1. Absolutely Genuine

(John 1: 14,17)

  • Do you have any funny stories to tell? Share with the group.
  • What’s the difference between true love and false love? How do you pick the difference?
  • Why be honest? What’s so good about being honest?
  • What are the pitfalls in being absolutely honest?

I see light glistening on polished surfaces and in surrounding mirrors. We’re in a smart, sophisticated jewellers shop, but upstairs at the end of a dingy corridor I see by contrast the entry to the jeweller’s workshop. The waiting area for those wishing to discuss designs with the craftsmen is small and plain. The only furniture, apart from four black vinyl-upholstered chairs and a short counter, is a glass-fronted cabinet displaying silver cups and assorted trophies.

A man and a woman stand at the counter shaking their heads in bewilderment.

‘That’s outrageous!’ the woman exclaims as the man with the magnifying glass repeats his verdict.

The other manufacturing jeweller nods his head in corroboration of his partner’s verdict and walks back to his workbench behind a screen.

‘It’s a fake!’ the man in front of the counter says in disbelief.

‘The diamond has been removed and a piece of cut glass put in its place. It’s worthless.’

The couple had come in to get a valuation on the ring for insurance purposes. Expecting to be told that it was worth much more than the $3000 he had paid for it a few years ago, they were staggered to hear that someone had, at some time, substituted a counterfeit diamond for the real thing. He explains that they had bought it overseas and at the time had it appraised by an independent diamond dealer who said that it was good value at that price. They had returned the ring for re-sizing before leaving the country. They are now angry and frustrated, feeling cheated and deflated. The substitute had been good enough for amateurs not to notice the hoax, but the experts picked it up straight away.

The world is full of counterfeit compassion. Words of love are used as a cloak for lust or greed. They become implements of manipulation. They are not what, on the surface, they appear to be. They sound noble, but in the end prove worthless.

By contrast, the generous, unconditional love of Jesus was genuine. There was nothing counterfeit about it. He who could be described as full of grace and truth cared with genuine, unalloyed simplicity. He did not help people so that he might win a following. He simply cared.

Put-on grace becomes condescension. Spurious compassion turns into patronizing attitudes. Artificial acceptance becomes deceitful and damaging. But with Jesus the grace, compassion, and acceptance, is utterly genuine. The one who is full of grace and truth, adds grace upon grace to those who respond to it. Through him God’s grace, God’s compassion, God’s acceptance reaches us.

John10:7-11                            Romans 12:9                        Ephesians 3: 18-19

  • What experience have you had of false compassion?
  • By God’s grace we are made right with God. We only have to accept it by faith to know it. Then where does the keeping of rules come into the Christian life?
  • How can we consistently show genuine compassion without burning ourselves out?
  • What makes people to be condescending and patronizing? How can we guard against this?
  • Pray for people that you find hard to love.

2. Authentication

(John 3: 31-36)

  • Tell about some out-of-the way, distant, or exotic place you have visited.
  • If your neighbour gave you a remedy for your cold, would you try it? What would influence you to try it?
  • What are some of the occasions when you are required to show identification to prove you are who you say you are?
  • How do you know whether someone is telling the truth or not?

There is some kind of time warp here. I see Captain James Cook talking to a group of distinguished looking men of The Royal Society in London. It might have been on the occasion of his presentation with the society’s gold medal for his paper on the Prevention of Scurvy at Sea, but they are more interested in Tahiti, or Otaheite as they call it. He tells them of a polynesian flute with two stops to it blown with the nostril. He describes the polynesian custom of holding a gift up to the forehead on reception of it and of the native cloth worn wrapped around the waist and reaching down to below the knees. He tells them of tattooing widely practised and of a drink called ‘ava. He acknowledges the easy availability of sexual pleasure for his men. Some listen with wide-eyed wonder, others tinge their responses with the salt of sarcasm, others suspend judgment until they will have the opportunity of checking these things out independently.

If someone today comes back from overseas with tales of strange customs, it is relatively easy to authenticate their accounts. The traveller would have photographs or videos to show. We may have seen TV documentary programs on those places, or we may have met other travellers who had been there, so we would not be dependent upon just the one witness. And if one had the finances, it would be easy to go and see the place for oneself. But these were not available to the people of Britain on first hearing Cook’s fascinating accounts of polynesian Tahiti.

It is like this with Jesus. It is as though he comes from another country where things are done differently, where people live by a different scale of values. And the only way one can authenticate his message is to go there. But no one can actually travel to this realm for it is not a geographical place. It is a state of being. One can only travel to this realm by faith, that is by an acceptance of it as true and by a living in it in practice.

