By Linda Rex
PROPER 9—This morning the thought came to me that perhaps we as human beings expend way too much energy trying to fix ourselves or even other people. It’s interesting how many books can be found under the self-help and psychology signs at a big bookstore. So many ways to straighten ourselves out!
Indeed, as Christians we can easily be tempted to turn our walk of faith into a self-help program or a means by which we make ourselves good enough that we will be fit for heaven. So often, people speak of their eternal future in question marks, wondering if they will qualify or overcome enough that God will let them in when the time comes.
And even when it comes to our relationship with God, we often believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can only approach God in prayer if we are on his good side, having behaved properly and not having anything in our lives which might be cause for criticism or condemnation. So much of our lives may be lived by the rule book and living by the rules makes it easy for us to discern whether or not we are on God’s good side or bad side, so we know whether or not it is safe to approach him when we are in trouble. The only problem is, if we are honest with ourselves, no matter how hard we try to keep all the rules, we fail.
The struggle with guilt and shame is real. Some therapists and counselors teach methods of getting rid of guilt and shame as though it weren’t real, while others realize that these are symptoms of something deeper which needs healing and renewal. The truth is, God never meant for us to live oppressed by guilt or shame or any other negative, destructive emotion. God meant for us to live at peace with him and the other people in our lives, and at peace within ourselves. This is why he sent Jesus.
As the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was full of grace and truth. In Jesus, we see God’s very Word written into our humanity—our way of being lived out in a tangible way here on earth, in a way which we could hear, see, touch, and experience. If we want rules to live by, we need only the Person of Jesus Christ, the law expressed in his very being written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In Christ, the truth of our being was accompanied by grace though, and was expressed fully as Jesus took our humanity with him through the crucifixion into the grave and out the other side in glory.
The problem we have with Jesus is often the reality that trusting in him and in his completed work means we lose control over the final outcome for ourselves and for others. In other words, it becomes a work of faith rather than a work of our flesh. Our acceptance by God is not won by our merit or our efforts, but solely by the Son of God who stood and stands in our place and on our behalf. We cannot boast about anything, as the apostle Paul points out, except “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
You may remember the story of Naaman, the captain of the army of the king of Aram who was afflicted with leprosy. A captive Israelite girl told his wife he should go to the prophet in Samaria so he could be healed. Eventually Naaman made his way to Elisha’s house. The prophet didn’t talk with him face to face, but rather sent a messenger to tell him if he went and washed seven times in the Jordan River, he would be restored and made clean.
This made Naaman furious. He assumed Elisha would do some great miracle-working action or would speak some fancy words over him. He knew in his mind what it was going to take to get well. Feeling insulted, he reminded himself that his nation’s rivers were better than the Jordan River. It seems he thought his healing should be on his terms—he believed this Israelite prophet was insulting and demeaning him by asking this simple request of him. So he began to head for home.
Thankfully, he listened to his servants when they reminded him that if he had been asked to do something big, he would have done it—why not do this little thing? So Naaman humbled himself and went to the Jordan River and washed himself seven times. In the end he was healed, but only because of this simple act of trusting obedience.
So often we refuse God’s simple instruction to us—wash and be cleansed. We want to follow a difficult plan or program to make ourselves better. It is good to practice spiritual disciplines, but not to make ourselves right with God and not to fix ourselves or anyone else. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, fasting, and worship are ways in which we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. In other words, they are ways in which we simply come and are cleansed in Christ’s perfect work and participate in an ongoing relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
God calls us to renewal and says to you and me—wash and be clean. Christ’s blood and broken body are the place where we experience renewal and transformation, healing and freedom from guilt and shame. We can keep trying to free ourselves by our own efforts and in our own way, or we can simply be washed in Christ. In baptism we acknowledge that we died with Christ and rose with Christ—we are made new in him. The Spirit is at work in us bringing this reality to fruition within our beings.
Our efforts do not accomplish this. Rather, they are a participation in what Jesus has already done in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Healing, renewal, and transformation are a gift from God, as the Spirit makes the finished work of Jesus a reality in each of us individually. As we trust in Christ and respond to the indwelling Spirit of God—sowing to the Spirit, not to the flesh—we reap eternal life. We participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba in the Spirit, and find we are cleansed, healed, and made new. And the only thing left for us to do is to give our gratitude and praise to God.
Abba, we thank you for the gift of new life, of healing, renewal, and transformation in Jesus. Thank you for your Spirit, your presence and power at work in us, with us, and for us. We praise you, for you are worthy. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
“Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, ‘My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’” 2 Kings 5:13 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