The Humble Path to Unity
By Linda Rex
April 2, 2023, Palm or Passion Sunday—This season of reflection before the events of Holy Week has been an opportunity for us to go deeper in our walk with Christ. The challenges we have faced, whether health concerns, financial and work concerns, or relationship issues, have reminded us of our need for Christ. Perhaps we have ignored this cry of our hearts, or hopefully, we have tuned into it in such a way that we have allowed it to move us deeper into our walk with the Lord.
On this Palm Sunday, we are reminded of Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city of Jerusalem along with the other pilgrims celebrating the spring Jewish festival season. Christ arrived, seated on a symbol of humility, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, as the long-anticipated Messiah (Matthew 21:1–11). The important question asked of these pilgrims was, “Who is this?”—the very question each of us needs to comes to terms with. Who Jesus Christ is matters, for this is fundamental to the reason he came to earth, and why he ended up where he ended up—crucified.
The apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5–11, tells us something fundamental about Jesus’ identity. Dealing with issues of disunity within that congregation, he points out their need to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who they were in Christ. The fellowship of the Spirit, unity within the body of Christ, is only possible when we each are living and walking in true humility.
Paul then begins to describe what real humility looks like. Christ, as the Son of God, did not cling to the privileges of his divinity, but rather set them aside temporarily in order to join us in our humanity. Taking on our human flesh, Jesus experienced our real human life with all its temptations and struggles, yet remained sinless. Going on beyond this, Christ surrendered himself to be crucified—a death which was utterly humiliating for the Jewish people of that day and total foolishness for the Greeks. What humans deemed shameful and degrading was what Jesus Christ embraced, for our sakes—to free us from evil, sin, and death.
Paul goes on to say that the result of Jesus’ utter humility was that his Father exalted him to reign over all. One day each and every living creature, human or spirit, will bow to Christ, for the glory of the Father. Paul’s point was that humility is the path, not just to glory, but to true unity. If we want to have a true participation in the divine union and communion, it requires the price of humility. We are called to grow up in Christ, by the Spirit to put on his own humility, so that we will live together with one another in oneness and unity.
This makes me wonder whether we have been asking ourselves the correct questions when it comes to what we are struggling with in our world today. How often are our politicians actually willing to take the place of humility and shame for the sake of others? How willing are we as followers of Christ willing to own up to our failures and weaknesses, allowing others to see that we are as dependent upon the grace of God as everyone else? Are those of us who do business willing to do the hard thing and serve others rather than seek our own glory and success?
These are hard questions. It’s impossible to live in this world and do these things the way Jesus did, though the Savior said nothing is impossible for God. Perhaps this Palm Sunday, as we walk the streets with Jesus in his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, we might contemplate his real purpose for entering the city—to assure our redemption and transformation at the price of his own loss of life and dignity because of God’s heart of love and forgiveness toward us. In realizing and confessing our need, we may by the Spirit receive Christ’s heart of humility and service so that we will live in unity with others.
Thank you, Father, for sending your Son for our salvation. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to humble yourself so completely for our sakes. Heavenly Spirit, grant us truly humble hearts and minds that we might live in true unity with one another, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ‘every knee will bow’, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/03/olitthe-humble-path-to-unity.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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Joy in Judgment
by Linda Rex
December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?
Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.
Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.
It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.
Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.
How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?
It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.
But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.
All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.
Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?
During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?
Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.
Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–10 NASB
“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the “blind receive sight” and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the “poor have the gospel preached to them”. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ” Matthew 11:2–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]
[More devotionals may be found at https://lifeinthetrinity.blog ]
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One Heart and One Soul
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.
Anticipating the Celebration
By Linda Rex
November 8, 2020, Proper 27—If I were to ask you to tell me about the day of the Lord, what would you say? The prophet Amos spoke of the day of the Lord. He had choice words for his people who looked forward to this day, thinking it would be a day of celebration and rejoicing.
These people of God were ignoring the reality that injustice and unrighteousness were the pattern of their lives. They didn’t seem to realize they were deciding their future by their everyday decisions. Sadly, Amos said that the day of the Lord wouldn’t be a day of light for them, but one of darkness. He said it would be like a man fleeing from a lion, only to suddenly meet a bear instead. Or maybe when he finally got safely home, leaning his hand against the wall in relief, he was bitten by a snake (Amos 5:18-24). What a picture!
The issue is really, I suppose, our expectations regarding the day of the Lord. What do we think is going to happen when everything comes to an end or even when we die? Do we realize that how we live today impacts our present life as well as our eternal future? No, we can’t earn eternal life—it is entirely a gift from God. But receiving this gift means a change occurs in us and in our lives—we begin to live in the truth of who God created us to be as his image-bearers.
We need to embrace our identity as image-bearers of God. We were created out of out-going love, to love God and love one another—to know and be known, as Jesus describes this life. There is a deep interwoven connectedness in the Godhead, in the relation between the Father and Son in the Spirit. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, wove us into that connection or union—and we participate by faith in this Triune life and love by his Spirit. When we’re living reconciled to God and one another, in the reconciliation Jesus created for us, we are being truly ourselves, being truly human.
Living in ways that are contrary to this isolate us or turn us away from face to face relationship with God and one another. We can say we know Jesus or are Christians, but the evidence of our lives may very well say that the exact opposite is true. And even though Jesus included every human in his life, death, and resurrection, it may be that most of the people we encounter day by day don’t want anything to do with him. They, like the rest of us, will one day face the day of the Lord—which may come through death or through the final apocalyptic struggle. What will we say when we are face to face with our Lord?
Amos wrote to the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, but his words resonate with us today. In the face of their depravity and ungodly living, he says simply, “Seek Me that you may live. … Seek good and not evil, that you may live; | And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you, | Just as you have said! Hate evil, love good, | And establish justice in the gate! Perhaps the Lord God of hosts | May be gracious …” (Amos 5:4, 14-15 NASB).
It does not matter what nation we may belong to or what people group we are from. Our race, gender, and every other distinction is a moot point when it comes to the day of the Lord. Even now, at this moment, every one of us stands poised on the edge of eternity. The choices we make matter. The things we think, say, and do impact us, the people around us, and the people who come after us. Are we just going through the motions, or are we assuming the responsibility to receive and participate in the gift of grace we have been given in Jesus Christ?
In the story of the ten virgins who are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom in anticipation of the wedding celebration, we find that both the wise and foolish nod off as time goes by. The difference between the two seems to be that one planned ahead and the other didn’t. It wasn’t like the foolish ones didn’t have time to go get extra oil—it’s more a matter that they waited until the last minute and ended up missing most of the party while they were out shopping.
Christ has done all we need so that we can live in face to face relationship with him and the Father in the Spirit right now. He sent the Spirit so we can participate in his life with his Father both now and forever. But he doesn’t demand this of us—he invites us. He offers his life for our life. We can be like the foolish virgins, ignoring the benefits of this gift until it is too late to do anything about it. We can be preoccupied with our own human efforts at creating a life for ourselves. And then in that final day we will find ourselves knocking desperately on the door, only to hear the bridegroom Jesus say, “I don’t know you.”
Or right now, we can turn to Jesus, trusting in him. His life for our life. His faith, hope, and love for our human, fleshly passions. His justice for our injustice. His goodness for our evil behavior. Whatever it is we are seeking, we do not need to go to the market to find it. The oil of God’s goodness and love, his eternal Spirit, is a free gift by faith in Jesus. The foolish virgins trusted in their own ability to get themselves what they needed, when in reality they needed to trust the bridegroom, turning to the Source of all things in faith, believing that they would have what they needed in that moment to participate in the celebration.
Our participation in the divine festivities, the wedding between Christ and his Bride the Church, is not based upon our performance, but solely upon God’s grace. We receive this gift by faith, participating in Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism—our one-time inclusion in the body of Christ the Church—and in an ongoing way through communion—as we share in the bread and the wine. And as those who have received this gift, we begin to live out the truth of our identity as the Bride of Christ and as the welcome guests at the party by correctly imaging the Source of our identity, God in Christ.
When the nation of Israel entered the promised land, finally establishing their homeland, Joshua addressed the assembly. He asked them who they were going to serve—the idols of their fathers and of the peoples of that land, or the God who brought them out of Egypt, who gave them his love and grace as he brought them into the promised land. Joshua established that he and his family would serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15). But what about the rest of the people?
The day of the Lord has an already-not-yet sense to it in that Christ has come, defeating evil, sin, and death—the end is certain and in our favor. But we also anticipate the upcoming celebration of the wedding feast when Christ will marry his Bride the Church and we will live with him, the Father and Spirit in the new heavens and earth. Today we simply have the opportunity to reconsider whether or not we are properly anticipating this event. What are we doing with the gift of grace God has given us in Christ? Are we in tune with the Spirit, following Christ’s lead? Are we walking by faith rather than by sight? Where are we seeking our life—in the things of this human existence or in the spiritual realities?
Dear Father, thank you for giving us your Son and your Spirit so that we might participate in your life and love now and forever. Today, we affirm that we desire to seek our life in you and not in the things of this world. Thank you for your forgiveness and love, for we have fallen so short of all you meant for us to be. We trust in you, Jesus, in your life, death, resurrection, and ascension and not in ourselves. Holy God, we receive the gift of life and grace which you give us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:10-13 NASB
See also 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.
The Scandal of God’s Compassion
By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
The Boundary of Grace
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.
Trusting the God Who Provides
By Linda Rex
June 28, 2020, PROPER 8—Reading stories from the Old Testament is a good reminder that human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia. People still make decisions that hurt themselves and others, and they behave in ways which can be loving, kind, and sacrificial, but also selfish, sinful and at times even grossly evil. Families still for generations pass on traits they have learned from their forefathers—generosity, compassion and creativity, hate and anger, abusive language and behavior, among many others.
These stories from the past tell us, when we look at them closely, of how we as humans so often turn away from God to seek our own ways, inviting the consequence of sin—death—both physical and spiritual. When God meets us in the midst of our broken ways of thinking, believing, and acting, we find we are faced with the reality that apart from his intervention and healing, we will never be truly whole.
We also learn from these stories, if we are attentive, of the love and grace of God. Even in our wrong-headedness, God meets us, draws us to himself, and offers us forgiveness and fellowship, as well as instruction on what it looks like to live in loving relationship with him and others. He allows us to participate in what he’s doing in the world, calling us up into new ways of thinking, believing, and living.
One of the stories in Genesis is that of God encountering Abraham as Abram, drawing him into relationship with himself, and making a covenant with him. He promised him a son in his old age, and after many years of waiting, Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a son whom they named Isaac. No doubt, all those years of waiting seemed as nothing as they reveled in the blessing God had given them of an heir—the child of promise, a gift of laughter in their old age.
One day Abraham believed he heard God tell him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him, to prove his devotion to the God who had given them this precious child. Abraham left immediately the next morning and took Isaac, some servants, and all he needed for the sacrifice and headed toward the mountain.
After three days, they came to foot of the mountain where Abraham believed God said the offering was to be made. Abraham told the servants to wait there, loaded up everything he needed, and he and his son took off up the mountain. Now Isaac was a smart child and knew there was something a little odd about this burnt offering. Up to this point, every burnt offering had involved the sacrifice of a lamb or some animal. But they hadn’t brought any animals with them, and this bothered him.
Isaac pondered the question for a while, and finally ventured to ask his father about this. “We’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sheep for the offering?” he asked. Abraham replied in an almost prophetic manner: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Even though at this point he did not tell Isaac what was going on, Abraham trusted God had a reason for what he thought the Lord was asking him to do. He was obeying God in the only way he knew how and was trusting that no matter what happened, the Lord would make it right. The author of Hebrews wrote that Abraham did what he did by faith, trusting that “God is able to raise people even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19 NASB).
As the story continues, we find that Abraham laid Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife to make the horrific sacrifice—the kind of sacrifice forbidden in later years to God’s people—the sacrifice of a human child. This was not how God wanted to be worshiped—it was never in God’s plan for human beings to kill one another or to offer their children to him as a bloody sacrifice, even though many people did this as part of their rituals in the worship of idols.
The intervention of an angel stopped the deadly blade as he let Abraham know that God knew he loved and feared him and that he did not need to make this extreme sacrifice to prove it. The ram Abraham saw caught in a thicket was proof that God had provided an animal in Isaac’s place to be the burnt offering. There Abraham gave God the name YHWH-Jireh, The Lord Will Provide. He learned an important lesson that day about faith, and the love and grace of God.
In many ways, just this experience was a gift to Abraham and to the many generations of his descendants which followed. Abraham was to be the father of descendants more than the number of stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. There would come a time when a child of one of these descendants would offer himself up as a sacrifice on the behalf of all people. This would be the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ. God himself would provide the sacrifice which was needed for all of us to be redeemed and restored.
In the apocalyptic letter to John, the apostle writes about Jesus entering after his death and resurrection into the presence of the Father in the Spirit and how all the holy angels bowed before him. They worshipped him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NASB). This Lamb of God who was the Son of God, humbly laid himself on the altar of sacrifice for all of humanity and allowed himself to be crucified so that all of us could be adopted as the children of God, sharing in his own loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
We as human beings have striven to make ourselves right with God, to prove to him that we love and fear him. We have struggled to be good people—so often choosing ways which have turned us away from God’s love rather than bringing us nearer. So often our efforts cause harm to those around us rather than helping or blessing them. Our best efforts, even our most noble sacrifices—the offering of our children, whether real or metaphorical—for the sake of proving our faithfulness and love to God, have always and ever been in vain.
The Lord Who Provides has already, in Christ, done all that is needed for everyone of us to live in right relationship with the Father in the Spirit. We need to trust, as Abraham did, that in the end God is going to make everything right—that he has already provided the Lamb which was needed and that the offering that this Lamb made was acceptable and perfect in God’s sight. Our role in all this is that which we can learn from Abraham—simply, faith—trusting in the finished work of Christ who stands in our place and on our behalf.
This story teaches us much about the miracle of God’s grace and his provision for all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. When we take the time to read these stories and look for Jesus in them, we will find that he is there—always at work in this world, from before the beginning of time even till today—providing all that is needed for life and godliness. May we trust our Lord to finish what he has begun, believing that he will make all things right in the end, so we can be with him in glory forever as God’s beloved adopted children.
Dearest Abba, thank you for providing us exactly what we need to live in loving relationship with you and one another. Thank you for the most precious gift of your Son and your Spirit. Grant us the grace to always trust in your perfect love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:21-23 NASB
See also Genesis 22:1–14.
Lamenting the Very Good
By Linda Rex
June 7, 2020, HOLY TRINITY—Lately it seems as though this has been a long, drawn-out season of lament. There have been repeated reasons to feel and express sorrow, to regret, to mourn over the loss of lives to mass shootings, natural disasters, and the most recent pandemic.
The exact figures of the lives lost just to COVID-19 are unknown, but according to the World Health Organization website on May 28th, there were 357,736 deaths reported worldwide. Where were these 357,736 people last year at this time? What were their lives like? How many lives did each one touch? What about their families and friends, work colleagues, and teachers? If we do not make the effort to lament, to grieve the loss of each of these people, then we lose our ability to value the worth of each human being we meet.
Our cellphones and other devices make it possible now to interact with a large number of people immediately, creating a response by what we post on social media or on websites. We can affect thousands and even millions of people simply by what we say or do, what pictures we take, and what movies we create. In the midst of this freedom of expression, we find ourselves exposed not just to the best of humanity, but also to the dredges.
Most recently a wave of protest erupted over a film posted which showed the unlawful use of power and authority by police against someone of color. The violent response of many to this event echoes the reality that here in the U.S. we still have not learned the true value of a human being. The fact that we still create artificial divisions between us using race, ethnicity, gender, income, intelligence—the list goes on—shows we still do not know our story and our identity as humans.
