By Linda Rex
The house is quiet tonight. All I hear at the moment is the sound of the concentrator as it pulls oxygen out of the air and pumps it through the line into my mother’s lungs. She’s been sleeping for hours now, and I’ve been unable to coax her to eat anything since lunchtime yesterday. Although I am sad about all that’s going on, I am happy that I can be here for her. Right now, being by her side is more important to me than the sleep I sorely need.
How I wish that rest were so easy for me at this moment! It would certainly help me to feel better, and to have more energy when I get up in the morning. But it doesn’t look like sleep is going to happen any time soon.
I read a devotional yesterday that spoke about rest as being a way in which we worship God. Now that is a spiritual discipline I could really get into at the moment—a true, deep rest would be really nice.
But such a rest isn’t going to happen unless and until I am ready to fully let go of all my concerns and give them all up to my heavenly Father. There is a rest that is mine that I have in Jesus, but I can’t participate in it until I’m willing to let go of my insistence upon handling everything myself. God calls each of us to take Christ’s yoke on and to learn from him—this is how we find rest.
Even in the midst of heavy, weighty issues in our life, we can feel light-hearted and at peace when we are fully trusting in the love and faithfulness of the Father, and are turning to Jesus Christ for all we need. Somehow, through his Spirit and by his living Son Jesus, God gives us the ability to weather catastrophes and griefs, and to come out the better for having experienced them.
It is this redemption I am counting on. I do not understand the why or how, but I know that God does. All he asks of me is to trust him and to rely on him in the midst of this journey through the dark valley. And I don’t do that alone—Jesus is present with me, in me and is for me as I go through it all. He is my peace.
And the other blessing that comes with this struggle is the nearness of others who are helping to carry the weight with me. The peace and rest that I find in dark times is often best experienced in the midst of loving, caring relationships with others who pray for me and lift me up even when I don’t ask them to. This creates gratitude which quickly turns to praise to God who so blesses me with and surrounds me with such love, compassion and grace. I am truly grateful for all of you who are lifting us up in prayer. May God bless you abundantly in return.
Dearest Lord God, thank you for offering each of us the rest that comes when we lay down our burdens at your feet and take on what you want us to carry instead. Grant grace and peace to those who are struggling even now, and pour out on them the strength they need to walk through the dark valley with you. May we each faithfully trust in you to work all things for our best benefit. We know you are a faithful God and you will do this through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30 NASB
by Linda Rex
My care of my mother during her end of life is teaching me to value simple things like taking another breath, being able to take care of my own personal needs, and being able to have coherent thoughts and express them. And I see how God is in the midst of even these mundane, yet essential, parts of life.
It’s amazing how the simple things in life have such powerful lessons for us as human beings. Take, for example, a breath of fresh air. We breathe for the most part without even knowing we are doing it.
If we were to take a moment and consciously breathe in and out, we would notice not only the sound we make while doing it, but also the movement in our body. This is an essential event that happens every moment of our lives and our body, unless it is ill, just seems to know when and how to breathe so we can continue to live. It knows when it is not getting air and reacts in a way that tries to ensure than another breath is taken before it’s too late.
When God breathed life into Adam, he set a whole stream of things into motion that scientists today are still trying to figure out. The human body, with its ability to metabolize oxygen from the air around it, is an amazing piece of architecture. And it’s so much more than that. Each human being is a soul.
As a soul, there is a life that goes beyond the life we see and experience as we take a breath in and out. This life transcends the physical. There’s a spiritual element, something that involves the heart and mind, the reason and the emotions. Something within us connects us to one another, and to a life that is other than our humanity. We find ourselves considering such things as life beyond death.
God created us for relationship—it’s built into us. We connect with others and they connect with us. We connect with God, because he made us, and he took on our humanity in Christ and intimately connected us with him. Connections between human beings and between humans and God are a natural part of our existence.
