sinners

Not So Different After All

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By Linda Rex

October 27, 2019, Proper 25—Standing next to my husband at my mother-in-law’s visitation, I listened as he spoke with a family friend. He had grown up with these people and as part of a small farming community, they were each connected in a variety of ways, most specifically by their common history of family farms. As I listened to him talk, I realized the radical difference between someone who is isolated from and unfamiliar with death, and someone who sees death as the normal outcome of any creature’s existence, whether human or animal.

When someone has cared for animals, as farmers do, he or she has often experienced the life cycle from birth to death and understands that death is the normal end to any creature’s existence. But death is also devastating and destructive, and it is often fought with every weapon available. Because we value life and reject death, we often spend thousands of dollars to attempt to prevent or postpone a death which in the end is going to happen anyway. This can be one of the greatest struggles we face as humans—dealing with the reality of death and dying.

Indeed, it is a tragedy when we lose someone dear to us, when our life is shattered by the loss of someone who gave us great joy, love, and companionship. When we wake up each morning without our spouse or loved one, we are faced anew with the pain of our loss and the deep grief which goes with it. It is especially tragic when death takes away a baby or a child—someone who was just beginning their life—it seems so unfair and unjust. These are great losses, and they pierce us down to the depths of our heart, and they don’t just go away over time.

I believe the reason it hurts so much to lose someone to death is because this was not what we were created for. God intended us to eat of the tree of life and to live forever. He never wanted us to experience death and the separation that goes with it. But we made that choice—and continue to make that choice—as we choose to decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, and we continue to believe and live out the lie that God doesn’t love us and doesn’t want what is best for us.

I would not want to think that I choose death, but when I reflect upon my life and the choices I have made about different things, I find that death is often the ultimate outcome of the choices I have made. Perhaps it is healthier, though, to recognize and acknowledge this than it is to believe that I have only chosen life. The gospel passage for this Sunday tells a story which reminds us that we need to see ourselves with clear vision and not to ignore our capacity to choose death over life.

Jesus told this parable, according to Luke, to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” He told of the Pharisee, a very righteous man who prided himself on following the law and keeping every rule established by the Jewish leaders. This man stood, as a good Jew would, and praying to himself, told God how grateful he was that he wasn’t like the tax collector who stood at the other end of the room. He named all the things he wasn’t and reminded God of all the things he did right.

He started out his prayer saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What he failed to see or acknowledge was the simple truth—he was just the same as everyone else on the planet. He was just as much a sinner as the tax collector—he just didn’t see it and certainly didn’t want to admit it. One day he would die just like every other human being—and then what? What good would all his efforts be then, when he would be faced with the reality that he was a sinner just like everyone else?

A companion passage for this Sunday’s message is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, where Paul has a frank conversation with his protégé Timothy, letting him know he is nearing the end of his life. Paul embraced his death, not fearing it, but rather looking forward to the receiving the “crown of righteousness” he would receive from Jesus in that day. He knew that the source of his righteousness did not lie within himself, but solely in the Lord Jesus. He did not fear death, but bravely walked toward it, trusting in the love and faithfulness of God in the midst of whatever situation he found himself. He knew in his next moment of consciousness he would be with Jesus and would live forever in glory with him.

The transformation of the solely pagan Roman Empire into one which accepted Christianity was partly due to the way in which early believers treated death. Many, when faced with torture or death for not renouncing Christ, chose to happily, with a song or word of praise on their lips, go forward into death. They did not fear it, but chose it over abandoning their faith in Christ. Death was not seen as an enemy but as a conquered foe, and as a passage into real life, life evermore in the presence of Jesus Christ.

They could do this because they were honest with themselves about the reality that they were sinners saved by grace. They knew the source of all life, of all their hope for the world to come, lay in the Lord Jesus who had entered into our suffering and death as God in human flesh, and had risen again, bearing our humanity into the presence of the Father. He brought all of us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light—from death into life—giving us an eternal hope in the face of death and dying.

But the struggle we have as human beings is coming to the place where we are willing to say, “I’m no different than any other man—I too am a sinner.” We each need to come to the place where we acknowledge our need for what God has done for us in Christ.

We are each in the garden again, and God is inviting us to eat of the tree of life—choose Christ! What we don’t want to do is to continue to choose death by insisting on our own path of self-justification, of deciding for ourselves what is right, what is wrong, and how to get our own selves right before God. Jesus did all that is necessary—he invites us to turn to him in faith, trusting in him for all that we need.

Come to Jesus Christ and allow him to share with you his right relationship with his heavenly Father. In Christ, you are a forgiven, accepted, beloved “sinner”—a child of God. Believe it. Receive it. Embrace it. Live!

Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for giving us life in your Son Jesus Christ and sending us your Spirit so that we may participate in this divine gift. May we humbly confess we are sinners who are in need of all Christ has done, is doing, and will do—free us from our self-justification, our self-righteousness, our stubborn resistance to life and insistence on the ways of death. Thank you for your faithfulness and love, and that you will finish what you have begun, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 18:9–14

Changing Our Inner Lens

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By Linda Rex

September 15, 2019, Proper 19—The parable about the lost coin nearly always brings to my mind the many times when I have lost something important and have searched all over in my attempts to find it. As I get older, I’m discovering that it’s getting easier for me to lose things and harder for me to find them. I confess that on occasion I have had to use my landline phone to call my cellphone because I could not find it anywhere.

My daughter dreads hearing me say that I can’t find my glasses because she knows they could be just about anywhere. She immediately checks to make sure they are not on my head—sometimes things are not as badly lost as we think they are. Sometimes we just need to change our viewpoint or our perspective, or what we believe to be true.

This parable of the lost coin shows the heart of our loving Abba, who is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that each of his children has a place at his table. It’s bad enough that we believe he’s looking for reasons to exclude us, but then we also often believe that he is indifferent as to whether or not we’re even present in his life. Neither are true.

The coin the woman searched for was a drachma, worth about a day’s wages. Back when I was an hourly employee earning minimum wage, losing a day’s wages was equivalent to not having any water that month or not being able to put gas in the car. When I lost a day’s wages or lost a valuable check, I was concerned. I needed every penny I earned. I had bills to pay and kids to feed and care for.

The diligence with which the house got searched increased with the value of the item lost. The urgency with which this woman searched her house was a reflection of the value she placed upon that lost coin. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Abba searches for his lost ones. Finding those who are his lost ones and bringing them home to be with him was very important to Abba—so important that the Word of God, his Son, came into our cosmos, shared in our humanity and our suffering, and brought us home to be with Abba forever.

There is no person today who is completely and totally lost, who is not found in Christ. On God’s side, he has searched out and found each and every one of us—including us in the humanity of our risen Lord. Our lostness is a matter of unbelief, not of spiritual reality. What we believe about God, about ourselves, and about who Jesus is and what he did, is critical. If we believe we are lost, forsaken, and abandoned, we will live as though that is true. But if we believe Christ has come and brought us home to his Father (which he has), then we will live as though that is true, and live in the joy, peace, and hope of God as we participate in Christ’s perfect relationship with his Father in the Spirit.

Now sometimes we can be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we don’t realize we have wandered away from the God who loves us. This was what Jesus faced when the scribes and Pharisees began to criticize him for eating with sinners. When we begin to delineate between righteous people and sinners, including ourselves in the righteous group, we are in a dangerous place. We are declaring ourselves as having no need for Jesus and for what he did for us. We are denying reality.

Jesus emphasized our need to see ourselves accurately—as sinners in need of grace. As long as we believe we are righteous and do not need to be saved, we have no need of Jesus. We can live in this place of denial all our lives, but there will come a point where we will need to face the reality that apart from Jesus, we are lost. Apart from his finished work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we don’t have life today or hope for the future. We need to accept the truth that our eternity, and our present, are wrapped up in Jesus—he is our life. He is our right relationship with God and others.

There is great joy in heaven, Jesus said, when someone throws away the blinders and begins to see themselves with clear vision. Confessing the truth about ourselves paves the way for us to begin to live and walk in truth, in the spiritual realities in which we were included when Jesus came in our place on our behalf. And living in the reality that we are sinners saved by grace, beloved adopted children of the Father, changes how we treat those around us.

Instead of focusing on the failures, faults, and weaknesses of those around us, we focus on Christ—on him being at work in each person and in their lives by the Spirit, helping them come to see and believe that they too have been found and brought home to the Father. Rather than offering ridicule, criticism or condemnation, we offer encouragement, comfort, and understanding. Rather than rejecting or belittling them, we pray for them and offer them appropriate support.

It is in these ways that we participate with Jesus in searching for the lost and bringing them home to the Father. God has already done the hard part in the finished work of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. Now we get to join in as we follow Christ and the lead of the Spirit as God works in each person’s life to bring them to faith. We pray for them and share the good news with them. We share the love of God, extending the grace and mercy of Jesus, and trust God to finish what he already has begun in each person’s life.

So, today, how do we need to reconsider the way we look ourselves and the people around us? Are we using a clear and accurate lens? Do we see things through the lens of Jesus Christ? We may need to ask Abba for new glasses—or maybe we just need to clean the grime off of them so we can see things the way they really are. Either way, we may just discover that what we believe is lost has already been found.

Dear Abba, thank you for so diligently searching for us, finding us, and bringing us home to you. Give us clear vision, the lens of your Son Jesus Christ. Fill us anew with the Spirit of truth so we not only see the spiritual realities, but also the truth about those you have placed in our lives. Enable us to love them as you have loved us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’… I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance….In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’” Luke 15:2, 7, 10 NASB