By Linda Rex
March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.
Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.
Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.
When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.
Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.
Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.
The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.
It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.
So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.
This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.
What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?
Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.
Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB
“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB
“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.
By Linda Rex
January 19, 2020, 2ND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—My daughter and I were waiting at a stoplight yesterday, waiting for the light to change, when it occurred to both of us that we rarely enter that particular intersection from the side we were on. We often enter it from the north or the south or the west, but not from the east. To us, the intersection looked strange—kind of off kilter in some way.
The reality is, though, that the intersection had not changed at all. What changed was the way in which we approached the intersection. We are the ones who changed over time as we experienced the intersection in new ways. In fact, seeing the intersection from all sides eventually made it a more familiar place as we drove through it on our way to other places.
Often our experience of life follows certain patterns, many of which were formed as we grew up. We have certain preferences, expectations, and inhibitions which find their roots in our past and in those significant relationships which impact our formation. We follow familiar paths and often choose those items and activities with which we are most comfortable. Our actions and ways of being may be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how they affect us and those around us. Because they are how we normally respond or are, we call them our normal.
When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, it is as if we encounter life from a new viewpoint. In Jesus, we have a revelation not only of who God is, but who we are as image-bearers of God. Most everything in our life is the same, but we begin seeing it all in new ways, and are faced with new ways of being and living. These are not normal for us, but rather, may at first seem very abnormal and uncomfortable.
Our encounter with the new life in Christ may be a joyful experience, but for many of us, it is also accompanied by the realization that our previous way of living does not mesh well with who God has declared we are in Christ. Seeing life in this new way creates a crisis in our lives—God’s judgment on all which does not clearly reflect the love and grace of God is that it must go. And that’s where we resist the Spirit’s work in our lives.
The truth is that Jesus came as a light in our darkness—he was to be “a light of the nations.” Abba’s purpose was to bring us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9 NASB), rescuing us “from the domain of darkness, and [transferring] us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13 NASB). As the Light of the world, Jesus illumines the darkness of our wrongs ways of thinking and believing about God and his love for us, and who we are as his beloved children.
Unfortunately, our preference as human beings is to live and walk in the darkness. We don’t want to have to change the way we think, feel, act or treat others—this requires too much of us. When we have to make changes like these in our lives, suddenly we are no longer in control of what is happening in the world. We are no longer able to hide behind what is comfortable, familiar, or convenient.
In fact, the Spirit may ask us to do what is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and inconvenient. God often asks us to love those who are unloveable—who in fact, hate us. Jesus’ way of being is that of turning the other cheek, of praying for those who do not love us, or being kind to those who treat us unkindly. He teaches us to take a stand against evil, while not resisting it. His life and ministry teach us to love and serve freely, even if it means the loss of what we humanly value most.
The culture in which we live, the way we were raised, and the way we feel most comfortable doing things is very often diametrically opposed to Christ’s way of approaching life. Jesus’ way of being was that of a servant, of doing good to others, of caring for the downtrodden, those exiled by community and rejected by society. His life was other-centered, not hedonist and self-centered, and self-indulgent. To follow Christ means participating in his death and resurrection—and this means there are some things in our lives which must die so that the new life we have in Christ may be lived out and enjoyed.
When John the Baptizer encountered Jesus on the shores of the Jordan, he pointed him out to those around him as being the Lamb of God, the One who would take away the sin of the world. John said that Jesus existed long before he did, even though he knew that Jesus was birthed by Mary several months after he had been born of his mother Elizabeth. His point was that Jesus was the divine Son of God, present in their midst, for the purpose of freeing the world from sin. The world, or kosmos, included every human being, and this was a far cry from just freeing the Jewish people from sin.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and in the Spirit, immersed all humanity in his baptism. We were all included in what Jesus did that day. Our inclusion in Jesus’ baptism is our inclusion in his life and death—and we express this as we participate in the sacrament of baptism. Our baptism, being buried with Jesus in his death and risen with him in his resurrection, means the old is gone and the new has come. We respond to Christ’s call to Lazarus in the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” Called out of the darkness, we come into the light and begin to live and walk in the day, leaving the night behind.
This means what is normal is no longer our normal. What is familiar needs to be replaced by what is Christ-like. What we used to value needs to be replaced with what is intrinsically of eternal value and worth. This is the work of the Spirit, who, as we respond to Christ in faith, gradually washes away anything that does not resemble our Savior and infuses us with him in its place. Our participation in this process is faith and, in joyful gratitude, following Jesus wherever he leads us.
