By Linda Rex
September 18, 2022, PROPER 20—Do you have property or assets which require a lot of attention and effort for their care? Do you own some things which have become heavy financial or physical burdens for you to carry? Of all your physical possessions, what is your greatest asset? What do you value the most?
Even though we may own property or have physical assets of some kind, Jesus says that what is ours isn’t really our own. As we reflect on our origins, having been created by God to reflect his likeness and instructed by God to tend the garden and all he created, we see that stewarding is fundamental to our personhood as human beings. Taking care of what doesn’t belong to us but what belongs to God is an essential part of our everyday responsibilities as God’s children. We may not realize this, but our everyday lives are simply a participation in what God is doing in this world, and our actions (or inaction) are a statement of how well we are fulfilling our role as stewards of all God has made.
Too often I find myself approaching life as though what I own belongs solely to me, rather than seeing everything through the lens of stewardship—our participation in God’s life—recognizing that everything belongs to him. Perhaps it is good to be reminded that we have been given the responsibility to care for all God has made and to do what he wants done, rather than simply deciding for ourselves what we want to do with what we have. This understanding definitely puts a different outlook on how we live our lives and what we do with the physical assets which come our way.
Going beyond this, though, I am reminded that the greatest asset of all is not some physical belonging or possession, but rather something of more infinite value, meant to be shared with others. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus told a parable about a rich owner who had to call his manager into account for squandering his possessions. This term “squandering” is the same term Jesus used in his story about the prodigal son, who squandered his Father’s inheritance with extravagant and wasteful living. The dishonest manager was told to give an account of his management, for he was going to be fired if he could not prove his innocence.
As this manager thought about what to do, he came up with a plan which might ensure that he had a place to land once he lost his present employment. He met with the owner’s debtors, and worked with each one to reduce the amount they owed. Surprisingly, when his master found out what he had done, he praised the manager for his shrewdness in handling the situation he was in.
It is interesting that in his parable, Jesus would have the unjust steward praised for what was, in effect, stealing even more from his master. But Jesus, as he addressed his disciples, was focused on something entirely different than simply teaching them the difference between honesty and dishonesty. Indeed, what the dishonest manager offered others was what Jesus himself was offering all people—grace, and life in the kingdom.
The leaders of Jesus’ day had been made stewards of God’s kingdom and his righteousness. They were responsible to care for those who were in need or who were estranged from God. But too often, they valued wealth, possessions, prominence and popularity instead, and did not see their own need for God’s grace and mercy. Not realizing their own need for grace, they did not offer it to anyone else. Instead, they held people to impossible standards and excluded them from table fellowship in ways God never intended.
Ironically, in Jesus’ parable, the one who was the Christ figure is the unjust steward, who offered the owner’s debtors grace. In his life coming to an end, the unjust steward offered new life to those who were indebted to his master. Jesus, as he told this parable, knew the price he himself was going to have to pay so that those listening would receive God’s grace—his rejection, suffering, and crucifixion. He knew that he was facing death so that all people might rise with him in the resurrection and be given new life. Jesus was stewarding well God’s gift of grace to humanity by offering himself freely in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus’ gift of grace in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension is our greatest asset. Jesus’ self-offering, his willingness to lay it all down for us so that we may have new life, is the most valuable thing we own. This is a gift he has given to each and every human being—it is not limited to only those who deserve it. In fact, Jesus often pointed out that it is those who realize they don’t deserve it who best see the value of this gift.
The question is, do I, do you, see the value of God’s grace and God’s kingdom life given to us in Christ? And having been given this most precious gift, do we even realize our need for it?
And, having received this totally undeserved benefit of grace and eternal life, how well do we steward it? By God’s grace we are all included in God’s life, moment by moment sharing in what he is doing in this world. By God’s grace, we have been given all we need for life and godliness. By God’s grace and mercy, we have been included in Christ’s own intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit, having been included now and forever in the life and love of God. How well do we share this gift with others? Are we helping others to see the magnitude of what Jesus has done for them?
Whatever physical assets we may own in this life pale in comparison with this most wonderful gift. When we see and understand this, we begin to have a new perspective about everything we own. We begin to realize that generosity, sharing, hospitality, and service are each a participation in what God’s doing in this world. We find ourselves acting more as stewards, recognizing God’s ownership of us and all that we have, and we begin to actively participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sharing with others the good news of the grace offered to all. This is the best stewardship of the priceless asset we have been given—God’s grace and eternal life.
