1. God’s Faith Family

(John 1: 12-13)

  • Invite members of the group to describe themselves in a few sentences.
  • Which of the following most influences your self-understanding: family of origin, present relationships, nationality, religion, sex, age, occupation, hopes and disappointments.
  • Invite members of the group to talk about their children or their own childhood experiences.

I see a little child being reunited with her mother. A shop assistant is carrying the curly haired, three-year-old on one arm as she approaches the shopping centre manager’s office where her mother has been anxiously waiting the result of a call put over the PA system. No one has to ask, ‘Is this your child?’ The girl has her mother’s blonde hair, her mother’s eyes and mouth. Even if the coy look of recognition were not enough, the similarity in physical features would convince anyone that this was indeed the child they were looking for.

‘She told me her name is Melissa Jane Martin,’ the kind shop assistant tells the mother as the child is transferred from one pair of arms to the other.

‘We’ve been teaching her to say her name,’ Melissa’s mother says as she hugs her daughter.

Tears soon dry up. The sobs cease as Melissa buries her face in her mother’s shoulder affirming, in her own way, that she had found the security, identity and sense of belonging which she had for a period lost.

Jesus lived in a parent-child sort of relationship with God. Not in physical features of course, but in attitude, values and outlook, he had his Father’s characteristics. He was his own person, but displayed family traits. He got his sense of security, identity and belonging through his relationship with God whom he referred to as Abba, an Aramaic word without exact equivalence in English, but rather like Dad in some households. It was a term of respect, but one of intimacy and trust used by a son to his father.

Those who respond to Jesus, who receive him and believe in him, can now be identified as God’s children because they, like Jesus, find their security, identity and sense of belonging in God. In relation to their society they may find identity through relationships, through work, through status or class, but they have a more fundamental self-image, that of being God’s children. As Jesus lived in a parent-child relationship with God, so others people too are enabled through him to live in that sort of relationship with God.

Then they gradually take on more and more of God’s characteristics. As the unseen God was embodied in Jesus, so Jesus is embodied in his disciples. In this way Christian believers may embody divine characteristics. This is the basic meaning of a godly life. This is the constantly emerging, but never fully realized, characteristic of those who constitute Christ’s faith family.

Romans 8:14                               Galatians 4:6-7                              1 John 3:1

  • What do you understand by godliness? Is it something that you long for? If not, why not?
  • Does God, give you a sense of security and belonging? Try to describe how this feels.
  • Do you agree with the description of Jesus as the Son of God? What do you mean by it?
  • What does it mean to you to be a child of God?
  • Pray for members of your own group and the members of other groups in your congregation.

2. The Headwaters

(John 1: 35-42)

  • Run a short quiz in which people are asked to name the chief river system Egypt, Brazil, North Queensland, Louisiana, Quebec, Zaire, Pakistan, North Italy, Netherlands, Ireland.
  • In what way have the experiences of your early years shaped you?
  • In what way have its convict beginnings shaped the Australian way of life?
  • Which traditions within Christianity have significantly shaped your faith?

This passage opens up a rainforest scene with clear, clean water seeping out of the ground at the head of a narrow, fern-lined gully. Moss grows aplenty on the embankment and lichens decorate the rocks. It takes a while for the eyes to adjust to the gloom in the shade under the great forest canopy, but it is the tinkle of water trickling in a narrow rivulet over the pebbles and in between exposed boulders that catches the attention. The leaf which is being nudged along by its flow could, if it keeps going, will travel on through steep, forested mountains, along fertile valleys, across the broad plain busy with its agricultural and industrial pursuits, on past towns and under mighty bridges, passing the mouths of various tributaries on the way until it, at last, reaches the ocean through an estuary wide enough and deep enough to provide harbour facilities for ocean-going container ships and cruise liners. The river becomes the wide, elegant showpiece of a modern and busy city. But this is where it all starts. High in the mountains, away from the commerce and sophistication, away from the intrigues of government and the pollution of industry, here lie the headwaters of a mighty stream

This gathering together of a few disciples around Jesus is like the headwaters of a mighty, world-encircling stream – that stream which is broadly characterized as Christianity and which is more formally constituted as the Church. Here is the beginning of a movement, a movement whose distinguishing mark is its focus on Jesus. Like all movements it develops organizations, structure, belief-systems, leadership patterns, customs and rituals, but it remains, in essence, a faith-based movement. Tributary streams add to the complexity and size of the tradition, but this is where it had its beginning, in the coming together of a small group around Jesus of Nazareth.

In the course of its journey, the stream develops many channels and runs in various currents and eddies, so that there are traditions within the wider tradition, but it all looks back to the calling of the first disciples as its beginning point. Here the water runs clean and fresh. Later it becomes muddied and complex, polluted and divided, but it is to the disciples who gathered around Jesus that all later Christians look for their authority and standard. All people of Christ-centred faith become part of an ever-growing stream of disciples. To be a Christian is to be one of Christ’s disciples learning his perspective on life and history.

