kingdom of God

Losing the Inner Policeman

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By Linda Rex

The apostle Paul wrote that there is now, at this moment, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We wrestle with condemning ourselves and others, and yet God has said that this is not what is true about us. So much of our perspective on others and ourselves has its basis outside of us, in what others say, think, or do—in our subjective experience—rather in what is objectively true of us—that we are all beloved, accepted, and forgiven, and redeemed.

We see our healing or becoming whole as something external to us which we must attain to and strive for, rather than realizing and believing it is something which has already been done that we participate in through the indwelling Christ by the Spirit. We have been made new, Christ is making all things new, and all things will be ultimately transformed completely when our glorified Savior ushers in the new heaven and new earth.

The key here is participation. What is objectively true does not change at all, while our subjective experience of it changes according to the seasons of our lives and the ebb and flow of our day by day existence and how much we actively participate in what the Spirit is doing in this world. The evil one, too, does his best to twist, confuse, and destroy our grasp of the spiritual realities, attempting to drain away the resources of faith, hope, and love poured into us by the Spirit.

Our external attempts at lawkeeping may give us a veneer of goodness, but real change is something which happens from the inside out. In fact, it was brought to my attention again recently that lawkeeping inevitably has only one result for us as humans—the wages of sin is death. Death is what we invariably end up experiencing because we are unable to live as we ought in perfect relationship with God and one another.

The issue is an internal one, and involves things I don’t fully understand such as our subconscious, our motivations, our memories, our passions, and all that other stuff which goes on inside of us. We can keep up a beautiful façade but in due time, the real brokenness at the root of our humanity will ooze out, often in ways which will astonish others who know us. In the book “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership” the authors give many examples of effective, strong leaders who during a successful career experience a major moral failing, all because they did not attend to what was going on inside and deal with the brokenness which was part of what made them so successful.

When we recognize that Jesus Christ by the Spirit dwells within human hearts and seeks full expression in and through each of us, we begin to awaken to the reality that there is so much more going on in us and in others than what might at first be apparent on the outside. The Lord Jesus who has taken on our humanity and forged for us a new human existence is at work making this real in us and through us by his Spirit. He is at work in each of us bringing us into the fullness of our true identity in Christ.

Whatever obedience we may attempt is not meant to be a means by which we bring ourselves into union with God or into relationship with him—that is an external act which really achieves nothing. Rather, obedience is meant to arise out of the indwelling Christ—the Spirit making real in and through us the right relationship of Jesus with His Abba, making that perfect relationship our very own to participate in and enjoy. We pray, “Thy will be done here on earth as it is in heaven”, desiring the reality of that heavenly perfect relationship to be our own experience with Abba—and the Spirit affirms that this is so, manifesting Christ in us and through us, enabling us to share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Father.

In the same way, our obedience with regards to those around us is not an act we do independently of God. Our obedience on our own, God says, is as filthy rags—dirty, smelly, and needing to be burned in the fire. We never do quite get our relationships right. This does not mean we do not need to be obedient. What it does mean is that Jesus has gone through the fire in our place and on our behalf, living our obedience out perfectly in his humanity, giving us his perfected obedience in the gift of the Spirit.

The law fulfilled in Christ said that we were worthy of death, and so we died—with him. And we rose with him. There is nothing left to condemn us. We have a new existence and a new relationship with Abba and one another which has been infused into our humanity and made ours in Christ. The Holy Spirit is now at work making this a reality for each of us individually as we respond to God in faith. Our obedience is a real participation in Christ’s obedience.

When we experience some sense of self-condemnation or the condemnation of others—and we will—we have nothing to fear. “If our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.” Our life is in him because he lives in us. Our obedience is a manifestation of the reality of God’s indwelling presence in our hearts and lives. Because of Christ being at work in us and our participating by faith in his real presence, we are free from condemnation. We are accepted, beloved and forgiven, all because of Christ. (1 John 3:18-24 NIV)

Jesus said we condemn ourselves when we hide our deeds in the darkness and do not put our faith in the Son of God. It is much better to acknowledge our dependency upon Christ than to go through life trying to hide our flaws and failures. Confession does not save us, but it does free us—telling the truth sets us free by bringing what is dark into the Light so that we may find healing and wholeness. This frees us to live in the truth of who we were created to be as image-bearers of Christ. (John 3:16-21 NIV)

Healing from many emotional, mental, and even physical ailments often begins with acknowledging and admitting to the truth. It also is aided by the most difficult of tasks—offering and receiving forgiveness. Living in the Light is living exposed and open, allowing the Spirit to transform us over time, in the midst of our broken existence in this broken world.

