participate

The Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus

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By Linda Rex

I spent a large portion of my early years believing the Holy Spirit was merely God’s essence and power, and not a Person who I could come to know and have a relationship with. In fact, the idea of talking to the Spirit or having a conversation even with Jesus was considered inappropriate. All my prayers were directed to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ.

Any mention of the Holy Spirit in my prayers came about only because I felt it was necessary to occasionally ask God for more of his Spirit so I could have better behavior and stop doing stupid stuff. I understood there was God the Father and Jesus his Son, and they were a family I could be a part of if I worked hard enough and qualified to belong. I believed the Holy Spirit was something God would pour out or withhold according to how well I behaved or just according to his own preference, which could change on a whim.

When it was brought to my attention how in the Bible the Spirit is repeatedly shown to have all the attributes of personhood, and was spoken of by Jesus himself as being another Helper just like himself, a light went on in my mind and heart. Could this be true? Is the Spirit another One just like Jesus and the Father? Do they live together in a oneness in which each is distinct and equal? Is the Spirit Someone I can have a relationship with?

Coming to this place in my understanding was critical to being able to understand God’s grace and love toward me. I had been denying the personhood of the One who is instrumental in enabling each of us to awaken to faith, the One who makes possible our participation in the finished work of Christ. I had objectified the One who enables us to see the Father and the Son—the Spirit unites us to Christ, enabling us to participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with his Abba.

Over the years as I have grown in my relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I have come to see more and more how I had traded in real love and grace for empty religion. I learned how to be very religious from an early age, and it appalls me to hear someone still tell me today I’m very religious.

I don’t like being called a religious person because I don’t want to be religious—I want to be rightly related, to God and to others. There is a difference. I don’t want to work hard at being good enough. I don’t want to be constantly striving to win my Father’s approval. What I want is to rest in God’s amazing grace, and in his unconditional love and acceptance.

I want to be actively participating in a personal, intimate relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit in which I am trusting in the perfect work of Jesus Christ—in that which he did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—in the work he is actively completing in each of us today by the Holy Spirit he sent from the Father. The Holy Spirit is bringing to completion in us individually what Christ accomplished for us, in our place, on our behalf in our humanity.

I realize part of this process of growing up in Christ requires my participation. Participation is a lot different than being religious, or working hard or striving to win God’s love and approval. Participation is a sharing—where Christ is in us and we are in him, and we are in the Father and the Father is in us. This is the Person of the Holy Spirit uniting us together in harmony and oneness—a beautiful perichoretic relationship—a mutual indwelling. This is life together in a beautiful give and take, an ongoing conversation, a perilous yet joyful and thrilling journey.

Today I don’t ask for more of the Spirit. I pray to him (and the Father and the Son). The Spirit is a Person, a beautiful, amazing Being, who fully indwells me. He doesn’t split himself up into thirds, fourths, or sixteenths. He just is. And he is present. I can shove him away, resist him, reject him and even try to quench him. But in the end, he is still present—for his is the Breath who sustains me and the Water of Life I need to exist, both physically and spiritually.

The Spirit woos me, invites me deeper and deeper into this perichoretic relationship God has called me into. He opens my mind to a deeper understanding of who God is, and therefore, as one made in his image, who I am. He enables me to know the depths of Abba’s heart, and the love of Jesus.

He gives me the capacity to understand and be sensitive to those to whom I am normally indifferent. He gives me the heart to love those who are cruel and insensitive—and enables me to bear up under difficulty and sorrow. Sometimes he gives me a sense of what will happen in the near future, preparing me so I can bear what is coming.

And sometimes the Spirit just gives me the pleasure of a word of affirmation or inspiration in my mind and heart which I am needing in that particular moment. He is able to do this because he knows and understands the depths of my heart and mind—he is the Spirit, and discerns things about my spirit, my heart, and my mind I don’t even recognize. He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the One who took on my humanity and lived the life I was meant to live, and who died my death. The Spirit is one with Jesus who lives in me.

This indeed is the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. Today I live and walk in Christ because I live and walk in the Spirit. The Father, Jesus, and the Spirit are one, so I live and walk each moment of my life within the embrace of the Triune God. I cannot escape this—for Christ has united his being with our humanity. And the Spirit is drawing me into the fullness of Christ’s glory. What a wonderful present and future I have in this relationship!