Thank you, heavenly Father, for sharing every good thing with us, especially the gift of the kingdom and grace through Jesus. So many good gifts! Grant us the grace to steward them well and share them freely with others, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now He was also saying to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.” The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.” And he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.” Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?” And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.” And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ ” Luke 16:1–13 NASB
[If you are interested in participating in an in-person discussion group here in the Nashville, Tennessee area or via Zoom, please contact me at email@example.com ]
By Linda Rex
September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.
Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.
So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.
I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.
Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.
The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people. Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.
Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?
Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?
He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?
In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.
Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.
“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ” Luke 14:25–33 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org ]
By Linda Rex
August 14, 2022, PROPER 15—Even though I have experienced many healings from God in my life and have felt his comforting presence with me through this current battle with cancer, a part of me still asks at times, “But what about all those prayers and anointings for healing? Doesn’t God keep his promises?”
It is not unusual for us to come up against the reality that we do our best to trust God and he doesn’t seem to follow through on his promise that if we ask, we will receive. In fact, such seeming fickleness with regards to our sincere efforts to trust and depend upon God might even cause us to turn away from him, as we question God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness.
The book of Hebrews is a powerful testimony to what Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh, did in our place and on our behalf. And chapter 11 reveals a gallery of witnesses to the faithfulness and love of our gracious God, witnesses who experienced a full range of responses from God to their circumstances of life. “By faith,” it says, many of these people experienced God’s powerful intervention in their lives and circumstances as they participated in what God was doing in their world.
But then comes verse 39: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Apparently, some people never received from God what was promised. Having faith was not an issue for these people. And they had gained God’s approval by faith. But in spite of their faith and God’s approval, they did not receive what was promised. Instead, they experienced great suffering, loss, deprivation, and even death. How can this be? Why go through all those experiences if they would never receive the promises?
There is an underlying story beneath these stories which we need to keep in mind. All of our stories, as those made in the image of the God who is love, are swept up into his story, creating the history of our lives as a participation in all God is doing in this world. Because we share in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have an existence far beyond this current one. And we can participate in that new life both now and in the world to come.
We discover, if we look closely, that our temporary existence in this world is merely a prelude to our full real life in eternal union and communion with the Father, through Jesus in the Spirit. Even if we were restored back to our physical human existence through “resurrection”, we would still eventually die. So, we seek a more wonderful resurrection, one in which we share in the glorified resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ.
It was in expectation of this that Jesus, with joy, faced the challenges, suffering and shame of the crucifixion. The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus the author and perfector of our faith, which means that it’s not all up to us to come up with enough faith to be pleasing to God. Jesus had and has perfect trust in our heavenly Father. His Father did not leave him in the grave after the crucifixion, but kept his promise to raise him up, restoring him to his place in face-to-face relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
So, if faith in a trustworthy God is not the issue, then what? Well, apparently there are times when what God asks of us is perseverance and endurance. He wants us to keep our focus off ourselves and to keep it on Jesus Christ, the one who bore so much suffering and shame on our behalf, for the joy that would come when all those who believe in him would receive in fulness what was promised them—life in intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 12:49–56, Jesus expressed his longing that he didn’t have to wait for the crucifixion to be done with. For our sakes. Because he knew what a blessing and benefit his death and resurrection would be for all humanity. He knew we needed to be able to trust in and rely upon a good, good Father, and that was the very reason he had come—to bring us home to the Father, restoring our right relationship with him.
In this passage, Jesus reminded his followers that following him exacts a cost. And that cost may include being rejected by those closest to us, by our friends and/or family. This cost may include going through situations and circumstances without the answers we prefer—did not Jesus tearfully ask his Father for some way to accomplish his will other than the cross? And his Father, who promised to deliver him (Psalm 22) did not do so on this side of the grave. No, he waited while Jesus suffered horribly at the hands of human beings and while he laid in the grave.
Sometimes the cost of new life is death. I was walking the other day at Fontanel, feeling the presence of God so near to me. And I was enjoying the flowers and the fragrant scents on the air. The trees, grass, and kudzu were so green, and the butterflies were flitting here and there as they gathered the nectar from the blooms. In the midst of all that green, though, were the brown, black, and grey heads of dead plants and flowers. This thought came to me then: “In the midst of death lie the seeds for new life.”
In Christ’s death, we have been given the seeds to our new life. What we do with those seeds is up to us. Just because some circumstance, relationship, or desire comes to the place of death does not mean that is the end. When we look at Jesus Christ, to what extent he was willing to go so that we might be with him and his Father in the Spirit forever, we can discover the seeds to our own new life in him.
What may seem for a moment to be God’s unkept promises may, in fact, be his offering to us something greater, more wonderful, more eternal. What if, instead of focusing on the suffering, the difficulty, or the loss, we focused on Jesus Christ? What if we allowed God to be who he is, our loving heavenly Father, who knows what is best for us and who wants to bring us into new life, deeper into warm fellowship with himself both now and forever?
Heavenly Father, thank you for your love and faithfulness. Grant us the grace to keep our eyes on Jesus and off of the difficulties and struggles of this life. Enable us to walk by faith, trusting in your perfect love and faithfulness, no matter how things may appear at the moment, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 11:29–12:2 NASB
See also Luke 12:49–56 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/gods-unkept-promises.pdf ]
By Linda Rex
February 20, 2022, 7th Sunday of EPIPHANY—Last night my husband, Ray, and I were talking about how hard it is sometimes to love people, especially when they make it very difficult to do so. In our everyday lives, we come across people who are thoughtless, inconsiderate, or downright rude, and we are asked by God to be gracious and to not hold it against them. And that is difficult, if not impossible, at times.
We’ve all had those experiences where we are simply going about our everyday lives and someone does something that totally disrupts and ruins our day. What is our response to the person who cut us off in traffic, causing us to miss our exit or to spill our coffee all over ourselves? If I look at what the apostle Paul says I should do, I find that “love…puts up with anything” (1 Cor. 13:7 MSG). Did he really mean that I have to put up with anything that people do to me?
What is unspoken in this passage in Luke 6:27–38 is the reality that often love looks much different than what we assume it looks like. Love, at times, is not very nice. Indeed, there can be a profound difference between being nice and being loving. One can be incredibly nice to someone and at the same time be holding them hostage to unhealthy ways of living and being. We often do this to one another when the most loving thing might be to speak the truth in love or to set healthy boundaries in the relationship by not doing for others what they need to do for themselves.
This is where it is a real challenge for us to love. I’m learning that I still have a long way to go when it comes to loving the people in my life well. Love, in the way Jesus describes it, is something sacrificial, serving, humble and self-effacing. It involves losing, dying, being taken advantage of, and being taken for granted. It means being willing to be the one who suffers undeservedly for the sake of another. This certainly doesn’t come naturally for us.
Jesus calls us up to a higher standard—one beyond our human ability. When have we ever gotten to the place where we could and would love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us? It takes an inner transformation by the Holy Spirit to bring us to the place where we would actually love in the same way that God loves us. It takes the love of God shed abroad in our hearts to enable us to think, live, speak and act like the sons of God we are in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:5; 8:14).
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is probably nothing someone else has done to us that we have not in some form or fashion done to others. Indeed, if we believe we’ve never done to others what has been done to us, then we need to consider whether or not there are a few things we’ve done to God that he didn’t deserve. Oh, yes—I went there. We do stuff to God all the time that he doesn’t deserve. And most certainly, he did not deserve to be crucified when he came in the person of Jesus Christ.
And love is a challenge when we must do the right thing in the face of someone doing the wrong thing. When someone is unjust toward us, do we remain just and fair? When someone is cruel to us, are we kind back? When someone is indifferent or cold to us, do we respond with intentional compassion and concern? This is hardest to do in our closest relationships, where our everyday lives wear down our respect and patience with one another. When someone we love repeatedly messes up, it’s really hard to let them off the hook one more time. But isn’t that what God does with us?
Jesus really got down to the basics when he began talking about blessing those who curse us and doing good to those who hate us. He didn’t ask us to give up our human dignity, to allow ourselves to be abused, but he did ask us to go way beyond what comes naturally to us, so that we might be as gracious to others as his Father is to us. What standard do we want God to judge us by—the criticism and condemnation we hand out to others or the gracious patience and understanding we offer them when they mess up or hurt us?
This passage is really hard to read, because I realize how impossible it is for us to actually live this out in our world full of users and abusers. How was Jesus able to actually do this when he lived here on earth? It was only possible because he was filled with the Spirit from birth and was, as God in human flesh, living in union and communion with his Father moment by moment as he interacted with those he encountered day by day. How else could he have handled so graciously the constant condemnation, rejection, and abuse? How else could he have allowed himself to be crucified by those he came to save?
The reality is that living in right relationship with God and others comes to us only as a gift. It is Jesus’ right relationship with God and others that we participate in by the Holy Spirit. Jesus lived out loving relationship with his Father in the Spirit while he was here on earth, loving others in the way we were meant to love. And he forged within our humanity the capacity to love and be loved as God intended when he created us. When we love God and love one another—we are truly human the way God meant us to be human.
So, Jesus, having lived our life and died our death and risen from the grave, sent the Spirit from the Father. The Spirit shed abroad in human hearts enables us to truly love and be loved in the way we were meant to. We find the ability to love when it gets hard as we trust in Christ’s love being poured out within us by the Holy Spirit. When we are faced with unpleasant or difficult situations in which it is impossible to love another, we turn to Jesus. We find in him the capacity, by the Spirit, to do what we would not otherwise do.
Seeing our need for Christ, for his grace, for his ability to love and be loved, enables us to offer the same grace and compassion toward others. Understanding our dependency upon a power greater than ourselves to be able to simply love and care for others, enables us to graciously understand when others fail to love and care for us. May God awaken us to the depths of the love and grace he has toward us that we may offer it freely to all those whom we struggle to love.
Thank you, Abba Father, for your unfailing love and grace. We are so dependent upon your mercy and compassion! Fill us with your love that we may love others as you have loved us, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” Luke 6:27–38 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 9, 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER—A friend gave me a gift of Guideposts magazine a while ago, and today I came across a quote in the latest issue from best-selling author Glennon Doyle. The quote goes like this: “I really, really think the secret to being loved is to love. And the secret to being interesting is to be interested. And the secret to having a friend is being a friend.”
I have learned over the years by experience that our ability to form attachments with others often does have to begin with our first reaching out and offering others love and friendship. But I believe our ability to reach out to others in this way is best rooted in the self-offering of God towards us in Jesus Christ. When it is rooted in Christ, we find the attachment has a spiritual rooting that holds it through the storms and changes of life, and often, on into eternity.
In our passage for this Sunday, John 15:9-17, we see that there is no greater love than when a person lays down his or her life for another, as Jesus laid down his life for all humanity. This love has its roots in the perichoretic love of the Father and Son in the Spirit, and is expressed to each and every one of us in Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial offering of himself in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus said he loved his disciples just as his Father loved him. He told his disciples that he remained in the oneness of the Triune life and love as he did those things his Father asked of him. His experience of joy and love becomes ours as we participate in Christ’s obedience to his Father’s will. Jesus calls us beyond what comes naturally to us into what is more difficult—to love even to the point of laying down one’s life. There is no greater love, he said.
It is in the context of this life of union and communion with the Father through Jesus in the Spirit that Jesus gives us our purpose and mission as his followers. We are individually and collectively chosen by him and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will remain. It is in our ongoing abiding or remaining in Christ that we bear fruit that abides or remains. This fruit is an expression of the Father’s will—love for one another, life in spiritual community—now as the body of Christ and ultimately, on into eternity as the Bride of Christ.
This moves obedience from the place of following a list of rules to one of honoring the desires and will of a friend, Jesus, and those of our heavenly Father. Jesus shares his heart with us and we do as he asks—loving as he loved, laying down our lives as he laid down his, loving one another as we are loved by him and he is loved by the Father. As we are centered in the Father’s will in this way, whatever we ask of our Father will be ours—we are participating in a real way in what he is doing in and through his Son, and so his answer is quite naturally, yes!
When we put this in the context of mission, we see that Jesus’ sending of us is immediately rooted in his obedience to his Father’s sending of him. We reach out with God’s love because Jesus loves us as he is loved by the Father. Sharing God’s love then becomes a part of our life in union and communion with the Triune God, and a true participation in what they are doing in this world.
We share the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus because that is the will of the Father. As we do the Father’s will in this way, we pray and ask according to his will that each individual and all people might experience God’s love and grace. We know God will hear and answer this prayer because this is the Father’s will which is expressed to us in the gift of his Son and in the pouring out of his Spirit. This is what God is doing in this world—so our prayers are heard and answered.
As the body of Christ, we are often tempted to isolate or create safe zones where we do not need to deal with a society which is often opposed to what is holy, gracious, and compassionate. It is a real challenge to live a Christ-like life in places that are unsafe and decadent. How do we live out the truth of who we are as God’s adopted children—loving God and loving others—around people who are indifferent to or opposed to these spiritual realities?
We can begin with prayer. Our prayers have power because they are rooted in the will and purposes of God himself. He has sent his Son to reconcile all things to himself in Jesus and is calling each and every person to be reconciled. God wants everybody to participate in the oneness and love of the Father and Son in the Spirit. So, when we pray for a certain person or for particular people to come to faith in Christ, we are sharing in a tangible way in what God is doing in this world. These are prayers God will answer because they are according to his will.
Secondarily, we participate in God’s mission in this world by sharing God’s love. Love, as we are to express it to God and one another, is an action. It involves seeking the best of the other person and having a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish what is best. Sometimes loving others can be difficult and painful. It may involve telling them no, or not giving them what they want or think they need. It may involve setting up boundaries that prevent them from hurting you or hurting themselves.
Loving people in this way is not something we do on our own or by our own strength. We do this in spiritual community, where we have support, accountability, and a safe place to land. And this is why our life in Christ needs to be just exactly that—a participation in Christ’s life in relationship. God first loved us, sending his Son for our salvation, and Jesus first loved us by laying down his life, so we are able to love God and love one another. God gives us his Spirit, pouring out his love in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), so that we are able to love him and love others in the way we were meant to.
Life change in another person is not something we really have any control over. We are powerless—and we must acknowledge this reality constantly. Only God has the ability to change the human heart and mind. Only God can turn someone around or heal them. Only God can make a person who is broken whole again. We may be able to influence them by expressing God’s love in some tangible way, but we cannot fix them—and God is not asking us to.
In reality, the greatest gift we can give another person is to bring them to Jesus, including them in our own relationship with Christ in the Spirit. We can offer them the grace and truth, the love we have received from God, and a spiritual community where the sick find healing, the broken are mended, and the lonely are offered fellowship. What God includes us in—his life and love—we are called to include others in. How well are we doing this?
Thankfully, it’s not all up to us. Jesus went first, and we get to tag along as his friends as he brings others to himself. Is there someone God has placed on your heart and mind lately who needs to know he or she is loved by God and forgiven? You might make this person a focus point of your prayers each day, and ask God to show you how you can include them in your life in Christ. You might ask Jesus, “What are you doing and how do you want me to join in?” And then, as you begin to participate in what he’s doing, watch to see what he does—it may surprise you!
Thank you, dear God, for including each of us in your life and love. Thank you, Jesus, that we get to share in your loving relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Show us the person or people you want us to tell about your love expressed to us in Jesus. How do you want us to include them in our life? Keep us centered where you are, Jesus, diligently doing all that you ask to the glory of your Father. Amen.
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another.” John 15:9–17 NASB
By Linda Rex
May 2, 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—This week I got a phone call telling me the sum of my car repair expense was in the four-digit range rather than the three-digit range. This news was quite upsetting since I would have postpone taking care of several other important things I was planning to do. Once again, I was reminded that all I own does not belong to me, but to the One who gives and who takes away. Job stands as the great OT example of someone who learned this the hard way and had to come to terms with the reality that life includes suffering and loss, and that everything in this life is transient and not to be clung to.
Indeed, it is helpful to periodically be reminded of our need to remain detached from the things of this life while remaining solidly attached to the One from whom all things come. We find this in Jesus’ illustration of the branches on a vine—a branch’s fruit-bearing ability is directly related to the branch’s connection to the vine and how well the branch has been pruned. The idea of pruning in this passage involves the cleansing or removal of anything from the branch that inhibits its ability to produce good and abundant fruit.
Jesus said that we need to abide in him in order to bear spiritual fruit and that this involves his words abiding in us. There is a mutual indwelling which occurs via the Holy Spirit, and we participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father by faith. The life we live, we live by the faith of Jesus Christ—it is Christ in us who is our hope of glory. When we live unattached to Jesus Christ, we die spiritually—we become fruitless and of little spiritual value, only useful as fuel for the fire, the Savior said.
Abiding in Christ has a lot to do with relationship. Relationship with God is something we talk a lot about at Grace Communion Nashville because a relationship of mutual indwelling with God through Christ in the Spirit is what we as human beings were created for and redeemed for by Jesus. When we invite people to turn to Christ in faith, we are encouraging them to participate in that union and communion with God that each and everyone of us was created for, and for which Jesus saved us. We have this incredible gift from God in which we can live, but will we open our hands and our hearts to receive it and live in it?
Sometimes the reason it is so difficult for us to receive this gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is simply that our hands and our hearts are too full with other things. I am reminded of the passage from Matthew 13:22 where Jesus described the seed that was sown among the thorns. This seed or person was unable to thrive and produce abundant spiritual fruit because he was a person who heard the word, but the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the word, and it became unfruitful. Jesus reminded us that it is very easy for us to become preoccupied with the daily necessities or interests of life and to neglect what really matters—Jesus Christ and his word being deeply rooted in us and producing fruit.
Abiding is a word that we don’t use very often nowadays. But there is this sense of setting down deep roots and staying in a place for a long while. To indwell, which is another way of saying abide, is to reside within the same space as another person or object—something the members of the Trinity do, indwelling one another in union and communion.
The ideas of sharing the same space with Jesus Christ or setting down deep roots into Christ should help us to understand what it means when Jesus says we are to stay attached to him as the vine so we can produce much fruit. He is the means by which the fruit is produced, where we are the place the fruit grows and ripens, preparing to be harvested. He calls us to set our roots deeply into him, putting his words into our minds and hearts, loving one another, and living a life of prayer, of talking with and listening to God day by day.
What about those Job-like times when we are dealt difficult blows and we struggle in our relationship with God? We will all face hardship because of the choices we as human beings have made—not just our own choices, but the collective choices of humanity which disrupt our earth, our communities, and our families. As we are grounded in the reality of God’s love for us and reminded of his faithfulness, we can weather such storms with grace, trusting in Christ in the midst of tragedy, loss, and suffering.
This has been a long season of struggle and suffering for the people of the world, especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic devastation. There are many whose lives will never be the same due to what occurred these past months. We can sit on our ash heaps and bemoan our fate, or we can move closer to Jesus Christ, asking him to open our eyes to the goodness, grace, and love of God, and to enable us to trust him to walk us through to a better place.
It may be, if we are willing, that God may be wanting to release us from some burdens we have been carrying that he never meant for us to carry. It may be that God wants to grow us in new ways into the likeness of his Son and in order to do so, he must have our full attention. Perhaps God is wanting to take something out of our hands so he can give us something new, something much better. What is it that God wants to do for us in this season of pruning? Are we open to it?
I believe it is significant that immediately after the descent of the heavenly gift as a dove upon Jesus and his Father’s words of affirmation, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” the Spirit thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. God may be wanting to do a new thing in and through his body, the church. In order to do this, perhaps a time of pruning is needed. We can resist this, complain about it, or even deny it. But a better response would be for us, individually and as a whole, to go deeper into Christ, to connect ourselves more deeply with the One who lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
I invite you to participate with me in this season of renewal, of seeking God’s face, of opening ourselves up more fully to what Jesus is wanting to do in us and through us. Will you join me in letting go of all these things that are distracting us from drawing close to Christ and hearing his word to us each day? Will you join me in a season of listening and of intentional obedience to God’s instruction? What is God asking you to do right now in this moment? What will your response be?
Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for drawing us to yourself through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to toss aside anything that distracts us from Christ, and to embrace all that he is for us. Let us abide in Christ as he abides in us, that we might produce abundant fruit that will glorify you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:4–5 (1–8) NASB
“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” 1 John 4:12–16 (7–21) NASB
By Linda Rex
April 11, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER—One of the results of the recent pandemic and our isolation from one another has been a deeper appreciation for the significant relationships in our lives, and the opportunities we have for face-to-face interaction. It seems as though our desire for relationship has been challenged by our need for self-preservation and protecting others, and has actually been strengthened by the limitations we have had to deal with.
This desire for and ability to work through difficulty to forge healthy relationships is rooted in the Triune God himself. We find that it is God’s nature to live in warm fellowship and to include others in that relationship. When anything comes between God and those he loves, he passionately works to remove the obstacle and restore the union between himself and his beloved ones.
We see this profoundly manifested in the coming of the Word of God into human flesh to live, die and rise again so that all humanity might be included in the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The evil, sin, and death brought into the cosmos via the first Adam is eradicated by the finished work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who summarily dealt with it through his passion on the cross, in his broken body and shed blood.
We reflect upon Jesus’ final words on the cross and we remember him saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is a critical point, because healing broken relationships nearly always begins with forgiveness. Forgiving someone for a devastating loss, a humiliating embarrassment, or even an atrocity or ongoing sin, can seem to be an impossible task. And often, it is. This is why so many live their lives separated from others and from God, because they cannot and will not forgive the offenses that they feel have been done to them.
When we find ourselves in that place where we are filled with anger, hatred, or seething resentment and bitterness toward someone who has hurt or offended us, we may even refuse to admit that this is the issue. We may have put up so many internal walls for self-protection that we don’t even realize how deeply rooted we are in this place of unforgiveness. What has happened lately that has brought to your attention an area in which you need to forgive someone? What was your response? Are you still in denial, or have you admitted that indeed, you do need to forgive?
Perhaps it would be better to get our eyes off our internal work for a while and onto Jesus Christ and his finished work. Pondering the reality of Jesus’ willingness to intentionally go to the cross to allow humanity to pour over him all our hostility, evil, rejection, and desire for vengeance should remind us of the immensity of his gift to you and me. In the midst of all that was in opposition to him in that moment, in the face of every hateful and scornful word and vicious deed, we find Jesus offering forgiveness. In the place of our hostility against him, he offered grace.
And perhaps, before going any farther in the process of forgiving another person, we should take some time to reflect on the reality of our own failures to love. This is a place we may need to park in for a while—have we been refusing to admit that we might be part of the problem? Initially, our own failure love may simply be that we are unwilling to forgive. Or is there more going on than this?
Forgiving the unforgiveable is the work of God, and can only happen via the work of the Holy Spirit. In this place of our need we have the blessed gift of grace and the truth that Jesus went down this difficult road first. The capacity to forgive is found within Christ’s own forgiveness of all of us. What we may not be able to forgive another person for is bound up in all that Jesus, first of all, took upon himself and forgave us for. Now he imparts that very same grace to us in the Holy Spirit. He pours out into us a forgiving spirit, his own nature manifested on the cross, as we are willing to receive it.
He has made himself of one heart and soul with us, so that we might be of one heart and soul with him and one another. God offers us the grace or gift of forgiving those who wound us just as he offers us his own forgiveness for the wounds we have inflicted upon him and others. Poured like oil over these wounds, God’s grace brings about a restoration and reconciliation that would otherwise be impossible.
Moving beyond forgiveness, we find that even unity and oneness between people is a grace, a gift of the Spirit. Soon after their infilling with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, we find the followers of Christ living in a spiritual community characterized by all of them being “of one heart and soul.” This was reflected in their care for one another and in a willingness to share, to lay down what they owned for the benefit of their brothers and sisters who were in need (Acts 4:32–35). This unity is what was described by King David in Psalm 133 when he wrote:
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.”
This unity and oneness is a reflection of the unity and oneness within the Trinity we were created to participate in now and forever. We participate in it in and through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. God has commanded his blessing of eternal life, of knowing deeply and intimately the Father and his Son whom he sent, and we are called to respond in faith, trusting him and opening ourselves up fully to the Spirit he has poured out on us so freely.
Turning from ourselves and turning to Christ are our response to this enormous and priceless gift of forgiveness. We receive God’s grace, and begin to allow the Spirit to lead us, following Christ’s lead in our lives and in our relationships. At times we must begin by simply taking a single step of obedience and allow Jesus to do the rest. Forgiving people who have wounded us can be done—we may only be able to choose to obey and then ask Jesus for the grace to do the rest. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who is the forgiving One, and he enables us to forgive. He enables us to restore and reconcile when it seems impossible to do so.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over us again. Even Christ did not crawl back up on the cross over and over, but did it once, for all time. We do not want to receive his grace in vain, nor do we want others to receive our grace in vain. We may have to begin the process of setting healthy boundaries in place and teaching others how to treat us lovingly and respectfully by our own example of properly loving and respecting others. These are difficult tasks that may require us getting help from others who are qualified to counsel and guide us.
But we can do the most difficult work of all, forgiving and restoring relationship, by walking in the light of God’s love and grace. In Christ, the light of the world, we find the grace to be of one heart and soul with one another, as we have been made heart and soul with God himself through Jesus in the Spirit.
Thank you, Triune God, for the extent you went to in order to reconcile all with yourself in Jesus. Thank you for pouring out on us the grace to be of one heart and soul. Grant us the grace to receive all you have given and offer it others, through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:(1–5) 6–10 (2:1–2) NASB
See also John 20:19–31.
By Linda Rex
March 7, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—While taking a walk with my son this week he surprised me by showing me a colony of herons who were nesting high in a tree over the Cumberland River. On our walk we also saw a couple of deer next to the path, squirrels hunting nuts, and many other types of birds flitting here and there. The frogs in the water-covered ground were singing their hearts out. It almost felt like springtime.
I love being out in creation, and am truly grateful God gave us so many marvelous gifts when he made everything. One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called “Care of Creation” and is a collection of articles centered on the topic of the stewardship of God’s creation. In recent years, I have been learning about stewardship in a lot of different aspects of life—finances, health, creation, and personal belongings are some of these areas. Stewardship recognizes that we are not the owners of what we are caring for, but are merely stewards or caretakers of what we have been given by God.
In the gospel reading for this Sunday, we find Jesus entered into the area of the temple where there were moneychangers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. He drove the animals out, overturning the tables and telling the people to stop making his Father’s house a place of business. Mark, the author of the gospel, wrote that this fulfilled an Old Testament scripture which said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus’ actions in the temple were on behalf of his heavenly Father.
As stewards of the temple, the place of worship, the Jewish leaders had allowed people in to do what they believed were necessary transactions to accommodate the worshippers. But what happened was that making money at the expense of the people became more important than facilitating worship of Israel’s God. Jesus’ indignation was well-founded, as his Father was not being honored, since worship of God was being supplanted by greed and extortion.
We do not want to be like these Jewish leaders of that day who were more concerned about what authority Jesus had to do these actions than they were about the “whitewashed tombs” they had become (Mt. 23:27). They did not seem to realize they were needing to have the greed and other sins in their hearts driven out—and this is why Jesus was there among them. Temple sacrifices did not remove sin from the human heart, and our proclivity to return to sin even when we have forgiveness offered us shows that we need something deeper and more permanent. Jesus removed sin by one sacrifice for all time for all. His death on the cross permanently removed all sin, therefore all need for sacrifices (Heb. 7:27).
The leaders asked Jesus by what authority he drove out the money changers and he simply told them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” It wasn’t until after the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection that the disciples understood that the temple Jesus was talking about wasn’t Herod’s temple, but Jesus’ own body. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that the day was coming when true worshipers of God would worship him in spirit and in truth, he was meaning this very thing. The place where we go to worship God would not be a building, but a person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus forged within our humanity a space for true worship, where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in human hearts, transforming us from the inside out. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again, sending us the Spirit so we could participate in his own intimate relationship with the Father. When we turn to Christ, trusting in his finished work, we are joined with Jesus and begin to experience the reality of God dwelling in us by the Spirit. When we worship God, Jesus stands as the high priest, mediating between us and the Father in the Spirit, so that all our worship is received and accepted by God.
The temple of the Spirit today is not only each of us individually, but more specifically the body of Christ, the church. God indwells the community of believers—those who follow Christ, leading and directing them by his Spirit. As believers gather for worship and to serve others, they are brought together by the ministry of the Spirit. What is the focus of our attention as we gather together? Specifically, worship is to be Christ-centered and Trinitarian in focus. And our discipleship is also designed to draw us in relationship with others more deeply into the life and love of the Trinity.
What Jesus forged for us is a place in human hearts for God to dwell in by the Spirit. At this time of year, we can ask the Spirit to show us those things we have introduced into our lives and hearts that have supplanted the place meant only for God himself. We can invite Jesus to chase the usurpers out of our hearts, making more room for the Spirit to work in our hearts and lives.
If we do this, though, we need to realize that it will require us participating in the process Jesus described to the Jewish leaders—destroying the temple and rebuilding it. There may be things Jesus asks of us—denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following him. We trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection—symbolically participating ourselves once through baptism, and then in an ongoing way through taking the bread and wine in communion. We receive what God has done for us in Jesus, allowing the Spirit to form Christ in us. Stewarding the new life God has given us in Christ involves our full participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, living and walking in the Spirit, trusting in the finished work of Jesus and allowing him to do as he wishes with us and our lives.
A good question to contemplate as we move toward remembering the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is, what consumes us? Is it zeal for the presence of God in us and in our lives? Or is it something a whole lot more self-centered and temporal? Perhaps it is time to reconsider how well we are stewarding the gift of eternal life God has given us in Jesus Christ his Son.
Heavenly Father, thank you for demonstrating your great grace and love by giving us your Son and your Spirit. Enable us to faithfully steward these gifts. We offer ourselves to your transforming touch, Jesus—drive out anything that does not belong here. Fill every corner of our hearts with your very presence, precious Spirit, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18(–25) NASB
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” John 2:17 (13–22) NASB
By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB