By Linda Rex
January 9, 2022, Baptism of the Lord | EPIPHANY—When I was a girl, my mother and I would often play in the kitchen, trying out new recipes. One of the projects we tried one summer was making pull taffy. This involved cooking sugar and butter at high temperatures on the stove, and when the taffy was made, pulling it into long strips, folding it, and pulling it again and again. It was fun to do, and the final product was extremely sweet and chewy.
In order for the sugar and butter to be transformed into candy though, it had to be cooked at very high temperatures for a precise amount of time. One time, a tiny bit of this extremely hot syrup splashed onto my hand and burnt it badly. This was a painful experience which taught me to be very careful around boiling sugar and butter.
The process of candy-making was necessary and dangerous, but the result was a delightful treat for us to share with others. I suppose I might have decided to never again attempt to make any kind of candy on the stove. That would have protected me from ever getting burnt again, that is true. But at the same time, I would never have had the joy of making and sharing with others the delightful treat of homemade candy. There is often a cost and a challenge involved in making something meaningful and valuable.
This Sunday is the first one in the season of Epiphany, a time when we focus on the revelation of Christ as our Messiah—the Son of God, come in human flesh. We find that even though God knew beforehand the cost that would be involved in sending his Son on this mission to bring all humanity home to the Father, he did not resist, avoid, or fail to do what was necessary to accomplish his purpose. Indeed, we find that Jesus embraced his calling, going forward into the flames of God’s cleansing work in the Spirit, beginning with his baptism.
We hear the words of his heavenly Father as he rose from the water, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” and realize the pleasure and joy the Father had in the self-offering of his Son on our behalf. Throughout his life, Jesus did not withdraw from the flames of God’s loving judgment on evil, sin, and death. No, he walked steadily toward that end when all would be consumed in the fire of the crucifixion. Jesus forged his life of obedience into our humanity, putting to death all that did not belong, and in dying our death, burned up all the chaff of human wickedness and sin, cleansing us in his perfect sacrifice on the cross.
When we see Jesus risen from the grave, we find ourselves included in his resurrection life. We live forever in the presence of the Father in Christ—as humanity is included even now in that perfect relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. What was finished in Christ is offered to us individually in the Spirit—we by faith participate in Christ’s life in union and communion with the Father in the Spirit. What a gift and blessing this is!
Often, if and when we are honest with ourselves, we can clearly see that our lives and our way of living does not match the truth of who God has declared we are in Christ his Son. Many times, we don’t even care that we are not living in the truth of our existence as image-bearers of God. We are indifferent to our calling to love God and love others—at times, we barely even love ourselves. We may even live in ways that deserve a harsh judgment, so we look for ways to cope with guilt, shame and self-condemnation.
But this was never God’s desire for us. His heart is filled with love for us and a desire for us to be all that he meant for us to be. He longs for us to embrace the fire of his transforming love, to find healing and wholeness in intimate relationship with him and healthy relationships with others. What we refuse to do, often, is walk bravely into that fire of God’s love and allow him to do what he needs to do to transform, heal, and renew us.
We tend to prefer that God doesn’t mess around in our innards—we prefer that he mind his own business, and let us go on about ours, doing what we want to do with our lives. What we run from or resist is being immersed in Christ. Are we willing to go all the way down into the water of Christ’s death and resurrection? Are we willing to walk on into the flame of God’s love and allow him to burn away all the chaff of what we were not meant to carry around with us? This takes courage and faith, and a willingness to allow God to do whatever he wills in our hearts and lives. It requires a willingness to surrender—to give all of ourselves, and to hold nothing back.
But we do not face God’s judgment alone. And we need not fear it. When we turn to Christ in faith, we discover he has been through the fire already, cleansing and healing our humanity. Now he wants us to take his hand and allow him to do what is needed to make that cleansing and healing real for us right now in our life today. He wants us to live immersed in him, in his right relationship with the Father, in his life and love.
He’s offering to you and to me, all that he has done for us—so that judgment is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced. The process may be painful for a while as we grow up in him, but Jesus walks us through it by his Spirit, and brings us through to a new place of healing and wholeness, as well as giving us a promise and a hope for everlasting life with God in the new heavens and earth. Turning to Christ in faith is our participation in God’s judgment on evil, sin, and death. We turn away from ourselves and this broken world and turn to Jesus—his life for our life. We begin to live in the truth of who God has declared us to be.
