By Linda Rex
April 18, 2021, 3rd SUNDAY IN EASTER—This morning my son was telling me about a volcano which is erupting right now in St. Vincent, Grenadines. Although I cannot imagine what it is like to live in a place that might at any moment be disrupted dramatically by the power of a volcano, I do know how frightening and powerful a violent earthquake can be. Watching a glass of water walk across the table or frantically trying to dive under the heavy desk in my room to protect myself are two of my own distinct memories that remind me of how small we are in comparison with these powerful natural forces.
What about the human heart? It seems that we as human beings underestimate the power of our own passions and drives. We find ourselves deeply moved by an event such as September 11, 2001—it brought me to my knees. We are devastated by the death of a loved one or a favorite pet. Little do we realize the power God has placed within us as human beings to impact ourselves, our world and the people around us. And so often we use this power in unhealthy and destructive ways. Sadly, there are times we neglect to control what in time begins to control us, and we become addicts to all types of substances, behaviors, and habits.
When Jesus showed up in the upper room, he made a point of showing the disciples that he was still very human, bearing the marks of the beating and crucifixion in his body. This image of Jesus testifying to his humanity after the resurrection reminds us that he understands the struggle we have in believing what makes absolutely no sense to the human mind. It also shows us the extent God is willing to go to in order to prove that he loves us and has made us his very own adopted children (1 John 3:1–7). One day, as loving children, we will look just like Jesus in glory—what tremendously wonderful things will we be capable of then?
This world is an amazing place in all its natural glory. God made all this beauty for our enjoyment and for our pleasure. And we are amazing creatures with all the human glory God has given us, with our ability to live in relationship and to think, create, and love. I believe this is why we as human beings often need to be reminded of the cost of idolatry in all of its forms. Too often we ignore the who while focusing on the what—ignoring the divine One while focusing on the physical, tangible reality of the world he gave us to enjoy and steward. Our tendency is to worship the creation and all of its benefits rather than the One who created and sustains it.
It is a shame that so often we (note, I said we) fritter away our power to affect change, to build relationships, to heal and transform with trivial pursuits that do nothing to make our world a better place. I find too often that it is easier to entertain myself than it is to invest my gifts and talents, to do something that will make our world a better place to live in, or to exert myself on behalf of another person who is in need. Isn’t it more comfortable and convenient to stay in our cocoon than it is to take a risk or do something challenging? How easy it is to pursue pleasure, rather than pursue what is eternal and lasting!
My point isn’t to be critical or to condemn but simply to remind us anew to turn away from ourselves and the distractions of this world and to turn to Christ. Following the crucifixion of Jesus came the miracle of the resurrection. This offers us such comfort when facing the reality of our weakness and sin. It is in repentance and turning back to Christ that we find renewal and refreshment.
Peter, when reminding the crowd of how they delivered Jesus up to death told them they acted in ignorance, not realizing that their offering up of Christ was part of God’s predetermined plan for the salvation of humanity. We don’t always understand God’s reasons or methods, but we certainly can trust his heart. While we live in a world which is in a constant state of flux or change, we have the bedrock of Jesus Christ to settle into, putting down deep roots into God himself by faith as we respond to the Spirit in trust and obedience.
In Christ we have been given the capacity for true relationship with God and one another that is other-centered and truly free. By the Spirit we have the power to take the risk to love boldly, to courageously stand against evil, and to endure hardship and the struggles of life. As Christ lives in our hearts by faith, we are empowered to reflect the divine glory of self-sacrifice, service, humility, generosity, and compassion. With God’s heart, we can tend the earth with respect, understanding, care, and responsible stewardship.
In Christ we have been given a new heart and mind on which God’s will and ways are written. We can participate by faith in Jesus’ work in this world to heal, transform and renew. There is great power given to God’s people in that they can appeal to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit for healing, change, and renewal, in themselves, their circumstances, their culture, and the world. What a gift we have been given, that we can participate in what Christ is doing to make all things new!
We do all of this in Jesus’ name. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory, who empowers us to bring his kingdom life to realization in a world that rejects Jesus as a myth or a fable. The Spirit of God at work in us and in this world enables us to live as citizens of heaven, when it is much easier to live as citizens of a world in which sin and lawlessness reign. Today, we can ask ourselves—what does the Spirit want us to do right now? What words would Jesus have us say in his name? What change is God is doing in the world that we will participate in by faith? How can we live more boldly in this world while not being a part of it? How can we tangibly offer God’s grace and love to this person right in front of us?
God of glory, you have given us such dignity and worth as those made in your image to bear your likeness and share your life as your beloved adopted children! Grant us the grace to refuse to waste the gifts you have given us and to embrace the challenges of living as image-bearers of Christ in today’s culture. May we fully participate in your kingdom work in this world, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them.” Luke 24:38–43 (36b–48) NASB
See also Acts 3:12–19.
By Linda Rex
April 11, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN EASTER—One of the results of the recent pandemic and our isolation from one another has been a deeper appreciation for the significant relationships in our lives, and the opportunities we have for face-to-face interaction. It seems as though our desire for relationship has been challenged by our need for self-preservation and protecting others, and has actually been strengthened by the limitations we have had to deal with.
This desire for and ability to work through difficulty to forge healthy relationships is rooted in the Triune God himself. We find that it is God’s nature to live in warm fellowship and to include others in that relationship. When anything comes between God and those he loves, he passionately works to remove the obstacle and restore the union between himself and his beloved ones.
We see this profoundly manifested in the coming of the Word of God into human flesh to live, die and rise again so that all humanity might be included in the love and life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The evil, sin, and death brought into the cosmos via the first Adam is eradicated by the finished work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who summarily dealt with it through his passion on the cross, in his broken body and shed blood.
We reflect upon Jesus’ final words on the cross and we remember him saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This is a critical point, because healing broken relationships nearly always begins with forgiveness. Forgiving someone for a devastating loss, a humiliating embarrassment, or even an atrocity or ongoing sin, can seem to be an impossible task. And often, it is. This is why so many live their lives separated from others and from God, because they cannot and will not forgive the offenses that they feel have been done to them.
When we find ourselves in that place where we are filled with anger, hatred, or seething resentment and bitterness toward someone who has hurt or offended us, we may even refuse to admit that this is the issue. We may have put up so many internal walls for self-protection that we don’t even realize how deeply rooted we are in this place of unforgiveness. What has happened lately that has brought to your attention an area in which you need to forgive someone? What was your response? Are you still in denial, or have you admitted that indeed, you do need to forgive?
