The Lord Is In It
By Linda Rex
July 25, 2021, PROPER 12—This is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it. I can hear it now—all the stories of what is going wrong in the world—floods in Europe, droughts in the U.S., and a zillion other tragedies happening all around us. How in the world can I simply say that it is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it?
I’m sensing more and more that this “information age” we are living in is starting to take its toll upon countless people who can no longer believe in or celebrate a living God who loves them and cares deeply about them and about everything that is going on in their lives. It is easy to find experts who will tell us all the reasons not to believe that Jesus Christ actually lived and was who he said he was—the Messiah, God in human flesh. Why should we bother when by all appearances the evidence tells us otherwise?
For some, it is easy to alter or bring into question the Scriptures the church uses to teach and form its theology. And it is easy to reformulate the creeds or bring into question their validity, challenging what has been held for centuries as orthodox doctrine. We can also quite easily find fault with the early apostolic succession following the resurrection, which ensured the validity of the canon and the creeds of the early church. We realize that humans are faulty and records can be altered or misused or eliminated. But what happens when we end up face to face with the resurrected Jesus Christ? What happens when you or I encounter the living Lord?
When the early Christian martyrs faced their executioners, they were often asked to renounce Jesus Christ in order to save themselves from a horrific painful death. But they would reply, in essence, that to deny Christ was to deny their Lord, the one who saved them, the one who loved them unconditionally and suffered and died on their behalf. Because they had personally encountered the resurrected Lord and received him by faith, they simply could not do it, just as they could not avoid praying for those who were causing them such suffering and death—for this was Jesus’ way. Living in union and communion with their Lord meant for them a sharing in his suffering and death and they thought it nothing to offer themselves in the same way that Jesus had offered himself so freely on behalf of all humanity.
We can get so immersed in the complexities of the theology and doctrine that we miss the simplicity of the gospel. In this moment today, wherever we are and whoever we are—we need to be honest and truthful with ourselves. Instead of critiquing Christians or the Christian faith, perhaps we need to gaze silently upon the One who is the foundation or cornerstone—Jesus Christ.
In gazing upon him, we see ourselves. He is that human we were created to be, who as God in human flesh, loved and obeyed our heavenly Father wholeheartedly and lived a life filled with and led by the Spirit, so he loved and served others as we were created to. The deepest hunger or yearning of our heart was meant to be filled by him—whether we realize it or not. What we stuff with so many other things will never find its fullness apart from his indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. We were always meant to have God living in us as well as with us.
When Jesus saw a large crowd approaching, he asked Philip about buying enough food to feed them. Philip replied that it would cost about two hundred day’s wages to buy that much food. Andrew, trying to be helpful, offered a poor lad’s lunch—five barley loaves and two fish, but admitted it was nothing compared to what was needed (John 6:1–21). What was needed was enough food to feed five thousand men plus women and children. Jesus’ point was that there was no way they could feed that many people. It was just not humanly possible. But it was still a wonderful day, because he was in it.
Let’s accept that it is just not humanly possible for us to live the way we were meant to live, apart from Christ. We need to be freed from our enslavement to unhealthy ways of living and being. We need to be cured of our self-focused way of thinking and acting. We need to be freed from our enslavement to hedonism, and all the other isms we give ourselves over to in an effort to find some sort of life in this world (Psalm 14:1-4). We may not realize it, but that is why Jesus came, why he sat on that mountainside teaching the crowds, and why he fed the multitudes.
The multitudes of all humanity needed to be fed, to be given the good news that they were loved. “God so loved the world that he gave his one unique Son…” (John 3:16). So God in Christ came, lived our life, was crucified in our place, was buried in a tomb, and rose again, seen by many witnesses who verified his resurrection. Then he sent the Spirit—God come into human flesh in a new and permanent way. The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, is now received as we place our faith in him. Just as the crowds that day took into their hands the fish and bread and ate them, so we receive with gratitude the new life Christ forged for us in his finished work.
What happens when the Spirit changes someone is truly a miracle—the greatest miracle of all, even greater in many ways than the feeding of thousands of people from five barley loaves and two fish. When Jesus brings us to faith, we are never the same again. This is a genuine relationship with a living Person. This is not a fantasy or a made-up experience. It is real. We continue to be broken, faulty people when we come to faith in Christ, but there is a transformation which occurs—a regeneration—one which becomes more and more evident as time goes by as we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit.
