By Linda Rex
April 19, 2020, 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER—This morning the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and my irises are starting to bloom. The spring days here in middle Tennessee are pleasant when they are not blistering hot, and I enjoy being able to breathe in some fresh air as I sit out on my backyard patio.
When I lived farther north, spring was a welcome time of year—so refreshing after months of snow, ice, and bitter cold. When the wildflowers began to bloom and it was time to search for the morel mushrooms, this meant that the long days of being stuck inside were over and we could wander about the woods and meadows, drinking in the beauty of the countryside.
For many of us, wandering about the countryside is something we can only do in our dreams since we are held inside by the “Safer at Home” guidelines. We might feel like we are stuck in the midst of a long winter of quarantine, and we’re not seeing any immediate end to what is causing the death not only of people, but of jobs, finances, and our economic stability. There are many who are working hard wondering whether this will be the day they get infected or their dear one won’t come home. Others long to visit with parents in the nursing home, but they can’t, and grieve that they may not get to say goodbye before their parents are gone.
This leads us to the gospel passage for this week, where we find the disciples in the upper room with the doors barred, fearful that they might be found and suffer torture and death at the hands of those who killed Jesus. Even though they had heard the good news that Jesus was risen, they were still struggling to believe the reality of his resurrection and it showed in their actions during this time. Like many of us today, they were experiencing a large gap between the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the everyday experiences of their lives.
Jesus surprised them by entering the room in spite of the locked doors and offering them a simple greeting of peace, shalom. He had promised them peace, and here he brings it to them, demonstrating the reality of his risen glorified human body. In offering his peace, he gave them a commission—sending them out to share with others the good news of his resurrected life. He did not mean for them to hide themselves away, but to believe in him and to share that belief with everyone else. He breathed on them, encouraging them to receive the Spirit, and commissioned them to be his agents on earth to carry on his ministry by sharing the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
What did the disciples tell Thomas, who hadn’t been present? What was it about what they said to him that caused him not to believe? He wanted some tangible evidence he could see and touch to base his belief on and he didn’t have it. He wanted to see Jesus for himself, to see and touch his wounds.
Even after Jesus had come and revealed himself to the disciples, eight days later they were still hiding behind locked doors. The power of Pentecost wasn’t yet evident in their lives since they were still fearful of the consequences of being out in public where they could be arrested. There wasn’t yet the boldness in gospel proclamation we see after the Spirit came on them in power. This time, though, Thomas was with them. And Jesus came intentionally to give him an opportunity to see and touch his body—to have his questions answered in such a way that belief would supersede unbelief.
Jesus is not put off by our questions, by our unbelief—who he is as our Lord and Savior is not altered by our lack of faith. Jesus is who he is in spite of our unwillingness to believe the truth about him. Here we see Jesus taking the time and making the effort to meet Thomas right where he was, giving him what he needed so he could believe. As he approached Thomas and showed him his hands and his side, inviting him to touch his wounds, Thomas was overcome with the reality of who Jesus was. He fell to his knees, addressing Jesus with the terms saved only for divinity, “My Lord and My God!”
Jesus wants us to stop not believing, and to keep on believing that he is God in human flesh—our Savior and our Lord. When the apostle John wrote his gospel, he had a multitude of miracles and signs to draw upon, but he only chose to use eight. His purpose was not to give a detailed, extensive list, but to provide enough testimony that we could believe and keep on believing that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord.
What would it take for you and me to believe and to keep on believing that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, who died and yet rose again? What is it that is standing in the way of us being able to accept the reality that God loves us so much that he came in person to stand in our stead, to die our death, and to raise us to new life? Are we expecting Jesus to show up in person so we can see and touch his very glorified human body?
Sometimes I think our current deconstructionist thinking is removing our ability to take things on faith. Indeed, there are many things in life which we need detailed evidence for. But when it comes to matters of faith, there comes a time when we must encounter Jesus for ourselves. Jesus is willing and able to enter the locked rooms of our hearts and lives by his Spirit and meet us just where we are. He is more than able to provide the tangible evidence of his presence and power as we need it. However, perhaps it is time for us to quit shutting the doors and locking them out of fear—to quit hiding behind our expectations of what God is really like and allow ourselves to encounter God in the risen Jesus Christ the way he actually is.
What is keeping us away from faith in Christ? Is it the trappings of religion? The memories of spiritual abuse or abusive family members? Is it bitterness, unforgiveness, or anger at God? What are we blaming God for that is holding us in our pattern of unbelief?
This is a good time to read again the gospel of John and his epistle. He speaks profoundly of a God who loves you and me so much that he would not live in eternity without us. He came for us, stooping down into the dredges of our broken humanity, even into death and hell itself, to lift us up and bring us into the oneness with himself we were created for. Here is a God who would not be God without us, but who loves us so much that he was willing to meet us where we are to bring us to where he is, into his very presence through Jesus in the Spirit.
And he calls us to believe—to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. What does that mean for you and for me? We are not left in the midst of all this, in the winter of this broken human existence, without hope. Already, in Christ, the heavenly realities are present—we can participate in Jesus’ intimate relationship with his Father in the Spirit—by faith. There comes a point where our experience of God’s forgiveness, of his real presence in us and with us, becomes tangible and we are able to believe, and keep on believing.
Pause for a moment today and consider what it is that may be standing between you and faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus. What is it that is keeping you from belief, from continuing to believe? I invite you to have that conversation with God—to ask him to enable you to believe. Rather than inviting him behind the closed doors of your heart and mind, attend to the reality he is already present there by the Holy Spirit, showing himself to you. Ask him to help you to see him and to believe. God dwells in human hearts, yours included—awaken to faith in Christ. And believe.
Dear God, thank you for including us in your life and love. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for being present even now by the Spirit in all the messiness of our lives and in our broken world, in the winter of our souls. We are filled with fear and with many reasons not to believe in you, Jesus—melt them away. Give us your faith. Awaken us to the reality of your indwelling presence, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:3–9 NASB
See also John 20:19–31.
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
By Linda Rex
March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.
Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.
Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.
When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.
Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.
Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.
The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.
It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.
So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.
This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.
What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?
Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.
Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB
“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB
“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.
By Linda Rex
SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2020, ASH WEDNESDAY/1ST SUNDAY IN EASTER PREP—Recently, I was chatting with someone about current events and they were telling me about a program they heard on the radio. The person they were listening to was saying that the current issue with child abuse imagery has multiplied into millions of cases worldwide since the time of Clinton’s presidency. The implication was that his moral failure with Monica Lewinsky was the root of this alarming increase in the use of pornography. Personally, I would be more inclined to believe that this extreme numerical increase is more directly related to the use the internet as well as the ability to track the use of pornographic material on the internet. But that is not the point I feel led to make.
Over the decades our nation has been at certain times more concerned with particular sins than with others. I was reading a historical novel the other day which was set in the time of this nation when temperance and prohibition were promoted as the solution to all of the ills besetting the nation. I agree that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and/or drugs leads to many other sins, but there is so much more at stake. It is a greater issue that we can become so obsessed with a certain sin that we lose sight of our proclivity for living as though we are in charge and able to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
The story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating the forbidden fruit cuts down to the root of all human behavior from that time to today. We are all created for an intimate relationship with the God who made us and we can, at any time, walk and talk with God if we so desire. We may not experience this relationship with God in the same way they did, but it is what we were created for. However, we often trade this direct relationship with God we were given in Jesus Christ for a substitute relationship—dependency upon and reveling in the things of this human existence. Or as followers of Christ, we may even substitute church attendance, rule-keeping, moral purity, and community service for an intimate walk with our living Lord.
The truth is that we often are more concerned about repenting our mistakes or moral failures than we are repenting the bent we have toward rejecting God himself. What we need to do is to acknowledge the reality that we wish to live as though we are self-sustaining individuals, as little gods who run the universe the way we want it to be run. Let’s be honest with ourselves—we don’t want to have to answer to anyone for what we say or do—we want to create our own rules to live by and not have any consequences for our choices or behaviors.
So we come to the time on the Christian calendar called Lent (or Easter preparation) which begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the time when we honestly assess and confess our genuine and deep need for the Lord Jesus Christ. For, if he did not stand in our stead and on our behalf, we would have no interest in or desire for, nor the ability to have, a relationship with the God who made us and who cares for us. We don’t just draw up a list of sins and tell God about them. No, we go much deeper—down to the core of our being—down to the heart which turns away from God toward the things and people of this human existence.
God calls us to return to him. To return is to go back to the place where we started. We began at a place in which we were fully included in God’s life and love. And then we turned away. When God as the Word took on our humanity, he turned us back to his heavenly Father.
As Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan River with the baptismal waters dripping off his frame, he heard the Father’s words of love—“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased (Matt. 3:17 NASB).” On the mountain where he was transfigured, we again hear the affirmation of his heavenly Father—“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him (Matt. 17:5 NASB)!” In Christ, we are beloved children. We are God’s pleasure and joy. God calls us to rend our hearts—to quit with all the religious externals and to get down to the core of our being: What drives us? What is the focus of our inner conversation? What directs our decisions and choices? Where does God fit in our lives? Does he even have a place in our heart?
The process of examining our hearts is not meant to be discouraging or depressing. Rather, as we take God’s hand and walk down the corridors of our inner sanctuary, we begin to see in a greater way our need for deliverance, redemption, and forgiveness. We see our need for a Savior. We begin to put God back in his rightful place as Lord of our existence. And most of all, the closer we get to the heart, we discover that waiting there all this time has been Christ himself by the Spirit.
For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save us. He entered our human existence, not to destroy us, but to reconstruct us back into the image-bearers of God we were created to be. We do not look to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday with dread or to Holy Saturday with sorrow, but to Resurrection Sunday with anticipation and joy. What was meant for our evil, the destruction of our souls, God turned to good—the deliverance of all people. Jesus came to live our life, die our death, and rise so that the Spirit would be sent—so we would receive the very life of God within ourselves.
When we are called to return—to turn about, we are called back into the relationship which was ours from before time began. God has always meant to include us in his life and love, and even though we managed to turn away from this to the things of this world and ourselves, God has in Christ turned us back to himself. Receive the gift which has been given. Come to yourself, your true self. For Abba loves you dearly and is pacing on the porch, looking down the road, anticipating your return. Run to him!
Dearest Abba, thank you for not rejecting us because of our rejection of you, but giving us your Son in our place and on our behalf. Turn our hearts back to you again. Renew in us a desire for your will and your ways, but more importantly, for your very presence—to affectionately tend to your heart as you tend to ours. We praise you that this is all possible through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, | And with fasting, weeping and mourning; | And rend your heart and not your garments.’ | Now return to the LORD your God, |For He is gracious and compassionate, | Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness | And relenting of evil.” Joel 2:12-13 NASB
“For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:17-19 NASB
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 2, 2020, 4TH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—This morning as I was contemplating the passages for this upcoming Sunday, it occurred to me that I live in a country where people value the pursuit of happiness but do not seem to understand what it takes to be truly happy. If I were to turn on the radio or television today, it would not take long for me to hear someone telling me those things I need in order to be happy.
They may tell me I need a relationship with the perfect lover, a properly aged bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, or an all-expense paid week at a resort in Hawaii. Maybe I need a long-sought-after promotion at work, a brand-new SUV or a time-share in Myrtle Beach. None of these are bad things, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy some time at the seashore and driving such a nice car. The problem I see is, that apparently, according to what I read and see around me, I can only be happy if I am following my heart’s desire and enjoying the pleasure of those things I love to have or experience.
It is no wonder that we struggle so much in this modern world with depression and pain-management issues. Many of us are willing to work ourselves practically to death for the sake of having the things we want or need. But then we attempt to escape the stress, relational pain, and other ills that come with having worked so hard while having so little to show for it by doing things which may be unhealthy, risky, or even dangerous. Our concept of what it means to be happy distorts our ability to balance work, play, and our significant relationships.
We may be one of those people who find themselves due to disability, age, illness, or even a refusal to be responsible for what is ours, in the position of having other people do all the work to provide for and care for us. We may struggle with low self-esteem, guilt and shame as a result. Or we may get frustrated by people in our lives telling us what to do and how to do it because we don’t have the control we prefer to have over our circumstances. Struggling with all these things may cause us to give up on hope of ever being happy because we always seem to end up back in the place we were before, without any hope of things getting any better.
Our expectations of what it means to be happy affects how we respond to what is going on in our lives. I’m a firm believer that we were created to live happily within all that God has made and given us for life and godliness. But so often our struggle is not with all the great things around us—it is with our definition of what it means to be happy and blessed. Is it possible for us to be truly happy, to be truly blessed?
In 1 Tim. 1:11, the apostle Paul calls the Lord “the blessed God.” The word “blessed” in the Greek is “happy” (μακαριοι [makarioi]), and it is where we get the word “beatitudes,” the word often used to describe these “blessed” verses in Matthew 5. Since we were created in the image of God after his likeness, it is important that we consider first what it means that our God is the happy God, or blessed God. When we know what this means, we will have a better idea of how to go about being blessed or happy ourselves.
In Hebrews 1:3 we learn that Jesus Christ is “exact representation” of God’s nature or being. If we want to know what it means that our God is the blessed God, then let’s look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, in sharing what it means to be blessed or happy, took it to a new level, one which was in agreement with his nature as the Son of God in human flesh. To be happy, or blessed, is to have the qualities which God values, to have kingdom of God characteristics—to be radiating with the very nature of God himself—something which only Jesus Christ himself can do.
For example, in the Beatitudes Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First off, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the God who is three Persons in one Being. The Son of God, who has always lived in oneness with his Father in the Spirit, lived here on earth in humble dependence upon his heavenly Father, not doing anything he did not see his Father doing and not trusting in his own abilities or preferences. Jesus exemplified what it meant to be poor in spirit because he was God in human flesh, living as a Son trusting implicitly in his Father, just as each of us is meant to do.
Access to God’s kingdom is not by following the rigid rules and requirements established by the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but by being poor in spirit—by recognizing our need for God to give us access to his presence. Jesus said it is a recognition of our spiritual lack, our honest self-assessment that we do not have what it takes and that we need God to intervene on our behalf which really matters. It is our desire for and a dependence upon God’s covenant relationship with us, which gives us a free ticket into the blessed presence of God forever.
Jesus also said the “gentle” or “meek” would inherit the earth. This stood in stark contrast with the Jewish hope for a messiah who would oust the reigning Roman government using force and violence so that the Jewish people would once and for all control the earth on which they lived. The gentleness or meekness of Jesus reflected that of our blessed God, who instead of exacting retribution for our failings as human beings, sent us his own Son, allowing him to suffer and die on humanity’s behalf so that we could be freed from our captivity to evil, sin, and death. This type of gentleness in the face of all that we as humans conspire to do to harm, kill, or injure one another is a characteristic of the blessed God himself. Apart from God’s nature at work within us, we are not capable of true gentleness or meekness.
Those who make peace, Jesus said as well, would be called sons of God. There is only one Son who was able to make genuine, lasting peace between God and man, and between each of us as human beings. Jesus’ way of making peace, of being a peacemaker, was not by giving people what they wanted in order to get them to stop causing problems. He didn’t create peace by allowing evil, sin, and death to continue. No, he took evil, sin, and death upon himself, living our life, dying our death, and rising again, so we could be freed completely from any of their claims upon us.
As we read the Beatitudes, we can see that Jesus is the embodiment of all of these attributes. He is truly the blessed and happy God present in our humanity. Our ability to shine with these same attributes comes through his presence in us by the Holy Spirit. To be truly happy or blessed comes through living in the truth of who we are as the beloved adopted children of our happy God, who sent his Son, the blessed Savior, and through him the blessed Holy Spirit. It is as we respond to God in faith that the Spirit unites us with him, enabling us to participate in his way of being—the way which is blessed, or happy.
Being truly happy, then, is not something exterior to us nor is it created by things we do or experience. To be truly blessed, or happy, begins in the very nature of God himself which he places within us through Jesus by the Spirit. It is God at work within us, creating a nature which is poor in spirit, which grieves our spiritual losses or sins, and hungers and thirsts for a right relationship with him. It is the indwelling Spirit who is gentle, merciful, and pure in heart, placing within us this nature Jesus forged for us as he lived on earth.
This type of blessedness or happiness is not transient because it is not based within our circumstances or experiences, nor is it based within our flesh. It has its true foundation in Jesus Christ himself, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit as we trust in him. As we follow Christ, or pursue the happy, blessed One, we will begin to experience genuine happiness—a deep inner joy and sense of blessedness which will hold us and carry us through difficulties, struggles, and all the changing experiences of our transient human existence, even when we are persecuted for the sake of our faith in Jesus. It is our blessed God’s heart that all of us share forever with him in his glory and blessedness. In what way will you choose today to live blessed, pursuing genuine happiness by pursuing the blessed Lord himself?
Dear God of glory, our blessed Creator and Sustainer, forgive us for pursuing everything and everyone but you. Turn our hearts back to you—cause us to follow you alone, Jesus, our blessed and only Savior. Fill us anew with your blessed Presence by your Spirit of love and grace that we may be truly happy and blessed, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:2-12 NASB
By Linda Rex
JANUARY 26, 2020, 3RD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—This morning I was reading an article by Stephon Alexander, a theoretical physicist whose aim is to unite quantum theory with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. His article in Nautilus spoke about how he was struck by the way light was used in a drawing by the Oakes twins, two artists who use innovative technique and inventions in their works.(1) In the struggle to understand how our universe works, scientists often must take into account what role light plays in their theories.
My first introduction to the essential nature of light in both science and theology came in my classwork with the late Dr. John McKenna. He, on more than one occasion, pointed out how light was often used in the scriptures, especially in relation to the original Light, the Lord himself. It seems that we, as image-bearers of God, were always meant to live and walk in the light—in the light of the sun and in the Light of God, as his adopted and beloved children. And often, in our brokenness, we choose to live and walk in the darkness of evil, sin, and death instead.
When Matthew speaks of how Jesus, after the death of John the Baptizer, settled in Capernaum in Galilee, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that upon those people a light had dawned. The dawning of light upon a dark world is often a glorious sight. One of the most beautiful experiences I believe, is sitting in the quiet darkness of the early morning waiting for the sun to rise. As it barely hits the horizon, a lone bird begins to sing and the shapes of the trees, houses, and other objects start to take form. As the sun rises, the sky begins to grow lighter, the shapes begin to have color and depth, and the song of the lone bird becomes a joyful chorus of all varieties of birds. Soon the bright light of the sun brings out the full glory of each tree, flower, and bush, and the world is fully awake in a brand new day.
The entry of light of the sun into a darkened world is so much like Jesus’ entry into the darkness of our broken humanity. The earth does not make the sun shine on it—it has no control over whether the sun shines or not. It merely turns itself and the light touches it in new places. In many ways this is what it means for us to turn to Christ, to receive the light he brings to us. He is the Light of the world—what he brings to us is meant to illuminate the darkness within, transforming and healing it and bringing out the full glory of who God created us to be.
Our struggle as human beings is that, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21 NASB). Light has the discomfiting ability to expose truth, and even though that truth may offer us real freedom, we prefer to remain in darkness, in control of our own destiny.
What we seem to forget is that we as human beings are incapable of providing light for ourselves. Try this sometime: Walk into a cave and you will be surrounded completely by a darkness so deep, you can almost feel it. Now, light the cave up. No, don’t use matches. Don’t use candles. Don’t use a flashlight, or your phone. No—you light it up yourself, without the help of anything else. I have to ask–how’s that working for you?
It is in situations such as this where we come face to face with the reality that we are not the light. We are utterly dependent upon something outside ourselves to provide light in dark places. We will sit in the darkness forever unless the earth turns enough that the sun begins to shine where we live. We will sit in the darkness of the cave or a dark room until someone turns on a flashlight or a table lamp. In the same way, we as humans remained in the darkness of our evil, sin, and death until the One who made the light-givers—the sun, moon, and stars, and fire—came to bring us into his Light.
This brings us to the concept of discipleship and making disciples. This Jesus, who is the Light, called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him. Later he called John and James as well. Jesus called them into the Light, to live and walk in the light of his presence. These men walked with Jesus day by day, being truly themselves within the context of a mentoring relationship. Jesus saw them at their best and at their worst, and spoke both grace and truth into them.
This is what discipleship looks like. Often, we want our relationship with God to be on our terms, where we follow him when it is comfortable to do so and we are able to keep a good image up in front of those around us. True spiritual community, though, allows for the capacity to make mistakes, own our failures, and seek to make amends or to work at making better choices. There must be room for both grace and truth within the body of Christ, in the spiritual communities in which we live, work, and play.
Inner healing, the transformation Christ began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and is working out here below in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts and minds, is something which best happens within the context of healthy spiritual community. There must be room to be transparent, authentic and honest, while also allowing ourselves to be held accountable for the unhealthy and inappropriate choices we make which wound ourselves and others. There must be an ability to feel safe, loved, and accepted as we turn ourselves more fully to the Light.
Most of us do not want to be connected with others at this deep level. We don’t want this much exposure to the Light. We prefer to live and walk in darkness—with the ability to call our own shots and do things our own way without consequences. But living and walking in this deep connectedness is what we are created for. This is the nature of eternal life, of knowing and being known by God and others—true fellowship. And this is why Jesus came—to include us in the genuine fellowship or communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.
What we as the body of Christ so often fail to do is to create true Christian community, where people are able to expose themselves fully to the Light of God and still receive his love, grace and truth. We, as followers of Christ, must be willing to leave behind all that we cling to, all that we lean on for light, and turn to the One Light, Jesus Christ, and be as that Light to those around us. At the same time, the moon above reminds us of our calling to reflect the living Light Jesus Christ to those who are caught in the darkness. We are not meant to keep the Light to ourselves but to be bringing others into the Light.
How comfortable are we with people who are still absorbed with living in the darkness? How do we respond to those who are still hiding behind their mask of good behavior and words while remaining in the darkness of evil, sin, and death? Who can we begin to pray for and start including in our life, bringing them along the road to the Light of God? Perhaps today we can have that conversation or make that phone call—and encourage them to turn to the light of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, and join us as we live in the Light.
Dear Abba, forgive us for our preference for darkness so we can hide our evil thoughts and deeds. We turn ourselves to your Light, to your Son Jesus, and receive the Light of your presence and power in the Holy Spirit. Move in and through us to bring others into your Light as well, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness | Will see a great light; | Those who live in a dark land, | The light will shine on them.” Isaiah 9:1-2 NASB
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; | Whom shall I fear? | The LORD is the defense of my life; | Whom shall I dread?” Psalm 27:1 NASB
See also Matthew 4:12–23.
(1) Accessed at https://getpocket.com/explore/item/what-this-drawing-taught-me-about-four-dimensional-spacetime?utm_source=pocket-newtab on 1/17/2020.
By Linda Rex
December 22, 2019, 4th Sunday of Advent—I was reading a devotional this morning which used the story in the gospels of a man who was bound by demons and wandering about in the tombs, in the region of the dead. This man broke any chains that held him, but when Jesus spoke to him, he found true freedom.
How often I have felt like this man, wandering about in my own personal chains, unwilling to be shackled by the bonds of love God has for me. How often I have harmed myself rather than submitting myself to the love and grace of God as expressed to me in his will for my life! I know I am not alone in this—I see it often in people around me. It is our human condition apart from God’s merciful intervention.
One of the most basic steps in facing our addictions and being freed from them is coming to understand that apart from the intervention of a “higher power’, we cannot be free. We can try harder and harder, we can work the plan faithfully, but we have to eventually end up at the place where we realize in a deep and significant way that apart from divine intervention, we have no hope of ever being any different than we are right now.
God’s method of intervening in our circumstances did not involve him being a distant, cold and uninvolved deity. Nor did he seek vengeance on us for our pitiful failures at trying to be what we believe we need to be in order for him to accept us. God’s way of turning our hearts back to him, of restoring our relationship with him, was to enter into our very existence as a human being and to personally turn us around back into face to face relationship with himself.
Historically, the nation of Israel was in many ways like you and me. They were brought into relationship with God, but they refused to let him be the center of their life. For a while they would live as his people, but in time they would turn away from him, back into their idolatry and hedonism. They would reap the results of living life on their own terms, come to the end of themselves, and then turn again to him—for a while.
But this was not a surprise to God. None of this is. He knew long before our cosmos existed that we would have this proclivity to turn away from him to other things. He knew it would require his personal involvement to restore us back to our original design so that we could be the image-bearers of God he intended us to be.
We hear the cry in Psalm 80:2b-3, 7, 17-19 of the psalmist Asaph asking three times, “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved.” Prophetically he pointed to a Son who would be the source of our genuine revival, the only means by which any of us will be saved. Our only hope of being people who would never abandon God would be for God to himself turn our hearts back.
So we have in Isaiah 7:14 the promise of a virgin bearing a son who would be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us.’ What a thrilling promise! This Advent season, as we gaze upon the nativity scenes we see around us, as we are reminded of the reason for the season, we are given a hope for something more than our constant failures to love. We are able to have peace of mind and heart because we know God has sent us a Savior—someone who has done and will do what we cannot and will not do. We are able to have joy, because we are celebrating the reality that God has come and stands in our stead, on our behalf, filling us with his real presence in the Holy Spirit.
Advent reminds us that when Israel had absolutely no hope of ever getting anything right with God ever again, God did not forsake her. He came himself, in the womb of a virgin, allowing himself to be carried as a promise to his people of their deliverance. Advent reminds us that we are not left abandoned in our sin and selfishness—there is a Savior who is one of us and yet is God himself—he has come to bind us once and for all to God with unbreakable cords of love and grace.
The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and today we as his people are pregnant with his presence by the Holy Spirit. God is even at this moment working deliverance in this world—preparing for the day when all things will be transformed completely and God will finally dwell forever with humankind. Our failures to love, our sinfulness and the evil which so often enslaves us, do not and will not stand in the way of God accomplishing what he set out to do from before the beginning of this cosmos. He will finish what he has begun—he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Advent teaches us love in a profound way—of God’s desire to be near to us, so near that he actually enters into our human existence himself. The presence of God in our humanity is the greatest gift of love God could ever give. He knew the cost of this gift would be the suffering and death of his Son, but he gave it anyway. He knew the rejection of his Spirit which would occur, but he gave his Spirit anyway. God freely gives—do we receive?
Whatever struggles we may have with our addictions or failures to love God and others, we find in Jesus that God is present and real in the midst of them. He is at work, as we are willing, to heal, restore, and renew. We are given Jesus Christ—he is in us and with us by the Holy Spirit. What is our response?
I’ve often thought that Joseph was an incredible man. He had betrothed himself to a young virgin who turned out to be pregnant with someone else’s child. He could have made a public spectacle of her—but he was so loving in not wanting to do this. And when God told him to marry her anyway, he did it (Matthew 1:18–25). His humility and sacrificial spirit bear witness to the humility and sacrificial Spirit of God himself. Will we in this same Spirit of humility and sacrifice receive the wonderful Gift of God in our humanity? Will we surrender to the reality we are in desperate need of God, and God in Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and will come again one day?
Thank you, Abba, for loving us so well. It was not enough for you to create all things, to set everything in motion, and to walk away. You dove right in, taking our very humanity upon yourself in your Son Jesus, renewing us from the inside out. Thank you for sending us your Spirit, enabling us to be one with you, and to be healed, restored, and renewed, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“… concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power 1by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God…” Romans 1:3-7a NASB
By Linda Rex
December 1, 2019, 1st Sunday of Advent—Years ago my body clock used to wake me up before my alarm went off at five in the morning. I was grateful for this because there was nothing I hated more than to be woken from a sweet dream by the hideous drone of the alarm clock. I’ve had that alarm clock for years and now when I set it and then turn it off, in the morning it still buzzes. It’s on those days when I’m trying to sleep in and it wakes me up anyway that I have a distinct desire to throw that old alarm clock in the waste bin.
Back when the apostle Paul was writing his letter to the people in Rome, I doubt very much he had an annoying electric alarm clock. But he understood very well the need for us to be woken from our sleep—to resist our tendency to find that place of least resistance and stay there.
We are entering the season of Advent, when we reflect on and celebrate the entering in of the Word of God into our humanity in the incarnation. The people of Israel had longed for many years for their messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors. They had the scriptures preserved by their prophets and priests which told them about his coming, and they longed for him to bring to pass the new age of the Spirit when they would be given the heart to obey and serve their God.
The sad reality of the first advent of Christ was that when he did come, he was not recognized. He was not what the people expected, so they rejected him and in the end saw that he was executed in an excruciating death on the cross. What they longed for and wanted for so long, they did not accept, but denied and rejected. They preferred their spiritual sleep, their political power, their religious trappings, and their physical comforts rather than being willing to awaken to their need for the Messiah to deliver them from evil, sin, and death.
If they had been alert to the spiritual realities, they would have remembered the lesson found in their history in the story of Noah. The people of Noah’s day had their focus on eating, drinking, and all the everyday activities of their lives. Even though Noah and his family were a clear witness to them of their coming destruction, these people ignored the warning. They had the opportunity to be saved, but they refused it. The ark was built, the animals—who obeyed the call to be saved—were placed on the ark, but when the flood came, only Noah and his family entered into that salvation and survived the flood.
When Jesus spoke of his second advent, he used the story of Noah to alert people to their tendency to ignore the warning signs of coming destruction. As human beings, we often know the right thing to do, but we don’t do it, even though we know the possible consequences of not doing it. We realize that following our flesh reaps us death and destruction, but we still choose to listen to its desires and fulfill them. We have been given deliverance from evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ—but what do we do with this gift? This is a critical question.
As human beings, our sinful proclivities draw us down a path God never meant for us to go. And this is why Jesus came—why we celebrate the season of Advent. Jesus came to free us from our sinful nature and to write within us a new heart and mind which wants to live in the freedom God created us for. God in Christ took on our sinful humanity, lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into the presence of the Father. This is the spiritual reality of our redeemed human existence—the objective union of God with man in the person of Jesus Christ.
God has done in Christ all that is needed for our salvation. He has built the ark, gathered the animals, and has everything in order, ready to save us. We are as good as saved—evil, sin, and death have been conquered by Jesus. We have new life in him—the flood of God’s grace and love has come to cleanse the earth, but are we on the ark? Are we living in the spiritual reality of God’s redeeming grace? Or are we still asleep—laughing at the idiots who would build a big boat when there is no rain or water to be seen?
Paul emphasizes our need to wake up—for our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Indeed, the more we grow in our relationship with our God, the more we see our need for redemption, and the brighter the light of his redeeming grace is in the dark places in our hearts and lives. We can continue to live as though God has not saved us, is not saving us, will not save us. Or we can wake up to the reality that this is exactly what has happened, is happening, and will happen.
Advent is a time to be reminded of our need to wake up to the signs of the times—Christ has come, is present now by the Spirit, and is coming again to restore all things. We need to be alert to the spiritual realities and live in the truth of who we are as God’s beloved adopted children. The family we have been adopted into does not live in the darkness, but in the light. Our Abba loves and is loved, and this is what we are created for—to love God and love our neighbor.
Our old ways of self-centered, self-reliant, self-indulgent living are but a bad dream. We have a new life we have been given, the life of Christ, and we are to waken and live in the truth of who we are in him. Our loving Father says to us, “Get out of bed, get your dark pajamas of evil, sin, and death off, and put on the heavenly garments of grace and love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Get busy in the new day of your existence in the kingdom of light.”
We sometimes get obsessed with trying to figure out when Jesus Christ is going to return again. But Jesus says to us, “Wake up. Be attentive to my presence and coming right now.” The advent or Parousia (coming and presence) of Jesus Christ is actually one long extended event. Jesus came over 2000 years ago, died and rose again, but sent his Spirit, being present with us even now, and will come in glory when he returns again.
The calling for the church is to live awake to the real coming and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ right now—to live in a constant state of expectation, longing for his real presence in our everyday lives, alert to what he is doing and will do even now to redeem, restore, and renew all things. We are encouraged to put off our old ways of self-centered living and put on the new life given us in Christ. Yes, the alarm is going off and we may not want to admit it, but the truth is—it’s time to wake up!
Dear Abba, we’re finding it hard to get out of bed, to awaken to the glorious reality of our new life in Christ. Help us to get our old pajamas of evil, sin, and death off and to gladly put on our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly garments of love and grace you have handmade for us. Holy Spirit, keep us ever awake to the spiritual realities, to God’s presence in each moment of every day, and enable us to live in the truth of who we are in Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.
“Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. Romans 13:11–14 NASB
See also Matthew 24:36–44.
By Linda Rex
RESURRECTION SUNDAY/EASTER—I’ve been noticing how often we act as though Jesus is still hanging on the cross or laying dead in the tomb. As Christians we can talk a lot about how Jesus died on the cross for us and our sins and how he rose from the grave, but do we live and speak as though this is actually true?
As I was sitting in the last session of a recent GCI women’s leadership forum, I was invited to write myself a permission slip. We had written one on the opening session, and now we were going to write one as we prepared to leave. I closed my eyes and asked the Lord what he wanted me to write on my slip. The still small voice said, “Be free.”
As I wrote this down on my yellow post-it note, I thought about this statement. Why would God ask me to give myself permission to be free when in Christ I already was free? I was struck by the reality that I could know quite well that I am made free from evil, sin, and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and yet be thinking, feeling, and living as though this were not true.
This is similar to Paul’s direction to us to be reconciled to God because we are reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20). There is the spiritual reality of our reconciliation with God on his side and spiritual reality of our freedom from evil, sin, and death in Jesus. And then, on the other side, there is our personal experience of and participation in these spiritual realities through Jesus in the Spirit.
The apostle Peter had told Jesus he believed he was the Messiah, his Lord. He had refused to believe that he would ever betray Jesus. But standing in the courtyard trying to stay warm the night Jesus was taken and was being tried, Peter denied vehemently that he knew him. When the rooster crowed and Jesus caught his eye, Peter was devastated. He was caught between the two parts of himself—what he meant to do and what he did, what he believed and how he acted—and subsequently found himself in a place he never meant to be and experienced sorrow and deep remorse as a result.
As we read the Easter story in Luke 24:1-12, we find Peter again caught between what actually had happened, and what his human reasoning would have him believe and do—Jesus was not in his tomb. Were the women right? Had he indeed risen from the grave? How could that be? Peter saw the empty tomb and went away marveling—but apparently, not believing.
All of these experiences including his subsequent encounters with the risen Jesus, and his calling to be a shepherd to God’s people, helped to form and shape Peter. It was this Peter, the one who not only knew Jesus had died and risen again, but who had personally experienced Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa when the men sent by a centurion stopped at the gate and asked for him.
In the companion scripture for this Sunday in Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us about the sermon Peter preached to these Gentiles. He began by saying that it was obvious to him that God was not someone who showed partiality. He could say this confidently because not only had God given him a repeated vision which told him he was not to differentiate between people, but also because he had been directed to treat these Gentiles as though they were brothers. What Peter had learned at the feet of Jesus, he was now experiencing in the midst of his own ministry—Jesus had torn down those divisions held near and dear by the Jewish people and had made all people one in himself.
As Peter preached and told of his experience of the life, death, and resurrection of his Lord, the Spirit came upon these people. What was true in Jesus Christ was now true for each person there. They were included—they were God’s people not just as a spiritual reality, but now by personal experience. They were baptized, showing their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, by participating in the baptism Jesus did on all humanity’s behalf.
But even Peter struggled with what he knew to be true and making it a reality in his life. At one point the apostle Paul took Peter to task for not acting in accordance with the truth about the Gentiles being included in table fellowship through Jesus. Peter got caught up with some Jewish members’ refusing to eat with Gentiles, and even Barnabas was led astray (Gal. 2:11-14). Didn’t he know better? Obviously, yes, he did. But in that moment, he missed the mark.
The spiritual reality is that all are included in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. As Paul wrote: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-21 NASB) Because of our inclusion, Paul calls us to lay aside the old self and be renewed—put on the new self which has been through Christ created in the image of God (Eph. 4:22-24). Yes, we were dead in our sins, but God made us alive together with Christ, seating us in his presence in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).
Our flesh calls to us to live in the old ways—to act like dead people. But we have been given new life, and God is calling us to act like the new creations we are. Paul says, keep seeking the things above, since that is where you (according to the spiritual realities) really are right now; keep thinking about the heavenly realities instead of obsessing on the fleshly realities of our old human existence.
Let all that is not of God continue hanging on the cross where Jesus hung. Leave the sin, evil, guilt and shame in the tomb with Jesus. Walk in the newness of life which is yours in Jesus. Cease living for yourself alone, for your own pleasure and personal indulgence and begin living as a member of God’s body—fulfilling that special place you were created to fill with your gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences in love and service to God and others.
The truth is that, like Peter, we can be confident of the spiritual realities but fall far short in our personal experience of or participation in them. This is why we turn to Jesus and trust solely in him, and in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t count on our own ability or strength, but rather on the resurrection power which raised Jesus from the dead. It is God’s life at work in us which enables us to live in newness of life.
We trust, not in the empty cross, but in the risen Lord who died on the cross. He isn’t still in the tomb—the tomb is empty and his body has been glorified. Jesus is both seated at God’s right hand bearing our humanity in his presence and is present and near to us moment by moment by the Holy Spirit. We are reconciled to God, so by the Spirit we respond to God’s call to be reconciled to him and others. We are freed from sin, evil, and death—so we live through Jesus by the Spirit in the true freedom by which we love God and our neighbor as we were created to. By the Spirit, Abba’s resurrection power, we live, act and speak as though Jesus Christ is risen indeed.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of new life given us in your Son Jesus Christ. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for making Jesus’ gift our very own, enabling us to participate fully in all Christ has done. Dear Abba, enable us to walk in the life which is ours in Christ, living reconciled and free, through Jesus and in the Spirit. Amen.
“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.’ “ Luke 24:4-6a NASB