By Linda Rex
November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.
One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.
If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.
But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.
We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.
What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.
Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.
Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.
Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.
To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?
Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB
See also Matthew 23:1–12.
By Linda Rex
August 30, 2020, Proper 17—The pandemic and its associated quarantine have complicated our lives in so many ways. We are bombarded with new distractions, frustrations, and limitations. Some of us are way out of our comfort zone as we attempt new tasks or abandon comfortable routines. It may seem as though we are caught in the midst of a cyclone of mini-crises with no visible means of escape.
Perhaps it would be helpful to see ourselves on a journey where suddenly we are faced with a desolate mountainside to climb—struggling to carry ourselves forward, navigating dangerous outcroppings and unforeseen chasms in our effort to reach the other side. This journey is never made alone, but with the One who has made himself our companion—Jesus Christ. He says to you and to me, “Follow me.” He already knows the way and intends to take us safely to the other side, no matter what may we may face on the way.
The reality is that when Jesus calls us to follow him he knows that life is going to be a struggle for us. To leave behind our comfortable, cozy mattress to find rest in a sleeping bag on a rocky mountainside is not an easy decision. Along the journey, we may decide we’re done with traveling and start looking for a cushy oasis to settle down into. And our adversary loves to supply us with one if it means we will stop following our Lord and Savior and return to our life of sin.
We need to be like Moses, who when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush said simply, “Here I am.” To simply offer ourselves to God one more time in this particular moment is to follow Jesus. In the offering of ourselves to God, though, we must remember that God will come to us, reveal himself to us, and call us to join with him on a difficult task. Moses told God, “I’m here” and God told him to go lead the Israelites out of Egypt—a breathtaking task for a self-effacing shepherd on a mountainside.
Jesus had just blessed Peter for recognizing him as Messiah, the Son of God, when he began to tell his disciples what the Sanhedrin was going to do to him when he got to Jerusalem. Peter emphatically refused to believe that Jesus would be crucified and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Without realizing it, Peter gave in to the adversary’s effort to distract Jesus from the path he knew he had to follow for the sake of all humanity. What seemed to be loving, brotherly compassion and care in Peter’s mind turned out to be a not too subtle temptation for Jesus in complete opposition to the will and purposes of God.
Strong-willed, impulsive Peter seemed to be struggling with the idea that God calls the shots in this world and that sometimes those decisions God makes are not what we think should happen. What is most important to us is not always what is most important to God. He lives in the realm of eternity—we live in the everyday of the temporary.
It seems that if we were to design the Christian life on our terms, it might look like this: A person comes to faith, says the right words, gets baptized, goes to church, everything in their life begins to start working out properly now, they never get sick, and they start making all kinds of money since now they are giving God his portion. Do you see the issue? Throughout this whole life experience—nothing goes wrong, no one gets hurt, and there is no suffering. But it’s not reality.
Jesus knew the human experience. He knew that the minute any of us stepped foot in one of his footprints, the adversary would be on top of them immediately. He knew how easy it would be for us to return to our old ways of thinking and acting instead of embracing our new life in him. He knew that the only path to true transformation of our humanity would be the one through death into resurrection.
So Jesus says to us that we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. There is a cost to following Jesus and it involves dying to our old ways of living and being, and embracing the reality that there will be suffering and struggle in the process. We need to realize that just as the crowds ridiculed and taunted Jesus, there will be those who oppose our choosing to follow him down the path to the cross. There will be tough decisions to make and difficult struggles to end unhealthy relationships and begin new Christ-centered ones.
And there will be circumstances which come up in our lives where we struggle to make sense of what God has done or is doing. Why does God allow some people to die when others who do so much evil continue to live and cause such destruction in this world? There are so many difficult questions for which we have no answers.
We must come back to that place where we simply recognize the holy ground of God’s presence, take off our shoes, and humbly say to him, “Here I am.” We are but creatures and he is the loving Creator, and he has joined us on our journey, shared our pain and suffering, died our death, and sent his Spirit to be present with us in every moment. We are not alone on this journey—and he will bring us safely to the other side. And that is enough.
When the apostle Paul describes the Christian life, he gives some examples of what it looks like. In Romans 12:9–21, he tells the followers of Jesus to love without hypocrisy, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. He encourages them to be diligent and fervent in their service to the Lord. He reminds them to persevere in the midst of life’s trials and to devote themselves to prayer and providing for the needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Then he gets to the really difficult things—blessing those who persecute them, associating with the poverty-stricken and needy, and never exacting revenge on those who do evil or harm them.
The life of a follower of Jesus is never intended to always be convenient, simple, and comfortable. If anything, it is an arduous struggle. But it’s never done alone. We have the companionship of our spiritual brothers and sisters to lift us up, encourage, and strengthen us. And we have the intimate companionship of our Lord and Savior who indwells us by the Spirit. On our journey, he is present in every moment as we listen, heed, and yield ourselves to him, to give us direction, encouragement, inspiration, and correction.
The life of faith in Jesus is full of moments of joy, peace, hope, and fellowship. We do not walk alone, but have fellow travelers with us on our journey. Yes, there will be difficulties, struggles, and disappointments. But in the midst of whatever may be occurring, we can know that we need only say, “Here I am” and we will find ourselves encountering the living Lord. He is as near as his name on our lips— “Jesus.” He is as close as the breath we breathe—the Spirit who dwells in us. Take a moment right now to feel his presence in you and with you—and commit once again to following him wherever he leads.
Heavenly Father, you are the source of all things—our life and our existence are in you. Jesus, you went before us, living our life and dying our death so that we might rise with you into new life. Spirit, remind us again that we are not alone on this journey, but we have God’s real presence in us and with us as we follow Jesus wherever he leads. We are here, Lord—bring us to where us want us to be. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” Matthew 16:21–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 16, 2020, Proper 15—If there is one thing we are good at as human beings, it is finding ways to differentiate ourselves from other people. We seem to find ways to elevate ourselves while demeaning others, or including ourselves while excluding others. One of the worst things we as Christians do so often is to use the Word of God and our religious faith to create unhealthy boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The one place where we as followers of Christ should find common ground is at the table of thanksgiving—communion. Here we each acknowledge anew with gratitude that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we find our true life in him. Here every person who trusts in him is bound to the community of faith, no matter his or her race, ethnicity, gender, economic or social status, or any other type of differentiation we might come up with.
The gospel passage for August 16th tells the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter. Unfortunately for her, orthodox Jewish people of that day believed they had to separate themselves from the Gentiles. This meant she was excluded from any connection with the Jewish rabbis or synagogues. The fact that she sought help from Jesus showed an understanding and appreciation for who Jesus was that the Jewish authorities had denied. They ridiculed any possibility that Jesus was who he said he was—the Messiah.
Previous to his encounter with this woman, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees. They had criticized Jesus’ disciples for not observing careful ceremonial washing before they ate. Jesus pointed out their nitpicking observation of their traditions actually prevented people from obeying God and loving others as they were supposed to. For example, they said if a person gave to the temple coffers the support which was meant for the care of their dependent parents, that it was acceptable. But Jesus said that doing so broke God’s command that parents be honored and cared for by their children.
Later Jesus explained to his disciples when they were alone that it wasn’t what a person put into their bodies that made them unclean, but what came out of their hearts. Whatever we eat eventually gets used or discarded by our bodies. But what comes out of us in what we say and do is often what defiles us. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.”
Matthew, in his gospel, says that after this conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus left Galilee and made his way into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. Was he trying to avoid more of these provocative conversations so he could focus on teaching his disciples? Perhaps. But what is interesting is that their next experience was meeting this Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on my daughter, Son of David!”
Here we have someone who is excluded from the Jewish fellowship who is calling Jesus “Son of David”, a title only appropriate for the Messiah. Why did she call him this? Was she a Gentile proselyte? In any case, she seemed to be much more in agreement with who Jesus was than the Pharisees were.
The disciples, though, seemed not to have learned much from their previous experience with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish scriptures spoke of the day God’s salvation would be known among all nations. A foreigner coming to Jesus and asking for mercy was welcome—it said so in the writings they read in the synagogue. But it was their traditions regarding the Gentiles which created the barrier between them and caused them to resist including this woman in what they were doing.
Yes, Jesus was sent first to his people, Israel or the Jews, but not to the total exclusion of others. Jesus came to his people first so that when all was said and done, every human being would have a place at his table—all could come to him in faith and be received.
Jesus’ comment to the woman about taking the table food and feeding the dogs could have been an insult. But she knew that in a family, even the pet dogs had a place at the table, picking up the scraps off the floor. Even today, we often consider our pets to be part of our family, included in our life and worthy of at least a few choice leftovers after the meal. Speaking in this way, the woman touched Jesus’ heart, and so, in compassion, he healed her daughter.
Jesus remarked on her faith. While the disciples were busy trying to avoid having her bother the Messiah, the Messiah was busy being who he was—the bringer of salvation to all people, both Jew and Gentile. She trusted him to be compassionate and gracious, and so he was. She asked for mercy and she received it, because she trusted him to provide it.
What joy there must have been as this woman’s daughter was finally free from what had brought such chaos, pain, and suffering in her family! What Satan had meant to steal, kill, and destroy was replaced by the love, healing, and mercy of God—the renewal of the family bonds. This was but a small reflection of Jesus’ eternal intimate bond of love with his heavenly Father in the Spirit.
Perhaps it would be helpful to take a few moments to reflect on what barriers we may have at work in our lives which need to be replaced by love, compassion, and mercy. Who do we know who needs the tender touch of our Savior? Perhaps instead of criticism, condemnation, or isolation, today we may offer prayer, understanding, and a kind word or smile. What barrier can we replace today with God’s love and grace?
Holy Spirit, grant us the heart of Jesus towards each and every person we encounter in our lives. Enable us to see them as you do—one whom you came for, Jesus—one whom you love, Abba. Grant us the grace to love our enemies, to do good to those who treat us ill, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is only possible through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. In your Name we ask this. Amen.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, | To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, | To be His servants, ‘every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath | And holds fast My covenant; | Even those I will bring to My holy mountain | And make them joyful in My house of prayer. | Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; | For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ | The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:6-8 NASB
“That Your way may be known on the earth, | Your salvation among all nations. | Let the peoples praise You, O God; | Let all the peoples praise You. | 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; | For You will judge the peoples with uprightness | And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.” Psalm 67:2-4 NASB
See also Matthew 15:21–28.
By Linda Rex
July 12, 2020, PROPER 10—Incarnational Trinitarian theology is the basis of what we preach at Grace Communion Nashville. Our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ begins with seeing the truth Jesus taught us of how God lives eternally as three persons in one being. It is out of this communion of overflowing love God created all things, and specifically the human race to be image-bearers of him.
Knowing humans would turn away from face to face relationship with God, he determined before time began to send the living Word, the Son of God, to take on human flesh and bring us into inseparable union with the Father and Son in the Spirit. In the fullness of time, the Word came in the person of Jesus Christ, living our life, dying our death in the crucifixion, and rising from the grave. In the ascension, he brought our glorified humanity into the presence of the Father, and in sending the Spirit, offers this new life to each and every human being.
It is this point that so many have difficulty with. For in their minds, this is universalism. But the truth is that God gave each human being an amazing and beautiful gift when he created them—freedom—the freedom to love him or reject him, to obey him or rebel against him. This freedom that is a divine attribute is always meant to be kept within the bounds of divine love, but as human beings we have the capacity to move beyond those bounds into areas which are not a part of the light of life and which bring us into darkness.
When the seed, the living Word Jesus Christ, was planted in our humanity, we were given the capacity to participate in the divine life and love. The seed of the kingdom life has been planted in our humanity in that Christ’s objective union of humanity with the Triune God is a spiritual reality. And in the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh which Peter describes in Acts 2 we find that this new life is available to each and every person. In this way the seed, the living Word, has been sown all over the field in every part of it, no matter the condition of the ground or what may be growing there.
The reality is that Jesus, the living Word, is a seed which when planted has within itself the power for new life. There is an inherent fruitfulness in the Spirit as he comes to us to germinate the seed of the Word of God which is to be planted in human hearts. The issue with failing to bear fruit is not a problem with the seed, for in Christ and in the Spirit is life everlasting. The issue is with our human response to the living Word of God, the growing conditions in which the seed is placed and is germinated.
Our failure to respond properly does not earn us some divine retribution in the parable of the sower, but rather creates consequences which impact our participation in the divine life and love and our bearing of spiritual fruit. What we learn in this parable is that our response to the living Word impacts whether or not we experience the joys and benefits of the kingdom of God and how much spiritual fruit we produce.
The four different responses to the planting of the seed embrace the whole human race. On God’s side, he has been very generous with the planting of the Word of God, having made this new life available to every human being. On our side, we can live our life in a variety of ways, each of which produces a different result, but which is the consequence of our own personal free choice as to what we do with Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he offers us.
Jesus began this parable with the seed sown by the side of the road. This seed which has such potential for fruitfulness lays on top of the well-trod ground and the birds eat it up. The living Word speaks to us by the Spirit and calls us to himself, but there are may other voices in this world which speak more loudly to us—our family, our friends, our culture, our religion, our government, our suffering. The pains and twistings from our past may also inhibit our ability to hear the Word and respond in faith. And so the seed can never produce the fruit it is meant to, since it never is able to germinate fully.
What we know today is that birds eating and expelling seeds is one way they are carried from place to place and are given the opportunity for sprouting in a new location. We may find that it is after many encounters with Christ over our lifetime, when previously the evil one stole away the seed which was being planted in our hearts, that eventually the seed lands in a place where it can begin to grow. As long as the seed is taken way by the lies, distortions, and confusion of the evil one, it cannot bear the fruit it was meant to bear. It needs fertile ground to sink its roots deeply into in order to grow.
Jesus then talked about seed sown on rocky soil—seed which sprouts but has nowhere for its roots to go. When the sun comes out, its roots are exposed and quickly dry up. In our modern world, the proclamation of the gospel reaches into nearly every corner of the world. The announcement that God loves us and this has been expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension can be heard in a wide variety of ways and media. The living Word may be experienced by people in a meal, a casual conversation, a good deed, or a radio program. People may experience Christ in the beauty of God’s creation, hearing the whispers of the Spirit telling them the truth about who they are and who God is.
There are many ways in which Jesus touches people with the truth that he loves them and wants them to trust in him, to live life in intimate relationship with him. But this good news doesn’t really penetrate deeply into their hearts. Like seed on a rocky soil, even the watering of the Spirit cannot get the roots down any farther than the surface, for the hardest heart has no room for the love and grace of God in Christ. There is no living space available for the indwelling Spirit to settle down into. When difficulties or troubles come, the Word is abandoned for other solutions or addictions and so it cannot bear fruit.
Seed which grew among thorns was next on Jesus’ list. Perhaps last year’s thistles weren’t dug completely up and started growing about the same time as the seed. Here Jesus points out how the worries of everyday life and the subtle deceitfulness of wealth choke the living Word so that no fruit is born. Note that the seed has germinated and is attempting to produce fruit. But there are other things which wrap themselves around the new life and prohibit its ability to flower and produce fruit.
Pay attention to the reality that the living Word is the seed which is fruitful—our problem is with the environment the seed is set in, not the seed itself. The seed when planted, grows and produces fruit. Unfortunately, though, when we embrace Christ, we often embrace other things as well. We draw our life from the temporary things of this life rather than finding our real life solely in Jesus Christ himself.
One of the reasons we as the western Christian church today are so ineffective as spiritual fruit bearers may be because of our obsession with financial and material success. The opportunity for us to bear spiritual fruit is inhibited so often by the many distractions of modern life and our concerns about things we should be turning to Jesus with rather than trying to solve ourselves. And our comfort and safety tend to become more important than the need to right injustices and endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus finishes his parable with a description of the seed which falls on good soil—the seed finding root in a person who allows the Word of God to sink deeply into their soul, the roots to penetrate every part of their life. They understand and are being transformed by this gift of new life in Christ. The fruit which is born is unique to each person, since we are each unique in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and in how we participate in him in what he is doing in us and in our world. Fruitfulness is not something we do, but is solely a result of our life in Jesus by the Spirit—his life in us produces fruit as we abide in him.
The spiritual reality of the gift of new life in Jesus Christ, the one who is the seed planted within our humanity germinated by the water of the indwelling Spirit, is one we embrace by faith. Our part in the whole process of fruit-bearing (and the Father is seeking such fruitfulness) is participating in Jesus Christ—trusting in his finished work, participating with him in what he is doing in us and in this world as we walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. By faith in Christ, this is life in communion and union with the Triune God as the adopted children of the Father, now and forever held in his life and love.
If we were to reflect today on the living Word of God as the seed planted, watered by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, what spiritual fruit would we see in our lives? How well are the roots of the living Word sunk into every part of our life and being? How well are we nurturing the spiritual growth which is occurring in our life? Is there anything which is choking the Word or distracting us from what he is trying to do? Be encouraged—the seed will grow, fruit will be born. But it’s good to ask ourselves each day, how well are we participating in the process?
Dear God, thank you for the Seed you have planted in our humanity, the new life which is ours in your Son Jesus Christ. Create in us the fertile ground by which we might grow fully into Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to turn away from all the things which distract us, choke our spiritual life, and inhibit our bearing of spiritual fruit. We thank you that you will finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach. And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, ‘Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 24, 2020, 7th SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION SUNDAY—Last week in this blog we wrestled with the reality that what we believe influences how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We often do not realize, nor do we intentionally deal with, beliefs we may hold dear which are actually undermining our ability to be relationally connected in healthy ways.
One of the beliefs which often keeps us closed within ourselves is the belief that we are alone, that no one understands what we have been through or are going through right now. This is one of the reasons that support groups are part of the healing process for people who struggle with addictions. The insidious lie that no one understands—that we are all alone in this world, that we can and need to handle this issue all by ourselves—keeps us locked in unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
We may struggle with opening up to others because everyone we have done this with in the past has betrayed us or failed us in some way. Or, in our life, we may experience safe relationships as anything but safe. But whether we like it or not, the path to our genuine healing lies on the continuum of healthy relationships with safe people, and we have to stop isolating in order to find renewal and restoration.
On Ascension Sunday in the Christian church we celebrate an event in Jesus’ life which directly speaks to this issue. For many years, Christ’s ascension really didn’t mean a lot to me. My church taught me he did send the Spirit to help out the people he called to himself, but that didn’t really seem to help much with the everyday issues of our lives. Our church’s view back said that when he left, he went home and left us all here to struggle until he came to punish the people in the world for failing to live rightly—that is except all the sainted people who managed to keep all the old covenant laws and observe all the days correctly. Back then I desperately hoped I would be counted as one of the obedient few.
But now, every year on Ascension Sunday, my associate Pastor Jan invites us after church to join her in the parking lot for a visible lesson on Christ’s ascension into glory and what that means for every human being who has ever lived. We cannot gather this year for Ascension Sunday and to eat William’s fried fish, but we can take some time to reflect on scriptures we will read on this day. They tell us how Jesus, after he had risen from the grave, spent forty days walking and talking with his disciples. His glorified humanity was still tangible but somehow different—he ate and drank, cooked fish at a campfire, and he walked through walls. He didn’t stop being human when he was resurrected. Instead, his humanity was glorified—transformed by his indwelling presence as God in human flesh.
He spent these forty days after the resurrection opening the disciples’ minds to the Old Testament scriptures, explaining how everything which had happened to him had been predicted and now was fulfilled. There was still some misunderstanding by the disciples—they were still looking for him to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But instead of restoring the kingdom of Israel as they wanted him to, he told them they were to wait for his Spirit to come and that they would be his witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and going throughout Judea, to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
The kingdom which Jesus was inaugurating had a lot to do with who he is now—God in human flesh. The uniting of the divine life with our creaturely human existence meant that our turning away from God to ourselves and the things of the earth no longer defines us. We now have the capacity to participate in the oneness in which the Father, Son, and Spirit dwell. In the sending of his Spirit, Jesus enables those who believe to participate in the divine life and love. They experience God’s indwelling presence now, being empowered by the Spirit to bear witness to the living Lord Jesus who is seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We find in Jesus Christ—and this is the magnificence of the ascension—someone who is God who has experienced what it is like to be an infant, a child, a teen, and an adult. This is a God who knows the feeling of being held by his mother, taught by his father and other teachers, and being called names by those who questioned his parentage. He has experienced tears, the death of dear friends, and betrayal by those he loved. He knows in a real and personal way what it means to be human and how difficult it is for us to live in relationship with one another and with God.
Jesus, who is still God in human (but glorified) flesh, holds our humanity in the presence of our heavenly Father, and sends the Spirit. As we place our faith in him, Christ by the Spirit empowers us to bear witness to the Father’s love expressed to all humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. We do this not only by our words, but most significantly by our lives lived in unity of the Spirit—expressing the oneness of the other-centered love we were created to reflect and participate in as image-bearers of our Creator.
We were created for relationship and it is in healthy spiritual community that we find renewal and restoration. Many of our emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds occur within the context of relationship, and it is in this same context where our best healing occurs. The ascension of Jesus Christ teaches us that undergirding all other relationships, there is a Person who is intimately familiar with our situation, who shares our wounds, and who is closer to us than any other human being could ever be. In Jesus we have an advocate and helper like no other.
As we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to experience the reality of our inclusion in the divine life and love. We are joined in union and communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, so that all of life is now lived in participation with them. We share in their mission in this world—to testify of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus Christ. God, by his Spirit, calls us into spiritual community—what we commonly call the church, though spiritual community can exist in many other ways.
Church is an unpleasant topic for many. It has and is often the cause of many relational hurts. But that is not God’s reason for drawing people together into spiritual community. It is meant to be the place where Jesus is present in this world, testifying to the love and grace of God. It is meant to be the place where people encounter safe relationships in which they can find healing and wholeness. God calls people together, not so they can impress everyone with how good they are or so they can protect themselves from being contaminated by sin, but so that the other-centered love they express to one another and to the community they live and work in is a living testimony to the love of God expressed to us in Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are in our relationship with God and with the other people in our lives. Are we intimately connected with the God who has gone to such lengths to be intimately connected with us? What are we placing between us to keep us from opening ourselves up to his love and grace? And if we have placed our faith in Christ, is this manifest in the way we live with those around us? When others look at us and how we interact with them, do they see an expression of God’s other-centered love? Our reflections should not be discouraging, because on God’s side—all is done. Jesus stands, hands out-stretched, inviting us on the journey—knowing exactly what we need in this moment to move deeper into his love and grace, and to find healing and renewal.
Abba, thank you for loving us so, for drawing us to yourself. Thank you, Jesus, for going through all that you did and for bringing us into glory in your resurrection. Holy Spirit, please finish in us what you have begun in Jesus—we are open. We receive your living Presence, God, and seek to bear witness to your grace and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 17:1-5 NASB
“… and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:46-51 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 10, 2020, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—One of the many difficulties people express their concern about during this time of pandemic is the inability to know who to believe. So much information comes our way nowadays and through so many sources which seem legitimate, that it is difficult to wade our way through them all to ascertain who we should believe and who we should ignore.
Often, I hear from people who have become incensed because of something they read, heard, or saw on social media or in the news. Not everyone considers the source of such news, nor do they remember that often what drives news isn’t the effort to clearly present the facts, but rather to provide readers sensational stories that will grab their attention and move them to pay. There are others who espouse and emphatically proclaim a political or religious position that polarizes people and moves them to respond in the way they desire, even though there is hard evidence to the contrary. Having to be aware of all of this, to not be seduced by false news, is a stressful challenge for everyone.
So, how do we weather all this? How do we find out what is really going on? What if we never get to the bottom of it all and so find ourselves at the mercy of whatever may be happening at the moment? How do we deal with so many unknowns in our lives?
Undergirding so much of our response to what we hear or see is often anxiety, concern, and fear, because most of us are not deeply grounded in a sense that we are loved and are held safely in that love. We tend to gravitate to fear or anger as our natural response to the world around us—this is the self-protect mechanism we rely on to keep us safe in a dangerous world. Any one of us may be influenced by what we see, hear, or read, and find ourselves responding with concern, anxiety, fear, or anger.
This has historically also been our human response to any encounter with the divine. And people today often associate discussion about Jesus with being religious, but do not approach the person of Jesus as though he is anything more than a historical person, a prophet who claimed to be God and who did many great works. We celebrate Christmas for the traditions and the joy, but often not understanding the importance of the baby in the manger.
In many ways we find ourselves blind to the spiritual realities. Are there spiritual realities? If you have not encountered the divine for yourself, you will believe that there are not. But when and if you meet for yourself the Lord Jesus Christ who is very much still alive, you will be unable to escape the reality that the divine and this human existence have intersected and forever are linked in his person.
When faced with his human death, Jesus was concerned for his disciples. He didn’t want them to be fearful or anxious. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” he said. But then he provided the solution to that fear: “…believe in God, believe also in Me.” What we believe about the divine impacts our response to the fear and anxiety we experience in this world. When we are faced with death, with danger, with conflicting stories about what’s really going on, or with differing positions on critical matters, we need to be grounded deeply—and that grounding needs to be in something solid and immoveable.
But all the conflicting stories and transient positions, false and true news meshed together into a collage that is sometimes impossible to decipher, causes us to doubt even the spiritual realities. We need something to believe in—something worth believing in—to hold us fast in the middle of all this. We may simply reject the spiritual realities just because they are not tangible to us—but in doing this, we may miss out on what we need to provide us grounding in the midst of all we are experiencing in the world today.
Jesus comes to us and says to us—believe in God, believe also in me. Why? Because he has something to offer us that no one else can offer us—he is the One who made all things and who joined himself to his creatures, uniting his divine life with our human existence in such a way that we are grounded forever in the Being who is the Creator and Sustainer of all.
When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he isn’t trying to create conflict between nation groups or to demean any other culture or ethnicity. His purpose is to say that our humanness is intricately bound up with God’s glory because of who Jesus is as God in human flesh. He is the way we interact with God because we now share in his intimate relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit—we are centered forever in sacrificial, outflowing love.
This provides a solid base for us to stand on when we are surrounded by and harassed by lies, deceit, confusion, anxiety, and fear. We are everlastingly held in the intimate relation Jesus has with his Father in the Spirit—and so we can know that whatever may happen, we are held. In fearful times, we have no reason to fear, because we are loved and we are held in that love. Not even death will ultimately separate us from God or those we love.
All Jesus asks us for is a response of faith—to believe. Believe what you cannot see, touch, feel, taste or hear. Believe that there is Someone at work behind all this who has your best interests at heart and who is at work in this world bringing about healing, renewal, restoration, and redemption. His purpose isn’t to make us all feel good all the time, but to enable us to participate fully in the oneness and unity of the divine life and love, sharing in it with God and with one another both now and forever.
When we come to see and believe that Jesus is the center of our existence, the life which undergirds us and sustains us, and that we have a Father who holds us safely in the midst of even suffering, evil, and death, we may begin to face life more courageously and at peace. Even though things around us are unsettling or unsure, we may begin to recognize the Spirit’s voice speaking in our hearts, giving us guidance, direction, and a sense of what is true and what is not true. We may begin to have an assurance, by the Spirit, that we are going to be okay, that no matter what happens—good or bad—and no matter whether we figure it all out or not, we will be okay.
We may, the next time we feel fear, anger, anxiety or distress rising in our soul, stop for a moment and reflect on what we believe about God and Jesus his Son. Who are we putting our faith in? Is our faith grounded in what is eternal, loving, and good? Pause and invite Jesus to help you to believe in Abba and in him, no matter what your senses or reason may be telling you at the moment. Ask him to give you the heart and will to trust him. Deeply feel and embrace the peace and sense of the divine presence the Spirit pours into you in response.
Thank you, Father, that we can rest in your fatherly love which holds us safely in the midst of this rapidly changing, confusing world. Thank you, Jesus, for joining us in our broken humanity that we might find healing, wholeness, and renewal in you. Thank you, Spirit of truth, for being the source of all our peace, comfort, and hope, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.’ … Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’ … ‘Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.’” John 14, 1, 6-7, 11 NASB
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
March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.
As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.
It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.
I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.
My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.
Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.
In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.
In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.
Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.
Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.
Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.
We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.
What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.
In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.
Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.
Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.
Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB
By Linda Rex
March 8, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER PREPARATION—The longer I am a pastor and the more the Spirit leads me to even more boldly proclaim the good news of Christ, the more I experience the rejection of those opposed to the beauty of God’s love and grace. It may be that I do my best to follow the lead of Christ and his Spirit, but it never fails that my motives are questioned, my heart is maligned, and my efforts ridiculed. In this post-Christian age, it is noteworthy that those most critical of and opposed to the clear message of the love and grace of God are often fellow believers.
This morning during my devotional time I was reminded that when Jesus calls us to follow him, he doesn’t always tell us at the beginning where we are going or how we are going to get there. But he does tell us there will be a cost. There is a cost to following Jesus because the path Jesus trod was straight through death into resurrection.
Jesus doesn’t always tell us at the beginning of our journey where we may end up. What is more urgent on his mind is that we are going with him where he is going. If we knew ahead of time that we would be headed where we were headed, would we even go there? Probably not.
When God told Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his own family home, he did not tell him specifics about where he would end up. He merely told him to go, to leave where he was and move toward the place where God would show him. And so Abram left (Genesis 12:1–4a).
Part of God’s promise to Abram was that he would bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him. God gave him a promise that he would not travel this road alone, but that God would take seriously everything that happened to Abram, and enable him to be the person God was calling him to be. Abram just needed to trust God and act on what he had been told to do. And he did.
In the writings of Paul (Romans 4:1–5, 13–17) we read that because Abram believed, God counted it as righteousness. Abram saw God as the One who made everything from nothing, who could take something and make it into something new. He trusted God to be who he was in his life—the One who would take him from where he was to where he needed to be. And so he acted accordingly—by faith.
What is it about stepping out into a new place that is so frightening for us? And what if we are trying to do what God is calling us to do and all we meet with is opposition or ridicule? Where is God in these situations? He is where he has always been—with us and in us. This is the key.
Sometimes we get all involved in the journey and we lose sight of the simple fact—it’s not about the journey. It’s about who we are journeying with. It’s about our ongoing relationship with the One who holds us in his hand, who has the capacity to create something new out of something broken—the One who will never abandon us to our fate but will in his perfect time come alongside and lift us up into a new place.
Nicodemus came to see Jesus under cover of darkness, as though hiding from his fellow Jews and not wanting to risk their condemnation or criticism. He came to Jesus and told him that since he could do so many miracles, they knew he was a teacher come from God. But why was he hiding then? What was it about Jesus that was so threatening to the status quo? Could it be that Jesus was eliminating all our human dependencies and insisting on total allegiance to him alone?
Jesus initiated a conversation by telling Nicodemus that the only way someone could be in the kingdom of God was by being born again or born anew. Being in the kingdom of God was not determined by ancestry nor by performance, but solely by relationship—being born of the One who made all things. Nicodemus clearly got that Jesus meant birth, but he thought only in terms of the actual physical act of birth. Jesus was taking him much deeper—our spiritual birth and life in the Spirit must begin in the only begotten Son of God. We are born again in Christ, not by our own human effort.
The inclusion of humanity in Christ’s sonship means that when Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again, all of humanity was reborn in him. It is by the Spirit that we participate in that rebirth. T.F. Torrance, when asked when he was born again, would state that he was born again 2,000 years ago in Christ. In our spiritual rebirth, being born again, we are merely participating in what Jesus did in our place on our behalf as the eternally begotten Son of the Father.
Being born again, being immersed in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, means we are transported from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We find ourselves in a new place, with a new reason for living. From now on we do not pursue our own path—rather, we follow Christ. We walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. We dwell in Abba’s house now, so we live the way he lives, loving God and loving one another.
After the initial baptism, where we participate in Christ’s baptism and anointing in the Spirit, we continue our journey with Jesus by living our lives in dependence upon the daily bread of our Abba’s provision. We come regularly to the table of grace and participate in communion, eating the bread and drinking the wine/juice, and communing with our loving Lord. We read God’s word, converse with God in prayer, and join together with fellow believers in the life of faith. We follow the lead of the Spirit as Jesus draws us deeper into life with him and we move with Jesus into his mission in the world around us.
Eternal life is, Christ said, to know intimately the Father and the One whom he sent, his Son Jesus. This is a relationship we are called into. And following Jesus means we will go through difficulties and struggles. Jesus told his disciples that just as he was ridiculed and criticized, so would his followers be ridiculed and criticized. But that would never diminish the reality that we are Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, and we are born from above, adopted children of our heavenly Father.
The faith walk is not an easy road. But the joy is in the journey with Jesus and with our heavenly Father by the Spirit. The joy is we are never alone, but when we are cursed by others, we can offer them blessing because of what Christ has done and is doing. We can continue on the path, uncertain of the direction, because we know the One who is leading us and he is trustworthy. We walk by faith, not by sight—and he will bring us safely home.
Thank you, Abba, for giving us new life in your Son Jesus by the Spirit. Thank you that we never walk the road of life alone, but you offer us your very self to be in us and with us on this journey. Open our eyes to see you with us. Open our ears to hear your direction and your comfort as we travel. Give us the courage and faith to follow wherever you lead, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3 NASB
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 16, 2020, 6th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—Lost in the midst of our current political scene, with its polarizing rhetoric and maneuvering of people into places of influence and power, is the quiet transforming simplicity of grace and truth. As I was reading the gospel reading for this particular Sunday, I was struck by the reality that even though we may have dogmatic opinions, emphatic assertions of right vs. wrong, or clear expectations of how things are or ought to be, we are never at the place where we can, with authority, say we are right and everyone else is wrong.
There is only one person who did this, and was right in doing it, because of who he was. The fundamental groundwork of the gospel message is that this person had the capacity to know exactly what to do and say in every situation, and was able to do and say it, because he was the One who created all things and held them together by his word of power. He could, and did, say to those around him, “It is written…” or “You say…” and overturned what had been said or written by simply affirming, “But I say…”.
When human beings talk in this manner, all our red flags go up. Immediately, we grow concerned, because such language overthrows any authority other than the one who is speaking. For Jesus to say, “What you may have been told or taught has no relevance anymore—what I say is what really matters now,” is to put Christ on a plane above everyone else, even to the point of him being God himself. We would never accept a human being having the arrogance to place themselves in that position of authority….or would we?
The problem we are running into today is the loss of our understanding of who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is—the One who is both fully God and fully human. I was driving in downtown Nashville yesterday, and was amazed at the vast amount of construction and renovation that is going on in this city. As I looked about me, I saw towers of glass and metal rising high into the sky, many of them only partially built. Apartment buildings that were dozens of stories tall gave evidence of the thousands of people moving into Nashville needing places to live.
Years ago, the tallest buildings in the skyscape would have been the cathedrals and churches with towering steeples. Today, such buildings are dwarfed by the immensity of other places where people live, work, and play. In some ways, this is a metaphor for the attention we give today to the spiritual realities, and to the God who sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to transform our hearts by faith.
What we have lost is not so much a creed or a certain religion or belief system as it is the simple understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him. To even assert that there is a God and that we are his creatures, formed to live in relationship with him, is offensive to many people today. We do not want to surrender ourselves to the reality that there is someone to whom we owe our existence and our ability to live and work in this world. And we most certainly do not want anyone other than ourselves to have the ability to tell us what to say or do.
This is not a new problem. In reality, it is one we have been manifesting since the days when Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden. They too wrestled with the choice between life, and deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. The human tendency to choose for ourselves a way of living and being which ends in death is something fundamental to our humanity—it is our sinful nature at work within us. We just have a natural proclivity to choose death over life, and then to blame God when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.
It is ironic that the nation God called his very own, ancient Israel, whom he joined himself to in covenant love, would take the descriptions of life in his presence and turn them into prescriptions for living. They added many words to the 613 rules in the old covenant, creating an even more difficult path for the average person to follow, should they decide to obey the God of the Jewish people. Over the centuries, as the Jews interacted with God, for many of them, the law and its observation supplanted the covenant relationship it was designed to lead people into and to participate in.
Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, reminded his listeners that keeping the law in itself was insufficient—no, even impossible. He told them what the law said, and then took them farther, deeper, into the heart of his Father. He showed his hearers that God looks at our intent, our motives, and our reasoning. We can’t just go through the motions—an entire transformation of our being is needed, not just a change in our actions.
That being the case, we as human beings are in an extremely difficult place. There is no way, with our sinful nature abounding, that we can ever have the right motivation in every situation. There is no way we will ever keep our thoughts where they ought to be or our feelings and desires pure and chaste. We are helpless and can never live as we ought to in right relationship with God and others.
So we come to the simplicity of grace and truth. Truth is, we are not God—he is. Truth is, we are broken, sinful people, who will, whether we want to or not, find ourselves choosing death instead of life, and reaping the consequences of it. Truth is, we have no hope of anything being any different—in us, in this world, in our circumstances—apart from the living Lord, the One who made it all, sustains it all, and redeemed it all. So, we need grace.
And we have grace. That is the good thing. God the Word has come into our humanity, lived the life we were created for in Jesus Christ as a Son in perfect relationship with the Father, died the death we so often choose, and has risen, taking us with him into glory. Our humanity is now in a totally different place—we are free to live in right relationship with God and others because of Christ. This grace means that it’s not all up to us—it’s up to him. Whatever we say and do as humans, we say and do it in Christ, and he gives us life.
Truth—God is, and we are his, and apart from him, we have no hope. Grace—in Jesus he has come, included us in his life and death, and has sent the Spirit to make this so as we trust in him. The simplicity of grace and truth—the reception of the gift God has given—the belief that God loves us this much and will never leave or forsake us, would transform our lives, our politics, and our world, if we were willing.
Today, in the stillness of quiet reflection, consider these questions: Are my decisions leading me to a greater, fuller life in joyful relationship with God and others? Or are they leading down the path to death and destruction? What is my response to the words of Jesus to me, “But I say…”? Allow yourself to respond in the simplicity of grace and truth which is ours in Jesus Christ, receiving Abba’s gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit.
Dear God, we so desperately need healed! Thank you, Abba, for your perfect gift of forgiveness and life in the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us grace and truth, and for leading us into life everlasting. Our life is in you alone. Holy Spirit, may you penetrate the core of our beings with the new life Jesus brought us, transforming our hearts and minds, and thereby healing our churches, our communities, our politics, this world and the earth on which we live. We long for you to finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NLT
See also Matthew 5:21–37.