in Christ

Seeking Life Above

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By Linda Rex

August 4th, PROPER 13—This week the TV caught my eye at the veterinarian’s office where my daughter was having her cat given her yearly checkup. I saw people taking old furniture and revamping it, giving it a more modern feel. Some of the results I liked, some I didn’t like.

Usually this channel is full of stories of how people take an old fixer-upper house and renovate it, selling it for more than what it was worth originally. The process of “flipping” a home seems very challenging to me because there is always the danger of hidden problems such as asbestos removal, an unstable foundation, or damage to critical structural elements. But I feel there is something ultimately satisfying about taking something broken and dirty and turning it into a masterpiece. Maybe this is because this is what God does with us.

The thing is, we can be so focused on the externals of our existence that we don’t tend to the internals as we ought. What I mean by that is, God wants us to attend to the internals of our souls more than the externals of our human existence. We are responsible to do what work is necessary to provide for ourselves and to care for what belongings are ours. But the God who takes care of the birds and the flowers is quite capable of caring for us when we allow him to, trusting him to help us meet our obligations and to provide for our needs (Matt 10:29-31; Luke 12:6).

Indeed, there may be some of us who want to live free from any responsibilities or effort and yet have every luxury at our fingertips—our culture encourages this. We may pursue a carefree life without responsibilities or the need to work or provide for anyone but ourselves—this is especially true for those who have parents or others who are willing to carry the responsibilities we should be carrying. However, the apostle Paul writes that if a person isn’t willing to work, then he or she shouldn’t eat. This is a reminder to carry our own load, to be responsible for ourselves—to do our part. (2 Thess. 3:10-11)

Even though some people seem to have all they need with no financial or personal struggles, some of us may be constantly in motion, working every moment to create our perfect world as we envision it to be. We may work very hard just to get ahead only to find ourselves bound by debt or health problems or broken relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able do what the rich man Jesus talked about wanted to do? He had a bumper crop, and decided to put everything up into storage, and to tell himself, “You have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:16-21)

But Jesus had words to say about such a life philosophy. He reminded his listeners and the man who was focused on getting his share of his family’s property that what really matters in life becomes truly evident when we are faced with death. Death brings everything in our lives into focus—showing us our humanity and the transience of our existence. We can make all the plans we want, we can save up all the money we want, and it just takes an instant or an event out of our control and it is all over. Everything we worked for goes to someone else—and we can’t even control who gets it all after we are gone.

Ultimately, each of us must humble ourselves under a recognition that God is God and we are not. Even as Christians we can be pretty arrogant and atheistic when it comes to money and providing for ourselves. Life can go well for quite a long time, and our diligent efforts can bring us great success and abundant wealth. But the externals of our human existence are transient and one day they will disappear. If we depend upon them or count on them, we are placing our life on an uncertain foundation.

As followers of Jesus, we can even embrace the idea that if we live good lives and do everything right God has to bless us and make everything go right in our lives. This sets us up for great disappointment and tests our faith when bad, unexplainable things occur in our lives. We may try to, but we cannot control the decisions others make nor can we protect our loved ones or ourselves from the evil or brokenness of the world we live in.

Stuff happens. Death occurs. Illness breaks our health. People steal our money. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes destroy our homes. And all our precious plans go out the window. Then we start asking the tough questions: What am I going to do? Where is God in all this? Doesn’t he care? Why did this happen to me?

Here in the middle of the brokenness, death, and destruction we are meant to find new life. God wants to meet us in the middle of this place and show us what we should have known all along—the life we are seeking is above, hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). The real peace, joy, and comfort is found in Jesus, in the One who took on our humanity, joined us in our broken, sinful human existence, and brought us through death into resurrection and ascension into life with God both now and forever. Jesus redeemed our broken existence—God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB).

Our real existence, the one which will last, is in knowing and being known by our Abba and his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit. What we have in this life is passing away—what we have in Christ is everlasting. This is why Paul says to keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, not the things on earth (Col. 3:1-2)

We are to consider ourselves dead to greed, which is a form of idolatry. Greed and covetousness, along with the other passions of our flesh, are a way in which we go about life focused on and drawing our life from the things which are transient and will one day disappear. Like worshipping idols made of gold and silver, our worship of our human efforts or goals or the physical trappings of our existence—nice home, good job, wealth, power, fame, ease and pleasure—is an insult to the God who made us and called us into relationship with himself, and who came for us and redeemed us in Jesus Christ. All of this idolatry hung with Christ on the cross—in Christ we are dead to our idols, so we might live in the newness which is ours in him.