Yet, some of us find ourselves resisting relationships, or being unable to have healthy ones. We may shut people out, or close ourselves off from building relationships with other people for many reasons. When we do this, we are actually cutting ourselves off from God’s divine Breath—preventing our spiritual lungs from breathing full breaths of air.
It is in relationships that God moves to heal, transform and grow us as individuals. Our encounters with other people provide the means by which the Holy Spirit tends to our hearts. Our souls or inner beings grow thirsty, twisted and hard when we do not have healthy, nurturing relationships in our lives. So much mental and emotional ill health comes from having grown up in families or circumstances where relationships were unhealthy and did not reflect the divine life and love.
Spiritual community among believers should be a place where God’s love and life are seen and experienced in an ongoing way. The gathering of God’s people should be a place where the breath of God renews, refreshes and cleanses people. It should not be a place that is abusive, cold, rigid, hard and condemning. Rather, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is breathing life into all who are gathered there for fellowship and worship.
Those who have relationships with believers ought to experience this same invigorating, life-renewing love. A real breathing in of God’s life and love ought to occur when someone encounters a follower of Christ. They should walk away encouraged, blessed, renewed and comforted.
This breathing in and breathing out of God’s love and life ought to be for each of us as natural as our breathing in and out of the air around us. In God, we live and move and have our being, Paul wrote. So not only is our breathing of air an essential part of our humanity, so is our breathing in and out of God’s love and life by the Spirit.
We are connected at such a deep level with God and each person around us, that sharing God’s love and life with others should be as natural as the next breath we take—we shouldn’t have to struggle with being able to do it—it’s a part of who we are in Christ.
So as we ask God’s Spirit to awaken Christ within us and to make us more aware of the life and love we are already participating in through him, maybe we can begin to see that following Christ and loving others is just simply being ourselves. Caring for one another’s needs, comforting one another in the midst of our hurts, and having compassion for the hurting are just a natural part of our being—it’s who we really are. Really, it’s just as simple as breathing in and breathing out.
Dear God, thank you for each breath I take today. May I live with you and others in such a way that your Spirit breathes life and love moment by moment into all my relationships. Through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning as I was getting ready for the day, I paused to watch a news story with my mom. It was showing the many refugees from Iraq and Syria who were crossing into Europe in a desperate effort to find peace and safety. Later I came across a news story on the Web about how the German government in one area had to ask the people to stop being so generous to the refugees—they were being overwhelmed with provisions.
It seems on the one hand we have a horrible situation occurring in which people are being murdered, assaulted, and driven out of their homeland, while on the other we have gracious and compassionate people offering help in an impossible situation. Good and evil juxtaposed in the midst of tragedy and despair.
But isn’t this the human condition? Haven’t we come to this same place over and over?
I was talking with a person a while back who believed that Jesus is coming back on the day after the Jewish holy day of Atonement. He had his reasons for this belief all figured out and in his mind they made sense. It made me think back to all the times when I was growing up and heard different preachers telling me similar predictions which never came true.
When we look around at the horrors and tragedies going on in the world today, our hearts as Christians cry out, “Even so come, Lord Jesus!” We want to be free from our human messiness and finally have justice done to those who are evil, and receive our reward for our faithful obedience to Christ.
It is easy to see God’s judgment as the final revelation of God’s wrath against evil human beings and governments. The events described in the Revelation of St. John are understood by some as a forecast of what’s going to happen when Jesus finally returns and makes everything right.
In the midst of our broken humanity, which we face day by day, we can’t help but admit that we are unable to fix our problems. We cannot get people to stop shooting one another, no matter how many gun laws we enact or guns we take away. We cannot get people to stop divorcing each other, no matter how many counseling sessions we offer or warnings we give about how it’s going to hurt the children.
Little toddlers still go to bed hungry and teens are still sold as slaves. Large companies still misuse resources and foul the earth. People still use people and crimes are still committed. Wherever I turn, I’m hearing Christians declare we’re at the very end now because our American social system is allowing gay marriage. Our human brokenness meets us at every corner—we cannot escape it.