We want to experience the fullness of our perfection now, especially if we are perfectionists. But Jesus doesn’t promise us that. What he does promise us is that he will never leave us or forsake us. What he does promise us is a Companion, his Spirit, who will be with us and in us, to come alongside us and draw us more and more deeply into our life in the Trinity. We, like the apostle Paul, may be left with a thorn in our side of some kind, but we will still be useful, beloved children in the kingdom of our heavenly Father, free of any and all condemnation both now and forever, all because of God’s grace to us in Jesus.

Thank you, Abba, for loving us and forgiving us. Thank you for not condemning us, but for freeing us to be the children you created us to be as your image-bearers. Thank you, Jesus, for living in us by the Spirit and transforming our hearts by faith. We trust you to finish what you have begun so we can celebrate both now and forever the wonder of your Abba’s great love. Amen.

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:1-4 NASB

Pending Judgment–Part III

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By Linda Rex

When it comes to God’s judgment, we saw last time that God has done all that is necessary for our salvation. God frees us in Christ to participate fully in this gift of grace, enabling us by the Spirit to live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved children. At the same time, though, we are free to embrace or reject the gift God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ.

In essence, we judge ourselves—we come into the Light of God’s penetrating gaze and allow him to cleanse and restore us, or we turn from him and continue to walk in darkness, thereby experiencing the consequences of turning away from Christ.

Adam, and all humanity since his time, has turned away from God—but God, in Christ, has turned humanity back into face to face relationship with himself. Jesus Christ is the right relationship each of us has with our heavenly Father.

But God does not force us into relationship with himself. He has secured our relationship with himself in Christ, but does not force us to participate in it. Rather, he invites us. He woos us. By his Spirit, he draws us to himself. We are beloved, held, cherished, and yet free to turn and walk away.

I do not know why people choose to resist and walk away from this awesome relationship, but they do. And if a person insists on resisting and turning from this relationship, God will eventually yield to their decision, while at the same time never ceasing to love and forgive them.

What’s interesting is that people who do not know or believe in Christ are still participants in God’s life and love. They do not recognize or concede that this is so, and may even resist any attempt God makes at drawing them closer to himself, but they are still included in God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. God allows them to be a part of what he is doing in the world, even if the part they play is a negative one.

The struggle we have with reading the Old Testament is seeing God at work among the nations, allowing the destruction of people groups, wars, and genocide. We find it difficult to accept God ordering certain people to be killed or allowing others to suffer famine and other hardships. If the God of the Old Testament is just like Jesus Christ, then why did he allow or cause these things to happen?

The modern-day Jesus is often portrayed as soft, kind, gentle, and loving. Our pictures of the long-haired, white American Jesus give us the impression he was full of compassion, understanding, and was sensitive to every possible issue and feeling of the human heart. He loved little children and working with his hands. Yes, he might have had a moment of anger in the temple when dealing with the buyers and sellers, but this wasn’t his usual response to such things.

We don’t usually get the impression that the Jesus of scripture is a real, flesh-and-blood man who was strong, decisive, and oozing masculinity. It seems that the Jesus we think of who is powerful and comes to deliver and help is the One who sits in glory ready to condemn and judge the world, who in his second coming is expected to punish and eliminate all the evildoers in the world. This Jesus more closely resembles the God of the Old Testament.

Jesus favored the use of “I am” statements during his time here on earth. He made it quite clear that he was the God of the Old Testament here in human flesh—the “I Am” in person. Over and over he went out of his way to show the truth of this, and that he was the perfect embodiment of God in our humanity. And this is where we begin to struggle. Just who is Jesus, and just how does he jive with the God of the Old Testament? They almost seem like two different people.

There also seems to be a dichotomy between the Jesus of the first coming and the Jesus of the second coming. And this also reflects on how we view the God of the Old Testament. There are inconsistencies between each of these God-views because we do not see Jesus Christ clearly, and we do not see God himself through the correct lens.

And we see events almost always in terms of this life alone. We don’t usually keep a kingdom perspective about things. When someone dies, we think or feel that’s the end, even if we believe in an afterlife. But the apostle Paul tells us we need to keep our minds and hearts on heaven, not on things of the earth which are passing and fleeting. What happens in this life needs to be kept in the context of eternity and the eternal purposes of our Living Lord.

This is the same perspective we need to use when looking at the events in the Old Testament. We need to realize that this is God’s story. It is the story about all he did in preparation for and in bringing about the salvation of the world in and through his Son Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate judgment on sin and death was fully taken up in Jesus Christ and resolved once and for all.

The Old Testament tells the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel from whom the Messiah came. These scriptures tell about God’s love for his people, and indeed for the whole world, and his deep compassion as they wandered away from him, and his longing for them to be faithful and obedient to him. It tells how he defended and protected his people, providing for them in the midst of difficulty and struggle, and in the midst of hostile, pagan nations. It also tells how he allowed them to experience the consequences of turning away from their covenant relationship with him, while he still called them back and sought their change of heart and mind toward himself.

