By Linda Rex
May 3, 2020, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As I recently looked at how well we as a community, a state, a nation, and a world are coping with COVID-19, I was reminded anew that all this COVID-19 data are not just numbers on somebody’s spreadsheet. They are actual people and families and businesses which are being impacted by what is happening right now. These people have names, relatives, jobs (or at least they used to), and are doing their best to deal with those concerns which weigh heavily on them in this moment—illness, death, job loss, financial stress, or being separated physically from those they love.
How we deal with the particular stresses we are facing right now individually and as a nation depends primarily, I believe, on our perspective—the lens through which we view all these events. In a culture in which there is such a strong emphasis on our ability, even our responsibility, to solve these life and death issues on our own, it is easy to understand why there are so many views regarding this whole situation. These include a sense of fear or anxiety at all the inevitabilities or possibilities and an insistence that our government resolve all these issues apart from any personal political preference or leaning.
Honestly, I’m not sure what a person does when faced with catastrophic issues such as these if they believe it is all up to us solely as human beings to solve these issues. How can we have any assurance that any of this will work out all right in the end?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we want there to be people in our lives who know us by name and care about us enough to look after our interests, not just their own. We want to have governments who seek the best for every citizen and for the country as a whole, without taking advantage of anyone or neglecting those who cannot care for themselves. We want community leaders to take an interest in providing the basics of life for residents while at the same time providing quality of life for each person who lives there.
We ask for a world, nation, state, or community, in which each person is known by name, cared for according to their needs and preferences, and is able to pursue his or her own goals or ambitions. In this life, these are obviously not realistic expectations, yet I believe we often have these expectations even though we may never openly admit to it. It is made obvious by our response to events such as COVID-19 and all its accompanying restrictions and changes.
I believe we may be a lot wiser if we were willing to surrender these expectations to the reality that there is a profound difference between the human systems, governments, societies and culture of this world and the kingdom life described for us within the pages of the Bible. One of the flaws throughout the ages of the Christian church was its equating the kingdom of God with a particular human government or ruler. This was never meant to be the case.
What Jesus teaches us is that in his coming to us as God in human flesh, the kingdom of God came near or came among us. In his power and presence, God’s kingdom is real, tangible, and planted within our cosmos, to effectively, in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, alter our human existence both now and forever. There is an over-reaching, undergirding, cosmos-filling kingdom which supersedes and surpasses any human government or leadership. This is a spiritual kingdom which can only be entered into by faith in Jesus Christ.
This may be hard to understand and accept. To say that Jesus is the center, the only door by which we enter by faith into these tangible spiritual realities, is, for many, a way of saying that these realities are exclusive and leave people out. This is far from being true. Rather than leaving anyone out, this is the assurance that everyone is included. This means that no person needs to live life apart from the blessing of knowing and being known by the One who created, redeemed, and sustains all. No one need struggle through life and its catastrophes and troubles all alone without comfort, solace or help.
Yet we do it. We choose to believe that none of this is true and that we can get through life just fine on our own—we don’t need anyone telling us what to do, how to do it, or to rescue us when we fall. This is especially true in these parts of the world where we do not really struggle to make ends meet or to take care of the everyday necessities. Many, if not most of us, can comfortably live our lives apart from any of the spiritual realities.
This is why Jesus said that we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as little children (Matt. 18:3-4). Children tend to realize their dependency upon those who care and provide for them. We need to recognize that we are more like wandering sheep who get ourselves into dangerous situations when we don’t listen to and follow our shepherd. Sheep who know and follow their shepherd are the ones who find themselves in pastures where they have the water and food they need, and they will be tenderly cared for should they be sick or injured.
There will be struggles and suffering in life, whether we believe in Jesus or not. The difference will be that as believers we know that God knows us and calls us by name. We have come to realize that God not only knows us personally, he loves us, and he is personally interested in what is happening in our lives. He is working moment by moment for our best, even though that may mean we temporarily struggle or suffer. The psalmist writes, “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, emphasis added).
