At the start of a new academic year, when we’re coming back from summer, we like to take time out to set our priorities for the year ahead.
Last week I began to describe how I felt God calling us to become a Christ Centred Community.
This week I want to offer some suggestions about how we can put this into practice.
How to Become Like Jesus
The first and most important thing we need to know is that meeting and becoming like Jesus is something that comes from God, not us. To use the language of Ephesians, ‘it is by grace we have been saved, through faith.’ If we encounter Christ and come to know him more deeply this year it will be because God has revealed himself to us and not because we have brought ourselves closer to him.
With that said, it is pretty clear from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that how we respond to God’s grace really does matter. For example, in John 14 we are told how Jesus said to his followers:
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
To encounter Christ we need to be willing to obey him; our response to God’s grace determines how we experience it. In particular we need to obey the commandments that Jesus placed at the centre of all the Jewish law and prophets:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The best way for us to encounter Christ, be changed to be like him and present him to others is to love God and love others.
This is easy to say but harder to know where to begin putting it into practise. When John Wesley was asked about how to pursue holiness he put the Christians he knew into groups and gave them some guidelines for how to make our love of God and others real.
At their heart these rules are just aids, reminders that we need to keep focused on Jesus and helping us to do that.
Three Rules for Life
First, Do No Harm (Or Stop Doing Stuff that Takes You from God)
Following Wesley, the first rule of life I want to suggest is that we ‘do no harm’. To put it another way, the first key to moving towards God is to do nothing that leads away from him.
This has always been the first thing step in encountering Jesus. When John the Baptist was preparing the Jewish people for Jesus’ first coming his whole message was repent and be baptised. It means to turn away from the harm we are doing to our relationships with God and with others and start walking in a different direction.
In the same way Paul wrote to the first church in Rome:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
Paul wants to know whether what we’re doing helping us to love God or love others more. If it is then we should definitely pursue it. If not, then we need to ask why we’re spending our time on it.
This doesn’t mean abandoning fun or relaxation. God created us to take pleasure in him and enjoy the world he gave us. Moreover we are social animals; we need to enjoy each other and to be enjoyed by other people. We also need to rest and recharge our batteries.
Nevertheless we should feel challenged about how we’re spending our time. For example:
- Do we need to be at work for as long as we are? Why are we there? Could we spend less time there and more time with family or encourage friends?
- Are our habits leading us towards God or away from him?
- In what we eat and drink?
- In what we watch on the TV?
- In how much TV we watch?
It might seem tempting to see even asking this type of question as being the worst cliché of a killjoy. I understand that but I want to challenge it. Actually very often what we think is making us happy is doing nothing of the sort. It is junk food – temporarily satisfying, bad for our long-term health, and addictive.
When we stop doing things that are not good for our relationship with God or with other people we find that we are far more satisfied, with a deeper joy, than when we were taking the junk food. The aim is not to kill our joy but to lead us to a far deeper and more satisfying joy in God through Christ.
Second, Do All the Good You Can
Often our understanding of being like Jesus or of becoming holy stops here. It’s as if Jesus’ life was one being ‘don’t’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Stopping doing harm is the first part of our path to Christlikeness. Yet love requires more than simply not harming someone, it needs us positively to care for them. Jesus made a greater difference to the people he knew and through them to the world than anyone else. If we want to become like him we are called to make a difference too.
Jesus used a story to illustrate the impact that he wanted his followers to have on the world around them:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Trying to do all the good we can is intensely practical. It means encouraging those we know who are struggling, giving food to those we know are hungry, clothing those we know are cold, helping those we know need help, and being willing to teach and correct those who look to us for guidance. Above all it means noticing opportunities to do good – being alert to what God is showing us – and being willing to do something about it.
A large part of this is seeing needs where they arise. I’m to be thinking about how we use our money in my blog next week. For now, however, it is enough to note that how we use our possessions and time is a huge part of this.
The church does an enormous amount of work with people in Hersham physically and spiritually. Giving money to the church that enables us to do this and brings hope and good news to others. Beyond that, if we notice those who need help and offer it even if that is simply listening or visiting them it can make a huge difference.
Third, Attend On the Ordinances of God
Our third rule is to practice Christian disciplines. The Methodist pastor and theologian Kevin Watson sees the heart of this rule as a commitment to ‘practice our faith with passion and dedication.’ In other words, if we are serious about putting our faith into practise, first we need to be willing to practise.
Let me give an illustration. When I was a boy I learned to play the trombone. There were exercises and disciplines I had to do to enable me to play well. Eventually I knew how to play without thinking about it – it had become second nature to me. In a similar way there are Christian disciplines that we can do that bring us closer to God and enable us to receive and respond to his grace.
First, come to church. This is basic. If we want to come closer to God and know his presence we need to worship with his people. It is in church that we hear the Word, receive communion, encourage one another, and express our faith together.
Second, read Scripture. If you want to get to know Jesus, listen to what he said, read about his followers, and listen to preaching.
Third, take communion. When we take communion we are encountering God’s grace in a real, physical way. There is grace for us every time we come to receive it, to taste God’s love and forgiveness and give thanks for his promise to be with us.
Fourth, pray. The best way to get to know someone and be like them is to talk with them. We are transformed when we pray and we find God transforms the world around us through our prayers. If you’re in a family, start to try and find a way to pray with your family or kids.
Finally, practise fasting or abstinence. This isn’t something we emphasise in our tradition but I think we lack something as a result. When we fast from food or abstain from something else we are reminding ourselves of our dependence on God. It reminds us that everything we have is a gift. We are also training our wills so that we learn self-control. It also adds time and direction to our prayer.
Fasting doesn’t need to be abstaining from all food. There are sometimes medical reasons why that might not be possible. This is the case for me – if I fast completely from food then the problems with my legs and hands I had earlier this year recur. But it is still possible to do some sort of fast. So, for example, we might abstain from meat or animal products. Similarly abstaining from something important to you for a season can give focus to prayer and provide perspective and rebalancing.
Putting this into Action
How then can we put these rules into action? Why not try one of these suggestions?
- Come to a Life Group – that’s where we share our lives with each other, encourage one another, and challenge each other to keep following these rules.
- Pray – each day ask God to show you where patterns in life are leading you away from him and to open your eyes to those who need your help.
- Read the Scriptures – if it is your first time, why not start with one chapter of a gospel a day? Or if you prefer to use your phone, why not use the Bible in One Year App?
 John 14:21
 Matthew 22:37-40
 Eg Matthew 3:1-12.
 Romans 13:8-10.
 Matthew 25:31-40
 Kevin M. Watson, Blueprint for Discipleship (Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2009), p.82.