By Linda Rex
July 25, 2021, PROPER 12—This is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it. I can hear it now—all the stories of what is going wrong in the world—floods in Europe, droughts in the U.S., and a zillion other tragedies happening all around us. How in the world can I simply say that it is a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it?
I’m sensing more and more that this “information age” we are living in is starting to take its toll upon countless people who can no longer believe in or celebrate a living God who loves them and cares deeply about them and about everything that is going on in their lives. It is easy to find experts who will tell us all the reasons not to believe that Jesus Christ actually lived and was who he said he was—the Messiah, God in human flesh. Why should we bother when by all appearances the evidence tells us otherwise?
For some, it is easy to alter or bring into question the Scriptures the church uses to teach and form its theology. And it is easy to reformulate the creeds or bring into question their validity, challenging what has been held for centuries as orthodox doctrine. We can also quite easily find fault with the early apostolic succession following the resurrection, which ensured the validity of the canon and the creeds of the early church. We realize that humans are faulty and records can be altered or misused or eliminated. But what happens when we end up face to face with the resurrected Jesus Christ? What happens when you or I encounter the living Lord?
When the early Christian martyrs faced their executioners, they were often asked to renounce Jesus Christ in order to save themselves from a horrific painful death. But they would reply, in essence, that to deny Christ was to deny their Lord, the one who saved them, the one who loved them unconditionally and suffered and died on their behalf. Because they had personally encountered the resurrected Lord and received him by faith, they simply could not do it, just as they could not avoid praying for those who were causing them such suffering and death—for this was Jesus’ way. Living in union and communion with their Lord meant for them a sharing in his suffering and death and they thought it nothing to offer themselves in the same way that Jesus had offered himself so freely on behalf of all humanity.
We can get so immersed in the complexities of the theology and doctrine that we miss the simplicity of the gospel. In this moment today, wherever we are and whoever we are—we need to be honest and truthful with ourselves. Instead of critiquing Christians or the Christian faith, perhaps we need to gaze silently upon the One who is the foundation or cornerstone—Jesus Christ.
In gazing upon him, we see ourselves. He is that human we were created to be, who as God in human flesh, loved and obeyed our heavenly Father wholeheartedly and lived a life filled with and led by the Spirit, so he loved and served others as we were created to. The deepest hunger or yearning of our heart was meant to be filled by him—whether we realize it or not. What we stuff with so many other things will never find its fullness apart from his indwelling presence by the Holy Spirit. We were always meant to have God living in us as well as with us.
When Jesus saw a large crowd approaching, he asked Philip about buying enough food to feed them. Philip replied that it would cost about two hundred day’s wages to buy that much food. Andrew, trying to be helpful, offered a poor lad’s lunch—five barley loaves and two fish, but admitted it was nothing compared to what was needed (John 6:1–21). What was needed was enough food to feed five thousand men plus women and children. Jesus’ point was that there was no way they could feed that many people. It was just not humanly possible. But it was still a wonderful day, because he was in it.
Let’s accept that it is just not humanly possible for us to live the way we were meant to live, apart from Christ. We need to be freed from our enslavement to unhealthy ways of living and being. We need to be cured of our self-focused way of thinking and acting. We need to be freed from our enslavement to hedonism, and all the other isms we give ourselves over to in an effort to find some sort of life in this world (Psalm 14:1-4). We may not realize it, but that is why Jesus came, why he sat on that mountainside teaching the crowds, and why he fed the multitudes.
The multitudes of all humanity needed to be fed, to be given the good news that they were loved. “God so loved the world that he gave his one unique Son…” (John 3:16). So God in Christ came, lived our life, was crucified in our place, was buried in a tomb, and rose again, seen by many witnesses who verified his resurrection. Then he sent the Spirit—God come into human flesh in a new and permanent way. The Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, is now received as we place our faith in him. Just as the crowds that day took into their hands the fish and bread and ate them, so we receive with gratitude the new life Christ forged for us in his finished work.
What happens when the Spirit changes someone is truly a miracle—the greatest miracle of all, even greater in many ways than the feeding of thousands of people from five barley loaves and two fish. When Jesus brings us to faith, we are never the same again. This is a genuine relationship with a living Person. This is not a fantasy or a made-up experience. It is real. We continue to be broken, faulty people when we come to faith in Christ, but there is a transformation which occurs—a regeneration—one which becomes more and more evident as time goes by as we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit.
This miracle begins with seeing ourselves in the face of Jesus, looking into his eyes and seeing the reflection of his Father’s love for us. In spite of seeing our failures and sins, we rest on God’s amazing grace—his forgiveness and acceptance. We awaken to the reality that our real food is the love of God expressed fully to us in the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. We have God’s love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and are invited to be led by this Spirit of Christ who dwells in us (Ephesians 3:14–21). We follow Jesus’ lead, learning more and more as time goes on what it means to live and walk as he did, allowing him to bring about the changes in us that are needed to bring us into the fullness of the image of Christ we were meant to bear.
How do we get to the place where we are willing to simply say, “I believe”? It certainly is a divine mystery to me. And it often begins with a simple prayer. But I’ve seen the miracle happen again and again. And it’s only the beginning of a lifelong journey with Jesus in the Spirit for the one who takes that first step of faith and moves on into commitment to Christ. This is why I believe that in spite of all that’s happening around us that seems so terrible, it is still a wonderful day, because the Lord is in it.
Loving Lord, we admit our failures to love, our sinful words and actions, and our broken ways of living life. We believe Jesus, that you are our true sustenance, our life and breath, the living bread we need to truly live. We receive all you offer us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of your Spirit. We commit ourselves to following wherever you lead, now and forever. Amen.
“Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near. Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?’ This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’” John 6:3–9 (1–21) NASB
By Linda Rex
July 11, 2021, PROPER 10—Here in Nashville, it’s becoming pretty obvious that the cost of everything is rising. My heart goes out to those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Businesses who are simply trying to weather this economic storm are doing what they have to do—it has been hard for them too and now it is hard for those of us who are their customers. Whether or not we like it, there is a cost we pay to have the things we want in life, and sometimes that cost goes up.
