By Linda Rex
I was looking at some of the responses to the recent event in Charlottesville and was appalled at the numbers of people who hold to the belief of the superiority of the white race. I understand from personal experience how insidious these lies can be. But what concerns me most is they are drawn from a misreading of the Bible. They twist the Scriptures which when read with integrity and spiritual wisdom point us to the Christ who united all humanity with all its variety in his own Person.
Indeed, Jesus laid the foundation in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the sending of his Spirit. But he also calls us to participate in this reality which he created in himself. We can live in the truth of who we are in him, or choose another path. Living in the truth of our humanity allows us to participate fully in the harmony and oneness of the Triune life, while choosing this other path creates what we see, hear, and experience today in these situations which involve violence, death and suffering.
In contrast to the living God, who is willing to lay himself down for another (and who did so), the evil one sets himself up as superior to others. He wants to elevate himself to a place where others must submit to him. He believes he is the one with the right understanding of how things really are, even though his logic is twisted and his motives are selfish and impure. Rather than assuming full responsibility for his shortcomings and misguided ways of living, he casts shadows onto others, making them at fault instead.
The error of this twisted thinking violates the oneness of the Trinity, where Father, Son, and Spirit live in a harmonious union in which each is unique, not the other, and yet is equal. As children made in this image, we as human beings were created to live in this same harmony as equals and yet as uniquely ourselves.
This oneness is not a forced sameness, but a celebration of what each brings to the table, making room for one another. The reality is there are certain things we cannot bring to the table if there is to be room for everyone. These are things such as hate, greed, lust, pride, selfishness, and indifference.
Making room for all means we need an attitude of unselfishness, of humility, of service, and of giving. It requires a willingness to submit to another’s way of doing things when we would rather use our own. Necessarily, there must be communication, encouragement, trust, and generosity—all things which are not the usual way most humans function. But these are the attributes of the God in whose image humans are made.
Unfortunately, our common way of creating harmony and oneness as humans is to create some form of sameness. We all must have the same clothes, the same behavior, or the same creed. We have to obey the same rules, and follow the same leader. We must be the same color or the same ideology. But sameness eliminates the distinctness God created in the human race.
It is unfortunate the universal church has broken into so many facets. But even broken glass when it reflects the sun creates a pretty pattern on the wall. The oneness of love and harmony between people of all different faiths teaches people about the love of God for us as demonstrated in the gift of God’s Son. It shows there is room for everyone at the table—we are all God’s children and called to be members of the Bride of Christ.
The variety within the universal church makes room for people with different needs, interests, and understandings of scripture. I have come to see that each person has a unique worship personality. Some of us connect best with God through the sacraments and through traditions. Others of us connect best with God and others through social service. Others of us find it is most meaningful to connect through the study of theology in a more intellectual way. God has made room for all in Christ to come into a meaningful relationship with him by his Spirit.
Those of us who follow Christ and who trust in him for salvation must never get to the place where we shut others out of their inclusion in God’s love. Even though many do not see, or if they see and they choose to resist their inclusion in Christ, we must never assume in any way they are excluded from the invitation to share in God’s life and love. There is room for each and every person at the table—there is a seat with their name on it waiting for them.
Nothing about any person is enough to exclude them from God’s invitation to life. The color of their skin, the way they comb their hair (if they have any), their age, and not even their past is sufficient to prevent them from God’s offer of grace and renewal in Jesus Christ. To divide up the human race into separate sections is to divide up Christ himself, and it must not be attempted.
Some may even be offended at the use of the name of Jesus Christ. To talk about everyone and God in the same breath is okay, but to mention Jesus Christ too is to become exclusive, they believe. But the whole point of the Christian faith is that all humanity, every race and ethnicity, has been swept up into Christ, and thereby reconciled with God. Jesus Christ is not a point of separation between us—which is commonly believed and criticized—but is the point of unity between us all. He is our oneness, our harmony with one another.
In Christ’s sending of his Spirit, he made it possible for us as humans to live together in ways we ordinarily cannot live. The Spirit changes hearts and minds, and enables us to find our commonalities instead of focusing on our differences. When the Spirit goes to work and we are receptive, what normally would produce discord and division all of a sudden becomes harmonious. I have seen this first-hand in meetings which I thought were headed toward a free-for-all and ended up being experiences of compassion, repentance, and renewal. We all walked away newly joined together in a deep understanding and acceptance of one another.
But the path toward this type of oneness is necessarily, as Jesus Christ demonstrated for us, through death and resurrection. We need to die to our ungodly beliefs and our unhealthy ways of living and being. This is repentance. We need to rise in Christ to our new life he purchased for us and begin to make room for one another. We need to surrender our prejudices, our hate, our evil, and embrace the grace and love which is ours, while sharing it with each and every person we meet. This is faith. We turn from ourselves and turn to Christ. He is our oneness with God and each other in the Spirit.
Abba, forgive us our hate, our prejudices, and all our failures to love. Forgive us for ever believing we were superior to another, or more important than them. Grant us the grace to humble ourselves and make room for others, allowing them to be the people you created them to be in Christ Jesus. Give us courage and faith to resist anything which is not the truth about who you meant for us to be—to recognize evil for what it is and to bravely condemn and resist it, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26–28 NASB
By Linda Rex
I spent a large portion of my early years believing the Holy Spirit was merely God’s essence and power, and not a Person who I could come to know and have a relationship with. In fact, the idea of talking to the Spirit or having a conversation even with Jesus was considered inappropriate. All my prayers were directed to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ.
Any mention of the Holy Spirit in my prayers came about only because I felt it was necessary to occasionally ask God for more of his Spirit so I could have better behavior and stop doing stupid stuff. I understood there was God the Father and Jesus his Son, and they were a family I could be a part of if I worked hard enough and qualified to belong. I believed the Holy Spirit was something God would pour out or withhold according to how well I behaved or just according to his own preference, which could change on a whim.
When it was brought to my attention how in the Bible the Spirit is repeatedly shown to have all the attributes of personhood, and was spoken of by Jesus himself as being another Helper just like himself, a light went on in my mind and heart. Could this be true? Is the Spirit another One just like Jesus and the Father? Do they live together in a oneness in which each is distinct and equal? Is the Spirit Someone I can have a relationship with?
Coming to this place in my understanding was critical to being able to understand God’s grace and love toward me. I had been denying the personhood of the One who is instrumental in enabling each of us to awaken to faith, the One who makes possible our participation in the finished work of Christ. I had objectified the One who enables us to see the Father and the Son—the Spirit unites us to Christ, enabling us to participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with his Abba.
Over the years as I have grown in my relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I have come to see more and more how I had traded in real love and grace for empty religion. I learned how to be very religious from an early age, and it appalls me to hear someone still tell me today I’m very religious.
I don’t like being called a religious person because I don’t want to be religious—I want to be rightly related, to God and to others. There is a difference. I don’t want to work hard at being good enough. I don’t want to be constantly striving to win my Father’s approval. What I want is to rest in God’s amazing grace, and in his unconditional love and acceptance.
I want to be actively participating in a personal, intimate relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit in which I am trusting in the perfect work of Jesus Christ—in that which he did in his life, death, resurrection and ascension—in the work he is actively completing in each of us today by the Holy Spirit he sent from the Father. The Holy Spirit is bringing to completion in us individually what Christ accomplished for us, in our place, on our behalf in our humanity.
I realize part of this process of growing up in Christ requires my participation. Participation is a lot different than being religious, or working hard or striving to win God’s love and approval. Participation is a sharing—where Christ is in us and we are in him, and we are in the Father and the Father is in us. This is the Person of the Holy Spirit uniting us together in harmony and oneness—a beautiful perichoretic relationship—a mutual indwelling. This is life together in a beautiful give and take, an ongoing conversation, a perilous yet joyful and thrilling journey.
Today I don’t ask for more of the Spirit. I pray to him (and the Father and the Son). The Spirit is a Person, a beautiful, amazing Being, who fully indwells me. He doesn’t split himself up into thirds, fourths, or sixteenths. He just is. And he is present. I can shove him away, resist him, reject him and even try to quench him. But in the end, he is still present—for his is the Breath who sustains me and the Water of Life I need to exist, both physically and spiritually.
The Spirit woos me, invites me deeper and deeper into this perichoretic relationship God has called me into. He opens my mind to a deeper understanding of who God is, and therefore, as one made in his image, who I am. He enables me to know the depths of Abba’s heart, and the love of Jesus.
He gives me the capacity to understand and be sensitive to those to whom I am normally indifferent. He gives me the heart to love those who are cruel and insensitive—and enables me to bear up under difficulty and sorrow. Sometimes he gives me a sense of what will happen in the near future, preparing me so I can bear what is coming.
And sometimes the Spirit just gives me the pleasure of a word of affirmation or inspiration in my mind and heart which I am needing in that particular moment. He is able to do this because he knows and understands the depths of my heart and mind—he is the Spirit, and discerns things about my spirit, my heart, and my mind I don’t even recognize. He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the One who took on my humanity and lived the life I was meant to live, and who died my death. The Spirit is one with Jesus who lives in me.
This indeed is the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. Today I live and walk in Christ because I live and walk in the Spirit. The Father, Jesus, and the Spirit are one, so I live and walk each moment of my life within the embrace of the Triune God. I cannot escape this—for Christ has united his being with our humanity. And the Spirit is drawing me into the fullness of Christ’s glory. What a wonderful present and future I have in this relationship!
My faith was so empty in comparison with this. I am extremely grateful to God for awakening me to this life in Christ Jesus. I still struggle, for it is much easier to slide back into religious doing than it is to rest, trusting fully in Jesus to finish his perfect work in me by his Spirit. I still fall asleep on occasion, and have to be reawakened to the reality of what God has done for me in Christ and what he is doing in me by his Holy Spirit. But I can and do rest in the completed work of Christ and trust in Abba’s faithfulness, for he will not quit until I fully reflect the perfected humanity I was meant to bear.
Dear Holy Spirit, thank you for continuing to point us to the Father and the Son, and for making them and yourself real to us day by day. Please finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the glory of the Lord we were meant to bear. Thank you, Abba, you will never quit until we are all what you meant for us to be in your creation and your redemption, through Jesus our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.” John 16:13–15 NASB
“The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” 1 John 3:24 NASB
“… the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Colossians 1:26–28 NASB
“Without the distinct and inseparable gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit, we could not and we would not participate—we would and could not share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses of repentance, faith, hope and love for God and receive his grace given to us. Our salvation requires the ministry of all three Persons of the Trinity and all three moments of God’s saving action towards us, each contributing to the one whole will, purpose and accomplishment of our salvation.” Dr. Gary Deddo, “Clarifying our Theological Vision”, Pt. 3.
By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
by Linda Rex
Last week I did my best to come up with a blog to post, but due to my involvement with vacation bible school (VBS), and other family and work responsibilities, I found myself drawing on empty when it came time to write. But I would like to share what stood out in my mind from our work with the young people in the Old Hickory community.
The topic of our VBS last week was the armor of God. At first, when we were reviewing the curriculum at one of our planning meetings, I and others were struck by the emphasis it had on our human efforts to put away sin and defend ourselves against Satan’s attacks. Our challenge was to revise the curriculum in such a way as to put Jesus Christ as the foundation and center of it rather than our own human efforts.
It is my personal belief what is lost in most discussions and devotions about the armor of God is the reality that each part of the armor is in essence Jesus Christ himself. Even the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, points us to the living Word, Jesus Christ. To separate each part out individually as if it stands on its own is to miss the point of this whole passage.
Paul starts out this section of scripture by saying, “…be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” God’s might is our might, his strength our strength. In Jesus by the Spirit we have the capacity to resist evil and the evil one. It’s not something we have to figure out or do on our own.
We need to beware of any way of looking at scripture which casts us back upon ourselves, as if we are capable of resisting or overcoming evil on our own, or are responsible to do so. Trying to overcome or resist evil on our own by keeping the law or doing lots of good deeds is basically human religion. And such a religion does not save us—rather it can enslave us and bind us to unhealthy and unfruitful ways of living and being.
What Paul seems to be saying here in Ephesians 6 is we have an adversary who is always scheming against us, and there are forces of evil at work which impact our lives on a daily basis. But we have a simply divine outfit laid out on the bed for us—we just need to put it on and stand firm in Christ, while resisting the devil’s efforts to deceive or distract us.
Salvation isn’t something we have to make sure we run to the boutique and buy, but rather something Christ has already done in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We have been delivered from sin and death by the Son of God, who was victorious over them. But there is an action we do—we pick up the helmet of salvation, and we put it on. We experience a change in our mind and heart—we repent and turn away from our self-centered ways of thinking and being, and we turn to Christ. We stop trusting in our human efforts to save ourselves and start trusting in Christ instead. We put on Christ.
The thing is, the helmet of salvation isn’t something you take off and put back on. Salvation just is, because Christ has done it and won’t go back on his action of taking our humanity on and redeeming it. So we just receive this gift and live in the truth of it from now on. Our decision to live in the reality of our salvation in Christ does not alter whether or not Jesus saved us. It merely enables us to enjoy all the benefits of what he has done for us and in our place, and what he is doing today by his Holy Spirit. It is life-transforming.
This theme of putting on Christ can be found throughout this whole discussion about the armor of God. When we put on Jesus Christ, we are wrapping around ourselves the truth of who God is and who we are in him. Jesus is our belt of truth. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—we draw our being and life from him as the One through whom and by whom all things were created. As made in the image of God, through the Spirit we reflect Jesus Christ, the One who is both God and man—he is our perfected humanity. The truth about our existence is found in him. Whatever lies may be said to us or we may believe need to be held up against this plumbline, recognized for what they are, and discarded. The truth of our being, which is found in Jesus Christ, orients us toward our true north, our heavenly Father, in every area of our lives as we live and work in community with others.
The gospel of peace—how the Word of God took on our humanity to bring us peace with God and peace with one another—is the story of our lives. This good news, who is our Savior Jesus Christ, has transformed our lives, and we spend our existence sharing this good news with others. We don’t hold grudges or refuse to forgive people’s slights against us because we are living in the reality of and sharing with others the immense gift of grace given to us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ. All the human barriers we place between ourselves are removed in Christ, because he has made us one in himself, taking on our humanity and redeeming it. Because Christ is our life, we walk in him in the Spirit, in this path of grace and peace he has walked before us, in our place and on our behalf.
As we put on Christ as our footwear, we also put him on as our righteousness. Jesus is our right relationship with God and one another. God has reconciled to himself all things in Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are brought up into the very life and being of God himself, at one with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and in Christ, made at one with every other human being. We put on Christ by living in the truth of our reconciliation and our right relationship, by being truly reconciled with God and one another, because of Jesus’ finished work.
Even when it comes to faith, we are reminded to turn to Christ for the faith we need when we are being assaulted by the lies of the evil one. The one weapon the devil uses against us over and over again is the lie which says God is not good and is not trustworthy, and he does not really love and care about us. When these lies begin to overwhelm us, we need to draw upon Christ’s perfect faith. Jesus trusted his Father implicitly, even when he hung dying on the cross and it seemed to his human mind his Father had forsaken him. Jesus’ perfect faith caused him to trust his Father even at the very end of his suffering—this faith is ours. All we need to do is ask—to pick up the shield—to put on Christ.
So we have put on Christ, and it seems it is not enough for us just to have our armor on. God also gives us an offensive weapon—the sword of the Spirit. The capacity of the word of God to penetrate down to the core of our being is made possible through the living Word, Jesus Christ, by his gift of the Spirit from the Father. It is Christ at work in us by his Spirit which transforms us and enables us to effectively live out and share the gospel of peace. It is the Spirit of truth at work within which enlightens us and enables us to see and walk in the truth who is Jesus. Any faith or righteousness which may well up within us is the work of the Spirit, who writes God’s ways on our minds and hearts, gives us the heart to obey, and enables us to live in accordance with the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Christ to this entire discussion on the armor of God can be clearly seen when we start and begin with Jesus as the One who is the Word of God come into our human flesh. This can be a comforting and encouraging study when we do it this way. It’s not up to us to do this battle with the enemy all by ourselves. Rather, it is a battle Jesus already fought and won, and he shares his decisive victory with us as we respond to the Spirit’s work, and put on and use the divine outfit he created for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus Christ is our mighty warrior, and we get to participate by the Spirit in his perfect deliverance against sin, evil, and death. What a blessing!
Dear Abba, thank you for giving us, in Jesus and by your Spirit, total victory over evil, sin, and death. Thank you for giving us this perfect armor to wear, and the sword of the Spirit to wield. Grant us the grace to daily put on Christ and to respond fully to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, and in the world around us. May we trust in you fully, resting in Christ, and drawing upon the Spirit each day. Amen.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 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. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10–17 NASB
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB
By Linda Rex
As many of the members of our congregation know, our pastoral team uses the Revised Common Lectionary as a resource in preparing our sermons each week. This helps us to keep in step with the Christian calendar and enables us to cover a large portion of the biblical text as the year goes by.
This Sunday I hope to preach on one of the passages listed in the lectionary—in particular, a passage in James 5. Several times during my morning commute to my second job this week, I listened to the book of James being read aloud. I don’t know if you ever have this happen when you read God’s Word, but something just jumped out at me as the reader was speaking.
Perhaps I was just in a Trinitarian frame of mind. I don’t know. But what struck me was James was expending a lot of energy talking about what it meant to live righteously. Over and over he described what the godly life looks like and what it doesn’t look like. And it all had to do with relationships.
The relational God, when he lives in us by the Spirit and we are responding in faith to his work in our hearts and minds, moves us to live in ways which build and reflect healthy relationships. It seems to me, when righteousness is discussed in terms of “right relationship” it can be described in just the way James described it.
For example, when James says a person who does not guard his or her tongue is not practicing true religion (1:26), he is showing how what we say or do not say reflects what is going in our hearts and minds. Later he reminds us when we are living out of the truth of who we are in Christ—the spring of living water—what we say will reflect Christ’s wisdom. When we are living out of the acrid, putrid water of our flesh, we will say things which are abusive and reflect a heart full of jealousy and selfish ambition. (3:9-18)
Obviously what we say and how we say it directly impacts our relationships with God and with other people. Speaking out of the abundance of a heart full of evil motives and desires will not achieve the right relationships we wish to have with God and others—it will not produce the righteousness of God.
James says in another place “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”. When we think in terms of relationships and the love which goes on within the Triune God this can seem like a no-brainer. Our flashes of human anger where we are triggered and we blow up at the people around us—usually people we love and care for—do not build relationships but fracture and harm them.
When we are in tune with God’s heart and mind though, living out of the spring of living water Who dwells within us, we will be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger—all of which builds relationships and does not destroy them. When we look at the human life Jesus lived on this earth, we see this very thing occurring in all his relationships. This is the way of being of the God Who lives in and with us through Jesus and in his Spirit. This is what Jesus by the Spirit puts into our hearts and minds.
This is the “wisdom from above” described by James: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The fruit or result of living out of the truth of who we are in Jesus is right relationships with God and others. How we live with one another—which spring we draw from—determines the seeds which are planted in our relationships and the fruit which is borne as time goes by.
This puts me in mind of a friend whose supervisor is rude, disrespectful and controlling. He creates an unhealthy work environment for those who are unfortunate enough as to have to be his employees. And it never occurs to him that the poor work performance and rotten attitudes of some of his employees may be the result of the way he treats them. The fruit of what he is sowing certainly isn’t right relationships!
Broken, fractured marriages result when spouses live out of the rottenness of their human flesh rather than out of the life-giving spring of living water available to them by the Holy Spirit. Even so, putting two people together in close proximity means there will be misunderstandings, inadvertent hurts, and thoughtless acts. This is why we need something or Someone beyond us interceding between us in all these situations.
Christ living in us enables us to weather relational difficulties and to resolve impossible relational schisms. Time and again I have seen and experienced the healing which comes when we turn to Christ in the midst of these difficult situations and begin living out the truth of who we are as God’s children. Prayer and seeking God’s will and grace are fundamental to the success of any relationship. Why?
Because of the reality Christ is the Mediator in any and every relationship. He is both the Mediator between God and human, and he is the Mediator between each of us as humans because in him God and humanity are joined as one. In all our relationships, he is the center and source of our oneness with each other.
This is the ultimate indicative or basis for every imperative or command we read in James. Because we are connected at the core of our being with the One, Jesus Christ, Who is connected with all others, we have every reason and ability to live in right relationship with God and others. In Jesus Christ, we also find we have, by the gift of his Spirit, the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom from above, to relate properly with God and others when our flesh is calling us to do otherwise.
God never meant for us to be estranged from him or any other person, but for each and all of us to live as one with him and one another. And it was always his desire to share himself with us so we could. And this beautiful thing happened when God came to earth and took on our humanity as an infant born that glorious night in Bethlehem. The God of peace gave us the Prince of Peace so we could live forever at peace with him and one another. Shalom!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by Who we may have peace with you and one another. May we live out of the abundance of your life in us so we may live in the truth of who we are in you. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” James 1:19–20 NASB