kingdom

Our Royal Beginning and End

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By Linda Rex

September 25, 2022, PROPER 21—It appeared that the topic of interest this weekend was her majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the succession of Prince Charles (III) to the throne of England. For better or for worse, people from all over the world have been touched in some way by the long arm of this royal family’s commonwealth and country.

I sometimes wonder if our fascination with royalty is bound up in some way with the spiritual reality of our royal beginning in the Triune God. Is there perhaps a core realization that we were made for so much more than this mundane existence? Could it be that God’s “very good” descriptor of his human creations includes our calling to steward the creation he set us within just as a godly king or queen stewards a country?

In both of the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, we see humans in the garden in relationship with God and participating in his care of the creation. The revelation that we are to be “kings and priests” with God as the end result of all Christ has done resonates with our original call to stewardship, and calls us up to a new way of looking at how we live even now in this world as citizens of God’s kingdom. This stewardship, or being kings and priests with Christ, involves a real participation in Christ’s own self-offering—a laying down of one’s life and a sharing of all we have been given with others.

Indeed, with the coming of Christ, the kingdom of God entered our human sphere and set up shop. Like the stone “cut out without hands” in Daniel’s vision (Dan. 2:34, 45), the kingdom of God was inaugurated in our human sphere in a new way by the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God in human flesh. The king of the kingdom forged within human flesh our true citizenship in his eternal kingdom, life in relationship with the Father in the Spirit. In what many call the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus showed how the “prodigal” or “wasteful” Father freely welcomed home our wandering humanity (younger son) and forgave our futile efforts to work ourselves into his good graces (older son).

We move from this parable in Luke’s gospel to one about the unjust steward, and then on into the parable for today in Luke 16:19–31. In this story, it may seem that Jesus is simply talking some more about money and being rich, and about going to heaven or hell, but in the progression of the parables, we find he is talking about kingdom realities. He is focused on his reason for being there and the listeners’ need for what Jesus was doing and would do as he worked his way forward toward his upcoming death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

In this Sunday’s parable, Jesus began talking about a rich man who wore splendid, luxurious clothes and merrily enjoyed the benefits of his wealth. I get the sense that, in itself, having nice things and enjoying what blessings God gives is not a problem in Jesus’ eyes. It is the heart and motivation, and what we do with them, that is a concern though. I also realize that some of Jesus’ listeners were probably thinking to themselves, “He must be a good man like me. He loves the Lord and is one of God’s chosen—that’s why he’s so blessed.”

Jesus wasn’t content to leave them in this false state of self-exaltation—his story got a bit darker. There was a poor beggar name Lazarus lying at this rich man’s gate, covered in sores. Lazarus would have been happy simply to have had some crumbs from the rich man’s table, but all he got was what was left from the slop that he couldn’t keep the stray dogs from eating first. And what was worse, these dogs hung around and licked the poor man’s wounds whether he wanted them to or not. Were they waiting for him to die?

In ancient Jewish thought, every Jew after death ended up in Hades (or Sheol), the place of death, either in torment or paradise. Jesus used this cultural understanding with regards to death to explain his point (not to establish some doctrine regarding our eternal destiny). Lazarus died, Jesus went on to say, having starved to death lying outside the rich man’s front gate. And he ended up where every good Jew wanted to end up, in Abraham’s bosom—an ancient expression which meant paradise. A little later, the rich man died and also went to the place of the dead, but in a much less pleasant location.

Going on with Jesus’ story: while he suffered torments, the rich man saw Lazarus in paradise, where he thought he should be. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drink of water. Let’s pause for a moment. What does this say about the rich man’s view of himself and of Lazarus? Hasn’t this been humanity’s issue since the fall, this determining that some of us are over while others are under? Wasn’t this the reason Lazarus was in Hades in the first place? Perhaps he would not have died had the rich man simply saw him as worthy of his love and grace (something each of us desperately need from God) and had helped him.

But this was not the sole point Jesus was making. He went on to say that the rich man then told Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they wouldn’t make the same mistake he did. Notice the rich man is still treating Lazarus like an errand boy or slave. He has not repented or changed his attitude towards those who were not as blessed as he was. Abraham replied that the five brothers already had the law and the prophets to warn them so sending Lazarus would be pointless. As those who heard the law and prophets read in synagogue each sabbath, every Jewish man had no excuse for not knowing what God says about caring for the poor and needy, and helping the sick.

The rich man said that if his brothers saw someone rise from the dead, then they would repent. And Abraham countered that even if they did see someone rise from the dead they would not repent. Here is Jesus’ pointed reference to his own death and resurrection, the very event he was at that moment intentionally walking toward on behalf of all humanity, counting each and every one of us worthy of God’s love and grace, and working to ensure that we each have a place in his kingdom. The One who had all the riches of divine existence had not been content to allow our beggared humanity to starve to death and suffer outside his gates. No, he had come and had joined us in our very sorry state in order raise us up into new life through his death and resurrection.

The Jewish leaders listening to Jesus had made up their minds that they were already members of God’s kingdom, the special people who were already included and blessed. They did not see themselves as the hungry, sick beggar lying outside the gate. Nor did they see they were meant to reflect the divine Majesty who would lay down his life for the sake of others. And they certainly did not see their need for Jesus nor did they see their need to repent or change their minds. And the greatest bit of irony to this whole parable—Jesus did raise a real Lazarus from the dead, and what did the leaders do? They immediately went out and plotted to kill him—and Jesus. They certainly did not repent and turn to Jesus.

In the New Testament reading for this Sunday, 1 Timothy 6:6–19, the apostle Paul tells us to grab hold of eternal life and to fight the good fight of faith. Part of this has to do with having a healthy view of money and the pleasures of this life—embracing contentment and generosity as part of our human stewardship of all God has made and given us the responsibility to care for. And there is also the need to, as Jesus did, make the bold confession of faith—laying down one’s life for others, being willing to offer it all on the behalf of those who are suffering and in need. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, it is in forgiving that we experience forgiveness, in giving of ourselves that we receive, and in dying that we are born to eternal life. As God’s kings and priests even now, we acknowledge our own need for Jesus, while freely sharing with others the abundant blessings God has given to us in Christ and by his Spirit.

Lord, thank you for reminding us that all that we consider our own we receive from the Father of lights as a gift, through your generous self-offering in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to see others as you see them, Father—our own brothers and sisters, unique equals who have been made at one with you and each other and have been given stewardship over all you have made, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”      Luke 16:19–31 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/olitour-royal-beginning-and-end.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group in the Nashville, TN area or in an online Zoom group, contact me at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com. ]

Stewarding Our Greatest Asset

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By Linda Rex

September 18, 2022, PROPER 20—Do you have property or assets which require a lot of attention and effort for their care? Do you own some things which have become heavy financial or physical burdens for you to carry? Of all your physical possessions, what is your greatest asset? What do you value the most?

Even though we may own property or have physical assets of some kind, Jesus says that what is ours isn’t really our own. As we reflect on our origins, having been created by God to reflect his likeness and instructed by God to tend the garden and all he created, we see that stewarding is fundamental to our personhood as human beings. Taking care of what doesn’t belong to us but what belongs to God is an essential part of our everyday responsibilities as God’s children. We may not realize this, but our everyday lives are simply a participation in what God is doing in this world, and our actions (or inaction) are a statement of how well we are fulfilling our role as stewards of all God has made.

Too often I find myself approaching life as though what I own belongs solely to me, rather than seeing everything through the lens of stewardship—our participation in God’s life—recognizing that everything belongs to him. Perhaps it is good to be reminded that we have been given the responsibility to care for all God has made and to do what he wants done, rather than simply deciding for ourselves what we want to do with what we have. This understanding definitely puts a different outlook on how we live our lives and what we do with the physical assets which come our way.

Going beyond this, though, I am reminded that the greatest asset of all is not some physical belonging or possession, but rather something of more infinite value, meant to be shared with others. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus told a parable about a rich owner who had to call his manager into account for squandering his possessions. This term “squandering” is the same term Jesus used in his story about the prodigal son, who squandered his Father’s inheritance with extravagant and wasteful living. The dishonest manager was told to give an account of his management, for he was going to be fired if he could not prove his innocence.

As this manager thought about what to do, he came up with a plan which might ensure that he had a place to land once he lost his present employment. He met with the owner’s debtors, and worked with each one to reduce the amount they owed. Surprisingly, when his master found out what he had done, he praised the manager for his shrewdness in handling the situation he was in.

It is interesting that in his parable, Jesus would have the unjust steward praised for what was, in effect, stealing even more from his master. But Jesus, as he addressed his disciples, was focused on something entirely different than simply teaching them the difference between honesty and dishonesty. Indeed, what the dishonest manager offered others was what Jesus himself was offering all people—grace, and life in the kingdom.

The leaders of Jesus’ day had been made stewards of God’s kingdom and his righteousness. They were responsible to care for those who were in need or who were estranged from God. But too often, they valued wealth, possessions, prominence and popularity instead, and did not see their own need for God’s grace and mercy. Not realizing their own need for grace, they did not offer it to anyone else. Instead, they held people to impossible standards and excluded them from table fellowship in ways God never intended.

Ironically, in Jesus’ parable, the one who was the Christ figure is the unjust steward, who offered the owner’s debtors grace. In his life coming to an end, the unjust steward offered new life to those who were indebted to his master. Jesus, as he told this parable, knew the price he himself was going to have to pay so that those listening would receive God’s grace—his rejection, suffering, and crucifixion. He knew that he was facing death so that all people might rise with him in the resurrection and be given new life. Jesus was stewarding well God’s gift of grace to humanity by offering himself freely in our place and on our behalf.

Jesus’ gift of grace in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our greatest asset. Jesus’ self-offering, his willingness to lay it all down for us so that we may have new life, is the most valuable thing we own. This is a gift he has given to each and every human being—it is not limited to only those who deserve it. In fact, Jesus often pointed out that it is those who realize they don’t deserve it who best see the value of this gift.

The question is, do I, do you, see the value of God’s grace and God’s kingdom life given to us in Christ? And having been given this most precious gift, do we even realize our need for it?

And, having received this totally undeserved benefit of grace and eternal life, how well do we steward it? By God’s grace we are all included in God’s life, moment by moment sharing in what he is doing in this world. By God’s grace, we have been given all we need for life and godliness. By God’s grace and mercy, we have been included in Christ’s own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, having been included now and forever in the life and love of God. How well do we share this gift with others? Are we helping others to see the magnitude of what Jesus has done for them?

Whatever physical assets we may own in this life pale in comparison with this most wonderful gift. When we see and understand this, we begin to have a new perspective about everything we own. We begin to realize that generosity, sharing, hospitality, and service are each a participation in what God’s doing in this world. We find ourselves acting more as stewards, recognizing God’s ownership of us and all that we have, and we begin to actively participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sharing with others the good news of the grace offered to all. This is the best stewardship of the priceless asset we have been given—God’s grace and eternal life.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for sharing every good thing with us, especially the gift of the kingdom and grace through Jesus. So many good gifts! Grant us the grace to steward them well and share them freely with others, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Now He was also saying to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.” And he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ ”      Luke 16:1–13 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/09/stewarding-our-greatest-asset.pdf ]

[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group here in the Nashville, Tennessee area or via Zoom, please contact me at ourlifeinthetrinity@gmail.com ]

Do You Feel Secure?

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By Linda Rex

August 7, 2022, PROPER 14—This morning I was reading the book of Joshua and considering the reality of how we often place our sense of security in the wrong things. In this particular story, the ancient Israelites triumphantly crossed the Jordan River on dry land. Triumphantly, by a miracle from God, they took the fortress of Jericho down. They were on a roll. In Joshua 8, they spied out a small city, Ai, and realized they didn’t need to send the whole army. So, they sent about three thousand soldiers there, and were thoroughly routed by the enemy. Why the sudden change in the direction of their progress through the Promised Land?

What gets exposed in this chapter is the greed and covetousness of one man, Achan, and the impact his subterfuge had upon the nation as a whole. What was set apart for and dedicated to the Lord he had taken to himself, due to greed and covetousness. God was well aware of what was a hidden sin, one that he didn’t think anyone would ever discover. The thing which Achan believed was well hidden was systematically exposed before the whole nation and brought into judgment so that healing could occur.

In the days of the early church, following the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, there is a similar story. The believers were just beginning to make inroads with the gospel in Jerusalem, demonstrating the good news by sharing what they had with the poor and needy. Along with others, Ananias and Sapphira also brought a gift to the church. They attempted impress the believers with their generosity, when in reality they had kept some of the portions of the sale of their property for themselves. The problem wasn’t that they kept part of the sale for themselves, but that they had pretended to have given more than they actually did. Sadly, they had given way to covetousness, greed, and dishonesty. Where was the transparency, generosity, and integrity of Jesus in what they had done?

Today, we are constantly exposed to the reality of greed, covetousness and dishonesty. All one has to do is go to the grocery store where you buy something, open it up, and find the bottle or box is only one thirds full. Or you take your car to the mechanic to have work done, pay for their hard work, only to discover they did not do what they said they had done. There is an inherent evil in this whole thing, and it’s not just the dishonesty, greed and covetousness.

What is missing here is an understanding that we do not exist in a vacuum. Not only do decisions we make ultimately impact someone else no matter how innocent they may be, but every thought, desire, decision is made within the spiritual reality that we are not alone—in Christ we live, move, and have our being. We do not live independently like we think we do. We’re not individuals, but persons in relationship, dependent upon God for our very existence. And this God in Christ has brought us into relationship with himself.