This is especially true when it comes to the things of the Spirit. There is a cost to following Jesus. And what we may struggle with is that the closer we get to Jesus, the higher this price goes. This may be why so often we do not attend to the spiritual realities—they come at too high of a price.
Coming to faith in Jesus doesn’t mean everything in our life suddenly goes well or we become prosperous, popular people. Following Christ actually involves death—death to our old ways of being, to our selfish and self-centered ways of living, to habits which hurt us and hurt others. This price goes up as we may lose relationships or jobs as we begin to follow Christ instead of following our old ways of living. And this can be hard and painful. None of us easily gives up what is most pleasant and comfortable to us. We prefer to continue in paths that our feet easily trod without having to struggle or climb.
But Jesus provided a way for us, walking ahead of us into death on the cross, and through it into resurrection. Hidden with Christ in God is our true humanity—that person you and I were created to be as image-bearers of God himself. What we struggle with is living today in the already-not yet of our humanity, where what our broken sinful flesh wants us to be and what Jesus created us to be live in conflict with one another. Thankfully, in Christ, we receive the life of God by the Spirit who enables to live out the truth of who we are as adopted children of God, image-bearers of the divine in spite of all the inward and outward pressures not to.
In 2 Samuel 6 we read the story of when David was going to bring the ark of God to its resting place in Jerusalem. The first attempt to move the ark ended in death, because of the irreverent treatment of the ark of God’s presence. David was wiser the second time around. He found out what the word of God said about how the ark was to be handled and moved, and followed what he learned there. This time the occasion was filled with joyful praise, offering of sacrifices, and giving of gifts. But sadly, his wife Michal, as she watched David dancing uninhibitedly before the Lord, despised him in her heart. The king’s passionate worship of God became a barrier in their relationship, separating them from that day forward (2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19).
Our obedience to God and following his call upon our lives will not always be met with gladness and appreciation. Many times, it will be met with resistance or rejection. Amos was a herdsman and grower of sycamore figs in Israel. He obeyed God’s command to warn the nation of Israel about the consequences it was facing due to its rejection of God and his ways. His efforts were not met with joy or gratitude. Rather, he was accused of treason. His humble efforts to be obedient to God’s instructions and to help his people ended in rejection, not in praise and celebration (Amos 7:7–15).
In last week’s sermon, we saw that in Jesus’ own hometown, he was not believed. He was met with criticism and suspicion rather than with praise and gratitude. Jesus was amazed at the people’s unbelief. And then Jesus sent out his disciples into the communities around, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. His ministry, which occurred through their hands and efforts, began to create talk. Who was this man? In Mark’s gospel, we find even the tetrarch Herod Antipas began to be a bit concerned about this miracle worker. But his concern was rooted in guilt. He had previously beheaded John the Baptizer. His conscience was working overtime, giving him concern that maybe John had risen from the dead and was now empowered to do miracles.
We find the backstory to this event inserted here. John had followed God’s call upon his life, and had warned Herod and Herodias that their relationship was illicit and incestuous. This infuriated Herodias and she began to plan John’s execution. Herod held John in prison, listening to him and being intrigued by his preaching, but wanting to thwart his wife Herodias’ attempts to kill John. Herodias, in the end, was able to find a way to trap Herod into having John beheaded, since he was more concerned about what others would say about him than about what was right and holy.
As leaders of the people, these two followed their own passions and desires rather than obeying God’s instructions on living. What we see in this story is the profound cost of following God’s call upon one’s life rather than simply doing what is culturally and politically expedient. When John did what he believed God wanted him to do, he ended up in prison. When Herod and Herodias did as they pleased, John ended up beheaded. The price John paid for following God’s will, and being the Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, was death.
In his death, though, we see foreshadowed what would happen to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was also following the will of the Father, and speaking truth to the multitudes. When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he sought time alone with the Father. He knew that he was next. There was no other path for him, for he was seeking, for our sakes, to go all the way to the cross to raise all humanity up into new life.
Although Jesus had a large following, what those followers needed to understand was that there is a cost to following him. And the closer you get to Jesus, the higher that cost will go. In today’s cultural and political climate, to take a stand for what is just, right, and holy, is to open oneself up to criticism, condemnation, and death. Saying death here may seem extreme, but it isn’t at all when you consider how many people lately have experienced death to their businesses, their relationships, and their involvement in community because they have stood up for what is honest and true, what is good and godly.
To say that there is one way in which we are all called to live is to take an extreme risk. How can we say there is only one way when everyone is free to decide for themselves? The reality is that we are all free to choose, but there is only one way to live that brings genuine freedom, genuine joy and peace, that truly brings life. The way you and I were created to live as image-bearers of the divine, is to live as unique persons in equality and unity just as God lives.
The Father, Son, and Spirit, who lavished upon us such great grace in Christ, are calling each of us into relationship, to live together even now and forever in the oneness and love in which we were created to live (Ephesians 1:3–14). There is no other way but this one way of being, of truly being ourselves, that will bring genuine fulfillment and real life. But there is a price to pay, and that price goes up as we draw closer to Jesus. Are we willing to pay it and go all the way with him into death and resurrection? Or will we choose the cheaper, easy path that requires nothing of us?
Heavenly Father, thank you for lavishing on each and every one of us your grace and love through your Son Jesus. Thank you, Christ, for living our life, dying our death, and bringing us up into new life, by faith into eternal union and communion with God in the Spirit now and forever. Grant us the grace to willingly pay the price to follow wherever you may lead us, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
“And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.’But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’” Mark 6:14–16 (17–29) NASB
By Linda Rex
June 20, 2021, PROPER 7—These past few weeks I have been faced with one of those household problems that is highly stress-inducing and frustrating. The situation was overwhelming, and I struggled to see any solution to it apart from God’s intervention. In the midst of my distress, though, as I paused to seek God’s face, I discovered once again the reality of God’s presence and provision, and saw that God is present and real and guiding me by his Spirit, leading me in the direction I need to go.
The reality is that every one of us at some point will face a Goliath that we cannot defeat. Remember the story of Goliath? The ancient Israelites gathered against the Philistines for battle, and Goliath came forth as a champion, mocking their God and daring them to send someone to fight him on behalf of their army.
Think about the Israelite army who for so many days faced an enemy they thought they could not defeat. There was no giant champion in their army that could face up to Goliath and win. The question that hung in the air is the one which we so often face in these types of situations—does God really care? Is he even aware of all we’re going through? Doesn’t he realize how desperate the situation is?
How like God to bring David to the battle lines that day on an errand for his father—this young man who was merely a shepherd, and hardly able to fight any man, much less a giant mountain of a man like Goliath (1 Sam. 17). The substantial difference between Goliath and David did not necessarily lie in their size or ability, though. It lay in the source of their strength and their motivation.
Goliath based his ability to win this conflict on his size and military prowess, his disdain for the Israelite’s God, and his intimidating manner. David based his certainty of victory on the God whose name was being insulted by the Philistine, and on his past experience with that God of being delivered from impossible situations—fighting a bear and a lion. David trusted his God and embraced this challenge in faith that God would again bring about a great deliverance for the sake of his great name and his covenant people.
Faith, in midst of this epic event, was the deciding factor. What David did that day was use the talents God had given—his ability to use rocks and a sling—to accomplish what he believed God wanted done. He went courageously forth, did his part, and God did the rest. The giant fell, and the Philistines were routed, and David became an important part of Israel’s history. He became a symbol of a coming king who would ultimately defeat all of Israel’s enemies and usher in the messianic kingdom—that person we know today as Jesus Christ.
This brings to mind the story of Job. He lost all his children, all his belongings, and then lost his health. He began to lose faith that God really cared about what was going on in his life in the midst of the suffering he was experiencing. As Job wrestled with all these thoughts, God reminded him who his Deliverer was and that God was not ignorant of what he was going through. Job needed to be reminded that the One who was caring for him in the midst of his difficulties was the same One who created all things and sustained them (Job 38:1–11).
One time, when Jesus and his disciples went across the sea of Galilee, a great wind began to blow, to the extent that the boats were beginning to fill with water. Jesus, being exhausted from a long day of teaching and preaching, was asleep in the stern. In fear of their lives, the disciples woke him up and said to him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” All they could see was the intensity of the storm and the possibility that they might, at any moment, drown in the sea.
What they needed to be doing, though, was remembering who was with them in the boat. Apparently, they did not yet grasp the significance of who their teacher, Jesus, was. They did not understand that the One who made the sea and the wind was present with them in that moment—a person who could, merely by his word, calm the storm (Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32). They were not trusting that he loved them and was still looking out for them, and that he would keep them safe in the storm. All they could see was that he was a tired man, asleep on a cushion, while they were facing death by drowning.
When the disciples finally woke Jesus up, he simply said to the wind, “Hush, be still.” And the sea became calm. The Word of God in human flesh spoke a word and it was. How shocking this must have been to them! But what Jesus was seeking in that moment wasn’t fear. He was seeking faith. They needed to asked the question they were faced with—who was this man who could speak and the forces of nature obeyed? They needed to put their faith in this One who was God in human flesh, the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.
We will face difficulties in this life. We will face insurmountable challenges when we participate with Jesus in his mission of sharing the good news (2 Corinthians 6:1–10). We might even come to the place where we will face the loss of all that matters most to us. What will we do in those moments? Where will we place our faith?
We need to turn away from our circumstances, our concerns, and our difficulties, and turn towards the One who is Lord of all—Jesus Christ. Our faith needs to be, not in our ability to resolve every situation and prevent every calamity, but in the One who already knows every possibility and need only speak the word and his purpose will come to pass. We need to trust that God does care, that he does love us, and is concerned about us. Even though things may be difficult at times, and maybe even life-threatening, God is still present and active by his Spirit. Our trust is in him, and he will deliver, in his own time and way.
Perhaps, at this moment, you are in the midst of a difficult circumstance that seems beyond your ability to resolve. Now is a good time to pause and reflect on the God who loves you so much that he came to be a part of your human experience, allowing himself to suffer on your behalf. Jesus, even now, remembers how stressful and painful life can be at times, and is, right now, actively at work sustaining, encouraging, and guiding you by his Spirit. He offers you his implicit faith in the Father, reminding you to trust in him, and to believe that God does care, even when your circumstances may tell you otherwise. Offer up to him what you are able to do. Then trust him to do what only he can do—be with you in the storm, guiding and protecting you, and to calm your storm with a word, when the time is right.
Heavenly Father, thank you for reminding us again how much you love us, and that you are well aware of all we are going through. Grant us the grace to trust you in the midst of every situation, keeping our eyes on you, knowing that you will save and deliver and bring us safely home to you, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“On that day, when evening came, He said to them, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?’ And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.’ And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? How is it that you have no faith?’ They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?’” Mark 4:35–41 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.
There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.
Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.
Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.
Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.
The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.
The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.
We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.
What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.
We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.
The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.
But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.
Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’ And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.” Mark 4:26–34 NASB
By Linda Rex
June 6, 2021, PROPER 5—There are times when we wrestle with the reality that we have fallen short of what it means to be image-bearers of the God who is Father, Son and Spirit. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the way we act, the things we say and do, and especially our thoughts, are a far cry from what God intends. None of us love God or love others in the way we were originally designed to, though there are moments when we may experience a little bit of the bliss of us being in sync with the heavenly realities.
Even so, we discover in the person of Jesus Christ that God is still present. In Christ we see that God is immeasurably patient and gracious, though he does at times hold our feet to the fire so we will repent and turn back to him. The ultimate spiritual reality is that all our sins are forgiven in Jesus, and we have an incredible hope because of what he has done in our place and on our behalf. The One who is our Judge is also the One who is the perfect Lamb offered on our behalf for our sin and the High Priest or Mediator who intercedes for us with the Father.
As we move from the season where we walked with Jesus through the crucifixion into the tomb, and from there rose with Jesus in the resurrection and ascension to the Father’s side, receiving from God the promised Holy Spirit, we find ourselves in a whole new place. As those who trust in Christ, we live in God’s presence even now as we by faith are empowered by his Spirit to follow Jesus and participate in his mission in this world. In Christ, God has defeated Satan and is making all things new.
But when we look around us and within ourselves, we often see only brokenness, evil, and sin. We experience the consequences of ourselves and others living in ways which God never intended—pain, sickness, broken relationships, and death fill our world and touch our lives. Where is God in all this? It’s hard to see that Jesus is present by his Spirit and at work in this world when our tangible experience tells us otherwise. The evil one is quick to point out to us all the ways in which he is still in control and we are left abandoned, orphans in this broken world.
We need to own up to the reality that what we experience in this way is a result of human choice and the work of God’s adversary. One of the passages for this Sunday, (1 Samuel 8:4–20; 11:14–15) tells the story of the elders of ancient Israel coming to Samuel the judge and asking him to install a king in his place. Up to that point, God had been their king and he had worked through judges to provide shepherding for his people. But the people didn’t like how Samuel’s sons were leading and Samuel was getting old, so they felt it was time for a change in leadership. Samuel was very upset about this, but the Lord told him that whoever rejected him was rejecting the Lord. The reality was that even in this rejection of God and his kingship, the people of Israel would still be God’s people, and the Lord would be faithful to his covenant with them. On God’s side, the relationship was secure in spite of, on the nation’s side, their rejection of their Redeemer, and God would still accomplish through them, the coming of the Messiah.
This echoes the story of beginnings in another passage for this Sunday, Genesis 3:8–15. Here Adam and Eve hear the Lord walking in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day. This was a time when God would walk and talk with his creatures, sharing the pleasant and joyful fellowship of God with man we were created for. But on this day, because of their sin in eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve heard God coming, became afraid and hid. Instead of rejecting them because of their sin (for God already knew what they had done), God sought them out, calling them out of hiding back into relationship. Yes, they had to answer for what they had done, but God did what was needed to bring them back, covering them with skins through the shedding of blood, prophetically pointing the day when Christ would shed his blood on the behalf of all humanity to restore our relationship with our Maker.
As the Lord spoke to Adam and Eve, it became evident who the real culprit was—the serpent. In the Bible, we see a progression of understanding regarding this being—this is God’s adversary, the one who is ever at work in this world in opposition to God’s will and purposes. Jesus himself called Satan the father of lies, the one who was a murderer from the beginning, who constantly works to deceive humanity and turn them away from God (John 8:44). His favorite deception of all is convincing us that God doesn’t really love us or want what is best for us—that God is holding out on us, keeping us from having everything we deserve or desire.
What we believe matters! If we believe God doesn’t exist, or that if he does, he doesn’t care, we will live in ways that demonstrate this. If we believe God doesn’t want what is best for us, then we will decide for ourselves what is best for us, and reap heavy and painful consequences which come from such choices. Since the beginning, humans have not trusted God to know what is best for them or to genuinely love them and care for them. What Israel did in rejecting God as king is not an unusual incident. This is just a manifestation of the nature of humanity throughout the ages—we turn away from God—we do things our own way. In Christ, God is calling every human being back to himself, asking, “Why are you hiding?” We have all been covered by the blood of Christ and clothed with his righteousness—why reject this gift and the Giver who went to such lengths to provide it?
As the psalmist said, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness… (Psalm 138:3).” We have God’s assurance that he will do and has done all that is needed to make us right with himself. The evil one is defeated by Christ, who entered the strong man’s (Satan’s) house and plundered his goods, releasing humanity from the clutches of the devil as well as evil, death, and sin (Mark 3:27). On God’s side, Satan is a defeated foe. Those of us who trust in Christ can rest in his finished work, knowing that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church, the body of Christ. When all is said and done, God’s kingdom will stand and Satan and his minions will be removed, unable any longer to affect or harm God’s new heavens and earth.
In the meantime, we live in the already-not yet of the kingdom of God. That means that we still experience trouble in this life. We don’t lose heart when the externals of our existence and our human flesh wear down or fall apart, because what is at work within us is eternal and will last forever (2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1). The truth is that followers of Christ will experience difficulties in this world. Added to the normal experience of the consequences of the fall, of humanity’s turning from God, we as believers also experience rejection and criticism from those who reject Christ. There will be people near and dear to us who may ridicule our faith in Christ or our efforts to live in obedience to God’s will. They may even accuse us of being out of our minds. But we can be assured that as we do the will of the Father, Christ will count us as his very own, his true family—the ones who share in the life and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit.
Life in the Spirit is what we have been given in Christ, and this is ours both now and forever. The Spirit who lives in us is forming Christ in us as we respond to Jesus in faith and obedience. The purpose of our struggles is to grow us up in Christlikeness, not to destroy or harm us, as Satan is prone to do. Now and forever, we have moment-by-moment fellowship with God in the Spirit, because God has restored the fellowship of God with man once experienced when Adam and Eve first walked with God in the garden. In Christ, all sins are forgiven and the Spirit has been given so we can participate in that new life which is ours in him right now and on into eternity.
.Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own through the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for delivering us from Satan and his demons, for giving us new life, and enabling us to share in your life and love now and forever. Finish what you have begun, even as you have promised, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses.’ The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.’ And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. … Answering them, He said, ‘Who are My mother and My brothers?’ Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, ‘Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.’” Mark 3:20–35 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 30, 2021, HOLY TRINITY—As I was reading one of the passages for this Sunday, it brought to mind a hymn I found years ago in an old hymnal. I was attending a congregation in Kirksville, Missouri at the time, and I felt led to sing this hymn for services. What I found as I was singing it was that it resonated with God’s call upon my heart for ministry, one which, at that point, I was still trying to come to terms with.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet tells the story of how he saw the Lord high and lifted up, on a throne covered by seraphim—angels having six wings. One of these angels cried out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah was overcome with fear and distress because in that moment of coming into the presence of God, he saw the reality of his sin and uncleanness. There was nothing he could do to make himself worthy in that moment, which is why we see one of the seraphim touching his mouth with a coal from the altar, telling him his sin was taken away and he was forgiven. In that moment, the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Isaiah’s response is the one we are all called to when we receive the grace of God—to go and testify (Isaiah 6:1–8).
This whole story resonated with what our fellowship and denomination were wrestling with at that time—the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus and what that meant for us as the people of God. The hymn I was led to sing so many years ago was based on this text in Isaiah 6:
Here I Am, Lord
Music and Text by Daniel L. Schutte
Celebration Hymnal, Copyright 1997 Word/Integrity
I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in deepest sin
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?
I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne My people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them,
They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak My word to them.
Whom shall I send?
I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give My life to them.
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
If You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.
Do you hear the way this hymn resonates with the heart of Jesus? He was sent by the Father in love for our sakes, to cleanse us and make possible our union and communion with God now and forever. The One through whom all things were created has invited each of us to join with him in sharing this wonderful news of how he is feeding us with himself, giving us his life, breaking our hearts of stone and giving us hearts for love alone, having brought us from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light. We are invited to participate in what Jesus Christ is doing in this world to make all things new. How well are we heeding his call?
I wonder if perhaps the struggle the church is having today with sharing the gospel is that we are focused on our activities and our programs and even the correctness of our theology to the exclusion of simply gazing upon the majestic and glorious splendor of our God—the One who lives forever as Father, Son, and Spirit in holy oneness and love. Perhaps, as we contemplate the wonder of who God is, who Christ is as our Lord and Savior, and who the Spirit is as the love between the Father and the Son, we might come to that place of humility and dependency the prophet Isaiah was brought to, and find ourselves once again receiving with gratitude the gracious gift of life in union and communion with God, and offering ourselves up in service to him and others.
Jesus said that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are born from above. This is a birth that is only possible by the Spirit of God. Because of what Christ has done in his incarnation, crucifixion and ascension, God has brought our human flesh into a new place—one that is ours through faith in Christ. Because Jesus has cleansed us from our sin and has defeated Satan and death, we are able to stand before God without condemnation. He looks upon us and sees his beloved adopted children who are growing up into Christlikeness as we respond to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives and trust in the finished work of Christ. (Romans 8:12–17)
The coal which the seraphim took from the altar and pressed upon Isaiah’s lips brought about a cleansing that the prophet had no real participation in except to receive it. All human effort was futile in the presence of the beauty and majesty of God. In the same way today, we find that our efforts to make ourselves right with God or to do his work do not accomplish much accept to wear us out and frustrate ourselves. When we trust in Christ and in his finished work, we rest and find our peace in him. When we are filled with the Spirit and moving in sync with him, we find joy and hope in our service to God and others.
Because of Christ we find ourselves in a new place—at home with Jesus in the presence of the Father, with the Spirit telling us we are the beloved children of God. We find we have been adopted as God’s children, so by the Spirit our hearts cry out, “Abba, Father.” We are no longer enslaved by the things we used to give ourselves over to—we have true freedom in Christ, being free now to live in the truth of who we are as the beloved children of God as his image-bearers, loving the Lord and loving one another.
It’s possible that God wants to do a new thing in and through the body of Christ. How will we know if we blindly continue on doing what we’ve always done, believing it’s the only thing “that works” instead of making space for the Spirit to do that new thing he desires? It is important to persevere and endure, but it is equally important to be attentive as a good child to the arrival of the Lord at any moment, ready to do what he wants done, undistracted and unhindered by all of those things which pull us away from what really matters. Are we okay with God showing up unexpectedly and leading us out of our comfort zone into new ways of serving him, of showing his love to others? This is a question worth considering.
We have a call upon our hearts and lives. Perhaps the reason we don’t keenly feel this call on our hearts and lives is we haven’t been listening. Slowing down, practicing solitude, silence and stillness are all ways in which we listen to God. Taking time to read the Scriptures, but then to let them settle in our hearts and minds, to move us to prayer, to lead us into meditation and listening for the heart of God—these are all ways we are attentive to the heart and mind of God, and what he is doing in this world. God is sending us out on mission. How will we answer?
Holy Father, Holy Jesus, Holy Spirit—we celebrate you in all your glory and majesty. Thank you for washing away all our guilt and shame and making us new. Tune our hearts and minds into yours, settling us solidly into the grace and love, and sonship, which is ours because of all you have done. We offer ourselves fully to you to do whatever you desire: Here we are, Lord. Send us. Amen.
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” John 3:5-8 (1-17) NASB
By Linda Rex
May 23, 2021, DAY OF PENTECOST—Recently while on vacation, I pulled out an empty canvas and some acrylic paints a dear friend had left me, and began to paint. Staring at an empty canvas that needs to be filled is a lot like staring at an empty page and trying to figure out what to write. There are so many possibilities ahead that one hardly knows where to begin. Consider for a moment what it was like as the Spirit hovered over the waters, as everything was without form and empty.
In times past I have avoided painting due to the difficulty I have in controlling the outcome. The brush has a mind of its own and I cannot always get it to do what I want. My preferred method of artwork usually involves colored pencils or pen and ink for this very reason. But there is a loss of freedom in such control of the outcome.
But the Creator sees things differently—he gives each and every thing which he creates an incredible freedom. He does not need to control every movement and every decision—otherwise we would all be robots. Instead, God allows each tree, plant, fish, bird, animal, and human to be who he created them to be. By his creative Spirit, he moves in all he has made to accomplish his purposes, but always with this element of true freedom based in his love.
This creates a built-in risk for our Creator—what if a creature he has made decides to live in a way which is different from his design? When my brush takes off across the canvas in a way I didn’t plan for, I get frustrated—in my mind, I now have a big mistake to rectify. But what if mistakes are part of the picture? What if the possibility of something not turning out in the way I expected actually ends up adding to the result, making it better?
What we find is that the Creator of all things planned in advance for this reality in what he created. We discover in the written Word of God that even before he created all things, the Maker of all had a plan to redeem and restore his creation should it wander away from its intended life path. He made our mistakes a part of his picture—redemption and restoration in and through the gift of his Son was allowed to be an essential part of his creation process. In fact, God always meant to include us in his life and love—and our turning away from him did not prevent this purpose from being realized.
