By Linda Rex
3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER—As the years go by, I find myself reflecting on the journey I have been on with Jesus. The person I am today is profoundly different from the person I was as a young adult. I had lots of dreams back then, and I voiced many strong convictions about what I believed to be true about God, myself, and others, much of which I have since renounced as wrong or inaccurate.
Life seemed to be a lot less complicated back then. I believed that if I just did everything the way it should be done, my life would be blessed, I would be happy, and things would go along quite well without any difficulties or suffering. Whatever difficulty or suffering that might come would be because I sinned or because I was being persecuted for doing what was right. It seemed as though I was on God’s side so he had to be on mine, making sure everything went as it should.
I’m a little embarrassed to think about how naïve and unschooled I was, but it was merely the outgrowth of unhealthy theology and a protected yet legalistic childhood. I have, through the conditioning of God and everyday human existence, come to have a more rounded and mature view of things. There is indeed evil at work in this world, and evil affects anyone and everyone at some point. No matter who we are, we won’t escape failures, difficulties, struggles, and challenges.
A fundamental change in my life began when my view of who I believed God to be was challenged. I believed God was Father and Son, and the Spirit was their power or essence. As I grew in my understanding of who the Holy Spirit really is as the third Person of the Trinity—reading in the scriptures and believing all the examples of his personhood illustrated there and growing in my personal relationship with the Spirit through prayer and listening—my understanding of who Jesus and the Father are began to change as well.
Knowing the Father as our loving Abba and Jesus Christ as his Son the Messiah, the Word who came and took on our human flesh, dying our death, rising again, to bear our glorified humanity in the presence of the Father forever, is life-transforming. As the Spirit brought me nearer and deeper into the life of the Trinity, what I believed kept moving beyond just a religious creed into the realm of personal experience. The reality of Jesus Christ in me, with me, for me, began to take a clearer shape. Jesus was no longer some story character—he had revealed himself to me personally by the Holy Spirit. I began to hear God’s still small voice in my heart and mind, and I began to know and believe I am loved, forgiven, and accepted. The more I believed the truth about who Jesus was and why he came and the more I knew I belonged and was included in Jesus’ perfect relationship with his Abba in the Spirit, the more my behavior began to change.
I was more than happy to do my part in obeying God—I had constantly been bombarded by the shoulds, oughts, and have-tos of the belief system I held and all it did was make me worse. The harder I tried, the more I found myself shackled by unhealthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. I struggled often with depression and self-loathing. This obviously wasn’t God’s way of doing things. Eventually, the change I noticed within myself did not come about because I tried harder, but rather because I admitted I couldn’t do it and I needed Christ to do it in me and through me by his Holy Spirit. It happened when I was honest with others about my struggles and failures, and sought help. It happened when I was transparent about my failures, became fully known and yet loved, accepted and forgiven within a healthy spiritual community.
The worst thing about toxic or legalistic religious environments is that they do not allow people to be authentic and real and so find genuine healing and renewal. It seems that when people come together to form a church, they bring with them their masquerade gear and spend copious amounts of energy hiding from one another. In this type of environment, addictions and co-dependencies thrive. Healing and renewal are often limited or are complicated by unhealthy boundaries and toxic relationships.
It is much better to be in a safe spiritual community where each person is able to be genuine and transparent, and is allowed to grow up in Christ. Growing up in healthy ways requires the freedom to make mistakes without condemnation and with the support and encouragement of those who have previously traveled those same difficult paths. A healthy spiritual community allows for falling short without condemnation, but challenges brothers and sisters to grow up into the fullness of who they are in Christ.
Saul was not a bad person. He was a zealous God-fearing Jew. He meant to do the right thing, and he was trying to live life the way he believed God wanted him to. I don’t know why he was so adamant about imprisoning and executing the believers in Christ, but perhaps his zeal for God was also inspired by a need for the approval of his Jewish peers and a need to accomplish what no one else was doing quite as well. Whatever his reasoning, it seemed to be borne out of a heart seeking to please God.
Imagine how horrifying it must have been to realize that the One Saul had been trying to impress was actually the One he had been persecuting. His efforts to earn God’s love and approval, and the adulation and approval of his peers, was actually an action in opposition to God and in persecution of Jesus. Saul needed to know who Jesus Christ really was. He needed to have his image of God reformed into something which more perfectly apprehended the Triune God of love. As Saul sat in the darkness of blindness for a few days, he must have thought at least once—now what do I do? How can I possibly make amends for this?
What if Ananias had refused to listen to Jesus when the Lord told him to go lay hands on Saul so he could see again? What if he had stood in judgment of Saul and had condemned him, insisting he pay for his crimes against Ananias’ friends and fellow believers? But he didn’t. He humbly obeyed Jesus’ command and met Saul right where he was, offering him grace and love, and entrance into the body of Christ, the church.
Saul, whom we know today as the apostle Paul, never minced words when he spoke about his past and his failures in life. He was transparent and honest about the people he had harmed and the suffering he had incurred. Instead of being a reason for shame and guilt, God made his failures an essential part of his witness to the resurrection power of the risen Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was effective often because people saw the profound reversal which had occurred in his life when he met Jesus Christ.
A church should be a spiritual community where people can be authentic and transparent, and safely transverse the changes necessary between spiritual infancy and the spiritual maturity of Christlikeness. This is a journey that takes time, and we all have ups and downs as we travel. We are bound together in Christ to offer one another both grace and truth—to enable one another to be challenged as well as upheld when things don’t go as we planned or hoped they should, or when we fall short of Christ.
The Spirit creates such a community as we respond to his work in our hearts and minds, and live and walk in him, tossing aside the old as unneeded scraps of clothing ready to be burned, and putting on Jesus Christ who is our life and the truth of our being. As we live out the truth of our real reversal in Jesus, the Spirit enables us to participate in bringing others to experience this transformation as well, creating a fellowship of care which reflects the inner life of the Triune God. Our spiritual community isn’t meant to be a closed group but rather a welcoming place where others may find healing and renewal as well.
Dear Abba, thank you that by your Spirit you bring together people to form spiritual communities where they can find healing and renewal, and share that gift with others who are broken and suffering. As believers, change our hearts and minds so that we begin to live together in ways which are transparent and authentic, and are safe for others to participate in and to come to know and grow up in Christ in a healthy way. We thank you for never ceasing to bring us to yourself through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ … and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ ” Acts 9:5-6, 20-21 NASB
by Linda Rex
Sometimes it’s hard to accept the reality God knows us much better than we know ourselves. We like to believe we are good, well-meaning people who will always do or say the right thing in every circumstance we face. We hope we would never do or say anything cruel or hateful. We think in our heart of hearts we would never betray a friend or ruin a friendship because of greed or resentment.
But indeed, God does know us better than we know ourselves. One good example which comes to mind at this time of year is the story of Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Here Jesus was facing his death by crucifixion, knowing the reality of what he would be facing in the next few hours at the hands of people like you and me. He’s giving his disciples his last words, and says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”
Peter is a good friend of Jesus—a real pal. He says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” (John 13:37) Peter is in earnest. He really means it. He’s going to be the best friend Jesus ever had—he’s going to go all the way with Jesus. He’s just like you and me. We have the greatest intentions in the world to go all the way with Jesus, to go all the way with our family, our friends, our spiritual community.
But Jesus is very pragmatic about our humanity. He says to Peter, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” (John 13:38) Jesus just calls it as it is—“Peter, you don’t really know yourself as well as you think you do. You’re going to betray me and deny me just like any other human being would.”
Indeed, Jesus knew and accepted Peter’s brokenness as a part of who he was at that point in his life. Jesus knew in a few short hours, he would be on his own, wrestling with the evil one in a spiritual, physical and emotional battle he did not humanly want to fight. He was not unfamiliar with the failures of the human race, but felt keenly the weakness and frailty of his flesh.
It is instructive that Jesus quoted from Psalm 22 during his last hours on the cross. I was reading this psalm again this morning and was struck by the way King David put down in words the way we as human beings would treat the Lord when he came in human flesh. How many times as he was growing up did Jesus hear this psalm read? Did it put him in mind of what he was going to have to endure at the hands of the human beings he came to save? This psalm certainly describes in many ways what Jesus ended up experiencing before and during his crucifixion.
Isn’t it interested how the God who inspired this psalm, knew us better than we know ourselves? In fact, he inspired the writing of this psalm, he ensured it was preserved, and he used it as an instructive tool during his last moments before he died. The Word came to earth, knowing we would do these things to him. He was not put off by our brokenness or our capacity for betrayal and animosity. He allowed none of our human capacity for evil to prevent him from keeping his word to us that he would save us from evil, sin and death.
That the Word who is God would take on our broken humanity expresses the true reality of God’s love. As God, he had the capacity to submit himself to our human experience while remaining pure of heart, soul and mind. Rather than rejecting us or turning away from us, God joined us in our darkness and brought us up and out into his Light.
