1. The Power of Group Psychology

(John 7:40 – 52)

  • Share something that has encouraged you in your faith.
  • Can you recall times when you were carried by the crowd along pathways which you knew were wrong but felt you could do nothing about it?
  • Give examples from your own experience of the pressure of popular opinion against which you have tried to make a stand.
  • Can group pressure sometimes work for good? Give examples.

Amid the shouting and swearing I see punches being thrown and the man in the middle of the commotion falls to the ground trying to protect his head with his arms. His body shudders as he is kicked from all sides. I hear a sickening groan as a booted foot slams into his belly. I feel sick and wish I could do something, but there is a distance between me and what is going on there. I am relieved to see a man come striding out from one of the nearby houses to remonstrate with the gang. He is told in crude terms to move away, but stands his ground demanding to know whom they are treating in this brutal way.

His emergence on the scene brings a lull to the attack, but the victim remains motionless in the dust. I can see blood coming from his mouth. Someone tells the intruder that this is the man who raped little Kelly last week.

Many terms of contempt and abuse are used to express their disgust about the savage attack on an innocent four-year-old. It seems that they are brothers and cousins of the child together with a couple of their friends. They are out for revenge.

The older man tells them to back off. It was, he says, a matter for the police. Let the law take its course. They might have the wrong man. Then they would be carrying out a terrible injustice. Let the courts decide if he is guilty. But the tide could be held back no longer. A length of rope is produced and the seemingly unconscious man is trussed up and thrown into the boot of a car. They drive off with a screeching of tyres and shouted threats.

When an excited group of people get an idea into their heads, it is difficult to get them to sit down quietly and rationally think it through. This is true of sophisticated and educated people as well as of ruffians and outcastes. When emotions are stirred, when privileged positions are threatened, when a people get a set on some one person or some group of people, it is difficult to get them to stop and think about what they are doing.

Simply because Nicodemus sought to uphold principles of justice he was accused of siding with the Galilean. This is what happens to moderates when vengeance and hatred is in the air. Yet society needs its independent thinkers who will not be swept along by the popular tides of emotion and opinion.

Romans 12: 2                                Ephesians 4:14                                     1 Peter 5:8-9

  • What popular attitudes do you think, as Christians, we should oppose?
  • The religious leaders opposed Jesus because they feared he was disturbing a system which gave them power. What are some other situations where people have thrown justice and fairness out the window in their determined attempts to keep power for themselves?
  • What can be done to make your community a more just and fair place for everyone?
  • Have you had to stand up for your beliefs against the majority opinion? Tell us about it.
  • Pray for people who are being unjustly treated by others.

2. To the Incinerator or to the National Gallery

(John 8:1-11)

  • What are you hoping to get out of your attendance at the group today? What are you willing to contribute?
  • Parental discipline: how should it be administered?
  • Have a discussion on capital punishment. What are the arguments in favour and what are the arguments against the death penalty?
  • Find out something about the rehabilitation work attempted in our correctional facilities.

It’s a studio. A large prefabricated building sited so that the people working on their wooden sculptures inside get excellent views of the tree-lined gully and the giant gums around it. As they chisel and gouge and sandpaper away at their blocks of wood they are constantly reminded of the living quarry from which their material comes. The master sculptor has at least one or two projects of his own under way.

The wintry wind is blowing up the gully, tossing the treetops around and playing games with the limbs and leaves, but it is warm inside for in the middle of the studio floor stands a slow combustion stove with its fuel box beside it.

The teacher puts down his mug of coffee and walks over to the wood box. Someone has placed a large, squarish block on top of the box. Presumably it is too large to fit inside. The artist turns to enquire of the other three people in the studio who had given up on this block. A longhaired young man wearing a white apron acknowledges that he had. It’s fit for nothing but firewood, he says. Then gaining the permission of the student the master takes the mutilated block over to his own bench where he takes up chisel and mallet and goes to work, slowly, carefully, deliberately.

It is as if I’m looking through the lens of a time-lapse camera for, right before my eyes, that distorted, shapeless lump takes on the appearance of an Aboriginal warrior’s head – prominent brow; eyes that, even in their wooden state, seem to be peering away into the distance. Every line and curve seems to speak of a mystic harmony with nature, of toughness that has been wrought out of harsh living conditions, of strength that comes from tribal law, of pride in one’s race and yet somehow the carving carries an air of tragedy about it. There is a blip on the screen and I see that head taking its place in an art gallery where it is but one figure telling the story of Australia. In fact it takes pride of place in a central position surrounded by busts and figures representing many facets of Australia’s history.