What if we took seriously what Jesus said about not seeking our security in the things of this life but rather, seeking them in the heavenly realities? In our reading for this Sunday, Luke 12:32–40, Jesus told his followers not to be afraid, that his Father happily desired to give us his kingdom. This is God’s passion—to include us in his life in relationship, in the oneness and fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit which has existed from before time began. Think of God’s generosity, transparency and integrity in Christ. This is what we were designed to reflect—this is our true way of being. When we don’t live in this way, we create a living hell for ourselves.

Going back to the story of Achan, we can ask ourselves a couple important questions: 1) Did Achan realize who God was? He was Achan’s Creator and Redeemer. 2) Did Achan realize who he was? He was one of God’s chosen people, brought into relationship, to live in daily fellowship with his Creator and Redeemer.

When Achan entered Jericho that fateful day, he was participating in something God was doing for Israel, and his simple task was to bring certain things to God and to destroy others, accomplishing what God wanted done. As he entered Jericho, Achan didn’t remember who God was, who he himself was, and why he was there. The siren call of the beautiful garments, the gold and the silver, said to Achan that his security was to be found in what he could touch, feel, and hold. At that moment, the treasure he had found grew to be more real than the God he had been brought into relationship with.

When Ananias and Sapphira brought their gift to the apostles, they forgot who had brought them into relationship with himself through his life, death and resurrection. They forgot that Jesus was a risen Lord, one who lived with them and in them by his Holy Spirit. They did not remember who Jesus was, their Creator and Redeemer. And they forgot who they were, the Father’s own adopted children by faith in Christ. What good does all the money in the world do us if we are estranged from the God who saved us, redeemed us, and who invites us by faith in Christ into intimate relationship with himself in the Spirit?

We can complain all we want about how bad things are economically, but until we all surrender to the reality that God has done something powerful and wonderful in his Son Jesus, drawing us into life with himself in the Spirit, we will continue to struggle. All of our choices, decisions, desires and motives, are exposed and open to the One who was willing to endure the fire of the crucifixion in our place and on our behalf. And his baptism is a baptism of fire in the Holy Spirit, an inner transformation which regenerates how we look at him, at ourselves, and at all of the things in this world, including money, belongings, popularity, and prestige.

Do you long to feel secure? So do I. But our true security will never be found in the tangible, transient things of this life. They will come and go. They will get broken or be stolen. They cannot save us from death, though they may temporarily prevent it for a while. Our true security is in relationship with Jesus Christ, the One who made all things, who sustains all things, and who has redeemed all things, and is working to restore and renew all he has made, including you and me. He is our true security, the One we are invited to surrender to, to live in relationship with—in the reality that God loves us, cares for us, is always present to us in Christ by the Spirit, and will bring us to live with him forever.

Heavenly Father, loving Jesus, forgive us for getting so attached to the things of this life, and for forgetting who you are—our Creator and Redeemer. Forgive us for grieving your Spirit by our greed, covetousness, and dishonesty. Grant us the grace to live in the truth of who you are and who we are, through Christ our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”     Hebrews 11:(1–3, 8–12) 13–16 NASB

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit. Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them. Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.”      Luke 12:32–40 NASB

[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/07/do-you-feel-secure.pdf ]

Living the Kingdom Life

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By Linda Rex

October 31, 2021, PROPER 26—Often when I hear someone speak of the kingdom life and living it, what they mean is living a life full of physical blessings and positive experiences. What I hear people say is that if you live in a certain way, then you will experience abundance, prosperity, and a life of ease and plenty.

It is instructive that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom life, he spoke of living in such a way that one loved God with one’s whole being and one loved one’s neighbor as oneself. He put it in terms of a way of existence which resembles that of the Father, Son, and Spirit in union and communion with one another. This, indeed, is the image of God we are meant to reflect—to bear witness to God’s nature of love by how we live in relationship with God and one another.

One of the stories for this Sunday is found in the book of Ruth. Many Christians like to recite the words from this book during their wedding ceremonies as a promise of devotion and faithfulness to their spouse. But the words were spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi as a pledge of faithfulness even though Naomi had encouraged her to go back to her family after her husband, Naomi’s son, had died. The beauty of this passage is unsurpassed for its expression of commitment:

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me’” (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB).

Ruth was willing to leave her homeland, her family, what was comfortable and familiar, to go with Naomi and help care for her as she returned to her native land.

What is often overlooked are the messianic implications held in the midst of this passage. Isn’t what Ruth did for the sake of Naomi just like what the Son of God did for you and me? He left behind the privileges and benefits of his divinity to take on our human flesh, joining himself to us, making us his people, living where we live, dying as we die, and being buried in a tomb as we are often buried. Jesus refused to be separated from us, even when tempted to do so by Satan, and even to the point of death on the cross and burial in a tomb. How profound and wonderful his commitment to you and me, and to every human being!

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the law, he focused on the central thought of the covenant commitment given to Israel—love. To love God with one’s whole being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self—this is an accurate expression of the being of the God who is a unity, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This love is what was expressed by God in the coming of Jesus here on earth in human flesh—the faithful commitment of laying down his life for the sake of all, no matter the cost to himself. This is the kingdom life—God’s life—lived out in our sphere of existence.

Our struggle with understanding the nature of the kingdom life is that we often make it about what we do or don’t do, or about what we have or don’t have. But Jesus makes it about being rightly related to God and one another. He takes the law, which was an expression of what it looks like to live rightly related to God and one another, and in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit, writes that law on our minds and hearts. He lives out the true expression of God’s love in our humanity and then gifts it to us in the Spirit, enabling us to be, in him, what God created us to be—image-bearers of the divine, living the kingdom life, in right relationship with God and man.

Instead of being focused on which law is the most important or least important, we are now able to focus on loving God and one another because the desire to love and be loved as God intended is now, by faith in Christ, imprinted on our human minds and hearts. The Spirit compels us to respond to God in the same way that Christ responds: “God, I will not leave or forsake you; where you go, I will go; your people will be my people; you will be my God. When I die, I die in you; I belong to you, now and forever.” It is not our efforts which save us, but Christ in us, transforming our hearts by faith, bringing us into the fulness of Christlikeness, as we follow the Spirit’s lead.

The kingdom life involves a leaving behind of our former life and embracing our new life in Christ. It involves cleaving to Jesus while rejecting anything that is not in agreement with God’s will and ways. This is the tough part in following Jesus—he asks things of us that we would prefer not to do, to give up things we would prefer to hold on to. He asks us to find our life in him and him alone, rather than in the things of this world and its ways.

In the story of Ruth, we see how she lost everything of significance in her life—her husband, then her homeland, her family and her people. But then she gained so much more. She gained a new husband—her kinsman-redeemer—and a new home, and even the child she had always longed for. And what she never knew was that she had also gained a place in the lineage of King David, and of the Messiah to come.

Jesus said that whatever we give up for his sake, he would return a hundred-fold (Mark 10:29-30), but we may not receive the full benefit of our return in this life. Yes, we experience a lot of positive blessings for doing things God’s way rather than our own. But we are also promised a share in the sufferings of Christ. Both are a necessary part of our human experience. God’s purpose is to grow us up into Christlikeness—to enable us to reflect more clearly the love of God and the nature of the God who made us in his image to share life with him now and forever. He does this so that we might experience more profoundly the life and love of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who is love.

Now would be a good time to take a moment and reflect: Have you received the gift of eternal life which is yours in Christ—life in loving relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, which is reflected in loving relationships with oneself and others? Receive it by faith. Trust in Christ, in what he has done and is doing in you by the Spirit. What have you given up for the sake of following Christ? If you haven’t given up anything at all, then are you are truly following him down the road into death and resurrection—finding your life solely in him and not in the things of this world? Take a moment and listen anew in silence to hear the Spirit speak God’s words of love to your heart and mind, reminding you of all Jesus has done and is doing and will do as your faithful Lord and Savior. Receive with gratitude this wonderful and perfect gift of right relationship with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit.

Thank you, heavenly Father, for the wonderful and perfect gift of your Son in our place, on our behalf, and for the precious gift of eternal life in the Spirit. Fill us to overflowing with your love, that we may love you and others as we were created to, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’ ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”     Mark 12:28–34 NIV

Finding Our Home in God

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By Linda Rex

August 22, 2021, PROPER 16—This morning I was reading an article about the consequences Christian churches in North America are beginning to face due to past mistreatment and genocide of first peoples. These are issues which cut deeply into the heart of our psyche as believers. Too often we have been influenced by our culture, by our generational prejudices, and undoubtedly, the evil which lurks in human hearts and is often manifested under the guise of Christian beliefs and practices.

Every generation, within the Church and without, faces the reality that it must deal with the consequences of the choices of their forebearers. And it must choose whether or not to continue on that same path, or to choose a new one, more in line with what is holy, just, and good. Will our children, and their children and their children’s children, make better choices? Or will they continue the systemic dehumanizing of their brothers and sisters? How can better choices be made within the current structures and systems at work in this world today—or do they need removed, or changed?

As I read the Old Testament passage for this Sunday (Joshua 24:1–2a, 14–18), I felt conflicted. Joshua was near the end of his life, having after many years of battle brought his people into their promised land and gotten them settled. They were finally experiencing peace so he wanted them to recommit themselves to God. He was committed to leaving behind the idols of the past and worshiping God alone, and he invited his people to do the same. What is left unsaid in this account is how his people would deal with the consequences of all they had done in conquering that land. How many people were killed or displaced so that God’s people could move in and settle? And isn’t that what many of our forbearers did right here in America centuries ago, believing it was God’s will?

Bringing this forward to today, I’m watching something similar happen here in Nashville right now. Someone owns a rental property with many apartments or trailers or homes. They decide to sell the property to a developer because they receive an offer they can’t refuse. All of the people renting there are summarily evicted. They cannot afford to rent a place similar to the one they had in that neighborhood, prices being too high, so they end up on the street, in sub-value housing or moving far away from their work. The developer puts in a new facility with even more apartments or condos, or homes, but none of them are affordable for all these people who got evicted. Over and over, people are being displaced, others are moving in where they used to live—the dynamics of human civilization at work for better or for worse.

Where is God in the midst of all this? We put such a great value on what we own, where we live, our homes and properties. We like to keep what is familiar and comfortable. When life becomes difficult—and for many it is constantly difficult—we can lose faith, lose hope, and even lose our love for one another. We can wonder where God went, because it may certainly seem as though he has left us. But we still have a choice: we can focus on the physical or we can raise the level of our view to heavenly heights to see that God is still present and active, redeeming, restoring, healing, and working through all of these things to bring about a greater purpose and plan.

The Spirit reminds us that God’s where he’s always been—present in and by his Spirit, at work in all these circumstances and situations to bring about his kingdom life. The apostle John liked to use the word abide to describe our intimate connection with God in Christ by the Spirit. To abide is to dwell, remain, stay in a place. Jesus left the benefits of heaven to join us in our darkness by taking on our human flesh. His purpose in joining us at our worst was to bring us up through death and resurrection into his best. What he calls us to do is to find our true residence and dwelling not on this earth but solely in him alone.

In John 6, Jesus had extensive conversations with the crowd about how he was the bread of life, the only source of true zōe life, eternal life, which he received from the Father. He said that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” We can be so obsessed with the life of our flesh, our human existence, that we miss the spiritual realities which are right in front of us. Or, like the people of Jesus day, we are so scandalized by the possibility that God has made room for each and every human being to have a place in the presence of God now and forever as his very own child that we want nothing to do with Jesus or the Christian faith.

It seems that for generations, for millennia, people have set claim upon spaces on this earth—owning a spot of land or living in the same place as their ancestors, or they have traveled, moved from one place to another. Some have always lived in the same place. Some have never known a stable home. Some have been welcomed to new lands, some haven’t. But God’s heart has always been that each and every person have a home to return to—that home in the Father’s arms which is solely their very own. Our heavenly Abba longs to embrace each one of us and is constantly looking expectantly down the road watching for every one of his prodigals to come home.

To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is figurative language. Eating and drinking cause what we are consuming to, in a sense, become a very part of us. To take in Christ, is to participate in a real and personal way, in his very existence by the Holy Spirit. When we, by faith, realize that Christ is in us and we are in him, that he died our death and lived our life, and lives in us—we are connected with God in a way that is unbreakable, a union and communion that is very real and very eternal. We are intimately known by him and we come to know Abba’s heart and mind as he reveals himself to us through Christ by the Spirit.

Our spiritual house can be shaken though. These experiences of life which are so destructive and unsettling can so disrupt our peace that we lose sight of what is real and true and holy. But the apostle Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” He calls us three times to “stand firm”—taking a position against such spiritual opposition that we cannot be moved away from our foundation in Christ. He tells us to put on the spiritual armor of God, all elements of Christ himself—the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shield of faith, and so on. We put on Christ, and we give attention to the Word of God and prayer in the Spirit as valuable weapons in this spiritual struggle (Eph. 6:10–20 NASB).

Our assurance is not in our ability to fight well, but in the reality that Jesus has already fought and won the battle. We rest in his finished work, for he has already defeated the evil one, death, and sin in his death and resurrection. We are in the process of moving from our own feeble strength to finding our strength in him alone (Ps. 84:5-7).  We abide in Jesus, resting in him, living in complete dependence upon him, turning to him in faith.

As we face the reality of our broken humanity, and dealing even with the painful reality of whatever history lies behind us, we can have the comfort and assurance that we are at home in the love and grace of God himself. This God, who was present in every century, who knew every decision and its motive and result, is the God who joined us in our humanity, experienced the depths of the depravity of the human heart, and brought us up into new life. Nothing is so horrible or astonishing that he cannot and will not redeem it when it is brought to him. Will we allow him to be our true home, the place where we find true rest and healing, where grace and truth joined together in Christ is ours now and forever?

Heavenly Father, thank you for defending us from our enemies of evil, sin and death, and for rescuing us, bringing us home to be with you forever. We love you and rejoice in your gift of zōe life, being held in your eternal embrace through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.

“My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; | My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. … For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God | Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”     Psalm 84:2, 10 NASB

“‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.’ … ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ … no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’”     John 6:56–69 NASB

From Small, Insignificant Beginnings

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By Linda Rex

June 13, 2021, PROPER 6—One of the things I learned years ago while still living on the farm was that although my husband participated in the growing process by preparing the soil, planting the seed, fertilizing and cultivating the soil, and applying pesticides and herbicides, the outcome of planting row crops was ultimately dependent upon forces over which we had no control. We could not predict how much sunshine or rain we would have, nor could we plan for out-of-season freezing temperatures, floods, or hailstorms.

There is something about working the land and caring for livestock that can keep a person humble and dependent upon God. When we are aware of the reality that only God really has control over the outcome, then we are actually in a very good place. In this place of trust and dependency, we can experience rest, trusting that God will make it all right in the end, creating a harvest beyond our expectations. Even if there is no harvest, we are still in a good place, because we are safely in the care of our Creator and Redeemer, who loves us and seeks our best.

Take a moment and contemplate the process of growing things. A small, insignificant brown seed, small enough to be lost in your hand, is placed in soil. This dirt, which rubs on our hands and into our jeans as we kneel on the ground, is full of microorganisms and living creatures. The little seed may simply rot away or die, or one day, when we least expect it, send forth a shoot and a root. Over time, this tiny fledgling plant will grow. We nurture it in whatever way we are able, encouraging it to survive and thrive in the sun, rain, and wind until it is harvest time. The neat thing about growing a plant from seed is, we begin with next to nothing and then, at harvest time, we have a multitude of seeds in return.

Jesus used an illustration of a sower and seed, as well as a mustard seed, in reference to the kingdom of God. The sower planted seed in the ground, and it sprouted and grew without his efforts, until harvest time. The mustard seed Jesus described next was a very tiny seed. But in a very short period of time, this plant sprouted and grew into a shrub up to twelve feet tall, with branches on which little birds could sit.

Jesus Christ, who was God present at that time in human flesh, was like an insignificant and tiny seed planted in the ground—a hidden mystery that would someday bear fruit. And just like the seed in these parables, Jesus was, in time, planted in a tomb, having been crucified in our place and on our behalf. The planting of this Seed, the Son of God in human flesh, is enabling the harvest of many children of God, a reality which will be fully manifest at the coming of Christ in glory.

The kingdom of God, his reign in human hearts, began with Jesus Christ planted in our human flesh, and is at work in this world right now by the Holy Spirit, and will culminate in the renewal of all things at Christ’s return. God has come to dwell in human hearts—our faith response, trusting in Christ and living in him—enables us to participate in this kingdom life right now and ultimately, in the new heavens and earth when all things are made new.

The problem we have as human beings is that we so often attempt to bring about the kingdom of God ourselves and on our own terms. We decide what the kingdom of God looks like and we work to bring it about under our own efforts. This has been true for millennia, with the resulting devastation and destruction of war, genocide, starvation, and slavery which accompany it. God never meant for us to bring about his kingdom under our own power, but for us to surrender to the lordship of the One, Jesus Christ, who brought it about in his person and who is present and active right now by his Spirit, working his kingdom into every part of this world.

We want to see active proof right now that Jesus is at work, whereas Christ said that we cannot see or control what the Spirit is doing—we can only see the ultimate results of it. That God is at work in this world by his Spirit is what we need to trust in—Jesus Christ is still present and is still Lord, even though it may seem to our eyes that God is indifferent to what is happening all around us.

What God is doing involves human hearts and minds—something which is hidden but still very important and real. In our world in which reason is worshipped and human achievements are celebrated and tangible, physical realities are preferred, the things of the Spirit and the human heart are often ignored, ridiculed, and rejected. But this makes them no less real.

We can deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, believe that the stories about him are simply religious myth, but we cannot escape the reality of a changed, transformed life in which Christ is the only redeeming factor. And a changed life does not necessarily mean that person is perfect—we are still humans in need of redemption even though our trajectory may have changed and we are finally turned in the right direction. When Christ by the Spirit goes to work in someone, they are never the same. But they are still free, able to make good or bad choices, and sometimes they are seduced by past passions, desires, or habits that cause them to fall. But they continue, daily, to turn to Jesus, trusting not in their own ability to get it right, but in the finished work of Christ and his intercession on their behalf, and in the power of his Spirit.

The divine Sower has planted Christ in humanity and given the Spirit. All is present for the growth of God’s reign in human hearts. We have a part to play—our response is important. What we trust in and build our life around is important. God invites us to cooperate with the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds us not to quench, resist, or grieve the Holy Spirit. We can choose to insult the Spirit of grace by continuing to live in the sinful ways God freed us from in Christ, or we can daily turn around and choose to live as the image-bearers of God we were meant to be. And yes, one day we will give an answer for our response to God’s gracious gift of eternal life.

But be encouraged. We “walk by faith, not by sight.” We are not what we once were—in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:6–10, 14–17). God is at work, the Seed has been sown, is being watered by the Spirit, and this new life is being nurtured and cared for by the Light of the world. We grow up in Christlikeness as we respond in faith, trusting in Christ’s finished work. And our hope is in the promise that what God has begun in us, he will finish. He is the trustworthy Sower who is working toward an abundant harvest, one in which we can participate by faith in the Seed he sowed.

Father, great Sower of the Seed, we thank you for your love, grace and faithfulness, and for what you are doing right now in and through us by your precious Spirit. It is your love which compels us to no longer live for ourselves, but for Jesus, who lived and died on our behalf. May your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’  And He said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘the birds of the air’ can ‘nest under its shade.’ With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.”     Mark 4:26–34 NASB

Blessed and Sent

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By Linda Rex

May 16, 2021, ASCENSION SUNDAY—With spring fully sprung and temperatures here in Tennessee beginning to move into summer intensity, we find ourselves in a new place on the Christian calendar—Ascension Sunday. This event is actually celebrated on Thursday, May 13th this year, but we at Grace Communion Nashville take time on the following Sunday to remember this special event.

The event of Jesus’ ascension is a very important one, as the gift of the Holy Spirit would not have come if he had not ascended. After his resurrection Jesus retained our now glorified human flesh, bringing it into the presence of the Father in the Spirit. We find that all human beings now are welcome to participate by faith in Christ, enabling them to experience God’s life and love now by the Spirit and in glory when Christ returns to establish the new heavens and earth.

During the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus took time to instruct his disciples, giving them understanding of how all that he had been and done was the central theme of the Old Testament scriptures. Christ then told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Spirit, and sent them out to be witnesses to everything that he had done while on earth. In his final moment, he lifted his hands and blessed them, as the high priest would do when the reconciliation was complete.

Even today, as Christ’s followers, we are called to be on mission with Jesus, showing and telling others about the love of God and what Jesus Christ did for our salvation. We are called to open ourselves up to be filled with the Spirit—growing in our relationship with God through the Word of God, prayer, gathering together for fellowship with believers, worship, and other spiritual disciplines. We live as those who are sent, actively participating in Christ’s mission in this world. And we go in Jesus’ blessing.

As I was reflecting on all this recently, the Lord brought to mind something he had led me to years ago when I first was wrestling with the call to pastoral ministry. I was shown how the body of Christ today, specifically in our denomination, was being called to rebuild the church on the new foundation we had been given in Jesus. I encourage you to take the time this week to read the book of Haggai. The prophet Haggai wrote shortly following the exile to those Jews who had returned to their homeland. They had rebuilt the altar and were offering sacrifices. They had set the foundation for the temple. But there the work had stopped.

Haggai was directed by God to ask his people, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate? … Consider your ways!” (Haggai 1:4-5 NASB) He showed them how they were preoccupied with taking care of their own interests and concerns, and were neglecting the restoration of the temple. God’s priority was preparing the way for the coming of his Son to earth, and for that to be accomplished the way he desired, the temple needed to be rebuilt. Haggai was sent to remind the people to get their priorities centered on what God wanted do. And then God moved in them by his Spirit to act accordingly.

In some ways, I’m concerned that too often, we as believers have neglected to move on beyond setting the foundation of Jesus Christ in our lives and offering up worship on an occasional Saturday or Sunday. We have all the trappings of religiosity but we have lost the substance—life in Christ that reflects both his grace and his truth. Too often we have neglected God’s priorities and plans, preferring to seek our own agenda, including those things which distract us from keeping our kingdom focus. Is our focus on what God prefers—his kingdom and his righteousness? Jesus said if we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, all these other things will be added.

Jesus told the woman at well in Samaria that our worship of God is to be in spirit and in truth, that it is much more than religious rites and rituals or having a particular location of worship. Jesus Christ is the place of worship now, where we are called together in unity, to worship God and serve him. When Christ defines our identity and our relationship with God and one another, that says something about how we are to live and treat one another. As followers of Christ, we need to move beyond the religious trappings which anyone can imitate into the reality of life in Christ—something only possible in the power of the Spirit, with the living presence of Jesus in us and with us. It should be evident to those around us that we are Christ’s disciples, by our Christ-like love for one another, no matter our church denomination or fellowship preference.

Going back to our story—when the work on the temple began, those who had seen Solomon’s temple grieved the lost of the majesty and wonder of the former building. Haggai asked, “Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison?” (Haggai 2:3 NASB) In the same way, the disciples kept expecting Jesus to bring about his kingdom in the sense of using his might and power to destroy the existing government and install a theocracy. But Jesus told them he had something else in mind. We need to remember that God’s kingdom work in this world may look a lot different than we expect. What Jesus plans for the body of Christ may be a lot different than what we prefer. The church of the future very well may look a lot different than the church we remember—and we need to be okay with this.

Finally, the most important message which Haggai gave his people was one that we can take to heart today. Just as when Joshua was entering into the promised land and was told to take courage, God encouraged those who were rebuilding the temple. “ ‘… take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the Lord of hosts. As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” (Haggai 2:4b-5 NASB) In the same way, Jesus told his disciples before he left them and ascended that God had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, he told them, go and make disciples. He promised he would never leave them, but would always be with them—and he was, by the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20).

What a marvelous thing the ascension is! Now we are participating in a real way in what God is doing in this world, all because this Jesus, who was God in human flesh, died and rose for our salvation, and now dwells forever in the presence of the Father bearing our humanity. By faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit sent from God and are each empowered to share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to participate in what Jesus is doing in the world today as he brings about renewal, healing, and transformation. We have been given both a hope and a future. We truly are blessed.

Holy God, thank you for reminding us to keep the main thing the main thing, and to trust you to know what is best for us as we move into the future. Grant us the passion and the courage to do the hard work of sharing the good news of your love and grace, of building up the body of Christ. And give us the endurance to weather all that we may have to bear as we do this. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit, of all you have done for us through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

“Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”     Luke 24:44–53 NASB

Into the Crucible

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By Linda Rex

April 2, 2021, GOOD FRIDAY—It is easy for us to get swept up into feeling frustrated or sorry for ourselves because life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We can look at others and wonder why their lives are going so well when ours isn’t. This is especially true when we look at social media, and all we see are everyone else’s efforts to paint the best picture possible of their life.

Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who came to Jesus at night to ask him some questions. When Jesus began explaining to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he used an illustration from the history of his people. As the ancient Israelites traversed the wilderness, he explained, being carefully led by the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and sustained by bread from heaven (manna) they struggled to deal with the difficulties they faced.

Like all of us, when faced with things not going the way they thought they should go, they began to complain. From there on it went downhill, for soon the people were dying from snakebite as their camp became infested with venomous vipers. Finally, they begged Moses to intercede for them with God, and he did. God’s response was rather interesting, considering the covenant he had made with them.

In spite of the fact that God had told them not to make graven images, he told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. When a person who had been bitten by a snake looked up at the bronze serpent in faith, they would not die—they would get well. Those who refused to look up at the serpent, of course, would die of snakebite. As Moses and the people followed God’s instruction, the Israelites’ camp was soon free from death.

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus used this example to illustrate the importance of his ministry and why he had come. He pointed out that his purpose was to be lifted up in the same way as the serpent was lifted up, thereby drawing all humanity to himself. What would be meant for evil, for his destruction, would be turned to good, to the deliverance of all from evil, sin, and death.

To create a bronze serpent, the craftsman would place metal into a crucible, bring it to an intense heat to melt it. He would purify the metal by increasing or maintaining this intense heat, and working to bring all the impurities to the top to be scooped off until the surface was fully reflective. At the height of its purity, the craftsman would see his own face reflected in the molten metal. Then the metal would be poured into a mold or fashioned over the heat by hammering, twisting, and so on, into the desired form. Over and over the craftsman would work to forge the piece, until he was satisfied that it was exactly right, smoothing and polishing the surface, and finally, adding the details that were desired.

To say that he would be lifted up like the bronze serpent shows how Jesus used powerful but simple imagery to explain something with great depth and meaning. God as a craftsman began the process of the redemption of his creation by forging for himself a people from which his Messiah would come. This people, Israel, was taken on a wilderness journey, then across the Jordan River, and on into the promised land. They journeyed with God, struggling against and within their covenant relationship with the Creator, not realizing the magnitude and wonder of what God intended to do through them. God even took them into the crucible of the exile where they began to understand that their relationship with their Adonai was not solely dependent upon the temple and its sacrifices.

In the dark years of prophetic silence following the exile, when their descendants wrestled with their various overlords, we find the remnant of the people of ancient Israel, the Jews, yearning for their Messiah to come and deliver them. They sought a deliverer to set them free to be their own kingdom again, to be able to worship their Adonai, God, freely and to enjoy the prosperity and security of the age of the Spirit.

It is at this time that the Word of God, Son of our heavenly Father, took on our human flesh in the incarnation. This was an unexpected event, for this Messiah was not intent on a political, military redemption, but a redemption of our humanity from its slavery to evil, sin, and death. He fulfilled the prophetic testimony of Isaiah, who predicted that he would suffer on behalf of his people, redeeming and restoring them (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). This Messiah, Jesus Christ, throughout his life on this earth, forged into our humanity the capacity to be truly human, to be the proper image-bearers God meant each of us to be. The crucible in which God in Christ took our humanity—his flesh, was placed into the flame of the crucifixion, taking our human flesh into death itself, and in three days, Jesus rose again, bringing all humanity into a new existence as refined by the fire.

Jesus’ people played a significant role in the redemption of all humanity and even all creation, albeit an unpleasant one. God knew from the beginning what it would take to forge within our humanity the capacity to live eternally in union and communion with the divine. He created a womb, Israel, in which the Savior would be formed and an instrument by which he would be crucified, all for the sake of every human being sharing in the life and love of God in Christ by the Spirit. The disciples and Jesus were clear in their day about the sins of God’s people, but recognized that the Jews are still, as they are today, God’s covenant people and the Savior’s human family.

It is instructive for us that when God, the divine craftsman, goes to work in our lives, he doesn’t always bring us to pleasant, happy places. There are times when he allows us to wander through difficulties—not to harm us or do us evil, but to forge within us a new way of being which more deeply reflects his image.

We turn to Christ in these moments, for he was lifted up in the crucifixion and entered into death itself for our sake. He stands eternally as our high priest even now, interceding for us as Moses did but also standing in our place on our behalf, having taken upon himself all that is ours and reforming it into what God always meant it to be. As the eternal Son of the Father, he brings humanity by faith into God’s intimate union and communion in the Spirit, enabling us to participate in the divine life and love now and forever.

On this Good Friday, as we reflect upon the sobering experience Jesus went through on the cross, let us be reminded of the faithfulness and goodness of our God. May we sit silently in the shadow of the cross, weeping for the price that was paid but being filled with the joy for which Jesus did it, for he saw beyond the crucifixion into the redemption of all humanity and the restoration of all things. As refined in the fire, he was lifted up, to draw all to himself, so all may truly live. Praise Adonai!

Our heavenly Father, thank you. Thank you for the gift of your one unique Son, Jesus the Messiah. Thank you, Jesus, for setting aside the privileges of divinity for a time, so that we might be freed from the snakebite of evil, sin, and death, and be brought up into life eternal in the presence of the Father by the Spirit. We praise you for your faithfulness and goodness, one holy God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.

“Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are You from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.’ As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’… “And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’ So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” John 19:4-12, 14b-19 NASB

The Gate of Grace

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By Linda Rex

March 28, 2021, PALM SUNDAY—LENT (EASTER PREP)—Etched into my memory from my childhood in southern California are avenues of palm trees of all different shapes and sizes. There is something about the tall, stately trees, bending slightly in the ocean breezes that speaks to me of salt water and sand, hot summer sun, and tropical flowers.

On this special Sunday in some churches, small palm fronds are handed out in memory of the branches laid on the road as Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem. The songs of “Hosanna” we sing today echo the shouts of the pilgrims as they entered the city in celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. In many ways we also anticipate with glad rejoicing the coming of King Jesus into our world to restore all things.

In John’s version of this story, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and the people threw down branches of palm trees. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” “Hosanna” is a phrase which in essence means “O, save!” This greeting resonates with the Hillel psalms often sung or recited by the pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. Psalm 118:25, which we read on this Sunday, says “O Lord, do save, we beseech You; O Lord, we beseech You, do send prosperity!”

When looking forward with the travelers entering Jerusalem, excited about the possibilities present in the Messiah they thought Jesus was, it is understandable that they would lay out palm branches as though a victorious king were entering the city. It makes perfect sense that they would be praising and celebrating such a momentous event. How wonderful it would be to finally be free of their oppressors!

The problem was that they were mistaken in Jesus’ intention and purpose for being there. They neglected to attend to the other parts of the scripture which included predictions about his suffering and death. For example, in Psalm 118:27 we read, “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” There was to be a sacrifice made, but it wasn’t going to be an animal offered on the altar, but the humble king who was at that moment entering the city on a lowly colt of a donkey. Jesus had no illusions about what faced him as he entered the city. They might glorify him as a conquering king now, but in a few short days, he would be hung on a cross.

As I recently read the passages for Good Friday, I was struck by the interrogation Pilate did right before Jesus was sent out to be crucified. Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of the Jews. As they spoke to one another, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting. Pilate asked him again if he was a king and Jesus affirmed it, saying that it was the reason he had come into the world. At the end of the interrogation, Pilate went out and told the people he found no guilt in Jesus, and offered to exchange him for a robber named Barabbas.

Jesus was scourged and again placed before the crowd with Pilate’s pronouncement that he was not guilty. But the people cried out for him to be crucified, as Jesus stood there with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe draped around his shoulders. The Jewish leaders affirmed that he had to die because he claimed to be the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate, who, no doubt remembering his wife’s strange warning, asked Jesus where he was from. But he would not answer. When Pilate warned him that he had the authority to have him killed, Jesus merely replied that Pilate had no authority but what was given him from above. At this, Pilate attempted again to free Jesus, but the Jews threatened to report him to Caesar for treason. In the end Jesus was led away, carrying his cross beam to be crucified on Golgotha.

What a contrast between the two pictures of Jesus. First, he is praised joyfully with loud hosannas as a celebrated deliverer. The second, he is led away, dripping with blood, bruised and torn, to the abuse and ridicule of the crowd. How can he even be the same person? But this is Israel’s king, the King of the Jews, as Pilate so aptly wrote on the nameplate which hung over Christ on the cross.

Historically, if we were to look at the King of the Jews, we would see that Jesus on the cross is a fitting description of the way the true ruler of Israel, Adonai, had often been treated by his covenant people. His covenant love for them had weathered their long history together when at one moment God would be their beloved deliverer and in the next was traded in for the gods and kings of the nations, and the people’s preference to follow their own ways. Even the efforts of the leaders to be more faithful in their obedience ended in rigid restrictions and rules that isolated and excluded people rather than bringing all people deeper into relationship with God.

Lest you think I am speaking merely of the ancient Israelites, I would like to point out that it is a human proclivity to love God when he is good to us and to drop him with disinterest when something more enticing shows up on the horizon. We are all just as vulnerable to missing the truth that there is, and should only be, one king in our life and it’s not us, and it’s not any other human being even though we may live under the authority of human government.

Jesus Christ invites us to go with him through the gates of grace into death and resurrection because this is where we were created to go. We were meant to enter into the gates of righteousness in participation with Jesus in his perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit. There really is no other directive in our life which can and will give us true peace and freedom than that of surrendering to the lordship of Jesus Christ, allowing him by the Spirit to reign supreme in our lives.

Celebrate Palm Sunday in gratitude and praise for the King, our Messiah, who has come as God in human flesh to die and rise again, is coming right now by his Holy Spirit, and will one day come in glory to establish the new heavens and new earth. Choose to walk with him all the way into death and resurrection. What is he asking you today to lay down in honor of him, in humble submission to his reign in your heart and mind? How might you enter with him now into the gates of grace so that you may experience new life?

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending us your Son to save and deliver us from evil, sin, and death. Thank you for sending us your Spirit so we might participate in your divine life and love, through Jesus Christ our Lord and eternal King now and forever. Amen.

“On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, even the King of Israel.’ Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” John 12:12–16 NASB

“Open to me the gates of righteousness;
I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
The righteous will enter through it.”
Psalm 118:19–20 (21–29) NASB

The Counterfeit Wheat

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By Linda Rex

July 19, 2020, PROPER 11—If we were to take a hike up a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, we may, as we arrive breathless at the summit, see an amazing view below us. We may be awed by the grandeur of such a sight and find it to be quite inspiring and invigorating.

But if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that in the midst of all that glory were signs of this world’s fragility and brokenness. There seems to be no place on earth where everything is exactly perfect, unblemished and unmarred. The apostle Paul speaks of how even the creation anxiously awaits the coming of the glorification of God’s adopted children and the coming of the new heavens and new earth.

What we tend to forget sometimes is that this world only gives us glimpses of glory. What we were created for, the glory which was meant to be revealed in us, was to be the adopted children of God, living forever in the oneness and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We were created to be image-bearers of our Abba, to reflect God’s very nature in our being. And this is why God determined before time began that he would join himself with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, there is a deep, dark place in all of us where we believe that God does not love us nor does he care one whit as to how we are suffering or as to whether we live or die. This lie we believe about ourselves is the infection of sin which we humans contracted in the Garden of Eden. We allow it to poison our view of God and ourselves, as well as other people. This lie becomes the lens through which we view all of life, and guides our decisions and choices.

As we live out of this lie, we find the result is death. We may decide we need to be a good person, to follow our conscience, but don’t realize that even our human efforts to make ourselves good, good enough to be loved and accepted by God, don’t work. If anything, our efforts to clean up evil and to make things good often result only in more pain, suffering, and death.

Jesus often encountered this while interacting with his countrymen who were the leaders of the nation, the rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The intent of the leaders over the centuries had been to get the people to be good, to keep the law meticulously, that they might be acceptable to God and be blessed by him. Unfortunately, their efforts merely created burdens that could not be borne by the people and caused much suffering. Their efforts to be free from their Roman overlords often ended up in the suffering and death of many Jews. It seemed that they could not accomplish the eradication of evil and the establishment of the kingdom of God by any of their human efforts. They were powerless over evil, sin, and death.

Jesus told a parable which described a sower who sowed good seed. As the sower went and rested, which all farmers do at night, an enemy came in and sowed bad seed among the good seed. The servants, when realizing what had been done, wanted to rush out into the field and get rid of all the bad seed. But the sower told them to forbear, to allow the plants to grow together until the time of the harvest, so that the good seed would not be harmed by their efforts to remove the evil seed.

In this parable, the sower turns out to be Jesus himself and the enemy, the evil one—the devil. The good seed was sowed in the field, the world, but then in the midst of this good creation, this sowing of good seed, was sowed evil and sin which results in death. The good or bad seed, in this parable, is what grows from what was planted, either the sons of the kingdom or the sons of the evil one. The Greek word used to tell the servants to forbear, resonates with the word to forgive, to permit it to be so for the time being—a gracious act by the sower of the seed.

The tare or darnel was a weed which when it first began to grow, looked just like wheat. It could easily be mistaken for wheat, and it would grow close enough that if you pulled it out, you would pull out the wheat with it. It isn’t until both plants were ready to be harvested that it could be clearly seen which plant was which. Then the wheat could be harvested and the darnel cut down and bundled to be used for fire.

This is a good illustration for us as human beings. We may all look the same on the outside, but what is going on inside is what really matters. We cannot and must not judge others as to whether they are the bad seed or good seed—that is yet to be determined. Eschatologically—when the end comes—this will be determined by the One who knows everyone down to the bottom of their heart. In the meantime, God’s call to his angels is to forbear, to allow, to permit—to offer you and me grace.

The apostle Paul reminds us that we no longer focus on the flesh, because we are now new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Our true life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). We may look sometimes like a son of the evil one, but in reality, in Christ, we are sons of the kingdom. This is why we need to be careful not to assume we know who is the true wheat and who is the counterfeit. Jesus is now the true measure of any human being.

The counterfeit wheat looks good, but its grain can be toxic. In the same way, the sons of the evil one may look just like the sons of the kingdom. They may even do and say all the things that we assume godly people would say and do. But on the inside, they are actually a churning mass of darkness—they have never given up the lie that God doesn’t love them, that they have to earn his love and salvation, that they are going to go about life in their own way under their own power. They have struggles, pain, and sin that has never seen the light of day. For them, being good has replaced being in relationship—they do not realize that eternal life isn’t something to be earned or bought or worked at. Eternal life, Jesus said, is a gift—it is to know him and to know the Father who sent him—an intimate knowing and being known which is only possible by grace.

When the time for harvest arrives, it then becomes obvious what is counterfeit wheat and what is true wheat. It was Jesus who said that some would stand at the door and knock and they would be turned away because he did not “know” them (Matt. 25:11-12). All of our human efforts will not buy us entry into the kingdom of heaven—only grace will. It is those who know their need for God to rescue them who will be saved.

The others never did believe God was love and that he loved and included them—they turned away from their only hope for salvation, which was in Jesus Christ. They trusted in themselves, in their own method of self-preservation. And so, in the end, they find themselves face to face with Jesus, the One who is both Judge and Advocate and who defeated evil, sin, and death. As the God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), he will determine their ultimate destination.

We might want to pause for a moment to consider this: What is going on deep down inside of us? Does the Spirit bear witness with our spirit that we are God’s beloved children? Do we know that when the voice of condemnation and accusation speaks, that it is a lie, that now there is no condemnation for us, we are forgiven in Jesus? Are we trusting in Christ or in our own ability to get it right? Whatever our answer, we have no reason to fear, because God is gracious and forbearing—we turn to Jesus in faith. As sons of the kingdom, we have joyous hope in Christ!

Dear God, thank you for your faithful love and gift of grace. Grant us the humility and faith to open ourselves up fully to you, to release ourselves from the hamster wheel of human works and self-salvation. Awaken us to reality of the indwelling Christ by the Spirit, to our inclusion in your love and life. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?” And he said to them, “An enemy has done this!” The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?” But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”’” Matthew 13:24–30 NASB

Also read Romans 8:12–25.