Neither is one able to examine this lifestyle with its own special relationships in a dispassionate, scientific manner, because it can only be experienced from the inside. The outsider looking in can make certain comparisons and observations, but to really appreciate what Jesus was on about one has to come inside. Theologians talk about stepping into the theological circle. It is only out of the experience of faith and commitment that Jesus, his worldview and his lifestyle, can be authenticated. There is no independent platform from which one can observe religions and decide which is true.

It is hard for people to accept the testimony of someone who talks about heavenly things because of this problem of authentication. The only authentication possible is that which comes internally as one gives oneself to the truth of the testimony. The Christian gospel comes with that sort of authentication, the authentication of people who say I accepted it and now I find that, in my experience, it opens up to me a different dimension of living. On their testimony, we are invited to try it out for ourselves.

Hebrews 11: 1 to 12:2                        1 John 1: 1-4                       Romans 1: 16-17

  • If someone asked you to prove that there is a God, what would you do?
  • What gives people confidence in Christ’s love and salvation?
  • What do you find most convincing about the truth of the Gospel?
  • Jesus gives an authentic picture of God. What distorts our view of Jesus?
  • Pray that each person in the group might have a strong sense of assurance about God’s love and Christ’s salvation.

3. Proof of Identity

9John 5: 30 – 470

  • Write down a description of yourself that could be handed in to the police if you were lost. Place these in a container and then draw them out and ask the group to guess who is being described
  • Have you ever had difficulty trying to prove your identity? Have you ever had difficulty establishing the identity of someone else?
  • What evidence would you produce if you were had to prove that you are who you say you are?
  • Beware lest your group becomes too comfortable, individual contributions to the discussion become predictable, and you stop inviting new people to join. What can you do to guard against this?

The bank official explains that the customer will have to produce proof of identity.

‘It’s the law,’ she explains. And then goes on, ‘Various documents are given points value, and before you can open an account you have to bring in a hundred points’ worth of documents.’

The customer places a passport and a driver’s licence on the counter.

‘Oh, you have them here already,’ she says with a smile. ‘That’s all we need. A birth certificate or passport is worth seventy points, and then with your driver’s licence it brings you over the hundred. Great, we can complete your application now.’

Whether it’s opening a bank account or carrying out a host of other transactions, we are frequently asked to provide proof of identity, but Jesus carried no passport, had not been issued with a birth certificate, held no drivers’ licence: how was he to prove his identity? How could his claim to be the Son of God be verified?

He appealed to John the Baptist and to Moses, to the Hebrew Scriptures and to the miracles that he had done for verification, but fundamentally he recognized that verification comes from God, his Father.

Without God’s action on the human spirit, neither John the Baptist nor Moses, the Scriptures nor miracles, convince. It needs both God’s inner conviction laid upon the heart and other more tangible evidence to bring the proof of identity that people seek. There has to be the inner conviction but without substantiating human evidence the voice of God is not sufficient. People have been known to be mistaken about divine inspiration. The impression laid upon the soul has to find corroborative evidence in others who believe, in the Scriptures, in the tradition of faith, in signs and wonders.

And what proof of identity can the followers of Jesus produce in their claim to be sons and daughters of God? Is it not the same? The proof lies in the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of the observer, but also in the corroborative evidence that comes from the opinion of other Christians, from the Scriptures and from the history of faith, and from what a person does in daily life. To call oneself a Christian or a child of God is not enough: it is in the way that life is lived that the designation gains its authenticity. These may not be miracles in the usual sense of the word, but any action that reflects the mind and Spirit of God contains what is essential to a miracle. It is an event in which God is seen to be active.

Matthew 26: 62 – 65                                  Acts 1: 21 – 26                       Acts 9: 20 – 22

  • If you were asked to show ‘proof of identity’ as a Christian , what would you point to?
  • What proves to you most clearly that Jesus in the Son of God?
  • Why do we need both experience and scripture to understand who Jesus is?
  • In saying, “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” Jesus showed his own self-understanding. How would you express your own self-understanding?
  • Pray for the elders or leaders in your congregation.

4. It’s a Question of Trust

(John 8:12-59)

  • Start your time together by holding hands and praying for the group, for each person in it and for your gathering together on this occasion.
  • How do you decide whether you can trust a salesperson who is telling you about a new product?
  • What makes a group like the one you are in now one to which you can entrust your more personal feelings?
  • When you read through the rather long passage John 8:12-59 count the number of questions addressed to Jesus.

We are deep in a ravine. People are huddled together in earnest conversation. Their clothes are faded and worn. Their bodies thin, some to the point of emaciation. A mother smothers the whimper of a child with a cotton shawl lightly place over its mouth. They conduct their conversation in whispers occasionally taking sidelong glances at the black-skinned stranger sitting on a rock in the shade thrown by the overhanging cliff.

Five families and four single adults have escaped to the hills hoping to escape from the fanatics who have vowed to exterminate all foreigners from the land. They want to get out of the country, but dare not go near the wharf or the airport. Their only hope is to find a way over the mountains and across the border into the neighbouring country.

One man, short, middle-aged, English, shakes his lined head and mutters, ‘What if it’s a trick?’ Several nod their heads indicating that is the question uppermost in their minds too. ‘ I say he’s been sent by the army to lead us into an ambush. Remember what happened to those tribes who tried to escape last year when the first great purge was on. They were slaughtered – men, women and children.’

‘But we’re white,’ says a middle-aged woman with an Oxford accent, forgetting that one family was actually ethnic Chinese.

‘That won’t make no difference,’ says an Australian voice. ‘This is one place where being white won’t do you any good.’

‘It’s only four or five hours walking to the border,’ a young man says.

‘That’s all right for you. We’ve got children to look after,’ says a woman with a five year old child clinging to her skirt. ‘We can’t travel at your pace. It’s going to take us more than five hours. We won’t make it by daylight.’

‘We’ve had other people promising to show us the way,’ says an old man. ‘The first let us down badly. He didn’t know where he was going and got us all lost. It was a miracle we got out of the jungle alive. Then there was that flashy army chap on horseback. Took our money and that was the last we saw him.’

‘You can’t trust anybody these days,’ pronounces his wife as though she were speaking the final word on the subject.

‘Let’s grill him,’ suggests an American voice. ‘Get him over here and we’ll quiz ‘im. Let’s see what he really knows about the country.’

‘I don’t trust niggers,’ another blurts out.

‘This is no time for prejudice,’ he is reprimanded. ‘Let’s check him out. I think he knows what he’s talking about. He’s not asked for money. I think he’s genuine.’

‘I don’t know,’ says another. ‘I’ve heard of so many tricks being played on people in these mountains. It’s a favourite pastime around here to lead foreigners away up into the hills to rob them. Some get out with their lives, but some never get out.’

“We can’t dilly-dally any longer,’ a voice says with conviction. ‘Whether we get safely through or not, we can’t stay here. I say we go with him.’

In a world where we are confronted, from time to time, with various offers of salvation, how do we know which one to trust? When someone pops up on the world stage and says, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,’ how do we know he can deliver on his promise? From the days when his authority was questioned by the Pharisees to the present time, people have asked this question of Jesus.

His answer is to the effect that God confirms in the human heart the reliability of his offer. The proof lies in taking him at his word, trusting him and living by faith. Refugees can debate forever the reliability of the guide, but eventually there is only one adequate test, and that is to follow where he leads.

Jeremiah 17:5-8                             Exodus 3:13-15                                   John 20:24-29

  • What do you find most convincing about Jesus Christ as the Son of God: his ability to foretell the future, his miracles, he seemed to know what he was talking about, the testimony of Scripture, his courage in the face of opposition, the cleverness of his replies, what he had to say about himself, what others had to say about him?
  • Among the religious teachers of the world, why follow Jesus?
  • What draws you personally to Jesus?
  • Pray for each other in the group, for work or home situations.

5. Buyer Beware

(John 12: 1-8)

  • Have you been shopping lately? Bought anything you’d like to tell us about?
  • Have you ever bought something only to find out that it was not what it seemed? What was it?
  • It is not uncommon for self-seeking to hide under the cloak of service. Give examples of this.
  • How important is honesty in a group like this? What conditions encourage honesty?

It’s obvious that the foundations of the house have subsided. The cracks in the walls are not merely surface cracks. There is something structurally unsound about the place. But the owner is plastering over those cracks and re-painting the house in readiness for putting it on the market. He hopes that someone will come along and buy it soon. It looks a very attractive house in a delightful part of town. It is only five years old. Its kitchen would delight the fussiest of cooks. The en suite has its own spa. There is a fenced pool in the landscaped back garden. It is in a quiet location, but handy to schools, transport and shops. It has a lot going for it, but he is depending upon the prospective purchaser not insisting on a thorough building inspection by a professional builder.

In other words he is selling a lie. It maybe that he is normally honest and respected, but in this instance he is telling one huge, destructive lie. Someone could, if not careful, be badly hurt – financially. And with the financial devastation goes devastation of the spirit and maybe even of the body.

Religion and morality can be like that – one, huge, destructive lie. People who acknowledge the virtue of honesty perpetrate a major fraud without even being aware of the enormity of what they are doing. The structural defects in one’s own faith and life are plastered over in an attempt to sell oneself to others as devout and philanthropic. Judas Iscariot could plaster over his baser motives with an altruistic plea on behalf of the poor.

