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
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.
The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.
It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.
In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.
Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.
When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.
Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.
When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.
The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.
The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.
Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.
We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.
Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?
Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!
Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 NASB
By Linda Rex
PROPER 8—I did not write a blog last week as I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending the GCI Southeast Regional Conference. I attended this event with fellow pastors Jan Taylor and Mike Gass, as well as our outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier. We joined with fellow pastors in learning about what it means to be a healthy leader and a healthy church, and how GCI (Grace Communion International) is obeying Christ’s call to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to follow wherever he leads.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, the narrator Luke tells how Jesus responded to different people who sought to be his disciples. When one person said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus told him that unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah did not have a place to rest his head. The price of discipleship often includes the loss of physical places we count on for comfort and personal safety.
Jesus said to another person, “Follow me.” Jesus had given this same command to Matthew as he was sitting at his desk collecting taxes and Matthew had left behind all his financial abundance and job security to follow Christ. When Jesus told the fishermen to follow him, they left their boats and families behind and simply followed Jesus. They left behind all that was comfortable and known in order to follow him.
But here, this man asked if he could first bury his father. In that day according to social expectations, it was the duty of a man to bury his father and give him an honorable burial a year after his death. This man, if he was the firstborn, may have been expecting a double inheritance, so he may have wanted to protect his future expectations. Either way, he wanted to wait till these personal and financial responsibilities were resolved before following Jesus. But neither of these reasons were sufficient to disobey Jesus’ simple command, “Follow me.”
Jesus replied by telling him to “allow the dead to bury their own dead.” He was being invited to truly live—to be in intimate relationship with Jesus. By dying to his past life and following Christ, he would begin a new life—a new path of discipleship. And Jesus’ instructions to him were, “Go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” The king of the kingdom was present in Jesus and this man’s calling was to let everyone know right away that this was so, not to wait until he had all his personal affairs in order before he did so. (Luke 9:51–62)
His calling is not any different than God’s calling to us today as believers. And it is God’s calling to the members of GCI. We are called to radical discipleship—to leaving behind what was before and embracing what God through Christ in the Spirit is leading us toward. We are to proclaim the kingdom of God, no matter the cost, even if it means leaving behind those places and practices we count on for comfort and personal safety. In following Christ, we cease our dependence upon our physical abilities and future expectations, and trust in the provision and future God has for us and is leading us into by his Holy Spirit.
To often we are like the man who told Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” We find a lot of reasons not to simply do what Jesus by the Spirit tells us to do. It is easy to allow the things of this life, our comfortable relationships, our social obligations, to distract us from simply following Jesus and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom.
Family relationships are important and should not be neglected. We are to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. But the kingdom life Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is a radical shift from self-centered living into a Christ-centered existence in which our choice is moment-by-moment to follow Jesus wherever he goes, no matter the cost. Radical discipleship includes changing the way we think, talk, and live.
And radical discipleship also includes sometimes changing the way we do church and the way we act as spiritual leaders within the church. The way we do church can become so comfortable that we cease to grow and change or allow new people the opportunity to grow and change with us. Members of our churches and denominations may begin to so resemble the culture in which we live they lose their distinction as followers of Christ. Leadership can become about prestige, financial abundance, power, and authority rather than about Jesus’ simple path of humble service and self-sacrifice. Churches can become social clubs, exclusive and untouchable, or they can become so gracious and free-spirited that no one ever hears the truth about Jesus and his costly path of discipleship.
As GCI follows the lead of the Holy Spirit and continues in its growth of Christ-likeness, we will continue to be called down the road of discipleship where we must make the choice to follow Jesus in new and challenging ways. We may need to leave behind those comfortable, easy ways of doing church and embrace new, transformational ways of embracing our church communities and the people we encounter there. We will be called to quit hiding and stop running away from our responsibilities to share the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere we go.
This is the call to discipleship—a discipleship in which we were meant to call others into the same radical discipleship we were called into as Jesus said to us, “Follow me.” What that calling is for us individually and as a church is unique—we listen to and obey the Spirit as he moves in our midst and within our communities. We join Jesus in his daily work to let all people know the good news of God’s amazing love expressed to us in him. And we enjoy the journey, for we are caught within the love and life of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit.
Thank you, Jesus, for calling us to follow you. Give us the courage and faith to do so, no matter the cost and no matter what the future may bring. Enable us by your Spirit to embrace all the new you are doing while holding fast to what you have taught us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension. Grow us up into all that you are. By your Spirit and for Abba’s glory, make your body, your churches, specifically our GCI churches, into places of life, healing, and renewal. Make us all a clear reflection of your glory and grace. In your Name we pray, amen.
“And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:59-60 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last evening I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the community around our Nashville church site. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to meet and get to know our neighbors a little better and to see them at work as they join together to bring improvements to the Highland Heights neighborhood.
One of the things being impressed on my mind more and more as I build these relationships is the understanding that God often works in community. Although I would not characterize all of these people necessarily as “churchgoers”, nevertheless I see in them a sincere desire to do the right thing and to make their world a better, safer place in which to live. I see them participating in God’s love and life—his work in the world to further his kingdom life right here and right now in the midst of difficult and sometimes alarming circumstances.
The longer I have served in this neighborhood, the more God has worked to change my attitude and approach toward this community. When I first came to the Nashville area, I was overwhelmed by the urban sprawl and the impersonal way of living and being which comes with living in the big city. I was frightened by the prospect of interacting with people in the church neighborhood because the community seemed dark and dangerous. Some of the people who we sought to help seemed to bring with them chaos, dishonesty and a determined effort to use and abuse those of us who wished to help them.
Since that time I have had multiple opportunities to meet and become acquainted with people who live and work in the neighborhood surrounding our church. I have found the demographic is dynamic—it is constantly changing. And our neighborhood is in the midst of a transition which is creating its own struggles and dangers.
I have learned our neighbors want a place where they can live together in peace, where their children can play safely in the front yard, and where they can enjoy their belongings without fearing someone will come and steal them. They want to have community events where they can get together and do fun stuff like at their recent East Eggstravaganza, which provided a safe environment for kids to play, learn and have fun. They just want what we all want—to live joyfully together in peace, being able to go about our lives without concern or fear.
This sounds to me like our neighbors want to live in Christian community, although I realize they would not call it by that name. And they would not want to have anyone limit them to a “Christian” or “church” box in order to have that community. Sadly, for them, “church” and “Christian” have negative connotations, because they are perceived as a means of restricting community not creating community.
And I do not believe this is what God intends. Too often our modern Christianity here in the West has had the “us” against “them” mentality. Some are “in” while others are “out”. We fail to realize God does not work within our restrictions. I have met many people who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully but who are disenchanted by the gracelessness and pride of the modern church, and so they do not attend church services. But they are active in creating Christian community and following Christ.
There was a time here in America where a church building was a place the community would gather, where children might be schooled, where community concerns were raised and resolved, and where the community would come together for celebrations. Not everyone was a Sunday-go-to-meeting type of person, but they knew the church building was where the people came together for the essential matters of life in their community.
Today, however, a church is seen as non-essential, as even intrusive upon a community. It was suggested last night that our neighborhood group could meet in the community center at a church since it was a quieter venue, and more conducive to gathering as a group and talking. But a valid concern was raised—wouldn’t people be put off from attending meetings by the knowledge they were being held at a church?
There was discomfort with the idea of meeting in a church building, even though we would not be meeting in the church proper, because there was this innate fear someone would try to force them into believing something or doing something they were not comfortable with. There was not a perception of the church building as being simply a community gathering place.
This whole experience has been enlightening to me. I am beginning to understand more and more why there is a disconnect between us as a church community and our neighborhood community. The two ought to be so intertwined that it is hard to see the difference. Even though they are not one and the same community, they both include participants in God’s life and love. They are both at work in their own way of furthering his kingdom work in the world.
God is at work in every person’s life, whether they know it or not. And God is at work in these community groups, calling people together to do his work in the world. We can continue to isolate ourselves and create unnecessary divisions between “us” and “them”, or we can participate in his work to create harmony and unity, and to bring healing, health and wholeness to a broken world.
Our little church community in Nashville has been serving the people of their neighborhood for many years with the weekly lunch we serve at our Community Café. We have been striving to build healthy relationships with the people we meet, to serve and pray for them at this event every Sunday. This is an effort to serve our neighbors—and in my mind is very much a way exclusive of our worship services in which we hold “church” every week. We participate in God’s work in the neighborhood in this way.
But there are also other ways in which we can stop being “churchy” and start being good neighbors. We can become a community center where people can gather for fun and fellowship. We can begin to participate in community events and help to keep our neighborhood safe and clean. We can help tend to the needy, poor, the widow(er)s and orphans. There is much to be done when it comes to participating in God’s work in our neighborhood.
Whether or not people become members of our church or become Christians as a part of this process, in my mind, is irrelevant. That’s God’s call and is up to him whether or not that occurs—such things are a work of his Spirit. What matters most is we are being what God created us to be, his children living in harmony, unity, in our own diverse manner as equals in a loving, compassionate community. As we serve one another in love, following Christ wherever he leads us, we will find ourselves and our community transformed. May we be diligent in so doing.
Abba, thank you for all the brothers and sisters you have given us in Christ your Son and by your Spirit. Change our minds and hearts so we will begin to include others in our life of fellowship, and we will begin to participate more fully in what you are doing in this world to create your community which reflects the oneness, diversity and equality and love in your being as God. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:23