This miracle begins with seeing ourselves in the face of Jesus, looking into his eyes and seeing the reflection of his Father’s love for us. In spite of seeing our failures and sins, we rest on God’s amazing grace—his forgiveness and acceptance. We awaken to the reality that our real food is the love of God expressed fully to us in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. We have God’s love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and are invited to be led by this Spirit of Christ who dwells in us (Ephesians 3:14–21). We follow Jesus’ lead, learning more and more as time goes on what it means to live and walk as he did, allowing him to bring about the changes in us that are needed to bring us into the fullness of the image of Christ we were meant to bear.
How do we get to the place where we are willing to simply say, “I believe”? It certainly is a divine mystery to me. And it often begins with a simple prayer. But I’ve seen the miracle happen again and again. And it’s only the beginning of a lifelong journey with Jesus in the Spirit for the one who takes that first step of faith and moves on into commitment to Christ. This is why I believe that in spite of all that’s happening around us that seems so terrible, it is still a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it.
Loving Lord, we admit our failures to love, our sinful words and actions, and our broken ways of living life. We believe Jesus, that you are our true sustenance, our life and breath, the living bread we need to truly live. We receive all you offer us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. We commit ourselves to following wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.
“Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?’ This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’” John 6:3–9 (1–21) NASB
The Suffering Servant Shepherd
by Linda Rex
April 25, 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—There is a movement in this country of making churches and non-profits responsible for the needs of those who are in trouble or difficulty, rather than it being the responsibility of individuals, the community or taxpayers. Indeed, as followers of Christ, we are called at times to help those who are in need. However, simply assuming that people of faith will take care of such needs overlooks one of the things that is an important part of being truly human. And that is that we as human beings were designed as adults to be responsible for certain things ourselves, though we are all dependent upon God and his grace and goodness for anything we do have.
It also ignores the reality that humans are given the freedom to choose. This reality works on two levels: 1) People may choose to not be responsible for themselves or have never learned that they need to be, so need, homelessness and poverty may simply be a consequence of bad choices or it may even be a preference. In such cases, being responsible for what is theirs may not be the best way to help. 2) Giving and helping are not so much a requirement as they are a fruit of God’s grace at work in us—so giving and helping must come from God’s heart in us rather than merely being a response to an external expectation. Even Jesus, when laying down his life, did it voluntarily and freely, out of love, not just because it was his Father’s will.
This brings to mind the passage in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” It is obvious from this passage, that we cannot just talk about doing good deeds, but we must also actually help, not closing our hearts to people who are who are unable to help themselves. We want to be sensitive at all times to the move of the Spirit in us when he wants to help someone.
As I was writing this, I was reminded of a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, the anointed One:
“All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:6 NASB)
I’m sure that none of us want to think of ourselves as being stray sheep, but in reality, this is a good description of all of us as human beings, individually and collectively. How often we wander from the fold of God’s love and seek our own path! We get ourselves lost, wounded, broken and in need of rescue. And God knew we would do this—so Jesus came.
Let’s look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus said he is the good shepherd. We notice that the good shepherd is not taking care of everyone else’s flock—but assumes responsibility for what is his. Jesus also said that he had other sheep that he was bringing to be a part of his flock, and what he was doing was meant to include them as well (John 10:11-18).
When the shepherd goes in front of his sheep and leads them to water and good pasture, that seems to be simple enough. Even though there are times when it can be difficult to find safe pasture or clean, still water, a good shepherd seems to know where to take the sheep so they can stay healthy and strong. But if the sheep are stubborn and willful, they will not follow the lead of the shepherd or obey his voice, and will end up in dangerous places, or eating or drinking what isn’t good for them. Nothing is more upsetting to a shepherd than to have to lose a sheep because it would not stay with the flock or follow the lead of the shepherd.
Oh, that we would simply remember the shepherd’s psalm is our hope!
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23 NASB)
Did king David when he wrote this have any clue that one day the Messiah would stand up and say, “I am the good shepherd”? When Jesus was saying that he was the good shepherd, he was definitively saying who he was—God in human flesh, a shepherd who knew what it was like to be a sheep, who would one day be offered as a sacrificial lamb on our behalf.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, lays down his life for his sheep. Laying down his life for his sheep means the shepherd puts himself at risk for the benefit of the sheep he is responsible to care for. When the flock is in danger of harm because of wolves or lions, he goes over and beyond just the necessity of watching over them and actually lays down his life, risking himself for the safety and protection of his flock.
Jesus was talking to the leaders of his people who were more concerned about their popularity, their money and influence than they were about the sheep they were responsible for. He explained the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd. One runs away at the first sign of danger, while the good shepherd stays and lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus saw keenly his calling to shepherd his people Israel through which he would bring together all the nations of the world. He knew that doing this would cost him his life, which he voluntarily gave in obedience to his heavenly Father. Do you see that Jesus was calling these leaders to their responsibility as those who were to be properly shepherding their people?
Looking at Jesus helps us to see the wide spectrum of this topic more clearly. Not only do we understand that we each are responsible for what is ours, we are also responsible to help those who are unable to help themselves. And leaders are to be responsible for those in their care, being willing to sacrifice on their behalf, putting themselves at risk to protect and provide for them, rather than simply using them for their benefit, pleasure and profit. And, finally, in a world in which none of us do these things perfectly and there is much difficulty and suffering, we have the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide, protect and provide for us, for he laid down his life for us and rose again so we could have new life in him.
Father, thank you for always looking out for us and providing for us. Thank you for giving us your Son Jesus as our shepherd, to save and care for us, to lay down his life for us. We receive your gift of new life by your Spirit in his name. Amen.
“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. We know by this that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:16-24 NASB
And So He Reigns
By Linda Rex
November 22, 2020, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ— I think we may all agree that the year 2020 has been one of a kind. If it were true that there was no God and that we were merely highly evolved creatures hanging out here in the middle of empty space on a planet that will one day burn up and drop back into the sun, how hopeless and meaningless this whole experience has been!
The blessing of the Christian faith is that it points us beyond all that is occurring, and reminds us of the love and grace of God out of which all of this was birthed and by which all of this was redeemed and is sustained, and gives us great hope in the midst our messes and disasters. Even though evil happens—and it often does—we don’t need to lose hope. We have an anchor which holds us, the very presence of God in the middle of whatever may be going on. It is God’s presence through Christ in the Spirit which carries us through every circumstance, offering wisdom, strength, comfort and guidance when all we see is destruction, despair, and suffering. It is the ascending, triumphant Lord who gives us hope that this isn’t the end—that there is something so much more wonderful and amazing ahead of us!
God knew that when we made the choice to turn away from him to the things of our flesh and this world that the spiral down into death and nothingness would begin. He set our destiny in motion way before then, as God the Word was elected to one day enter our human flesh to rescue us from this fate and to bring us into union and communion with the Triune God so we might live with him forever. Evil, sin and death were destined to be destroyed, conquered on the cross and in the finished work of Christ as he rose from the grave and ascended to the Father carrying our glorified humanity with him into Abba’s presence.
On this Sunday we celebrate the culmination of all the days on the Christian calendar, having begun during Advent with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, moved through Epiphany and Lent to Easter week with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and on into Ascension Sunday and subsequently Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit. We’ve gotten through the ordinary days, during which we have learned about how to live out this faith we have been given by expressing God’s love to those around us and holding fast to the hope we have in Christ. The summation today then, is Christ coming in his glory, sitting as King of Kings and Lord of all.
In the parable of the sheep and goats, we see the King Jesus sitting on his throne, passing judgment on all the nations. In spite of the Jewish expectation that Israel would be the nation of the kingdom of God, Jesus has included in his person those of every nation and people group. The line that our Lord draws between people who are in and those who are out does not have to do as much with our bad or good behavior, but more with our perception of and participation in who Jesus Christ is as our Savior and Lord. We are brought up against our identity as the image-bearers of God who are created to love him and each other. We are reminded of the reality that our brother or sister is made in the same image as ourselves and that the humanity Jesus took upon himself in the incarnation was our very own as he fully identified with us as human beings in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
In this parable we see King Jesus say that the sheep on his right hand are those who perceived in the people who were poor, needy, imprisoned, thirsty and hungry, the person of Christ. To care for another person in a tangible way, especially those who are followers of Christ, is to care for Jesus himself. When we treat others with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, we are doing those very things to Jesus. We are pouring out once again all the evil, sin, and violence of the cross onto the innocent, humble and holy Lamb of God. In doing so we deny our need for Christ and his sacrifice, placing ourselves in his stead as lords of our cosmos and our world. It is no wonder that God’s judgment upon such a choice is that we will experience the reality of eternity without the grace of God since we have determined for ourself we have no need or desire for it.
So what is God’s heart toward humanity in the midst of all that is happening right now? It is the same that it has always been—he wants us to enjoy all the benefits and blessings of life in union and communion with our Creator, in joyful fellowship with one another, and in happy harmony with all he has created. This is what we were created for and destined for. In Christ, this is the future God has planned for us.
In Christ, we have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into this kingdom of light. By faith we can begin to participate in this heavenly kingdom even now, living each moment in the presence of the King by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as Lord of all means that he sits on the throne of our heart and has the final say in our lives right now. By faith, we participate in Christ’s face to face relationship with the Father in the Spirit, and enjoy moment by moment spiritual fellowship with God himself. We participate with King Jesus in what he is doing in this world, and by the power of the risen Lord, we overcome evil, sin and death in this world as we wait for Christ’s return in glory.
Just as King Jesus reigns even now over all, he will come one day in all his glory to eradicate once and for all the evil, sin, and death he conquered on the cross and will establish his throne forever in the new heavens and new earth. When that day comes, will we still be reigning over our own hearts and lives, thinking we are the supreme lords over creation and all that is in it? Will we be treating one another with indifference, oppression, neglect and injustice, or with the honor and respect and love due our risen Lord and Savior? Will we be trusting in ourselves and our goodness, or humbly acknowledging our desperate need for the grace and love of our Lord and King Jesus Christ, and so offering that same love and grace to our fellow human? These are questions worth wrestling with on this Sunday, as we reflect on the reign of Jesus Christ, soon to be established in glory, but at work even now in us and in this world.
Heavenly God—Holy Father, Son and Spirit—thank you for loving us so much that you did not want to spend eternity without us. Thank you for sending Jesus so we could be with you forever. Holy Spirit, enable us to love one another as you, God, have loved us. We acknowledge our desperate need for your grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. We receive this precious gift with gratitude and praise, through our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is King of all. Amen.
“For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.” Ezekiel 34:11-16 NASB
“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” Psalm 100:1-3 NASB
“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” Psalm 95:6-7 NASB
See also Matthew 25:31–46 and Ephesians 1:15–23.
Entrusted with What’s His
By Linda Rex
November 15, 2020, Proper 28—It can be easy to believe that God has a funny way of running the universe. He makes these creatures who have intelligent minds, the ability to make decisions and to create things. He gives them the ability to reproduce themselves. And then he gives them the capacity to ignore him, reject him, and even turn against him. And to top it all off, he gives them the responsibility to care for all he has made!
What was God thinking? Perhaps I’m being a little too humorous about this, but I believe we can take this in two ways—1) we can believe that God is loving and good and believes in the creatures he has made and is working for their good, or 2) we can believe that he is a hard, cruel God who is setting up humanity from the beginning for failure. How we respond as human beings to our call to care for and steward all God made and to love one another is essentially grounded in what kind of God we believe in, if any.
Moving forward, then. What kind of God would take on a human body and live in it, allowing himself to be ridiculed, rejected, and even crucified? And even after all that, entrust to his followers the Holy Spirit, sharing the good news of God’s love, and the responsibility of building the church and equipping the saints? The track record of the believers and the church over the millennia hasn’t always been the best, but knowing this would happen didn’t keep Christ from charging his followers with this responsibility.
It seems that too often, we as human beings have spent our time playing video games when we could have been washing the dog, cleaning our rooms or having friends over for a play date. Rather than creating a Play-Doh masterpiece for mom, we’ve been battling virtual ninjas, ending up with nothing to show for it but a great score on the leaderboard. Believe me, I love a great video game, but my point is that too often we as human beings have missed the boat when it comes to understanding who we are and what we are meant to do with our time here on earth. Too often we have taken the overflowing sack of God’s love and grace and buried it in the ground.
When we look at Jesus’ parable about the talents, we tend to narrow it down to believers needing to use their spiritual gifts in his service. I think there is a whole lot more at stake than simply that. The context is the kingdom of heaven—Jesus is describing the kingdom he was inaugurating in himself, in his presence as the Creator within his creation. As God in human flesh, he was seizing back what humanity had lost by turning away from God to the things of this world and Satan.
What every human being needs to come to terms with is that God loved him or her enough to set aside temporarily the benefits of his divinity, to come and live in our humanity, for each person’s sake. He sought to raise humanity up out of the spiritual poverty and death we had fallen into so that we could live now and forever in right relationship with him and one another. He freed us from evil, sin, and death, not so we could party however we wanted, but so that we could be a part of his heavenly celebration now and for all eternity. He sent his Spirit so we would be empowered with his very presence and person to enable us to live as we were meant to live—in other-centered love with God and each other.
