The Parables of Jesus and Kindergarten

Over the past couple of months each Sunday morning at Hobart Baptist, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew and looking at many Feeling like I am in kindergartenof the things Jesus taught. Sometimes I feel like I understand what Jesus is on about, other times I see new things I’d never seen before. Sometimes I feel like I’m still in kindergarten, starting out all over again.
One feature of the way Jesus taught that always fascinates me is his parables. While it is clear that Jesus didn’t invent the parable form, he is obviously a master of it. Even as we read them today, they are full of insights and truths that are still applicable to us. But it is more than just the spoken parables that intrigue me, it is the enacted ones as well.
In his book The Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Capon suggests that, “Jesus not only spoke in parables; he thought in parables, acted in parables, and regularly insisted that what he was proclaiming could not be set forth in any way other than in parables.”
When we read the gospels we find Jesus doing things like clearing out the temple, turning water to wine, and raising Lazarus from death to life. Each of these incidents in their own way is an enacted parable.  As we come closer to the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ life itself becomes an acted out parable. The final week of his life is almost a series of rolling parables. From the entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey right, to his crown of thorns, to his execution on a Roman cross, and his borrowed tomb, each element in the drama is full of meaning – just like a parable.
All parables, spoken or acted are used by the gospel writers to help us see things in new ways. They are designed to reframe our religious expectations, and to turn our understandings upside down. What Jesus did for us through his life and death is so amazing we can only fathom its depth by having our eyes opened. We so easily grow accustomed to the stories and sayings that we miss how shocking they were to the conventions of the day.  More importantly we can miss how disconcerting they can be to the conventions of our day too.

“What Jesus did for us through his life and death is so amazing we can only fathom its depth by having our eyes opened.

Continuing the journey through the gospel of Matthew, looking at both the spoken and acted parables, you can expect to see new insights and have your current understandings tested.  After all, when Jesus said, God has “hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes,” (Matthew 11:25) he meant it.
So I’m not concerned that I feel like I’m in kindergarten again. In fact that is perhaps the best place that I, and all of us, can be!
What’s your favourite, or perhaps your most puzzling, parable?
Stephen L Baxter

The Church and Discipleship in Acts 2

Intense conflict and difficult behaviour

In his book, Never Call Them Jerks, Arthur Boers asks the question, “Are churches particularly vulnerable to intense conflict and difficult behaviour?” Sadly his conclusion is yes, and his book explores some of the reasons why and what we can do about it. Thankfully, we don’t have to be prisoners to conflict and difficult behaviour but anticipate healthy relationships.
In the early chapters of the book of Acts, Luke describes the birth of the church which has been a role model for churches ever since. It can serve as an encouragement to us of what can happen with a mixed group of ‘ordinary people’!
I recently read a list of 10 points of a ‘healthy’ church, drawing on Luke’s description of the early church in Acts 2:42-47.

  1. Teaching (v.42) In the last chapter of Matthew gospel Jesus says to the disciples to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Throughout Acts we see the disciples passing on Jesus’ teaching and this forms a foundation to the growth and maturity of the Church.
  2. Quality Fellowship (v.42) ‘Koinonia’ is the Greek word we translate ‘fellowship’. It is a special quality of relationship that is quite removed from the individualism, isolationism, separatism we find in our society today.
  3. Breaking of Bread (v.42) This can mean either sharing meals together or the Lord’s Supper. This was the focus of their fellowship and a constantreminder of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  4. Prayer (v. 42) and also in
    Prayer to be a first resource

    Acts 1:14, Luke describes how prayer was a vital partof life for the early disciples.  It was their “first resource, not the last resort.”
  5. Supernatural Awareness (v.43) God was at work in their midst which left keen sense of awe of the presence and power of God and an expectation of what he would continue to do.
  6. Authentic Community (v.44) They were together, not just in theory and not just on Sunday, but in the day-to-day experience of community. Care for each other’s spiritual, emotional and physical needs cannot not be done at a distance with only infrequent contact.
  7. Extravagant Generosity (v.45)They had a radical attitude to possessions which was outrageous, extravagant, impractical, and dangerous by our standards in a world obsessed by getting. Their  generosity sprung from the great joy they experienced in community.
    Genuine hospitality
    Genuine hospitality
  8. Genuine Hospitality (v.46) They opened their homes to each other whichwas an extension of their fellowship and generosity. Such hospitality of an open heart and an open home gives value of every human being and reflects the very heart of God.
  9. Grateful Praise (v.47)Thanks, acknowledgement and worship of God as creator and redeemer is the centre and heart of their life and helped keep all things in perspective, and is a sure sign of the work of the Spirit of God in their midst.
  10. Evangelism (v.47) Not surprisingly their life was infectious and others joined their community. This is the outcome and overflow of a healthy church life. When believers live together in authentic, consistent, powerful community, people are saved.

The exciting church reality Luke describes is available to us today as we live a life of discipleship. What happened then Jesus can bring to reality in and through us now.
Stephen L Baxter

ForGiving Generously

Last week in my series working through the Gospel of Matthew I mentioned Jesus’ response to Peter’s question asking how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him.(Matt 18:21-23) Peter characteristically proposed an answer he thought Jesus would be pleased with – a generous seven times!  Jesus quickly countered with, “seventy times that!”
The translation from the Greek can read “seven times seven”, “seventy times seven” and How many times?“seventy seven times seven.” Thank you for those who pointed out my appalling maths.
(For those interested:
7 x 7 = 49
7 x 70 = 490
7 x 77 = 539)
But the total is not the main point. Jesus’ aim was to make the point that there are no limits to be set on forgiveness.  To make sure the point was made he went on to tell a parable – the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35.  There was a man who owed an enormous sum of money – the equivalent of 20 years of fulltime wages. He is forgiven this enormous debt but could not bring himself to forgive his neighbour who had a very small debt in comparison, about 20 days of wages.
The contrast is great and Jesus’ point is clear. Peter has been forgiven a great debt by God, and any sin against him pales into insignificance compared to God’s generosity.
God has forgiven us a debt we can never pay. He has forgiven us our sin through the obedience of Jesus dying on a cross. We who have been forgiven such a great debt must forgive those who sin against us. How many times? Seven? “No,” says Jesus, “you never stop forgiving!”
In fact, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray implies that if we do not forgive our fellow man we cannot expect God to forgive us. As we accept God’s mercy to us, we pass that mercy on to others.
Let us pray that God will teach us how to be kind and forgive others as God has forgiven us.
Stephen L Baxter

I Am Excited!

God is up to something! On Sunday, we at Hobart Baptist, witnessed the baptism of 10 people in our service. It was a great time of celebration and thanks to God. I’m sure Jesus is pleased. He is building his church and we have the privilege to be part of it.
Events like this do not happen without the prayers, hard work and faithfulness of God’s people. Over the years many have prayed and asked God to be at work in and through Hobart Baptist Church. Many suffered through difficult times, others were patient and persevering when it seemed little was happening. And there have been quite a few changes that have opened the door for God to work. Now, we see the evidence of God’s answer to those prayers and the hard work.
Remaining level headed
This is a good time to remind ourselves that the church does not exist to serve the needs of the congregation. Instead it exists to serve the mission of God in the world. It is, as Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, [God who] “has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Cor 5:20, my paraphrase)

I recently read about the pastor of a large church who encouraged his leaders to be very clear that they are not to serve the “members” of the church, but make sure they focus on the “mission” of the church. “If we served the members,” he wrote, “we would have to significantly increase the employee mental health benefit of the leaders because members often disagree!”
Some of us may find it shocking to think that your church is not there to serve you. Yet the Bible is clear. In Colossians it says that “He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence” (1:18). Whose church is it? It’s not mine and it’s not yours. It belongs to Jesus. The NIV Application Commentary explains, “If Christ is the head of the church . . . the church does not exist to meet the needs of its members or to insure its institutional survival, but to fulfil the redemptive purposes of Christ, its head.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself expecting the church to first and foremost be here for me. I expect the sermon to be relevant to my life, the music should be a style I like, and the songs ones I am familiar with. The length of the service should suit me, and not ask too much of me, and so on. I’m sure it is true for all of us: it’s not hard to be dissatisfied with some aspects of our church as there is always something not to our taste or liking.
Adjusting our atitude
So how are we to deal with our dissatisfaction? There is nothing wrong with dissatisfaction in itself. If we were never dissatisfied we would never change anything. But allowing our dissatisfaction to become unhealthy can lead us to complaining, to bitterness and even to leaving. We can try to change what we don’t like, or be resistant to any change, even what really needs to happen.
But if the church is here to serve Jesus, and not me or the congregation, then there must be another way. If so, what should be my approach? I wonder if firstly we need to get our priorities right. Is having church the way I like it more important than proclaiming the gospel of Jesus and seeing people coming to know him as Lord? I suggest not. If Jesus is glorified in our times of worship, whatever the style, isn’t that something to celebrate? Today we live in a community where the majority of people don’t even bother and don’t care about Jesus, so if he is honoured, in anyway, we should celebrate with the angels.

If the church is here to serve Jesus, and not me or the congregation, then there must be another way.

That is not to say that God doesn’t enjoy diversity. Obviously the format of some churches will suit some people better than others. And that’s ok. God has made us differently, so he has different styles of church for different people.
At Hobart Baptist Church we have our own style. It is changing, but it is built upon a unique history and a unique future. The future will not be the same as the past, but it will be built upon it.
On Sunday, those who were baptised came from our morning congregation, the Church With No Walls  group, and our refugee Karen community. No one could have anticipated such an event, but it just goes to show that Jesus is at work building his Church, and part of it is happening amongst us.
Let us continually remind each other that there is only one head of the Church and only one person it exists to serve – and it’s not me (the pastor), it’s not the deacons, it is not the congregation and it is not you. It’s Jesus!
Stephen L Baxter

Baptism: Dying and coming to life again

On September 11 this year a significant event will take place here Hobart Baptist Church. And it has nothing to do with the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York. On that day the focus of our service will be the baptism of at least ten people coming from across our church including from our Karen community and our Church With No Walls congregation. What a wonderful day of celebration it will be. Water

Baptism is central to our life as Christians. It marks a significant point in our life of discipleship and is a public declaration that we follow Jesus.

Baptism is not a religious ritual or church tradition. It is far more important than that. Its significance and meaning is found in the death of Jesus. Jesus died in our place and for our sins, but more than that, as the Messiah and Son of God he was victorious over death. His resurrection confirms that victory and is a guarantee of the promise of new and everlasting life.

Baptism therefore is the means by which people who have repented of their sins and chosen to follow Jesus demonstrate their union with Christ. Baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection. By being immersed in water, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each person acknowledges that Jesus’ death and resurrection is their death and resurrection. Baptism symbolises burial and cleansing; death to the old life of unbelief and resurrection to new life; purification from sin; the receiving of the Holy Spirit and becoming a member of the body of Christ.

Baptism is the defining mark, the crossing over a line, of moving from living in the kingdom of this world to living in the Kingdom of God. In many deep and profound ways, it is a demonstration of the good news of all that Jesus has done for us.

If you are considering baptism have a chat to your pastor or church leader; perhaps God is calling you too in a celebration of faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection.

Will You Be My Friend?

 Friendliness, Fellowship and Hospitality . . . Churches like to be known as friendly, welcoming and inviting. And that is not a bad thing, but is it all we should be?
We can define fellowship as: “a body of individuals joined together through similar interests, beliefs, and brotherhood.” In general, churches do join in fellowship through worship, various events and community outreach activities.Being friends
Yet often fellowship and friendliness have more to do with finding people like ourselves who are part of our social group, educational background, lifestyle and values.  We find these people friendly because they are comfortable to be with and a “good fit”.
But God expects more of us than that. At the heart of our faith is that God welcomes all of us home into his family. Although we are strangers to God, and quite incompatible, he nevertheless invites us into relationship. While the Bible is clear that both fellowship and hospitality are important parts of church life, it is clear that we are not to have one without the other.
Fellowship between Christians is a foundational part of our life together. So is hospitality. But hospitality is more than being in relationship with other Christians. It is about being open, vulnerable, and relational with strangers and those who don’t fit in.
What did Jesus do?
Jesus spent a lot of time with these people, called “sinners” in his day. In fact, he spent so much time with them that he made many around him quite uncomfortable.
One example in the gospels is the story of how Matthew became one of Jesus disciples, found in Matthew 9:9-13. He approaches Matthew, a tax collector at the time, and calls him to follow. The next thing you know, there is a party at Matthew’s place and his tax collector friends show up as well. The Pharisees are quite offended, but Jesus explains that these are exactly the people he has come for. Just as it would be silly for a doctor to avoid sick people, it would be ridiculous for Jesus to avoid sinners.
Here Jesus demonstrates that hospitality is more than mere fellowship between friends – it is showing hospitality to the stranger. He shifts the focus from our own comfort to that of the heart and mission of God, to reaching out to those who need befriending, healing and family.
What it really means to ‘offer hospitality’
While being friendly often grows out of the idea that the person we are meeting will have much in common with us, by extending hospitality to a stranger we are assuming that this person most likely will have little in common with us. In fact the person could be someone unpleasant or even dangerous, yet following Jesus’ example we engage them and offer “hospitality.”
God calls us to be a friendly and hospitable church. Our fellowship is not just with those we get along with, but it is to reflect the nature of God, who sent Jesus into the world to save those who are lost and don’t fit in.
Jesus, I think, would have been at home with the old saying, “there are no strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet.” Let’s pray that your church fellowship responds just like Jesus did.
Stephen L Baxter

The Significance of Adoption

In our Western 21st Century culture we often have little idea of the importance of various customs which informed Jesus’ words. For example, our concept of adoption is so very limited  . . .

Possibly the most famous adoptee, Augustus Caesar

Did you know the ancient Greeks and Romans were most fanatical about the idea of male heirs? If a couple didn’t have a male child they would adopt a boy, generally one who was almost grown up, and give him all the rights as their heir. The term ‘adoption’ refers to giving someone adult status with full rights of inheritance.
In the Roman Empire during the first century, a son automatically held his father’s power of attorney. For business purposes, the son was legally equivalent to his father in his authority to transact business on behalf of the household. He could hire and fire employees, he could buy and sell slaves, he could enter into contracts, and all his acts were as binding as if his father had performed them.
Sometimes if a man had a trustworthy slave with a good flair for business, he could adopt the slave as his son. The adoption automatically gave the slave a full power of attorney to manage his adoptive father’s business affairs. So it was not uncommon in those days for slaves to be adopted as sons for business purposes.
So strong was the idea of adoption that some people adopted their own offspring. A family with a number of sons sometimes adopted their second or third boy so as to make him their heir if they believed the oldest would not be a good manager of the family property.
Adoption in the NT
It is with this background that we can begin to appreciate the strength of some of the statements in the New Testament. Take for example John  gospel where it says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12, 13).
When we accept Jesus as our Saviour, God gives us the right to become his children. In other words, we receive authority and an inheritance. As Paul says in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”
This is why God call us sons (whether we are males or females) because he wants us to receive the full rights of being sons.
What ‘being adopted’ means for us
This has significant implications for our living. If we are adopted sons of God, with all the authority of our father, then we should start living like it. On the last day, the New Testament tells us, Jesus will reward us according to how well we have carried out our Father’s business. (Matthew 16:27)
Knowing we are sons should cause us to live up to the family name by being kind, honest, true, loyal and pure. Knowing we are “full heirs” along with Jesus Christ should give us a confidence and assurance of our place in the world. Knowing that all those who profess Jesus as Lord are members of God’s family should motivate us to treat one another like brothers and sisters.
No doubt God is pleased when we live up to what it is to be his sons and live like spiritual adults and future kings. Conversely, I’m sure God is distressed when we act like spiritual infants or hapless paupers. So often in church life our actions seem to demonstrate immaturity rather than maturity. God wants us all to continue to grow and live in the authority and responsibility of being his sons.
Let us pray for ourselves and each other that we may all be worthy of the calling to which we are called (Ephesians 4:1).
Stephen L Baxter

Jesus’ Upside Down Values

Have you noticed how, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Jesus turns our thinking about spirituality upside down?
It is not the rich, but the poor and the weak who receive the Kingdom of God. It is not the well fed and comfortable, but the hungry who will ultimately be satisfied. It is not those who are happy and gloat, but those who weep that will laugh. And it is not those who are well spoken, but those who are hated, excluded and insulted that will ultimately be recognised by God.
John Stott, the British, theologian, suggests the Sermon on the Mount describes what human life and community looks like when they come under the gracious rule of God. But living in our individualistic, consumer driven Western society and living in affluent Australia (by world standards) such a reversal of values is difficult for us to really understand and comprehend.
In his book, Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey includes a chapter on MahatmMahatma Gandhia Gandhi. He notes that while Gandhi was not a Christian, he modelled his life on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and in doing so managed to change the world.  He suggests we all have something to learn from Gandhi and makes the point that Gandhi, a Hindu, took the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than do 99 per cent of Christians.
An upside down lifestyle
In many ways Christians today have adopted worldly goals and ideals and abandoned the way of Christ. While the world values knowledge, power and certainty, Jesus values weakness and emptiness. While our community is oriented to what can be measured and seen, our orientation is to the unseen world.
But Jesus calls us to a different lifestyle. He calls us to take up his yoke, to wash each other’s feet, and to take up our cross.  Rather than pander to an image-obsessed world with its focus on wealth, success, athletic prowess and beauty, Jesus calls us to turn our values upside-down.  God’s ways do not operate on the rules of logic and fairness appealing to human rationality; rather they are based upon the love of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges our thinking and reasoning.
As you reflect and pray about the life God wants you to live, remember to direct your thinking back to the teachings of Jesus. Pray that God will help you to engage with them, and allow him effect change in your everyday life, even if it appears to be upside down change!

Stephen L Baxter

Being Salt and Light

Taking seriously Jesus’ call to impact our community
A few years ago at the Australian Christian Heritage National Forum held in the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra I heard an encouraging story of faith. Keynote speaker Stuart Piggin talked of the impact of one man living the values of Jesus in his workplace and its effects on the company – and it happened here in Tasmania.
It is the story an underground mine where a dramatic increase in safety was the result of the work of one man who applied the personal and relational values of Jesus to his workplace.
Bob Mellows, a Christian mine manager, at the Cornwall coal mine in the Fingal Valley, saw that safety was best regulated not by the law of the land, but by the law of Love. He spoke to his men about how different the workplace would be if they treated each other in a way consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Cornwall Coal from Fingal Valley, Tas

He made a study of the practical meaning of the word love in the New Testament and shared his findings with the miners. In a report to the ’98 Coal Operator’s Conference, he said, ‘It is not because of legalism that Jesus Christ told us to love God and love one another. It was because he knew it was essential to our well being in all aspects of life’. He went on to say that ‘The Foundation of Safety is loving one another (and ourselves). This is not merely an emotional condition. It is a choice of behaviour and the only basis for a satisfactory relationship.’
The Cornwall Mine’s safety improved when a breakthrough in relationships occurred. This resulted from the removal of barriers, the development of trust, and concern for the welfare of the other. The result? A dramatic turn around.
Between 1980 and 1990 there had been about 200 accidents reported each year at the Cornwall coal mine and the company paid between $50,000 and $250,000 per annum in compensation. But then during 1991/92 Bob Mellows’ biblical values were embraced and the accident rate dipped dramatically. By 1993 it dropped to practically zero and it has remained there since. Not surprisingly the cost of compensation also fell to almost zero.
Here we see a clear picture of how the values of Jesus work in the real world and a result when one person takes Jesus seriously and becomes salt and light in the community.
I wonder what would happen if all of us, inspired by the example of Bob Mellows, attempted something similar in our lives wherever we are – at work, home or school?
Stephen L Baxter

Have You Lost Your “Sentness”?

May is “Mission Month” of Global Interaction (GIA) the cross-cultural mission of Australian Baptists. For many years Baptist churches across Australia have joined together during the month of May in celebration of global mission.
GIA (or Australian Baptist Missionary Society as it used to be known) came into existence because a group of people had concern for those who are the poorest, most marginalised, Being Sentand least-reached overseas communities. This passion led them to work in communities across Asia, Africa and outback Australia where people not only struggle with poverty, social issues and injustice, but most importantly, do not know about Jesus and are spiritually powerless and lost.
Such passion is born in the heart of God.  Not only  is God a god of justice, mercy and compassion, God is also a “sending” God who ventures into the world because of that compassion. Sending is as much a part of the nature, character and essence of God as love and peace. In other words, God is a “missionary” God.
The Bible explains that in the beginning God “sent forth” breath and it created; firstly the universe, and ultimately humanity. Humanity, we are told, is made in the image of God, so it is not surprising to read that as soon as man and woman were created God “sends” them into the world to care (rule) over it.  What we discover here is that not only is God a “sending (missioning)” God, we are to be a “missioning” people
Even after the rebellion of Adam and Eve, (often called ‘the fall’) God continues to “send” himself into the world. Despite the effects of sin, God interacts with the people he has made and embarks on a rescue mission. This mission culminates with the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to save it.
Being Sent
The obedience that led Jesus to die on a Roman cross, releases humanity from the curse of the fall and calls men and women back to their original purpose. In John 20, Jesus states, “Just as the father sent me, I send you.” The outcome of the sending of Jesus to restore humanity is the creation of a “sent” people. The church of Jesus Christ is a “sent” people; sent into the world to continue the mission of Jesus. And this is at the heart of what it is to be God’s church.

“God calls us to be salt and light and witnesses to his grace”

Sadly, however, the church can sometimes lose its “sentness.” Frequently, we are known for our congregating rather than our sending. We can get comfortable and begin to “settle” rather than move on. We make “sending” or “mission” . . . into one of our programs and leave it for others to do, rather than embrace the reality that it is meant to be at the very core of our reason and purpose for being.
But things are changing. The challenges of our contemporary world are causing us to review our understanding of church and what it is that God calls us to be. We are (re)discovering that God calls each one of us to be “missionaries,” sometimes even in our own families.
Being salt and light
So as we celebrate all God is doing through his people as part of GIA, and stop to honour those who have responded to God’s sending and have ventured out, let us remember that each one of us is sent by God. As part of God’s church we are included in those Jesus sent into the world to continue the work of Jesus. While most of us won’t go overseas, we are still sent – whether that is into our families, our communities, our workplaces, our schools. It is here that God calls us to be salt and light and witnesses to his grace.
May God help each one of us individually, and as the Church as a whole, to continue to embrace what it means to be the “sent” people of God.
I’d love to know where God has sent you. Can you tell me in a few words where you have been sent?
Stephen L Baxter