By Linda Rex
April 11, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER—One of the results of the recent pandemic and our isolation from one another has been a deeper appreciation for the significant relationships in our lives, and the opportunities we have for face-to-face interaction. It seems as though our desire for relationship has been challenged by our need for self-preservation and protecting others, and has actually been strengthened by the limitations we have had to deal with.
This desire for and ability to work through difficulty to forge healthy relationships is rooted in the Triune God himself. We find that it is God’s nature to live in warm fellowship and to include others in that relationship. When anything comes between God and those he loves, he passionately works to remove the obstacle and restore the union between himself and his beloved ones.
We see this profoundly manifested in the coming of the Word of God into human flesh to live, die and rise again so that all humanity might be included in the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The evil, sin, and death brought into the cosmos via the first Adam is eradicated by the finished work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who summarily dealt with it through his passion on the cross, in his broken body and shed blood.
We reflect upon Jesus’ final words on the cross and we remember him saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is a critical point, because healing broken relationships nearly always begins with forgiveness. Forgiving someone for a devastating loss, a humiliating embarrassment, or even an atrocity or ongoing sin, can seem to be an impossible task. And often, it is. This is why so many live their lives separated from others and from God, because they cannot and will not forgive the offenses that they feel have been done to them.
When we find ourselves in that place where we are filled with anger, hatred, or seething resentment and bitterness toward someone who has hurt or offended us, we may even refuse to admit that this is the issue. We may have put up so many internal walls for self-protection that we don’t even realize how deeply rooted we are in this place of unforgiveness. What has happened lately that has brought to your attention an area in which you need to forgive someone? What was your response? Are you still in denial, or have you admitted that indeed, you do need to forgive?
Perhaps it would be better to get our eyes off our internal work for a while and onto Jesus Christ and his finished work. Pondering the reality of Jesus’ willingness to intentionally go to the cross to allow humanity to pour over him all our hostility, evil, rejection, and desire for vengeance should remind us of the immensity of his gift to you and me. In the midst of all that was in opposition to him in that moment, in the face of every hateful and scornful word and vicious deed, we find Jesus offering forgiveness. In the place of our hostility against him, he offered grace.
And perhaps, before going any farther in the process of forgiving another person, we should take some time to reflect on the reality of our own failures to love. This is a place we may need to park in for a while—have we been refusing to admit that we might be part of the problem? Initially, our own failure love may simply be that we are unwilling to forgive. Or is there more going on than this?
Forgiving the unforgiveable is the work of God, and can only happen via the work of the Holy Spirit. In this place of our need we have the blessed gift of grace and the truth that Jesus went down this difficult road first. The capacity to forgive is found within Christ’s own forgiveness of all of us. What we may not be able to forgive another person for is bound up in all that Jesus, first of all, took upon himself and forgave us for. Now he imparts that very same grace to us in the Holy Spirit. He pours out into us a forgiving spirit, his own nature manifested on the cross, as we are willing to receive it.
He has made himself of one heart and soul with us, so that we might be of one heart and soul with him and one another. God offers us the grace or gift of forgiving those who wound us just as he offers us his own forgiveness for the wounds we have inflicted upon him and others. Poured like oil over these wounds, God’s grace brings about a restoration and reconciliation that would otherwise be impossible.
Moving beyond forgiveness, we find that even unity and oneness between people is a grace, a gift of the Spirit. Soon after their infilling with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, we find the followers of Christ living in a spiritual community characterized by all of them being “of one heart and soul.” This was reflected in their care for one another and in a willingness to share, to lay down what they owned for the benefit of their brothers and sisters who were in need (Acts 4:32–35). This unity is what was described by King David in Psalm 133 when he wrote:
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.”
This unity and oneness is a reflection of the unity and oneness within the Trinity we were created to participate in now and forever. We participate in it in and through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. God has commanded his blessing of eternal life, of knowing deeply and intimately the Father and his Son whom he sent, and we are called to respond in faith, trusting him and opening ourselves up fully to the Spirit he has poured out on us so freely.
Turning from ourselves and turning to Christ are our response to this enormous and priceless gift of forgiveness. We receive God’s grace, and begin to allow the Spirit to lead us, following Christ’s lead in our lives and in our relationships. At times we must begin by simply taking a single step of obedience and allow Jesus to do the rest. Forgiving people who have wounded us can be done—we may only be able to choose to obey and then ask Jesus for the grace to do the rest. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who is the forgiving One, and he enables us to forgive. He enables us to restore and reconcile when it seems impossible to do so.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over us again. Even Christ did not crawl back up on the cross over and over, but did it once, for all time. We do not want to receive his grace in vain, nor do we want others to receive our grace in vain. We may have to begin the process of setting healthy boundaries in place and teaching others how to treat us lovingly and respectfully by our own example of properly loving and respecting others. These are difficult tasks that may require us getting help from others who are qualified to counsel and guide us.
But we can do the most difficult work of all, forgiving and restoring relationship, by walking in the light of God’s love and grace. In Christ, the light of the world, we find the grace to be of one heart and soul with one another, as we have been made heart and soul with God himself through Jesus in the Spirit.
Thank you, Triune God, for the extent you went to in order to reconcile all with yourself in Jesus. Thank you for pouring out on us the grace to be of one heart and soul. Grant us the grace to receive all you have given and offer it others, through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:(1–5) 6–10 (2:1–2) NASB
See also John 20:19–31.
By Linda Rex
September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!
As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.
The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.
He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.
This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.
Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.
So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.
This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.
So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.
In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.
The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?
Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB
See also Matthew 18:21–35.
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
By Linda Rex
5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As many of my friends and family know, I will be getting remarried next Saturday. I was sharing our story of repentance and renewal when a friend asked whether someone could really change that much. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in our relationships with one another is this very question—is it really possible for people to change for the better?
We are still in the season of Easter, the time of renewal and redemption in the story of Jesus Christ. We have talked about how the Word of God set aside for a time the privileges of his divinity in order to join us in our humanity and was willing to go to the cross on our behalf so that we would be brought up into the divine circle of love and grace, the perichoresis of the Trinity.
As broken human beings, we muddle our way through life doing the best we can in every situation, often following the leadings of our heart and mind even when they lead us down some very difficult and painful paths. Years ago, as two broken people caught up in the legalistic religious mentality we were brought up in and drawing upon the broken template of our parents’ relationships as an example, my ex-husband, Ray, and I tried to piece together a happy marriage. We were good at the image of happiness, but in reality, we did not know the first thing about how to resolve our differences and we certainly didn’t know what it meant to love with the self-sacrificial and redemptive love of Jesus.
We had a marriage based on rules, on performance, rather than based in the love and grace of God himself. Our two wonderful children were raised in the midst of this brokenness and our greatest grief is what they had to suffer because of our failures to love. It took many years for God to work with the two of us to get us to the place where we were healed enough that we could move on. And it was a surprise to me that God wanted this renewal in our relationship to happen.
But this healing and renewal is meant to bear witness to the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. We are both fundamentally the same and will probably struggle with many issues similar to what we struggled with in the past. But we are both in a different place due to what God has done in each of our hearts and lives by his Holy Spirit.
As Christ has been at work within us and we have responded to his leading, we have both grown and healed, and are being renewed day by day. There is a humility and a willingness to be taught new ways of relating and resolving issues. There is a grace that has come through suffering and sorrow. Our personal renewal isn’t always evident to those around us—it is often buried under the default of our old habits and ways of talking and acting. But God is making all things new and he has begun this renewal in our relationship as a witness to his glory and grace.
When there is so much hurt and pain in a relationship, it is very difficult for the adults and the children to say, “I forgive you,” and to let people start over. The wounds and the bad memories often get in the way of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation often have to begin with an intentional decision rather than a desire or feeling. The Lord Jesus reconciled all humanity with the Father—we are to participate with him in this reconciliation by choosing to forgive and to be reconciled in all the relationships in our lives which are broken.
The renewal Jesus is bringing about is something which he accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and is working into our individual experience by the pouring out of his Holy Spirit. In our broken relationships with one another we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to express the redemptive purpose and power of God, bearing witness to God’s ability to renew and restore in the midst of our brokenness and failures to love.
When Jesus says, “Behold I am making all things new,” he isn’t just talking about some distant future event. He is also talking about right now, in each and every moment. God’s way of being is one of renewal. His purpose is to move in our hearts and lives such a way that renewal is a continual process. What we are today, if we are willing and respond to the work of the indwelling Christ, will be different from what we will be tomorrow—Jesus is bringing us deeper and deeper into intimate relationship with the Father by the Spirit.
As we draw closer to God, we begin to change. We begin to put on more and more of the nature of God, just as children over time begin to resemble their parents. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11 NASB) Even though by all appearances, we may be just the same, God has declared in Christ that we are washed, sanctified, and justified. We are made new, and as Christ goes to work within us by the Holy Spirit, over time that newness becomes a reality for us individually.
There are no promises that the man I love or I will get it right the second time around. So our faith isn’t in ourselves, but in the God who brought us together and who lives within us. We are committed to Christ and to one another—the rest is up to our all-powerful God. Through Jesus and by his Spirit, we trust that our second marriage will reflect the mercy and glory of our Triune God of love. We rest in Christ’s ability and power, not our ability and capacity to make this work. Loving relationship is a work of the Spirit; may he create a beautiful loving relationship which gives God glory and honor for the rest of our time together.
Abba, thank you for your ministry of reconciliation which you have accomplished through your Son Jesus and are making real in this world, in our lives and in our relationships by your Holy Spirit. Please bring healing and wholeness to every broken relationship. Enable us to choose forgiveness, to choose to be reconciled to one another, just as you have reconciled us to you. Bind us together in loving, gracious, and truth-filled relationships through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Rev 21:3-5
By Linda Rex
I don’t know about you, but some days I wonder whether it was worth the effort to even get out of bed. It seems from the moment my feet hit the floor I am running backwards faster than I am moving forward. On days like this, hot tea or coffee doesn’t seem to help, and I’m hoping that the first person who comes in the door at work will pretend they don’t see me and will walk right on down the hall.
But the phone rings right then and I have to answer it. The cheerful tone in my voice is a little forced, but somehow in the middle of the conversation about who they need to talk to about what I find the capacity to genuinely serve and help someone. A silent prayer of gratitude forms in my heart—it seems there is hope for me after all, but only because of God’s grace and power.
And this is the thing about Good Friday. Here on this day we may ponder the suffering of Christ. We may read the story of him being taken into custody, having been betrayed by one of his very own followers. He did not get a good night’s rest, but spent the hours being grilled, beaten, and falsely accused of things which would never have even crossed his mind.
What really is amazing about this story is in his broken humanity, crushed by the anger and hate of fellow human beings, and weakened by the loss of blood and blows to his body, Jesus was at his strongest and most powerful. Why would I say that? Because he had access to legions of angels and to all the forces in the universe—and he did not call on them to help. What incredible strength of will and depth of humility!
In Hebrews, the writer says Jesus, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2 NASB). He did not resist, nor did he regret, what he did in bearing up under the crucifixion. He had his heart and mind focused on the spiritual realities, securely rooted in his eternal relation with his Abba. He knew he was loved, held, and not forsaken, no matter how things appeared at the moment. And he had something he was trying to accomplish—something to complete—the destruction and removal of evil, sin, and death from our humanity and our cosmos.
What a task! To wrestle with the forces of evil requires incredible stamina of mind and will. To resist the temptation to quit or give in demands endurance and perseverance beyond our human capacity. To hang on when even the human body gives way means there was much more needed than just a human being dying on a cross when Jesus was crucified. The very presence of God himself on that cross was what was needed and what Abba gave us in sending us his Son Jesus to stand in our stead.
Because our Jesus was fully God and fully man, he conquered evil, sin, and death completely. There is nothing which was left undone in his gift of himself on the cross. He did it not because he had to, but because he chose to. He did it in love for you and for me.
So, if Jesus did such a good and complete job of conquering evil, sin, and death, why do I still struggle with my attitude and my behavior? Why do we still have people who go around shooting other people? What’s the point of what Jesus has done?
That is a really good question. I could say, Jesus set us an example of how we are to live our lives—as good people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. That’s a nice sentiment, but it lacks any substance. Just ask anyone who has for any length of time tried to really live the way Jesus lived—it’s really hard to do, actually next to impossible for us as humans to achieve in this life. No, there is something more going on than this.
I believe Jesus gave us as human beings the capacity to once again be truly human—to live the way we were created to live—loving God with all our being and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus enabled us to be genuine in our humanity by setting us free from evil, sin, and death, and enabling us to live in intimate relationship with his Abba by his Spirit.
And there it is. We have the capacity to be truly human because of Jesus. He has joined us forever with the Being of God in his Person so we can participate in the union and communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, it took Jesus dying, rising, and sending the Spirit for this to be worked out in each of our lives individually. We each have been given the gift of God’s Spirit and Presence but are called upon to receive this gift and participate in the life we were created for.
The process of receiving this gift resembles remarkably the events of Good Friday. The Maundy Thursday meal where Jesus offered his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, was meant to help us identify the gift which was being given—Jesus Christ himself—his life for our life, his ways for our ways, his plans for our plans.
We join Jesus in his story on Good Friday as we own the truth of our failures, our missing the mark of who we were meant to be as God’s beloved children, and we lay down our broken humanity and receive his humanity in its place. We embrace the living Christ, who dwells within by his Spirit, surrendering to his Presence and Power.
This laying down that we might rise also means tossing away our feeble efforts at becoming godlike under our own power. Indeed, facing the reality of our failures as humans is healthy and essential to the process. We need to be willing to say, “I didn’t…”, “I can’t…”, and even, “I won’t…”—to admit the truth of our resistance against all which right, true, and holy. We can boldly come to our Abba and say, because of Jesus and our intimate connection with him, “I was wrong. I should not have done that, thought that, or said that.” And we can know in that moment, we are forgiven, embraced, and held. In spite of our failures, we are loved and included in Abba’s life.
As Jesus laid in the tomb on Holy Saturday, it seemed to all those he had grown close to that all hope was lost. In the same way, we can at times be so overwhelmed by the evil, sin, and death of this human existence, we begin to believe all hope is lost. We can live blinded to what is really going on: Jesus Christ is making all things new, and we are included in that great work he is doing right now in this world. All is forgiven and healed in him, but not everyone has embraced Abba’s solution to the problem.
Indeed, God calls on you and me, once in the sacrament of baptism, often as we eat the bread and wine in communion, and moment by moment as we live our lives, to die with Christ and rise with Christ. This is the truth of our existence, so we act like it. We live as though it were true.
In this moment in front of us, we may feel like we’re still rotting in the grave, but when we take a step in faith—trusting we are instead walking out of the tomb into the bright sunlight of God’s love and grace—we’ll find, that’s exactly the case. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are held. We are truly, essentially, and fully human, as God meant us to be.
Thank you, Abba, for including us in your life and love, through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to see how we individually and collectively participate in your story, Jesus, when you walked the road to and through death and resurrection, and to receive this gift of love and forgiveness with open hearts and hands. May we receive and live in the fullness of the gift of our true humanity in and through you, Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:18 NASB
by Linda Rex
Last time I ended my blog by asking the questions: Will we allow God the freedom to do as he wills in our lives, believing he will make all things right in the end, and has our best interests at heart? Will we respect God’s freedom to do what he will in our situation, trusting he is a good God, a loving and faithful God, who will never leave us or forsake us?
These are tough questions to respond to because often our response to them arises out of our personal experience and our attachment issues. We may never have had an experience in our lives in which a person was trustworthy and safe in their interactions with us.
Perhaps our only experience with men has been with those who have used us and then discarded us. Maybe our only living parent has always insisted on making every decision for us our entire life, and didn’t stop when we became an adult. It’s possible that the father we adored when he was alive was great fun to be around but never took responsibility for anything with regards to his family. There are many ways in which critical relationships in our lives wound us.
Our view of God, then, becomes skewed and we begin to believe things about God which are not true. Relationships and our relational losses are so critical to our understanding of ourselves and God! The thing is, too often we plant our broken view of humanity onto the face of God rather than seeing God as he really is, and viewing broken humanity in the light of who God is. We get it flipped around.
So it is very hard to trust a God who we believe is like these images in our mind which have been created through our experiences with the people around us in our lives, especially during our formative years. When God said to Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Ex. 20:3 NIV), he was telling them to set aside all their preconceived ideas of God. They had gathered a God-concept over the centuries which included the worship of things made by human hands as well as those things created by God.
Today we may not have idols in our house we worship (though some of us may), and we may not worship the sun, moon and stars (though some of us may), we do often worship a God of our own imagination—a being who exists only in our hearts and minds, but not in reality. For if we want to know who God really is, we need to pay attention to what God says about himself, and quit focusing on what we or others might imagine God to be.
This Sunday at Good News Fellowship we will be celebrating Palm Sunday. On this day, we are reminded about the enthusiastic welcome Jesus Christ received as he entered Jerusalem before the events of Holy Week. Here he was applauded as Messiah, come to save his people—which indeed he was. Yet within a few short days, he was crucified and he died at the hands of the very human beings he came to save.
The Messiah did not show up the way the people expected him to. Jesus was not the person they wanted him to be. God in human flesh? This meant Jesus had something crucial to say about the status quo, about the ruling authorities, and what it meant to be God’s people. And they all needed to listen and to obey. Israel, and indeed all humanity, was called to see God in a new and different way, and to repent of their wrong-headed view of God. Jesus was, and is, the exact representation, or ikon, of the Father, and he would send the Spirit, who was, and is, the other Helper or Paraclete, just like Jesus.
God had revealed himself to his people through Moses not only as the “I Am”, but also as the God who is, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;…” (Ex 34:6–7 NIV) Here we see God as a relational God, who loves his people and is gracious toward them. Yes, he deals with the nasties, but all within the context of his covenant love.
God rescued his people from slavery, provided food and water for them in the wilderness, and brought them to a new land. Throughout his history with his people, he cared for them, called them by his Spirit back to their covenant relationship with him. God was who he was. It was Israel who needed to change their view of God—to have a new heart and mind. And God told them he would work this out by sending a messiah who would usher in the age of the Spirit.
The thing is, since time began, we as human beings have resisted the Spirit’s effort to open our minds and hearts about the truth of who God really is and who we are in him. We believe we are on our own, doing everything under our own power. We believe we are in control of ourselves, each other, this earth, and the universe, and at the same time are faced with the reality we really don’t have any control whatsoever.
Fundamentally what we need at the core of our being is a realization we are creatures, who are dependent upon the God who made us and who sustains us. This is a God who wants to live in a relationship with us in which we share intimately all of life. We were meant to walk and talk with God as Adam did at the beginning, and as is described by the apostle John in his gospel and in his description of the heavenly Jerusalem. And this type of relationship requires trust.
To go deep with someone, anyone, in this way requires a level of trust which is very deep. We climb, and climb up our mountain of life, thinking we’ve got to hold it all together and keep moving up to the next level, when what we need to do is let go and fall, trusting in the Everlasting Arms.
We are unable to make sure everything works out as it should—but God already knows the end from the beginning. We are unable to protect ourselves from evil or disaster, but God has the capacity to turn evil and disaster into the best experience of our lives. We feel lost and alone and unloved, but the reality is, we are held, we are beloved, and God never leaves us—he is Immanuel, the God who is present, near and available at all times.
It was this God who joined us in our mess, and walked among us, and was willing to submit to our mistreatment and rejection of him. He was willing to go with us all the way to the cross and to death so we could learn to trust him. There was nothing he was not willing to put on the line, even the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, so we could not only learn to trust him, but also receive by the Spirit a new heart and mind filled with Jesus’ trust for his Abba.
This is the blessing of the gift of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the gift of the Spirit. This gift is a life filled with trust and faith in God, in which we find ourselves able to know and see God for who he really is, and over time have our mistaken notions about God corrected and healed. This is a relationship which will never end but grow more precious with time, and will include others in joyful fellowship for all eternity.
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit through whom we might come to know you for Who you really are. Fill our hearts with Jesus’ trust in you, so we might live in true, loving community both now and for all eternity. Through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But I trust in you, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. Let your face on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” Psalm 31:14–16 NIV
By Linda Rex
This morning I was listening to the You’re Included interview with David Torrance “The Grace of the Finished Work of Christ” (https://www.gci.org/yi/dtorrance104) and “Already Forgiven” (https://www.gci.org/yi108). I was struck once again by the significance of all that Jesus did for in his life, death and resurrection, specifically in regards to our ability to forgive the unforgiveable. And he calls for us to do just that, because being forgiving people properly reflects who we are as image-bearers of God.
I’m beginning to see that much of the mental anguish we go through in life has its basis in our inability or unwillingness to forgive wrongs done to us. Many of us go through life with deep emotional, mental, even spiritual wounds caused by significant people in our lives. We carry the hurts from our childhood into adulthood or from relationship to relationship, and they twist our thinking and feeling, holding us hostage in ways we don’t even realize or may even be willing to acknowledge.
It is inevitable that at some time in our lives we are going to be faced with the challenge of forgiving someone a wrong that we just can’t let go of. When that event comes back over and over in our mind and colors the way we think and feel about what’s going on in our life today, that is the time when we need to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive.
But facing the challenge to forgive does not begin with us. We, of ourselves, are inadequate for the task. Even if we knew we needed to forgive and wanted to forgive, we may find ourselves unable to. The hurt or wrong may just keep rehearsing itself in our minds and hearts and we are unable to let it go.
This is especially true when there is a significant injustice involved. Forgiving may feel like we are letting someone off the hook for a very real wrong they have done.
But this isn’t the case at all. What a person may have done or said that violated us in some way is not ignored or passed over. Rather, it is put in its proper place—in the hands of a loving, just God, who is both our Judge and the one who was judged in our stead. Instead of us seeing that justice is done, we place this issue into the hands of the One best qualified to handle it—he is impartial and he is gracious, and he will deal with the issue in his own time and way.
Yes, there are times when we have to take action to protect ourselves and others from future harm. But, even so, we need to do so in a spirit of grace. Forgiveness does not require us to turn our backs on justice, but asks that justice be executed with mercy and compassion.
Placing our hurts and wrongs into the hands of a loving, just God, not only frees us from the need to make someone pay, but it also enables us to approach our need to forgive within the context of community. God does not ask us to forgive all on our own, under our own power.
God is the one, who since the beginning of time, forgives. If God had executed justice without mercy every single time one of us humans had done something wrong or hurtful, the human race would have long ago become extinct. Thankfully, forgiveness is God’s nature.
Because God knows we can’t forgive the way we should and need to, God gave us his forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in his life and death, experienced some tremendous violations of his personhood and was horribly abused. There is nothing that we as humans experience that he cannot and does not sympathize with. Yet, his final words on the cross included these: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
This same divine capacity to forgive is ours. God has given us in Christ and by his Spirit all that we need for life and godliness. (2 Pet. 1:3) Therefore we are able to forgive—in Christ. It is Jesus’ forgiveness that we draw upon and live out.
Jesus taught his disciples that forgiving others is something we need to do so that we are able to participate in God’s forgiveness of us. (Luke 17:3-4) It’s a relational thing, something we do in community with God and each other. We forgive and we are forgiven. We are forgiven and so we forgive. This is what it looks like to live joyfully and lovingly within the Triune relationship of Father, Son and Spirit and with each other. It is our nature as God’s children to forgive, so we forgive.
So in the midst of whatever we are struggling with, we acknowledge the reality that forgiveness is not going to be something that is humanly possible on our own, but is instead, a divine reality that we participate in. We agree with God that forgiveness is not something we are able to do on our own, but is something we need from him—we need Christ’s forgiving heart and mind. We need the forgiving Spirit of God to change us from the inside out and enable us to forgive.
And God will do that. We make the choice to forgive and we seek from God the power and ability to forgive. God will begin, as we participate with him in the process, to change our hearts and minds and enable us to forgive. And we thank God for the gift of forgiveness that he gives us from his Son Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit.
This gift of forgiveness is life-transforming and healing, and we participate in it gratefully throughout our lives, in every situation we may find ourselves needing to be forgiving or forgiven. It is God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. May you experience and share with others the grace of God’s forgiveness in your life today.
Forgiving God, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. May we be as forgiving of others as you are of us. Thank you that in Jesus and by your Spirit we participate in your divine life and love, sharing in your forgiveness just as we share in every other part of your divine nature, through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives…. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:14-15, 17 NASB
by Linda Rex
Yesterday a friend and I drove to another city to pick up my car which had been getting worked on. It was a long drive and we talked about which road would have the least amount of traffic and would be the easiest to drive. It was pouring down rain at times, so we really didn’t want to be driving on the interstate.
I told her the way I usually drove the route, and so we took that path to get to our destination. It worked out well and we got there in good time. But on the way home, she suggested that I try a different route since it would help me to avoid a potential roadblock. I took her advice and found my way home, quickly and without incident.
It occurred to me that we go through life often making plans for ourselves. We do our best to try to find the quickest, easiest or most comfortable path for ourselves. We do our best to avoid roadblocks and hassles, and we work hard to find the shortest, quickest route to the successes and blessings we seek.
Many of us don’t realize it but we go through life seeking to find our way home each and every day. There is a place we are looking for where we are loved, accepted and forgiven—where we can just truly be ourselves and know that it is enough. We long for and are driven by an inner need to find rest in this place—this place which is our true home.
The thing is that too often we define for ourselves what the route to our true home is. We set particular standards in place and believe that the only way to get home is to follow that one precise set of directions. We have to really work at following these directions perfectly or we won’t end up in the right place. We believe that the only way we will get to our true home is to meet these standards exactly. If we fail we will miss out and end up in oblivion. It seems that the onus is upon us to make sure we are heading the right direction and that we arrive safe and sound.
Thankfully Jesus Christ is the path to our true home. He is the only way, and thankfully he is the forerunner of our faith. Wherever he is, there is our true home. So guess what? There is no path he has not already been down. He knows the best route to take in every situation. We can just climb in the car and he will take us where we need to go. And wherever we are going, he’s already there in the Spirit, anyway. So we might as well just enjoy the journey!
This is why Jesus calls us to rest in him. All this anxiety about finding the best route home to God is totally unnecessary. We can relax because Jesus has already made sure we’ll get there—we just need to trust in him—he will bring us safely home to be with the Father.
It is inevitable that there will be roadblocks in the way of us getting where we need to go. Life isn’t simple and the path to our true home with God in Christ isn’t always a direct one.
Sometimes we are taken down a difficult path—one that may be filled with boulders or floodwaters. We may find ourselves at an impasse or caught up in slow traffic. We find that Christ often takes a different road home than we expect. It may involve sitting through some rush hour traffic or avoiding some children playing in the street. But it will be the best path for each of us, because he loves us and knows what’s best for us. And he is with us in the midst of whatever we come across on our way home.
The really cool thing about Jesus taking us home to be with his Father is that he wants us to invite others to go with us on the journey. He’s got room for everybody in the car.
Not everybody is willing to drive along with him. Some are too busy planning out their own route or running down the street to catch a bus. Others want to sit in the back seat and give him directions—they want to tell him where to go and how to get there.
But he’s very gracious and tells us to keep asking people to join us. And he says to us each day, “Let’s go—Dad’s waiting!” And by his Spirit he carries us farther on our way to our true home.
Thank you, Jesus, for being the only and most direct path to our true home with the Father in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to let you tell us which way to go and to follow it. And give us the heart and willingness to share this journey with others by inviting them to join it. We praise you for your freely given grace and love. In your name, amen.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 NASB
By Linda Rex
A while back I was getting some help with health issues from a local chiropractor. It was good to receive some assistance with my problems, but I was appalled at the way shame and guilt were used there to try to motivate people to take care of their bodies through eating right, exercise and chiropractic care. If a person did not leave that place feeling bad about themselves, I would have been surprised—it was hard to escape the message that was being given.
As I began to look around me, I found many cultural messages that try to tell us we are guilty and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Often it is churches or parachurch groups that push this message—with the best of intentions, of course. But it can be seen and experienced in many places, even in advertising and in the business place.
I remember a pastor saying once that guilt and shame are healthy—they tell us when we have crossed the line between wrong and right, and they show us our need to repent. That’s all well and good, but I really don’t see Jesus using shame and guilt as a motivator anywhere in his ministry. Even his call to repent pointed people to himself as the coming and presence of the kingdom of God in their midst.
For example, when the woman who is caught in the act of adultery is brought before him, he merely asks that the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. So instead of shaming the poor woman further, or making her feel more guilty than she already probably felt, he pointed out our common humanity—that we are all imperfect and in need of grace. Then he invited the woman into a new way of living and being—“Go, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus’ ultimate invitation to a new way of living and being came through the cross. The apostle Paul helps us to understand that in Christ we are all new creatures—all that old self with its guilt and shame was taken up with Christ on the cross, crucified, buried and resurrected into a new self. God not only gives us a perfected humanity in Jesus, he also transforms us by his Spirit into a new person who can fully participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father.
At some point we all face the reality that we are not what we should be. It isn’t helpful to pile on guilt and shame in such situations. It is a whole lot more helpful to address such personal failures through love and grace within the context of community and loving relationship.
In other words, we are offered in Christ and by the Spirit a relationship full of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, predicated on Christ’s perfected humanity and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into alignment with all we were created to be as image-bearers of God. We offer this same relationship to one another, understanding that Christ defines our humanity now, and our shortcomings and failures, which are real, are buried in Christ and transformed by the Spirit as we are willing to participate with God in his work of transforming us into Christlikeness.
There is an appropriate time to speak truth into someone’s life about the harm they are doing to themselves and to others. This is a participation in God’s justice, and must always be done with love and grace. It is not constructive to go from there to shame and guilt—it is much more productive to offer forgiveness and unconditional acceptance while at the same time refusing to allow the person to continue to hurt themselves or others.
I’ve heard this called passive resistance. I once heard someone say that this is actually what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek. In the culture of the time, turning the other cheek wasn’t about letting someone abuse you freely, but rather about exposing the one who was being abusive to the public exposure and criticism of his behavior since it was culturally inappropriate and wrong to be abusive in that way. And therefore, within the context of community, the person would be motivated to change.
This means our communities and relationships need to be places where love and grace abound, and where people are accepted and forgiven rather than overwhelmed with shame and guilt. They need to be places where we point out our common center in Christ, and where we invite one another to grow up into all that Christ won for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Here the Holy Spirit is welcomed and obeyed, as he leads us into all truth and creates in us and among us the holy fellowship of the Triune God and the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In this place of our common center in Christ, we both acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses, but we also acknowledge where others are growing up in Christ as well. We create a safe environment in which people can face up to their shortcomings, confess their faults and receive the grace and help they need to begin to change. We open ourselves up through spiritual disciplines and shared community life to the work of the Holy Spirit who is the only one who can truly transform a person from the inside out.
This is what James Torrance and others call Christian community. This is a sharing in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. It is a wonderful experience to participate in such a community, so I encourage all my readers to find a group they can be a part of where such grace, love and truth are lived out in the presence of the Triune God. It can be hard to find people who are willing to be this transparent, humble and gracious. But it is definitely worth it.
Father, thank you that through your Son and by your Spirit you have freed us from guilt and shame, and you offer each of us participation in Christ’s perfected humanity and your Triune life of love. Grant us the grace to offer one another this same love and grace, and to live in fellowship with one another as you do. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.
“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5