By Woody Woodrick
A New Community
Purpose: To indentify repentance and forgiveness as key elements of the new community that was announced by John and pioneered by Jesus.
Bible Lesson: Mark 1:1-8; Matthew 3:1-12
Key Verse: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 3:2
If John the Baptist had lived in the American South, folks would have said, “He’s a little different, bless his heart.”
Indeed he was. John lived in the wilderness, dressed like a caveman and ate locusts and honey. Why do you think he chose to live that way? Was it effective in spreading his message? What modern-day means of telling the story might be similar to John’s approach? How do we react to them?
John’s message focused on four parts: Baptism, repentance, forgiveness and the kingdom of God. Washing was an important part of the Jewish faith. Priests had to follow strict rules about washing their hands before offering sacrifices. Those attending the temple had rules about washing their hands and feet. What did this washing represent? How was John’s baptism different?
Repentance has always played a key role in the salvation of God’s people. Through the ages, God sent his messengers to call on the Jews to repent when they had gone astray. However, usually they lived among the people and were often leaders in the temple. What did John living in the wilderness say about the repentance for which he called? From what did the people need to repent?
God had not spoken directly to his people in some 400 years. It stands to reason that the people had drifted away from what God wanted them to do. In fact, John was willing to call out certain leaders, including Roman officials. This put him in some pretty hot water.
How did John’s lifestyle reflect his call for repentance? What kinds of things take you in the wrong direction, requiring a return to the right path?
Forgiveness brings us back into relationship with one another and God. Forgiveness might be the hardest aspect of faith in God for nonbelievers to accept, may even many believers. Forgiveness is a two-way street. Asking for forgiveness is often hard. We’ve done something wrong, we recognize it, but admitting it to the wronged party is hard. It’s humbling. When the wronged party is God, it’s even harder. In addition, sometimes forgiving is hard, too. We’ve been deeply hurt. Why should we forgive?
Accepting forgiveness can be difficult, too. How can anyone, even God, forgive what I have done? Nope, can’t happen. I’m too worthless to be forgiven.
Yet, giving and accepting forgiveness is liberating and allows us to reconcile relationships, both with people of this world and God.
Why was it important for the people to seek forgiveness before Jesus arrived?
Living in the kingdom of God is as much about attitude as it is about action. We can go through all the motions – giving, missions, teaching – but we do it with an attitude of personal gain, we live outside the kingdom of God. Again, what is this important prior to the start of Jesus’ ministry?
So what was John’s mission? Why was it important to prepare the people for the coming of Christ? In light of our community theme for this quarter, could John’s mission have been to begin creating a community of believers who would accept Jesus as the Christ quickly and eagerly? Imagine how important that would be for the one who was both God and man.
The Birth of a New Community
Purpose: To think through how godly communities of faith respond to the humble but wondrous origins of Jesus, the savoir of the world.
Bible Lesson: Matthew 1:18-2:23
Key Verse: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rules of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” – Matthew 2:6
Anyone who grew up with military parents knows about new communities. Everything’s going along fine, you have friends and life is good. Then mom or dad comes home and says he or she has been transferred to a new assignment. You pack everything and move to a new school, new friends, maybe even a new country.
It’s not limited to the military. Ever live in a United Methodist parsonage? I recall how stunned I was that we were being moved from Tupelo to Greenwood. I had lived in Tupelo for two thirds of my life. I knew these folks. I didn’t know anybody in Greenwood and didn’t want to. I was crushed. It was a little better moving to Oxford, and a touch easier going to New Albany.
Each time, however, I found a new community and strengthened some of the communities I already had. Moving as a family helped create a bond. When we arrived in each town, people made us feel welcome, inviting us to join their communities.
Since that time, I’ve lived in three other towns in Mississippi and consider it a blessing. I know folks in almost every section of the state. I’ve had the opportunities to be part of innumerable communities and gained from all of them.
Think about the communities in your life. What have you gained from them? How are they stressful? How can we make our communities better?
Our scripture tells the story of how Joseph came to know he would be the earthly father of Jesus, about how Joseph had to flee his home country. Do you think Joseph and Mary sometimes wondered what in the world was going on as they dealt with a hard-to-explain pregnancy, birth and resulting dangers?
What does the Christmas story tell us about community and difficult times? How can you tell others about that?
Core Values of the New Community
Purpose: To ground Christian community in Jesus’ guidelines for blessed faithfulness.
Bible Lesson: Matthew 5:1-7:28
Key Verse: “Strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33
Our church observed “Renewal Sunday” on the day this lesson was written. It was a day designed to sort of refocus after a summer full of travel and activities. Our pastor, in his sermon, used Renewal Sunday to state emphatically of what our church is built and will grow. He clearly established the core values of our church community. Now, we have to carry those values into our larger community.
Our scripture for today is the Beatitudes, which have been called a blueprint for how Christians should live. Reading the Adult Bible Series lessons in the student and teacher’s books is interesting because the two different writers take slightly different approaches. Bishop Larry Goodpaster, who wrote the student lesson, placed emphasis on the Beatitudes as “grace-gifts” from God that lead to action. The writer of the teacher’s book cites Palestinian Christian Melkite Archbishop Elias Chakour as seeing these verses as strong calls to action, to get up and do something about the state of the world.
Goodpaster breaks down the verses into three sections. He writes that the first four beatitudes concern our relationship to God and our need to recognize our dependence on him. As much as we believe we achieve things on our own, we only lived a blessed life when we humble ourselves and realize that we are dependent on God.
Living a life of humility is not one of weakness. Rather, knowing that all we have is a gift from God gives us confidence and assurance. How can humility change the way we approach our lives?
The next three beatitudes – mercy, purity and peace – bring us to the very heart of God, Goodpaster writes. When we act out of mercy, we are reflecting how God has acted toward us. Simply allowing us to seek him and live in his grace is an act of mercy.
A life of purity helps us stay focused on God and enables us to see God everywhere – in our friends, in our world, in our actions. Making peace, with other and with God takes hard work. Our world readily understands vengeance and retribution. Peace is much harder because it often includes forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s easier to get mad and start a fight.
These three beatitudes reflect reverence for God and for life. How might our lives be different if we lived out this reverence?
Finally, Goodpaster writes that the final beatitudes are about how we embody the values established by these verses. Living out the values established by these verses will put us out of step with the rest of the world. We might face persecution. In what ways are Christians today persecuted when they live out these values? Has it happened to you? How did you respond?
When we hold national elections, it serves as something of a chance to consider the core values of the major political parties and, to some degree, ourselves. Those values determine the direction our nation will take for the next four years.
What are your core values? What are the core values of your church? How can you go about living those values?
Creating a Community of Servants
Purpose: To recognize that true greatness is manifested through serving others.
Bible Lesson: Matthew 20:17-28
Key Verse: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28
For several weeks I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. Specifically, I’ve been pondering how right up to Jesus’ death they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand what he was all about. They spent virtually every day with Jesus for three years, and they didn’t get it.
Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight. I also have to keep in mind that it took me 10 times as long as the disciples to “get it.” So what did I finally get?
It’s not about me.
Christ came to teach us that true love of God and one another means putting others first. It means serving others with joy and gladness. It sounds easy, but our humanness sneaks in so often.
We take part in church work, starting out to aid others, but we can easily begin to like too much the praise we get for our efforts. We all like to have our ego stroked, and we can graciously accept praise for our work. But we have to guard against the seduction of that praise. Are we serving others to get notices for serving others, or are we serving others for the joy of serving others?
When we begin to serve, God leads us down many paths. Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
There are certain mission projects or areas of service I’m willing to do because they are simple. But at some point, God just might call me to do something difficult. How will I respond?
Therein lies the rub. We’re more than eager to do “church work” that’s easy, that doesn’t stretch our willingness to trust God, that doesn’t take us to place where we don’t want to go. What are you willing to do in service to others? What am I willing to do?
Am I willing to stand publically against injustice or in defense of the poor? Am I willing to befriend someone who makes me uncomfortable because he doesn’t look like me, live in my neighborhood or think like me?
As with so many other aspects to a life of faith, there’s a flip side. Serving others is a lot easier than being served. We’re not talking about a restaurant here. We’re talking about more personal relationships. Sometimes it’s hard to let someone take care of us when we need it. We hurt emotionally, but we hesitate to take the offered shoulder on which to lean. It takes a certain amount of humility to allow others to serve us.
What kind of community do we create when we serve, and are served? Where is God calling you to serve? Where is he calling you to be served?
The Servant Song states well the community of servants: “Brother let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.”