1. A Different Sort of Religion

(John 1:17)

  • What rules do you have at your place?
  • Why have rules?
  • What rules govern the life of this group?
  • Have you ever had to be rescued? Tell us about it.

It’s dark and dingy but as my eyes adjust I see a boy trying to climb up the sides of an old mine shaft. The rocks are brittle. He slips on scree. His hands are bleeding and he has gashed a knee, but he is putting tremendous effort into trying to get himself out . His face is drained of colour. There is fear in his eyes. The sweat is running down his grimy face. His cry for help rattles around the long, narrow, enclosed space. He looks down into the abyss, and I too can see the rats running around on the rubbish lying on the floor of the vertical shaft.

I cry in despair. I doubt that he’ll make it to the top. He still has a long way to go. There are expanses of what looks like sheer, smooth rock-face up above him. It’s not for want of trying. He’s putting a tremendous effort into it. He can see the blue sky above – that calls him on – but he can also hear the rustling of the rats in the garbage below, and that gives urgency to his efforts.

I want to take his hand or run for help, but I know I can’t. He’s beyond my grasp. However just as I feel depressed about the hopelessness of his situation, I see a silhouette against the light above, and hear a voice calling. The boy shouts back. Someone tells him not to worry, to stay where he is. There is a delay during which time I begin to wonder what is going on up there, but when the figure reappears a man starts to abseil down the side of the shaft. I breathe a sigh of relief. The boy is going to be rescued. Someone has heard his cries.

People are universally aware that something is wrong with life as we know it. They differ in their analysis of what the trouble is and consequently in the remedies that they prescribe. But all over the world and in every generation the human race has looked like that boy trying to climb out of a nasty and potentially fatal pit. Some people have put tremendous effort into the climb. They have tried ascetic practices. They have devoted themselves to ritual. They have been careful to a keep certain taboos. They have surrendered their freedom and much of their pleasure. They have tried hard to keep laws which they regarded as divinely given.

Religion generally suggests the picture of someone struggling to get up to the light, but Jesus is all about God coming to the rescue. Some seek to get there by keeping the Law-ritual and rules. But the Christian Gospel is about God, in his grace, coming to effect our salvation. Not all of the religion in all of the world will get people into a right and happy relationship with the Creator. Neither Torah nor karma not the Five Pillars of Islam can get people there. Not all the churchianity in the world. But God reaches out to effect their rescue, to bring them to the light.

In the New Testament, law and grace are contrasted. The Law was traditionally believed to have been given through Moses, but grace came through Jesus Christ. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.’

Ephesians 2:8                                   Romans 3: 21-26                         Romans 8:1-8

  • Do you think of yourself as religious? What do you mean by that term?
  • What’s wrong with the picture of St Peter standing at the Pearly Gates consulting his list of good and bad deeds before he lets a person in?
  • It has been said that the church preaches the gospel of grace while society seeks salvation by works. Would you agree with that? What effect does that have on your faith and life?
  • What is really important is not what we do for God but what God does for us. Comment.

2. The Human Predicament

(John 1:29)

  • Comment on some news item that you have heard today.
  • What aspect of current news troubles you most?
  • What can you do to strengthen the life of other home fellowship groups?
  • You could play a game of darts or quoits or throwing a ping-pong ball into a jug – any game that has to do with hitting or missing the mark.

This text brings a split image. Each half opens onto a different scene.

The indoor scene is of a very dirty bathroom. A young man has just entered the room with rags, bucket, brushes and mop in hand. He looks around in disgust as if to say, ‘Where on earth am I to start!’ There are blotches of mildew on the ceiling, and dust-laden cobwebs in the corners. The tiles around the shower cubicle are a horrible shade of grey, but here and there a little bit of blue gives a reminder of the original colour. Soap and grease have been accumulating on the glass screen door for so long that it is opaque. The bathtub will take a lot of scrubbing to get it clean.

The cleaner explains that the tenants left the place in a terrible mess. His Mum and Dad, the owners of the property, want to move in, so he has taken a week off work without pay to clean it up for them.

The other image is of a boy getting more and more angry with himself as every shot he fires with his twenty-two air rifle at a jam-tin target on a fence post misses its mark. His mates are poking fun at him. He is humiliated, but, seeing what was happening, his father stops the tractor in the paddock behind and comes over to examine the rifle.

‘I thought so,’ he says. ‘The sights are crooked. You’ll never fire straight until that’s fixed.’

All around the world and in every age people have agreed that there is something wrong about human life. Some say that it’s our material existence that gets in the road of our spiritual nature, others that the spirits of the ancestors have been offended. Some blame civilization, others patriarchy. But the biblical analysis uses the word sin, and this means missing the mark.

In spite of tremendous potential, human beings never quite hit the target. Human life shows much that is exciting, competent, generous and compassionate, but it falls short of being what it should be.