One day, God will bring all that is not included in Christ to an end. We see in the final end that even death and evil will be cast into the lake of fire. This will be the culmination of God’s judgment on all that entered our human existence to bring about sin and death. With gratitude, we will rejoice in that day, joyfully dancing in celebration at what God has done.
Thank you, Father, for the new life you offer us in your Son Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit through whom we participate in Christ’s life even now. We offer ourselves anew to your transformation and restoration, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; …” Isaiah 43:1–3a NASB
“Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ … Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’” Luke 3:15–17, 21–22 NASB
By Linda Rex
November 28, 2021, ADVENT | Hope—The other day, my husband was telling me how during his myriad travels he came across a radio station in Florida playing Christmas music. Christmas music in October? Apparently, the station owners believed that all the negative press and bad news needed to be overcome with the good news found within the Christmas message, which brings hope, peace, joy and God’s love.
Indeed, we do well to attend to the spiritual realities which lie behind all the negative noise going on right now in the world around us. We can be overcome with sorrow, anger, and frustration due to the appearance of success that evil seems to be having. Or we can focus on the leaves bursting forth on the fig tree—there is new growth which will one day result in an abundant harvest of righteousness and goodness, to be celebrated forever in God’s loving presence.
The Old Testament is replete with warning to God’s people about what will happen should they wander away from their covenant relationship with God. Indeed, the apocalyptic language of such events strikes terror into us. None of us wish to personally experience the power of a tsunami or the destruction accompanying the alteration of the orbit of the heavenly bodies like the moon or sun.
What catastrophes might we personally dread? Have we ever thought about the consequences of how we live our lives day by day? Jesus says that no earthly catastrophe compares with the consequences of rejecting our one hope of salvation in him. So, he wants us to pay attention—to not take our relationship with God for granted, but to be actively involved in a life in sync with who we are as the beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God.
I remember how for many years I agonized over whether or not I would qualify for the kingdom of God. Would I ever be good enough? Saints over the centuries have agonized over this question. How many of us have lived in this internal torment, longing for a mere morsel of hope that we will be included in the new life to come?
God gave his people a promise in Jeremiah 33:14-16 that one day a righteous son of David would come forth to execute justice and righteousness on the earth. When that day came Judah would be saved and Jerusalem would dwell in safety. God’s people would be known by this name, “the Lord our righteousness” (NKJV). The NIRT puts it this way, “The Lord Who Makes Us Right With Himself.”
The spiritual reality we need to grab hold of and rest in is that Jesus Christ is our right relationship with God, now and forever. Whatever we may do, whatever effort we put into it, is merely a participation in what Jesus has already done, is doing even now by his Spirit, and will do when he returns in glory. This is why, when the world begins to fill with catastrophes, we have no reason to fear or be afraid—we are already saved, are being saved, and will be saved—in Christ. By faith, we can lift our heads and look with hope and joy at the coming of our Lord in glory.
Truly, Jesus did warn us that it is easy to get distracted by the cares of this life and the pulls of our human flesh. We can learn a lot from those early Christian anchorites, who obeyed Jesus’ command to deny themselves, lay down their lives and follow Christ. They were willing to go to great lengths to forbid themselves the everyday blessings of life because they wanted more of Jesus. They were willing to humble themselves and receive the rejection of their peers and the world around them for the sake of doing what they believed Christ wanted them to do—seek him and him alone. Their eyes and minds and hearts were fixed on heaven, not on this earth and its pleasures and cares. There is much we can learn from them about self-denial and simple obedience to the Spirit.
Jesus and the early apostles called us to prayer—to acknowledging and acting on our dependency upon God in every situation of life. We pray for one another as well, offering up our support and encouragement as we face the difficulties and struggles of walking as believers in a world which opposes and rejects the person and way of Jesus. In prayer we call forth God’s presence and power in and through us—praying for God to increase his love in our hearts and lives, his holiness in our actions and motivations, and enabling us to experience by the Spirit the right relationship with God and man Jesus forged for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
God calls us to alertness—to readiness—a focus on him and his work in us and in this world. We often make prayer about telling God what he needs to be doing. In reality, prayer needs to become a way in which we become present to what God is already doing, attentive to what he wants to do in us and in the world around us, and how we can be a part of that. Prayer, by necessity, needs to become listening to the heart of the Father, and an openness to doing his will in this world, whatever that may be.
Prayer in the Spirit actually begins with God, who shares his thoughts and desires with us by the Spirit, and moves us to pray about the things which are important to him, about those things that he is at work in this world doing right now. As we offer up our prayers in tune with the heart of the Father, Jesus takes them, perfects them, and offers them in the Spirit back to the Father, completing the circle of relationship in which we are included. It is a beautiful thing to pray in the Spirit—sharing in the inner life of the Trinity!
Our attentiveness to God, our posture of listening and receptivity, of participation in the divine life and love, is how we prepare for the cataclysmic end of the world Jesus warned us would be coming. There is no need to fear or be anxious in the midst of difficult or dangerous times, for we are, even now, included in the inner life of the Triune God of love. We are already sharing in that blessed hope which will be fully realized when Jesus returns in glory. By faith, we trust in the finished work of Christ, so there is nothing for us to fear when we see Jesus return again—we’re already active in what he is doing in this world, participating in God’s mission, communing with God, and knowing he is present in every moment. His return in glory is merely the next step in what we are doing with him as the ones for whom the Lord is our righteousness.
Thank you, dear Abba, for including us in your life and love through Jesus your Son and in the Spirit. Remind us constantly to turn our hearts and minds toward you, so that all of life is lived aware of you and your real and active presence. Prepare our hearts to receive you, Jesus, now and forever, by your grace. Amen.
“Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” 1 Thessalonians 3:(9–10) 11–13 NASB
“But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. … Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:28, 34–36 (25–36) NASB
By Linda Rex
November 14, 2021, PROPER 28—The other day as I was driving home from Charlotte, NC, I heard an old song by Clay Crosse called “He Walked a Mile.” This song really spoke to my soul that day, and I found it resonating throughout my memory for a long time afterward.
This song reminds me that what Jesus did for us is so much more than simply dying on the cross for our sins. The profound dignity he gave us as human beings by taking our humanity upon himself is overwhelming. God had always meant for us to live in intimate relationship with himself, and he was not put off by our turning away to the things of this earth and our self. He knew the cost to himself in creating and redeeming us before he ever breathed life into Adam—and he gladly paid it.
We live in a culture today which tells us that if we purchase the right product, take the right medicine, or purchase the right car, or use the right credit card, we will be happy, healthy, sexy, rich, and blessed. Our political leaders tell us that if they are elected, they will solve all our problems and usher in a new government which will bring prosperity, peace, and other benefits. Sadly, even our religions have embraced this marketing technique, offering us just the right combination of Bible, preaching, and outreach to ensure we will be good Christians and live forever in heaven.
I’m always amazed at how easy it is to take for granted that we are able to solve our problems ourselves. I agree that we have been given a lot of tools for figuring things out and taking care of things ourselves. And yes, we should do our part. But it seems to me that the one thing we all struggle with is coming to the realization that we cannot do what is needed in every situation all on our own without any help from God. We try to all the time, and many times we succeed—at least for a time. But then there comes a crisis. And we find ourselves floundering.
It is ironic that Jesus told his disciples over two thousand years ago to beware less they be misled by those who would promise they were the longed-for deliverer of the people. He knew our tendency to put our faith in our own efforts, in people or systems or ideologies, rather than simply putting it in Jesus our Messiah. It is so easy to be misled, especially when what we hear or see plays right into our deepest longing or need.
It is also ironic how we have spent a lot of effort over the centuries trying to determine exactly when Jesus would return in glory, when he told us no one knew the day or hour. Every time there is a great war, or threat of a great war, there seems to be someone who declares this is the final battle before the return of Christ. But Jesus told us there would be wars and even rumors of wars, but it wasn’t yet the end. He also told us there would be famines and disease outbreaks—which there have been over and over since his time—but it still wasn’t the end.