Matthew 16:13-19                             John 17:14-23                     2 Thessalonians 2:15

  • Why is the Bible used by Christians of all generations as a measure of correct doctrine and conduct?
  • Why is it important to keep referring back to the beginnings of the church?
  • Which would you rather be known as: a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, a church member, a seeker after truth, a spiritual person?
  • Pray for your church, for its renewal in the Holy Spirit, for its growth in love and unity and for your own part within it.

3. What Sort of a Team is This?

(John 6:60 – 71)

  •  What teams do you belong to: sporting, work, craft or hobby, volunteer, etc?
  •  What’s your favourite sporting team?
  •  What do you mean by ‘team spirit’? How does it show itself?
  • An effective team is one in which each member makes a contribution according to his or her ability. What is the specific contribution that each of the members bring to this group?

It’s a cricket match! Or at least I think it’s a cricket match. I see a paddock where the edge of the mown oval must be the boundary. Beyond that the grass is uneven, lank and tufted. Out in the centre there is a concrete strip at either end of which there are patches of red-brown earth where the bowlers’ feet have worn away the stubble.

A match is in progress. One batsman wears what might with a little imagination be called cricketing creams, the other is in brown shorts and Fosters tea-shirt. His sandshoes have seen better days and his one leg pad is a rusty shade of grey. Some of the fielding side are alert and keen. The bowler puts everything into a furious run-up. What the ball lacks in direction it makes up in speed and bounce.

The wicketkeeper crouches low. Bounds high to his left to take the delivery which the straw-hatted umpire refuses to call a wide. But the next ball is aimed much more accurately at the stumps, and the batsman plays it with a beautiful flourish of the bat and a quick movement of his feet. However it goes straight to a fieldsman who is onto the ball in a flash and whips it back toward the stumps at the bowlers end. The Fosters tea-shirt only just makes it back to his crease in time.

While some players are really into the spirit of the game, keeping eyes on the ball, alert and ever ready to throw themselves full length onto the ground in an athletic endeavour to prevent boundaries being scored, some of the fieldsmen take a less than active interest in the game. One balding, red-faced chap fielding close to the canteen is sitting down just inside the boundary with a stubbie in his hand. A tall, gangling youth is chatting with a group of girls that has ventured out onto the field.

The batsmen seem to have plenty of supporters under the trees, but most of the fielding side’s supporters have left. Billowing dust can be seen as their cars race back toward town.

Jesus called people to join his team, but they did not all enter into the spirit of the game. Some of his supporters went home. Some proved to be more of a liability than an asset. But some stuck by him because they had caught the spirit of the game.

And so it goes on. For one reason or another people join the church. Some are enthusiastic in their service and discipleship. Others undermine the work that God is trying to do. Some are motivated by God’s Spirit, but the motivation of others is entirely human. It has been thus from the beginning.

That does not mean that anyone should be complacent. The constant call of Christ is to play the game, to be a good team member, to catch the spirit of it all. To be aware of the shambles into which the game has declined, is to be aware of the need for renewed discipline, commitment, team spirit, competent coaching.

1 Corinthians 3: 1-4                        Hebrews 12:1-2                    Ephesians 4: 1-6

  • What do you find difficult about the teaching of Jesus?
  • If Jesus knew from the beginning who among the disciples would betray him (John 6:64) , why did he not get rid of him?
  • What makes for team spirit in a congregation and what works against it?
  • How is teamwork expressed in the functioning of your congregation?
  • Pray for an improved sense of team spirit in your congregation

4.   Institutional Captivity

(John 11:45-57)

  • To your extended family you are a relative, in the shopping centre you are a customer, at the medical centre you are a patient, as a voter you are a citizen, on the train you are a passenger, to the publisher you are a reader. What would it be like if you got these mixed up so that in your family you acted as a passenger, in the shopping centre you acted as a relative, at the medical centre you behaved simply as a reader, or at the polling booth you acted like a customer, etc.? Role-play the situation if you like.
  • So in the course of any one day we may play a number of different roles (e.g.: relative, customer, patient, citizen, passenger, reader, student, investor, employee, member of a team, chorister, parishioner, motorist, social security recipient.) List the roles that you played yesterday.
  • What is the organizational structure of your church?

The window opens on a domestic scene. It is nine o’clock at night and Robert has just arrived home from work. He slams the front door shut, puts his briefcase down on the polished floor of the hallway, throws his tie and jacket over the back of a chair, and strides straight through to the kitchen without any acknowledgement of Maureen’s presence in front of the TV. She winces as he shouts out asking where his meal is. ‘In the microwave,’ he is told. ‘Just turn it on.’

After a while he comes out of the kitchen area with his dinner on a plate and commences to eat it with a fork. His eyes are on the TV screen but he is not taking anything in.

‘This is the fourth night this week you’ve been late,’ she comments with a quick glance away from the screen toward his flushed and tired face.

‘Don’t talk to me about work,’ he says and takes another gulp.

The ads come on and Maureen switches the TV off by means of the remote control.

‘Have you been putting more people off today?’ she asks.

He nods as he chews away.

‘I hate it,’ he whispers with what is almost a sigh. ‘We reduced our workforce by ten per cent three months ago. Now today I had to give notice to five others, all at middle management level, all with families and mortgages.’

‘But you’ve set up a system of counselling,’ she says, trying to ease the burden.

‘Yes, but there’s no easy way of telling people you’ve worked with for years that they have to go. I worked hard at building them into a team. We liked to talk about being family. No matter what redundancy pay they get, or how we communicate the message, they’re out. They’re on the scrap heap.’

‘You’re too soft,’ she says.

‘Maybe I am, but I can’t let it show. I have to perform up to expectations or my own job’s on the line. I can’t let anyone at work see that soft side. It’s tearing me up. At work its all efficiency, productivity, quality, excellence, but what about the people? What’s it doing to them?’

 Robert is caught in the dilemma between institutional behaviour and personal standards. Social institutions, whether they be commercial or industrial corporations, in the private or public sector, schools or hospitals, churches or welfare organizations or whatever, operate by their own set of laws. They are task orientated. People become pawns in the game, cogs in the machine.

And yet human beings appear to be unable to accomplish anything collectively without organization, structure, systems – social institutions. Individual freedoms have to be sacrificed to the achievement of institutional goals. Personal likes and dislikes have to be made subservient to efficiency.

Jesus acted principally on the interpersonal level. There was organization among his disciples. It was necessary. But what we are presented with in the gospels is much more a movement than an organization. What we do see, by contrast, is a religious system reacting to his intrusion on the scene, so in this passage we read of a council meeting being held at which some excellent institutional wisdom is propounded. Caiaphas says, ‘It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ For the good of the institution, someone has to be sacrificed.

Sometimes it’s truth, sometimes it’s people, sometimes it’s God, but something or someone has to be sacrificed for the sake of the institution. And that is the dilemma that the church has found itself in ever since the time of Jesus. On one level people are being called upon to act as religious functionaries, while on another level they are called to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amos 5:21-24                     James 2:1-7                              1 Corinthians 1:10-17

  • How does your church membership help you in your Christian discipleship and how does it hinder?
  • Are there any areas of life, such  as the roles that you play in daily life, which seem hard to connect with your Christian faith?
  • How can the church as institution become more like the church as a movement of the Spirit?

5.   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 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.

6.  The Self-Portrait

(John 17: 11-12; 20-26)

  • Draw a self-portrait, write a short poem or fashion a clay figure that gives expression to how you are feeling now.
  • Tell us about an interesting painting or sculpture that you have seen.
  • A small group is made up of a number of individuals who come together in unity. What makes for unity in your group?
  • Sing the Servant Song, Brother, sister, let me serve you by Richard Gillard.

I see a picture. A portrait. Done with pen and ink and gouache. The composition is pleasing. The tones and shading give a life-like, three-dimensional effect. It’s large. Larger than life size. And it conveys warmth and humour and compassion together with strength and determination. An interesting picture.

The artist walks into the studio, cup of coffee in hand and stands looking at his work of art. He must be the artist for he has paint splashed all over his overalls and he seems thoroughly at home here. Then he turns so that I catch a view of his face. The likeness is uncanny. Clearly the picture is a self-portrait.

I am intrigued by the style. The artist has used dots – hundreds of them, maybe thousands of them – to render the tones and shading which give it such a life-like appearance. Dots, I call them, but as he walks up close, pausing to sip his coffee, and then peering intently at some of them, I realize that they are not dots at all. They are miniatures of the face itself. Every ‘dot’ is a tiny representation of the artist’s face. Some are dark. The lines are heavy. Others have been done with the finest of fine nibs.

What patience! What tenacity! It must have taken years to draw. He would have needed a magnifying glass to do many of them, but each tiny portrait is a representation of the whole. Thousands of tiny faces, each one playing its part in the shaping and shading of the portrait’s head, face and shoulders.

As the artist has captured his own likeness in the portrait, he has reproduced the likeness of his subject many, many times over within the composition of the whole. There is a unity between every tiny part and the portrait as a whole just as there is a unity between the portrait and its subject. So I see the unity within the community of faith as a unity in Christ, which in turn is in unity with God. The Artist has made a self-representation in the person of Jesus, a representation reflected in each of his disciples.

The key then to Christian unity is the Christ likeness reflected in each believer. The reason for disunity is the failure of Christians to reflect their Leader’s viewpoint. So the challenge of Christ is presented to others individually through the Christ likeness reflected in the life of each believer, and corporately in the unity that reflects Christ likeness in the relationships between believers.

Ephesians 2:19-21                      James 2:14-17                             Acts 2:43-47

  • Christian unity, why is it important?
  • But there must be limits. What are the boundaries beyond which it is not possible to have Christian unity?
  • Give some examples of Christ like behaviour.
  • How could Christian unity be furthered in your local area? What are you going to do about it?
  • Pray for the unity of the Christian church in your local area.