1.  A Many-Layered Experience

(John 2: 1-12)

  • What sort of cake do you like best?
  • Place an object on a table where everyone can see it. It could be a rainbow cake. Ask them to say what they see in it; e.g.: what does it remind them of, what associations come to mind?
  • There is always more than one way of looking at things. What are some of the ways in which the members of your group view your church?
  • There are a number of layers in group-life experience. Which of these is most important to you in respect of your group: friendship, acceptance, information seeking, sharing of knowledge, inspiration and motivation, prayer, enrichment of spiritual life, broadening of experience, sense of belonging?

Suddenly a giant rainbow cake looms up and a knife cuts through the pink, yellow and brown layers. Then another downward movement with the blade and a fancy instrument that looks like a trowel is levered underneath the wedge. I have such a close-up view that I can see the EPNS engraved on the underside of the handle and the fine filigree work on the silver blade.

This story, the Wedding at Cana, has many layers to it. More than a rainbow cake has. It is presented as the first of the signs that Jesus did which disclosed him as the Son of God. But it is also referred to at weddings as a story that reinforces the social institution of marriage. It has been used to justify the moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages as against a position of total abstinence. It suggests that Jesus was no killjoy but rather enjoyed taking part in festivities. It focuses some attention on Mary and the part that she played in introducing the Saviour to the world. It reminds us that people can be released to do great things when someone believes in them. It has been seen as symbolizing the message that purification rites had run out of power: that which is represented in the wine of Holy Communion has superseded them.

There are many layers to every slice of life and to appreciate the full flavour it is necessary to bite into as many of them as possible. Life can be experienced from the point of view of physics or chemistry, or on another level that of biology. Psychology, sociology, economics, political science and so on – each can explore one of these levels of experience. None of these can nullify the authenticity of another although each can interact with each other. None can invalidate that layer which we call spirituality. In fact we miss the full taste when we exclude spirituality from our layers of experience, and we make spirituality insipid when we divorce it from other layers of life.

As the story of the Wedding at Cana has many layers to it, so life can be viewed as many-layered. The spiritual dimension is no more invalidated by the other layers than is the view that this story signifies the divine power present in Jesus invalidated by other interpretations of it.

The Psalms: Psalm 1                    1 Corinthians 2: 12-13                                 Romans 8: 5-6

  • What strikes you most strongly about the story of the wedding at Cana?
  • John 2:11 says that this turning of the water into wine was the first of the signs which Jesus did. Of what were they signs?
  • Talk about this: “We miss the full taste when we exclude spirituality from our layers of experience, and we make spirituality insipid when we divorce it from other layers of life.”
  • Are there many layers to your life (Ways of looking at your life)? What are some of these?
  • Each one pray for the person on his or her right.

2. Testing the Foundations

(John 4: 39-42)

  • Have you had an experience that made you change your view? Maybe at work, at home or at sport, bringing up children, the way you vote, or the friends you have. Tell us about it.                                                     
  • Have you had personal experience or have you heard about buildings that have been found to have poor foundations? Like to talk about it?
  • The basic assumptions we hold can be called the foundations on which we live our lives. What are some of the basic assumptions upon which you live?
  • What’s the difference between watching a movie and someone telling you about it?

The scene that opens up is of a drilling rig set up beside a river. The rig itself is mounted on the back of a truck, but the operators have just finished laying out another core sample which they set down on the grass beside three other cores which have already been extracted and sampled. A big, ruddy-faced man in blue overalls comes over and explains that they are testing for the foundations of a suspension bridge tower to be built on that site. Although he acknowledges that it is for the geologists and engineers to say so, he believes it will require caisson piers for the foundations, but he is proud to tell me nothing can be decided until this survey work is completed.

No matter what sort of worldview people hold or what kind of attitude they adopt toward the world around them, it is built on some sort of faith foundation. It might be faith in human powers of observation, or human skill and science. It might be faith in the divinity of nature or in fate, or faith in culturally acquired attitudes or personally thought out philosophy, or faith in the basic goodness of human beings, or faith in God as revealed by Jesus Christ. But it will be built on some sort of foundation. Or mixture of foundations!

The task then is to test the foundations. No matter how elaborate the structure might be on top, if the foundations are inadequate the whole thing is at risk. How then are we to test our faith assumptions?

There are several tests we can apply. Is it consistent, coherent, integrated? Does it come highly recommended by people that we trust? Does it work in practice? Have we seen it make a difference?

This passage from John’s Gospel suggests that there is a difference between building a faith-world on hearsay and building a faith-world on personal experience. Face-to-face with Jesus, the Samaritans knew that they had found the foundation on which to live their lives. ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

If life is to be built on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, it is necessary to know something about him, but it is also necessary to know him in some sort of personal encounter, in relationship, to have the sense of having been gripped by his Spirit.

For most of the time we live our lives without thinking about our faith foundations, but from time to time we may need to probe the soil to see what is there. It is not easy to re-build once you have discovered that your foundations are faulty, but it is better to re-build than to have the whole building come crashing down around your ears.

Isaiah 28: 16                             Ephesians 2:19-22                                    1 Peter 2: 4–8

  •  Explain the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.
  • What gives you confidence in your Christian faith?
  • What would it mean to have Jesus Christ as the foundation of your life?
  • What do you think about the questions suggested for testing your own life’s foundations? (Is it consistent, coherent, integrated? Does it come highly recommended by people that we trust? Does it work in practice? Have we seen it make a difference?)
  • Pray for people searching around for a solid foundation onto which to build their lives.

3. Life’s Demonstration Lessons

(John 17: 1-5)

  • They say that travel broadens the mind. What is your experience in this?
  • How important is parental love in the upbringing of children and how should it be expressed?
  • What are some of the most prevalent prejudices in your community?
  • Which of the following is most important for your group life: patience, trust, confidentiality, acceptance, respect, affection, insight, truth, commitment?

A fluorescent light shines over a table in a well-lived-in kitchen-cum-family room. Two people are seated eating a meal of chicken and vegetables when the ringing of the front doorbell brings a surprised look to their faces. The man places his knife and fork down on his plate and rises, stiffly pushing the chair out from behind him. As he straightens up one sees that he is tall and strongly built. The grey haired woman says, ‘Who could that be?’

Walking stiffly, the man makes his way to the door whence comes a cautious greeting, a pause and then loud exclamations of delight. As soon as she hears, ‘David. This is a surprise!’ the woman jumps to her feet and hurries to meet her husband returning with his arm around the shoulders of a thin, dark-complexioned man whom she embraces fervently and kisses with unfeigned affection. He is round shouldered and weathered. A young man who has been knocked about by life, but that does not seem to matter for he receives an enthusiastic welcome.

Without asking whether he needs a meal or not, she quickly produces a clean plate and proceeds to take food off the other two dinner plates to make a serving for the newcomer. The tall man brings a chair through from another room and invites David to sit down at the table with them. He resumes his place, and David slowly sits himself down at the table. He clears his throat as he prepares to deliver a mentally prepared speech.

‘I’ve come to say I’m sorry. You deserved better. I knew nothing about love when you took me in. All I knew were parents, who fought, screamed and attacked each other – and me. All I got was abuse until I ran away. Life on the streets wasn’t much better. But you fostered me through those early teenage years. You put up with a lot, but you didn’t beat me. You didn’t put me down. You did everything you could for me. And you showed me what family life could be like. You showed me what love is. I’m just sorry that I hurt you. I hurt you badly. I wish I could undo all that.’

The woman holds David’s hand close to her body as she says how wonderful it is to see him again and comments on how he has changed.

‘I have changed,’ he admits. Turning to address her he says, ‘I even go to church!’ Then after a pause he continues, ‘I’ve met a girl. A real, fine girl, and I want to do the right thing by her. She’s too good for me, but she loves me. I don’t deserve it, but I’ve got the very best woman in all the world.’

His foster mother says that this is wonderful news. Her prayers have been answered.

The man says that he appreciates David’s coming to tell them about it, but David goes on, ‘I need your help.’

‘Anything! Anything!’ his foster mother exclaims.

His foster father warns that it’s no use asking for money.

‘I’m not looking for money,’ David says. ‘I want to learn. I want our marriage to be like yours. You showed me what married love could be like. Teach me more about love. Not sex. I’ve had plenty of that. What I want is to come back here to soak in the atmosphere. Give me a crash course in love.’

Just as some people, irrespective of what they say, have only a vague idea about love, so many people have only vague ideas about God. They make assertions about their belief or their disbelief in God without having any real experience of God. Love, the unseen, has to be experienced in a living, interacting human relationship. Children learn love from the significant adults in their lives. People learn of God as they spend time with others who worship and trust God and as the presence of the unseen God is seen in the lives of other people.

In the Scriptures it is realized that no one can have a genuine experience of God without responding with praise, adoration and worship, so the human experience of God is called the experience of glory. When Jesus prays that the Father might be glorified in the Son he is asking that people might recognize God in him and praise God because of it. Through his thoroughgoing obedience to God, Jesus revealed God to humanity, with the consequence that God is praised and glorified by those who receive this revelation.

Many people are quite ignorant about God. They pick up scraps here and there. They may study various religions. They may give some allegiance to Christianity. They may declare themselves theists or atheists. But until they see God in Jesus Christ they really don’t know what God is like. At the heart of the New Testament witness is this that we really only get to know God as we experience God in Jesus the Christ.

