Saturday, 11 April 2020

Easter: Peace and Forgiveness

Christ is risen! We are celebrating this. So in our gatherings there is a lot of great music, there is a celebratory spirit, there is a lot of optimism, and there is so much joy.

However, this was not the mood on the first Easter. Instead of joy, there was a lot of chaos. There was a violent earthquake (Matt 28:2). The soldiers guarding the tomb were scared because they saw a man whose “appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow” (Matt 28:3). They were so afraid that they shook and became like dead men (28:4). Mary Magdalene was frantic that Jesus’ body was gone (John 20:1), so she ran to Peter and John who also did not understand what was going on (20:9-10). Mary felt extreme grief that she stayed in the tomb, and mistook Jesus as the gardener who stole Jesus’ body (John 20:15). The religious leaders became scared of the news of the resurrection, so they instructed the guards to spread false news that the disciples took Jesus’ body (Matt 28:11-15). Many the people heard the news of the resurrection, which was why the disciples asked the stranger on the road: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18).

Aside from chaos, there was a lot of fear. On resurrection day, the guards became afraid (Matt 28:4), the women who came to the tomb even trembled and remained mute (Mark 16:8). Even the disciples were afraid (Matt 28:10), and they have good reasons. For the disciples, the resurrection was not good news. It was bad news, particularly because the religious leaders accused them of stealing a dead body in order to propagate a story of resurrection! In the eyes of the religious leaders and the pious Jews who were so eager to have Jesus crucified, the disciples violated so many laws: touching a dead body, desecrating a tomb, teaching about resurrection (the Sanhedrin would have been furious), and spreading blasphemy. We must remember that Jesus got killed for blasphemy. The disciples were so afraid that they stayed together “with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders” (John 20:19).

We are very spoiled today because we only face Easter with all its joyful and victorious overtones, but the early disciples were suffering. The resurrection for us today means life, but for the disciples, it meant their death. Whether the resurrection was true or false, it meant that they were doomed to be pursued by the religious leaders. For them, since dawn, they were feeling anxious about their life. The irony of all these is that Jesus allows them to experience such an uneasiness for the entire day! Jesus appears to them only in the evening. Let us read John 20:19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Jesus appeared to the disciples in the midst of their confusion and fear. I actually like this passage because I think Jesus was trying to re-orient them. So far, the resurrection was bad news to the disciples, but Jesus wants them to understand that the resurrection is good news! Instead of feeling confused and afraid, what they should experience is peace (John 20:19, 21). The disciples did not understand the resurrection, but Jesus wanted them to understand its meaning and significance in their lives.

So what is the resurrection about?

The resurrection is about Jesus’ PRESENCE
“Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19)

There is no greater comfort when we are faced with confusion, fear, or sorrow than God making Himself present beside us or among us. Most people, when suffering, feels abandoned by God. They feel as if God has left them alone. What they need is not entertainment that can drown their sorrow, or friends who can make them forget realities, or substances that can numb their emotions. What people need in times of fear is the presence of God Himself. And this was precisely what Jesus gave the disciples. I like the description about what happened to the disciples when Jesus showed up: “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20).

Depression is real. Fear is real. Confusion is real. The feeling of being alone is real. But God is also real. He never fails to show up in our deepest pains. He never fails to come to us when we need Him. It can be granted that sometimes Jesus can be late, like in the first Easter, but He will show up anyway. Easter is the assurance that Jesus shows up when we need Him the most.

… bringing PEACE
“Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21)

What is peace? In Hebrew it is shalom, which means wholeness. Peace is the experience of comprehensive happiness, when everything is at the right place. It means that every aspect of our life is well. It does not mean the absence of pain or struggle; but it means contentment and happiness in the midst of struggle. It is the experience of satisfaction in life.

For sure, the disciples did not have peace. They were confused and terrified. They were anxious about their future.

But most of all, they did not have peace because they were so broken as a group and as individuals. Peace is possible only when we are right with God, right with others, and right with ourselves. Unfortunately, the disciples were not right with God because they knew deep in their hearts that they abandoned the Messiah, the Anointed One, right when He needed them. They disciples were not right with one another; in fact, the probably could not look at each other because they knew that each one of them failed. Maybe they were blaming one another. Maybe they were looking down at each other, particularly at Peter, who denied Jesus three times. They were not right with themselves, because they knew they have failed miserably.

The disciples were feeling condemned, accused, guilty, and ashamed. They did not have peace. But Jesus came to them precisely to offer what they needed. He said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21) twice. The resurrection is about the coming of Christ to bring peace to our broken lives.

… as a result of PARDON of sins
“If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven” (John 20:23)

We can experience peace—or wholeness—only if we experience forgiveness. Let us remember that the disciples felt guilt and shame before God for their sins. They also felt ashamed with one another, because they were not faithful to their Master and supportive of each other. They felt ashamed of themselves, because they were not able to live up to their own confessions. The night before Jesus was crucified, one of the conversations among them was this (Matt 26:33-35):

Peter said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

I am sure that this particular conversation was still fresh in the minds of the disciples. The memory serves as biting judgment against them. Judas hanged himself because of his guilt, and the disciples felt the same heavy guilt. So when Jesus came to them and said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven” (John 20:23), he was offering them a way out. He is saying that He has already forgiven them, but they need to forgive each other and forgive themselves. They can only experience peace if they accept God’s forgiveness and if they also learn to forgive. 

Jesus did not only give them hope for themselves. Jesus has given them a mission to preach forgiveness and lead others to experience forgiveness. Our mission is to find others who have no peace, and lead them to experience the peace that comes from forgiveness. The resurrection is for us, but also for others through us. 


What is the resurrection for the disciples? It is about Jesus’ PRESENCE bringing PEACE that comes from PARDON of sins. My prayer is that at Easter, each one of us will experience this. May Jesus come and visit our homes. May Jesus come and manifest Himself today so that those who have no peace might experience peace, and those who need forgiveness might also be forgiven.

Easter and the Holy Spirit

For many of us, it is easier to pronounce "Christ is risen" when things are going well, or when we are experiencing the happiness of life. We think of the resurrection as a message of victory; therefore, we think of it as a reason for celebration. But this means that celebrating the Easter can be a bit awkward when life is not turning out very well. This is especially true right now that the world is facing a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives and continues to bring anxiety to the heart of everyone.

Today, as we think of Easter--which is about life--we are being confronted by the reality of death. As Christians, we face the paradox of believing in the God of life while surrounded by forces of death. We audaciously proclaim victory while struggling with a powerful enemy. Today, at Easter, we express the joy of the past while living in a painful present.

So, what is it about Easter that makes us so confident and bold in the here and now of April 2020? 

First, we must realize that most of the New Testament books were written during the time of persecution. The biblical writers were not writing in the context of wellness. Their situation was actually very bad. The Roman empire sought for their cruel and undeserved deaths. The threat to their life was even more imminent--near--than our struggle with the coronavirus today! They were living in a period where homing missiles were invented to obliterate Christians!

This means that the New Testament writers were writing the message of resurrection to a group of people whose love ones have been killed and were themselves in great danger of dying. This means that the message of Easter is precisely for a world of death, suffering, turmoil, fear, and anxiety.

This 2020, I would like to highlight one specific aspect of Easter that is most often neglected: THE LIFE-GIVING WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Easter is not just about Jesus Christ; it is also about the Holy Spirit who made the first Easter possible. Let us look at two verses: "The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you" (Rom 8:11, NLT), and "[Jesus] suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18, NLT). The work of the Holy Spirit is to give life.

This is the message of Easter: The Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is active in the world today to give and sustain life! In the same way that God breathed life into Adam's nostrils (Gen 2:7) and in the same way that He breathed life into the vast army that stood at the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel's vision (Ezek 37:1-14), He is sustaining life on the planet right now! If the Holy Spirit is not in the world, we all would have already died: "If God were to take back his spirit and withdraw his breath, all life would cease, and humanity would turn again to dust" (Job 34:14-15, NLT). This means that although there are deaths in the midst of the pandemic, there are also many recoveries. Yes, there are deaths, but majority still keep their lives.

Samuel Rayan wrote: “The Spirit’s outpouring is there on all struggles against oppression, on all movements for justice, equality and freedom, on all strivings for a sane, human and gentle history” (Renew the Face of the Earth, 32). What does this mean? This means that if the Spirit is the life-giving Spirit, then he is actively working precisely where there is death, oppression, struggle, pain. Because the Spirit's work is to give and sustain life, He is active where and when forces of anti-life are active and evident!

This further means that the best way to celebrate Easter--when the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead--is not to gather around and sing celebration songs to remember a glorious past. The best way to celebrate Easter--as the people of God--is to participate in the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit in the world. So what we must be asking today are these: How can I participate in the Spirit's work of sustaining the life of babies who have no access to milk? How can I participate in the Spirit's work of sustaining the life of the poor who have no food? How can I participate in the Spirit's work of sustaining the life of the elderly who has no one to rely on? How can I participate in the Spirit's work of sustaining the life of the vulnerable, the oppressed, the abused?  In short, what are the implications of the fact that "the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you" (Rom 8:11, NLT)?

Today, we celebrate Easter. We celebrate the fact that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and whose work is to give and sustain life is actively working in the world today. Yes, the Holy Spirit is at work! This is our message of hope. But Easter, is not just an event that reminds us of hope. It is an event that demands us to participate, in our puny capacities as humans, in the life-giving work of the Spirit. This is our responsibility as worshippers of the risen Christ!

He is risen! Let us worship Him responsibly.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Love Will Keep Us Alive

One of the styles of group Bible study I learned when I was in college, especially when dealing with stories, is to roleplay. Everyone would read a particular story together, and the facilitator would ask the question: “If you were in the story, who among the characters would you be?” This approach is both interesting and fruitful, because members will realize the perspective of the different characters of the story. By putting one’s self in someone else’s shoes, we begin to understand what people think, feel, and do. We will try to do this in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35).

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back’.”

From this parable, let us deal with three sets of characters with three different reflections on love and keeping alive.

The Robbers, Levite and Priest:
Love of Ourselves Keeps Us Alive

The first set of characters includes the robbers who beat the man and left him half-dead on the road, along with the priest and the Levite who passed by the other side when they saw the needy man. These three characters in the parable model the first paradigm of love and life: “my love of myself keeps me alive.” The robbers did what they did maybe because they were also destitute. Maybe they were doing what they were doing because society does not give them opportunities to work honest livelihood. Maybe they were the uneducated and the skill-less, who can only scavenge for food by taking them from others. As human beings, they needed to eat. They may have had spouses and children waiting at home for them to bring back food. It was because they love themselves and their loved ones that they were willing to do whatever it takes to keep themselves alive.

Both the priest and the Levite did not help the man because they also wanted to protect their own lives. In particular, they were afraid of violating the law of God stipulated in Numbers 19:11-13, “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days…  Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.” This command is especially scary for those who serve in the Temple, like the priest and the Levite. Essentially, if they touched the man on the road—which may already have died—they would be cut off from the temple and their responsibilities as holy men for a week. In a sense, not touching someone who is bleeding and not moving on the road is the wisest and the most logical thing to do! They love themselves and their ministries at the temple, so they wanted to keep themselves clean. The robbers pursued their love interests, while the Levite and priest protected their love interests.

Loving ourselves is not essentially evil. We need an appropriate self-love and self-concern. We need to take care of ourselves, eat, shower, and sleep. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1152) stated that the highest and fourth degree of love is love of self for the sake of God. What is wrong is love of self for the sake of self. When we love ourselves because we want to honor God with our lives and continued service, then love of self is godly. What is wrong is love of ourselves at the expense of the lives of others. Love of ourselves becomes wrong if for the sake of keeping ourselves alive, we take advantage of and hurt others, and if for the sake of keeping ourselves alive, we willfully disregard the needs of others.

The Samaritan:
Our Love Keeps Others Alive

The second character is the Samaritan. He models the second category of the relationship between love and survival: our love keeps others alive. It was the Samaritan’s active and intentional reaching out to the half-dead man that saved the man. Without someone capable of loving, the man would have died.

The fact is this: there is always someone relying on our love for their continued existence: the parent who sacrifices his or her career in order to take care of their children; the parent who works double shifts or two employments just to support his or her children’s education or special needs; the parent patiently enduring back pain in order to care for the kids, and whose rewards are none other than sweet smiles; the family bread winner who works hard in order to bring food to the table; the son who continues to support and care for his weakening parents; or the daughter who puts off romantic relations to support her family.

What enables people to do these things? The answer is simple: love.

Love was why Schindler saved the Jews, why Mother Theresa helped the poor, why Bruce Willis chose to remain and detonate the nuclear warhead on the asteroid, and why Jack saved his beloved Rose from sinking. Whether we like it or not, and realize it or not, the lives of others are dependent on our ability to love and extend love to them. In I Wanna Know What Love Is, we discussed the fact that the world is full of unloved people; here, we must realize that the world is full of dying people. It is our capability to love that will enable them to live. It is when we are compassionate and merciful to others that we can help others to remain alive. The Dalai Lama once said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

The Half-Dead Man:
Others’ Love Keeps Us Alive

The final character in the parable is the half-dead man. He was a hopeless man, lying on the road, and was totally at the mercy of others. His survival depended entirely on the love that others might show him. He was a man with several counted breaths left, and only someone’s attention and help can prolong the function of his respiratory system. He was a man in deep need of pity and compassion. It was only someone capable of loving the unlovable who can save him from his coming demise. I can imagine that when he recovered from his near-death experience, his thoughts were simple: it was through the love of another that he was alive.

We are all recipients of love. One of the primary reasons we are alive right now is because we have been recipients of many people’s love, attention, and care. We are recipient of God’s love: “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit” (Job 10:11-12). God’s love keeps us alive, even when we deserve death. But more than just physical life, God grants us eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

We are recipients of our parents’ love. We are alive today because our parents had sleepless nights when we were newborns. We are alive today because of their endurance and sacrifices. We are alive today because of their patience and understanding. We are alive today because they did not give up on us. We are alive today because they loved us so much. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates very well that even though children do hurtful things and break their parents’ hearts, they are still loved: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:10).
We are recipients of others’ love. It is because of the love of others for us that we are alive. We are all recipients of somebody’s love, and we are alive today because of them. But we must also remember to love back. Our lives are dependent on others, but others’ lives are also dependent on us. In this world, we are not only meant to be loved; we are also meant to love. We are not mere recipients of love, we are also givers of love. There comes a point in our lives when we are just flickering lights, ready to be snuffed out at any moment, and it is at the mercy of others that we our fires are still burning today. But there are times when we see someone—a coal separated from the batch of burning coals—and what remains in him is but a tiny ray of light, just sufficient to catch anyone’s attention. This coal needs someone to stretch their hands to bring them back to the group to be rekindled to life.

Love will keep us alive, together, because we need each other. It is in loving and being loved back that we can both continue to live.

This is the third entry for the Love series. The first is The One that You Love, followed by I Wanna Know What Love Is.  

Sunday, 11 February 2018

I Wanna Know What Love Is

Last year, I saw a Facebook post saying that “Valentine’s Day is cancelled.” The post is humorous, but there is also a tinge of bitterness or loneliness implied in it. Whether we care to admit it or now, the so-called season of love can be a cause of pain to some, reminding them of their unfulfilled desire for intimate relationships. It is not an exaggeration to claim that in the month of February, many are silently singing the words that Mick Jones penned in a song released in 1984, I Want to Know What Love Is:

I wanna know what love is
I want you to show me
I wanna feel what love is
I know you can show me

Everyone wants to feel loved. In fact, many are willing to give up literally everything for love. The Passengers, a sci-fi romantic movie illustrates this (Spoiler alert!). The setting is a shuttle coursing through space heading to a new habitable planet. The 5,000 people aboard should be in suspended hibernation for 120 years, but because of a system failure, one of the passengers woke up 90 years before they reach their destination. For several months, he was living a lonely life alone on the ship. Then he discovered that he has the knowledge and tools to wake up someone else from among the 5,000 people sleeping to accompany him. In particular, there was a lady among the sleeping passengers that he is quite affectionate with. The problem is this: if he wakes her up, she will most likely die with him before they reach the new planet, thus depriving her of the new life she hoped for when she left Earth. But he is already dying of loneliness. Should he wake her to accompany him even if it means ultimately killing that person?

The world is filled with people whose hearts are longing to be loved. Buried deep down is the desire to know what it means to be loved, to be cared for, to be noticed, to be appreciated, to be embraced, and to be accepted. Our world is full of heartbroken women who always gets dumped by her lovers, disfigured men who can only fantasize about having a girlfriend, children with abusive fathers or uncaring mothers, high school students who are invisible to their teachers and classmates, young children who never had birthday cakes, old parents put in a home for the aged because their children have careers to prioritize, and even churchmates who do not even get a “Hi” from someone from the congregation.

The Unloved

One of the most tragic stories in the Bible that depict one who was so unloved is the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The first part of the parable is disheartening: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:30-32). The travelling man was quite unfortunate. He was violently attacked by robbers, who did not care about him at all. He was dismissed by religious pilgrims even though he was obviously in pain and in need of care. The man represents the world’s unloved, and many in the world today resonate with him.

First, he is a victim of his circumstances. He seemed to have travelled alone. There is no indication in the passage that he was in a group. This itself is very revealing, because this most probably means that the man was poor. Although he knew that journeying alone is dangerous, he did not have a choice because he did not have money to hire people to accompany him. No one wished to escort him for free. Love is not free. Companionship is bought at the right price. Companionship is a luxury of those who are able to give back in return. Because the man was poor, no one wanted to be with him. How many are in the world like him?

Secondly, he is a victim of violence. Robbers came and stripped him even of his clothes, beat him and left him half-dead. He had company for a short while, but these companions only surrounded him for what can be taken from him. There are many in the world like him. They are children abused by their parents or relatives, serving as punching bags or outlets of rage and disappointments in life. They are children at school bullied by other students. They are servants of the rich, enslaved to work. They are prostitutes who receive embrace only because of the pleasure they bring to their customers. They are offenders and sinners who only get attention by being topics of gossip and scorn.

Thirdly, he is a victim of discrimination. The man was clearly suffering on the road where people can see him. But those who pass by chose to avoid him, even going the other way in order to be far from him. There are reasons for their actions. The man was bloody. He was smelly. He was half-dead, and therefore, a cause of religious impurity upon touching. He was needy. He had nothing to give but trouble. He was nothing but a burden. So those who passed by decided to pay him no attention. There are many like him in the world today. They are the poor who are not invited at the table reserved only for the important guests. They are the smelly beggars who are not welcomed to step in our homes. They are the OFWs who are mistreated by their bosses because they are considered lowly in status. They are the not-so-good-looking and the janitor who are eating alone in the cafeteria because no one wants to sit with them. They are the street children and people who are treated as eyesores.

Fourthly he is a victim of people’s apathy. It is normal and natural for a human being to be appalled by violence and to feel sympathy to those who suffer. But the half-dead man in the story received no sympathy. He was a recipient of radical indifference from extremely individualistic people. The irony of the story is that the things the man did not need were not given to him (violence and discrimination) but the things that he needed the most were withheld from him (sympathy). I can imagine that while the half-dead man was lying on the road, seeing all the people passing by and paying him no attention, he was singing in his head: “I wanna know what love is / I want you to show me / I wanna feel what love is / I know you can show me.” There are many people in the world like the man. They are those who suffer that we see on the television, but are not receiving any prayer of blessing.

Who will love the unloved? This is the crucial question. Who will rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch people from sin and the grave, weep over the erring one, and lift up the fallen? Who will hold the blind man’s hand, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, kiss lepers, and invite sinners into their lives? The world has many unloved people. But this is also because there are many who do not love. The number of unloved people is related to the number of people who are incapable of loving. The number of homeless people is related to the number of families that are inhospitable. The number of hungry people is related to the number of people who are unwilling to feed others.

The Unlikely Lover

Fortunately, the story continued. A Samaritan came along. He noticed the man on the road, gave him attention, took care of his wounds, and accompanied him to the doctor. He was not like the Levite and the teacher of the law who probably prayed for the man when they saw him. There are times when spiritual prayer is precisely what is NOT needed, because what is needed is in the realm of the physical. James wrote: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16). There are many times when prayer is just not good enough.

The least expected to help was the one who helped. Samaritans and Jews did not get along very well. The Jews did not like the Samaritans because the Samaritans were mixed races. They were Jews who married non-Jews. In the Harry Potter world, they were looked down as muggles by the purebloods. On the other hand, the Samaritans did not like the Jews for their judgmental attitude and extreme sense of self-righteousness. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as pigs; the Samaritans viewed the Jews as dogs. But in the parable, it was the Samaritan who showed love for his enemy: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back’” (Luke 10:33-35).

Jesus was most probably intentional in making the least expected person to be the one who showed love. The good Samaritan was patterned after Himself. Throughout His life and ministry, He was portrayed, over and over again, as one who showed love to the unlovable. Being a prophet with high moral standards, He was the most unlikely person to forgive the woman caught in adultery and defend her from her accusers (John 8:1-11). Being a holy man, He was also the most unlikely person to allow a woman who lived a sinful life touch him (Luke 7:36-38). Being the king, He was the most unlikely person to accept children in His presence (Mark 10:13-16). Being a teacher of the law, he was the most unlikely person to violate the law and touch a man with leprosy (Luke 5:12-16; cf. Lev 13:45-46; Num 5:2-3).

Like these unlovables, we too have received God’s love. The parable of the Good Samaritan is greatly similar to Paul’s thoughts in Romans 5:6, 8, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Notice how Paul describes us: weak (“powerless,” NIV), ungodly, and sinners. Like the man who left Jerusalem to go to Jericho, we left His holy city. We have become tired of God, and we wanted to try other cities. We left the city of God where the temple of sacrifice and forgiveness is. Instead of staying in the city of God, we decided to move to the city of destruction. Just with this decision and action, we have become ungodly sinners (Rom 5:6, 8).

But the moment we left the city of God, we were like sheep without a shepherd. The journey away from the city of God is truly a downward journey. We immediately met robbers along the road to our own Jerichos. We were beaten, stripped of our joy and dignity, and left behind to die alone among stones and thorns. In a lot of sense, we were the ones who invited the calamity upon ourselves. We should not have left Jerusalem, the city of God. But there we were: hopeless half-dead men and women on the road. We are half-dead and unable even to cry for help. On that road, we lie bruised and bloody—ugly and smelly. With these, we were certainly unlovable. There was nothing in us and about us that can demand attention from others.

Little did we expect that the One who would notice us, help us, care for us, and make sacrifices for us—is the God, the recipient of our animosity and the One we are all trying to run away from. Paul says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). God came down from Jerusalem to the rocky and warm road to Jericho. He left His holy city to look for those who needs to experience love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). He stopped precisely where we were, and picked us up with His own hands. Paul wrote: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8).

Of course, the parable does not only teach us about God’s love for us. Jesus told the parable because He wanted us to learn how to love in the same way that God loves us. At the end of the parable, Jesus asked: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” When the teacher of the law responded: “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

This is the second entry for the Love series. The first one is entitled "The One that You Love."

Monday, 5 February 2018

The One That You Love

One of the saddest movies I have watched is Toy Story 3, where Woody and his friends felt abandoned because they were slowly discarded by their owner, Andy. The movie starts with reels of Andy always playing with his toys, but Andy goes to college—basically growing too old for his toys. So, even though Andy was unwilling to give them up, the toys are given away to their new owners in the end. The point of this is simple. Time can create a wedge between us and the things that we once loved. We can grow cold in our relationships with anyone or anything. We can be like any other kid who loves her new toys, but only for a while. She may be very excited about a toy for a few days, but she will ultimately leave them behind to look for something more interesting or exciting. Paul warns us against this sort of situation through his letter to his disciple Timothy:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:1-5).

Paul’s description of the last days is very grim. People will continue to love, but the object of their love will be things found in creation. People will prefer creatures over the Creator. Three idolatrous loves are the focus of the passage: love of self, love of money, and love of pleasure. 

First, according to Paul, people will be lovers of themselves. Whitney Houston’s hit song The Greatest Love of All actually promotes this. The song starts with a great note: “I believe the children’s our future,” so we might be led to think that it is a song about awesome love. Unfortunately, to our dismay, the chorus ends with these lines: “The greatest love of all is easy to achieve / Learning to love yourself – is the greatest love of all.”

People love themselves. This is very true today. Without a doubt, our era is one of the most narcissistic eras in the history of the world. The new English word “selfie” was coined in this era. Last year, I unfriended my neighbor from my province because my Facebook newsfeed was littered with her face. She takes delight in taking selfies almost every hour. Technology today provides several platforms for people suffering from Kulang Sa Pansin (KSP) or Attention Deficiency Syndrome (ASD) to be noticed. People today are lovers of themselves. They seek attention, recognition, and appreciation. People’s sense of self-worth are measured by the number of likes and reactions they get from a Facebook post.

Imagine if you visit someone’s home. He is single and living alone. You look around and notice that there is particular section in the receiving room, for everyone to see, that is filled with pictures, awards, travels, and even records of their good deeds. There is even a picture of him at the very center of all these things. It is basically like a shrine to idolize, worship, and promote himself. It is placed in the receiving area precisely so that people who come to the house can see everything and make comments. So you think to yourself: “Wow! This guy has a lot of ego!” Well, this is now called a website or a Facebook wall. People might be embarrassed to create a physical shrine for themselves, but they are shameless in creating online shrines.

Secondly, Paul says that people will be lovers of pleasure. This is also related to the love of self. Several surveys have been conducted about the greatest pleasures in life, and the results include: squeezing a pimple, cleaning your earwax, chocolate, bacon, a long bath, shopping, food, and sex. Among the three loves in the passage, it is love of pleasure that is contrasted with love of God. It seems, therefore, that the greatest competition for loving God is the love of pleasure. The temptation is to prioritize what we want over what God wants.

Thirdly, people will be lovers of money. The reason why this is not a good thing is found in the two other passages in the New Testament where love of money is mentioned. First, in Luke 16:1-14, after talking about the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus affirmed that “no servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (16:13). Immediately after Jesus said this, the next verse reads: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14). People who love their money are easily prone to reject Jesus’ words about money if their interests clash with the kingdom’s. The second passage is 1 Timothy 6:6, 9-10, “Godliness with contentment is great gain… But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Very clearly, Paul’s concern is that love of money can cause people to fall into many temptations. Worse, love of money is the root of all evil. It has historically brought faithful Christians to wander from the faith and cause numerous afflictions upon themselves. In the parable of the sower, those who are sown among thorns are described as “those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).

The picture 2 Timothy 3:1-5 paint is extremely grim. Thankfully, the chapter does not end in verse 5. It actually goes on to sing a better tune in the next few verses. Paul wrote:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness… 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:10, 14-15).

These verses are a breath of fresh air. Paul says to Timothy, his disciple, that the world will turn sour and people will be lovers of themselves, of money, and of pleasure—except him. Timothy is the only hand whose palm is up when everyone else have their palms down. In 3:14-15, the reason why Timothy is different from the rest of the world is revealed: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy is different from the rest of the world because he is a believer of Jesus Christ. Moreover, he has a life deeply grounded in the Word.

We must be different. We are not narcissistic; we love God. We are not lovers of money; we are sacrificial. We are not lovers of pleasure; we are the masters of our selves. In a narcissistic and ego-centric world, do we love God more than ourselves? In an economically-driven world, do we love God more than money? In a sensual world, do we love God more than pleasure? Can God say the same words He spoke about Job for us: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8). What is it that we love? Who is it that we love? Oscar C. A. Bernadotte wrote a beautiful hymn with words that should be the heart of everyone.

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand

Than to be the king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame;
I’d rather be true to His holy name.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Persecution to Proclamation

Paul was born in Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 22:3; Phil 3:5). He was a Roman citizen by birthright (Acts 22:28). At the age of 12, he became the disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a Pharisee “who was honored by all the people” (Acts 5:34) and had considerable influence among the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:38-40). Even the Jewish historian Josephus lauded Gamaliel for his knowledge. Under his tutelage, Paul became an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures.

As the disciple of Gamaliel, Paul was also a Pharisee (Phil 3:5). This fact is very important if we are to understand who Paul (Saul) was and what he did before his conversion. The origin of the Pharisees may be traced during the intertestamental period (the in-between 400-year period between Malachi and Matthew) or the so-called Second Temple period, referring to the time when the temple rebuilt under the leadership of Zerubbabel stood since the end of the Babylonian exile to the end of the Jewish revolt in AD 70. After the Babylonians conquered Palestine came the Persians, then the Greeks, then finally the Romans. The Jewish people were under colonial oppression for a long time. The Jews, having realized that they were being punished by God for their sins, desired to return to the covenant that God instituted by obedience to the Law. In short, they learned from the errors of their ancestors and wanted to live holy lives.

Along with the Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots, the Pharisees emerged as a holiness movement in Israel. The Pharisees were unique in that they devoted themselves to a detailed observance of the Law and brought it to all spheres of everyday life. They were so religious in keeping the Law that they would rather die than disobey. Because of this, they were very legalistic. They imposed the Law to its every letter. This was why they questioned Jesus about not washing His hands before He ate (Mark 7:1-5) and attacked Him when He healed on Sabbath day (Mark 2:23-26). Moreover, they tended to separate themselves from sinners for fear of contamination. Their whole agenda includes political aspirations. They believe that the Romans (or Gentiles) occupying the promise land were polluting or defiling it. Hence, they wished for the defeat and expulsion of the Romans so that the land would be holy again.

All of these values were inherited by Paul from Gamaliel. Since one of the goals of the Pharisees was to obey the Law to the letter and to expel contaminating powers in the land, Paul was very zealous in persecuting New Testament Christianity. He believed with all his heart that he was doing God a favor by uprooting a new blasphemous group in Israel. He allowed (or maybe even instigated) the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1). He admitted that he was a persecutor of the church (Phil 3:6). According to Luke, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:1-3). Again, for Paul, he was doing the right and godly thing. He hated the gospel for godly reasons.

By God’s grace and providence, Paul was transformed. He was given a new beginning by the Lord Jesus Christ. He was converted on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9:1-15, NIV

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.

God asked Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). This question can be asked of us as well. Notice that Saul’s life was transformed on the road to Damascus. He was given a radically new beginning. He was a persecutor, but God called him. God referred to him as: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). This was what he had truly become! After his eyes were opened, in just a few days, “at once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20).

The change was so sudden that even people did not believe it! “All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21). Even the disciples did not believe him: “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). They probably that it was a conspiracy so that he can further penetrate the church.

Here are few observations about the transformed life of Paul:

First, from being a persecutor, he now became the persecuted: “the Jews conspired to kill him” (Acts 9:23); “they kept watch on the city gates to kill him” (Acts 9:24); and “they tried to kill him” (Acts 9:29). Change in Christ does not guarantee a life in a bed of roses. Godly transformation upsets the world and its ungodly rulers. There are no magical protection properties when we live the life that we are called to have. Paul’s life bears testimony to this. He was threatened, arrested, imprisoned, beaten, flogged, tossed by winds and waves, persecuted, oppressed by his fellow Jews, falsely accused, and so on. He did not get wealthy. He no longer enjoyed a great position among the religious leaders. He did not even have a home for his own. He worked as a tentmaker in order for him to eat. He experienced a lot of suffering because he was transformed. His new beginning was from a life of socio-political favor to hostile marginalization. The same goes for us. As Mark 4:35-41, we will face frightening and deadly storms even when we have jumped on the boat with Jesus.

Secondly, the transformed life may contain years of silence or inactivity. Immediately after his conversation, Paul evangelized (Acts 9:20). But he was met with violent opposition too, so he fled to Tarsus. This was not a shameful thing to do. No one accused Paul of cowardice. Sometimes the best response is to retreat in order to be come back later for more fruitful work. According to scholars, the length of time between Acts 9:20 and 11:25 is nine years! He was mightily introduced in Acts 9 only to fade to almost non-existence until Acts 13. We may have these years too. Perhaps we are even in these years right now. We have started as passionate workers of the kingdom, then because of oppositions and personal doubts, we have fled to our own Tarsus, the place of our births and comfort zones.

Thirdly, even transformed men and women need an encourager. Paul fled to Tarsus, and he stayed there until someone looked for him. This was the role of Barnabas, “the son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36): “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26). Even God’s called servants can be discouraged. Even the most zealous church worker can run away. Paul needed someone to bring him back and assist him as he re-integrates himself again in the community. Not all of us are Pauls in the church. Not everyone truly love to go out and evangelize. But we can be Barnabases to the Pauls that we know. Instead of stifling their passion with our criticisms, would it not be better if we tap their backs once in a while?

Fourth, people who encountered Jesus become proclaimers. This was the life of Paul. He was a passionate proclaimer of the gospel. He braved winds and forests, angry mobs and protesting opponents, dangerous seas and open roads, because he took upon himself the task of making Jesus Christ known. The New Testament offers many stories in which the first response of the people to their encounter with God is proclamation: the shepherds who spread the word about the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:17), the Samaritan who spread the word about Jesus (John 4:28-30), the healed leper who praised God in a loud voice (Luke 17:15), and the disciples filled with the Spirit “declaring the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). Our encounter with God, the transformation we experience, and our proclamation and witness of the gospel are interrelated. God forbid that the transition we experienced in life are from alienation from God to a gradual detachment from God, from a passionate rejection of God to an impassionate relationship with God, from opposition to neutrality before God, from being recipients of the gospel to being further recipients of the gospel, or from a critical observer to an appreciative observer.

We should all have Paul’s attitude: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Rom 1:16). We proclaim the gospel to our own Jews, our own people and family members; then to the Gentile, our neighbors and schoolmates and workmates. We do this together, as a church. Peter’s description of the church is apt: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). This is who we are as believers and what we are as the body of Christ.

We may conclude this article by highlighting the three stages of Paul’s life after he was given a new beginning by God, and evaluate ourselves and see where we are right now in our Christian lives. The church is filled with people in the different stages. First, some are in the Acts 9:20 stage. These are the newly transformed and are on fire to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are probably only a handful of these in our churches. Secondly, some are in the Acts 9:30-11:25 stage. This is the stage of silence and inactivity. Because of fear or just plain disobedience to the call of God, we have run away back to our Tarsuses, where we are comfortable and safe. These are the nine years of fading into non-existence, as if God has never called us in the first place. Majority of church goers are in this stage. Thirdly, some are in the Acts 11:26 stage, where people begin to be involved back in the mission and ministries of the church. Because of a Barnabas who encouraged us, we have renewed our commitment to God and His call. My hope is that all of us come to this stage. However, this stage is only temporary. Our goal is to be at the Acts 13:2-3 stage, where we are sent from and by our local churches to proclaim the gospel of salvation with boldness and authority in our Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

(This is the fourth manuscript in the New Beginning sermon series. The firstsecond, third, and fourth are also available in this blog.)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Greed to Generosity

One of the most important topics of our time is our relation with money. Commenting on our human situation today, Dewi Hughes is spot on in saying that “the widespread  consumerism and materialism of the culture—expressed above all in our incessant advertising—seduces many people into making extravagant decisions about major purchases like houses and cars and smaller things like recreation, eating out, vacations, etc.; and the result is that most families are financially pressed in spite of enormous wealth.”[1] Everywhere in the world, money is increasingly becoming more accessible to many people and families. The abundance of malls, shopping centers, restaurants and entertainment places indicates that investors believe that we have money to spend. The problem is that even though we are earning more money than ever before, we still feel hard-pressed and may be under huge debts.

In one of the episodes of the television series The Big Bang Theory, Rajesh Koothrapali got a new girlfriend who was more in love with his money than with him. His parents learned about it and gave him a video call. His father, exasperated by his son’s stupidity, asked him to choose between his girlfriend and his allowance. Rajesh’s response is this: “You’re going to make me choose between the woman I love and the money I have very strong feelings for?” Like Rajesh, we all have strong feelings for money. This is not a problem only for modern humanity. In the first century, Paul already warned Timothy: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows” (1 Tim 6:10). But there is hope for us. God is able to transform His people. Our inappropriate love of or concern about money may be replaced by lavish generosity.

This was what happened to Zacchaeus, and this can happen to all of us as well. His story was recorded by the historian Luke:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-figtree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (Luke 19:1-10, NIV).

There was no profession in the New Testament that was more disdained than being a tax collector. The attitude of the religious leaders toward these people was negative, and they were very vocal about it. In fact, several times in the Gospels, the terms “tax collector” and “sinners” went together (Matt 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1). In several other passages, tax collectors are grouped together with other heinous sins. The Pharisee at the temple prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Jesus lumped the sins of unbelieving pagans or Gentiles together with tax collectors (Matt 18:17). Elsewhere, Jesus grouped tax collectors with prostitutes in terms of the difficulty in entering the kingdom of God (Matt 21:31-32).

Why was there such a negativity against tax collectors in the times of Jesus? First, tax collectors were Jewish people working for the Romans, the enemies of the Jews. Therefore, they were considered as traitors to their own people. Instead of fighting against the Romans, they were helping them and were becoming rich in the process. Secondly, nobody wanted to pay taxes to the Romans, especially because they were oppressive. Thirdly, it was common knowledge that tax collectors cheated the people they collected from. They would collect more than what was required and keep the extra for themselves. When Jesus gave an advice to a tax collector, he said: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:13), signaling that it was common knowledge or assumption that they are cheaters. So finally, tax collectors were resented because they were extremely wealthy and enjoying lavish lifestyles at a time of oppression. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, so imagine the even greater amount of animosity the people felt about him. Zacchaeus himself confessed that he indeed cheated people (19:8).

However, was Zacchaeus always a cheat? I am inclined to say NO. The nature of his work gave him the opportunity to cheat. Perhaps he was like many godly men and women who started in their work with no intention to abuse their positions at all. No one applies to a job with the intention of cheating. Rather, when we apply for jobs, we earnestly desire to be productive and helpful. Perhaps Zacchaeus was like a young Filipino who zealously aspired to become a policeman with the goal to help his fellow citizens. Perhaps he started as a tax collector with a vision to be a different kind of tax collector. Perhaps he started with a vision to change the image of tax collectors in the minds of people by staying godly. I don’t believe that people are naturally evil from the beginning. People progress from being good to being downright evil or callous in their ways. I think Zacchaeus started cheating in small scales because of fear. After all, he was still a God-believing Jew. But the more wealth he accumulated, the more he wanted more; and the more he wanted more, the more he became steeped in his greedy deeds.

The nature of humanity is that we want more. John D. Rockefeller, an American oil industry business magnate and industrialist in the early 1900s, was once considered the wealthiest person on earth. He was once asked “How much is enough?” and his response was a very short: “Just a little bit more.” Discontent seems to be a part of our fallen human DNA. Greedy people will always think that they lack abundance, no matter how much money they are receiving in comparison to the past. There is always something better to buy, something bigger to accumulate, something grander to own. The irony is that the more money we have, the more things we think we should buy.

Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide. The title of Tolstoy's story was: How Much Land Does a Man Need?[2]

Greed has two interrelated forms: it takes and it withholds. In the case of Zacchaeus, it was primarily taking other people’s money. Christians may not be struggling with stealing. If there are Christian thieves, their number is certainly small. However, the sin of withholding is probably something that many of us are still struggling with. In the book of Malachi, God’s complaints against the Israelites were precisely because they were withholding from God:

“Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord” (Mal 1:14)

Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me” (Mal 3:8-9)

We may not be cheating our neighbors, and therefore think that we are not struggling with greed and the love of money. We may not be taking people’s money for our own sake or stealing them like tax collectors. But we are no better than tax collectors who steal from others if we are withholding from God what belongs to Him in tithes and offerings. My hope is that we experience a new beginning like the one experienced by Zacchaeus. The story continues to narrate:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:8-10).

The transformation that happened in Zacchaeus’ life is astonishing. Looking closely at the story, Jesus actually did nothing apart from entering Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus did not preach a sermon. He did not rebuke the tax collector. He did not quote the Scriptures in order to teach Zacchaeus. Jesus did nothing. He just entered the house. But lo, and behold, Zacchaeus spontaneously stood up and made statements that would have shocked everyone in the house. He became a completely different man, totally transformed.

What happened? I think the answer is simple. He was touched by grace. He experienced the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He experienced what it meant to be a recipient of grace. He knew that He did not deserve to have Jesus in his house. He knew that he did not deserve the attention Jesus gave him. He was always a man condemned by the religious leaders. He was always shunned by everyone. But from Jesus, he felt received. Although there were no utterances of forgiveness from Jesus, the fact that Jesus entered his home was a mighty evidence for Zacchaeus that he was accepted by Jesus. Zacchaeus was transformed from being greedy to being generous. If being greedy means both taking and withholding, being generous means not taking and not withholding. This was precisely the transformation that happened to Zacchaeus. Like him, we have already experienced God’s lavish grace and the acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ. The question that remains is: Have we already been transformed like him too?

(This is the fourth manuscript in the New Beginning sermon series. The first, second, and third are also available in this blog.)

[1] Hughes, “The Whole Church as a Transformed and Transforming Society,” 50.

Easter: Peace and Forgiveness

Christ is risen! We are celebrating this. So in our gatherings there is a lot of great music, there is a celebratory spirit, there is a lo...