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
FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.
The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.
It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.
In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.
Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.
When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.
Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.
When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.
The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.
The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.
Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.
We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.
Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?
Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!
Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 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
I was reading in some Karl Barth tomes this morning and got caught up in his writings regarding the kingdom of God. I agree with Barth that if any of us truly caught the vision of the kingdom Jesus brought and illustrated for us here on earth and began to live it, we would turn the world upside down—or more likely, end up dead because we so radically opposed all that society stands for.
Indeed, as Barth pointed out, it would be almost suicidal in our society to live in the way Jesus lived—always turning the other cheek, living free to move about rather than owning things, caring for the outcasts and rejects, and refusing to conform to the religious and cultural traditions of his people. He honored the governments and institutions of his time, but at the same time, he never yielded up his position as Lord of the cosmos and his right to rewrite the God-concepts and societal norms of his peers.
Thinking about all this makes me wonder if we have ever truly come to grips with what it means that Jesus came to this earth as the king of a divine kingdom. What does it mean that someone who is other than us became one of us, lived as we did, and yet lived and died in a way none of us would or could live and die, so that one day we could share the world he came from?
Seriously, that almost sounds like a script from “Ancient Aliens” (no criticism or ridicule intended). Indeed, while his followers were anxiously preparing for the invasion of a political kingdom, Jesus had something totally different in mind. While they were thinking in terms of positions of power and who would be the greatest, Jesus was hammering out what it would take to transform a human being into the image of God he or she was meant to reflect. Jesus was working on a transformation of our very being while everyone else was thinking about getting ahead in the human sphere.
Our culture today for the most part is wrapped around our marketplace, whatever form that may take. What we own, or what we want to own and how we will pay for it, consumes our attention. Our culture is money and power driven, whether we like it or not.
I can almost see Jesus with his scourge chasing out our cash cows and other financial obsessions. It has infected the church, just as it did many centuries ago, and has created so much grief in the process. How often we have had to be pained by the sight of another Christian leader infected with greed, falling from grace! It breaks my heart, especially since I know the capability of my own human heart to fall prey to that disease.
I’m thrilled to see and hear that God through the Spirit is calling people everywhere into relationship. Relationships should always supersede the demands of the marketplace. If we can keep the reality of who we are and who we were created to reflect foremost in our minds, then surely all the rest will fall into perspective.
Maybe, instead of constantly collecting more things for ourselves, we could follow the lifestyle of a friend of mine. Her policy was that whenever she was given something, or something nice came her way, it was because God had someone in mind for her to give it to. Believe me—I saw this in action and it was a beautiful sight to see!
This is like the kingdom of God as expressed in the early Christian church. The believers shared so that no one was in need. No, it wasn’t a communal society. But it was a fellowship, a communion. They loved and cared for one another so much and so well that no one had to go without. In the process, others noticed and became caught up in the experience with them.
Jesus’ effort to change the world was accomplished through the changing of our very being as humans. His work through his life, death, resurrection and ascension has been and is life-changing. The kingdom of God is a kingdom that crosses all human kingdoms and cultural boundaries. It is open to each and every person because the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus sent to transform human hearts and minds, is available to everyone.
Perhaps if we were less willing to content ourselves with the trappings of this human life and sought instead to embrace the gift of radical grace in the Holy Spirit, we might find ourselves experiencing in fuller measure the kingdom of God now in our lives and in our culture. Bonhoeffer, in his book “Ethics” talked about how important it is that the body of Christ influence its culture and the government of the world in which it lives. We don’t try to create a theocracy so much as we live out the kingdom of God in our being, and that living it out in all we think, say and do will dramatically transform the world around us.
The path to the death of our human kingdoms and the darkness in our world is the path that Jesus took on our behalf. Through death and resurrection, Jesus ended the kingdom of darkness and in its place, inaugurated the kingdom of God.
At some point we’re going to need to release our grip upon the things of this human existence and begin to embrace the values and lifestyles of God’s kingdom. And the only way that will happen is through our sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. We express this symbolically through water baptism, and we partake of Christ’s life in an ongoing way as we eat the bread and wine of the eucharist table. As we daily turn away from all the things we depend upon and idolize, and turn to Christ instead, we experience the life and death of Jesus in our human existence.
Living in the reality that there is a world or kingdom that is ours that is beyond this life enables us to hold loosely to the things of this human existence. Accepting that one day they will all be gone and all that will be left is what has been built in the spiritual sphere, in our relationships with God and others, helps us to stay focused on what really matters.
One day this will all be gone—and it could happen in this next moment—and what will be left? Just ashes? Or a beautiful being refined by suffering and glowing with love and grace? It’s worth considering.
Father, thank you for sending your Son Jesus to establish a new, glorious kingdom that includes all of humanity. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to dwell in human hearts and to bring to pass a transformation of our lives and our world. Forgive us, God that we resist you and deny you entrance to our hearts and lives, and instead fill them up with clutter of every shape and size and shut you out. Grant us the grace turn to you and to reject anything that may stand in the way of a loving relationship with you and with others. May we trust you to finish what you have begun in us through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15