Daniel 7:13-14                               Hebrews 1:1-4                                   Galatians 4:8-9

  • Who has taught you most about God?
  • What are some of the inadequate ideas of God that you have discarded?
  • How would you describe your personal experience of God?
  • How can we best help people to know God?
  • Pray prayers of adoration and praise.

4. A Stranger at the Party

(John 20:11 – 18)

  • What is the meaning or origin of your name?
  • How are you at remembering names? Do you have any advice on how to remember names?
  • What effect does it have on you when someone speaks to you using your name?
  • Find out what you can about Mary Magdalene.

I‘ve fallen right through a window. I’ve landed right in the middle of a party. The room is crowded. Everyone seems to know each other, but no one acknowledges me. They’re intent on having a good time surrounded by friends. The laughter, the chatter, the passing of drinks and savouries – it’s overwhelming. But I’ve never felt so alone in my life. Surrounded by a large, noisy crowd, I am completely left out. Not that anyone shows the slightest animosity toward me. They politely ask to be excused as they push their way past me to get to another of their dear acquaintances. Someone even pauses to offer me a sausage roll, but then rushes off to greet some long lost cousin before I can dip it in the tomato sauce.

I try to get into conversation with one or two people who seem to be standing aside from the general hubbub but, each time, they are polite in returning my greeting while their eyes keep roaming around the crowd. They rush off as soon as they decently can to join in the common revelries. The night wears on. I think I know now what it is like to be a migrant newly arrived in a country where nobody speaks my language. I try to mingle. I sit down on a high-backed chair near the door. I go to the drink table and serve myself a punch. It’s a long and lonely night.

I think about leaving, but I’m not sure how to do it. I fell into this scene. I can’t just walk out through the front door and call a taxi. I sit watching the antics of the others. Can sometimes get a bit of a chuckle out of that. It’s interesting to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they don’t realize they are being observed. But still it looks like being a long night.

Then I hear someone call my name. I can’t believe it. No, it couldn’t be me. Must be someone else here with the same name. But there it is again. Closer. It must be me. No one else is responding. I turn to see who it might be, and before I realize what is happening I’m on my feet, embracing my friend, laughing, talking, saying such things as, ‘Am I glad to see you!’

It’s like that. In a world crowded with people we can still feel lonely. Even amidst the fun and the laughter and the popular acclaim we can feel that no one really understands. I am useful to others as a voter, consumer, audience, client; agent, servant, executive, manager; spouse, relative or acquaintance; but I want to be appreciated for myself. Then the living, contemporary Christ comes and addresses us by name.

We haven’t taken much notice of him before. Oh we know a lot about him. We’ve read our Bibles. We’ve been to sunday school. We admire him. But it’s when he meets us, person to person, that we fall at his feet. We are transformed. In the midst of a crowd of strangers someone has called us by name. That makes a world of difference.

1 Samuel 3:2-14                               Isaiah 43:1                          Acts 9:1-9

  • Have you ever felt lonely in a crowd? How did it feel?              
  • Have you ever felt as though God were speaking to you personally? Share with the group.
  • How does your relationship with Christ help you when feeling lonely or unwanted?
  • What difference did the use of her name (John 20:11-18) have on Mary?
  • Pray for each person in the group by name.

5. Getting My Own Photo

(John 20: 24 – 29)

  • Tell us about your trip. The most recent, irrespective of how long ago it might have been.
  • On what issue have you come to change you mind? Once you had doubts and questions about it, now you are sure of it.
  • What’s the difference between spiritual awareness and scientific knowledge?
  • Perhaps its time to ask your group, Where to now? What’s next for your group?

‘It’s getting late, dear,’ Mavis says. But her husband keeps his eyes riveted on the track in front of him.

‘I told you we should have bought a four-wheel drive,’ he says as he guides the Commodore slowly over the washed out gravel track which was purported by the man back at the service station to be a road.

‘Do we really have to go there today?’ she asks.

‘It’s our only chance. We’re behind schedule as it is. It’s today or never.’

They have been touring for five weeks, visiting interesting places, covering many, many kilometres of boring countryside in the process.

‘Well let’s make it never. It’s time to turn around and go back to the motel,’ she insists with some feeling.

‘I want to see The Needles,’ Roger insists.

‘They’re just a crop of sharp rocks jutting up out of the sea.’

‘They’re not just a group of rocks. They’re a famous rock formation. Spectacular, according to the tourist brochure.’

‘You’ve seen them on the brochure. Isn’t that enough?’

‘No, it’s not enough! I want to take photos. It’ll be just right when we get there with the sun going down. It’ll be just like the postcard we saw at the newsagents.’

 ‘You can buy the postcard. You don’t have to take a photo. It’d be a darn sight cheaper than using up all this petrol and putting ten years wear-and-tear onto the car.’

‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ Roger insists. ‘I want to have my own photos. I want to actually be there. I want to see the place for myself. I’ve heard so much about it, I want to see it for myself.’

There is a difference between buying a postcard of a place you have never seen and taking a photograph on your own camera of the same scene. It’s the difference between first-hand and second-hand experience. Thomas insisted on a first-hand experience of Jesus; second-hand reports would not do. But it would not be possible for all people throughout subsequent history to have this same first-hand experience of the risen Christ, most would have to rely on the reporting made by the Apostles.

However there is a first-hand experience we can have of Christ that carries far greater authority for us than listening to the experience that others profess to have had. There may not be a physical presence as Thomas encountered, but there is a presence of the risen Christ, a spiritual experience, and it is this that overcomes our scepticism. A faith, which stands upon personal experience, will weather the storms of disbelief and ridicule. Not that we should base our faith on the experience itself, but on the Christ who has become personally real and spiritually significant through the experience.

John 4:39-42                                Acts 26:12-20                            1 John 1:1-4

  • Thomas said that he wanted to carry out physical tests on the risen Christ that his colleagues told him about, but it seems that when face-to-face with Christ he didn’t. Why not?
  • What part does personal experience play in your faith?
  • How would you help someone who said that he or she was looking for a personal experience of the living Christ?
  • Tell us about a spiritual experience you have had.

6. A Human Shield

(John 21: 20 – 23)

  • Write a note to each person in the group telling them what you appreciate about them and their contribution to the life of the group.
  • Arrange for someone to take a group photo.
  • Role play an interview between a politician and a reporter in which the politician avoids answering the questions asked.
  • Invite the members of the group to read out a few verses from one of the Old Testament psalms.

Push. Push harder. There it goes. The shutters are open. I can see. I can see a house surrounded by the armed tactical response unit. There are police cars everywhere and police officers in dark blue clothing wearing flack jackets crouching behind the cars and also behind the hedge, which runs along the front of the property. Someone darts from behind one of the cars and takes up a position behind the trunk of a camphor laurel tree, revolver trained on the people who are emerging from the front door.

The man with wildly unkempt, long, blonde hair is holding a woman in front of him. He holds her closely to his body with his left arm around her waist while he holds a large kitchen knife to her throat with the other hand. Her dress is torn and her face shows signs of bruising. She holds herself stiffly, but remains calm and quiet. The steely, brave composure in her eyes contrasts with the wild, deranged look in his.

The siege, I am informed by a news reporter, has been going on for three hours. At first there were two other people inside with the woman and her attacker, but about half an hour ago he let the elderly couple go. However since then he has broken off negotiations. He has taken the phone off the hook. His emergence from the front door with the remaining hostage in front of him came as something of a surprise. A police negotiator had been urging him for some time through a megaphone to come out and surrender peacefully, but his appearance at the front door came unheralded.

As he takes a pace or two out across the verandah he pulls her even more closely to his body. She winces with pain. I saw someone run crouching to the bushes just below the verandah on one side. He swings her around so that her body shields him from any bullet that might be fired from that direction.

The chief negotiator comes out into the open, holding out his arms to show that he is unarmed and walks slowly up the path until he is close enough to talk without electronic or mechanical assistance. The man seems to listen to what is being said, but does not reply. He remains alert; quick to shift his human shield in whichever direction an attack might come from. Eventually he moves. Keeping his hostage close to him he slowly makes his way down the three front steps and then along the pebble pathway where she falls into the arms of the negotiator while five police officers pounce on him, wrenching the knife from his grasp, hurling him to the ground and attaching handcuffs to his wrists pulled sharply behind his back.

We regularly make use of people as human shields, not in siege or hostage situations, but in attempts to shield ourselves from the demands which Christ makes upon us. Like Peter when challenged by Christ’s demand, we too say, ‘And what about him? What about her?’ Afraid that we might be called upon to make more sacrifices than someone else, we seek to hide behind that, ‘What about Joan?’ More interested in what other people ought to be doing, we fail to make our own response to God. We divert the preached word meant for us as we say, ‘I hope So-and-so listened to that!’ Or we use other people to shield ourselves from Christ’s demands when we think first of what they might think of us before we give a thought to what God might really want of us. It is good to think of other people, but not to turn them into human shields protecting us from the demands of Christ.

Genesis 4:10-17                          Luke 9:57-62                             Luke 3:7-9

  • What ploys do people practise in their attempts to avoid facing up to the challenge of Jesus Christ upon their lives?
  • How do you respond to the invitation which Christ issues to follow him?
  • Other people can help us respond to Christ or they can make it more difficult. Talk about this with reference to your own experience.
  • How has belonging to this group changed you?
  • Give time for personal prayer, spoken or silent, in which each one is encouraged to make a personal act of commitment to Jesus Christ