power of the holy spirit
By Linda Rex
November 10, 2019, Proper 27—As a pastor of a small church in North America, I have read, heard, and seen many books and conferences on how to grow my church. I have experienced a wide variety of emotions about the state of my congregations and the state of Christian churches as a whole. And so often, I have come away caught between the demand for greater performance and more investment of time and money, and our utter dependence upon a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to transform our society and culture for the better.
Last night some of the members gathered at the church to provide hot chocolate, cookies, and candy for the trick-or-treaters who were walking through the neighborhood. We played some board games, and chatted with the few who came in out of the cold to join us. I was grateful to each person who stopped by, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed more did not come to enjoy a moment with us.
It is easy to feel discouraged when we are trying so hard to reach out to our community members and so often, we seem to have very little response. I was wrestling with this frustration last week when it occurred to me that being aware that things are not changing as I want them to is one thing, but being critical and condemning is another. There has been ample evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work, and I must not imply or infer that he’s not, or that he isn’t doing a good enough job to suit me.
We’ve been able to touch the lives of several people. We’ve had a few baptisms. We’ve had new people join us here and there over the years. Even though our doors aren’t flooded with an overwhelming attendance of new folks, we do have a few here and there who have joined us on the journey. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am reminded of the story of Haggai, how the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah had returned to their homeland, but had lost heart in rebuilding the temple. Enough negative resistance and personal distractions occurred that they quit doing what before had been so important to them. They lost sight of a very important truth—the abiding presence of God.
The prophetic word of Haggai to Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people was for them to “take courage.” They needed the courage to move forward against all obstacles, trusting that God would move away whatever stood in their way and that nothing would prevent them from finishing the task he had given them to do.
The reason they could have this kind of courage was that God was with them. Haggai reassured them that the Spirit of God was abiding in their midst and that they were not to be afraid. We today as the living temple of God’s Spirit individually and collectively need to be courageous and brave about building up God’s spiritual building, and have the same kind of confidence that God is in us, with us, and for us.
He is present and has promised that he would be with us to the end. In Matthew 28:19-20, when commissioning the disciples, Jesus sent them out to make disciples with the understanding that he was with them and would be with them until the end. And that all power and authority in heaven and earth were his, therefore all these resources were theirs to draw upon. There was every reason for them to move courageously out to preach the gospel!
But Jesus also told his disciples to wait on the Holy Spirit—to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit empowered them for this ministry. There is a two-fold path we take as stewards of the gospel (and we are all stewards of the gospel as God’s children). As we go through our lives, we share with others the miracle of God’s grace and love expressed to us in Jesus. But we also live, work, and share with others the good news of God’s grace and love in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power, and provision.
I know from personal experience that it is easy to approach the circumstances of my life in such a way that I don’t see my daily encounters with people as an opportunity to share the good news. However, looking at the early church, I find that sharing the good news was an integral part of their individual existence.
In fact, the very reason the early church exploded in numbers was that when persecution happened and people left their homes for new lands, they talked about Jesus wherever they went. They were on fire with the transformation power and love of God in Christ. And this was both the everyday way of being of people who had been touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ and a powerful move of the Holy Spirit.
Coming out of a church paradigm where the denomination headquarters did all the work, where special evangelists were the ones who preached the gospel, I find one of hardest things for me to do is to make everyday encounters with people a venue for the gospel without being preachy or annoying. I want everyday conversations to be opportunities to build meaningful relationship, but find instead that constant inner voice which tells me to put up walls and to self-protect.
Sadly, I do not find within myself as much as I would like that total self-giving which identified so many in the early church who were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. To lay down my life as they did would be considered foolish by many Christians today—unless I was a missionary in a foreign land or in an inner-city ministry. It seems that for many of us as everyday Christians, laying our lives down for the sake of Christ is not what we do—that’s left for certain people to do—pastors, evangelists, preachers, televangelists, for example. But the everyday Christian?
But Jesus didn’t come just for the sake of a few people. He took on our humanity so that every, all, each human being would share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit—there is a place at the table for each person. If we are believers, then we know this and believe this. So implicit in that knowing is a call on each of us to share that good news with the person in front of us in some way.
So, we pray for open doors, for ways to share this good news. We ask for the words to say and the actions to take. We may only be allowed to help or serve this person in front of us in this moment in some small way. We may not even be able to say anything about Jesus immediately. But we begin in whatever way God puts before us, and we move on from there.
God wants us to be brave and courageous, remembering he is in us, with us, and for us. We can and should share the words of life which have been so life-transforming for us. At the same time, we are to live and share these words in total dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power, trusting that God will finish what he has begun. May God move in a mighty way, in and through each of us, even today as we yield to and depend upon his Spirit and trust in Jesus.
Dear Abba, thank you for including us in your love and life through Jesus in the Spirit. Show us the open doors you would have us walk through. Fill our mouths with the words to say in each moment we are given. Fill our hearts with courage and faith, a boldness to share the words of life which have so helped and transformed us. We trust you to finish what you begin, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people saying, ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD, ‘take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ declares the LORD of hosts. ‘As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt, My Spirit is abiding in your midst; do not fear!’” Haggai 2:2-5 NASB
By Linda Rex
PENTECOST—As a pastor, I am often burdened by the struggles and suffering of those I minister to and of those I encounter as I move about in my community. I would love to help people find freedom from the things which enslave them and to find peace, joy, and renewal in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But I realize how easy it is to allow the distractions and interests of life to occupy my own mind, time, and attention to the place that I lose focus on the things of God. Any relationship becomes stale or divided if not enough attention is given to it. To become indifferent to another person rather than deeply connected with them can easily happen without our realizing it if we are preoccupied with other things.
When we read about the disciples after the resurrection, we find them gathered together in community continuing in their relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer. As a group they were focused in prayer and they remembered that Jesus had told them they were to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus had told them to wait—to wait until they were clothed with power from on high.
I have no doubt that Peter could have told a powerful story of his own personal redemption, of how he had betrayed Jesus but Jesus had forgiven him and recommissioned him to tend the flock of God’s people. Matthew could have told about how Jesus found him in the marketplace, a despised tax collector, and told him to follow him, and how Jesus had changed his life and given him a new purpose. Mary Magdalene could have shared how Jesus had freed her from her many demons and given her a new life of service and obedience to her Lord.
But Jesus had told each of them to wait. He had told them that telling his story in their story would not be enough. Something more was needed.
God had come in the person of Jesus Christ, had taken on our humanity, had forged a new human existence for us, and had taught his disciples how to love and serve others in the way God meant us as humans to live. But Jesus was touching only a few people’s lives while he was here on earth. From the beginning God had intended the transformation of the entire cosmos. He had meant a change in the very substance of our human existence which would heal, restore, and renew all things.
For this reason, after his death and resurrection, Jesus needed to return to the Father and send the Spirit. Pouring out this gift of God’s presence and power on all flesh gave each human being the capacity for the new life Jesus forged for us while living in our humanity. And Jesus was frank about the reality that the world would not receive this gift. He knew and understood our human capacity to rebel against God and to resist the gracious love of the Father.
It seems that apart from our Abba’s work, we do not receive this gift and walk in the truth of our existence as his adopted children. Our tendency is to listen to and embrace the lies of the evil one instead and to seek our life in this broken existence rather than in the One who created us and redeemed us. We prefer to design and assume our own self-created identity rather than embracing the one given to us by God—to be his image-bearers, children who love him and one another with a self-sacrificial, humble, serving and gracious love.
What we don’t realize is that apart from this precious gift of the Spirit and the work of God’s power and presence in our lives, we are living as if something is missing. There is a capacity we do not have which we need so that we are able to truly be the people God intends us to be. We are not truly ourselves apart from the indwelling Spirit, for when the Spirit dwells richly within us, God dwells within and we participate in the realization of the kingdom of God. We experience in those moments what it describes in Revelation 21:3-5 where God comes to dwell with man and Jesus works to make all things new.
In Genesis, we read how Adam and Eve walked in the garden of Eden with God, talking with him and sharing all of life with him. Being in God’s presence and experiencing a personal relationship with our Creator is what we were created for. But more than that, we have been given through Jesus Christ by the Spirit the very real presence of God within our very being. Now God dwells within us permanently rather than merely being with us.
The power and presence of God within is lifechanging and transformational, but we will not experience the reality of this as long as other people and interests command our attention and focus. If our dependency is upon the things of this life, we will not depend upon God and his Spirit. Due to God’s grace, we can survive quite nicely for a while doing this, but we will miss out on the capacity to fully participate in our real human existence as children of God. We will struggle to truly express the nature of God in our words and actions and any witness we may give to the person and work of Jesus Christ will be limited and ineffective.
Attending upon the things of the Spirit through the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, silence, sharing, bible study, gratitude, and meditation opens us up to the Spirit’s work within. Slowing down and taking time to focus on Jesus Christ allows the Spirit fill us and renew us for the work we have been given—to testify to the goodness and love of the Father expressed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Just as the early church learned to wait for the promise of the Spirit before moving ahead on mission with Jesus, today believers learn to rest in Christ and to wait upon the Spirit before attempting to do ministry in this broken world.
Today, how can we pause and make room for the Spirit’s work within? How can we give undivided attention to the Lord Jesus Christ through prayer and the other spiritual disciplines? Perhaps all that is needed is simply silence and rest. God is present and real at all times—we simply need to awaken to his presence and power within, and to allow the Spirit to renew, inspire, teach, and lead us.
Thank you, Abba, that through Jesus you have sent your Spirit. Awaken us to your presence and power at work within us. Enable us to experience renewal, refreshment, and healing by your precious Spirit. Holy Spirit, fill us anew and empower us to bear witness to Jesus, and to live and walk in truth in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Acts 2:4 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” John 14:12 NASB
“For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Romans 8:14 NASB
By Linda Rex
ASCENSION SUNDAY—Today I have on my mind one of those tragic circumstances in which people whom I care for and love are bound by either habit or choice to things which hold them captive. Their relationships aren’t all based on love but rather on convenience or need, or even on whether or not they can get what they want or need from the people they profess to care for. This breaks my heart.
How do you love such a person? Love in their minds seems to mean getting what they want or believe they need even when it is at the expense of the people they get it from. Love, for them, seems to have to do merely with the fleshly passions of the human soul rather than the aspects of our being which reflect the divine glory.
To tell such a person no, or to limit their ability to have the things which give them pleasure, doesn’t feel loving to them. Rather it feels restrictive and uncomfortable. It feels like the person who is setting limits on them doesn’t care about their feelings or needs, when in reality there is deep love and compassion behind all and any efforts to help by setting limits or restricting behaviors.
We as human beings can become very confused about the difference between love and lust, concern and condemnation. To tell someone their behavior is self-destructive and/or hurtful and that it needs to stop is perceived as interference or being judgmental and condemning, when in reality the person trying to intervene wants to help save them from their self-harm before it is too late. People can lose all ability to recognize the glory inherent within their being unless someone else points it out to them, but even then, they may refuse to recognize it or live in the truth of who God meant for them to be.
In reality, each and every human carry within themselves a divine glory. Each of us was made in the image of God after his likeness to reflect the glory of God. We are made to manifest God’s very nature as Father, Son, and Spirit living in perichoretic oneness, purity, and holiness. It is God’s nature to be loving, gracious, compassionate, and just (Ex. 34:6-7). This is the nature we were meant to reflect as we live our daily lives. The reason Jesus came was not so we could be more self-indulgent and self-serving, but rather so that we could be more Christlike—living a life of loving humility, service, and sacrifice in healthy relationship with one another and God.
The Christian church is meant to be the place where the glory God has given us is manifest in the way in which we interact with one another. Believers are to live with one another in a way which reflects the glory and majesty of God as expressed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in his completed work on our behalf and given to us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
When we live in ways that are self-indulgent, hedonistic, and self-serving, we are living in denial of the truth. We are missing out on the blessing and joy of living in the truth of our humanity—that we are accepted, forgiven, beloved, and healed in Christ and meant to reflect the glory of God. We are created to live in community, in outgoing concern and service to others around us, walking in grace and in truth in our relationships.
God made us his very own adopted children and has done what was needed so that we may be forgiven and freed from all the things in this world which bind us and hold us captive. As we gaze upon Jesus, we find ourselves living in him—his humanity is real. He was just as human as we are, with the same everyday need to eat, drink, and sleep. He knew what it was like to hunger, to ache with strained muscles, and to lay his head back to catch a quick nap when he had the chance. He understood the ache we feel when we have broken relationships and understood with great compassion how we feel when we lose someone dear to us.
It was not enough for the Word of God to join us in our humanity. He joined us in our human experience, but then was willing to go through the sorrow and agony of the worst of it—betrayal, shame, humiliation, abuse, torture, and crucifixion. Whatever we may perceive of as pain or grief, Jesus experienced it too, carrying within himself our very own brokenness as human beings. And having done all this, he entered into the depths of death—going through what every human must experience one day—he died and was laid in a tomb.
But bearing our humanity in this way was not the end. It was necessary that Jesus carry our humanity with him from Mary’s womb on into eternity. The Lord of all rose from the grave bearing our glorified humanity. The newness of our being as humans made in the image of God is something Jesus Christ bears even now. For forty days following his resurrection, his disciples saw, touched, and heard the reality of our resurrected glorified humanity in Jesus. He walked, talked, and ate with them—living life in ways which showed he was still very human but also very glorified.
Jesus said that the only way we could share in this divine glory was through the endowment of the Holy Spirit. He had to go to the Father so that the Spirit would come and each of us could share in this marvelous gift Jesus had forged on our behalf. In Ephesians we learn that Jesus even now bears our glorified humanity in the presence of Abba—who we are as human beings has been reestablished in the glorified risen Lord and is there for us awaiting our own transformation.
The ascension is a significant day on the Christian calendar, for our humanity ascended with Christ when he rose to be in the presence of Abba forever. We are given the gift of everlasting life in Jesus Christ, but we can continue to choose the ways of death instead of receiving this gift and living in the truth of it. Are we willing to surrender to Christ being the One who defines our humanity and how we live our lives, or will we continue to seek our own ways of living and being?
The path Jesus trod when he was on earth was the path of death and resurrection and he calls us to join him there. This path requires surrender, relinquishment, and submission to the will and purposes of the God who made us and who came to redeem us and bring us to be with him forever. Are we willing to lay it all down so that we can share in this marvelous and wonderful gift?
We were meant for so much more than this broken and twisted life. We weren’t created to be slaves or captives. We were created for glory. We were meant to live with God in glory forever in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22), rejoicing in the goodness and love of God on into eternity. Will we turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ? Will we receive the gift of life God has bestowed on us through Christ in the Spirit? Will we fully participate in Christ’s ascension?
Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in all aspects of our humanity and for freeing us from all that binds us and holds us captive. Grant us the grace to acknowledge our dependency upon you, our inability to live in the glory which you intended us to shine with, and to, this day, do the next right thing you give us to do. Holy Spirit, empower us again to bear witness to our glorified Lord in all we say and do, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“God has ascended with a shout, / The Lord, with the sound of a trumpet.” Psalm 47:5 NASB
“These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:19b-23 NASB
By Linda Rex
5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—As many of my friends and family know, I will be getting remarried next Saturday. I was sharing our story of repentance and renewal when a friend asked whether someone could really change that much. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles in our relationships with one another is this very question—is it really possible for people to change for the better?
We are still in the season of Easter, the time of renewal and redemption in the story of Jesus Christ. We have talked about how the Word of God set aside for a time the privileges of his divinity in order to join us in our humanity and was willing to go to the cross on our behalf so that we would be brought up into the divine circle of love and grace, the perichoresis of the Trinity.
As broken human beings, we muddle our way through life doing the best we can in every situation, often following the leadings of our heart and mind even when they lead us down some very difficult and painful paths. Years ago, as two broken people caught up in the legalistic religious mentality we were brought up in and drawing upon the broken template of our parents’ relationships as an example, my ex-husband, Ray, and I tried to piece together a happy marriage. We were good at the image of happiness, but in reality, we did not know the first thing about how to resolve our differences and we certainly didn’t know what it meant to love with the self-sacrificial and redemptive love of Jesus.
We had a marriage based on rules, on performance, rather than based in the love and grace of God himself. Our two wonderful children were raised in the midst of this brokenness and our greatest grief is what they had to suffer because of our failures to love. It took many years for God to work with the two of us to get us to the place where we were healed enough that we could move on. And it was a surprise to me that God wanted this renewal in our relationship to happen.
But this healing and renewal is meant to bear witness to the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. We are both fundamentally the same and will probably struggle with many issues similar to what we struggled with in the past. But we are both in a different place due to what God has done in each of our hearts and lives by his Holy Spirit.
As Christ has been at work within us and we have responded to his leading, we have both grown and healed, and are being renewed day by day. There is a humility and a willingness to be taught new ways of relating and resolving issues. There is a grace that has come through suffering and sorrow. Our personal renewal isn’t always evident to those around us—it is often buried under the default of our old habits and ways of talking and acting. But God is making all things new and he has begun this renewal in our relationship as a witness to his glory and grace.
When there is so much hurt and pain in a relationship, it is very difficult for the adults and the children to say, “I forgive you,” and to let people start over. The wounds and the bad memories often get in the way of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation often have to begin with an intentional decision rather than a desire or feeling. The Lord Jesus reconciled all humanity with the Father—we are to participate with him in this reconciliation by choosing to forgive and to be reconciled in all the relationships in our lives which are broken.
The renewal Jesus is bringing about is something which he accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and is working into our individual experience by the pouring out of his Holy Spirit. In our broken relationships with one another we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to express the redemptive purpose and power of God, bearing witness to God’s ability to renew and restore in the midst of our brokenness and failures to love.
When Jesus says, “Behold I am making all things new,” he isn’t just talking about some distant future event. He is also talking about right now, in each and every moment. God’s way of being is one of renewal. His purpose is to move in our hearts and lives such a way that renewal is a continual process. What we are today, if we are willing and respond to the work of the indwelling Christ, will be different from what we will be tomorrow—Jesus is bringing us deeper and deeper into intimate relationship with the Father by the Spirit.
As we draw closer to God, we begin to change. We begin to put on more and more of the nature of God, just as children over time begin to resemble their parents. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11 NASB) Even though by all appearances, we may be just the same, God has declared in Christ that we are washed, sanctified, and justified. We are made new, and as Christ goes to work within us by the Holy Spirit, over time that newness becomes a reality for us individually.
There are no promises that the man I love or I will get it right the second time around. So our faith isn’t in ourselves, but in the God who brought us together and who lives within us. We are committed to Christ and to one another—the rest is up to our all-powerful God. Through Jesus and by his Spirit, we trust that our second marriage will reflect the mercy and glory of our Triune God of love. We rest in Christ’s ability and power, not our ability and capacity to make this work. Loving relationship is a work of the Spirit; may he create a beautiful loving relationship which gives God glory and honor for the rest of our time together.
Abba, thank you for your ministry of reconciliation which you have accomplished through your Son Jesus and are making real in this world, in our lives and in our relationships by your Holy Spirit. Please bring healing and wholeness to every broken relationship. Enable us to choose forgiveness, to choose to be reconciled to one another, just as you have reconciled us to you. Bind us together in loving, gracious, and truth-filled relationships through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Rev 21:3-5
By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
By Linda Rex
RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?
As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”
As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.
This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.
The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.
As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.
All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.
In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.
As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.
But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.
The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).
Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.
Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.
The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.
We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB
By Linda Rex
LENT—As I walked through the grocery store the other day, I was struck by the amount of choices placed before me of things to drink. Moving through a large open section filled with a wide variety of bottles of wine, I came to an aisle filled with beers, ales, and other cold alcoholic drinks. Beyond that was an even larger aisle filled with flavored and unflavored bottled water. And after that was an aisle filled with cans and bottles of all different kinds of soda pop.
The irony I felt was that God has given us fresh water to drink, but if I were to go anywhere in this country, hold a cup under a flowing fountain of running water, I probably would not be able to drink it. I would have to boil it first, maybe even filter it before I could safely drink it. The risk of illness would limit my ability to enjoy what God originally provided for my health and refreshment.
We live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” not because there is no clean natural running water, but because we are parched for the living water of God’s real presence and power. Even within our churches today we find ourselves longing for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit’s renewal, yearning to see God at work in our lives, our families, and in our world. We live in a world where the Spirit’s presence is easily ignored and where our appetite for the things of God may be conveniently filled with anything our human flesh might crave.
God has given us so many things in this world to enjoy. They are meant to give us pleasure and to brighten our existence, and to show us the love and grace of our Creator and Redeemer. Yet they can so easily become the focus of our attention instead of turning us to the One who has given them to us for our joy and renewal. Rather than being a blessing to us they can enslave us or distract us from our unity with God through Jesus in the Spirit.