Perhaps it would be better to get our eyes off our internal work for a while and onto Jesus Christ and his finished work. Pondering the reality of Jesus’ willingness to intentionally go to the cross to allow humanity to pour over him all our hostility, evil, rejection, and desire for vengeance should remind us of the immensity of his gift to you and me. In the midst of all that was in opposition to him in that moment, in the face of every hateful and scornful word and vicious deed, we find Jesus offering forgiveness. In the place of our hostility against him, he offered grace.
And perhaps, before going any farther in the process of forgiving another person, we should take some time to reflect on the reality of our own failures to love. This is a place we may need to park in for a while—have we been refusing to admit that we might be part of the problem? Initially, our own failure love may simply be that we are unwilling to forgive. Or is there more going on than this?
Forgiving the unforgiveable is the work of God, and can only happen via the work of the Holy Spirit. In this place of our need we have the blessed gift of grace and the truth that Jesus went down this difficult road first. The capacity to forgive is found within Christ’s own forgiveness of all of us. What we may not be able to forgive another person for is bound up in all that Jesus, first of all, took upon himself and forgave us for. Now he imparts that very same grace to us in the Holy Spirit. He pours out into us a forgiving spirit, his own nature manifested on the cross, as we are willing to receive it.
He has made himself of one heart and soul with us, so that we might be of one heart and soul with him and one another. God offers us the grace or gift of forgiving those who wound us just as he offers us his own forgiveness for the wounds we have inflicted upon him and others. Poured like oil over these wounds, God’s grace brings about a restoration and reconciliation that would otherwise be impossible.
Moving beyond forgiveness, we find that even unity and oneness between people is a grace, a gift of the Spirit. Soon after their infilling with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, we find the followers of Christ living in a spiritual community characterized by all of them being “of one heart and soul.” This was reflected in their care for one another and in a willingness to share, to lay down what they owned for the benefit of their brothers and sisters who were in need (Acts 4:32–35). This unity is what was described by King David in Psalm 133 when he wrote:
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.”
This unity and oneness is a reflection of the unity and oneness within the Trinity we were created to participate in now and forever. We participate in it in and through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. God has commanded his blessing of eternal life, of knowing deeply and intimately the Father and his Son whom he sent, and we are called to respond in faith, trusting him and opening ourselves up fully to the Spirit he has poured out on us so freely.
Turning from ourselves and turning to Christ are our response to this enormous and priceless gift of forgiveness. We receive God’s grace, and begin to allow the Spirit to lead us, following Christ’s lead in our lives and in our relationships. At times we must begin by simply taking a single step of obedience and allow Jesus to do the rest. Forgiving people who have wounded us can be done—we may only be able to choose to obey and then ask Jesus for the grace to do the rest. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who is the forgiving One, and he enables us to forgive. He enables us to restore and reconcile when it seems impossible to do so.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over us again. Even Christ did not crawl back up on the cross over and over, but did it once, for all time. We do not want to receive his grace in vain, nor do we want others to receive our grace in vain. We may have to begin the process of setting healthy boundaries in place and teaching others how to treat us lovingly and respectfully by our own example of properly loving and respecting others. These are difficult tasks that may require us getting help from others who are qualified to counsel and guide us.
But we can do the most difficult work of all, forgiving and restoring relationship, by walking in the light of God’s love and grace. In Christ, the light of the world, we find the grace to be of one heart and soul with one another, as we have been made heart and soul with God himself through Jesus in the Spirit.
Thank you, Triune God, for the extent you went to in order to reconcile all with yourself in Jesus. Thank you for pouring out on us the grace to be of one heart and soul. Grant us the grace to receive all you have given and offer it others, through Jesus in the Spirit. Amen.
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:(1–5) 6–10 (2:1–2) NASB
See also John 20:19–31.
By Linda Rex
February 28, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY IN LENT (EASTER PREP)—One of the things brought to my attention recently in a new way was how subtle the temptation is to take difficult situations into our own hands and work them out under our own power. Some of us feel an urgent need to fix things that are broken or not working the way we think they should and often jump in with both feet, not realizing that doing so may not be what God intends in the situation.
Granted, we do need to invest our best efforts in doing what we believe is the right and holy thing for us to do in each instance as we follow Christ. But when we slide into that belief that it’s all up to us, then we are spiritually on dangerous ground. I wonder if sometimes we believe we are caught in a place where we feel we have been abandoned or forgotten by God. Circumstances in our life may be such that we feel as though we are managing just fine on our own, or the opposite, we don’t see any path by which a solution could come to us for our extreme difficulties. Either way, there is a temptation to trust in our own ability to move ourselves forward rather than simply trusting in God’s promises and provision.
As members of my congregation at Grace Communion Nashville know, we are facing some difficult decisions about the future of our congregation. Over the past eight years since I have pastored this congregation, and long before that, our members have diligently worked to serve and love the people of East Nashville. They have provided free meals, prayed for people, and given what they could to help those in need, whether food, clothing, money, or just heartfelt compassion and understanding. We have done our best to provide upbeat, contemporary Christ-centered Trinitarian worship with an emphasis on communion and sharing the good news of God’s love and grace expressed to us in Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have joined in with our church neighbors in community service opportunities and events, and have participated with our neighborhood association as they served the neighbors, and have cared for those God has brought to our attention who needed extra help.
To be sure, we have hoped that our little congregation might grow some in the process, but I hope that we did not make this an expectation that had to be realized, or believe that to not have done so means we have failed in some way. I believe we need to see things much differently than that. Whatever may happen to us in the future, we do know this—we were faithful, obedient, and loving, and blameless before God in our love and service to him and others. We have trusted him to do what was needed to keep us going, and he has. We have done our best to implement best practices for church renewal so we are relevant to our community. We have asked Jesus for opportunities to serve and he has given them. We have prayed for people and baptized some, and many have experienced healing, renewal, and transformed lives, or are still in process. In my view, our little congregation has God’s handprint of masterpiece creation written all over it.
As I read Romans 4:13–25, the New Testament passage for this Sunday, I was struck by the significance of what Paul was saying there in relation to this whole topic. God gave Abraham the promise of a son and many descendants, the fulfillment of which was not based on his ability to keep the law correctly or to do all the right things, but solely on God’s goodness and grace. Abraham was honest about the reality of his and his wife Sarah’s inability to bear children at their advanced age. Abraham came to the place where he surrendered to the truth that none of this could be realized by his or Sarah’s effort or ability. Even though he and Sarah had moments of uncertainty—we see this in the circumstances around the birth of Ishmael—Abraham was brought to the place where he simply trusted in God’s faithfulness rather than in his own ability to ensure that he would have what God promised. And God counted this as righteousness.
In their book “Transformational Churches”, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer remind the readers that one of the most critical steps in church renewal is the congregation’s ability to see and accept the reality that apart from God’s intervention, their church will not be transformed, and that God’s ability to bring about renewal and transformation is far more powerful than any obstacle which may stand against them. God’s whole mission is the transformation of our cosmos, our world, into the truth of what he means for it to be—a reflection of his glory and majesty. Why would he not do what was necessary to bring that to pass? The authors remind us that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6b NASB). When real transformation happens to a person, or to a church, it will be obvious who did it—God did, and he will get all the glory and praise.
Every person and every church comes to a point where the reality of what they are experiencing doesn’t measure up with what they know about God and his purposes for them. In this “cathartic moment” they realize they have come to a place where there is no movement forward. Abraham and Sarah experienced this at one point, and took matters into their own hands, thinking the solution was to have a child by Hagar, a concubine. But this wasn’t God’s solution—it was theirs, and created a whole host of unnecessary difficulties which God hadn’t meant for them or Hagar or even Ishmael to have to experience. Abraham and Sarah may have erred temporarily, but in the long run their faith in God’s faithfulness won the day.
We can be honest about our weakness and our limitations without in any way preventing God from bringing transformation and renewal to pass. We can own the reality that without God’s intervention nothing will be any different than it is right now. And we can embrace the crisis in front of us in faith, trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision, allow him to show us what our next steps need to be, and then, however falteringly, take those steps. Yes, as a church, we can continue to provide leadership that is alive and open to what God is doing, express dependency upon God through prayer, and offer wholehearted, inspired worship to God. And we can embrace new relationships and circumstances God places before us where we can share the good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. But anything beyond that—let’s be real. That’s all up to God. And he works in his own time and in his own way.
We stand today at a crossroads where we are reminded by the story of Abraham and Sarah that our covenant God is faithful and keeps his word. Their simple decision to trust in God for the promised child was merely a stepping stone on the journey of the Word of God coming into human flesh to live our life, die our death, and rise again, bringing all of humanity into a new place where each and every person may by faith participate in the divine union of Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. This childless couple, if they were standing with us, would be overwhelmed seeing the millions who today by faith are their spiritual descendants. What will we see when we look back at our participation in Christ’s mission as we trust God to finish what he began in us? I believe our faith in God’s faithfulness will be abundantly rewarded, far beyond our ability to ask or imagine, both now and in the world to come. Let’s walk by faith, not by sight.
O Faithful One, you who have ever worked to bring us near you, to share in your life and love, thank you for your faithfulness. Keep us ever faithful, trusting that you will finish what you have begun in us and believing we will see you do a new thing—a thing so great, only you could possibly have done it. Even now, in faith, we offer all the glory, honor, and praise to you. In your Name—Father, Son, and Spirit—we pray. Amen.
“Faith is our source, and that makes Abraham our father. When God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he made a public statement that he would be the father of all nations. Here we see Abraham faced with God’s faith; the kind of faith that resurrects the dead and calls things which are not as though they were. Faith gave substance to hope when everything seemed hopeless; the words, ‘so shall your seed be’ conceived in him the faith of fatherhood. Abraham’s faith would have been nullified if he were to take his own age and the deadness of Sarah’s womb into account. His hundred-year-old body and Sarah’s barren womb did not distract him in the least! He finally knew that no contribution from their side could possibly assist God in fulfilling his promise!” Romans 4:16b-19 Mirror Bible
By Linda Rex
February 17, 2021, ASH WEDNESDAY—As a congregation, we have been seeking God’s face, participating as a group in prayer and fasting. Ash Wednesday inaugurates the Lenten season, a season of preparation for Holy Week when we celebrate the last supper, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During this season, many of us will choose to fast in some way, whether by ceasing to eat certain foods, or stopping the use of certain items, or restricting our participation in certain activities.
It is good to participate in spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. But the question we need to attend to is, why are we doing it? How are we doing it? And what do we hope to gain from such an activity?
When we practice the spiritual disciplines—and there are a wide variety of disciplines we can choose to practice—we must remember that we do not do them to try to get God’s attention or earn his love. Praying more, studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, and going to worship services do not earn us brownie points with God—he gladly receives our devotion to him, but it is not necessary to his happiness. Neither does practicing spiritual disciplines alter his love for us. God loves us apart from our actively seeking his face—he sent us Jesus long before we ever thought to say a single prayer.
However, there are times when we acutely feel the distance between us and God. Aren’t spiritual disciplines helpful to bring us closer to God? Absolutely, but not in the way we often seem to think they do. They do not change God’s mind or heart toward us but rather, they bring about a change in us toward God and others. What spiritual disciplines do is open us up to the work God wants to do in us by his Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, meditation, service, humility, and even self-care and care of creation, are ways of placing ourselves in God’s presence and inviting him to do whatever he wants to do in us and in our lives.
There is a distinction we must observe between simply being pious and devout for the sake of trying to move or control God and others, and sincerely laying ourselves out before God in open submission and surrender to his will. Doing the first means performing actions which merely give people the impression of our being good and holy while doing very little to bring about healing and wholeness in us or in our relationships with others. The second is profoundly different, for it is a deep personal interaction with God that can be life-changing, and can move us to begin to live in new ways, offering ourselves to God in whole-hearted love and obedience that is demonstrated by loving our neighbors and ourselves as we ought.
Through the prophet Isaiah God took his people to task for doing their humble fasting to be noticed by God. The reason was because in the midst of their religious practices, they were still mistreating people, neglecting the poor and needy, and not caring for their own families. Jesus himself took the religious leaders, who were so pious, to task for doing these things as well. What good is all our religious ritual and practices if we are unwilling to actually love those people who are already in our lives?
Sadly, it is often we as followers of Jesus who are the worst at being critical and condemning of one another. We are most often the ones who are guilty of deceit, denial, sexual promiscuity, greed and gluttony. We cannot get along with one another, it seems—there are so many things we disagree on. And so often we refuse to allow others the freedom of being guided by the Spirit in some direction that is different than the way he is guiding us.