Everything which happened as recorded in the Old Testament must be viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ, and from the perspective of God’s eternal purposes. God judged all humanity worthy of the gift of his very own unique Son—Jesus Christ is God’s judgment on sin and death. God’s redemption of his own chosen people Israel set the stage for his redemption of all humanity.

In Hebrews 9:26 we read that Jesus, rather than being offered over and over like the temple sacrifices were, was offered just once “at the consummation of the ages.” When the time was exactly right, after specific events and circumstances had taken place, and after certain prophecies had been fulfilled or were prepared to be fulfilled, Jesus came and offered himself in our place. This was to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Jesus took care of sin once and for all—so we do not have that hanging over our heads any longer. Romans 8:1 says, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Jesus Christ we are free from sin and death.

Judgment, for those who are in Christ, is not a thing to be feared. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, “…inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Christ’s coming is meant to be a celebration. It’s meant to be the time when we all gather together, rejoicing in his return, and having a merry time at his banquet, clothed in his garments of righteousness. Death is not to be feared, but to be celebrated as the transition between this life and the life in eternity Jesus purchased for us to be spent with our loving God and all those near and dear to us.

Jesus Christ, being God’s judgment on sin and death, is the One we welcome with open arms and happy faces when we see him in glory, because we are trusting in all he did on our behalf. But it is equally possible that in that moment—in death or at Christ’s return—our hearts might condemn us. We may, when face to face with the glorified Jesus, be like those described in the book of Revelation who try to run and hide from him. We may come face to face with the glorified Savior in that particular moment and realize our way of being is a far cry from that ordained for us by God in creation as made in his image, and renewed by Christ in his redemption. And we have nowhere to turn if we refuse Jesus Christ since he is our salvation, and he is God’s judgment on sin and death. And so, our hearts will be filled with fear, fear of God and fear of his punishment.

But fear is not what God meant for us to have in that moment. In fact, God meant for his perfect love for us expressed to us in Christ to cast out all our fear. God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, and merely asks that we be reconciled in return. How often God has said to us as humans, “Don’t be afraid!” God means for our response when we see Christ in glory to be receptive, heart-felt love not fearful dread—this is why Jesus came and did all that he did and this is why God sent his Holy Spirit into human hearts.

This unhealthy response to God was something he battled with from the very beginning. Case in point was when Israel came to Mt. Sinai and God spoke with them. They were terrified and begged to have Moses speak in God’s place. And while Moses was receiving the terms of the covenant, Israel decided to play with idols. These people who were very special to God never really grasped the real nature of God. God wanted them to get to know him, but they constantly set up barriers between themselves and him.

God called the patriarchs and then the nation of Israel into covenant relationship with himself. He would speak to them through prophets. He would speak of bringing them to the place where they would “know” him—come to be intimately aware of and obedient to his loving will. He defended and protected them. He chastened them, and allowed them to stubbornly go their own way even when it was to their detriment. God’s heart from the beginning has been eternal life—this knowing and being known intimately as Abba and his Son in the Spirit.

We need to understand that God’s judgment ultimately is meant to restore, renew, and heal broken relationships—between us and God, and between us and each other. The purpose in judgment is not to destroy or punish so much as it is to bring us into truth so we can experience the true freedom which is ours in Christ. We were meant for life, real life, in fellowship with God and one another—and God’s purpose is for us to experience that both now and forever. We are free to refuse to participate in this kingdom life—but we will experience the consequences of having done so—and that is another conversation altogether.

Abba, thank you for your loving heart and the gift of eternal life in your Son Jesus Christ. Grant us the grace to embrace all you have done for us in Jesus. Let us turn away from ourselves and the things of this life and place our dependency fully upon Christ. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:26-28 NASB

Pending Judgment—Part I

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By Linda Rex

If Jesus is indeed the exact representation of the Father, does that mean that our heavenly Father is a really nice guy who never did or does anything in anger or that might be hurtful to us as human beings? If we look at the Old Testament and our Abba through the lens of Jesus Christ, does that mean that God never did any of those things such as burning up cities or killing people? What does it mean that God is love, and that he is gracious and forgiving, and yet is also just?

I have said before that if the God we see in the Old Testament is different than Jesus Christ, then we need to consider if perhaps we may have misunderstood something about Jesus Christ or God himself. However, we cannot discard or throw out scriptures just because they don’t agree with the picture of God which we believe we see in Jesus. It is entirely possible that those who wrote millennia ago saw God through the lens of the angry-must-be-appeased God, but that does not exclude their writings, for as the apostle Paul wrote, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:11 NASB) We can learn from the failures and mistakes of others, and also learn from these events and people about the goodness and faithful love of our God.

Moses recorded a conversation he had in which God described himself. In Exodus 34:6-7, we read: “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” It’s interesting that God described himself as being very gracious and forgiving, but also as a person who does not leave the guilty unpunished. In fact, Moses wrote, whole generations experience the consequences of people’s disobedience to God.