God created the earth and all its abundance for our enjoyment and pleasure. God means for us to work and to take pleasure in the fruit of our efforts. God wants us to work hard and be responsible for ourselves. But nowhere in all of this are any of these gifts meant to replace the Giver. Nothing is to take the place of the One who took our place and stands in our stead on our behalf as our Redeemer and Savior and Lord—Jesus Christ. The spirit of greed, lust, envy, selfishness, or any other demonic or fleshly spirit is never meant to replace the living Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is meant to fill us with God’s love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and so on—to be the dominant Spirit in our being, to rule our existence both now and forever.

We have been given the greatest gift of all, life in Christ by the Spirit. We are called to live humble lives, in all godliness and honesty, sharing with others all we have been given, so that as one, we are joined together in the body of Christ as Abba’s children, together living in the new lives forged for us by Jesus out of our broken human existence and poured into us by the Holy Spirit.

When we have been given something by God, perhaps it is so that we can share it with others, or maybe he means for us to use it in furthering the scope of the Kingdom of God. God’s gifts are meant to create gratitude and praise, to move us to rejoice in the gift of our blessed hope and to live as the adopted children we were created to be, loving God and one another both now and forever as true image-bearers of the God who is love.

Dear God, thank you for all the gifts you have for us in our everyday existence—food, clothing, shelter, friendship, companionship, work, and so many other things. Keep us focused in the midst of all our blessings on you, the Blessed One, who blesses us with everything we need for life and godliness. Fill our hearts with gratitude and praise, for you are more than worthy. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen

“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. … Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him…” Colossians 3:1-3, 9-10 NASB

“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” Luke 12:15 NASB

Walking in Christ

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By Linda Rex

PROPER 12—Reflections on when I was first baptized remind me of the disconnect there was between my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection and the rest of my Christian life. Even though the baptism focused on repentance and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it seems that once that event took place, then the rest was all up to me, even though I was a recipient of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, I had been taught the scriptures since I was a child, and had to memorize many for school. There were instructions about the ten commandments and the way of love, and warnings that I would reap what I sowed. I lived in constant fear that I would fall short of God’s enormous expectations (and I often did) and believed that God would reject me. My participation in taking the bread and wine once a year was often a desperate plea for forgiveness and an acknowledgement of my unworthiness in his sight. Even though I may have felt forgiven as I came to the table, this experience was short-lived—guilt and shame were my constant companions.

Unfortunately, I was laboring under a false concept of what it meant to be baptized and to be saved. In some ways, I understood what it meant, but at the same time I did not grasp the significance of dying and rising with Jesus. I did not realize that my death and subsequent life in Christ was always and ever a participation in Christ’s perfected and finished work. It was not all up to me—it was completely all up to him; I was saved by grace through faith.

Jesus, who was God in human flesh, did not need to be baptized and yet he obeyed his Father’s command given through John the Baptizer to be baptized for the remission of sins. Jesus was not baptized for his own sins, but for the sins of the whole world, identifying with each human being in our broken, sinful humanity. When we are baptized, it is a participation in his perfect work of baptism as well as a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.

This participation in Christ through baptism is merely a beginning of the new life which is ours by faith in Jesus. By faith we receive the anointing in the Holy Spirit by which we share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father. Our life becomes a life of walking in the Spirit by faith in Christ—a new way of being which has its roots in the Son of God.

We do not suddenly become perfect and yet we are at the same time perfect in Christ—there is a paradox, a tension, to our lives. While on the one hand our perfected humanity is hidden with Christ in God, on the other this perfection is being worked into us daily as we live and walk in obedience to the Spirit. We are fully justified in Jesus but are daily being sanctified—we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not always see in ourselves or others the perfection which is ours even now in Christ.

Our focus is so often on moral perfection. This was the struggle in my early years as a Christian. But this is not God’s focus. He has already resolved the issue of moral perfection in Jesus. What he is working on now is our faith in Jesus Christ, our personal walk with him in the Spirit.

In Christ we are caught up into the inner life of the Trinity, of the Father, Son, and Spirit as they exist in perichoretic love and unity. We were created to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Christ this is who we are as God’s adopted children. In his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the giving of the Spirit, Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, enabling us to participate as God’s creatures in true union and communion with the Father in the Spirit, and in union and communion with one another, expressed most fully within the body of Christ, the church.

What before was a fear and anxiety-ridden struggle to attain a tiny measure of God’s favor has been replaced in our lives by a grace-based relationship filled with God’s love, humor, compassion and understanding. All of life is holy now, blessed by and healed by the presence and power of God through Jesus in the Spirit. Our lives are a participation in the perfect relationship Jesus has with our Father and his perfect expression of love for Abba and for others in the Spirit.

We don’t have to beg God for the least bit of his attention. No, he anticipates and looks forward to our encounters, for Jesus stands in our place on our behalf, bringing us into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We feel his pleasure as we pray and sense his joy in our everyday life. We know his presence and sense his comfort when we grieve or go through painful experiences—he shares all of life with us. Whatever evil we may encounter in this world, we find he is already at work within it to redeem, restore and renew. And whatever praise or prayer or gift of obedience we bring—it is already perfected in Jesus.

We do not need to spend all our time in abjection or slavish attention, but rather in real moment-by-moment relationship, in the true love, humility and service which come in a complete dependence on God, knowing and accepting our need for Jesus, and rejoicing in the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives. We can live our lives in joy, drinking in of the blessings God richly showers upon us for our enjoyment—the beauty of a new spring day, the glory of a mountain vista, the pleasure of a pet’s affection, and the ecstasy of an intimate relationship with a spouse. In moments of sorrow or struggle, we can rest in his arms, trusting he is holding us and helping us through them, working all things for our best benefit.

What God has given us is true participation in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba. We have a loving, adoring, compassionate Father who has done everything necessary for us to have a personal, intimate relationship with him and to share in what he is doing in this world to bring the fullness of his kingdom into every area of our existence. We get to share in Christ’s mission by the Spirit through prayer, loving others, resisting evil, and caring for God’s creation. All of these are a true participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, of which baptism is the initial step and our weekly communion the ongoing sacrament.

Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his life in the Spirit, symbolically showing our participation through baptism and our sharing in the bread and the wine. May you finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,…” Colossians 2:6 NASB

Revealing the Hidden Word

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By Linda Rex

PROPER 10/PROPER 11—The most significant way to change a person, and therefore a society, is to change what that person believes about themselves and the people in their lives. Often our response to a given situation is habituated by our belief system. We may not even realize why we do some of the things we do, even though we may realize they are inappropriate or unhealthy. We may not be even be aware of the belief systems that are at the root of such behavior.

Reflecting back upon the garden of Eden, we may see that Adam and Eve illustrate this point in how they responded to God after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Before then they had freely walked and talked with God in the garden. But after they ate the fruit, they began to believe things about themselves and God which manifested in shame, fear, and hiding themselves. What a change occurred when they adopted the wrong frame for their view of God and themselves!

We see this at work in the nation of Israel as well. God told them on Mount Sinai that they were his people and he was their God, and this reality would be reflected in the way they lived their lives. But when God approached near to them, they responded in fear. They didn’t want God to speak to them personally—they wanted a mediator. What they believed about God caused them to distance themselves from their covenant partner who loved them with deep devotion and commitment. Over the centuries following, the nation of Israel acted out their mixed-up belief system, turning away to other idols and then turning back to God in remorse when things got tough.

One of the things Israel believed was that God was a fearful, judgmental God who needed appeased. They had adopted the belief system of the nations around them rather than the truth that God had chosen them as his adopted nation, his beloved people. They refused to believe and live in the truth that God had committed himself to them in covenant relationship. They wanted to live as though they were independent of God and yet at the same time have all the benefits of a good relationship with him.

They also did not grasp the need to internalize the word of God. The law was something external to them, becoming a prescription of how to be a good Israelite. In actuality, it was meant to be a description of what life looked like when lived in communion with their God. Love for God was to be so written on their hearts that their lives would resemble his law, his way of being, the way of love.

At one point, God bemoaned their lack of a heart of obedience and devotion to him. He said, “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut. 5:29 NASB) Many centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah told the people about a day when God would make a new covenant with the people. He said that God would put his law within them and write it on their heart. He would be their God and they would be his people. God’s word would cease to be external to them and would become the core driving force of their being. But this could not happen apart from God’s intervention—our humanity on its own is lost in unhealthy belief systems and a determination to operate on its own apart from God.

The apostle John opens his gospel with the good news that God the Word joined us in our humanity, becoming flesh and living among us. Getting to know God by coming to know Jesus Christ is fundamental to changing our belief system. To know Jesus is to know the Father. To know Jesus is to know and begin to experience the reality of God’s real presence in our humanity. The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in us and with us, reveals Christ in us and brings us into union and communion with God.

Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, worked the word of God into our human flesh. He lived in complete oneness with his Father while here on earth. He forged a new humanity which would love and obey his Abba by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, our humanity is capable of new ways of being and living. As we turn to Christ in faith, as we respond to the Spirit’s work in us, repenting of our wrong beliefs and our wrong view of God and ourselves, God’s word hidden in our hearts through Jesus by the Spirit begins to be expressed in new ways. There is a new inner drive to love God and love others.

The living Word Jesus Christ, written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit, is the basis for our new belief system. In Christ we have new life. We are forgiven, accepted and beloved. What we were as broken, sinful people has been declared dead and buried with Christ, and raised into new life.

What we believe about ourselves and God, then, is critical. Do we see ourselves as included in Christ? Or are we living out a belief system that says we are evil, sinful, and broken—forsaken and rejected by God? Do we believe that the wretchedness of our life is the fault of everyone else and all they did to us over the years? Or do we admit our own guilt and shame, knowing we are freed in Christ? And what do we believe about God? Is he a fearful, judgmental overseer or did he come himself to rescue us out of our wretchedness and to make us his own? Is he present, forgiving, loving, and accepting in every situation and difficulty we have?

If we are struggling with some unhealthy behaviors or are having a lot of negative thoughts, perhaps it is time to reconstruct our inner belief system. We can participate with Christ in doing that by internalizing the written word of God. If you struggle to believe God loves you or that you are worthy of love, dig deeply into the written word to find all the passages that tell you the truth—you are forgiven, beloved, accepted, and cherished. Write them on cards and begin memorizing the passages—give the Holy Spirit some ammunition to use in this battle.

And ask God for the faith to believe—to write this word on your heart. Thank God that he has given you Jesus’ heart—a heart which fully understands and receives his Abba’s love. But understand, any spiritual discipline in itself will not change you. It is the Word written on human hearts—Jesus Christ by the Spirit poured into you—that will change you. It is God at work within you that will make the change. You start by embracing the process of participating with Christ in his work by the Spirit. And allow God to do the rest. And he will, giving you abundant reason for praise and gratitude.

Abba, thank you for writing your word on our hearts, for sending us your Son and your Spirit to do this amazing transformational work. Today, give us a hunger for your word and your ways. Give us a desire to grow in our relationship with you and to study your Word—to learn more about you and your Son Jesus Christ, and the awesome Spirit who transforms our hearts by faith. Heal, restore, renew—bring our deep inner beliefs into agreement with the truth, the One who is our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Deut. 30:14 NASB

“…the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Col. 1:15-28 NASB

Consequences of the Resurrection

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By Linda Rex

4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—I have met many people over the years as I have been doing ministry here in Tennessee. I am sometimes surprised by how many times a person has been baptized on their journey with Jesus Christ. It seems that some churches require baptism as a mark of entry even though the person had been baptized before. Baptism, I believe, can begin to lose its significance when it is treated solely as a ticket for membership.

Jesus tells a story about a king who sends out invitations to a wedding feast (Matt. 22). The people he invited didn’t come, so he had his servants go out and invite anyone they could find to come. Finally, the day came. At the banquet, he finds a guest who doesn’t have on a wedding garment. Since every guest had been given a wedding garment when they were invited, there was no reason for this man to not to be dressed in one. He was excluded from the banquet.

When Jesus hung on the cross, all of humanity hung with him. When he was laid in the tomb, we all laid there with him. And when the resurrected Jesus walked out of the tomb glorified, our humanity walked out glorified with him. In his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus carefully constructed our white robes of righteousness, preparing before time began for us to share in his glory.

It’s not when we are baptized that Jesus includes us—we were included back when he did his perfect work in our place and on our behalf. But we do come to a point in our lives when the Holy Spirit brings us to the place of recognizing and believing in who Jesus is and trusting in his finished work, gratefully receiving what he has done for us in place of our self-centered and self-sufficient ways of living and being. Our baptism becomes a participation in Jesus’ baptism, a symbolic sharing in his death and resurrection.

We can know about Jesus and even believe he is the Son of God, but never put on what he has given us. He has given us a new life, a new existence, a sharing in his love and grace which is life-transforming, healing and renewing. Jesus has included us in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. He has drawn us up into their perichoretic dance of love, and is allowing us to participate in his life in the Trinity both now and forever. He has baptized us with the Father’s love by and in the Spirit.

We express our grateful reception of and participation in Jesus’ perfect and extremely expensive gift through baptism. But going beyond baptism, we begin to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In essence, we take the white robes which are ours and we put them on. As we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, we tangibly “put on” Christ—we acknowledge our dependence on and trust in Jesus—we “feed” on him in an ongoing way, because he is our life. God works to grow us up in Christlikeness, as we respond to him in faith.

A lot of us, though, act as if we have to make ourselves good people. We work really hard at “being good enough to go to heaven.” The reality, though—if we are honest with ourselves—is that we will never be quite good enough. We are broken, sinful people who just can’t get it right. We can put on a nice front, make ourselves look kind, helpful, and generous, but at the same time be greedy, selfish, and indifferent. We can learn a lot of Bible verses, spout them at will, and yet never have a kind and thoughtful word to say to someone who is hurting.

Jesus’ finished work speaks volumes to us if we are willing to listen. It is because we are so faulty and in need of rescuing that he came to rescue us. It is because we are broken and sinful that he came to live in our humanity and redeem us. It is because we were captured by the kingdom of darkness that he, like a knight in shining armor, came to our defense and brought us safely into the kingdom of light at the risk of losing his own life like a sacrificial lamb.

This shepherd king, Jesus Christ, is the one who found us starving and wallowing in the pig sty, and brought home to his Father. God created us for so much more than this—we were intended to share in Jesus’ kingship and priesthood by the Spirit—an elevation to dignity and worth which is far beyond our own ability to attain. We were meant to live with God forever, immersed in his love and grace, filled with his Spirit, and participating in his plans and activities. We have a reason to live—a purpose and a hope beyond the temporary pleasures of this life. Whatever we do in this life now, and in the life to come, has great meaning and value as it is connected through Christ and in the Spirit with God’s love and will.

The fundamental issue which we face when faced with Jesus Christ is—are we willing to submit, surrender, relinquish all our claims to the throne? Are we willing to take our appropriate place as his dependent children, humbly surrendering to God’s desire for us and our lives? Are we willing to allow Jesus Christ to define our humanity and how we live our lives? This is the place where we are faced with the ultimate decision.

It’s easy to go through the motions of repentance, faith, and baptism. We can do the things we believe are necessary to become members of whatever church we may wish to join. But can we—no, will we—allow Jesus Christ to be who he is, the Lord of this universe and our Lord as well? Will we surrender to all to his purposes and plans, allowing him to redirect our lives and our relationships? Will we live and walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh any longer? This is where things get tough.

When Abba through Jesus sent his Spirit on all flesh, he opened the way for each and every person to make their very own the finished work of Jesus Christ. There is substantial freedom in what God has done. We can come to the wedding banquet wearing our own clothes or we can toss them in the trash where they belong and put on the white robes Jesus made for us. We are free to make this choice. It does not alter God’s love for us, but it does alter our experience of that love and whether or not we can participate in what God has planned for us, both now and in the world to come. The Spirit says, “Come.” Will we?

Thank you, Jesus, for doing everything necessary so we can be with you both now and forever. Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Give us willing and obedient hearts, and enable us to gratefully receive and live in the truth of all you have given to us. Amen.

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ ” Revelation 7:9-10

A Real Reversal

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By Linda Rex

3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.

Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.

I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.

A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.

Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.

I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.

The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.

It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.

Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.

Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?

What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.

Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.

A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.

The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.

Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB

He is Risen Indeed

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By Linda Rex

RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?

As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”

As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.

This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.

The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.

As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.

All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.

In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.

As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.

But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.

The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).

Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.

Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.

The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.

We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.

Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB

Rivers in the Desert

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By Linda Rex

LENT—As we continue our Lenten journey, it is possible that the Spirit may be bringing to our attention areas of our lives which need transformation or healing. We may be recognizing our failures to love or our self-centered ways of being and living. We may experience grief and pain in knowing we fall short of what God meant for us to be, or we may be overcome with feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse.

The path we walk this time of year is the path Jesus walked as he headed towards death and resurrection. Jesus purposefully walked this path, knowing full well the suffering and betrayal he would experience in Jerusalem. This did not deter him from his goal. He had something he needed to accomplish and not even the gates of hell would prevent him from fulfilling the promises of his heavenly Father.

Jesus knew the heart of man and the reality that we were broken and desperately in need of being saved. His love for you and me and every other human being who has ever lived or will one day walk this earth was so great, he determined that whatever was necessary would be done so we would be with him forever. Nothing would stand in his way. He would finish what he began.

The wilderness journey we take with Jesus is an opportunity to embrace the reality that apart from him we are powerless over evil, sin, and death. When we look into the true mirror of our humanity, Jesus Christ, we find ourselves on the one hand as sorry, pathetic prodigals, and on the other as beloved, forgiven, and accepted children of God. That which was is gone and that which Jesus made us to be is here—this is what we learn during Holy Week.

Jesus walked the path of our human existence in order to create for us a new way of being and a new life in himself in which we would be included in his union and communion with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life in his humanity as the God/man and on our behalf was willing to experience death by crucifixion at the hands of some of the very people he was working to save. The betrayal of those he loved and the evil which laid him in the tomb did not keep him from achieving his objective. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross set the stage for the redemption of all humanity. This is the glory of the crucifixion.

When we face our brokenness and our failures to love, we need to, in that moment, turn to the one who stood and stands in our place on our behalf. We are not lost—we are found. We are not rejected and forsaken—no, we are embraced and welcomed home. We turn to Jesus Christ, in his broken body and shed blood, and receive the gift of forgiveness and acceptance the Father, Son, and Spirit determined to give before the creation of the cosmos and accomplished on the cross.

Christ’s death for our death. Christ’s life for our life. His perfect relationship with his Abba given freely to us in place of our broken turning away from God. The apostle Paul says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21 NASB). Jesus became what we are so that we might now and forever share in his glory as God’s beloved adopted children.

In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension our humanity is made new and our relationship with our heavenly Father is brought back into what God always meant it to be and even more. In rising from the grave in his glorified humanity, Jesus brought us all home to the Father—we find that our new life, what God means for us to have and be, is present even now, “hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4 NASB).

We can feel overwhelmed by shame, guilt, or just a recognition of our failures to love. It is good to realize our powerlessness to live as we ought to live. To be truly human as God intended, we need to recognize and admit to our need for him. We are created to be fully dependent upon God and we need to walk in the truth of this. Admitting our powerlessness and our need for Someone beyond ourselves to heal us and to make us what we ought to be is an important step toward transformation and renewal.

Jesus Christ walked the path we were meant to walk. And he sent the Spirit so we could participate even now in his perfect relationship with his Abba and in our perfected humanity held within his person at God’s right hand. We walk by faith, not by sight. It’s hard right now to see the glory of our true humanity because what is evident at the moment is our brokenness and weakness and the ways we fall short of our perfection.

We must look beyond our sins and failures to the truth—we are accepted, forgiven, and beloved. God is still at work. Jesus is still making all things new. The Spirit is still at work taking all Jesus did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and making it ours as we respond to him in faith.

The Spirit speaks to our hearts and reminds us we are God’s children, we are forgiven, we are included in God’s life and love. The Spirit is our seal or evidence of the truth of what God has done and is doing in us. We can trust that what God has begun in us he will complete. God has poured his River into the desert of our souls, and through Jesus and by his Spirit he is doing something new.

Pausing to be silent in God’s presence and to meditate on his goodness enables us to become aware of what God is doing, and how he is at work within us and in our lives. Attending to the things of the Spirit enables us to drink in God’s presence and power, and prepares us for greater opportunities of love and service. God has in Jesus given us a path to walk and by his Spirit the resources we need to walk in it. Let us turn to him in faith and in gratitude for all he has given.

Dear Abba, thank you for all you have done and are doing to redeem us, to save us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you, Jesus, for coming and living in our humanity, dying death at our hands, and rising again, including us in your perfect relationship with Abba. Thank you, God, for sending us your precious Spirit—may we always make the divine River at home in our hearts and may be with you both now and forever, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Do not call to mind the former things, / Or ponder things of the past. / Behold, I will do something new, / Now it will spring forth; / Will you not be aware of it? / I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, / Rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19 NASB