The open, generous, spontaneous action of Mary contrasts with the cold, selfish, condemnatory attitude of Judas. Yes, religion that is cold, selfish and condemnatory has to present itself as noble or it loses value rapidly. So it is a case of ‘buyer beware’. Don’t be taken in by the superficial appearance of godliness, compassion or devotion. Check the foundations. Selfishness plastered over with religion and high morality is even more dangerous than selfishness naked and openly displayed.

A heart-tugging appeal on behalf of the poor can be a cloak for personal gain, professional ambition, social respectability or honour. What we are called to is generous, open-hearted love to God and to neighbour, no kidding.

Micah 6:6-8                                        Galatians 6:7                             Ephesians 5:3-9

  • Have you had difficulty distinguishing genuine Christian faith from selfishness masquerading as Christianity? How can we tell the difference?
  • Does religion have to be spontaneous to be genuine?
  • It often happens that we are blind to our own faults while ready to criticize others for their faults. What can we do to guard against this?
  • What are some appropriate ways in which we can show our devotion to Christ today?

6. Hiding the Evidence

(John 12: 9-11)

  • Play a game like sending one person outside and then deciding whom among the rest will hold a coin in his or her hand. It is then the task of the person coming back into the room to guess whom it is that is holding the coin.
  • As a child, did you ever try to hide the evidence so that you would not get into trouble? Talk about it.
  • What do you generally do when you find out that you have been mistaken in your viewpoint: try to bluff it out, apologize, blame someone else, make a point of correcting yourself?
  • If there are other home fellowship groups in your church like this one, maybe you could arrange to have a combined meeting sometime to share experiences and encourage each other.

A scene opens up. Headlights are coming down the sloping road, then they level out as the vehicle starts to negotiate a concreted river crossing. They stop moving. Then they are extinguished altogether. By the light of the moon I see someone opening the driver’s door. A man steps down into the knee-deep water by the side of the crossing and washes a metal object in the stream plunging it right down into the sandy bottom to make sure it is thoroughly cleaned. He then proceeds to remove his clothes – shirt, trousers and underpants. He must have been barefoot already. He appears to rinse his clothes in the stream and then place them on a rock together with the metal object he has so carefully cleaned. He plunges down into the water splashing it all over his body and rinsing it through his hair. It is a warm night, but I am surprised to see anyone skinny-dipping alone on this isolated stretch of rural road. When he gets up he returns to the utility and picks up a spade from the back of the ute, then, with spade in one hand and clothes and metal object in the other, wades through the water to a spot some fifty metres downstream around a bend which hides him from the roadway. There he digs into the embankment.

I am puzzled. What on earth is he doing? He has no idea that I am watching. He places the clothes and metal object in the hole that he has dug and then fills it in. He seems to go to some trouble to make it appear as though the ground has not been disturbed and then wades back, spade in hand, to the ute. After he returns the spade to the back of the ute and climbs back into the cabin closing the door after him there is a delay during which I surmise that he is putting on a fresh set of clothes. Then I hear the battered old vehicle start up again and continue its way across the ford. Only after topping the rise are the headlights turned on again.

There is a change of scene and I am peering into a television screen watching the evening news. I hear of a woman being murdered and see her distressed husband being interviewed. Judging by his size and shape he could well be the shadowy figure I had seen in the stream. He says that when he returned home from town he found her lying dead on the kitchen floor. She had several stab wounds to her body. Then the bulletin swings back to the studio and the announcer says that the police have no clues to go on. They have found no murder weapon, and they appeal to the public for information. The murderer, they point out, must have got blood on his clothes.

People who don’t want the truth to come out try to hide the evidence. That’s apparently what the chief priests tried to do with Lazarus. He was a constant reminder of what Jesus had said about himself being the longed-for resurrection of the dead and therefore a threat to their authority.

It happens still. People, who don’t want the whole truth to come out, hide some of the evidence. It might be because they are afraid that their faith will be undermined if they exposed it to the full light of critical thinking, or they might be afraid that they would give away more than they wanted to if they wholeheartedly surrendered themselves to God. Either way it means distorting reality.

Our belief system can be such a prop that if anything undermined it we are afraid that we would collapse, so we hide some of the evidence from ourselves, we look at only part of the truth in a desperate attempt to keep ourselves intact. It is dishonest, but many who do it would so rationalize their actions that they would not see it as dishonest.

Proverbs 16:11                                     Acts 5:1-11                          Ephesians 4:14-16

  • How are Christians tempted to avoid facing up to reality.
  • How should we handle our doubts: hide them from others; suppress them from ourselves, try to resolve them, promote them among others, talk them through with Christian friends?
  • Have you ever been deceived by thinking that part of the truth was the whole truth? Talk about it.
  • What passages in the Bible, if any, do you consciously or unconsciously, ignore because you find them difficult?
  • Pray for help in facing your doubts and in facing the hard issues of life and faith.