During Lent we may set aside some item, food, or habit in a worshipful offering to God as a means of fasting. This spiritual discipline is not meant to change God’s mind about us, but rather to open us up to the work of the Spirit in a new way. Setting something aside for a time reminds us of our dependency upon God and all he has done for us in giving his Son and his Spirit. We are reminded that our real sustenance is not in ourselves but in Jesus Christ—he is our life, and his lovingkindness is better than life (Ps. 63:3).
It is so easy for us to replace a deep abiding relationship with God with an abundance of cheap substitutes. We wander about from day to day constantly bombarded with temptations and distractions. It is so easy to find ourselves drinking from the well of our flesh rather than the free-flowing crystal waters of the Spirit. Our pause during Lent to attend to the things of the Spirit draws us away from this and turns us back toward our Savior and Lord.
When we feel we are far from Christ, God does not want us to wallow in guilt and shame. This is not his purpose. What he wants us to see is that even though we may believe we are totally lost, Jesus has already come to us, found us and brought us home to the Father. In reality, if we were to turn around and start moving in God’s direction, we would find Abba already running down the road to meet us, longing to embrace us and welcome us home.
God’s thoughts are so far above ours when it comes to the things of love and grace. God doesn’t hold anything against us, but freely and generously forgives us, even before we ever get around to saying we’re sorry. Admitting our guilt and saying we’re sorry merely affirms the reality that God needed to forgive us and so he did. God’s purpose is not to get us to feel bad and to try to do better—it is to bring us back into right relationship with himself so once again we can live in in joyful fellowship and unity with God and one another.
During Lent, our fasting can be a means by which we can attend to our thirst or need for God. A lot of times we don’t realize what’s really going inside of us because we are so distracted by our human, secular existence. Because we are so busy or caught up with the details of everyday life, we may not even realize we have turned away from our Abba and started down the road to destruction.
Our life at work, and in our family, school, and community are full of great relationships and experiences. There are challenges which stretch us and grow us into stronger, healthier people. There are circumstances and relationships which crush us and break us, causing us to wonder how we will ever be able to move on. Our human, secular existence isn’t evil in and of itself. But there is often evil at work in the things of this world and our human flesh has a proclivity apart from God’s work in us to succumb to the pulls of sinful thoughts and desires.
The only way we rise above the downward pull of our broken humanity is to drink in deeply of the free-flowing Spirit. We allow the recognition of our need for God to turn us toward him, not away from him in guilt and shame. Acknowledging our thirst, even hunger for God is an initial step toward healing and renewal. Seeking God in earnest means crying out for his redemptive power and presence, the living Christ, to finish what he has begun in us by the Holy Spirit.
Seeing how far we have fallen is not meant to create in us a determination to try harder. Yes, we want to leave behind old, broken ways of being and doing. But this realization of our need to change is in reality a thirst for the things of God which can only be filled by drinking in of the Spirit of love and grace given to us through Jesus. It is the Spirit who transforms our hearts by faith. He is the One who empowers us to live and walk in truth by the faith of the Son of God.
The spiritual disciplines we practice open us wide to the Spirit, allowing him to penetrate new parts of our being and relationships with his presence and power. Spiritual disciplines have been practiced by Christians for millennia and include such things as prayer, meditation, study of God’s word, celebration, praise and worship, service, truth-telling, humility, simplicity, contemplation, and fasting.
By creating spaces in our everyday lives to open ourselves up to the Spirit and grow in our relationship with Jesus through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we are able to drink in deeply of the living waters of God’s love and grace. We will find ourselves empowered to live in ways which are more compassionate, loving, and in tune with the heavenly realities. We will experience a nearness with Jesus and Abba by the Spirit which will be life-transforming. This drinking in of the life-giving Spirit will quench our thirsty souls in a way nothing else can.
Dear God, you are so gracious and kind! Turn our hearts once again back to you, Lord. Enable us to see our true hunger and thirst are for you and your ways. Thank you, Abba, that you did not leave us in our broken and thirsty flesh, but you sent Jesus heal us, to bring us home to you, and you gave us your Spirit to refresh and renew us. Cause our beings to resonate with your being, Lord. We are so grateful you do not leave us as we are but ever work to make us new through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; / Call upon Him while He is near. / Let the wicked forsake his way / And the unrighteous man his thoughts; / And let him return to the LORD, / And He will have compassion on him, / And to our God, / For He will abundantly pardon. / For My thoughts are not your thoughts, / Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways / And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:6-8 NASB
“O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; / My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1 NASB