kingdom of God
The Father of Our Faith
by Linda Rex
March 5, 2023, 2nd Sunday in Preparation for Easter or Lent—During my studies with Grace Communion Seminary I have learned about the different times in history when God by the Spirit brought about a spiritual awakening which led to the transformation and renewal of communities and churches. Many people here in America have been asking God for such a spiritual awakening, and have been encouraged and comforted by the recent movement of the Holy Spirit at Asbury University.
We are reminded anew that the beauty of God’s creative spiritual work in human hearts and lives does not come about by human effort and striving. Spiritual renewal and transformation is something only God can do, and is something that he chooses to do and orchestrates, not because we get everything exactly right and because we deserve it, but simply due to God’s love for us, and his desire to restore, reconcile, and renew us.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, John 3:1–17, Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that the only way a person can see or participate in the kingdom of God is if they are born from above. Then he begins to describe how the Spirit moves in unseen and unbidden ways that can only be recognized by their resulting effect on those who have been touched by the divine wind. Our part in this whole process is trust, allowing God to be who he is in every situation, placing ourselves fully at his disposal, allowing him to be who he is as our Savior, Healer, and Redeemer.
The kingdom of God, as the reign of our sovereign King in our hearts and lives, is real and active even today, and we participate in God’s kingdom right now as we yield to and obey the Spirit, following Jesus as he leads us to do our Father’s will. We are reminded that Jesus’ attention was often drawn to the widow’s small gift, the thief’s last cry on the cross, the tax collectors and sinners who didn’t deserve any attention at all. We fall in love with God when we experience the profound reality of his love for us, and his love fills our hearts as the Spirit pours into us, enabling us to know and be assured that, yes, indeed, we are God’s beloved children.
In the New Testament passage for this Sunday, Romans 4:13–17, the apostle Paul takes this even further as he shows that God is the true Source, the Father of all, from whom we receive grace and salvation by faith. Abraham and Sarah were beyond the ability to have children when God promised them a son—and he kept his promise to them. And this son, Isaac, was a descendant through whom our Savior, Jesus Christ, came. Our God calls as real and substantial those things which do not yet exist, and in the speaking of his Word, they become real and substantial.
In the same way, God has called everyone of us his very own, the promised descendants of Abraham millennia ago—and here we are, children of the Father, through Jesus Christ his Son, by his heavenly Spirit. Abraham, our forefather, “the father of us all,” is a reflection or picture of our divine Father, the One who made us and sustains us all—the same Father, who, even when we fell captive to evil sin, and death, drew us all to himself, bringing us back into right relationship with himself, giving us his righteousness, through his Son Jesus. The Spirit calls us even today to embrace this true reality by faith, and to experience the wonder of it through prayer, contemplation, and worship. The Spirit reminds us to place our faith in Jesus Christ, who laid everything down so we could know our Father’s embrace in the fellowship of the Spirit, now and forever, as his beloved children.
Father, thank you for loving us so very much. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us back home to the Father, to be held in his loving embrace. Thank you, heavenly Spirit, for enabling us to experience and know God’s love. Show us even now how much we are loved and cared for, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to Him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, ‘a father of many nations have I made you’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” Romans 4:13–17 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/02/olitthe-father-of-our-faith.pdf ]
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When Light First Dawns
by Linda Rex
January 22, 2023, 3rd Sunday in Epiphany—Recently, my husband remarked about my preference for darkened rooms. I’ve always preferred a more dimly lighted room to one that is filled with bright light because of the sensory overload that I experience from constant intense brightness. When the Scriptures speak about the light which is Jesus, I often wonder if our experience of Jesus can also make us prefer a less intense experience of the truth and grace which he brings. For some of us, hiding in the darkness of our human experience is preferable to facing up to the reality that we may have aspects of our person which need redemption and healing.
The good news is that this is the reason Jesus came. He did not come to condemn us, he said, but to save us and give us eternal life (John 3:16-17). His purpose is not to shame or diminish us in any way, but to bring us into the fullness of all that he intended from the beginning, from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-6), when light first touched this cosmos—life in relationship with God in the Spirit.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 4:12-23, the apostle quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4, saying that Jesus’ life and ministry in the Galilee area was a fulfillment of this particular prophetic word. When looking back at the history of ancient Israel, we see that this area of the country was constantly invaded as a consequence of their repeated infidelity to God. Because they chose to continue to live in the darkness of sin, they ultimately experienced invasion and deportation by the Assyrians.
In Matthew’s day, the area of Galilee was distained by the people in Jerusalem and much of Judea, for the area was filled with Gentiles and surrounded by Hellenistic Jews who had in many ways assimilated into the Greek culture of their day. That Jesus would grow up in Nazareth and spend much of his life and ministry in the area of Galilee is remarkable and a telling witness to the grace and love of God for his people.
The dawning of the light of God in his birthplace of Nazareth, though, was met with ridicule and disbelief. So, Jesus went to Capernaum to live and work, and traveled around the region of Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing the people. Here the light of God, Jesus, announced the present reality of the kingdom of God, calling the people to repent. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he was present and active in the lives of those who lived in darkness, calling them into his light, into life in relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
What is our experience when the light first dawns for us? What is our experience and response when first encountering the reality of Jesus and his claims upon us and our lives? Are we one of those who walks over to the light switch and shuts off the lamp because it is blinding us, or are we so blessed by the invasion of light in our darkness that we welcome it?
The issue may simply be that we are not clearly hearing or intently listening to and heeding what Jesus is saying. Perhaps we might want to look a little more closely at this simple message that Matthew puts forth as Jesus’ gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In that brief statement, there is a blinding light being projected, meant to illuminate the darkness which had covered these people for centuries. All of their messianic expectations needed to be revised, and all of their preferences reexamined. And this is why, perhaps, some may simply have preferred to turn the light back off rather than allow it to penetrate into their darkness.
Jesus didn’t focus on the benefits of being one of the chosen people. He didn’t celebrate the religious activities of the elite or promise blessings for obedience. At the same time, Jesus’ call to repent wasn’t a call to shame or guilt. It wasn’t a ridicule or a criticism. Instead, it was a call to a change of mind and heart—an invitation to turn around and go the right direction.
