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
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV