By Linda Rex
November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.
One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.
If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.
But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.
We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.
What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.
Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.
Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.
Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.
To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?
Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB
See also Matthew 23:1–12.
By Linda Rex
I was chatting with my son this morning and I was talking about how God has always taken care of us as a family. “Even when I was only making $6.50 an hour,” I said. “He’s always taken care of us. I’ve always tried to put God first in my finances…”
He interrupted me. “You’re not drifting into that health-and-wealth gospel stuff, are you?” he asked, amused. I laughed. “No, but it probably was starting to sound like it.”
I was reminded how easily we can slip into the cause-and-effect manner of thinking which we prefer as humans. We like to be sure God is going to do what we want in every situation, and so we come up with the perfect plan to make sure he does. We’d like to believe if we always pay our tithes off the gross and give generously to the poor and other charities, then God will always make sure we are taken care of. We hope if we always eat the right thing and drink clean water and do a good job of exercising and staying in shape, we will never develop cancer or die of a heart attack.
Doing things this way takes all the guesswork out of our relationship with God. In fact, we don’t have to even get into any of the messy stuff of dealing with our false motives or bad attitudes. As long as we’re doing the “right” thing, we’re in good with God and we have no reason to expect any issues in our life.
Of course, as we grow in our spiritual maturity in Christ, I would like to hope we get to the place we recognize this isn’t the way God works. Indeed, he seems at times to do the exact opposite of what we expect him to do in certain situations. And we can get pretty bent out of shape about it if we are not careful. It seems God likes to remind us about who is the Lord of the universe, and it’s not us. And he also likes to remind us even when it seems like everything is falling apart, he can still take it and work it all out for the best.
The real issue here is God’s real nature is relational, and all he does with us as human beings is with this relationship in mind. To live in the Triune relationship is to live in a relationship in which there is uniqueness and equality of Personhood in oneness of Being.
We are created in the image of this God, called into relationship with this God, and embraced in the midst of our turning away from this relationship in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the gift of the Spirit, God works to bring us fully into the Triune embrace in such a way we know we share in Christ and we begin to intentionally participate in God’s love and life.
The thing is, this is a relationship we are called into and created for. And within this relationship we have been given great freedom. God has freed us from sin and death so we may live forever in the true freedom which exists in God’s being—a freedom to truly be who God created us to be—children of God who love their Abba with all their being, and who love their neighbor as themselves. This is the true freedom Christ won for us—to live out by the Spirit our true humanity which is hidden with Christ in God.
This freedom given to us by our Creator and Sustainer is what we wrestle with as human beings. On the one hand we like being able to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. We want to call the shots in this universe, while having God take care of us and give us everything we want when we want it and how we want it.
We live, if we are honest with ourselves, too often as if we are our own little gods, not realizing that such freedom is a false freedom. It is a lie—and whatever it is we have chosen which is not in within the truth of our being as God’s children will in the end enslave us and consume us, and without God’s intervention, may even eventually destroy us.
And these things we choose are not always the vices most of us easily acknowledge as being wrong or unhealthy. The worst choices we make are the most deceiving—the choice to objectify God and one another, the choice to put our trust in money, people, and other things rather than in God alone, or the choice to try to control God, or even one another, by the things we do or say—acting as though we can change the way God or others behave if we just act correctly or speak perfectly. We do our best manipulate, use, manage, and/or control God and one another, rather than respecting each one’s personhood and honoring him or her as the person he or she is.
If I choose to honor God with my finances by tithing, for example, by giving 10% off my gross income, that is a good thing to do as an expression of my love for God. I am free to tithe or not tithe, and no doubt, if I genuinely wish to bless God by tithing, he will be pleased by my heart of gratitude and generosity. But tithing does not obligate God in any way to make sure my bills are paid or I have money for a new car. It demonstrates a heart of devotion and trust toward God but it does not cause God to do anything in return. The cause-and-effect rule does not apply.
My experience in my relationship with God, however, has been when I was making next to nothing and felt convicted of the need to continue to tithe in spite of my poverty, God honored that and somehow always made sure I had what I needed. I did not control or manipulate God by my giving—but I did express my genuine heart of devotion and commitment to God through my giving, and I found myself being blessed and helped by God in the midst of my poverty.
I remember one ongoing conversation with God expressed my anxiety about the bills which I thought I couldn’t pay. Anxiety in itself demonstrates a lack of faith in my Abba, and I have struggled with this over and over—it’s one of those subtle yet encroaching sins. But God merely would remind me to write down my needs and to ask him to take care of them. That is a relational thing, not a cause-and-effect thing. It is an act of trust. I felt compelled by the Spirit to do write down my needs and give them to God, I obeyed God and did it, and God responded by hearing and answering my prayers. It began with God and ended with God, and I got to be in the midst of it and be blessed in the process.
Looking back, I know too often in my life I thought I had to do this or do that other thing in order to be blessed by God or experience his good will towards me. In reality, God’s will toward me was already good, and he was looking out for me when I didn’t even realize it. He intervened in so many situations, and I never realized what was going on until later, if at all, and was amazed by his tender love and concern.
What I have learned is God is love and God is faithful. And we are held in his love and grace, He is always at work, no matter what is going on, bringing us to a place of redemption and healing. We are free to make choices, and God allows us to experience the joy or pain of those choices. But he is ready and willing at any time to embrace us when we come running and are ready to participate in making choices his way, in the way which best expresses our true humanity as God’s beloved children.
Dear Abba, thank you for your faithful love and gracious provision for our needs each and every day, whether we realize it or not. Thank you for holding us in your love and grace, and that your heart toward us is good and full of compassion. Grant us the grace to live in the true freedom which is ours in your Son and by your Spirit so our lives and ways of being are a true expression of your nature and Name as Father, Son, and Spirit. In your Name we pray, Amen.
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 NASB