I find this quite interesting, because during Jesus’ ministry, one of his disciples consistently sinned against the rest of the group, and was left unpunished by Jesus—sort of. The apostle John writes, “But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.” Judas was a thief, and Jesus allowed him to continue in his thievery up until the end of his life. He offered him rebukes, but Judas did not turn away from his sin.

Now granted, Judas was included in the twelve disciples for the very reason that he would one day betray his Lord. In the listings of the disciples Jesus chose after spending all night in prayer is this man who would be a traitor, who would betray Jesus into the hands of those who wanted to crucify him (Lk. 6:12-16; Matt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:16-19). The apostle Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection wrote, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” (Acts 1:16-17 NASB)

Jesus was a great a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures, as the teachers in the temple indicated he was, so he would have known the prophetic word about the one who would betray him in such a way that he would be crucified and die. Every one of his disciples was capable of betraying Jesus, yet Judas is the one who did it—the one who never dealt with the truth of his thievery by repentance and faith in Jesus. If you or I were running a non-profit business and we found out someone was rifling the petty cash every chance they could, we would most probably fire them the minute we discovered the truth. But this was not Jesus’ way.

Jesus’ view of justice and judgment comes straight from the heart of the Father—to restore the one who has estranged themselves by sin to a right relationship with Abba and those they have hurt. He told Nicodemus:

“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Often God doesn’t need to judge anyone, because we are so good at judging ourselves—hiding in the darkness rather than coming into the light of God’s love and grace in Jesus. Hiding in the darkness eventually leads to painful and difficult consequences, some of which may lead to suffering and even death. Sadly, the outcome of Judas Iscariot’s hidden sin was his betrayal of his Lord, his subsequent remorse, and his tragic end of life by suicide. If Judas had only come to the Light—to Jesus—and received the grace which was his, owning up to the truth of his unloving behavior and allowing Jesus to restore him, his life may not have ended so tragically.

Peter wasn’t much better than Judas. He quite vocally denied Jesus three times—emphatically, with curses—because he was afraid of being arrested. After all his earlier promises to the contrary, when the chips were down he refused to identify with Jesus in his moment of greatest need. What might have gone through Peter’s head when Jesus caught his eye during his final denial? I can only imagine. Whatever it was, it led to Peter’s great repentance, and his urgent desire to reconcile with his Lord on the shores of Galilee after the resurrection.

Hiding in the darkness rather than coming into the light of God’s love is evidence of our lack of participation in our covenant relationship with our heavenly Father. Refusal to face the truth of our broken ways of living and being keeps us in the place of judgment. We have been given forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus Christ, but we can refuse it and live as though it isn’t true for us, and subsequently experience all the consequences due to us for having done so.

We can hide our “dirty deeds” in the darkness and pretend all is okay—living in the “freedom” of doing our own thing—and never receive the grace God has provided for us in Jesus. God has set us free from sin and death through Christ and empowers us by his Spirit to live in the truth of this and to share this truth with others. By refusing to receive what God has given to us in Jesus Christ, refusing to trust in God’s love and grace, we are judging ourselves.

We are placing ourselves outside the door to God’s kingdom which Jesus opened up for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and are saying to him that we can’t or won’t go in. The door is unlocked and even standing wide open—but we have no interest in entering. If Jesus is our true humanity, and he is the door through which we enter, the only exclusion which occurs is that which we choose for ourselves. God doesn’t have to stand with a big book of deeds either good or bad, deciding who goes in and who stays out. We do a pretty good job of doing that on our own.

Our entering in of the kingdom of God does not just happen at the end of our physical life. We live even now in the already-not-yet of God’s kingdom. This means we participate, or don’t participate, in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Abba right now, in this life today, as well in the world to come. We experience only glimpses of eternity right now, but we can begin to experience the blessings of the world to come in the midst of the struggles and difficulties in the world which is our today.

There are many things we need to learn about who Jesus is, and in learning about Jesus, come to understand about who Abba is. This will help us in our understanding of what was written in the Old Testament scriptures. I would like to talk more about this in next week’s blog. In the meantime, I encourage us all to find anything in our lives which we are trying to hide away from the view of Abba, and to bring it into the Light, so that through Jesus we may receive the reconciliation which is ours in him.

Thank you, Abba, for your perfect love and grace. Thank you that we can come to know you and your great love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Give us understanding of what it means to live and walk in the Light, exposed fully to your loving gaze, hiding nothing. No matter how broken we may be, you have redeemed us and set us free in Jesus. May we receive this gift with open hands. In your name, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

“The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7 NASB

Seeds and Flowers, and Maturing in Christ

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By Linda Rex

Outside the house next to our patio door sit two flower pots. Last summer we moved some tiger lilies out of a flowerbed and into these pots because the local mole had decided he had a hankering for flower bulbs and managed to eliminate most of them we had planted earlier in the year.

Even though we planted the tiger lily bulbs in the flowerpots, we assumed they were too far gone to even come up. But this spring they began to grow and after quite some time they put on buds. We were delighted when the bright orange blossoms opened fully—they are quite stunning when in full bloom.

In comparison with a tiger lily, the bloom of an avocado tree is quite tiny and unimpressive. If one were to look at an avocado flower, one would have to get up really close in order to even see it. It has six tiny white or green petals surrounding an intricate white and yellow center. And yet, when the flower has done its work properly, it produces a seed the size of a walnut enclosed within a thick layer which we consume as fruit. The entire avocado can be bigger than the size of a human fist—a far cry from the tiny flower it came from.

The size and beauty of a flower may be large and glorious, but this is not what determines what type of fruit it produces. Nor does it determine whether or not it produces fruit which matures in such a way as to produce seeds. Some flowers produce fruit which is seedless—a natural process which botanists and producers have taken advantage of in order to provide us with such produce as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons.

Plants come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the “fruit”—this word includes nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Fruit from a plant may mature beyond the state any of us would be willing to consume, but for many plants, this is what is necessary for the seed to fully ripen so when it is put in the ground it will produce a new plant. We often consume what is produced before it is fully mature—corn on the cob is a good example of this. In order to plant corn, the corn kernel has to ripen completely and then dry—only then is it mature enough to be used as seed for planting. But dried corn kernels are quite hard to chew and they’re not very tasty either.

A lot of what I’ve shared here is common knowledge for a farmer, botanist, or master gardener. They understand the process by which a plant reproduces and how to work with seeds, plants, and flowers to produce the best crop possible. It is interesting that Jesus, our Master Gardener, often used the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops in order to talk about himself and the kingdom of God.

In one parable, Jesus used seed to represent the Word of God. He was explaining the different ways in which the Word of God was planted and the results of each scenario:

“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:11-15 NASB

It seems that the problem with producing quality fruit lies not with the seed, but with the soil it lands on. The Word of God always produces a result—it is fruitful—there’s no doubt about that. But the ground which receives the seed can be harsh and unreceptive, or provide little room for the roots to grow, or be so filled with weeds that a new plant can’t grow and thrive.

If we were to consider this parable for a bit, we might see that the point of putting the seed in the ground is not just to have pretty flowers. Flowerbeds are lovely and I personally enjoy a garden filled with colorful blooms. But this was not the point of this parable—the focus is on the seed and what the seed was to produce—more seed. This means each seed needs to produce a plant which will grow to the place it flowers, it produces fruit, and the fruit matures to the point that it produces seed.

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, and travel all over by a variety of means. Seeds are not meant to stay on the plant, but to be spread to new places. We experience the reality of this when we find oak trees growing in our pansy bed or an apple tree coming up in the vegetable garden.

When we hear the Word of God—the good news of God’s love for us expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ, it is meant to take root in our hearts by faith. The Word of God, the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, works transform our hearts and lives. We open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in our walk of faith and begin to mature as followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives begin to reflect the Word of God at work within us. Like beautiful blossoms on a plant, we glow with the glory God created us to bear—the image of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This flowering is not the end of the story though. We are meant to go even farther and mature into seed-bearing plants. Our lives and words are to be a testimony to Christ. In other words, the life-giving Word is carried to new places and planted in new ground—new hearts—because we have become mature seed-bearing plants. Jesus said as we go, we are to make disciples. Making disciples, sharing the Word of God with others, is to be a natural by-product of our spiritual growing up in Christ.

The environment in which the Word of God exists within us is critical in this process. Do we allow ourselves to be deceived by a word other than that which given to us in Jesus Christ? Do we allow ourselves to be tempted by other things which supplant the Word of God? Do we allow ourselves to be so absorbed in the cares and pleasures of this life that we suffocate the Word of God? All of these are ways in which we disrupt or hinder the process of spiritual growth God meant for us to participate in.

The healthier alternative is to receive the Word with an “honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” The Word of God sinks deep roots in the soil of our heart as we practice spiritual disciplines which open us up to the work of the Spirit within us. The Word of God can transform our lives and hearts as we obey the Spirit’s inner prompting to put away our idols and distractions and focus wholly on Christ. We make space for God to work by making sure we are not preoccupied with the cares and pleasures of this life.

And we are not satisfied with just the external trappings of spiritual growth. It’s easy to look as though we are a stunning example of spiritual maturity. But the proof is when what God has done and is doing in us is duplicated in the lives of those around us. When the Word of God begins spreading into the hearts and lives of those around us, then we know we are being fruitful, and that God’s Word is living and active, taking root in many new hearts and lives.

Thank you, Lord, for planting your Word in our hearts. By faith, may we allow your Word to grow and develop, transforming our hearts and lives in such a way that your Word may be planted anew in others hearts and lives as well. May we be productive plants for your glory, through Jesus our Lord and by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

“As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Luke 8:14 NRSV

The Wind of Hope

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By Linda Rex

Lent
The other day I was sitting outside in a garden when I felt a breeze begin to blow across my face. The tree branches swayed and bent with the movement of the wind. The air was comfortably warm, and the color of the deep blue sky contrasted with the browns and grays of the winter foliage.

As the gentle wind blew the trees about, I was reminded of what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. He said we don’t really know where the wind comes from or where it is going. In the same way, he said, we don’t know where and how the Spirit is at work in someone. The Spirit is not a thing we control or manipulate—the Spirit is a person we have a relationship with.

It seems when we come up against struggles in this life or we experience difficulty with being unable to change what we would like to see changed, we often blame God or ourselves for it. If we are a believer in Christ, we may even accuse ourselves of not having enough of God’s Spirit, or not praying hard enough, or of not “being in the Word” enough. We pour out upon ourselves condemnation for our failures and shortcomings.

It is easy to lay the blame for much of our faults and difficulties at our own door. If only I had…. If I just would…. And often, there is good reason for us feeling we are to blame. There may be some basis in fact.

It is just as easy to lay the blame elsewhere, at other people’s feet. I wouldn’t have this problem if he hadn’t…. Or, if she hadn’t done that, then I wouldn’t be in this position right now. There’s always room to blame someone or something.

Yet Jesus, in his preaching, taught us to throw away all the stones. None of us should be casting stones at anyone else, since we are all equally guilty and at fault. There is no place for stone-casting in the kingdom of God (John 8:1-11).

We can forget, though, that we may still be in our stone-casting mode when it comes to ourselves. We may hold things against ourselves which God forgave a long time ago. In fact, God forgave it all millennia ago on the cross—so why do we hold onto it? Why do we wander about in the darkness, thinking we are rejected or unloved by God, when in reality he has forgiven and is forgiving us?

In our struggle against those things in our lives which do not reflect the glory of Christ we were created to bear, we can find ourselves wallowing in our failures. Life is a struggle, full of difficulties and pains and griefs. We are going to trip up and not live in the way we know we should. Other people are going to point the finger and remind us of our shortcomings. But what we do with our failures is critical.

We must not lie about them. The apostle John says when we act as if we don’t have any faults, we are lying and not walking in the truth (1 John 1:5-10). To lie about, ignore or deny our failures means we are walking about in the darkness. We are not walking in truth.

The truth is we are all walking in the Light of God’s presence in each moment of our lives. By the Spirit we are all in the presence of God at all times. There is no existence apart from God’s Being as Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever we do, good or bad, is in God’s presence—to say we have not done anything wrong is to say something that God already knows isn’t true. So why even try to pretend we are perfect?

When Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the Spirit from our Father—he gave us the indwelling presence of God within. This is a perfect gift, as it is the gift of an ongoing relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit—a relationship we were created for and were intended to have from before time began. This relationship is not dependent upon our perfection, but solely dependent upon God’s infinite love which was demonstrated to us in his Son Jesus and what he did for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The struggle we may have as individuals is receiving this gift and embracing the truth we live as forgiven sinners each and every moment of our lives. Sometimes the idol we need to cast down is the belief we could, if we tried hard enough, attain perfection of some kind in this life. This doesn’t mean anything goes, but rather we live daily in the humility of our creatureliness—we’re capable of the worst, but God has declared that’s not who we are. Rather, we are forgiven, beloved, and accepted in his Son Jesus—he is our saving grace.

Laying down the stones we’d prefer to cast at ourselves is hard to do sometimes. It may be that castings rocks at ourselves is the normal thing for us to do, since everyone who we truly cared about has done this to us—so we believe this is what we deserve. We may feel better, temporarily, about ourselves if we cast a few stones, because casting stones is easier than facing up to our failures and asking for forgiveness and help with them. There is some measure of pride in being able to cast stones at ourselves rather than humbly owning our need to repent and trust in Christ, asking him to transform us by his Spirit.

In their novel Healing Stones, Steve Arterburn and Nancy Rue create a character who struggles with a major personal failure and who desperately wants to make things right. At one point her counselor hands her a rock, and says to her, “…take this stone with you…and find a use for it besides throwing it at yourself.” The truth is, there are times when our worst enemy is ourselves. We can be more of an accuser than the Accuser himself—and save him the effort in the process.

We don’t always know what the Spirit is doing in us or in those around us. The process of healing is intricate and difficult, and very time-consuming. The work the Spirit does in a person’s mind and heart is often hidden and isn’t seen until after the fact—we see the effects, not the actual work the Spirit does.

We can participate in the healing process in others and in ourselves by throwing away our rocks and stones. In fact, we may even consider turning them into something useful instead. Rather than condemning others for their failures, perhaps we can help them–being honest enough about our own failures we could come alongside them and help them to grow and heal in ways in which we didn’t receive help and encouragement.