Human life is sullied. From some perspectives it might appear to be trashed. But the Bible is not content to state the obvious. It presents a remedy. This is expressed here in the image of the cleaner getting the house ready for his parents to move in. The Son, at cost to himself, cleans life up.

In the ancient Jewish worldview sin was dealt with by sacrifice, so the earliest Christians explained this cleansing in terms of sacrifice. That is why John’s words were remembered and quoted: ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ Jesus is the one whose sacrifice cleans up the house to make it habitable for God. Or, using the other image, he corrects the sights so that people can hit the target.

Jesus opened up a different way of being human; life lived in a trusting, love-filled , obedient relationship with God. Some of the effect of sin still remain, but ultimately all obstacles will be overcome and a completely different form of existence experienced.

Romans 3:23-25                         Hebrews 2:17                              1 John 1:8; 2:2

  • What is sin? How is it different from immorality or crime?
  • How adequate is sin as an explanation for what is wrong with life?
  • If Jesus takes away the sin of the world, why is there still so much sin around?
  • What does it mean to you to know that Jesus takes away the sin of the world?
  • Give people time to pray a prayer of confession in silence.

3. There’s a Demon in the System Somewhere

(John 2: 13-25)

  • Pray for God’s leading in your group, for the strengthening of group relationships, for your openness to the Spirit’s leading in your own life.
  • Talk about a clean-up that you have been involved in; e.g.: a house or garden that required cleaning, an organization that needed a clean-up, an environmental clean-up, a person who was transformed in appearance after bathing.
  • Have you had personal experience of loss through fire? Would you share with the group?
  • Ask one member of the group to give a short talk on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Here’s a family living on two hectares in the forested hills out on the edge of the city. They have built a comfortable home for themselves surrounded by gum trees with kangaroos and koalas to share their environment with them, but on a windy day they light dry tinder under a barbecue plate set in brickwork along by the swimming pool. John turns his back for a minute and a spark jumps from the fireplace to the dry grass at the base of the tennis court fence. By the time they unreel the hose the fire has spread all along the wire fence. Then in no time at all it jumps right across the asphalt court to travel wildly into the gully. This is too big for them to deal with on their own. Phone calls to the bush fire brigade and to neighbours alert others to the danger. But even as they hear a truck grinding its way up the hill toward them the wind changes direction and the fire comes raging back toward the house. They ply hoses onto the guttering and walls. They hurriedly shift the Volvo. But by the time the firefighters arrive the side verandah is ablaze. In no time at all the fire consumes their previous home with all its personal contents.

It has often been said: fire is a good servant, but a bad master. What is lit for pleasure and for convenience becomes a monster that devours belongings and threatens lives. But that is the way it is with organizations: set up to serve people’s needs, they have a habit of turning on those that they were meant to serve. Evil is not simply resident in the individual, it becomes entrenched in the institutions of society. It may be that no one person can be blamed, but the organization as a whole destroys people. This happens through inflexible bureaucracy, in the name of efficiency, through individuals pressing for private gain and advancement, through communal pride and the desire for social status and power.

Religious institutions are no more immune to this disease than are other types of organization, and this is highlighted by the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. The temple was meant to be a place where people could pray and worship, but under the motivation of providing easy availability of suitable animals for the required sacrifices some has turned part of the temple precinct into a marketplace.

Human organizations, social institutions, require constant review and reform to help them stay true to their ideals and purposes. The Christian Church no less than any other. No state, no church, no organization, can rightly claim unswerving obedience from its members. All need to be subject to testing against their founding purposes.

Luke 12: 1-3                                1 Corinthians 3: 1-4                     Revelation 3: 1-6

  • Give examples of un-Christian things you have encountered in your association with the Church.
  • Do you agree that all human organizations require constant review and reform to help them stay true to their ideals and purposes?
  • What reforms would you recommend for your church? Will you communicate your group’s thinking to your church leaders?
  • Talk about times when you have stood up against injustice, cruelty, or oppression in the world.
  • Pray for your church that it will, under God, be constantly under review and reform.

4. Life’s If-Onlys

(John 3: 17-21)

  • Had a good laugh lately? Share it with your friends.
  • Do you have any regrets about your life? Were any major opportunities lost?
  • If you had your life to live over again, what would you change?
  • Little children sometimes bury their faces in such a way as to suggest that if they can’t see the threat it is not there. How do adults behave like that?

A woman emerges from the front door of a suburban house holding her young son by the hand. With the slanting rays of the sun touching up the roof of the house, she thanks the mother of the boy whose birthday party her son has been attending and hurries toward the front gate. Her movement is impeded by a tugging at her jeans and the protest from her son that he had not been allowed to accept the parting gift of lollies that the hostess had offered him. Impatiently, as if touching on a subject she had covered many times before, she explains that his being a diabetic means that he has to eat differently from other children. That’s why she had sent special food for him to eat at the party. She could not let him have the packet of sweets.

With disappointment showing on his face, the boy accepts the situation and climbs into the car.

They do not leave town immediately. She first goes around to her mother’s place and then runs down to the shop to buy a carton of milk for her parents’ tea. But eventually, as darkness closes in, mother and son are off traversing the main road out of town. They turn off onto a side road that leads to their rural property, but she suddenly swerves to avoid hitting a wallaby and finds the car veering down an embankment off to the side of the narrow roadway. Fortunately it is a steady gradient so that, after giving its occupants a rough ride, the vehicle comes to rest in a dry creek bed without rolling over or doing any serious injury to herself or her son. But the car is immobilised. The lights are out. She cannot even get a sound out of the horn.

By this time it is well and truly dark, and there’s no knowing how long it will be before someone comes travelling along the side road. She knows she has to get back up onto the main road to signal a passing motorist for help. Either that or walk the three kilometres to their neighbour’s place. But, looking again at her son, she realizes that he is fast heading toward a diabetic coma. Suddenly her mind is flooded with a number of if-onlys. If only she had let him accept that packet of sweets! If only she had brought the mobile phone! If only she hadn’t stayed talking at her mother’s place so long! If only she hadn’t done that errand for her parents! If only they hadn’t decided to live in the quiet of a rural retreat!

Life is full of if-onlys, but the one which the Bible is most concerned about is the, ‘If only I had accepted Jesus as God’s Son and the salvation which he offers to the people of the world!’

If daylight comes and people prefer to seal off their windows and live inside as though it were still nighttime, they have no one to blame but themselves if they miss out on the brightness of the day. If people are made aware of the divine presence in Jesus but close their eyes to it, they have no one to blame but themselves when the if-onlys later catch up with them.

Romans 14: 10-12                              1 Peter 1: 17-21                       Matthew 3: 11-12

  • What do you think about the idea that the judgment is all of our if-onlys catching up with us?
  • What does judgment have to do with a God of love?
  • Compare the similarities and the differences between John 3:17 and Matthew 3:12.
  • Do you have regrets about opportunities you had to serve God but which you did not take up?
  • Confess those regrets and ask for God’s forgiveness.

5. Trust Me

(John 6: 28-29)

  • What have you been doing today?
  • What makes you trust some people and not others?
  • What is the difference between belief, trust, faith, and confidence?
  • How are the other members of this group helping you grow in your faith and life?

It’s a dirty and dingy flat. The blind on the window is opened sufficiently to allow natural light from a grey overcast day to give some illumination. By that light I see someone sitting on the mattress placed down on the floor in the corner. Apart from a table carrying unwashed plates and half a loaf of bread with some of the slices slipping out of the wrapper there is no other furniture in the room. There is what I identify as a bong under the table and empty cigarette packets lying on the floor together with several discarded syringe needles.

A young woman, neatly dressed in fitting tee shirt, blue jeans and white sandals stands near the table talking to the gaunt, staring figure half wrapped in a grey, charity-issue blanket and from what she is saying I gather that she is the sister of the man on the mattress.

Then he bursts out, ‘I’ll detox. I’ll go cold turkey. I’ll do anything. I’ve let Mum and Dad down. I’ve let you down. I’ve killed Sheena.’ He starts to cry and to sway backwards and forwards.

‘Sheena overdosed,’ his sister reminds him.

‘She’s dead. God, how I miss her! What can I do?’

With a few other expletives he speaks of his own self-loathing and asks what he can do to put things right with his family. He wants to come home, but feels he cannot until he has straightened his life out.

His sister tells him to come as he is. She’ll take him. She’ll arrange for his hospitalization. Don’t worry about the bills. Just come. Let their love be part of the recovery process.

‘I can’t,’ he protests. ‘I turned my back on everything I had been taught. I shut the family out of my life. I’ve put my parents through hell. Sheena was all I had. Now there’s nothing! What could I do to put it right? What could I ever do to make amends?’

‘Look,’ says his sister. ‘All you have to do is believe me. I’ve come here with Mum and Dad’s approval. They want you to know that you can come home. If you really want to get off that muck, we’ll do all we can to see that you get the best help available. Believe me, they really do still care. I don’t know why, but they do. And damn it ! I do too. ‘

Humanity is addicted to a drug more powerful, more insidious and more universal than heroin. It wrecks lives. And this sin-drug cuts people off from home, from God, from eternity. But people everywhere are asking, ‘What can I do? What can I do to get back home, to be right with God, to live in the eternal dimension? Tell me, what do I have to do?’ And the Gospel answer comes back, ‘Believe! That’s all you have to do. Just believe the messenger. Put your trust in Jesus Christ.

Romans 3:23-26                              Acts 16: 25-34                         Galatians 2: 15-16

  • How does likening sin to heroin help you in your understanding of sin?
  • Many people have difficulty with the idea of sin. Do you?
  • Does the term “sin bin” give a false idea of the biblical meaning of sin?
  • Why do people find it hard to accept salvation as a gift?
  • Pray for each in the group and for a strengthening of their faith in Jesus.

6. 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.