Think about the history of human beings and how God has worked in and through each one to accomplish his purpose. Over the millennia before Christ, we find kingdoms rose and kingdoms fell, people lived and died, children were born and grew up. Through all these events, natural calamities, and over a long period of time, the creative Spirit worked. God even included certain people in his efforts—calling Noah to build an ark, Abraham to leave his country and people, and Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. Flawed people included in his plan—and yet the Creator continued his masterpiece.
Indeed, we find that all along God was working to restore and renew his creation, and allowing us as broken human beings to be a part of the process. When he sent his Son, we find angels celebrating this momentous event. Now God had moved even closer to his creation—he had taken on human flesh to live and walk on earth as one of us! The divine Painter had himself become the brush in the hand of the creative Spirit!
How amazing that God reconstructs the creatures he made in his image from the inside out. He enters our space and time, experiences our limitations and frailties, and begins to redeem and restore as one of us. He develops personal relationships with those he made and begins to teach them what it means to be truly human, demonstrating it by the way he lived. Rather than being enslaved by the sin which controls us, he conquered it, taking it all the way to the cross and delivering us from it through death and resurrection. And then he took our humanity up with him into the presence of the Father—our humanity restored and renewed in his person, dwelling forever with God as was always intended.
Jesus told his disciples when he left at ascension that he would not leave them as orphans. He was going to send them the Spirit, the other Helper like himself, who would be with them forever. The creative Spirit was poured out on all flesh from the Father by Jesus so that we all could participate in Christ’s true humanity. Instead of the masterpiece being so flawed that it must be thrown out, all God has made has incredible possibilities in store!
Think for a minute about Judas Iscariot, the son of perdition. This man had many choices in his life, the capacity to be a true follower of Jesus Christ. But he was given over to thievery—often stealing money from the common purse. And when push came to shove, he sold the Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Here was a mistake beyond mistakes—selling the Messiah for a paltry sum so that he ended up being crucified.
But the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a part of the masterpiece God was creating. It was not as though God wanted Judas to do this idiocy, but rather, that he included it as a necessary part of the picture. It was not God’s choice for Judas, but it was Judas’ choice, which God honored and allowed, using it to accomplish a greater purpose in the end, the redemption of all humanity.
What if, instead of focusing on our faults and failures, we offered them up to the creative Spirit to pour into them his recreative power to renew and redeem? What if we allow Jesus to be who he is—our Savior and Redeemer, the One who restores all things? What is it in your life and mine which needs to be reconstructed?
There may be a time of deconstruction first—God sometimes needs to remove some things so there is space for something new. But God’s purpose is to transform, heal and renew—and we can participate with him in that process. And who knows what the outcome will be? God says that through Christ and by the Spirit, it will be better than we can ever ask or imagine! His masterpiece—humanity transformed and renewed—will live with him forever in the new heavens and new earth, as we begin by his Spirit to experience this life in relationship with the Father and Son even now.
Thank you, Creator of all, for everything you have made and how wonderfully you have worked and will work to transform, heal and renew your creation. We invite you, Creative Spirit, to finish what you have begun in us and in our world. Keep our focus on you, Jesus, and the incredible possibilities that are ahead, because of all you have done and will do by your Spirit to the glory of the Father. Amen.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:1-4 (5-21) NASB
“O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; | The earth is full of Your possessions. … You hide Your face, they are dismayed; You take away their spirit, they expire | And return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; | And You renew the face of the ground.” Psalm 104:24, 29-30 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 16, 2021, ASCENSION SUNDAY—With spring fully sprung and temperatures here in Tennessee beginning to move into summer intensity, we find ourselves in a new place on the Christian calendar—Ascension Sunday. This event is actually celebrated on Thursday, May 13th this year, but we at Grace Communion Nashville take time on the following Sunday to remember this special event.
The event of Jesus’ ascension is a very important one, as the gift of the Holy Spirit would not have come if he had not ascended. After his resurrection Jesus retained our now glorified human flesh, bringing it into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We find that all human beings now are welcome to participate by faith in Christ, enabling them to experience God’s life and love now by the Spirit and in glory when Christ returns to establish the new heavens and earth.
During the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus took time to instruct his disciples, giving them understanding of how all that he had been and done was the central theme of the Old Testament scriptures. Christ then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit, and sent them out to be witnesses to everything that he had done while on earth. In his final moment, he lifted his hands and blessed them, as the high priest would do when the reconciliation was complete.
Even today, as Christ’s followers, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, showing and telling others about the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for our salvation. We are called to open ourselves up to be filled with the Spirit—growing in our relationship with God through the Word of God, prayer, gathering together for fellowship with believers, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We live as those who are sent, actively participating in Christ’s mission in this world. And we go in Jesus’ blessing.
As I was reflecting on all this recently, the Lord brought to mind something he had led me to years ago when I first was wrestling with the call to pastoral ministry. I was shown how the body of Christ today, specifically in our denomination, was being called to rebuild the church on the new foundation we had been given in Jesus. I encourage you to take the time this week to read the book of Haggai. The prophet Haggai wrote shortly following the exile to those Jews who had returned to their homeland. They had rebuilt the altar and were offering sacrifices. They had set the foundation for the temple. But there the work had stopped.
Haggai was directed by God to ask his people, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate? … Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:4-5 NASB) He showed them how they were preoccupied with taking care of their own interests and concerns, and were neglecting the restoration of the temple. God’s priority was preparing the way for the coming of his Son to earth, and for that to be accomplished the way he desired, the temple needed to be rebuilt. Haggai was sent to remind the people to get their priorities centered on what God wanted do. And then God moved in them by his Spirit to act accordingly.
In some ways, I’m concerned that too often, we as believers have neglected to move on beyond setting the foundation of Jesus Christ in our lives and offering up worship on an occasional Saturday or Sunday. We have all the trappings of religiosity but we have lost the substance—life in Christ that reflects both his grace and his truth. Too often we have neglected God’s priorities and plans, preferring to seek our own agenda, including those things which distract us from keeping our kingdom focus. Is our focus on what God prefers—his kingdom and his righteousness? Jesus said if we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all these other things will be added.
Jesus told the woman at well in Samaria that our worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, that it is much more than religious rites and rituals or having a particular location of worship. Jesus Christ is the place of worship now, where we are called together in unity, to worship God and serve him. When Christ defines our identity and our relationship with God and one another, that says something about how we are to live and treat one another. As followers of Christ, we need to move beyond the religious trappings which anyone can imitate into the reality of life in Christ—something only possible in the power of the Spirit, with the living presence of Jesus in us and with us. It should be evident to those around us that we are Christ’s disciples, by our Christ-like love for one another, no matter our church denomination or fellowship preference.
Going back to our story—when the work on the temple began, those who had seen Solomon’s temple grieved the lost of the majesty and wonder of the former building. Haggai asked, “Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” (Haggai 2:3 NASB) In the same way, the disciples kept expecting Jesus to bring about his kingdom in the sense of using his might and power to destroy the existing government and install a theocracy. But Jesus told them he had something else in mind. We need to remember that God’s kingdom work in this world may look a lot different than we expect. What Jesus plans for the body of Christ may be a lot different than what we prefer. The church of the future very well may look a lot different than the church we remember—and we need to be okay with this.
Finally, the most important message which Haggai gave his people was one that we can take to heart today. Just as when Joshua was entering into the promised land and was told to take courage, God encouraged those who were rebuilding the temple. “ ‘… take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” (Haggai 2:4b-5 NASB) In the same way, Jesus told his disciples before he left them and ascended that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, he told them, go and make disciples. He promised he would never leave them, but would always be with them—and he was, by the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20).
What a marvelous thing the ascension is! Now we are participating in a real way in what God is doing in this world, all because this Jesus, who was God in human flesh, died and rose for our salvation, and now dwells forever in the presence of the Father bearing our humanity. By faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit sent from God and are each empowered to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today as he brings about renewal, healing, and transformation. We have been given both a hope and a future. We truly are blessed.
Holy God, thank you for reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing, and to trust you to know what is best for us as we move into the future. Grant us the passion and the courage to do the hard work of sharing the good news of your love and grace, of building up the body of Christ. And give us the endurance to weather all that we may have to bear as we do this. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, of all you have done for us through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.” Luke 24:44–53 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 9, 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER—A friend gave me a gift of Guideposts magazine a while ago, and today I came across a quote in the latest issue from best-selling author Glennon Doyle. The quote goes like this: “I really, really think the secret to being loved is to love. And the secret to being interesting is to be interested. And the secret to having a friend is being a friend.”
I have learned over the years by experience that our ability to form attachments with others often does have to begin with our first reaching out and offering others love and friendship. But I believe our ability to reach out to others in this way is best rooted in the self-offering of God towards us in Jesus Christ. When it is rooted in Christ, we find the attachment has a spiritual rooting that holds it through the storms and changes of life, and often, on into eternity.
In our passage for this Sunday, John 15:9-17, we see that there is no greater love than when a person lays down his or her life for another, as Jesus laid down his life for all humanity. This love has its roots in the perichoretic love of the Father and Son in the Spirit, and is expressed to each and every one of us in Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial offering of himself in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus said he loved his disciples just as his Father loved him. He told his disciples that he remained in the oneness of the Triune life and love as he did those things his Father asked of him. His experience of joy and love becomes ours as we participate in Christ’s obedience to his Father’s will. Jesus calls us beyond what comes naturally to us into what is more difficult—to love even to the point of laying down one’s life. There is no greater love, he said.
It is in the context of this life of union and communion with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit that Jesus gives us our purpose and mission as his followers. We are individually and collectively chosen by him and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will remain. It is in our ongoing abiding or remaining in Christ that we bear fruit that abides or remains. This fruit is an expression of the Father’s will—love for one another, life in spiritual community—now as the body of Christ and ultimately, on into eternity as the Bride of Christ.
This moves obedience from the place of following a list of rules to one of honoring the desires and will of a friend, Jesus, and those of our heavenly Father. Jesus shares his heart with us and we do as he asks—loving as he loved, laying down our lives as he laid down his, loving one another as we are loved by him and he is loved by the Father. As we are centered in the Father’s will in this way, whatever we ask of our Father will be ours—we are participating in a real way in what he is doing in and through his Son, and so his answer is quite naturally, yes!
When we put this in the context of mission, we see that Jesus’ sending of us is immediately rooted in his obedience to his Father’s sending of him. We reach out with God’s love because Jesus loves us as he is loved by the Father. Sharing God’s love then becomes a part of our life in union and communion with the Triune God, and a true participation in what they are doing in this world.
We share the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus because that is the will of the Father. As we do the Father’s will in this way, we pray and ask according to his will that each individual and all people might experience God’s love and grace. We know God will hear and answer this prayer because this is the Father’s will which is expressed to us in the gift of his Son and in the pouring out of his Spirit. This is what God is doing in this world—so our prayers are heard and answered.
As the body of Christ, we are often tempted to isolate or create safe zones where we do not need to deal with a society which is often opposed to what is holy, gracious, and compassionate. It is a real challenge to live a Christ-like life in places that are unsafe and decadent. How do we live out the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children—loving God and loving others—around people who are indifferent to or opposed to these spiritual realities?
We can begin with prayer. Our prayers have power because they are rooted in the will and purposes of God himself. He has sent his Son to reconcile all things to himself in Jesus and is calling each and every person to be reconciled. God wants everybody to participate in the oneness and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit. So, when we pray for a certain person or for particular people to come to faith in Christ, we are sharing in a tangible way in what God is doing in this world. These are prayers God will answer because they are according to his will.
Secondarily, we participate in God’s mission in this world by sharing God’s love. Love, as we are to express it to God and one another, is an action. It involves seeking the best of the other person and having a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish what is best. Sometimes loving others can be difficult and painful. It may involve telling them no, or not giving them what they want or think they need. It may involve setting up boundaries that prevent them from hurting you or hurting themselves.
Loving people in this way is not something we do on our own or by our own strength. We do this in spiritual community, where we have support, accountability, and a safe place to land. And this is why our life in Christ needs to be just exactly that—a participation in Christ’s life in relationship. God first loved us, sending his Son for our salvation, and Jesus first loved us by laying down his life, so we are able to love God and love one another. God gives us his Spirit, pouring out his love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that we are able to love him and love others in the way we were meant to.
Life change in another person is not something we really have any control over. We are powerless—and we must acknowledge this reality constantly. Only God has the ability to change the human heart and mind. Only God can turn someone around or heal them. Only God can make a person who is broken whole again. We may be able to influence them by expressing God’s love in some tangible way, but we cannot fix them—and God is not asking us to.
In reality, the greatest gift we can give another person is to bring them to Jesus, including them in our own relationship with Christ in the Spirit. We can offer them the grace and truth, the love we have received from God, and a spiritual community where the sick find healing, the broken are mended, and the lonely are offered fellowship. What God includes us in—his life and love—we are called to include others in. How well are we doing this?
Thankfully, it’s not all up to us. Jesus went first, and we get to tag along as his friends as he brings others to himself. Is there someone God has placed on your heart and mind lately who needs to know he or she is loved by God and forgiven? You might make this person a focus point of your prayers each day, and ask God to show you how you can include them in your life in Christ. You might ask Jesus, “What are you doing and how do you want me to join in?” And then, as you begin to participate in what he’s doing, watch to see what he does—it may surprise you!
Thank you, dear God, for including each of us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we get to share in your loving relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the person or people you want us to tell about your love expressed to us in Jesus. How do you want us to include them in our life? Keep us centered where you are, Jesus, diligently doing all that you ask to the glory of your Father. Amen.
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another.” John 15:9–17 NASB
by Linda Rex
April 25, 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER—There is a movement in this country of making churches and non-profits responsible for the needs of those who are in trouble or difficulty, rather than it being the responsibility of individuals, the community or taxpayers. Indeed, as followers of Christ, we are called at times to help those who are in need. However, simply assuming that people of faith will take care of such needs overlooks one of the things that is an important part of being truly human. And that is that we as human beings were designed as adults to be responsible for certain things ourselves, though we are all dependent upon God and his grace and goodness for anything we do have.
It also ignores the reality that humans are given the freedom to choose. This reality works on two levels: 1) People may choose to not be responsible for themselves or have never learned that they need to be, so need, homelessness and poverty may simply be a consequence of bad choices or it may even be a preference. In such cases, being responsible for what is theirs may not be the best way to help. 2) Giving and helping are not so much a requirement as they are a fruit of God’s grace at work in us—so giving and helping must come from God’s heart in us rather than merely being a response to an external expectation. Even Jesus, when laying down his life, did it voluntarily and freely, out of love, not just because it was his Father’s will.
This brings to mind the passage in 1 John 3:16-18: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” It is obvious from this passage, that we cannot just talk about doing good deeds, but we must also actually help, not closing our hearts to people who are who are unable to help themselves. We want to be sensitive at all times to the move of the Spirit in us when he wants to help someone.
As I was writing this, I was reminded of a passage from Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, the anointed One:
“All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.” (Isa. 53:6 NASB)
I’m sure that none of us want to think of ourselves as being stray sheep, but in reality, this is a good description of all of us as human beings, individually and collectively. How often we wander from the fold of God’s love and seek our own path! We get ourselves lost, wounded, broken and in need of rescue. And God knew we would do this—so Jesus came.
Let’s look at Jesus for a moment. Jesus said he is the good shepherd. We notice that the good shepherd is not taking care of everyone else’s flock—but assumes responsibility for what is his. Jesus also said that he had other sheep that he was bringing to be a part of his flock, and what he was doing was meant to include them as well (John 10:11-18).
When the shepherd goes in front of his sheep and leads them to water and good pasture, that seems to be simple enough. Even though there are times when it can be difficult to find safe pasture or clean, still water, a good shepherd seems to know where to take the sheep so they can stay healthy and strong. But if the sheep are stubborn and willful, they will not follow the lead of the shepherd or obey his voice, and will end up in dangerous places, or eating or drinking what isn’t good for them. Nothing is more upsetting to a shepherd than to have to lose a sheep because it would not stay with the flock or follow the lead of the shepherd.
Oh, that we would simply remember the shepherd’s psalm is our hope!
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23 NASB)
Did king David when he wrote this have any clue that one day the Messiah would stand up and say, “I am the good shepherd”? When Jesus was saying that he was the good shepherd, he was definitively saying who he was—God in human flesh, a shepherd who knew what it was like to be a sheep, who would one day be offered as a sacrificial lamb on our behalf.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, lays down his life for his sheep. Laying down his life for his sheep means the shepherd puts himself at risk for the benefit of the sheep he is responsible to care for. When the flock is in danger of harm because of wolves or lions, he goes over and beyond just the necessity of watching over them and actually lays down his life, risking himself for the safety and protection of his flock.
Jesus was talking to the leaders of his people who were more concerned about their popularity, their money and influence than they were about the sheep they were responsible for. He explained the difference between a hired hand and a good shepherd. One runs away at the first sign of danger, while the good shepherd stays and lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus saw keenly his calling to shepherd his people Israel through which he would bring together all the nations of the world. He knew that doing this would cost him his life, which he voluntarily gave in obedience to his heavenly Father. Do you see that Jesus was calling these leaders to their responsibility as those who were to be properly shepherding their people?
Looking at Jesus helps us to see the wide spectrum of this topic more clearly. Not only do we understand that we each are responsible for what is ours, we are also responsible to help those who are unable to help themselves. And leaders are to be responsible for those in their care, being willing to sacrifice on their behalf, putting themselves at risk to protect and provide for them, rather than simply using them for their benefit, pleasure and profit. And, finally, in a world in which none of us do these things perfectly and there is much difficulty and suffering, we have the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to guide, protect and provide for us, for he laid down his life for us and rose again so we could have new life in him.
Father, thank you for always looking out for us and providing for us. Thank you for giving us your Son Jesus as our shepherd, to save and care for us, to lay down his life for us. We receive your gift of new life by your Spirit in his name. Amen.
“This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. The one who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. We know by this that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” 1 John 3:16-24 NASB