This is radical discipleship: laying down our lives as Christ laid down his. Dying to self and living to Christ is living and walking in the light, leaving the darkness behind. We are free—not to do whatever we want, whenever and however we want—but free to love God and love one another the way we were created to. We feed on Christ, drawing upon the Spirit, finding our life in God alone, and soon, after walking a while on the road with Jesus, we will be astonished to find that what was so unfamiliar to us is actually our true home.
Dear Abba, thank you for calling out of darkness into your marvelous light. Thank you, Jesus, for including us in your baptism—in your death and resurrection. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for working in us and in our lives to bring us to greater Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to follow you, Jesus, wherever you go and to obey your call to come out of darkness and to walk in the light with you both now and forever. Amen.
“John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John 1:32-34 NASB; see also vv. 29–42
“He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant | To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; | I will also make You a light of the nations | So that My salvation may 3reach to the end of the earth.’” Isaiah 49:6 NASB
By Linda Rex
January 12, 2020, EPIPHANY | BAPTISM OF THE LORD—In my church, as we prepare the communion table every Sunday, we light three candles. The large white candle at the center is ostensibly the Christ candle, while the other two represent the other members of the Trinity. On occasion the Christ candle refuses to light when we hold a lit match to it, so we cut down the wax around the wick so it will light properly. Otherwise, our attempts to light it during the service become rather humorous.
The prophetic word for this Sunday is from Isaiah 42:1-9. This passage describes the Suffering Servant who would come to establish justice in the earth. He would be appointed as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison. This was to be a new thing which the Creator of all would bring to pass on the earth.
In the middle of the passage, Isaiah says in verse 3 that “A bruised reed He will not break | And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” It seems that this Suffering Servant would bring justice about in a manner that would involve compassion, concern for those who are suffering, and bringing light and freedom to those who are caught in the darkness. It would not involve coercion, oppression, or imposing his will on those around him.
It’s a common human experience to feel as though we are a dimly burning wick. If you have never had a blue day or a season of depression in your life, I congratulate you. You are very blessed. Speaking as one who has battled depression on and off throughout my life due to my family genetics, I can tell you that there are times when a person can feel very much like that dimly burning wick that’s just about ready to go out. In fact, when we are in the darkest parts of that place, we may even wish that someone would just blow out the fire and free us from the pain.
When I was at my darkest places, I had people tell me I should just cheer up, get my act together, and get on with my life. What they did not realize was that I had been trying to do that for quite some time and it just wasn’t happening. When the deep sadness is on, when the heart is broken or faltering, a person cannot just get their act together and become sunny and happy all at once. Telling someone who is depressed to turn to Jesus and to trust him is a nice thought, but for someone who is crying out to Jesus daily for the heart and will to go on, it is not helpful.
There are times when the inner candle burns low and begins to flicker, coming close to going out. Christ never intends for that flame to go out, but seeks to make it stronger and stronger. Sometimes, our darkness and sadness becomes our normal. It shields us from having to deal with the realities of the world around us. It keeps us from having to deal with the difficult places within that God is wanting us to address and bring to him for healing. It is important to take our times of being a dimly burning wick and to ask ourselves, what is keeping this candle from burning as God intended?
I know from personal experience that getting adequate counseling or even medication is not always an easy process, though it really ought to be done. Because of my previous history with taking antidepressants, mostly due to my fibromyalgia, my previous medical sharing group would not pay for anything related to mental health care. They effectively prevented me from getting help with something which genetically I needed help with, because they thought I shouldn’t need continuing assistance. This dimly burning wick to them was not worth their financial assistance or concern.
We will run into this when we are battling the darkness. This is why it is essential for us to trust in Christ, rather than in the efforts of human beings or medical practices. At times we need him to show us what is at the root of our darkness. There may be some old ways of believing, some false ideas about God or ourselves, which need to be trimmed away so the flame of God’s love and life may burn more freely and fully. There may be unhealthy relationships which need mending or hurts which may need forgiving. There may be anger which needs resolved or pain which needs healed. This is why we need safe people to talk with and we need to stay in relationship with others, even though we are being drawn into isolation and retreat.