My faith was so empty in comparison with this. I am extremely grateful to God for awakening me to this life in Christ Jesus. I still struggle, for it is much easier to slide back into religious doing than it is to rest, trusting fully in Jesus to finish his perfect work in me by his Spirit. I still fall asleep on occasion, and have to be reawakened to the reality of what God has done for me in Christ and what he is doing in me by his Holy Spirit. But I can and do rest in the completed work of Christ and trust in Abba’s faithfulness, for he will not quit until I fully reflect the perfected humanity I was meant to bear.

Dear Holy Spirit, thank you for continuing to point us to the Father and the Son, and for making them and yourself real to us day by day. Please finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the glory of the Lord we were meant to bear. Thank you, Abba, you will never quit until we are all what you meant for us to be in your creation and your redemption, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.” John 16:13–15 NASB

“The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” 1 John 3:24 NASB

“… the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Colossians 1:26–28 NASB

“Without the distinct and inseparable gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit, we could not and we would not participate—we would and could not share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses of repentance, faith, hope and love for God and receive his grace given to us. Our salvation requires the ministry of all three Persons of the Trinity and all three moments of God’s saving action towards us, each contributing to the one whole will, purpose and accomplishment of our salvation.” Dr. Gary Deddo, “Clarifying our Theological Vision”, Pt. 3.

The Divine Aggressor

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Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005
Incarnation by Linda Rex, copyright 2005

by Linda Rex

The last thing I would ever want to do would be to make God look like he is an evil monster looking for opportunities to destroy you or me because of our badness. It seems our ways of looking at God and thinking about him do enough of that without my helping them along.

But we do need to understand that God isn’t just a nice, feel-good sort of Person all the time. Just because he is loving and compassionate doesn’t mean there aren’t things he really truly hates. Indeed, God abhors and vehemently opposes anything which mars the beauty he created you and me to reflect—he is passionately opposed to those things which keep us from being the image-bearers of God he created us to be.

This passion of God—this “wrath” of God—is behind all he has done in sending his Son to live, die, rise and ascend on our behalf, and behind his sending of his Spirit to dwell in human hearts. This passion of God has driven him from before time to ensure what he began in us would be completed through Christ and in his Spirit.

There is one who has opposed God from the beginning, and who, with his followers, seeks to destroy God’s work and to undermine his efforts in renewing all things. The adversary opposes all which is good and holy. He labors constantly in an effort to turn human beings against the God who made them, sustains them and redeemed them. Any effort we make to trust in and obey the God who is Father, Son and Spirit is resisted and thwarted by the evil one.

In many world views, good and evil are seen as equal opposites, who must be kept in a constant state of balance for people to be able to exist in harmony and peace. The balance I see being kept in the divine life and love is not of the balance between good and evil, but the perfect harmony and oneness of the Trinity in their equality and diversity. Evil in this worldview only exists as that which opposes the Trinity, and is allowed to exist only because of the freedom of will given to those who are created by God.

God summarily dealt with evil and all who oppose him in our cosmos by taking on our humanity and dealing with it from the inside out. He was very aggressive in tackling the issue of our broken humanity and the efforts of the evil one. In Jesus Christ, God conquered death and Satan, and gave us all a new life in Christ which is ours through the Spirit.

The message we find in Revelation and elsewhere is Satan and death are defeated foes, and we have nothing to fear. In fact, God sent his Spirit and he is systematically penetrating this world with his very life through his gathering of believers (which we call the church) who are the body of Christ. There is a finality about the destruction of Satan, his demons and evil, as well as death. As far as God is concerned, it is already over with. All that’s left is the mopping up. What we experience today of evil and death and suffering is just a temporary blip in the radar, and in time, it will all be gone.

Dr. Michael Heiser, in his book “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible”, puts it like this:

The theological messaging couldn’t be more dramatic. Jesus says he will build his church—and the “gates of hell” will not prevail against it. We often think of this phrase as though God’s people are in a posture of having to bravely fend off Satan and his demons. This simply isn’t correct. Gates are defensive structures, not offensive weapons. The kingdom of God is the aggressor.(a) Jesus begins at ground zero in the cosmic geography of both testaments to announce the great reversal. It is the gates of hell that are under assault—and they will not hold up against the Church. Hell will one day be Satan’s tomb.(1)

While I may not agree with every detail Dr. Heiser writes in his book, I can appreciate his emphasis on the already, not yet, focus of the establishment of the kingdom of God today. God has invited believers to participate with him in the expansion of his renewal of all things to fill the whole cosmos. He is allowing those who follow Christ to join with him as he aggressively intervenes to bring healing, hope and restoration in many people’s lives all over the world.

We forget sometimes we are at war. We forget our Jesus is a mighty warrior fighting on behalf of all that is just, holy, right and good. And he has invited us to go with him into battle against all his foes—all which oppose the glory he created human beings to reflect.

God is not impotent against the forces of evil at work in this world. But he has invited us to share in the battle, and he has reasons for allowing things to happen the way they do. As the commander-in-chief, who died at the hands of humanity so humanity could be saved, he has a way of dealing with evil which often seems out of sync with our reality. This is why it is so important that we follow the lead of his Spirit and grow in our knowledge of Who Christ is and who we are in him. God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts.

The bottom line is to trust him—to believe Abba so loves you and me that not only did he send his Son Jesus to free us from sin and death, but that he also is sending his Spirit to bring to fruition all Jesus forged into our humanity in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Thankfully, Jesus even took care of our need for faith, by accomplishing in himself our perfect response of love toward Abba. We are held, we are loved, and we are Abba’s beloved children, and God will accept nothing less than this for you and for me. This is his passion and Jesus will see that it is realized by his Spirit.

Thank you, Abba, for your great love and faithfulness toward all you created. Thank you for giving us the freedom to choose, and the privilege of mirroring your glory and goodness. Thank you for allowing us to participate in all you are doing to renew what you created and you sustain. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us through your Son and by your Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Mt 16:18 NASB

(1) Heiser, M. S. (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition, pp. 284–285). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

(a) [Note by Dr. Heiser] See the discussion in John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2005), 675.

Growing in Neighborliness

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by Linda Rex

I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.

I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.

Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.

Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.

When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.

As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.

Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.

Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.

True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.

The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.

Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.

As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.

When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.

Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB

Matters of the Heart

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by Linda Rex

There are some things in life we just don’t like doing, and not everyone shares the same dislike of doing certain things. For much of my life I haven’t liked washing dishes, probably because it was a household chore forced on me as a child and it involved washing an entire counter’s worth of dirty dishes. Today washing dishes is something I’ve learned to tolerate, and I thank God for my dishwasher all the time because it is such a blessing to me. I doubt I will ever grow to love the task of cleaning the grime off dishes, but I do remember on occasion to thank God I even have the dishes to wash and the food to wash off of them.

And that’s what got me to thinking. What about those things in life we just don’t like doing, but we know doing them is the right thing to do—something God wants us to do? We run up against these things all the time—it’s a part of our human existence. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the heart to do what we know we need to do. But maybe we’re wrong.

The Israelites stood on the shores of the Jordan River and Moses began to talk with them about the journey they had been on with their God, how he had created them and then redeemed them by bringing them out of slavery, and how he would bring them into their new land. And Moses gave them the directive God had placed in his mouth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)

The evidence of Israel’s travels through the wilderness show they did not and didn’t seem to be capable of truly loving the God who created and redeemed them. They seemed to always drift back towards their days in slavery or over into the idolatry of the nations they encountered. They definitely did not have the heart to obey God, much less love him wholeheartedly. If anything, their heart was turned away from God and not towards him.

There were times in my life where I felt it was monstrously unfair for God to expect Israel to love him with their whole heart when they weren’t capable of doing it. It seemed horribly unjust.

But as time has gone by, I have come to know God a little better. I have learned to look at these stories from a different perspective. In the context of this directive to Israel we hear Moses describing all the ways in which God had shown his love and faithfulness to them, and how he was going to continue to faithfully fulfill his covenant love relationship with them as they moved on into the promised land.

The basis of God’s request Israel love him wholeheartedly was within himself, in his love and faithfulness. It was not something they had to drum up on their own—which is what they kept trying to do. God had called them into relationship with himself, had given them all the ways in which they needed to live to fully and joyfully participate in that relationship. By his love and grace he would ensure their relationship with him would last and they would indeed love him with all their heart and soul and might.

As time went by, God sent prophets to Israel to call them back into their covenant relationship of love. We read in Hosea and other places of the heartache this nation continually caused God by their infidelities and indifference and outright rebellion against him. But God was faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. God was loving and gracious to them in spite of their ingratitude and rejection of him. The prophets told the people one day God would give them a new heart and a new mind which would enable them to love their Redeemer with their whole hearts. He would make it possible for them to do what they were created to do—to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another.

This should be a comfort to you and to me. We know in our heart of hearts we are incapable of truly loving God and each other as we ought. All we have to do is listen to the daily news to understand how true it is—people cannot and do not love God wholeheartedly, much less love one another. Even the ones we expect to be truly loving people—pastors, preachers, teachers, caregivers—turn out to be just as selfish, greedy and cruel as the next person. And we see within ourselves the reality of our own inability to love God or others as we should. And it scares us.

It is important for us to see our capacity and desire to love God wholeheartedly comes from God himself and is not something we do under our own power or by our own efforts. It is all of grace.

The reason God came to earth in human form was so each of us could one day share in God’s very own capacity to love and be loved. In Jesus Christ we are each taken up through his life, death, resurrection and ascension into the very life and love of God himself. When the Father, through Jesus, sent the Spirit to humanity, he gave each of us the capacity to love with God’s love. He gave us the heart to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. We have a new heart, a new mind and a new soul—we share in Christ’s capacity to truly love.

God is gracious and allows us to choose for ourselves what we will live out of—the broken and diseased heart which died with Christ, or the new heart bought and paid for and given to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The evil one likes to keep us focused on the old dead, evil heart, and does his best to destroy the heart God created within us in Christ. He likes to distract us with all the old ways of being and doing, making us think we are incapable of loving God or others.

But nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—in God we live and move and have our being. (Rom. 8:38-39; Acts 17:28) God’s love is as much a part of us as Christ is, for he shares fully in our humanity even now. The Spirit awakens us to faith in Christ. He gives us the capacity to be the loving people we are in Christ. He grows us up into Christ and enables us to love God wholeheartedly and to love others with Christ’s love. He works to change us, to transform our hearts by faith.

God does not ask us to do what he does not give us the capacity to do. He continually is the basis of our relationship with him, and he pours himself into us through Jesus in the Spirit so we can grow in our love for him and our love for one another. Our freedom to resist and reject his work within us is also a part of his gracious loving act, for he will not have robots in his family—only adopted, loving children who love him wholeheartedly out of a love which has its roots within himself, in the perfect perichoretic love which exists between the Father, Son and Spirit.

So this whole thing of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength is not a matter of our efforts, but rather a matter of faith—of trusting in the love and faithfulness of God and relying upon his gracious work in us through Jesus and by the Spirit to create within us a desire and willingness, and even a passion, to love God completely and entirely with a deep, everlasting love.

In a way, I suppose, it’s kind of like me putting the dishes in the dishwasher, throwing in the detergent and turning the dial to “normal”. All I’m doing is participating with the dishwasher in getting the dishes done. I don’t have to do them, I just have to bring them to the dishwasher and allow the dishwasher to do its work.

Thank God that he is not like a machine which breaks down and does only what I tell it to do. Instead he is a loving, compassionate Being who is faithful and has already taken care of everything through his Son and by his Spirit. I just get to be a part of what he’s doing. I can rest fully in him and trust he will give me the heart to love him wholeheartedly, and when I don’t, I can trust I’m already forgiven and accepted in Christ. Isn’t that just great? I just love that about him!

Thank you, God, that you never give us anything to do which you do not give us the capacity to do through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun in us—we trust you will enable us to love you wholeheartedly and follow you wherever you lead. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray, amen.

“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27 NASB

“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” Jeremiah 32:38–41 NASB

Offering Connection

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by Linda Rex

Several years ago I facilitated a divorce support group in a small community. The group was small and we spent our time walking through the healing process together. The members of the group shared their stories and we talked about ways to begin to build new relationships.

One of the ladies had been in a difficult and at times, dangerous, relationship, and it was important for her to begin to make some significant changes in her life. She needed to end old, unhealthy relationships with people who were drawing her into destructive habits, and to begin to build strong bonds with people who would lift her up and help her to grow in positive ways.

I wanted to invite her to attend church with me, but it was rather awkward, since it was an hour and a half one way to where I was attending at the time. I did offer to bring her with me to services, but then I suggested that perhaps she could attend one of the churches in the community. I knew several of the pastors, and was sure that they would help her to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ.

But the problem was that she had no friends who attended church. All her near and dear friends were only found at the local bar—because that was her social life. That bar was the hub of the local community and whatever was going to happen would happen there, or she would hear about it there from her friends. It wasn’t that the bar was necessarily a bad place for her to go—it’s just that her good friends hung out there along with her abusive spouse and some other people who were not good for her to be around.

Her past experience with church told her that church was not a safe place to go. In fact, in her view the bar where she went for fun and fellowship was a safer place relationally (in spite of the negative influences) than any of the churches were. She really didn’t know any church people with whom she felt loved and accepted. So she had no reason to go to church. Church scared her, especially now that she had the stigma of being divorced.

As time passed I could see the hunger in her for a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, but my efforts to connect her with some type of Christian relationships were rejected. I continued to offer her support after the group ended, but I found that she went on struggling with the pattern of unhealthy relationships and behaviors. She was not willing to risk attending a church she knew nothing about and could not relate to, and did not want to give up the friends and familiar surroundings of the neighborhood bar. Eventually she moved away, and in the process her circumstances changed. But she did not, to my knowledge, ever begin attending church anywhere.

What was it about that neighborhood bar that made it so attractive to her that she would not give it up? She really didn’t go there to drink—she went there for the relationships. She went there because it was fun to dance, to play pool, and to talk with her buddies. When she had a rough day at work, she was able to talk with someone about it. If she was having relational problems, her pals would commiserate and give her helpful advice. She didn’t have to worry about feeling lonely, because she could go there and find someone to hang out with. If she wanted someone to celebrate with her or cry with her, there they were.

It almost sounds like church, doesn’t it?

Actually, I think it should. Because isn’t that what the body of Christ is supposed to be like? A group of people gathered together in Christ to share life—to lift each other up, share each other’s joys and sorrows, and to offer one another support, encouragement and advice?

I don’t really think the whole problem with getting people to church is bad publicity or misinformation. I think it also boils down to the reality that church today is no longer the Christian fellowship it was meant to be. Bonhoeffer’s description in his book Life in Community is a far cry from what many of us within the church community experience. It is hard to find this life-on-life way of living out the Christian faith.

Too many of us are so busy protecting our glitzy façade of ethical behavior to really form deep, meaningful relationships with others in the church. Sadly, we often create an environment that makes people feel very uncomfortable with owning up to their failures and needs. This makes it very difficult for those who are struggling to be able to freely repent and confess their faults so they can begin to find healing and hope.

I personally believe the series Cheers had such a long, successful run was because it touched a deep place in people that resonated with their need to connect in a deep way and to share life with others. What if our churches became places where people were able to be real? What if our churches made people feel like they were accepted and loved just the way they were, while encouraging them to grow into all they could be and all God wants for them? Could people get so hooked on such warm, loving fellowship that they could not do without it?

To me, that sounds a lot like participation in the divine life and love—it sounds like perichoresis. And I think we all have an inner longing for it because it is what we were created to share in. All areas of our lives provide opportunities to create and participate in such fellowship, and to share it with others. And we have all eternity to do this with one another. We can start now as we gather together for worship and prayer as God’s people, but also as we share all facets of our lives with one another the way God intended. May God bless and guide us as we grow up into true Christian fellowship.

Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love, Grant us the grace to include others as well. May we learn to practice genuine fellowship with one another as we share life with those you bring to us to share life with. In Jesus’ name and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Philippians 2:1–2 NASB

Our Response to God and his Grace

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Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex
Stream Scene from trip to AR, taken by Linda Rex

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

But What About Positive Expectations?

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By Linda Rex

Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?

What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.

These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.

God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.

The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.

For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.

We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.

Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.

Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?

That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.

Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.

So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.

Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.

We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.

Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.

“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5