1. A Different Vision
(John 6:22 – 27)
- What is the most enriching experience you have had lately?
- Give an example of a number of people looking at a sporting event but each seeing it differently. What are some of those different perspectives?
- Have you had the experience of talking about something or other only to find that the person you were talking to has completely misunderstood what you were talking about? Did it give rise to a humorous or to a serious situation?
- What do you think of the commonly used marketing strategy that makes use of the desire people have to get something for nothing?
The window opens into a room where a man is hitting the keys on his computer keyboard with an intensity beyond that which efficiency requires. His jaw is set. There is tenseness about his posture. He is leaning forward as he peers intently at his monitor so I crane my neck to read what is on the screen.
It is clearly a letter addressed to someone called William. I read: ‘ I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I am with you, Bill. I introduced you to the rainforest and to the red cedar grove. I explained to you how, by an accident of history, this stand of cedars escaped logging while the rest of the rainforest lost its treasures. Now I find that you have bought that stand of timber and the logging contractors are moving in. I thought I was showing you part of our natural heritage – a national treasure. But all you saw was the opportunity to make a fortune. How could you be so blind to the significance of preserving this tract of virgin rainforest! How could you be so insensitive to my motives! You may have the law on your side, and I’m sure, with your money, you are able to draw on all the best legal advice available, but I must protest at what you are doing to the environment. And I object to the mention of my name in the press release. To put the best construction on it, I have to say that you completely misunderstood my motives. In a less generous spirit, I would tell you that you betrayed my trust. You let me down. ‘
It happens. High-minded people share their treasures with others only to find that the people that they show them to want to exploit them for their own benefit. The Salvation Army give assistance to the needy with the hope that they will see it as a sign of God’s love and a practical expression of the Gospel, but many recipients see it simply as a handout. Christian missions conduct hospitals as an expression of Gospel love, but governments see them as convenient ways of supplementing the needs of a cash-strapped health service.
As with all his miracles, the feeding of the five thousand was meant to be a sign of God’s reign, but the people took it to be simply a marvellous way of getting cheap food. They saw that everyone in the crowd had enough to eat: they didn’t see that God was signalling a different sort of sustenance.
It requires a different way of looking at things, but it is possible for people to have this different perspective on life – to see beyond the physical to the spiritual reality that is embodied in it. It is possible. It is more than just possible: it is to this that we are called.
Luke 24: 25-27 Matthew 5:8 2 Corinthians 4: 3-6
- Have you been in a situation where you were unable to persuade people around you to see things the way you do? How did that make you feel?
- What difference does it make to see work or occupation from a spiritual, Christ-centred point of view rather than from a this-worldly, self-centred point of view?
- People misunderstand God’s activity in and through the church because they cannot see beyond their own this-worldly needs. How can we help to overcome this misunderstanding?
- Give examples of ways in which people use God to their own advantage?
- Pray for people who treat God as their servant rather than live as God’s servant.
2. The Romance of Distance
(John 6: 30-34)
What was the most formative influence on your early life?
What do you regard as ‘the good old days’?
Who were the heroes of your childhood?
List things that have changed in your community or country in the past twenty-five years.
Dad’s bald patch can be seen above the back of the chair as he slumps in front of the telly with an empty coffee mug balanced on his bare paunch. Mum flicks back wisps of grey hair from her lined face as she washes dishes at the kitchen sink. Twenty-two year old Rebecca scowls at her father while vigorously drying items of crockery with a tea towel.
‘Those Muslim men are the limit!’ Dad shouts as he leans forward with his eyes fixed on the screen. ‘They treat their women like dirt. Keep ‘em wrapped up like they was fish ‘n chips bein’ taken out of a shop. They won’t let ‘em get a proper education. And the punishments they meter out – they’re barbaric!’
‘Hey, Jean!’ he called out to his wife without a pause. ‘Here’s my mug.’ Without turning his head, he held it out for her to come and take it from his outstretched arm.
This was too much for Rebecca. She threw her towel down on the bench and came around to stand between him and the television set.
‘You get cranky with the Muslims, but what about yourself!,’ she stormed. ‘You get stirred up about the way Muslim men treat their women, but you are no better. You couldn’t get up and bring the mug yourself, could you? You expect Mum to collect it while you lie there like Lord Muck. For twenty-five years you’ve had her running after you. You don’t do a thing around the house. You won’t even let her go out unless she’s home in time to get your meal ready. ‘
Jean is saying, “Shushhhh! ‘
‘Don’t shush me, Mother! It’s time a few home truths were said around here. That’s why I moved out. I can’t bear to see the way he treats you. He can see what’s wrong on another continent, but he can’t see what’s wrong right here in his own home. He is outraged at the idea that slavery might still exist in some parts of the world, but he’s treating you like a slave all the time. He degrades you, he orders you about, he places restrictions on you. It’s disgusting!’
We meet people like that. They are better able to see wrongs in others than in themselves. People seem to get a better view of things at a distance than they do when they are up close. From the safety of historical distance politicians can be vocal in their judgments on the American invasion of Viet Nam, but what about more pressing issues over which the electorate is deeply divided? It is easy to be wise after the event. It’s easy from the safety of historical distance to condemn the nineteenth century missionary movement as imperialistic, or the pioneer settlers of Australia as racist, but what about our own contemporary involvement in God’s missionary work, or our own present-day racism: what are we doing in the here and now?
There is a tendency for people to look back on the past as a Golden Age. We honour heroes from the past about whom we would be ambivalent if they lived today. It seems that all people can look back into their histories and say, ‘There were giants in the land in those days.’ But they cannot see any today.
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God, it seems, spoke so clearly in the past: why can’t we hear the Word of God today? Prophets will be honoured from the security of distance. Does God not speak today? People could talk about the miraculous provision of food for their people in the past, but they couldn’t see the miracle that was going on right before their eyes. People are often more disposed to seeing God involved in the past than seeing God active in the present.
Genesis 6: 4 Luke 4: 22-29 Hebrews 1:1-4
- The crowds acknowledged God’s provision of manna for their ancestors in the past, but could not see it taking place in the present. Why couldn’t they see this?
- Why is it easier to recognize God’s Word spoken in the past than to recognize it in our own day?
- History – bane or blessing? A knowledge of history can help the living of life today, but on the other hand it can hinder it too. Can you think of examples to illustrate this point?
- Do you find it easier to talk about God’s action in the past than to talk about what God is doing in the present? Why?
- Pray that we as a church may learn from our past and be liberated from bondage to it.
3. The Right Road
- Get each person to draw a rough map showing where they live.
- Name as many Australian highways as you can think of (e.g. Bruce Highway).
- What characteristics do you share with your father and which with your mother?
- Which of the following most marks your attitude toward people of non-Christian religions: tolerance, suspicion, pity, respect, anger?
We’re peering into a foreign market place. It’s crowded with people of many races. Merchants have their wares spread out on cloth laid upon the dusty ground. Most have rigged up some sort of shelter to protect them from the mid-day sun, but that does nothing to protect them from the flies. A white couple emerging, with young child, from a battered old bus, seizes my attention. They could be tourists. Adults in their late twenties. Tanned. Both carry backpacks, wear baseball caps, shorts and sandals. They place their luggage on the roadside and consult a handbook that he pulls out of his shirt pocket. The corner of the page has been turned down for easy reference. She picks the lad up and talks soothingly to him. He is too thin. I don’t know how old he is, but judging by his face I’d say he is too small for his age. He is not well. I see anxiety on the parents’ faces.
‘That’s the hire car place over there,’ the man says pointing to a mud-brick building at the far end of the square with two rather battered, yellow, motorcars parked outside. ‘We were advised not to deal with them. Their cars have a reputation for breaking down. They say if you’re lucky they’ll break down on the edge of town, but if not there’re sure to break down in the desert and people have died when stranded out there like that.’
‘What sort of a joint is this!’ he exclaims in an American accent as he looks further around. ‘The sooner we get out of here the better. All I want to do is to get Jackson to the healer.’
She places a finger on the open book as she reads from the page, ‘There is only one reliable way to cross the desert. Go to Sam’s in the street behind the market. Ask for Sam personally and tell him that you want him to drive you across. That’s the only way that we would recommend. Avoid the camel drivers. They regularly play tricks on unsuspecting travellers. Their scam is to take passengers as far as an oasis and then refuse to take them further without the payment of exorbitant sums of money. They might get you there eventually (and the emphasis is on the word might), but it will cost you dearly. Do not, at all costs, try to set off on your own by car, on bicycle or on foot.’
‘Well, there’s only one way for us to get across the desert,’ he says. ‘We have to find Sam.’
Sam’s is a most unprepossessing place. A tiny house tucked in between mansions and the four wheel drive vehicle outside looks as though it would have difficulty getting to the far end of this isolated outpost, let alone crossing the notorious desert.
I blink and the scene changes. The trio has arrived in a delightful, fertile valley on the other side of the desert and are enthusiastically expressing thanks to their driver. He not only had driven them across the trackless desert, provided camping equipment for them overnight, but has brought them right to the home of the healer. He is obviously well known here, for as soon as his vehicle approaches, gates open and people make way. It is in the anteroom waiting to be ushered into the healer’s presence that they discover that Sam is the healer’s son. For him, it is his life’s mission to get people to the healer where they find new life and vitality. He tells the boy’s parents that what gives him the greatest kick out of life is to see emaciated, dying children like young Jackson here put on weight and come alive in the healer’s house.
When Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life, the existence of a confusing variety of religious options was not on his mind. He was a Jew talking to Jews, and Hinduism, Buddhism or Animism were not in his thinking. Islam had not yet come into existence. But in a pluralistic world where people are presented with a smorgasbord of religious systems the assertion takes on a broader significance, still essentially holding to the original affirmation that he is the only full and complete revelation of God.
Matthew 7: 13-14 Acts 9:1-2 John 10:9
- What do you say to people who regard the world’s religions as different paths leading up the same mountain?
- What should be our attitude toward people of other religions?
- Before the followers of Christ were known as Christians they were known as followers of The Way. Would that be a good way of referring to followers of Christ today? What would it emphasize?
- John 14: 1-4 is often read at funerals. Pray for the bereaved.
- Share with us some happy experience that you have had recently?
- How should we handle hatred, antagonism or opposition? Is this an issue, or has it been an issue for members of the group?
- What are some of the warnings we receive during the course of our everyday lives? For example one might be the warning about the dangers of not having smoke detectors fitting into our houses.
- Find out something about Amnesty International and the work that it does.
He’s smaller than the other kids in his class. He is the only one with an Asian appearance, and he’s smart. He gets everything right. He tries hard.
That’s the trouble: he’s different. In a class made up of children from an Anglo-Celtic background, he stands out simply by virtue of his skin colour, the shape of his eyes, the size of his body, his shyness and, of course, the effort he puts into his work. The prevailing class culture is one that says a student should only do sufficient work to scrape through.
So he sits alone while the other children play their games. No one invites him to join in. He is used to being called Chink, Wog, Slanty Eyes but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel the barbs. He frequently has his lunchbox snatched from him so that he goes home hungry, disturbed that his parents who can’t afford it will have to go out and buy him another. If he does bring money to spend at the tuck shop he will be pushed out of the queue or be bullied into handing over his money before the tuck shop orders are taken.
This seems to reflect a universal characteristic of human beings – of animals too – the group pushes out the one who is different. Jesus was different. Very different. Unique. So Jesus experienced the fate of all who are different. He was pushed out of his society, pushed out in a most violent and cruel way – by crucifixion. And he told his followers that they could expect the same. If they remain true to him, they will find themselves hated and rejected.
Christians have sometimes brought persecution upon themselves by foolish actions, but nevertheless many have been persecuted because they reflected the mind and spirit of Jesus. True followers of Jesus will always be different and as such will be bullied, ignored, rejected, taunted, persecuted by some and by many simply misunderstood.
Matthew 10:22 Romans 12:14 Revelation 1:9
- Share with us any form of persecution you have suffered because of your faith.
- Have you, on any occasion, been made to feel as thought you were an outsider because of your Christian commitment? How did you react?
- List the names of Christians that you have heard or read about who have suffered greatly or been put to death because of their loyalty to Christ. (This might require some homework)
- Where are Christians being persecuted around the world today?
- Pray for people who are being persecuted today. Pray also for their persecutors.
5. The Odd One Out
(John 18:38 – 19:16)
- What is your favourite TV show?
- With which movie star, TV personality or sports star do you feel that you have most in common?
- Why is peer group pressure so important in the lives of teenagers?
- What difficulties do migrants experience trying to settle into this country?
The end-of-school buzzer has sounded, but the teacher holds the class for a few moments longer as she extols the work handed in by Dinh. She tells them that she wishes everyone would put as much effort into their work as he does. He has only been in the class two months and already is putting the rest of them to shame. The class is not listening but is waiting impatiently to surge out through the open doorway. Dinh himself is looking embarrassed. He is the smallest boy in the room but appears to be trying to make himself shrink even smaller.
At last she finishes her exhortation and dismisses the class. There is a wild stampede for the doorway led by the roughest and toughest of the rather unruly class. Dinh is the last to leave as he has to extract a violin case from under his desk before he can follow the others outside.
We follow Dinh along the road to the music teacher’s house where he turns in and rings the doorbell before being welcomed at the door. He is swallowed up by the low-set, brick veneer building, but the confidently played music which escapes out into the garden fills me with delight and surprise, delight at its intriguing melodies and surprise that a boy of eleven or twelve could play so well.
The afternoon shadows are lengthening when he emerges from the house and heads off down toward the creek. As he about to step onto the narrow wooden footbridge he hears an insulting racist remark shouted from the bushes and someone else calls his name with the title Wog added to it. He pauses to look around and is suddenly surrounded by some of the boys I saw earlier rushing noisily out from the classroom. Some loom up from among the shrubs on the creek bank, two come at him from across the other side of the bridge. They jeer and sneer. One pushes him backwards so that he staggers, almost losing his balance. Another bumps him so violently that his glasses fall off. He clutches at them desperately, but they fall to the ground and in the scuffle get kicked into the grass. But in his anxiety over what might happen to his glasses he has his violin case wrenched from under his arm, and to his horror sees the precious instrument being taken from the case and dangled over the railing of the bridge. The boy who is holding it threatens to drop it into the water. Another boy grabs hold of the bow and starts to swing it wildly from side to side threatening to beat Dinh and the other lads with it. In his enthusiasm he accidentally smashes the bow against the bridge railing so that it breaks in two. Dinh cries out in anguish as he sees the end of the bow dangling at a sickening angle to the stump still in the other boy’s hand. There is much swearing and insulting language, but it all stops when people can be seen approaching from the other side of the creek and the gang run off up the pathway leaving Dinh shaking, sobbing and picking up his scratched and scuffed violin from the decking of the bridge.
It happens over and over again, the odd person out gets treated badly. It happens in societies all over the world and has done throughout history. The phenomenon can even be seen among animals and birds. Sometimes it is done with roughneck brutality, sometimes with a degree of sophistication, but the purpose is the same – to exclude the one who threatens the accepted beliefs and power structures of the group.
It is powerfully exemplified in the story of Jesus. He lived by a different vision; marched, if you like, to a different drum. So he stood out as different. That difference poses a threat to every human society. He represents a different world order. His claim to represent the reign of God brought derision from those who held power in society. He became the butt of jokes and was rejected in the most comprehensive manner. He was handed over to be crucified.
Jeremiah 38: 1-6 Daniel 3:1-18 Acts 19:23-28
- Is rejection an essential part of being a Christian?
- What experiences have you had of being rejected or ostracized by others because of your loyalty to Christ?
- Pilate and Jesus were very different. List those differences.
- List the values that predominate in movies and TV, and then list the values which predominate in the life and teaching of Jesus. Discuss the difference between these two lists.
6. It’s Too Late Now
(John 19: 38 – 42)
- Tell us about the time you missed your train, bus, plane, ship.
- Tell us about some significant opportunity that you have had. Did you take it up, or let it slip?
- What opportunities has membership of this group brought you?
- Tell of a time when you thought of the right reply only it was too late then.
The neighbours gather in a group across the street around the Williamson’s front gate and watch with horror as two men in dark trousers and white shirts carry a stretcher out of number 25 and place it in an unmarked commercial van. They cannot see the body strapped onto the stretcher for it’s completely enveloped in dark green plastic. But they know who it is. They have been following events all day. Halfway through the morning her parents arrived. One of the neighbours gave them a hand to break in through a side window and was with them when they made the grisly find. Later a police car came and remained parked outside for hours while plainclothes police with a photographer, and then a doctor, arrived. Janice’s father came back together with her brother, and then finally the funeral directors. They all know that Janice, who moved into number 25 about five months ago, has died in the bathtub from loss of blood following a self-inflicted slashing of her wrists.
‘I knew that they were having troubles,’ a man in shorts and singlet says in a hoarse whisper. ‘But I had no idea that it was as bad as this!’
‘Her ex-boyfriend left her for another woman,’ Marjorie told him.
‘She’d told him she didn’t want any more to do with him, so he moved out. Then she tried to get him back, but he wasn’t having anything to do with it. She kept hoping he’d come back, but when he left town with his new girlfriend she knew there was no hope. That knocked her around. She told me then she ‘d kill herself. But I didn’t think she’d actually do it. They don’t, do they? When they say that they’re goin’ to kill themselves then never do it. It’s all talk, isn’t it?’
‘She told me a bit about her troubles,’ says another of the neighbours. ‘But, hell, I didn’t want to get involved. It wasn’t none of my business.’
‘Makes yer sick, don’t it?’ a man says. ‘To think it happened right here! Right in our street.’
‘Makes me feel real bad,’ says Mavis Williamson. ‘I should have done something to help her. I knew she was lonely. I knew she needed a friend.’
‘I felt sorry for Janice, too,’ says Marjorie. ‘She had a hard life. I only wish now I’d been a bit more attentive. Several times she tried to talk about it, but it was always the wrong time. I was just going out, or I had something cooking on the stove, or the kids needed help with their homework. It was never convenient, so I never listened. Damn it all! I wish I had now.’
They fall silent as their eyes follow the van down the street until it turns the corner onto the main road.
The secret disciples, Joseph Arimathea and Nicodemus, didn’t think it would come to this. Now, doubtlessly, they wished they had spoken up earlier. But it was too late. Jesus was dead. All they could do is secure for him a decent burial. That’s more than he, as a condemned criminal, would have had if they hadn’t intervened. But what if they had spoken up earlier? It may not have come to this.
There are times when, too late, we realize that we have let the side down, we’ve betrayed a friend’s confidences, we’ve cowed before the threat of being the odd one out, we’ve been less than truthful out of fear for our comfort and security. It seems inadequate, but all we can do is to try to make amends. We hope that it is not too late to do something. And, after all, we say better late than never.
We all live with regrets, but we don’t all handle regrets in the same way. Some dwell on them so that they come to dominate their psychological landscape, and then they burn a hole deep into the fabric of their personality, ruining it. Others try to skip over the regrets by pretending that they are not there. But, like other dark shadows relegated to the subconscious, they will get up to mischief if they are not confronted and acknowledged. Others act furiously in an endeavour to make up for their mistakes. Burn themselves out with work in an attempt to atone for their error. But still there is another way and that is the way that brings the regrets under the cover of God’s grace and forgiveness. Sorrow remains for hurts that have been caused and restitution is made wherever possible, but self-acceptance and reassurance come through an awareness of God’s forgiveness.
1 Samuel 15:10 Matthew 27:3-5 Romans 2:25-3:3
- How do you handle regrets: dwell on them, skip over them, keep busy, offer them to God?
- Do you know any secret believers? Why do they keep their faith a secret?
- How do you feel when you miss an opportunity to speak about Jesus or to help someone in his name?
- Where was Arimathea? See if you can find out.
- Pray for each other that each will handle his or her regrets constructively.