words, as we rest in trust.

 

A 19th century French priest once noticed a peasant come in to the church and stay for hours, kneeling in front of a cross with a representation of Jesus on it. The priest asked this man, “What do you say during all that time before Jesus? The peasant replied, “Nothing.  I look at Him and He looks at me.”  One way into this silent trust before God can simply be to ask yourself the question, “What do you see when you look at God, looking at you?”

 

Through silence our words and actions can count for more.  On a summer scout camp a young man fell out of a tree injuring himself.  His friend ran to get the scout leader from the other side of the camp.  As the scout leader left his tent, walking slowly towards the site of the accident, the friend began to panic, thinking he hadn’t communicated the urgency of the action.  When the scout leader came to the young man he immediately gave mouth to mouth resuscitation, put him in the recovery position and sent for an ambulance.

 

“After the young man had been taken away, his friend angrily blurted out, “You took so long to walk over to him!  Didn’t you realise how serious it was?”   The scout leader replied, “I know you are angry because I didn’t rush. But I needed to buy myself a bit of time to remember what I needed to remember. And I knew my first decision had to be the right one. And I can’t give mouth to mouth resuscitation if I’m out of breath.”

 

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal is famous for saying, “’All of humanity’s problems stem from a human being’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  In silence we can ensure that we have listened before we act, giving ourselves space to slow down and pay attention to God so that our first decisions can be wise.  Similarly, if our words are a thermometer of our hearts, they will have more value after silence with God, and may be more wisely chosen.

 

In solitude we can value and love others more.  Thomas Merton said that one of the fruits of solitude can be to increase our sensitivity to and compassion for others because “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers and sisters…Solitude and silence teach me to love them for what they are, not for what they say.”

How do I practise solitude and silence?

As well as modelling withdrawing from others to be alone with God, Jesus commended it to His disciples as a normal way of praying: “…when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

 

As we have seen, learning to do this goes against the grain of much of our cultural experience, and the ways in which most of us live.  It also goes without saying that your circumstances and personality will affect the length of time and the way in which you are able to grow in practising this.  Nevertheless, if being with God is the foundation of discipleship, these first thoughts may help:

 

Knowing God wants to draw near to us.  Our desire to withdraw to ‘be with God’ is increased when we connect with how much God wants and promises to be with us.  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

 

Working towards regular times of being silent before God…it is unlikely that we will develop times of solitude with God unless we have an intentional rhythm…but also being aware of the season we are in.  In John 15 there is a balance between times of being fruitful and times of remaining in God.  In our lives it may be hard to regulate what is necessary in a strict way.  It may be more a case of becoming aware of the season we are in.  Growth cannot occur without remaining in the vine, or pruning.  So, for example, if we are aware that we are not seeing much fruitfulness in our lives, it may be a prompt to us that we need to have a season of withdrawing to be with God.

 

Using the opportunities we already have.  While having a special place and time can be helpful, it is possible to find moments of solitude and silence in the normal run of a day.  It is better to start as we are than wait until we change circumstances.  Driving more slowly, pausing before meals, taking a brief walk, getting up a few minutes earlier, turning off our devices can all offer opportunities within the structure of our existing lives for a moment of silence in which we pay attention to the present moment, knowing that this kind of daily being with God is, as Christian doctor Paul Tournier said, “mostly about waiting for God’s presence.”

How can the practices which train me to 'be with God' and pay attention to Him move from idea to reality?

All the practices we have looked at in this module – worship, prayer, studying Scripture, meditation on Scripture, Sabbath, solitude and silence – are tried and tested gifts which enable us to be disciples who are being with God, placing Him at the forefront of our attention.  It is through these practices that we can give God space in our lives to change us through His Spirit, and be fruitful by being rooted in Him.

 

In our covenant-partnership with God, our role is about making the choices in how each day which will grow these practices as life-giving habits, in the same way that we clean our teeth, or eat regular meals.  They are the exercises we do directly, in order to grow indirectly.

 

It is impossible to exercise, or start new exercises, without effort and change.  But the way to genuine peace is found in using the time that God has given us in the best way possible to enable the things we really want to happen in our lives.  In Luke’s gospel Martha complains that, rather than helping her in the kitchen, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him.  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”   Mary had chosen the one thing necessary.

 

Practices move from idea to reality when we make choices about how to do them in our daily lives.  As a closing exercise to this module, you are invited to think about how you experience these practices, and what the next steps might be that God is calling you to do in living them out.  To support one another, you are invited to meet up with someone else and share your intentions with them.

 

The handout ‘Rule of Life’ leads you in doing this.  It’s an ancient idea adopted by many Christian communities down the centuries as a way of creating space for discipleship in our lives in a way which echoes our deepest longings and choices.  While the word ‘rule’ may seem strict, the word comes from a Latin term meaning ‘supporting scaffold’, like a trellis which lifts a vine off the ground, enabling the fruit to grow.  The rule is not an end in itself, it is the means by which we can experience life in all its fullness.

 

How can I avoid this being a burden?

A major source of conflict between Christ and the religious leaders of His time was how commandments, such as the Sabbath, which were meant to bring life to God’s people, had become soul-destroying and lifeless.  Rather than leading them into being with God and His grace, religious leaders were applying them as burdens – rules which became burdens which created fear of failure more than joyful obedience.

 

In contrast Jesus reminded them that God’s commandments are always given for people’s benefit, not restriction:  “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)  We all have routines and things we do most days which nurture us (or harm us!)  The question is not whether to have routines in our lives, but which ones are important?  In order to grow in living by any rule in a life-giving way, these final thoughts may help

 

Any ‘rule’ is always best motivated by love.  In the same way that I don’t adopt the annual practice of remembering to buy my spouse a present for our anniversary, or get a gift for my nephew’s birthday only because I have to as a duty, but because I want to out of love, so any practices of ‘being with God’ will only flourish if they are a response to God’s love.  “We love, because He first loved us.”

 

A good rule is realistic and specific.  If I was going to train to do a marathon, and had never done any running before, I wouldn’t attempt to run ten miles on my first day.  Instead I would use “Couch to 5k”, or at least ensure my first steps were a mixture of walking and running for a distance I could manage.  Unrealistic aims can easily disillusion us.

 

If you have never spent time in silence, and want to start building that into your day, better to start with five minutes and work from there, than aim for thirty minutes and be almost certain to fail.  Again, setting vague aspirations such as “pray more” will not be as helpful as very practical rhythms such as ‘Read a psalm in the morning’.

 

Many practices can be done with others.  God always calls people together.  The early Christians did much of their worship, prayer, study and listening in community.  Rather than thinking of your rule only in individual terms, many things can be done with others.  Not only does this provide support and accountability, but you can learn from, and teach others in the process.

 

Think about your personality and lifestage.  If you are someone who likes people, silence and solitude will be hard for you.  Doing the practices with others will be a better place to start.  On the other hand if you are an introverted person you will find being on your own more life-giving.  Similarly if you have toddlers at home your rule will look very different from a retired or single person.  Start with the practices you find come most easily to you, perhaps seeking to grow in just one which you find more difficult.  Try and find a balance in your practices which works for you.

 

Don’t be afraid of being flexible.  While practices require some effort, if you consistently are not experiencing fruit in your discipleship, or finding them too hard, don’t be afraid to change.  Normally rules are things which don’t alter, but it is more helpful to think of the practices we commit to as being for a season.  The way we grow as disciples does not happen in a “straight line” all through our lives.  Life circumstances change.  God may want to work on some things in us at one point and not others.

 

The writer Margaret Guenther puts it well when she says,  “A good rule can set us free to be our true and best selves. It is a working document, a kind of spiritual budget, not carved in stone but subject to regular review and revision. It should support us, but never constrict us.”

 

Jesus – His life

Why do disciples aim to 'become like Christ'?

It is good to start by asking why Jesus matters, why He is at the heart of discipleship, and why disciples aim to become like Him.

 

We can explore this by looking at three good reasons which come from who He claimed to be.  We can flesh out our understanding (and questions which arise such as, “How can a human being be God?) by looking in particular at four titles given to, or used by Jesus, which describe His nature and purpose.

 

Three good reasons for becoming like Christ (which we affirm at our baptism) are:

 

We can know God through Him:  Christ is the fullest specific way in which we can know the character and self-giving love of God.  (Do you come to Christ?)

 

We can offer Him what He deserves:  Christ is God acting in the world to bring His healing, and so is the one to whom we give our greatest allegiance.  (Do you submit to Christ as Lord?)

 

We can be freed to come to God through Him:  Christ is the one whose death and resurrection defeat sin and evil and open the way for us to know a holy God.  (Do you come to Christ as Saviour?)

 

We can also explore this by looking at the names given to Jesus, or that He gave to Himself.

 

While there are a lot of titles given to Jesus throughout the Bible, we can focus on the meaning of four to unpack these reasons:

 

Messiah/Lord – Jesus as the one who fulfils God’s purposes.

Emmanuel/God the Son – Jesus as the one who is “God with us”.

Son of Man – Jesus as the one who reveals who we can be.

Jesus – meaning “God saves” – Jesus as the one who restores human beings and creation.

Why is knowing Jesus central to knowing God better? 

The American writer Donald Miller tells this story, “A guy we know named Alan went around the country asking ministry leaders questions. He went to successful churches and asked the pastors what they were doing, why what they were doing was working.  It sounded very boring except for one visit he made to a man named Bill Bright, the President of [Campus Crusade for Christ].

 

“Alan said he was a big man, full of life, who listened without shifting his eyes.  Alan asked a few questions.  I don’t know what they were, but the final question he asked Dr. Bright was what Jesus meant to him. Alan said Dr. Bright could not answer the question. He said Dr. Bright just started to cry. He sat there in his big chair behind his big desk and wept.

 

“When Alan told that story I wondered what it was like to love Jesus that way. I wondered, quite honestly, if that Bill Bright guy was just nuts, or if he really knew Jesus in a personal way, so well that he would cry at the very mention of His name. I knew that I would like to know Jesus like that, with my heart, not just with my head. I felt that would be the key to something.”

 

Many people may sense God’s reality through things like the creation, the night sky, the qualities of love, truth, beauty and justice.  We may even sense a need for God in the world when we experience its brokenness and injustice. (We explored this general revelation in module 1).  80% of the world’s population belong to a religion (32% are Christian).

 

In the book of Romans Paul writes how, “…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”  We can gain some sense of God’s attributes through this general wisdom and experience.

 

But the reason Christ is at the centre of discipleship is simple.  It is through Him that God has revealed the specific nature of the truth of God’s character, His purpose for life and the way it is possible for us to be in relationship with Him.  Jesus said of Himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

 

Christ is the one through whom we love God in the fullest way possible.  Christ is the one we follow, because in doing so we follow God in the closest way possible.  Martin Luther King looked for Christians to have, “zeal for Christ” and “zest for His kingdom”.

 

As we saw in the previous module, Pope Benedict 16th put it like this, “…faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him even more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”

 

As the first Christians pieced together who Jesus was, they looked at His actions, death and resurrection and the experience of His disciples.  In addition, we have the benefit of the teaching of the New Testament and the early church Fathers in being able to understand how He reveals God and enables us to know Him.  They came to the amazing conclusion that Jesus was God made human.  God in His love had emptied Himself to become one of us, so that we could see and know Him in a way we could understand.

 

After telling His disciples that a relationship with Him is “the way, the truth and the life”, Jesus said, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:7-9)

 

In other words, if we want to know God’s character, God’s heart, or God’s purposes, the fullest possible way of seeing that is by looking at Jesus, by “coming to Christ”.  The mystic St John of the Cross argued that, compared to looking at Christ, only knowing God through common wisdom seems foolish.

 

He wrote, “…anyone today who wants to ask God questions, or desires some further vision or revelation, is not only acting foolishly but offending God by not fixing his eyes entirely on Christ, and instead wanting something new or something in addition to Christ.

 

To such a person God might give this answer: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him. I have already told you all things in my word. Fix your eyes on him alone, because in him I have spoken and revealed all. Moreover, in him you will find more than you ask or desire.”  Irenaeus put it like this: “In Jesus Christ, God allows himself to be seen, and in seeing God we come alive.”

Do we become like Christ just because He is a good example?

As we have said, a further two reasons for becoming like Christ are because He is God and so deserves our greatest allegiance, and because through His death and resurrection He opens the way for us to know God.

 

Christ as God:  A good motive for wanting to become like Christ is not only that He reveals God’s character through being “the image of the invisible God”, but that He is God.  As might be expected, Jesus’ first disciples only came to understand this in a gradual way, though soon after Jesus’ resurrection John was writing that He “was with God and…was God.” (John 1:1).  Matthew wrote that Jesus was the “Emmanuel” – prophesied many centuries before – meaning “God with us”.

 

Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote of Jesus as the ultimate source of all things: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth…all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17)  The ultimate end of all things: “…God placed all things under his feet.”  And the most definitive statement about God we will ever have: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him….”  (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4)

 

The first Christians had to wait several centuries (largely because of persecution) until they had the opportunity to express their continued faith that Jesus was God in 325 AD.  They agreed on a statement of belief called the Nicene Creed, still used regularly today, which included the phrase that Jesus was “true God from true God” and “one in being with the Father”.  We will look at some of the evidence for this in these two sessions.

 

Christ the Way to God:  St Augustine wrote, “It was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; He made him the way itself that we might travel with him as leader, and by Him as the way.”  In session two we will explore more fully how by dying and rising again, Jesus not only put God’s character fully on display, but made it possible for everyone, and everything, to be brought back to God in total forgiveness.  In an act of complete self-offering, He defeated the power of death and every spiritual force of evil, becoming the way through whom the universe, and every human being, can ultimately be restored.

 

It’s no wonder that St Ambrose said, “Let your door stand open to receive Jesus, unlock your soul to him, offer him a welcome in your mind, and then you will see the riches of simplicity, the treasures of peace, the joy of grace. Throw wide the gate of your heart.”

Is 'becoming like Christ' really part of discipleship?  And in what ways might we expect this to happen? 

As human beings, we are all being formed by something or someone, whether on purpose or not.  We all long to know the particular story and shape of our lives.  Jesus’ invitation to His disciples was to be apprentices, who would intentionally become like Him.

 

He called His disciples to “follow Him” by “taking up their cross” and “losing their lives” in the same way that He did – the closest possible way of identifying with Him.  He provided the pattern for their relationships.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) He told the Pharisees that, “The student (disciple) is not above the teacher but will be like the teacher.”  (Luke 6:39).  Becoming like Him was an assumed aim of discipleship.

 

Peter and Paul spell this out in their letters, with Peter writing that we become like Him in what we do: Christ was “leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.” (1 Peter 2:21).  Paul writes, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

 

Paul also wrote that God is changing us to become like Him in who we are: “We all who contemplate Him are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory.”  (2 Corinthians 3:18).  God’s aim for those who love Him is to be “…conformed to the image of his Son…” (Romans 8:29)

 

So early Christians, such as Augustine, saw becoming like Christ as the goal of life.  An early Christian book is called ‘The Imitation of Christ’ (Thomas a Kempis)  The more contemporary writer, C.S. Lewis, famously wrote that Jesus, “came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other people the kind of life He has — by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”  (Mere Christianity)

 

To become like Christ is obviously not to take on the literal pattern of His life (e.g. by moving to the Holy Land!) but to be increasingly “possessed by the character traits of Jesus…Discipleship is being with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become like that what that person is. An ‘apprentice’ of Jesus is learning from him how to lead their life as he would lead their life if he were they.”  (Dallas Willard)

How do we know about Him? 

The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us our main portraits of Jesus.  Each of them unpacks two things – Jesus’ public life and ministry, and His more private teachings with His disciples, leading up to His death and resurrection.

 

They each provide different lenses or emphases for us with, for example, Matthew focussing on the way Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, Mark writing to strengthen people being persecuted, Luke emphasising that Jesus came for all people, and John exploring how God became human, how the “Word became flesh.”

 

We regularly read from the gospels when we gather together (standing up to show their importance) and there are parts of the gospels that are used regularly in some churches – there are three prayers from Luke known as the Annunciation, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis, which unpack who Jesus is.

What is the background to Jesus’ life?

Looking at the story Jesus saw Himself as part of, as well as some of the names He used to describe Himself, helps us to see what He understood His purpose to be, and what discipleship is.

 

It will help us to become disciples for whom following Him is more than just about our own personal story – we will want to become like Him because we are more interested in joining in with God’s story.

 

Jesus didn’t think that He was starting something completely new, but instead that He was fulfilling God’s story for the world and His people – we can only fully appreciate His significance by looking at what leads up to His life, death and resurrection.

 

The story of the Old Testament is a story much like the experience of human beings today.  God’s story has always been to have a (covenant) relationship of love with people and the world in which there is peace and wholeness.  God creates human beings to be a blessing in His name to the whole creation – He gives human beings a royal calling.

 

But human beings distort that calling by going their own way – and the result is death and chaos.  In our time we can sense this double reality – we long for justice, truth and beauty, and yet consistently struggle with selfishness, greed and brokenness.

 

However, the story shows that God does not give up on His people, wanting them to be restored (saved) to their original calling.  Starting with Abraham, He makes a covenant-people (Israel) who will bring His healing and be a blessing to the whole world, calling them back to God.  The Israelites long for God, and God keeps reaching out to His people, but they keep wandering away, forgetting Him, replacing Him, ignoring Him.  Eventually, their wandering leads them to be enslaved by others, their place of worship destroyed.

 

As the story develops, a new hope emerges.   The people look forward to a time when God will fully rule over His people as King and they will be restored.  It will be a time anointed with God’s presence (the Hebrew word to describe this anointing is ‘messianic’).  This hope emerges under the time when they are most blessed – King David’s reign – when God promises: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.”  (2 Samuel 7:16)

 

Israel’s prophets started to look for a particular anointed individual (Messiah) who would bring in this restoration, a king/priest who would finally bring God’s ‘kingdom’ to His people again.  It was into this atmosphere of longing that Jesus came, while His people were under Roman occupation.  (We look at this story in more detail in module 4, but there is a handout on Old Testament Messianic expectation.)

How does this make sense of who Jesus thought He was?

Knowing this background makes sense of the first words Jesus used to describe His purpose.  Jesus began His ministry by saying, “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel (good news)!”  (Mark 1:15)

 

The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, but originally in quite a specific way.  It is normally good news connected to how rulers and their kingdoms are now victorious.  You might spread a ‘good news’ announcement when someone had won a battle, or a new king was in charge.

 

But by saying that this was a “gospel” about the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus was not only saying that He was bringing “God’s rule” to His people at last, but that He was Israel’s true King, the fulfilment of the entire story of the Old Testament.  (There is a study handout from the Bible Project about how and when this word is used.)

 

Therefore, to be a disciple was (and still is) someone who will respond to this announcement by letting Him be King and live under His rule (kingdom).  The kingdom is where God is reigning – wherever what God wants done is done.

 

It also makes sense of what it means to call Jesus “Christ”.  In three of the gospels we read the same story.  Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’  ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’  Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’” (Luke 9:18-20)

 

Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed royal Saviour who had come to save the world from death and evil, restoring God’s healing rule once again.  (Christ is the Greek translation of Messiah).  The Gospel of Mark even begins with the words, “The good news about Jesus the Messiah, the son of God.”

What did Jesus show about the Kingdom of God and what does that reveal about becoming like Him?

Disciples who are seeking to ‘become like Him’ will desire the Kingdom of God above everything else (it is named over 100 times in the gospels).  But in teaching and showing what the Kingdom looked like, Jesus needed to deal with some false expectations.  For example, the kingdom was not one earthly location or country.  So, the kingdom was not about getting rid of your enemies to establish this or about bringing about earthly political power.

 

In fact, God’s kingdom operates in an entirely different way from many human understandings of power.  For this reason, He resisted His disciples using the title “Messiah”, and did not use it for Himself, to avoid being interpreted as a political/military leader.

Yet in His three years of public ministry, Jesus reveals to us the heart of God’s reign in several ways:

 

He clearly establishes that He is the true King and that God’s Kingdom is only worth complete loyalty and commitment.  

 

Jesus acts in ways which signalled that, in Him, God’s king had arrived.   For example, God’s people of Israel were made up of twelve tribes.  By gathering twelve disciples around Him, He is now deliberately reshaping God’s people around Himself.  By going into the temple in Jerusalem and throwing out those who had corrupted its worship, He is cleansing God’s throne room as only a King could do.

 

He is clear that the Kingdom of God was precious enough to be worth everything – painting a picture of its value as being like a pearl or treasure worth selling everything for (Matthew 13:44-46), but also challenging those who wanted to follow Him to complete obedience (Matthew 8:18-22)

 

Disciples who are becoming like Him will be growing in giving Him their ultimate allegiance.

 

He teaches and shows in His life the nature of God’s kingdom and the character of those who seek it.

 

Jesus reveals God’s kingdom as upsetting the way the world operates and the ways people expect God to act.   As God rules the last become first, the poor and sinners are included (“For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” Matthew 9:13) and, shockingly for His disciples, those who were previously not part of God’s people of Israel are now included (“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”  Luke 13:29) (The one-page handout ‘Conversations Jesus had in the gospels’ shows how Jesus focussed on individuals from all backgrounds.)

 

People who live under God’s rule will be expressing in their lives the covenant partnership of love God always desires for human beings – this is why the two big themes of the whole Bible – covenant and kingdom – are so closely linked. The Kingdom of God is the community of those who have accepted God’s covenant.  Jesus’ life and teaching reveals how the character of God’s covenant people will be beautifully and radically different – most specifically in the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Its opening statements show that God’s covenant people will be humble, not self-seeking, thirsty for justice, peacemakers…because these characteristics will threaten worldly power they will also often be persecuted.  (Matthew 5: 3-10)

 

In His teaching Jesus gathers people towards God’s kingdom not by establishing a set of rules, but by painting pictures of it with words, using parables and images beginning with, ‘The Kingdom is like…’  By doing this He motivates through creating a new vision, but also challenges people to make their own responses.

 

Disciples who are becoming more like Christ will be seeking to express their covenant love for God in lives marked by the values of the kingdom.

 

He demonstrates the rule of God as bringing restoration in body, mind and spirit, and driving out evil.

 

In announcing that in Him God’s kingdom was near, Jesus is claiming that God’s reign was entering reality, on earth as in heaven.  His healings and miracles are more than proof of His identity – they are demonstrations of God’s saving and restoration of His people and creation.  At the beginning of His ministry He applies a promise from Isaiah that God will send someone “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…liberty those who are oppressed” to Himself, saying “Today, this is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 17-21)

 

Having cleansed lepers (Matt 8:1-4), raised the dead (Matt 9:25), healed the blind (Matt 9:27-31) and cast out demons (9:32-34) he tells His disciples to do the same, “And proclaim as you go, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 10:7-8). The proof of God’s rule of heaven on earth is this new wholeness.   Similarly, Jesus demonstrates God’s rule by assuring people their sins are forgiven, in a way only God can.

 

Importantly, Jesus understands that the reality of God’s kingdom sometimes involves spiritual freedom from the presence of evil. He demonstrates God’s rule by seeing it as coming against opposite (and sometimes hidden) forces of evil – which He ultimately confronts in His death and resurrection.    “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28)

 

Disciples who are becoming like Christ will want to be growing in seeing God’s healing reign in their own lives, the lives of others, and of creation.

 

He sees Himself as decisively establishing the fulness of God’s kingdom, but also looking to a future completion.

 

While in Him “the kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15) and the power of evil broken in a decisive way, Jesus also looked to a future moment (which He expected to come soon) when it would come fully.  Creation and people will be restored and evil, sin and death ultimately defeated.  Many of the parables look to this future “banquet”.  This is also why two of the ‘Beatitudes’ talk about God’s kingdom being in the present moment, but the rest talk about a time when the kingdom “will be”.

 

It’s also why Paul can write about God’s presence and action in the present, but also look to “the glory that will be revealed in us.  For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8: 18-19)  The final verses of the Bible strain for this future completion saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

Disciples who are becoming like Christ will be growing in the wisdom to seek God’s kingdom, knowing that there is still struggle and incompleteness.

What was Jesus’ favourite title for Himself and how does this affect discipleship?

There are a number of titles for Jesus throughout the Bible (and as we have seen He didn’t use all of them) but the one He most consistently uses for himself is the ‘Son of Man’ (14 times in Mark alone) – even though others don’t use it when speaking of Him.

 

In using it He is drawing from the Old Testament hope that the humanity God designed to be gloriously and peacefully reigning with Him, yet which walked away from God and has fallen into such self-destructive and chaotic ruin, will one day be restored to its original calling. And this will be achieved because throughout the Bible God promises that one day a human being will come who will fully represent His glory and break the power of evil.

 

The prophet Daniel focusses in on this hope by describing a vision in which a human figure “like a son of man” is raised up by God over all the brutal kingdoms of the world, ruling with God and being worshipped with Him.  (Daniel 7: 13-14)  This figure is a human yet divine character, opening the way for human beings to be restored to our original destiny.   At His trial, while refusing the title of Messiah, Jesus says, “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (Luke 22: 67-69), clearly understanding His mission to be fulfilling this promise.

 

By adopting this title, Jesus reveals that He is both the representative human being, showing us how to live fully in God’s kingdom, and the one through whom we can receive God’s life and love.

How can a human being be God?  How does this help us in becoming like Christ? 

The claim that Jesus was more than a ‘good teacher, but actually “God with us” asks us to be disciples who do more than follow an example but who offer our whole lives to Him.   In what ways did Jesus claim to be God?

 

We have already seen how Christ acted as God’s kingly representative, doing things only God can do, and adopted a title for Himself which reflected a human-divine nature.  In addition, throughout Mark’s gospel Jesus is called “Son of God” (the title He is given in the first sentence of the book).  In Mark 5:7 demons recognise Jesus as “Son of the Most High God”, God calls Jesus his Son at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:7) and even the Roman centurion near the cross calls Jesus by this name.  (Mark 15:39)

 

In case we think Jesus’ claim to be God was a misunderstanding, the clearest statement about it comes in the gospel of John: “Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’”  (John 10:31-33)

 

Finally, despite it being clear from the commandments that only God should be worshipped, Jesus’ disciples worshipped Him. (Luke 24.50-53)

 

At the same time, while the early Christians in particular wrestled with how to understand it, the clear understanding they arrived at is that Jesus was fully God AND fully human (see the Athanasian creed).  In the ‘incarnation’, entering into our flesh, Jesus didn’t stop being God in any way, but instead took on what it means to be human.  He didn’t leave behind anything of what it means to be God, and He took on all it means to be human.  Whatever happened to Jesus, happened to, and inside of, God.  Neither was Jesus a mixture of “human body/divine mind” – He was completely human in every way.

 

In the next session we shall see why this is important in understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In terms of becoming like Him, knowing that Jesus was fully God and fully human also helps us because:

 

We don’t have to choose between being ‘godly’ and human.  Jesus being fully God and fully human shows how God can be present in a human life without restricting what it means to be human.  When we allow Him to work in and through us (like, for example, Mary) He does not overwhelm us and paint us out of the picture but releases us to contribute even more than we could by ourselves.  Becoming like Christ is not about leaving our humanity behind – it is about allowing God to liberate us to live a fully human life.

 

Because the “divine doesn’t swamp the human” (Mike Lloyd) becoming like Christ is about combining practical human wisdom with spiritual power.  As Mike Lloyd continues, “Some people say you shouldn’t take out an insurance policy.  Compare this with Nehemiah, who when the walls of Jerusalem were under threat of an attack ‘prayed to God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.’ In a properly incarnational mindset the divine and human belong together, with prayer and preparation not squeezing each other out.”

 

We have an example we can truly follow.  St Athanasius said, “He became what we are so that we could become what He is.”  By meeting us as we are, in Jesus God makes Himself truly accessible to human beings.  The WW1 army chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy put it like this: “In Christ I meet the real God. In him I find no metaphysical abstraction, but God speaking to me in the only language I can understand which is the human language.”

 

In addition, Jesus has taken our full humanity into the heart of God, showing us that God fully understands us.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).  What difference might it make to know that the fully human Jesus understands grief, pain, or injustice?

How did Jesus demonstrate a spiritually healthy life?

While these first two sessions are focussed on our understanding of who Christ is, and why we become like Him, we can nevertheless start to look at the pattern of His life as something on which to shape our lives in a very practical way.  When Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, He was also doing so to offer them “life in all its fullness”. (John 10:10)

 

What does this life look like?

 

In the life of Christ, we can see this fullness in the way Jesus lived out a balance between three relationships: with God, with His close community, and to the wider world.  Sometimes the three dimensions of UP (to God) IN (to community) and OUT (to be a blessing to others) are used to describe this.

 

For example, in Luke 6: 12-17 we can see that Jesus first went up a mountain to pray (spending time with God – UP). From there, He chose disciples to be with Him (IN). Then together they went and blessed others (OUT). Why might it be important that things happened in this order? Why do you think Jesus only chose a small number?

 

In John 15 Jesus tells his disciples that they must “bear fruit” (OUT), but that first they must love one another (IN) and cannot do either unless they remain in Him (UP).

 

We see the same balance of relationships with God – community – others, in the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” Three things: To love mercy (have peaceful relationships with others – IN). To act justly (be a blessing in the world – OUT). To walk humbly with your God. (UP).

 

A spiritually balanced life is healthy and fruitful. The consequences of being unbalanced may lead to burn out, isolation, or being ineffective in the work God has given us to do.  For example, what might be the difficulties we face if we only pay attention to our relationship with God and close community, but never look outwards? Or if we look outwards with others, but do not focus on God? Or if we spend time with God, looking outwards, but do not connect with a close community?

 

Christ lived the best life possible. Dallas Willard wrote that He “is the smartest man who has ever lived…He always has the best information on everything and certainly on the things that matter most in the human life.” 

 

Jesus – His death

How is it possible that I can approach God?

We have already seen that the kind of relationship God invites us into is one of covenant love – because God IS love in Himself.  Daily discipleship means ‘being with God’ – paying attention to Him and responding to Him.  As apprentices, we are also looking to become like Christ, and join in with what God is doing.

 

In session 1 we have explored two of the three reasons why disciples seek to “become like Christ”-

 

because He is the one through whom we can know God – He is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us and the ‘Son of Man’ who reveals God in human likeness – and

 

because He deserves our allegiance – He is the anointed King (Messiah) who in His coming brings God’s kingdom – God’s healing and loving rule – on earth as it is in heaven.

 

However, the possibility of experiencing all of this first requires that all that is wrong in our lives and in the world needs to be put right.  This is something which human beings cannot do in our own strength or merit.

 

The third reason we are exploring for becoming like Christ is because He is the one who has made this possible.  He is the one who rescues us from evil, or what the Bible diagnoses as sin.  The name ‘Jesus’ in itself reveals this as the centre of His purpose – it means ‘God saves’.

 

At the heart of being able to know God and become like Christ is receiving forgiveness and salvation – being completely restored by God to the dignity and calling for which He made us.

Where do we see this being saved in the New Testament?

One of the stories that is found in all four of the gospels describes how a ‘sinful woman’ anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and her tears and dries them with her hair.  She is pouring out her love and gratitude to Him because she has experienced the freedom of forgiveness.  Jesus tells a story to show the guests who are there that, “her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little”.  (Luke 7:47)

 

When Jesus asks Zacchaeus a corrupt tax collector if He may stay at His house, the result is “salvation”, as Zacchaeus’ life is transformed and he is restored to being one of God’s covenant people:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10-11).

 

We also see how the more people recognised the goodness and purity of God in Jesus, the more they became aware of their need for forgiveness.  When Peter saw God’s power through Jesus being able to enable a miraculous catch of fish, his response was to fall down and say, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  (Luke 5:8)

 

In the middle of the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to pray regularly, “Forgive us our sins…”  In one of his letters Paul writes, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)  He also wrote that not only was Jesus “…the image of the invisible God” in whom “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” but He is also the one through whom God is able “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”  (Colossians 1:15-20)

 

Being restored (saved) through forgiveness is at the heart of the good news of being a Christian, and at the heart of who Jesus is.  For Jesus, His death and resurrection were necessary to fulfil God’s plan to bring the world back to Himself.  After His resurrection, He comforts two of His disciples by showing them, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”  He came “for us and our salvation” (Nicene Creed).  By becoming human, dying and rising again, God through Christ has rescued the world from sin and death.

Does thinking I need forgiveness lead to low self-esteem? 

In one of his letters Paul gives himself a blunt assessment, but without any hint of this being anything but a healthy approach: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  (1 Timothy 1:15)

 

While most religions teach about ‘sin’, it’s true that there are many examples of people who have been crippled by guilt, shame and even ‘bad religion’ in a life and soul-destroying way.  Even while coming as Saviour, Jesus angrily criticised religious leaders who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders”.

 

At a time when identity and mental health can be fragile, it is vital to have an understanding of sin, forgiveness and salvation which offers a real diagnosis of our condition and is about restoring people in God’s image.  The best starting place for our wellbeing has to offer a realistic view of God and of ourselves and the world.

In what ways do we need to be realistic about approaching God?

Moses once came across the presence of God in the desert.  Yet when he approached the bush God said, “Do not come any closer…Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Similarly, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God being worshipped by angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  His response to seeing God was, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  Again and again throughout the Bible God is described as “holy”.  The more realistic our approach to God, the more we will be overwhelmed by His holiness.

 

We think of being holy as simply being good or unholy as being bad.   While God is good, He is holy because He is unique, different, set apart from anything else.  He is the only Being with the power to create the universe and to give and sustain life.   It is not that He is holy and loving (as if they are separate), but that He is “set apart” by being pure Love, in all its intensity.

 

The unique holiness of God is like the sun which is life-giving to all around it.  But the sun is also dangerous – you cannot get too close.  The paradox at the heart of God’s holiness is that it will destroy anything that is not equally holy, not because it is bad, but because it is good.  This attribute of God is described as a “consuming” or “refining” fire in the Bible.

 

This is really important when talking about God’s wrath.  This word doesn’t describe an unrestrained destructive God, but the way evil experiences God’s holiness as judgement.  Just as the same radiant light and heat from the sun gives life or destroys depending on how close you are to it, so God’s intense love for people, and His “wrathful” judgement are from the same burning ‘white heat’ of His Holy Love – but experienced in different ways.  The more accurate our view of the unique, loving, holy God the more we will have a realistically healthy understanding of ourselves.

In what ways do we need to be realistic about ourselves and the world?

The writer Donald Miller has this reflection on trying to be good: “I found myself trying to love the right things without God’s help, and it was impossible.  I tried to go one week without thinking a negative thought about another human being, and I couldn’t do it.  Before I tried that experiment, I thought I was a nice person, but after trying it, I realised I thought bad things about people all day long, and that my natural desire was to love darkness.”

 

If we are made to love God and love other people as ourselves, Miller is honest that he both fails to do it and finds it impossible to do.  He knows what is good but falls short.  Or as St Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”  (Romans 7:19)

 

This reflects the robust description of the reality of the human condition we find in the Bible, and which accurately portrays our world today.  As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Sin is the one doctrine you can’t dispute.”

 

We see it right from the beginning. In the story of Adam and Eve, choosing to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – deciding for themselves how to live rather than listening to God.  We see it in Cain killing his brother Abel, God warning Cain that, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  We see it throughout the Bible in countless examples of people destroying themselves and each other.

 

The story shows how we have fallen from our original calling and identity – and that the consequences are around us every day.  Something pulls us towards destruction and evil and key biblical words illustrate the effects of this.

 

Sin is not a religious word for bad behaviour, but a description of what happens when we fall short of the goal – it’s a failure of the truly human calling to love God and love others, and the Bible views it as embedded in the story of humanity like a chain reaction, creating a kind of slavery to sin.

 

There is a word which describes the breakdown of relationship between people or between people and God – when we betray trust we transgress.  By ignoring God’s will, Adam breaks trust.

 

There is a word which describes what happens when something originally good has been bent out of shape or distorted, or what should be a blessing is corrupted – iniquity is distorted behaviour which leads to wickedness and guilt.  (In the Bible, the idea of punishment is more often about people being left to deal with the consequences of their own disfigurement.)

 

The Bible also describes the human capacity for self-deception – in the way we can be unaware of sin, or even call it good, or find it easier to see others’ faults than our own.   It warns that “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9) and Psalm 139 ends with the honest prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

What are the results of the Fall?

Sin has to be dealt with.  In order to be a disciple experiencing God’s covenant love there is a direct need for every person to be able to be put right with God, and for the consequences of sin to be reckoned with.

 

If it’s true that, as the Russian writer Solzhenitsyn said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through every human heart”, everyone is equally in need.  As fallible people, our longing for justice is a small reflection of the need we have to be put right before a holy God.

 

The destructive effects of sin need to be defeated.  The Bible reflects a world in which the effect of this fall affects not just the individual person, but in which the environment of our relationship with God, with others and with creation has been polluted.  The world is not as God wants it to be.  We long for liberation in two ways:

from the chaos, disease, war, decay and ultimately death which dominate the physical world.

But this is linked to an unseen conflict in ‘the heavens’, in which prideful spiritual forces of evil, represented as a snake, or satan, or ‘principalities and powers’, seek to undermine God’s kingdom.

 

Many of the origins of this are mysterious, yet the fundamental picture is that, just as human beings can ignore God with destructive consequences, so unseen spiritual beings have chosen to do the same.   While they cannot control humanity, they can influence through the power of suggestion or lies – think of the snake in the Garden of Eden.

 

Early Christians were keenly aware that much of our suffering is the fallout of this earthly and spiritual struggle.  That we fight “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12).

 

We struggle against the values of a world which seeks to go its own way (the world), the personal selfish instincts which might pull us away from self-giving love for God and others (the flesh), and unseen spiritual forces which seek to influence us (the devil).

What did Jesus do for us on the cross?

The meaning of the cross is like a diamond – one gift with many ways to see it.  But in the letter to the Colossians Paul writes that by dying and rising again Jesus achieved (at least) two things for us which we could not do for ourselves:

 

Dealing with sin through complete forgiveness which saves us and puts us right with God:  “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”

 

Dealing with its destructive effects through victory over the fallen powers which pollute the world and lead to death:  “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:14-15)

 

So the meaning of the cross is personal and cosmic – and it is at the centre of God’s purpose.

 

This is why the four gospels focus as much on Jesus’ death as His life.  (One writer said that the gospels are like “passion narratives with extended introductions”.)  In one of his letters, when Paul outlines the things that are “of first importance” he says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)  For Paul, the meaning of the cross and the meaning of the good news were one and the same thing.  He wanted to know nothing, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

What helps me understand Jesus’ death?

The word ‘crucial’ refers to something that we cannot do without – and literally means ‘like a cross’.  The teaching of the Bible is that we cannot put ourselves right with God.  But through His torture, death and resurrection Jesus “ransoms, heals, restores and forgives” us in a way that nothing else can achieve.

 

At the heart of the cross is ‘atonement’.  God always wants to be reconciled with His covenant people.  But for the forgiveness which restores the relationship to be possible, there must be a way to make amends for the damage caused – to ‘atone’ for it in a way that heals its effects forever.

 

To atone literally means to cover over someone’s debt – whether that is a direct debt because of specific harm done or, as in much of our experience, how our sin can indirectly pollute our relationships with God, creation, and each other.

 

As God’s relationship with people developed, He gave the people of Israel a system of animal sacrifices as a sign of this atonement – the animal was taking on or substituting for the death-bringing consequences of human beings’ sins. Animal sacrifice was common as a way of ‘appeasing the gods’ at the time.  But for the Israelites it was different – it was not that God needed the death of animals to deal with His anger, but by the shedding of blood which gives life He was communicating the seriousness of their sins and the need for holy justice.  The death of the animal also showed how God wanted to deal with sin in a complete and final way.  Rather than the sinner ceasing to exist because of sin, the animal had taken their place.

 

Not only that, but the priests would then sprinkle the animal’s blood to show that the animal’s death dealt with the destructive consequences of sin in the wider community.  Not only did God want to forgive His people, but to restore them in His image – purify them again.

 

The story of the Old Testament is that this became a temporary solution – it did not effect the change God was looking for.  While they continued with the outward rituals of sacrifice, nevertheless these became increasingly meaningless to God.  While He longed to live in love and forgiveness with them (“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord.  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” [Isaiah 1:18]) He was looking for a covenant people after His heart, living in love and grace. (“Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” [Isaiah 1:17])

 

God promises an atoning sacrifice which will deal with sin once and for all, through a person – a King – who would become a “suffering Servant” – and die for the people.  Isaiah promised that this person would bear the consequences of all the kinds of brokenness we have described:

 

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all….For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished….Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin.”  (Isaiah 53: 4-10 abridged)

How does Jesus’ death reconcile us to God?

Jesus and the New Testament writers rarely use the actual word ‘atonement’ to describe His death and resurrection.  Yet Jesus clearly understood Himself to be the one who fulfils God’s atonement with His people through the cross in ways which are more wonderful and mysterious to be described through one lens.

 

Instead, a variety of descriptions and images build up an understanding of the atoning work of the cross as God enabling us to be reconciled to Him.

 

Different words emphasise the wonderful way in which Jesus saves us by taking the consequences of sin upon Himself.  These different pictures serve to reveal the completeness of what God has done.

 

Who He is on the cross:

 

Ransom

Through the cross Jesus gives “His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)  He is the “…one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (1 Timothy 2: 5-6)

 

Sacrifice

He is the “sacrifice” (Ephesians 5:2), the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) “….our Passover lamb, (who) has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7)

 

He is the way God revealed His love as He “sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) “through the shedding of his blood.” (Romans 3:25)

 

Representative

He represents us, standing in our place and bearing the punishment for our sins: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5: 21)  “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross…”  (1 Peter 2:24)   He becomes “a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” (Galatians 3:13)

 

Fully God and fully human:

Only by being fully divine and fully human is Jesus able to do this.  Because He is divine Jesus lives a sinless life – God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us”. (2 Corinthians 5:21). We “have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and is uniquely able to offer the redeeming ransom through “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:19)  Only someone who is not standing in quicksand can pull others free.  By being divine Jesus isn’t only able to take sin into God at the cross – He destroys it as sin dissolves on contact with the undiluted holiness of God.

 

But only by becoming fully human is it possible for a holy God to enter in to the full depths of sin, evil and death, taking our place and responsibility for our history of failure.  Unless He is one of us, He can be our judge but not our saviour. His full humanity means he can take on (assume) all the darkness and suffering of humanity, and so bring healing to every part.

 

Early Christians, debating the human/divine nature of Jesus, came to the conclusion He had to be fully human, otherwise “What is not assumed is not healed.”  (Gregory of Nazianzus)  In addition, by taking our place and making the chaos of sin and darkness His own God comes to complete knowledge of human beings.

 

How this reconciles us to God:

 

Redemption and freedom.

To be redeemed is to be bought out of slavery and the bondage of sin and being under a law we could never keep.   “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13)

 

Justification and no condemnation

Atonement also means that the consequences we might expect from a holy God for sin are removed.  There is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)   He “rescues us from the coming wrath (the judgment of God’s love). (1 Thessalonians 1:10)   All are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 3:24) “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)

 

Any charge that may have counted against us has been placed on Him.  “He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14)

 

Cleansing and purification

Just as the sprinkled blood in the Temple symbolically purified the community, so on the cross while Jesus takes on the sin of the world, human beings now receive His purity in exchange: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (2 Corinthians 5:21)

 

This purification is permanent and transforming:  “The blood of goats and bulls…sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14)

 

Reconciliation

Through the cross, the peace with God we could never earn for ourselves is achieved.  “…we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  (Romans 5:11)  We can return to a holy God as holy people:  “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

 

For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:24-25)  We have a new relationship with God because “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”  (Hebrews 9:15)

Did Jesus protect us from an angry Father? 

One possible understanding of the cross is to see a ‘good Son’ protecting the world from an ‘angry Father’ – as if God has a split personality.  Some have described it as “cosmic child abuse”.  Rather than being good news of freedom and forgiveness the cross becomes a place of fear and guilt.  Rather than seeing a God of love and grace we see a God of contained anger.

 

While Jesus certainly died as a substitute, to see this as a way that God “let out His anger” raises several questions.  For example, Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?  Or if God the father needs someone to ‘pay the price’ for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? The concept of forgiveness is surely about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.  And how are we to understand the Father justly punishing Jesus when He knew Jesus never did anything wrong?  (A handout outlines some of these questions).

 

If the picture we have of God is the most defining thing about us, it is vital that at the cross we see that:

 

God is fully involved in every way.  As Jane Williams says, “…through all this, the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit for each other and for us remains intact.  In all things, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is united in action, in purpose, in will and in love….God remains at all times God.”  (Why did Jesus have to die? SPCK)  It is impossible for the Trinity of God to do anything except in loving unity.

 

So while the various pictures God gives us to understand the atonement speak in many different ways, the foundational truth is that on the cross “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) pouring Himself out in the only way His nature allows.

 

The love of God for us is on display.  God IS love and therefore cannot do anything but love.  Even before the cross Christ revealed the nature of that love in forgiving sins and restoring people.  John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”

 

The cross is not just something that God who is love does; it is the expression of who He is.  One saint said that “God’s Incarnation is not only an act of restoration in response to our sin, but also and more fundamentally as an act of love, an expression of God’s own nature.”  St Catherine of Siena said, “Nails were not enough to hold God-and-man fastened to the cross, had not love held him there.”

 

The Catholic priest Brennan Manning tells a story about how his name changed.  His real name was Richard Xavier Francis Manning.  While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: went to school together, bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated, and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together in the Korean War.

 

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the trench. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was saved.

 

When Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name “Brennan.”

 

Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?”

 

Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”

 

In a vision Julian of Norwich was asked by Christ, “’Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?’ ‘Yes, thank you, good Lord,’ I replied. ‘Yes, good Lord, bless you.’ And the kind Lord Jesus said, ‘If you are satisfied, I am satisfied too. It gives me greater happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’”

 

She reflected, “In his word ‘If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so,’ I saw that he would have died again and again, for his love would have given him no rest until he had done so.”

How does Jesus’ life and death help me to become like Christ in my lived experience?

If God is to genuinely change us, we need to be able to come to Him with confidence and trust.  As the writer to Hebrews puts it, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

 

Religion can be about how human beings build a bridge to God through a series of outward behaviours or sacrifices.  This can lead to ‘performance anxiety’ – we are never quite sure if we have done enough to earn God’s favour.

 

But through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus reverses this direction – God builds the bridge towards humanity and becomes the sacrifice.  His “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) As a result, this is how Saint Bernard of Clairvaux says Christians can be: “So what are you frightened of? Why are you trembling before the face of the Lord when he comes? God has come not to judge the world, but to save it! Do not run away; do not be afraid. God comes unarmed; he wants to save you, not to punish you.

 

“And lest you should say ‘I heard your voice and I hid myself,’ look – he is here, an infant with no voice. The cry of a baby is something to be pitied not to be frightened of. He is made a little child, the Virgin Mother has wrapped his tender limbs in swaddling bands; so why are you still quaking with fear? This tells you that God has come to save you, not to lose you; to rescue you, not to imprison you.”

 

To become like Christ, we need to be set free from guilt or shame at our core.  In our Western context, we are familiar with the idea that our guilt has been dealt with through Jesus’ atoning death making us righteous before God.   Instead of us having to be pure to come to Him, His purity transforms us.

 

But other Christians (from the more Eastern Orthodox tradition) have emphasised that the cross takes away the shame that creates distance from God and others.  In fact, the idea that God replaces our shame with honour and restored relationship has been called “the pivotal cultural value” of the Bible.

 

Most people in the world identify more with an honour/shame understanding than a guilt/innocence one, and the issue of shame is referred to far more widely in the Bible than that of guilt.

 

In a ‘guilt culture’ we could say that God deals with what I have done by taking its consequences away. 

In a ‘shame culture’ we could say that God restores who I am and my relationship with Him and others. 

 

This is the message of the lost sheep or coin that has been found.  Of the Prodigal Son who returns to His father and is restored to relationship.

 

In a world where ‘honour/shame’ cultures are increasingly more relevant, the good news is how God “puts a ring on our finger and a robe around our shoulders”, restoring our dignity and relationship.  James Brian Smith tells this story: “John of Kronstadt was a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest at a time when alcohol abuse was rampant.  None of the priests ventured out of their churches to help the people. They waited for people to come to them.

 

John, compelled by love, went into the streets.  People said he would lift the hung-over, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms and say to them, ‘This is beneath your dignity.  You were meant to house the fullness of God’.”  Genuine change begins with choices we make in the light of who we are as people “housing God’s fullness”, not to determine who we are.

 

Linked to this is being freed from the need to earn God’s favour. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son illustrates how difficult human beings can find it not to have a relationship with God based on a “contract”.  But the basis for becoming like Christ is knowing that God’s favour is given to us without regard to whether we deserve it or not.  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

 

The cross shows that nothing can stand in the way of God’s love for us.  “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one….For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39 abridged)

 

For Paul it was this grace that was transforming: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14)

 

And a sentence later he demonstrates how the meaning of Jesus’ life and death helps us become more like Christ by growing humility:  “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

 

The most revealing aspect of our sinfulness can be the easy way in which we mentally judge or compare ourselves with others.  But the more we understand the cross, and the more we see people as those for whom Christ died, the less likely we are to judge others.  “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

 

When Paul reminds the Philippian Christians of how Jesus, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” he frames it by reminding them to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus….in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2: 4,5,8)

 

Genuine change comes not from fear, but from love for a Saviour (and allegiance to a Lord).  Paul wanted to “live for God…who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 19-20) The more disciples are rooted in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the more the desire and power to ‘become like Him’ grows.  “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  And so, as one Orthodox writer puts it, “The spiritual life is not a life of laws and precepts but a life of participation, affection and love, a life mingled and mixing with God.”

How do I receive salvation in my lived experience? 

As we grow in being with God and becoming like Christ in our lived experience, the covenant relationship God offers us means that He never forces His love on us but invites us to respond in our daily lives.  In doing so, the confidence, healing and restoration that God offers can move from idea to reality through embracing two attitudes which are expressed through one habit.

 

The attitudes are repentance and faith. 

The habit of confession can help us to be rooted in these attitudes in our daily lives.

 

Repentance.  Jesus’ call to people was ‘repent and believe’ (Mark 1:15).  In the Bible, being able to repent is the first step that “leads to life”. (Acts 1:18).  It is much more than feeling sorry.  It means ‘return’ or ‘turn round’, literally to change your mind.  It is the decision to go God’s way – the first essential step towards change and healing.  The first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous illustrate repentance well:

 

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

 

When we repent, we surrender to God as being in control.  “When we fall through our weakness or blindness our Lord in his courtesy puts his hand on us, encourages us, and holds onto us. Only then does he will that we should see our wretchedness, and humbly acknowledge it. It is not his intention for us to remain like this, nor that we should go to great lengths in our self-accusation, nor that we should feel too wretched about ourselves. Rather he wants us to look to him. For he stands there apart, waiting for us to come to him in sorrow and grief.  He is quick to receive us, for we are his delight and joy, and he our Salvation and our life.”  (Julian of Norwich)

 

Faith.  The Bible repeatedly contrasts the fruitless path of trying to be put right with God by obeying the law with instead receiving His righteousness through faith.   Paul writing to the Romans reminds them that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (and so)…to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:3-5)

 

Receiving God’s salvation is about turning towards Him and having confident trust, “faith in” Christ.  John’s gospel is written so that, “…you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30-31)  As we explored in module 1, faith is not so much about giving intellectual assent to Jesus’ existence, but more about entrusting and surrendering to Him.

 

However, in recent years a healthy discussion has been happening in the church about what this actually means, prompted by questions such as, “If I need to have faith in Christ, how do I know if I have enough faith to receive salvation?  What happens if my faith feels weak?”  How can our faith level not become another way in which we suffer from ‘performance anxiety’?

 

Apart from the fact that this approach might lead us to come to God with more of a ‘contract’ mentality than through a loving covenant, it highlights a potentially life-changing difference of the way two words in the New Testament (which was written originally in Greek) are translated.  Does pistis Christou mean that we are saved by faith IN Christ – in other words by the trust we place in Him – or by the faithfulness OF Christ.  In other words, which is more important – how much you or I can place our trust in Christ, or how faithful He has been in carrying out God’s saving plan?

 

However the Greek is translated, it is probably safe to assume that God does not want the level of our faith in Him to become the kind of legalistic demand from which Jesus’ death was meant to release us.  It is good to know that Christ is faithful to us (“if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13), that He taught that faith can be as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20) and that “a smouldering wick He will not put out.” (Matthew 12:20)

How does the habit of confession help in this and why is it necessary?

Confession is a practice or habit through which we can consciously receive God’s forgiveness.  It involves repenting and placing our faith in the faithfulness of Jesus.

 

As we have seen, we do not have to earn God’s forgiveness, and once we have put our trust in the cross as the way into our covenant relationship with God we can approach Him with confidence.  Nevertheless, we remain people in process of becoming more like Him, still capable of sinful ways which have consequences.  This is why Jesus taught the disciples who were in relationship with Him to regularly pray, “Forgive us our sins”.  This is why John wrote to disciples, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

 

There is a symbolic way we can see this in the Bible.  During the Last Supper when Simon Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet Christ replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean…” (John 13: 8-10)  The preacher Charles Spurgeon linked this to confession when he said, “We have been cleansed once for all, but our feet still need to be washed from the defilement of our daily walk as children of God.”   Confession is a practice for those who are fundamentally “already clean”.

How do I confess?

In terms of the attitude we bring to confession, the word used in the Bible means ‘to say the same thing’.  In other words, to agree with God about our sins – not to cover up. As we have seen, God wants an honest relationship with us.

 

A helpful insight from Spurgeon is that we come as children to God in confession: “There is a wide distinction between confessing sin as a culprit and confessing sin as a child. The Father’s bosom is the place for penitent confessions.”

 

Bernard of Clairvaux offers this counsel in terms of feelings of sorrow: “Sorrow for sin is necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God.”   Similarly, Julian of Norwich writes, “Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair even if they fall frequently and grievously. Our falling does not stop his loving us.”

 

Practically speaking, there is no specific rule about how often confession is good, but it is always wise to keep short accounts with God and to give time to think through the things we need or want to confess.

 

We are, first and foremost, confessing to God alone: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity…” (Psalm 32:5)  However, the Bible also offers the possibility of confessing before other people, whether this is through using particular forms of words when we gather, or with a specific person.  “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

 

Some Christians – Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglicans – do this through the sacrament of confession (also called the sacrament of penance or the sacrament of reconciliation), as they confess their sins to a priest.  Others find they can confess to trusted Christian friends.

 

Martin Luther said that this “secret confession” to another was not required by Scripture but can be “useful and even necessary.”  Sometimes it is hard for us to be truly set free from guilt or shame and God gives us one another to make His presence and forgiveness real to us.

How do I listen well to someone's confession?

Richard Foster says that if we want to confess before someone else we should look for, “spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humour.”

 

He writes that if we want to listen to someone’s confession these things are helpful:

 

When someone is opening their griefs to you, discipline yourself to be quiet. Do not try to relieve the tension by making an offhanded comment, as it’s distracting and even destructive to the sacredness of the moment.

 

Do not try to pry out more details than necessary. If you feel they are holding something back due to fear or embarrassment, it is best to wait silently and prayerfully.

 

Pray for them inwardly and imperceptibly, send prayers of love and forgiveness toward them. Pray that they will share the ‘key’ that will reveal any area needing the healing touch of Christ.

 

Once they have confessed, pray for them out loud, and in the prayer, state that the forgiveness that is in Jesus is now real and effective for them. You can say this in a tone of genuine authority because “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” (John 20:23)

 

Ask God to heal their heart and mind from any wounds the sin has caused.

What good does confession do?

The purpose of the practice of confession is greater closeness to God, opening us up to God working in our lives as we are “entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.” (Pope John Paul II)

 

It deals with pride and brings psychological wholeness… “it breaks the build up of shame within which happens when we hoard our mistakes and keep them to ourselves. The fear of rejection gets shattered when we sit in front of someone and get to hear the sweet words, ‘You are forgiven’.” (KXC website)

 

It rebels against individualism by opening us up to one another and creating community.  It helps us acknowledge that our behaviours have consequences while healing the “loneliness of sin”.  “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid sin poisons the whole being of a person… In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and closed isolation of the heart. Sin must be brought into the light. What is unspoken is said openly and confessed. All that is secret and hidden comes to light.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Letting Christ be Lord in my priorities

How much does Christ deserve to be at the centre of my life and why?

One way of thinking about why we might want to ‘become like Christ’ is to ask: how much of my allegiance does Jesus really deserve?

 

As well as loving and receiving Jesus as “Saviour” – the one reconciles us to God by who taking our sins upon Himself – Christians have predominantly recognised and obeyed Him as “Lord” – the one who has broken the powers of evil and death through His life, crucifixion and resurrection.  In fact, seeing Jesus as ‘victorious’ in this way (known as “Christus Victor”) can justifiably be said to be the main way Christians have understood God’s atonement on the cross.

 

Lord is the name with which the early disciples responded to Christ and it is why we ask people at baptism, “Do you submit to Christ as Lord?”

 

As we seek to become like Christ, Jesus being both Saviour and Lord shapes our priorities in life, affects the way we relate to other people, and frames the way we face life’s difficulties, including our own mortality.

What is wrong with the world?

The cross covers over the debt (atones) for the fact that human beings are affected by sin – whether that is through falling short of what it means to be made in God’s image, through broken trust, or through being ‘bent out of shape’.  God in Christ wonderfully absorbs our sin so that we can be restored and can approach a loving and holy God with confidence.

 

But the Bible teaches how God wants to do much more than rescue individual people.  There is a bigger task to be done.  We have seen how in the Old Testament priests would sprinkle blood over the “land” to symbolise how God needed to cleanse the world from the polluting effects of people’s sin.  There is no doubt that the origin of much of the pain caused in the world stems from the decisions of human beings, and the harm we do to ourselves, one another and the planet.

 

God wants to deal with evil and oppression.  People in the (perhaps more comfortable) West are used to understanding the cross through the lens of our individual atonement – being set free from guilt or shame.  But as we examine how on the cross Jesus defeats evil and oppressive powers we will be connecting with an understanding which offers liberation to those who suffer under the weight of evil in the world.  Not surprisingly, this perspective (including an awareness of supernatural powers) is often more emphasised by global majority Christians in countries where the realities of political oppression, poverty and spiritual conflict are more obvious.

 

Just as we need to be realistic about ourselves, so we need to be realistic about the impact we have.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that we can only be healed through this kind of honesty: ““This is what healing demands. Behaviour that is hurtful, shameful, abusive, or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth, and truth can be brutal.” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World).

 

He is realistic about the “random suffering and chaos that can mark human life” and says, “we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end.”  But that, “Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos…because God loves us.”  (Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time)

 

Is there an explanation for evil in the Bible?

The famous American psychotherapist M. Scott Peck was for many years an agnostic believing there was no such thing as evil. But as he came to Christian faith, he began to believe that sometimes people were not simply ill or confused or poorly educated.

 

In his book ‘People of the Lie he argued that there is such a thing as a force or forces of evil which can appear to take over humans as individuals or, occasionally, complete societies.

 

Importantly the Bible consistently describes how there is also a polluting reality to evil which is bigger than, and has a wider impact than, the actions of human beings.  Whether we are thinking of the 188 million people killed by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or the 10 million children in slavery in our era, or the simple ways that lies we believe about ourselves and each other can shape us, the existence of evil far outruns what just referring to human decisions is capable of explaining.

 

The Bible describes the reality we live in as being an overlap of “spiritual” and “material” realms – what we know as “heaven and earth”.   This might sound obvious but thinking about “spiritual” realities in a world where what we can see, feel, and hear is seen as the only truth (a materialist view of the world) can feel strange.  So, it is important to know that right from the beginning to the end of the Bible that the battle between good and evil exists not only in human beings, but also between spiritual forces.  These are described in various ways, but, like a mosaic, build up a consistent picture of evil which results in sin, brokenness, suffering and death.  There is in Scripture simply more to reality than can be described in materialistic terms.

 

Within the first three chapters of the Bible we see God making the earth and humans, but we are also introduced to a world in which there are other spiritual beings apart from God.  For example, God speaks to other divine powers: “Let us make humans in our own image” (Genesis 1:26) and says that “the human has now become like us, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:22).  A serpent (Genesis 3:1) representing evil, seeks to influence humans with a lie (Genesis 3:1) and a cherubim (angel) is placed in the garden. (Genesis 3:24) to guard it.

 

From the beginning we see that, just as humans turn from God and choose their own path, some spiritual beings have rebelled in the same way and seek destruction.  For example, throughout the Bible there are spiritual forces that God struggles with (often described as God’s battling with hostile waters and vicious sea monsters).  These forces seek to influence individuals but can also shape whole societies.

 

Whenever the people of Israel fought a battle on earth they would understand it as also taking place among the gods – they could not win unless God went ahead of them.   Isaiah talks about the Babylonian people as being a human and spiritual enemy, who has “been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!  You said in your heart, ‘…I will raise my throne above the stars of God…’” (Isaiah 14:12-13).

 

Evil has a bigger source and impact than human beings.  Yet crucially, the first hint we get in the Bible that a ‘Messiah’ would come to defeat it is right back at the beginning of the story.  God promises the ‘snake’ that a human being would come who will “crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. (Genesis 3:15) This is the first promise of the way in which God will deal with spiritual forces of evil decisively.

Did Jesus claim to be defeating evil?

Jesus and His followers saw His mission as being the one who would finally crush evil in this way.  The final defeat of evil was at the centre of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

 

Jesus and New Testament writers continue with the Bible’s story of the cosmic battle between good and evil.  Jesus names satan the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) a term which meant ‘the highest official in a city or a region in the Greco-Roman world’. While God was the ultimate Lord satan has functional power.

 

Luke portrays satan as possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” believing he can give authority to rule these kingdoms to anyone he pleases, even to Jesus (Luke 4:5-6).  In later letters John says that the entire world is “under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and Paul names him as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4)

 

So crucially, when Jesus the “Messiah” announces that God’s kingdom has come, that He is putting the world right, and heals sick people and drives out spirits, He does it by driving out satan’s influence and power as God’s kingdom advances.  Every one of Jesus’ healings and deliverances were diminishing satan’s hold on the world and bringing freedom.   Jesus tells the Pharisees, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  (Matthew 12:28).

 

Everything Jesus was about was taking hold of the world which satan had grabbed and restoring people to their original calling and identity.   He has come to expel the “thief” who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)

 

In Luke 4 Jesus begins His ministry by saying that He is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s promise that, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me…to set the oppressed free.”  Straight after this announcement, he encounters “a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’”  (Luke 4: 18-19; 33-34)

 

When his disciples were later reflecting on Him, Peter summarised Jesus’ ministry to Cornelius when he said that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil…”  (Acts 10:38)  John is even clearer: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8)

How does this help us understand what the atonement means?

We have seen that the meaning of the cross is like a diamond which can be seen in many ways.  With the background perspective of the cosmic conflict throughout the Bible and in Jesus’ ministry, we can see the cross not just as the way God reconciles humanity to Himself, but as a cosmic victory through which God finally defeats His enemies.  This is known as “Christus Victor” – the victorious Messiah.

 

By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus was enthroned as the King who freed the whole universe from its slavery to an evil ruler and the power of death.  In this victory is included the salvation of people – He is Saviour and Lord.

 

We can trace this throughout the gospels in the lead up to His crucifixion.  In Matthew as soon as Jesus is born, we see evidence of gathering darkness as Herod orders all baby boys under the age of two to be killed (Matthew 1: 16-18)  As one writer puts it, “if there are demonic forces, it stands to reason that true goodness and godliness would actually attract and stir up those powers to attack.”  In John as Jesus speaks of His coming death He says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

 

In Luke, as the end draws near “Satan entered Judas” to prompt him to betray Jesus. (Luke 22:3)  At His arrest Jesus tells the soldiers, “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.”  (Luke 22: 53)  It is as if all evil is being lured to the cross.

 

Yet the accounts of Jesus’ death make it quite clear that his execution is in fact the beginning of His being lifted up to become the divine king. He is given a robe, a crown, and a sceptre as soldiers bow down to him.  A sign is placed on His cross naming Him as a King in different languages.  While the earthly and spiritual powers believe they are mocking and defeating Jesus, in reality they are seeing the fulness of God’s victory.

 

Jesus is being lifted up as the cosmic king of the world on a wooden throne, making a ‘royal announcement’ that God’s purpose is to rescue his world by dying for it, allowing sin, evil and death to overwhelm Him.  No one can fully describe exactly how this victory is achieved, but the evidence for it arrives three days later.  The only way anyone can rise from the dead is if evil and death have been dealt with.

 

Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that death, sin and evil are overcome and that Jesus is Lord: “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 55-56)

 

How can apparent defeat lead to victory?  A more modern analogy may help.  On April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis Tennessee. King was one of the key leaders of the American civil rights movement and was working tirelessly to bring about racial equality in America.  But while this was a tragic moment in American history some historians have noted that rather than silencing Martin Luther King his murder had the opposite effect.

 

The very week he was shot the American Government was debating the Civil Rights Act.  The waves of protests that swept the country immediately after King’s assassination forced lawmakers finally to act.

 

Politicians knew that they had to act to address injustices in American life to fulfill the dream that King had so eloquently preached. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on April 11th, exactly one week after King’s death. (Taken from “Three Minute Theology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5VUp5AJje4)

What does Jesus’ victory mean for us as disciples?

As the early Christians experienced the risen Jesus and reflected on His victory, they were able to grasp some life-changing realities:

 

The power of death is broken.

 

The full meaning of the ransom (‘price of release’) paid on the cross was that in Christ God had paid to rescue His creation (including human beings) from slavery to the powers.  By becoming one of us, living in defiance of evil, driving out sickness and evil, and ultimately by dying sacrificially and rising victoriously, God has overcome.

 

As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2: 14-15).

 

As Eastern Orthodox Christians (who emphasise Christus Victor) say repeatedly every Easter midnight service, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has given life.”

 

Evil can no longer have the final word, and we can be who God calls us to be. 

 

Being saved is more than individual forgiveness – it is about being “set free from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and liberated from a time when “we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.”  Through Jesus, “you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4: 3-7)  We are “enabled …to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” by being “rescued…from the power of darkness and transferred…into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  (Colossians 1: 12-13)

 

This affects all of creation.

 

The suffering of the whole of creation, which is itself somehow in “slavery” due to this cosmic battle (the letter to the Romans says the “whole creation is groaning” in its “bondage to decay”), is dealt with through cross and resurrection.  The writer James Kallas puts it like this, “…. since the cosmos itself is in bondage, depressed under evil forces, the essential content of the word “salvation” is that the world itself will be rescued, or renewed, or set free. Salvation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation…Salvation is not simply the overcoming of my rebellion and the forgiveness of my guilt, but salvation is the liberation of the whole world process of which I am only a small part.”

How does this make Jesus Lord?

Our first discipleship question was: why should Christ be at the centre of my life and how much of my allegiance does He deserve?  Through the victory of cross and resurrection, the first Christians recognised that Jesus is Lord.  Thomas’ response to seeing the risen Christ was to fall down and say, “My Lord and my God.”

 

Sherry Weddell writes that knowing about the “life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…leads a person to be able to say Jesus is Lord. Pope John Paul 2 described it as the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus.”

 

The very first sermon Peter preached celebrated how complete Christ’s victory and Lordship is: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses….(He is) therefore exalted at the right hand of God.”  Peter then quotes from Psalm 110, saying that Jesus had fulfilled its promise:  “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  (Acts 2: 32-36)

 

The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter, was to be raised to a position of divine power over his defeated and humiliated enemies (who are now his ‘footstool’). Jesus is Lord in bringing the kingdom of God by defeating the kingdom of satan.

 

Psalm 110 is the most frequently quoted verse in the New Testament to explain what Jesus did and to emphasise repeatedly that He is the one who has defeated God’s enemies.  The writer Oscar Cullman says that, “Nothing shows more clearly how the concept of the present Lordship of Christ and also of his consequent victory over the angel powers stands at the very centre of early Christian thought than the frequent citation of Psalm 110 not only in isolated books, but in the entire New Testament.”

 

A strong image Paul uses demonstrates the completeness of Jesus’ victory.  He describes Jesus as a conquering ruler, bringing His defeated enemies in a humiliating procession behind Him:  “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”  (Colossians 2:15)

What does this mean for my life and priorities?

The most common statement early Christians made to describe discipleship was that “Jesus is Lord”.  Today these three words are the motto for the World Council of Churches.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed by the Nazis for resisting Hitler said that to celebrate Jesus as “personal Saviour” but not as Lord is “Christless Christianity”.

 

When we are baptised we are asked, “Do you submit to Christ as Lord?”  For early Christians to call Jesus Lord was to acknowledge both that He is God, and that, having overcome the powers, He has “all authority in heaven and on earth”.  (Matthew 28: 18)  Paul writes that one day every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:11)

 

To declare someone is Lord is to say they have power and authority over your life.  Yet to say they are Lord without doing what they say is a self-contradiction.  This is why Jesus asked, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things that I say?” (Luke 6:46)

 

As we have said, we do not earn our salvation by what we do.  But the logic of being a disciple who is becoming like Christ is that we demonstrate He is Lord through our willing discipleship and obedience.  As Bonhoeffer put it, “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

 

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr makes this even more clear:  “The Word of God is telling us very clearly that if you do not do it, you, in fact, do not believe it and have not heard or understood it…We do not think ourselves into a new way of living as much as we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

 

For many Christians today, and for early Christians under Roman rule, to say “Jesus is Lord” a pledge of allegiance which puts their lives on the line.  Roman citizens had to say, “Caesar is Lord”.  Lots of Christians lost their lives because they refused to do so – after the resurrection there was only one Lord they could submit to.

 

(Fascinatingly, Rome had a tradition that whomever an eagle settled on would be the emperor- so when early Christians read about a dove descending on Jesus at His baptism one thing they would have realised is that this was God’s choice to be king – though with a dove-like power totally the opposite of the emperor’s.)

 

In this context Christians saw their baptism as an oath (the original meaning of sacrament) to serve the Lord and forsake all other false rulers.  (A Roman soldier would pledge a sacramentum to serve Caesar).  Rather than serving the empire’s kingdom, they were serving God’s.  To be baptised and say Jesus is Lord was a complete change of priorities.

 

If Jesus is our Saviour we seek to become like Him because He is the one “who loved me and gave himself for me”.  If He is Lord we place Him at the centre of our priorities because He deserves nothing less.

What does God desire for those who call Christ Lord?

Jesus’ death and resurrection defeats the powers and rescues those in slavery.  But He does so to bring about what God had wanted for a humanity all along – a covenant relationship with Him in which we are restored to bring about His purposes in the world (Module 4: Knowing the Story will explore this in greater detail).  An early saint, Irenaeus, described this in amazing terms:  “Jesus became what we are so that we could become what He is”.

 

He is not claiming that we can be ‘gods’.  But he is saying that through His life, death and resurrection Jesus has made it possible for us to be covenant-partners with God, putting Him at the centre, sharing in His work in the world, and being loved in the same love that Christ shares with the Father and Spirit.

 

It also means that we can take on the character of Jesus.  As we have seen, Paul longed for us to be “mature in Christ” and that “Christ would be formed in us”.

Does this mean disciples are made perfect by Jesus’ victory, or can expect to be able to achieve perfection? 

Jesus’ death and resurrection deal with the barrier of sin – reconciling us to covenant relationship with God as His children.  His victory over the powers of evil and death is decisive.

 

Yet is clear that we live in a time when, while the power of evil (or the “sting of death”) has been defeated, the effects of it remain – throughout the world, and in our own lives.  We await the day when God’s plan will be completed.  (We look at this more in future sessions.)  And we await the day when we will be fully like Christ.

 

For Paul, writing to early Christians, the expectation is not perfection, but that, as disciples, they will be in a process of becoming more Christlike – embracing for themselves the new self God offers.  Because He is love, God does not force obedience on anyone, even when we submit to Him – we still have the ability to choose.

 

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”  (Ephesians 4: 22-24)

 

This amazing view of human potential reflects three senses of what it means to be made whole (or saved).  The nineteenth century scholar, Bishop Westcott was once asked, “Are you saved?”  The Bishop replied, “Do you mean that I have been saved, or I am being saved, or that I will be saved?”

 

The biblical picture is that through the cross we have been saved from the result of sin.

As we grow as disciples, submitting to God’s work in us, we can be set free from the power of sin.

But we are still waiting for the time when the world, and everyone in it, will be set free from the presence of sin.

 

The ‘powers’ have been defeated, but not yet destroyed.  They still have influence through the power of lies.  Peter acknowledges the struggle continues saying, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5: 8-9)

 

Paul counsels disciples that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Yet they need to “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (Ephesians 6: 12-16)  (In session 5 of this module we look at how we deal with testing in our own lives, and in Module 3: Joining in with the Spirit we look at how we resist evil and brokenness in the wider world.)

 

As we grow in becoming like Christ, our expectation is that while we cannot be perfect while sin remains present in the world, we will be being transformed into His image.  As John Newton put it, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

 

Every Lent, Christians are encouraged to intensify the practices which lead us to “grow in holiness”, yet the purpose of the season is to shape our whole lives.  It is a time when we remember that obedience to Christ as Lord is not so much about our external behaviours, but about our willingness to live in ways that draw us into relationship with God.  As we do so, we allow the grace of God to change our inner selves to become like Christ – shaping our thoughts, feelings and choices. We change not only because we have the right information or inspiration, but because we are in right relationship.

 

Practices grow our relationship – enabling us to experience a change in our minds so that we see the world as God sees it, and a change in our hearts as we allow God’s Spirit to change us from the inside out.

 

We have looked at Christ through the different lenses of being Messiah/Lord – the one who fulfils God’s purposes, Emmanuel/God the Son – Jesus as the one who is “God with us”.  Son of Man – Jesus as the one who reveals who we can be. Jesus – meaning ‘God saves’.

 

As we look at Him our minds can be renewed to see the world and ourselves in the light of Christ.  As we continue the module we will begin to look at the practices and choices that enable us to become more like Him in our priorities – specifically in three areas in which every human being needs freedom:

 

Being free from the distorted desires of materialism/other gods through becoming like Christ in generosity and simplicity.

Being free from the hopelessness of ‘worldly’ power through becoming like Christ in self-giving love.  (Session 4)

Being free from the despair of suffering, temptation and spiritual conflict through becoming like Christ in eternal hope.  (Session 5)

Why does Jesus challenge people so much about money and material goods?

Discipleship is essentially about what is at the centre of our lives – for Christians the reason we want to be with God, become like Christ and join in with Him is because He is Lord.  Whatever or whoever we submit to is our lord.

 

Every human being is ‘religious’ in the sense that we are all ‘meaning-hungry’ creatures who will always place something at the centre of our lives, and worship it.  God always knows that His love, shown in Jesus Christ, is the only place in which our foundational need for worth and security can be found.

 

But we can only be truly free to submit to Jesus as Lord if other things which claim our attention are not.  Healthy discipleship is both placing Christ at the centre and resisting the pull of ‘imitation-gods’ which the Bible calls idols.

 

The story of the Bible shows how if God is not at the centre, human beings will quickly turn to other things to fill what only God can fill.  This is the meaning of idolatry.  It is when human beings try to establish our foundational security on our own.

 

The commandment on which everything else in life rests is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5)

 

God is not forbidding idols for His benefit, but for His covenant people’s.  He is the one who has brought them out of slavery – He does not want them enslaved again.

 

One of our deepest reasons for turning something into an idol is the urge to get control of life. But ironically by giving ourselves over to something that is less than God, we turn away from what can truly give us life, becoming less than we are made to be. In these circumstances the idol usually ends up controlling us.  Indeed, idols can be one of the spiritual powers which Jesus came to defeat through His life, death and resurrection.

 

Our common idols such as money, power, reputation, ambition (or even religious ritual or status) will always fail because they cannot fill that “eternal hunger”.   They leave us disappointed or worse, and our response to that lack of fulfilment can lead to behaviours in which we try and numb painful emotions by trying to find our identity through distraction (overwork, too much TV, obsessive political power) or even addiction (alcohol, drugs, pornography).   We end up far from home.

 

This is why the biggest challenge to discipleship, according to Jesus, was the idolatry of making money a “lord”.  Christ says it explicitly: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”  (Matthew 6:24)

 

He taught, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He told a story of a man who was a fool because his money had made him blind to the reality of life – saving as if this is the only life that counts.  (Luke 12) For these reasons “…it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 19:24)

 

In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money.  The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.

 

Paul writing to Timothy describes where the idolatry of money can lead: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  (1 Timothy 6: 9-10)

 

The issue is not having money – we are physical beings who express ourselves through physical things – Paul does not command people to give all their money away.  The issue is placing our hope in it.

 

Rejecting money as a god and putting it in the right place can help bring freedom, contentment, and give an eternal perspective to our lives.

 

Freedom.  The writer of ‘Fight Club’ describes how consumerism, built on advertising which always makes us want more, has led to a ‘depressed’ society: “You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need. We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”

 

The alternative, as described by Mark Powley in ‘Consumer Detox’ is to find freedom.

“Freedom isn’t when our possessions mean nothing to us.…But the way we use our possessions can become something different:

Less about finding an identity and more about expressing an identity we’ve been given.

Less about excluding others and more about welcoming them.

Less about outdoing others and more about empowering them.

Less about having and more about being free to give away.

Now that is an identity. That’s what I want.”

 

Contentment.  “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”  (1 Timothy 6: 7-8)  Consumerism is an issue that cannot be solved through human means alone – it is a religious question because it is all about the meaning and purpose that makes us happy.  Contentment comes when we are free from chasing ‘gods’ that cannot fulfil us.   Instead we are living with God as Lord at the centre of our lives – the only one who can truly satisfy us for ever.

 

The real measure of our wealth is how much we would be worth if we lost all our money.

 

Eternal perspective.  Rather than focussing on material wealth in this life which does not last, Jesus advised His disciples to “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven”. (Matthew 6:20)  Paul explains, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6: 17-19)

 

“The only thing that counts at the end of life is what we can take with us at the moment of death, which is I myself as I was in the ultimate depths of my own heart – a heart that was either full of love, or full of spite and hidden selfishness.” (Karl Rahner)

How do I have a heart like Christ’s towards money?

How can we not let money have the power of a ‘god’ in our lives and instead let Christ be Lord?  As we have seen, change only happens as we are able to turn away from things (repentance) – and so the first step is always becoming aware of something we need to resist.

 

But genuine change occurs as we step into a different way of living – showing what we trust in through the choices we make.  We have seen that in the practices we adopt we can grow into being with God.  But practices also over time shape who we are, so that we become the people God is calling us to be.

 

As we seek to let Jesus be Lord and turn away from placing our hope in money, we finish this session by looking at two transformative practices which not only give Him the place He deserves in our lives, but over time can change us to become the kind of people who live in freedom and contentment.

 

These two practices are generosity in giving and simple living.  They are the key to being freed from any ‘idolatrous powers’ and putting Christ at the centre.

 

Desmond Tutu says a generous heart is the way to life: “The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.”  Generosity is the way to break the hold of money in our lives.  John Wesley said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”

 

In an atmosphere of generosity it is easier to sense God’s presence.  Jennie Appleby describes a community where, although people had little, “Life amongst this new community was transformative and there was never a dull moment. Frequent sights of furniture being moved between houses (usually on foot), early morning police raids and unconventional offers of cheap electrical items were everyday occurrences….I discovered a sense of the tangible presence of God.

 

“I could imagine Jesus himself walking the streets with me and I experienced signs of God’s kingdom: people sharing their lives and possessions together – not out of a sense of Christian love or duty but because they had so little themselves. I had never witnessed people sharing on this level before – they were teaching me lessons about how to live the Christian life.”  (community.sharetheguide.org/views/joiningthe-marginalised)

 

Generosity can be expressed in many ways – through the giving of time, friendship, hospitality or service.  But, as the area of our lives most likely to be like a ‘god’, the Bible has some clear teachings on how we approach giving financially to those in need.

 

Financial giving is a response to God’s love, and not a rule to obey.  Paul writes to the early Christians who were collecting for those in the church who were in need, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

 

Financial giving comes freely, cheerfully (the Greek word is more like hilariously – in other words shockingly extravagant!) and from the heart.

 

The question is not, “What is the minimum I can get away with?” but, “How much can I show love for God in my extravagance?”

 

Financial giving which breaks the power of money will always be sacrificial in this way.  When we can give at cost to ourselves, we are placing our trust in God’s wealth and provision, rather than our own.   The story of the widow’s mite demonstrates how Jesus saw generosity not in what people gave, but in the amount they had left over.

 

“As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’”  (Luke 21:1-4)

 

In financial giving a tenth of income (tithe) is a useful principle.  The first biblical story about tithing comes from 4600 years ago Abram gave a tenth of his goods to the priest in thanks for God’s protection in a battle.  (Genesis 14:20)  Moses then gave the people a law of God telling them to bring all their tithes to the priests. “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting.”  (Numbers 18:21)  Through the prophet Malachi God accused the people of robbing Him.  “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’  ‘In tithes and offerings.’” (Malachi 3:8)

 

In Proverbs we read how the tithe was a way the Israelites offered the first and best parts of their harvest to God.  “Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Proverbs 3: 9-10)

 

Yet the tithe was never intended to be a rule, but a springboard for generosity.  It is a useful guide – for some it may be an aim, for others a minimum.    The Israelites’ tithes often amounted to 23% of their income – when temple, widows and orphans, and thanksgiving tithes were factored in.

 

Jesus came to “fulfil the Law” – including tithing, (Matthew 5:17) yet He was much more concerned that people pursue “justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”  (Matthew 23:23)  For Jesus, the tithe was a useful principle, given originally to people who lived by laws.  But if disciples, for whom financial giving comes from the heart, rightly understand that all they have is God’s, then God could easily ask them to give more than ten percent.

 

Financial giving expresses love.  In a very practical way, the early church showed their love for other parts of the church through taking an offering.  Similarly, today the only people who should financially support the work of the church are disciples.  For this reason, the Church of England offers an aim of 5% of income as a realistic amount for giving financially to the church community.

 

The story of Zacchaeus shows how the practice of generous, consistent and sometimes spontaneous financial giving sets us free, changing us into people who are increasingly able to make Christ Lord.

 

The story of Sheelah Ryan, a lottery winner, who won $55 million in 1988 (see handout) demonstrates that freedom.  Just before she died she said:  “I thank God every day that I have the ability to help others, not that I won.”  Someone said, “We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”

 

A content and generous heart, able to place Christ at the centre, is worth more than any bank account contains.  “A certain woman had a vivid dream. In it she saw a man with untidy long hair and bare feet sitting on a bench outside the post office. A voice said to her that if she were to ask this man, he would give her something which would make her rich forever. She woke and shrugged the dream off.

 

But the next day while walking through town, she saw the man from her dream sitting on the bench outside the post office. Feeling somewhat foolish, she approached the man and explained her dream. He listened, and then reached into his rucksack. He produced an enormous gold nugget, saying, ‘I found this beside the road. Here, it’s yours if you want it.’ She looked longingly at the nugget. It was huge, sufficient to make her wealthy. That night she could not sleep, tossing and turning in her bed. At dawn she set off to find the tramp, who was sleeping under a tree in the park. She woke him and said, ‘Give me that wealth that makes it possible for you to give this treasure away.'”

What lifestyle will help me become more Christlike in a materialistic world?

A further practice which can shape us in turning away from the ‘gods’ which cannot satisfy is to develop simple living.  This is sometimes called the discipline of simplicity.  Like generosity, simplicity gives birth to contentment because it helps us be free of false gods, while making room for the only God who can fulfil us.

 

It is deliberately choosing not to need, get or buy “more” to be happy – to organise our lives around what is enough, rather than what our society, or our greed, tells us we want.  We will consume only what we need.

 

It is not about having ‘no possessions’ or turning our back on things.  (This is called asceticism and some disciples have chosen to practise this).  It is about setting things in their proper perspective so that we can enjoy owning possessions without them ‘owning’ us.

 

Jesus’ most famous statement which reflects this is “Seek the kingdom of God first, and all these things shall be added to you.”  (Matthew 6:33)

 

Because of strength of the pull in our society to live as consumers, this practice requires real intention, and challenges many of the ways of thinking we can find it so easy to fall into.  Richard Foster says living simply occurs through our ways of thinking and our outward behaviours.

 

Ways of thinking:

Everything we have is a gift from God, and not ours.

It is God’s business, not ours, to care for what we have.

All that we have can be available to others.

 

Things we can do:

Foster suggests ten (see handout), but these three are a good place to start:

Buy things for their usefulness, rather than their status.

Learn to enjoy things without owning them.

Develop a deep appreciation for God’s creation.

 

Becoming like Christ in my character and self-giving love

What is Christian character?

Every book of the New Testament carries the same message, calling Christians to live a distinctive way of life based on the character of Christ, to become ‘mature in Christ’.  For Christians, we have seen that being an apprentice of Christ means that you increasingly live your life as Christ would live your life if He were you!

 

But becoming like Christ is not just what we choose to do, but who we are.  Whether we are Christian disciples or not, we are all becoming someone, and our characters are being shaped in some way by those who influence us.

 

We are learners who are not simply gathering information but becoming like the teacher – spiritual formation is increasingly growing into the character traits of Jesus.  This is the goal.  And the fruit of it will be renewed and transformed relationships.

 

But what is Christ’s character?  What should we be growing into becoming? In the gospels Jesus is gentle: “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14) and compassionate to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:4), but He is also sometimes angry and challenging – passionately opposed to injustice:  “You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:7) and unafraid turn over tables in the temple.  (John 2:15)   He combines love and justice.

 

There are various lists of character qualities in the New Testament.  The “fruit of the Spirit” is the clearest summary of Jesus’ character.  He is a person of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23) In Colossians Paul gives another description:  “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…forgive one another….” (Colossians 3: 12-13)

 

How can we helpfully summarise all these Christlike qualities?  The New Testament says they all spring from one source: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  (Colossians 2: 14).

 

The command to love God and your neighbour is the greatest command, encompassing all others (Luke 10:27) “…whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) It is the “royal law.” (James 2:8)  “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:40)

 

Nothing, even things which seem good, has value apart from love: “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians. 13:3) “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

 

But this begs the question…

What is love?

The Bible says, “This is how we know what love is…”  While there are things about God that we rightly cannot understand, the covenant love that God is, and which He wants us to be shaped by, has been fully revealed.

 

There are different ways to understand love, and so its power can be misunderstood, but the Bible offers four words (in the New Testament Greek) which we can compare to help us fully understand the nature of God’s love.  The writer C.S. Lewis explored these in a book entitled ‘The Four Loves’.

 

There is the kind of love that looks AT someone or something and finds them attractive in some way.  (I love your hair/your car/your smile.)  The Greek word for this is storge.

 

There is the kind of love that looks at life WITH someone, sharing friendship, a sense of purpose and values.  (I love your opinions/outlook/the way you see life.)  The Greek word for this is philia.

 

There is the kind of love that looks INTO someone – the love of intimacy, soul touching soul.  The Greek word for this is eros.

 

While all these things are good gifts, when the Bible defines the love of Christlike character it uses a different word.   And it does not give us an abstract definition of this kind of love, but says, “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.”  (1 John 3:16)

 

The Greek word for love here is agape – and we see it demonstrated in Jesus dying for us  It is the kind of love that bears the cost of emptying itself on behalf of others.

 

Agape is blind:  Unlike storge (looking at) philia (looking with) or eros (looking into) it is blind because it has nothing to do with ‘looking’ for qualities in other people. The first three can come and go depending on the relationship – you can fall in or out of storge, philia or eros.

 

But it was while “we were still sinners” that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) – His agape gave at cost to itself without looking at the merits, or otherwise, of the other He was dying for.

 

Agape sees:  Ultimately, agape is a choice at the centre of who we are to see other people as those who were worth Christ dying for.   In terms of loving people, it is blind to their qualities but sees beyond those to view them through the lens of how God sees them.  To do this is how the Bible defines love.

How is the cross the greatest revelation of God’s character and love?

While everything Jesus did and said revealed the character of God, His self-sacrificial agape nature is most fully revealed by His suffering and death on the cross.  By being tortured, humiliated and killed, Jesus reveals how God is willing to go to the furthest extreme possible – to become the opposite of who He should be – to set us free.

 

Jesus set aside his divine rights and “made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-9)  A holy God becomes sin and a curse for us.  The source of life dies.  The unified, loving God is abandoned.  A radiant, beautiful God becomes ugly and disgraced.

 

The depth of love one has for a beloved can be measured by the sacrifice the lover is willing to make for the beloved.  This is the fullest picture we have of the nature of God’s character and love which overflows to us.

 

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it like this:

 

“When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”

 

To become like Christ is to grow in this self-sacrificial agape, being willing to go as far in love towards others as He does.  Paul says, “Be imitators of God. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…”  (Ephesians 5:1-2)

What does this show about the main way God works in the world?

We have seen how through the cross Jesus achieved victory over the powers of evil which ruin our lives and our world.

 

We have also seen that the cross is the fullest way in which who God is, and the way God loves is revealed – it is the greatest example of love human beings have been given.

 

And so we can see how the decisive battle over evil was won through the power of self-sacrificial love.  God won by letting go of His (rightful) power over others so that He could express the power of His love towards others.

 

While Jesus’ death was the fullest expression of this kind of power, everything He did led up to it and was part of it.  In every aspect of His life brought in God’s kingdom and pushed against the way evil had warped the world with precisely the same kind of agape He demonstrated on the cross.

 

He pushed back against the powers of religious legalism and tradition by lovingly and radically welcoming prostitutes and sinners, and healing on the Sabbath.

 

He resisted the powers of racism and the way people are marginalised by speaking well of outsiders like Samaritans and compassionately touching lepers.

 

He overcame the sexism of the patriarchy of His time by treating women with dignity and respect.

 

Everything in His life was a beautiful anticipation of the cross, defying evil with love while taking no earthly power for Himself – having nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20), refusing to be protected with violence or heavenly protection and letting Himself be crucified:

 

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”  (Matthew 26: 52-54)

 

Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection unite to reveal that the way God works in the world – God overcomes evil with good.  The kingdom of God conquers the power of evil only by self-sacrificial love.

How should this make Christian love distinctive?

Cross-shaped agape for people means that what often makes Christian love distinctive is choosing to act for the good for others whether they can repay you or not, whether you storge, philia or eros them or not, or whether they love you back or not.  In a story about putting on a wedding feast Jesus encourages us “…do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 14: 12-14)

 

Even further than that, the true hallmark of becoming like Christ is in our capacity to love our enemies – giving worth to them not because of what they do, but because of their true value as those Christ was willing to die for.  Our enemies are not only those who do not love us, but even those who actively oppose us.

 

As Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.

 

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

 

Being able to love even our enemies is the jewel of what it means to become like Jesus Christ in our character.

 

When we experience antagonism, we immediately receive an increase in adrenaline in our bodies – causing a ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  Our natural first response to being attacked in some way is to fight back or run away.  But agape goes beyond that reaction.

 

In both the passages where Jesus talks about loving enemies, He emphasises not just stopping ourselves from being aggressive, but positively blessing those who oppose us.  Just as He reached out and gave His life for those who were still His enemies.  While storge, philia and eros are linked to how we feel, agape is not.  It is a choice at the centre of who we are to see others as God sees them, even if it costs.  So it is not just an inner attitude, but is always expressed in how we act.

 

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them…do not resist an evil person…pray for those who persecute you…” (Luke 6:27-28; Matthew 5 39 and 44)

 

It is important to know that Jesus is not telling us to be passive in the face of evil.  Rather, He is showing us the most powerful way that evil can be truly resisted.

 

Self-sacrificial agape is a ‘weapon’ because it stops us from becoming similarly evil and instead overcomes evil with good.  It shows evil up for what it is, breaks the cycle of people hurting one another, and is the only way of creating the opportunity for genuine change.

 

This is why, writing to Christians who were suffering under a very oppressive dictatorship and in fear of their lives Paul told them:  “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 17: 20-21)

 

When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King put it like this, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

 

To summarise, Christian character is most demonstrated when we can choose to love others, at cost to ourselves, whether they love, ignore or hate us, because we see them as God sees them –  as those who were worth Christ dying for.

Doesn’t this make God look weak?

The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would defeat God’s enemies by driving them out of the land.  In their thinking God’s power was in His ability to get people to do what He wanted.  For this reason, many could not understand or accept that an all-powerful God could stoop to become human, serve in humility, refuse to fight, and ultimately be defaced and disgraced on a cross.  Jesus’ claim was that in Him the very essence of God was revealed.  But to many Jews such a God looked foolish and weak – the very opposite of who He should be.

 

From the beginning, Paul recognised that “…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”  A stumbling block because it is offensive to believe that a holy, powerful God could take on sinful flesh, let alone be crucified.  Foolishness because in a world where power is so often about the ability to force your will on others, Jesus did precisely the opposite.

 

Many people in the world today continue to find the idea of a human and crucified God offensive, or even foolish for the same kind of reasons.  But Paul goes on to write that “…to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1: 24-25)

 

Christians believe that God is ultimately all loving and powerful, and able to work His will for the world.  However, by becoming a crucified human being, God’s love and power are not compromised, but fully revealed.

 

God does not reveal His loving essence by imposing His will on people – any ‘god’ can do that.  God reveals the glory of His love by being willing to stoop to the furthest extreme of weakness possible.

 

And God’s power is not restricted by being crucified, but rather He overcomes evil in the only way truly possible – through self-sacrificial love.

 

God’s power is made “perfect in weakness”.  The crucified God is more powerful and loving than any god who could impose its will on others could ever be.

 

The mysterious beauty of this kind of “power in weakness” is also revealed in the risks God is willing to take with His people.

 

It is demonstrated in the way that God continues to allow human beings to have genuinely free choices, so that we can choose to obey Him or not.

 

Yet His supreme wisdom is revealed in the way that through the endless possibility of human actions God is still able to work His will.  (We will explore this more when we look at “Joining in with the Spirit” – module 3.)

How do I become like Christ in my relationships?

Including and welcoming. 

 

At the beginning of the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists those who are blessed in God’s kingdom (the Beatitudes).  Many people of the day would have expected Him to uphold the teaching that God’s kingdom was for people who were Jewish, male, physically whole and healthy, religiously law-abiding and prosperous (poverty was a judgment from God).

 

But Jesus’ list is the opposite.  Those who are truly welcomed and included in God’s kingdom, the truly “well off”, are the people who feel on the edge spiritually, those who feel wretched, or who can’t stand up for themselves, or who are starving for things to be put right, or who long to do right, or who don’t fight back, or who are ostracised.

 

This was an upside-down order of things.  But as we grow in Christ’s agape love, like Him we will become the kind of people who notice and invite those who are at the bottom of the world’s pile.  The monk Thomas Merton said a key to this is loving a person in such a way that we are “able to see things as he sees them, love what he loves, experience the deeper realities of his own life as if they were our own.”  The more we can do this, the more we will love someone “for what he is in himself, and not for what he is to us.  We have to love him for his own good, not for the good we get out of him.”

 

Practically this might be expressed the more we can reach out to those who cannot repay us.

 

Not judging. 

 

While we can sometimes assess people in a helpful way (for example in a job interview), judging people is about making a negative assessment of them without acting in love towards them.  In many ways the opposite of loving people is not hating them but thinking we can judge them.  This is because in making a judgement on others we are imitating the first way humans disobeyed God.

 

Rather than letting God be the judge of what is good and what is bad, the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” paints a picture of human beings who want to be those who can judge for themselves.  Rather than looking at life, and others, as God does, we take on that “godlike” role for ourselves.

 

But the more God becomes king in our lives, the more we will let go of the right to judge others. Jesus is clear: “Do not judge…”  (Matthew 7:1)  Yet we live at a time when, as well as our own internal habits of assessing others for their opinions, looks, tastes, the polarised external chatter in which people judge one another is constantly in front of us.

 

The agape love of Christ on the cross gives us the most powerful way to stop judging others.  It first reminds us to see ourselves as those who have been forgiven and accepted by God.  Being realistic about ourselves is the first step away from a judgemental character.  “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:4-5)

 

As we have seen, agape helps also helps us to be ‘blind’ to others’ qualities, and instead to see them as God sees them – as someone whose worth is found in Christ’s death.  Historically, while Christians have sometimes been perceived as those who look down on others, the more we see ourselves and others as God sees us the more we become the least judgemental people of all.

 

Practically this might mean first of all noticing when we are being judgemental of others, remembering God’s grace to us, and choosing to see them as God sees them.

 

Honouring.

 

To honour someone means to show them what they are ultimately worth. Paul writes to the Romans. “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour.”  (Romans 9:10)  It is nothing to do with what they deserve, how high or low-ranking they are, or how much they thank us.

 

It is affirming their God-given worth in such a way that we help draw out the goodness in them, to deliberately treat them as Christ.

 

Agape love and honour are the foundations for the most intimate relationships of all.  For example, in the Bible the context for the beautiful gift of sex is portrayed as being for the sealing of a covenant relationship in which two people self-sacrificially honour each other completely, becoming “one flesh”.

 

A sexual relationship centred on agape and honour makes sex into something in which two people put the other first.   They honour one another by expressing in the most vulnerable way possible the complete God-given worth of the other person.  Sex without honour and agape loses the purpose for which it was made when God said, “It is very good”.

 

Practically this will mean that we love people in a Christlike way the more our first priority is to honour them by showing them what they are worth to God.

 

Forgiving.

 

Someone said that the parts of the Bible we find most difficult are not the parts that are hard to understand but the parts that are as clear as day. At the centre of the Lord’s prayer is the sentence, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  There is an acknowledgement here that we will always need to forgive others in some way.  Indeed, one of Jesus’ last acts was to forgive the people who had put Him to death: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:24)  Without forgiveness lasting community is impossible.

 

As hard as forgiving people can be (and it is often a journey we need to help each other with) Jesus said that there should be no limit on how much we forgive others.  Peter suggests forgiving people up to seven times (thinking he is being generous).  But Jesus’ replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:21-22)  In other words, always.

 

There are many perspectives the Bible offers which can help us forgive, not least knowing that God always overcomes evil with good. Being able to forgive is also about our own freedom.  When leaving prison, Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”  And the holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom puts it like this: “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred.”

 

But Jesus and Paul always link our ability to forgive others with knowing how much we have been forgiven.  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  (Ephesians 4: 32)   For disciples, the only motive and strength there could possibly be for offering this kind of forgiving agape to those who have hurt us is because we see how much God has forgiven us, and because we begin to see even our enemies as God sees them.

 

Practically this will always mean when we are seeking to forgive others that we always start by looking at ourselves first.

 

Coming against things in the opposite spirit.

 

In some forms of martial art, the way you defeat your enemy is not by responding with greater aggression, but acting in such a way (for example stepping aside at the right moment) that your opponent is brought down by the force of their own attack.

 

In many ways this is a good picture of how agape love overcomes evil.  By replying to an insult, not with another insult, but with silence, or even with blessing, the insult is robbed of its power.

 

Time and again, we see this in the way Jesus demonstrated love.  He refused to answer back, He said that if someone slaps you on one cheek offer them the other.  He allowed evil to run its course on the cross, but ultimately triumphed.  As we have seen, this was not a surrender to evil, but the way of truly defeating it.  Again, as Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

 

Christlike love comes against things in the opposite spirit.

 

Practically if we are in a difficult relationship this will mean checking our first ‘fight or flight’ reaction, and asking, “What is the opposite reaction to what I am experiencing?”  In this way we will be becoming more like Christ.

How does this shape the church community?

To be a church is to be filled with the same kind of agape for one another that God has shown to us:  “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  (1 John 4: 10-12)

 

More than anything else, Jesus said people would come to see us as disciples when they see the love that we have for each other.  He gave His final command to them at the Last Supper:   “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

 

Juan Carlos Ortiz was the pastor of a church in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  One Sunday he had prepared a sermon on ‘loving one another’. He had spent hours on this sermon and prayed over it.   But as he got up from his chair to preach, he sensed God saying to him:  “How many sermons have you preached on this theme of loving one another?”  “I don’t know Lord, maybe a dozen or more.”  “And how many times have you exhorted the congregation in other sermons to love one another?”  “I don’t know Lord, maybe a dozen or more also.” “Have they done any good?”

 

He thought to himself, “I have preached dozens of sermons on love. What good have they done? This congregation barely know one another. They are not friends with each other. They barely talk to one another after the church service.”

 

The congregation waited for him to preach. Pastor Ortiz began his sermon,

 

“Love one another.”  He then went and sat down. People looked at each other thinking that they had missed something. They were used to hearing a sermon of nearly an hour, not 3 seconds. They did not know what to do. After what seemed like an age, Juan Carlos walked back to the pulpit. He said, “Love one another,” and then he sat down.

 

Some began to murmur. No one knew what to do. Pastor Ortiz again walked to the pulpit. For the third time he said, “Love one another”. Then he returned to his chair behind the pulpit.

 

By now there was a restlessness stirring. What did he mean? Finally, an elder stood up and spoke. He said, “I think that I understand what Pastor Ortiz means. He wants me to love you.” (Pointing to someone in the pew behind him) “But how can I love you, when I do not know you.” With that, he introduced himself and began to meet the people behind him.

 

Others got up from their pews and introduced themselves to people they had seen, but not met. Phone numbers were exchanged.  Dinner invitations extended. Arrangements were made for financial assistance. Before the service ended, someone raised enough money for bus tickets so a family could return to their village. Another man arranged employment for a man out of work and someone offered an apartment to a homeless family.  The most powerful and most remembered sermon Juan Carlos Ortiz ever preached was just three words.

 

Above everything else, it is the love that disciples have for each other that reveals the love of God in the world and attracts others to the love of God.  Practically speaking, growing in agape love will be expressed in at least two important ways:

 

No hierarchy or division. 

 

It is true that some roles in the church are more public than others.  But in a community of agape love, no one will be more important than anyone else.  In contrast to the values around us in which “….rulers …lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”  Jesus says the greatness is only in service: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…” (Matthew 20:25-26)

 

Just as Jesus’ greatness was in emptying Himself and becoming a “slave” (Philippians 2), so rather than pursuing significance in front of others, disciples will be downwardly mobile: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all”.  (Mark 9:35)

 

In fact, agape love which honours others will lead to those seen as least significant in human terms being given special attention.  Using the picture of the church as a body, Paul writes, “…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.”  (1 Corinthians 12:22-23)

 

Whereas outside the church community people might be divided up by being in this tribe, or in this social grouping, or in that gender, these have no longer have relevance in a family in which the main thing about its members are that they are “in Christ”. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28).  Thomas Merton said, “I must learn that my fellow human being, just as they are, whether my friend or my enemy…is Christ.”

 

So Paul writes that because “God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”

 

With this in mind, the essential qualification for those who want to lead is a desire to be downwardly mobile.  Telling a story about a wedding feast in which people often want the seat of honour, Jesus counselled us not to look for the highest place.  Instead “….when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 10-11)

 

The more our deepest security is in the agape love God has for us, the easier this will come to us.  We will know that, as the Puritans said, we can “Live for an audience of One.”  We will be able to do things for others in secret without looking for a reward.  And we will not need to “claim anything as coming from us (because we will know that) our competence is from God.”  (2 Corinthians 3:5)

 

Offering my gifts.

 

If there is a perceived division in the church between those at the front who are leading and the rest of the community, it can feel hard to build the equal family which Paul writes about in which each part of the body can share gifts.

 

Yet it is clear that every disciple is given gifts to share.  “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  (1 Corinthians 12:27) “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  (Ephesians 4:16)  It is impossible for the church to flourish properly if only some parts are working.  But there can be at least two reasons why this some don’t use their gifts.

 

We may not be aware of what the gifts God has given us or lack confidence. 

 

We can encourage each other by recognising and naming the gifts we see in each other.  There are many resources which help us see what our strengths are.  In ‘The Way of Servant-Leadership’ two of the sessions are focussed on helping people discover and use their gifts.  In the extended materials for this session there is a three-session resource from Bristol helping people discover their particular gifts, based on the gifts outlined in the Bible.

 

We might misunderstand humility.

 

In a prophecy about the Messiah, Isaiah writes, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  (Isaiah 53:2) Christ was the most humble person who ever lived.  Yet He used every gift God had given Him to the full for God’s kingdom.

 

People who are becoming like Christ will be humble, but with that they will also have a healthy ambition and desire to build each other up by sharing their gifts.

 

There can be a false humility (or even an upside-down pride: “I don’t want to look stupid or fail”) about not being able to offer my gifts.  But true humility is not thinking of yourself too little, or too much.  It is the freedom that comes from not having to think about ourselves at all.  The freedom to offer what we have without worrying what others will think.   As we become like Christ, agape love will free us so that we can “… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds” knowing that above all this will “glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Can I really become the kind of Christlike person who can love others - including enemies and forgiving those who hurt me?

Just as it is impossible for human beings to change significantly by willpower alone (how many people give up on diets?), so it is hard for us to become like Christ just because we decide to.  Discipleship is not just about becoming people who can behave in the right way, but people who are being transformed to become the kind of people who love like Christ loves.

 

Genuine change happens from the inside out.  While human beings “look at the outside, God looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)  In the Sermon on the Mount it is not the actions we do that matter to God, but the inner attitudes we have. Jesus taught that it is the inner person that generates our outward responses and actions.  “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”  (Luke 6: 45)

 

This is why Paul said that the “…life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is why he prayed for disciples that Christ would be “formed in you”.

 

Paul could only love as Christ loves as he depended on the faithfulness of Christ in the deepest part of himself and became inwardly the person that Christ has made him to be.

 

Over time he did the things Christ does because they became things he wanted to do.  The natural choices he made were to do what Christ would do if He were in Paul’s situation, in the strength that He gives.  Paul’s habitual thoughts, feelings and actions became more like Christ’s.

 

We have already looked in module 1 at how it is through the habits we live by that we are transformed in two areas:  Our minds are renewed so we see the world and people more and more as God sees them.  Our innermost selves (hearts) are changed by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out.

 

For most people the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we have never been apprenticed in a way of changing that is reliable.

 

As we have looked at the picture of Christian character in more detail, we end this session by reinforcing our understanding of the way in which every human being can be truly transformed.

How is my mind renewed?

Whatever we focus our minds on, and the ideas we have about God, ourselves and others, is the gateway to changing.  What we think about shapes us.  In many ways we live at the mercy of our ideas.  We become what we believe.

 

The first step to change is always the renewal of our minds – seeing things as much as we can as God sees them.  When Jesus called people to turn back to God the first step was to “repent” – literally to change their way of thinking.

 

Paul encourages us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 2:5)  To be replacing what might be negative or destructive ways of thinking with the images and visions that soaked Jesus’ mind – to be thinking God’s thoughts after Him. To be people who “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  (Colossians 3:2)

 

The focus of Jesus’ teaching was to help people see the world as God sees it.  Whether through the upside-down statements of the Beatitudes, or the parables about God’s kingdom.  They were calling people to reimagine their lives with God at the centre.  His teaching (and all helpful Christian teaching) always helps people to be given a vision of the goodness of life God’s way.

 

The more we think about something, the more it becomes a natural part of the way we understand reality.  Our thought patterns are like the development of a footpath in a field.  When people first start walking through an overgrown field it is hard work, and the path is barely visible.  But over time, the more we walk that way, the easier and more visible the path becomes.

 

The stories we pay attention to shape us deeply.  Just as the more we listen to negative ‘voices’, the harder it will be to love ourselves, the more our minds are focussed on God’s words, the more likely we are to experience ourselves as He sees us.

How do I grow in wanting what God wants?

Having our minds and imaginations renewed is the first step but not the last.  We cannot think our way to becoming like Christ.  Our challenge is not often that we lack knowledge.  Knowing something isn’t the same as acting on it.  And acting on something isn’t the same as wanting it.

 

Genuine change occurs as we grow into wanting what God wants.  In the Bible, the word used to describe where the deepest desires that shape us come from is the heart.  Another word we could use is the “will”.  The part of us that wills things.  Our will is what controls us.

 

There is an ‘automatic’ and immediate aspect of our will, driven by appetites.  It’s the part of us, for example, which sees someone’s shiny new car and reacts by wanting it. (The New Testament calls this the “flesh”).

 

But our “heart” is the deeper “reflective” will, from which the true, long-term choices, longings and visions for our life come – the place where we sometimes “want to want” things. It’s where we want to do the right thing.  While our “flesh” might want to eat that éclair, our deeper will wants to diet to be healthy. It’s where our character is born.

 

The writer James Smith puts it like this: “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”  To be a disciple is to let the character of Jesus’ will become our will.

 

Mark Greene tells this story: “Louise worked for an absolute ogre. She was PA to probably the most unreasonable boss in Buckinghamshire. He was bad-tempered, he was changeable, he was indifferent to other people. And she worked for him for three years. She prayed for strength, she prayed that he would change but he didn’t, and she often felt like a failure. In the end, she just couldn’t take it any longer and she left – feeling like she’d let God down.

 

“Three weeks later the woman who replaced called her up and said, ‘He is impossible, I’ve been here three weeks and I’m already thinking about leaving. How did you do it? I talked to other people and they said you were fantastic, you were patient, you were gracious, you were always upbeat despite his impossible ways. How did you do it?’

 

“How did she do it?  Well, of course the first thing is that Louise didn’t really think she’d done anything at all. Often we don’t think we’ve done anything, but then someone tells us you were so patient, you were so calm, you were so thoughtful, when everybody around you was completely losing the plot.  The truth is that when we became Christians, God changed us.… Paul says: ‘Therefore if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone behold the new has come.’”

 

Thankfully, becoming like Christ in our will and character is much less about what we do, and much more about what God does in us.  In fact, becoming like Christ always takes more than our own will power.  Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

 

Paul writes that “…we all… are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

 

Our wills and character can only become more Christlike as allow God to work in us and give Him the space to do this.

 

The ‘Keeper of the Spring’ story (see handout) shows us how by doing small and simple things like picking up leaves that allowed a spring to continue to flow, an old man helped it flourish and stay alive.  In the same way, the deepest desires we have can become more like what God wants by allowing Him to flow in our hearts.

How do I give God the space to change me?

Module 1 introduced the idea that it is through the habits and practices we live by that we create an environment in our lives in which the Spirit of God can create character change.  We give space for God to work.

 

In the verse we just read Paul writes that it is as “we all…with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory…” that we experience the Spirit changing us into God’s image.  In other, the more we arrange our lives so that we can see God’s glory, the more we are changed.

 

Just as long before a footballer takes a World Cup penalty, it is the hours and hours of repetitive practice that have made her into the kind of person who can naturally aim well, so it is the everyday habits which open us up to God over a long period which make us into people who naturally want what God wants.

 

It is our habits which shape our desires and which make us want the things we know in our minds are true and good.

 

For example, the habit of shopping shapes us.  Most people know that the more we get the more you want.  But whenever we buy something, we think that will satisfy us.  Yet the habit of shopping ends up making us want more.  The more we shop, or the more we eat…the more we want.  It is things we do which set the direction of what we love.

 

If someone is addicted to pornography and is tempted to watch it at night, simple will power won’t be enough.

 

What will count is whether, long before the moment of temptation, they have been shaped by in their mind and heart by habits through which they are allowing God to change them into someone who wants to turn away from it.  Only then will they have the ‘soul reflex’ to be able to say no to what they want in the moment, and yes to what they really want in their heart.

 

One picture from the Pacific islands puts it this way. A man keeps two dogs in a cave. These two dogs are in continual conflict with one another and are compared to the Holy Spirit living in us, in conflict with our self. The man has a choice about which dog he feeds. The dog that is fed and nourished will grow stronger and will gain the upper hand over the animal that is starved.

 

It is through habits that engage our mind and heart with God that we access the power of God’s Spirit, enabling Him to deal with the parts of us that need to change.

 

While it is possible for God to change our character in ‘Damascus’ moments, most of us only grow in becoming Christlike over time through the process of day-to-day life.  God works through the everyday, as we make space for Him.

 

Frances de Sales has some useful advice with this in mind: “One form of gentleness we should practise is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves because of our imperfections. It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults, but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves.”

 

In essence, lasting character grows indirectly.  Habits or practices are things we do regularly by effort in order to be able to do something by no effort.  We are training, not trying.  (See the value of habits handout from the book ‘Holy Habits’)

 

By “waxing on and off” the Karate Kid can perform fantastic karate moves when needed.  By reading the Scriptures over time we might more easily see our difficult neighbour as God sees them.  By worshipping regularly with others our openness to God’s presence may grow.

How much is God’s work, and how much is mine?

Our relationship with God is a partnership in which God never forces His will on us.  Because He is agape love, God always invites us to be in covenant with Him.

 

This means that He will only change us to the extent that we are willing to allow Him.  In any kind of relationship, both parties have a part to play.

 

By adopting the practices of Christ, we are playing our part – creating the conditions for God’s Spirit to change us.

 

We must do something, but we rely on God to provide what is needed to change us. Sleep is an example of the combination of our habit and God’s work in us. We cannot make ourselves fall asleep. Sleep is an act of surrender. We can only create the conditions for sleep.

 

We have very little power in ourselves to transform into being those who love like Christ.  Only God can do the real work.  Yet as one writer put it, “Without Him we can’t, but without us He won’t.”  God’s cooperation with us is another example of His self-giving love.

 

Richard Foster describes this as ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ “It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.”

Can this happen on my own?

The character of Christ grows in us as the beliefs in our minds are renewed and the desires of our hearts are shaped by God working in us.  The ‘method’ of this is simply by giving God room as we centre our lives around the life-giving practices of Jesus.  But there is one more essential way in which we can open ourselves up to God’s work in us, and that is through relationship with other disciples, in which we are intentional about growing together.

 

Community with others will change us if relationships are genuine and close enough to reveal the parts of us which need to change, but which we might be unconscious of when we are on our own.  Particularly in the Christian community, where we do not choose our brothers and sisters, we can come face to face with the ways in which we need to be shaped by agape love.

 

But community also helps us grow and mature in Christ by being a place of encouragement and love.   It is only through relationship that the wounds we have received from others can be healed.  In the day-by-day journey of becoming like Christ, we can cheer each other on and celebrate where He is at work.  Those who stay in community, grow in character.

 

To summarise, the ‘Way of Discipleship’ modules aim for this environment in which God can change us.  We have our minds renewed by understanding key beliefs.   We are encouraged to step into practices through which God we can be with God and He can shape our hearts (We have looked at prayer, meditation, worship, celebration, hearing God in the Bible, study, meditation, Holy Communion, sabbath, stillness, solitude, generosity, simple living, confession.  In future sessions we cover prayer for others, fasting, sharing faith.)

 

And we do so in relationship with one another where we aim to grow in helping one another be maturing in Christ.  The success of this resource will be in how much this enables us to be on a lifelong journey of being with God, in which we are becoming like Christ.

Death, resurrection, living in hope

Should life be easy for a disciple who is becoming like Christ?

As we have seen, to be a disciple of Christ is to live in a covenant relationship with God, who is love.  Unlike the false idols that surround us, God offers us forgiveness, grace, a sense of identity and purpose, and wants to restore us to be fully human.

 

But becoming a disciple will not necessarily make life easier.  As one writer puts it, “…the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert.” (David Runcorn)

 

There are at least four good reasons why in some ways the fact that ‘life is difficult’ can intensify in the adventure of being a disciple.

 

You are now a ‘new creation’ – open to God changing you from the inside out.  God’s desire is to make our characters holy – set apart to become more like Him.  Through the forgiveness of the cross we have been made “perfect forever” as a once for all act.  (Hebrews 10:14)

 

But the same verse from Hebrews also says that throughout our lives we are “being made holy” as who we are becomes more and more like Christ.  This is a process which involves increasingly being able to allow God to be in control.

 

You are now seeking what He wants in the world above everything else – which can put you in conflict with your own instinctive desires (what the Bible calls the “flesh”) – and with the some of the values which surround you (what the Bible calls “the world”).

 

You are now engaged in the spiritual battle between good and evil.  Ultimately the presence of sin in the world, and in each of us, will be totally removed when Jesus finally makes “His enemies His footstool”.  But while we long for that to be complete as disciples we join with God’s kingdom in confronting evil.  As Jesus warned, for some throughout history (and many in the world today) that will include experiencing persecution.

 

Two Iranian Christians, Maryam and Marziyeh, were arrested in 2009 for their faith.  They were blindfolded, interrogated and taken to court. The lawyer asked whether they regretted becoming Christians, to which they replied, ‘We have no regrets.’ The lawyer stated, ‘You should renounce your faith verbally and in written form.’ After a period in prison to think about their options, returning when they were ready to comply, they responded, ‘We have already done our thinking.’

 

And you are not immune to the common sufferings of being human, as we wait for the completion of God’s victory.

 

In this session we explore how discipleship means becoming like Christ through difficulties, not despite them.

 

An American woman called Nancy is crippled and confined to a wheelchair, yet she has embraced a stunning vocation. Nancy runs adverts in the personal section of her local newspaper that read: “If you are lonely or have a problem, call me. I am in a wheelchair and seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. Just call. I’d love to talk.”  The results have been amazing.  Each week at least thirty people contact Nancy and she spends her days counselling and comforting people.

 

When asked how she became crippled she replied that she had tried to commit suicide!  She went on to explain, “I was living alone. I had no friends. I hated my job, and I was constantly depressed. I decided to jump from the window of my apartment, but instead of being killed I ended up in the hospital paralysed from my waist down.

 

“The second night I was there Jesus appeared to me and told me that I’d had a healthy body and a crippled soul but from then on I would have a crippled body and a healthy soul. I gave my life to Christ right there and then. When I got out of the hospital I tried to think of how a woman like me in a wheelchair could do some good, and I came up with the idea of putting the ad in the newspaper. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

 

As we grow as disciples we can also grow in knowing how to react when times are difficult, in our understanding of suffering and death, and in our response to God.  We can increasingly grow in responding to difficulties as Jesus did.  He was a “man of sorrows” and “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), but He was also the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”  (Hebrews 12:2) – the greatest example of how to respond to suffering.  Like Nancy, we can become those whom God is able to use and transform in the midst of difficulty.

 

We will see how to become like Christ in suffering by looking through two lenses:

 

As we finish this module, we will be formed as people who live in hope of resurrection.  It was through hope, because of the “joy set before Him” that Christ was able to “endure the cross”.   It is as we grasp the beauty of God’s ultimate destiny for us, and all creation, that we can truly start to live as disciples in the here and now.

 

By “fixing our eyes on Jesus”, specifically looking at how Jesus, and early Christians, met suffering, evil and death, we can be shaped as people who “will not grow weary and lose heart”.

What does God say will ultimately happen to His whole creation?

Any journey you go on is shaped by the destination.  As we navigate the joys and challenges of life as disciples, having a vision of life after death, the meaning of resurrection, the defeat of evil and suffering, and God’s ultimate purpose is essential in helping us to live in the present – particularly in difficult times.

 

While there are many aspects of God’s future that are naturally beyond our understanding and imagination, there are clear directions God has revealed to us that we can hope in.  He wants us, as His covenant-partners and children, to have a “hope which doesn’t disappoint us.”  (Romans 5:5)  Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)  In some senses Christian hope is a mystery, but it is not a guess.

 

Before we look at the individual hope we have beyond death, seeing the big picture of God’s plan will help us understand how our ultimate destiny is found within the future hope for everything God has made and wants to restore.

 

The first wonderful and important truth about ultimate hope is that it must make sense of the whole story of Bible.

 

For example, however we understand Jesus’ rising from the dead, or our own experience of life after death, the more it completes the direction the whole story of the Bible and the mission of Jesus has been moving in, the more we can have confidence in it.  (We look in more detail at this big picture story in module 4.)

 

In brief, the whole story of the Bible can be seen as God’s plan to reunite God’s space (heaven) with human beings’ space (earth).  The crucial thing is that ‘heaven’ in the Bible is not so much an other-worldly place we go to when we die, but a way of saying ‘wherever God is fully present’.  It also points to an unseen spiritual landscape which is full of all kinds of angelic creatures.

 

From the beginning the picture we are given is that God wanted to be dwelling with human beings completely – for heaven and earth to be one.  These two dimensions overlapping in the same space in a life-giving, harmonious relationship.

 

Yet, as we have seen, the choice of human beings to decide that they have the “knowledge of good and evil”, replacing God, has led to the chaos and dysfunction of sin we can see throughout history, and in our own hearts.

 

Crucially it seems that some of the spiritual beings belonging to this unseen heavenly kingdom also made the same choice – choosing to turn from God in rebellion.  This is why Jesus’ victory over the powers on the cross was so necessary.

 

So this fall results in brokenness at all levels – spiritual, human, and even in creation.  Heaven and earth were violently separated.

 

The story of the world, and in the Scriptures, is that God is working to bring heaven and earth together.  To reverse the effects of the fall, defeat evil, and restore human beings to their original purpose – to work alongside Him in His creation.  Throughout the Bible God longs for the day when, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

 

The Old Testament is the story of God seeking to bring heaven back to earth through a covenant people, who meet Him in the Temple – the one place in which heaven and earth can touch.  This is why the Temple was decorated like a restored Garden of Eden.

 

But it is through Jesus, who united God and humanity in Himself again, that God began to reunite heaven and earth.  This is why when Jesus arrived John proclaimed, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”  This is why John wrote that Jesus was like a moveable temple (tabernacle), living among us.

 

Wherever Jesus went, he brought the kingdom of heaven to earth, restoring what was broken, and through the cross became the ultimate temple sacrifice which broke down the barrier between God’s space and us (this was why the curtain in the centre of the Jerusalem temple which was meant to separate us from God’s presence was ripped in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51)).

 

We are still waiting for this reunion between heaven and earth to be complete.  This is the Christian hope.  At the end of the Bible, the poetic images in the book of Revelation point us towards this, painting strong images of the defeat of evil, and ultimately promising a renewed creation.  The age of sin and death is over, and God’s space and humanity’s space completely overlap once again.

 

There will come a ‘Day of the Lord’ when the Saviour we eagerly await from heaven (Philippians 3:20) will return to free the world from corruption, completely defeating evil by judging with justice, and restoring us.  The rivers will clap their hands and the mountains will sing for joy that their liberator has finally come. (Psalm 98:8; Romans 8:21-22)  He will not be ‘out for blood’ but will judge evil through the power of His own shed blood – the power of self-sacrificial love.

 

God always planned that in Jesus He would not “condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) He will make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – new in the sense of not being a completely different thing, but a restored and renewed version of something that already exists.

What does this hope mean for our present world?

Because the destination always shapes the journey, there are some important aspects to the picture of ultimate destiny that matter now and can sometimes be misunderstood.

 

It shows that our ultimate end is not to ‘go to heaven when we die’ or that we will not be taken off the earth to go to ‘heaven’.

 

If God makes a covenant with His people and creation, and sent Jesus to bring heaven to earth, the idea that ultimately He wants us to be with Him in a purely spiritual heavenly existence, removed from the earth, would be a departure from the story, not the completion of it.  God would be untrue to Himself – breaking His promises and reversing the mission of Christ.

 

The language and ideas of being removed from anything earthly to be in heaven has found its way into Christians’ imagination from early Greek philosophers.  They believed that human beings could only be truly free by existing in an entirely spiritual realm.

 

An image Paul uses in one of His letters has encouraged some Christians reinforce this by understanding God’s plan as to snatch us away from the earth to be with Him.  (This has been popular since the 1830s when it gained prominence.)  Paul writes how when Christ returns “… we who are still alive and are left will be caught up … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”  (1 Thessalonians 4:17)

 

Interpreting this as a ‘Great Escape’ is a problem for two reasons.  Firstly, as we have seen, it makes no sense of the big picture story of heaven and earth being reunited.  But secondly, the image Paul is using is comparing Jesus’ return to that of a Roman conqueror, returning victoriously to his home.  When this happened, people would welcome him back by going outside the city and lining the streets to applaud him on his way in.  In the same way Paul is saying we will be so eager to receive Jesus as He restores the earth, that we shall go out to greet Him and welcome His return.

 

It shows that ultimately God does not want to bring about the “end of the world”.

 

Linked to the idea that we ‘go to heaven when we die’ is the vision that God will ultimately destroy the earth.  Again, while this makes no sense of the biblical story, a passage in one of Peter’s letters about the day of the Lord needs looking at: “…the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire…The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare….Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?”  (2 Peter 3: 6-7; 10-12)

 

Here, Peter is not talking about complete destruction, but the hope that God’s return will completely purify His world – laying bare all the injustice, pain, sin, evil and brokenness – and dealing with it once and for all.  This is why he compares God’s ultimate judgement with the flood at the time of Noah, when God did not totally destroy His creation, but dealt with its corruption – following which He made a covenant never to ‘destroy’ it again.

 

This is also why immediately after this Peter writes, “But in keeping with his (God’s) promise we are looking forward to a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, where righteousness dwells.”  (2 Peter 3: 13).  As Christians we look forward to “the life of the world to come.”

 

This matters because the picture we have of God’s ultimate future completely shapes our discipleship today. 

 

If we believe that the world will be destroyed and that our final aim is to escape to heaven this has potentially disastrous results.

 

We might stop caring for the earth because we believe it has no long-term future anyway.

We might think God is only interested in the “spiritual” parts of our lives – because these are the only things that ultimately matter – rather than the everyday work we do.

We might not experience God when we are not engaged in “spiritual” pursuits.

We might think that church callings matter to God more than other callings because they are more “spiritual”.

We might not value the fact that we are physical creatures with the gift of bodies, which God rejoices in, because we think that one day we will just be some kind of “spirits”.

 

Instead, the Christian hope for a reunited heaven and earth opens up a vision of life in which everything we do now matters.

 

God will take everything we do in line with His kingdom into the future.  Tom Wright puts it, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—will last into God’s future.

 

“These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”  Or as another writer says, “…the noble products of human ingenuity…will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made.”  (Miroslav Volf)

 

We will explore the day to day implications for living out our discipleship in the world God wants to restore in module 3.

What happens after to me death?

There are many things we can only dream of when thinking about life after death.  One of the best pictures the Bible gives to describe it is as a banquet, and Paul writes,  “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him.”  (1 Corinthians 2:9)

 

Yet even while he is saying that there are many questions we can only speculate about, in the same letter Paul offers clear pointers to the kind of existence God invites us into, (he does not want us to be uninformed) and the reasons we can hope in it.

 

As we have seen, our understanding of life after death must make sense of the whole story of the Bible.  But the clearest lens we can look through is Jesus’ own resurrection.  Because He is the one who has first broken the power of death, He is the pattern, the “’firstfruits’ of those who have fallen asleep.”

 

Paul promises that “in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 20-23)  What happens to Christ, then happens to everyone.

 

In other words, looking at the whole Bible story, and the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is the best way of understanding what happens to us after we die.  The promise is that after death human beings (and all creation) will be given a new existence in which we will be “raised imperishable; (we can’t die again)…in glory…in power…raised a spiritual body.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 42-44)

 

We are promised that we will see God “as He is” (1John 3:2), with our covenant-relationship finally restored: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  (Revelation 21:3)

 

All evil, death and sin will have been completely dealt with “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4) because Jesus will have finally “destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 24,27)

 

As a result, God will be “all in all”.  (1 Corinthians 15:28)  God’s presence will fill once again fill a renewed heaven and earth: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light…”  (Revelation 21: 22-24)

 

In other words, this is the completion of God’s desire throughout the whole Bible to bring together His space and ours – to reconcile all things to Himself again. (Colossians 1:20)  As the famous hymn puts it,

 

“But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,  And myriad, myriad human voices sing,  And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer:  At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is King.”

 

With the end of evil, just as there will no longer be any barrier between God and people, so too the removal of sin means that any division between human beings caused by war, tribe, racism, conflict or suspicion will be completely removed.  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  (Revelation 7:9)  The wounds of history are healed and human divisions gone.

 

While in a general sense there is the promise that resurrected people will see and know each other – completely – family reunification is not the main focus. (This has been a popular version of life after death, particularly since Victorian times.)  Rather, in the joy of complete unity with and under God, everyone who lives in that light is part of a glorious, eternal family, holding out tremendous promise for those for whom their earthly families have been a source of grief or pain.

 

Resurrection promise is a restoration of original relationship, but also of our original calling.  The Bible begins with God seeking covenant-partners who will work with Him to look after and develop His creation.  Logically, it ends with human beings recovering the dignity of this image of God in us, being able, once again, to take part in ruling over God’s renewed creation.

 

There are several pointers to this.  In a parable, Jesus describes how the work that we do in this life can lead to God entrusting us with work in the life to come:  “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”  (Matthew 25:23).   Peter writes that we will receive the authority of those who rule: “…when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”  (1 Peter 5:4)

 

Jesus promises His disciples:  “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones…”  (Matthew 19:28)  In many ways, our work now is merely preparation for the eternal restoration of the task God made us for.

How might I personally experience life after death?

When we look more specifically at what Jesus’ resurrection reveals about the kind of existence each of us might experience, it is not surprising that it is consistent with this vision of hope.

 

It is clear that the risen Jesus was not just walking around in His human body brought to life again.  While it was recognisably Him, it was what Paul calls a ‘resurrection body’ – an existence in which His physical humanity and heavenly existence were now both fully brought together.  A body in which death and sickness no longer could exist because the sting of death has been removed.

 

This is why His resurrection existence is the “firstfruits” – what happened to Him, is the prototype of heaven and earth being reunited completely.  It is also the only place we can look to begin to see what our post-death existence will be.  As Paul says, “…so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…we will all be changed…For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 49-53)

 

This is a physical and heavenly existence in a body suited to be with God, and partner with Him, in a renewed heaven and earth.  We will be similar, but also changed.

 

For example, we can see that Jesus was still recognisable – the disciples knew who He was – but as both earthly and heavenly He was significantly different – people didn’t always recognise Him straight away.

 

We can see that His wounds were still visible, but rather than being signs of pain and shame, they were evidence of His glory.  This points to a resurrection existence in which who we are becoming in our lives now will be relevant in the future, and also, more wonderfully how in resurrection God may change some our deepest hurts into parts of us that bring Him glory.

 

We can see that He has physical qualities (He could eat fish!) but also heavenly ones – He could appear in a locked room.

 

This kind of heavenly/earthly resurrection existence is exactly what we would expect as an outcome which completes the whole story of the Bible, and the life, death and victory of Christ.

 

The full joy and beauty of it is hard to visualise, so a handout includes two fictionalised visions of this resurrection existence, which are faithful to the evidence we have to inspire our imaginations!

What happens if I die before the final resurrection?

An important clue to know about life after death is that the Bible talks about an experience of  two stages.  Whereas the resurrection is described as God’s ultimate plan, to be completed when all things are fulfilled, those who have already died are said to have “fallen asleep in Christ”.

 

This is a temporary state until the end – as Paul says, “…we will not all sleep (in other words, for ever), but we will all be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:51).  So there are two stages – this is why we talk about ‘Resting in Peace’ and ‘Rising in Glory’.  We could describe the resurrection as ‘life after life after death’.

 

The experience of ‘sleep’ can of course be one in which you have no idea how long it has gone on.  Perhaps the Bible is just giving us an assurance that on the other side of death, before resurrection, is rest.  In his first letter, Paul even promises that those who have fallen asleep will be raised first: “…we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…. and the dead in Christ will rise first.”  (1 Thessalonians 4: 14-16)

Why can I be confident in the resurrection?

There are things in our natural experience that can help us trust in the promise of resurrection:

 

The longing we have for the world to be put right in the world.

The way in which we can experience death as stealing something from us.

The way when we see something beautiful it can create a longing in us for complete Beauty.

The way death and resurrection occur as part of the natural world.

 

But for Paul, it was clear that it was only the fact of Christ’s resurrection which could be the basis for trusting that God’s plan to bring earth and heaven together, and that Christ is the Lord who has defeated sin and death.   “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 17-19)

 

While the cross gives comfort, it is the resurrection that gives hope – that heaven has come to earth, and that we can live in God’s kingdom from today.  N.T. Wright puts it like this:  “…the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it thing, as though some Christians are welcome to believe it and others are welcome not to believe it. Take it away, and the whole picture is totally different. Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity was a religion for wimps….

 

“…The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, ‘It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.’ (It means) God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s ‘being-in-charge’ is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.”

 

It is clear that something dramatic happened in history that had the power to turn a small and local story in a backwater of the Roman Empire into a global movement within a few decades.  Yet Jesus’ resurrection was as unexpected and beyond the understanding of the early Christians as it is for us.  This is why the New Testament wants to give its readers the confidence to live as disciples of a risen Lord through offering rational evidence – when it comes to the resurrection, we are not expected to have blind faith, but reasonable trust.  There are twelve recorded appearances of Jesus to His disciples after the resurrection (see handout).

 

For Paul, this was of “first importance”:

 

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, (Peter) and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-7)

 

By emphasising twice that this was “according to the Scriptures” he is making the point that the resurrection completes and makes sense of the whole story.

 

The handout ‘Jesus: Lord or legend?’ unpacks some of the arguments against this evidence.  Objections have centred around three ideas:

 

Jesus was not really dead.

 

Not many people give much credibility to this argument.  As Tom Wright says, “Jesus didn’t really die-someone gave him a long drug that made him look like dead, and he revived in the tomb. Answer: Roman soldiers knew how to kill people, and no disciple would have been fooled by a half-drugged, beat-up Jesus into thinking he’d defeated death and inaugurated the kingdom.”

 

The disciples were deliberately lying, joining together to make up a religion to honour their rabbi.

 

The fact that there is no evidence for this is important.  But, as time went on, and Christians were put to death for their belief in the resurrection, it is also hard to understand the motive for lying in the face of such persecution, or why not a single one of them deserted or withdrew their story.  In addition, as a made-up story there are so many aspects of it that would have been offensive to first-century Jewish people – not least that a human being could be a crucified God.

 

Finally, if it were genuinely a lie, it could have been easily disproved by both the Roman and Jewish authorities who would both have wanted to discredit the story by, for example, producing Jesus’ body.  In their accounts, the disciples talk about real people – such as Pilate or Caiaphas the high priest, who were close to the events – but there is no record of any ancient person accusing the disciples of making it up.

 

They were not lying, but were so devoted to Jesus, that a myth quickly developed about Him. 

 

While most scholars do not believe in the lying theory, it is not uncommon (as in a lot of study of religion) for people to put forward this legendary interpretation.

 

There are at least six reasons why the legend theory has problems:

 

It is hard to believe that such a speedy development of a risen-Jesus myth could arise among Jewish people who, at the time, saw their belief in one God as an antidote to many of the pagan-god legends that surrounded them from other cultures.

 

Legends always reflect the culture they come from – it is unlikely that, in first-century Jewish eyes, a myth about a crucified and cursed Messiah would have brought honour to Jesus.

 

Legends cast their heroes in a positive and larger-than-life light.  Yet in the gospels the disciples often appear foolish.

 

Jesus overturns many aspects of their culture, rather than reinforcing them.  For example, in a culture in which it was assumed women were liars (they could not testify in court), the male writers of the gospels emphasise that it is women who first witness Jesus’ resurrection.

 

The main objection to the legend theory is the short amount of time between Jesus’ resurrection and the accounts of it.  Normally legends take generations to develop.  Yet 16 years after Jesus, Paul is already calling Him God, as if this is already known.  The gospels refer to eye-witnesses who would have still been alive when they were written – for example, Jesus’ brother James.

 

Finally numerous writers have noted how the gospels read like history, not legend, including countless examples of irrelevant detail.   Mark tells us several times, “Jesus looked around him, and then said….”  There are numerous historical details which have been shown as accurate by archaeological evidence.

 

All the earliest witnesses, who staked their lives on Jesus’ resurrection, emphasise that they are neither lying, nor honouring a Lord whom they know to be a myth.  As John writes,

 

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

 

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”  (1 John 1: 1-4, written between 62 and 77 years after the resurrection)

How do disciples see death?

Dallas Willard said, “I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it.”  In contrast to a culture which in many ways finds it hard to accept or talk about mortality, the hope of resurrection makes it possible for us to face death without fear or denial.

 

Disciples can embrace death without fear.

 

Even long before Jesus’ resurrection, the psalms say, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.”  (Psalm 116:15)  For disciples, knowing Jesus has experienced our death, dying is now another way in which we can become more like Him – His dying has made death holy in that it is now something that brings us to God.  Both life and death can now be a gift.

 

As Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”  (Philippians 1: 21-24)

 

The day before he was killed at a young age, Martin Luther King preached, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  (3rd April 1968)

 

Death is now a time of gain, a time when, “…you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”  (Colossians 3:24) This is why before His own death Jesus told His disciples not to be afraid: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  (John 14:1-2)

 

Disciples still resist death.

 

Yet, while no longer the ultimate evil, death remains an enemy we are longing to see completely overcome.  The “victory” and “sting” of death has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15: 55-57) through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but, like Jesus, who cried at his friend Lazarus’ tomb, we can still weep at the significant but temporary grief and pain death and dying can cause.

 

But the hope of resurrection means that grief might no longer be despairing (“… you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope.”  (1 Thessalonians 4:13)) Instead our grieving can rightly express deep love as we miss those who are sleeping, or as we anticipate the grief of those we are leaving.  When people saw Jesus grieving for Lazarus they said, “See how he loved him.”  (John 11:36) It can also be a way we utter our longing for the day when God promises to wipe every tear away.

 

It is important in our discipleship that we can welcome death.  John Wesley said, “Our people die well” and, “Every Christian should be able to preach, pray or die at a minute’s notice.”  But grief and frustration at the pain of death can be a faithful expression of love and longing as well.  The well-intentioned funeral poem, “Death is nothing at all…” is one side of the story and is helpful only if it still allows us to bring our genuine pain to God and each other.

 

Death can help us live well as disciples

 

For disciples, seeing death through the lens of hope is a gift in living well now in anticipation of the future.  The medieval writer, Thomas a Kempis puts it like this:

 

“Happy and wise is he who endeavours to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death…Dear soul, from what peril and fear you could free yourself, if you lived in holy fear, mindful of your death. Apply yourself so to live now, that at the hour of death, you may be glad and unafraid.

 

“Learn now to die to the world, that you may begin to live with Christ…While you have time, gather the riches of everlasting life. Think only of your salvation, and care only for the things of God…Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.  Daily direct your prayers and longings to Heaven, that at your death your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God.”

Christ’s return: judgment; suffering and hope; doubt and honesty

How should I feel about God judging me and others?

Heaven and earth can only be fully reunited when all that currently separates us has been destroyed, and we are fully restored.  The way the Bible describes this process is judgment.  The writer to the Hebrews says that, “…people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27)

 

This is because even for disciples if we are to fully live in the light of God’s love as resurrected people it will first be necessary for us to have been freed and cleansed from anything that still fails to reflect His character and glory.  As we have seen, it is impossible for any darkness of sin to survive in the light of His holy love.  So, the final return of Christ brings about this final judgment in preparation for a renewed heaven and earth.

 

For many people throughout history, God’s judgement is something they long for.  Many psalms and prophetic writings cry out for God to put the world right.  Those who suffer injustice eagerly await the time when “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare”.  (2 Peter 3:10) Just as flawed human justice is nevertheless a good aspect of our nature, God’s perfect justice reveals His goodness.

 

Jesus promises, “…will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”  (Luke 18:7-8)

 

For many of the victims of history, God’s judgment will mean that for the first time their voices will be heard.  Cardinal Basil Hume tells this story: “A priest started his homily at a funeral saying: ‘I am going to preach about judgement’. There was dismay in the congregation. Then he went on: ‘Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell’”.

 

Yet the language of judgment and of hell, which Jesus uses more than all the other biblical writers put together, can cause fear and a picture of God which can make people run away from Him.  Jesus talks about “eternal fire and punishment” (Matthew 25:41,46), “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22) and “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30).

 

He told a parable in which a rich man who had refused to help the poor was in permanent agony in eternal fire, visible to those in ‘heaven’.  (Luke 16:19-24) (Some early Christians interpreted this to mean that, “…we will watch the just damnation of the unredeemed, and it will be part of our joy.” (Aquinas))

 

He tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). The word Jesus uses for ‘hell’ is ‘Gehenna’, a valley outside Jerusalem in which rubbish was constantly burned along with the corpses of those whose families could not bury them.

 

It is fair to ask questions like:  How could an all good God, who IS love torture people in hell eternally?  In what way is it loving to keep people alive and burning?  Doesn’t the idea of eternal punishment seem to reverse the consistent picture in the Bible that God’s anger burns for a moment, but His love endures for ever?

 

How could Jesus, who revealed God’s heart on the cross by being willing to die for His enemies, tolerate their eternal punishment?  How can God be all in all, and victorious over evil, in a new creation in which there is no more sorrow, dying, or evil, if satan is still torturing people in hell?

 

How can eternal pain, without any restorative point, and no hope of being relieved, be compatible with even human versions of justice?  And, if we take the parable literally, how could I enjoy being in God’s presence if, for example, I could see someone I love in hell?

 

It is not surprising that, as one writer puts it, “Millions of people, young and old, have given up on Christianity because our way of talking about hell sounds absolutely wacky. ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ we say, ‘and he’ll fry your butt in hell forever unless you do or believe the right thing’… No wonder Christianity – or that version of it – is a dying religion in so many places in the world.”

 

It is important to know that even the early Christians wrestled with these questions in various ways – trying to bring together:

 

The good hope that God will deal with evil once and for all

 

It is just as impossible for light and darkness to coexist as it is for sin to come into God’s presence.  (That is why as soon as Jesus was present in the world there was a sense of unavoidable judgment already beginning: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”  (John 3:19-20))

 

and the revelation that God IS agape love, and that there is no shadow side to Him at all.

 

with the necessity and anguish of the cross

 

Jesus experienced the hell of separation from His Father.  The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. The result of Jesus becoming alienated from the source of pure love was therefore that He went as far as possible in the opposite direction.

 

Without acknowledging the possibility of such darkness, we lose our sense both of the amazing love of God revealed through the cross, and the knowledge of our true value as those for whom He died.  His love is not sentimentality but expressed through action.

What might judgment mean?

Some Christians, then and now, attempt to hold these ideas together in different ways in order to try and understand what judgment means.

 

Some believe that God will indeed judge people and fallen spiritual beings through suffering which is eternal and conscious

 

(Lots of ideas we have inherited from medieval art portray this).  They would emphasise the examples we have looked at as to be taken literally.

 

Some believe that judgment will mean that some will simply cease to exist (known as ‘annihilationism’ or ‘conditional immortality’.)

 

They would emphasise that human beings are not essentially immortal – that can only be a gift.   That while the wicked are referred to as, for example, bring “destroyed forever” (Psalm 92:7), this does not have to mean that they are forever being destroyed.  Scripture’s references to an “unquenchable fire” refer to the finality of judgment – nothing can reverse it – not its duration.   That the language of parables such as in Luke 18 must be read as narrative devices rather than literal, just as, for example we might talk about “St Peter at the pearly gates”.  That even if He wanted to, God in theory couldn’t save anyone who had the freedom to choose to resist His love.  In this view, if God judges people in the sense that He allows them the choice to let evil run its course, He allows evil to lead to its unavoidable self-destruction.

 

Some believe that all creatures will go through a purifying process which will ultimately mean that everyone will be saved – in the widest sense of the word.  (This is known as ‘universalism’.)

 

They would emphasise that even though everyone will be judged by the “burning heat of God’s love”, nevertheless as Paul wrote the aim will be so that, “their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3: 13-14)

 

While the fruits of our lives may need to be purified, this would not mean our complete end.  The fire that lovingly purges all that it can and justly destroys all that it must is the same fire.

 

Pope Benedict XVI describes how this ultimate purifying will enable us to become fully transformed:

 

“Before His gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

What do we need to know most about God in this?

Whatever view we have, it is important as disciples that we can hold them in humility and love, and that we hold on to some key ideas about our picture of God, ourselves and others:

 

Our picture of God.

 

God IS love.

 

As we have seen, it is impossible for God to act against His own nature in any way towards us other than through self-sacrificial love – there is no hidden side to Him, or split personality.  “…in him there is no darkness at all.”  (1 John 1:5)  His everlasting essence is the love that is revealed on the cross.

 

This means that when the Bible talks about God’s “wrath” it is not describing vengeful anger, but it can only be reflecting how evil, rebellion, or hardened hearts naturally experience and react to that love.

 

It is clear that God doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).

 

Thus, whatever understanding we might have of judgment, if there is any way that God could save all, he most certainly would save all.

 

Ultimately our understanding needs to be consistent with our trust in God’s character.  Do we believe God to be more loving, just, fair and wise than we could ever be?  As the Bible says, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)

 

Looking towards my own judgement, and that of others.

 

With all these things in mind, a disciple can look forward to judgment and prepare for it: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”  (2 Peter 3:11)

 

The gift of God is that we can have “confidence on the day of judgment” because “in this world we are like Jesus.” (1 John 4:17)  Because of the cross, we are forgiven and our covenant status before God restored – we stand before Him “in Christ”.

 

Thus, Jesus tells us we do not have to “worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:24).  We do not need to be afraid because God judgement through perfect love is not about punishment, but about healing.  “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.” (1 John 4:18)

 

The point of the Bible’s many and different images about judgment are less about giving us crystal-clear information about the mechanics of the end of this age so much as inspiring us to live as disciples in the present.  As we have seen, Jesus’ died and rose again not to provide an escape route after death, or an insurance policy, but to invite human beings to live in God’s kingdom, enjoying the covenant-relationship God desires to have with us today.

 

Understanding that the language of judgment highlights the enormous chasm between God’s holiness and our condition is helpful as it helps us realise we cannot come to God in our own merit or strength.  It calls us with seriousness to live eternally by placing God at the centre of our lives, rather than ourselves.

 

But in our own discipleship, and in our sharing with others, fear of judgment can never be a motivator either for coming to love God, or for changing behaviour.

 

In sharing our faith, for example, it is helpful to know that there is no one in the Bible who claims to know that another person is in hell.  The only person’s judgment I am called to pay attention to is my own.

 

Rather than being anxious about those we love who have not yet placed their trust in Christ’s sacrifice and victory, we can trust that God will judge them, like us, with love and truth more than we can comprehend.

 

We can be confident and eager for God’s future.  The last words of the Bible end not with words of fear about the “Day of the Lord” but longing and reassurance.  Jesus “who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’  Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”  (Revelation 22: 21-22)

If Jesus has overcome evil, why is there still so much suffering?

Through His life, death and resurrection Jesus brought the healing of God’s kingdom and won the decisive battle over sin, evil and death.  He came to “destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8) and declared, “Now is the ruler of this world cast out” (John 12:31)

 

But our lived experience is that in many ways we already live in the light of God’s victory – His kingdom is among us now.  But the complete fulfilment of God’s plan is ‘not yet’.  This is why an enemy still walks about like a hungry lion trying to eat us (1Peter 5:8) and we still have to struggle with the pain and battle of a fallen world – with death, suffering, temptation and against the “powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12)

 

As disciples, we are waiting for that work to be complete, for God’s kingdom to come in its fulness as heaven and earth are fully reunited.  We still pray “your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” At the end of the age we will receive it in its completion.

 

The Swiss writer Oscar Cullmann famously compared this to the end of the Second World War, saying that Jesus’ first coming was like D-Day, on June 6th, 1944.  On that day the Allies broke into enemy territory, securing a victory which made the end of the war inevitable – the power of the German forces was effectively overcome.

 

Nevertheless, it was not until nearly a year later (May 8th, 1945, V-E Day) that the Germans finally surrendered.  Between D-Day and VE-Day the battle continued, in some ways becoming more intense as the war neared its end.

 

Cullmann says that while Jesus’ first coming broke the power of the enemy (D-Day), we are living in a time when we are still waiting for the war to be over (VE-Day) and for evil and death to be completely destroyed.  We can have confidence in God’s victory (now), but we still long for its completion (not yet).

 

As disciples we are called to continue to confront evil and suffering (we explore this more in module 3) in a world in which that battle can feel as intense as ever.  Paul says that this affects not only us, but the whole world which is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”.  The universe longs for ‘VE-Day’, when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 19-22)

 

That’s why traditional language describes God’s people as still having to be “militant, here on earth”, like soldiers, standing up against evil through self-sacrificial love, until we can be the “church triumphant”.

 

When we suffer, we do so in hope and in certainty of final victory. Every time we share bread and wine we “proclaim the Lord’s death — until he comes.” We remember that Christ has come, but that He is coming again, and we are strengthened to persevere between the “now and the not yet”.

How do we become like Christ in suffering?

Even as we have begun to see some of the roots of suffering and evil in the world, the persistent question as to how God can be loving and yet allow suffering to exist can remain the largest stumbling block to our discipleship.

 

Yet the difficult times of our lives can also be those in which we can most learn to rely on God, allowing Him to be at the centre of our lives and to shape our characters.

 

This is not a new question for Christians – one of the earliest-written books in the Bible (Job) is a meditation on why God allows suffering, and why He seems silent during it.  For early Christians suffering was not a surprise, but, as we have seen, part of the expected result of a world still in conflict.  Alongside this understanding there are resources for us to be able to grow through suffering both in our understanding and in our experience.

How can God really suffer and how does this help me?

“Only a suffering God can help.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).  It is essential for any disciple to know that, through Christ, God suffers with us.  It helps our understanding, because, while no answer can fully take away or explain our suffering, our picture of God now includes one in which suffering is at the centre of who God is.  It helps our experience of suffering because we know we are not alone in it, but God is with us.

 

The picture ‘The Tortured Christ’ gives us a visual sense of the reality of God’s agony on the cross.  The depth of the physical, emotional and spiritual sufferings of God in Christ on the cross are hard to describe.  (See three page handout from Tim Keller’s book on the sufferings of God).  One writer portrays it as the ultimate darkness we can imagine:

 

“He was without any comforts of God — no feeling that God loved him — no feeling that God pitied him — no feeling that God supported him. God was his sun before — now that sun became all darkness… He was without God — he was as if he had no God. All that God had been to him before was taken from him now. He was Godless — deprived of his God….This is the hell which Christ suffered. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable…”  (Robert Murray McCheyne)

 

The story ‘The Long Silence’ (see handout) imagines billions of victims of history who stand before God, asking, “Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”  They come to a conclusion:   Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured….They “sentence” God to suffer as they have.  Yet, “when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved. For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.”

 

Through the cross, God understands suffering.  Not only that, but the book of Hebrews suggests He has allowed Himself to be shaped by it: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…” (Hebrews 5:8)

 

Historically, people have struggled with the question as to how a God who cannot change experience suffering.   But Richard Bauckham notes how “…it has often been said that if God is personal love, analogous to human personal love, then he must be open to the suffering which a relationship of love can bring.”  (See his five page article on God’s suffering: https://theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_god_bauckham.html.)  The fact that God IS love means that God can choose to be vulnerable, without losing His power.  While not understanding suffering fully, disciples can know that on the cross God shares in, and protests about, our suffering.

 

The photo ‘Corona Jesus’ also speaks of how Jesus is present with us in our sufferings.  He is with those who are most disgraced, having been crucified “outside the city walls” – in other words in an unclean rubbish dump. (Hebrews 13: 12-14)  The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s famous story of witnessing the execution of a child at Auschwitz makes this point powerfully.  “…he heard someone behind him groan: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.’”

 

Often when we look for God in our sufferings, the answer to our prayer can be less that He rescues out of a situation, and more that He parachutes in to be join us in the midst of it.  In the Bible, God does not say, “Do not fear, I will take away all your pain.” Rather, we hear, “You have no need to fear, since I am with you.”

Does everything happen for a reason and is doubt a bad thing?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything happens for a reason – that every event, good or bad, exists to shape our lives in some way.  It is common for Christians to echo this thought in the face of difficulty or suffering, perhaps as a way of interpreting the well-known verse from Romans 8:28:  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….” Or to offer it as an instinctive word of comfort.

 

Yet in a world in which both human and spiritual beings have genuine free will, in which there remains a spiritual conflict that is often invisible to us, or in which someone’s prayer for rain (farmer growing crops) may at the same time be another person’s misfortune (groom on a wedding day), it is often impossible for us to truly know why certain things happen.

 

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” can do damage both to an individual in pain, and to our picture of God.  The more we see God as being behind every sickness and tragedy the harder it is to know that He truly loves us.  Romans 8:28 is not saying that all things are good in themselves, or God’s will.  Rather it is saying that whether circumstances are good or bad, God can continue to work for our good.

 

What is very important for us to know is that God never wants human beings to suffer.  This was demonstrated, for example, by Jesus consistently healing every sick person who came to Him.  He never suggested that God wanted anyone to remain sick for a reason.

 

Some worry that effectively saying some things lie out of God’s control in this way is risking making God too small.  What God’s ‘power’ means, and the way in which God can order what comes to pass is an ongoing debate.

 

Yet as we have seen, by taking the risk of being human, and being crucified, God willingly shows His true power by giving up the ability to control everything.  His true greatness is not by being able to make “everything happen”, but being able to work out His purposes even if things do not always go His way because of, for example, our freedom to make bad choices.

 

While Christians ultimately know that God will reunite heaven and earth – the end of the story is certain – some would say that perhaps God can work for the good through all things not by overriding human or spiritual beings’ decisions, but by being able to anticipate all possible outcomes and adapt accordingly.  This is known as “open theism”.

 

For disciples this means that often (as in the case of Job) there may not be a ‘reason’ for evil or suffering.  It is the reality of living in a universe still waiting for God’s complete rule to be present.

 

This also means that having questions and doubts does not have to be the opposite of faith, but a necessary part of it.  If faith is ‘psychological certainty’ then it will be hard for us to face events which are challenging, or to grow in trust.

 

But faith in the Bible is demonstrated by Israel, whose name means “one who struggles with God”.  It is about keeping trust with God as a covenant-partner in the face of uncertainty.  A faithful relationship with God is more expressed by people feeling confident enough to express their complaints, confusions, or even accusations to God, rather than never having them.

 

Paul was confident enough to write that, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)  Jesus expressed His love for His Father by asking why He had forsaken Him.  The more mature our faith, the more confident we will be with the things we cannot understand.

How honest can I be about my pain to God?

The relationship God invites us into is honest, intimate, and trusting.  As such, the Bible gives us many examples of how God does not want us to censor our feelings or our words before Him.  The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila was once travelling by horse and trap to see a convent of nuns. The vehicle had an accident, and she was thrown into a puddle of mud. Feeling embarrassed that she would greet the nuns in a muddy habit, she looked up to the heavens and said: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”

 

The ability to express grief, sorrow and frustration is necessary for genuine healing and wholeness, and so it is notable that Jesus gives us an example of grief, in weeping at his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  For Paul, the experience of grief will be different for those with the hope of resurrection.

 

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  But because that hope is to be fully realised, Jesus shares with us in the tears at the frustration and loss of bereavement that is our experience in this age.  Tears can be a gift of healing.

 

As well as the reality of grief, the Bible is also full of examples of lament before God.  While there are sometimes elements of complaining in lament, while a complaint is an accusation against God that maligns His character, lament is an appeal to God based on confidence in His character.

 

Many of the Psalms (over one-third of them) and the prophets ask questions, express doubts and even challenge God to be faithful and just.  “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire?  Remember how fleeting is my life.  For what futility you have created all humanity!”  (Psalm 89: 46-47)  “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”  (Habakkuk 1: 2-3)   Job feels able to ask God, “Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11) Jeremiah cries out, “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” (Jeremiah 15:18)

 

Lament is a direct way of praying.  Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.”  (Hebrews 5:7)  It says that things are not right, they need to be changed, the situation is intolerable and God needs to be faithful to His character and change things.  Lament is not an absence of faith, but an act of faith. Deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.

 

This kind of brutal honesty is expressed in a prayer read by an Orthodox priest while he was with a couple whose two-year-old daughter was dying:

 

“We confess to You that we cannot see Your divine hand in the suffering of Madeline. Help us, we beg You, to see that in this evil there is some purpose, beyond our grasp and comprehension. Our minds are confused. Our hearts are in distress. Our wills are lost and weak, and our strength is gone…”

 

Lament is also a place in which we can say things that are not ‘right’ but need to be brought to God.  Lament psalms about enemies ask God to do unimaginable things. “Happy the man who shall repay you the evil you have done us! Happy the man who shall seize and smash your little ones against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)  While these feelings are wrong, bringing them to God in this way means that they are not pushed underground, to emerge later in more destructive ways.

 

Most of the lament psalms end with praise.  Only by lamenting and expressing pain, can healing begin.  It is not our final prayer, but a prayer for the moment, while we wait for resurrection.  We know that sorrow does not have the last word.

 

In the midst of the pandemic of 2020/1 N.T. Wright wrote, “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

Do I pray to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit?

Grief and lament, rather than denial, are a healing gift in the middle of difficulty.  Wright’s quote also tells us something about how we pray and to whom we pray.  We can wonder whether we are to pray to the Father, the Son or the Spirit?

 

A handout explores this in more detail, but distinctively Christian prayer will involve the Trinity.  Paul writes that, ‘Through him [Jesus] we have access to the Father by one Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:18).  Anglican collects (written prayers) are often addressed to God “through Jesus Christ our Lord”.  But some are addressed to Christ, and a few to the Holy Spirit.   In prayer we can come to a loving Father, accompanied by a Saviour and Lord, and inspired by His Spirit.

 

In terms of lament and grief, the encouragement here is that God’s Spirit is at work in us to help us pray when we do not know what to say.  “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”  (Romans 8:26-27)

What does 'God’s discipline' mean and how do I resist temptation?

Jesus’ brother James saw suffering as the greatest opportunity for us to grow in our discipleship:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  (James 1: 3-4) Our struggles can sharpen our sense that God alone is all that matters.

 

But discipleship does not mean we need to seek out ways in which we can be tested – that is why we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (or testing).  James is also clear that God, who is agape love, never deliberately sends testing our way.  “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”  (James 1: 13-14)

 

Nevertheless, the more we can approach suffering as an opportunity for “the Lord’s discipline” to shape us, the more we will grow as disciples.  The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?”  Our human parents “disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”

 

God’s discipline is never punishment related to our behaviour, but it can be the way that God can use the sometimes random and meaningless suffering and difficulties we endure to grow our dependence upon Him and shape our characters, if we allow Him to do so.  While God never wants suffering, He wants us to grow in His love, and since trials can be an opportunity for this to happen, Hebrews is saying that we can experience them as discipline for our own ultimate good.

 

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”  (Hebrews 12:7-11)  As St Catherine of Siena wrote, “Nothing great was ever done without much enduring.”

 

Jesus’ experience of temptation in the desert echoes the three most common ways in which we can try and substitute God – by putting our own appetites first, or by living to please others rather than Him, or by seeking power and influence apart from Him.  These short-term addictions for appetite, approval or ambition can be the biggest challenges to our discipleship.

 

Our ability to resist addiction begins long-before the moment of temptation in the shaping of our characters as we allow God’s Spirit room through the practices we have been exploring.  Long-term change is always an indirect result of the rhythms we live by because our own willpower will never be enough. The aim of discipleship is for us to become like Christ through practices, so that over time we naturally become the people who will respond as He does – in good times and in bad.

 

But Jesus offers a simple lesson in resisting each temptation in the moment by being able to do two things.  He recognises the lie behind what the temptation offers.  And He can replace the lie with God’s truth by recalling what God has said in Scripture.  The more our thinking is being regularly shaped by God’s story, the easier this becomes.

How can I live with hope as a disciple?

Most human beings do not live easily without hope for the future. Though some may say that this world, and the short span of life we have in it, are all that there is, and that everything we are and have will quickly disappear, it is hard for most people to live instinctively as if that is true.  Human beings seem wired for hope.

 

Genuine hope is the only source of lasting peace.

 

For disciples, the hope of the reuniting of heaven and earth is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.”  (Hebrews 6:19)

 

In his first sermon, Peter said that because he saw this hope King David was able to say, “I will not be shaken….my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.  You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2: 25-28)

 

We are offered the promise as well that we are not alone but that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”.  (Hebrews 12:1)  There are many disciples who have gone before us who are pictured as cheering us on as they wait for the final resurrection. Remembering disciples who have gone before, at particular times of the year, can be a regular source of encouragement, inspiration and hope in our own discipleship.

 

Genuine hope motivates us to care for the world, not use it for ourselves.

 

Karl Marx wrote that the church used Christian religion like a drug to keep people passive in this world by making them focus on the next.   But, as we have seen, Jesus announces that God’s healing kingdom has already arrived, and that our hope is not to ‘go to heaven’, but to see the world transformed in preparation for when that hope will be complete.  So when someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if Jesus was returning tomorrow he replied, “I would plant a tree.”

 

If this life is all there is, the temptation to use the world and others as much as we can, clinging to as much as we can, may be greater.  But hope of resurrection prevents us both from being passive about looking after the world – because we are seeking God’s coming kingdom on earth – and means gives us the best reason to avoid grabbing hold of it while we can.  The greater our hope, the easier it becomes to not treat the world now as if it all that there is.

 

Genuine hope is about living in the future promise today.

 

In the light of the future, one way of viewing our purpose and calling in life today is to join in with God in making the present world look as much like it will be when heaven and earth are fully reunited.

 

In module three we will explore in more detail how our mission and choices of what is right and wrong are shaped in large part by the vision we have of God’s future.  Because, for example, in God’s future every tribe and nation will worship together, we seek that reality as much as possible today by resisting racism.

 

Because in God’s future there will be no more sickness and pain, we look for that to be happening as much as possible now by praying for the sick and developing medicine.  Because in God’s future the earth will be renewed, we join with Him in caring for it today.

 

When Jesus offered His disciples “eternal life” He was talking about the quality of resurrection life that begins today – before our physical death.  We have “our citizenship in heaven”, (Philippians 3:20) not because we are simply waiting to go there, but because we are representatives of God’s heavenly life now, wherever we are.  To live in genuine hope is to join in with God in pulling His promised future into present experience wherever possible.

 

Every act of healing, prayer or renewal can be a sign of that hope – creating ‘pockets of heaven’, world-transforming communities, or as Celtic Christians say, “thin places”, where the barrier between the life of heaven and earth is beginning to be lifted.  It also says that evil does not have the last word.

 

Vedran Smailovic is known as the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’.  During the siege of Sarajevo he became famous for playing his cello, dressed in his full orchestral clothes, in bombed out buildings, often under threat of snipers.  After a mortar bomb killed 22 people who were waiting for food in a market-place in Sarajevo, he caught the world’s attention by going there and playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty two days, once for each victim.

 

In the same way, among the ruins of the world, disciples are called to seek God’s beautiful kingdom by replacing destruction with the music of hope – with signs that evil does not have the last word.

Why is Jesus’ ascension essential for disciples?

In this module we have explored Jesus’ life, His death and resurrection.  But His ascension (going up) to be with God the Father is in many ways the ultimate statement about His identity and purpose.  Luke sees it as so significant that he records it twice – at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts.

 

The ascension shows that Jesus’ earthly work was complete – He had accomplished all that He needed to do.  Now He could finally “sit down at His Father’s right hand.”

 

It was the final demonstration of His victory.  He returned to His heavenly glory and was lifted up by His Father with honour, receiving the “name above every name”- the reigning king over all powers in all ages.

 

Early Christians would have been familiar with the idea that when a Roman emperor died his ‘soul’ would go to heaven and he would become divine.  But they knew that Jesus’ ascension fulfilled the glory of a divine King who rules in a completely different way.

 

In becoming like Him in the difficulties of life, His ascension can strengthen us in at least three ways.

 

The ascension means that He is with us, wherever we are.

 

It is difficult to imagine the moment at which Jesus’ resurrected body returning to be fully in heaven (God’s space) looked like, but it marked the end of His physical, earthly ministry – in one location – and the beginning of His agape rule through His church throughout the world, in all places.

 

The ascension meant that the Spirit of Jesus could now be available to everyone. He had told his disciples that it was good for him to go away, because only then would he send them another Helper, the Spirit of truth (John 16:7-16). Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus and His disciples went to Mount Olivet, near Jerusalem. Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit had come.

 

On the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension, His Spirit descended on the church with power.  Whereas in the old covenant God’s Spirit came to certain people at certain times, because of the ascension the Spirit of Jesus is now available everywhere to those who ask.

 

It is also worth knowing that Jesus’ return to ‘heaven’ does not mean He is removed from us – as we have seen the coming of God’s kingdom means that God’s space (heaven) and our space (earth) are increasingly overlapping.

 

The ascension means that Jesus takes our humanity into God and prays for us

 

The resurrected Jesus was more human, not less, than he was before – human but without frailty and dying.  This is a promise of genuine humanity.  And we can be reassured of our eternal value than knowing that in His return to God, Jesus does not stop being human, but takes our humanity into God.

 

God’s original plan was always that restored human beings should rule over the creation with justice and wisdom.  The ascended, ruling and human Jesus becomes the first in whom that promise can begin to be realised.

 

Not only that but “we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven…(in Him) we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”

 

Because humanity is in the heart of God, God now knows our weakness and struggles in His experience, and the ascended Christ can open the way for us to come as we are to God.

 

Because of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  (Hebrews 4: 14-16)

 

The ascension gives us the power to do the whole work of Jesus’ through His gifts

 

Paul connects the ascension with the arrival of the gifts God gives each of us to carry out Jesus’ work on earth.  He quotes a Psalm which prophesies that “When he ascended on high…he gave gifts to his people.”  (Ephesians 4:7)

 

Because none of us can individually carry out the full ministry of Jesus, various gifts are shared out to everyone, for example, teaching, pastoring, leading, sharing good news, and listening to God.  Only when these gifts are all present in a church community can we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  (Ephesians 4:12)

 

In the ‘Way of Servant-Leadership’ two of the sessions help us to discover our particular gifts.  In module three of ‘Way of Discipleship’ we look at the calling on each one of us as disciples to join in with God’s Spirit in using these gifts to see the world become more as God wants it to be – on earth, as it is in heaven.

Mission and God’s Holy Spirit

What does the five weeks on 'Joining in with the Spirit' cover?

We have seen that the starting place for discipleship is ‘Being with God’.  If you had sixty seconds in a lift to share with someone what being a Christian is, you might begin by saying that the good news is that we are made to live in the closest possible relationship with God forever (a covenant), and that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has made that possible.

 

We have also seen that discipleship is about ‘Becoming like Christ’.  Jesus called disciples as apprentices who, as they spend time with the rabbi, take on His characteristics in a way that also makes them more fully themselves.

 

But as we have also read previously, the end point of discipleship is “Being with another person…in order to become capable of doing what that person does…An ‘apprentice’ of Jesus is learning from Him how to lead their life as He would lead their life if He were they.”  (Dallas Willard)

 

The aim of any apprenticeship is to join in doing what the teacher does, to the extent that you are then able to apprentice others.

 

One writer puts it, “The mark of a deeply mature man or woman, the mark of a very mature disciple of Jesus, and the mark of someone truly giving his or her life away is this: he or she is a person who blesses others and blesses the world, just as God does and just as Jesus did.” (Ronald Rolheiser)

 

These five weeks explore how the purpose of our lives of discipleship is to “Join in with the Spirit” in the mission of God in the world.  The first two sessions shape our understanding of what that mission is, and the last three unpack how we might live it out in the power of God’s Spirit.

 

It is not hard to see that these two themes – mission and the Spirit – can be the source of a lack of confidence among Christians.  We might have fears or doubts about mission because we see the church shrinking and becoming marginalised in society, and so wonder what ‘effective mission’ means.  Or we may be affected by a general suspicion towards those ‘on a mission’ in a culture suspicious of truth claims or perceived hidden agendas.

 

It may be easier for us as well to relate to God as our Father and Jesus as one of us, than to have confidence in the nature and purpose of the Holy Spirit.  Yet Paul promises that life in God’s rule is a matter of “joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)  It is impossible to grow in any aspect of our lives as disciples without God’s Spirit – Jesus did nothing apart from the Spirit.

 

These five weeks aim to equip us to join in with God’s mission in whatever ways He is calling us, and to do that with a desire for the Spirit, a trust in the Spirit’s goodness, and an openness to the Spirit in our lived experience.

What is the ultimate purpose of being a disciple (and life)?

While we might have uncertainty about the idea of mission, or at least what it should look like, it is hard to find an organisation without a mission statement.  The word ‘mission’ means ‘sent out’ and such statements say what the purpose of the organisation is sent to do – what does it exist for?

 

At a fundamental level all human beings need a sense of mission.  A psychologist called Viktor Frankl spent most of his life studying the question, What makes life meaningful?”  He had an argument with Sigmund Freud about it.  Freud thought that what humans most want is pleasure and comfort, and that we organise life around finding it.  Frankl argued that what people desire is something deeper – a sense of purpose, mission and belonging.  He said it is when we can’t find meaning that we will try and numb ourselves with pleasure.

 

He developed a “therapy of meaning”, recommending that people look for three things:

 

  • A project to work on, ideally which helps others.
  • A way of looking for the ways in which the difficulties we face can be turned to good.
  • Sharing our lives with a person or people who love us.

 

Frankl was put in charge of thirty thousand mental health patients who were at risk of suicide in the area around Vienna.  He inherited a situation in which many people were dying.  Yet by applying these principles, Frankl lost no one under his care to suicide. (Story told in ‘Scary Close’ by Donald Miller).

 

Jesus described his purpose in life as the true food He needed.  “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”  (John 4:34)  He envisaged those who were with Him and becoming like Him living highly fruitful lives, producing “a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:8)  The minimum is a thirty-times multiplication.

 

As we have already seen, He modelled a spiritually healthy life with as containing a balance of relationships – being with God (up), His close community (in) and then reaching out to others with the message and power of God’s rule (out).

 

As those who ‘learn as they follow’ His disciples did not have to wait until they had been with Him or trained by Him for a period before being sent.  In Mark’s gospel Jesus’ first call to Simon and Andrew is, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Mark 1:17)  He was using a common phrase from the time to describe those who would go and capture people’s imaginations with teaching.  Being with Him naturally led to joining in with His work.

 

When Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, His sends him to others straight away: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”  (Mark 5:19)  In the next chapter Jesus sends out the twelve in pairs, with His authority, to do what He did.  So “They went out and preached that people should repent.  They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6: 12-13)

 

Similarly, in Matthew’s gospel we see this natural link where mission is part of discipleship.  Jesus tells His disciples to pray for more workers for God’s harvest (Matthew 9:37-38).  Again we read how He sends the apostles out (the word apostle means ‘sent one’) to proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And to act: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”  (Matthew 10: 7-8)

 

Jesus tells them that the logical outcome of receiving His life will be sharing that with others: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8) Right from the beginning He acknowledges that to do this will not be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

 

Ultimately, Jesus summarises the goal of discipleship as being able to apprentice others: “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20) and to usher in God’s kingdom, the good news of His rule, in every part of His creation: “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)

 

Pope Francis calls the church a “community of missionary disciples” because it is impossible to separate being with God and becoming like Christ from joining in with what God is doing.  As God sent Jesus into the world, so He sends His disciples into the world.

 

Going back to our 60 second lift conversation, one way of sharing good news might be to say that being a disciple answers the deepest human questions of “Who am I?” and “What am I here for?”  As we have seen, who we are is found in the relationship of covenant-love that God wants with us and makes possible for us.  What we are here for – our ultimate purpose in life as His disciples – is to join in with His work.  Jesus didn’t die and rise again to save us from something, but for something.

 

The 18th century missionary Zinzendorf had a motto: “Wherever at the moment there is most to do for our Saviour, that is our home.”  Jesus’ disciples dropped everything immediately because they knew that following Him would give them meaning they could never find themselves.

 

A doctor went to see a rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”  The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologise to God for the ways you have not lived.  “Not for the usual sins,” she said. “But for the sin of living small.”

 

Tom Wright says, “There is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a badly written one.”  This module aims to help us allow God to write a story of meaning and purpose in our lives, so that we can live ‘large’ for what truly matters by joining in with Him.

What is God’s mission?

The more we understand what is God up to in the world, and what Jesus understood He came to do, the more we will see in what ways disciples are called to join in with God.

 

Just as our picture of God is the most important thing in determining our relationship with Him, so our picture of the world will shape the purpose of our lives. For example, some people’s purpose is shaped by the idea that the world is just material and exists for our benefit – this tends to lead to us consuming as much as we can, while we can.  Some believe that the direction of the world is about different civilisations are clashing with each other – this might result in adopting a purpose of being stronger than anyone else.  Some believe that the world is meaningless – this may result in seeing our mission as just existing in the moment.

 

Our big story about the world and its purpose is the foundation for our mission in life.  In looking at Jesus life, death and resurrection, we have already seen how everything He did was rooted in God’s mission.  So how might we understand it?

 

In short, the mission of God is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”  Or, as The Message paraphrases it, God has “a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.”  (Ephesians 1: 9-10)

 

He is working towards no less than, “the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.”  (Matthew 19:28)  God is looking to “restore all things” (Acts 3:21) and “through (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)

 

While church growth or human moral improvement might be part of this, the mission of God into which Jesus invites us is far greater.  It’s no less than the restoration of human beings to the covenant relationship of love He made us for.  And the new creation of disciples who will join in seeing God’s rule (kingdom of God) fully on earth, restoring everything that is broken until heaven and earth are reunited again.

 

These two themes of covenant relationship with God, and the life of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven are two of the most important strands of the story of God’s world, and of our lives.

 

Module 4, ‘Knowing the Story and Bible Confidence’ unpacks this story in more detail.

 

Here is a brief overview:

 

God is a creator, who brings new life.  He creates the heavens – not a separate place we go to when we die but a description of God’s space, the realm of spiritual realities we cannot see – and the earth – the space where human beings exist.  From the beginning, God’s intention is that heaven and earth should overlap and be in harmony.

 

Human beings are created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, made to live in the closest possible relationship with Him, and given the royal dignity of being able to join in with God’s creative work by ruling.

 

But the experience of human beings has two realities.  We are made in the image of God, and to be a blessing in God’s creation.  But the decision to make ourselves the ones who decide what is good and evil, rather than obeying God (described in the story of Adam and Eve but played out again and again in history) drives us away – separating heaven and earth.

 

As we have seen, “Sin is the one doctrine we can’t dispute.” (G.K. Chesterton) We live with the consequences of this separation in lives which fall short of our human calling, relationships between God and people, and between human beings, in which trust is broken, and in which things which are created to be a blessing can easily be twisted out of shape.  This “fall” affects the “heavens” as well as the earth, with much of the evil and pain we face being influenced by the unseen rebellion of spiritual forces.  Death results.

 

The story of the world is God’s mission to restore what is broken, so that heaven and earth can once again be reunited, and human beings can recover our original relationship and calling.

 

So God re-creates, at first by calling a people to be a blessing to the nations.  A new people.  For the Jewish people, the purpose of life is joining in with God’s restoration of the world.

 

In order to be with them, God establishes a Temple in the midst of His people – initially a moveable tent called a tabernacle, and later on a physical building in Jerusalem.  This is the place where His presence (heaven) overlaps with ours (earth) and so both tabernacle and Temple were decorated in a way that made the people remember the initial garden in which they were made to be completely at one with God.

 

At the centre of these dwellings is the Holy of Holies – the space in which God dwells.  It can only be entered once a year by the high priest.  This is because God remains holy, and His people remain cut off from Him by sin.  So around the Temple God gives a system of animal sacrifice, in which the lives of animals are given to absorb the cost of people’s sin, though not in a permanent way.  Despite this being an incomplete solution, it provides a way for God and His people to continue in relationship.

 

God’s love for His people, and His calling on their lives to be a blessing remain, but again and again Israel keep choosing not to obey, leading eventually to their exile from God’s Promised Land – they are taken into captivity.

 

Yet through this time God appoints certain people to speak His words to Israel – calling them back to be people who will live holy lives, marked by justice and right-living, restoring the earth.  Over time this vision emerges as a promise of God’s kingdom being fully established again – a time when God’s heavenly rule will be completely at one with the earth.  Prophets speak of someone anointed with God’s Spirit (Messiah) who will bring God’s kingdom to earth once again, healing lives, changing people’s hearts so that they will want to do what God desires once again, and enabling them to be with and worship God everywhere.

 

Jesus is this anointed one.  He is called the “Word made flesh” who sets up God’s tabernacle among us (John 1).  He is the Temple – the place of God’s full presence.  In His life and wherever He goes He creates places where heaven and earth overlap once again, those who are sick are restored, the oppressed are set free, and people’s hearts are turned towards God in love.

 

Through Jesus God’s mission is re-established.  Jesus begins to restore what is broken, but also points to a time when this healing will be complete, and God will be all in all.  He sent His disciples to join in the same work: “Go! I am sending you… When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10: 8–9)

 

Jesus also becomes the sacrifice – the Lamb of God – whose death means that evil, sin and death are absorbed and defeated, not as a temporary solution, but possible for all people, time and space.

 

As God’s covenant people, Jesus’ disciples are called out (the meaning of church) to continue this work of the reconciliation of all things and people.  They are given God’s presence (Spirit) to begin to rule creation once again in His image.

 

While they long to see God face-to-face, their hope is not to leave the earth when they die, but to be with God forever in a renewed creation, in which heaven and earth overlap completely once again, and humanity rule in the love and power of God.  The end of the Bible looks forward to a time when this restoration will be complete.

 

While they look for this renewed creation, joining in with the restoration God began most fully in Christ, they still experience the ‘death throes’ of evil, chaos and mortality in the world.  The world itself is still groaning like a woman in childbirth longing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay”.  God’s mission of restoration continues in the context of this struggle, but with the hope and vision that one day the kingdom will be fully “on earth, as it is in heaven”.

 

This is the mission God that shapes a disciple’s life, and the life of God’s people.  It helps us know who we are but also what we are here for.  The handout ‘Being completely secure in who you are’ unpacks these two questions and provides a group or mentoring resource.

What is the purpose and priority of the church?

At the heart of the church is of course worship.  We exist to worship God and will enjoy Him forever.  We are “God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  (1 Peter 2:9) That is why we begin the Way of Discipleship by ‘Being with God’ in worship.

 

But our worship has always been expressed by responding to the call to join in with God for His purposes.  Worship and mission are intertwined, the one naturally leading to the other.  We are not a tribe who look after ourselves, but to live out God’s purposes in the world.

 

“The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”  (Brunner).  It is not that the church has a mission, but that “the mission of God has a church”.  The more we have a sense of joining in with God’s mission, the more we will be being true to the nature of what “church” means.  A recent report talked about the need for us to be a “Mission-Shaped Church”.  This is why the wartime Archbishop, William Temple, famously said, “”The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.”

 

The Methodist Church defines what church is very similarly to Pope Francis: “a discipleship movement shaped for mission.”

 

This neatly describes the relationship between the three words, church, mission and discipleship, in a way that is sometimes counter-intuitive to our expectations.

 

Our task is not grow the church – Jesus said “I will build my church.”

 

Neither is it to do God’s mission for Him – we are to join in with where He is at work.

 

Our commission is to “make disciples.” (Matthew 28)

 

As we grow in discipleship, we will be paying attention to where God is at work and equipped and led to join in with His mission.  And as we join in with His mission, the community of worshipping people called out (church) by God will be shaped around His purposes.

What is the mission of the church?

When Puccini was fairly young, he contracted cancer, and so he decided to spend his last days writing his final opera, Turnandot, which is one of his most polished pieces.  When his friends and disciples would say to him, “You are ailing; take it easy and rest,” he would always respond, “I’m going to do as much as I can on my great master work and it’s up to you, my friends, to finish it if I don’t.”  Well, Puccini died before the opera was completed.

 

Now his friends had a choice.  They could for ever mourn their friend and return to life as usual – or they could build on his melody and complete what he started.  They chose the latter.  And so, in 1926 at the famous La Scala Opera house in Milan, Puccini’s opera was played for the first time, conducted by the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini.

 

When it came to the part in the opera where the master had stopped writing because he died, Toscanini stopped everything, turned around with eyes welling up with tears, and said to the large audience, “This is where the master ends.”  And he wept.  But then, after a few moments, he lifted up his head, smiled broadly, and said, “And this is where his friends began.”  Then he finished conducting the opera.

 

Mission is ‘to continue the opera’ – to faithfully do the same things that Jesus did, in the manner in which He did them, for the same ultimate goal.

 

The creation-wide restoration mission of God has many dimensions, and there have been many attempts to define it.  In 1984 the Anglican Church created a “mission statement” and these were fully adopted in 1996.  The statement says:

 

The mission of the church is the mission of Christ:

 

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

While there may be other ways of expressing the content of mission, these principles emphasise:

 

The priority of God’s kingdom.  The group which developed it wrote, “The first mark of mission, is really a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus’ own summary of his mission. Instead of being just one of five distinct activities, this should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.”

 

The creation-wide scope of mission.  Leslie Newbigin wrote, “We have to keep steadily in view the fact that what the gospel offers is not just hope for the individual but hope for the world. Concretely I think this means that the congregation must be so deeply and intimately involved in the secular concerns of the neighbourhood that it becomes clear to everyone that no one or nothing is outside the range of God’s love in Jesus.”

 

The social impact of mission involves reversing of all the evil consequences of sin, against both God and neighbour. It is not just restoring an individual’s relationship with God.

 

The way mission gets rid of the sacred/secular divide. God is interested in restoring every part of life.  Mission is not something we only do as church-based activities together – we are seeking God’s rule in all the scattered places we find ourselves in our everyday faith occupations.

 

The breadth of God’s mission is so big that no-one can do it on their own – mission is rarely a solitary adventure – we need each other.

 

Mission is more about going to others and inviting them to join in, rather than expecting them to come to us.  As Jurgen Moltmann says, “… in place of the spread of our … churches we have to put a passion for the kingdom of God. Mission doesn’t mean `compelling them to come in’! It is the invitation to God’s future and to hope for the new creation of all things: `Behold, I am making all things new’ – and you are invited to this divine future for the world!”

 

Throughout these sessions we will explore these five marks more specifically, looking at what it means in our lived experience to: join in with God’s mission in our everyday faith and workplaces (session 2), share faith and make disciples (session 3), serve our neighbours being a church that goes to others (session 4) and seeking to challenge injustice and look after God’s world (session 5).

Is mission about who we are or what we do?

In trying to summarise the nature of the church, one bishop described us as an instrument of God’s reign – in other words – one of the (main) ways He sees His purposes on earth.  But he also used two other words.  The church is a sign of God’s reign, and a foretaste of His rule.

 

In other words, by looking at the church people would see a sign of what it looks like when God is ‘in charge’ of a community – in the way we love one another and act.  And they would have a foretaste of what the world will look like when God is fully present in the healing and restoration the church seeks to bring.

 

God needs a visible Christian community that functions as the body of Christ who live out His mission. Mission is not just something we do; it is who we are.  The French philosopher Pascal said that it is virtually impossible to try and persuade people of the truth of Christianity, unless the more important thing is in place – to make people wish that it were true because they see the vision of what it offers lived out in real people’s lives.

 

The writer Hugh Halter says this about God’s mission in our time: “The incarnational big-story gospel will require a place of discovery, where people will be able to see the truth before they hear about it. This place will not be location but a community of people who are inclusive of everyone. These people will be making eternity attractive by how they live such selfless lives now and will be modelling life in a new kingdom in ways that will make it easy for other people to give it a try….Success is faithfulness. The rest is up to God.”

What does the Holy Spirit do?  How does the Holy Spirit relate to the Spirit of Christ or God?   Why is Spirit “holy”?

How is it that God can be with each person, and in each place, throughout time and space?  How can God act in the world?

 

From the beginning of the Bible, it is through the Holy Spirit that God carries out every aspect of His purposes.  It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of God’s mission and the way in which God is present to us.

 

We saw that in the story of the Bible God’s mission is to bring life into being, restore and recreate what is broken, be in personal covenant relationship with His people, and appoint us to live out His purposes.

 

All of these things happen by the Holy Spirit.  He is God’s personal and empowering presence.  No aspect of God’s mission is possible without God’s Spirit.

 

Christians are familiar with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  It is important to know that this is a continuation and expansion of the work of God’s Spirit throughout all of history.  It is with the arrival of Jesus that the Spirit appears in the fulness in which we know Him.  While the Spirit is referred to 126 times from Genesis to Luke, from John onwards He is spoken of 196 times.

 

It is good to know as well that the Holy Spirit is not only an invisible “power”, but a person who helps, strengthens, cries out from within our hearts, knows our own spirits, prays for us, works things together for good, and creates the character of God in us, known as the fruits of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is more than personal, but also not less than personal.

 

While it has been more common to refer to the Spirit using the masculine ‘He’ (see https://www.churchsociety.org/resource/is-the-holy-spirit-to-be-referred-to-as-she/) in some cases the words used are feminine or neuter.  This opens us up to knowing that the character and action of God’s spirit is beyond any gendered ideas we might bring.

 

The Holy Spirit is a divine and a distinct person.  Yet the Holy Spirit only works to point us to the Father or the Son.  He is ‘God behind the scenes’, acting anonymously, meaning we are never directly aware of the Holy Spirit, but His presence will make us more aware of the Father or Son.  Jesus said the Spirit will “testify about me.”  (John 15:26)

 

Augustine called the Holy Spirit the tie of love between the Father and the Son which He then pours out on us, drawing us into the circle of love and making God’s love real to us.  He…”proceeds from the Father and the Son… and makes Christ known in the world.”

 

That is why people in the Bible do not pray to the Holy Spirit, and such prayer was rare in the life of the early church.  In the New Testament the normal pattern is to pray in the Spirit, not to the Spirit.  At the heart of God’s Spirit is a wonderful reminder of God’s self-giving agape love – the desire to make the Father and Son known above all.

 

In one way, if we find the Holy Spirit hard to relate to, it is perhaps a sign that what really matters is that He is helping us see the Father, through the Son, even more clearly.

 

The Holy Spirit never comes to us as a separate force, but always makes our vision of God the Father and Son clearer, and our experience of their fellowship more real.  Only by the Spirit could we possibly hope to have the life of our transcendent three-in-one God in us.

 

So even while we honour the Holy Spirit as a distinct person it is consistent to know the Spirit in our lived experience as the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Paul talks about the “Spirit of Christ” three times, and the “Spirit of God” 16 times.  Nevertheless, as the Bible progresses there is an increasing move to celebrating the Spirit as “Holy” as the normal way of addressing the Spirit.

 

For example, whereas the Old Testament talks about the “Spirit of God or the Lord” 67 times, this phrase is used only 25 times in the New Testament.  In contrast, the name “Holy Spirit” is used just 7 times in the Old Testament, but 88 times in the New.

 

The Spirit’s holiness is not about distance, but about a uniqueness – in being the only one who creates life as a distinct person.

How does the Holy Spirit create and sustain life?

From the second verse of the Bible, it is the “Spirit of God” who brings order out of a totally uninhabitable world of darkness and chaos, bringing life and meaning to the creation (Genesis 1:2) and human beings. (Genesis 2:7)

 

There are a number of images used to describe the presence and work of the Spirit, and the first is that of breath.  It is God’s breath (breathed out as He speaks things into life) which enables human beings to come to life, giving us a ‘spirit’ – a divine life-spark.

 

The same Spirit-word of breath can also mean wind – the invisible force that brings energy to the whole world and makes them move.  The writers see the Spirit’s work in bringing life to humans and creation as one and the same.

 

It is through God’s personal Spirit that He creates and sustains animals, plants, and the movement of the stars, and gives humans a spirit.

 

Through His personal “breath”, His own personal life-giving power, God is present to the world, both creating it and sustaining it.  It is through His “breath” and “wind” that God can be present in the world.

 

Wind and breath remind us of power and gentleness, movement and peace – these are the characteristics of God’s presence.  Wind also cannot be contained by anything, and so is a reminder that the work of God’s Spirit will always be bigger and wilder than we can express.

 

In the New Testament this theme continues.  Each Gospel emphasises how Jesus’ work is connected to the creative work of the Spirit.  The bird hovering over Jesus at His baptism recalls the Spirit over the waters at creation, bringing new life.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit. gives birth to spirit. … The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 5-8)

 

When the Spirit comes on all the disciples at Pentecost they are all able to speak different languages, but be understood.  In a twenty-first century multicultural environment, it is crucial for us to see from this that the Spirit creates in such a way to bring people together but celebrate all their differences at the same time.  The creative work of God’s Spirit always does what human beings struggle to do – hold together unity and diversity.

 

For disciples the mission of God to bring life to creation including human beings can only be by the Holy Spirit.  And the mission of God, from the beginning, is seen in every part of His creation.

How does the Holy Spirit re-create a broken world?

After His resurrection when Jesus appears to His disciples “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22)  Through the Spirit, God continues to create and re-create what has been broken…

 

The Holy Spirit is Creator, but also the Redeemer throughout the Bible, working to draw us to God’s future and give us a foretaste of the restoration we long for.

 

If the first creative work of the Holy Spirit makes us God’s creatures, the second work is to reverse the effects of sin by restoring us as His children, growing into who He made us to be, wanting to obey Him.

 

In the Old Testament, particularly after Israel goes into exile, there is a longing for God’s Spirit to be restoring His people.  The prophets through whom the “Spirit of Christ” speaks (1 Peter 1: 10-11) look to a time when God will send His Messiah – which means the one anointed by His Spirit – and bring salvation.

 

The main prophecy about this anointed one is in Isaiah.  God promises a King on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest (the Spirit is mentioned four times) who will bring righteousness, justice and faithfulness to the earth, bringing about a renewed creation.  This Spirit will give wisdom and understanding.  (Isaiah 11: 1-10)

 

Ezekiel looks for a day when God will change all His people from the inside out. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.”  (Ezekiel 36: 26-28)

 

God will bring people who are lost and spiritually dead back to life by His Spirit.  Ezekiel speaks of all that the Spirit does, using the words breath, wind and spirit: “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life….‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live’…I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…” (Ezekiel 37: 1-14)  This is the high point in describing what the Spirit does – it is only by the Spirit that we can be truly re-created.

 

As we have seen, the New Testament uses the same ideas and language as the Old (Jesus ‘breathing on the disciples’, the Spirit hovering over the water, the sound of wind at Pentecost) to describe the work of the Spirit in recreating.

 

But with the arrival of the anointed one, this new creation breaks into the world in a decisive way, expanding God’s work of restoration.

 

The Holy Spirit’s power is linked to the power of Jesus’ works and His resurrection.  “Christ Jesus…who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1: 1-4)

 

We see the Spirit’s re-creation in bringing the wholeness of God’s kingdom to broken people.  In His life and ministry, the healing and deliverance which Jesus brings is done “by the Spirit of God”.  (Matthew 12:28)

 

We see this the Spirit’s re-creation in the defeat of the power of death.  The Spirit has enormous power to bring new life, being involved in raising Jesus from the dead.  Jesus “was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

 

And we see this in the action of the Holy Spirit as being a guarantee, and a foretaste of the complete healing of all things.  The Holy Spirit has begun His work and will not stop until the whole creation is liberated.

 

Because we live at a time when God has defeated the power of death and evil, but we are yet to see that victory completed, we still long for that day.  Paul says that “we groan inwardly as we wait for the….redemption of our bodies.”  (Romans 8:23)

 

Meanwhile, our experience of the Holy Spirit is as a down-payment of that future promise.   We have received the first-fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:23).  Pentecost came at a festival of the first-fruits of the harvest that is to come.

 

The Holy Spirit is at work now, re-creating the world and us.   God’s mission through the Spirit is, as much as possible, to make His future kingdom a reality today.  In God’s new creation, there will be no racism, or hypocrisy, or lies, or sickness, or environmental harm, or fear…and so our mission is to partner with His Spirit to see that healing become real today.

 

For disciples the mission of God to bring restoration which points to God’s future can only be by the Holy Spirit.  And the mission of God restores whatever or whoever is broken in any part of creation.

How does the Holy Spirit restore disciples?

We have already seen, in looking at how our characters are changed to become more like Christ, that the having our minds renewed by what we focus on and having a community in which we can be both encouraged and exposed matters.

 

But we have seen how a key discipleship principle is that it is our practices of being with God which help change us indirectly as they give space for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts – the place of our deepest desires.

 

The new creation work of the Holy Spirit is seen in the world, but also in disciples being “new creations”, who are being transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18)  We are on a journey to become like Christ, and journey which will only be complete when we are resurrected.  We are not what we were, but we are not yet what we shall be.

 

The Holy Spirit is working to change us from the inside out, to grow the character of Jesus in us (the fruit of the Spirit).  Whereas in the Old Testament people received the Holy Spirit for particular tasks, in Christ the Holy Spirit lives in us for a lifestyle.  A word for this process is sanctification – of the journey being made more holy – set apart for God – throughout our lives.

 

Just as the Holy Spirit does the ‘heavy lifting’ in our transformation, even in our being able to put our trust in Christ most of the work belongs to the Spirit.  “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)  Our wills are too affected by sin and brokenness to be able to manage on their own.  As one writer puts it, “What matters is not the strength of our spirituality, but the grace of the Spirit of God.”

 

The encouraging thing in terms of sharing faith is that just as we ‘join in’ with God’s mission in its wider sense, our first need is to see where the Spirit is already at work in people’s hearts.

 

For disciples the mission of God to make disciples more like Christ can only be done through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

How does the Holy Spirit make God’s love and presence real?

Only by the Holy Spirit can the love of God be made real to us, and can we be secure in our identity as His covenant children.  The Spirit is God’s personal presence.

 

We reflect this every time we gather for worship.  For example, during Holy Communion we begin by saying, “The Lord is here.  His Spirit is with us.”  During our thanksgiving prayer there is a particular moment when we call upon the Holy Spirit to be present to us through the bread and wine: “Send your Holy Spirit, that these gifts may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  We are looking for an encounter with God through the Spirit.

 

Jesus promises the Spirit to His disciples as someone who will come alongside them, like a legal defender (paraclete) when He is physically absent.  John writes most about the Holy Spirit as being the “Spirit of Truth” who will guide them, teach them, strengthen them when they are persecuted, remind them of Jesus’ teaching, and reveal Jesus to them. (John 14-16)

 

In Romans Paul says it is the Spirit who leads God’s children, reassuring them that they have been adopted by touching their spirits, and helping them call out to God with the respectfully intimate name, “Abba Father.” (Romans 8)  In one sense, every human being is God’s child.  But the usual understanding of our intended status before God is as being His children “in Christ.”

 

The “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” brings God’s love to us, coming to us in our most difficult places and weakness, even helping us to pray when we cannot: “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8: 26)  Prayer is not something we begin, but something we join in.  The Holy Spirit makes us stand where Jesus stands with the Father, drawing us into the same circle of love.

 

Just as the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of God’s final new creation, so His presence is the seal of our status before God.  In Ephesians Paul says that we our freedom through Christ before God was “signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit”.  He is like a “signet from God” guaranteeing God’s promise for our future.  (Ephesians 1: 13-14)  During a confirmation service the words a bishop prays over the candidate, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit”, are emphasising this sense of being marked with God’s promises.

 

For disciples the mission of God means trusting the Holy Spirit’s work in us before we join in with Him.

How does the Holy Spirit commission and strengthen disciples?

The Holy Spirit appoints and commissions God’s people to carry out tasks and gives the strength and wisdom to put them into action.  Again, as the story progresses, we see that the way the Spirit of God does this in the Old Testament expands and is fulfilled in the New.

 

In the Old Testament the Spirit usually gives people power for certain tasks, at certain times – we have seen the examples of Joseph and Bezalel.   God empowers Moses, and through him, seventy others: “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.”  (Numbers 11:25).  Balaam prophesies by the Spirit of the Lord. (Numbers 24:2)

 

There is a common thread that it is the Spirit that enables people to prophesy throughout the Old Testament.  As well as giving life, God’s Spirit also influences people with God’s wisdom and ideas, giving them insight they could not naturally have, helping them to speak His words.

 

Later prophets like Micah derive their ability to challenge God’s people from the Spirit: “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.” (Micah 3:8)

 

Linked to this the Spirit of the Lord coming on people is often associated with the task of leadership.  “The Spirit of the Lord came on (Othniel), so that he became Israel’s judge…” (Judges 3:10), on Gideon so he can lead the Israelites. (Judges 6:34)  They are given the wisdom and the power to carry out God’s work.  They are helped to do things not humanly possible (like Samson being able to tear a lion to pieces with his bare hands! (Judges 14:6)).

 

Anointing with oil becomes a further sign of the Spirit’s presence, particularly linked to people being appointed and strengthened.  Saul and David both have oil poured over their heads by Samuel when they become king.  “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.”  (1 Samuel 16:13)

 

When the Spirit of the Lord influences a person, rather than taking away or overriding their human talent or gifting, it fulfils it, making more of their strengths and qualities.  The more they are empowered by the Spirit, the more fully human they become, the better a king, or leader, or artist, or high priest, or prophet.

 

So from the beginning, God’s Spirit anoints specific people in particular ways.   Yet there is a promise that one day God “…will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)

 

Jesus announces and demonstrates that His whole ministry is through the power of the Holy Spirit (see next section). But it is after His ascension that Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled.  The Holy Spirit is poured out on all disciples at Pentecost, empowering them to continue Jesus’ work, not through particular anointed individuals, but as a whole community.

 

They are now able to be “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), in whom God’s Spirit remains.  It is the Holy Spirit who empowers and strengthens the disciples for God’s mission.  Jesus promises His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; And you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8).  The Holy Spirit is “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power” (2 Timothy 1:17) and enables them to speak “the word of God with boldness”.  (Acts 4:31)

 

In the same way that specific individuals were gifted by the Spirit in the Old Testament, that promise of gifts is expanded so each one receives ministries and gifts to carry out Christ’s work.  At Pentecost, Peter quotes Joel’s words to show this is the fulfilment of that promise.  Because the Spirit now comes on a community, Pentecost is often known as the birthday of the church.

 

For disciples, this survey of the work of the Holy Spirit demonstrates how in every single thing, and in every way, whether in the life of the Church or in the life of an individual disciple, the power comes from the Spirit, or not at all.  By understanding this we might grow in a desire for the Spirit, a trust in the Spirit’s goodness, and an openness to the Spirit in our lived experience.

Why is mission 'joining in with the Spirit'?

Our tour through the Bible shows just how much the “chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit. He is the director of the whole enterprise. The mission consists of the things that he is doing in the world”. (Bishop John V. Taylor)

 

In recent decades there has been a heightened awareness that as disciples we “join in with the Spirit” because He initiates God’s work in the world.  Over the next sessions we explore what this means in our lived experience.  The incredible gift is that it is not our job to do God’s work for Him – we just get to join in!  As one writer put it, “I used to ask God to bless what I am doing.  Now I find out what God is blessing and go there.”

 

If Jesus is our model for mission, it is instructive to see how much He saw Himself as being led by His Father in it: “…the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing” (John 5:19) and how His whole life and ministry are in the power of the Spirit.  Jesus did all that He did as a human being empowered by Holy Spirit.  Just the same as us.

 

He is the anointed one, whom Isaiah prophesied would anoint to bring good news (Isaiah 61).  Famously, Jesus quoted these words about Himself at the start of His ministry.  All the gospels, particularly Luke, emphasise how Jesus is led by and speaks by the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is in the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35), comes on Him at His baptism (3:21-22), leads Him into the wilderness (4: 1-2), comes upon Him at His Transfiguration (9: 28-36) and is promised by Him to His disciples (24:49).

 

The gospels bring another image into play alongside breath, wind, and oil.  Jesus is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and who “full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan.”  (Luke 4:1)  The Spirit fills Jesus and His disciples as if they are empty containers, and soaks them with His power.

 

It is not surprising that for the early Christians it was natural that they “prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8: 14-17), that Ananias prayed for Saul (who became Paul) saying “the Lord…has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9: 17), saw the gift of the Spirit being poured out on those who were not expecting it (Acts 10:45) and that Paul said all the fruit of His ministry came from God: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)

 

Bishop Leslie Newbigin, for some time based in Birmingham, wrote, “Mission is not just something that the church does; it is something that is done by the Spirit, who is himself the witness, who changes both the world and the church, who always goes before the church in it missionary journey….every action of the kingdom of God is an action that is performed and sustained only by the power of the Spirit.”

What will help me want to 'join in with the Spirit'?

The logical fruit of a life lived with God, and a character being shaped by His Spirit, is to want to join in with His mission.

 

For those of us who might struggle because of all kinds of pressures or fears to seek the kingdom two themes from this session may help us.

 

We don’t engage with God’s mission because it is a task to be done, but because it is the outworking of who God is.

 

By looking at the nature of the Holy Spirit, we can see that God is in Himself a God who always overflows to others, always goes to them.  He is a missionary God.  The poem “The Coming” by RS Thomas describes God looking at the brokenness of the world and ends like this:

 

“…On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  ‘Let me go there,’ he said.”

 

The more we keep company with a God whose nature is to go to the darkest cross to reach those in need the more we will want to share in His mission.

 

Experiencing the Spirit as the best, and most necessary, gift we can receive.

 

Moltmann writes that, “The Spirit is more than just one of God’s gifts among others; the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up…the greatest and most wonderful thing which we can experience…We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God and God in our life.”

 

Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit as the best gift anyone can receive saying, “…how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11)  The philosopher Kierkegaard asked, “What is a Christian? A person who has caught fire from God’s…presence…a Christian is a person set on fire.”

 

The story is told of a young monk seeking advice from an older monk about his spiritual life. “Abba,” he said, “as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Joining in with the Spirit in all of life

What is our mission? 

We have started to see how vast God’s mission is.  God is working to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ….the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.” God is looking to “restore all things”. (Acts 3:21)  Our calling as disciples is to do what the one we follow did, in the way that He did it. It is not that the church has a mission, but that ‘the mission of God has a church’.

 

As we shall see, joining in with this mission helps us to be fully the people we are created to be. It can also have a deep social impact because God’s mission involves reversing of all the evil consequences of sin, against both God and neighbour.

 

At the heart of Birmingham is a story of someone who joined in with the mission of God in such a way that it touched every aspect of his life and has left a legacy of what society might look like when God’s reign – His kingdom – is experienced.

 

George Cadbury, a Quaker, set up a business in 1873 with his brother Richard.  He was a bit of an eccentric – passionate about sport – football, cricket, tennis, swimming and golf. He loved early-morning cold baths and swimming in freezing cold rivers.

 

But George was not just concerned about making a profit, but saw the way in which he did it as an expression of God’s kingdom on earth. One of his chief aims was the happiness and well-being of his employees.

 

What was it like to work in the Cadbury chocolate factory? Well, each day began with Bible readings and prayers for all. The working day was considerably shorter than many other factories at the time.  George and Richard believed in the balance of work and rest and they introduced half days on Saturdays and bank holiday closing.

 

In 1878 when the factory became too small, they decided to build a factory in the country and named it Bournville. On this site they provided football and cricket fields, a huge playground for children, even an open-air swimming pool. They built schools, hospitals, and introduced a pension scheme which they started at their own expense. George would often walk into the factory in the afternoon and tell the workers to knock off for a few hours so they could play cricket.

 

They made sure each person had their own garden planted trees along the wide roads. On his estate he had a special building created and each year thousands of deprived children found in its grounds every delight that could appeal to them – swings and cricket, races and games and above all the open air swimming pool. When George died in 1922, his funeral was attended by over 16,000 people. His chocolate factory was a signpost of the kingdom of God.

 

In such a complex world, it is easy to see why we might struggle to connect our everyday lives, at home or work (paid or voluntary), with the mission of God. There may be issues which we find it hard to work through. Or we might find it hard to juggle all the competing demands work, family, or church place upon us. We might see work as demeaning or oppressive – a distraction from God. We might not see how the different parts of our lives can fit together. Being part of a church community can feel like welcome ‘time-off’ from the demands of our daily lives.

 

No doubt George Cadbury faced many pressures. But it is equally true that his discipleship led him to join with the Spirit in every area of his life. This session is designed to inspire us with the big picture, and some simple ideas, about how we can serve as disciples wherever we are, and with whatever issues we face.

 

In the book ‘Holy Habits’ Andrew Roberts tells the story of Shona who “…over the years has introduced hundreds of children to Jesus. She has taught them to pray, shared biblical stories with them, introduced them to Christian worship and has engaged them in Kingdom activities including the support of Fairtrade and providing gifts for other children by filling shoe boxes with toys. All at the same time as equipping the children with the foundational learning skills that they need to flourish, and being a listening, prayerful support to colleagues struggling with illness and bereavement.

 

“Shona is not ordained or employed by the church. She is a primary school teacher faithfully doing her best to follow Jesus and bring transformation to the lives of the children she serves and the community in which the school is set. All at the same time as equipping their children with the learning skills necessary for life.”

What might discourage us from seeing our daily work as part of God’s mission? 

As much as we might warm to the vision in these stories, it is common for Christians to feel a disconnect between our daily lives and our discipleship.

 

We can grow up with the sense that certain activities matter less to God. Decades ago, Dorothy Sayers wrote, “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

 

Or we can absorb the idea that certain callings are more acceptable expressions of discipleship.  On Desert Island Discs Sister Wendy Beckett was asked, “When did you first decide you wanted to be a nun?”  She replied, “I was a baby. It was the only thing I wanted because I didn’t know there were other ways to love God completely. I now know of course that you can be a bus conductress or a television person and love God completely.”

 

This can lead to us having a split view of life and God’s mission. Jim meets the vicar at the back of church.  “That was a very nice sermon, vicar, very comforting. And now I’m going to step out into the real world.” The vicar bristles and thinks, “I had thought we were in the real world. The world that belongs to God – every square inch of it – and in which Jesus has come to bring his rule.”

 

Jim has a split worldview. He has one way of looking at things in church, but as soon as he steps into his workplace, he’s operating by a different set of assumptions. He has a different framework of basic belief about things which govern his business dealings. In fact, which govern most of the rest of his life. He splits life up into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.

 

As churches, we can reinforce this sacred/secular split-living. Jean is discouraged. She’s an athlete, who could go far. But people at her local church have put on a discipleship course and a few prayer meetings at the same time as her hurdle practice. What should she do? Her fellow Christians are encouraging but make her feel that the meetings should come first. That if she really wants to worship, she should do it in the meeting room, and not on the race track.

 

When a teacher says, “I do Sunday school for one hour a week, and my church get me up to the front and pray for me. I teach 30 children for 39 hours a week and no one ever mentions it in church,” we see this split-living and thinking. We see it in the phrase “Full time Christian Worker” when it is only applied to those working in churches.

 

We see it in the way that people who have enormous skills in their working lives may be unable to transfer those skills into the church area of life. Or in the lack of a weighty Christian presence in the arts, politics, music, academia or business. Or when we give money to someone going to preach the gospel in Transylvania, but not to support a struggling Christian artist who seeks to bring the yeast of the kingdom into the world of art.

 

In terms of joining in with God’s mission, Mark Greene says this is the decisive issue: “The UK will never be reached until we create open, authentic, learning and praying communities that are focused on making whole life disciples who take the opportunities to show and share the gospel wherever they relate to people in their daily lives.”

 

As we shall see, the roots of this disconnection are centuries old. More recently the Church of England has set up reports and projects called ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and ‘Everyday Faith’ in order to address this for our generation.

 

The report aims for two things:

 

Equipping all people to find and follow God confidently in every part of life, and

 

Recognising the gifts and callings of all people, whether ordained or not, and encouraging all people to use these skills for the good of God’s Kingdom.

Why might we struggle with what spirituality means?

Simeon Stylites was a monk who built a column six feet high in the Syrian desert in the fifth century AD and lived on it for several years. However, he became rather ashamed of the small column and after a determined search he found a 60 foot pillar situated thirty miles from Antioch in a sun-scorched wilderness.

 

This pillar was perfect; it was three feet across with a railing to prevent him from falling off in his sleep. On this perch Simeon lived uninterrupted for thirty years, exposed to rain and sun and hail.

 

A ladder enabled his disciples to take him food and remove his waste.  He bound himself to the column by a rope; the rope became embedded in his flesh, which putrified around it, and stank, and teemed with worms. Simeon picked up the worms that fell from his sores, and replaced them there, saying to them, “Eat what God has given you”.

 

Simeon lived on this pillar for thirty seven years in every extreme of weather, praying and posturing or standing with arms outstretched in the form of a cross for as long as eight hours at a time.

 

Simeon’s view of the world and what it means to be “spiritual” affected his whole approach to life.  He believed that the world, and therefore his body, was essentially evil – a corrupted creation in need of redemption. The purest form of discipleship was therefore to be removed from the earth (literally 60 feet above it!) in order to be closer to God and await rescue from matter.

 

If you had asked him what a Christian approach to art, education, politics, food, sexuality, business was, you know, all those things God has created – he would probably have replied, “They are at worst essentially evil, and at best distractions from the real business of life, which is following God alone.”

 

While he might be an extreme example, he illustrates what has been a common struggle in discipleship – the relationship between the soul and body, between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. It is common among religions to see the body as something to ‘escape from’. Christians have been influenced to see life this way in part by thinkers such as Plato, for whom “the body is a source of endless trouble…if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body…”  The more we can be freed from ‘worldly’ concerns, the more truly ‘spiritual’ we will be.

 

If we are influenced by this in any way, it is easy to see why this would lead to an understanding of some areas of life being more set apart for God than others, some callings being more sacred than others, and why some things which seem more “worldly” are distractions for discipleship, rather than part of God’s mission.

Why might we struggle with our ultimate destiny?

The path you take through life is shaped by where you think your destination is. A common misunderstanding is the belief that ultimately the earth will no longer exist, and instead our souls (without our bodies) will go to be in a place called heaven when we die. The main aim of life becomes preparing for heaven and winning souls for God. The earth is simply the temporary stage on which this is played out.

 

If we believe this it is easy to see why we might feel that much of what we do now is at best a distraction, and at worst wasting our time. There will be two areas of life – the real and eternal one of church and worship, and the ultimately pointless one of everyday life – work, politics, rest, entertainment, football, business, art, sexuality.

 

In this scenario while we seek to be a disciple in the church sphere as soon as we step outside of that we are not sure what it is God really wants us to be doing with this temporary life. It might also mean that people who hold fantastic responsibilities and have major talents outside of the church sphere of life won’t really feel encouraged to use their gifts which they use the rest of the week within the context of the church sphere of life.

Why might we struggle with the meaning of work?

The first mark of mission is to “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom” and the fourth to “seek to transform unjust structures of society”. But operating as a Christian disciple in a society and culture which might not share some of our values presents challenges in how or if it is appropriate to display our faith in a public sense.

 

If we are in a position of influence, we might struggle with how much we expect Christ’s presence and ways to change our context. We will come across issues where knowing what to do might not seem clear cut, and we struggle to work out what a Christian ethical response should be. We may ask in a general sense whether work should be experienced as a blessing or a curse.

 

All these questions may make it very tempting for us to compartmentalise life into parts in which God is involved, and those in which He is not. While raising the question here, we explore how we work through harder questions in module 4 as we look at how to interpret the Bible well.

What was the original task God gave us?

After God and human beings rested on the seventh day, God gave Adam and Eve their task. This first task is a part of us living out what it means to be made in God’s image and describes the shape of the daily existence God made us for. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’….He brought (animals) to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 1:28; 2:19)

 

God gives humans genuine influence in how the world develops – we name the animals. While we are not equal co-creators with God, our participation is meaningful, and honoured by God.

 

We are made to “rule over” and “subdue” creation in the sense of protecting it and keeping destruction at bay.

 

Most fundamentally in terms of our daily work, God makes human beings to be “fruitful…fill the earth” by unlocking the potential of the world that He has placed within it. This of course means creating more humans, but it also means so much more. Everything God has made is good, from the minutest cell to the furthest galaxy. It all belongs to him, and all brings him praise. But what does he want humankind to do on this earth? Keep it as it is? Sit around waiting for it all to end so that we can enter some higher non-material sphere of existence?

 

The truth is much richer. God gives Adam and Eve a world inherent with possibilities: minerals wait to be mined for metal instruments; plants grow to be cut for food or herbs; animal skins can be converted into human clothes: trees to be made into furniture, houses, cities, books, musical instruments.

 

He places them on the stage and says “Act! Use whatever you can to bring glory to my name.” Fill the earth, not just with babies, but with music, creativity, technology, learning, art, architecture, parks, photography. Make it interesting. Stewardship is more than maintenance, keeping things ticking over until he comes again. The task Adam and Eve got, and the role that we have inherited as a result, is one of building a civilisation which teases out of God’s creation all that he primed it to be able to do to the glory of his name.

 

This is the main human task. And Jesus did not change it. It is what we were made for. Theologians call it the “cultural mandate” – a commissioning to develop things. We are not here just to evangelise until the Second Coming (though we have a burning desire to see others in the Kingdom), but to continue in our daily work, in whatever small way, the task of caring for God’s creation and working to unfold its wonders.

 

This is what we are saved, or made whole, to do.  The fifth mark of mission, “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” is nothing less than a reminder of our human calling.

 

In our daily lives God has given us this task. It is the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve for every sphere of life. The Bible has no sacred and secular split. We can obey this command to develop the life of God’s creation just as much outside the church as within it, because the whole world belongs to God, and he cares for every part of it.

 

God made everything. And we are here to unfold it to his glory. To unleash music that hasn’t been heard before, business initiatives that haven’t been practiced before, games that haven’t been tried, technology that hasn’t been invented, teaching methodologies that haven’t been devised. If belonging to a church doesn’t equip us for unfolding the life of creation then we have a partial vision.

 

God provides ways in which every aspect of life can flourish.  As well as setting up laws for the natural world, God invites human beings to discover and live into His norms for every kind of activity. For example, the prophet Isaiah talks about how God has a design for good agriculture: “When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually?  Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil?  When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?  Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way.” (Isaiah 28: 24-26)

 

The writer sees how God designs and rules the natural world.  But he also sees in the same breath that in the same way God provides commands and words that work to his people. Human life is normed in everything: in every field of human affairs there are right and wrong ways of doing things.  Just as God has laws for nature so he has norms for human behaviour.

 

In our society people are not generally happy with this idea. They find it easy to accept that God might be sovereign over the animal kingdom, but not have a plan as to how the state should function. They might believe that God has designed energy exchanges to occur according to certain laws, but not the world of agriculture.  But as disciples, part of joining in with God’s mission will include seeking wisdom on how God has purposed each aspect of life to work best.

What is going to happen to the earth and our daily work?

Rather than devaluing our daily work, how might our understanding of God’s healing Kingdom and the ultimate renewal of all things help us recover a sense of the worth of everyday tasks?

 

God will restore the world, not rescue us from it.

 

We have traced in many ways how God’s mission is not to destroy the earth and take us off to heaven, but to renew it. The whole story of the Bible speaks of God’s plan to redeem, ‘buy back’ everything touched or broken by sin or evil. When Scripture looks to a “new earth” at the end of the Bible (Revelation 21), the word for new isn’t describing something completely new, but a restored version of something that already exists.

 

God’s mission is more like Spiderman than a fireman. A fireman will rescue people by getting them out of a dangerous place and taking them to a safe place. A lot of people think that Jesus came to take them from a nasty place – earth – to a safe place – heaven. To get them out before the whole thing goes up in flames. But that is a worldview which can lead us to abandoning any sense of real purpose for being on this earth whatsoever.

 

If redemption is about waiting around to escape, what’s the point?  Jesus was much more like Spiderman. Spiderman’s mission is to get rid of the enemy so that the people can once more live in safety and peace in what was originally a good city.

 

The nature of Jesus’ ministry shows God’s kingdom coming to earth, as it is in heaven. Where God is not King there is disease, injustice, hatred, exploitation, spiritual possession, and death – and so Jesus brought healing, and broke the power of oppressive forces through dying and rising again.  The world cries out for God’s just and gentle rule, for the “earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”. (Habakkuk 2:14)

 

The mission of God aims to bring healing to every aspect of life.  Everything has been created and will one day be redeemed. Even cookery belongs to God. Even pots will be made holy: “On that day, the Big Day, all the horses’ harness bells will be inscribed ‘Holy to GOD’. The cooking pots in the Temple of GOD will be as sacred as chalices and plates on the altar. In fact, all the pots and pans in all the kitchens of Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies.”  (Zechariah 14: 20-21)

How does God’s mission include helping us recover our original task?

All the words in the Bible that talk about salvation imply a return to something that was once there.

 

Reconciliation means restoring a friendship that has been lost.

 

Renewal means making something new again – restoring the newness it once had. Restoration means a return to the goodness of a first creation.

 

Recreation means an old creation being restored.

 

Redemption means buying something back that was once yours. The image is of a slave being released by being paid for and enjoying the freedom she once enjoyed. God refuses to abandon the work of his hands.

 

As disciples, God has restored us to covenant relationship with Him. But He has also restored our calling – to serve Him in every aspect of unfolding creation once again. Part of resurrection hope includes a promise that our original human task will be completely restored to us in the life to come.  Paul promises Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (2 Timothy 2:11–13)

 

The vision of Revelation points to disciples who God has “made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10). Jesus tells a parable to show that those who have been faithful in this life will be entrusted with more in the age to come: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:21)

What happens to the fruit of our work when God renews all things?

God’s mission to restore the world is not a return to the Garden of Eden, before human beings were able to make any changes to the world, but a renewal in which everything we do in our lifetimes, which reflects His goodness, will be included in God’s future. This means that every small act of work and creation we do can have eternal value. The music, technology, recipes, languages and countless other things we have and are creating will not be thrown away – daily tasks are not a distraction.

 

This is why the renewal of all things is shown as a city, and not a restored garden. (Revelation 21)  It is a promise which includes human work. When John describes this future “city”, he writes how “…the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.” (Revelation 21: 24)  In other words, all that is a true reflection of human worth is brought in.  Isaiah promises that God’s “chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labour in vain.” (Isaiah 65: 22-23)

 

It is clear that not everything will be included. There are many aspects of our work or history that do not reflect God’s glory. This is why Peter promises that on “the day of the Lord…the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” (2 Peter 3:10) The true value of our work will be seen, and what reflects God’s kingdom will remain.

 

Paul expands on this: “…their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:13) It is this hope that what we do can have eternal value in resurrection that means Paul can write: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Are some things sacred and some things secular?

The Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not one square inch of creation over which Christ does not say, ‘It is mine!’”  Every part of life belongs to God, every part can be spiritual. To call some things sacred and other things secular creates a false gap between areas of life God created and those we think He did not. There is no job that is purely ‘secular’.

 

However, any area of life made by God can be going in one of two directions. It can be reflecting and shaped around the goodness of God’s kingdom – such as George Cadbury’s approach to business. Or it can be shaped around the values of the present world, as if this is all there is and God has nothing to do with it. To be secular literally translates as to be only shaped around the values of this particular age or world.

 

So while nothing God has made can be secular in itself, it can still be heading in a secularised direction. Every sphere of life can be lived according to God’s rule, or not.

 

Historically some Christians have thought various things are wrong in themselves. For example, some have said that Christians should not get involved in pop music. They have said the same thing about dancing and playing cards.  But they are getting confused between the structure of music – the essence of the gift of music, the thing that God made – and the direction in which that music is going.

 

Nothing God has made is evil in itself, in its structure. Dancing is wonderful – but it can go in sinful directions. Playing games is part of the structure of God’s creation – but games can be warped by over competitiveness, corruption and gambling. The structure of atoms created by God can be made into energy to resource or destroy life, the films we watch or make can reflect something of God’s values or dehumanise other people, the organisation of societies through the gift of politics can free or enslave people.

 

Instead of calling things ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ it is more helpful to ask, “How is this aspect of life or my work originally good?”  and “Is the direction it is going reflecting God’s kingdom, or is it being secularised?”

Is work a blessing or a curse?

The preacher John Stott called work “… expenditure of energy (manual or mental or both) in the service of others, which brings fulfilment to the worker, benefit to the community and glory to God.”

 

In itself work can be a great blessing. But many experience it (or aspects of it) as more of a curse. This balance in our experience is reflected in the Bible in which work is given to human beings as part of God’s imprint and blessing before human beings fall. Human beings are designed to be fruitful and productive for all our lives.

 

James Davison Hunter writes that “People fulfil their individual and collective destiny in the arts, music, literature, commerce, law and scholarship they build, and in the institutions they develop – family, churches, associations, and communities they live in and sustain – as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing.”

 

Lack of work (paid or unpaid) denies us this fulfilment and leaves us incomplete. Fruitfulness does not have a cut-off date. While we might stop being paid to work, the idea of retirement from being fruitful is not in the story.

 

Yet soon work is shown as being affected by the brokenness of the world, and our current experience is that aspects of it cause toil, sweat and hardship. Part of our calling as disciples who are being restored in God’s image is, like Cadbury, to try and reverse these effects.

What is my calling and how do I know it?

In joining in with God’s mission, every disciple has a calling from God, and there are no callings that are more or less important than others. Paul makes it clear in his picture of the church as a body that every part is needed, and in fact “God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it.” (1 Corinthians 12:24)

 

To think that those who have callings within the church sphere have a ‘vocation’, while those who have a calling to God’s mission in a hospital do not creates a destructive split not only in our individual lives, but also in the church. The truth is that most of God’s mission occurs as disciples serve their callings outside of the gathered church community.

 

The second person in the Bible to be anointed by God’s Spirit for a task is not a priest or preacher, but a craftsperson named Bezalel, whom God chose “to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” (Exodus 31:4-5)

 

Church-based callings are one aspect of our vocation. We are called by God in many different ways.  Christians have spoken about having callings in three ways. In our relationships – as a child, parent, spouse, friend, sibling – our ministry – serving the church – and our social callings – how we impact and serve wider society.

 

Discovering our own particular calling can need prayer and advice from others but Frederich Buechner’s definition makes ‘vocation’ into something which can bring joy and resonate with the way we have been made and gifted. He writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, if I ask myself, “What makes me happy?” and, “Which needs do I care about in the world?” the answers to those two questions will point to our God-given calling.

 

Samuel’s story illustrates this sense of calling. “I used to run a marketing and communications business. I was in Paris with the marketing team, in a building that was all brushed aluminium and steel. It felt good. The Managing Director of the company asked me to do a campaign for a product that was prohibitively expensive and might actually be bad for you. That was quite a moment. I’d thought a lot about running a business, but here I was faced with a dilemma. I said ‘yes’, and what was interesting was working to redeem the product.

 

“Marketing can be hard-nosed, cut-throat and manipulative, but I’m not interested in that. I’m not sure that there was a right or wrong answer in that situation, but it’s about how your values impact the world through your faith.

 

“What brings me alive now, is seeing people step into their fullness, that there is an opportunity within the ordinariness of life to step into something holy. There’s something extraordinary about bringing in a new hiring policy that levels up employment for people from the edges of society, as much as for those who went to Oxbridge. I’m passionate about that.”

How do I celebrate ordinary, everyday things well?

Finding God in the ordinary things of life becomes much more possible when we remember He has created every aspect of life. In his book ‘No Splits’ Steve Shaw describes how laying a table for dinner with friends can be a joyful response to God, handling all the ‘ingredients’ of God’s creation in a holy way.

 

He reflects on how choosing whom to invite can become an opportunity for discipleship, how the choices about food can involve fairness and justice, how making the table look good reflects God’s glory…He is asking three things in doing this. What is a dinner party called to be in God’s world? How does it serve God and creation? Finally, how do all the small decisions help to open up all the different elements involved to proclaim the life of God’s kingdom?

 

Similarly a short video from LICC about ‘Anne’ demonstrates how each part of what she considers to be a “normal, boring life” has the potential to be part of God’s kingdom in many ways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVKbvE-HQeI .

 

Celtic Christians, with their emphasis on heaven overlapping with earth, have a long history of celebrating God in the ordinary things of life.  This prayer, by Bruce Prewer, in a Celtic style, offers a farmer’s daily work to God:

 

Bless, Lord God, my little plot of land,

and the strength with which I’m tilling it,

bless the seed I’m carefully planting,

and the prayers I’m sowing with it.

 

Bless the seasons that are coming,

and the sunshine and the rain.

Bless the days and shortening nights,

and the hopes of my small barn.

 

Bless, O Father of good giving,

Bless, O Son of redeeming.

Bless, O Spirit of the living,

Bless, O Holy Three all-loving.

How can the Good News transform daily life and work?

These three stories, two real and one imagined, demonstrate how joining in with the Spirit in a workplace, while involving prayer, witness, and kindness, has the potential to bring transformation at every level – reflecting God’s ‘cultural mandate’ and bringing healing to what is broken.

 

John started working in his company three years ago. The company made an ordinary but essential household object. John was given the opportunity to steer the direction of things in the company and to ensure the relationships among staff were what they should be.

 

Several people at his church had suggested that John should look into going into the ministry, but he knew that his full-time Christian work was actually found in the company. After all, it was here that he was able to use his gifts and he had contact with those outside the church whom if he’d been a vicar he might not have met.

 

For others, work may have been about paying the bills, getting ahead, being successful, justifying their existence.  But John has a bigger cause than that. John started off by praying for his workplace and his fellow staff. It wasn’t long before he noticed that relationships in the office were not what they could be.

 

For a start, some of the more junior staff were being made to work longer hours than they were contracted for and as a result there was pressure put on their personal lives. John prayed about it and was able to gently intervene and suggest that the staff might work much more fruitfully if they were actually given adequate time off. The management agreed.

 

In addition, John found himself in a position to pay attention to those in the office who had more menial jobs and at Christmas time he put on a thank you meal for them. It was the first time this had been done and several people came up to him to thank him.

 

Over the coming year finances were tight and the management was tempted to cut corners, shortchanging its customers by subtly making their product less than was advertised. John believed that what they were doing was far bigger than just making a profit, and having prayed about it, was able to influence the company in grasping hold of its vision to be providing a good service – developing a product not just in order to make more money, but to create something of worth, that was good in itself.

 

John was also able to encourage the company to embrace partnerships with deprived areas of the city that they were based. As a result several of the employees became involved in hands-on work in the local community.

 

The Walgreen Company is the largest drug retailing chain in the United States. As of May 31, 2014, the company operated 8,217 stores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

 

One of its employees named Julia Turner has Down’s Syndrome and she loves her work.  “I tell you what — I love this job!” she said. “I’m happy, I’m contented. I’ve got people all around me who are the best friends I’ve ever had in the whole world.” When asked by ABC News if it felt good to get a pay-check every week, Julia responded, “It sure does. And if anybody needs a big check, come over here and they’ll give it to you.”

 

It is Julia’s joy in her work that is so striking.  Good work has also brought her friendships and community.   She was asked by the bus driver – “Did you have a good day?” she answered – “I had a wonderful day.” How come Julia has a job that brings her so much joy and fulfilment?

 

It’s all because a Christian man wanted to join in with God’s mission at work. Randy Lewis was a senior Vice President at Walgreens in the USA. Lewis has an autistic son, Austin, and desperately wanted him to have a future and hold down a good job. Previously Walgreens had employed differently-abled people to do “ancillary rather than mission-critical work”….cleaning toilets, sweeping floors etc.

 

For Lewis differently-abled people face a death by a thousand cuts when looking for work. Many are isolated, unemployed or have ‘rubbish’ jobs. He wanted to create meaningful and rewarding jobs for differently-abled people. He stated, “We underestimate the abilities of people on the margins.” He persuaded Walgreens to change the work place…to suit people of different abilities.

 

Walgreens has now designed warehouses where 40% of the employees are differently-abled. These jobs pay an equal wage to the typically-abled workers and hold all employees to the same productivity standards. So Julie Willard, a deaf woman, opined, “It’s my dream to work here!”

 

Angela Mackey, having qualified with an MA, couldn’t get a job because of her cerebral palsy. Her speech sounds slurred but what she says is very intelligent and insightful. She said that no one would employ her! She had applied for 250 jobs without success. At Walgreens she is in charge of the recruitment of differently-abled people. Employing in this way has unleashed incredible creativity and imagination in typically-abled employees.

 

They have designed new technologies that serve and bless everyone. In these ‘warehouses of wonder’ they use images rather than words which help people who struggle to read.  So instead of an unimaginative Aisle 14 they will have a strawberry image. This helps people who cannot read numbers. The HR department has changed many of its policies. When applying for a job a differently-abled person can bring a friend to fill in the application forms.

 

What is so exciting is that the company has discovered that differently-abled people can often outperform typically-abled people. Not only was performance the same (Lewis called in statisticians who studied 400,000 hours of work and proved performance is similar for those with and without disabilities), but in the warehouse, staff turnover was 20% to 50% lower and absenteeism was also down.

 

Safety costs were also lower for people with disabilities. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found deaf forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear”, says Lewis. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.” Randy Lewis’ work for God has led to thousands of differently-abled people doing work they love and getting good wages as well.

 

Finally, a fictionalised reimagining of life at a top football club… Let’s imagine that a football manager and top players really begin to study the New Testament on a daily basis. They notice that Jesus had compassion on the most vulnerable people in that first century Jewish society. Somehow Jesus challenged the assumption that some people are terribly important (rich people) and that other people (lepers and shepherds) are unimportant.

 

The club striker makes the following suggestion: “Boss, why don’t we pay our cleaners a better wage and start to treat them with real respect?” The manager concurs enthusiastically. A few days later the cleaners at the club are enjoying some of the wonderful benefits of the good news of the kingdom of God. The goalie spends several hours talking to Elsie about her lumbago and impulsively decides to pay her gas bill that month!

 

Small acts of mercy and generosity flood the club and several players are deeply impressed by Christ’s command to ‘love your enemies’ and they issue public apologies to players they have deliberately fouled. Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen are gob-smacked and discuss the club ‘transformation’ on Match of the Day.

 

The captain delves ever deeper into the Word of God and begins to unpack the meaning of Jesus’ commission ‘to preach good news to the poor’ and ‘to release the oppressed’. (Luke 4:18). Over a coffee he raises the issue with the gaffer and dramatic events unfold. Ticket prices are slashed in half and unemployed and differently-abled people are allowed into the ground for nothing! All the players agree to a wage reduction and the lead goal-scorer writes an article in the Sun newspaper explaining how easy it is to get by on only ten thousand pounds a week!

 

The manager decides to adopt a football club in Mozambique and develops a charity which allows young players to come and play football at their club ground. One of the players is so impressed by these fine young players that he flies out to Mozambique, investigates the scenario and then sets up an orphanage for waifs and strays. It’s only chump change for a millionaire but he finds the experience so rewarding and moving that money is no longer an issue. He is simply grateful to God that he has the financial resources to be such a blessing to so many people.

 

Oh and when the players play football, they are full of grace and genial bonhomie. They laugh and smile continually and take great pleasure in the game. They play skilful, imaginative football to the glory of God! They are living out the task God gave them. They are full time Christian workers! (With thanks to Mark Roques from www.thinkfaith.net for the Randy Lewis and football stories)

 

This one and a half minute video from LiCC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E_dSz_yd6c&feature=emb_logo) paints a picture of how society might be transformed if every disciple saw themselves as joining in with God’s mission in their everyday faith.

How can my church reinforce the value of everyday faith in God’s mission?

Most of the time the church is scattered into different areas of life. But when we gather together there are many ways in which we can support and develop this whole-life mission. Here are three particular opportunities.

 

Praying and supporting. A woman named Ruth recounts how, “I’d been out of the paid workplace for over a decade and I realised re-entry was going to be hard. Yet I’d been encouraged by my friends in church to trust the sense that I had that this was God’s next step for me.

 

“It was so much harder than I imagined. It wasn’t just the confidence issue, which I’d been prepared for. It was the way people behaved towards me in this predominantly male office. It seems that their relational repertoire consisted of treating me like their mother, a sex object or the office slave. I confess I was ready to move on quite quickly.

 

“My church gently challenged that. They were sure God would use me in that place. They also believed I would grow along the way. In fact, they got me up at the front one morning and they prayed for me, for wisdom, grace, humour, godliness. It was a daily challenge but their confidence was infectious and I found myself praying in new ways. Their continued interest, the insightful questions, Sunday worship; It all encouraged me to see things differently, to turn to God in new ways.

 

I didn’t think it really showed in the office. Until Joe approached me one day with his question, “Are you a Christian? There’s something about the way you’ve been responding to us.” It’s been quite a journey for me, and for Joe, who’s come along to church and seems to have made some significant steps of faith.”

 

Prayer and chaplaincy in the workplace.  In Birmingham, as in many other places, informal networks and chaplains can be a resource to link disciples together in encouragement. The CofE website tells how during the pandemic of 2020/21 “Peter Bethell works for Birmingham City Council as a Transportation Planner.

 

Like many, he has been working from home since March. He misses the personal contact, but he gets a sense of job satisfaction from working in the public interest. Peter keeps in touch with other Christians at work through networks, and he plays a significant part at his home Methodist church.

 

“Anne Smith works for the City Council in helping to organise elderly care: she is also working from home. She enjoys supporting people in the community and making a difference. Anne links up with other Christians through her friendship groups, family and her home Roman Catholic Church. She finds that this gives a shared experience and sense of community.”

 

Anne and Peter are both part of an ecumenical chaplaincy network run by Anglican chaplain Peter Sellick and his colleagues. The Chaplaincy has been working with the Birmingham City Council for years. They share prayer requests and meet Wednesday mornings and Thursday lunchtimes for prayer. “It is important to keep in touch with other Christians, to support each other and to know that you are not alone – even though we are all working from home,” says Peter Bethell.

 

“The Chaplaincy has been providing a listening ear and emotional support to staff. We have been going through some of the most turbulent times in the Council’s history,” says Anne. “During the pandemic they have been needed more than ever. They are there for all staff, of any faith or none. They also provide regular meditation sessions online at lunch times. Many have benefited from these, as sometimes it’s the only supportive interaction they have all day.”

 

Learning to change with others.  We are all on the journey but making the changes to place God’s mission in everyday faith at the heart of being church can be a challenge. As we have seen, we are seeking to undo habits and thought-patterns which are centuries old.

 

In Church of England Birmingham we offer a very practical response to any church which wants to develop in this way. We get small teams from our churches together over a two-year period in a learning community to help each other address this. Journeying together, we seek to put seven changes in place over two years which will help our churches be increasingly growing into valuing every calling, and seeing every disciple as equally called. These changes will depend on where people are starting from, but they cover the things we do, the people we encourage in leadership and ministry, and the choices we prioritise. A handout explains the scheme in detail.

Making disciples and sharing faith

Why is discipling others and sharing faith challenging?

The Revd Jemima Prasadam is a priest who likes to talk, but her style is less to preach from the pulpit than to build a community by chatting to anyone of any faith she meets on the streets.

 

After 20 years honing her skills in Lozells parish, she retired to London, where she makes a point of speaking to anybody, whether she is waiting in a bus queue, at a coffee shop, or buying a pint of milk. It might start with a comment on the weather, or a smile for a toddler, but often the talk turns to matters of faith and there is always a word of support or encouragement — and, occasionally, an invitation to church.

 

“I don’t know if I have talent for striking up conversations; I am just being myself,” she said. “Jesus talked to people, even about the most mundane of human things. The Church seems to have lost that; I don’t know why….I don’t go out looking to talk to people, but I am ready to do it,” she said. “I don’t pass anybody without saying ‘Hello’, and when I leave, I always say ‘God bless you’.

 

“There is no set pattern: it is spontaneous. People are perhaps reading a newspaper. I ask is there anything good, and they usually come out with something. Some people are very British and reserved, but most people are prepared to talk. They often say they are not religious, but I say we are all spiritual beings and they agree; so I simply tell them that weak and simple people like me call that God.

 

“Some people come across as angry; they have been let down by their faith or are too busy at work. But many accept my invitation to come to Trinity Church. Last week, seven people came at the same time. They included two Hindus, one Japanese woman, an Irishman, and a Scottish woman. Many of them come again. I am not proselytising or recruiting: I just invite them to come along.” (From a Church Times article)

 

Three times in the New Testament Jesus tells us to, “Go and make disciples.”  Bishop Steven Croft says, “If ever a single verse could be said to have shaped the history of the world, it is this one.”

 

As we have seen, God grows the church, we join in with His mission, but the existence of the church, and the calling given to every Christian, is to fulfil Jesus’ “Great Commission”.

 

We are all different personalities, with different gifts, but the more we can grow in confidence in not only being disciples, but making disciples, the more we can experience the kind of fruitful existence Jesus hoped for in our lives: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

 

As we have seen, to join in with God’s mission is the end point of an apprentice.  If we are being with God, and becoming like Christ, we will naturally reach out as Christ did.  Elaine Heath writes that, “To be people whose meaning is love is to become broken bread and poured out wine….a complete belonging to God, of full commitment to the reign of God in this world…”

 

In this course we have seen that the first two marks of mission (which lead on to the other three) are to “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom and to teach, baptise and nurture new believers”.  We have also seen how a spiritually healthy life has an “out” dimension, as well as an “up” and “in”.   If worship is our highest calling, then mission is our most urgent assignment.

 

But while most might agree that the first two marks of mission make natural sense for disciples, many disciples have varying degrees of confidence when it comes to faith sharing.  Sherry Weddell tells a story of a pregnant teenager Sarah who showed up at a local parish church.   But Sherry comments, “What troubles me is: an unchurched teen shows up, in a small parish in a small town, week after week, clearly interested in the Mass, with a young man who has been active in the parish since he could walk, and no one wants to tell her the good news.”

 

Sarah said, “It would have taken next to nothing. No one said, here, read this, tell me what you think. No one asked me to come to any kind of lecture or meeting. No one prayed with us or said they were praying for us. It’s not that I think I’m so special, it’s just that….What were they doing? Why didn’t they think this was important today?”

 

Sherry challenges us by saying. “…the parable of the lost sheep is reversed today: ninety-nine sheep have gone off and one remains in the sheepfold. The danger for us is to spend all our time nourishing this one remaining sheep and not have time to seek out those who are lost.”

 

Jesus told His disciples, “… there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)   He told them to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”.  (Matthew 5: 13-16)  The apostles in Acts were accused of “…filling Jerusalem with their teaching.” (Acts 5:28)  Acts tells the story of the early church growing in diversity, geographically, and in number.

 

Many things might have contributed to a lack of confident witness – we have lived over the last few decades with a background and mindset of church decline and feel powerless; society has become more diverse and we feel unsure about how to “proclaim” anything, whether faith-based or not; we might be fearful of being manipulative when individual choice counts for so much; we might think faith should be a private matters; we might simply be afraid of causing offence or being rejected; we are not sure how much “freedom of expression” we are allowed in certain contexts; we might be confused about what “evangelism” is – the New Testament gives little advice on how it’s done or what it is; we may lack confidence in our own discipleship and therefore not know how to share it with others (we only tend to pass on what we have first experienced).

 

The aim of this session is to equip us to be freed from these fears so we have confidence in being able to take whatever opportunities God gives us to disciple other people, believing this is the most precious gift anyone can offer.  We will look both at how to share faith naturally with those who might not yet identify as Christians, and how to help others grow as disciples.  Our possible lack of confidence may be less a question of whether we may do it but how we get to do it.  This session aims to offer some motives, ideas and ways forward.

 

A few years ago, the World Council of Churches wrote a document called Mission and Evangelism.  In it they wrote, “God leaves us free to choose how to share our faith.  But our options are never neutral – every methodology either illustrates or betrays the gospel we announce.”

 

In other words, we all carry a message about what we believe through our actions and words.  If we choose not to share faith, we are still saying something.   The only question is: what good news do we want to carry in our lives and how might we share it?

How is discipling others joining in with the Spirit?

Just as the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s world and invites us to join in with His mission, so in every step on our journey of discipleship the Spirit is at work in us.  Every significant part of our faith development is the work of the Spirit.

 

This has to be the case because our wills – the place of our desires and choices – do not work completely as they should.  We have competing desires and sinful reactions.  No part of us can develop without God’s help.  So…

 

It is the Spirit who shows us our need for God’s grace and gives us an accurate picture of God and ourselves: “…he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8)

 

It is the Spirit who helps us see the truth about who Christ is: “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth….He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”  (John 16: 13-14)

 

It is the Spirit who enables us to put our trust in Christ:  Paul wrote: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)  Oliver O’Donovan writes that “active belief in Christ needs to be evoked in us by God himself.”

 

It is the Spirit who assures us that we are God’s children:  While in a general sense every human being is God’s child, the Bible usually keeps that term for those who have “been adopted” by God through Christ.  The Holy Spirit makes this possible and enables us to experience it:  “…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship…The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8: 15-16)

 

It is the Spirit who grows the character of Christ in us (the fruit of the Spirit): “And we all…are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

 

The outcome of any faith-sharing and discipleship depends not on what we do, but on what God’s Spirit is doing.  It is not our job to convict anyone of their sin, for example.  This means that we have the freedom of knowing that, while we have a part to play in discipling others, God does all the heavy-lifting.

 

From the start we can be freed from the burden of thinking it is about our effort.  And because God is at work in everyone, long before we meet them, rather than needing to ask, “How do I do this?” a better question might be, “Where is God already at work in this person, and how might I notice or encourage it?”

Humanly-speaking, what kind of relationships help people come to faith?

A recent research survey of 383 people who have come to faith as adults showed that for most people the process of coming to faith is a gradual one.  In this, it highlighted that the church community and individual relationships with others were the most significant factors in helping them to do so.

 

Over 80% of them had had contact with a church during childhood, and 90% said that the church was very significant.

 

92% had a relationship with a Christian which led to their own journey.  87% of them knew someone was praying for them and the same number had responded to some kind of invitation to join in with the church in some way.

 

More people said that an individual explaining the Gospel was significant, than those who said that a public speaker explaining the Gospel was significant.  Only two people said the internet had been helpful.

This emphasis on the significance of relationships and community as the environment for faith-sharing and disciple-making is seen in the ministry of Jesus and the early church.

 

Jesus almost always worked in groups.

 

While some evangelists have the gift of reaching out as individuals, for most disciples the call to make disciples is always done through relationships, and with others in community. Jesus called His disciples to be “salt” in the world – seasoning society with God’s kingdom, and “light” – being a visible sign of God’s kingdom.  But in Matthew 5 He calls them to be this together.

 

Similarly, Jesus always sent His disciples out at least in pairs to join in with His mission.  And He rarely nurtured His disciples individually – most of His interactions with them were in groups.

 

It was and is the life of the community that speaks loudest.

 

The French Christian philosopher Pascal said there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. Instead, the best way is to make people wish it were true because they can see the rich reality of life in the kingdom lived out by those in the church. Once people’s hearts notice something they find attractive, often their minds will catch up. Our love for one another is the demonstration of God’s love which provokes curiosity.

 

Acts 2: 42-47 describes the life of early Christians in community, being together in worship, discipleship and service.  As a result, they enjoyed “the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (verse 47)

 

At its best, faith-sharing isn’t an activity we do, but flows out of who we are as a Christian family.  As Dallas Willard writes, “There is a special evangelistic work to be done, of course, and there are special callings to it. But if those churches really are enjoying fullness of life, evangelism will be unstoppable and largely automatic.”  Elaine Heath adds that, “…the expression of loving community is the greatest apologetic for the gospel.”

 

They showed commitment to those around them.

 

In the next session we look more at how as a gathered church we can go to others and be a blessing.  While it’s true that sharing faith often starts with taking the initiative to meet people where they are at, this sometimes can be balanced with the decision to stay with the people God has placed us with.

 

It is striking how much of Jesus’ ministry took place in a small area.  Of His 32 miracles, 28 were in Galilee – an area far from the religious centre of Israel and seen as a backwater.  Most of his time was spent among the Jewish villages of the North West, around Capernaum where he had his base.  Most of the places Jesus visited would have been within a two-day walk of Capernaum.

 

Jesus gave the Great Commission in Galilee and not in Jerusalem.  Often, He would encourage people to stay, rather than go.  After healing a demon-possessed man, Jesus tells him to, ““Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8: 38-39)

 

They were radical in including people.

 

Just as Jesus scandalised the religious leaders because of the company He kept (““Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:16) so the early church demonstrated God’s agape love by turning the social expectations of the time upside-down.  In a community in which in Christ there was no difference in status between neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) the sight of seeing slaves and their owners in an equal relationship must have been extraordinary.

 

Whereas Jewish men at the time might pray, “I thank you God that I am not a woman, not a Gentile, not a slave” we are told that in Philippi the earliest converts and founder members of the church are a woman (Lydia – who opened up her house for the church), a Gentile (the jailer, whose whole house is baptised) and a slave (healed of a spirit through Paul).  (Acts 16: 11-40).

 

A notice from outside a church in Wales captures the flavour of this attitude of openness,

 

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rake or could afford to lose a few pounds.

 

“We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or are like our vicar (who can’t carry a note in a bucket). You’re welcome here if you are just browsing, just woke up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been in church since little Jack’s christening.

 

“We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, down in the dumps or if you don’t like organised religion. We’ve been there too.

 

“If you blew all your money on the horses you’re welcome here. We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

 

“We welcome those who are linked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in the one way system and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts……and you!”

How do we practise hospitality?

As we have seen, the main way we give God’s Spirit the room to work in us and through us is by developing practices or habits in our lives.

 

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”   (Romans 12:13)  The practice of hospitality, whether we offer it as individuals to other people, or together as a church, provides the best space in which faith sharing and disciple-making can happen.  In addition, as a way of joining in with God’s mission, the practice of hospitality offers a gift to our society where many are struggling with loneliness and mental health challenges.

 

If we want to stay committed to people, offering relationship and a welcome which includes them, the more we can practise hospitality the more these values can be demonstrated: “Dear friend, when you extend hospitality to Christian brothers and sisters, even when they are strangers, you make the faith visible.” 3 John 5 (The Message)

 

Much of Jesus’ disciple-making took place over food.  Famously He says three things about why or how the Son of Man came: “…not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45) “to seek and save the lost,” (Luke 19:10) and finally He did this by “eating and drinking.” (Luke 7:34)

 

Whether this is a simple drink, or a meal, the practice of hospitality creates a space for disciple-making and faith-sharing because we are sharing who we are as much as what we say.  It is an equal, sharing environment.  It is hard to imagine any meaningful relationship developing without hospitality.

 

We have seen how relationships and experiencing the life of the church is so important when it comes to faith sharing.  But perhaps rather than asking, “How could this person come to church?” a good starting-point might be, “How might this person encounter church over a table?”

 

Two other principles are helpful in how we practise hospitality.

 

Deliberately seeking to offer hospitality to those who can’t offer it back.  One of Jesus’ parables puts it plainly: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  (Luke 14: 12-14) Unconditional hospitality shares the faith and disciples others by demonstrating the nature of God’s self-giving love.

 

Receiving hospitality.

The practice of hospitality can be as much about our being willing to receive from others, as offering space to them.  Jesus frequently ate at others’ homes and was unafraid to ask for help.  In doing this, we meet others as equals and demonstrate that we are not the answer to any needs they might have.

What is evangelism?

We read the words “witness” or “evangelist” over 20 times in the book of Acts.  Evangelism comes from a word which means good news.  It is clear that the passion of the church was to present the good news.  While we might be aware of examples of bad evangelism, the idea of telling good news is a wonderful gift in the Bible: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”  (Isaiah 52:7)

 

As this course and this verse hopefully show, the good news is about so much more than ‘getting people into heaven’.  In fact, it is more about ‘getting heaven into people’.  The invitation is to know that God’s kingdom is near, and to respond.  Someone translated this definition of evangelism as a call to “re-think how you’re living your life in light of your opportunity to live in God’s Kingdom today and forever by putting your confidence in him.”

 

The good news is sharing that because “Your God reigns” the world is a safe place to be.  The good life is to live in God’s kingdom, to be filled with His love, and to be with Him, become like Him and join in with Him.  In simpler terms the good news is Jesus’ invitation to, “Follow me.”

 

In essence this will mean presenting Jesus and inviting people to allow Him to be at the centre of their lives.  Archbishop William Temple wrote, “To evangelise is so to present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit that people come to put their faith in God through him, to accept him as their Saviour and to serve him as their King in the fellowship of his Church.”

 

A later conference of bishops from around the world said, “To evangelise is to make known by word and deed the love of the crucified and risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that people will repent, believe and receive Christ as their Saviour and obediently serve him as their Lord in the fellowship of the Church.”

 

And Pope Paul 6th wrote that “there is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of God, are not proclaimed.”

 

However, because God always meets people very differently according to their need, responding to Christ and embracing God’s kingdom will start with different emphases depending on people’s situations.  For some, it may mean being aware of the depth of God’s love and forgiveness, for others it may mean a much more intentional need to turn away from a lifestyle, for others it may mean surrender to Christ as Lord.

 

This is another reason why listening relationships and knowing people are key, rather than a one-size-fits all message.  When helping someone come to faith, particularly in the early stages, we need to ask God to help us understand the right approach.  William Temple said the way in which people surrender to God is always different because it is “as much as I understand of myself responding to what I know of God”.

Is every disciple an evangelist?

As Peter and John told the authorities, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)  As we have seen, we all carry ‘news’ of some sort whether we intend to or not.  And as a church community, in a real way, we are the message.

 

It is equally true that everyone needs the opportunity to hear and understand before they can respond.  As Paul wrote, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.’” (Romans 10:13–15).

 

Jesus explained his own mission of preaching to his disciples as “what he came out to do.”  (Mark 1:38)  He then spoke of sending them as the Father had sent Him.  (John 20:21).

 

Jesus gave the task to all his disciples to be disciple-makers – no one was excluded. (Matthew 28:16-20)

 

But it is also clear that there are people who have a specific gift of evangelism within the church.  It is one of the particular five gifts Paul says Christ gives to His church to carry out His mission.  (Ephesians 4: 7-11)

 

How do you know if you have this gift?

 

Evangelists are people who naturally speak about the good news with enthusiasm, telling the core story of God, believing God is working today.  They love spending time with and gathering people, and particularly with those who don’t call themselves Christians, in a naturally infectious way. They have a heart for those who are lost and love deeply.

 

Evangelists make God’s truth accessible and relevant to seekers. They create curiosity and excitement. They translate it into different cultures, making the most of what media are available.

 

Without evangelists people can fail to notice God’s transforming work, lack confidence in sharing their own story, refrain from inviting others to God’s family and become dry in faith.  They call the church to pay attention to those outside its community, recruiting others to God’s mission, often with urgency. They drive for growth and make sure there are opportunities for people to respond to God’s kingdom.

 

If you are a natural story-teller, focussed on those outside the church, and can easily enlist others to join in you may have the ministry of evangelism. You may be a good salesperson or in your work life be involved in some kind of public relations role.

 

While not everyone is gifted with this ministry, we all get to be witnesses.  Jesus described all His disciples as His witnesses taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

 

A helpful way of understanding the heart of a witness comes from Peter who wrote, “Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, but do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:16)  Paul adds, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  (Colossians 4: 2-6)

 

There is a confidence and readiness in taking the faith-sharing opportunities that God gives us at the heart of being a witness.  The rest of this session aims to offer ways to develop this.

How do I grow in wanting to share faith? 

A bookmark offers ‘Helpful reasons for and attitudes in mission and faith sharing’ which hopefully will give encouragement and motivation to every disciple and meet some of the fears we have outlined.

 

To focus on the main way in which we might grow to want to share our faith Elaine Heath tells a story which is a good example of people who are unafraid to be witnesses, and most importantly why they are able to be confident in doing so.  She describes taking a group of students to visit some Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s order) in Dallas, USA, where they meet Sister Salvinette who tells them,

 

“We go out two by two and knock on doors in the neighbourhood. We offer to pray with people and to listen to them talk about whatever is going on in their lives sometimes. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to us or let us come in. It’s always because they think we want something. We tell them no, we are just there to pray for them and get to know them. That is how we basically do our ministry. We find out what they need, what is going on in their lives, and we pray about that with them and try to help them if possible.”

 

“Sometimes my students think it is good to offer neighbourly help as a form of evangelism,” I told her, “But they are reluctant to tell those they are helping that they’re doing it because of Jesus or the gospel. They think that offering such kindness in the name of Jesus is coercive toward those they help. This is, after all, a pluralistic world.”

 

Sister Salvinette grew animated. “We would never coerce anyone,” she said, “But we always do these things for Jesus, and we tell people about him. Remember, Jesus said that if we are ashamed of him before men, he will be ashamed of us before the father!”

 

She then told a story of a man she met while knocking on doors in the neighbourhood. When she offered to pray for him after talking with him, he refused, saying he didn’t believe in prayer or her faith. “That’s okay,” she answered, “I need prayer for myself so you can just listen while I pray for both of us.””

 

However, what is striking is the way in which Elaine says the nuns grow in their motivation to do this:

 

“The basic ministry, the sister told them, is prayer. They use mostly silent prayer contemplating the love of God in front of the sacrament. This is how they receive the love they need to give to the people. ‘We could never do what we do if we did not pray this way,’ she told us.  ‘It would be too hard.’”

 

According to Elaine Heath, if we are lacking in confidence or desire to witness for the Lord, the only place that will change is as we allow ourselves to receive His love.  For the nuns this is through contemplation.  In whatever way, the more we can be reminded how much God loves us and others, the more our desire to share Christ with them will develop.

How did Jesus show His disciples how to share faith and what can I learn from that?

We only need to share the good news of the gospel in the way that Jesus did.  One key insight is that Jesus knew He could not be everywhere at once, and so focussed His mission.  For example, in Matthew 10 He tells His disciples to “go only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

 

Neither did He go to everyone or respond to every request: “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’”  (Mark 1: 36-38)

 

In addition, not everyone responded to His offer – and He didn’t force them.  For example, in Mark 10 the rich young ruler did not want to be pursued.  “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth….Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’”

 

There were people who were not ready to hear His message, and they reacted strongly against Him.  He warned His disciples it would not always be easy.  If the teacher is not warmly received, the students should not expect a warm welcome.

 

The key principle is that He sent His disciples out to look for those who were “of peace”.  “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where He himself intended to go…. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’  And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10: 1-6)

 

Because only the Holy Spirit can prepare someone to receive good news, the first step in sharing faith naturally is always being aware of when people are able to be “of peace” towards God, at any given moment.  You might be able to relate to this – there may be, or have been, times when you are more open to God’s loving presence in your life.

 

Jesus and the disciples started with the people

who welcomed them,

listened to them,

served and supported them,

and were warm to them.

 

Jesus said that when you find a person who is warm towards God, stay there. We should not force dialogue or relationships where they do not naturally flow.  He even warned his disciples against being distracted by those not ready to receive their message. (Luke 9:5 and 10:4)  Paul did the same.  On arriving in Philippi Paul set out to find a person of peace.  He knew where to look and found Lydia.  He stayed there and planted a church. (Acts 16)

 

While we can show God’s love through our words and actions to all, but if people are not “of peace” we must be careful not to put pressure on them.

Why is sharing my story so helpful?

After Jesus healed a man born blind the religious leaders quizzed him, trying to catch Jesus out: “A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. ‘Give glory to God by telling the truth,’ they said. ‘We know this man is a sinner.’  He replied, ‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!’” (John 9:24-25)

 

The man couldn’t answer all their questions, but he could tell them his story.  In a context of so many different voices and points of view around us our experiences have more credibility than our ideas and can help point others to the presence of God.  Being prepared to give an answer to those who ask is less about witnessing to the depth of our knowledge about God, and more about sharing the genuine story of how we know Him in our daily lives.

 

If we get the opportunity, the best way of telling our story is naturally and spontaneously.  But some people might find that having a framework can help us to know how to start.   Further materials include an example of someone’s story, and a bookmark of some possible ways of shaping how we share our faith.

How do I help if someone wants to become a Christian?

Being a disciple is a lifelong journey which, as we have seen, begins and grows in different ways, and continues throughout our lives.

 

Helping someone come to faith always means finding out where God is already at work and starting from where they begin.

 

Three useful questions which can help us engage with people are:

 

Who are you? (Lovingly listening to their story…find out who they are, rather than first offering your story.)

Where are you? (Finding out where they are with faith/God/spirituality/church – again, honouring them and working out whether they are “of peace” at the moment.)

Why don’t you?  (What’s the next step along the way that would be helpful?  It may be coming to church, or going on a course, or it may be as simple as having a coffee together.)

 

While much of the time we may be helping one another take the next step forward it is important that we gain the assurance that we are His disciples.

 

Whether or not we have begun to follow Christ through a process or an event, for many people this assurance involves a definite moment in which there is an inner and an outer response to God.

 

If someone asks us, “How do I become a Christian?” the inner response is to help them “repent” i.e. to turn away from being at the centre of their own life, and “believe” i.e. put God at the centre by surrendering to Him.

 

But this will start with different emphases depending on their situation – for some, it may mean being aware of the depth of God’s love and forgiveness, for others it may mean a much more intentional need to turn away from a lifestyle, for others it may mean surrender to Christ as Lord.

 

You will need to ask God to help you understand what the right approach is – so knowing them, and having listened to them, will be so important.

 

Simply offering to pray with someone expressing these two attitudes, in whatever language is appropriate, will help them step into the assurance of being in Christ.

 

The outer response, which expresses publicly and tangibly the identity and calling of a disciple, is baptism.

Why does baptism matter?

To be baptised is to be immersed.  When John the Baptist called people to be baptised they already knew what it meant.

 

Long before John, the people of Israel would ceremonially wash people and objects which were set apart for God and could then enter His Temple.

 

As time went on, the Jewish people grew in the hope that God would return and “wash” His people. (Zechariah 13)  So as the time of Jesus’ arrival drew near, groups of Jewish people combined this sense of wanting to be cleansed and set apart for God with this commitment to the new thing He had promised.  Some started to baptise themselves (sometimes daily) as a sign that they wanted to be set apart for God and ready for the new thing He was going to bring to the world.  They were preparing a “highway for the Lord.”

 

No Jew saw baptism as a ‘magic’ thing that washed sins away – it was a sign of what God was doing in the heart.  But it outwardly expressed that they had inwardly turned to God and wanted to be set apart for His purposes.

 

This helps us understand why Jesus marked the beginning of His mission by being baptised, why He commanded His disciples to baptise other disciples (Matthew 28:19) and why Peter, on the day of Pentecost, told everyone who wanted Jesus to be Lord and Messiah, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 2: 38).  Baptism was not an optional extra, but an outward sign which showed and inward change.

 

If someone comes to a point of surrendering inwardly to God through Christ, the outward sacrament of baptism, or confirmation is a natural and necessary way of marking this change.

 

The tool, ‘What Baptism Means’ unpacks its significance in more detail.

How do I make disciples?

One of the aims of Way of Discipleship is to give us starting points in our lived experience for our own discipleship, but also to be able to pass that on to others.

 

The tool ‘Starting Points for Sharing Faith and Discipling Well’ lays out in a simple way an outline of how we might start to accompany people well on their discipleship, using some of the tools in the course.

 

It suggests ways to have a good conversation, help someone come to faith, build confidence, support everyday faith, and help people understand how God grows Christ’s character in us.  There are also some suggested Discovery Bible Study passages.

 

Using the tool as a resource to get you started may hopefully build confidence in supporting others.

 

As it reads at the bottom, “People don’t need a perfect example.  They just need a real one.”

How do we share faith naturally with people of other faiths?

Andrew Smith’s book, ‘Vibrant Christianity in Multifaith Britain’ sets out from a Birmingham context many of the issues we might face in sharing faith with those of other faiths.

 

He acknowledges the anxiety this might cause: “….For some people of different faiths the very act of evangelism is deeply problematic, if not sinful….for many families, particularly Muslims I listen to, the issue is not necessarily joining Christianity but leaving Islam. The objection might not be that a family member has become a Christian but that they have left the faith of their family.”

 

While being sensitive to these issues he says, “One concern is that people of other faiths, and usually that means Muslims, will be offended if we speak about the Christian faith.  In my experience nothing could be further from the truth; the vast majority of people are not sitting around waiting to be offended by Christians talking about what they believe but are quite happy to chat about faith.”

 

He offers some principles as a way of engaging well.

 

Holding together being confident in loving people and being confident in loving God.

 

“I have met Christians committed to interfaith work who are intensely focused on loving their neighbours of different faiths, but when I mentioned my belief in Jesus as the son of God, they complained that I’m causing tensions and difficulties by raising beliefs others don’t subscribe to. They are obeying the commands to love their neighbour but at the expense of holding fast to God. Somehow we have to find a way constantly to obey both these commands.”

 

He argues that loving people of other faiths involves being able to share faith with them: “We are called to love our neighbour of any faith and at the same time to be faithful in loving God.

 

“A friend of mine who is a leader in the Sikh community often says that if we want to do interfaith well, then we should do faith well. We should make sure people are rooted in their own faith so that they can contribute well in interfaith settings.”

 

Loving people enough to go to them where they are

 

“It’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then just how much God loves the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others living near us or appearing on the news. However much we might learn to love our neighbour, it will never be as much as God loves them.

 

“The more we are confident in our love for God, the greater love we can have for a neighbour, as we see them as made in the image of God and loved by him.

 

“When the disciples followed Jesus, they found that it meant following him to places where they were likely to meet Samaritans. Jesus didn’t avoid them; In fact, he deliberately sought them out.

 

“From the start, discipleship meant following Jesus into some uncomfortable places to meet all sorts of people whom one didn’t usually mix with.

 

“So, this raises the question – are we pleased to see people of other faiths living in our neighbourhoods? Do we love them enough to think, ‘Oh good, I’m glad you live here?’

 

Do I want people to listen to me talk about my faith? If the answer is yes, then I need to do the same to them and listen to them talk about their faith. Do I want people to visit my church? If so, then I need to be willing to visit their gudwara or mosque.”

 

Being genuine, equal in relationship and honest

 

“Loving our neighbour is a key concept in how we relate to people of other faiths, and we have to do that while continuing to love God faithfully. When we love in this way we start to treat people not as a threat, or a project or a target for evangelism, but as people.

 

“People sometimes ask me how they can start a conversation with their Hindu friends. I say start by asking, ‘How are you?’ Treat them as people, be interested in them, love them.

 

“We are not at one end with everything to give and nothing to gain from others. We are on a par with others, at times helping, at other times being helped, just as a servant benefits from those they serve.

 

“As an aside while sharing our faith can be an act of love, I question whether it always feels like that. For an act of love to be genuine, the recipient has to be able to see it as that. As a Hindu friend of mine once said, ‘Why would I invite you to my house when you think I’m an idol worshipper, a sinner and need to convert?’”

 

Sharing faith positively and humbly

 

Believing that, “I firmly believe that the gospel is good news, so it can be proclaimed as good news without our having to criticise other beliefs for being bad news,” Andrew has worked with others across Birmingham of all faiths to produce some guidelines for ethical witness (see handout).  They include “Sharing our faith should never be coercive…We will speak of our faith without demeaning or ridiculing the faiths of others….We will speak clearly and honestly about our faith, even when that is uncomfortable or controversial.”

 

He summarises his approach to sharing faith with others in a story:

 

“I was once at a meal with some young adults of different faiths. During the meal the issue of conversion came up and a Sikh friend turned to me and said, “I understand that if you saw someone who had no faith and was down on their luck, homeless and a drug addict, that you’d want them to become a Christian, but do you want me to convert?”

 

My answer was this: “I think being a Christian is the best thing ever; I find it gives me hope and purpose and an assurance of salvation, so I’d love everyone to find that too. So, yes, I’d like that for you, but no more than for anyone else; you’re not a target. But also it’s optional. I’m not going to force you to convert; you’re allowed to say no. And another thing: if you want me to shut up about my faith I will.”

Being a blessing as a community

What is the joint calling of God’s people?

As we have seen, the end point of discipleship, and the purpose of God for our lives is ‘to continue the opera’ – to faithfully do the same things that Jesus did, in the manner in which He did them, for the same ultimate goal – the restoration of all things, “the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously.”  (Matthew 19:28)

 

Our worship and mission are intertwined, the one naturally leading to the other. We are not a tribe who look after ourselves, but to live out God’s purposes in the world.   It is not that the church has a mission, but that ‘the mission of God has a church’.

 

The more we have a sense of joining in with God’s mission, the more we will be being true to the nature of what ‘church’ means.  To recap, our task is not to grow the church – Jesus said, “I will build my church”. Neither is it to do God’s mission for Him – we get to join in with where He is at work.  Our commission is to “make disciples.”  (Matthew 28) “If you make disciples, you always get the church.  But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” (Mike Breen)

 

As we grow in discipleship, we will be paying attention to where God is at work and equipped and led to join in with His mission. And as we join in with His mission, the community of worshipping people called out (church) by God will be shaped around His purposes.

 

This is reflected in the four words used to describe the church in the creeds: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Of these, being “holy” means we are ‘set apart’ for God’s purposes.  Being “apostolic” means we have inherited the work of the first apostles (meaning ‘sent ones’).

 

As God’s called out people (church) we are both scattered in various places, but also sometimes gathered as one.  We have already looked at what it might mean to join in with God in our scattered places and everyday lives, and we have explored what it means to share faith with other people.  In these next two sessions we look at how and why we can join in with God’s mission together, as a gathered church.

 

This understanding of being both scattered and gathered as God’s people is seen in Jesus’ use of being “salt” and “light” of the world to describe His disciples.  Sometimes they will be like salt – scattered throughout the world, influencing, and bringing life in less visible ways.  Sometimes they will be like light – gathered in one point as a visible sign showing God’s life together.

 

In this session we explore this by looking at how, in the power of the Spirit, we can talk about living out God’s mission as seeking to be a blessing to others as together we “respond to human need by loving service” (the third mark of mission).  In the next session we look more specifically at marks four and five: “4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

What does it mean to be a blessing and how is it helpful in mission?