We need to remember that God has given us through Christ and in the Spirit, a new heart. The evil one seeks to destroy our heart, to snuff out the light God has given us. Many times, a dimly burning wick is heart-sick—through loss, grief, anger, bitterness, or many other reasons. Jesus does not seek extinguish the little bit of life that is left, but rather to reignite it—to infuse it with the flame of his belovedness, the fire of his Father’s love in the Spirit.
When we read the story of the baptism of Jesus Christ, we find him being baptized, not because he was a sinner who needed redemption, but because all of us are sinners in need of redemption. He immersed our humanity in his immersion, rising up out of the water to receive the Spirit lighting upon him as a dove. Standing there, with the baptism waters dripping from his frame, he heard with us his Father’s voice, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Whatever may be keeping us in our dark place, we need to take seriously what Jesus did for us in this moment. His inclusion of our humanity in his baptism, in his receiving of the Spirit, and in receiving his Father’s blessing, is the root of all our healing—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Even though it may seem as if we have no hope, the one thing God offers us in the gift of his Son and his Spirit is hope. But it may require a little trimming of the candle for us to experience the hope we need to keep our wick burning.
At times, it may not feel like he hears you or sees you—but he is tenderly nursing the flame within you. He is present, sharing the darkness with you, even though you may not be able to sense his presence in you or with you. It takes courage, fortitude, and endurance to battle the darkness. It takes boldness—a willingness to go places you’d rather not go, to take risks you’d rather not take, to move beyond the deep sadness back into the light.
Yes, turn to Christ. But do more than that—receive the gift Christ has given in sharing with us his belovedness, the all-surpassing immensity of the Father’s love. Allow God to carry you through this season, resting in the reality that he is in you, with you, and for you. He has given you his word—he will never leave or forsake you, but will be with you to the end. Allow him to be your living Lord, present in and with you by the Spirit, caring for you in your darkest moment, and bringing you, in his good time, to a brighter place.
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us hope in our darkest places. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us there, identifying with us in our brokenness, struggles, and darkness, and bringing us into your light. Lord, give us this day a reason to go on—the heart to keep trying. Do not allow us to be extinguished, but to begin to glow again with new light—through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” Acts 10:38 NASB
“After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” Matthew 3:13–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
By Linda Rex
PROPER 12—Reflections on when I was first baptized remind me of the disconnect there was between my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and the rest of my Christian life. Even though the baptism focused on repentance and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it seems that once that event took place, then the rest was all up to me, even though I was a recipient of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, I had been taught the scriptures since I was a child, and had to memorize many for school. There were instructions about the ten commandments and the way of love, and warnings that I would reap what I sowed. I lived in constant fear that I would fall short of God’s enormous expectations (and I often did) and believed that God would reject me. My participation in taking the bread and wine once a year was often a desperate plea for forgiveness and an acknowledgement of my unworthiness in his sight. Even though I may have felt forgiven as I came to the table, this experience was short-lived—guilt and shame were my constant companions.
Unfortunately, I was laboring under a false concept of what it meant to be baptized and to be saved. In some ways, I understood what it meant, but at the same time I did not grasp the significance of dying and rising with Jesus. I did not realize that my death and subsequent life in Christ was always and ever a participation in Christ’s perfected and finished work. It was not all up to me—it was completely all up to him; I was saved by grace through faith.
Jesus, who was God in human flesh, did not need to be baptized and yet he obeyed his Father’s command given through John the Baptizer to be baptized for the remission of sins. Jesus was not baptized for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world, identifying with each human being in our broken, sinful humanity. When we are baptized, it is a participation in his perfect work of baptism as well as a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.
This participation in Christ through baptism is merely a beginning of the new life which is ours by faith in Jesus. By faith we receive the anointing in the Holy Spirit by which we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father. Our life becomes a life of walking in the Spirit by faith in Christ—a new way of being which has its roots in the Son of God.
We do not suddenly become perfect and yet we are at the same time perfect in Christ—there is a paradox, a tension, to our lives. While on the one hand our perfected humanity is hidden with Christ in God, on the other this perfection is being worked into us daily as we live and walk in obedience to the Spirit. We are fully justified in Jesus but are daily being sanctified—we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not always see in ourselves or others the perfection which is ours even now in Christ.
Our focus is so often on moral perfection. This was the struggle in my early years as a Christian. But this is not God’s focus. He has already resolved the issue of moral perfection in Jesus. What he is working on now is our faith in Jesus Christ, our personal walk with him in the Spirit.
In Christ we are caught up into the inner life of the Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Spirit as they exist in perichoretic love and unity. We were created to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Christ this is who we are as God’s adopted children. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the giving of the Spirit, Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, enabling us to participate as God’s creatures in true union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, and in union and communion with one another, expressed most fully within the body of Christ, the church.
What before was a fear and anxiety-ridden struggle to attain a tiny measure of God’s favor has been replaced in our lives by a grace-based relationship filled with God’s love, humor, compassion and understanding. All of life is holy now, blessed by and healed by the presence and power of God through Jesus in the Spirit. Our lives are a participation in the perfect relationship Jesus has with our Father and his perfect expression of love for Abba and for others in the Spirit.
We don’t have to beg God for the least bit of his attention. No, he anticipates and looks forward to our encounters, for Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, bringing us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We feel his pleasure as we pray and sense his joy in our everyday life. We know his presence and sense his comfort when we grieve or go through painful experiences—he shares all of life with us. Whatever evil we may encounter in this world, we find he is already at work within it to redeem, restore and renew. And whatever praise or prayer or gift of obedience we bring—it is already perfected in Jesus.
We do not need to spend all our time in abjection or slavish attention, but rather in real moment-by-moment relationship, in the true love, humility and service which come in a complete dependence on God, knowing and accepting our need for Jesus, and rejoicing in the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives. We can live our lives in joy, drinking in of the blessings God richly showers upon us for our enjoyment—the beauty of a new spring day, the glory of a mountain vista, the pleasure of a pet’s affection, and the ecstasy of an intimate relationship with a spouse. In moments of sorrow or struggle, we can rest in his arms, trusting he is holding us and helping us through them, working all things for our best benefit.
What God has given us is true participation in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba. We have a loving, adoring, compassionate Father who has done everything necessary for us to have a personal, intimate relationship with him and to share in what he is doing in this world to bring the fullness of his kingdom into every area of our existence. We get to share in Christ’s mission by the Spirit through prayer, loving others, resisting evil, and caring for God’s creation. All of these are a true participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is the initial step and our weekly communion the ongoing sacrament.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his life in the Spirit, symbolically showing our participation through baptism and our sharing in the bread and the wine. May you finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,…” Colossians 2:6 NASB
By Linda Rex
BAPTISM OF THE LORD—I was reflecting back this morning to a sunny summer day in southern California, June 1st of 1980, when we parked the car and walked up the hill to the Loma D. Armstrong Center on what was then the Ambassador College campus. My mom and I found our way to the downstairs pool—I had never realized there was one in the basement of the building. It was on this day that I went under the water and rose again to my new life in Jesus Christ, having been baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
My baptism was not after some significant epiphany in my life, like it is for many people. It was more a realization that it was the next appropriate step in my walk with God—one that I hadn’t really given much thought to until a friend asked me why I hadn’t been baptized yet. My response was—I didn’t know. I just hadn’t given it a thought. When I seriously thought about it, I realized that years before I had committed myself to Christ and this life, had been living in repentance, but was not permitted to be baptized because of my age. Now, as an adult, it needed to be done, so I did it.
This is one reason I believe that baptizing children can be appropriate. The other is the understanding I have come to that our baptism, at whatever age, is a participation in Jesus’ fully sufficient baptism. It was for our sakes that Jesus was baptized for the remission of sins, since he had no sins to be baptized for.
The Holy Spirit brings us to the place where we begin to see the reality of who we are—Christ’s, and that in his death and resurrection he has washed our sins away and given us new life. So we participate in his death and resurrection through baptism, understanding and believing Jesus died our death and rose again, bearing all humanity with him in his new life, and in his ascension into the presence of the Father.
There is something about the sacrament of baptism which made a difference in my life. After the baptism, the minister laid his hands on me and anointed me, praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Truth be told, the Spirit must have already been at work with me to have brought me to this place, but back then we believed that the Spirit was with us, but not in us until after this prayer.
Since then we have seen that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh. It isn’t whether or not he is present but rather our participation in what God is doing in us and with us by his Spirit that is at stake here. What I do know is that after my baptism and the laying on of hands, the Word of God began to make sense to me in a way it never did before. I began to understand things I hadn’t understood before. And my relationship with God became deeper than it ever was before. I found myself on a journey with Jesus, who became more and more real to me as time went on.
My simple obedience to the command “repent and be baptized” brought me into a new place in my relationship with God. I began to recognize the power of God at work in my life beginning to transform me. My relationships began to be healthier. I began to see ways in which I needed to change—and miracle of miracles, God changed me!