What does society do with its misfits? Discard them or turn them into people who make a significant contribution to the community? There are those who would fight disease by amputation, but the Jesus seeks rehabilitation.

In ancient Israel it was thought that religious purity could be maintained by killing the offender. Remove the bad apple from the barrel and all would be well. But Jesus placed importance on the individual so that the purpose of punishment in his eyes should neither be vengeance nor deterrence nor purification, but rehabilitation, and in the long run this is for the good of society as well.

Luke 13:6-9                                   Matthew 18:21-22                         Joshua 7:20-26

  • What does John 8:1-11 have to say about the law, the offender and the punishment?
  • In the light of Deuteronomy 22:22 do you think the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees was sexist? Are women still expected to take an unfair burden of blame in sexual sins?
  • If you tell a child often enough that he or she is worthless, the child will believe it and act that way. Do you agree? Does this have a bearing on the way we should treat all people?
  • Have you ever been given a second chance (in work, relationships, etc?
  • Pray for the correctional institutions in our country, their officers and inmates, the families of prisoners, the rehabilitation of prisoners, ex-prisoners trying to find a place in society.

3. Fighting Pollution

(John 17:13-19)

  • Tell us about a good deed that someone has done recently.
  • Tell us about something that you have done to help clean up the environment.
  • What was the worst environmental disaster that you have heard of?
  • Share a household cleaning tip with the others in the group.

We are joined on the headland by an environmental protection officer who is keeping watch through his binoculars on an oil slick that threatens the bayside beaches. He points out the boom floating on top of the sea that is meant to contain the oil so that it doesn’t get carried onto the shoreline. I remark that one would get an excellent view from the helicopter circling overhead. He explains that its job is to dump a dispersant inside the arc formed by the boom.

‘What’s used as a dispersant?’ I ask.

‘Detergent,’ he replies.

‘Like we use when washing the dishes?’

‘Yes,’ he explains. ‘Does the same job.’

‘Will it work?’

‘Hmmm. I hope so.’

‘You don’t sound too confident.’

‘It’s hard to tell. It should disperse the oil, but sometimes the oil’s so thick it won’t work.’

Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is threatened by a giant oil slick. There is something destructive floating around in human experience. We try to contain it by rules and regulations, but the biblical message is that God did something special in Jesus to disperse it and that Jesus sent his followers out to continue this attack on pollution. People generally are products of history – biological, social, cultural, personal – all of which carries the insidious pollution with it. But the inspiration and power of Christians comes from him who carries none of this pollution.

However the pollution-ridden environment can swamp the cleansing agent so that it becomes ineffective. That is why Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they be removed from the polluted environment, but that their potency be retained. ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world’, but it is in the world that they are meant to do their job.

1 Peter 5:8-11                          Hebrews 12:1-2                             Romans 5:12

  • What is the evidence for saying that there is something terribly destructive floating around in human experience?
  • Every society needs law and order, but why will a law and order approach never be enough to rid a community of crime?
  • How can we be in the world, yet not of the world?
  • What has more influence in shaping your current attitudes and daily activity, God or the society in which you live? How could you more effectively represent God and God’s values in the world?
  • Pray for your own faithfulness to God in the midst of a world that is not living by faith in God’s love or in God’s ways.

4. The Abuse of Power

(John 18:19-24)

  • What sort of car do you prefer?
  • What is being done in an attempt to lower the road toll?And how successful is it?
  • With road rules and police campaigns why do we still have so many peoplebeing injured and killed in traffic accidents?
  • If your group were a motorcar, what part would best represent your contribution to the group? What parts of a car would best represent the other membersof your group?

I hear the screams before I see anything at all. As my eyes adjust to the gloom I can make out the figure of a man, a large man, raining blows onto the head and shoulders of a woman who is crouching behind a sofa with arms up over her head for protection. With many an uncouth expletive he is shouting at her that her conduct at the supermarket was evil. Apparently she got caught trying to wear a new pair of jeans out of the shop while leaving her old pair behind in the change cubicle. I gather that he is not so much outraged by the act of stealing as he is by her getting caught.

He seizes her by the hair and drags her out from behind the protecting sofa, then shakes her and throws her down onto the floor. With a parting kick he leaves the room. I can hear the sobbing as she continues to lie where she has landed. Every now and again she lets out a muffled moan with a curse.

How often people misuse their power! Sometimes its physical, but on other occasions it is more intellectual, cultural or racial, political or social, moral or even religious. In any situation where there is an imbalance of power there is the potential for abuse of power. Annas was a wealthy and powerful person in old Jerusalem, and he sought to use his position to wheedle a confession out of the prisoner. It was quite contrary to the law, but that did not stop him. He wanted Jesus to give them the poison arrow, which the council would, in turn, fire at him.

One of the police officers there asserted his superior physical strength and rank by slapping Jesus across the face in a most humiliating manner. Doubtlessly he did it in defense of the former high priest’s honour, but he did it in such a way as to humiliate the prisoner.

In politics and in international affairs we have learnt the value of having a balance of power. Because people can’t be trusted to handle superior power in an altruistic manner, they have to be kept in check by other powers. Yet we know that this is only an attempt to keep the lid on the boiling pot. Human restlessness, greed, desire to dominate, lust and cruelty still boil away under the calm surface. When the balance of power tips too far one way or the other this horrible element of human nature comes to the fore.

Yet we know that it should not be thus. In the ideal world that Jesus represented it does not exist. With God, the saying is not true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nowhere do we get a greater sense of the difference between God and human beings than here. The God that Jesus represented does not abuse divine power for that power is controlled by love.

2 Samuel 11:1-15                           Matthew 2:16                      John 18:4-11

  • Have you been involved in any campaigns against domestic violence? What suggestions do you make about how your community could tackle this problem?
  • Given the sinful nature of humanity, can anything be done about the abuse of power that goes on in our society?
  • Give examples of ways in which power is abused in relation to children, women, employees, homosexuals, and racial minorities.
  • Recount stories from your own experience of people in a position of power using that power to help others.

5. Truth Obscured

(John 18:28-37)

  • What is your dream for your local church?
  • What dreams do you have for your country?
  • Give examples of times when you have been so pressured by things that had to be done immediately that you lost, for a time, the larger picture.
  • List the ten most influential people in this nation according to your group’s assessment.

The paddocks are awash, the gutters at the side of the road are running strongly, the leaves of the trees are glistening in the sunlight after rain. The view through the windscreen is one of beauty and colour. In the distance I can see the mountain pass through which the gravel road will take us to our destination. The windscreen wipers are not needed now. The glass is as clear as if it had just been wiped over with a chamois.

Although there are hollows and potholes filled with muddy water on the road we are able to travel quickly, urged on by a ute behind us, but before long we find ourselves caught behind a semi-trailer. That changes the scene completely. A hundred wheels with but one intent – to blind us. The big vehicle is travelling at some speed but throwing muddy droplets in our direction all the time so that before long our windscreen is covered with a film of mud. The windscreen wipers, recalled into action, only smear the brown stuff across the glass. Our driver would dearly like to pass, but he can’t see. It would be too dangerous, so he tries slowing down letting the big rig get on ahead. Then, as if from nowhere, the brown utility truck fitted with bullbar, roll bar and canopy surges past us throwing even larger lumps of mud onto the already impossibly dirty windscreen. ‘Madman!’ my driver yells. ‘He has a death wish,’ I find myself commenting.

O how our vision of truth and reality gets distorted and blotted out by the mud of political realities! The distant scene is lost in the immediacy of political gain. This passage (John 18:28-38) shows us God’s insight into life, the grasp of truth opened up by Jesus, the realm where God’s will is effectively done, brought up against the political realities of this world. His followers have not always been as true to the vision as Jesus himself was. They have been caught up in the political power plays that go on in every society with the result that the vision is obscured, distorted, smeared. But that stands as a warning. Political expediency is not truth. Commercial advantage is not the heart of reality. The mud has to be washed off if we are to see where we are going. It is the distant scene that calls us on. We dare not fix all our attention on the smeared and blurry windscreen.

