A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 27th April 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Leviticus 19:17-18 and John 15:1-17.
About three decades ago, when Donald Coggan was installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the head of the 12 million Anglicans throughout the world, he suggested that the world we now lived in was a world of chaos. In terms of priority, people now put themselves first, their neighbours second and God third, rather than God first and foremost, our neighbours second and ourselves last. As a result of this reversed priorities, we as Christians have great difficulty to witness to the fact that God is love. On the contrary, sometimes we may even transmit or spread a culture of hate instead the culture of love. But in reality all the Judeo-Christian faith is about is love: This is what the Shema (or the Creed of Judaism) says, “Hear, Israel: The Lord our God is the one, the only God. You must love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deut 6:4-5).
In the Holiness Code as recorded in Lev. 17-26, we find these words, “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but will love your neighbour as yourself. I am Yahweh” (19:18). Then, “You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born and love them as yourself – for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.” (19:34).
Later, remembering the Shema and the Holiness Code, this was how Jesus answered the Pharisees when he was asked, “What is the greatest commandment of the Law?”, “You must love the Lord your God with all our your heart, with all your soul and with all you mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbours as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law, and the Prophets too.” (Mt 22:35-40). Jesus had put these two commandments: Love God and love your neighbour into practice all his life. Indeed if we examine Jesus’ work in all the four Gospels, we may easily conclude by saying that Jesus’ work is the work of Love!
In his farewell discourse with his disciples, Jesus specifically gave a new commandment to his disciples who were supposed to continue Jesus’ work after he had departed from them physically: “I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.” (Jn 13:34-35).
Love others as yourself is never easy. Jesus had warned his disciples about this in the same farewell discourse. Jesus predicted that for self-protection Peter would deny that he ever knew Jesus, much less he had anything to do with Jesus. Jesus also predicted about Judas’ betrayal: He also shares my table has lifted up his heel again me” (Jn 13:18, a direct quote from Ps. 41:9).
Love is never abstract.
Many Christians say that they love God, but oftentimes it turns out it is only a hollow slogan. Who they really love are themselves. God becomes only an object to enhance their benefits and welfare.
Love is very concrete. It requires you to share with your brothers and sisters who are in need. As the First Letter of John to the 2nd Century Christians, “Anyone who says I love God and hates his brother is a liar, since no one who fails to love the brother whom he can see can love God whom he has not seen. Indeed this is the commandment we have received from Jesus, that whoever love God, must also love his brother.” (I Jn 4:20).
In the O.T. times, the priest and the Levite were supposed to be the people who loved God. But they could not put it into practice, by caring their neighbours in need. But the Samaritan, a non-Jew (probably did not know God) decided to care for the one who fell into the bandits’ hands. In this parable about “limitless” love, Jesus said, go and do the same as the Samaritan” (Lk 10:37).
Acts of love are often done with utter humility. Jesus gave the Commandment of Love to his disciples in the same moment when he washed his disciples’ feet. In the ancient Middle East culture and custom, only students served their teachers and never the other way around. As a matter of fact only slaves in those days washed their masters’ feet and the feet of their masters’ guests before they entered into the house. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet indicated strongly that acts of love have no limits. Just in his parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the Samaritan’s love towards the stranger who needed help was limitless.
Yes, acts of love are love without limits. Also, oftentimes they are small and simple acts. But they can be powerful and can touch the lives of many.
Marla Ruzicka was a young and pretty woman from California. She decided to go to the war-torn Baghdad hospitals and homes to offer orange juice to the children who were wounded by roadside bombs; and offered comfort to their parents. She even started single-handedly “The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict”.
One Saturday in 2005, she became a victim herself by a roadside bomb and died instantly. In a memorial service back home attended by 600 people, a note written by Marla was read, “If only I can do a little to make the life of others a little bit better, it would be a tremendous gift from God. Why should I look for another job?”
Marla only lived for 28 years. But her love and dedication have touched the lives of many.
In the recent snowstorm in the mainland of China – the worst in three decades – millions were stranded on the road, in the countryside and at railway or bus stations as well as airports. The situation was extremely grave. But there were many small acts of love: a policeman tried his best to help clear the snow in highways so that some of the traffic could move again. He had been working around the clock for days. He even passed the opportunity to go home to visit his wife who has just given birth to a baby boy. A university student bicycled along the highways all day long trying to console and give help to the truck drivers who were stranded a highways.
On the hundreds of trains standard, food and water became scarce. Many passengers took out whatever they had to share with others. All these were simple acts of love and sharing. But it was at these moments of caring that human beings were at their very best!
Sometimes, simple acts of love are very powerful. In the 1970s when the two superpowers engaged in arms race, especially on nuclear war-heads, Joan Baez, one of my favourite singers sang a very gentle protest song entitled “Just A Little Rain”. This song was about the nuclear dust fell onto the ground like drops of rain incapacitating or even killing the innocent children and unborn babies. It was the most powerful protest song I have ever come across.
When we engage in the acts of love, we may not get any rewards; far from it, we may be ridiculed. That was what Apostle Paul experienced. Paul went on four great missionary journeys to tell people about God’s love. This was what he and his companions received, “short of water, drink and clothes; were beaten up, and had no shelters. We were treated as the dregs of the world, the very lowest scum” (I Cor 4:11-13). Paul’s endurance bore much fruit for God’s glory!
One of the pivotal points about the Civil Rights Movement in America was the Selma-Montgomery March led by Martin Luther King in 1964. Mrs. Pesbody, the mother of the Governor of Massachusetts, went down to participate. She was arrested and put into prison. She told reporters that she did not understand why she could not walk hand in hand with her black friends. Her highly publicized act of love stirred up the conscience of many people in her home state. Consequently later in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil rights Bill, giving all black people in deep South the right to vote.
Often we do not want to get ourselves involved because we are very afraid to get hurt.
Two decades ago, the Citadel Military Academy in North Carolina only admitted men. But there was a woman by the name of Shannon Falkner who decided to change this outdated tradition. After many hurdles, she was finally admitted. But from the first day, the officers decided to give her a rough ride, demanding her to go through very vigorous physical exercises which few men could pass. The move was to intimidate Shannon so that she would quit and so that the Academy would not have to change their men-only tradition. But Shannon decided to endure this because she wanted to get rid once and for all this highly discriminatory practice and tradition. Finally she graduated with flying colours. Indeed Shannon’s act is an act of charity. At long last, the whole military establishment in the U.S.A. got rid of all sexual discrimination rules and regulations in the 1990s.
Sometimes we do not want to get ourselves involved because it is not easy to judge whether the act we engage in is right or wrong. Indeed this world is no longer simple. Issues cannot be easily identified as right or wrong. Worse still, oftentimes, we have to choose between two rights or two wrongs.
In 1963, the year when I graduated from HKU, there was a controversial issue which warranted my attention as a philosophy student. In Italy, a medical doctor was charged with committing the crime of abortion (in a Roman Catholic country, abortion is a capital crime). It began with a request from a pregnant woman. She was scanned to have carrying a deformed baby, a result that she had been taking a drug called Thalidomide. The defense from the doctor was that he was sympathetic to the young couple and could not allow this baby to be born. Was the doctor’s decision right or wrong? Was the doctor’s act an act of love?
I took a course on Christian Ethics at Yale. One of the discussions in class was about a true story which happened in 1943. The setting was a concentration camp in Warsaw, Poland. A Jewish woman was incarcerated in that camp. Her husband was seriously sick at home. She was trying desperately to get home to care for him. She knew a camp rule that a pregnant woman could request to be released. So after much thought, she decided to seduce a German soldier. Sure enough, she got pregnant. Subsequently she was freed. She had committed adultery. The question was, was her act justificeble? Was her act good or bad?
Yes, this is highly complex and oftentimes depressing world. Nevertheless, this is God’s world. The people who live in hot waters are God’s children. Is it nothing to us? Can we not try our best to respond to the cries from the people around us and from afar? Please always remember this, the only sign for Christians to-day is not what you proclaim; but rather by your love, or concretely by your acts of love.
Once again, let us hear what Jesus commands us to-day: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.