As a congregation, we have had many opportunities to serve and help those who are poor, needy, and homeless, along with those who were simply struggling to get by. Let us not lose heart in our service to those God places in our lives—we have a calling and a gift, a grace to share with each one. In our seeking after God, our following Jesus, let us allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, giving us Abba’s heart for each of his children. Let us continue to open up our hearts to receive his love and grace that we might share the good news of Jesus with others.
The Word of God took on our humanity, to share in our struggles, so that through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, he might bring us up to share life with him now and forever. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul enumerated a great number of ways in which he and those in ministry with him suffered and struggled as they shared the good news with others (2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10) In Christ and in Paul, we see the willingness to simply go to whatever ends were necessary to share the good news of God’s love.
Paul tells his readers, “Don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” There is a cost to the good news of Jesus Christ—he gave up the glories of heaven to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What a precious gift of grace! With this gift in mind, our participation in spiritual disciplines arises, not from a sense of neediness or desperation, but from a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, an appreciation for the gracious gift of eternal life we have been given in Jesus. And our lives will reflect our understanding and appreciation for the gift God gave to us in Christ.
Drawing close to God, then, by practicing spiritual disciplines becomes an expression of thanksgiving, and an opening up of ourself in grateful worship and praise to do whatever God’s will may be in our lives. God has given us so much—so our fasting and prayer, our worship and service, and other disciplines become a laying down of ourselves, a response of love and appreciation to the God who has loved us so thoroughly and so well. The result of genuine spiritual disciplines then will be an even greater desire to share with others what has so freely been given to us and a life which is a fuller expression of Christlikeness, in which pouring ourselves out in service to others is our daily practice.
Dear Abba, thank you for your gift of your Son Jesus Christ and your Spirit. Open us up more fully to you and renew in us a passion for your will and your ways. Give us your mind and heart so that our lives more fully reflect your goodness and love, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.” Isaiah 58:(1–12) 3–4, 9–10 NASB
By Linda Rex
January 17, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY—Lately I have been appalled at the variety of correspondence, social media postings, and conversations I have been exposed to which have been filled with hate, condemnation and denigration toward other human beings. Some of these have pointedly referred to people of different races or skin color as being subhuman. Some have accused people with opposing opinions as being instruments of Satan.
I can’t help but be reminded of how Jesus was portrayed by those who opposed him. Sadly, it was those who were the most religious who resisted and condemned him, especially since Jesus often included and loved those who were cast aside by the society of his day. Because the leaders of his people could not bring themselves to believe the miracles Jesus did were a work of the Spirit, they attributed them to the work of Satan instead. Jesus told these men that they were in danger, for they were blaspheming the Spirit of God by attributing the power of the Spirit to the devil. I hear echoing in my mind the words of the apostle Paul: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12 NASB). So often we turn against one another, not realizing that this is the way the evil one works. He is an expert at “divide and conquer”, and often uses it to attempt to destroy the good things God is doing in this world by creating division, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and hatred between people.
And we often participate in Satan’s efforts by focusing on our differences and our flaws, turning against one another and seeking to harm one another. Speaking the truth and resisting evil are important tasks for God’s people. But they must always be done in the humility of recognizing and repenting of our own flaws. They must be done from the sacrificial position of laying down our own lives and preferences. Truth must be spoken and evil resisted only from a heart filled with God’s love, for we are created to live in other-centered love with God and one another. And these things must be done only in an effort to bless, not to curse, for Christ became a curse for all so that all might receive God’s blessings.
This Sunday Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18 is often read, where we learn that God is present everywhere and at all times, knowing exactly what we are doing or are planning to do, what we are going to say before we say it, and what is going on in our minds and hearts. The psalmist reminds us that the God who is over all things is present with us in all things. This means that no part of our lives is lived separately from the God who created all and who sustains it by the word of his power. This is the God who made every human unique, like the snowflakes in the winter—each has his or her own shape and beauty, and is meant to be treasured and treated with dignity.
God went even further than this when he created human beings. He gave us the God-imaging capacity for relationship—intimate relationship or fellowship with God and with one another. God meant for us to live in other-centered love. As the Trinity teaches us, the Father and Son who love one another in the Spirit, are love—to intimately know the Father, Son, and Spirit is to know what it means to truly love and be loved.
God gave humans—Adam and Eve first, and then others to follow—the sexual union to teach us what it means to live in a covenant relationship with one another. Just as God joined himself to human beings in a covenant relationship—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation of Israel, and ultimately, the church which is the body of Christ—a couple are joined to one another in covenant marriage. It is within this covenant marriage that God meant the sexual union to take place. Jesus says that any other sexual relation is a violation of this union and communion.
The apostle Paul also pointed out that the body of Christ, the church, was united with Christ individually and collectively. This is why sex outside of the covenant relation of marriage is a sin and a violation against the Spirit. When we are united with Christ, the Triune God takes up residence within us by the Spirit. There is a uniting of what is human with what is divine. Why, Paul asks, would you take what is united with God and unite it with a prostitute or with someone who is not your covenant partner? God is present with us in every moment, in every intimate relationship we may have. We do not want our intimate and sexual relationships to be a violation of our covenant with God or our spouse, do we?
This is what we struggle with as human beings—and Paul holds our face to the mirror in this: our bodies do not belong to us—they belong to God. God has purchased our bodies by offering Christ’s body on the cross for us. He paid the ultimate price for each of us in the loss of his Son. This means that each and every human being is of enormous value, no matter who they are. Each person belongs to God and is to be respected and cared for as we would respect and care for Christ. No human being, no matter their color, gender, background, shape, or size, or even their mental state, belongs to us to be used and abused as we please. No human body, not even our own, belongs to us to be used and abused however we wish. Each person is created in the image of God and is called into relationship with God through Jesus in the Spirit, and has been given incredible worth as a dwelling place of the Triune God.
In our gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus tells Nathanael, who had never met him before, that he had seen him under the fig tree. There was something Jesus knew about Nathanael by spiritual insight as God in human flesh that he could not have known otherwise. This is reminiscent of what we talked about in Psalm 139—we cannot escape the perusal and notice of our Maker and Lord. God never meant for human beings to live apart from relationship with him. We were created to be a part of a union and communion which in the new heavens and new earth will include every member of the Bride of Christ.
This Bride is made up of many members, of all people groups around the world. Individually and collectively, she has a worth and dignity that is priceless, for her bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, laid down his life for her. Every human being is meant to be a part of her—our role is to remind each and every person of this and to welcome them in, not to abuse, exclude, condemn, or reject them. As Christ taught us, we are to reach out to those in need, comfort those who mourn, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who abuse us—for each and every person has been given the dignity of being a fit dwelling place of the living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
Dear God, thank you for giving each of us such worth and value! Thank you for including us in your life and love through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you for noticing us—for seeing us when we believe we are invisible. Lord, wash away all of our divisions, our prejudices, our hatred, and our feelings of superiority. Grant us instead the humility of a true understanding of who we are as those who are equals and temples of your presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; | You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, | And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.” Psalm 139:1–3 NASB
“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you. And even though ‘I am allowed to do anything,’ I must not become a slave to anything….In our union with him we are one spirit with the Lord. Flee fornication. Every sexual sin is a violation of the sacredness of the human body and scars the conscience of the individual like no other sin does. Do you not realize that your body by design is the sacred shrine of the spirit of God; he echoes God within you. Your body does not even belong to you in the first place. You are bought and paid for, spirit, soul and body. All of you are his. Live your life conscious of the enormous price with which God has valued you. Your whole being belongs to him and exhibits him. You are his address; you are his real estate.” 1 Corinthians 6:12, 17–20 MB
By Linda Rex
January 3, 2021, 2nd SUNDAY | CHRISTMAS—We live in a world today, especially those of us hooked into digital media, where we are told on many fronts who we are, what we are to believe, how we are to act, and what is most important in life. It would be easy to go through life and allow others to assume responsibility for much of what is ours—so many people are happy to do it for us! And we are also reminded often that people don’t really want to know the truth about us—they are willing to accept the externals or the great story we tell about ourselves, but they don’t want to know the truth.
One of the reasons many of us avoid building relationships with people is that we don’t want people to know what we are really like. Allowing people to get close enough to us to see our flaws and failures means putting ourselves at risk for rejection or exclusion. Some of us get really good at only letting people see the pleasant façade—we don’t want to experience the shame, guilt or just humiliation of letting people see what we are really like.
There are others of us who love to tell everyone about how bad things are for us. We are caught in this place where the only attention we find we can get is when people feel sorry for us—so we come up with the best stories we can to get people to care. It does not matter to us that we adjust the truth a little to get the response we want. There is a way to manage or manipulate people to get them to respond in the way we want them to. It really has nothing to do with true relationship or truth—it’s just a means for us to get our needs met in that moment.
If we are struggling to figure out who we are and why we are here on earth, or how to have healthy relationships, the best place to begin is with examining the person of Jesus Christ. I say this simply because Jesus is the grace of God to you and me who reveals to us the truth about whom you and I are. One of the things we learn as we grow up in Christ, becoming more like him, is the truth about ourselves as human beings and that we are ultimately responsible for what is ours, and that caring for ourselves and what is ours also involves loving God and those around us. We find in Jesus Christ both the perfect image-bearer of God himself, but also the perfect human in our place, in our stead.
The law was a gracious gift from God to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament days. The law and sacrifices explained what it looked like for that nation to live in covenant relationship with him, and provided a means of gracious restoration when the people broke that covenant. The law pointed out the truth of their disobedience and rebellion, and pointed out the way they were to live. All of these things the people were to obey and practice pointed them to the Messiah who would one day come and make everything right, enabling true obedience by the Holy Spirit.
The law, though, didn’t change or heal anyone. There wasn’t transforming power in the law itself. Even though the Spirit works through the word of God to bring about healing and change, there is no genuine and lasting change apart from the gracious work of the Spirit in human hearts and lives. So Jesus came and forged within our humanity the capacity for the Spirit to indwell us permanently, bringing us into union and communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit now and forever. By faith we participate in this inner relationship the Son of God has always had with the Father in the Spirit.
Jesus, born under the law, lived out the Old Testament law as God intended. Moses may have been the one who mediated this law, but Jesus was the one who fulfilled it perfectly. The apostle Paul tells us that to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves fulfills the law. Jesus was ever faithful, devoted and obedient to his heavenly Father, doing only what he asked him to do or what he saw his Father doing. Jesus loved each and every person—disobedient or obedient, loving or unloving—as much as, or even more so, than himself, for he laid his life down for each and every one. As the Truth embodied in human flesh, we find reflected in him the truth of our human existence lived out the way it was meant to be lived.
Jesus, as God in human flesh, is the perfect image-bearer of God you and I were created to be. When we look closely at Jesus, examining his life, his words, his way of being, we come up against grace and truth—the truth of who we are in all our brokenness and sin, the truth of who we are meant to be as image-bearers of God, and the truth of what Jesus did for us in coming as God in human flesh to live our life, die our death and rise again—the grace of God for you and me as sinners in need of saving. God enables us to participate in Jesus’ perfected humanity by sending us the Holy Spirit as we trust in Christ and in his finished work.
Grace and truth come together uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ. As we begin to looking into the perfect law of liberty, Jesus Christ, we see the truth about ourselves, but always in the context of grace. We may fall very short of the glory we were created to bear as image-bearers of God, but God still loves us and values us, enough that he put a plan into action before time began so that we would be met in the depths of our depravity, and even on into death itself, and brought back up into eternal life with the Triune God. This is our true freedom—we are known down to the core of our being, all the way into our darkest places, and we are forgiven, accepted, and beloved, and are included in God’s life and love.
God goes even farther than his in his Son Jesus Christ. He not only reconciles all things and all people with himself, he also includes us by faith in the intimate relationship he has with his Son in the Spirit. The heavenly Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are the adopted children of our heavenly Father through Jesus his Son. We hear in our hearts the Spirit calling him “Abba” or Father—because by the Spirit we know we are his beloved children.
What a gift to know who we are! We aren’t just ordinary folks lost in a sea of faces, or a list of friends on a social media site. We are special—uniquely set apart and chosen from the foundation of the cosmos for a relationship with the One who made all things, who includes us in his own loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We have a home with God just as he has a home in us by the Holy Spirit. We are included in his life and love just as we make him welcome in our hearts, our lives, our work, home and family each and every day. Daily companionship with God is our reality now and forever. What a gracious gift from the God of truth!