It is important that we lament our failure to love our fellowman. We fail so often to love our fellowman simply by refusing to give him or her the status of fellowman. By refusing to treat every other human being as an equal, we actually diminish our own dignity as human beings. We make ourselves less than what we were created to be—image-bearers of God himself, the One who did not think it beneath himself to come to earth and take on our human flesh, becoming what we are to bring us into union and communion with himself.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed even more of our inhumanity, simply by putting leaders and caregivers in the position of having to decide who gets treatment and who does not, who is protected and who is not. It seems that, in reality, the decision being made is, who is expendable? Is it true that someone who has lived a long good life does not have the same value as someone who is just starting out? How is it than we can place a value on a human being based simply on their age or productivity?
Do you see the issues here? We are forced into a corner where we must make these impossible decisions, but at some point we have got to admit that we have made someone less than human in the process of trying to decide who lives and who dies. As human beings, we really have no excuse, for God has been trying to tell us for millennia that we are made by God’s love, to love him and one another. We must pause and lament our failure to love God and one another—we have failed to be the image-bearers of the Triune God we were meant to be.
In my book, Making Room, I talk about how we as human beings find our identity in the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This God was revealed by Jesus Christ to be three Persons in one Being—each unique yet equal to the others while united in unbreakable communion. This communion in which they exist, this perichoretic love, is the overflowing abundant source of our existence as human beings. We are made to be image-bearers of this God.
This is the same God who, after creating the cosmos, the earth and everything in it, pronounced it all very good. Even though he knew that we had the capacity to turn away from his love and attempt to live apart from his abiding presence, he still pronounced us very good. He still sought conversation and fellowship with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. And even when they chose the knowledge of good and evil over real life in intimate relation with him, he covered it all with his love and grace as he covered them with animal skins.
In coming into our human flesh, the Word of God did not isolate himself from those who were less than him or who were powerless, but rather joined himself to them and gave them his presence and power. In Christ we have God restoring us to the very good which was ours in the very beginning. This above all things should teach us that to offer ourselves to those whom society deems less than or weaker than, giving them our strength, resources, and support, is to more accurately bear the image of the God who made us.
God is teaching me that one of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of our offering ourselves to one another in this way is fear. Fear occurs when we do not know one another well—when we make assumptions based on past experience, hearsay, gossip, or someone else’s opinion and do not make the effort to get to know the person ourselves on a one-to-one basis. Our Scriptures say it is perfect love which casts out fear—that he who fears is not made perfect in love.
If God, in and through Christ and by the Spirit, can love each and every person on this earth enough to join us in our humanity, live the life we were meant to live, to die our death and rise again, and then come in the person of the Spirit to enable us to participate in the heavenly Triune fellowship, then I would say God has given us everything we need to begin to live in loving relationship with one another. The apostle Paul calls to us, “Strive for full restoration…be of one mind, live in peace.” We do this as the God of love and peace is in us and with us by the Spirit.
Let us lament our failures to love our brothers and sisters. Let’s turn away from ourselves and our stubborn willful independence and turn towards the One who offers us his grace and love, Jesus Christ. Receive from him the gift of life in union and communion with the God who made and sustains all things.
It is in this life with our Triune God, with Jesus as our Mediator between God and man, that we find the capacity and power to love and understand those whom we normally reject and fear. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who binds us together in oneness, enabling us to be likeminded and to live in peace with one another.
It is Jesus living his life in us who works to restore the image of God in each of us, bringing us to completeness, enabling us as human beings to properly reflect the image of the God who is three Persons in one Being. It is in the name of this Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—we are baptized, and it is at his table we take communion, gratefully receiving all he has done for us in Jesus. We live our lives from then on, showing those around us what it looks like to live in loving fellowship with God and our fellowman as image-bearers of the Trinity.
Abba, thank you for loving us in spite of our inability and unwillingness to live in loving relationship with one another. We are so dependent upon your grace and forgiveness for our prejudices, our hatred, our fear, our murder and abuse of those who you have given us as brothers and sisters. Lord, if you do not lift us up, renew and restore us, we have no hope—we trust in the finished work of Christ. Let your kingdom come, your will, Abba, be done here on earth, in every city, state, and nation, as it is in heaven, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV
“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. … By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” Genesis 1:31a; 2:2 NASB
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” Matthew 28:18–20 NASB
Encountering Jesus Beyond the Grave
By Linda Rex
April 19, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER—This morning the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my irises are starting to bloom. The spring days here in middle Tennessee are pleasant when they are not blistering hot, and I enjoy being able to breathe in some fresh air as I sit out on my backyard patio.
When I lived farther north, spring was a welcome time of year—so refreshing after months of snow, ice, and bitter cold. When the wildflowers began to bloom and it was time to search for the morel mushrooms, this meant that the long days of being stuck inside were over and we could wander about the woods and meadows, drinking in the beauty of the countryside.
For many of us, wandering about the countryside is something we can only do in our dreams since we are held inside by the “Safer at Home” guidelines. We might feel like we are stuck in the midst of a long winter of quarantine, and we’re not seeing any immediate end to what is causing the death not only of people, but of jobs, finances, and our economic stability. There are many who are working hard wondering whether this will be the day they get infected or their dear one won’t come home. Others long to visit with parents in the nursing home, but they can’t, and grieve that they may not get to say goodbye before their parents are gone.
This leads us to the gospel passage for this week, where we find the disciples in the upper room with the doors barred, fearful that they might be found and suffer torture and death at the hands of those who killed Jesus. Even though they had heard the good news that Jesus was risen, they were still struggling to believe the reality of his resurrection and it showed in their actions during this time. Like many of us today, they were experiencing a large gap between the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the everyday experiences of their lives.
Jesus surprised them by entering the room in spite of the locked doors and offering them a simple greeting of peace, shalom. He had promised them peace, and here he brings it to them, demonstrating the reality of his risen glorified human body. In offering his peace, he gave them a commission—sending them out to share with others the good news of his resurrected life. He did not mean for them to hide themselves away, but to believe in him and to share that belief with everyone else. He breathed on them, encouraging them to receive the Spirit, and commissioned them to be his agents on earth to carry on his ministry by sharing the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
What did the disciples tell Thomas, who hadn’t been present? What was it about what they said to him that caused him not to believe? He wanted some tangible evidence he could see and touch to base his belief on and he didn’t have it. He wanted to see Jesus for himself, to see and touch his wounds.
Even after Jesus had come and revealed himself to the disciples, eight days later they were still hiding behind locked doors. The power of Pentecost wasn’t yet evident in their lives since they were still fearful of the consequences of being out in public where they could be arrested. There wasn’t yet the boldness in gospel proclamation we see after the Spirit came on them in power. This time, though, Thomas was with them. And Jesus came intentionally to give him an opportunity to see and touch his body—to have his questions answered in such a way that belief would supersede unbelief.
Jesus is not put off by our questions, by our unbelief—who he is as our Lord and Savior is not altered by our lack of faith. Jesus is who he is in spite of our unwillingness to believe the truth about him. Here we see Jesus taking the time and making the effort to meet Thomas right where he was, giving him what he needed so he could believe. As he approached Thomas and showed him his hands and his side, inviting him to touch his wounds, Thomas was overcome with the reality of who Jesus was. He fell to his knees, addressing Jesus with the terms saved only for divinity, “My Lord and My God!”
Jesus wants us to stop not believing, and to keep on believing that he is God in human flesh—our Savior and our Lord. When the apostle John wrote his gospel, he had a multitude of miracles and signs to draw upon, but he only chose to use eight. His purpose was not to give a detailed, extensive list, but to provide enough testimony that we could believe and keep on believing that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord.
What would it take for you and me to believe and to keep on believing that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, who died and yet rose again? What is it that is standing in the way of us being able to accept the reality that God loves us so much that he came in person to stand in our stead, to die our death, and to raise us to new life? Are we expecting Jesus to show up in person so we can see and touch his very glorified human body?
Sometimes I think our current deconstructionist thinking is removing our ability to take things on faith. Indeed, there are many things in life which we need detailed evidence for. But when it comes to matters of faith, there comes a time when we must encounter Jesus for ourselves. Jesus is willing and able to enter the locked rooms of our hearts and lives by his Spirit and meet us just where we are. He is more than able to provide the tangible evidence of his presence and power as we need it. However, perhaps it is time for us to quit shutting the doors and locking them out of fear—to quit hiding behind our expectations of what God is really like and allow ourselves to encounter God in the risen Jesus Christ the way he actually is.
