By Linda Rex
January 17, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY—Lately I have been appalled at the variety of correspondence, social media postings, and conversations I have been exposed to which have been filled with hate, condemnation and denigration toward other human beings. Some of these have pointedly referred to people of different races or skin color as being subhuman. Some have accused people with opposing opinions as being instruments of Satan.
I can’t help but be reminded of how Jesus was portrayed by those who opposed him. Sadly, it was those who were the most religious who resisted and condemned him, especially since Jesus often included and loved those who were cast aside by the society of his day. Because the leaders of his people could not bring themselves to believe the miracles Jesus did were a work of the Spirit, they attributed them to the work of Satan instead. Jesus told these men that they were in danger, for they were blaspheming the Spirit of God by attributing the power of the Spirit to the devil. I hear echoing in my mind the words of the apostle Paul: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 NASB). So often we turn against one another, not realizing that this is the way the evil one works. He is an expert at “divide and conquer”, and often uses it to attempt to destroy the good things God is doing in this world by creating division, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and hatred between people.
And we often participate in Satan’s efforts by focusing on our differences and our flaws, turning against one another and seeking to harm one another. Speaking the truth and resisting evil are important tasks for God’s people. But they must always be done in the humility of recognizing and repenting of our own flaws. They must be done from the sacrificial position of laying down our own lives and preferences. Truth must be spoken and evil resisted only from a heart filled with God’s love, for we are created to live in other-centered love with God and one another. And these things must be done only in an effort to bless, not to curse, for Christ became a curse for all so that all might receive God’s blessings.
This Sunday Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 is often read, where we learn that God is present everywhere and at all times, knowing exactly what we are doing or are planning to do, what we are going to say before we say it, and what is going on in our minds and hearts. The psalmist reminds us that the God who is over all things is present with us in all things. This means that no part of our lives is lived separately from the God who created all and who sustains it by the word of his power. This is the God who made every human unique, like the snowflakes in the winter—each has his or her own shape and beauty, and is meant to be treasured and treated with dignity.
God went even further than this when he created human beings. He gave us the God-imaging capacity for relationship—intimate relationship or fellowship with God and with one another. God meant for us to live in other-centered love. As the Trinity teaches us, the Father and Son who love one another in the Spirit, are love—to intimately know the Father, Son, and Spirit is to know what it means to truly love and be loved.
God gave humans—Adam and Eve first, and then others to follow—the sexual union to teach us what it means to live in a covenant relationship with one another. Just as God joined himself to human beings in a covenant relationship—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the church which is the body of Christ—a couple are joined to one another in covenant marriage. It is within this covenant marriage that God meant the sexual union to take place. Jesus says that any other sexual relation is a violation of this union and communion.
The apostle Paul also pointed out that the body of Christ, the church, was united with Christ individually and collectively. This is why sex outside of the covenant relation of marriage is a sin and a violation against the Spirit. When we are united with Christ, the Triune God takes up residence within us by the Spirit. There is a uniting of what is human with what is divine. Why, Paul asks, would you take what is united with God and unite it with a prostitute or with someone who is not your covenant partner? God is present with us in every moment, in every intimate relationship we may have. We do not want our intimate and sexual relationships to be a violation of our covenant with God or our spouse, do we?
This is what we struggle with as human beings—and Paul holds our face to the mirror in this: our bodies do not belong to us—they belong to God. God has purchased our bodies by offering Christ’s body on the cross for us. He paid the ultimate price for each of us in the loss of his Son. This means that each and every human being is of enormous value, no matter who they are. Each person belongs to God and is to be respected and cared for as we would respect and care for Christ. No human being, no matter their color, gender, background, shape, or size, or even their mental state, belongs to us to be used and abused as we please. No human body, not even our own, belongs to us to be used and abused however we wish. Each person is created in the image of God and is called into relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, and has been given incredible worth as a dwelling place of the Triune God.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus tells Nathanael, who had never met him before, that he had seen him under the fig tree. There was something Jesus knew about Nathanael by spiritual insight as God in human flesh that he could not have known otherwise. This is reminiscent of what we talked about in Psalm 139—we cannot escape the perusal and notice of our Maker and Lord. God never meant for human beings to live apart from relationship with him. We were created to be a part of a union and communion which in the new heavens and new earth will include every member of the Bride of Christ.
This Bride is made up of many members, of all people groups around the world. Individually and collectively, she has a worth and dignity that is priceless, for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, laid down his life for her. Every human being is meant to be a part of her—our role is to remind each and every person of this and to welcome them in, not to abuse, exclude, condemn, or reject them. As Christ taught us, we are to reach out to those in need, comfort those who mourn, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us—for each and every person has been given the dignity of being a fit dwelling place of the living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Dear God, thank you for giving each of us such worth and value! Thank you for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for noticing us—for seeing us when we believe we are invisible. Lord, wash away all of our divisions, our prejudices, our hatred, and our feelings of superiority. Grant us instead the humility of a true understanding of who we are as those who are equals and temples of your presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; | You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, | And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” Psalm 139:1–3 NASB
“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything….In our union with him we are one spirit with the Lord. Flee fornication. Every sexual sin is a violation of the sacredness of the human body and scars the conscience of the individual like no other sin does. Do you not realize that your body by design is the sacred shrine of the spirit of God; he echoes God within you. Your body does not even belong to you in the first place. You are bought and paid for, spirit, soul and body. All of you are his. Live your life conscious of the enormous price with which God has valued you. Your whole being belongs to him and exhibits him. You are his address; you are his real estate.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, 17–20 MB
By Linda Rex
June 14, 2020, Proper 6—One of the things that has come out of the most recent events, alongside the killing of George Floyd and others, is a reminder that we as human beings have a tendency to be blind to that which we prefer not to look at. Sad to say, if we are honest with ourselves, we do this all the time, preferring to keep our attention on what interests us or gives us pleasure, or what we are most comfortable experiencing.
A while ago I had the privilege of attending a GCI event in Ohio. During this weekend event, our group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located downtown near the river in Cincinnati, Ohio (https://www.freedomcenter.org/). While most of the museum is dedicated to the history of slavery and its abolition here in America, there is an exhibit on the third floor which I found to be especially moving.
This area was filled with exhibits meant to educate visitors about the current issues in the world today regarding the slavery of men, women, and children. It was hard to see, to accept the reality that so many still live in bondage, but I found I could not turn away from the sights and sounds of those whose voices were seeking yet to be heard. It was almost as if, just by this exhibition being there with people visiting it, those people held in slavery today were given a tiny ability to speak their pain and suffering.
My personal struggle is then, having seen and heard their cries, what am I to do about it? Can I continue to live indifferent to their suffering and their need? But their need is so great, and the work required is so difficult, even beyond my ability! And therein lies the struggle—how do I personally address the needs of those who are still experiencing oppression at the hands of those around them.
The gospel of Matthew tells of how Jesus was going through all the cities and villages in Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. “Seeing the people,” it says, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 NASB). That phrase “seeing the people” just leapt out at me today—he didn’t pass by indifferent to their suffering. No, he saw them.
Really seeing these people is what awoke a deep sense of compassion within Jesus and led to him offering them hope and healing. The NIV says these people were “harassed and helpless”. There is a picture created of people who had no one to look after them, to defend or protect them, or to make sure they had what they needed—water, forage, and a safe place to rest. This was the job of the shepherd, and those shepherds they did have were not caring for them, but were preying upon them and oppressing them instead.
Even though Jesus was going about healing and speaking life and hope into these people, he realized the magnitude of what was needed was beyond the capacity of one human being. Even though he was God in human flesh, his purpose was not to do everything by himself—he was mentoring disciples who were learning what it meant to live in other-centered love and service. He meant for his disciples to make other disciples who would make other disciples, and so begin to fill the earth with his compassion, care, and healing, and the good news of God’s love and grace.
As Jesus truly sees the people he is ministering to, he turns to his disciples and says to them that even though there is a great harvest of souls for the kingdom, there were insufficient workers available to do the task. He tells his disciples to pray that God would provide laborers who would participate in this ministry with him. Having truly seen the people in their distress, he longed to set them free and give them new life—Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to help with the harvest.
Jesus himself turned his disciples to the Father as the source of laborers for his spiritual harvest. The heart of the Father toward those who were suffering was expressed by Jesus himself, and he knew the Father’s answer was to bring others to the place where they would be willing and able to help with this task.
And so, in the next scene, we see Jesus sending out twelve disciples in pairs, equipping them with the authority to cast out demons and to heal people, and instructing them to proclaim the kingdom of God. What in the beginning appeared to be a general request to God for helpers ended up being a personal mission for each of these disciples. They were sent out by Jesus and they began to participate in the ministry of God’s love and grace to these struggling people.
In Romans 5:1-8, the apostle Paul tells us that “Jesus is God’s grace embrace of the entire human race” (Rom. 5:2 MB). God saw us while we were still helpless, still sinners, and Jesus died for us. In Christ we find the inspiration to involve ourselves in situations where there are people who seem to be harassed, helpless, confused, aimless, and distressed. There are many more than we can possibly serve ourselves, so we pray God will provide others to come alongside and help. And then we open ourselves up to the possibility that we are the ones God is sending, and we do what we can to offer healing, renewal, and the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to those he places in front of us.
We find in Jesus our own calling as human beings to “see” our fellowman, to hear the voices so often left unheard, and to open our hearts to those who we in the past have preferred to leave our hearts closed to. We draw close to those whom we have pushed aside or ignored, and we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering and need. We have the strength to speak the truth of God’s love and grace into that which is sinful and wretched, and offer the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
These are high ideals. And the bar was set high by our Creator and Redeemer Jesus Christ. But he sent his Spirit to infuse us with not only the capacity, but the heart, to meet this challenge. We have a long way to go before every human being is able to live with the plenty and dignity they ought to experience, but we can and must be working to that end. We begin with prayer—that God would send laborers—and then listen to hear God’s call upon our own hearts and lives to participate where we are with his strength and resources to make a difference in this world.
Father, forgive us for not seeing our brothers and sisters who are suffering, harassed, and helpless. Forgive us for diminishing one another, for not speaking life and hope into the lives of those without hope. Forgive us for not living out the truth and grace of Jesus in our relationships with one another. Lord, please send laborers to help with this great spiritual harvest. And if there is a role we are to play in the healing of our family, our city, our state, our nation, our world, please reveal it to us. Send us forth with urgency to heal, bring renewal and to proclaim your kingdom life, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36 MSG
“God’s timing was absolutely perfect; humanity was at their weakest when Christ died their death. … Herein is the extremity of God’s love gift: mankind was rotten to the core when Christ died their death.” Romans 5:6, 8 MB