By Linda Rex
January 30, 2022, 4th Sunday | Epiphany—At times I am amazed at how fickle we can be when it comes to our interests and affections. I remember when we loved using our VCR. Then one day, we discovered DVD’s. Now I have a shelf full of VCR tapes destined for the thrift store, in hopes someone somewhere will still find them useful.
Unfortunately, our transient passions and affections also affect our relationships. We don’t always realize that we base our interactions with one another on this flimsy foundation of human attachments rather than in the faith, hope, and love expressed towards all of us in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. What is the basis of our relationships with family members, work associates, or community members? Are they grounded in Christ, in his self-offering of love?
This story of Jesus attending the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth is instructive. Look at how Jesus, as was his custom, enters the synagogue and is invited to speak. At first, he is welcomed with open arms, people having heard of his miracles and the popularity of his preaching. They seem to be amazed at his words of grace, saying, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Perhaps it wasn’t even astonishment. They may simply have been appalled that he would imply that he might be more than just the boy down the street.
That’s where the tide begins to turn. Joseph’s son—the child everyone knew growing up, not as a person in his own right, but as the son of Joseph, the craftsman. This young man was daring to step out of the box his hometown had enclosed him in, and was challenging them to rethink who the messiah would be and what would happen when he came. How dare this homegrown hero declare that he was the Anointed One!
Jesus was quite aware of the transition in their affections and was not fazed by it. In fact, it was almost as if he were baiting the crowd when he pointed out the historical reality of Israel’s response to the prophets of old. Anyone can read about Israel’s refusal to believe the prophets when they came. Jesus reminded them of how, during a famine, God sent Elijah to the home of a Gentile widow, and that the only leper healed by Elisha was Naaman, the Syrian. This infuriated the people listening to Jesus. In their rage, they grabbed Christ and tried to shove him off a cliff to kill him.
How interesting. The people of God, the congregation of God’s people, gathered before the living Word of the Lord reading the written word of God, and when he spoke, they were so infuriated, they sought to kill him! This gathering of God’s people should have been the place where faith, hope, and love abode, where the presence of the Lord rested by the Spirit. And instead, the spirit of hate and murder arose in their hearts and they sought to kill Jesus.
But it was not his time—so he walked right through them and went on his way. When it was his time to be killed, in the garden of Gethsemane he willingly offered himself to the temple guards to be taken to the cross to be executed. The reality is that our refusal of Christ’s finished work and our efforts to keep Jesus in our box restricted to our expectations does not alter his perfect gift as the Anointed One on behalf of all people, in his perfect timing according to his Father’s perfect plan.
In living our life, dying our death and rising again, Jesus calls us into a new relationship which we can attempt to ignore or we can joyfully embrace. Jesus, by including us in his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, has brought us up into the reality of the abiding presence of faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, of course, is love, because that is the very nature of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit—the God who lives eternally in perichoretic love.
The finished work of Christ invites us to live in a new way—the way of love, expressed in a community of faith which offers the hope of salvation, available to us in Jesus Christ. The Spirit calls us together as the body of Christ, not just so we can hear educated people talk about the Bible. The Spirit calls us together to join in what God is doing in this world through Jesus in the Spirit. The essential ingredient to participation in God’s life and love is relationship, growing in healthy relationships with God and one another—abiding in the faith, hope, and love which is ours in Christ by the Spirit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Growing up, I was taught to keep to myself, to not interact with people who did not think or act like me. I was expected to keep my distance from anyone who did not profess Christ in the same way I did. I was not much different than the people in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown. I had Jesus pigeonholed into a particular belief system and way of living, and would not allow him to be who he really was, because that did not fit my expectations and preferences.
God has taken me down a long road of repentance—of turning away from what was false and misguided into what is true, healthy and whole. I still have a long way to go. I realize this because I still struggle with staying in that place where faith, hope, and love abide. I don’t always ground my everyday relationships in Christ and in his perfect self-offering. I spend way too much time avoiding intentional participation in Christ’s mission here on earth rather than immersing myself in everything he is doing. It is a challenge to participate rather than to hide or self-protect—but that is what we are called to do as God’s adopted children.
We don’t get to choose our spiritual siblings. We are all included in God’s embrace, whether we realize it or not, and in spite of our refusal to accept or embrace it. Our experience of life in the abiding presence of God through Christ in the Spirit may be like the warm fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, or it may be like that angry, violent mob furiously hanging onto their self-dependency and stubborn willfulness. Christ has planted our existence within himself in the center of the inner relationship of the Trinity, where faith, hope and love abide. Will we live there, or continue to seek our own existence, according to our own rules and preferences? Apart from the abiding presence of faith and hope centered in God’s love, we just sound like a noisy cymbal, adding little value apart from that which has been provided by God himself, in Christ by the Spirit.
Jesus Christ is our “rock of habitation to which [we] may continually come.” He is our salvation. This is what is true. What will we do with this blessed gift? Will we abide in Christ, the place where faith, hope, and love abide within the Triune God? Will we walk in love, in the Spirit, intentionally building relationships with those around us as full participants in God’s mission in this world to let everyone know of God’s perfect love and life? Or will we go our own way?
Dear God, thank you for inviting us to participate in your life as Father, Son, and Spirit. Thank you for inviting us up into the place where faith, hope, and love abide. Grant us the grace to abide there with you and one another through Jesus in your Spirit. Amen.
“And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, He went His way.” Luke 4:(21–29) 28–30 NASB
“Be to me a rock of habitation to which I may continually come; You have given commandment to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress.” Psalm 71:3 (1–6) NASB
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. … But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 22, 2021, PROPER 16—This morning I was reading an article about the consequences Christian churches in North America are beginning to face due to past mistreatment and genocide of first peoples. These are issues which cut deeply into the heart of our psyche as believers. Too often we have been influenced by our culture, by our generational prejudices, and undoubtedly, the evil which lurks in human hearts and is often manifested under the guise of Christian beliefs and practices.
Every generation, within the Church and without, faces the reality that it must deal with the consequences of the choices of their forebearers. And it must choose whether or not to continue on that same path, or to choose a new one, more in line with what is holy, just, and good. Will our children, and their children and their children’s children, make better choices? Or will they continue the systemic dehumanizing of their brothers and sisters? How can better choices be made within the current structures and systems at work in this world today—or do they need removed, or changed?
As I read the Old Testament passage for this Sunday (Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18), I felt conflicted. Joshua was near the end of his life, having after many years of battle brought his people into their promised land and gotten them settled. They were finally experiencing peace so he wanted them to recommit themselves to God. He was committed to leaving behind the idols of the past and worshiping God alone, and he invited his people to do the same. What is left unsaid in this account is how his people would deal with the consequences of all they had done in conquering that land. How many people were killed or displaced so that God’s people could move in and settle? And isn’t that what many of our forbearers did right here in America centuries ago, believing it was God’s will?
Bringing this forward to today, I’m watching something similar happen here in Nashville right now. Someone owns a rental property with many apartments or trailers or homes. They decide to sell the property to a developer because they receive an offer they can’t refuse. All of the people renting there are summarily evicted. They cannot afford to rent a place similar to the one they had in that neighborhood, prices being too high, so they end up on the street, in sub-value housing or moving far away from their work. The developer puts in a new facility with even more apartments or condos, or homes, but none of them are affordable for all these people who got evicted. Over and over, people are being displaced, others are moving in where they used to live—the dynamics of human civilization at work for better or for worse.
Where is God in the midst of all this? We put such a great value on what we own, where we live, our homes and properties. We like to keep what is familiar and comfortable. When life becomes difficult—and for many it is constantly difficult—we can lose faith, lose hope, and even lose our love for one another. We can wonder where God went, because it may certainly seem as though he has left us. But we still have a choice: we can focus on the physical or we can raise the level of our view to heavenly heights to see that God is still present and active, redeeming, restoring, healing, and working through all of these things to bring about a greater purpose and plan.
The Spirit reminds us that God’s where he’s always been—present in and by his Spirit, at work in all these circumstances and situations to bring about his kingdom life. The apostle John liked to use the word abide to describe our intimate connection with God in Christ by the Spirit. To abide is to dwell, remain, stay in a place. Jesus left the benefits of heaven to join us in our darkness by taking on our human flesh. His purpose in joining us at our worst was to bring us up through death and resurrection into his best. What he calls us to do is to find our true residence and dwelling not on this earth but solely in him alone.
In John 6, Jesus had extensive conversations with the crowd about how he was the bread of life, the only source of true zōe life, eternal life, which he received from the Father. He said that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” We can be so obsessed with the life of our flesh, our human existence, that we miss the spiritual realities which are right in front of us. Or, like the people of Jesus day, we are so scandalized by the possibility that God has made room for each and every human being to have a place in the presence of God now and forever as his very own child that we want nothing to do with Jesus or the Christian faith.
It seems that for generations, for millennia, people have set claim upon spaces on this earth—owning a spot of land or living in the same place as their ancestors, or they have traveled, moved from one place to another. Some have always lived in the same place. Some have never known a stable home. Some have been welcomed to new lands, some haven’t. But God’s heart has always been that each and every person have a home to return to—that home in the Father’s arms which is solely their very own. Our heavenly Abba longs to embrace each one of us and is constantly looking expectantly down the road watching for every one of his prodigals to come home.
To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is figurative language. Eating and drinking cause what we are consuming to, in a sense, become a very part of us. To take in Christ, is to participate in a real and personal way, in his very existence by the Holy Spirit. When we, by faith, realize that Christ is in us and we are in him, that he died our death and lived our life, and lives in us—we are connected with God in a way that is unbreakable, a union and communion that is very real and very eternal. We are intimately known by him and we come to know Abba’s heart and mind as he reveals himself to us through Christ by the Spirit.
Our spiritual house can be shaken though. These experiences of life which are so destructive and unsettling can so disrupt our peace that we lose sight of what is real and true and holy. But the apostle Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” He calls us three times to “stand firm”—taking a position against such spiritual opposition that we cannot be moved away from our foundation in Christ. He tells us to put on the spiritual armor of God, all elements of Christ himself—the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shield of faith, and so on. We put on Christ, and we give attention to the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit as valuable weapons in this spiritual struggle (Eph. 6:10–20 NASB).
Our assurance is not in our ability to fight well, but in the reality that Jesus has already fought and won the battle. We rest in his finished work, for he has already defeated the evil one, death, and sin in his death and resurrection. We are in the process of moving from our own feeble strength to finding our strength in him alone (Ps. 84:5-7). We abide in Jesus, resting in him, living in complete dependence upon him, turning to him in faith.
As we face the reality of our broken humanity, and dealing even with the painful reality of whatever history lies behind us, we can have the comfort and assurance that we are at home in the love and grace of God himself. This God, who was present in every century, who knew every decision and its motive and result, is the God who joined us in our humanity, experienced the depths of the depravity of the human heart, and brought us up into new life. Nothing is so horrible or astonishing that he cannot and will not redeem it when it is brought to him. Will we allow him to be our true home, the place where we find true rest and healing, where grace and truth joined together in Christ is ours now and forever?
Heavenly Father, thank you for defending us from our enemies of evil, sin and death, and for rescuing us, bringing us home to be with you forever. We love you and rejoice in your gift of zōe life, being held in your eternal embrace through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; | My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. … For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God | Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Psalm 84:2, 10 NASB
“‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’ … ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ … no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’” John 6:56–69 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 2, 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—This week I got a phone call telling me the sum of my car repair expense was in the four-digit range rather than the three-digit range. This news was quite upsetting since I would have postpone taking care of several other important things I was planning to do. Once again, I was reminded that all I own does not belong to me, but to the One who gives and who takes away. Job stands as the great OT example of someone who learned this the hard way and had to come to terms with the reality that life includes suffering and loss, and that everything in this life is transient and not to be clung to.
Indeed, it is helpful to periodically be reminded of our need to remain detached from the things of this life while remaining solidly attached to the One from whom all things come. We find this in Jesus’ illustration of the branches on a vine—a branch’s fruit-bearing ability is directly related to the branch’s connection to the vine and how well the branch has been pruned. The idea of pruning in this passage involves the cleansing or removal of anything from the branch that inhibits its ability to produce good and abundant fruit.