What is keeping us away from faith in Christ? Is it the trappings of religion? The memories of spiritual abuse or abusive family members? Is it bitterness, unforgiveness, or anger at God? What are we blaming God for that is holding us in our pattern of unbelief?
This is a good time to read again the gospel of John and his epistle. He speaks profoundly of a God who loves you and me so much that he would not live in eternity without us. He came for us, stooping down into the dredges of our broken humanity, even into death and hell itself, to lift us up and bring us into the oneness with himself we were created for. Here is a God who would not be God without us, but who loves us so much that he was willing to meet us where we are to bring us to where he is, into his very presence through Jesus in the Spirit.
And he calls us to believe—to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. What does that mean for you and for me? We are not left in the midst of all this, in the winter of this broken human existence, without hope. Already, in Christ, the heavenly realities are present—we can participate in Jesus’ intimate relationship with his Father in the Spirit—by faith. There comes a point where our experience of God’s forgiveness, of his real presence in us and with us, becomes tangible and we are able to believe, and keep on believing.
Pause for a moment today and consider what it is that may be standing between you and faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus. What is it that is keeping you from belief, from continuing to believe? I invite you to have that conversation with God—to ask him to enable you to believe. Rather than inviting him behind the closed doors of your heart and mind, attend to the reality he is already present there by the Holy Spirit, showing himself to you. Ask him to help you to see him and to believe. God dwells in human hearts, yours included—awaken to faith in Christ. And believe.
Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for being present even now by the Spirit in all the messiness of our lives and in our broken world, in the winter of our souls. We are filled with fear and with many reasons not to believe in you, Jesus—melt them away. Give us your faith. Awaken us to the reality of your indwelling presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3–9 NASB
See also John 20:19–31.
When Love Casts Out Fear
By Linda Rex
April 12, 2020, RESURRECTION OF THE LORD, EASTER—During this pandemic season, the one common note I have heard in the news and on social media is that of fear. The fears we have are multiple and include concerns about politics, health, and economic security. We cannot watch or listen to much in the outside world without being confronted with real concern about many things.
As we enter into the end of the season of preparation for Easter, we are confronted with a reality in which, when we embrace it and believe it, is meant to free us once and for all from fear. Our anxiety about so many things is founded in a belief that we are unloved, left alone in this universe, and that the solution to our problems is all up to us. We may even believe in God, but often, we don’t act like it—instead, we act as if he were dead, laying in the grave we have created for him in our fear, unbelief, and rebellion.
What makes us do this? We were created as image-bearers of God, and so it should be so natural for us to reflect that image. Often, we do reflect the image of our God who is love and don’t even realize it. I see this in the parents who care for an autistic child, an adult child caring for both her family and her disabled parents, a person leaving their work to care for their parent with Alzheimer’s—so many examples exist when we begin to look around us. Where is the source of such humble, self-sacrificing love? It can have no source other than in the heart of God.
Fear often arises out of our inability to connect with others, to find a common ground where two people can be of like mind and interests. Our fears about other people often come to the fore when we don’t understand or accept the ways in which we differ or have opposing viewpoints or preferences. Fear is also created when one person or group imposes its will upon another without an appropriate acknowledgement of their God-given personhood and dignity. Fear is a useful tool to those who want to enslave, control, and manipulate others.
We were never meant to fear God in this way, nor were we meant to live in fear of one another. This is not what we were created for. We were created for connection, for unity, for oneness. We were created to be in relationship with God and man that is filled with joy, peace, and respect. A mutual indwelling, a deep sharing of heart and mind borne out of God’s very nature, is what we were created for. Anything less than this is the stomping ground of fear.
So often we project onto God all of our fear, making him out to be a condemning, cruel master rather than the loving, forgiving Father he is. We believe his sole purpose of existence is to find fault with us and execute punishment which we are so sure we deserve. We know we fall short of all we were meant to be, so we deserve to be punished. This is where fear comes in and causes us to be alienated in our minds from the God who is our Abba, our loving Father.
And this is why the Word of God to us was and is the God/man Jesus Christ. We needed to be freed once and for all from our fear—our terror of God and our fear of death. It is significant on resurrection morning that the ladies who came to the tomb were, in Matthew’s account, told by the angels and by Jesus, “Don’t be afraid.” If there is one thing they needed to know beyond all else in that moment, it was that there was nothing left to fear. The ultimate expression of the love of God had once and for all cast out our fear.
What is needed is for us to wrestle with what it means to live life without fear. How is our human existence different now that Jesus is risen from the dead? What does this mean for us as we face the difficulties of life, the pandemic, our job loss, or our business failure? How do we continue to face all these things with patient courage and grace?
If we are not in tune with the spiritual realities, we can resemble the Roman guards who, at the presence of the angels, were so overcome with fear they became like dead men. They had been diligently doing their best to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus away. But they hadn’t planned on an encounter with angels, nor with the resurrection power of God himself. The insignificance of their careful grave-watching became evident in the presence of the risen Lord. Nothing could keep the stone against the tomb once God decided it needed to be moved so people could see inside and know Jesus was risen.
The angels gave the women instructions—no doubt from the mouth of Jesus himself: Don’t be afraid; come and see—Jesus is risen; go tell the others; meet Jesus in Galilee. The practicality of the instructions left no place for fear or anxiety—they had things to do! Caught between the two emotions of fear and joy, the women headed back to the city. Wait till the others heard! And then they encountered the risen Lord. Can you imagine how overwhelmed they were with the reality of what they were experiencing? They were overcome with a desire to worship him—our best response to encountering Christ.
What Jesus said to them echoed the words of the angels—don’t be afraid, go tell the others, meet me in Galilee. There was in his words a renewal of the connection he had with them, a commitment to their relationship, and hope for more time together in fellowship with one another. All of these expressions of his continuing love for them removed their fear. They could trust that he was still the Jesus they knew before the crucifixion—he was still their friend and brother—only now he was the risen Lord.
The apostle Paul reminds us to keep our mind, not on what’s going on in the world around us or on everything people are doing wrong, or on the bad things which are happening, but on the things above, where Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God in glory. We’re not to have our hearts set on what’s in this transient human society and culture, but on the eternal realities where Jesus is the risen Lord, holding in himself our real life, our true existence. Our zōē life is not in this transient, dying world, but in Christ, held in heaven for us, to one day be revealed in the new heavens and new earth.
This is how we can live each day without fear. Death is not the end, but the passage into our eternal connection with all those who are in Christ. Suffering in this life is not something to fear, but to embrace as participation in Christ’s suffering or resisted as participation in Christ’s efforts to make all things new. Every part of our existence is swept up in Christ where we participate with him in his life, sharing in his love for all humanity as the One who plumbed the depths and brought us up into the divine life and love. We are called to faith, to believe in the reality of what Christ has done in living our life, dying our death, and rising again, bringing us into the presence of Abba.
Fear is a tough taskmaster, and we easily fall prey to it. This time of year, as we celebrate the resurrection, we are reminded of the abundance of God’s love and grace, of the forgiveness which is ours in Jesus Christ. In the sending of the Spirit, God makes possible for us to share in Jesus’ resurrection life. Trusting in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, we are awakened to new life—a life freed from the fear of death and all that comes with it.
Our resurrected Lord comes to you and to me again and again in the presence and power of his Spirit to say, “Don’t be afraid. Tell others the good news. Find your home in and with me.” Live life with a focus on the risen Christ and be busy about his business. There will be no room for fear because there is nothing left in this cosmos which can ever separate us from his love, not even the grave.
Thank you, Abba, for being a God we do not need to fear but can rest in, trusting in your never-ending love. Thank you for your faithfulness, for raising up not only Jesus, but in him our humanity, enabling us to participate in his risen life in and through your Holy Spirit. Grant us the faith to believe, to trust in all that Christ is and has done, that we may share in your divine life and love both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1–4 NASB
See also Matthew 28:1–10.