What would happen if we came to terms with the reality that God loves each of us, immensely, completely, and forever? What if we understood that God has entrusted us with his Son, his Spirit, and all he has made—offering life in union and communion with him now and forever? What are we doing with this grace God has given us?
God gives us his creation to steward. God gives us himself in his Son and in his Spirit. Repentance and faith, with baptism into the body of Christ, are the immediate response he seeks. We’ve been given a huge bonus check of grace—do we go to the bank and open up an account so we can put the grace to work? Or do we cash the check and then hide the bills in the wall of our house? What do we do with the grace and love God lavishes on us?
Grace put to work opens the door for others to experience and share in God’s grace. This is our participation in the life of Christ. He is at work in this world, bringing others to the knowledge of himself and enabling them to participate as well in what he is doing in the world. By faith and through baptism, new believers are welcomed into the body of Christ, and included in our participation in the mission of Jesus to spread the gospel (the good news of God’s love expressed to us in Christ) throughout the world.
And yes, the Spirit showers spiritual gifts on believers, enabling them to play particular roles within the body of Christ—teaching, preaching, administrating, sharing, helping, and serving for example. These gifts are meant to enable believers to participate more fully in stewarding all God has given. Some are meant to equip others to do ministry and to build up the body of Christ. Some are meant to demonstrate God’s love in tangible ways in this world so that others can experience God’s love and grace in their lives.
The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a story we tell. It is a life which we live. It is a person we reflect. As image-bearers of Christ, we bear his name, his Suffering Servant nature, by his Spirit in our person. As we respond to God’s love and grace expressed to us in his Son Jesus, we recognize that we are merely stewards of what belongs to the God who is the Lord over all and who dwells in perichoretic love. This reminds us to responsibly care for the world and cosmos we live in as our participation in his life and love—we seek his best interests, not our own. It reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself rather than being self-seeking, self-willed, and self-indulgent. And all of this we do empowered by and infused with the very presence and person of Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
God has lavished his love and grace on us as creatures meant to reflect his nature and way of being. He has entrusted this world to us and in Jesus has enabled us to be faithful and obedient children who serve him diligently. What are we going to do with the great big sack of God’s love and grace we have been given? What have we been doing with it? Is it time to make a change?
Father, thank you for the generous love and grace you have lavished upon as your creatures, for this amazing creation you have given us, and the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for doing for us in our place what we could not do for ourselves. We trust in your perfect stewardship that we may be by your Spirit good stewards of all we have been given. Amen.
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man back into dust …
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away. …
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:1–3a, 5b–6, 12 NASB
See also Matthew 25:14–30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.
Anticipating the Celebration
By Linda Rex
November 8, 2020, Proper 27—If I were to ask you to tell me about the day of the Lord, what would you say? The prophet Amos spoke of the day of the Lord. He had choice words for his people who looked forward to this day, thinking it would be a day of celebration and rejoicing.
These people of God were ignoring the reality that injustice and unrighteousness were the pattern of their lives. They didn’t seem to realize they were deciding their future by their everyday decisions. Sadly, Amos said that the day of the Lord wouldn’t be a day of light for them, but one of darkness. He said it would be like a man fleeing from a lion, only to suddenly meet a bear instead. Or maybe when he finally got safely home, leaning his hand against the wall in relief, he was bitten by a snake (Amos 5:18-24). What a picture!
The issue is really, I suppose, our expectations regarding the day of the Lord. What do we think is going to happen when everything comes to an end or even when we die? Do we realize that how we live today impacts our present life as well as our eternal future? No, we can’t earn eternal life—it is entirely a gift from God. But receiving this gift means a change occurs in us and in our lives—we begin to live in the truth of who God created us to be as his image-bearers.
We need to embrace our identity as image-bearers of God. We were created out of out-going love, to love God and love one another—to know and be known, as Jesus describes this life. There is a deep interwoven connectedness in the Godhead, in the relation between the Father and Son in the Spirit. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, wove us into that connection or union—and we participate by faith in this Triune life and love by his Spirit. When we’re living reconciled to God and one another, in the reconciliation Jesus created for us, we are being truly ourselves, being truly human.
Living in ways that are contrary to this isolate us or turn us away from face to face relationship with God and one another. We can say we know Jesus or are Christians, but the evidence of our lives may very well say that the exact opposite is true. And even though Jesus included every human in his life, death, and resurrection, it may be that most of the people we encounter day by day don’t want anything to do with him. They, like the rest of us, will one day face the day of the Lord—which may come through death or through the final apocalyptic struggle. What will we say when we are face to face with our Lord?
Amos wrote to the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, but his words resonate with us today. In the face of their depravity and ungodly living, he says simply, “Seek Me that you may live. … Seek good and not evil, that you may live; | And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you, | Just as you have said! Hate evil, love good, | And establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts | May be gracious …” (Amos 5:4, 14-15 NASB).
It does not matter what nation we may belong to or what people group we are from. Our race, gender, and every other distinction is a moot point when it comes to the day of the Lord. Even now, at this moment, every one of us stands poised on the edge of eternity. The choices we make matter. The things we think, say, and do impact us, the people around us, and the people who come after us. Are we just going through the motions, or are we assuming the responsibility to receive and participate in the gift of grace we have been given in Jesus Christ?
In the story of the ten virgins who are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom in anticipation of the wedding celebration, we find that both the wise and foolish nod off as time goes by. The difference between the two seems to be that one planned ahead and the other didn’t. It wasn’t like the foolish ones didn’t have time to go get extra oil—it’s more a matter that they waited until the last minute and ended up missing most of the party while they were out shopping.
Christ has done all we need so that we can live in face to face relationship with him and the Father in the Spirit right now. He sent the Spirit so we can participate in his life with his Father both now and forever. But he doesn’t demand this of us—he invites us. He offers his life for our life. We can be like the foolish virgins, ignoring the benefits of this gift until it is too late to do anything about it. We can be preoccupied with our own human efforts at creating a life for ourselves. And then in that final day we will find ourselves knocking desperately on the door, only to hear the bridegroom Jesus say, “I don’t know you.”
Or right now, we can turn to Jesus, trusting in him. His life for our life. His faith, hope, and love for our human, fleshly passions. His justice for our injustice. His goodness for our evil behavior. Whatever it is we are seeking, we do not need to go to the market to find it. The oil of God’s goodness and love, his eternal Spirit, is a free gift by faith in Jesus. The foolish virgins trusted in their own ability to get themselves what they needed, when in reality they needed to trust the bridegroom, turning to the Source of all things in faith, believing that they would have what they needed in that moment to participate in the celebration.
Our participation in the divine festivities, the wedding between Christ and his Bride the Church, is not based upon our performance, but solely upon God’s grace. We receive this gift by faith, participating in Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism—our one-time inclusion in the body of Christ the Church—and in an ongoing way through communion—as we share in the bread and the wine. And as those who have received this gift, we begin to live out the truth of our identity as the Bride of Christ and as the welcome guests at the party by correctly imaging the Source of our identity, God in Christ.
When the nation of Israel entered the promised land, finally establishing their homeland, Joshua addressed the assembly. He asked them who they were going to serve—the idols of their fathers and of the peoples of that land, or the God who brought them out of Egypt, who gave them his love and grace as he brought them into the promised land. Joshua established that he and his family would serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15). But what about the rest of the people?
The day of the Lord has an already-not-yet sense to it in that Christ has come, defeating evil, sin, and death—the end is certain and in our favor. But we also anticipate the upcoming celebration of the wedding feast when Christ will marry his Bride the Church and we will live with him, the Father and Spirit in the new heavens and earth. Today we simply have the opportunity to reconsider whether or not we are properly anticipating this event. What are we doing with the gift of grace God has given us in Christ? Are we in tune with the Spirit, following Christ’s lead? Are we walking by faith rather than by sight? Where are we seeking our life—in the things of this human existence or in the spiritual realities?
Dear Father, thank you for giving us your Son and your Spirit so that we might participate in your life and love now and forever. Today, we affirm that we desire to seek our life in you and not in the things of this world. Thank you for your forgiveness and love, for we have fallen so short of all you meant for us to be. We trust in you, Jesus, in your life, death, resurrection, and ascension and not in ourselves. Holy God, we receive the gift of life and grace which you give us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.
The Paradox in Leading Others
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.
Minding What Matters Most
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
Feeding on the Crumbs
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.
The Fruitful Seed
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
Witnesses to God’s Grace and Love
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