By Linda Rex
August 1, 2021, PROPER 13—There is something about the story of King David that resonates with me today. Here was a man who sought to live his life in a way that showed a dependency on and trust in God that few people experience. The lad who trusted the Lord to deliver him from the lion and the bear is the young man who trusted he could conquer the giant Goliath—and he did, with a simple stone from a sling.
After hiding for many years from King Saul, who sought to kill him, David learned to trust in the Lord’s leading, telling him when to move so that he and his men would be safe. As David took on his role as king over the ancient Israelites after King Saul’s death, he eventually took the city of Jerusalem and made it his own. King David and his army were busy for many years putting the enemies of the nation to flight. He was a charismatic and powerful political leader who for the most part, sought to live and reign with justice and integrity.
As we look at David’s life as king of Israel, though, we find some significant flaws in this hero. On one occasion, David didn’t go to war with his army—he stayed home and got himself into trouble. He committed adultery with the wife of Uriah, and when she became pregnant, he tried to fix it by making the child look like Uriah’s child. When Uriah wouldn’t cooperate, he sent him into battle with a note for the general Joab to put him on the frontlines and make sure he died (which he did).
King David valued the counsel of Nathan the prophet. After Bathsheba mourned Uriah’s death, David married her and their child was born. David had disguised his sin the best that he could, but there were some people who knew the truth of what he had done—his failure was a serious issue for him as a leader. Nathan came to him and tactfully told David a story about a man who stole a favored lamb from a poor man and used it to provide a meal for his guest. King David was infuriated by the story and demanded the greedy man’s death. Intrepid Nathan replied, “You are that man” (2 Samuel 11:26–12:13a).
How often do we come up against the reality, “You are that person”? What excuses, rationalizations, or reasonings do we use to avoid the truth, that we are the one who did that deed or failed to do what is needed or sought our life in places that only ended in death? How do we come to an acceptance of so grave a failure to love or obey the One who created us? It is tough to have the humility to own the truth. And we must. We must be willing to allow God to be the truthful One, the just One—the One who knows us completely, inside and out—and yet, loves us.
So often we live as King David did in that dark time in his life, seeking to feed the hunger and thirst of our soul with tangible, physical things which don’t last and which eventually turn out to be things which hold us captive or drain us of faith, hope, and love, bringing death and destruction into our lives. The king in this story did the right thing though when he woke up, the only thing which could bring any redemption whatsoever into his life—he repented and turned back to God. We see that he moved into prayer, fasting, and great humility, seeking God’s face and his mercy.
Psalm 51 is a song David wrote about his humble and honest acceptance of responsibility for what he had done and his desire to make things right in whatever way he could. What David sought was more than just an amendment of his moral behavior. It was a making right of his relationship with God. This is the key—he trusted in God’s gracious provision of forgiveness and reconciliation, and genuinely sought it out. He committed himself to life transformation at the hands of God, knowing he could never do it himself, on his own.
This brings me to the gospel story for this Sunday. The crowds were thrilled when Jesus fed them bread and fish, and sought to make him their political ruler. Jesus’ wilderness temptation came again as the crowd, satisfied with physical food, began to push for Christ to be king. Instead of yielding to their demands, Jesus sent his disciples away and dismissed the crowd. Jesus understood the profound difference between the physical hunger which drove them and the spiritual hunger in them which needed to be fed. Having poured himself out for them to provide for their physical needs, he sought to be filled anew himself in the one way which had eternal significance—he went up onto the mountain to pray. Jesus knew the true Source of life—and it wasn’t bread and fish.
The next day as the crowds sought him out on the other side of the sea, Jesus told them that they weren’t seeking what really mattered. They wanted him to feed their stomachs—he wanted to feed them spiritual food, food that would last on into eternity. They were seeking to provide for their physical needs in this life, while they needed to be much more concerned about their spiritual need for redemption and salvation. They were asking what works they needed to be doing in order to do the works of God. Jesus replied that there was only one work of God they needed to be doing and that was to believe in him, the One God had sent.
The crowds wanted Jesus to prove that he was greater than Moses. They believed that for forty years, Moses had provided manna, bread from heaven, in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2–4, 9–15). Jesus reminded them that Moses wasn’t the one who had provided food for the people—the “I Am”, their covenant God, had provided it. He was the One who had taken care of feeding them during their wilderness travels. Sadly, in spite of his gracious provision during those forty years, the ancient Israelites did not simply trust God to care for them but often complained and criticized Moses and Aaron instead (Psalm 78).
Jesus emphatically proclaimed that in the wilderness, his Father had provided them with the manna they needed to sustain them, but it wasn’t the bread of life. The One who descended from heaven, he said, is the One who is the true bread who gives life. Then Jesus made, as John records it, one of his signature “I Am” statements: “I am the bread of life.” Jesus wasn’t talking about providing for the physical needs of the crowd, but rather, their spiritual needs—their need for the zōē life of God, eternal life or new life which would be theirs in Christ, who was God in human flesh (John 6:24–40).
Like the woman at the well, the crowds sought an endless supply for their physical hunger and thirst. But Jesus was offering an endless supply for their spiritual hunger and thirst. He was offering himself as the Source of this genuine life. What they needed was not another meal or the fulfillment of their physical needs. What they needed was faith—to come to him and to believe in him. They needed to turn away from solely trying to satisfy their own needs through physical means and to trust him to supply every need they might have.
The Father sent Jesus so that every human being could be offered and receive eternal life in Christ. The genuine bread of life is Jesus Christ, the one who came to live, die, and rise again—taking our humanity into new life, into the presence of the Father now and forever in the Spirit. We find our true sustenance by living in an ongoing, trusting relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit. As we turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and turn to Christ, we find fulfillment, rest and renewal as we grow in Christlikeness. We find, as we trust in him to meet every need, that he is faithful and gracious in his care of us.
Today, not all of us struggle to make ends meet or wonder where we are going to find the money for next week’s groceries. Some of us do. Yes, we need to do our part in providing for ourselves by doing an honest day’s work as we are able to. But our true dependency needs to be on the One who holds all things in his hand, the true Source of our life—the Bread of Heaven, Jesus Christ. We need to turn away from those things we try to find our life in and seek to find our true life in the One who feeds us with his very Self. By faith, we are brought in Christ into a new way of living and being that will last for all eternity as we walk and talk day by day with our Triune God who is love.
Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us the true bread of life, your Son Jesus Christ, and for providing for all we need for life and godliness. Thank you for pouring out your Spirit so that we might participate in your very life, now and forever, as Father, Son and Spirit. Grant us the grace to depend upon you alone for all we need, and to seek first and foremost the true spiritual life which is ours in Christ. Amen.
“Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, always give us this bread.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.’” John 6:32–35 (24–40) NASB
By Linda Rex
July 25, 2021, PROPER 12—This is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it. I can hear it now—all the stories of what is going wrong in the world—floods in Europe, droughts in the U.S., and a zillion other tragedies happening all around us. How in the world can I simply say that it is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it?
I’m sensing more and more that this “information age” we are living in is starting to take its toll upon countless people who can no longer believe in or celebrate a living God who loves them and cares deeply about them and about everything that is going on in their lives. It is easy to find experts who will tell us all the reasons not to believe that Jesus Christ actually lived and was who he said he was—the Messiah, God in human flesh. Why should we bother when by all appearances the evidence tells us otherwise?
For some, it is easy to alter or bring into question the Scriptures the church uses to teach and form its theology. And it is easy to reformulate the creeds or bring into question their validity, challenging what has been held for centuries as orthodox doctrine. We can also quite easily find fault with the early apostolic succession following the resurrection, which ensured the validity of the canon and the creeds of the early church. We realize that humans are faulty and records can be altered or misused or eliminated. But what happens when we end up face to face with the resurrected Jesus Christ? What happens when you or I encounter the living Lord?
When the early Christian martyrs faced their executioners, they were often asked to renounce Jesus Christ in order to save themselves from a horrific painful death. But they would reply, in essence, that to deny Christ was to deny their Lord, the one who saved them, the one who loved them unconditionally and suffered and died on their behalf. Because they had personally encountered the resurrected Lord and received him by faith, they simply could not do it, just as they could not avoid praying for those who were causing them such suffering and death—for this was Jesus’ way. Living in union and communion with their Lord meant for them a sharing in his suffering and death and they thought it nothing to offer themselves in the same way that Jesus had offered himself so freely on behalf of all humanity.
We can get so immersed in the complexities of the theology and doctrine that we miss the simplicity of the gospel. In this moment today, wherever we are and whoever we are—we need to be honest and truthful with ourselves. Instead of critiquing Christians or the Christian faith, perhaps we need to gaze silently upon the One who is the foundation or cornerstone—Jesus Christ.
In gazing upon him, we see ourselves. He is that human we were created to be, who as God in human flesh, loved and obeyed our heavenly Father wholeheartedly and lived a life filled with and led by the Spirit, so he loved and served others as we were created to. The deepest hunger or yearning of our heart was meant to be filled by him—whether we realize it or not. What we stuff with so many other things will never find its fullness apart from his indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. We were always meant to have God living in us as well as with us.
When Jesus saw a large crowd approaching, he asked Philip about buying enough food to feed them. Philip replied that it would cost about two hundred day’s wages to buy that much food. Andrew, trying to be helpful, offered a poor lad’s lunch—five barley loaves and two fish, but admitted it was nothing compared to what was needed (John 6:1–21). What was needed was enough food to feed five thousand men plus women and children. Jesus’ point was that there was no way they could feed that many people. It was just not humanly possible. But it was still a wonderful day, because he was in it.
Let’s accept that it is just not humanly possible for us to live the way we were meant to live, apart from Christ. We need to be freed from our enslavement to unhealthy ways of living and being. We need to be cured of our self-focused way of thinking and acting. We need to be freed from our enslavement to hedonism, and all the other isms we give ourselves over to in an effort to find some sort of life in this world (Psalm 14:1-4). We may not realize it, but that is why Jesus came, why he sat on that mountainside teaching the crowds, and why he fed the multitudes.
The multitudes of all humanity needed to be fed, to be given the good news that they were loved. “God so loved the world that he gave his one unique Son…” (John 3:16). So God in Christ came, lived our life, was crucified in our place, was buried in a tomb, and rose again, seen by many witnesses who verified his resurrection. Then he sent the Spirit—God come into human flesh in a new and permanent way. The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, is now received as we place our faith in him. Just as the crowds that day took into their hands the fish and bread and ate them, so we receive with gratitude the new life Christ forged for us in his finished work.
What happens when the Spirit changes someone is truly a miracle—the greatest miracle of all, even greater in many ways than the feeding of thousands of people from five barley loaves and two fish. When Jesus brings us to faith, we are never the same again. This is a genuine relationship with a living Person. This is not a fantasy or a made-up experience. It is real. We continue to be broken, faulty people when we come to faith in Christ, but there is a transformation which occurs—a regeneration—one which becomes more and more evident as time goes by as we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit.
This miracle begins with seeing ourselves in the face of Jesus, looking into his eyes and seeing the reflection of his Father’s love for us. In spite of seeing our failures and sins, we rest on God’s amazing grace—his forgiveness and acceptance. We awaken to the reality that our real food is the love of God expressed fully to us in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. We have God’s love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and are invited to be led by this Spirit of Christ who dwells in us (Ephesians 3:14–21). We follow Jesus’ lead, learning more and more as time goes on what it means to live and walk as he did, allowing him to bring about the changes in us that are needed to bring us into the fullness of the image of Christ we were meant to bear.
How do we get to the place where we are willing to simply say, “I believe”? It certainly is a divine mystery to me. And it often begins with a simple prayer. But I’ve seen the miracle happen again and again. And it’s only the beginning of a lifelong journey with Jesus in the Spirit for the one who takes that first step of faith and moves on into commitment to Christ. This is why I believe that in spite of all that’s happening around us that seems so terrible, it is still a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it.
Loving Lord, we admit our failures to love, our sinful words and actions, and our broken ways of living life. We believe Jesus, that you are our true sustenance, our life and breath, the living bread we need to truly live. We receive all you offer us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. We commit ourselves to following wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.
“Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?’ This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’” John 6:3–9 (1–21) NASB
By Linda Rex
July 11, 2021, PROPER 10—Here in Nashville, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the cost of everything is rising. My heart goes out to those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Businesses who are simply trying to weather this economic storm are doing what they have to do—it has been hard for them too and now it is hard for those of us who are their customers. Whether or not we like it, there is a cost we pay to have the things we want in life, and sometimes that cost goes up.
This is especially true when it comes to the things of the Spirit. There is a cost to following Jesus. And what we may struggle with is that the closer we get to Jesus, the higher this price goes. This may be why so often we do not attend to the spiritual realities—they come at too high of a price.
Coming to faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything in our life suddenly goes well or we become prosperous, popular people. Following Christ actually involves death—death to our old ways of being, to our selfish and self-centered ways of living, to habits which hurt us and hurt others. This price goes up as we may lose relationships or jobs as we begin to follow Christ instead of following our old ways of living. And this can be hard and painful. None of us easily gives up what is most pleasant and comfortable to us. We prefer to continue in paths that our feet easily trod without having to struggle or climb.
But Jesus provided a way for us, walking ahead of us into death on the cross, and through it into resurrection. Hidden with Christ in God is our true humanity—that person you and I were created to be as image-bearers of God himself. What we struggle with is living today in the already-not yet of our humanity, where what our broken sinful flesh wants us to be and what Jesus created us to be live in conflict with one another. Thankfully, in Christ, we receive the life of God by the Spirit who enables to live out the truth of who we are as adopted children of God, image-bearers of the divine in spite of all the inward and outward pressures not to.
In 2 Samuel 6 we read the story of when David was going to bring the ark of God to its resting place in Jerusalem. The first attempt to move the ark ended in death, because of the irreverent treatment of the ark of God’s presence. David was wiser the second time around. He found out what the word of God said about how the ark was to be handled and moved, and followed what he learned there. This time the occasion was filled with joyful praise, offering of sacrifices, and giving of gifts. But sadly, his wife Michal, as she watched David dancing uninhibitedly before the Lord, despised him in her heart. The king’s passionate worship of God became a barrier in their relationship, separating them from that day forward (2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19).
Our obedience to God and following his call upon our lives will not always be met with gladness and appreciation. Many times, it will be met with resistance or rejection. Amos was a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs in Israel. He obeyed God’s command to warn the nation of Israel about the consequences it was facing due to its rejection of God and his ways. His efforts were not met with joy or gratitude. Rather, he was accused of treason. His humble efforts to be obedient to God’s instructions and to help his people ended in rejection, not in praise and celebration (Amos 7:7–15).
In last week’s sermon, we saw that in Jesus’ own hometown, he was not believed. He was met with criticism and suspicion rather than with praise and gratitude. Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. And then Jesus sent out his disciples into the communities around, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. His ministry, which occurred through their hands and efforts, began to create talk. Who was this man? In Mark’s gospel, we find even the tetrarch Herod Antipas began to be a bit concerned about this miracle worker. But his concern was rooted in guilt. He had previously beheaded John the Baptizer. His conscience was working overtime, giving him concern that maybe John had risen from the dead and was now empowered to do miracles.
We find the backstory to this event inserted here. John had followed God’s call upon his life, and had warned Herod and Herodias that their relationship was illicit and incestuous. This infuriated Herodias and she began to plan John’s execution. Herod held John in prison, listening to him and being intrigued by his preaching, but wanting to thwart his wife Herodias’ attempts to kill John. Herodias, in the end, was able to find a way to trap Herod into having John beheaded, since he was more concerned about what others would say about him than about what was right and holy.
As leaders of the people, these two followed their own passions and desires rather than obeying God’s instructions on living. What we see in this story is the profound cost of following God’s call upon one’s life rather than simply doing what is culturally and politically expedient. When John did what he believed God wanted him to do, he ended up in prison. When Herod and Herodias did as they pleased, John ended up beheaded. The price John paid for following God’s will, and being the Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, was death.
In his death, though, we see foreshadowed what would happen to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was also following the will of the Father, and speaking truth to the multitudes. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he sought time alone with the Father. He knew that he was next. There was no other path for him, for he was seeking, for our sakes, to go all the way to the cross to raise all humanity up into new life.
Although Jesus had a large following, what those followers needed to understand was that there is a cost to following him. And the closer you get to Jesus, the higher that cost will go. In today’s cultural and political climate, to take a stand for what is just, right, and holy, is to open oneself up to criticism, condemnation, and death. Saying death here may seem extreme, but it isn’t at all when you consider how many people lately have experienced death to their businesses, their relationships, and their involvement in community because they have stood up for what is honest and true, what is good and godly.
To say that there is one way in which we are all called to live is to take an extreme risk. How can we say there is only one way when everyone is free to decide for themselves? The reality is that we are all free to choose, but there is only one way to live that brings genuine freedom, genuine joy and peace, that truly brings life. The way you and I were created to live as image-bearers of the divine, is to live as unique persons in equality and unity just as God lives.
The Father, Son, and Spirit, who lavished upon us such great grace in Christ, are calling each of us into relationship, to live together even now and forever in the oneness and love in which we were created to live (Ephesians 1:3–14). There is no other way but this one way of being, of truly being ourselves, that will bring genuine fulfillment and real life. But there is a price to pay, and that price goes up as we draw closer to Jesus. Are we willing to pay it and go all the way with him into death and resurrection? Or will we choose the cheaper, easy path that requires nothing of us?
Heavenly Father, thank you for lavishing on each and every one of us your grace and love through your Son Jesus. Thank you, Christ, for living our life, dying our death, and bringing us up into new life, by faith into eternal union and communion with God in the Spirit now and forever. Grant us the grace to willingly pay the price to follow wherever you may lead us, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
“And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.’But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’” Mark 6:14–16 (17–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
July 4, 2021, PROPER 9—We are currently going through “ordinary” days on the Christian calendar. During this particular time of year we reflect on the life and ministry of Christ and how God is at work in the ordinary things of our lives. We turn our attentions to the day-to-day experiences of God’s presence as we go about our jobs, caring for our loved ones and simply doing life.
