By Linda Rex
October 2, 2022, PROPER 22—Nowadays, when someone wants to move a grown sycamore tree, if they can afford it, they call up the local landscape company who sends out a large truck with a digger on the back. The workers use this machine’s massive teeth to dig the tree up, roots and all, and to tip it back and up over the truck in order to carry it. Then the workers drive the truck with the sycamore tree on top to its new location, dropping the tree there into the ground.
In reality, a lot of us exercise some kind faith without knowing we are doing it. Looking at this activity on the surface, we may wonder exactly how much faith is needed to move that full-grown tree to a new location. For example, the workers need to trust that the people who put the truck together and the digger together did their job properly, enabling the workers to drive the truck back and forth, and to use the digger to safely remove the tree from the ground. The workers trust that the spade will hold the tree safely until they get it to its new location rather than dropping it in the middle of the highway, creating a massive traffic snarl. The workers trust in the digger’s ability to place the tree safely in its hole, and in the owner’s promise to pay them for their efforts. There is a lot of faith being expressed in this simple act of everyday labor.
In my recent studies with Grace Communion Seminary on the topic of Paul’s epistles, I am learning about his concept of faith. Faith, for the apostle Paul, not only has to do with the trustworthiness of the One being trusted—Jesus Christ, but also about his complete and perfect trust in the Father expressed in his self-offering on the cross. This faith is given to us to participate in by the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The matter of having sufficient faith to move anything at all has been taken care of by the One who is not only perfectly trustworthy, but who also has total faith in our trustworthy Father—and Jesus enables us to participate in that perfect faith in the Spirit.
When Jesus said that with the faith the size of a mustard seed one could move a tree and plant it in the ocean, he probably had in mind the previous conversation he and his disciples were having about forgiveness. When we come face to face with impossible tasks such as continually and freely forgiving those who deeply wound us, we discover our inadequacy, our inability to do what God asks of us in those situations. It is not a bad thing to realize that our best efforts are insufficient—it reminds us to turn to the One who, by his Spirit, can and will live our best response in and through and out from us.
In our New Testament reading for this Sunday, 2 Timothy 1:1–14, we hear the apostle Paul reminding us to “kindle afresh” or “fan into flame” (NIV) the gift we have been given. Adding fuel to a fire or kindling to hot coals causes the flame to leap up and again begin to burn intensely. Paul is reminding us that there is a fire we are baptized with, the Holy Spirit, and we do not want to “quench” this fire in any way. Rather we want to facilitate and encourage its continued flame.
In speaking of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded Timothy that this “sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” was indeed living within him. Because God by the Spirit was living within Timothy, he did not have a spirit of timidity or fear, but one of “power and love, and discipline”. The indwelling presence of God by the Spirit enabled Timothy to do the ministry he was called into, and it was by the Spirit that Timothy found God’s grace and purpose at work in his life. It was not all up to Timothy, but rather a walk of faith in which the “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” were expressed as he lived out God’s calling on his life.
When asked by the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith,” Jesus spoke of the tiny amount of faith necessary to pick up and move a large tree from land into the sea. And then he went on to use a parable, which in our culture does not really resonate with us, since so many of us object so strongly to slavery. But what if we looked at it a little differently?
Think of a college intern, Gracie, who works for a fashion designer, Laurel, in hopes of one day she might have her own designs looked at and used. (Sorry if this sounds like a romcom plot.) Gracie spends her days fetching Laurel’s coffee, running her errands, picking up her dry cleaning, and taking care of the designer’s everyday tasks. Gracie doesn’t get paid much of anything since she is an intern—she’s lucky to barely have enough income to cover her expenses with her side job waitressing in the student union.
If Gracie is out running errands for Laurel, is the designer going to call her up and invite her in for tea and crumpets, offering to serve her? No. Instead, Laurel will probably call her up and tell Gracie that while she is running around, she is to stop by Laurel’s favorite dinner spot and pick up a meal to go and to be sure to bring home Laurel’s favorite coffee while she is at it. Gracie will be expected to do all that, finish her errands, and clean off the coffee table so Laurel has a place to eat her dinner. And while Laurel is eating, Gracie will be expected to take the dog Feathers out for a walk and to feed her. And when Gracie shows up and finishes all her tasks, she should not expect praise and gratitude from Laurel, since Gracie is simply supposed to do what she was instructed to do, since she is just an intern.
Now, in the real world, I would like to hope that if there are any Laurel’s out there, that they would reconsider how they treat their interns. But this is a parable, right? It is to help us see in our minds eye what Jesus is saying. The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus said that even the tiniest bit of faith can move a large tree to the sea should it be exercised.
The only way any of us has any faith at all is in Christ, as we participate with him in his death and resurrection. It is Christ’s faith at work in us by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do difficult things such as forgiving what seems impossible for us to forgive. And when we do forgive, when we do live like we should, when we do say what is healing and encouraging rather than hurtful, should God stand up and applaud? No, because we are simply doing what we were created to do, being who we were created to be—image-bearers of the divine, reflections of the glory of God in Christ by the Spirit.
It is God’s life at work in us by the Spirit who gets the credit. It is for his glory and to fulfill his purpose. The life of faith begins with a God who is trustworthy and who, in Christ, lives the life of faith we were created to live within, and who gives us, in Christ, the faith necessary to follow him and live in the truth of who we were created to be as children of the Father. I would imagine that even the angels of heaven have delight as does the Father when his children return home to their real selves, living in right relationship with him and each other. But truly, isn’t that where we belonged all along?
Father, Jesus, Spirit, you made us to live in loving, other-centered relationship with you and each other. We cannot and will not do this apart from your life in us and with us by your heavenly Spirit. Thank you for giving us the faith of Christ by the Spirit, enabling us to trust you in any and every situation, as you always meant for us to trust you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea”; and it would obey you. Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat”? But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” ’ ” Luke 17:5–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 2, 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—This week I got a phone call telling me the sum of my car repair expense was in the four-digit range rather than the three-digit range. This news was quite upsetting since I would have postpone taking care of several other important things I was planning to do. Once again, I was reminded that all I own does not belong to me, but to the One who gives and who takes away. Job stands as the great OT example of someone who learned this the hard way and had to come to terms with the reality that life includes suffering and loss, and that everything in this life is transient and not to be clung to.
Indeed, it is helpful to periodically be reminded of our need to remain detached from the things of this life while remaining solidly attached to the One from whom all things come. We find this in Jesus’ illustration of the branches on a vine—a branch’s fruit-bearing ability is directly related to the branch’s connection to the vine and how well the branch has been pruned. The idea of pruning in this passage involves the cleansing or removal of anything from the branch that inhibits its ability to produce good and abundant fruit.
Jesus said that we need to abide in him in order to bear spiritual fruit and that this involves his words abiding in us. There is a mutual indwelling which occurs via the Holy Spirit, and we participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father by faith. The life we live, we live by the faith of Jesus Christ—it is Christ in us who is our hope of glory. When we live unattached to Jesus Christ, we die spiritually—we become fruitless and of little spiritual value, only useful as fuel for the fire, the Savior said.
Abiding in Christ has a lot to do with relationship. Relationship with God is something we talk a lot about at Grace Communion Nashville because a relationship of mutual indwelling with God through Christ in the Spirit is what we as human beings were created for and redeemed for by Jesus. When we invite people to turn to Christ in faith, we are encouraging them to participate in that union and communion with God that each and everyone of us was created for, and for which Jesus saved us. We have this incredible gift from God in which we can live, but will we open our hands and our hearts to receive it and live in it?
Sometimes the reason it is so difficult for us to receive this gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is simply that our hands and our hearts are too full with other things. I am reminded of the passage from Matthew 13:22 where Jesus described the seed that was sown among the thorns. This seed or person was unable to thrive and produce abundant spiritual fruit because he was a person who heard the word, but the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the word, and it became unfruitful. Jesus reminded us that it is very easy for us to become preoccupied with the daily necessities or interests of life and to neglect what really matters—Jesus Christ and his word being deeply rooted in us and producing fruit.
Abiding is a word that we don’t use very often nowadays. But there is this sense of setting down deep roots and staying in a place for a long while. To indwell, which is another way of saying abide, is to reside within the same space as another person or object—something the members of the Trinity do, indwelling one another in union and communion.
The ideas of sharing the same space with Jesus Christ or setting down deep roots into Christ should help us to understand what it means when Jesus says we are to stay attached to him as the vine so we can produce much fruit. He is the means by which the fruit is produced, where we are the place the fruit grows and ripens, preparing to be harvested. He calls us to set our roots deeply into him, putting his words into our minds and hearts, loving one another, and living a life of prayer, of talking with and listening to God day by day.
What about those Job-like times when we are dealt difficult blows and we struggle in our relationship with God? We will all face hardship because of the choices we as human beings have made—not just our own choices, but the collective choices of humanity which disrupt our earth, our communities, and our families. As we are grounded in the reality of God’s love for us and reminded of his faithfulness, we can weather such storms with grace, trusting in Christ in the midst of tragedy, loss, and suffering.
This has been a long season of struggle and suffering for the people of the world, especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic devastation. There are many whose lives will never be the same due to what occurred these past months. We can sit on our ash heaps and bemoan our fate, or we can move closer to Jesus Christ, asking him to open our eyes to the goodness, grace, and love of God, and to enable us to trust him to walk us through to a better place.
It may be, if we are willing, that God may be wanting to release us from some burdens we have been carrying that he never meant for us to carry. It may be that God wants to grow us in new ways into the likeness of his Son and in order to do so, he must have our full attention. Perhaps God is wanting to take something out of our hands so he can give us something new, something much better. What is it that God wants to do for us in this season of pruning? Are we open to it?
I believe it is significant that immediately after the descent of the heavenly gift as a dove upon Jesus and his Father’s words of affirmation, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” the Spirit thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. God may be wanting to do a new thing in and through his body, the church. In order to do this, perhaps a time of pruning is needed. We can resist this, complain about it, or even deny it. But a better response would be for us, individually and as a whole, to go deeper into Christ, to connect ourselves more deeply with the One who lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
I invite you to participate with me in this season of renewal, of seeking God’s face, of opening ourselves up more fully to what Jesus is wanting to do in us and through us. Will you join me in letting go of all these things that are distracting us from drawing close to Christ and hearing his word to us each day? Will you join me in a season of listening and of intentional obedience to God’s instruction? What is God asking you to do right now in this moment? What will your response be?
Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for drawing us to yourself through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to toss aside anything that distracts us from Christ, and to embrace all that he is for us. Let us abide in Christ as he abides in us, that we might produce abundant fruit that will glorify you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:4–5 (1–8) NASB
“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” 1 John 4:12–16 (7–21) NASB
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB