Life in a Paper Cup
By Linda Rex
September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.
Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.
So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.
I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.
Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.
The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people. Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.
Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?
Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?
He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?
In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.
Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.
“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ” Luke 14:25–33 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at email@example.com ]
Calling Fire from Heaven
By Linda Rex
June 26, 2022, PROPER 8—As I was preparing to write this blog, I began to hear a noise outside my window. The fury of a thunderstorm was being unleashed, dropping heavy raindrops and tiny pellets of hail on the concrete. The thunder growling from the sky caused the cat napping nearby to raise her head and stare at the sheets of rain flying sideways by my window.
This was a timely event because I had just been reading the gospel account in Luke 9:51–62 where Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, was passing through Samaria. He had sent some disciples ahead of him to prepare a place for them to stay, but they were rejected by the people in that city. James and John, attempting to be helpful, were indignant and asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and consume the errant ones. It’s understandable where James and John got their nickname “Sons of Thunder”!
Jesus’ response to their request isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it coincides with the apostle Paul’s message in our New Testament reading for this Sunday, Galatians 5:1, 13–25. Paul contrasted the works of our flesh—things like outbursts of anger, strife, dissensions, and factions, with the things of the Spirit—things like kindness, peace, patience, and self-control. The apostle reminded his readers that we live by the Spirit—our true life is in Christ by the Spirit, but we are meant to walk by the Spirit—our daily existence is meant to be walked out moment by moment in every situation in the Spirit, not in our flesh.
Our automatic human response to things like rejection, abuse, or disrespect may resemble that of John and James—we may ignite with passionate fury, seeking the harm of the responsible party. But Jesus’ response is different. Here, he just moved on to another town, recognizing that he could not do the job which he had been given by his Father in that particular town. And he began to talk with his followers about the cost of discipleship.
In the gospel passage for today, Luke described three separate responses to Jesus’ call to follow him. The first person gave an emphatic commitment to Jesus, that he would follow the Messiah wherever he went. But Jesus pointed out that, unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah didn’t have a place to stay at night. His disciples had requested a place to stay but had been rejected—would this person be willing to accept such rejection and continue to follow Jesus, especially if it meant doing without the basics of life?
Bring this forward to today: As the cost of filling our gas tanks here in America begins to double or triple and the prices of our groceries skyrocket, we are faced anew with the question, will we trust God to care and provide for us? Will we continue to follow Christ when it seems that he isn’t going to make our life easier or more comfortable? What price are we willing to pay in order to follow Christ?
The second person who was asked by Jesus to follow him requested that Jesus allow him to bury his father before he did so. Though Jesus would not want us to harm or neglect our families, the reality is that we often make elaborate excuses for not simply obeying Jesus’ command to follow him. We find reasons that we cannot do as he asks, and we excuse ourselves by reasonable arguments as to why we should be able to continue on our way, unhampered by Jesus’ calling upon our lives.
In essence, Christ was saying to the man, “Let the spiritually dead take care of the physically dead. You go and proclaim the good news. That is the more urgent task.” We can care for and love our families, and still share the good news with the world while we are doing it. Jesus was reminding his disciples that there is an all-encompassing priority about the gospel. As he said elsewhere, seek his kingdom first, and all those things we’re concerned about will be provided.
The third person Luke described in this passage asked if he could first say goodbye to his family before he followed Christ. The disciples would have remembered that Elisha had asked Elijah this very thing when he was asked to follow the prophet, and Elijah had permitted it. But Jesus was describing an even more radical commitment to himself, one in which all took second place, including the customary expectations of society and family.
Jesus told this person that someone who begins to plow needs to keep looking forward, and not look back. Today most people in our nation plow using large equipment. Back then though, there was a single plow, possibly pulled by animals. Unless the person guiding the plow kept their eyes on where they were going, they would not create a straight row, thus ruining the possibilities of a good harvest. If they turned to look back from where they came, the row would end up horribly crooked and their efforts would be fruitless—a good picture of what happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus in many ways is like walking by the Spirit and not by our flesh. The spiritual reality is that true life has come in the sending of the fire of the Spirit. The Spirit’s indwelling is the life the Christ in us, bringing us into fellowship with the Father. We live our lives in moment-by-moment dependency upon and in relationship with God by the Spirit. We follow the lead of the Spirit and in doing so, we follow Christ. We listen to and heed the living Word of God, Jesus, as we, by the Spirit, drink in of the written Word, allowing God to speak deep into our souls, moving us to obey.
We don’t turn back to gaze upon the spiritual death we once were living in, but keep our eyes focused forward on the living Word Jesus. He has set us free—so we live free, abandoning our past associations, plans, and deeds, and we embrace the new life he has given us by the Spirit. Jesus has moved us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We have no desire to go back to our slavery to evil, sin, and death. So we keep our eyes on him, our mind and heart fixed upon his, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us, no matter the cost to ourselves.
This is a challenging passage for us today. Our world is changing. Times for many are getting more and more difficult. It is a struggle for some to simply find something to eat or a place to live. The good news is we are not doing any of this on our own. We have a Savior who dwells in us and with us, who knows what it means to be homeless and hungry, to be despised and rejected, and yet be held in the midst of the Father’s love. In the midst of the fury of the evil one’s efforts to kill, steal, and destroy, he holds us in his care and will lead us safely home. As we follow him in faith, he will finish what he has begun in our lives. Praise God!
Heavenly Father, as things get harder and harder for us, continue to keep us in your tender loving care. Thank you, Jesus, for understanding us so well and for holding us steadfastly in the Father’s arms. Grant us the grace by your Spirit to pay the cost of discipleship you ask of us, faithfully enduring to the end. Amen.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But He turned and rebuked them, …. And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ 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.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ ” Luke 9:51–62 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/calling-fire-from-heaven.pdf ]
When the Cost Goes Up
By Linda Rex
July 11, 2021, PROPER 10—Here in Nashville, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the cost of everything is rising. My heart goes out to those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Businesses who are simply trying to weather this economic storm are doing what they have to do—it has been hard for them too and now it is hard for those of us who are their customers. Whether or not we like it, there is a cost we pay to have the things we want in life, and sometimes that cost goes up.
This is especially true when it comes to the things of the Spirit. There is a cost to following Jesus. And what we may struggle with is that the closer we get to Jesus, the higher this price goes. This may be why so often we do not attend to the spiritual realities—they come at too high of a price.
Coming to faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything in our life suddenly goes well or we become prosperous, popular people. Following Christ actually involves death—death to our old ways of being, to our selfish and self-centered ways of living, to habits which hurt us and hurt others. This price goes up as we may lose relationships or jobs as we begin to follow Christ instead of following our old ways of living. And this can be hard and painful. None of us easily gives up what is most pleasant and comfortable to us. We prefer to continue in paths that our feet easily trod without having to struggle or climb.
But Jesus provided a way for us, walking ahead of us into death on the cross, and through it into resurrection. Hidden with Christ in God is our true humanity—that person you and I were created to be as image-bearers of God himself. What we struggle with is living today in the already-not yet of our humanity, where what our broken sinful flesh wants us to be and what Jesus created us to be live in conflict with one another. Thankfully, in Christ, we receive the life of God by the Spirit who enables to live out the truth of who we are as adopted children of God, image-bearers of the divine in spite of all the inward and outward pressures not to.
In 2 Samuel 6 we read the story of when David was going to bring the ark of God to its resting place in Jerusalem. The first attempt to move the ark ended in death, because of the irreverent treatment of the ark of God’s presence. David was wiser the second time around. He found out what the word of God said about how the ark was to be handled and moved, and followed what he learned there. This time the occasion was filled with joyful praise, offering of sacrifices, and giving of gifts. But sadly, his wife Michal, as she watched David dancing uninhibitedly before the Lord, despised him in her heart. The king’s passionate worship of God became a barrier in their relationship, separating them from that day forward (2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19).
Our obedience to God and following his call upon our lives will not always be met with gladness and appreciation. Many times, it will be met with resistance or rejection. Amos was a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs in Israel. He obeyed God’s command to warn the nation of Israel about the consequences it was facing due to its rejection of God and his ways. His efforts were not met with joy or gratitude. Rather, he was accused of treason. His humble efforts to be obedient to God’s instructions and to help his people ended in rejection, not in praise and celebration (Amos 7:7–15).
In last week’s sermon, we saw that in Jesus’ own hometown, he was not believed. He was met with criticism and suspicion rather than with praise and gratitude. Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. And then Jesus sent out his disciples into the communities around, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. His ministry, which occurred through their hands and efforts, began to create talk. Who was this man? In Mark’s gospel, we find even the tetrarch Herod Antipas began to be a bit concerned about this miracle worker. But his concern was rooted in guilt. He had previously beheaded John the Baptizer. His conscience was working overtime, giving him concern that maybe John had risen from the dead and was now empowered to do miracles.
We find the backstory to this event inserted here. John had followed God’s call upon his life, and had warned Herod and Herodias that their relationship was illicit and incestuous. This infuriated Herodias and she began to plan John’s execution. Herod held John in prison, listening to him and being intrigued by his preaching, but wanting to thwart his wife Herodias’ attempts to kill John. Herodias, in the end, was able to find a way to trap Herod into having John beheaded, since he was more concerned about what others would say about him than about what was right and holy.
As leaders of the people, these two followed their own passions and desires rather than obeying God’s instructions on living. What we see in this story is the profound cost of following God’s call upon one’s life rather than simply doing what is culturally and politically expedient. When John did what he believed God wanted him to do, he ended up in prison. When Herod and Herodias did as they pleased, John ended up beheaded. The price John paid for following God’s will, and being the Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, was death.
In his death, though, we see foreshadowed what would happen to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was also following the will of the Father, and speaking truth to the multitudes. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he sought time alone with the Father. He knew that he was next. There was no other path for him, for he was seeking, for our sakes, to go all the way to the cross to raise all humanity up into new life.
Although Jesus had a large following, what those followers needed to understand was that there is a cost to following him. And the closer you get to Jesus, the higher that cost will go. In today’s cultural and political climate, to take a stand for what is just, right, and holy, is to open oneself up to criticism, condemnation, and death. Saying death here may seem extreme, but it isn’t at all when you consider how many people lately have experienced death to their businesses, their relationships, and their involvement in community because they have stood up for what is honest and true, what is good and godly.
To say that there is one way in which we are all called to live is to take an extreme risk. How can we say there is only one way when everyone is free to decide for themselves? The reality is that we are all free to choose, but there is only one way to live that brings genuine freedom, genuine joy and peace, that truly brings life. The way you and I were created to live as image-bearers of the divine, is to live as unique persons in equality and unity just as God lives.
The Father, Son, and Spirit, who lavished upon us such great grace in Christ, are calling each of us into relationship, to live together even now and forever in the oneness and love in which we were created to live (Ephesians 1:3–14). There is no other way but this one way of being, of truly being ourselves, that will bring genuine fulfillment and real life. But there is a price to pay, and that price goes up as we draw closer to Jesus. Are we willing to pay it and go all the way with him into death and resurrection? Or will we choose the cheaper, easy path that requires nothing of us?
Heavenly Father, thank you for lavishing on each and every one of us your grace and love through your Son Jesus. Thank you, Christ, for living our life, dying our death, and bringing us up into new life, by faith into eternal union and communion with God in the Spirit now and forever. Grant us the grace to willingly pay the price to follow wherever you may lead us, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
“And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.’But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’” Mark 6:14–16 (17–29) NASB