These are the beginning of birth pangs, Jesus said. As a mother, I know what birth pangs feel like. They are very painful, and there is a point in the delivery process when a mother wonders whether she will ever be free from the intense pain she is going through. But this pain is a necessary part of the birth process. And for humanity, these world troubles are a necessary part of the rebirth process all of God’s creation is experiencing as the children of God are being birthed into Abba’s family.
We must never forget that the first and most excruciating birth pain was experienced by Jesus Christ as he offered himself up in our place on our behalf. He walked a mile—from his birth, to the cross, and through the cross to the tomb, and through death into life everlasting, taking each of us with him on this painful yet triumphant journey.
No matter what we may experience in this life, no matter how many pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wars we may experience in this life—we are all caught up in Christ’s cruciform suffering. This necessary part of the process of rebirth becomes for us an opportunity for Jesus to forge within us by the Holy Spirit, his way of being. The trials and pains of life, when offered up to Jesus in faith, become the means by which Christ is formed in us, by which we are sanctified, refined, and cleansed. Whatever Satan may mean for evil, as we turn to Jesus, God redeems and restores it, using it for our good.
The good news is our redemption and deliverance are complete in Christ and are being worked out in us and in this world by the Holy Spirit. There are going to be difficulties, struggles, and even great suffering at times, but we never go through any of these alone. Jesus is always present by the Spirit, granting us the grace to share in his life and love, and to bear at times even his suffering so that we may share in his glory.
All of these birth pangs will, in God’s good time, come to fruition as God ushers in the new heavens and new earth. When we experience the completion of our rebirth, when Jesus finishes making all things new, these birth pangs we experienced will be infinitesimally small in comparison to the glorious freedom we have as the children of God.
When we are told to give thanks in all things, we are not expected necessarily to be thankful we are suffering. But rather we can be grateful that in the midst of our suffering, Christ is present and at work, holding us in the Father’s love and by his Spirit drawing us deeper into his life and love. Our gratitude then becomes an expression of our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of our grateful embrace of our union and communion with God now and forever through Jesus in the Spirit. Rather than being misled by all the false messiahs in our existence, we are led instead by Jesus in the Holy Spirit as the beloved children of the Father.
Thank you, Father, for giving us your Son and your Spirit, and for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we can trust in your faithfulness—knowing that you will return and take us to be with you forever. Keep our hearts and minds by the Spirit on things above, so that we will not be misled by those who would turn us away from you. Maranatha—come soon, dear Jesus! Amen.
“As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.’ As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?’ And Jesus began to say to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. Many will come in My name, saying, “I am He!” and will mislead many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.’” Mark 13:1–8 NASB
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:(11–14, 19–22) 23–25 NASB
By Linda Rex
September 5, 2021, PROPER 18—Wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply ask God to heal someone and he would? What if we could just ask God to fix a situation—get rid of that political leader, close that company, get those people working—and it would just happen? We kind of like the idea of a vending machine God.
Or, when we think of having the faith to receive God’s “yes” to our requests, we often put the burden solely upon ourselves. We catch ourselves starting to move to the place of asking God for something, only to back away and say, “If only I had the faith to….” I wonder if often the issue isn’t with our faith or lack thereof, but rather with our inaccurate and insufficient knowledge of who God is. We don’t know what our Father’s heart and mind toward us really is and we don’t trust him to have our best interests at heart in every situation.
I suppose that if we knew God well and were walking day by day in intimate relationship with him, we might come a little closer to knowing how he perceives a certain situation and what it is he would do in that situation. Over time, by experiencing his answers to our prayers and his faithfulness to us in difficult circumstances, we might be able to ask with greater assurance for his intervention and receive what we request. But God doesn’t always say “yes.” The reality is sometimes he says “later,” or “no.” And we need to be okay with this.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday (Mark 7:24–37) we read that Jesus was trying to find a place where he could teach and minister to his disciples. He went to the region of Tyre, and entered a house, seeking privacy and quiet—time away from the crowds and their demands on his time and energy. In spite of Jesus’ efforts to remain anonymous and isolated, a Syrophoenician woman came to him in great humility and asked him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit.
Jesus’ reply seems at first glance to be rather rude and disrespectful. He told her it was not fitting to take food away from the children and to feed it to the dogs. She as a Gentile may have experienced often the use of the term “dogs” by the Jews in reference to herself. But in reality, Jesus used a diminutive term when talking about the dogs, which showed he was referring to puppies or the family pets. He was not insulting her, but rather was explaining that his first responsibility in that moment was to his disciples, those he was training and teaching at that particular time.
The woman was not put off by Jesus’ initial refusal to help. It was quite common for her people and his, like ours today, to have family pets around the dinner table. Her reply to him was witty, saucy, and genuine—she quickly pointed out that the pet dogs could eat at the same time as the children, since they picked up the crumbs which fell off the table or ate those tidbits handed to them by the children. There was a picture of pleasant domestic tranquility in her words, a thing she may have been missing due to her daughter’s current illness. She boldly made her request, no matter the cost to herself or the inherent risk of refusal. She trusted in his ability, and willingness, to do what was needed to heal her daughter—which in the end, he did.
There are many stories in the Old Testament of people who had the boldness to ask a big thing of God, believing they would have his “yes” in response to their request. Jacob, who wrestled all night with God, would not let go until God gave him his blessing—and received it. Elijah asked God to make a visible sign of his power and glory in front of the worshipers of Baal—and he did. Elisha asked for a double portion of the Spirit which was on Elijah—and it was his when Elijah was taken. A woman who lost her son came in great grief to Elisha—and her son lived again. Nothing was too large for these people to ask for—and God happily said “yes” to each of their requests.
What if they had never asked? What if they had believed that God was not interested in what was important to them?
The thought came to me—what if Peter and John had met that man at the temple who had been lame from birth and had said to him, “We don’t have any silver or gold” and then simply walked away? Thankfully, for his sake, they did not just walk away. They offered what they did have, and that was healing in the name of Jesus Christ.
Peter and John had experienced God and his love for them in a profound and deep way. They had walked and talked with the Son of God who had taken on human flesh and lived alongside them for three years. They had sat around the campfire with Jesus and had heard his teaching and preaching. They had watched him be betrayed, be crucified and die, and then had walked and talked with him after the resurrection. The consequence of that ongoing relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ was a confident assurance and trust that enabled them to boldly ask for whatever was needed in the moment, even when it was a huge request like making a lame man walk.
If Peter had come across this lame man that night when the rooster crowed three times marking his denial of Christ, would he have responded in the same way? What would have been God’s answer to his request at that time? Peter’s faith experienced a time of testing through which he learned the heart of Jesus and his Father. He came to know Jesus in a way he had never known him before. He discovered God was not only trustworthy, but he was also gracious and compassionate—a faithful God who knew him intimately, and loved him completely and fully anyway. Filled with the Spirit following Pentecost, Peter, and his co-laborer John, had a sense of certainty about what the risen Lord would do in the situation with the man who was lame, and so they told him to walk in Jesus’ name—and he did.
Have you ever had that kind of conversation with God in which you were frankly honest with him, where you boldly asked for what was needed for yourself and others? In the midst of an ongoing conversation with God, a growing relationship with Jesus through the tests and trials of life, there is certainly room for truth-telling—for being genuine in your expression of your anger, your fear, your frustration or your need. Whatever it is, understand that God meets us where we are, not just where we ought to be or wish we could be or believe we should be.
How well do we know God? I find that way too often I make God much, much smaller than he really is. Too often I make him in my image instead of remembering I am made to reflect him. I may understand intellectually that he is greater than my problems or concerns, but my actions demonstrate that I don’t truly believe he is. I may believe that he has the capacity to fix whatever my situation is, but I simply don’t act on that capacity by boldly requesting his intervention in my situation and trusting him to do what is best. When the apostle James said that faith without works is dead, he was pointing out that too often what we say we believe about God isn’t demonstrated by the way we behave in our relationship with him and others (James 2:1–10, 14–17).
It is critical that our fragile human faith be replaced with Jesus’ implicit faith in the Father. The Spirit is working this transformation in our hearts and lives as we turn to Christ and walk in him. We spend time growing our relationship with God through the study of his word, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We make room for God to work on our hearts and minds, allowing him to draw us through difficult times and painful situations into closer relationship with him. Our trust in God and in his faithfulness grows as we follow Christ and walk in the Spirit through all of life.
And remarkably, we find that even when we do ask, we are not alarmed when God does not give us an immediate “yes”. Our relationship with God becomes more important than having our way in a given situation. We are willing to trust in God, rest in Christ, allowing the Lord to do what only he can do in the situation, believing he will do what is in our best interests because he loves us and is faithful. We know who he is, that he is trustworthy and faithful—and so we can, in Christ, trust him. We discover that the faith we are needing has been given to us as a gift from God through Jesus in the Spirit. This blessed gift of faith means God’s “yes” is already at work in our situation—we need only rest in Christ and trust in God’s love and faithfulness, for he is trustworthy.
Dear God, thank you for your faithfulness, for being trustworthy, the One we can rely upon in every situation to carry us through and to bring us in the end to where we need to be. Fill us with the faith of Christ by your Holy Spirit, giving us the grace to come boldly to your throne to receive what we need in every situation, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And He was saying to her, ‘Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.’ And He said to her, ‘Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.” Mark 7:25–30 (24–37) NASB
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” James 2:14, 17 (1–10, 14–17) NASB
By Linda Rex
August 29, 2021, PROPER 17—I have been in tears lately over the reality of the inhumanity with which we as human beings exist in this world. I am sick of the betrayals, the deceptions, and the manipulative messages meant control, use, and steal from innocent, trusting individuals. How low can we as humans go? Apparently, after all these millennia we still have not plumbed the depths of the human depravity we are capable of.
All of the evil I see around me right now is nothing new—we’ve been going at this inhumanity to humanity thing since we were first created. Perhaps our capacity to self-destruct and to destroy our planet is greater than it ever has been. But what we as humans do to one another that is evil and depraved is nothing new. It is birthed out of the heart of the evil one which we have too often given heed to and followed since the beginning of time.
Sadly, I find that we as followers of Jesus Christ can be just as bad or worse than those we like to point our fingers at and declare to be sinners. Too often, we are simply just more effective at disguising or hiding our failures to love God and others. In our gospel reading for this Sunday, we see Jesus taking some Pharisees and scribes to task for their hypocrisy. They may have been very religious, but their oral traditions actually enabled them to look like they were good people when in reality they were avoiding their responsibility to their fellow human beings.
Jesus was not unfamiliar with the depravity humans are capable of. His point was that it is not the external things which make us unclean or unacceptable to God. Not washing our hands a certain way or not doing a certain religious ritual correctly does not determine our uncleanness or unacceptability to God. It is the things that are birthed in our hearts and pour out from us which defile us. Jesus said things such as “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness” come from within and are what make us unclean (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21–23 NLT). Our only hope with regards to these things is for God to give us a new heart and mind.
When we focus on our failures as human beings to love one another as God meant us to, we can become very angry or depressed. Focusing on the evil human beings dump all over one another does not resolve the issue. We need to remember the admonition the apostle James gave us regarding looking into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who is the exact representation of the Father in human flesh, the perfect image-bearer of God each of us is created to be. He is the One we are to keep our eyes on, for he is the living Word of God present in our humanity by the Holy Spirit, ever at work transforming human hearts and minds.
In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind. When we look into the mirror who is Jesus Christ, the One who kept the law of liberty fully and completely as we should, do we see only the broken humanity which is caught in the cesspool of evil and sin? Or do we see the resurrected crucified Lord, who took all that evil and sin upon himself, died our death, and rose from the grave, ascending into the presence of the Father, bearing our glorified humanity now and forever. In the beloved Son of the Father, through whom we are forgiven, accepted and beloved children of God, we find our life is hidden with Christ in God.
As we gaze into the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we find we have a choice. We can refuse to believe and accept who he is for us and what he has done for us in giving us himself. We can walk away and resume our old ways of thinking and living. Or we can begin to live into the truth Jesus has revealed to us about who we are as the beloved, forgiven and accepted children of God. We can live and walk in truth, or we can continue in the self-deception, corruption and stubborn willfulness of our lives as disobedient children.
James reminds us that the superficial gloss of religiosity is valueless and is despised by God. Jesus, on many occasions, condemned hypocrisy in self-proclaimed religious people. Saying the right words, even getting the rituals right, is meaningless if it is not backed up by the evidence of our faith in Christ. True religion that is acceptable before God comes from a heart filled with the presence and power of Jesus by the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the care of those who are not able to care for themselves and a life lived out of the truth of who we are in Christ.
The struggle to be what we were meant to be rather than what we find ourselves so often being is a real one. In every moment of every day, we are called once again to turn away from ourselves and to turn to Christ. We are called again to lay down our lives, pick up our cross, and to follow him. We are reminded by the Spirit to gaze again into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty, Jesus, so we can remember whom we are and begin anew to live out the truth of whom we are in him by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
Self-deception is easy. We can always find ways to excuse or rationalize our behavior or our failure to live as we know we ought to live. Those of us who share the good news of the gospel find it a tough challenge to really live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a world which is constantly tempting us to turn away from him, and is ever pulling us back into our old ways of thinking and living. It is so easy to put on the façade and never let anyone know how far we have fallen from the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
But that is why we are called into fellowship with other believers. The point of gathering with other believers is to grow in our relationship with God and one another, and to grow in Christlikeness. There are many ways in which we gather together—whether at church for worship and hearing the Word, or in a small group for learning and fellowship, or coming together for the simple purpose of praying together as brothers and sisters in Christ. In these spiritual communities, we are living in a small way the kingdom life we were each created for and in which we will live forever when Jesus returns in glory. We have the opportunity right now to express true religion day in and day out as we interact with the people God puts in our lives, offering kindness, service, and humble obedience to the will of God by genuinely loving and caring for them in the name of Jesus.
Sincere, heartfelt love and care for others is a reflection of the nature of Jesus Christ himself, as God in human flesh. He is the mirror we gaze into—and which we want to reflect as we live day by day in this world which has drifted so far from what God meant it to be. Not everyone appreciates a mirror, nor do they care to have reflected back to them how far they have fallen from what they were meant to be. There are places in this world today where people are suffering deeply from choosing Christ and living his way. When the time comes for us to make that same choice, what will we do? Are we willing to be true reflections of the mirror that is Christ, no matter the cost to ourselves?
Heavenly Father, how far we have fallen from all you meant us to be! Thank you so much for not leaving us here forsaken in our darkness. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us and bringing us out into the light, and for sending your Spirit so we can share in your life now and forever. Grant us the grace to worship you, Father, in spirit and in truth, as accurate reflections of your glory and goodness, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:17–27 NASB
By Linda Rex
August 22, 2021, PROPER 16—This morning I was reading an article about the consequences Christian churches in North America are beginning to face due to past mistreatment and genocide of first peoples. These are issues which cut deeply into the heart of our psyche as believers. Too often we have been influenced by our culture, by our generational prejudices, and undoubtedly, the evil which lurks in human hearts and is often manifested under the guise of Christian beliefs and practices.
Every generation, within the Church and without, faces the reality that it must deal with the consequences of the choices of their forebearers. And it must choose whether or not to continue on that same path, or to choose a new one, more in line with what is holy, just, and good. Will our children, and their children and their children’s children, make better choices? Or will they continue the systemic dehumanizing of their brothers and sisters? How can better choices be made within the current structures and systems at work in this world today—or do they need removed, or changed?
As I read the Old Testament passage for this Sunday (Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18), I felt conflicted. Joshua was near the end of his life, having after many years of battle brought his people into their promised land and gotten them settled. They were finally experiencing peace so he wanted them to recommit themselves to God. He was committed to leaving behind the idols of the past and worshiping God alone, and he invited his people to do the same. What is left unsaid in this account is how his people would deal with the consequences of all they had done in conquering that land. How many people were killed or displaced so that God’s people could move in and settle? And isn’t that what many of our forbearers did right here in America centuries ago, believing it was God’s will?
Bringing this forward to today, I’m watching something similar happen here in Nashville right now. Someone owns a rental property with many apartments or trailers or homes. They decide to sell the property to a developer because they receive an offer they can’t refuse. All of the people renting there are summarily evicted. They cannot afford to rent a place similar to the one they had in that neighborhood, prices being too high, so they end up on the street, in sub-value housing or moving far away from their work. The developer puts in a new facility with even more apartments or condos, or homes, but none of them are affordable for all these people who got evicted. Over and over, people are being displaced, others are moving in where they used to live—the dynamics of human civilization at work for better or for worse.
Where is God in the midst of all this? We put such a great value on what we own, where we live, our homes and properties. We like to keep what is familiar and comfortable. When life becomes difficult—and for many it is constantly difficult—we can lose faith, lose hope, and even lose our love for one another. We can wonder where God went, because it may certainly seem as though he has left us. But we still have a choice: we can focus on the physical or we can raise the level of our view to heavenly heights to see that God is still present and active, redeeming, restoring, healing, and working through all of these things to bring about a greater purpose and plan.
The Spirit reminds us that God’s where he’s always been—present in and by his Spirit, at work in all these circumstances and situations to bring about his kingdom life. The apostle John liked to use the word abide to describe our intimate connection with God in Christ by the Spirit. To abide is to dwell, remain, stay in a place. Jesus left the benefits of heaven to join us in our darkness by taking on our human flesh. His purpose in joining us at our worst was to bring us up through death and resurrection into his best. What he calls us to do is to find our true residence and dwelling not on this earth but solely in him alone.
In John 6, Jesus had extensive conversations with the crowd about how he was the bread of life, the only source of true zōe life, eternal life, which he received from the Father. He said that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” We can be so obsessed with the life of our flesh, our human existence, that we miss the spiritual realities which are right in front of us. Or, like the people of Jesus day, we are so scandalized by the possibility that God has made room for each and every human being to have a place in the presence of God now and forever as his very own child that we want nothing to do with Jesus or the Christian faith.
It seems that for generations, for millennia, people have set claim upon spaces on this earth—owning a spot of land or living in the same place as their ancestors, or they have traveled, moved from one place to another. Some have always lived in the same place. Some have never known a stable home. Some have been welcomed to new lands, some haven’t. But God’s heart has always been that each and every person have a home to return to—that home in the Father’s arms which is solely their very own. Our heavenly Abba longs to embrace each one of us and is constantly looking expectantly down the road watching for every one of his prodigals to come home.
To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is figurative language. Eating and drinking cause what we are consuming to, in a sense, become a very part of us. To take in Christ, is to participate in a real and personal way, in his very existence by the Holy Spirit. When we, by faith, realize that Christ is in us and we are in him, that he died our death and lived our life, and lives in us—we are connected with God in a way that is unbreakable, a union and communion that is very real and very eternal. We are intimately known by him and we come to know Abba’s heart and mind as he reveals himself to us through Christ by the Spirit.
Our spiritual house can be shaken though. These experiences of life which are so destructive and unsettling can so disrupt our peace that we lose sight of what is real and true and holy. But the apostle Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” He calls us three times to “stand firm”—taking a position against such spiritual opposition that we cannot be moved away from our foundation in Christ. He tells us to put on the spiritual armor of God, all elements of Christ himself—the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shield of faith, and so on. We put on Christ, and we give attention to the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit as valuable weapons in this spiritual struggle (Eph. 6:10–20 NASB).
Our assurance is not in our ability to fight well, but in the reality that Jesus has already fought and won the battle. We rest in his finished work, for he has already defeated the evil one, death, and sin in his death and resurrection. We are in the process of moving from our own feeble strength to finding our strength in him alone (Ps. 84:5-7). We abide in Jesus, resting in him, living in complete dependence upon him, turning to him in faith.
As we face the reality of our broken humanity, and dealing even with the painful reality of whatever history lies behind us, we can have the comfort and assurance that we are at home in the love and grace of God himself. This God, who was present in every century, who knew every decision and its motive and result, is the God who joined us in our humanity, experienced the depths of the depravity of the human heart, and brought us up into new life. Nothing is so horrible or astonishing that he cannot and will not redeem it when it is brought to him. Will we allow him to be our true home, the place where we find true rest and healing, where grace and truth joined together in Christ is ours now and forever?
Heavenly Father, thank you for defending us from our enemies of evil, sin and death, and for rescuing us, bringing us home to be with you forever. We love you and rejoice in your gift of zōe life, being held in your eternal embrace through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; | My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. … For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God | Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Psalm 84:2, 10 NASB
“‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’ … ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ … no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’” John 6:56–69 NASB
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 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
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