When something is ordinary, we can take it for granted. When people get to know you well, they can easily dismiss anything you do as ordinary and unimportant. When we do the same things over and over every day, those things can lose our interest and attention. We can even begin to take for granted those we love when we get caught up in the routines and expectations and demands of our everyday life. Life in relationship can become ordinary and lose its attraction and appeal.
Unfortunately, this is also true of our relationship with Jesus. In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 6:1–13, we find Jesus returning to his hometown. He went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom, and stood up to read. His reputation for miracles was impressive and his wisdom in explaining the scriptures was evident, but the people of his hometown couldn’t get past the ordinary. This was an ordinary man, a carpenter of questionable lineage, whose brothers and sisters and mother they knew well. How could he do the things he did?
Jesus was amazed at their inability to see beyond the ordinary. They were offended rather than amazed by the anointing of God which was evidently upon him. They could not reconcile his miracles and preaching with him being an ordinary man from an ordinary family in an ordinary town in Galilee. They were scandalized by the idea that he might be the Messiah, so could only attribute his gifts and signs to the evil one.
I wonder whether when such things happened Jesus was reminded of the ministry of Ezekiel. This prophet was told by God at the beginning of his ministry that he would speak the truth to God’s covenant people, but they would reject his message (Ez. 2:1–5). We can be inspired by God, empowered by God, but still be offensive to and rejected by those to whom we are sent. We can follow Christ, allow his Spirit to transform our lives, but still be considered profane and worthless by those who will not believe that God has redeemed and restored us.
We need to be careful not to fall prey to the lie that how well we live out the Christian life immediately determines peoples’ response to the message. Yes, our lives should reflect Christ—as image-bearers of the divine, we should be living expressions of God’s love and grace. But Christlike living does not guarantee us a welcome response. Nor is walking about with a façade of perfected holiness needed here. What is truly needed is a genuine expression of humble dependency upon God’s mercy and goodness, which reflects the reality of God at work within the ordinary.
The apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:2–10). God’s grace is sufficient in the midst of whatever we may be wrestling with. To touch other people’s lives effectively, we need to be genuine and real about the work God is doing in our own life. Being honest about our struggles, our failures and need for grace, and how God is redemptively at work in us, is a powerful witness to the gospel. Evidence of what God is doing by the Spirit is seen when we are pushed beyond our human ability and are struggling with issues we cannot handle, and God intervenes in unexpected ways.
What is ordinary becomes glorious when Christ is in it. We open ourselves up to the work of God’s Spirit and amazing things can happen. But if we are focused on the ordinary to the exclusion of the divine, we may find our outlook becomes much dimmer. We may not experience the real personal presence of God when we are focused merely on the everyday to the exclusion of our relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
Like the people in Jesus’ hometown, we can become so focused on the ordinary in situations and circumstances that we miss the reality that God is present and at work by his Spirit. We can become offended by evidence of Jesus’ power and grace because it doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas of what it should look like. We can be scandalized by the grace God shows to people we believe are worthy only of condemnation. We need to be careful not to get so in tune with the ordinary that we forget the miracle Jesus has done for each and every one of us, drawing us into his intimate relationship with the Father and enabling us to participate in it by the Spirit.
When God goes to work, things happen. Changes occur. Lives are transformed and healed. People who are spiritually asleep wake up. Those who have always been alone suddenly find they have to learn how to live happily in relationship. Those who are weak suddenly find the strength to do and say those things which in the past always seemed to escape them. Those who are hateful and resentful suddenly find they are compassionate and caring towards others.
What is our response? Do we mock these changes as mere flukes in our human experience? Are we offended that God might be doing something new or different which we don’t agree with? The ordinary days on the Christian calendar are a good time to evaluate how attentive we are to what God is doing in this world, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Are we attending to, rejoicing in, and bearing witness to Jesus and his ministry by the Spirit in us, our community, and those around us? Or are we offended, scandalized by his goodness, mercy and love?
Thank you, Father, for never turning away from us, but rather embracing us in the midst of our rejection and rebellion and turning our face back to you, in and through Jesus and by your Spirit. Enable us to see clearly your presence and power at work in us and in this world, and to actively share this good news with those you have placed in our lives, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at Him.” Mark 6:3 NASB
“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor. 12:2–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 27, 2021, PROPER 8—In the middle of this pandemic, many of us discovered that we acutely missed the social benefits of physical touch. For our spiritual fellowship at Grace Communion Nashville, the loss of hugs and handshakes was a serious loss, not to mention the inability for a time to even be in the same location with our friends and family.
As we face the possibility of another season of separation, it is comforting to be reminded of the reality that nothing, not even the restrictions of social distancing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ, nor from one another. We are created for relationship, and healthy interactions with others are an essential part of our personhood. So we will do our best to keep our relationships strong in spite of social distancing and health restrictions.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 5:21–43, we find two people who are faced with catastrophic health situations and who believe that the only person who can rescue them is Jesus. One of these is a woman with ongoing menstrual bleeding, a situation which, due to the restrictions of her religious beliefs meant she was excluded from any fellowship with other people. She was considered ritually unclean, and for the past twelve years had been avoided by anyone who was afraid they might be touched by her in some way, for they would have been made ritually unclean as well.
It took a lot of courage for her to enter the crowd that day, risking physical contact with those around her for the sake of being able to touch Jesus’ garment. She said to herself that if she could just touch his clothing, she would be healed. She believed that he was someone who healed people and drove out demons. At this point, she was willing to take the risk of entering the crowd and touching his clothing for just the possibility of finally being freed from her social exclusion.
While Jesus had been on the beach earlier, speaking to the crowd, Jairus had come up to him and urgently appealed that Christ would heal his twelve-year-old daughter. The synagogue official was at the point of desperation it seemed, since he was willing to humble himself to the point of kneeling before Jesus as he made his request. In compassion, Jesus had agreed and the crowd had followed the two of them to Jairus’ home, pressing in on them, making travel a bit cumbersome.
It was in the midst of this large crowd that Jesus stopped to ask quite loudly, “Who touched my garments?” The disciples thought he was crazy—he was being touched by everybody, it seemed! But here, trembling and afraid, came the woman who had touched his prayer shawl, kneeling at his feet. She had touched him, and knew that she had been healed. Fearful of rejection and condemnation, she poured out her story, the painful truth of her suffering, all the failed attempts to get well, all the useless doctor visits and treatments, and her simple desire for healing and relationship. She had hoped to slip away unseen, but Jesus had in mind a deeper healing.
Jesus called this woman “daughter”, setting her again within the context of community and family fellowship. And he gave her a benediction of shalom, true peace—of reconciliation with both God and man. This was the real healing she needed, far beyond the relief from her physical ailment. She was accepted, forgiven, and beloved. In this moment, all the barriers erected against her were wiped away and she was welcomed and restored.
It is interesting in the stories of Jesus healing people and raising people, that he did not always abide by the religious restrictions regarding what was ceremonially clean and unclean. To be touched by this woman rendered him, according to tradition, ceremonially unclean. But the Messiah was more than willing to allow himself to be made ceremonially unclean so that she could be made once and for all, clean. This points to the reality that the Word of God took on our “unclean” human flesh to make it “clean”—becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus was not made unclean by our sin and death—he transformed our humanity and made us like himself instead, and we participate in this new existence by faith in him and by the gift of the Spirit.
At this point in the story, while Jesus paused to minister to this woman, messengers arrived from Jairus’ home. They came to tell him that his daughter had died, that he didn’t need to bother Jesus any more. Christ pointedly ignored what they said, choosing instead to continue to Jairus’ house, in spite of the realization that religious tradition prohibited the touching of dead bodies. He was on his way to perform an acted parable, demonstrating once again that the kingdom of God, present in his person, was breaking into Satan’s stronghold of death, demons, and disease, and freeing all those held captive.
The official mourners were already wailing when Jesus and three of his disciples arrived. When Jesus told them the girl was only sleeping, they scornfully laughed, making fun of the idea that she might possibly still be alive. They had seen her dead body, and they recognized death when they saw it. But Jesus was symbolically speaking of death as merely sleep, a temporary condition over which he had all authority and power.
He, taking the lead, ushered all the mourners outside and then entered the room where the dead child lay. In the final scene of this acted parable, Jesus simply took the young woman’s hand and told her to arise, which she did. As she got up and started walking about, Jesus encouraged her stunned parents to make sure she got something to eat, demonstrating that she was completely well.
In this passage we see Jesus teaching the crowds, showing compassion to those in need, and touching the untouchables, bringing them back into fellowship. We see Jesus restoring community, willing to risk ceremonial uncleanness for the sake of those who could do nothing to change their situation. These all point to what God did for us in Christ in the Word of God setting aside the privileges of Godhood to join us in our human flesh, so that our fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit might be restored and we might be made new.
As we go through another chapter of the pandemic saga, it would be good to reflect upon what these stories tell us about who Jesus is and who we are in him as the Father’s beloved children. What does it mean that in Christ, God has declared us clean, when we so often choose the way which leads to evil, sin, and death? The kingdom of God has broken in on this broken world, and Jesus is actively, by the Spirit, working to make all things new.
When we feel isolated and separated from meaningful fellowship, we can be reminded that we always have a personal companion in us and with us—Jesus by the Spirit. We can practice the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, and stillness, and experience in a real way the indwelling presence of God, guiding us, encouraging us, comforting and strengthening us. And at any time, like this woman and like Jairus, we can run to Jesus, throwing ourselves on his mercy, knowing he will lift us up and restore us, welcoming us home to the Father in the Spirit, and restoring us to warm fellowship with him and one another.
Father, thank you for sending your Son and your Spirit, for including us in your life together as the Triune God of love. Renew in us again a sense of our inclusion, of your presence and power at work in us and in our world each and every day, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.’ While He was still speaking, they came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, ‘Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?’ But Jesus, overhearing what was being spoken, said to the synagogue official, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.’” Mark 5:34-36 NASB
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 20, 2021, PROPER 7—These past few weeks I have been faced with one of those household problems that is highly stress-inducing and frustrating. The situation was overwhelming, and I struggled to see any solution to it apart from God’s intervention. In the midst of my distress, though, as I paused to seek God’s face, I discovered once again the reality of God’s presence and provision, and saw that God is present and real and guiding me by his Spirit, leading me in the direction I need to go.
The reality is that every one of us at some point will face a Goliath that we cannot defeat. Remember the story of Goliath? The ancient Israelites gathered against the Philistines for battle, and Goliath came forth as a champion, mocking their God and daring them to send someone to fight him on behalf of their army.
Think about the Israelite army who for so many days faced an enemy they thought they could not defeat. There was no giant champion in their army that could face up to Goliath and win. The question that hung in the air is the one which we so often face in these types of situations—does God really care? Is he even aware of all we’re going through? Doesn’t he realize how desperate the situation is?
How like God to bring David to the battle lines that day on an errand for his father—this young man who was merely a shepherd, and hardly able to fight any man, much less a giant mountain of a man like Goliath (1 Sam. 17). The substantial difference between Goliath and David did not necessarily lie in their size or ability, though. It lay in the source of their strength and their motivation.
Goliath based his ability to win this conflict on his size and military prowess, his disdain for the Israelite’s God, and his intimidating manner. David based his certainty of victory on the God whose name was being insulted by the Philistine, and on his past experience with that God of being delivered from impossible situations—fighting a bear and a lion. David trusted his God and embraced this challenge in faith that God would again bring about a great deliverance for the sake of his great name and his covenant people.
Faith, in midst of this epic event, was the deciding factor. What David did that day was use the talents God had given—his ability to use rocks and a sling—to accomplish what he believed God wanted done. He went courageously forth, did his part, and God did the rest. The giant fell, and the Philistines were routed, and David became an important part of Israel’s history. He became a symbol of a coming king who would ultimately defeat all of Israel’s enemies and usher in the messianic kingdom—that person we know today as Jesus Christ.
This brings to mind the story of Job. He lost all his children, all his belongings, and then lost his health. He began to lose faith that God really cared about what was going on in his life in the midst of the suffering he was experiencing. As Job wrestled with all these thoughts, God reminded him who his Deliverer was and that God was not ignorant of what he was going through. Job needed to be reminded that the One who was caring for him in the midst of his difficulties was the same One who created all things and sustained them (Job 38:1–11).
One time, when Jesus and his disciples went across the sea of Galilee, a great wind began to blow, to the extent that the boats were beginning to fill with water. Jesus, being exhausted from a long day of teaching and preaching, was asleep in the stern. In fear of their lives, the disciples woke him up and said to him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” All they could see was the intensity of the storm and the possibility that they might, at any moment, drown in the sea.
What they needed to be doing, though, was remembering who was with them in the boat. Apparently, they did not yet grasp the significance of who their teacher, Jesus, was. They did not understand that the One who made the sea and the wind was present with them in that moment—a person who could, merely by his word, calm the storm (Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32). They were not trusting that he loved them and was still looking out for them, and that he would keep them safe in the storm. All they could see was that he was a tired man, asleep on a cushion, while they were facing death by drowning.
When the disciples finally woke Jesus up, he simply said to the wind, “Hush, be still.” And the sea became calm. The Word of God in human flesh spoke a word and it was. How shocking this must have been to them! But what Jesus was seeking in that moment wasn’t fear. He was seeking faith. They needed to asked the question they were faced with—who was this man who could speak and the forces of nature obeyed? They needed to put their faith in this One who was God in human flesh, the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.
We will face difficulties in this life. We will face insurmountable challenges when we participate with Jesus in his mission of sharing the good news (2 Corinthians 6:1–10). We might even come to the place where we will face the loss of all that matters most to us. What will we do in those moments? Where will we place our faith?
We need to turn away from our circumstances, our concerns, and our difficulties, and turn towards the One who is Lord of all—Jesus Christ. Our faith needs to be, not in our ability to resolve every situation and prevent every calamity, but in the One who already knows every possibility and need only speak the word and his purpose will come to pass. We need to trust that God does care, that he does love us, and is concerned about us. Even though things may be difficult at times, and maybe even life-threatening, God is still present and active by his Spirit. Our trust is in him, and he will deliver, in his own time and way.
Perhaps, at this moment, you are in the midst of a difficult circumstance that seems beyond your ability to resolve. Now is a good time to pause and reflect on the God who loves you so much that he came to be a part of your human experience, allowing himself to suffer on your behalf. Jesus, even now, remembers how stressful and painful life can be at times, and is, right now, actively at work sustaining, encouraging, and guiding you by his Spirit. He offers you his implicit faith in the Father, reminding you to trust in him, and to believe that God does care, even when your circumstances may tell you otherwise. Offer up to him what you are able to do. Then trust him to do what only he can do—be with you in the storm, guiding and protecting you, and to calm your storm with a word, when the time is right.
Heavenly Father, thank you for reminding us again how much you love us, and that you are well aware of all we are going through. Grant us the grace to trust you in the midst of every situation, keeping our eyes on you, knowing that you will save and deliver and bring us safely home to you, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“On that day, when evening came, He said to them, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?’ And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.’ And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?’ They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’” Mark 4:35–41 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.
There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.
Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.
Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.
Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.
The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.
The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.
We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.
What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.
We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.
The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.
But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.
Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’ And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.” Mark 4:26–34 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 30, 2021, HOLY TRINITY—As I was reading one of the passages for this Sunday, it brought to mind a hymn I found years ago in an old hymnal. I was attending a congregation in Kirksville, Missouri at the time, and I felt led to sing this hymn for services. What I found as I was singing it was that it resonated with God’s call upon my heart for ministry, one which, at that point, I was still trying to come to terms with.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet tells the story of how he saw the Lord high and lifted up, on a throne covered by seraphim—angels having six wings. One of these angels cried out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah was overcome with fear and distress because in that moment of coming into the presence of God, he saw the reality of his sin and uncleanness. There was nothing he could do to make himself worthy in that moment, which is why we see one of the seraphim touching his mouth with a coal from the altar, telling him his sin was taken away and he was forgiven. In that moment, the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Isaiah’s response is the one we are all called to when we receive the grace of God—to go and testify (Isaiah 6:1–8).
This whole story resonated with what our fellowship and denomination were wrestling with at that time—the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus and what that meant for us as the people of God. The hymn I was led to sing so many years ago was based on this text in Isaiah 6:
Here I Am, Lord
Music and Text by Daniel L. Schutte
Celebration Hymnal, Copyright 1997 Word/Integrity
I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in deepest sin
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?
I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne My people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them,
They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak My word to them.
Whom shall I send?
I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give My life to them.
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
If You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.
Do you hear the way this hymn resonates with the heart of Jesus? He was sent by the Father in love for our sakes, to cleanse us and make possible our union and communion with God now and forever. The One through whom all things were created has invited each of us to join with him in sharing this wonderful news of how he is feeding us with himself, giving us his life, breaking our hearts of stone and giving us hearts for love alone, having brought us from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light. We are invited to participate in what Jesus Christ is doing in this world to make all things new. How well are we heeding his call?
I wonder if perhaps the struggle the church is having today with sharing the gospel is that we are focused on our activities and our programs and even the correctness of our theology to the exclusion of simply gazing upon the majestic and glorious splendor of our God—the One who lives forever as Father, Son, and Spirit in holy oneness and love. Perhaps, as we contemplate the wonder of who God is, who Christ is as our Lord and Savior, and who the Spirit is as the love between the Father and the Son, we might come to that place of humility and dependency the prophet Isaiah was brought to, and find ourselves once again receiving with gratitude the gracious gift of life in union and communion with God, and offering ourselves up in service to him and others.
Jesus said that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are born from above. This is a birth that is only possible by the Spirit of God. Because of what Christ has done in his incarnation, crucifixion and ascension, God has brought our human flesh into a new place—one that is ours through faith in Christ. Because Jesus has cleansed us from our sin and has defeated Satan and death, we are able to stand before God without condemnation. He looks upon us and sees his beloved adopted children who are growing up into Christlikeness as we respond to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives and trust in the finished work of Christ. (Romans 8:12–17)
The coal which the seraphim took from the altar and pressed upon Isaiah’s lips brought about a cleansing that the prophet had no real participation in except to receive it. All human effort was futile in the presence of the beauty and majesty of God. In the same way today, we find that our efforts to make ourselves right with God or to do his work do not accomplish much accept to wear us out and frustrate ourselves. When we trust in Christ and in his finished work, we rest and find our peace in him. When we are filled with the Spirit and moving in sync with him, we find joy and hope in our service to God and others.
Because of Christ we find ourselves in a new place—at home with Jesus in the presence of the Father, with the Spirit telling us we are the beloved children of God. We find we have been adopted as God’s children, so by the Spirit our hearts cry out, “Abba, Father.” We are no longer enslaved by the things we used to give ourselves over to—we have true freedom in Christ, being free now to live in the truth of who we are as the beloved children of God as his image-bearers, loving the Lord and loving one another.
It’s possible that God wants to do a new thing in and through the body of Christ. How will we know if we blindly continue on doing what we’ve always done, believing it’s the only thing “that works” instead of making space for the Spirit to do that new thing he desires? It is important to persevere and endure, but it is equally important to be attentive as a good child to the arrival of the Lord at any moment, ready to do what he wants done, undistracted and unhindered by all of those things which pull us away from what really matters. Are we okay with God showing up unexpectedly and leading us out of our comfort zone into new ways of serving him, of showing his love to others? This is a question worth considering.
We have a call upon our hearts and lives. Perhaps the reason we don’t keenly feel this call on our hearts and lives is we haven’t been listening. Slowing down, practicing solitude, silence and stillness are all ways in which we listen to God. Taking time to read the Scriptures, but then to let them settle in our hearts and minds, to move us to prayer, to lead us into meditation and listening for the heart of God—these are all ways we are attentive to the heart and mind of God, and what he is doing in this world. God is sending us out on mission. How will we answer?
Holy Father, Holy Jesus, Holy Spirit—we celebrate you in all your glory and majesty. Thank you for washing away all our guilt and shame and making us new. Tune our hearts and minds into yours, settling us solidly into the grace and love, and sonship, which is ours because of all you have done. We offer ourselves fully to you to do whatever you desire: Here we are, Lord. Send us. Amen.
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” John 3:5-8 (1-17) NASB
By Linda Rex
May 16, 2021, ASCENSION SUNDAY—With spring fully sprung and temperatures here in Tennessee beginning to move into summer intensity, we find ourselves in a new place on the Christian calendar—Ascension Sunday. This event is actually celebrated on Thursday, May 13th this year, but we at Grace Communion Nashville take time on the following Sunday to remember this special event.
The event of Jesus’ ascension is a very important one, as the gift of the Holy Spirit would not have come if he had not ascended. After his resurrection Jesus retained our now glorified human flesh, bringing it into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We find that all human beings now are welcome to participate by faith in Christ, enabling them to experience God’s life and love now by the Spirit and in glory when Christ returns to establish the new heavens and earth.
During the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus took time to instruct his disciples, giving them understanding of how all that he had been and done was the central theme of the Old Testament scriptures. Christ then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit, and sent them out to be witnesses to everything that he had done while on earth. In his final moment, he lifted his hands and blessed them, as the high priest would do when the reconciliation was complete.
Even today, as Christ’s followers, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, showing and telling others about the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for our salvation. We are called to open ourselves up to be filled with the Spirit—growing in our relationship with God through the Word of God, prayer, gathering together for fellowship with believers, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We live as those who are sent, actively participating in Christ’s mission in this world. And we go in Jesus’ blessing.
As I was reflecting on all this recently, the Lord brought to mind something he had led me to years ago when I first was wrestling with the call to pastoral ministry. I was shown how the body of Christ today, specifically in our denomination, was being called to rebuild the church on the new foundation we had been given in Jesus. I encourage you to take the time this week to read the book of Haggai. The prophet Haggai wrote shortly following the exile to those Jews who had returned to their homeland. They had rebuilt the altar and were offering sacrifices. They had set the foundation for the temple. But there the work had stopped.
Haggai was directed by God to ask his people, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate? … Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:4-5 NASB) He showed them how they were preoccupied with taking care of their own interests and concerns, and were neglecting the restoration of the temple. God’s priority was preparing the way for the coming of his Son to earth, and for that to be accomplished the way he desired, the temple needed to be rebuilt. Haggai was sent to remind the people to get their priorities centered on what God wanted do. And then God moved in them by his Spirit to act accordingly.
In some ways, I’m concerned that too often, we as believers have neglected to move on beyond setting the foundation of Jesus Christ in our lives and offering up worship on an occasional Saturday or Sunday. We have all the trappings of religiosity but we have lost the substance—life in Christ that reflects both his grace and his truth. Too often we have neglected God’s priorities and plans, preferring to seek our own agenda, including those things which distract us from keeping our kingdom focus. Is our focus on what God prefers—his kingdom and his righteousness? Jesus said if we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all these other things will be added.
Jesus told the woman at well in Samaria that our worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, that it is much more than religious rites and rituals or having a particular location of worship. Jesus Christ is the place of worship now, where we are called together in unity, to worship God and serve him. When Christ defines our identity and our relationship with God and one another, that says something about how we are to live and treat one another. As followers of Christ, we need to move beyond the religious trappings which anyone can imitate into the reality of life in Christ—something only possible in the power of the Spirit, with the living presence of Jesus in us and with us. It should be evident to those around us that we are Christ’s disciples, by our Christ-like love for one another, no matter our church denomination or fellowship preference.
Going back to our story—when the work on the temple began, those who had seen Solomon’s temple grieved the lost of the majesty and wonder of the former building. Haggai asked, “Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” (Haggai 2:3 NASB) In the same way, the disciples kept expecting Jesus to bring about his kingdom in the sense of using his might and power to destroy the existing government and install a theocracy. But Jesus told them he had something else in mind. We need to remember that God’s kingdom work in this world may look a lot different than we expect. What Jesus plans for the body of Christ may be a lot different than what we prefer. The church of the future very well may look a lot different than the church we remember—and we need to be okay with this.
Finally, the most important message which Haggai gave his people was one that we can take to heart today. Just as when Joshua was entering into the promised land and was told to take courage, God encouraged those who were rebuilding the temple. “ ‘… take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” (Haggai 2:4b-5 NASB) In the same way, Jesus told his disciples before he left them and ascended that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, he told them, go and make disciples. He promised he would never leave them, but would always be with them—and he was, by the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20).
What a marvelous thing the ascension is! Now we are participating in a real way in what God is doing in this world, all because this Jesus, who was God in human flesh, died and rose for our salvation, and now dwells forever in the presence of the Father bearing our humanity. By faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit sent from God and are each empowered to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today as he brings about renewal, healing, and transformation. We have been given both a hope and a future. We truly are blessed.
Holy God, thank you for reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing, and to trust you to know what is best for us as we move into the future. Grant us the passion and the courage to do the hard work of sharing the good news of your love and grace, of building up the body of Christ. And give us the endurance to weather all that we may have to bear as we do this. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, of all you have done for us through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.” Luke 24:44–53 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 9, 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER—A friend gave me a gift of Guideposts magazine a while ago, and today I came across a quote in the latest issue from best-selling author Glennon Doyle. The quote goes like this: “I really, really think the secret to being loved is to love. And the secret to being interesting is to be interested. And the secret to having a friend is being a friend.”
I have learned over the years by experience that our ability to form attachments with others often does have to begin with our first reaching out and offering others love and friendship. But I believe our ability to reach out to others in this way is best rooted in the self-offering of God towards us in Jesus Christ. When it is rooted in Christ, we find the attachment has a spiritual rooting that holds it through the storms and changes of life, and often, on into eternity.
In our passage for this Sunday, John 15:9-17, we see that there is no greater love than when a person lays down his or her life for another, as Jesus laid down his life for all humanity. This love has its roots in the perichoretic love of the Father and Son in the Spirit, and is expressed to each and every one of us in Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial offering of himself in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus said he loved his disciples just as his Father loved him. He told his disciples that he remained in the oneness of the Triune life and love as he did those things his Father asked of him. His experience of joy and love becomes ours as we participate in Christ’s obedience to his Father’s will. Jesus calls us beyond what comes naturally to us into what is more difficult—to love even to the point of laying down one’s life. There is no greater love, he said.
It is in the context of this life of union and communion with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit that Jesus gives us our purpose and mission as his followers. We are individually and collectively chosen by him and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will remain. It is in our ongoing abiding or remaining in Christ that we bear fruit that abides or remains. This fruit is an expression of the Father’s will—love for one another, life in spiritual community—now as the body of Christ and ultimately, on into eternity as the Bride of Christ.
This moves obedience from the place of following a list of rules to one of honoring the desires and will of a friend, Jesus, and those of our heavenly Father. Jesus shares his heart with us and we do as he asks—loving as he loved, laying down our lives as he laid down his, loving one another as we are loved by him and he is loved by the Father. As we are centered in the Father’s will in this way, whatever we ask of our Father will be ours—we are participating in a real way in what he is doing in and through his Son, and so his answer is quite naturally, yes!
When we put this in the context of mission, we see that Jesus’ sending of us is immediately rooted in his obedience to his Father’s sending of him. We reach out with God’s love because Jesus loves us as he is loved by the Father. Sharing God’s love then becomes a part of our life in union and communion with the Triune God, and a true participation in what they are doing in this world.
We share the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus because that is the will of the Father. As we do the Father’s will in this way, we pray and ask according to his will that each individual and all people might experience God’s love and grace. We know God will hear and answer this prayer because this is the Father’s will which is expressed to us in the gift of his Son and in the pouring out of his Spirit. This is what God is doing in this world—so our prayers are heard and answered.
As the body of Christ, we are often tempted to isolate or create safe zones where we do not need to deal with a society which is often opposed to what is holy, gracious, and compassionate. It is a real challenge to live a Christ-like life in places that are unsafe and decadent. How do we live out the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children—loving God and loving others—around people who are indifferent to or opposed to these spiritual realities?
We can begin with prayer. Our prayers have power because they are rooted in the will and purposes of God himself. He has sent his Son to reconcile all things to himself in Jesus and is calling each and every person to be reconciled. God wants everybody to participate in the oneness and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit. So, when we pray for a certain person or for particular people to come to faith in Christ, we are sharing in a tangible way in what God is doing in this world. These are prayers God will answer because they are according to his will.
Secondarily, we participate in God’s mission in this world by sharing God’s love. Love, as we are to express it to God and one another, is an action. It involves seeking the best of the other person and having a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish what is best. Sometimes loving others can be difficult and painful. It may involve telling them no, or not giving them what they want or think they need. It may involve setting up boundaries that prevent them from hurting you or hurting themselves.
Loving people in this way is not something we do on our own or by our own strength. We do this in spiritual community, where we have support, accountability, and a safe place to land. And this is why our life in Christ needs to be just exactly that—a participation in Christ’s life in relationship. God first loved us, sending his Son for our salvation, and Jesus first loved us by laying down his life, so we are able to love God and love one another. God gives us his Spirit, pouring out his love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that we are able to love him and love others in the way we were meant to.
Life change in another person is not something we really have any control over. We are powerless—and we must acknowledge this reality constantly. Only God has the ability to change the human heart and mind. Only God can turn someone around or heal them. Only God can make a person who is broken whole again. We may be able to influence them by expressing God’s love in some tangible way, but we cannot fix them—and God is not asking us to.
In reality, the greatest gift we can give another person is to bring them to Jesus, including them in our own relationship with Christ in the Spirit. We can offer them the grace and truth, the love we have received from God, and a spiritual community where the sick find healing, the broken are mended, and the lonely are offered fellowship. What God includes us in—his life and love—we are called to include others in. How well are we doing this?
Thankfully, it’s not all up to us. Jesus went first, and we get to tag along as his friends as he brings others to himself. Is there someone God has placed on your heart and mind lately who needs to know he or she is loved by God and forgiven? You might make this person a focus point of your prayers each day, and ask God to show you how you can include them in your life in Christ. You might ask Jesus, “What are you doing and how do you want me to join in?” And then, as you begin to participate in what he’s doing, watch to see what he does—it may surprise you!
Thank you, dear God, for including each of us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we get to share in your loving relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the person or people you want us to tell about your love expressed to us in Jesus. How do you want us to include them in our life? Keep us centered where you are, Jesus, diligently doing all that you ask to the glory of your Father. Amen.
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another.” John 15:9–17 NASB