(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
Far more than we could ever ask or imagine
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
Just before he left this earth, Jesus boldly told his followers they would be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” At that point he had a group of about 120 committed followers (cf. Acts 1:15). To talk about reaching even the city of Jerusalem, which had crucified their Lord just weeks earlier, must have felt daunting. To talk of reaching “the end of the earth” must have seemed utterly impossible to many of those who heard Jesus.
As Jesus had promised, God poured out the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2), and thousands of people believed in Christ (cf. Acts 5:14). Others, like the energetic Pharisee Saul, hated the new faith. Saul was so eager to stamp out the message that Jesus was the Messiah that he went as far away as Damascus in Syria. On the road, Jesus met him unexpectedly, and stopped him in his tracks. Saul spent the next three days blinded, pondering what this all meant.
God used an otherwise unknown Christian to change the world. He sent Ananias, described only as “a certain disciple,” to heal the blinded persecutor Saul. Ananias feared doing this—he knew that Saul arrested and killed Christians. God described Saul as “the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.” Setting his fears aside, Ananias obeyed. His action changed Saul’s life, and set him on the course that led to him becoming the great evangelist Paul.
Ananias was not the first or the last person God called to play a “superhero” role through the Holy Spirit’s power, to do something greater than he could have dreamed. Through Isaiah the prophet, God pledged to strengthen and help any descendant of Abraham willing to do God’s work. Paul, carrying out the call Ananias brought him, wrote, “If you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants” (Galatians 3:29), extending Isaiah’s promise to all Christ followers.
John 14:9-12, 20:19-22
John 14 reported that Jesus, on the night before he was crucified, made a startling assertion. He told his disciples, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these.” After his resurrection, he told them the Father was sending them just as he had sent Jesus. But they wouldn’t work in their own strength—Jesus gave them his power through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This passage wasn’t just abstract spiritual talk. Paul described a truly life-changing, world-changing power—“superhero” power, if you will—at work in real people’s daily lives. It wasn’t the brute force power of the Roman Empire, but the power of God’s love. He prayed that the Spirit in their “inner selves” would enable God’s people to “have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth.” As the love of Christ transforms us, he added, God is able, as The Message puts it, to do “far more than you could ever imagine, guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from www.cor.org/guide.
O God, movies are fun, but we thank you that it doesn’t take a special costume to be a superhero. Every day you are at work in our world, in our neighborhoods, in our lives. Keep us in tune with what you are doing. Whether you call us to go to the ends of the earth, or just to a corner of our hometown, give us hearts open to your Spirit’s power, and spirits willing to answer your call. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
Who was your favorite superhero when you were a kid? Have you seen any superhero films in the past year, and if so, which one did you enjoy the most?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Acts 1:4-9. Couldn’t the God who created the universe have written the news of Jesus in the clouds, or spoken it in a repeating sound loop from the skies? What factors made it more effective for Jesus to say to people pretty much like us (and, through them, to us), “You will be my witnesses”? Can you think of one or more people whose witness has shaped your life? Verse 6 showed that the disciples still wished that Jesus would set himself up as an earthly king in Jerusalem. But he had a different, bigger plan. Have you ever had to set aside your own wishes and plans, and accept what God gives you instead? At those times, do you find it difficult to trust that God is doing what is best? Why or why not?
Read Acts 9:1-9. What reason would anyone (an energetic, committed young Pharisee like Saul, say) have for hating the message that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world? Have you ever felt like trying to “stamp out” a point of view that differs from your own? Saul met Jesus in a dramatic, forceful way (perhaps because he had resisted many chances to respond to the message delivered in other ways). Share with each other stories about how you met Jesus. What does it tell you about “the wideness in God’s mercy” that God seems to meet each person in an individualized way?
Read Acts 9:10-22. If Ananias had responded to God based on his (understandable) feelings of fear, he’d likely have missed a chance to reshape history. When have you moved beyond fear or other emotions to obey God? Afterward, how did you feel about the experience—positive, regretful or something else? How can you build loving, caring connections with people who are different from you, connections in which your faith is a natural part of your identity and caring rather than a forced, awkward “witness”?
Read Isaiah 41:8-10. Many scholars agree that the latter part of the book of Isaiah (chapter 40 on) spoke to Israelites living through the defeat and exile in Babylon. Few things could make people feel more powerless. Are you facing challenges that leave you feeling powerless and afraid? What are some of the main ways that you can access the strength and help God promised through the prophet? How can you as a group help one another tap into God’s strength?
Read John 14:9-12, 20:19-22. Was Jesus just using hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) when he said his followers would do greater works than he did? What parts of Jesus’ work on earth were unique and unrepeatable? In what ways do you see the truth of what scholar William Barclay wrote: “When it came to a matter of numbers and extent and changing power, the triumphs of the message of the Cross were even greater than the triumphs of Jesus in the days of his flesh ….In the days of his flesh he was limited to Palestine; when he had died and risen again, he was liberated from these limitations and his Spirit could work mightily anywhere”? How have you, individually or as a group, taken part in Jesus’ work in the world today?
Read Ephesians 3:14-21. What’s the biggest dream you’ve ever dreamed for your life? What’s happening with that dream—is it a reality, in process, or have life’s pressures and disappointments led you to shelve it? Brainstorm together a big dream you believe God might want you as a group to pursue. (If necessary, keep at it over the next several weeks.) Ask God to lead you to what he wants to accomplish through you that is far more than you could ever ask or imagine.
From last week:
Did you begin each day with a prayer for the people of Moore, Oklahoma as they continue their grieving, clean-up and reconstruction process (and as tornadoes again struck their area)? Were you able to pray for the professionals and volunteers who have gone there to help in the process? Share with the group any insights you might have had.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Scott Chrostek’s sermon, May 26, 2013:
Last summer, “The Avengers” assembled to save the Earth from an extraterrestrial army and in doing so, it became the third-highest-grossing movie in history. Spiderman, Batman, and Ironman did similar things in their most recent incarnations, earning each of them blockbuster status. This summer there are four more superhero movies coming to a theatre near you….
I’m particularly interested in this because of the state of the church. Anyone tracking religious currents in American life cannot limit that search to institutional faith. Many Americans—especially young people—are shunning traditional expressions of faith. A recent Pew Research study said over 32% of young people between 18-29 are unaffiliated with faith. The gurus call this group “the none’s.” This is the same group driving our affinity for the messages and symbols most often associated with superhero movies….
If at the heart of superhero movies are symbols of faith, if these stories are rooted in Scriptural heroes of the past, then Christian communities, particularly churches that seek to reach out to non-religious and nominally religious people, need to engage these movies. I would even go so far as to say that we might have something to learn from them, like how we might be superheroes. We should understand what it takes to become superheroes ourselves. This is what the emerging generation is seeking. And I believe that by God’s grace, we have the power to do extraordinary things. We are called to open ourselves up to the power of Christ so that we can change the world in extraordinary ways. The grace of Jesus Christ can give us the power to become heroes.
In John 14, Jesus addresses his disciples, moments after foreshadowing his death. He reveals his love by describing the lengths he will go in order that they might have life and have it abundantly. In that dark and difficult moment, he urges his disciples saying, don’t wait for me to return, but take action…go to work…Jesus urges them saying, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:12)
Jesus tells us that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can do the same things he did, in fact, we will do greater works than these. Really? Do you believe this?
In Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul confirms this. He prays for his community using words that mirror Christ’s remarks in John. In Ephesians 3 Paul writes: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16-19) He prays that we might come to know the fullness of God’s love and in so doing be filled with all the fullness of God. Then without skipping a beat, Paul continues by praying, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
When we are filled with the fullness of God, when we know the height, breadth, depth and length of God’s love, we are able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine! By God’s grace we are created with a capacity and given the ability and the opportunity to do greater things even than Christ. Do you believe this?….
Sometimes I wonder, what would happen if a whole community of people believed this? How might the world be different? I’m not sure I can answer that just yet, but I can tell you how Paul’s life was changed when just one person believed it.
We first meet Ananias as he and his Christian community in Damascus cowered in fear and darkness, awaiting persecution. Word was out that Saul, a notorious persecutor of Christians, was coming to stamp out their Christian communities. Saul sets out walking toward Damascus to do this horrible thing, but a bright light from heaven interrupts him…Saul, fearfully whimpers, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” His servants then walk Saul to Damascus to sit by himself in a house. All of a sudden this strong, powerful villain had been reduced to helplessness, unable to do anything without the help of another.
And that’s when we meet Ananias, an unknown leader of the Christian community in Damascus. He doesn’t fly. He cannot leap tall buildings in a single leap and he cannot run faster than a speeding bullet. He is, however, a faithful disciple. He was a follower of the Way, and because of that he was number one on Saul’s list of people to persecute maybe even kill.
As Saul sits in waiting…this faithful disciple named Ananias, who with his community is afraid of what’s to come, receives a vision. He sees something almost impossible and yet it stirs him to action. Acts 9:10-12: “The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’”
Ananias receives this crazy, unimaginable, yet bold vision to meet with Saul, his mortal enemy, the one who wanted to destroy him and his community. Ananias wondered, “How could this be, that God would call me to go to visit with such a person?”…. Ananias is surely thinking to himself, “Are you sure you want me to go visit this particular man? Isn’t there another I could go visit?”
Acts 9:15: “The Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.’” So Ananias goes to meet him. He walks into this house, sits down before his enemy, the one who was planning to persecute him, and he gently touches him. Ananias says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17)
Did you catch that? Ananias refers to Saul not as enemy or stranger, but as his brother. What? That’s crazy! This is his enemy. This is the person who was trying to kill him. This is Superman’s Lex Luthor. This is Batman’s Joker. This is Spider Man’s Green Goblin. This is not the guy to be calling “brother,” and yet that’s exactly what Ananias does.
From this point forward Saul becomes Paul and Paul sets out to do extraordinary things. He builds churches, writes letters, suffers and boasts and proclaims the life changing power of Jesus Christ to everyone he meets. 2000 years later we continue to read his letters, 2000 years later we continue to celebrate Paul’s history, retrace Paul’s missionary journeys, and celebrate his heroic actions, but we never hear about Ananias. But I wonder: what would have happened if Ananias hadn’t acted? What would have happened if he hadn’t visited Saul, offered Saul his love, baptized him, healed him, fed him or called him brother?….Ananias is what I would consider to be a superhero.
Reflection on Ephesians 3:20 from N. T. Wright:
“Verses 20 and 21 are often used as a benediction in church services, and it’s easy to see why. As we draw to the end of a time of prayer, the overarching aim should be to give God the glory. But if it’s the true God we’ve been worshipping, we should be filled with a sense of new possibilities: of new tasks and new energy to accomplish them.
Read verse 20 carefully. Then think of what God might do in you and through you—you as a community, you as an individual. Now reflect on the fact that God is perfectly capable of doubling that, trebling that, going so far beyond it that you would look back at the present moment and wonder how you could be so short-sighted.”
–N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters
This week, put on your mirror, desk, monitor, or other spot where you will see it every day the words “God is able to do far more than we could ask or imagine.” When you see the words, ask God how they apply to your everyday life. Next week share with your group any thoughts or images that you experience as you do this.