Jesus said that we need to abide in him in order to bear spiritual fruit and that this involves his words abiding in us. There is a mutual indwelling which occurs via the Holy Spirit, and we participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father by faith. The life we live, we live by the faith of Jesus Christ—it is Christ in us who is our hope of glory. When we live unattached to Jesus Christ, we die spiritually—we become fruitless and of little spiritual value, only useful as fuel for the fire, the Savior said.
Abiding in Christ has a lot to do with relationship. Relationship with God is something we talk a lot about at Grace Communion Nashville because a relationship of mutual indwelling with God through Christ in the Spirit is what we as human beings were created for and redeemed for by Jesus. When we invite people to turn to Christ in faith, we are encouraging them to participate in that union and communion with God that each and everyone of us was created for, and for which Jesus saved us. We have this incredible gift from God in which we can live, but will we open our hands and our hearts to receive it and live in it?
Sometimes the reason it is so difficult for us to receive this gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is simply that our hands and our hearts are too full with other things. I am reminded of the passage from Matthew 13:22 where Jesus described the seed that was sown among the thorns. This seed or person was unable to thrive and produce abundant spiritual fruit because he was a person who heard the word, but the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the word, and it became unfruitful. Jesus reminded us that it is very easy for us to become preoccupied with the daily necessities or interests of life and to neglect what really matters—Jesus Christ and his word being deeply rooted in us and producing fruit.
Abiding is a word that we don’t use very often nowadays. But there is this sense of setting down deep roots and staying in a place for a long while. To indwell, which is another way of saying abide, is to reside within the same space as another person or object—something the members of the Trinity do, indwelling one another in union and communion.
The ideas of sharing the same space with Jesus Christ or setting down deep roots into Christ should help us to understand what it means when Jesus says we are to stay attached to him as the vine so we can produce much fruit. He is the means by which the fruit is produced, where we are the place the fruit grows and ripens, preparing to be harvested. He calls us to set our roots deeply into him, putting his words into our minds and hearts, loving one another, and living a life of prayer, of talking with and listening to God day by day.
What about those Job-like times when we are dealt difficult blows and we struggle in our relationship with God? We will all face hardship because of the choices we as human beings have made—not just our own choices, but the collective choices of humanity which disrupt our earth, our communities, and our families. As we are grounded in the reality of God’s love for us and reminded of his faithfulness, we can weather such storms with grace, trusting in Christ in the midst of tragedy, loss, and suffering.
This has been a long season of struggle and suffering for the people of the world, especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic devastation. There are many whose lives will never be the same due to what occurred these past months. We can sit on our ash heaps and bemoan our fate, or we can move closer to Jesus Christ, asking him to open our eyes to the goodness, grace, and love of God, and to enable us to trust him to walk us through to a better place.
It may be, if we are willing, that God may be wanting to release us from some burdens we have been carrying that he never meant for us to carry. It may be that God wants to grow us in new ways into the likeness of his Son and in order to do so, he must have our full attention. Perhaps God is wanting to take something out of our hands so he can give us something new, something much better. What is it that God wants to do for us in this season of pruning? Are we open to it?
I believe it is significant that immediately after the descent of the heavenly gift as a dove upon Jesus and his Father’s words of affirmation, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” the Spirit thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. God may be wanting to do a new thing in and through his body, the church. In order to do this, perhaps a time of pruning is needed. We can resist this, complain about it, or even deny it. But a better response would be for us, individually and as a whole, to go deeper into Christ, to connect ourselves more deeply with the One who lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
I invite you to participate with me in this season of renewal, of seeking God’s face, of opening ourselves up more fully to what Jesus is wanting to do in us and through us. Will you join me in letting go of all these things that are distracting us from drawing close to Christ and hearing his word to us each day? Will you join me in a season of listening and of intentional obedience to God’s instruction? What is God asking you to do right now in this moment? What will your response be?
Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for drawing us to yourself through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to toss aside anything that distracts us from Christ, and to embrace all that he is for us. Let us abide in Christ as he abides in us, that we might produce abundant fruit that will glorify you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:4–5 (1–8) NASB
“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” 1 John 4:12–16 (7–21) NASB