It is unfortunate that often we portray God as being so offended by sin he cannot be in the presence of it. If that were the case, we all would have been annihilated millennia ago. Seriously—what makes us think God is this way?
I think one thing which makes us think God is this way is we are this way. We get offended by a person’s problems or faults, and so we reject the person who does not meet up with our standards. We draw lines in the sand and when someone crosses them, we count them unworthy of a relationship with us.
But God doesn’t do this. He comes into our brokenness and works from within to transform and change us. He sends his Spirit into faulty human hearts so God can take up a permanent habitation there, healing us and transforming us from the inside out. He comes to the one, who like Peter, betrays him or denies him, and reconciles with him. On God’s side of the equations, there is nothing left standing between us and him.
Because God already knows us so thoroughly and completely, and loves us anyway, we can be upfront and honest about our failures and weaknesses. We can own our brokenness, telling the truth about our “messies” to God and to others. One day there won’t be any secrets—so we might as well learn how to be transparent, open and honest with ourselves and one another—living in the grace and love of God now as we will for all eternity.
Our heavenly Father has not allowed anything to come between us and his love. There is nothing which stands between us and him. This Good Friday we remember the gift of love God gave by embracing us in our broken humanity and drawing us up into life in the Father, Son and Spirit. We are beloved, cherished and held in God’s love and life, both now and for all eternity. Praise God!
Thank you, Abba, for your faithful love and grace. Thank you, Jesus, for being willing to take all our evil and broken ways upon yourself and redeeming them. Thank you, Spirit, for working all this out in Christ and in us. For your glory, God, and by your power, in your name. We thank you. Amen.
“All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations.” Psalm 22:27–28 NASB
When I was growing up, I learned at an early age that God had rules for everything. He decided what I could eat and what I could not eat, when I could eat certain foods and when I couldn’t. He decided what I should wear and what I shouldn’t wear, and when certain things should be worn and when they shouldn’t. In fact, it seemed as though God was making sure I did everything exactly right so he could bless me and I could be happy, or punish me if I went astray.
I suppose, looking back, there was something helpful about having some order to my existence. But I realized early on I had an inner resistance to this constant dictation as to what I had to do or not do. There was a rebellion deep within me to being controlled in this manner. And of course, this was seen as being sinful and evil. I did a lot of repenting and I worked really hard at “being good.”
The irony in all of this was I wasn’t made any better or any worse by all this effort. If anything, I was so busy putting on my appearance of having my life in order, I was missing out on real life—real relationship with God and with others. It was only in those relationships where I dropped the façade—with my high school buddies, for example—and where I was genuine and transparent I actually experienced true communion with others. The rest was just pretense.
When God finally got through to me with the reality of his grace and Who he actually was for me, with me and in me, I realized I was one of those people Jesus quite adamantly criticized when he was here on earth. I was a Pharisee—a white-washed tomb—a viper in the woodpile.
To come to the realization that you have all the glitz but none of the reality is a painful, difficult process. It takes experiencing the loss of all the things you cherish and coming to the end of all the things you count on to carry you through and to make you “good enough.” It means discarding all your previous notions about Who God is and who you are as his creature. And this is a tough road to travel, because our humanity and the culture we live in encourage us to stay where we are—in the façade.
One of the things I had to learn about God was he is truly free—free to be Who he is, apart from my expectations of him or preconceived notions about him. He is free to do whatever he wants in this world—which is often the exact opposite of how I was taught and believed he would act in certain situations. God is free to be Who he is, not Who I think he is. The Lord of the universe is truly that—Lord—and I am not (shockingly enough!).
But that freedom God has is always tempered by his boundless, deep love, which surpasses our comprehension. The God I grew up with was punitive and angry. And it was not helpful my personal experience of a father reinforced this belief in many ways. But when God revealed himself to me in Christ by the Spirit, I came to see this wasn’t Who God really was. The God of grace and love has always loved me and you and meant for us to be included in his divine life. This is amazing!
The other amazing thing is God gives each of us freedom—freedom to choose, to embrace or reject him, to live in harmony and unity with him and others, or to live in opposition to everything which is good and honorable and to experience the consequences of living in that way. It is hard to image God doing that, but he did and he does. Freedom to live in loving communion with him and each other, or not—it’s as simple as that.
One of the topics which kept coming up last night at a social gathering I attended was the way each of us has a unique history or genesis, but we are all intertwined and interrelated in some way. Indeed, it seems a person cannot assume someone they do not like is not at all connected with them because we have, as the centuries have passed, intermingled our DNA with one another. We are all bound together in a common humanity.
The joys of fellowship and community are a consistent thread throughout human existence. And this is what we seem to cherish most about our family and community celebrations such as Christmas. At the core of our being, we are drawn to one another in ways we don’t even realize—we are created for community and so we are drawn to it as a part of our very being.
This type of loving community, this interweaving of lives with one another in harmony and grace and peace, cannot be built by making rules and enforcing them. This is a work of the Spirit which takes place in the heart. God does not control us or force us into relationship with him and others, but invites us, draws us close, and compels us by his deep, perfect, and gracious love.
I pray you will each experience the blessing of true spiritual community this Christmas in many ways in your lives. I pray your families will experience healing and comfort and encouragement in the midst of all which pulls us apart and divides us. And I pray you will have a blessed and wonderful Advent season, through Jesus, our Lord, and by his Spirit. Amen.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1–3 NASB
This morning I was thinking about how when they were little my children loved to play the game of hide-and-seek in the dark. Although they loved to play outside, some of the best fun we had as a family was playing hide-and-seek in the dark in our old two story house with all its closets and hidey-holes.
It was always a challenge to try to find a place to hide where you could not be found. So often we reverted to subterfuge to confuse whoever was looking so that they would not think to look where we were hiding. They wouldn’t think to look under the clothes in the closet—so that’s where we would hide. They wouldn’t think to look in the bathtub, so that’s where we hid, and we’d sneak out at the end so they wouldn’t know where we successfully hid and find us the next time.
It seems that in the game of hide-and-seek, it was always a problem to get someone to be “it,” to be the finder. We all loved to hide, but who wanted to do the finding, especially when someone might jump out of a dark corner and scare us half to death?
I think in many ways this game of hide-and-seek has translated into adulthood in the context of our relationships. In our complex society today, I believe too many of us are busy hiding—behind our jobs, our weight, our addictions, our toys, and many other things—and very few of us are doing the looking. Building relationships that are deep and lasting is fast becoming a lost art in the midst of our technology-driven culture.
It is no wonder that marriage has lost its appeal to so many people. Marriage requires intimate knowing, transparency and vulnerability—all which are very difficult to do when a person is trying to hide. It necessitates both parties being willing to be “it” all the time and that takes effort, time, commitment, humility and grace.
As I think about this I’m reminded of the God who created all things and placed within us the heart that loves the game of hide-and-seek. He plays “it” all the time and doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he came himself as the Word into our time and space to live among us. He found us, experienced our human existence and opened us up to life with him. In Christ he comes out of hiding and lets us find him. And he invites us into a transparent relationship with himself where each of us is fully known and loved. He flips the light on and calls us to come out of hiding and be fully exposed.
But coming out of hiding, being authentic and real with each other and with God is a scary business. That’s why God gives us grace. He invites us to trust in his love for us—that he won’t jump out of a dark corner and shout “Boo!” He invites us to live openly with him—moment by moment in real relationship with him. He calls us to be real, to truly be who he created us to be, without any fear that he’s going to sneak up behind us and frighten us.
And God calls us to live in community with one another in the same way. He brings us together in the unity of the Holy Spirit in love relationships where each person is able to be authentic and transparent, without fear of rejection, criticism or betrayal. In a relationship or spiritual community where the Holy Spirit is actively working, each person is not trying to control, manipulate, use or abuse the other. There is mutual submission, humility, service, cooperation and respect instead.
But this all takes effort. And it requires a commitment to stop hiding and to be willing to play “it” for a while—or to a least allow Jesus to be “it” in our place. To know and be known is essential to our humanity—it’s what we’re created for. We need to have relationships with God and with each other that are healthy, transparent and committed.
Jesus said that true life, life that is everlasting, is life in relationship—knowing and being known. He has included us in his relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit. And he has bound us together with one another in his humanity, serving as the divine Mediator between each of us, and between us and God. There is a Home Base, or shall I say, a Person, where we are fully known and fully loved and even our best efforts at hiding are futile. Maybe it’s time to call the game over, flip on the lights and have a group hug. “All outs, all in free!”
I’m so thankful, God, that you know us completely, inside and out, and still love and care for us. You have revealed yourself to us in Jesus and you do not hide yourself from us, except in those ways that are appropriate to your divine glory. Thank you for including us in your eternal love relationship of the Father with the Son in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to truly love one another the way you have loved and made yourself known to us in Jesus. In his name, we pray. Amen.
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3
“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:25–26
“Then Jesus cried out in the temple, teaching and saying, ‘You both know Me and know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me.’” John 7:28–29