1. Our Misuse of Useful Tools

(John 5:10-18)

  • Are you familiar with passing the peace? Move around the group now taking people by the hand and saying, “The love of God be with you.”
  • Have a discussion about good things being put to bad uses.
  • Read and compare Exodus 20: 8-11 and Deuteronomy 5: 12 – 15.
  • Do some research into the significance of the Torah or Law for Judaism.

We’re inside a motor mechanic’s workshop. The open rear doorway and the glass windows along the side inform us that it is night time, but the fluorescent lights suspended from the steel trusses give sufficient light for the two men working on the old Ford Falcon ute to finish off the job they started earlier in the day.

The grey-haired man in blue overalls straightens up, wipes his hands on a rag and asks for the big shifter.

‘Where is it?’ the sandy-haired young fellow asks.

‘On the bench near the doorway,’ the mechanic says with a tinge of irritability.

‘It’s not here,’ he is told.

‘I put it right there.’ He points to the end of the bench close to the open doorway.

‘There’s no shifting spanner here now,’ the young man replies.

‘It was ten minutes ago.’

But a search convinces them that indeed the tool has disappeared. They are mystified.

Down the street and around the corner in a dark alley that same shifting spanner is, right at that moment, being raised by a gloved hand to strike a windowpane. The owner of the hand, after cleaning away the jagged shards, reaches inside and puts his arm in between two upright steel bars to unlock a door, which leads into a factory office. He and his accomplice set about a hurried search that leaves the contents of filing cabinets strewn around the floor and cupboard doors wide open.

People’s handing of the tools given them for community life is like that. Law, morality, standards – these, like the Jewish Torah, are gifts from God, tools which help to fix social problems and guard against collapse. But what was meant to be a useful tool can be used to smash other people’s security. The rule that was meant to help society function efficiently can be used to hurt people. Laws can lead to legalism; morality, to moralism. Legalism and moralism are a destructive misuse of rules.

This passage highlights a misuse of the Sabbath law. What was meant to be for the love of God and neighbour is turned against both God and neighbour. So is demonstrated the in-built perversity of human nature. What is useful and constructive is turned into something damaging and destructive.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15                              Mark 2:23-28                           1 Timothy 1:8-11

  • Religion is a good which gets turned into an evil. Give examples of this..
  • Is the Sabbath commandment still relevant? What value does it have? How should we keep it today?
  • In your experience, how has the observance of Sunday changed over the years?
  • Have you had personal experience of rules being used to hurt you? Share if you are willing.
  • Pray for people who are being hurt by religion.

2. Measuring Commitment

(John 10:11-18)

  • What is your favourite hymn or Christian song?
  • What would you appreciate most as a sign of affection: chocolates, dinner at a restaurant, a trip for two to Tahiti, half-an-hour with you every day, a new outfit for your wardrobe, a sympathetic ear, a big hug?
  • Talk about people who have made significant sacrifices for you.
  • Read and discuss the hymn, And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?

It’s a laboratory and students are taking turns placing rats into a box. On making further enquiries of the group it is pointed out to me that there is an opening on one side of the box that opens into a tunnel. The tunnel has been wired to a battery so that to traverse it the rat has to endure some degree of pain. By altering the switch the students can regulate the amount of current passing through the wiring. The experiment consists in their placing a variety of objects in the box at the other end of the tunnel. For a batch of hungry rats they place food at the other end of the tunnel. For a number of male rats they place a female on heat. For mother rats they place their babies. The objective is to measure the intensity of their instinct and the mean reading on the electrical switch for a particular group of rats is taken as a relative measure of drive intensity.

We might not be as scientific as that, but in human affairs we often take the amount of nuisance or pain which a person is prepared to endure as a measure of his or her commitment to another. A person who says, ‘I love you’, but makes no sacrifice for the beloved cannot be believed. Jesus said, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That is the ultimate sacrifice. That is the ultimate love.

Jesus the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his flock. Not because he is forced to. He does it voluntarily. And that is a measure of his commitment to his disciples, and by his disciples we mean not only those who were with him in Galilee or in Jerusalem, but all people through the centuries since then who have put their faith in him.

