communion

Living in the Dance

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By Linda Rex

Advent—LOVE
One of the little known facts of my existence is one year I was Miss Sadie Hawkins at the yearly high school Sadie Hawkins dance. To this day I believe the only reason I received this special bouquet of roses was solely due to the efforts of my best friend to dress me in one of her mother’s traditional square dance outfits, and the blessing of having a date who was an energetic and skilled dancer.

Square dancing is both challenging and fun. One has to pay attention to the caller, follow his instructions, and do so at the same time he or she is interacting with seven other people in the square. When everyone is all in tune with the caller and one another, the group can do very intricate movements in time with the music. But all it takes is one person stopping to do a do-si-do in the middle of an allemande left, and you have bruised shins, broken toes, and lot of unhappy people.

Square dancing is a good illustration of what it’s like living in the divine dance with Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit. In Christ, God has given us a way of living and being in Jesus Christ which involves each and every person around us. As we listen to the Spirit and obey the living Word, we move together in the intricate dance of life.

It is the Spirit who interlaces us together in spiritual community. The binding together of people in spiritual community can and does happen just about anywhere, whether at the office, a family gathering, a meeting of neighbors, or a high school prom. When there is this communion of people who would not necessarily be joined together otherwise, we see the Spirit at work creating community.

The Spirit’s communion-creating work is meant to be most evident within the church community, the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, the humanity of any of us can get in the way of healthy spiritual community. So even the church, whose members are supposed to reflect the divine communion, can be filled with do-si-doers who are disrupting the allemande left of the Spirit.

Now, let me clarify something here. There is a profound difference between someone who is selfishly disrupting the dance, and someone who just hasn’t figured out the steps yet. We’re all at a place of learning when it comes to the divine dance, so we all need to accept the reality there are times when we just don’t have a clue as to what we are doing. This is when we need to be surrounded by grace.

We need to realize the living Word is willing to start the set over anytime we get too tangled up to keep going. Abba never stops singing over us, and the Spirit always is at work to bring us together and keep us in tune with God and one another. So the group we are dancing with needs to have the grace to laugh off our stumbling faulty efforts and keep going, picking up where we left off and listening to the living Word as he gives us the next direction for the dance.

Keeping in step with Abba’s music and the living Word’s direction requires an alertness, a constant paying attention to what is going on within us and around us as the Spirit moves. The grace to truly love other human beings in real relationship really does require death and resurrection—a constant dying to our own agenda and moving in full agreement and participation with God in his, in harmony with all those around us.

Participating in the divine dance is also a journey in which each of us grows more and more skilled in following the call of the Word upon our lives and keeping in time with Abba’s song. The Spirit is ever at work, and we are free to embrace and obey the Spirit in each and every moment as he moves.

We have also been, in God’s love and grace, given the freedom to squelch, reject, and disobey the Spirit and the divine Word of God to us. Why would someone want to disrupt the dance when they could have such a really good time dancing with everyone? I don’t know, but we do it, don’t we?

Our human proclivity is to jitterbug in the middle of a promenade, or to start shouting our own calls for everyone to follow. Let’s just be honest about this—joining in the dance is often something we only want to do on our own terms. This is why God calls us to repentance and faith, and this is why Abba sent his Son to join with us in our dance.

So not only does the Word speak to us the steps of the dance, he also came and danced our steps with us, in us, and for us. God was not content to just sit up on the stage and call the dance—he came down into the crowd and began dancing with us. He knows how easy it is to miss a step, or to not understand an instruction for the next movement of the dance. He’s shared this dance with us in person, from the moment of his birth on through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He knows how hard it can be to stay in tune with Abba and obedient to the Spirit.

In Jesus Christ we find we are all experienced and skilled dancers. He, by his Spirit, keeps us in tune with Abba, and helps us recover when we miss a step or get out of sync with those around us. Jesus gives us hope that we will never be left out of the dance, and he, by the Spirit, enables us to freely join in this dance of God’s love and life.

This time of year we are reminded of the great gift of love God gave us in sending us his Son to dwell in our humanity, in our midst—Jesus Christ who is fully man and fully God. We are reminded of how God values each and every one of us, and includes us in his divine dance. The call to us at Christmas is to come and celebrate this precious gift of love. Embrace the wonder of Abba’s perfect gift, and join with us and others in dancing with delight to Abba’s glorious song of love.

May you all have a blessed and joyful Christmas!

Thank you, Abba, for singing your song of love over us, and for welcoming us through Jesus and by your Spirit into your divine dance. Grant us the grace to again embrace the joy of life with you, and to listen and obey your living Word and ever-present Spirit. Keep us in step with the beat of your heart, and move us to live in harmony with one another moment by moment. And do give us joy in your dance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever!” Psalm 30:11–12 NLT

The Path of Peace

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christmas_lights_clipby Linda Rex

When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.

I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”

The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.

When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.

To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.

One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).

But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!

The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.

One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.

The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.

This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.

I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB

Sharing the Gift of Thanksgiving

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tn-hayfield

by Linda Rex

As I was driving through the Tennessee countryside this morning, I was soaking up the inherent beauty of the fall colors in the leaves of the trees and the deep blue of the clear sky. There is such a sense of God’s presence and nearness in his creation, especially when the plants, trees, animals and earth are just being who they were created to be. And how cool it is that we, as human beings and God’s creatures, get to be a part of reflecting God’s glory!

Last night I participated in a discussion at the Highland Heights Neighborhood Association meeting in which we talked about being aware of and sensitive to the needs of the people in the community who are marginalized and forgotten. In the light of this, as a neighborhood group working to improve our community, we asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” and “What can we do to help?”

Truthfully, there are people down the street from our church who live every day in such poverty and squalor they are not able, even if they wished, to soak up the beauty of the Tennessee countryside. They live in housing which is uninhabitable by modern standards, and have little hope for anything better. How, in the midst of the struggle of daily life, can they enjoy the best of life? What does it mean for them to just be who they were created to be? Is it even possible for them?

And indeed, how are they any different from you or me? They have this existence they have found themselves in and they, like you and me, seek to do the best they are able to along the way, trying to find and create life in the midst of death and poverty and struggle. They, like we do, breathe the same air, need the same food and water we do, and long to love and be loved, for that is what they, like we, were created for.

It would be easy to say, for example, that a particular group of people being considered last night as being in need were not part of our neighborhood therefore not a part of our responsibility. But indeed, we must never forget we are neighbor to each and every person in this world in our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are connected at the center of our being to every other person who exists, no matter whether we like them or not. There is a core relatedness which Jesus Christ created in us and in himself which demands we treat each other as brothers and sisters, not as strangers or aliens.

And this is hard to do, because we as human beings are broken. We have addictions, mental and emotional and physical illnesses, and quirks which make us unpleasant people to be around. We have character flaws which sometimes make it unsafe for others to be around us. We have generational and personal habits and ways of being and talking which do not line up with who we are created to be in Jesus Christ, and they divide us from one another.

This morning I was looking at some photos from around the world taken over the last year which illustrated something significant which happened on that particular day. Most of the photos told the story of people in the midst of struggle—of war, refugees, destruction, natural disasters—all the ways in which people were wrestling with their desire for life in the midst of death and loss. Here and there was a picture of someone celebrating or worshiping, but they were few and far between.

It seems, apparently, struggle is a part of the human existence, whether we like it or not. Poverty, displacement, homelessness, and war plague us no matter where we live. Jesus said at one point, “…You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:8 NLT). There is a reality about our human existence and it is we do not live as we ought and we do not treat others as we ought, and so people end up living in ways they were never meant to have to live. Our human existence today is a reflection of how we seek to find life in the ways which only create destruction and death, and of how our earth is broken and reflects the harm we humans have done to it over the centuries.

It is no wonder the youth of our day sometimes feel a sense of despair and hopelessness. What kind of future do they have to look forward to? And what about our marginalized neighbors who expect to only see more of the same in the years ahead? What hope do they have?

I believe this is where we run into a fundamental flaw in our thinking as Christians. We see all this and can say, things are so bad we must be near the end of the world, so Jesus is going to come and punish all the bad people and establish his kingdom. This conveniently places everything back into the hands of an angry God who will deal with all this stuff so we don’t have to. It removes any need for us to encounter and deal with on a face-to-face basis the suffering of our neighbor right now, today, in our everyday lives.

I thought it was instructive last night that the heads more than once turned towards our end of the table and it was indicated that the churches in the neighborhood were expected to do something about the problems in the neighborhood. At the NOAH meeting, I heard the city officials say the non-profit organizations were the ones who ought to be solving the homelessness problem. Why do communities turn to God’s people with the needs of those who are homeless and poverty-stricken rather than to the government? What is it they believe we have and can do which cannot be found elsewhere?

At this point, I’m not really sure. But I do know this—when God goes to work in a human heart and mind, things change. When God goes to work in a community, things change. When God goes to work in a family, a church, an office or a city, things change. And one of the biggest changes to occur is a change in human hearts and minds.

It seems at times God doesn’t care as much about the poverty of our circumstances as he does about the poverty of our soul. The path to new life is through suffering and death, whether we like it or not. When he goes to work though, as hearts and minds are healed and renewed, circumstances in peoples’ lives change as well.

We as Christians need to realize the magnitude of what we bring to the table in the situations we face in our neighborhoods and in our world. We may have no power to fix the problems faced directly. But we do have the power of prayer and the community of faith. We do have the ability to walk with people through their times of darkness and to share with them the Light of life. We do have the ability to ease their suffering in some ways, even though in other ways we are impotent in being able to help.

The greatest thing we can do for others is to offer them a relationship of love and grace in which Jesus Christ is the center. We can come alongside others and share in the divine Paraclete’s ministry of counsel, intercession and comfort. We can share with others the blessings we have received from Abba so they may also experience the joy of thanksgiving as we do. We can work to help others to be and become those people God created them to be, so they may begin to enjoy the best of life, which is living in loving community with God and one another.

This is my heart and desire for the people of Tennessee, and for all people, for that matter. And I know it is also the heart and desire of our members at Good News Fellowship. We have been given our Abba’s heart of love and grace and we want to share it with others. We want all people to be overwhelmed just as we are with the overflowing joy of thanksgiving for our Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have given us true life in their presence both now and forever.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness, and for drawing us to yourself by your Son and in your Spirit, so we each and all may participate with you in a communion of love and grace both now and forever. Renew in us your heart of love and grace so we may love others with your perfect love and forgive as we are forgiven. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” Colossians 1:9–12 NASB

It’s Tempting, But…

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by Linda Rex

Lent: In our two churches we have been considering the reality of temptation. We’ve been learning that temptation is something every human faces, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Falling prey to temptation is part of our human condition—none of us are exempt from the lure of sin.

As we look towards Holy Week and the gift of the death and resurrection of God’s Son on our behalf, we can find comfort in the life Jesus lived, the death he died, because he faced every temptation we face, but did not sin. We participate in his perfected humanity by the Holy Spirit, and in that way we are able to endure temptation and resist the pull to sin.

It is normal for us as human beings to come up against something in our lives that tells us quite convincingly that God is not to be trusted—that he is not the loving, compassionate God he is in reality. Life circumstances, the way significant people in our lives treat us and our response to these experiences, all play a role in the way we view God and whether or not we believe he is trustworthy and loving.

What we believe about God and who he is, and about ourselves and who we are, directly impacts the way we respond to the events in our lives as well as the way we respond to the desires and pulls of our broken humanity. The emptiness we may feel at times and the hidden dark areas we push down inside ourselves because they are too painful to face often drive us in ways we don’t recognize or expect. Sometimes it seems that our behavior is beyond our control.

We may find ourselves addicted to substances or habits we’d rather not be held to, and we may find ourselves in relationships or circumstances that are unhealthy and destructive, but we don’t know how to step away from them and move on. We may hear some preacher say that we need to repent and put sin out of our lives, but sin doesn’t hear the sermon and stays in spite of all our efforts to get rid of it.

If facing temptation is a common human experience, and temptation is something that Jesus faced alongside each one of us during his life here on earth, then we need to understand being tempted to do or say or be something that does not express love for God or for others is not a sin in itself. Temptation happens. How we face that temptation will determine whether we will endure and resist it, or whether we will give in to it.

The key, when it comes to resisting temptation, has to do with our relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit. We need first to understand that God is faithful. He would not allow us to be tempted if he hadn’t first provided us with what we needed to overcome that temptation and to resist it. And he did this—he gave us Jesus Christ and the Spirit.

Jesus Christ endured the same temptations and yet did not sin, no matter how enticing those temptations were. His perfected humanity is ours through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus dwells in our hearts. The “mystery of godliness” the apostle Paul said, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in us by the Spirit is what we need to overcome every temptation and resist it. Christ did it, and we participate in that finished work by the Spirit in us.

When we are living in intimate relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, in a daily walk with God that involves transparency, authenticity, humility and an acknowledgement of our dependency upon God for all things, temptations begin to be seen for what they are. We begin to see that temptations are invitations to break fellowship with God and others.

When we experience the broken relationships, alienation and separation that comes with yielding to temptation, and we face the pain that comes with the consequences of our sins, this can be a springboard to a deeper relationship with God. It is God’s mercy and kindness that brings us to the place of repentance so that we will give up our idolatries, our immorality, and our ingratitude towards God.

When we have experienced what it is like to walk in a close relationship with God, where the Spirit begins to work to transform us and we encounter Christ in a personal, intimate communion, we find that we don’t what to do anything that will mar or break that relationship. We won’t want to offend or insult or harm God or others in any way. This is Christ in us—God’s heart and mind are beginning to become ours. This is our best resistance to temptation.

Granted, we do participate in the process of resisting temptation. We do this by growing in and deepening our relationship with God. We open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, and invite him to grow Christ in us, and we do this by practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation on God and his Word, meeting together for worship and fellowship, reading the Word of God, caring for others, and participating in small groups.

We may need to practice a spiritual discipline which offers up to God our commitment to put away things that cause us to be tempted to do what is wrong. We may need to eliminate certain things or particular relationships out of our daily existence because they cause us to be tempted to break fellowship with God or others. We may need to stop listening to or watching things that encourage us to participate in ungodly ways of living or being.

Not all of us are strong in every area of our lives to where we are never tempted in some way. It is foolish to constantly tempt ourselves, especially when God is calling us to put off the old self and to put on our new self which was given to us in Christ Jesus. Part of our participation in Christ’s perfected humanity involves choosing to live in agreement with the King of the kingdom of God rather than insisting on being a law unto ourselves.

But ultimately, we will face temptations that seem beyond our ability to resist. We will have areas in our lives where we cannot seem to ever overcome some flaw or fault or sin. We will struggle in some areas and no matter how hard we try to resist the temptation, we fail. God will, more than once, bring us to the place where we have to recognize and acknowledge that we are incapable of resisting sin on our own. We are incapable of perfection in this life—it cannot be done by us, on our own.

God says to you and to me—accept the reality of your need for grace. Turn to Christ. He is your perfected humanity—he is your life. Respond to the gift of the Spirit God has given you. Open yourself to the work he is trying to do in you and in your life even now. God is at work in you, providing the way of escape from temptation and enabling you to endure the temptations you are facing. He is faithful. He will not stop until he has finished what he began in you—to reveal Christ in you. Praise his holy Name.

Lord Jesus, I thank you that you endured every temptation you faced and you did not sin. And thank you for sharing this perfect resistance against temptation with us by the Spirit. I pray, Father, that you will finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the image of Christ and that by your Spirit we may live in close fellowship with you and one another. We look forward to an eternity spent in gracious loving communion with you and one another. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 NASB

Clinging to Life

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Colorful pumpkins and mums--fall's here!
Colorful pumpkins and mums–fall’s here!

By Linda Rex

On top of the two wardrobes opposite my mom’s bed are a group of family pictures. Periodically my mom will lie quietly and gaze at the portraits of the people who are dearest to her. After a while she may remark on how well my dad looked that day in his dark gray suit. And she will ask again whether I have everything ready for when she goes.

All the complications of life have been sifted through and brought down into the simplicity of breathing in and breathing out, of eating and sleeping. There isn’t much to say or do any more that hasn’t already been considered and tossed out as being unimportant or unnecessary to her present existence.

Through her eyes I can see that when it comes down to it, there isn’t anything that really is of earth-shattering importance now when life is down to the basics.

With the little energy that she has left, my mother struggles to make another phone call. Calling her sister to say some last words to her is of paramount importance. She tries to talk to the few people she has left in her life. And cherishes the last moments she has with her family members.

Isn’t it interesting that what matters most to her now is her relationships? It made me think about how often in our lives we give ourselves over to pursuing some dream while our important relationships end up in shambles. We take our spouses for granted and neglect our children because we are caught up in the daily grind of working out the plan of our lives. We forget how transient these opportunities to share God’s love are until one day they are taken from us.

It is good to cling to life, but I’m beginning to ask myself, what is the life I’m clinging to? And what am I doing to seek out that life?

When Jesus prayed to his Father that last night before his death, he said that eternal life was intricately bound up in our knowing of God and of his Son Jesus Christ. He had earlier told his disciples that life comes through our partaking of the body and blood of Christ. There is something very central in Jesus Christ that is integral to our finding and living out true, lasting life.

It’s in the midst of our union with God in Christ that we find life that is meaningful and lasting. In sending his Spirit to us, Christ shared with us his very life and being. We are reminded of this reality when we share with one another during communion in our Eucharistic thanksgiving as we eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine.

In Christ we are brought near to God and near to one another. There is a connection that goes deeper than even our connections by blood or by community or organization. This union is something than can never be severed, however much we may ignore, deny or neglect it.

It is worthwhile, I am seeing, to pause in the midst of our daily experiences to reflect on how all of us are joined together with God and one another in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. When we make the effort to do this, we may begin to see that some things just don’t really matter in the long run. And we may begin to value the people God has placed in our lives in new ways.

The apostle Paul stressed the importance of setting our minds and hearts on things above rather than on things on the earth. We can focus on temporary belongings and activities that in the end will come to nothing. We can value importance, power, money, and a million other things that will not follow us beyond death. Preoccupied with all this, we can miss the very things that give life its depth and meaning, and that will last on into eternity.

As another day draws to a close, I am comforted by the thought that even though there are a lot of things in my life I would like to have and don’t, I have a lot of the things that really matter. And for that reason, I find that my best response is simply gratitude. And that’s enough.

We thank and praise you God for life, breath and our human existence, but most especially for all the relationships you have placed in our lives in which we share your love with one another. Grant us the grace to appreciate and cherish them while we can, through Jesus and by your Spirit. 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.” John 17:1–3 NASB

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’” John 6:53–54 NASB

Offering Connection

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by Linda Rex

Several years ago I facilitated a divorce support group in a small community. The group was small and we spent our time walking through the healing process together. The members of the group shared their stories and we talked about ways to begin to build new relationships.

One of the ladies had been in a difficult and at times, dangerous, relationship, and it was important for her to begin to make some significant changes in her life. She needed to end old, unhealthy relationships with people who were drawing her into destructive habits, and to begin to build strong bonds with people who would lift her up and help her to grow in positive ways.

I wanted to invite her to attend church with me, but it was rather awkward, since it was an hour and a half one way to where I was attending at the time. I did offer to bring her with me to services, but then I suggested that perhaps she could attend one of the churches in the community. I knew several of the pastors, and was sure that they would help her to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ.

But the problem was that she had no friends who attended church. All her near and dear friends were only found at the local bar—because that was her social life. That bar was the hub of the local community and whatever was going to happen would happen there, or she would hear about it there from her friends. It wasn’t that the bar was necessarily a bad place for her to go—it’s just that her good friends hung out there along with her abusive spouse and some other people who were not good for her to be around.

Her past experience with church told her that church was not a safe place to go. In fact, in her view the bar where she went for fun and fellowship was a safer place relationally (in spite of the negative influences) than any of the churches were. She really didn’t know any church people with whom she felt loved and accepted. So she had no reason to go to church. Church scared her, especially now that she had the stigma of being divorced.

As time passed I could see the hunger in her for a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, but my efforts to connect her with some type of Christian relationships were rejected. I continued to offer her support after the group ended, but I found that she went on struggling with the pattern of unhealthy relationships and behaviors. She was not willing to risk attending a church she knew nothing about and could not relate to, and did not want to give up the friends and familiar surroundings of the neighborhood bar. Eventually she moved away, and in the process her circumstances changed. But she did not, to my knowledge, ever begin attending church anywhere.

What was it about that neighborhood bar that made it so attractive to her that she would not give it up? She really didn’t go there to drink—she went there for the relationships. She went there because it was fun to dance, to play pool, and to talk with her buddies. When she had a rough day at work, she was able to talk with someone about it. If she was having relational problems, her pals would commiserate and give her helpful advice. She didn’t have to worry about feeling lonely, because she could go there and find someone to hang out with. If she wanted someone to celebrate with her or cry with her, there they were.

It almost sounds like church, doesn’t it?

Actually, I think it should. Because isn’t that what the body of Christ is supposed to be like? A group of people gathered together in Christ to share life—to lift each other up, share each other’s joys and sorrows, and to offer one another support, encouragement and advice?

I don’t really think the whole problem with getting people to church is bad publicity or misinformation. I think it also boils down to the reality that church today is no longer the Christian fellowship it was meant to be. Bonhoeffer’s description in his book Life in Community is a far cry from what many of us within the church community experience. It is hard to find this life-on-life way of living out the Christian faith.

Too many of us are so busy protecting our glitzy façade of ethical behavior to really form deep, meaningful relationships with others in the church. Sadly, we often create an environment that makes people feel very uncomfortable with owning up to their failures and needs. This makes it very difficult for those who are struggling to be able to freely repent and confess their faults so they can begin to find healing and hope.

I personally believe the series Cheers had such a long, successful run was because it touched a deep place in people that resonated with their need to connect in a deep way and to share life with others. What if our churches became places where people were able to be real? What if our churches made people feel like they were accepted and loved just the way they were, while encouraging them to grow into all they could be and all God wants for them? Could people get so hooked on such warm, loving fellowship that they could not do without it?

To me, that sounds a lot like participation in the divine life and love—it sounds like perichoresis. And I think we all have an inner longing for it because it is what we were created to share in. All areas of our lives provide opportunities to create and participate in such fellowship, and to share it with others. And we have all eternity to do this with one another. We can start now as we gather together for worship and prayer as God’s people, but also as we share all facets of our lives with one another the way God intended. May God bless and guide us as we grow up into true Christian fellowship.

Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love, Grant us the grace to include others as well. May we learn to practice genuine fellowship with one another as we share life with those you bring to us to share life with. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Philippians 2:1–2 NASB

Our Response to God and his Grace

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Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex
Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex

by Linda Rex

At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)

So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?

This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.

So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.

Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.

In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.

This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.

But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.

This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.

As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.

The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:

Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.

But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.

It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.

My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”

The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.

When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.

Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV