cross

Abandoned or Beloved and Held?

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By Linda Rex

April 10, 2020, GOOD FRIDAY, HOLY WEEK—Lately, nothing has turned out as I had planned earlier in the year and none of what I had expected to occur has occurred. I’m watching the unravelling of everyday life as new patterns of living are being created day by day as we try to live in the middle of these unique circumstances. Pastoring my congregations has become challenging in new ways as I work to find ways for us to stay connected while being apart.

This season of preparation for Easter has been full of opportunities to examine the inner workings of my heart and mind as I deal with this uncomfortable reality of so many things being beyond my control. Not that they haven’t always been that way, but in these days so much is not by choice but by necessity. Simply choosing between products at the supermarket has become a new experience now that my options are reduced to buying what’s left on the shelf or not buying the item at all.

I’m sure that my grandparents, were they still alive, would be able to tell me stories about how they had to ration items, reuse and recycle things, and do without much in order to survive the Depression years ago. I think of my own parents and how they handled anticipating 2000 by stockpiling dry goods in aluminum trash cans and have a more tender understanding heart than I did when I first had to find a way to dispose of pounds of moth-laden flour and grains.

We can sometimes get a sense that things will never change—that we will be stuck in this place forever. That is really hard on those of us who are always in motion—this fast-paced world doesn’t favor slowing down to a snail’s pace. We must produce, succeed, move forward, press on—doing any less is to fail, to lose all that one has. Right now, we are in a place in our society where so many of the things we used to be able to control are out of our ability to manage. And this can make many of us very uncomfortable.

As I read John 18-19, the gospel reading for Good Friday, I find myself immersed in a story in which the main character finds himself in a place where it seems he has no control over what was happening to himself. He may have been the Messiah, but he voluntarily surrendered himself to the will and wishes of a group of people who had only in mind his death by crucifixion.

What about the disciples who were walking this road with Jesus? Can you imagine how upset and probably even confused Peter was when, trying to protect his rabbi and friend from arrest, Jesus told him to put his sword away? Here Peter is trying to do the right thing and he gets in trouble instead, and then Jesus heals the man he injured? What’s going on? It was no wonder, that when he was asked if he was one of Jesus’ followers later that night, Peter vehemently denied him three times.

In time, Jesus found himself in the presence of Annias, somebody who was a powerful Jewish religious leader, who acted as though he were God’s gift to his people. The truth is, however, that God never meant any high priest to be a political leader. Nor did he mean for the Romans to choose the Jews’ high priest. God ordained the lineage of the high priest, who was responsible for tending to the nation’s relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.

How poignant it is that Jesus was illegally interrogated by a man who was more interested in his being able to market products on the temple grounds than he was ensuring that he and the people were welcoming their Messiah. Was he seeking revenge for Jesus upsetting the tables and casting out his moneychangers?

It is remarkable to me that these particular leaders were more intent on getting rid of Jesus than they were genuinely loving and serving God. They were so intent on having him cursed by Roman crucifixion that they broke their own rules and even, when pushed, said that they had no king but Caesar. Their emphatic denial of who Jesus was as the Son of God caused them to, whether they would have admitted or not, deny the very God they so piously served.

When Pilate sought to find the reason for their efforts to kill Jesus, he could not find any fault in Jesus. John records three times that Pilate said Christ wasn’t guilty. The Roman leader even sought to find a way to let Jesus go, but eventually succumbed to the will of the Jews. Jesus, yielding himself to the course of these events, told Pilate that if he as the king of the Jews had wanted to, Jesus could have stopped the whole process immediately. But he didn’t.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the voluntary surrendering of oneself to the will of those who wish to destroy you when you have the ability to stop it. We do this sometimes when we are in toxic relationships and don’t have the life skills to oppose controlling people. But this was something entirely different. Jesus was intentionally walking down a road that had been planned out before the beginning of time and he knew this was the only way that he could accomplish what God intended from the beginning—to unite our humanity with his divinity and take it through death into resurrection, purchasing for us an eternal bond of oneness with God that nothing could break.

We may think that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was something the Father did to Jesus, but in reality, the fault lies with us as human beings. It is our turning away from God that required Jesus turning us back in his sacrifice. The alienation we feel in our relationship with God was keenly felt by Jesus in his humanity, expressed in his cry during his last moments, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But as the rest of Psalm 22 shows, he had every reason to trust his faithful Abba—to know that he was present with him in that agonizing moment on the cross. As Jesus breathed his last, he entrusted his spirit into his Abba’s care—nothing, not rejection, not abuse, not crucifixion, and not even death, could separate Jesus from the love and unity which existed between the three Persons of the Trinity.

Jesus is well-versed in what it feels like to have people and circumstances impacting his life, bringing it to a place he would prefer not to go. Jesus told Abba he wanted to avoid “the cup” if at all possible—but relinquishment is what he chose. We don’t go through these times of crisis well if we are unwilling to relinquish control to Jesus and allow him to do for us what we could not otherwise do. We need to remember that we are not alone, but are held in the grip of grace, in the love and life of God himself—included in his embrace. As we trust in Christ and receive by faith the never-ending love and grace of God, we will experience the reality that we are not abandoned—we are beloved and held.

As we go through this time of crisis, of change and loss of control, let’s remember to pause for a time with Jesus on the cross, knowing that we are held in the love of God and nothing can separate us from that love. On this Good Friday, we can celebrate with gratitude the incredible gift Jesus gave in his surrendering to the cross and the grave so that we could share in his resurrection. May this give us great comfort and peace in these difficult times.

Dear Abba, thank you that your love never fails. Thank you, Jesus, for walking the road to crucifixion and death so lovingly and faithfully, humbly willing to give all for our sakes. Grant us the grace to walk this road with you, offering grace and love to our fellow travelers as we go, for your sake, Jesus. Amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, | And our sorrows He carried; | Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, | Smitten of God, and afflicted. | But He was pierced through for our transgressions, | He was crushed for our iniquities; | The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, | And by His scourging we are healed. | 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.” Isaiah 53:4-6 NASB

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest. Yet You are holy, O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In You our fathers trusted; They trusted and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were delivered; In You they trusted and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-4 NASB

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.” Hebrews 4:7 NASB

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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By Linda Rex

April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.

My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.

Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.

Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.

We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.

Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.

Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.

Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.

I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”

In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.

Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.

There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.

What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.

Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB

In Death, Coming to Life

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By Linda Rex

March 29, 2020, 5th SUNDAY IN LENT—Tuesday, as my son and I made our normal every-other-week trip to the grocery store to update our pantry, we found many of the shelves empty. Things which you and I take for granted were not available and I discovered I would have to buy brands of food I wouldn’t normally buy just so we had what we needed. I also realized after looking in more than one store that there was no hope of taking any toilet tissue home that day.

As we did our best to honor the social distancing cues, I felt an atmosphere in the store of a quiet bustle mixed with anxiety. As people went about looking for items to purchase, it seemed as though there was a common effort to keep things as normal as possible in a setting which was anything but normal. There really wasn’t any conversation, and even the cashier seemed a little distracted.

It’s hard to keep track of all the details regarding the COVID-19 outbreak since they are constantly changing and people express such a wide variety of opinions on what is going on and what our response should be to the crisis. When faced with the possibility of an extreme number of deaths resulting from this virus, it is instructive that for the most part, the average person doesn’t want to die, nor do they necessarily want others to die.

I found myself asking the question this week—do I really, sincerely care whether other people around me live or die? Whether we like it or not, how we act in this crisis tells a lot about us and whether or not our love for others is genuine and real. Who is our neighbor? Truly our neighbor is that person we have never met who is vulnerable and could easily catch the disease and die. She is also that person who just lost their job or business because their place could no longer stay open due to quarantine restrictions.

My neighbor, whoever he or she may be, is a person who like myself, is facing the reality of death, whether actual death, or death to a business, or financial stability, or the comfort of family and friends. Each of us is walking step by step through “the valley of the shadow of death”, not knowing what the next month or two may bring. Our life may never be the same again. We may never be blessed in the same way we were blessed before this all began. Death is an evil which so often brings about traumatic change and leaves us wounded and broken.

Whatever may happen in the next few months, we can be certain of this—death does not have the last word. Our faith in Christ teaches us that death is not an end—it is a beginning. It is the place where Jesus meets us and brings his resurrection life to replace our death. We can look at death as a welcome birth into new life, both now through our spiritual rebirth and one day in a glorified body in the age to come.

In the Christian faith, baptism and communion are expressions of the spiritual reality that we died with Christ and are risen with Christ—he is the determining factor of our existence. He is our life. Our eternal life—the intimate knowing and being known which exists between the Father and the Son in the Spirit in which we participate in Christ—has been solidly established in Jesus Christ and been given to us by the gift of the Spirit. God’s presence in us and with us affirms that we are alive in Christ—death no longer has any hold over us.

In Ezekiel 37:1–14, a companion passage to this week’s lectionary pericope, we read about the prophet’s encounter with God in the middle of a valley filled with dry bones. These bones represented a morally bankrupt and alienated nation who had rejected their covenant relationship with God and who had, like so many of us, found themselves spiritually dead, with no hope at all of any life in or connection with God.

Standing in the middle of death in this way, Ezekiel must have felt overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation. But God said to him that he was going to cover the bones with sinews and flesh—and he did. Then God breathed his life into these lifeless pieces of human flesh—a simple reflection on what God did in the beginning when he first gave life to humankind. Without God’s breath in us, without the zōē life, we are but lifeless pieces of flesh, with no ability to know or be known. It is God’s Breath or Spirit breathed into us through our Lord Jesus Christ (who is the resurrection and the life), who gives us the capacity for intimate relationship with our God and one another.

Another companion passage (Romans 8:6–11) tells us that apart from the Spirit at work in us, we cannot please God. As long as we continue to focus on our fleshly human existence, we reap the consequences of that existence—death—and we are unable to live in loving relationship with the God who formed us to love and be loved. The apostle Paul says, “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”. He goes on to say that apart from the Spirit we will not live in godly ways. In fact, we cannot.

Our natural proclivity is to choose those ways which lead to death. So Jesus came and lived our human life in such a way as to transform our humanity—to reform our human existence into one which resembles the divine life and love. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the reality of what it means to truly live, as he is intimately connected with the Father and compassionately connected with his human brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

We read how closely Jesus connected himself with us in many stories told by the gospel writers. John tells us of one such story, when Jesus was notified that a very dear friend was seriously ill. After hearing the news, Jesus surprised his disciples by not immediately leaving to go heal him, but remaining where he was. Later, when he prepared to go to Bethany, he was asked about Lazarus, and he told them Lazarus was dead. On face value, it would seem as though Jesus was indifferent to the suffering of these close friends. But we need to look closer at what really was going on.

What is Jesus’ response to death and dying? In this case, Jesus was setting in motion a plan to bring many people, including his disciples, into a deeper understanding of and belief in his person as their Messiah. Mary and Martha both implied their disappointment in Jesus delaying his coming by reminding him he could have healed Lazarus and prevented his death. But Jesus had greater things in mind—he was focused not on death, but on resurrection.

In his conversation with these beloved sisters, Jesus reminded them of who he was—the resurrection and the life. Life was found in him—a life unbounded by the limits of our human existence. Jesus pointed them beyond the moment of loss and grief to another of hope and joy, reminding them that death is not the end. In this case, death was only a temporary problem which was going to be superseded by the resurrection of Lazarus to his former human existence.

Jesus had the opportunity, because of Lazarus’ death, to glorify his Father by raising Lazarus from the dead—thereby demonstrating the reality of his personhood as the One with power over death, the One who gave life to all things. This would set in motion a series of events, due to the fear and hatred of the Jewish leaders, which would culminate in Jesus’ own death on the cross. He knew he must die, so that all humanity might live—and he was willing to start the process by raising Lazarus from the grave.

Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, every human being was his neighbor—someone he was willing to die for so that they could live. As it has been written, “God didn’t want to be God without us”, so he came and joined us in our humanity, lived our life and died our death, rising again to bring our humanity into the presence of Abba forever. In the sending of the Spirit, we participate in that divine life by faith in Jesus Christ.

In the midst of this time of uncertainty, while facing the reality of illness and death, we can be sure of one thing—we are not alone. As the shepherd king David wrote, we have no reason in the midst of this “valley of the shadow death” to fear evil—for God is with us. Immanuel—our Lord—has traversed this path before us and is walking this path with us. In the Spirit he is present, sharing our sorrow, grieving our losses, carrying us into a new place of healing, renewal, and restoration. It may be dark and difficult for a while, but he promised never to leave us or forsake us—and he will keep that promise. For he is faithful.

Blessed Lord, thank you for walking through the “valley of the shadow of death” before us in your death and resurrection, but also for walking with us through this difficult time of uncertainty, suffering, and death. Pour on us anew your life-giving Spirit. Give us healing. Refresh us in your Zōē—your very life, your being Jesus, for your name’s sake. Amen.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’” John 11:25–26 NASB

Accepting the Cost

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By Linda Rex

September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.

If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.

When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.

We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.

What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.

In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.

Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.

In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.

What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.

So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB

He is Risen Indeed

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By Linda Rex

RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?

As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”

As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.

This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.

The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.

As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.

All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.

In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.

As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.

But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.

The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).

Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.

Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.

The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.

We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB

The Great Renewal

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By Linda Rex

GOOD FRIDAY—Submission. Surrender. Relinquishment. Obedience. Many people in America today do not see these as qualities to embrace. What is valued is independence, freedom, and self-reliance—all stand in opposition to what really matters to God. The reality is that our way of looking at all of these things needs to be renewed so that it is driven by the spiritual realities rather than our fleshly passions and desires.

For example, freedom is a treasure we hold dearly to. Yet true freedom is much different than the freedom most people seek. There is a profound difference between the freedom to do whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want, no matter the cost to another, and the freedom to be that person we were created to be by God—to love him wholeheartedly and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The first kind of freedom is a movement inward, toward the self; the other freedom flows ever outward and upward—moving in unity with the divine dance of love, endlessly drawing its life from God and pouring it out freely and abundantly toward God and others.

This dissonance between the two types of freedom has its roots in our human proclivity to seek our own way—to be self-reliant and to establish our own “rules for living.” Even when we call ourselves Christians, we tend to find things we can pull out of the Bible as laws by which, we say if we just live, then God has to bless us, love us, or do things for us. Underlying such a view of “obedience” is really just another method of independent thought or self-reliance.

What Isaiah wrote is so true: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, / Each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6a NASB). We may not want to admit it, but we like doing things our own way. Even when we believe and trust in Christ, we find we still have within us a stubborn resistance to God and his way of being. We prefer to do things on our own, to seek our own salvation, so to speak. When we can set things in stone—do this, don’t do that, wear this, don’t wear that—we think that somehow we can control the outcome, not realizing even so, we are trying to control God. We have missed the mark.

When God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he turned our human values on their head. He didn’t value independence or self-reliance—no, he came as an infant in his humanity, fully dependent upon a young woman to care for his every need. In his ministry and life, he lived fully dependent upon his heavenly Father. He drew strength and wisdom from God in the Spirit, and spent many hours in prayer, drawing what he needed from his Abba.

Jesus lived free from human expectations and requirements and yet submitted himself to human government as necessary. He taught his disciples to pay taxes and not to resist when his life was at stake. He knew the evil inclinations of the human heart, so he did not place his trust in humans, but placed his trust fully in his Father. He lived in an outflowing way, drawing his strength from his Abba and pouring into the lives of others as they came to him for instruction, healing, and deliverance.

In his life here on earth as God in human flesh, Jesus showed us he valued the qualities of submission, surrender, relinquishment, and obedience over those of independence, self-reliance and self-directed freedom. Every moment of his life was a battle to resist the pull of his humanity into the false values of his flesh and to hold fast to the true values of his Abba.

Submission, for Jesus, was his way of being in relationship with his heavenly Father. He also lived in submission to those around him, allowing them so often to direct his daily life. When he went to a private place to pray and draw strength from his Father, the crowds followed and demanded his attention. His compassionate response was a submission and surrender not only to his heavenly Father’s will, but also to the needs and desires of those coming to him for help.

Jesus said that he only did what he saw his Father doing. He obeyed his Abba’s will in everything, not because he had to, but because he chose to. His walk to the cross on your behalf and mine was not because he didn’t have any choice but to obey. It was because he voluntarily chose to obey his Father. His heart was a heart of obedience.

The scene of agony and passion in the garden of Gethsemane is a real demonstration of the battle waged within Christ’s own being. The evil one whispers to each of us that there is a better, easier way which doesn’t involve submission, surrender, or obedience. Hang on, he says—you don’t need to relinquish anything. Yet he lies—he seeks only our death and destruction, not our salvation.

To be saved from our misdirected ways of being and from our reliance upon ourselves and our resistance to God required divine intervention. God’s love for each of us from before time began was so great, the Son of God was willing to take on our human flesh, live in full surrender and submission to his Father and in a surrender and submission to humanity that would result in his torture, crucifixion, and death.

Knowing what would happen to him, he walked forward to those led by Judas Iscariot and surrendered himself into their hands. He relinquished his rights as the Son of God, allowing himself to be falsely accused, beaten, humiliated and shamed. As Jesus hung on the cross, he had the power and authority of heaven at his disposal—he could have called legions of angels to his aid. But he chose to submit himself to the evil plans of human beings and to this ignominious death for your sake and mine.

Jesus knew what we as humans can only barely begin to understand. It is in dying that we live. It is in humility that we are exalted. It is in submission that we find our true ennobling. It is in relinquishing all we have that we receive what really matters and will last for all eternity. It is in obedience to Jesus and the Father in the Spirit that we find true freedom.

The kingdom of God is a great reversal of all our distorted fleshly values which Jesus brought about in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is why we are called to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 13:2 NASB). To value surrender, relinquishment, obedience, and submission is to value what really matters and what will last on into eternity.

Abba, Jesus, Spirit, thank you for all you did for us on the cross—for enduring the agony and choosing to submit yourself to the temporary will of man so that your eternal will was accomplished in Christ. Remove our resistance, our stubborn insistence on going our own way. Fill us anew with your heart of surrender, submission, relinquishment and obedience. Thank you, Jesus, that by your Spirit, you will make this so. Amen.

“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.” Isaiah 53:6 NASB

“So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’ ” John 18:11 NASB

Rivers in the Desert

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By Linda Rex

LENT—As we continue our Lenten journey, it is possible that the Spirit may be bringing to our attention areas of our lives which need transformation or healing. We may be recognizing our failures to love or our self-centered ways of being and living. We may experience grief and pain in knowing we fall short of what God meant for us to be, or we may be overcome with feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse.

The path we walk this time of year is the path Jesus walked as he headed towards death and resurrection. Jesus purposefully walked this path, knowing full well the suffering and betrayal he would experience in Jerusalem. This did not deter him from his goal. He had something he needed to accomplish and not even the gates of hell would prevent him from fulfilling the promises of his heavenly Father.

Jesus knew the heart of man and the reality that we were broken and desperately in need of being saved. His love for you and me and every other human being who has ever lived or will one day walk this earth was so great, he determined that whatever was necessary would be done so we would be with him forever. Nothing would stand in his way. He would finish what he began.

The wilderness journey we take with Jesus is an opportunity to embrace the reality that apart from him we are powerless over evil, sin, and death. When we look into the true mirror of our humanity, Jesus Christ, we find ourselves on the one hand as sorry, pathetic prodigals, and on the other as beloved, forgiven, and accepted children of God. That which was is gone and that which Jesus made us to be is here—this is what we learn during Holy Week.

Jesus walked the path of our human existence in order to create for us a new way of being and a new life in himself in which we would be included in his union and communion with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life in his humanity as the God/man and on our behalf was willing to experience death by crucifixion at the hands of some of the very people he was working to save. The betrayal of those he loved and the evil which laid him in the tomb did not keep him from achieving his objective. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross set the stage for the redemption of all humanity. This is the glory of the crucifixion.

When we face our brokenness and our failures to love, we need to, in that moment, turn to the one who stood and stands in our place on our behalf. We are not lost—we are found. We are not rejected and forsaken—no, we are embraced and welcomed home. We turn to Jesus Christ, in his broken body and shed blood, and receive the gift of forgiveness and acceptance the Father, Son, and Spirit determined to give before the creation of the cosmos and accomplished on the cross.

Christ’s death for our death. Christ’s life for our life. His perfect relationship with his Abba given freely to us in place of our broken turning away from God. The apostle Paul says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB). Jesus became what we are so that we might now and forever share in his glory as God’s beloved adopted children.

In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension our humanity is made new and our relationship with our heavenly Father is brought back into what God always meant it to be and even more. In rising from the grave in his glorified humanity, Jesus brought us all home to the Father—we find that our new life, what God means for us to have and be, is present even now, “hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4 NASB).

We can feel overwhelmed by shame, guilt, or just a recognition of our failures to love. It is good to realize our powerlessness to live as we ought to live. To be truly human as God intended, we need to recognize and admit to our need for him. We are created to be fully dependent upon God and we need to walk in the truth of this. Admitting our powerlessness and our need for Someone beyond ourselves to heal us and to make us what we ought to be is an important step toward transformation and renewal.

Jesus Christ walked the path we were meant to walk. And he sent the Spirit so we could participate even now in his perfect relationship with his Abba and in our perfected humanity held within his person at God’s right hand. We walk by faith, not by sight. It’s hard right now to see the glory of our true humanity because what is evident at the moment is our brokenness and weakness and the ways we fall short of our perfection.

We must look beyond our sins and failures to the truth—we are accepted, forgiven, and beloved. God is still at work. Jesus is still making all things new. The Spirit is still at work taking all Jesus did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and making it ours as we respond to him in faith.

The Spirit speaks to our hearts and reminds us we are God’s children, we are forgiven, we are included in God’s life and love. The Spirit is our seal or evidence of the truth of what God has done and is doing in us. We can trust that what God has begun in us he will complete. God has poured his River into the desert of our souls, and through Jesus and by his Spirit he is doing something new.

Pausing to be silent in God’s presence and to meditate on his goodness enables us to become aware of what God is doing, and how he is at work within us and in our lives. Attending to the things of the Spirit enables us to drink in God’s presence and power, and prepares us for greater opportunities of love and service. God has in Jesus given us a path to walk and by his Spirit the resources we need to walk in it. Let us turn to him in faith and in gratitude for all he has given.

Dear Abba, thank you for all you have done and are doing to redeem us, to save us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you, Jesus, for coming and living in our humanity, dying death at our hands, and rising again, including us in your perfect relationship with Abba. Thank you, God, for sending us your precious Spirit—may we always make the divine River at home in our hearts and may be with you both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Do not call to mind the former things, / Or ponder things of the past. / Behold, I will do something new, / Now it will spring forth; / Will you not be aware of it? / I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, / Rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19 NASB