1 Samuel 15:10-11                              Matthew 26:59-61                             Acts 4:13-22

  • In the face of political and commercial realities, is the teaching of Jesus about love and justice too unrealistic to be helpful?
  • Should Christians be involved in politics? What are the dangers?
  • What role should the church play in politics?
  • How could government in this country be made more honest, caring and responsible?
  • Pray for your governments at all levels.

6. The Enduring Power of Attorney

(John 20: 19-23)

  • What is the most interesting piece of news you have heard today?
  • Have you ever been asked to act on behalf of another as an agent or representative? What is required of a person called upon to act in such a way?
  • In two minutes write down as many commonly used phrases containing the word “mission” as you can.
  • Sporting teams adopt names like Magpies, Broncos, Firebirds, Wallabies, etc. Choose a name that would describe your group or its intentions.

Two men are seated on one side of the lawyer’s desk while the solicitor types away on a keyboard. The title at the top of the computer screen reads Enduring Power of Attorney. When the solicitor is satisfied that he has made all the appropriate additions or alterations to the form document he presses a button and sits back.

‘In just a minute Alicia will bring the document in.’ he says. ‘Read it through and then you can sign it.’

You don’t have to be told that Thomas and Timothy are brothers. The family likeness is unmistakable. Tim is taller and has more hair than Tom. There might be one or two grey hairs in his fine head of hair whereas his older brother displays a distinct bald patch surrounded by hair that has turned decidedly grey. Both are well dressed in dark suits suggesting that they have interrupted busy business or professional schedules to keep this appointment with their solicitor.

Their eyes turn toward the doorway as the neat, slim, young woman walks briskly into the room and places three copies of a document on Geoff’s desk.

After handing each of them a copy to read and giving them time to peruse the document, the solicitor says to Tom, ‘You understand what you are doing of course? You are empowering your brother here to act on your behalf, and that includes acting in all matters relating to your parents’ estate. You are the executor. This does not alter that, but it does give Timothy the power to act on your behalf. He can buy and sell, invest or withdraw investments, and make any other decisions which are your responsibility to make.’

Tom nods.

‘As I explained, I have to go overseas next week.’ He said, ‘Millions of dollars depend on this trip. I can’t delay it. Tim is prepared to take over these duties while I am away. We’ll be in phone and e-mail contact as much as we can, but I need someone here to sign documents on my behalf. For some of the time I’ll be away up in the jungle where it may not be possible to contact me, and I may need someone here to make quick decisions on my behalf. I can trust Tim to act on my behalf.’

‘If you’re both satisfied with what is in front of you, please sign.’ He indicated with his forefinger exactly where each one was to sign.

They do so, and Geoff, the solicitor, invites them to have coffee, but, pleading pressure of business they both ask to be excused, rise, shake hands, and make their way out through the reception area where the say goodbye to Alicia and hurry out from the office suite into the corridor.

Jesus entrusted to his disciples the responsibility of acting as his representatives or agents: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ This Power of Attorney is given to the community of faith, the Christian Church, and all members have a share in it. But he not only commissioned the faithful, he empowered them. The authority that he had, the authority of God’s Holy Spirit at work in his life, he handed on to them. And he continues to hand on this spiritual authority today so that those who, in any given situation, can be recognized as representing the Church, the Body of Christ, can even act on his behalf announcing God’s forgiveness of sins, or if, because of hardness of heart, declaring that a person still needs to come to that repentance which opens them up to the forgiveness that God is ready and waiting to give.

That’s a tremendous responsibility that Christ lays upon his Church, a responsibility that has not always been exercised properly. However that is what he calls his Church to – to faithfully represent him. When we fail, he calls us to acknowledge our failure, but he does not remove from us the responsibility of acting on his behalf in continuing his mission in the world.

Matthew 10:40-42                               Matthew 28:16-20                           Corinthians 5:18-21

  • Which of the following best describes your understanding of the church: (a) one of the organizations in our society, (b) the visible body of the unseen Christ, (c) agents of God’s kingdom, (d) partners with Christ in his on-going ministry, (e) a religious club? Or is it none of the above?
  • What would it mean for you personally to see yourself as one of Christ’s representatives in the world?
  • One only has the right to act on behalf of Christ if one does so in the Spirit of Christ. Give examples of occasions when the Church or its members claimed to act in the name of Christ but did so without the Spirit of Christ.
  • As God sent the Son into the world, so Christ sends his Church into the world. What does it mean for you to be one of those whom he sends into the world?