This was no magic bullet, though. The act of baptism doesn’t make everything in life wonderful and perfect. Rather, it is more likely to bring us to a place of crisis—what was before has ended and God is at work making all things new. We begin to experience the fire of God’s love, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We begin to experience the reality of our renewal into the image of the resurrected Christ. There, by necessity, is a change in one’s life and in one’s being. There is death which comes before resurrection. Some things just need to die and be buried.
Jesus talked to his disciples about taking up one’s cross and following him. That’s the part no one wants to hear about. This means there are some things we have to give up or quit, some relationships which may need to end or be altered, and some changes we may need to make when we follow Christ. When Christ died his death, all of our sinful humanity died with him—that means what is of sin is dead and buried with him. The struggle we face is letting it lie there dead. We seem to prefer living like zombies rather than living as newly born children of God.
But the good news is that we do have new life in Christ, and our failures, flaws and imperfections are covered by his blood. We have Christ living his life in us by the Holy Spirit, transforming our hearts by faith. The Spirit creates in us a desire to do the right thing when faced with temptation to do what is sinful. We participate in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his heavenly Father, understanding by the Spirit we are Abba’s beloved adopted children. The Spirit in us and with us draws us into spiritual community where we participate with Christ by the Spirit in relationships with others of like mind in the body of Christ.
Baptism is our one-time entry into our participation in Christ, while our ongoing participation is through the sacrament of communion, or eucharist. At Good News Fellowship, we obey Jesus’ command to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection in an ongoing way by participating in communion on a weekly basis. As we eat the bread and drink the wine or juice, we are reminded anew of how Christ stood in our stead and on our behalf, his life for our life, and we are thankful. This is God’s great gift to us—new life in his Son Jesus Christ by the Spirit, and the first steps of repentance and faith and baptism enable us to unwrap and enjoy this precious gift.
If you are interested in being baptized, please feel free to contact me. I would love to talk with you about baptism, repentance, and faith, and how you are included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for standing in our stead and on our behalf, even when it comes to repentance, faith, and baptism. It is in you that we place our trust. Lord, remind us anew of the reality that we died with Christ, and we rose with Christ, and we share in his glory, both now and forever. In your Name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ ” Luke 3:16-17 NASB
By Linda Rex
I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with my family. Looking around the restaurant, I noticed a sight which is quite commonplace today—everyone at the table was looking at their smart phone. I was a little amused, because just a few minutes before that, I had caught myself looking at mine when I really didn’t need to.
It can be a real challenge to stay present in the moment with family, friends, and the task at hand, because there are so many distractions. Believe me—I love my smart phone. But I have had to learn to limit its use, or I will not be present to what is going on right in front of me and will miss valuable moments in my relationships and home life.
I think there are things we can learn about our relationship with God from this. Years ago, I believed the Holy Spirit was the substance God was made up of, that the Spirit was a force or power, but definitely not a Person. To see the Spirit as an object or force meant I was always having to ask God for more of the Spirit. Even though, as I believed then, I had been given the Spirit at baptism and God wouldn’t take the Spirit away, I was still in danger of Spirit starvation.
A song I fell in love with in those days was “More Love, More Power.”(1) This is a great song which was very inspiring to sing. But I began to see that it began with a false paradigm. This paradigm said—I don’t have enough love or power from God—I am starving spiritually. I only have a little bit of God’s power, so I have got to have more or I’m in real trouble. I desperately need God to give me more or I can’t be good enough (so I will be worthy of God’s love and attention or be a good person).
When Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit, though, he did not seem to use this type of terminology. He spoke of the Holy Spirit as being a Person like himself (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13) Yes, he spoke about the Spirit as being given or poured out. Jesus said the disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But Christ made it quite clear that the Holy Spirit was not just a power or force—he was a Person who would not speak on his own initiative but according to the Father’s will, guide them into all truth, and testify to them about Jesus.
A person such as the Holy Spirit cannot be divided up without destroying the Person in the process. The Spirit isn’t hacked up into pieces to be given a little here and a little there. At Pentecost, the apostle Peter—filled with the Spirit—explained how the events which had happened that day (the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those gathered for prayer and worship) was a fulfillment of the prophetic word of Joel 2:28-29, which said the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.
The Scriptures indicate God has become present by the Holy Spirit to each and every person. So why did Peter say in Acts 2:38, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?”
Apparently there is a difference in how the Holy Spirit came to the believers on Pentecost (and how he comes to us today) than when he came on the men and women of the Old Testament. Back then, it seems as if they would be overcome by the Spirit and find themselves prophesying or doing extraordinary things, apart from their decision to have the Spirit’s involvement in their lives. I don’t think Saul really wanted to go about prophesying, but Samuel told him the Spirit would make him do this as a sign he would be anointed king over Israel. God seemed to work more externally with human beings back then.
The significance of repentance and faith in Christ which precedes baptism is the key. The New Testament church was born out of the events which had occurred during Jesus’ time here on earth. Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, had lived, died, and then been resurrected, ascending into the presence of God taking our common humanity with him. The perfected humanity of each human being lies hidden with Christ in God. Our response, what we do with these events and what we believe about who we are in Christ is critical.
Jesus told his disciples toward the end of his life here on earth, “A little while, and you will not see Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me” (John 16:19 NASB). He indicated that he had to leave so that the Spirit would come to them. And when the Spirit came, Christ would be coming to them. The Spirit of Christ would indwell human beings, and in this way, Abba himself would be present.
Through Christ and in the Spirit, God is now present and available to each and every person. Notice the important details—through Christ, and in the Spirit. If you or I, or any other person, does not believe Jesus Christ was who he was, of what use is the gift of the Spirit? True, the Spirit works in mighty ways in spite of us—there is plenty of evidence of this in the Old Testament. But God always protects and honors our human dignity. He does not force himself upon us. The Spirit protects our personhood and invites us into relationship with God through Jesus, creating in us—as we are willing—the faith to believe.
The Spirit testifies to who Jesus is, and who he is for us individually. This is important, because at some point we need to repent of all our false beliefs about Abba, Jesus, and ourselves. We need to turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ. To receive the Spirit is to open ourselves up completely to the presence of God, allowing him full reign in our being.
The apostle Paul wrote, “do not get drunk with wine, … but be filled with the Spirit.” Being drunk means our bloodstream is filled with a substance which is altering our decision-making capability and reducing our inhibitions, often in unhealthy ways. Being filled with the Spirit means being filled with the Person and Presence of God himself and being governed by his heart and mind, not our broken, fleshly heart and mind. It means we are led by his will, purposes and plans, not our selfish, self-willed desires and efforts. We live undistractedly, fully attentive to and participating with Christ as he dwells in us by the Spirit.
It’s not that God has to give us more of himself, but rather that we are fully surrendered and open to him. What part of us are we holding back from God? What doors in our heart and mind are closed to God? What do we refuse to give up or surrender to him? How are we resisting or quenching the Spirit?
Coming to see this moved me to change the words to that song so we could sing it at church: “Your Love, Your Power, I give you all my life…And I will worship you with all of my heart, and I will worship you with all of my mind, and I will worship you with all of my strength, for you are my Lord.” There is a call to surrender in the preaching of the gospel. This is why each generation is so resistant. None of us want to turn over the reins of our being to someone other than ourselves—most especially not God, because he has definite views on what it means to be a human being made in his image.
What part of our lives and beings are we unwilling to surrender to the God who made us and saved us by his grace? Will we give him all, turning away from ourselves and turning to Christ? In turning to Christ, then, we are baptized—showing we agree that yes, we did die with Christ, and we rose with Christ, and one day we will be fully Christ-like, when we see him in his glory. We are agreeing with the truth of our being and are open to the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, having received the gift God has given us of his indwelling Presence.
Each moment of our lives, then, is spent in the indwelling Presence of God. Being baptized in the Spirit means we are swimming in the Triune life and love—in the midst of the Father, Son, and Spirit—participating in what they are doing in this world.
We can focus on our distractions—and there are plenty of them—or we can be present to the One who is present to us by the Spirit. Paul says to keep our hearts and minds on the things of heaven, not on the things of earth—meaning, be present to God and his Presence rather than the things of the flesh (Col. 3:1-4). This is what we were created for, and how we are meant to live—in the life and love of Abba and Jesus in the Spirit, forever.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Beloved Son, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Thank you for the gift of your indwelling Presence, and for inviting us into relationship with yourself. Grant us the grace to welcome and surrender to the gift of your Being through Jesus and by your Spirit, Amen.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Eph. 5:18 NASB
(1) “Worship” album, Michael W. Smith (2001)
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV