service

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

Loving Others, While Being Betrayed

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By Linda Rex

April 9, 2020, MAUNDY THURSDAY, HOLY WEEK—As our local government steps up its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a concern by many that some people are still not observing the guidelines for staying safe at home. Apparently, the need for most people to restrict the space between themselves and others to prevent the spread of this disease is not being taken seriously.

My husband, who works as a truck driver, recently watched as many travelers entering Florida were being stopped at the border—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut already have travel advisories in place. Even though this coronavirus’ deadly effect is becoming more and more well known, these people still felt the need to travel and vacation in another state.

Since I have inherited my mother’s weak lungs and pulmonary system, and wrestle at times with fibromyalgia (which is an autoimmune disorder), I am one who is in the at-risk population. But there are many in my congregation and extended family who are even more vulnerable than myself. How can I say that continuing to act as though nothing is wrong and allowing myself to be around many other people without restrictions is an act of faith? I find it difficult to do so. I believe I would be testing God.

Nor do I believe it is the best expression of God’s love. I personally feel there is a need to use the wisdom God has given us to create a healthy space around ourselves and others so we do not spread this disease. Even our human bodies and the cells within it teach us the wisdom of having healthy boundaries in these situations.

We’re coming up to Holy Week, and the passage I am writing about today is where Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together. Jesus interrupted the meal because he wanted to demonstrate to his disciples what it means to express love for others. When we have our own agenda in mind, we often ignore the things which really matter. We may not intend to do so, but it is easy to get so focused on moving forward in life that we lose sight of the true realities.

Earlier Jesus had caught the men disputing as to who was the greatest, and it was imperative that they came to understand that life wasn’t about social position or personal promotion or one’s own personal agenda. The disciples, in their wrestling for power and position, were doing the very thing that Jesus had pointed out over and over as flaws in the Jewish leadership. The disciples knew better, but there they were, acting just like the others—seeking the glories of this human society while dismissing as unimportant, the real glory they were created for. There was a deeper, underlying purpose at work in life and Jesus needed them to see it and understand it so they could participate in it.

Jesus’ love for the disciples was not deterred by their failures. When he rose from the table, he girded himself with a towel, got a basin of water, and began washing their feet. Appalling as this may have been to the disciples—it was work only the lowliest servant would do—they watched Jesus do it for each of them. Peter told Jesus that he wasn’t going to allow him to stoop to that level. Jesus merely replied that then Peter would not belong to him. At this, Peter jumped to the other extreme, telling Jesus to wash all of him.

Jesus’ point was not so much the washing as it was the act of what he was doing. He was willing to stoop to whatever level was necessary to include the disciples in his life and ministry. He girded himself with a towel and took on the task of cleaning their feet. What Jesus would do in the following hours after this meal would involve a task of cleaning which would be even more degrading than washing dusty feet—he would cleanse our humanity once and for all from the dirt and grime of evil, sin, and death. This was a much more serious cleansing, one which only he could do. And he was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve it, even going all the way through death on the cross into the grave.

I believe that it is significant that Jesus washed every disciples’ feet. This means that Judas Iscariot most likely was present and received the gift of grace in the wiping of his feet. But Jesus knew that the washing of Judas’ feet would not wash his heart—he had already given himself over to the evil one by making the decision to betray Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. This is why Christ said, “Not all of you are clean.”

In the offering of himself in sacrifice, Jesus did not leave anyone out. He included every human being in his offering on the cross, but the truth is, not everyone receives the gift he gives in his humble sacrifice. Humility is a gift we give to others and shows our willingness to stoop to the lowest level necessary to include others in our love and life. Jesus taught us in this simple act that we need to be willing to love one other in humility, service, and sacrifice. It is in this way that we express in the deepest way our love for God and one another.

Jesus faced the crisis of his human life on this evening, knowing he would shortly be hanging on a Roman cross, by stooping to wash the feet of his disciples. He was willing to do even the most menial task so that others could one day share in his intimate relationship with his Father. No greater love can be shown than that of laying down one’s life for another and Jesus began this laying down of his life by humbly washing the feet of his disciples.

The truest expression we have of genuine humanity is to love one another—to care enough about the other people in our lives that we do not unnecessarily put them at risk. We set aside our own agenda on behalf of the needs of others. We are willing to serve even if it means losing the approval and acceptance of those around us or it inconveniences us. We are open to giving of ourselves when others would not deign to dirty their fingers for fear of contracting the disease. We are willing to work at tasks which we would not ordinarily do so that others may be helped and cared for.

There is a wideness to the love and mercy of God which includes the broad spectrum of human kindness we are called to express during this difficult time in our history, in the midst of our own crisis. As human beings, the truest expression of our humanity is to love one another. Some of us will do this by treating those sick with this disease, putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Others will do this by continuing to provide essential services, risking the loss of their interaction with their loved ones during this time. And all the rest of us can do this by being careful of each other’s space, and by seeing that those who are most vulnerable have what they need when they are unable to get it themselves.

What is most beautiful about a crisis as is before us today is that we can see the face of Jesus in each of us as we humble ourselves to serve, love, and sacrifice for one another. The Spirit of God’s love and grace flowing through people all over the world is evident as we rise to the occasion of battling this coronavirus and do so in such a way that we set aside our own personal agenda for the sake of those more vulnerable and less fortunate than ourselves. May God’s grace through Jesus and by his Spirit continue to enable us to truly love one another.

Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take the humblest place so that we might rise with you, sharing in your eternal glory through your death and resurrection. Grant us the grace to truly love one another as you have loved us, to humble ourselves to serve and sacrifice, and to be willing as we need to, to lay down our lives for one another in your Name. Amen.

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. … ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” John 13:1-4, 34-35 NASB

Taking the Lower Place

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By Linda Rex

September 1, 2019, Proper 17—A while back my ministry team and I were invited to attend the 150th anniversary banquet of the Stones River Missionary Baptist Association from whom we rent our church building. My outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier, and I attended this event as a gesture of gratitude and goodwill toward the association and its members.

As we entered the building, I was hoping we could find a table at the back which would not be conspicuous. I tend to be shy at large gatherings like this, especially if I don’t know anyone—I describe myself as an extroverted introvert. I prefer to hide rather than open myself up when there are a lot of people around me in a room whom I don’t know.

On this occasion, though, I could not have my wish of anonymity. Even though we were the only people there of white skin, the harmony of God’s Spirit made us one with these brothers and sisters in Christ. Pat and I were escorted to the front of the room to a special table reserved for guest pastors. We ended up seated across from Tennessee Senator Brenda Gilmore and two other pastors and their wives. It was a wonderful, inspiring experience for Pat and me.

During the event, I learned a lot of things I did not know about this group of fellow believers and their journey with Jesus. And I learned some things about myself as well. I experienced what it meant to be faced with challenges to my beliefs, preferences, and opinions. Whatever hidden prejudices I have, they were also brought a little closer to the light, as such encounters often expose those things we try, consciously or unconsciously, to keep in the dark.

Our interactions with other human beings are the place where the Holy Spirit does its greatest work, bringing us face to face with others and by doing so bringing us face to face with ourselves and Jesus. It is in relationship with others that the Spirit works to transform hearts and minds, specifically in teaching us about the Father’s love for us in Christ expressed in our love for one another. We are broken human beings, often due to significant relationships which have demonstrated to us and taught us everything but God’s love. Our way of doing things is often the exact opposite to the way God does things, and our broken world with its broken people clearly shows the result of trying to do it our way instead of his.

One of the greatest struggles as human beings sometimes is this whole question of self-exaltation and humility. We live in metropolitan Nashville, a place where musicians and singers come when they want to make their mark in the music world. Often I talk with people who tell me they moved to Nashville from somewhere else in America and when I ask why they moved here, they tell me they wanted to get a job in the music industry and maybe even to be a star. Almost every one of these people is not working in the music industry today but in some other job entirely unrelated to it.

Were they wrong in coming to Nashville and seeking to make their mark? I doubt very much that any of these people were seeking self-exaltation. I’m more inclined to believe most of them were seeking self-expression, to obtain some personal significance, worth, and value through their music. I imagine they wanted to do what they loved and make a living at it. The real world often stands in the way of people being able to achieve their dreams in this way.

The issue, I believe, is not in the desire to take one’s talent, abilities, and gifts and use them to their fullest expression. In God’s kingdom life, we receive all of these things as gifts from God and pour them back out to him in gratitude and in the service of others. We are meant to shine with the glory God has given us as his adopted children and if that includes our musical gift, then it is meant to be fully expressed as God guides and provides us with the opportunities.

The problem seems to be more in what our motive is and why we do what we do. Christian musicians and pastors can very easily care more about their popularity, prosperity, and getting noticed than how they go about being a follower of Jesus Christ. Even while they are up in front of the audience talking about Jesus and his ways, they may be drawing their worth and value from the applause and approval of others rather than resting confidently in the grace and love of their Abba. We are broken human beings—we do these things, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

In Jesus Christ we see exemplified the epitome of humility. The One who was the Word, who had all power, glory, and honor, set the privileges of his divinity temporarily aside to take on our humanity. He who lived in inapproachable light joined us in our darkness, in the tiniest cells in Mary’s womb, so that we could be lifted up from our abasement and drawn up into the Triune life and love.

Jesus told his followers that when they were invited to a banquet, they were not to take the prominent seats, but to sit in the lower places and to allow themselves to be moved up by the host. Jesus did not seek his own exaltation, but sought the exaltation of humanity. When challenged in the wilderness by Satan, he rejected his offer to give him ultimate human power and rule. He refused to stop identifying with us as broken human beings and serving us by offering his life for us in our place and on our behalf.

There is no place low enough that Jesus was not willing to enter. Even though the most shameful death for someone in Christ’s day was to be crucified, Jesus intentionally walked toward the cross throughout his ministry. It was not beneath him to enter the realm of the dead nor to become sin for us. His whole purpose was in lifting us up, not in promoting himself.

The kingdom value of true humility as exemplified in Jesus is countercultural. It opposes everything our culture and society work toward. It stands in stark opposition to any leader who promotes himself as being a messiah or savior to his people or someone to be revered. It resists the human pull to self-promotion, arrogance, and pride which often afflicts those in the public eye.

To follow this value of humility is to open up oneself to crucifixion, to being negated, harmed or destroyed. And yet, when we seek the way of true humility, we find that our relationships begin to be healed, our life moves away from darkness into greater and greater light. Leaders who are truly humble and seek to serve those under them rather than manipulate, control, or manage them create a healthier community which more closely resembles God’s kingdom life.

But being humble exacts a price. The price we must pay to be truly humble is to share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and in his sufferings. In this life we may never experience our exaltation, but we can trust in the exaltation of Jesus. We will be exalted in his presence as the adopted children of Abba, fully glorified and reigning with him forever—this is our hope and expectation as we walk in humility before him. In the meantime, our challenge is to live counterculturally in in a world which venerates self-exaltation, self-promotion, and self-interest, by participating with Jesus in his true humility.

Thank you, Jesus, for demonstrating so wonderfully the grace of true humility. Abba, please grow this in us by your Spirit, enabling us to participate fully in your humble nature. Give our human leaders hearts and minds which are truly humble. If they are stubbornly resistant to your humility, may you take them through the consuming fire of your love and grace that they may learn humble servants. We are grateful that you are the true Lord of all and have included us in your life and love in and through Jesus. Amen.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11 NASB

The Cost of Grace

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By Linda Rex

August 18th, Proper 15—Years ago I recall opening an edition of the Worldwide News and seeing an article about the Holy Spirit. As I sat and looked at the title of the article, I realized that if what it said was true, it was going to change me and my life significantly from that day forward.

Why? What was the big deal about this? The reason it was so significant was because the message in this article was in contradiction to what my parents believed and if I followed this road where I knew it was leading—following Jesus by the Spirit to a new place in relationship with God—it might mean losing my relationship with them. It would mean losing the common ground of religious belief that had been ours since I was a little girl.

There are times in life when we are faced with critical decisions. The most critical are those in which God places before us the choice between following ourselves and those around us or simply following Jesus Christ and where the Holy Spirit leads. We can cling to what we believe now, at this moment, and resist any change or we can submit ourselves to the penetrating work of the Holy Spirit and allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out.

Choosing to follow Christ does not automatically mean the people in our lives will all choose to love us more. If anything, each of the relationships in our lives will be set in stark contrast to the one true relationship with Abba through Jesus in the Spirit. When someone begins to see Jesus in another person as they begin to live a life of obedience to the Spirit, it challenges them. It shows them where they walk in unbelief and how they fall short of the glory God created us to bear.

Experiencing the life of Christ in another and the joy of community they are blessed with as members of the body of Christ exposes other people’s need for Christ and the result may be anger, criticism, jealousy, rejection, fear, and a host of other negative responses. These responses come as a result of their own resistance to the work of the Spirit within themselves.

This is why Jesus warns us that following him involves a cross. It involves the rejection of those who want to stay in power and control what happens to us. Jesus walked the road each of us faces when we choose to live and walk in the way of Abba, where humility, service, grace, and compassion are preferred over power, prestige, popularity, and pleasure. Sometimes there is pain in the Christian walk and it does hurt when the people we love reject us and criticize us because of what Jesus is doing in our lives.

Following Christ is a counter-cultural path. It doesn’t mean we suffer constantly. But we do walk the path of the cross where we die to self and live to Christ, and this may mean difficulties in the process. The blessing of following Christ is that by the Spirit we are placed into the body of Christ, the church. We are surrounded with brothers and sisters who are walking the same path we are walking—we are one in Christ Jesus. As one member suffers, we all suffer together—carrying one another, praying for one another, and lifting each other up. In healthy spiritual community there is a bond of love and grace, and a spirit of joy in their unity and service to others.

For some people, the church becomes their new family. The rejection of family members cuts deeply, but sometimes those ties need to be significantly loosened or ended because of the harm family members are doing to us. If we are being harmed in a family relationship, we may need to set healthy boundaries, especially when addictions or abuse are a part of the problem. This isn’t to cause permanent separation, but to create an environment for love and healing to flourish.

The church can be a part of this process by providing a safety net for those struggling in such dysfunctional family situations. The body of Christ, the church, can offer safe relationships, prayer, and other meaningful support. The church can guide those who are struggling toward the resources, help, and counseling they may need. And the church can act as our spiritual mother, providing nurture, spiritual counsel, teaching, and guidance which can help us grow up into Christ and begin to participate in healthy ways of living and being.

When the Spirit moves us to turn away from ourselves and this world and to begin to follow Christ, changes happen. The Spirit puts new desires and longings in our hearts and begins to remove our ungodly passions and desires. It is a slow and difficult process, but we can participate with it as we focus on Jesus Christ and seek to grow deeper in our relationship with him.

When we find ourselves stuck in our spiritual life, it is helpful to ask ourselves whether or not there is some place in which we have refused to receive and follow the Spirit’s lead. Where are we stubbornly insisting on our own way and our own agenda? Surrender, submission, and relinquishment are the everyday rythyms of our life—follow Christ and listen to and obey the Spirit. We draw our strength and our life from Christ by the Spirit, we live in community with our fellow believers, and no matter what those around us may say, we keep on the journey on into eternity.

Abba, you call us out of this world into relationship with you and others in the body of Christ. You pour your Spirit into us and begin to transform our hearts, minds, and lives. Thank you for holding us in the midst of our struggles, enabling us to bear the rejection and criticism of others. Grant us the grace to follow Jesus wherever he leads and to respond faithfully and obediently to your Spirit, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;…” Luke 12:51 NASB

Making the Choice to Follow

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By Linda Rex

PROPER 8—I did not write a blog last week as I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending the GCI Southeast Regional Conference. I attended this event with fellow pastors Jan Taylor and Mike Gass, as well as our outreach ministry leader, Pat Brazier. We joined with fellow pastors in learning about what it means to be a healthy leader and a healthy church, and how GCI (Grace Communion International) is obeying Christ’s call to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and to follow wherever he leads.

In the gospel passage for this Sunday, the narrator Luke tells how Jesus responded to different people who sought to be his disciples. When one person said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus told him that unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah did not have a place to rest his head. The price of discipleship often includes the loss of physical places we count on for comfort and personal safety.

Jesus said to another person, “Follow me.” Jesus had given this same command to Matthew as he was sitting at his desk collecting taxes and Matthew had left behind all his financial abundance and job security to follow Christ. When Jesus told the fishermen to follow him, they left their boats and families behind and simply followed Jesus. They left behind all that was comfortable and known in order to follow him.

But here, this man asked if he could first bury his father. In that day according to social expectations, it was the duty of a man to bury his father and give him an honorable burial a year after his death. This man, if he was the firstborn, may have been expecting a double inheritance, so he may have wanted to protect his future expectations. Either way, he wanted to wait till these personal and financial responsibilities were resolved before following Jesus. But neither of these reasons were sufficient to disobey Jesus’ simple command, “Follow me.”

Jesus replied by telling him to “allow the dead to bury their own dead.” He was being invited to truly live—to be in intimate relationship with Jesus. By dying to his past life and following Christ, he would begin a new life—a new path of discipleship. And Jesus’ instructions to him were, “Go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” The king of the kingdom was present in Jesus and this man’s calling was to let everyone know right away that this was so, not to wait until he had all his personal affairs in order before he did so. (Luke 9:51–62)

His calling is not any different than God’s calling to us today as believers. And it is God’s calling to the members of GCI. We are called to radical discipleship—to leaving behind what was before and embracing what God through Christ in the Spirit is leading us toward. We are to proclaim the kingdom of God, no matter the cost, even if it means leaving behind those places and practices we count on for comfort and personal safety. In following Christ, we cease our dependence upon our physical abilities and future expectations, and trust in the provision and future God has for us and is leading us into by his Holy Spirit.

To often we are like the man who told Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” We find a lot of reasons not to simply do what Jesus by the Spirit tells us to do. It is easy to allow the things of this life, our comfortable relationships, our social obligations, to distract us from simply following Jesus and proclaiming the good news of his kingdom.

Family relationships are important and should not be neglected. We are to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. But the kingdom life Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is a radical shift from self-centered living into a Christ-centered existence in which our choice is moment-by-moment to follow Jesus wherever he goes, no matter the cost. Radical discipleship includes changing the way we think, talk, and live.

And radical discipleship also includes sometimes changing the way we do church and the way we act as spiritual leaders within the church. The way we do church can become so comfortable that we cease to grow and change or allow new people the opportunity to grow and change with us. Members of our churches and denominations may begin to so resemble the culture in which we live they lose their distinction as followers of Christ. Leadership can become about prestige, financial abundance, power, and authority rather than about Jesus’ simple path of humble service and self-sacrifice. Churches can become social clubs, exclusive and untouchable, or they can become so gracious and free-spirited that no one ever hears the truth about Jesus and his costly path of discipleship.

As GCI follows the lead of the Holy Spirit and continues in its growth of Christ-likeness, we will continue to be called down the road of discipleship where we must make the choice to follow Jesus in new and challenging ways. We may need to leave behind those comfortable, easy ways of doing church and embrace new, transformational ways of embracing our church communities and the people we encounter there. We will be called to quit hiding and stop running away from our responsibilities to share the good news of the kingdom of God everywhere we go.

This is the call to discipleship—a discipleship in which we were meant to call others into the same radical discipleship we were called into as Jesus said to us, “Follow me.” What that calling is for us individually and as a church is unique—we listen to and obey the Spirit as he moves in our midst and within our communities. We join Jesus in his daily work to let all people know the good news of God’s amazing love expressed to us in him. And we enjoy the journey, for we are caught within the love and life of Abba, Jesus, and the Spirit.

Thank you, Jesus, for calling us to follow you. Give us the courage and faith to do so, no matter the cost and no matter what the future may bring. Enable us by your Spirit to embrace all the new you are doing while holding fast to what you have taught us in your life, death, resurrection and ascension. Grow us up into all that you are. By your Spirit and for Abba’s glory, make your body, your churches, specifically our GCI churches, into places of life, healing, and renewal. Make us all a clear reflection of your glory and grace. In your Name we pray, amen.

“And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:59-60 NASB

Ascension to Glory

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By Linda Rex

ASCENSION SUNDAY—Today I have on my mind one of those tragic circumstances in which people whom I care for and love are bound by either habit or choice to things which hold them captive. Their relationships aren’t all based on love but rather on convenience or need, or even on whether or not they can get what they want or need from the people they profess to care for. This breaks my heart.

How do you love such a person? Love in their minds seems to mean getting what they want or believe they need even when it is at the expense of the people they get it from. Love, for them, seems to have to do merely with the fleshly passions of the human soul rather than the aspects of our being which reflect the divine glory.

To tell such a person no, or to limit their ability to have the things which give them pleasure, doesn’t feel loving to them. Rather it feels restrictive and uncomfortable. It feels like the person who is setting limits on them doesn’t care about their feelings or needs, when in reality there is deep love and compassion behind all and any efforts to help by setting limits or restricting behaviors.

We as human beings can become very confused about the difference between love and lust, concern and condemnation. To tell someone their behavior is self-destructive and/or hurtful and that it needs to stop is perceived as interference or being judgmental and condemning, when in reality the person trying to intervene wants to help save them from their self-harm before it is too late. People can lose all ability to recognize the glory inherent within their being unless someone else points it out to them, but even then, they may refuse to recognize it or live in the truth of who God meant for them to be.

In reality, each and every human carry within themselves a divine glory. Each of us was made in the image of God after his likeness to reflect the glory of God. We are made to manifest God’s very nature as Father, Son, and Spirit living in perichoretic oneness, purity, and holiness. It is God’s nature to be loving, gracious, compassionate, and just (Ex. 34:6-7). This is the nature we were meant to reflect as we live our daily lives. The reason Jesus came was not so we could be more self-indulgent and self-serving, but rather so that we could be more Christlike—living a life of loving humility, service, and sacrifice in healthy relationship with one another and God.

The Christian church is meant to be the place where the glory God has given us is manifest in the way in which we interact with one another. Believers are to live with one another in a way which reflects the glory and majesty of God as expressed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in his completed work on our behalf and given to us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

When we live in ways that are self-indulgent, hedonistic, and self-serving, we are living in denial of the truth. We are missing out on the blessing and joy of living in the truth of our humanity—that we are accepted, forgiven, beloved, and healed in Christ and meant to reflect the glory of God. We are created to live in community, in outgoing concern and service to others around us, walking in grace and in truth in our relationships.

God made us his very own adopted children and has done what was needed so that we may be forgiven and freed from all the things in this world which bind us and hold us captive. As we gaze upon Jesus, we find ourselves living in him—his humanity is real. He was just as human as we are, with the same everyday need to eat, drink, and sleep. He knew what it was like to hunger, to ache with strained muscles, and to lay his head back to catch a quick nap when he had the chance. He understood the ache we feel when we have broken relationships and understood with great compassion how we feel when we lose someone dear to us.

It was not enough for the Word of God to join us in our humanity. He joined us in our human experience, but then was willing to go through the sorrow and agony of the worst of it—betrayal, shame, humiliation, abuse, torture, and crucifixion. Whatever we may perceive of as pain or grief, Jesus experienced it too, carrying within himself our very own brokenness as human beings. And having done all this, he entered into the depths of death—going through what every human must experience one day—he died and was laid in a tomb.

But bearing our humanity in this way was not the end. It was necessary that Jesus carry our humanity with him from Mary’s womb on into eternity. The Lord of all rose from the grave bearing our glorified humanity. The newness of our being as humans made in the image of God is something Jesus Christ bears even now. For forty days following his resurrection, his disciples saw, touched, and heard the reality of our resurrected glorified humanity in Jesus. He walked, talked, and ate with them—living life in ways which showed he was still very human but also very glorified.

Jesus said that the only way we could share in this divine glory was through the endowment of the Holy Spirit. He had to go to the Father so that the Spirit would come and each of us could share in this marvelous gift Jesus had forged on our behalf. In Ephesians we learn that Jesus even now bears our glorified humanity in the presence of Abba—who we are as human beings has been reestablished in the glorified risen Lord and is there for us awaiting our own transformation.

The ascension is a significant day on the Christian calendar, for our humanity ascended with Christ when he rose to be in the presence of Abba forever. We are given the gift of everlasting life in Jesus Christ, but we can continue to choose the ways of death instead of receiving this gift and living in the truth of it. Are we willing to surrender to Christ being the One who defines our humanity and how we live our lives, or will we continue to seek our own ways of living and being?

The path Jesus trod when he was on earth was the path of death and resurrection and he calls us to join him there. This path requires surrender, relinquishment, and submission to the will and purposes of the God who made us and who came to redeem us and bring us to be with him forever. Are we willing to lay it all down so that we can share in this marvelous and wonderful gift?

We were meant for so much more than this broken and twisted life. We weren’t created to be slaves or captives. We were created for glory. We were meant to live with God in glory forever in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22), rejoicing in the goodness and love of God on into eternity. Will we turn away from ourselves and turn to Christ? Will we receive the gift of life God has bestowed on us through Christ in the Spirit? Will we fully participate in Christ’s ascension?

Dear Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in all aspects of our humanity and for freeing us from all that binds us and holds us captive. Grant us the grace to acknowledge our dependency upon you, our inability to live in the glory which you intended us to shine with, and to, this day, do the next right thing you give us to do. Holy Spirit, empower us again to bear witness to our glorified Lord in all we say and do, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“God has ascended with a shout, / The Lord, with the sound of a trumpet.” Psalm 47:5 NASB

“These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:19b-23 NASB

Freedom to Lead

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By Linda Rex

The other day I stood in a line of about fifty people waiting for an opportunity to cast my vote. The line moved rather slowly, and by the time I got to the voting machine, there were another fifty people behind me. I thought it was pretty cool that I could stand in line with people of all different walks of life, of a different race and culture than myself, and express my opinion via the vote as to who should be elected to office.

I realize there are a lot of dynamics in the political arena I am unaware of. And I realize that just casting a vote doesn’t guarantee a particular person will get elected. My trust is not placed completely in the person I am voting for—I realize their human frailty. What I do trust in is the reality that no one gets into political office apart from God’s gracious permission. I cling to the Word which says, “… there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”

This is hard to get my mind around sometimes though. We elect people into office in this country—or at least we go through the motions of an election to put people into power. If we are responsible for putting someone into office, then why do Christians say God has established someone in a position of authority over us? What if they are corrupt or inept? Is it possible that sometimes God allows us to choose to elect someone who may not be honest and trustworthy or a good fit for the position? Apparently so.

A quick look back into history tells us that we as human beings have not been very good at choosing leaders for ourselves. I am reminded at this particular moment of how the nation of Germany began to move Hitler into power, thinking he was going to make their nation great again and save them from their poverty and help them rebuild. No doubt, there was some good at the beginning, but ultimately the power Hitler took to himself destroyed nations and killed people in a catastrophic way. And it took a world war and the loss of millions of lives to end it.

Going farther back, I am reminded of what is written in the book of Daniel. Daniel did something which is not easy to do—living as a God-fearing man in service to a pagan tyrant, a king who simply spoke the word and whatever he said became law. Daniel’s life is a good example of how to live in a godless society and still serve God, being faithful to the Word of God and prayer in spite of the restrictions in one’s work and everyday life.

Daniel was always taking risks you and I would find very difficult to take. He started out his service at the palace by refusing to eat the specialty foods and wines offered him and insisting on eating only simple foods and drinking water. This request he made could have caused him to simply be executed, but God gave him grace and favor.

The grace and favor of God seemed to cover every part of Daniel’s experience in Babylon. But what stands out most in my mind today considering our current political environment and the concerns people have expressed about the leadership of our country, both local and federal, is the story about Nebuchanezzar’s dream. God speaks to us in dreams often, yet we don’t usually in this society pay attention to what God is trying to tell us through our dreams.

Back then, there was an attentiveness to such things and the ones who normally attended to them were the wise men, the ones who were soothsayers, magicians, astrologers and conjurers. Nebuchanezzar had scores of them around to help him with his dreams, but one morning he woke up very disturbed by a dream, and none of these clever men were able to tell him what his dream meant. I’ve often wondered whether they were just afraid to tell him what the dream meant, because he might have gotten mad and killed them all (he had a habit of doing that).

In any case, he finally got around to telling Daniel about the dream. Daniel, who the king called Belteshazzar, was the chief of the magicians—interesting that he rose that far—and the king recognized in him “a spirit of the holy gods.” Nebuchadnezzar may have been as far from God as a person could get, and yet he was able to recognize the presence of God in Daniel in all he said and did. This says a lot about what kind of person Daniel was and how he lived his life.

Daniel hesitated at first to tell the king what his dream meant but the king insisted that he do so. Finally, Daniel explained that the dream was a message from God telling the king if he didn’t humble himself and give God the glory, and repent of his wickedness and tend to the poor and needy in his kingdom, God would see that he would lose his sanity and wander about as an insane beast for seven years, until he recognized God as Lord of his kingdom. It was a miracle the king didn’t assassinate Daniel on the spot.

There are historical records, I’ve been told, of a seven-year silence in the reign of Nebuchanezzar. The biblical record says about a year after his dream, he was arrogantly boasting about his position and power when an angel informed him the dream was now becoming a reality. Isn’t it interesting that today our Bible includes a story written by this king, telling us of what happens to a ruler when they presume to believe they are the only supreme authority in this world? He lost his mind temporarily for seven years, and then God restored the kingdom to him. After that, he was a little more respectful of God, though I doubt very much he ever stopped worshiping idols.

Whatever may happen in the political arena we can know God is ultimately in charge. Our voting and working as politicians and public servants need to be seen as our participation in what God is doing in this world. God is and always will be the One who is Lord of all, but he includes us in what he does as our sovereign Lord.

God allows people to hold power in this world, and he holds them accountable for everything they say and do, especially when it creates suffering and hardship for those who are powerless and needy. The purpose of being given responsibility and authority over others is not so we can become self-indulgent, self-important, and arrogant, but so we can help and serve others, humbling ourselves to make other people’s lives better and to enable them to know, love and serve God and one another in the true freedom which is ours in Christ.

Political power and authority are transient—they cannot be counted on. Some people hold office for decades in some countries, not because they are good leaders, but because they force their will on others. God’s purpose is not for us to force our will on others, but to enable others to follow God’s will, and to live freely in loving respect for one another. We have been given great freedom in this country to have a change after a few years to another leader. We should be grateful, and participate in the voting process as much as we can.

The book of Daniel tells us that one day God will establish a divine kingdom that will grow and fill the whole world, ultimately bringing low every other human government. This government was established in Jesus Christ in his first coming, and is at work today in the world by the Holy Spirit within the universal Church of believers. As we follow Christ and bravely live out and share the truth of God’s love in this world, we participate in and live in God’s kingdom, and enable others to experience its benefits within our world even today. May we be heavenly kingdom minded and Christ centered as we live, work, and serve in this earthly world today.

We, as believers in Christ, need to obey the apostolic admonition to pray for our leaders and for those who carry political power. Pray that we may continue to live quiet and peaceful lives as believers, and that we may be free to share the good news with our neighbors, friends, and families. Pray also that God will grant us as believers grace and favor with all those in authority, so that we can continue Christ’s mission in our community and in the nation as a whole.

If you, as Daniel did, have the gift of political leadership, then place that gift at Jesus’ feet and serve where he calls you to serve. Do the work of Christ fearlessly, trusting God will grant you grace and favor as you need it. We need leaders who are not afraid to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.” We need leaders who are willing to take the risks necessary to bring about change. It is a tough political arena right now, but what we need in that arena are spiritual warriors who are willing to take the hits for being honest, humble, and compassionate, and who are submissive to the will and purposes of our Lord Jesus Christ and his heavenly Abba. May the Spirit do a mighty work in this nation and bring many to humble service so we can see some real change that lasts.

Dear Abba, it is a blessing that you have made your Son Jesus Christ Lord of all. We are thankful you are still in charge, and that even when we fail to make good choices about our leaders, you still are at work in the midst of our failures. We ask you for godly men and women to lead us in this country who are equipped for servant leadership and who are filled with the Spirit. Lord, give our leaders wisdom, compassion, and humility—a spirit of service toward those they are responsible for. Grant us courage to confront and challenge our leaders when necessary, and the grace to respect and follow them as they follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

“…this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: that you be driven away from mankind and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes. And in that it was commanded to leave the stump with the roots of the tree, your kingdom will be assured to you after you recognize that it is Heaven that rules. Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity.” Daniel 4:24-27 NASB