When in a darkened room, it is hard to see another person. If a person lives in darkness long enough, they lose their ability to see anyone or anything. If someone else is in the room with them, they wouldn’t know it, unless perhaps they heard them, because they wouldn’t see them. Jesus was inviting those who heard his message to see the reality that God was with them (in him) and they needed to turn around and get back into the face-to-face relationship with God they were created for. Jesus’ call to repent was a call to come back home, to live in the truth about who they were. Repent, Jesus says, and invites them into warm fellowship with himself, and thus with the Father in the Spirit.
Having reminded his listeners to come back into relationship with God through him, Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven is Matthew’s euphemism for the kingdom of God. In Jesus, God’s kingdom was present and real, being established in a new and real way in his person. As the one through whom and by whom all was created, the Word of God in human flesh, Jesus was the one who ruled over all that was made. As the king of the kingdom, present in person, Jesus was calling all people to turn around and participate with him in the reality of God’s reign over all.
And that’s the catch. That’s where we get up and reach for the switch to turn off the light. We don’t want God invading our space or telling us how to run our world or our own lives. We don’t want anyone dictating to us. And we most certainly don’t want to admit that perhaps we need a power beyond ourselves in order to solve our problems, fix our world and our relationships, or even to change ourselves. We dive deeply into anything we can get our hands on that might possibly solve our problem, or at least anesthetize us from the pain, because we certainly don’t want to have to surrender to God.
What is sad, is that we as Christians are often the most guilty about avoiding the light. We find so many ways in which to bury our heads in the ground or rewire the light switch so that we don’t have to face the reality that we have turned our backs upon our relationship with God or have abandoned our dependence upon the One who has redeemed and saved us.
The good news is that Jesus comes to dark places, places like Galilee, where for a time, darkness reigns. Jesus is the Son of God who temporarily set aside the privileges of divinity to join us in our humanity in order to turn us back to God. Jesus says to all of us, “Follow me,” and invites us to live and walk within his own personal relationship with Father in the Spirit. He encourages us to live life in relationship with him day by day, in the humility of total dependence upon him, and daily welcomes us come home. As we are willing, he shines his light into our dark places, bringing renewal, healing, and restoration, and a deeper experience of God’s love.
Thank you, Father, for including us through Jesus in relationship with you in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to turn away from ourselves and this world and to turn again to Jesus, allowing your light to penetrate down into the deepest and darkest places within ourselves. May we discover that in the blackest places, the light of Jesus already shines. Amen.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:12–23 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2023/01/olitwhen-light-first-dawns.pdf ]
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Joy in Judgment
by Linda Rex
December 11, 2022, 3rd Sunday in ADVENT | Joy—At times I wonder what it would have been like to have been a close relative of Jesus Christ while he lived here on earth. What stories would we have been told about the birth of our cousin? Would we have known the story about how John jumped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when his pregnant relative Mary came for a visit?
Some commentators say that John and Jesus probably did not know each other very well while others picture them as close kin. But when Jesus came to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing the people, the prophet knew exactly who Jesus was and why he was there. He pointed Jesus out as being the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the people.
Later on, John spoke out against King Herod Antipas’ recent marriage to the wife of King Herod Philip, Herodias. The result of John’s truth-telling was a stint in prison, without any deliverance in sight. The gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 11:2–11, describes how while John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent his disciples to Jesus to verify that he indeed was the promised Anointed One or Messiah.
It’s possible that John thought Jesus, if he was truly the Messiah, should have been doing something to ensure his release from prison, or perhaps even have been speaking out against Antipas. But Jesus merely pointed out to John’s disciples that as the Messiah, Christ was busy doing what the Coming One was predicted to do—healing the sick, raising the dead (like he had just done for the widow in Nain) and casting out demons. In the midst of his dark and difficult circumstances, John the Baptizer may have needed some reassurance that all of his own efforts were not in vain. Or he may simply have been continuing to do what he did before—point away from himself, and point his disciples toward Christ.
Jesus’ words about John were not critical, but supportive and understanding. In fact, he let his listeners know that John was a great prophet even though he would be surpassed by the least in the kingdom of God which Jesus was inaugurating. Christ challenged the crowd, saying, “blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (NASB; in the Greek, καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί). I’m not a Greek scholar, but it is interesting to note that σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthí) looks a lot like our English word scandal. As Jesus points out, we find blessing or joy in not being scandalized by Jesus and what he is doing, even though he might be doing things differently than we expect.
How often are we scandalized by the way Jesus is doing something in our lives or in this world? Can you think of a time when you were infuriated with the way something turned out, wondering why God didn’t intervene? Why is it that the Lord allows things to happen a certain way when he could, being God, make things so very different, so very less painful or awful?
It is easy to pass judgment on God—we do it all the time. Just as the people in Jesus’ day judged him as being un-Messiah-like, we expect God to jump certain hoops, and when he doesn’t, we are offended or scandalized. And often we’re just not honest with ourselves in regards to these things, since, as good people, we know we shouldn’t be mad at God, or offended by how he runs the world.
But let’s think for a moment about judgment as it was expressed in the coming of God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. First off, God judged us as human beings of being worthy of his love and attention. He knew we couldn’t get ourselves into right relationship with him on our own, so he planned from the beginning to do what was necessary to bring us home. In Christ, God judged us as being a good creation gone astray, which needed to experience healing, redemption, renewal, and reconciliation.
All of this at work in our world was evident in the ministry and life of Jesus Christ as he cast out demons, healed the sick and broken, preached the gospel to the poor, and even raised the dead. Jesus, as a human being himself, went so far as to allow human beings to reject him, crucify him, and kill him. Even so, his judgment as he hung on the cross was forgiveness, caring for his mother, and welcoming a criminal into paradise. And God’s judgment on all of us as human beings in our imprisonment in the kingdom of darkness, was to bring us all into the kingdom of light as Jesus rose from the grave in the resurrection.
Do you see that God’s method of judgment is so laden with grace that it looks so much different than ours? Jesus says we aren’t to stumble over him or be scandalized by him. Instead, we are to accept Jesus for who he really is—God in human flesh, our redemption and salvation, our heavenly Father’s Word of grace sent to us, birthed of the Spirit. Are we scandalized by the grace God expresses to us as human beings in Christ? Or is this grace the source of our blessedness and our great joy?
During the season of Advent, we rehearse anew our preparation for the coming of the Messiah, specifically as God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, a baby which was laid in a manger while angels announced the good news to shepherds on a hill nearby. Are we scandalized by the coming of God in human flesh in this humble way? Or are we grateful at God’s humility and love?
Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh come for our redemption and salvation, took on a particular human body in a specific place and time. The one who made all things and sustains all things by his word and power became our close relation, becoming one of us that we might share eternity with him some day. And Jesus was willing to do this, even though he knew from the beginning what the cost would be. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. With open hands, we share in his joy, as we receive the grace he so generously offers us, rather than being offended by the way he runs his world.
Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us and being willing to take on our human existence as your very own for a time. Thank you for sharing your joy with us by your Spirit. Father, grant us the grace to not be offended by your Son, but to embrace him fully, allowing Jesus to be who he is for us, our joy and our salvation. Amen.
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. … Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble. Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. … the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Isaiah 35:1–10 NASB
“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the “blind receive sight” and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the “poor have the gospel preached to them”. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.’ As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold, I sent my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ ” Matthew 11:2–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/olitjoy-in-judgment.pdf ]
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All the Stones Will Fall
by Linda Rex
November 13, 2022, PROPER 28—Recently it occurred to me that often, when we see something significant or wonderful, we attempt to memorialize it or preserve it. While we were traveling the other day, my son and I stopped to visit a natural history museum. It was filled with displays of well-worn dioramas of wildlife and flora, and large plastic dinosaurs whose bodies did not at all match our most recent science.
We as humans seem to be impressed by great buildings with ornate and expensive décor. I remember as a young person being impressed with the gold-plate, crystal and brass in the Ambassador Auditorium and the priceless antiques in the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. In Jesus’ day, Herod’s temple was still under construction as his disciples visited and admired the gigantic stones from which it was made and the impressive display of votive offerings.
The reality is, though, that such memorialization simply doesn’t last. Nor does it preserve in totality the entire experience it attempts to bring to our remembrance. The most we can do, even with our modern photographs and videos, is capture some of the feeling of the moments or some of the grandeur. The rest is left within us as human beings to grasp in our hearts and minds, through memory or imagination.
And I’m not sure I fully grasp Jesus’ experience of viewing the temple. On the one hand, from his human flesh, it must have been an impressive sight to see all that had been made to honor God. But as the Son of the Father, he must have known how empty and misguided such attempts to honor God were. How often his Father had longed for true devotion from his people, but received only empty words, promises, rituals or monuments instead!
The same reality applies when it comes to kingdoms and nations. Since the time of Jesus, many changes have occurred in this world—people lived and died, nations risen and fallen, and borders have moved or been erased. Even the texture of the landscape has changed, with deserts forming, animals going extinct, and people groups dying out. Famines, plagues, and natural disasters have taken their toll.
Jesus didn’t pull any punches when it came to such things. Even Jesus’ fleshly body was going to end up on the cross, crucified and then laid in the grave in death. He told the disciples the truth in love—their beloved temple was going to be destroyed, and soon. Nothing in this world is so sacred that it will not at some point pass away. This is a transient world we live in, and the things we find our value and worth in must not be those things which will in due time, disappear. Rather, we need to find them in what is eternal and lasting—God himself.
It is a wonder that we have any records at all of how people used to live. Today, with genetic testing, we are learning more and more about how people groups traveled all over the world, intermarrying and trading with one another. And somewhere in the midst of our human history came one man who told those around him that he was the Son of God—God in human flesh, and was murdered because of it.
Not long after his death, people began to see him alive, and began to proclaim that this man had been resurrected from the dead. And because of this, because of giving their allegiance to Jesus, they were persecuted and martyred. Many people today memorialize Jesus’ self-offering through the celebration of communion, or by wearing a cross, or putting a fish decal on their car. They talk about Jesus (like I do here on lifeinthetrinity.blog) and share the good news of God’s love and grace for humanity. And even today in some places, people who share this good news may experience persecution and martyrdom.
As I read the stories of people centuries ago, who in spite of the threat of persecution and martyrdom, shared the good news of Christ and lived as best as they could God’s kingdom life of love, grace, and service, I am reminded to hold loosely to the things of this world. If I memorialize anything at all, let it be the memory of all Christ has done for me and for this world he created and loves so dearly. Let it be the remembrance that in him we died, we rose, and we share in his glory by his Spirit who dwells in us and among us.
When disasters occur, the economy falters, and it looks as though the end is near, we can take comfort in the reality that though all in this life has an end, Jesus has ensured a new beginning. We may be facing personal tragedy or affliction due to our faith in Christ, but Jesus promises never to abandon us, but rather to give us exactly what we need so that we can share the good news with others. Jesus promises that we will not be alone, but rather, be empowered to share the gospel, thereby turning situations of persecution into opportunities for others to hear the good news.
When all we see around us is evil, sin, and death, do we ask God to hasten the coming of his reign on earth? It’s not wrong to do this. But I’m a firm believer that Jesus is already present and at work in this world he created and sustains by his Spirit, and is working out his purposes and plans in the midst of our human choices and decisions. He has all of the people and nations of this world in his hands, orchestrating his purposes. His is the kingdom cut without hands out of stone which grows to fill the whole earth. He will not stop until this is complete.
Meanwhile, Jesus is the one we celebrate and memorialize, for he reigns now and forever as king of kings and lord of lords. It is the divine temple being built by the Spirit—the body of Christ—which will last when all other temples have fallen. And it is his heavenly city which will abide forever, long after all other cities have been ravaged and destroyed. Maranatha! May that day come soon!
Heavenly Father, we long for you to bring your kingdom in all its fullness here on earth as it is in heaven. Lord Jesus, thank you for holding us tightly by your Spirit in your relationship with your Father, ensuring that we will be with you now and forever as Abba’s beloved children. Bring this ever to our remembrance as we wait for your return in glory. Amen.
“And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, ‘As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.’ They questioned Him, saying, ‘Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?’ And He said, ‘See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, “I am He,” and, “The time is near.” Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately.’ Then He continued by saying to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. Yet not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.’ ” Luke 21:5–19 NASB
The Power of Conversation
by Linda Rex
October 30, 2022, PROPER 26—Have you ever had an unexpected, unplanned conversation with someone which totally changed your life? The other day, I was listening to the members of the Perichoresis ministry talk about how they met one another—a chance conversation here, a chance conversation there. Through all of these circumstances, God brought together people who shared a growing understanding of what it means that, in Christ, we are all included in God’s Triune life and love.