John 15:12-15                              Mark 15:21-32                           Hebrews 10:11-14

  • What response do you make to the suffering of Christ on the cross? How does it affect you?
  • Which comes first: our commitment to God or God’s commitment to us?
  • Why do people generally admire those who go out of their way to help others?
  • It’s relatively easy to point the finger at other people who use their positions of leadership to exploit others, but have you yourself done it? With your spouse, your children, your friends, your employees, clients or customers. Perhaps it would not be appropriate to share this, but rather to spend time in silent prayer as each one searches his or her own soul and makes private confession.
  • Pray for people who are enduring deprivation or suffering because of their Christian faith

3. How Can You Tell Them from the Others?

(John 13 31-35)

  • What uniforms have you worn in your lifetime?
  • If your group were to select a uniform for its members what should it comprise?
  • Suggest colours that might say something about the group.
  • What would you say is your most distinguishing characteristic?
  • In what way has your appreciation of each other grown through your involvement in this group?

It seems that everywhere I look I see someone wearing a small, yellow plastic triangle. Down the street, in the mall, and everywhere around the convention centre people are wearing these tags pinned to their clothing. Some speak English with an American accent, others with a Swedish accent. I pick up one or two English dialects as well as Scottish and Irish. There’s the voice of a South African! There are Africans and Indians, ethnic Chinese, Polynesians and Spanish speaking people from Latin America. People have come from all over the world to this convention, but no matter where they come from or in what language they feel most at home they can all be identified as conference delegates by the small yellow triangles.

Some triangles have a green border. This prompts an enquiry as to what that means, and I am told that people wearing those badges are local people who have undergone a course on hosting and helping delegates from overseas. Anyone wanting information about the city, the country, the convention, the timetable, travel arrangements or how to get to any preferred destination are told that they can speak to one of the people wearing a green border on their tag and they will be given whatever assistance they require. It is then pointed out to me that some triangles have a red border. That indicates that the person wearing it is a member of the organizing committee.

Jesus did not hand out any form of ID to his disciples. People could slip into the group or out of it without anyone demanding of them proof of identification. But he did indicate that his disciples would be distinguishable by the love that they showed one toward another.

The church has tried to impose baptism or church members rolls as a way of marking off the followers of Jesus, but Jesus said that it was by the love that they have for one another that they would be identified. It hasn’t worked very well, has it? All through history since then people have proclaimed their Christianity but have not matched it with a demonstrated love for other Christians. So the identification is not as clear as Jesus hoped it would be. And yet, isn’t it still true? Where there is genuine faith and discipleship there is, even if it be in only limited form, a demonstration of love and care for one another.

It is the love and care for one another that marks a congregation as a body of Christ’s disciples. Lose that and you lose your identification. To the extent that Christians love one another they can be identified as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

If only it were as easy as wearing yellow plastic triangles!

1 John 4: 7-12                                 Leviticus 19: 18                                Romans 13: 8-10

  • Have you experienced love from people in a Christian congregation? How was it expressed?
  • If it’s the love and care for one another that marks a congregation as a true body of Christian disciples, how does your congregation show up?
  • What can your group do to help the congregation be more loving one toward another?
  • Why should love for one another be such a distinctive characteristic of true discipleship?
  • Pray for your congregation that it might give greater evidence of having love for one another.

4. This is Where I Belong

(John 15: 1-11)

  • How many different places have you lived in? Where did you feel most at home?
  • What makes a house a home?
  • Would you like to talk about your garden: what you have planted lately, plants that you take a special delight in, what satisfaction you get from gardening.
  • What makes home so special whether it be your family of origin, the house you now live in, or your own country?

In the foreground there is a rusted iron gate swung between two very weathered and over-sized gateposts and a barbed wire fence running along a stony ridge. Two men with their backs toward us lean with their arms on the top rail of the gate, each with one booted foot resting on the bottom rung. Beyond them lies a charming valley: green, but for two rectangles of a ploughed chocolate brown. Grass covers much of the valley floor. Trees mark the course of a winding stream, and the roof of a homestead is almost hidden by giant trees that must have been planted many years ago. The big shed and some of the other outhouses are less protected by trees. On both sides of the valley tree-covered hills rise and in the far distance a jagged, high peak can be seen jutting up above the rest of the skyline.

A close-up of the men shows one of them turning to the other and saying, ‘As soon as I saw the valley forty years ago I knew it was going to be my home.’ The speaker has pushed his battered old felt hat to the back of his head to reveal a tanned, balding head, greyed eyebrows, lined face and dusty, stubbly jaw. ‘In my late teens and early twenties I got the wanderlust. Couldn’t settle down to anything. Always moving on. But then I came here and knew that this was where I was going to stay, and this has been my home ever since. Not only have I come to own this valley, but I am owned by it. Know what I mean? Like the Aboriginal, I feel, not so much as though I possess the land, but that I am possessed by it. This is where I belong. This is where I’m staying.

‘I know financially I’d be better off selling,’ he goes on. ‘My sons have both gone off to make their way in the city. There’s no real reason to hang on here. But I can’t leave this place. Not yet awhile anyway. Maybe the time will come when I have to be taken away in a wheelchair, or carried off in a box, but until then this is my home. If I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know. You can have the job of selling it then. But right now, it’s not for sale. This valley belongs to me and this is where I belong.’

After a few remarks the younger man wearing a smart, clean Akubra and R.M. Williams gear lowers his polished, tan boot from the gate, turns and walks back to his Land Rover.

The words of the old farmer catch something of the relationship between Christians and Jesus. They have made their home in him. He is the valley where they have settled. There might have been years of roaming, but all that is in the past. This is now their home. But at the same time they know that they don’t really possess the valley: they have been possessed by it. It is as though the land has taken up residence in their hearts. Jesus could say, ‘Abide in me as I abide in you.’

He was using the image of a grapevine and saw himself as the vine with his disciples as branches. Of course the whole purpose for having a grapevine is to get grapes from it, and, in the illustration that Jesus used, God the farmer cuts out the deadwood and prunes back the strongly growing branches so that it will bear good fruit. He must have been thinking about living the ways of God, adopting the values of the kingdom of God, keeping the commandments of love – that was the fruit his disciples were to bear. But they can only do it if they abide in him and he in them.

Acts 17:28                                      1 John 3:4-6                                  Isaiah 5: 1-7

  • What, for you, is the most telling part of the image in John 15 which describes Jesus as the grapevine and his disciples as the branches?
  • What does it mean for you to abide in Christ?
  • Which is the more important question: have you found Christ or has Christ found you?
  • As part of the vine, what sort of fruit do you think God wants you to bear?
  • Pray silently for your own indwelling in Christ. Ask that your life, your will, your desires, your hopes, your dreams, your personality may be thoroughly rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ.

5. The Storefront Window

(John 15:12-17)

  • Who is your favourite recording artist or group?
  • Talk about advertising. What useful purpose does it serve? What annoys you about it?
  • What makes for a good advertisement and what makes a bad one?
  • How can you promote the importance of belonging to small groups like this one?

The scene that is opened up by this window surprises me. It is a shop front. A departmental store fronting onto the mall. I’m looking into the shop window. It has been tastefully decorated in autumn tones to display some of this winter’s fashions. There are five manikins in various poses, clustered to give the appearance of a group of women in animated conversation. The lighting is subtle, but captivating. It is in sharp contrast to the evening shadows all around. In the foreground on the right hand side of the window there is an imitation parchment scroll announcing the times for forthcoming fashion parades to be held in the store.

What has this capitalistic, commercial promotion to do with a commandment about love for one another? But, yes, that’s it! It’s a promotional activity. When Jesus told his followers to live a life of love one to another he was dressing the window, he was seeking to advertise a product. The product that Jesus promoted strenuously and consistently all through his recorded activity was that which he called the kingdom of God – God’s reign. He intended his band of followers to be like a shop window showing passersby what the kingdom is like.

He himself had done this and that is why he said to them that they were to love one another in the way in which he had loved them, that is, with a love ready to make the supreme sacrifice if necessary. The kingdom of God is characterized by love.

The church was not meant to be a mechanical display. His shop window was not to be peopled by manikins, but by real live human beings, people with insight and understanding as to what the reign of God is like, people who love one another. So the way Christians treat one another was meant to be a promotional display of life in God’s realm.

This is not a case of the product failing to live up to the advertising. The church is rather a failure in advertising. In so far as Christians do not live by the commandment to love one another they deny the kingdom and divert attention away from the reign of God which Jesus saw as so fundamentally important for the whole human race. In so far as Christians do love one another they showcase God’s kingdom.

1 John 3:11-22                                 1 John 4:7-12                                Romans 13: 8-10

  • Life in community is always a practice session for the Christian. What does this mean for a family, a church group, a work team, a coach load of tourists?
  • When is it easy to obey the command to love other Christians and when is is difficult?
  • How effectively does your church promote the love-values of God’s kingdom?
  • What practical steps could your group take to build up Christian unity and love?
  • Pray for the unity of Christ’s Church in your area, acknowledging your own failures and praying for greater trust and cooperation among the various denominations.

6. I Feel Much Better Now

(John 21:1 – 14)

  • Which of the following would you not like to be without: teeth, television, telephone, transport, theatre, or your teddy bear?
  • Who among you like fishing? Got any good fishing stories to tell us?
  • Tell us one thing you have learnt through your membership of this group.
  • How do small groups like this contribute to the overall life and work of the congregation?

A young woman sits behind a steering wheel, her face dimly illuminated by the soft light coming from the dashboard. Raindrops on the exterior of the windscreen and frosting on the inside make it hard to see into the surrounding darkness. She has pulled over to the side of the bitumen roadway with the car’s parking lights still on.

This is a lonely stretch of road, but I can see by the mobile phone she still clutches in her left hand that she is not completely isolated. She is not currently talking into the phone, but she looks tense. And the anxiety in her eyes increases as she turns her head to look at headlights approaching from behind. She appears to be making ready to use the phone again, but pauses as the car pulls up on the verge behind her and a tall, athletic-looking young man with a torch in his hand jumps out and jogs to her door. Even then she hesitates before lowering the glass and exclaiming with obvious relief, ‘Darling, am I glad to see you!’

‘You said you were being hassled by a gang of hoodlums,’ he says.

‘The damn car stalled right in the middle of the road, and as I was trying to push it off to the side a carload of youths arrived. While they pushed it off the bitumen for me they then wanted me to go with them in their car.’

‘Did they touch you? Are you alright?’

‘I’m all right now. They grabbed me and tried to force me into their car, but I broke free and locked myself in.’

‘Just as well you did.’

‘I was scared. Really scared. They rocked the car and tapped the windows. Exposed themselves and made suggestive signs at me. They ran off while I was phoning you because headlights were coming from the other direction. They drove off, but I was scared they’d come back before you could get here.’

She scrambles out of the car into her husband’s arms. He waits for her sobs to subside before opening the bonnet and peering, with the aid of his torch, into the compartment beneath. Even as he bends over, trying this and that, she strokes his back with relief.

‘You’ve no idea what a difference it makes having you here,’ she says.

After a while he says, ‘I think I know what the problem is. It’s the fuel filter. I’ll have to take it off and clean it. Do you want me to take you home? I’ll come back then and get it going.’

‘No, don’t leave me on my own – not even at home, ‘ she says. ‘I want to stay with you.’

‘It’ll take a few minutes.’

‘I don’t care how long I stay so long as you’re here.’

‘I’ll have to get my tools out of the car. It would be helpful if you held the torch. We’ll get this done together.’

‘With hoods like that around I wouldn’t want it left here by the side of the road unattended. Goodness knows what it would look like when we got back.’

 The presence of someone who loved her, who was strong and unafraid and who knew how to fix cars, made all the difference. She didn’t mind staying on provided he was there.

And it is like this with Christians. The presence of the living Christ makes the difference. On their own they can feel frightened, overwhelmed, threatened, vulnerable, but with the presence, in Spirit, of one who loves them, who instills confidence in them, who knows the way things really work, they can feel very different as the disciples did when the risen Christ joined them in their fishing activity.

Deuteronomy 31:7-8                                 Psalm 23:4                                  Matthew 28:20

  • What words describe the feelings of the disciples (a) before they see Jesus on the beach, (b) when they first recognize him, (c) when they sit around the fire eating breakfast?
  • What significance do you see in the actions of Jesus written about in John 21:13?
  • Share with the group any experience you have had of Christ’s presence bringing calm and peace to a troubled heart.
  • How important for the Christian faith is it to have a story like this preserved for people of later generations to read?
  • Pray for people who are feeling frightened or anxious.