By Linda Rex
September 8, 2019, Proper 18—As I was reading the passage for next Sunday, I remembered a scene from when I was driving home from Cookeville to Nashville recently. It was located in a small farming community nestled between several tree-covered peaks. In the middle of a large pasture near some other houses sat a wooden frame which looked as though it had been abandoned, with new pieces of lumber scattered among broken pieces from an old farmhouse. What had been built looked great, but sat abandoned, with no one working on it, with no equipment around, and no sign from what I would see that anyone was planning to finish what they started.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are times when we feel like that unfinished building—abandoned, forgotten, with no hope of ever becoming what we believe we really ought to be or could be. We may have had great plans of overcoming this, of developing that, of doing that good deed, but we so often come up short. What we may feel like is worn out, burned out failures at life.
When we think about picking up and carrying our own cross daily, this is often what we feel like. Living life as a Christian and trying to do the right thing all the time is difficult. I’m grateful I do not have to carry Christ’s cross—I’m still trying to fully understand how to carry my own. And this is why it is important to understand what Jesus meant when he said this.
We often assume that the Christian life is meant to be a struggle against sin, a war to overcome the evil within ourselves. This makes our Christian walk rather self-centered, as an effort to become what we are not. But this is not really a helpful way of seeing things, and not what Jesus meant when he told us to carry our cross and to follow him.
What would be helpful for us to understand is that when Jesus told us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him, he was not telling us something we had to do on our own all by ourselves. When a contractor sets out to build a house, he usually does not attempt to do so all by himself. No, he has someone come to do the plumbing, someone to do the electricity, maybe even a few carpenters and carpet layers come to help him out. In other words, he doesn’t attempt the task all by himself—he does it in community.
In the same way, Jesus calls us into community, into fellowship with the Trinity, where we live life in Christ by the Spirit as participants in his own intimate father-son relationship with his Abba. Jesus says no other relationship should have this precedence in our life—we love all others less in comparison. As participants in the divine life and love, we don’t build our lives under our own power according to our own plans. Whatever we do coincides directly with who we are as God’s beloved adopted children who share in Christ’s perfect and holy sonship.
Jesus also calls us into the community of believers. We are not meant to go through the struggles to live as a follower of Christ alone. The Spirit calls us together into a community so that we can encourage each other and lift each other up, and when our burdens become too difficult for us to carry alone, we have someone to come alongside us to help and strengthen us. We aren’t alone, but rather are called into spiritual community, the church, which is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ who, like us, are beloved adopted children of Abba.
In other words, the life of a follower of Jesus becomes a matter of finding and living out our true identity in Christ as Abba’s beloved adopted children rather than seeking to gain acceptance by our religious performance and moral goodness. We don’t depend upon our ability to do what is necessary—the cost is too great because we will fail. We depend solely upon Christ, walking by faith in him, and living and walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh. Our focus is not on how well we are doing or not doing, but rather on Jesus Christ, and how he has done it, is doing it in us by the Spirit, and will finish it when we are glorified at his return.
What this means is, the cost of our salvation has been paid by Jesus. The cost to us is the laying down of our life and the receiving of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. This means we cease to be the center, other people cease to be the center, and the cares of this life are set completely aside—Jesus Christ himself is now the center of our life. We are baptized in his baptism, acknowledging he lived our life, we died in his death, we rose in his resurrection, and we ascended in his ascension. We eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, thankfully celebrating that he is all we need—his life for our life. He became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
When we count the cost of following Christ, we aren’t examining ourselves to see whether or not we have what it takes to follow through to the end. The reality is we don’t. That’s why God had from the beginning, before all was made, intended to join our life with his life through the incarnation. God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is our assurance that we have what it takes—we turn to Jesus, again and again, daily relying upon him to finish what he began in us. We, as temples of the Spirit, are in process, and in the end, the beautiful bride, the universal fellowship of all believers, will shine with God’s glory in his presence forever.
So, the question for today is, what do you need to lay down so that you are solely picking up your daily reliance upon Jesus? What is it that you need to relinquish or surrender control over so that Christ can rule in your heart and life? What relationships need to be given healthy boundaries so Christ becomes your focus instead someone else being the center of your life? You are the beloved adopted child of Abba and by the Spirit you share in Jesus’ perfect relationship with him. Accept your cross of life in Christ daily, and follow him wherever he goes. Let him do the heavy lifting—you enjoy the journey.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your perfect relationship with your Son Jesus. Thank you that by the Spirit, we participate in Christ’s perfected humanity. What a blessing that it is all up to him and not all up to us! Enable us this day, and each day, to lay down all our human efforts at righteousness and surrender fully to dependency upon Christ alone. Enable us to establish healthy relationships, keeping Christ at the center of our lives. Grant us the grace to yield control completely to you, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27 NASB
By Linda Rex
During the time of my personal spiritual upheaval in which I went from the legalistic underpinnings of my youth in Worldwide Church of God to the grace-based reality of life in Christ I experience today, I wrote a letter to a high-school friend, explaining how God had changed my heart and mind. My purpose in writing this letter was to renew our friendship and to try to make amends for any harm I may have done through my misguided theological beliefs.
In my letter I explained the transformation in my understanding and beliefs, and how it was all through God’s grace. I was hoping I would not offend this dear friend by my zeal to share with her the wonderful blessing of God’s work in my heart and life. I most certainly did not want to alienate her in any way.
I was grateful to receive back from her a letter filled with warm understanding and appreciation of our friendship and of the change which had occurred in my life. She also wrote that she envied my strong faith. That surprised me. For the last thing I ever thought about myself was that I was strong in my faith.
I’ve had other people tell me something similar whenever I share with them what God has done in my life and try to encourage them to grow in their relationship with their Abba through Jesus. It seems that having faith is a nebulous yet longed for goal in people’s lives. We want to believe in something or Someone, but we don’t know where to begin, especially when we find nothing within ourselves to be the source of that faith. We think we have no faith at all, when in reality, we have a source of faith within ourselves that is abundant and always accessible.
This source of faith is the person and power of Jesus Christ by the indwelling Spirit. The faith we long for will not be found in our own broken humanity, but in the perfected, glorified humanity of Jesus Christ, which was poured out on each of us through his Holy Spirit. To embrace the faith of Jesus Christ is to open ourselves up to the work of God in us by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe one of the reasons we struggle so much in this area is because we think if we had great faith, everything would go well in our lives. If we needed something, we could just ask God for it and believe God would give it to us, and he would. Maybe we think if we could just drum up enough faith, God would come through for us every time we asked him for something. We wouldn’t have any problems in our lives because we were strong in our faith and living good lives.
There is a fundamental flaw in this way of thinking and it has to do with what we believe about God and about ourselves in relationship with him. For this is what faith is all about—believing the truth about Who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who we are in Christ as God’s adopted, forgiven and redeemed children—and trusting in the gracious love of Abba as he works to bring to completion all he has begun in us through Christ and in his Spirit.
The faith we need isn’t our own faith, but the faith of Jesus, Who lived eternally in relationship with Abba in the Spirit as the Word of God. When the Word of God took on our human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, his complete, implicit faith in his Father, his Abba, was evident at every point in his life. It was most effectively expressed in his final moments on the cross when, even though he did not feel the presence of Abba in his humanity, he entrusted his Spirit and his being into the care of Abba. He trusted implicitly and entirely in this relationship of love which he had had with his Father since before time began. He knew to the core of his being he could never be separated from his Father’s love.
We need to take heed to Jesus’ words of warning and comfort: “…in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV) Each of us, no matter who we are, no matter how “good” we are, no matter how faithful we are, is going to have trouble in this world. Hard times will come. Suffering will happen. Life will be a struggle. But Jesus says to us: “…take heart, I have overcome the world.”
What we can rely upon is the reality no matter what we are facing, in Jesus we can find the strength, the courage and the faith to endure it. No matter what our needs are, we can find in Christ, by the Spirit, the ability to touch the heart of God and to know he cares for us and will carry us through our emptiness to the other side where he has enough for us—maybe even an abundance for us.
God calls to us and says to us over and over, “Trust me. Trust in my love for you.” And we don’t, because we are frail, broken creatures who have only experienced disappointment, loss and betrayal throughout our lives. It can be almost impossible to trust a God Whom we don’t know, or Whom we see through the lens of all the hateful, hurtful people in our lives who have let us down, abused us or betrayed us.
So we go through life, over and over facing opportunities to learn the deepest truth of our lives: God loves us and he is trustworthy and faithful, no matter what. We experience the pain and suffering of our humanity in the midst of the reality we are held—held in the grip of God’s grace in love through his Son Jesus Christ and his presence by his Spirit. Indeed, if we are open to receive it, God never leaves us or forsakes us, but is always present in every moment, ready and willing to carry us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
In every relationship there are ebbs and flows, ups and downs. There are times when we are close to one another, and others where we cannot stand to be in the same room with one another. Some relationships are stronger and deeper than others, whereas some are just simply a sharing of time and space with one another as circumstance indicates.
In this same way, our relationship with God ebbs and flows and has its ups and downs. We come to see, over time and through many experiences in the difficult times in life, that God is always a good God, always faithful and trustworthy, always willing to listen and to understand, always willing to carry us when we cannot carry ourselves. God allows things to test our trust and faith in him, knowing through these experiences we will grow into a deeper love for him and faith in him as we turn to Christ in the midst of these difficulties.
It is Christ in us by the Spirit who trusts Abba through all these difficulties. It is his faith at work in us in the midst of trials and struggles. It is Jesus’ perfect knowledge of the Father we participate in when we hold on to God in faith while struggling with pain, suffering or loss. When we see all we are going through as merely a sharing in Christ’s pain, suffering and loss, we find within ourselves a capacity to endure and to trust in spite of it all.
Lately, God has shown me how I have not been trusting him as completely and implicitly as I could and should do. Intellectually I can believe in the goodness and love of God, but the reality of what is going on in my heart can be heard in the words coming out of my mouth in casual conversation as I struggle with these changes and challenges in my life right now.
It is how we put the faith of Christ in us to work in the midst of difficulties which shows the quality or completeness of our faith—and so God allows us to struggle. The tree on the edge of the cliff, blown by the wind and tested by the storms, is the tree which puts its roots down deepest into the soil. It is not our faith which will hold us, but the faith of Christ deep within us, by the Spirit, which holds us in the midst of our struggles. May your faith and mine be proven to be genuine and real as we bear the storms of life.
Abba, thank you that it is the faith of Jesus in us by your Spirit which really matters in the end, not our own faith. Thank you for being near and being faithful no matter what is happening in our lives. Grant us the grace to trust you and in your perfect love in every situation, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2–4 NASB
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3–9 NASB