One thing Jesus did a lot of while he walked the earth was have conversations with the people he met along the way. It seems he was always talking with somebody, and usually with people the leaders of his day believed he should have been avoiding. The conversations recorded in the gospels which Jesus had with everyday people often went deep, getting into places where people preferred not to go, asking them to do things they would have preferred not to do.
In Luke 18 is a story of a conversation Jesus had with a wealthy young ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus responded as a good rabbi might have, telling him to observe the laws Moses gave, the young man responded by saying he had kept all of them from his childhood on. Then Jesus, seeing this person’s heart and loving him, took him a little deeper, telling him to sell all he owned and to give the proceeds to the poor. This took the young ruler deeper than he was willing to go, causing him to turn and walk away.
At this point, Jesus told his disciples that it was difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This statement conflicted with the culture’s belief that wealth was a sign of good favor with God, and poverty was a sign of affliction or punishment from God. Jesus said that wealth actually made it hard for people to enter the kingdom of God. The people of ancient Israel were the chosen people, already in the kingdom of God, the crowd thought, so this would have been a difficult statement to swallow. They said to Jesus, “How then can anyone be saved?”
Jesus’ response was that what is impossible for human beings is possible with God. The saving of a rich man, or a poor one for that matter, was something only God could do. And, as he again told them, it required Jesus going through the crucifixion and death into resurrection. Jesus had no qualms about telling his disciples what it would cost in order for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God—it would cost Jesus everything.
Shortly after that event, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, asked Jesus to restore his eyesight. And he did—a task only the Messiah could do. And the result was that Bartimaeus chose to be a follower of Christ. Soon after, Jesus entered Jericho, where his Father, by the Spirit, was already at work in the heart and mind of a man named Zacchaeus.
This man was having difficulty, probably due to a short stature, with seeing which of the persons entering the city was Jesus. So he ran to a tree with low branches and climbed up to see more clearly. Looking to see who the man Jesus was, Zacchaeus was astonished to see him right below him and talking with him, telling him he was to stay at his house.
For a lot of people, in the culture I’m most familiar with—modern America—someone inviting himself or herself to stay at and eat in our home without our invitation would be considered a rude and presumptuous act, especially if we had no idea who the person was or why she or he was there. But in that culture, hospitality was the norm and was expected, and inviting someone to stay in your home was a necessity when there really were no other options for travelers.
What struck me this morning, though, about Jesus’ request was something about the way in which he said it. In the New American Standard Bible, it says it this way: “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” The New International Version says it like this: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Even the King James Version has the same vibe: “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for today I must abide at thy house.” Do you see it? Jesus is telling Zacchaeus he must stay at his house. Why?
Whose idea was it for Jesus to stay at Zacchaeus’ house? Who put it into Zacchaeus’ heart and mind to climb that tree so he could see more clearly who Jesus was? It sounds to me like Jesus had a conversation with his Father in which he was told to have a conversation with Zacchaeus and to stay at his house. Apparently, the Holy Spirit had been working on this man’s mind and heart, and had brought him to the place where he was seeking to learn more about Jesus. And then, as Jesus invited himself to his home, Zacchaeus discovered exactly what he had been looking for—a new start.
The crowd never seemed to be happy with Jesus’ decisions about who he had conversations with. Perhaps they had planned to invite Jesus to a great banquet in the synagogue leader’s home, where they could discuss the law and the prophets with him, and show off their new garments and flowery speeches and prayers. Who knows. But this idea of Jesus eating with someone so loathed by the Jews—a tax collector in league with the Romans, a thief who betrayed his people—was repellant to them all. So, the crowd grumbled.
But remember, what is impossible with us humans is possible with God. And Jesus was in sync with what his Father was doing. The Father had his eye on a rich tax collector who was looking for a new start, and he had been working with him to bring him to this place. So, Zacchaeus was the center of Jesus’ focus and his home the place where he would eat and rest. And now, faced with the truth of his dishonesty and betrayal, Zacchaeus did an about face, offering restitution for every bit of money he had stolen, and a willingness to set aside his wealth and give it all to the poor—all of the things the rich ruler could not bring himself to do.
The Lord’s been showing me lately the power of conversation, of the need to be present in each moment where he is at work. Often, we are so distracted we are not mindful of what is happening right in front of us, missing where God is at work and is inviting us to participate with him in what he is doing in someone’s life. I am reminded that, first, my most significant conversations are with the Lord himself, listening for the Father’s heart, and tuning in to the Spirit. When I am attentive to what God is up to, and then begin to participate in a conversation with someone else, God does things I cannot explain, that only he can do, especially with regards to bringing sons of Abraham back home to the kingdom of God.
What conversations might you find yourself in the midst of today? What might the Lord be wanting to say to you about them? Is there some impossibility he wants to make possible he would like you to be a part of? May you attentively live each moment in the middle of all God is doing, surprised daily by the wonder of what Jesus does by his Spirit in the lives of those you invite with you into conversation.
Dear Father, thank you for inviting us into conversation with you through Jesus in the Spirit. Who might you want us to speak with today? What is it you are doing, and how is it you want us to join in? Grant us the grace to be ever attentive to you and to what you are doing and saying, that we may keep in step with you and be surprised by joy as you bring others back home to you. Amen.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 1:(1–4), 11–12 NIV
“He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’ ” Luke 19:1–10 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/10/olitthe-power-of-conversation.pdf ]
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The Power of the Scars
By Linda Rex
October 9, 2022, PROPER 23—Have you ever thought about the profound power a scar has to transport you into another time or place? A scar holds within itself the capacity to remind us of events, people, and experiences. A scar can remind us of suffering, of pain, of healing, and of forgiveness.
I believe this is why the apostle John in his apocalyptic book of Revelation gave us a picture of Jesus bearing the scars of the cross as he sits in glory. I believe it is significant that Jesus chooses at times to bear the marks of our betrayal, condemnation and murder of him as God in human flesh. This brings to mind his initial post-resurrection appearances in the upper room, where he showed the disciples his hands and side where he had received such severe wounds. It was the scars he bore that enabled them to see that the One who died was the One who lived again.
The difference between the scars that Jesus bears and our scars, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, is that within Jesus’ scars lies our redemption, healing, and restoration. Whatever we may carry with us through this life he bears within his own human flesh—a thought which can give us great comfort when the scars we bear today remind us of the pain, suffering and loss we have experienced.
In this Sunday’s gospel passage, Luke 17:11–19, Jesus encounters ten men who had been ostracized from society due to their leprosy. As the story unfolds, we discover that some of the people in this group of lepers were Jews and some were Samaritans. It is significant that the nature of this disease was such that lepers were forbidden to be around other people (they were considered ritually unclean), and this exclusion by society actually created a small leper community where normal social barriers were ignored.
The ten men called out to Jesus from a distance, simply asking him for mercy. Jesus often touched the ritually unclean when he healed them, but this time Jesus didn’t get close to the lepers at all. He simply told them to go and show themselves to the priests, honoring the rite given in the Torah regarding ritual cleansing of healed lepers. And as the ten men walked away, assumably traveling towards Jerusalem, they were cleansed.
As Luke is telling this story, he introduces an unexpected twist. It would make sense for the ten men to simply walk away, go to the temple for the ceremony, and then go back to their everyday lives, returning to those tasks and relationships the leprosy had stolen from them. But by doing this, they would have missed the huge significance of what had just occurred in their lives.
As they traveled on their way, the leprosy on the men disappeared. One of the men stopped, convicted of the reality of something which had escaped his notice before—just who had answered their plea for mercy. Sparked within his heart was a well of gratitude that overflowed into loudly glorifying God, and running quickly to throw himself at the feet of Jesus. On his knees before Jesus, the healed leper thanked the Lord profusely.
Here, Jesus points out the astonishing reality to those standing about him, that the only person of the ten who returned to show appreciation was a Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews. This was the only one who recognized who Jesus was and gave him the gratitude and honor he deserved. Jesus told the man to stand up and leave, that his faith had made him well.
What is often not seen in this parable is that it has a lot more to say than just simple home truths about gratitude and faith. In fact, it is an acted parable about what Jesus was actively working out as the One who came to deliver every one of us from the leprosy of evil, sin, and death. Unable to free ourselves, incapable of restoring ourselves to right relationship with God, we all desperately needed God’s redemption and salvation. As God come in human flesh, Jesus was headed toward death on the cross, a death not much different than that of the lepers he healed, who had lost everything, possibly including limbs and skin, due to their affliction.
It is important to pay attention to the reality that all ten lepers were healed. Jesus’ healing involved all of the lepers even though only one, a Samaritan, returned to offer Jesus gratitude and glory to God. In the same way, Jesus has included all human flesh in his self-offering, in his death and resurrection, but not everyone sees the significance of the gift and responds with gratitude and adoration. In Christ’s resurrection, all have risen, but their experience of that resurrection, of their healing and renewal, depends upon their response to Jesus in faith, seeing him for who he really is—their Savior and Lord.
The kingdom of God was present in that moment in the person of Jesus Christ. The man who returned to glorify God and thank Jesus was participating in the kingdom of God in his recognition of who Jesus was—his Healer and Redeemer. He was experiencing the kingdom reality of life in relationship with his loving Father through Jesus in the Spirit as the joy and wonder of what God did for him penetrated through the darkness in his soul and awakened him to divine light.
I started this blog with a thought about the power of scars. Did this man who returned to Jesus bear any scars from his bout with leprosy? Did he bear the scars of his broken relationships caused by his forced isolation? What was his life going to be like after having been healed?
When Jesus gives us new life, he doesn’t simply erase our previous life. Often Jesus takes the scars of our previous life and brings them along with himself through death into resurrection, giving the scars of our lives tremendous power to testify of his goodness, love, and grace. Instead of hiding the wounds under guilt, shame, and fear—like a leper being isolated away from human society—we want to bring our wounds out into the light of Jesus, allowing him to transform them into scars which testify of God’s love, grace and goodness by carrying them with him through death into resurrection.
This can be a difficult and scary process. Sometimes we need other people to walk through this journey of healing with us. Sometimes we need support and help. But we never go through any of this on our own. Jesus stands firm, having already declared our healing, calling us to walk it out day by day in a faith journey with him. Our part is simply, like this tenth leper, to offer up to our Triune God our gratitude and praise. And we allow our scars, shining with the healing grace of Jesus, to give a powerful testimony to what God does when we simply ask for mercy.
Lord, sometimes our wounds can seem to be overwhelming. We feel like the lepers in this story, isolated and despairing. We ask you, Jesus, for mercy. And, recognizing you have included us already in your death and resurrection, giving our scars a testimony of your grace, goodness, and love, we offer glory to you, Father, and thanks to you, Jesus, for all you have done by your Spirit. Amen.
“While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?’ And He said to him, ‘Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.’ ” Luke 17:11–19 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitthe-power-of-the-scars.pdf ]
When Jesus Hosts a Party
By Linda Rex
August 28, 2022, PROPER 17—When I read the gospels, I am amazed at the conversations Jesus had with the people he encountered from all walks of life. And I never realized until a few years ago how many of Jesus’ conversations were in some way connected with a meal, either by occurring at a meal or having as its content eating, drinking or gathering for a celebration of some kind.
As we read the gospel passage for this Sunday, Luke 14:1, 7–14, we find that Jesus was once again participating in a social event, where leaders of the community were gathering for a meal. Interestingly enough, when Jesus first entered the home of the host, he saw a man afflicted with edema or severe swelling. He asked the Pharisees and lawyers if it was okay to heal a man on the Sabbath day. They didn’t answer his question, but he gave his own response by healing the man, and then reminding them that they would rescue a child or one of their animals on the Sabbath. They really could not come up with an adequate reply to this.
As others entered the room, they began to fuss over who had the seats of honor at the table. Jesus pointed out that it would be better if they showed some humility by taking a lesser seat at first, allowing themselves to be honored by the host choosing to move them into a better position, rather than ending up being ashamed by having to take a lesser seat because they presumed to be somewhere they didn’t belong. Jesus didn’t mean that one pretended humility in order to gain the praise and approval of others, but rather that one simply took the position of servanthood and service, letting others go first or have the best places rather than seeking them for oneself.
Then Jesus turned to the host and told him that whenever he invited people over, he needed to also invite people who could not return the favor—the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Perhaps this was a hint that the man who had been healed ought to have been invited to the meal along with everyone else. Jesus emphasized that the reward for blessing others in this way who could not respond in kind would be eternal blessings in the resurrection. So, the humility of being willing to take second place was followed up with the humility of welcoming simply out of an act of kindness those who could not repay the favor.
On the surface, we see that Jesus is speaking of the need for exercising humility as well as generous hospitality to the less fortunate. But if we look closer, we can see that Jesus is speaking of these things from his position of being the ultimate host. In fact, Jesus was in the process at that moment, as he had been for some time, of welcoming many people of all walks of life to a divine banquet where the only appropriate way to respond to the invitation was through humility and a genuine recognition and admission of one’s need to be cared for and fed. As Robert Capon wrote in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, “The world has been summoned precisely to a party—to a reconciled and reconciling dinner chez the Lamb of God; judgment is pronounced only in the light of the acceptance or declination of that invitation” (p. 457).
Who does Jesus invite to the heavenly banquet? Does he only invite the spiritual and those who have their acts together? If we look at the parable in Luke 14 following this one, we will find that he was inviting those who knew the scriptures, who knew God’s ways—the leaders of his people—but they didn’t want anything to do with him. He was also inviting every person from every walk of life—from the byways, out in the country, and on the streets of the city. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, has included each and every human being in his invitation to the heavenly banquet of eternal life with the Father in the Spirit.
Just as the best approach to being seated at the banquet was to take the lowest seat, Jesus reminds each of us to take the lowest seat with regards to our invitation to the heavenly banquet. The only seat any of us qualify for in regards to that banquet is the seat of death—we all must die and face our judgment in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who went down into death for us, to raise us up with him to the Father’s side—our life is hidden with Christ in God. Jesus takes us from the lowest seat of death into a seat with him in the heavenly places (Capon, p. 279). The only response we can give in return that is appropriate is gratitude and praise, and a sense of humility with regards to all of the others in our lives—a willingness to include each and every one of them in what God has so graciously included us.
Jesus is the ultimate host. He invites everyone—prisoners, addicts, and every type of sinner imaginable—the lowest of the low, the sickest of the sick—to his table, to partake with him of the gift of eternal life in loving relationship with the Father in the Spirit. His only requirement is that we die, in him, acknowledging in humility our sincere need for and gratitude for including us in his blessed event. If we insist that a person be of a certain rank or worthiness before they can attend too, then we are missing the whole point of the invitation. We may even find ourselves being escorted to a lower place at the table, so to speak, because we have presumed that our worthiness is based at all on our own efforts to do good or be good, or on others’ opinions about how holy we are (Capon, 283).
The essence of the kingdom of God is life in loving other-centered relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and one another. This is who we are in Christ—beloved children of the Father who are each included at the table to share in the divine koinonia, now and forever. There is a true humility and reverence with which we approach our seat at the table, but there is also a sense of glee and bubbling joy at the wonderful possibilities which await us in the loving embrace of our Triune God, who invites us to celebrate with him the homecoming of all his beloved children.
Dearest Abba, thank you for including us in Jesus’ invitation to your heavenly banquet, and allowing us to participate in relationship with you even now by your precious Spirit. Grant us the grace to approach all our relationships with you and others in true humility and welcoming hospitality, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Treasure family bonds and friendship. Family fondness remains the essence of this kingdom. Treat strangers with equal affection; they could be a messenger of God in disguise! Identify with those who are in prison or suffering abuse for their faith as if you were the one afflicted.” Hebrews 13:1–3, (4–8, 15–16) Mirror Bible
“It happened that when He went into the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the Sabbath to eat bread, they were watching Him closely. … And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this man,” and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ ” Luke 14:1, 7–14 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/when-jesus-hosts-a-party.pdf ]
Why Look at the Sky?
By Linda Rex
May 29, 2022, ASCENSION Sunday—The past few years I have been slowly working toward a divinity degree. Last week I started a new course with Grace Communion Seminary called Church Planting and Development. As I was writing a reflection paper last night, it occurred to me that the timing of this class fits right in with where we are on the Christian calendar.
Indeed, this Sunday we are celebrating Jesus Christ’s ascension, a significant event in God’s story. Here we focus on the spiritual reality of the fulfillment of an essential part of Jesus’ mission here on earth, him having been sent by the Father to bring all humanity home to eternal fellowship with the Triune God. It was necessary for Jesus to live, die and rise again as God in human flesh in order for all of us to be included in his own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. It is in Jesus’ ascension that the mission of God to restore our relationship moves into the realm of the Spirit, who is sent so that each of us individually can participate by faith in what Christ has done.
Luke’s gospel version of the ascension event, Luke 24:44–53, gives the impression that it all happened on the same day as the resurrection. However, when he describes the event in Acts 1:1–11, we see that all these things happened over a period of forty days following the resurrection. The disciples and others were given many opportunities to experience firsthand the risen Lord, to talk and eat with him, and to hear him expound the Old Testament scriptures which spoke of his coming and his mission. At the end of this time, he blessed his followers and ascended to his Father’s side.
In Acts 1, Christ’s followers stood there for a while after being blessed, looking up into the sky. This makes me ask: I wonder how long they stood there before the angels spoke to them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?” I can imagine Jesus, having already made the transition into glory, saw them standing there still trying to see him and he finally said to the angels nearby, “I think you’re going to have to tell them to quit looking for me and get busy.”
But this does speak to what we as the body of Christ have often done when it comes to the whole idea of the ascension. It’s as though we believe Jesus is done with his project, has gone home, and we just have to wait until he comes back. Faith in Christ and salvation become all about us being good people who live good lives until Jesus returns in glory. And we miss the point of it all—God bringing all of humanity back into relationship with himself through Christ in the Spirit.
What had Jesus told the disciples to do? He had told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the promised Holy Spirit. Then they were to go and make disciples, baptize them, teach them, and include them in Christ’s mission to the world. Jesus came as God in human flesh to draw all of humanity up into right relationship with God in the Spirit. He’s still on that mission. Having been sent by the Father, he has returned home and sent the Spirit to continue his efforts. We, as the body of Christ, are set apart to participate in that mission of reaching out to all the world, sharing the good news and making disciples or new followers of Christ. Our unity and our love in the body of Christ, the church, are meant to testify to the presence of the kingdom of God here on earth by the Spirit, a kingdom in which all people are welcome to participate.
Even at the end of John’s apocalypse, he points out the reality of the body of Christ, his bride, being on mission with Jesus. He writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life (Rev. 22:17 NASB).” Our role is to join with Jesus in the Spirit to say to the world around us, “Come.” Anyone who is thirsty is welcome to come. The water of life is available to everyone now in Christ, so every is able to drink if they so wish. And the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church, is called by God in participation with Jesus by the Spirit to freely offer that water of life to all.
And, if this seems to be an intimidating prospect, consider the indicatives which went with Jesus’ command to preach the good news and to make disciples. First of all, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus has ascended to his Father’s side and has received all authority and power and glory in his exaltation as the risen Lamb of God (Ephesians 1:15–23). Secondly, he has promised to be with us until the end. And thirdly, he has sent the Spirit, the One who empowers us to do the ministry and mission Jesus has called us to. God is doing the heavy lifting—we just get to join in with what he is doing through Jesus in the Spirit.
As Luke explains, our mission to the world begins where we are, and moves in ever-widening spheres of influence as we respond in faith to the voice of the Spirit and move out, sharing the good news of God’s love expressed to all of us in Jesus Christ. What is your current sphere of influence? Are there people God has placed in your life that you have conversations with and do everyday activities with? These are opportunities for the gospel. And sharing the good news is what Jesus has called us to participate with him in doing.
When I think about how far God has brought me in this journey of faith, I see that we have traveled a longways together. But I also see that I have only begun to really understand what it means to live on mission with Jesus, and to be a genuine follower of Christ. It is so easy to be distracted with the concerns of everyday life. And so easy, too, to place my focus on how well I am doing in my own relationship with God, rather than on remembering that others need to hear the good news too, and need to experience the joy, unity, and love of the body of Christ for themselves. Oh, for the heart of Jesus for others!
May we remember today, and every day, to pray for the people in our lives, to ask Jesus for opportunities to share the good news, and for the courage and faith to do so. May we quit looking up at the sky and be busy doing what Jesus has called us to do—to move out on mission with him, sharing the good news of all God has done for us in sending his Son and his Spirit for our salvation.
Heavenly Father, thank you for all you have done in sending your Son and your Spirit for our salvation, for drawing us up into life with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to move outside of ourselves into genuine relationship with the people around us, and give us the inspiration, courage, and wisdom to share with them all you have given to us through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ ” Acts 1:1–11 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/why-look-at-the-sky.pdf ]
Consequences of Grace
By Linda Rex
February 13, 2022, 6th Sunday of EPIPHANY—I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I realize how many consequences there are to the little choices or simple decisions I make on a day-by-day basis. Things that I have in the past given little thought to, now I see as having a tremendous impact on my life and the lives of others now and in the life to come. As I go through the day, what I think, say and do, or don’t think, don’t say and don’t do, has a profound effect upon my own being as well as touching the lives and souls of those around me.
Isn’t it amazing how God enables every human being to share in his ability to make choices and decisions—to affect the universe in which we live by our freedom to choose? The danger is that we begin at times to believe that it is all up to us, rather than realizing that in every case, it is all up to God. He often submits to our decisions, allowing us to experience the consequences of our choices, not to harm us, but to enable us to grow up in Christlikeness. He wants us to learn that every choice and decision needs to be made “in Christ” and not as though we live independently from God, under our own power and by our own authority.
Many times, our approach to our spiritual life in Christ is from the point of view that it is all up to us. We believe that if we don’t say the sinner’s prayer or live a sin-free life, we can’t be saved or given eternal life. We forget that our ability to come to the place of even wanting to pray a prayer or wanting to be saved comes from God through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God who initiates our relationship with himself, Jesus who has included us in his relationship with the Father, and is working this into our human existence by the Spirit. Our decisions are a gracious participation in God’s life—though we often live and make decisions as though this is not the case.
We live in a world today which bears the consequences of thousands of years of human decision-making done in a misguided belief that it is all up to us, and that we can and do live independently of the God who made us and who sustains our existence. Indeed, over the millennia, we have experienced wars, rumors of wars, famine, disease, societal collapse and many other consequences of our stubborn willfulness and refusal to submit to the reality of who we are as creatures who are meant to be image-bearers of God. As creatures, we are dependent upon a higher power, and were created to love God with all our being and to love each other as ourselves, and when we don’t live in that way, we pay a hefty price both individually and collectively.
As human beings, we also are tempted to live as though this life is all there is. I saw a billboard recently here in Nashville that declares in great big letters this very thing, that we need to experience all we can in this life because there is nothing after death. My thought is—how sad. To live, believing that if you don’t experience it now, you never will experience it; or that one day your life will end so you might as well live self-indulgently and selfishly because there really is no purpose to life—this, to me, is tragic.
What if there is so much more to life than just today? What if God meant for us as his image-bearers to live in joy, peace, harmony, unity, and warm fellowship with one another? And what if, by our participation in a personal relationship with him, we might actually begin to experience those things right now, in this life, and have a strong assurance and hope that this will continue on into eternity?
In Luke 6:17–26, Jesus met with a large crowd of people and enabled many of them to be healed and cured from demonic harassment. The Spirit was flowing through Jesus from the Father and many people experienced the result of God’s power at work. It was in the middle of this dramatic circumstance that Jesus began to teach the people the difference between living in the kingdom of God and living as though it is all up to us, believing this life is all there is. Addressing his followers, “He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way’” (Luke 6:20–26 NASB).
In this short sermon, an abbreviated form of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws upon the Deuteronomy 28 motif of blessings and cursings to talk about the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. The realization we each need to come to is that the kingdom of God was inaugurated in Jesus Christ and it is the reign of God in human hearts through Jesus in the Spirit. The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, but it affects every part of life because all of our existence as human beings is dependent upon and is to be directed toward the Creator and Sustainer of our existence.
God validated our human experience in Jesus Christ, who as God in human flesh, took this existence we experience day by day upon himself and brought it into a new place in his life, death, and resurrection. The apostle Paul says we don’t see ourselves, each other, or Christ through the lens of this broken human existence any longer—we now see them through the lens of the resurrection. Our human existence has been taken to a new level—into the place it was always meant to be a part of—a participation in Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit. This is the kingdom of God at work in us and in our world through Jesus in the Spirit.
We can make great decisions from a human point of view and experience the benefits in this life—being well-fed, wealthy, and famous. But our blessings and abundance will quickly fade away in the presence of death and the transience of the things of this life. What may at first be experienced as a blessing will instead reap us tragic eternal consequences.
On the other hand, we may find ourselves in the midst of difficulty, sickness, suffering, and even being persecuted for Christ’s sake. And as we struggle, we will grow deeper in our relationship with God in Christ and discover that we are actively participating day by day, right now, in the kingdom of God. In the middle of our hardship, pain, and grief, we are actually experiencing joy, peace, and all the spiritual blessings of life in Christ Jesus. We may also experience many of the blessings of this life, but as we surrender to the will and purposes of God through Christ in the Spirit, we discover that our blessings have an eternal shape, as the image of Christ is being forged into our spirit, and our lives are beginning to reflect the nature and being of the Son of God, who came to do for us and in us what we could not do on our own.
Christ came to write God’s law on our minds and hearts. He sent the Spirit so we could participate right now in that life in relationship with God that he forged into our humanity. He has done all that is needed for our full participation right now and on into eternity in the kingdom of God, and invites us to actively participate through our decisions and choices in all he has done. We are given an invitation—will we toss it in the trashcan and go on our way, or will we excitedly don the robes of righteousness he has sent and join him at the party?
Thank you, Father, for sending us your Son to do what we would not and could not do. Thank you for giving us your Spirit so we could share in your life and love even now. Grant us the grace to say yes to all that is ours in Christ, and to turn a deaf ear to all in this world that would seduce us away, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Psalm 1 NASB
“Thus says the LORD, ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD. … Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD. … I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.’” Jeremiah 17:5–10 NASB
The Messianic Spirit
By Linda Rex
January 23, 2022, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany—One common thread that seems to run through life no matter what century we live in is a desire for someone to come and solve the great problems of life. We may face economic woes, political corruption, moral depravity, or natural disasters, and be tempted to embrace just about anyone who will come in and “save the day.” The price we pay for trusting the wrong person to be our messiah can ultimately be pretty steep, but in those times of great stress and struggle, we may think that we can look the other way for a while, and trust them to fix what we want fixed, and hopefully deal with the fallout on the other side without too much loss.
It is significant that when God pulls together by the Spirit members of the body of Christ, he doesn’t choose any particular person to be the savior. Rather, he pulls together all different sorts of people, gifting each one uniquely so that his purposes will be accomplished, but done in the context of community. The Spirit brings together unique persons with distinct gifts and creates a body of people in and through whom he can do ministry in this world. But Christ remains the one unique Messiah, Savior of all, and allows his body, the Church, to participate in what he is doing in the world.
When Jesus described his messianic mission, he began by saying, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus did not function alone in this world while he was on earth. No, he came as God in human flesh on mission with his Father in the Spirit. The Triune God was at work in and through Jesus Christ, and it was God’s kingdom that was present and active in his personal presence and action when Jesus stood that day in the synagogue and began by the Spirit to read from the book of Isaiah.
Jesus went on to read about what he was anointed by the Spirit to do: “… he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the line, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Then he ended by telling his listeners that this was being fulfilled in that moment as Jesus stood and expounded the Scriptures to them (Luke 4:14–21 NASB).
In a community that had recently experienced Roman wrath poured out against a Jewish messiah, such talk from a Jew who they were familiar with was really hard to handle. What would be the consequences of the wrong person hearing Jesus speak? Perhaps the common people might appreciate the miracles and the preaching, but the leaders would not have wanted another season of Roman oppression and violence.
But Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” That’s the real issue. What do we do when the Spirit goes to work and says to us, “I’ve got something new I am doing—join me.” When the Spirit calls us down a new road of ministry that looks different than what we have been doing, then what? Do we dictate to the Spirit or does the Spirit call us to join with him? This is our challenge as the body of Christ. Are we doing what we are doing “in the Spirit?” Or are we doing it in our flesh and asking the Spirit to bless it?
The body of Christ takes many different forms in the world today. The Spirit brings people together to do ministry in this world. The Spirit even moves in ways which many of us would consider secular. But the Spirit is always and ever active, moving to accomplish the purposes of God in this world. We can enthusiastically join in with him in what he is doing, or we can insist on God accomplishing those tasks we think he should be accomplishing. What does the kingdom of God look like when God brings it to fulfillment here on earth as it is in heaven?
Life in the kingdom of God begins now as Christ in us by the Spirit reigns in human hearts. There is an already-not yet aspect to the kingdom of God. In Christ by the Spirit the kingdom of God is already at work in this world, specifically within the body of Christ, in the communion of the saints. But we also realize that the kingdom of God is not realized in its fulness since so many people today do not fully participate in God’s life and love, not knowing that the kingdom of God is present and active in their lives even now through Jesus and in the Spirit.
The Spirit brings people together into a body, a group of people joined together, uniquely framed into a form that will accomplish God’s particular task in that place for his purpose. We find that not everyone is the same. The Spirit gifts people uniquely, and some may seem to be more gifted than others. The point is not whether someone is more gifted than another. The point is that each of these gifts are brought together into the unity of the Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose in that specific place.
It is equally true that the body of Christ takes a form which is always changing. We like to get in our groove and start doing things a certain way, and then assume that it will always stay like that. In reality, the Spirit is living and active. He is always in motion, doing what is new and life-giving at all times.
It may be that that the Spirit is wanting to do something new while we have our boots stuck in the mud and don’t want to move forward. This is why Jesus faced such opposition from the Jewish leaders in his day. They believed the Spirit only worked in one particular way—their way. They did not see that the Lord of all, who was filled with the Spirit, was the one directing them into a new path. The king of the kingdom of God was present and calling them to a new direction, but they did not want to hear it, much less participate in it.
The apostle Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a, ends this section about spiritual gifts with an invitation to see a new and better way rather than focusing on spiritual giftedness. This transition invites us to discover the beauty and wonder of God’s way of being—love. This is an other-centered way of being that both gives and receives in a mutuality of love and respect. This harmony and unity among unique and equal persons is the image we are to reflect as the body of Christ, for this is the way of being of the Triune God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
Ultimately, we don’t need a messiah just to deliver us—we need the Messiah to transform and heal us. What happens in this world would be so much different if we each were living “filled with the Spirit” in the unity and oneness Christ brought us into through his messiahship. Jesus described life in the kingdom of God in this world today as discipleship, and said that people would know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another. What if, instead of counting on a human messiah, we began to trust in our true Messiah, Jesus Christ, and began living and walking in the Messianic Spirit he has poured out on all flesh?
Thank you, Father, for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to remain open to your leading and obedient to your Spirit at all times. Keep us surrendered to your will and purposes, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. … But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.” 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a NASB