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Life in a Paper Cup

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By Linda Rex

September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.

Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.

So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.

I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.

Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.

The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people.  Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.

Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?

Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?

He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?

In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.

Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.

“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ”     Luke 14:25–33 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com ]

The Grace to Follow

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By Linda Rex

May 1, 2022—3rd Sunday in EASTER—Have you ever thought about how you would respond if Jesus told you that you were going to die an excruciating death because you chose to follow him? I’d like to hope I was brave enough to cast all care to the wind and follow him anyway, but truth be told, I’m not sure I’d be that courageous and committed in the face of such dire circumstances apart from the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

In many ways, I can identify with Simon Peter, who bravely said that he would follow Jesus no matter where he went, yet, when faced with imminent arrest, refused to acknowledge he was one of Jesus’ followers. What we say and do when times are easy and our circumstances are convenient is often a great deal different than what we say and do when faced with rejection, exclusion, violence, and death.

Initially, Peter went to the tomb with John to check out the tale that the women told about finding the gravesite empty. John and Peter’s usual rivalry was evident, for John took note that he got to the tomb first, before Peter. But Peter was the bold, brash one, for he immediately stepped in to see how things really were. John, however, was the one who believed. We don’t know for sure what Peter was thinking at this point.

After the resurrection, the disciples hid in the upper room behind locked doors, but two Sundays in a row, Jesus showed up. He offered to show them his wounds so that they could verify that it was indeed him. And he pointedly offered this to Thomas, who had refused to believe until he saw Jesus’ wounds with his own eyes. How thrilling it must have been for the disciples to see and talk with Jesus after the resurrection!

Still, we don’t see Peter’s direct response to Jesus’ resurrection until John’s story of the third Sunday following the resurrection. The disciples had returned to Galilee, and Peter took the lead by deciding he was going to go fishing, the one thing he knew how to do. The other disciples joined him. They fished all night long, without catching anything. When morning came, they began to head back to shore. Someone on the beach called out to them, asking whether they had caught anything. They told him they didn’t catch a thing. The stranger suggested that they throw the net off the right side of the boat instead.

Why in the world would they do what a stranger asked? But sure enough, they threw the net one more time as instructed and the net collected so many fish that the men were concerned that it would break. At this point, John leaned over to Peter and stated the obvious—“It’s the Lord.” This whole experience felt like déjà vu to them, since this is what happened when they were first called by Jesus to follow him. Rash Peter donned his jacket and dove into the water to swim to Jesus, while John stayed and helped with the fish.

I’m not sure what drove Peter to go back to fishing after the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that he had. He simply met them there on the shore and invited them to breakfast with him. Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times while gathered around a campfire, now Jesus affirmed Peter’s commitment to Christ three times.

“Peter, do you love me more than these?” Perhaps Jesus was asking, “Do you love me more than you love fishing?” Or maybe, “Do you love me more than your friends?” Peter could no longer boldly proclaim his devotion by rash promises, but finally had to confess, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Jesus was confirming that he still had work for Peter to do: “Feed my lambs… take care of my sheep…feed my sheep….”

But Peter needed to move beyond bravado and rash promises into genuine humble commitment in the face of opposition. This time Jesus didn’t tell him he would deny Christ three times before the rooster crowed. This time, Jesus said, Peter would end his days at the mercy of those who would murder him. But he was to follow Christ anyway.

What a prediction! Jesus obviously believed that Peter would never again deny Christ in the same manner in which he had denied him at Jesus’ trial. Did Peter ever make the same mistake again? Well, in a way, he did struggle with this issue, for we read in the book of Galatians that the apostle Paul called Peter out for not standing against the Judaizers who were denying the sufficiency of Christ (Gal. 2:11-14). But ultimately, tradition tells us that Peter was crucified in Rome and he insisted that he be crucified upside down, in honor of his Lord.

Whatever we may face in our future as we follow Christ, we must trust that God will grant us the grace to go where he leads and that he will keep us faithful. We cannot count upon our own ability to do so in the face of opposition. But there also is the matter of commitment on our part. What price are we willing to pay? Jesus gave his all. Will we give ours in return?

Lord Jesus, we love you. But we humbly realize our inadequacy when it comes to devotion and faithfulness. You know us completely and love us entirely. Grant us the grace to follow wherever you lead, no matter the cost, all the way until the end, whatever that end may be, by your Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.

“Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. Simon Peter said, ‘I’m going fishing.’ ‘We’ll come, too,’ they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night. At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, ‘Fellows, have you caught any fish?’ ‘No,’ they replied. Then he said, ‘Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!’ So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it. Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It’s the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. ‘Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,’ Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn. ‘Now come and have some breakfast!’ Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead. After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter replied, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then feed my lambs,’ Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter said, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then take care of my sheep,’ Jesus said. A third time he asked him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Then feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.’ Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, ‘Follow me.’”     John 21:1–19 NASB

[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/the-grace-to-follow.pdf%5D

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