When I think about all this, I can come to the conclusion that the only thing we deserve as humans is to have God come in judgment and destroy us. And quite honestly, I’m not so sure that Christians are that much different than the general population, especially considering how far short we fall from the ideal. So even though we think we’ve got a good thing coming, we’re not necessarily deserving of any different treatment from anyone else if we are to get what we deserve.
It seems to me that we, humanity as a whole, are all in the same boat. The only difference is that some of us believe that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, and that he came to save sinners. If Jesus came to save sinners, then all of humanity is in the category of people who are saved by Jesus Christ, his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
For believers, our faith in Christ is a gift from God and it is undeserved. It does not make us superior to or more perfect than anyone else—if anything, it is a participation in the judgment Jesus took upon himself—he became sin for every human being and offered himself in our place when we deserved total destruction. In many ways, our participation in Christ is also our willingness to be offered on behalf of others so they might be saved as well.
So all this nastiness going on in the world, this evil which preys upon the good God created all things to be, is not something God intended for us. We allow and participate in evil because we are human and it is our proclivity to do so. But God works in the midst of it to bring light into the darkness. He brings his love into the hate we much too often give ourselves over to. He brings mercy in the midst of judgment.
Indeed we need Jesus to come again and set everything right. But Jesus has come and put everything on the right basis already—founded upon his very being as God in human flesh. He has established perfected humanity and invited each of us to live it out in relationship with him in the Spirit. He has offered each of us the power to live beyond our human brokenness in a new way of living and being that is predicated upon his power and love. He has sent his Spirit to indwell human hearts—so that we can have a new being and a new creation.
And yet he says to us, “Believe.” What we believe about him, about our world and about ourselves is a good indicator of how well we will live out the truth of our being. This world with all of its tragedies, devastations and evils is a good description of what happens when we refuse to believe that Jesus Christ stands in our place and is for us our perfected humanity. The ravaged, abused earth is a good reflection of what happens when we refused to acknowledge any Lord other than ourselves. We are, sadly, reaping what we have sown.
But isn’t that what judgment is? And God’s purpose in judgment is not to cause us pain but to bring us to the place where we choose light over darkness, where we choose to believe he is the only one who can save us. God’s judgment brings us to the realization that our way isn’t the way things really are. Our true reality as human beings exists in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. It is when we start living in agreement with this truth that we find true freedom and real eternal life.
What so many of us want today is the cosmic destruction of all that is evil and the triumph of all that is good. But if we were to be honest with ourselves, none of us are ready yet to fully give up our autonomy. We still want to be able to call our own shots about things, even if we are Christians. Too often our beliefs are external to us rather than internal and a part of what drives us in every area of our lives. We are way too good at keeping God and Jesus at the fringes of our existence.
If Jesus told us today to stop doing something he believes is not what is best for us, would we do it? Even if it meant breaking off a relationship, becoming the laughingstock of social media, or ending up in jail? Or being singled out for genocide? Is God’s judgment on evil and his gracious love at work in you and me today to transform and cleanse us in such a way that we become all that we are meant to be in Jesus right now? Do we truly believe and trust in Jesus Christ? Is he our loving Lord? It’s worth considering.
Thank you, Father God, that your heart toward us is loving and good. Thank you for giving us yourself in your Son and in your Spirit so that we might be healed and transformed. Thank you for not leaving us as we are in our brokenness and darkness, but working endlessly to transform and heal us, and to bring us into your eternal light, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” John 3:17–19 NASB
by Linda Rex
What would it be like to live life without any consequences?
Sometimes I think that this is what we all secretly want—to be able to do whatever we want without anything bad happening to us or others. It’s too often that I see or read about someone who closed their eyes to the consequences of something they were doing, even though they were hurting themselves or someone else. It is like when my babies played hide and seek by putting their hands over their eyes, thinking they couldn’t be seen, but standing in full view of everyone.
Do we truly believe, down to the core of our being, that we live life unobserved, all alone in the universe—just us and no one else?
Humanly speaking, I think it’s really hard to believe that any more, considering how many satellites circle this planet and how many cameras observe us as we go through our lives. Now we even have to worry about some hacker watching us through our technology. There’s just not much privacy any more.
But there is something in each of us that wants to live life as though there are no consequences. Life without any repercussions—no one caring what we do or don’t do: why is it that we want to live this way?
There is a time and place where each of us will be called to wrestle with the reality of life beyond our human life. There is an existence that goes beyond our next breath. We may not know what it is, but it is more real than the hand at the end of our arm.
Recently I followed the series “Proof” as they explored the possibility of scientifically determining if there was life after death. It is interesting when human beings try to quantify and scientifically evaluate spiritual realities. If it is not something that can be experienced, tested and evaluated according to the scientific method, then it is considered unreal. And yet there is something down deep inside that drives us to seek out the truth about life beyond this life.
We are more connected than we realize with the One who created all of us. Like the philosophers of old, if we do believe in God, we want to put him up in a heaven somewhere so we don’t have to deal with him until our life comes to an end. Then hopefully, he’ll be nice enough to let us live with him in that place, wherever it is.
But God isn’t the God who is separate from us—outside our cosmos somewhere. Rather, all that God created is held in him—he is God with us. As the psalmist wrote—wherever we may be—God is there. There is no escaping God’s presence. (Psalm 139)
Even more than that, God was not satisfied just to uphold the universe and all creatures in his loving hands. He took on our humanity and became one of us. He lived in our humanity, died and rose again as Jesus Christ. In doing that, he is connected to each of us in a union that is so intimate and close that we cannot escape it. And God sent the Spirit to awaken us to the reality of Christ in us. God has ensured that nothing can separate us from him ever again.
Oh dear. This means that whatever we do, think, or say is done, thought or said in God’s presence. And everything we think, do or say has consequences. We don’t live in a vacuum—even if we are standing on a mountaintop with no one around. God is present. God is real. And God knows, sees, and is a part of whatever we are thinking, saying or doing and we are a part of what he is thinking, saying and doing.
This puts a new spin on everything. Whether or not there are consequences really isn’t the point any more. Because now it’s all about relationship. We are intimately connected with the true spiritual reality and Source of our being. We live and move and have our being in him. We exist moment by moment in the reality that God lives in us—we share our being with the Lord of the universe.
And now Jesus Christ defines our true humanity. Consequently, we do not exist here on our own terms but on his. And that’s the rub—we do not want anyone dictating to us how to live our lives. We want to live without consequences.
So at some point we each have to come to terms with the true reality in which we now live—Christ in us, the hope of glory. We can continue to cover our eyes and try to deny this spiritual reality, living as though there are no consequences. Or we can open our eyes to the truth of the deep love that surrounds and fills us, and begin living in harmony with the true reality we are held in. We are free to choose.
And we live even now with the consequences of that choice—experiencing a sense of separation, loss, loneliness and hunger we were never meant to experience—or walking in intimate fellowship with the One who made all things, experiencing his joy, peace, love and grace day by day. We can begin now to participate in the heavenly realities we hope to share in for all eternity. May God grant us the grace to choose wisely.
Dearest God, thank you for sharing your very life and breath with us, and for coming so near as to share our very life and breath as human beings. Awaken us, Holy Spirit, to the reality of Christ living in us. We need to know you are real and present every moment. Grant us the grace to live in this true reality moment by moment, day by day. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.” Galatians 6:7–9 NASB
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
By Linda Rex
I was reflecting the other day on some of my experiences out on the farm. When you live with and interact daily with animals of any kind, you experience the realities of life and death. Death of humans and animals is inevitable and can happen at the most inopportune times, creating the unpleasant task of finding a place for burial.
And death normally isn’t a very pleasant experience. After a day or two, the dead body will begin to bloat and stink, and the scavengers will begin to make a meal off of it. The stench of a rotting corpse, to me, is quite nauseating and disgusting, even though it is the normal process of decomposition. I prefer to get as far as I can from any dead body.
It’s interesting that the apostle Paul uses this stench of death as a way of describing how those who reject Christ see the lives of those who are living in communion with God. In one way we are seen as a fragrance—a lovely scent—of Christ rising to God. In the other, we are seen as a “dreadful smell of death and doom”. How can we be both at the same time?
Really it comes down to perception. What is real about each of us is not readily apparent to everyone all at once. Our new life in Christ—which is true for each and every person—is hidden with God in Christ. This means that it is a spiritual reality, an objective truth that may or may not be subjectively evident in each of our lives. In Jesus Christ each and every person lived, died and rose and again. God sent the Spirit to all. But what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and by sending the Spirit is not necessarily immediately obvious because not everyone believes or receives the gift of God in Christ and lives it out.
When a person meets and comes to know well someone who is actively participating in a new life in Christ, they are faced with the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus, in which we are all included, means that Jesus, and all of us in him, died. There was a time when Jesus’ body was a corpse—he died—and so we each died. And we all rose from the grave in him.
The thing is—if we died in Christ—what we used to be is now, dead. That scripture that says “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9) no longer applies. Sure, it can certainly look as though this old way of living and being is still alive. We can live and act and talk in a way that implies this is still the case. But God has declared in Jesus Christ a definite “No” to this being our nature any longer. He has given us the new heart he promised his people.
But what if we don’t want a new heart? What if we think the heart we have is just fine? What if we don’t see any problem with the way we are living now? What if we don’t believe that God has done any of this for us?
If this is the case, we will perceive this way of being—of living a new life in Christ—as something it is not. We will see it as being a lie, or as being something offensive that we want no part of, and so we will resist and reject the Spirit and his work of renewal. To us it will be a stinking, rotting mess. Because the evidence of this new life in Jesus tells us that without Jesus, a smelly, rotten corpse is just what we are.
We don’t like to be told the truth about ourselves. If we concede that in Jesus Christ we are made new, that means we have to die to our old ways of being and doing. If we agree that Jesus Christ defines our new humanity, that means we have to give up being lord of our lives and submit to his ways of being and doing. And that just stinks!
Jesus pounded out the importance of death and resurrection over and over in his ministry. We die with Christ and we rise with Christ—he is our life. Apart from him we have no hope. We are just old rotting corpses that God never meant for us to be.
God created beautiful things when he created human beings and he didn’t create humans to be the mess we are today. This is not who we are. In God’s purpose we are made to reflect and bear his image. When others look at us, God intends for them to see a reflection of his perichoretic nature of unity, diversity and equality. God’s purpose is for us to be creatures in whom and with whom he will dwell, who will participate with him in a relationship full of love and grace.
But because evil and sin and death has entered our cosmos, God sent his Son to take it all on himself and in the process create a new humanity with God’s nature hidden within. Then he sent his Spirit to awaken each of us to faith in Christ, so that we can participate in this new humanity. God has replaced all the dead corpses with vibrantly alive beloved children—but not everyone is willing to make the exchange. Some still want to hang on to their old dead bodies.
Personally, I’m more than happy to participate with God in the process of replacing the old with the new. The old me, which is dead, was not a very pleasant person to be around. She was pretty stinky and disgusting. As far as I’m concerned, this new life he has given me is what I want to be a part of and share with others, even if to them I am a reminder of the death of their old selves in Christ.
To a culture enamored with old ways of living and being I may be offensive and disturbing, like an old rotting corpse that stinks. But in the end, this old rotting corpse will dissolve into the ground from which it was made, and I will shine, like so many others who share Christ’s new life, as the stars in the heaven. To me, that seems to be the better, more satisfying choice.
Thank you, Father, for the gift you have given us of new life in your Son and by your Spirit. Awaken each of us to the new life that is ours. Grant us the grace to participate with you in your divine life and love as your beloved children, and to leave all that died with Christ buried with him in the tomb. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” 2 Co 2:14–16 NLT
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