By Linda Rex
September 11, 2022, PROPER 19—The other day I drove downtown to do something at the Howard Office Building. I used my GPS to remind me of how to get there, but as I was leaving the parking lot to head home, I decided I could find my way home without help. About ten minutes later, I realized I was headed the opposite direction from where I needed to go, and that I was thoroughly lost. Grumbling with frustration, I finally pulled over and got out my phone for directions to get back home.
Being lost means that fundamentally, underneath all of the lostness, lies the reality that one has a home to return to. There are some people today who do not have a home to return to—they long for a home, a place of settled rest where they are beloved and safe. Others have a house, but it’s not much of a home. They may have a place to live, but there is no sense of welcome or peace in that place they go to after work each night. Some of us are simply looking for a spiritual home—a place where all the time, we are accepted, loved, welcome, and included.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 15:1–10, we find Jesus feeling right “at home” with tax collectors and sinners—people that the Pharisees and scribes of that day excluded from the community of faith. Jesus included them in his life, fellowshipping with them, and drawing them close into relationship with himself in spite of their failure to live up to the expectations of their religious leaders. These people who had no spiritual home were finding their home in Jesus, and he wanted the leaders to understand that if anyone was really lost in the situation, it was those who believed they were already found.
Receiving criticism for welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus began a series of parables about lostness and foundness. He told a story of a shepherd who had a hundred sheep, one of which had wandered away. This good shepherd knew each of his sheep so well that he was very aware when one of them left the flock. So, he put the others in the care of those who would watch over them, and went to find the lost sheep. His purpose was to bring the lost sheep back home, to be cared for and kept safe with him. He took whatever risks were necessary, took however long it took, and endured whatever deprivations, struggles, and suffering were required so he could bring home the single sheep that was lost.
Significantly, the shepherd’s attitude about the whole process, in spite of the inconvenience to himself, was joy. He didn’t lash out at the sheep when he found it, nor did he reject the sheep for what it did by wandering away. Instead, the shepherd picked up the poor bedraggled sheep, wrapped it around his neck to carry it on his shoulders, and made himself fully responsible for its care. He did the heavy work of bringing the sheep home and making sure it was safely back in the sheepfold.
This is such a profound picture of our Lord and what he has done for us in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. As our Good Shepherd, he was willing to set aside the comforts and privileges of his divine home for a time in order to find us in our humanity in the wilderness of evil, sin, and death, to bring us back home to our Father. As we read in Hebrews 12:2, Jesus willingly and joyfully underwent this self-offering for our sakes, finding us in our lostness, and in spite of the supreme cost to himself, bringing us to safety and rest in his Father’s arms.
What Jesus brought the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attention to was that the shepherd in this story was not focused on the failure of the sheep to stay in the sheepfold. There was no condemnation of the sheep for having wandered off. The concern of the shepherd was for the wellbeing of the sheep, of its need to be brought back home, back into the fold, not to be punished or excluded for how it failed to obey the expectations of the shepherd. He was simply rejoicing that the sheep was once again home, back with the other sheep, where it belonged.
The Lord has been showing me more and more how we as humans love to create divisions between “us” and “them”, especially religious ones. We differentiate between those who are in and those who are out. If someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations of holiness or of the Christian life, we exclude them from our relationships. Instead of this, we need to realize our own lostness and need for a shepherd, and treat them as the brothers and sisters they are. The human race as a whole was included in Christ’s self-offering, and that means that at any moment, we may be and are the lost sheep he is joyfully bringing home on his shoulders.
I love the next story Jesus told, about the woman who lost a coin. She searched all over her house, sweeping the dirt floor and crooks and crannies, trying to find the small piece of metal. Obviously, the woman would not have been so diligent in her search unless that coin was very important to her. Was it a part of her dowry? Was it her only hope for a morsal of food that week? She even used some of her precious lamp oil to try in her dark house to see where the coin had gone.
Today, when we drop a penny, we may not be as diligent in our retrieval of this small coin. But the coin in this story had a place where it belonged—in the care of the woman. This coin was not meant to be lost and all alone in some forgotten space in the house. It was meant to be a part of the collection of ten coins that she was keeping for a specific purpose. Her joy at the finding of the coin reflects the same joy that the shepherd had upon finding his sheep. She was so delighted about finding her lost coin that she shared the good news with everyone around her.
What a different response compared with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes! Isn’t this what our response ought to be when Jesus goes to work to bring a “lost coin” home? Shouldn’t we be equally delighted to share the good news with others of what Jesus has done for us in his finished work as our Lord and Savior? Instead of the critical and negative response Jesus experienced from the Jewish leaders of that day, he should have received joyful gratitude and celebration for bringing the “lost coin” tax collectors and sinners into relationship with himself, and thereby bringing them home to our Father.
Over the years, as I have had many different experiences with God helping me find what I’ve lost, he’s become for me the Finder of All Lost Things. Indeed, Jesus still is the One who seeks out the lost and brings us all home to his Father. And Jesus includes us in his mission of finding all lost sheep and all lost coins—of finding all who are longing for a spiritual home. He invites us to be a part of the process of helping others see their home is in him. We can get out our lamps and begin looking for the “lost coin” alongside the Finder of All Lost Things by joyfully including family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in our life with Christ. Together we can celebrate our common return home on the shoulders of our Shepherd, rejoicing with Jesus as he brings us all home to the Father.
Thank you, Good Shepherd, for the extent to which you have gone to bring each of us home to be with you forever. Thank you for searching for us in the wilderness of our humanity, seeking each one of us out and including us in the Triune life and love. O great Finder of All Lost Things, grant us the grace to remember our own lostness and foundness in Jesus as we include each and every person in our own celebration of all you have done to bring us safely home. Amen.
“Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable, saying, ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!” In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ ” Luke 15:1–10 NASB
See also 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Psalm 51:1–10; Psalm 14.
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, Tennessee area or in a Zoom group, please drop me a line at email@example.com. ]
By Linda Rex
March 27, 2022, 4th Sunday in LENT—As we journey through the season in preparation for the events of Holy Week and reflect upon our own personal need for the Savior, it’s a good time to consider the many blessings we receive at the hand of God—many of which are undeserved, especially when we are more like prodigal children than faithful ones. However, the miracle of Holy Week is that God cares not only for all of the prodigals in the world, but also for all of the older sons who year after year faithfully serve God and seek to do his will.
In his book, “The Pressure’s Off”, psychologist and author Larry Crabb draws attention to our tendency to focus more on working to receive God’s blessings than we do seeking God himself and being in relationship with him. It is easy to see why he would say this—simply walk into a bookstore and you can see the many books written about ways in which we can be blessed in our lives if we just follow the authors’ guidance in getting our act together and living in a way that pleases God.
Now, I agree that we were created to love God and love one another—that this is our way of being we were created to live in. And when we don’t live in that way, we experience a lot of unnecessary heartache and suffering. But the central issue Jesus pointed us to was loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and being—i.e., all that we are—and to love our neighbor as ourself. This has more to do with a focus on right relationship and a lot less on having a good life in which we are free from pain and suffering.
As I was reading the narrative for today’s gospel reading, Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32, I was struck by the similarity of our misguided focus and the story’s ending where the older son came home from a hard day of work only to find everyone having a huge party in his absence. When he asked what was going on, he was told that they were celebrating because his younger brother had arrived safely home. This, understandably, made him livid.
Furious, he ranted at his father, “All these years I worked to the point of exhaustion, obeying every little instruction you gave me, and not once did you ever even buy me lunch or take me out to dinner! And now, this wastrel, who threw all your money away and made us almost lose the farm, shows up and you throw a party? You even killed the calf we’d been fattening up and invited the whole neighborhood over!”
If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to say that the response of this older son is not much different than our own response when we see God go to work in the life of someone we can’t stand and turn them completely around, drawing them out of their broken, shattered life into one centered in Christ. The memories of all the harm they have done, the broken promises, the losses and griefs we suffered at their hands, are hard to ignore. No, it’s just not that simple to let them off the hook, especially when we see little or no proof that they have genuinely changed.
Or, we may have spent our whole life doing our best to be a good person, going to church faithfully, donating to every good thing we thought might be worthwhile, and trying to take good care of our health and our family. But then we end up in the doctor’s office facing the reality that we are dying of cancer. Or the officer shows up at the door to tell us our teenage child was killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. Or…the list could go on. Our best efforts at being an obedient child of God seem insignificant in the face of such loss and grief, suffering and pain.
The point we are missing, unfortunately, is that it isn’t about anyone’s performance or lack thereof. It isn’t about the fact that we have been faithful and obedient all these years and they haven’t. The point is that God is love, and that he loves them and he loves us, and that everyone of us is given, in Christ, an intimate relationship with the God who wants to live in union and communion with each and every person now and for all eternity. He does not want anyone to miss out on all that is truly theirs—life in the midst of the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Spirit—something each and every person was created to participate in.
Notice the father’s response to the son’s tirade: “Son, you’ve always been with me. Everything I have is yours. What we’re celebrating is that your brother was dead, but now he is alive! He was lost, but now he is found! How can we do anything less than celebrate?” In every word, he reminded his son that he was near and dear to his heart and that everything he owned was at his son’s disposal at all times. In order to give the inheritance to the younger son, the father had distributed all he owned between them both. This father had held nothing back, but had given it all up—for both his sons.
We find the older son was a whole lot more concerned about the fatted calf and the party and the welcome given the prodigal child, than he was about his own personal relationship with his father. Isn’t that like many of us? We get more concerned about how someone else is or isn’t living the Christian life (as we define it) than we do about our own right relationship with God in Christ. We want to know why we aren’t being blessed by God the way they are, rather than realizing the extent God went to in Christ so that we, along with everyone else, could spend eternity in his presence. What really matters most to us?
It is so easy for us to be blind to our best blessing—life in relationship with the God who loves us and has offered us everything in the gift of his Son and his Spirit. What in this life is so very important that it is worth giving this up? Yes, there may be a prodigal God wants us to welcome home with gratitude, celebrating he or she who was dead is alive again, for the one who was lost is, in Christ, now found. But possibly, we might be the one who is blind to the true blessing God has given us in Christ, unable to see how marvelously wonderful it is to be included in God’s love and life, to be given his own precious Spirit, to be held close to the Father’s heart, with all of heaven at our disposal, now and forever, as his beloved child.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for giving us all we need for life and godliness through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you for, in Christ, becoming the prodigal one yourself and bringing us home from the far country to be welcomed now and forever in the Father’s embrace of love and grace in the Spirit. Thank you for removing our blindness and helping us to see how beloved and cherished we really are, now and forever, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.
“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 NASB
[Printable copy of this blog: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/blind-to-our-best-blessing.pdf%5D
By Linda Rex
December 26, 2021, Christmas | Holy Family—I remember years and years ago walking downtown to do some shopping with with my mother and two brothers. At that time, the Los Angeles, California suburb of Monrovia was a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. We often made the trip downtown to use the library, visit the grocery store or thrift shop, or to visit some of the little shops located on Myrtle Avenue.
On this day I recall that while we were visiting a clothing store, we inadvertently lost my younger brother. He was really little at the time, so we were very concerned about what might have happened to him. During our search, I remember looking under all the clothing racks, hoping he might simply have been playing hide and seek. Eventually, we looked up and down the street in different stores, and I remember us even going to the police station in our effort to find him.
This event of my childhood often comes to mind when I read Luke’s account of how Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus as they returned home from Jerusalem with the other travelers. It was not unusual, apparently, for the parents to travel in different groups rather than as a couple, so it’s possible that Mary simply did not realize that Jesus wasn’t with Joseph, or vice versa. And with the number of people traveling together on pilgrimage, they might have simply assumed he was with relatives or friends. Considering the circumstances, it would have been easy to lose track of him.
Imagine the shock, though, when they discovered Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found. They had, quite simply, lost the child who was to be the Messiah (as if that was even possible). Their subsequent frantic search for Jesus was, from their point of view, perfectly understandable.
The story takes a profound turn, though. It seems the last place they thought he would be is the very place he had been all along—in the temple, sitting at the feet of the teachers of the law of God. When they found him, Mary said to him, “Why have you treated us like this? We have been anxiously looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48–49 NASB) Apparently, they had forgotten or not understood who he was. Where else would he have been but in his heavenly Father’s house?
Today, as I reflect on this story, it again occurs to me that we participate in this story in a very special way. In it, Jesus teaches us where we can find him when we feel as though we have lost him. We may long for a relationship with God and in searching for him, cannot seem to find him anywhere. Or there may be times in life when we may feel as though we are fatherless or orphaned, or as if we have been abandoned or forsaken. We may feel as though we are left alone, without anyone to care about what happens to us. Or we may long for deep relational connection, but in all our efforts to connect, we are left shattered and broken, trying to bring back together all the pieces of our life.
Jesus says to you and me, “Why are you looking for me?” It may be worthwhile to take some time in quiet reflection to consider the answer to this question. What are we really searching for? Is it possible that we are needing a compassionate and forgiving Friend who will not criticize or condemn us? Is it possible that what we have been struggling to find is actually our loving Father—the One who deeply cares for us and wants to be a part of our life? Do you and I even realize what we are really searching for and need is the Savior Jesus?
And if it is Jesus we are searching for, then why is it we are needing him? Our hearts and minds can tell us a lot about what it is that is really going on inside if we are willing to slow down and pay attention. Too often we, like Joseph and Mary in this story, are so busy going about our everyday lives that we don’t attend to our connection with the One who cares for us so deeply. We can just assume he’s around somewhere or that someone else is tending to him, not realizing we have gone on ahead without him.
What is it we are truly longing for and needing? Why do we do what we do? What do our patterns of life tell us about our relationship with God and with others? We may be surprised to discover that things are not as we first assumed. We may find that what we have been searching for has been right where it needed to be the whole time we were looking for it!
When we do realize who we are looking for and why we are looking for him, then we are able to attend to Jesus’ reply, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” Where do we search in order to find Jesus? We are meant to find Jesus right now in his Father’s house by the Spirit. In the biblical view, we can experience the presence of our Lord right now by the Spirit in a three-fold location: 1) at work in this world, in all he has made and he sustains, 2) in the house of God—the gathering of the body of Christ, the Church, and 3) in the house of God—our hearts and minds.
We are not meant to search everywhere trying to find God. When we search for God, we are meant to awaken by faith to the reality that Christ has come and is present right now by his Holy Spirit. In Jesus by the Spirit, God has made a home for himself within our human flesh and within the body of Christ, the Church—why search everywhere else seeking to find him?
You may be wondering what happened to my younger brother—did we ever find him? Yes, actually we did. When we went to the police station, we were encouraged to go back home and wait to hear from them. And, surprisingly enough, when we got home—there my brother was, waiting for us. He had made his way home, all by himself—something we had never expected him to do.
I believe that if we were to take some time in silent reflection, asking God where he is and how to find him and then waiting for his response, we might discover that he is where he always has been—very near and very present by his Holy Spirit, at home in our hearts and lives. It is by faith in Christ that we come to the realization that he has come to dwell in us by the Spirit.
In Colossians 3:12–17, the apostle Paul tells us to “put on” the nature of Jesus Christ, to “let” the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and the word of Christ richly dwell within us. These are actions that are a response to what Christ has already done within our humanity by living our life, by dying our death and by rising again, bringing us home to the Father. As we trust in him and in his finished work, we find that in the sending of his Spirit, Jesus Christ is genuinely present in our individual lives and in the Church. We don’t have to look everywhere for Jesus in order to find him. Rather, we do need to respond to his real presence within and in our midst right now by the Holy Spirit, placing our trust in him and gratefully doing everything in his name for the glory of our Father.
Putting our faith in the One who has made himself at home in human hearts and has brought us home to the Father is a life-changing decision. Pondering these things in our hearts as Jesus’ mother Mary pondered the words and actions of the eternal Son of God, her son Jesus, is an important spiritual discipline we can practice each day. Being baptized, studying the written Word of God, speaking with God in prayer, gathering with believers in spiritual fellowship, taking communion—these are all healthy ways to come to terms with the reality of who Jesus is, and what he has done and is doing in us and in our world by his Spirit. And there are so many other spiritual practices by which we are able to actively participate each day in Jesus’ loving relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. For Jesus has made us now and forever at home with himself in the presence of the Father and made himself at home with us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, thank you that we have a home with you even now through Christ and in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, that we don’t have to look everywhere in order to find you—you’re closer even than the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. You have made your home in us and our home in you. Holy Spirit, awaken us anew to the realization of God’s real presence and abundant love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… and they began looking for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem looking for Him. Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?’ …” Luke 2:44b–49 (41–52) NASB
By Linda Rex
September 15, 2019, Proper 19—The parable about the lost coin nearly always brings to my mind the many times when I have lost something important and have searched all over in my attempts to find it. As I get older, I’m discovering that it’s getting easier for me to lose things and harder for me to find them. I confess that on occasion I have had to use my landline phone to call my cellphone because I could not find it anywhere.
My daughter dreads hearing me say that I can’t find my glasses because she knows they could be just about anywhere. She immediately checks to make sure they are not on my head—sometimes things are not as badly lost as we think they are. Sometimes we just need to change our viewpoint or our perspective, or what we believe to be true.
This parable of the lost coin shows the heart of our loving Abba, who is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that each of his children has a place at his table. It’s bad enough that we believe he’s looking for reasons to exclude us, but then we also often believe that he is indifferent as to whether or not we’re even present in his life. Neither are true.
The coin the woman searched for was a drachma, worth about a day’s wages. Back when I was an hourly employee earning minimum wage, losing a day’s wages was equivalent to not having any water that month or not being able to put gas in the car. When I lost a day’s wages or lost a valuable check, I was concerned. I needed every penny I earned. I had bills to pay and kids to feed and care for.
The diligence with which the house got searched increased with the value of the item lost. The urgency with which this woman searched her house was a reflection of the value she placed upon that lost coin. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Abba searches for his lost ones. Finding those who are his lost ones and bringing them home to be with him was very important to Abba—so important that the Word of God, his Son, came into our cosmos, shared in our humanity and our suffering, and brought us home to be with Abba forever.
There is no person today who is completely and totally lost, who is not found in Christ. On God’s side, he has searched out and found each and every one of us—including us in the humanity of our risen Lord. Our lostness is a matter of unbelief, not of spiritual reality. What we believe about God, about ourselves, and about who Jesus is and what he did, is critical. If we believe we are lost, forsaken, and abandoned, we will live as though that is true. But if we believe Christ has come and brought us home to his Father (which he has), then we will live as though that is true, and live in the joy, peace, and hope of God as we participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit.
Now sometimes we can be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we don’t realize we have wandered away from the God who loves us. This was what Jesus faced when the scribes and Pharisees began to criticize him for eating with sinners. When we begin to delineate between righteous people and sinners, including ourselves in the righteous group, we are in a dangerous place. We are declaring ourselves as having no need for Jesus and for what he did for us. We are denying reality.
Jesus emphasized our need to see ourselves accurately—as sinners in need of grace. As long as we believe we are righteous and do not need to be saved, we have no need of Jesus. We can live in this place of denial all our lives, but there will come a point where we will need to face the reality that apart from Jesus, we are lost. Apart from his finished work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we don’t have life today or hope for the future. We need to accept the truth that our eternity, and our present, are wrapped up in Jesus—he is our life. He is our right relationship with God and others.
There is great joy in heaven, Jesus said, when someone throws away the blinders and begins to see themselves with clear vision. Confessing the truth about ourselves paves the way for us to begin to live and walk in truth, in the spiritual realities in which we were included when Jesus came in our place on our behalf. And living in the reality that we are sinners saved by grace, beloved adopted children of the Father, changes how we treat those around us.
Instead of focusing on the failures, faults, and weaknesses of those around us, we focus on Christ—on him being at work in each person and in their lives by the Spirit, helping them come to see and believe that they too have been found and brought home to the Father. Rather than offering ridicule, criticism or condemnation, we offer encouragement, comfort, and understanding. Rather than rejecting or belittling them, we pray for them and offer them appropriate support.
It is in these ways that we participate with Jesus in searching for the lost and bringing them home to the Father. God has already done the hard part in the finished work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Now we get to join in as we follow Christ and the lead of the Spirit as God works in each person’s life to bring them to faith. We pray for them and share the good news with them. We share the love of God, extending the grace and mercy of Jesus, and trust God to finish what he already has begun in each person’s life.
So, today, how do we need to reconsider the way we look ourselves and the people around us? Are we using a clear and accurate lens? Do we see things through the lens of Jesus Christ? We may need to ask Abba for new glasses—or maybe we just need to clean the grime off of them so we can see things the way they really are. Either way, we may just discover that what we believe is lost has already been found.
Dear Abba, thank you for so diligently searching for us, finding us, and bringing us home to you. Give us clear vision, the lens of your Son Jesus Christ. Fill us anew with the Spirit of truth so we not only see the spiritual realities, but also the truth about those you have placed in our lives. Enable us to love them as you have loved us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’… I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’” Luke 15:2, 7, 10 NASB
by Linda Rex
At our last group meeting in Hermitage we talked about the concept of inclusion. We in Grace Communion International have been accused of being universalists due to our belief that God has brought all humanity into union with himself through Jesus Christ and has made his transforming Spirit available to all. The key element to this discussion is humanity’s individual response to the gift of salvation he is offering us in Jesus Christ. (For an excellent discussion of inclusion and our acceptance in Christ, see this article on the Grace Communion International website: https://www.gci.org/jesus/acceptance.)
So, how does a person respond to this gift of grace? As I was asked earlier this week: “How is the response to Jesus different from someone saying the sinner’s prayer? I thought that the sinner’s prayer was you making the decision to accept Christ and you bridging the gap between yourself and God. How is the response to Jesus’s acceptance different?”
This is a very important question and it speaks to the whole understanding of separation vs union with Christ. Saying the sinner’s prayer is indeed seen as bridging the gap between you and God, with the idea of repentance and faith bringing about a change in our position–from separation into union. It requires the process of repentance, faith, baptism, new behavior in order to be valid. Dr. Wauchope in his series on “God, the Who and Why” (there is a link for it on my blog site), explains how this method of bridging the gap between the spiritual world and our human world actually has its roots in Aristotle and the philosophers. It is as though we change the heavenly realities by our human efforts–which we know is a falsehood. Only God can change God.
So what does it mean that we respond to Jesus? Do we need to say the sinner’s prayer? I don’t believe that a particular prayer is necessary–the Ethiopian merely asked whether and where he could be baptized, and Philip baptized him. I think that is significant.
Baptism isn’t done in order to change our status with God. It is done as a sharing in Christ’s baptism, a sharing in his life and death. Peter called people to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins–what Jesus did when he was baptized for us in our place. He was calling them to receive the gift already given to them in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus–to participate in what Christ had already done for them.
In other words, at some point God is going to bring each of us to the point where we see that apart from Jesus, we have no hope–that without Jesus we are lost. Jesus said in his preaching–repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand (ie. I’m the Messiah and I’m here bringing in God’s kingdom), and he told his disciples to preach the Word, teach the Word and to baptize and disciple. That means there is a point of turning away from ourselves and our world and our way of living and being and a turning to Christ (ie. repent and believe, and receive the gift of life in him), at which point, symbolically through baptism, we identify with Christ, acknowledging that our life is in him.
This is why when someone comes to me and says, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to be a Christian, I ask them, “Have you talked with God about this?” And then I will pray with them and encourage them to pray about their commitment to Christ and his will. And I will then talk with them about baptism as a sign of their commitment, as an acknowledgement of their participation in Christ’s finished work.
But Barth and the Torrance’s are real clear that there is a definite turning away from oneself and a turning to Christ at some point. It’s a point in time and a process where a person acknowledges their need for and reliance upon Christ and a turning away from themselves and their ways, and a turning to Christ, and a submission to him as Lord of their life. This can take some time with people and may occur well after their initial understanding at baptism.
This is why discipleship of new believers is so important. They need to come to know and rely on Jesus and to begin to live their life in him. It is his life they are participating in–the new life they live is defined by Christ’s life, not by them. A person’s response to Jesus is, therefore, not just an event in time, but a whole turning of their life and being away from themselves and to Christ throughout the rest of their life–as Jesus said, a dying to self and a living in him.
As you can see, the latter approach does not at any point bring up some form of separation, but rather says that Jesus is our life. In God, through Christ and in the Spirit, we live and move and have our being. Christ did for us in our place all that is needed–so believe it and receive it, and then live it out. It’s all in terms of participating in the life Christ made for us in our humanity as a sharing in his divinity. I think this is a much more hopeful and joyful word of life.
The following is a response to a related question, “Does the Holy Spirit work on each person individually at some level continually or is God not working with everyone yet?”:
Sometimes our inclusive language can be a little too free. Yes, we need to keep the concept of inclusion in our language. All are included in God’s life and love. That is a given. All are united with God in Christ.
But our calling and full participation in that is something the Spirit does in a unique time and way for each of us. The communion of the Spirit is a different story from our union with God in Christ. The communion of the Spirit is experienced by the body of Christ through whom God is bearing witness to the world about Jesus in the Spirit today.
It does not mean that all do not have the Spirit but rather that there is an awakening of some to the calling to bear witness to Jesus Christ as a community of faith. We want to let all people know they are included in God’s love and life. But the thing is–if a person is living and being in a way that does not coincide with how God is and how Christ is for them, then how can they fully participate in God’s love and life? There is a call to repentance–to a change of mind and heart in how we look at God and who we think he is and a turning away from ourselves to Jesus, trusting in him for life and godliness rather than in anything else. The Holy Spirit does a work in a person’s heart, mind and life that is transformational–it is real.
My friend Bob likes to say, “all are included, they just don’t know it yet.” That’s not really a bad thing to say–but there is still the call to repent and believe. Barth and Torrance say the best way to present the gospel is to say, “God loves you so much he sent his Son to live, die, rise again in your place. He’s done all that is needed for you to be reconciled to God and redeemed. Jesus Christ stands in your place, interceding for you with the Father, and he gives you his Spirit so you can share in God’s life and love. You are loved and forgiven. [ie you are included] Therefore, repent and believe.”
The gospel continues to require a call to repent and believe, even when all are included. The thing is, this repentance and this faith is taken up in Jesus Christ just like everything else–it comes as a gift from God through Christ in the Spirit. It’s not on us as humans to find something within ourselves to be able to repent and believe. Christ gives us his own repentance and faith as a gift of God through the Spirit. So it’s not all up to us–it’s all of grace. Really the only response left for us gratitude or grateful obedience, and even that we participate in with Christ. It’s all of grace.
When we think of the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of inclusion, we see that because the Spirit is poured out on all, he is available to all. He is working even now in and with each person. But as far as the transformational work the Spirit does in bringing someone to faith in Christ and into the body of Christ and into the obedience that comes with faith, that is something that is unique–it is a setting apart of certain persons for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and to share the gospel. All are included in the kingdom of God, but not all are willing and obedient participants.
Father, I thank you for including all in your life and love through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Grant us the grace to receive and fully participate in your precious gift. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mk 1:14–15 NIV