Dear Heavenly Father, God of truth, thank you for sending your Son as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to live, die, and rise again for us. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit so we can know the truth about who you are and who we are in Christ. May we ever grow more like you, as your perfected image-bearers, children of you, Holy Father, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:12-14 NASB
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:3-6 (7-14) NASB
By Linda Rex
October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.
We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.
Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.
Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.
As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.
Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.
In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?
Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.
And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?
Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.
There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.
Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB
“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB
See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.
By Linda Rex
October 4, 2020, Proper 22—This week fall begins, the time of year when farmers head out to the fields to see if the crops are ready for harvest. Traveling through the countryside this time of year can be a little tricky, with large combines, trucks and other equipment competing for road space. Looking across the fields as we travel, we may see the dust rising from the equipment as the corn or beans are harvested.
When a farmer comes to his field at harvesttime, he expects to find lots of ripe produce to reap. Whether corn, beans, sorghum, cotton, wheat, or any other crop, his hope is that his efforts to cultivate, plant, and tend the field were not in vain. To have invested so much only to find no return on that investment is a cause for great disappointment, not to mention steep financial loss.
When God drew the ancient nation of Israel out of Egypt and planted her in the promised land, he intended that she become a godly nation through whom the other nations of the world might come to know and obey him. He gave Israel all that she needed to live in covenant relationship with him, providing her with a law, sacrifices, and a place of worship by which she could love, serve, and obey God.
Like all of us as human beings, this nation turned away from God and sought her value, significance, and relational satisfaction from idols, other nations, and materialistic gain. She practiced injustice, greed, immorality, and every other ungodly behavior, rather than simply being the people God created her to be—holy, faithful, obedient, and just. God’s harvest from his beloved people was unfaithfulness, injustice, disobedience, and ungodliness—all ways in which they turned away from God and alienated themselves from him in their minds and hearts. (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15)
In sending his Son Jesus to Israel, God meant for him to take their place—to do for them and in them what they could not and did not do. All peoples had turned away from their Creator and Sustainer, so God the Word took on our humanity and turned us all back to God. In Christ we find that we are restored as image-bearers of God and are able to live in ways that produce good spiritual fruit. In dying our death, rising from the grave and ascending to the Father, Jesus brought us into our true humanity—and sent the Spirit so we by faith could begin to participate in it.
The way that we produce good spiritual fruit is by participating in the finished work of Jesus Christ. The life of Christ lived out in our human flesh by the Spirit is evidence that God is at work in us. The Spirit enables us both to will and do what reflects the image and nature of God. As I have said before, this is not by our human efforts at keeping God’s law—that’s external fleshly work, but solely by the grace and mystery of God, Christ in us by the Spirit—that’s internal spiritual transformation moving outward by faith into action.
As members of Christ Jesus, participants in his body, we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are meant to produce kingdom fruit—spiritual fruit such as outgoing love, peace, joy, gentleness, and any other spirit, attitude and behavior which reflects the divine nature. A good description of what the kingdom of God looks like when it is lived out here on earth may be found in Exodus 20—and yes, that is what is commonly called the ten commandments. Let’s look at them properly—through the lens of Jesus Christ and his finished work, through which God gives us life, life in relationship with himself both now and forever.
When we live in loving relationship with God, we acknowledge that he is the only God there is. There is no other person, being, thing, passion, goal in our lives we count on other than him. The one God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is the God who is equal and unique in personhood, and fully one in being. We were created to be image-bearers of this God, to live in the truth of who we are as those made in his likeness to live now and forever bound in covenant love relationship with him.
For this reason, we have no other person, thing, or objective which commands our full attention or allegiance. We live in the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God—this is the focus of our existence. Living in covenant relationship with God comes first—we depend upon him and him alone. All other things in our lives come in second position.
As those made in God’s image, after his likeness, we acknowledge that he is our Father and we are his adopted children. We bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. We bear the name of Jesus, the only name under heaven and earth by which we may be saved. For this reason, we honor and respect this name—it is our own family name.
God created us to be stewards of all he has made, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace which involve times of work and times of intimate fellowship with God and one another. All that God has done for us in Jesus and is doing for us today by the Spirit brings us into a place of rest in him. We don’t depend on our own ability to get ourselves right with God or to save ourselves, but trust completely in the finished work of Jesus. Christ is at work in this world by the Spirit making all things new—we participate with him in what he is doing in this world by resting in him.
As image-bearers of God, we were created for relationship—relationship with God and with one another. God created family—a loving bond which reflects the nature and other-centered love of Father and the Son in the Spirit. Parents are meant to reflect the image of the Trinity to their children, teaching them what it means to live in loving relationship with God and one another. As Jesus the Son of God honors his heavenly Father, we honor our human parents. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who gives us the heart to honor our parents.
In God we live and move and have our being. From the beginning God told us to choose life, not death. Every human being is made in the image of the God who is the Source of life, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For this reason, we walk in life, not in death. God is not willing that any should die—neither are we.
Binding himself to humanity in an unbreakable bond in Jesus Christ, God has declared his covenant love for all of us. What God bound together, let no human being annul—Jesus Christ is God’s pledge to us that he will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. In the same way, when a man and woman declare their covenant love for one another in marriage, they bind themselves together in an unbreakable bond which only death can annul. This images what God has done for us in Christ, how God brought us who are creatures into intimate relationship with him who is Creator—two different but made one through Christ in the Spirit, bound together in covenant love.
As we grow in our knowledge of God and in relationship with him, we realize that everything here on earth and even our own lives belong to him. We realize he is Lord of all and we are not. We recognize that whatever we have was given to us as stewards to care for and share with others, not to indulge ourselves or fulfill our own lusts. Indeed, everything belongs to God, even what others have—so we protect, defend, honor, and guard what someone else has rather than stealing it from them.
We understand that we are made in the image of the God of truth, the One who sent his Son Jesus, who is the Truth. When we look at Jesus, we see the truth of who we are—and we know that God has never lied to us nor will he. He sends the Spirit of truth so that each of us may live and walk in truth. As image bearers of Truth, we live truthfully, honestly and with integrity. We are able to live authentically and transparently because we have nothing to hide.
When we see things clearly, we recognize that all we have, all we see around us, even our own selves belong to God. Whatever there may be on earth that we could desire loses its attraction when we stay focused on God and his love for us as expressed in Christ and in the gift of the Spirit. We find that as we set our hearts and minds on the things of heaven rather than on the things of earth, we already have everything we really need. Everything else we simply receive as a gift from his hand in gratitude and praise.
As you can see, when Jesus is the center as he is meant to be and that we are walking in the Spirit rather than in our flesh, we find that we begin to reflect the image and nature of God. We become a picture of life in the kingdom of God as we were meant to reflect, showing the world we are Jesus’ disciples by the way we love one another. The body of Christ, which exists in many nations and peoples all over the world, is meant to be the place where human beings can see what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God.
Today, the body of Christ may need to reconsider, what does it mean to live in relationship with God, in other-centered love? Are we as the body of Christ, producing this kind of spiritual harvest which is healthy and abundant? Is our Father delighted with the produce which is being borne in his vineyard? One thing we can be sure of—God is faithful, and he loves us unconditionally. He will finish what he has begun in us. Let us continue to trust him and to participate with Jesus in what he is doing in this world to bring about an abundant spiritual harvest.
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us all we need for life and godliness, for giving us your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for your grace and love, your faithfulness and forbearance. Forgive our resistance to your indwelling Spirit, your efforts to grow us up into Christlikeness. We trust you will finish what you have begun in us so that we will bear an abundant spiritual harvest which will bring you great joy and pleasure, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Matthew 21:43-44 NASB; see also Matthew 21:33–46; Philippians 3:4b–14.
By Linda Rex
September 13, 2020, Proper 19—Last night I decided to microwave some fresh green beans for dinner that I had received from one of our members in Cookeville who likes to garden. I washed them and broke them up into a microwavable bowl and cooked them. As I was eating them, my mouth began to burn. It wasn’t until I had eaten several of the green beans that I realized that I had inadvertently cooked a hot pepper with them and made the green beans inedible in the process!
As I sought something to help to relieve the intense burning in my mouth, I thought about how easy it was to go about doing what we believe is the right thing to do and find ourselves in a place where we are broken and hurting instead. This happens so often in our relationships, because we are broken people—we live as self-centered persons rather than as the other-centered persons God created us to be. This includes our understanding of what it means to be forgiving of those who wound us.
The disciples knew what the rabbis said about being forgiving—forgiving someone three times was being very generous and understanding, they said. So, when Peter asked Jesus how many times a person should forgive an offender, he thought he was being excessively generous in suggesting that he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus took forgiveness to the next level by suggesting that a person should forgive someone “seventy times seven” times—in other words, a ridiculously large amount of times. We should not hold grudges, but be generous in our offering of grace. Then he told a story in which he described what forgiveness looks like within the kingdom of heaven—what it means that God forgives us.
He began with a king who brings his vassals before him to account for his portion of their tax assessments. He is a generous king, apparently, for this one particular vassal owed him the equivalent of twelve million dollars—a sum he could never repay in his lifetime. The king concludes that maybe the only way to get his money back from this man was to throw him and his family into prison (a common practice then) with the possibility that one of his friends might pay his debt.
This vassal begs and pleads for the king to have compassion on him. And the king does. He forgives this huge debt—lets the man completely off the hook. The king writes the debt off the books—he no longer expects any payment from this man. As far as the king was concerned, there was no longer any need for the man to do anything except from that point on, to do a better job at collecting the king’s share of the funds and turning them in.
Apparently, the king’s vassal totally misses the point of what his master had done. He does not admit to nor accept the reality of the immense debt of which he had been forgiven. He doesn’t receive the grace and compassion shown him. He is still, in his mind’s eye, living in the place of collecting on debts and debts needing to be repaid.
So, when the man encounters one of his debtors who owed him about twenty bucks, he grabs him by the throat and drags him off to prison until he paid him back. Do you see the vast comparison in the two debts? The vassal had just been released from a debt of about twelve million dollars, but would not release his debtor for the mere sum of twenty dollars. Jesus was using hyperbole, an exaggeration, to make a point.
This is the type of thing we do to one another in the face of what God does for us. Think about the nation of Israel, who God lived in covenant relationship with. How often had he forgiven them for idolatry, injustice, and trusting in other nations rather than trusting in him? Even when Israel justly ended up in exile, losing their temple and nationhood, God had restored them, giving them a new temple and a new space in which to live, albeit under Roman rule. Even so, they repeatedly rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which he had sent them. In due time, Jesus knew they would even crucify that Messiah, at which point he would pronounce the most gracious words ever given to humanity, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
To live in the kingdom of heaven is to live in the reality of our need for grace and God’s overwhelming generosity in offering it to us. Abba offers us unfailingly the opportunity to start anew, giving us ample opportunity to change by wiping the slate clean and allowing us to begin again. The problem is that we as human beings prefer to live in the debit-credit mode. We may enjoy receiving God’s grace, but we prefer not to have to make the changes which go along with having been forgiven. By necessity, living in the truth of the immense debt we have been forgiven, we must admit our need for that grace, repent of the ways we incurred that debt, and in living out the truth of that repentance and forgiveness, we begin to be equally forgiving toward others.
So often in the gospels, Jesus offers forgiveness prior to repentance. We see the lame man lowered down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk. The lame man hadn’t even asked to be forgiven—but no doubt, he felt he needed it. He probably had been told over and over during his lifetime that the reason he couldn’t walk was because he or his parents had sinned. Jesus affirmed that this was not the case, but that even those sins he had committed were removed. And that he needed to move forward in his life from then on.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ forgiveness was obvious, but he didn’t let anyone off the hook. The accusers needed to repent and so did she. And Jesus did not leave her at that place—he told her to go and do the next right thing, to leave her life of sin. Would Jesus have forgiven her again if she sinned? No doubt, but what he was seeking was not retribution, but repentance and faith—a life change—wholeness and healing, not punishment.
In the story about the king and the debtor, the vassal missed the whole point. He had been forgiven an incredible debt—so he needed to repent, to change the way he did business. He needed a change of heart and mind—to have a heart of compassion and forbearance like his master’s. But instead, he continued on the path of self-deliverance. He was going to work out his own salvation—paying back the debt himself by collecting what others owed him.
The only boundary on God’s grace is the one we set by refusing to see our need for it and to receive it as an undeserved gift. We are the ones who make forgiveness something which needs to be earned instead of receiving it humbly and then offering it to others. We are the ones who ignore the reality of the huge debt to God we could never repay and focus on the petty inconveniences or miserable pains those around create in our lives. If God could forgive us for an unpayable debt, shouldn’t we do that for others?
Maybe there is some hurt or grudge that’s been festering in your heart lately. Or perhaps you are holding something against yourself that seems unforgiveable. Why don’t you bring these to Jesus right now and ask him to give you his heart of forgiveness instead. Allow him to provide you with a willingness to forgive that is grounded in him and his sacrificial offering, and to move you and the forgiven one into a new place of wholeness and restoration. May you find true freedom living in this place of forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your limitless forgiveness and grace which is expressed to us in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us when we are not forgiving, but are judgmental, condemning, and punitive. Grant us the grace to ever participate in Christ’s forgiving Spirit that we might forgive as you forgive us, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, | Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. | He will not always strive with us, | Nor will He keep His anger forever. | He has not dealt with us according to our sins, | Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. | For as high as the heavens are above the earth, | So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. | As far as the east is from the west, | So far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12 NASB
See also Matthew 18:21–35.
By Linda Rex
September 6, 2020, Proper 18—Lately I have been thinking a lot about how hard it can be sometimes to speak the truth in love to someone I am close to. In fact, as someone who learned painfully the desperate need I personally have for grace, I experienced in relationships the pain and destruction which come from truth applied without compassion or love.
It is important for us as human beings to get our minds readjusted to the reality that God loves us. And he loves us so much that he did everything he could to free us from the chains of evil, sin, and death we so often give ourselves over to. Our loving Abba could not bear to see us diminished into brute beasts enslaved by our passions and lusts. He created us for something so much more wonderful than this! So, whatever it cost him he did—even to the place of giving us his beloved Son in our place on our behalf.
When we talk about loving our neighbor or being good to others or showing compassion to the suffering, it is easy to assume wrongly that love permits unacceptable or abusive behavior. Love “bears all things” we read and so we let the people we love do whatever they want, even if it hurts us and others or is destructive or demeaning. We allow people to take advantage of us over and over and we show them infinite grace, not realizing that we are not genuinely loving them by doing so.
It is in view of this that we need to look at Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about going to one’s brother. To live in relationship is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt or offended. When people interact, they will inevitably do or say something that will create difficulties between themselves and another person. It is our human propensity to err that causes chaos and havoc in our relationships.
When we are in a relationship with another human being—any kind of relationship, whether business, friendship, marriage, companionship—we often are tempted to isolate ourselves and hide parts of ourselves away. We do this because we know that if the other person knew the truth about us, they would reject us or wound us, or shame us in some say. Not all people have our best interests at heart, so out of self-preservation, we learn to skillfully hide parts of ourselves away.
Our hiding is something we as human beings have been doing since the garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they knew they had done what God had asked them not to do. So, when God showed up in the garden, looking forward to spending time with them, they did what we as humans do—they hid. When faced with the reality of what we are and what we’ve done, we as humans find a way to hide from God and each other.
But notice what God did. He did not allow them to continue to hide. He gently sought them out, confronted them, and told them that he knew the truth. He told them the consequences of their choice and the pain it would bring to themselves and others. Then he tenderly covered them with skins and sent them on their way. God used truth to call them back into relationship with himself, and then did what he could to get them pointed in a new direction.
This brings to mind the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was brought to Jesus by her accusers. They believed she was worthy of being stoned and that Jesus was soft on sin because he was gracious. It is interesting that Jesus did not let either the woman or her accusers off scot-free.
The men who were interested in her destruction were told, “You who are without sin may cast the first stone.” At this, each man began to see in his own mind’s eye the truth—convicted of his own error by the Spirit of truth, he walked away. When all the men were gone and only the woman was left, Jesus asked where her accusers were. She said they were all gone. Then Jesus applied the truth gently to her as well, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” She was not allowed to continue in her way of self-destructive relationship—she was told the truth in love and instructed to begin moving in a new direction.
In Ezekiel 33, the prophet wrote how God made him a watchman over the people of Israel, to give them a warning. The prophet was reminded that when someone is sinning and we don’t warn them about it, we are equally guilty of their sin. If we warn them and they do it anyway, then that’s on them. But we are to do what we can to help people see the truth about their destructive, disobedient behavior—this is an expression of divine love.
What we must do is difficult and can be painful—and it can result in severed relationships. But it must be done—and done in love. Jesus gave a template by which we can introduce a measure of God’s truth into our relationships, enabling a loving environment of grace and truth to help grow people into greater Christlikeness.
We begin first with a humble estimation of our own need for grace. Then we approach the person by themselves, speaking the truth in love and calling them back to what is right and true. If they refuse to hear us, then we take two or three others who know the truth, and bring them into the conversation to help this person see the truth for themselves. It sometimes requires someone other than us to say what needs to be said in order for someone to hear a difficult truth about themselves.
The worst-case scenario is when someone refuses to hear even under these circumstances. In this case, Jesus encourages us to create a protective boundary around ourselves as a church body, family, or other group until this person sees their fault and repents. It is unfortunate, but sometimes a person is so deeply entrenched in sin that it takes the loss of his or her significant relationships before he or she will repent and change.
To refuse to engage someone in this process is to enable them to continue in their sin, and in the destructive cycle that goes with it. We express love by speaking the truth in love, gathering others when necessary to lovingly share with truth along with us, and if necessary, call the church together as a body to call this person back to themselves so they might once again live in the truth of who they are as God’s beloved child.
This is a gift we can give one another if we are willing. It is so easy to be hurtful with the truth—to gossip, to tell everyone on social media what’s going on, to be demeaning and insulting with it. But God means us to use truth to create unity, to bring about healing and restoration, and to create a healthy environment in which people can grow into the fullness of the image of Christ. He means for us to speak the truth in love, to build the person up, not tear them down.
Today, then, what truth have we neglected to tell someone in our life? How are we going to lovingly approach them and talk with them about it? What would Jesus have us say? May God grant us the grace to lovingly build relationship and not destroy it in the process of speaking the truth in love. May we prayerfully and humbly work toward unity, healing, and restoration, by God’s grace and power, through Jesus Christ.
Abba, forgive us that so often we neglect to balance effectively truth and grace. Thank you, Jesus, that you brought truth and grace to us, and that you work to grow each of us more fully into your likeness by your precious Spirit. Enable us today to speak the truth in love to those you have brought us into relationship with. Give us the boldness to love people well by enabling them to grow up into all you meant for them to be. In your name we pray, amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB