discipleship

Calling Fire from Heaven

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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 ]

The Emerging Essence of Christ

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By Linda Rex

February 14, 2021, TRANSFIGURATION | EPIPHANY—Have you ever noticed how so often the best things in life only come about after a season of struggle and suffering? One of the drawbacks to living in a world where one can easily obtain the things that we desire is that we forget sometimes the cost involved in creating such things and making them available to us. Remember how something as simple as toilet tissue became such a precious commodity when it suddenly was no longer available in the supermarket?

The complicated story of a simple roll of toilet tissue can be instructive when we consider the concept of cost. What are the cardboard and paper made from? What resources are used in the manufacturing of this item? Are machines used? Who is involved in its production, packaging, and distribution? How many trucks does it travel in before it ends up on the market shelf, ready to be sold? Normally all we see is the package on the shelf, and not the toilet tissue itself. We, unless we do some extensive research, probably have no idea of everything which goes into making possible the presence of a single roll of toilet tissue we can buy, take home, and use.

As human beings, we often view ourselves and others through a similar lens. Unless we have made the effort to acquaint ourselves with more personal details, we often know very little about one another. If we meet someone at the supermarket, we may see that they too have a package of toilet tissue in their cart, along with two boxes of mac and cheese, a head of lettuce, and a box of cinnamon rolls. What does this tell us about them? Not much—just as our own cart, with its bags of lemons and potatoes, bag of potato chips and carton of yogurt really doesn’t say much about us.

What reveals the innermost parts of us is often relationship. And isn’t that what we are created for? We also learn about one another as we spend time with each other, in conversation and in shared activities. This is why we find in the gospels that Jesus intentionally spent time with his disciples and with his heavenly Father in prayer. It was during one of these teaching moments that his inner circle—Peter, James, and John—learned something about Jesus they could never have otherwise known. The power of discipleship groups is the creation of a safe space in which people can be genuine, transparent and vulnerable. When Jesus took his three disciples up on the mountain, he was bringing them to a place where they would see something about him that they were instructed no one else was to know—at least not until after his resurrection. These men were privy to the essence of Jesus’ being, and saw him transfigured—shining with the divine glory which was hidden in Jesus’ humanity as God in human flesh.

In this sacred moment, the transfigured Jesus was seen speaking with two men—Moses and Elijah—about his upcoming departure or exodus. The voice of Jesus’ heavenly Father reminded the human visitors that Jesus was the beloved Son and that they were to listen to and obey him. What an experience! The cloud of God’s presence no doubt brought to mind the stories from the ancients about the Shekinah glory of God being with Israel as she traveled through the wilderness. The implications of this whole mountaintop experience was that all which came through Moses and Elijah was now superseded in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

The reality was that after a while, though, this mountaintop experience would come to an end. The disciples would descend with Jesus as he went all the way down into the valley of his death by crucifixion in the days to follow. Even though they did not understand what lay ahead of them on the road with Jesus, there was a reality they would need to face in the days ahead which went along with the glory they had just seen revealed in Jesus.

The essence of Jesus’ person was hidden beneath his human flesh. As John would write later in his epistle, they experienced Jesus as being fully human while at the same time experiencing overwhelming evidence that he was the Son of God. There was no doubt that in Jesus Christ, the disciples saw something that was not possible by human standards. The reality of what they had experienced in Jesus Christ was transformative in their own lives, bringing John, for example, to the place where he emphasized the love of God expressed to us in Christ which we are to express to one another in love and service.

The process of discipleship necessarily includes spending time with the one we are learning from, Jesus or a mature follower of Christ. Discipleship involves teaching opportunities, shared experiences, and doing activities together. It is in the process of experiencing all these things together with safe people that our true self begins to emerge, and we begin to shine more and more with the glory God has given us in his Son Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

When we are in close relationship with other people, we are challenged to be open and vulnerable when our brokenness may drive us to stay hidden. In a healthy group setting, people will provide one another both grace and truth—speaking the truth in love and calling each other upwards while providing grace and unconditional acceptance at the same time. Keeping secrets does not mean hiding sin or evil, but rather, honoring one another’s privacy and tender spots, not exposing them to open view or the criticism or condemnation or ridicule of unsafe people. In a perfect world, churches would be safe places, but in reality, they are hospitals for sinners, and so there are times when people are wounded rather than cared for in a church setting. For this reason, spiritual development, or growing up in Christ, is more effective in a small covenant group setting.

One of God’s purposes in drawing us together as the body of Christ is to facilitate our spiritual formation—growing us up into the fullness of Jesus Christ. God works to remove those things which restrict the shining forth of the divine glory we are meant to reflect as we become more and more like Christ. When we feel as though we are struggling in our walk with Christ or are stagnant in our growth as a follower of Jesus, it is a good idea to get into relationship with a few others with whom you can covenant to be open, honest and vulnerable. Together as you pray, study the word of God, serve others, and just generally do life together, you begin to expose the broken parts of your being to the healing touch of Jesus through those with whom you are gathered.

This week might be a good time to consider the possibility of doing something new—becoming part of a discipleship group, or creating one. This will require commitment and may even challenge your sense of safety and security—you may need to go way out of your comfort zone to do this. And you may not immediately find someone who will want to do this with you. So ask God for his guidance and provision—it may be that he already has the perfect person or people in mind for you. Open yourself to the possibility of allowing the essence of Jesus to shine more fully through you as you follow Christ up the mountain and down again, through the valley of death and resurrection into eternal life now and forever with him.

Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for bringing us with you through death and resurrection up into intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the people you would have us covenant with, and enable us to make and keep the commitment needed as we gather together. As we grow more Christlike, may we shine more fully with your true essence, as beloved children of the Father. Amen.

“Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.” Mark 9:2-3 NASB

Making the Choice to Follow

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By Linda Rex

PROPER 8—I did not write a blog last week as I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending the GCI Southeast Regional Conference. I attended this event with fellow pastors Jan Taylor and Mike Gass, as well as our outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier. We joined with fellow pastors in learning about what it means to be a healthy leader and a healthy church, and how GCI (Grace Communion International) is obeying Christ’s call to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to follow wherever he leads.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday, the narrator Luke tells how Jesus responded to different people who sought to be his disciples. When one person said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus told him that unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah did not have a place to rest his head. The price of discipleship often includes the loss of physical places we count on for comfort and personal safety.

Jesus said to another person, “Follow me.” Jesus had given this same command to Matthew as he was sitting at his desk collecting taxes and Matthew had left behind all his financial abundance and job security to follow Christ. When Jesus told the fishermen to follow him, they left their boats and families behind and simply followed Jesus. They left behind all that was comfortable and known in order to follow him.

But here, this man asked if he could first bury his father. In that day according to social expectations, it was the duty of a man to bury his father and give him an honorable burial a year after his death. This man, if he was the firstborn, may have been expecting a double inheritance, so he may have wanted to protect his future expectations. Either way, he wanted to wait till these personal and financial responsibilities were resolved before following Jesus. But neither of these reasons were sufficient to disobey Jesus’ simple command, “Follow me.”

Jesus replied by telling him to “allow the dead to bury their own dead.” He was being invited to truly live—to be in intimate relationship with Jesus. By dying to his past life and following Christ, he would begin a new life—a new path of discipleship. And Jesus’ instructions to him were, “Go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” The king of the kingdom was present in Jesus and this man’s calling was to let everyone know right away that this was so, not to wait until he had all his personal affairs in order before he did so. (Luke 9:51–62)

His calling is not any different than God’s calling to us today as believers. And it is God’s calling to the members of GCI. We are called to radical discipleship—to leaving behind what was before and embracing what God through Christ in the Spirit is leading us toward. We are to proclaim the kingdom of God, no matter the cost, even if it means leaving behind those places and practices we count on for comfort and personal safety. In following Christ, we cease our dependence upon our physical abilities and future expectations, and trust in the provision and future God has for us and is leading us into by his Holy Spirit.

To often we are like the man who told Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” We find a lot of reasons not to simply do what Jesus by the Spirit tells us to do. It is easy to allow the things of this life, our comfortable relationships, our social obligations, to distract us from simply following Jesus and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom.

Family relationships are important and should not be neglected. We are to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. But the kingdom life Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is a radical shift from self-centered living into a Christ-centered existence in which our choice is moment-by-moment to follow Jesus wherever he goes, no matter the cost. Radical discipleship includes changing the way we think, talk, and live.

And radical discipleship also includes sometimes changing the way we do church and the way we act as spiritual leaders within the church. The way we do church can become so comfortable that we cease to grow and change or allow new people the opportunity to grow and change with us. Members of our churches and denominations may begin to so resemble the culture in which we live they lose their distinction as followers of Christ. Leadership can become about prestige, financial abundance, power, and authority rather than about Jesus’ simple path of humble service and self-sacrifice. Churches can become social clubs, exclusive and untouchable, or they can become so gracious and free-spirited that no one ever hears the truth about Jesus and his costly path of discipleship.

As GCI follows the lead of the Holy Spirit and continues in its growth of Christ-likeness, we will continue to be called down the road of discipleship where we must make the choice to follow Jesus in new and challenging ways. We may need to leave behind those comfortable, easy ways of doing church and embrace new, transformational ways of embracing our church communities and the people we encounter there. We will be called to quit hiding and stop running away from our responsibilities to share the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere we go.

This is the call to discipleship—a discipleship in which we were meant to call others into the same radical discipleship we were called into as Jesus said to us, “Follow me.” What that calling is for us individually and as a church is unique—we listen to and obey the Spirit as he moves in our midst and within our communities. We join Jesus in his daily work to let all people know the good news of God’s amazing love expressed to us in him. And we enjoy the journey, for we are caught within the love and life of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit.

Thank you, Jesus, for calling us to follow you. Give us the courage and faith to do so, no matter the cost and no matter what the future may bring. Enable us by your Spirit to embrace all the new you are doing while holding fast to what you have taught us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension. Grow us up into all that you are. By your Spirit and for Abba’s glory, make your body, your churches, specifically our GCI churches, into places of life, healing, and renewal. Make us all a clear reflection of your glory and grace. In your Name we pray, amen.

“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.’” Luke 9:59-60 NASB

Leaving it All for Love

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Fall in Arkansas
Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

Many years ago I packed everything I owned in a U-Haul truck and left my southern California bungalow for the hills of rural southeast Iowa. It was quite a cultural shock for someone who had grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Over the years people have often asked me what in the world made me do this.

At the time, it just seemed the logical and right thing to do. I was in love and had married an Iowa farmer. To leave my home, my family, my friends, my job, and all that was familiar to me seemed to be only a little thing in the face of building a new life based on love.

One of the stories many of us had to read in high school was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. In this classic story of love and tragedy, we find the age-old question asked, “What would I do for love?” It is a question many of us face in our day-to-day lives as we interact with family, friends and our community. What exactly are we willing to do in the name of love?

Throughout his ministry, Jesus engaged his disciples in conversations that challenged them with this very same question. He walked up to Matthew as he collected the taxes and said to him, “Follow me.” And he dropped everything and followed him. He went to John and James and said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And they left it all and followed him.

Throughout this ministry, the disciples kept being faced with the question: Am I really ready and willing to leave all behind and follow Jesus? At one point they reminded Jesus of all they had given up to follow him, and asked what they were going to get out of the deal. Jesus said they would receive abundantly in the world to come as well as receive some rewards now. But the greatest gift they would receive through it all would be eternal life, in relationship with the God who loved and cared for them.

In his book “The Call to Discipleship”, Karl Barth writes about our tendency to adopt Christianity like we join a fraternal organization—it’s a nice thing to do and it fits in beautifully with our life plans. Sadly, we can tend to treat our call to faith with an indifference borne out of our jaded human experience where we’ve seen it all, done it all and this is just one more thing to do to guarantee a healthy, happy life.

But the call to discipleship is a call to leave all behind and follow Christ. It means letting go of all that has gone before in such a way that we hold loosely to the things of this world and we hold tightly to Jesus Christ, our new humanity. God calls us to let go of all of the things in our life that we identify ourselves by, for our new identity is in Jesus Christ alone.

This can be very difficult, especially when what we need to leave behind is something we have built our whole life around, thinking that it defines us and our humanity. Just what exactly are we willing to do for love? Just what are we willing to leave behind to follow Christ?

Perhaps if we were willing to look at this question from the other way around we might find some compelling reason to leave everything behind.

We need to look intently at Jesus Christ—who is he? Here is One who lived eternally in a relationship of love and companionship in which he was content, fulfilled and complete. He had no need of anyone or anything else. He did not need us, nor did God have any reason to create us other than as an expression of his overflowing, abundant love.

Yet this God, who was rich in every way, set all the privileges and dignity of his divinity aside, and joined us in our humanity. He left everything that was familiar and comfortable, and took up residence in a human body. He allowed himself to be carried about and mothered by Mary, and to be instructed in the temple by the rabbis. He walked about on earth, getting his feet dusty and dirty like every other human being. And he did it all for love.

And that wasn’t enough for him. He even allowed himself to be insulted, abused, shamed and crucified by us. He died an ignoble death with a word of forgiveness and compassion on his lips. Isn’t that the truest expression of love?

Taking all this into account then, how can there be anything we are not willing to give up for him? Love and gratitude for this amazing act of love compels us to drop everything and to do whatever it takes to follow him, even if it means leaving everything we value behind.

It will not always be easy to follow Christ. We will be faced with the decision at some point in our lives—do I cling to what is comfortable and convenient, or do I hold fast to Christ? Is this relationship I’m in more important to me than living in agreement with the One who gave it all up for me? Do I hold fast to my integrity or to the job I desperately need so I can keep my house? Will I hold on to my pride or be willing to eat humble pie and admit to my spouse that I am wrong?

What are we willing to give up for love? Jesus gave it all up for you and for me—perhaps what we need to give up really isn’t that significant after all.

Lord, thank you for leaving everything behind and joining us in our humanity. Thank you for loving us so much that you were willing to give it all up for love. Grant us the grace to give ourselves fully to you and to others in the same way you have given yourself to us. In your name, Jesus, amen.

“Peter said, ‘Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.’ And He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.’” Luke 18:28–30 NASB

“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:12–14 NASB