Due to Lunar New Year 2023, worship will not be held on Jan. 22nd, but will be moved to Jan. 29th.
Due to Lunar New Year 2023, worship will not be held on Jan. 22nd, but will be moved to Jan. 29th.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Rev. 1: 4b-8
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christians across the world live in different countries under different regimes, both bad and less bad, but today Protestants and most Catholics take this time to remember that we all live in the dominion of Jesus Christ. You could add any number of royal titles to his name – Son of God and Son of Man, Rose of Sharon, etc.— but you don’t need to. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed.
But what does that mean? What kind of King is Jesus? What is his Kingdom like? These are the crucial questions! Is his living in his kingdom anything like living in the kingdoms of the past? I hope not! Feudalism was not that great. The Middle Ages were never as happy and “magical” as depicted in Disney movies. Royalty would bicker and fight amongst themselves, and the regular folks would suffer. And frankly, I am not sure why anyone would want to be a king or queen, because it seemed like people were always out to get you.
I like to think of a kingdom as game of 4-Square. Do you know 4-Square? Well for those of you who don’t know, 4-Square is a schoolyard game played on a square court divided into four quadrants—that is, four smaller squares. These smaller squares are about 3 square meters in size. And there is always a player in every square. The goal of the game is to defend your square and send the other players out of the big square. There is a rubber ball that is bounced between the squares, and if a player misses the ball, or they hit it out of bounds, then they are “out.” Like tennis, as long as the ball bounces once inside your opponent’s square, it is a fair play. When a player gets “out,” they leave the square and go to the back of a line of players who are waiting to (re)enter the game.
The squares will be ranked – 1,2,3,4 – and when people enter the game they start at rank 1 and try to move up to rank 4. The 4th square is kept by a person called the “king.” Everybody wants to be king. But once you are king, you face a bit of a conundrum. It’s a powerful position to be in, but there is nothing else beyond King. There is nowhere else to go but “out.” So, the King’s only goal is to try and survive for as long as they can. And survival isn’t easy because the other players are usually trying to get you out. Sometimes a king will get lucky and maneuver some of his friends onto the lower ranks, and they will defend their “king.” But in most proper 4-Square circuits, this kind of collusion is frowned upon.
4-Square can be tense, especially for the king, but it’s still just a fun schoolyard game. But in real life, kings faced greater stress, greater challenges, and even the possibility of being overthrown, or worse — stabbed in the back! And, if we’re being honest, politics today is still a lot like a deadly game of 4-Square. It still involves a lot of jockeying, canoodling, bribing, lying, and backstabbing. Sometimes good comes out of it, like an Infrastructure Bill, but it can be pretty hard to watch the whole process, to see the “sausage get made,” as they say.
I think most would agree that the Reign of Christ cannot be like that. In fact, it cannot be like any kingdom humankind has churned out. Christians — and I think people in general — want a society that is free from violence, injustice, deception, and greed. But unfortunately such things seem to be the necessary ingredients for any system that we set up.
Without any earthly referent, it’s hard for me to imagine what that “Kingdom of Christ” is like. For other’s maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine. As most of you know, I grew up in the American South, and there you don’t have to look very hard to find evangelical preachers who are willing speculate about the Kingdom of God/Christ. Most versions of Christian paradise sound about the same. Everybody is happy and content, living in peace—basically the way it is described is just as a utopian version of the world we live in now. Frankly, it can be a bit unexciting. Instead, a lot of preachers will spend more time on the lead up to the Kingdom. This is because in certain “theologies,” before we get our utopia, all of these other really dramatic things are supposed to happen. Many charismatic preachers, who believe in what we call dispensationalism like to use Apocalyptic texts like Daniel or the Book of Revelation as their basic reference, using the epic imagery of dragons, serpents, cosmic battles, and—finally—the glorious triumph of the Lord.
Of course, the way the these “End Times” are often described has very little Scriptural basis. These narratives are mostly invented using “clues” from all the imagery and signs of the Biblical prophets. To give you an example, when I was in High School, the Left Behind series of books was very popular. I don’t know if any of you have read them. I haven’t read them, I just know there were over a dozen novels and few very, very bad movies. And I’m told they dealt with things like the Rapture, the Anti-Christ, and of course – the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ. Those kinds of things may sound cool, but most of them are just speculation. It’s more science fiction than theology.
Daniel’s dream and the visions in Revelation are truly epic, but they must be treated metaphorically. The writers used the words and symbols available to them to imagine the Kingdom of God/Christ. This is why their descriptions are exaggerated versions of the cultures they lived in. God is not a King, but a “King of Kings,” sitting on a fiery throne and served by a “thousand thousands.” But again, this is metaphor, and frankly it says more about the world that the writers lived in than the world of the future. Literally- and materially-speaking, we cannot know what the Kingdom of God/Christ is like. But I think this is because it is not something that is meant to be understood on any kind of sensory level.
Rather, the best way to understand the Kingdom is to listen to the King himself. In his interrogation with Pilate, Jesus Christ seems to reveal so very little, but he is actually being quite revealing. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. Pilate doesn’t get this of course. As a Roman governor, he is a traditional sort of leader, with a traditional Roman understanding of what a king is; A king is someone who holds power and influence, and isn’t so easily defeated and captured. To Pilate, Jesus must seem truly pathetic, a rebel leader handed over by his own people!
We could say that in today’s Scripture, Pilate is still thinking according to the rules of “political 4-Square.” But Jesus is not playing the traditional “game of thrones.” What Jesus means when he says that the Kingdom is not of this Earth is, firstly, that such a Kingdom is built on different rules than what everyone is used to. It is not a kingdom ruled through violence, fear, and greed, but rather it is ruled through peace, hope, and love. It is ruled through weakness, not strength. The true leaders of such a world are not those who are served in throne rooms but are servants of the people.
And the 2nd thing Jesus reveals about this Kingdom is a bit counterintuitive to our normal way of thinking: that is, that the Kingdom is not something that “will be.” Rather, the Kingdom is something that is. The King, himself, is already present, the life and ministry of Jesus—the life of the Servant-King, is already available to us in the Gospel. The Kingdom is already breaking into the “here and now.” And this kingdom is not something material that can be visualized in any one form. It has as many forms as there are human lives and human cultures. It lives in every heart.
It is true that this Kingdom is not “fully” here. In our regular lives, we still have play by the old rules of 4-Square most of the time. So maybe we can speak of two “Kingdoms.” The first is the full Kingdom of the triune God, which exists somewhere off at the end of time. But right now, we are living in the Kingdom of Christ, which is present through the transformative message of Jesus. The Reign of Christ is a present possibility, not some distant, future utopia. It exists in the reconstituted and renewed hearts of those who listen to His voice. It is here with us now, sitting in this church. It is with the poor on the streets. And it is with those sitting in prison for daring to challenge the old rules of the old political games. And of course, it was there with Christ, before Pilate, as he awaits death in the Gospel of John. Such as it was, Jesus’ “earthly” kingdom did die that day. But this day, on Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the founding of his true eternal Kingdom. Amen.
John 3:1-17, Isaiah 6:1-8 and Ps 29
Today we are going to do something you are not supposed to do: Eavesdropping
– listen in on a private conversation between two people, Nikodemus and Jesus.
Nikodemus even tried really hard to make this a very private conversation –
coming to Jesus at night time. At least we often think that is why he came at
night. Perhaps it was just the culture among disciples of rabbis to seek out the
master at night. Maybe Nikodemus is actually treating Jesus with respect – as a
rabbi – by coming at night. For sure, Nikodemus does appear to be a very
respectful, honest and even open person, addressing Jesus the way he does and
quite different from other pharisaic leaders we read about in the Gospels
Listening in on two people’s private conversation is, however, not very respectful.
But what can we do? John wrote it and it is the gospel story assigned for this
Sunday, Trinity Sunday, where we begin on a new journey in our church calendar.
I think we have to assume that Nikodemus himself actually is the one to leak the
conversation and share the story with John later on. We know that the
conversation that started that night led to Nikodemus later becoming a follower of
Jesus – and therefore also a friend of John.
Before we get further into our eavesdropping let us pause and notice where are
in the church calendar. As mentioned, today is called “Trinity-Sunday”. The three
big church holidays are now all behind us. No big feasts to look forward to. From
now on it is all about putting into practice what we have learned so far. We´´e
now been told the whole story about Jesus: His coming into our world – the
Christmas story; His death and suffering on the cross, culminating with the
resurrection, the Easter story and we have just celebrated his ascension and with
that the completion of what he came to do. He has returned to his father and sent
us the Holy Spirit which we celebrated a week ago with Pentecost Sunday. We
have been told what we are to believe in. Now the focus is on how to live in that
story so that what we know with our heads and believe in our hearts can take
shape in our lives with each other and in society – as the people of God. The
God we have come to know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity.
What does this life look like? A key word for Christmas could be light. A keyword
for Easter could be life – even from the dead. Perhaps a key word for this next
season starting from today could be love – or faith, hope and love. Faith and
hope in Jesus leads to love in action.
Is it not amazing that as we set out on that journey – the journey of faith, hope
and love, that we start with the words from John 3:16 – about God’s love – for us
and the world that is ours – and still remains God´s. Not our love for God but his
love for us. John 3:16 has almost become a cliché. We know it so well – or at
least we can say John 3:16 as if everybody then knows what we mean. Are we in
danger of being num to them? Can we hear them afresh: “For God so loved the
world that he gave his only son”.
A God who loves! Do we realize how unique this is for the Christian faith? Not a
God who is holy, righteous, all powerful, compassionate. But a God who loves –
Yes, even more, a God who IS Love. I have often met people coming to faith in
Jesus from other religions who would say that this is what was so different and
surprising to them. God, as a father who loves his children. And it is a love that
acts – by giving – giving what is most dear to him. God did not just send Jesus –
he gave him, gave him up. A giving that opens the door – for whoever- believes.
Opens the door and gives life – everlasting. It should blow us away! When we
talk about God so loved the world – it is not like when we say, I just looove the
people of HK, or I just looove the Danish people. You can put your own name
there where it says “world.” I can put mine. God so love me, you. God’s love is
measured by what it is giving. We cannot string the beginning and the end of this
verse together and omit the middle part and just say: God loved the world so that
all could have eternal life. God had to give – give up – and what God gives we
get through faith – “whoever believes”. Perhaps it is easier to understand how we
are to respond to God’s giving if we use the word “trust”. Trust in God.
We can know these words so well that we forget the context in which Jesus said
them. It was as he was talking to Nikodemus trying to explain to him what the
kingdom of God is all about – or what “life with Jesus” is – as we have labeled this
season in our church calendar.
So Nikodemus comes to Jesus very respectful, very open, not judgmental at all. I
think many of us have to redefine our understanding of the Pharisees when we
meet him here. He does not fit the stereotype. So, let us not be too quick to put
people into boxes. I sometimes think that Jesus could have answered
Nikodemus a little more friendly. Could he not have given him credit for his good
behaviour, his high morals, his honesty. But it is like Jesus is telling Nikodemus:
All that is good, but with regard to your questions – or what it is you are looking
for, it will not get you there. You will not be able to grasp the Kingdom of God with
more information, more miracles, more good deeds. You have to be born again.
Says Jesu and he does so three times. Had it been about moral deeds –
Nikodemus could already check that box. Nor is it about great miracles that he
had seen or heard Jesus perform. It is a whole new beginning. To explain what
he means Jesus then refers to a story familiar to Nikodemus – the story about
when God’s people were poisoned by snakes in the desert and Moses was told
to make a snake out of bronze, hold it up high and have the people look at it. By
doing so they would live. In the same way, says Jesus to his polite and open
guest, the Son of Man must be lifted up and in looking to him you can find life.
God has to do something for you – not you for him. And God still has a remedy
for broken and dying people in a broken world. We are not to look to a snake
raised on a stick, but to the Son of Man, Jesus, God’s only son, raised up on the
cross. For so – so much and in this way – God loved – and continues to love – the
Words and phrases can be used so much that we no longer can hear them. As
we said this can be the case with John 3:16.
Other words can be taken captive by certain groups so that others no longer feel
they can identify themselves with this label. I think many feel that the label
“evangelical” has become such a word. It has been stolen – at least from me –
and politicized. It no longer stands for “trust in the Bible, a desire for unity or
mission and a conviction that the gospel should be shared with all people.”
I think the same can be true for the phrase “born again” that some people will use
to describe themselves, saying: “I am not just a Christian – I am a born again
Christian”. The phrase was made famous when it was used by the former US
president Jimmy Carter back in the last century and also used as the title of his
biography. When Billy Graham then wrote a book about “How to be born again”
the phrase was almost made identical with the evangelical movement – and to a
certain extent trivialized. But whether we like the phrase or we think it sounds as
if the person is saying “I am a better, more serious Christian than others” – the
text today begs us to consider what Jesus means when he – three times – uses
the phrase “born again”.
Perhaps we should rather talk about being “born from above”. It is not a physical
re-birth, it has nothing to do with a program for moral upgrade. Nikodemus did
not need a moral upgrade. What he needed was something from “above”. It is
something that God does. It starts with God! It starts with “For God so loved the
None of us have ever done anything to be born. Birth is something that happens
to us. We cannot initiate it, or add to it. When it comes to our own birth we are
totally on the receiving end. Birth happens to us. And the same is true when we
talk about being born again – or born from above. It is like the wind – you feel it,
you know it is there but you can’t see where it comes from or where it is going.
However, it does not make us totally passive. We can respond! Respond to
God’s love for us. Jesus talks about being born of water and spirit – Repentance
and believing in Jesus – looking to Jesus – like the Israelites were told to look at
the snake in the desert. Looking to Jesus here means looking to Jesus – at the
cross. For so – in that way – God loved the world.
And the world is you and me. God loved you, loved me – not just the big
impersonal world. But you, me. How can we hear this afresh – or again. It is like
the phrase “born again”- or evangelical.- Just because the word has been stolen
from us does not mean it is no longer relevant for us to ponder what it means to
be born again and what it means to believe in the gospel the eu-engalicon.
And in a similar way, just because we have heard Joh 3:16 often does not mean
that we now can put it behind us and move on. As we start this season in our
church calendar with a focus on living out the gospel we need to be reminded of
this fundamental basis for living out the Jesus story. The story that we know now
because we have celebrated Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. This is a story we
can live in and we can do so, because God so loved us that he raised up not a
snake in the desert but Jesus on the cross as the remedy not for snake-bites but
for the bite of sin and death in our lives.
Our response to the new birth – the born again – or rather born from above – for it
is God’s doing and we are on the receiving end – is – if we take the answer
Nikodemus got from Jesus that night – to look to Jesus. There we see how God
loved us. Can that make us stand in awe like Isaiah did in the temple? He
realized that God is holy, holy,holy, – notice the three holys – and his own
situation? And can we then respond as he did. He realized that he was in the
presence of God, but also in need of God to make him clean, heal him from the
snake bites in his life. When God did that, gave him a new birth, a new identity,
his response was: Here I am – send me!
May we see that we are loved people – people that are loved by God. And may
God’s love for us make us people who love. Love the world, our family, our
neighbor, the stranger. Love with the love with which we ourselves have been
loved – the love that gives – everything, so that whoever – no exceptions –
believes in Him – or with a less “religious” word: Trust in him – will not perish but
have eternal life. That is why Jesus came – not to condemn but to give life.
Let’s not withhold that love of God from anyone. May we like Isaiah be
overwhelmed overjoyed, again by this love so we too respond: “use me, send
me” May we start this season in our calendar – as church, as God’s people
soaked in the love of God, by setting our feet firmly on this as the foundation on
which we stand and from where we move as we are sent. May we then go out
and into the world. And remember, the big world is made up of my family, my
friends, my colleagues, my neighborhood. This Is where we as loved people are
to love and to give – that people will not perish but live.
Sermon: “Do It Again, Lord!”
23 May 2021
Christ Temple Congregation
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Good evening. Let me begin with a story. It’s attributed to Fred Craddock, a distinguished American preacher in a denomination called the Disciples of Christ. The Disciples of Christ are one of the churches that sponsored my ministry in Hong Kong. So, when I’ve been in the US for speaking engagements, I sometimes got lucky and was at the same meeting as Fred Craddock. And I can tell you, he is a great preacher and master storyteller.
Craddock says once he was on a tour of the Holy Land with a group of seminary professors. One of their stops was the traditional site of the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There was another tour group ahead of them so they had to wait their turn. This other group was led by a pastor. With deep emotion, he told his flock: “This is the very room where Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples, where he appeared to them after his resurrection, where he urged doubting Thomas to touch his hands and side, where the Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.” The group responded emotionally praying and weeping and shouting to the Lord. They finished their time reverently taking Holy Communion together. Then Craddock’s group entered. Their guide said, “Actually this room where we’re standing did not exist at the time of Christ. It’s Byzantine in architecture and it’s less than a thousand years old.” The professors nodded their heads as the guide went on with fact after fact. The talk may have been accurate, Craddock thought, but not a particularly inspiring history of such a venerated site. As the tour guide droned on and on, a woman in Craddock’s group leaned over and whispered: “I wish I were in that other group!”
Does this story resonate with you? Do you see yourself here anywhere? Maybe you put yourself firmly with the group of professors from historic churches. We do things decently and in order. Or maybe you’re in the more pentecostal group praising God to the heights: “Do it again, Lord!” Or maybe, at some point, you’ve been someone who wished you were in the other group.
You come from many lands and cultures at Christ Temple Congregation. Your spiritual experiences and church backgrounds are also diverse. So, I’m pretty sure among you here that you’ve been brought up with various interpretations of Acts 2 and the Day of Pentecost. Speaking for myself, I grew up in a conservative Baptist Church. We were taught certain things about the Holy Spirit. Then I got to know some Baptists who were part of the charismatic movement. And they taught me some other things about the Holy Spirit. And what did I learn from all this? I learned I needed to have an open mind and open hands to receive everything God wants to give us – in my own life and church as well as through other people’s lives and churches.
And why is that so? Because the presence of the Holy Spirit can be manifested in different ways in different people for different purposes. I have an ex-patriate missionary friend who told me in her early days, she was in a prayer group in Hong Kong with other ex-pats. She started to pray in Cantonese. The others thought she was praying in tongues like in the book of Acts. She said, no, I’m praying in Chinese (which she had studied). She’s never prayed in tongues in her life. I can tell you, though, she’s one of the most Spirit-filled people I know and a very fine missionary. Then I told her I have prayed in tongues, mostly in private devotion. But regretfully it wasn’t Cantonese, as much as I might have wished it. I joke if you ever hear Judy praying in a language anyone recognizes as Chinese, you’ll know signs and wonders have not ceased. Nonetheless, my friend considers me a Spirit-filled Christian who also contributes to the Kingdom of God.
It’s tragic that the whole issue of the Holy Spirit has so often divided Christians of goodwill. God sent the Holy Spirit to unite us, not divide us. It’s not a competition – who’s got the Spirit and who hasn’t. I’m helped here by Pentecostal theologians like Gordon Fee. He’s convinced that whoever confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has already received His Spirit. No exceptions. No one, he says, no one comes to faith in Christ without the power of the Spirit in their lives. Faith is just not humanly possible without divine intervention. So, the most important question to ask is not whether we’ve got the Spirit – if you’re a Christian, that’s settled. The most important question is How does the Spirit change our lives? How does the Spirit change my life, your life, the life of the Church and the life of the world?
If we look at today’s traditional reading for Pentecost Sunday from Acts, we can find some answers. Are you ready?
Where do we start? There’s so much going on in this passage in Acts 2 that I could drone on and on like that tour guide at the beginning of the sermon. I could tell you fact after fact about Pentecost, and it might all be accurate but not particularly inspiring. So instead let’s cut to the chase: Let’s ask how did the Spirit change lives in the book of Acts? How did the Holy Spirit change the disciples? The people who listened to them? The Church that came into being? The world that God so loved?
When we look at Acts 2 with those questions in mind, we find some amazing results. Let’s talk about two of them today.
The first amazing result of Pentecost is the transformation of those 120 disciples in the Upper Room. You might be thinking, hey, the disciples already believed in Jesus – why does the Spirit need to come down upon them again? New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall explains that we need not limit being filled with the Spirit as a one-off experience. In Western thinking, if something is filled, it’s full. But we can be full of many things – like joy or love – and it doesn’t mean we can’t have more joy or love, does it? So too the Spirit – God continues to pour out the Spirit again and again in our time of need. And the disciples were certainly in need if they were going to accomplish the mission Jesus gave them. And what was that mission?
As we read it in Acts 1, verse 8: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not for the faint of heart.
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost then was God’s equipping the disciples to be witnesses – bold and effective witnesses. And for sure they were going to have to be bold to be effective because they were starting in Jerusalem among their own people. So, what did the Spirit do but give them exactly the kind of testimony they needed. Remember the first disciples weren’t highly educated urbanites with an impressive resume. It would take a miracle for these disciples to convince that crowd. But through the Holy Spirit, that’s exactly what happened – a miracle – a miracle that allowed them to witness to Jesus Christ in every foreign tongue of their skeptical listeners. And that of course opened the door for Peter to address the astonished crowd and preach the first sermon in his life. The result? Over 3000 people that day repented, turned to Christ and were baptized.
So, the first amazing result of Pentecost? Bold and effective witness for God.
Does this look anything like your life? Have you ever been called a bold and effective witness for God? If yes, praise the Lord! But if you’re thinking, well, not exactly, don’t lose hope. Because Acts 2 is really not so much about the Holy Spirit coming down on individuals. It’s about the Spirit of God coming down on a whole community, empowering them for mission. We were never expected to go it alone.
The birth of the Church then is the second amazing result of Pentecost. It’s the answer to our prayers, whether we know it or not. And what’s so amazing is how this little Jewish start-up succeeded in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles as well as to the ends of the earth. Think about it. The early Church didn’t have lots of money. They weren’t seminary trained. They didn’t have the support of a big organization. All they had was the Holy Spirit and a mission. And that was enough. Enough to fulfill the words of the prophet Joel quoted by Peter.
‘In the last days…God declares…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Did you get that? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and they will prophesy – male and female, young and old, slave and free…we’re all included, from the greatest to the least. We’re all included, not only to receive the blessings of God but to be the blessings from God to a hurting world. And how does that happen? By telling the truth. That’s what prophecy means in the Bible. Not predicting the future like an astrologer or fortune teller. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about the sin and evil of this world. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about how God is at work right now in this world. When God’s people prophesy, they tell the truth about what this world would look like if God were in charge instead of man. That’s what the Church was born for – to tell the truth – God’s truth – and to live by it every day.
Of course, being bold, effective witnesses in a truth-telling community isn’t always going to be easy. In fact, much of the time it’s pretty hard. That’s what the first disciples and the early Church discovered wherever the Spirit led them. And you know what they did when things got tough? They prayed. That’s right. Every time we read in the Bible about the Spirit coming down, God’s people were praying. So, let’s close today with prayer – a beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit written by Gina Tuck. Please pray with me:
One with the Father and Son
Declare to us things to come
Pray for us when we can’t speak
Strengthen us when we are weak
Come upon us when we pray
Grant us your words to say
With us, in us
Power to rest in your grace
With us, in us
Power to finish this race
Spirit of Him who rose from the dead
Live in me
Spirit of Truth who pierces my heart
Breathe in me
[She] who hovered over the birth of the waters
Bring forth the birth of my soul
Remind me that He who set me free
Will make me whole
 Gina Tuck, “Hymn to the Holy Spirit,” 2011, https://cardiphonia.bandcamp.com/track/hymn-to-the-holy-spirit
Please join us bright and early to celebrate the Risen Lord! The Eucharist will be provided in a sanitary manner. Proper social distancing guidelines will be observed. In case of inclement weather, changes will be posted here.
The service begins at 6 am on Easter Sunday (April 4th), at the Tao Fong Shan Cross. For those who haven’t been there, it is easiest to go directly to Tao Fong Shan Christian Center and follow the signs. A group will depart for the cross at 5:50 am, if you wish to join.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, registration is required. Please use this link. Those without Facebook, please message us using the contact form.
Matt. 25: 31-46 and Ezek. 34: 11-16, 20-24
Well folks, we have come to the end of our liturgical year. Though it doesn’t really feel like an end to me. For the first time in a long while we have a full community up here on the mountain. Our new senior volunteers, Bodil and Jens are here, and Ascension house has also been opened back up. And the end of the church year brings a new beginning. We are about to enter Advent, the time in the dead of winter, when we renew our faith in the miracle of the new life that is soon to come.
But before we move too quickly into the Christmas season, we should think about what today represents. What is the conclusion to the story that we have been reading for the past 51 weeks? We followed Jesus as he preached, taught, and performed miracles. We walked with the followers gathered around him. It was only a dozen or so disciples at first, but over time they were joined by the marginalized and the outcast of Roman Judea. We listened, intently, as Jesus talked about a new way of life. It is a way that is familiar, with a message that repeats much of the Law that had been taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. But there is something different about it. Jesus now asks us to think of the Law as an expression of love. This love is not just a love of our close family and friends, but of all persons, regardless of distinctions or divisions. It is a love that even reaches out to our enemy.
But then, suddenly, on Good Friday our teacher is cut down in the prime of his life. In a shock turn of events, he is betrayed and executed. Along with his followers, we are left despondent for three days. But then, a final miracle! The man Jesus is returned to life on Easter Sunday. But this resurrected Jesus is just as mysterious as the one who came before. Who is this person who has defeated death itself? This is the question we are left wondering, along with disciples, as we watch Jesus ascend into heaven, with only a vague promise to return at some point in the future.
Then Pentecost happens. Tongues of fire descend upon the 12 Apostles, and the Spirit emanates from them to rest of the humankind. For the reminder of our church year, we continue to read the Gospel through the guiding wisdom of the Spirit, coming ever closer to the meaning of Jesus. Who is this Nazarene who unearths new wisdom from ancient Scripture? Who is this carpenter that heals the sick? Even with the Spirit guiding us, this is no easy task. But today, at the end of our calendar, we are meant to come to one simple conclusion. This man, Jesus, was and is the Christ, the anointed one. He was and is the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Jesus the Christ, is our King.
Kingship is one of the most common and one the most powerful Biblical metaphors that describes relationship between God and humankind. For the ancient Israelites, the King was God’s anointed representative on Earth, tasked with guiding the Chosen People toward righteousness. After centuries of chieftains, prophets and judges, the establishment of the monarchy under Saul and David meant the ascension of Israel above all the nations, and the glory of the one, true God. The King was the symbol and vessel of God’s Love for God’s people.
But the King was also the symbol and vessel of God’s wrath. Needless to say, there are very few good kings in the Biblical history of Israel and Judah. Most of the ones we read about oversaw the decline of justice and the rule of law, and the rise of idolatry and paganism. This led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, leaving only Southern Judah to hold its own against the Empires that surrounded it. The Prophet Ezekiel writes to us, most likely, from exile in ancient Babylon, at the beginning of the Sixth Century BCE. By this time, Judah has pretty much ceased to be. The Babylonians had captured Jerusalem and installed a figurehead king who ruled on their behalf. Most elite and educated Jews, like Ezekiel, had been deported from their homeland.
As the Hebrew prophets were wont to do, Ezekiel frequently prophesied about worse things come, particularly the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This would have represented the effective end of the Kingdom of Israel and the line of David. And these dark visions are not at all far from the truth. During Ezekiel’s life, Jerusalem rebels one final time. This fails of course, and Babylonians raze the city and its Temple to the ground.
These were the end times that Ezekiel foresaw, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. In every apocalypse, there must also be a messiah. And in our Old Testament Scripture today, Ezekiel pronounces that the days of cloud and darkness will end. God will gather His lost sheep, and exiles in Babylon and elsewhere will be brought to back their own country, to live safely under their Lord’s protective gaze. To graze on a newly bountiful land. Aiding God will be a shepherd, a new prince presumably of the line of David. Like previous Kings, this one will be God’s agent on Earth, a messiah that will help rescue and gather the lost, heal the sick and injured, and strengthen the weak.
But there is a twist. After centuries of failed kings, a normal monarch will no longer do. Like the Prophet Jeremiah before him, Ezekiel calls for social justice. He makes it clear that God’s new Kingdom must, and will, be different. The lost, hungry, poor and weak will not simply be rescued. In fact, they will now be privileged over the strong, fat and rich. We might ask, why is separating the herd necessary? Have not all Israelites, rich and poor, suffered under the Babylonian yoke? But from Ezekiel’s point of view, and thus God’s point of view, the Old Kingdom’s downfall was due to the greed, corruption and lack of compassion of the wealthy and the privileged. The rich and powerful had exploited the land and its people, destroying all that they could not take for themselves. The priestly class had ignored these problems, focusing only on their cultic duties. Religious leaders cared only about the proper temple rituals and sacrifices, paying no attention to the moral decline of their country. That was the King’s job, they probably would have said.
It was this kind of corrupt, uncompassionate system that destroyed the Old Kingdom, and thus it could not come back. The New Kingdom had to be one of social justice, and this is something Jesus reaffirms in Matthew 25. His parable of the sheep and the goats is a beautiful blending of Hebrew Scripture, on the one hand, and Gospel, on the other. What is old is made new again through the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel’s ethics of social justice are viewed from the perspective of Christian love.
Jesus also speaks of a Last Judgment, but in his version, there is no need to separate sheep from sheep. Now the distinction is as clear as sheep and goats. When I grew up, I never really thought about the similarities of sheep and goats. To me they were two different animals entirely. One was fluffy, the other was not. One didn’t have horns, the other did. But these two species are actually very closely related. In fact, in Chinese there is only one word, yang, for both of them. Ancient shepherds would have herded these two animals together. Of course, at times they would have needed to separate the sheep and the goats. But for ancient Near Eastern shepherds –the shepherds of Jesus’ time – doing so would have been very easy. Their sheep would have been white, while their goats would have usually been black.
What Jesus is saying here is that to the messiah, the Son of Man, the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous is as plain as black and white. It isn’t just about how much money we have, or how well-fed we are. Our righteousness or unrighteousness is written plainly on our hearts because it is based on our love for God, and for our neighbor. The righteous feed the hungry, give shelter to the stranger, and clothe the naked. The unrighteous do not. Jesus identifies himself with the poor, hungry, weak and outcast. So if Jesus Christ is king, then he is King of the poor, the hungry, the weak and the outcast. And he is King of those who, like him, show love to the poor, hungry, weak and outcast. These are the ones on his right hand.
But in my experience, when people preach or talk about this parable, they often emphasize the negative side of the story. That means the focus is on the human beings on the left hand – the ones condemned for not feeding the hungry, for not giving the thirsty anything to drink, for not taking care of the sick, and for not clothing the naked.
Yet, the flip side of this argument is something more enticing, more hopeful. As commentators have pointed out, Jesus has shown how people may be disciples without even knowing it. When we host strangers in our homes, or when we visit people who are shut-in or in prison, we are standing at his right hand. Our simple acts of love toward each other are acts of love toward the Christ that is in everyone, especially the marginalized and needy.
Here Jesus and Ezekiel present two different understandings of kingship. For Ezekiel, the good servant King was one who enforced social and economic justice, and this is something Jesus affirms. But for the Old Testament prophet, the messiah was still very much a king in the traditional sense. They should be an enlightened, or “woke” monarch, but they were still a political and military leader that that held the most power and responsibility in a society.
But what Jesus talks about is not traditional kingship. Rather, it is something much more democratic. Jesus never calls himself the King. Other people call him that, and they call him that for good reason. As Christians, we take as faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of Man, and I think that is what we are supposed to believe, based on Jesus’ own words. But he doesn’t call himself a king. Instead, he identifies with the poor, hungry, homeless and outcast. He dines with sinners, and he goes out among the sick and heals them.
In embodying this kind of king, Jesus has gone one step beyond Ezekiel. As our Lord, Jesus Christ empties himself of all power and privilege. He is the servant-king, the king who gives up his rule. He also empties himself of responsibility. Or at least, he empties himself of a power and responsibility centered only on one person, giving us this power and responsibility. He makes this clear in the way he talks about what we Christians can and should do for our fellow human beings. We must feed the hungry, we must shelter the homeless, and we must heal the sick. Jesus Christ has taught us the way and now we have the responsibility of following it.
This is something that is hard for us to fully embrace. The traditional understanding of kingly leadership is something that I think reflects an innate human desire to place moral responsibility in strong individuals. We like having a leader to look up to – one that will guide us, or at least one that we think will help and protect us in material ways. The problem is that too often these leaders fail due to their own moral weaknesses. Yet we keep looking for them! It has been personally shocking to me to find out that many in Hong Kong’s democratic movement support a world leader whose moral values – such as they exist – are racist, misogynist and completely anti-democratic. The problem with leadership is not just that it can fail, but that it can also become idolatrous and self-destructive.
But I know why people do this. When faced with long odds, we are desperate to find someone, anyone who can support us, or at least someone who can shake things up, someone who can change the game. That’s why so many Christians choose to read texts like Matthew 25 in a purely apocalyptic sense. They think only of waiting for the end times, for that time, ever distant, when Jesus will return and separate the good sheep from the bad. But as Bodil preached last week, Jesus makes it plain that our waiting cannot be passive. We must be prepared and active. God has given us all gifts, or talents, if you will. We are expected to use these gifts to build a more perfect society – a society built on love and justice for all. This more perfect society is not the Kingdom to come, but it is a sign in anticipation of that kingdom.
So today we mark the reign of Christ, but this reign is not the reign of a businessman or politician. It is not the reign of a prophet or king. It is meant to be a collective reign. What God wills for us is the democratic rule of people united around one principle, love. This principle was and is perfectly embodied in one person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and this is why we call him our King today. But the buck, as they say, doesn’t stop with him. Through him God’s love is extended outward to us. It is our responsibility to accept it, and it is our responsibility to share with all others.
There are so many dramatic, evocative scenes in the Bible: Moses parting the Red Sea, receiving the Ten Commandments; Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal; the Transfiguration, the events of Maundy Thursday, and many more. I’m not a movie buff, but I know I’ve seen many of these events depicted, probably in black-and-white classics from before my time.
As dramatic and wonderful as many of these events are, none of them spark my imagination in the same way that this passage from Revelation does. John is lead to this astounding scene that must have been overwhelming to him. Trumpets blowing, winged creatures flying about, endless singing and waving of palm branches, and a crowd whose size no one can number, dressed in pure white robes, surrounding the magnificent throne of the Lamb. I close my eyes and try to imagine all there is to see and hear. It is too much for me to comprehend.
John is asked, “Who are all these people?” And of course the answer is that they are those who have endured the great trials, from every land, every race and tribe, and every tongue. “If thou dost count iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness in you.” One day you will stand, and I will stand, joined with people of every walk of life, by God’s free gift of grace.
It’s easy to be sentimental today, and there’s certainly time for that. I think about loved ones lost: family, friends, teachers, and, sometimes most difficult, students. Some of these people I miss every day. I like to picture them in this numberless throng, singing, in endless light.
Hold that thought!
In the past several weeks, we’ve been reading from the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Today, we turn back to the Beatitudes in chapter 5. If we turn back further, these incredible words are preceded by many miracles. Jesus quietly heals the sick, but we read that great crowds gather to witness his work and to be healed themselves. Jesus leads his disciples away from the crowd and speaks these familiar and illogical words:
Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.
Some of those roles are not very appealing. We don’t want to be poor in spirit, we struggle with mourning. Society doesn’t teach us to be meek. And perhaps we’re not even bold enough in our faith to be reviled by others.
I believe those blessed people Jesus names are the very people surrounding his throne, singing day and night. Saints, to be sure. I suppose the famous saints are there—the ones who have churches and colleges named after them. But so are our saints, those in our lives who brought us to faith, who comforted us, fed us, who showed us mercy, who modeled purity of heart. We call their names and thank God for them.
Perhaps like me, many of your saints have passed on and have received their rest. In the traditional Communion liturgy, in th Preface to the Sanctus, the pastor concludes with these words:
and so with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
What an invitation, to join, for a few short minutes, the endless song of praise that the saints sing day and night.
We were reminded on Reformation last week that we can’t earn these white robes and palm branches on our own. Our salvation is through God’s gift of grace. “Lord, if thou dost count iniquities, I know I can’t stand.”
Jesus is calling us to respond to this gift of grace that we have also received. We are now to be peacemakers, in meekness, humility, and purity of heart. Why? Because this is one way that the Gospel of Christ is spread: when we share God’s message of salvation, grace, and peace to those who follow after us. With God’s help, may it be so!
I invite you to reflect on John’s vision and the powerful words of Christ that have been heard this evening.
Matt. 25:14-31 and 1.Thess. 5:1-11
Before coming to HK and to TFS we had to do a lot of waiting. Waiting is not one of my virtues – as my husband can tell you. We get restless and impatient – especially if you don’t know for how long you will have to wait or will what you are waiting actually ever happen.
While we were waiting here there really wasn’t anything, we could do to make what we waited for happen. We could not change the situation with Covid and make it go away. We couldn’t change the way the HK administration here chose to deal with the challenge – closing down offices, only handle important applications, etc. I am sure a visa application for a senior-volunteer at a Christian institution wasn’t high on their list. It was hard not to ask the question: When? Or will we ever be able to go? However, the most relevant and constructive questions was this: What do we do while we are waiting?
I thought of this while reflecting on the text for this Sunday. Too often we as the church are more interested in speculating on when our master will return or discussing if it is even relevant to believe that He will. But the one question today’s Gospel reading from Matt challenges us with is this: What do we do while we are waiting?
Luckily, we found good things to do, while waiting. Books to read, people to visit, etc. The kind of things you often want to do but don’t find the time for. From a zoom call we had with some of you and emails from others we learned that you were praying for us and eagerly waiting for us to come as well. That was a blessing and made us eager to get here and exciting about our adventure. I want to thank you for that. I am sure Simon and Thea and Joshua and Levi feel the same.
In the church calendar we are in the season leading up to advent. After service last Sunday we even talked about the advent wreath and I got to know that this is one of the things we as senior volunteers can do: Take care of our advent wreath and make sure it stays fresh. Shops and supermarkets also tell you that we are approaching the holiday season: Shopping malls greet you with Christmas decorations and Christmas music. But, Christmas is not the focus of our waiting. It isn’t when it comes to advent and nor is it when it comes to where we are in the story of Jesus for this Sundays.
In today’s text, we are in the last part of the story of Jesus’ life. He has finished his ministry in the Galilee, he has entered Jerusalem, he knows what is ahead of him in the next few days: His suffering and death on the cross, but also His resurrection. What we are listening to here are some of the very last instructions – or teachings of Jesus. When a person knows he or she has little time left, they will focus of what is crucial, what is important and leave out other things. This is important. Time is running out. And Jesus knows.
Jesus will soon finish his ministry and will leave it to his disciples to continue what he began – until he returns. For he will return. That is what we are waiting for. The questions raised by Jesus in these parables to his disciples – and to us – are these: How to wait? And what to do while we wait? What should life look like while waiting? He will return – There is no question about that. No, we do not know when. Not even Jesus knows, he says. Only His father in heaven. It will be like a thief in the night. If we knew the thief was coming, we would be ready – call the police or get extra locks on the door. But as the Bible tells us: We don’t know the time and we don’t need to know. And this should not fill us with fear. What we do know is that we, as disciples of Jesus, belong to the day! God did not appoint us to suffer but to receive salvation – to live. As we heard from 1 Thess. Jesus died – so that we might live. We are to encourage each other with this message – not to be scared but to be at peace. We are people of hope. We are people waiting for the king, waiting for the master. We wait – not with uncertainty – but with anticipation and with hope. We should – as Paul says, “encourage one another and build each other up”.
How do we do that?
Last Sunday we heard about how we should be waiting. We should be ready! Keep watch! We do not know the day or the hour. But what we know is that the wedding feast will happen, the bridegroom will come – the king will return. Therefore: Be ready! Keep watch! Be faithful. Don’t be like the servant who takes advantage of his master being gone – as Jesus says in chapter 24 – or don’t behave like in the classroom when the teacher leaves them for short while.
And then Jesus goes on the tell the parable we just read – still related to the theme of His returning. The question this parable leaves us with is this: What do we do while waiting?
He tells the story of a man going on a journey and leaving his property to his servants. We sometimes call it the parable of the talents. Or the parables of the bags of gold. Sometimes the word talent can limit our understanding. We think of the talents we have as individuals and how we use them. But the story is really about the property of the master and how his servants are to be stewards of all that the master has entrusted them with while is he gone. What they do with it while they are waiting for his return?
We easily focus our attention on the three servants. It might be worthwhile just to look at what we can discern from the story about the master. He is obviously both very rich and very generous. A talent is unit of currency worth more than we can even imagine. One talent – if we can do this calculation – equals many years’ salary. Five talents – or five bags of gold – is more than any person could ever dream of earning in a whole lifetime. We don’t really need to figure out the amount. It is A LOT! That is what those listening to the parable was hearing: This master is a very rich and very generous and trusting. This is the master we are waiting for, a master who has entrusted us with all his riches. We are as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: blessed … in the heavenly realm with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Paul continues in the next chapter and say: He has created us in Christ to do good works (Eph2:10). We are called to service and generously equipped to do so. The question is: Will the servants be faithful with what their mater has entrusted them with – will we be faithful.
It is a parable about stewardship – while we are waiting. All that we have really belongs to the generous master who has entrusted us with much more than we can ever imagine. While waiting, what do we do with our talents – our bags of gold? They are ours – to steward – not to own, but to be used for His glory and for the sake of His Kingdom – until He returns.
Tithing can be a good thing. But it can also lead us to believe that when we have given the 10 % the rest is for us to use. Or we can become Sunday Christians. My Christian life is lived on Sundays or when I am together with other Christians and we do Christian things together. When you travel the train here you sometimes hear this as you leave the train to step onto the platform: “Mind the gap, please!” Perhaps we should have sign over the door of our churches as we step out into Monday and the rest of the week: Mind the gab! – the gap between Sunday and Monday. The gap between who I am when in church and who I am at work. Or a sign I saw once over the door of the church building as you left after Sunday service: Welcome to service! These are actually the words we will hear at the end of this service when we are sent out with the words: Go in peace to love and serve the lord.
We have masters whom we serve, our bosses, our leaders. Those who pay our salaries. Yes, but as disciples of Jesus we also have another master and whatever we do we should do it as for him: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord (Col 3:23). This is true for the teacher, the shop keeper, the repair-worker and so on. It is a wrong division when we talk about secular work and Christian work. We are all disciples – missionaries or stewards – of what the generous, loving and risk-taking master has entrusted us with – till he returns.
God’s word is never just words – the word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. We know what God says from what God does. We hear his word by doing what it says. Christian faith is never a philosophy or a theory, but it is a life lived where His people demonstrate who their master is. And we do so as we cry out “God have mercy” – on us and on our brokenness – as we live our lives in a broken world but also a world that God still claims as His own and a world to which He will one day return to restore it. How do we live our lives while we wait for that day to come? That is the challenge – or the question – to us from today parable.
It is becoming much too obvious in our world today that stewardship has been treated as ownership. This is true when it comes to the natural resources in our world. We have spent, used and overused – and not been caretakers. We have let greed and convenience decide. It has created imbalance in nature bot also among people. Therefore, we see refugees and people leaving their home in search of life somewhere else. We have created a dangerous imbalance also among peoples and in our greed, we took what was ours to steward as if it was ours to use and to own.
The parable tells us that the servants are different. The master entrusted them with different amounts – all according to their ability. This is not a competition. God will not hold us accountable beyond our ability. This is a good thing. And whether the servants got five, two or one, they all got a lot! The master is generous. The servants with the five and the two bags we are told are eager to return both the five that have become ten and the two that have become four. They know themselves to be stewards – not owners. They did well but they did not create something that was not there. Only God creates out of nothing. They took care of what the master gave them. We, too, are to be caretakes. Not owners. We can never give to God what is not already his. But as the master here, God is pleased with what we do with what is already his. Listen to his response to the two servants: Well done good and faithful servant! Go share in your master’s happiness.
This is what God’s kingdom will one day look like: A day of joy and happiness. But this kingdom is already here, and it is to be seen in our lives here and now. There is joy in using all the gifts of our master to his glory. May this be where we find meaning, and our purpose and our joy – a joy filled with hope and a joy that cannot perish. Because it relates to eternity – to the return of the king.
We cannot avoid the last part of the story. Here we meet the servant who knew his master as a hard man. And we can wonder where that impression came from. He was certainly also generous master who had trusted this servant. This servant has not waisted the money – like the prodigal son did with his inheritance. But he had refused to be a steward or neglected it and gone on strike. Is that what we do when we become hearers but not doers of God’s word. Not willing to commit. Are we Sunday Christians, giving our tithing and keeping the rest to ourselves? We are not called to bury our talents – to be passive. We are called to be doers of the word. It is interesting to notice the story Jesus tells following this one. It is about the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left. And the question asked by those on the left side who were not allowed into the kingdom but rather told: Depart from me. They ask: When did we see you hungry or thirsty or in prison? And the answer is: You saw the hungry, the thirsty and the prisoners. But you ignored them. You chose not to use the talents I gave you to steward.
We are chosen not to be passive or only to hear, but to be doers of God’s word – while we wait. It is said that the phrase. “Do no harm” is the boast of a stone. We are called not just to do no harm, but to do good! Called to love God and we do that be loving our neighbors.
One thing most preachers would rather avoid is to have to talk about hell. But Jesus talks about hell. He does so in all the parables here in Matt 24-25. Let’s not ignore that. There is a warning. But is comes from a generous master who has entrusted us with every spiritual blessing in Christ and who longs to say to his servants: Good, well done, Come and share your master’s happiness. In love he calls – and in love he warns us. In love he says to us: Be watchful, keep watch, be faithful with what I have entrusted you. In love he says: Be warned. I love you too much to leave you ignorant.
As the people of God, we live in anticipation of the master’s return. Yes, we have done so for more than 2000 years. But we do so considering His resurrection and in the presence of our resurrected and risen savior. This is our assurance and hope in a broken world. We are people of hope – and waiting. The question this day is: What are you doing to while you are waiting. Not just for advent, not just for Christmas, but for the return of our king who longs to say to us: Come and share your master’s happiness.
Bodil F. Skjoett, TFS senior volunteer
Some Sundays when I’m in church, I hear the lessons and I wonder how they were chosen. How did this Old Testament story get paired with this Gospel? Why this Psalm today? Why does the Epistle leave out 4 verses in the middle of a passage? If you have some answers for me, I’m happy to listen.
Today, I had an easier time. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is paired with Christ in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. It’s an obvious comparison, perhaps. Adam and Eve had everything they could want, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted something they didn’t have, maybe only because they didn’t have it. They sinned, even when everything had been provided for them.
Christ had 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. He had nothing. 40 days of fasting! We talked about this in a class this week. Was it really 40 days? Could anyone live that long without food and water? “Maybe it’s because he was God,” one student suggested. “He was God, but living as a man,” said another. “It seems impossible.”
Now I was tempted. I wanted to talk about other things in the Bible, and how difficult it would be to take them literally. Another opportunity to grind my liberal axe. But I didn’t take it, surprisingly!
There is Jesus, hungry, probably lonely, weak, and some big temptations came along. These weren’t apples for well-fed people. Satan first offered bread. After 40 days, (it really does say 40), what could be more tempting? Jesus stays strong. Satan takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and suggests that Jesus jump, prompting the angels to come. After 40 days, angels would be pretty welcome, too. Finally, Satan offers Jesus a more worldly kingship, the trappings that this king didn’t have. These are the things humans go after: fame, power, glory.
How great was Jesus’ restraint, especially when compared to Adam and Eve, who already had everything they needed? The Gospel story ends with Satan leaving, and angels ministering to Jesus. The arrival of angels leads me to think it really was 40 days. At the very least, it tells me that Jesus had suffered greatly.
It’s a dramatic contrast between the Garden and the wilderness. And, unfortunately I know which story is more like me. Lent is a time when we are confronted with uncomfortable things. We are sinful beings, in need of Christ’s grace. We are tempted by many things. And it’s so much more than just temptation. We don’t love God with all our hearts and all our minds, and we don’t love our neighbors. It can be overwhelming to think of all our sin, both done and left undone. And what a beginning Lent has! “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I don’t really want to remember that.
Psalm 32 is the lesson tonight that brings me hope and comfort. Part of that comfort is sentimental. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lutheran service of my childhood started with pieces of Psalm 32 mixed in, in King James style: Beloved in the Lord! Let us draw near with a true heart, and confess our sins unto God our Father, beseeching him, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to grant us forgiveness. Then the pastor sang:
P: Our help is in the Name of the Lord. —and we sang:
R: Who made heaven and earth.
P: I said, “I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.”
R: And thou forgavest us the iniquity of my sin.
The pastor would continue, describing our sins. He concluded: Wherefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. I think now of our refuge prayer that closes services here. I take refuge in thine infinite mercy.
I hadn’t made that connection to those services long ago until this week. Sometimes there are phrases I haven’t heard in many years that come rushing back, jarring my memory. “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.” I was confused by I said. It always seemed negative. In my head I can hear: Matt, I said get your shoes on. Or, I said, put your toys away. I’m not going to ask you again. “I said” was used to make the demand stronger.
Psalm 32 makes a strong case for following through with confession. In verses 3 and 4, we hear what happens when we are unwilling to confess: 3. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
In verse 5, the psalmist tells how his life has changed through confession. He writes: Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” and you forgave me the guilt of my sin.”
There’s hope there. Maybe confession is a weekly thing at church for you, or a daily prayer. Sometimes we have to confess to family and friends, too. The season of Lent offers time for reflection, on our sin, of course, but also on God’s grace, given to us so freely.
This is a short psalm, but it’s not simple. In verse 8, suddenly God is speaking: I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. More hope. We have the promise of instruction and the promise of God’s care: his eye will be upon us. Do not be without understanding!
The psalmist’s voice comes back to conclude the beautiful Poetry: steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad! Rejoice! Even during Lent. Rejoice. That’s what it says. Rejoice and be glad.
Relevant Scripture: 1 Cor. 1:10-18
Gung hei fat choy! Happy New Year of the Rat to everyone. I should probably also say “sam dai tsim hang,” be healthy, given our present worries. It is a scary time, but it is also a time of the year in which people are meant to come together to celebrate a new year and new life. So the question on the mind of so many is whether the joys of friends and family outweighs the risks of traveling in crowded conditions during a disease outbreak. But St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that the power of fellowship should always outweigh fear and division. This is why we have also been celebrating Christian unity over the past week.
I can think of no more important time for Christians to be united than the present, when it seems like politics and fear is making us even more divided. Blue and Yellow, Mainland versus local, sick and not sick. But lately, the idea of unity has been a complicated one for me and the denomination that I call home. Some of you will remember that I am a Methodist, a United Methodist to be specific. We’re a slightly different sort than Hong Kong Methodists, whose big churches you can find in Wan Chai. We certainly all share the theology of British evangelist John Wesley, but my church is a distinctively North American variety. Part of the meaning behind our name “united” is that we are the union of several different Methodist denominations, two of which had originally divided over the issue of slavery. What you may not have heard is that U.S. Methodists are—ironically—preparing to split again.
The cause of this split is…as you can probably guess… the issue of same-sex relationships. My church has been debating this controversy for quite some time. Theologically, the question is whether language that condemns homosexuality should be removed from our doctrine, what we call our Book of Discipline. Practically and pastorally, the question is whether LGBTQ+ clergy can be public about their sexual orientation. Of course, the most visible issue is whether pastors are allowed to perform same-sex weddings (some have already been doing without permission). This theological question is unresolved, but in December, a group of bishops did agree, in principle, that the more conservative churches would split off to form their own new Methodist denomination, while the main church will finally remove its prohibitions on the LGBTQ+ community. It’s not certain that this will happen, but the whole church will likely vote in favor of it in May.
My reaction to this news was not sadness but relief. The time, energy and resources spent on the matter has been wasteful and embarrassing. I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of a church being fully welcoming of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation, but we should not have spent years on just a small section of text! For me, the theological question is one that is easily answered using tools already available in Wesley’s balanced approach to doing theology. This involves four sources of wisdom and authority: First you have Scripture—the Hebrew and Christian accounts of God’s work in history. These texts say something about God’s relationship to humankind. Second, Scripture is always read and acted out through many different liturgical and theological traditions. Third, we have our human experience. Outside of the Bible and church, we encounter the living God everywhere and at every moment in our lives. Finally, there is a source authority that we often forget about: our reason. Together, all four of these sources of wisdom are needed to form a complete picture of human life in relation to God.
I don’t see how you can reasonably say, in this day in age, that someone who is gay cannot be fully welcomed into a community meant to incarnate God’s unconditional love. A few instances of Scripture condemning a particular lifestyle cannot overturn our experience that gay couples are just as capable of receiving and expressing this love. Of course, there are many Methodists and other Christians who would disagree with this position, but maybe this means that my church was already split a long time ago over this theological question. Instead, the conflict that we have had over the last couple of decades—and the one that may be finally coming to an end—was never a theological one, but rather a political one. One side was trying to gain the power to change the church, while the other sought the means to silence these reformers. Both did so in the name of keeping the church “united”. My hope is that both sides have realized that such a battle is not worth it, or even reflective of Christ’s love.
But wait—how can we reconcile this kind of division with what Paul writes to the Church in Corinth? Are we not to be united in the same mind and purpose? Does this not mean Christians should not divide themselves into factions and denominations?
But unity is not the same as homogeneity, or sameness. Is notable that the Apostle describes the dispute as if the Corinthians are identifying with different Christian leaders, including himself and St. Peter (here called Cephas). Whether or not this is the real cause of the Corinthian’s dispute, Paul here is cleverly reminding us of the relationships that existed between the first Christian evangelists. Even during the early church, those going forth to preach the Gospel would have had their own interpretations of Jesus’ life and ministry. It is only natural that those Christians baptized and taught by different individuals would express similarly diverse views.
Famously, Peter and Paul differed over the status of the gentiles. While Peter is described as being more interested in converting Jews, Paul was more cosmopolitan in his mission. He emphasized that Christ died on behalf of all, and that grace could be received by anyone regardless of culture, ethnicity and language; To him, there was neither Jew nor Greek. Given this attitude, it’s natural that he would be against factional divisions.
But just because Paul cautions us against disagreement doesn’t mean we can’t have strong differences of opinion. Christians come from all walks of life and cultures, and this is something that the apostle affirmed. What Paul refused to do is allow such disagreements to get in the way of what was important—that is, the divine love incarnated and offered through Jesus Christ, our light and salvation. The Corinthians’ disputes were overshadowing this key Truth. For Paul, we are baptized in Christ’s name, not in the name of Peter, Paul or Apollos. Not in the name of John Wesley or John Calvin, Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. We are different denominations, but we are all baptized into one Christian community.
The difficulty for Christians is distinguishing between those divisions that weaken us, and the differences that can actually strengthen us. From Paul’s perspective, the differences of belief and practice had become so divisive in the Corinthian church that they threatened to weaken and destroy it. This is something a young Christian community, part of a minority religion, could not afford. But today our religion faces no such problem. Diversity of mind and practice is our strength not our weakness, and disagreement is not a problem…unless we lose focus on Christ. That is our only existential threat.
My church lost focus on what was important. We wanted to stay united as an organization, but that came at the cost of being disunited as Christians. Together we spent years, decades even, fighting over something important, but that something that was only part of the bigger picture.
Splitting certainly won’t be easy. As a child of divorce I know that, while sometimes it is best to separate, it is an incredibly difficult adjustment. Pastors and congregations will have to make the difficult decision of whether to stay in the UMC or not. It’s likely that my hometown church will vote to leave. My hope is that this grief can be part of a healing process, that we can learn to work better together as separate communities that still share one communion. This is how it is between most Protestant communities, including this one. And of course, I hope that eventually the other side will become more open about sexual orientation and we can potentially come back together, just as the Northern and Southern Methodist churches eventually did.
While this issue has been a personal one for me, and not likely to impact our community here, it is an experience that carries universal meaning. We have to be careful that when we fight for unity, we are not pushing a false unity that suppresses diverse opinions or, worse, doesn’t allow anyone to express any opinion at all! Even if our disputes lead to political separation, if they allow us to work together to pursue God’s love and justice in the world, then we are still united in following the same Christ. To quote Wesley: though we cannot think alike, can we not love alike?