This opens up space for the Spirit to do an even greater work of healing and renewal. Sometimes our failures are, when we surrender them to the grace of God in Christ and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, the means by which the wind of the Spirit brings hope to others. In this way, we participate in the grace given in Jesus for all humanity and find healing for ourselves in the process.

Abba, thank you for embracing us in spite of our failures and weaknesses. Thank you for embracing us in your grace, in the gift of your Son and the Spirit. Holy Spirit, blessed Wind of God, blow in and through us, filling us anew with the heart and mind of the Father, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“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 3:8 NASB

Bound Together in Community

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By Linda Rex

The door to my bedroom opened. In walked my daughter’s dog. She headed straight for the bed and jumped up on it. Rather than curling up at the foot of the bed as she often does, she curled up right next to me so her side was pushing against my body.

It seems my daughter’s dog understands better than we do sometimes the need for physical connectedness. She knows by instinct the need for relationship and belonging.

It is too bad we are often so busy pushing one another away or protecting our space, we end up alone and disconnected. We prefer our independence rather than understanding and living in the truth we are all interdependent. We cannot and should not live as separate satellites. This was not God’s intent when he created us.

I think it is interesting that when we pack ourselves together in big cities, people become more and more disconnected. We find ways to hide from each other and to protect ourselves from being harmed. We isolate ourselves and then wonder why we are lonely and depressed.

I was reading an online article this morning about these utopic wellness communities which are being created. They are places where people live together in natural and wholistic communities where their environment is kept as close to nature as possible, and in which people live together and interact together in a community life.

Unlike the inner city, such a community leaves room for people to interact with nature as well as with one another. There is space to just be out and free, rather than concerned about one’s safety and one’s belongings.

I first felt this sort of freedom when I moved to southeast Iowa many years ago. The place I moved to was out in the midst of rural Iowa where any city of any size was about half an hour to forty-five minutes away. Leaving the back door unlocked was the norm, and taking a walk in the woods was a normal daily occurrence when the weather was nice and one wasn’t working. Letting the kids roam at will in the outdoors was a just a part of everyday life.

I noticed a couple of things when I first moved there. The first and most immediate was a sense of relaxation, of rest. I was not in a constant state of subtle inner anxiety. I could just be. The self-protective angst of the big city was not necessary in the same way anymore.

The second thing I noticed and had a hard time getting my mind around, was how everyone knew everyone else. Relationships in a small community were the norm, not the exception. It seems if you didn’t open up and be friendly with your neighbors, that was more of a reason for talk than if you did.

The sense of community all of us long for is a precious commodity. Not all of us have the financial resources or the ability to move to some place which can be more conducive to such a way of life. But we can learn to live in community right where we are. We can learn to live in the rest and freedom of knowing we are included and held in God’s love and life.

In creating the Body of Christ, the Church, Jesus created a community where people who are sharing in God’s love and life are brought together into relationship. The work of the Spirit brings people to faith in Christ and binds them together in spiritual family. The Church then becomes a place of rest where people can grow in their relationship with God and one another, and can find themselves in a “safe” place. This is what the Body of Christ is meant to be for God’s people.

The Body of Christ is also meant to be a safe haven for those buffeted about by this world—a place where they can encounter the Lord Jesus Christ and experience a little bit of the kingdom of God on earth, and the love of God expressed in and through his people.

When someone enters the door of our fellowship hall or our chapel upstairs, they should feel as though they could come in and snuggle up against us, trusting we will not kick them out the door. This requires a lot of grace and understanding. It requires being able to set healthy limits on what we can do and can’t do as far as our behavior toward one another. The house of God is meant to be a place of order, of peace, and a place of worship—but also a place of welcoming, understanding, and grace.

In Christ, the kingdom of God was initiated here on earth. Over the centuries, the Church of Christ has taken on different forms and shapes. But the one identifying factor we can all cling to is that the Church is meant to be a reflection of the very nature and being of Jesus Christ himself. The Church is his hands and feet in a dark world. The Church is a place of hospitality and welcoming when all other doors are shut.

The Church is never meant to be a place of hurtfulness, abuse, or rejection. It is never meant to be a place of separation, cliques, or snobbery. When we find ourselves treating people in these ways, it is time for us to rethink who we are. As God’s children, made in his image, we all gather at the table to share the abundance of his goodness and love. May we never forget the blessings and benefits of sharing in his divine community, and let us never fail to share them with others.

Lord, I thank you for all you have done and all you are doing now, and all you will do, to bring us together into one body in Christ by your spirit. Open our hearts to the truth of our inclusion in your community of faith. Grant us repentance and a change in our way of living so we will begin to experience and live in the truth of how you created us to be as your children. Do continue to work to tear down the walls between us and to create places of community, peace and unity in our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 NASB

Our Unifying Distinctions

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By Linda Rex

Lately at Good News Fellowship we have been talking about things we believe about God which are not according to the truth revealed to us in the Person and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the lies which seems to raise its ugly head from one generation to another is the belief we are, in our uniqueness as a particular color, race or ethnicity, God’s chosen people. This lie puts us in direct opposition to those which are “not like us”, and creates division and even hostility between us.

What we don’t seem to realize is God never meant our differences to divide us, but rather to bind us closer together. What makes us distinctly unique is meant to be an important part of a complete whole which celebrates the wonder and glory of our divine God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God himself in his Being teaches us it is our uniqueness which binds us together. It is never meant to divide us. God as Father, Son, and Spirit has distinctions but these distinctions in God’s Being do not cause division. Rather they describe the interrelations in God’s Being. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. Rather the Father is the Father of the Son—this is their oneness in the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Father, nor is he the Son, but he is the One who is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son.

I remember hearing and being taught as a child the belief I as someone of light complexion was part of a special group of people chosen by God, and those of darker hue were somehow part of the human race who were cursed with Cain. This teaching created a sense of cognitive dissonance in me because I had friends in school of much darker hue than me, and they did not seem to be any different than me. How is it they could be less than or inferior to me when they were actually the same as me?

Since that time God has taken me on a journey of learning and healing in which I have come to have warm and meaningful relationships with people of many different races and ethnicities. I have come to see the truth—we are all one body made up of different members. We each have a role to play in the common humanity of God’s creation.

Indeed, I believe the apostle Paul hit on something really important when he began to talk about the different parts of the body within the body of Christ. I believe this concept extends beyond the walls of the church. Our common humanity is made up of all different sorts of people, and none of us really looks exactly the same, though some of us may look similar to one another.

This morning it occurred to me again that if there were no such thing as brain cells, how would any of us think? If there were no nerve cells, how would our brains communicate with our bodies? If there were no skin cells, how would our muscles and organs stay where they belong, protected and held in place? These cells are each unique to one another, and even have variances in between them, but each is necessary to the whole—the body would not function properly if any of them were missing or were not properly fulfilling their function.

There is a reason we are the way we are. There is a beauty in the human race which is expressed in all its different hues and distinctions. These differences were meant to create joy and celebration as we share them with one another. Instead, we allow them to create fear, hate, and hostility against one another. These distinctions were meant to create a greater, more blessed whole, but we have allowed them to divide us and to cause us to destroy one another.

We forget or ignore the reality God’s Son, who was completely other than us, took on our humanity—joined himself to us permanently—so we could share in his Being. Jesus Christ became sin for us so we could become the righteousness of God in him. We share in Christ’s being because he took that very thing which has divided us and destroyed our relationship and used it to bind us to himself with cords of love.

God was not willing to be God without us. He did not allow whatever differences between us and him—which are vast and unmeasurable—to cause us to be permanently separated from him. He did not consider himself to be above us, but rather, he humbled himself, setting aside the privileges of his divinity to join us in our broken humanity (Phil. 2:5-11). He humbled himself, even to the point of allowing us to crucify him. What we did to try and permanently separate ourselves from God he used to bind us to himself forever. Such an amazing love!

In binding us all to himself with cords of love in Jesus Christ, God also bound us to one another. We all share in the common humanity of Jesus Christ and there are no longer any divisions between us. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Whatever we may artificially place between us is now caught up in Christ’s humanity and reconciled with God, and we in Christ are all reconciled with one another. There may be distinctions, but in Christ we are all one.

God is calling to each of us to respond to his Spirit as he works to bring this oneness to full expression in our individual and common humanity. The Spirit calls to you and to me to not only respond to our reconciliation to God, but also to our reconciliation to one another in Christ. There are to be no divisions between us. Whatever distinctions may exist are meant to be a cause for giving praise, glory and honor to God for his wisdom and glory, not a cause for fear, hate, and hostility between us.

May we turn from, or repent of, our human proclivity for racial and ethnic superiority and inferiority, and stop yielding to the evil one’s efforts to divide us and so to destroy us. Let us, rather, build one another up in love. Let us look for reasons to share and celebrate our differences and distinctions, and to make them ways in which we can come together to create a stronger, whole humanity.

Instead of allowing our distinctions and differences to cause fear, distrust, hate, and hostility, may we actively work to make them the very thing which binds us to one another. Sometimes this may require the same path Jesus trod—through death and resurrection—but the result will be something we will not experience otherwise: a taste of the kingdom of God here on earth as a reflection of the love which exists in our Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit in heaven.

Dear Abba, forgive us for all the ways we create division and discord in our world. Forgive us for the ways we demean one another, and the arrogant and prideful ways we have of living and being. Grant us the humility and dignity of our true humanity in Christ Jesus. May we, from this day forward, always treat others with the same respect, kindness, and graciousness with which you have treated us, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:18–20 NASB