Jesus knows the way of suffering, for he has walked it himself. He does not ask us to go anywhere he has not gone or will not go with us. To follow Jesus is to share both in his glory and in his suffering. But we do so in the knowledge that God knows us by name and we belong to him—we don’t go through anything in this life that he is not going through with us right now and helping us through. There is no reason any of us need face life apart from being intimately connected at the core of our being with the One who is our life, and spiritually connected with others who share our life as adopted and beloved children of God, sheep of the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls.
Today, take a moment to ponder—in what way am I personally wandering about like a lost and forgotten sheep? In solitude and silence, invite God to call your name and to speak his words of love and grace to you. Consider, even if you do not sense God’s presence or words, what it means to be a sheep who hears his voice and follows. What does it mean that God knows you by name? What does it mean to be loved by God? Share with Jesus your commitment to follow him wherever he leads, from this day onward, no matter the cost.
Dear God, thank you for offering us life in Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to listen to your voice, to hear you call our name, and to know we are your very own. Enable us to know we are loved and held, cared for tenderly as a shepherd cares for his sheep. We want to follow you wherever you lead, Jesus, even if it requires suffering and struggle. Grant us the grace to do this. In your name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.
“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you can example for you to follow in His steps, ‘who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth’; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25 NASB
“But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” John 10:2-5 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 17, 2019, Proper 28—Many years ago, I was faced with the reality that I was going to be on my own with two children to provide for. It was a hard thing to face because up to that point, it had been my commitment to be at home with my children so I could be fully involved in their lives. Reality is not always pleasant but it must be dealt with, and being a single mom meant I needed to find a job as well as hire a caregiver for my kids.
Life as a single mom was difficult for me, but many of the people around me struggled with even harder situations than what I had to deal with. Many of my co-workers juggled two jobs in order to be able to pay for childcare and their monthly expenses. Jobs in that farming community for the most part didn’t pay enough for single income families to make ends meet.
When life was hardest and the mountains around me seemed to grow taller and taller, I wrestled with fear, despair, and depression. The gracious God taught me during that extensive time of wrestling that all I needed to do was to hold his hand and take the next step and do that next right thing. Every month when the bills came due and I wasn’t sure if I would have enough to cover them, I would end up thanking God—he seemed to always come through for me.
During those years I learned that God was faithful and could be counted on, in spite of what I might be going through at the moment. As a follower of Jesus, I discovered that even if people around me ridiculed me and rejected me for living honestly, chastely, and responsibly, God was still present and at work in my life. Over time, as I intentionally began to build healthier relationships with other believers of many different faiths, he surrounded me with loving people who became our extended family, providing emotional and spiritual support through a very painful and difficult time.
Following Jesus is a life lived in the reality that God is our loving Father and we are his beloved children in his Son. When we follow Jesus, we begin to discover that even though each and every person around us is included in the Father’s love, not everyone knows nor do they believe this is the case. This means that as we live in the truth of being God’s beloved, living in agreement with our identity in Christ as image-bearers of God, we will come up against those who live in opposition to him and to us.
Some of the most painful experiences we have as believers are when our own family members and dear friends ridicule us, shame us, or even reject us because we have begun to follow Christ. We may long for these dear ones to share the joy of transformation we are experiencing, but find instead that they will have nothing to do with the truth of God’s love and grace. Life gets really tough when those we love refuse to participate with us in Christ.
Jesus often tried to help his disciples understand the cost of discipleship, of following him all the way through death and resurrection. They couldn’t quite get their minds around the reality that Jesus was not there to be the conquering king messiah—he was anointed by his Abba to be the Suffering Servant messiah, an entirely different concept. The entrance of his people into the kingdom was not going to come about by him waging war on the Romans, but by offering himself up to humanity as a lamb for the slaughter.
The people of Israel had worked so hard to get their temple rebuilt and adorned as an appropriate dwelling for God. But Jesus told them it would be torn down and destroyed. And that it would be okay, because Abba was creating a new temple, a dwelling place for himself—the body of Christ, the church, where individually and collectively God would dwell by the Holy Spirit. In order for this to happen, Jesus would need to experience suffering and death, followed by resurrection.
In the same way, the process of redemption and sanctification for us individually includes our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion as an expression of our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Christ. But we also participate as we experience the consequences of following Christ, of living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh—by sharing in the sufferings of Christ as we find ourselves opposed, resisted, and even rejected by those for whom Christ is offensive.
Our participation in Christ, following Jesus through every experience of life, is a journey, one in which we may experience both joy and sorrow, blessing and suffering. The key is that we are indwelt by God himself and whatever may be occurring in our lives at the moment, he is present and involved and aware. He upholds us in the midst of our struggles, and celebrates with us when we experience the triumphs of life.
Jesus Christ didn’t promise his followers a pain-free life. But he did promise that he would be with them to the end—that in their endurance, they would find true life. The life Abba has given us through Jesus in the Spirit is an intimate knowing and being known. Our knowledge and understanding of who God is grows as we wrestle with hardship and pain, and the other difficulties of life in relationship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.
We, in Christ, are the beloved children of God—and we are to act like it from now on, no matter how difficult it may be to do so. But, remember, we are not alone as we do this—Christ is present and active, participating with us in everything we are going through, keeping us in the midst of God’s life and love, and enabling us to endure to the end. And when we feel we just can’t hold on any longer, as we turn to him in faith, we will find he’s been there all along, holding on to us.
Father, thank you for being present in every circumstance of life. Thank you, Jesus, that we are privileged to share in your sufferings, your life and your death. And thank you, Holy Spirit, that we never do any of this on our own, but always and ever through you in the loving embrace of the Father and the Son. Enable us this day to face the pain and difficulty one more time. Give us the courage to do the difficult thing we don’t want to do, and the faith to trust you when everything around us tells us not to. Grant us the grace to endure, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Luke 21:16–19 NASB
“For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10–13 NASB
by Linda Rex
It’s always distressing to me to hear about another massacre of innocent human beings, and this week’s event in Orlando was no different. How can we, after all we have received of the grace of God, still turn on one another and steal the life God has given and redeemed? The inhumanity, or shall I say insanity, of such an act is beyond comprehension. I hope and pray this event will not end up trivialized like all the others, and just boiled down into a political or religious statement about gun control, human rights or the moral depravity of humanity.
For all the people who had to arrange and attend a funeral for someone dear to them, this is so much more than that. Such unnecessary and horrific loss! To have one’s world so violently rearranged by someone else creates such unimaginable pain and anger.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual happening nowadays. It is still somehow so deeply engrained in our humanity to participate in the evil one’s kingdom in which he comes to kill, steal and destroy. Even our ideologies can be at fault when it comes to the taking of other human lives. But we must go deeper even than that.
We can blame radical Islam for this event, but if we were truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit, that were the situation right, we could do exactly what this man did. Each of us has the capacity to commit horrific acts of evil, because each of us, at our core, is broken. Each of us has our own demons which we fight. None of us is truly innocent.
As Christians, or even as humans of any creed or belief, we need to be really careful not to assume we do not possess the capacity for evil. Too many people have been hurt and crushed by the infidelity or abuse of someone who claimed to be a Christian. History is full of stories of people who said they were godly men or women, but who turned out to be truly evil at their core.
This morning I looked to see how often the word kill was used in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of stories where people killed one another. Yes, sometimes even God allowed or encouraged it, due to the circumstances involved. But this capacity to turn as one human against another began with Cain and has not ceased since.
As I continued to look at the use of the word kill, I noticed there was a change when it came to the gospels. In the gospels, we see Jesus talking about how the Jewish people killed their prophets and telling his disciples the Jewish authorities would kill him too. We see Jesus telling his followers not to fear people who can and will take their life, but to fear, or respect, the God who gives and takes away life. Jesus stressed giving one’s life, not taking one’s life away. He laid down his life for each of us, and calls for us to do the same.
It is instructive that the Jewish leaders of the day worked very hard to be pious, good people, well-respected by others. But their piety was demonstrated by their determined effort to put Jesus to death. The man Saul, who we know as the apostle Paul in his later years and who held the clothes of Stephen as he was martyred, was a clear illustration of this reality. His effort to be God-fearing resulted in his participating in the death of an innocent man, and the killing and imprisoning of many other people in the early church.
The expansion of the early church into the Roman culture came about not because the believers threatened to kill people who weren’t followers of the Way, but because they willingly laid down their lives for the sake of Jesus. It was through their suffering, loss and death that the early Christians impacted the culture around them. Great change came about because of their willingness to suffer and die rather than give up their relationship with Jesus Christ and the blessing of life in the Spirit.
We need to understand the difference between living by a law or moral code, and living and walking in the Spirit while following Jesus. Paul said when talking about the new covenant in Jesus Christ that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor 3:6) When we are living and walking in our flesh according to some form of ideology, or some moral code, it is easy to justify killing and destroying another human being. But when we are living and walking in the Spirit, participating in the life of Jesus, we have the desire and capacity to give life rather than take it, and may find within ourselves the capacity to lay down our life for another human being who could even be our enemy.
We see the life-giving Spirit of Christ at work in many places and ways in the world. I see the Spirit at work in the hearts and lives of the parents who so faithfully and diligently minister daily to an autistic or disabled child. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in our community as people work to bring about peaceful resolutions to difficult problems. I see the Spirit of Christ at work in the life of the person who works to care for and studies the environment and the wildlife in exotic locations in the world, and in the life of the one who cares enough about the animals in their neighborhood that they make sure they each have safe homes and good health care.
This is the new covenant life Jesus bought for us with his blood shed on the cross and which he made available to us in the gift of his Spirit. We are bathed in his crimson flood so that we can have real life instead of our natural manner of life which so often leads to death. Why should we continue to live life on our own terms when we have been offered something so much better?
In the taking of the Eucharist, in our sharing through the wine and bread of the body and blood of Jesus, we are reminded as Christ wished us to be, that he stands in our place. It is his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life eternal in his glorified humanity which is ours. We are awakened again to the Spirit poured out on us, alive within us, and are renewed in our capacity to share in the divine life and love, even now in the daily ins and outs of life. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who enables us to love the unlovely, forgive the unforgiveable, and to lay down our lives for those who do not deserve it.
Such suffering as is incurred in the terrorist attacks we are witnessing is not going unnoticed. Such destruction and death will not be ignored. It is a violation of the Spirit of life in Christ which we have been given. And Christ promised never to leave or forsake his children—he is here with us in the midst of our pain and suffering and death, and inhumanity of human to human. He grieves and weeps with us, he endures suffering with us, and is hurt and angered by what we do to one another.
But this is also why he came and took upon himself the whole injustice and evil of humanity. This is why he allowed the pious Jews of his day to torture him and crucify him. So every time something like these horrific events happens, we are not alone. He has joined himself to us in our sin and suffering, and has made us one with himself, so we are and can become something we would not otherwise be.
In Jesus we have the hope that evil does not have the last word, and one day will be fully eradicated from our humanity. In the gift of the Spirit, we see Jesus beginning to work his kingdom life out in our world today in the midst of its brokenness. May God grant us the grace to walk by faith, not by sight, looking beyond this broken world and our broken humanity into the true reality purchased for us by the Son of God and made possible for us in the gift of his Holy Spirit.
Dear God, forgive us for all the horrible things we do to ourselves and to one another. Thank you for joining with us in the midst of our brokenness and evil, and raising us up to life with you in Christ and by your Spirit. Please finish what you have begun—do not give up on us. You know how desperately we need you to transform and heal us and our world. May your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” John 8:37–40 NASB
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 NASB
by Linda Rex
Yesterday I was watching with interest the speech given by Pope Francis to Congress. I was impressed by his finesse in taking the stories of four Americans and drawing from them positive principles by which our leaders and our people could move forward into the uncertain future.
As he was speaking, someone said to me, “Well, there’s our enemy.” It took me aback for a moment, but then I remembered how for centuries some Protestants have seen the pope and the Roman Catholic church as being exactly that—as being the anti-Christ spoken about in the Bible. Of course, this requires a misinterpretation of Scripture, but it has been assumed to be true by many and is still believed to be so by some today.
I’m a little ashamed to say today that I used to be one of those people who believed the pope and the Roman Catholic Church were the enemy of all that is truly Christian. This was born out of ignorance and false teaching I had adopted as a child. But God was not content to leave me in my ignorance.
One of the first things he did was to place me in a relationship in high school where I grew to know and respect a teen who was the daughter of Polish immigrants. She had attended Catholic school in her youth and was a devout believer. She had a crucifix on the door to her room and she would cross herself every time she passed it to go in and out. I saw a devotion to Christ that was different from mine but equally, or perhaps even more, genuine. Although I had other friends in school who were Catholic, she left an impression on me that was not easily forgotten.
As time passed, I had a family member who married someone who was Catholic. I still remember the beautiful ceremony in her church. I could feel the presence and power of God there in a way that amazed me. The song that invited the believers to communion with Christ was inspiring and captured my heart. God was slowly and surely destroying the arrogance in me that kept me believing my faith was superior to and more real than these Catholic believers.
In the years since then, God placed me in the position of coming to know more and more people of the Catholic faith. Many of them were devout, and some were actively pursuing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Sure, there were an equal number who were merely nominal Christians, whose faith was just something they adopted as part of their family heritage. But what God did over the years was to bring me to a repentance, a change in my mind and heart and in my beliefs, about the Roman Catholic Church and its followers.
The way God changed my mind and heart was by placing me in relationships with people in which I was forced to reevaluate what I believed and why I believed it. I could have been stubborn and refused to acknowledge and repent of my prejudice. But my personal integrity would not allow me to do that. The truth was—I was wrong—and I needed to admit it and change accordingly.
I have found as time has gone by that God keeps me in a continual state of needing to reevaluate, repent and change when it comes to what I believe about certain people, their beliefs and cultures.
Technology is making our world smaller by bringing together people and cultures that would probably otherwise never interact. We are being forced to build relationships with people of all faiths and political, economic backgrounds. We are being forced to reevaluate what we believe about them and how we should interact with them.
This is actually a good thing. Because one day, in our future, lies a time when all peoples of all nations and all cultures will be joined together in a world that has no political, religious, cultural boundaries. In this place, what will matter most will not be what clothes we wear, how much money we make, or what kind of foods we prefer to eat. Rather what will really matter will be our relationships with one another and with God. What will really count is how well we love and care for one another.
This is why Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” To have these heavenly values is more important than seeking the earthly values that are transitory and passing. We look beyond the human designations that separate us into the heavenly qualities that unite us. We are all one in Jesus Christ—he is our humanity—our unity, our equality, our diversity. He joins us together in such a way that all these other things we count as important become truly insignificant in the long run.
Our challenge is to remain in an attitude of a willingness to see and admit to our prejudices, and to consciously make an effort to change when we see we are wrong. When we respond to the work of the Holy Spirit as he brings us together with others we may feel uncomfortable with, we will find an amazing harmony and healing that can only be explained as divine.
God wants his children to be joined together with him in Christ, and when we respond to that, miracles happen in our relationships. We experience his divine life and love in a multitude of ways as we yield to the Spirit’s work to bind us all together as one in Christ. May we always respond in faithful obedience to him.
Thank you, God, for the amazing ways you bring healing and restoration in our broken relationships. Grant each of us the heart and mind to repent of our prejudices and to open ourselves to making room for others in the divine fellowship. We have so far to go! May we always turn to you for the love and grace we need so that we may love and forgive others. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 NASB