A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 6th April 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 11:1-9 and Romans 5:12-21.
In this season of Easter, we continue to explore our faith in God. God is in the world. God is also in us. We can only find the ultimate meaning and purpose of our life in God and God alone.
One of the duties of Roman Catholic priests is to listen or to hear confessions. In fact one of the centres of the ministry of Roman Catholic priests is confession box. (The other centres are the altar and the pulpit).
In a confession box, the priests do not only listen to the confessions of their parishioners; traditionally, they would also have to pronounce the absolution: “Your sins are forgiven. Sin no more”.
Of course, the priests have to do their own confessions as well. Daily, after their confessions, they would say: “mea culpi, mea, culpi, mea maximus culpi,” or in English, “I am a sinner; I am a sinner; I am a great sinner.”
Do you know when and where did I learn the Latin words, mea culpi? I learned it from a joke some 45 years ago. Professor George Lindbeck of Yale was an observer representing the Lutheran Church of America at the II Vatican Council which was held in 1962-64. He reported to the faculty and students of the Divinity School informally from time to time. He told us how the conservative bishops and cardinals hated a ranking cardinal Bea whose views were very liberal. So when they said confession, instead of saying, mea culpi, they all said Bea culpi, Bea culpi, Bea maximus culpi or Bea is a sinner; Bea is a sinner; Bea is a great sinner.
As a matter of fact, we are all great sinners. How many of us can say that day in and day out we follow strictly Jesus’ commandment, “Love God with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your spirit and with all your strength and love your neighbours as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39)
In the story of the adulterous woman as found in John 8:1-11, it was not so much about Jesus and the adulterous woman. It was mainly about the scribes, the Pharisees and the crowd who gathered to condemn the woman and try to stone her to death. This was what Jesus said, “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.” When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until the last one had gone… Is this story also about us? Are we the double standard Pharisees and scribes or the crowd who is the silent majority?
Beware, Christians in the Church might be the most hypocritical bunch of people. We often point our fingers at other people and say, they are the sinners and we are the righteous. How often do we see a splinter in the eyes of other people, but never recognize there is a huge beam in our own eyes.
Traditionally, churches paid a great deal of attention to the sins of their people. In the Medieval times, the Roman Catholic Church warned its faithful about Seven mortal or human sins. They were: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust. Because the times have changed, the Vatican just proclaimed an additional new list of sins. They include obscenely wealthy, polluting the environment, genetic modification, social injustice, drugs and drugs trafficking, abortion as well as pedophilia.
Indeed we are all sinners. We fall short of what’s demanded of us by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: to love God and to love our neighbours. Moral or mortal sins are merely expressions of our failure to follow Jesus’ commandment.
Sometimes I fancy it is easier to love God than to love our neighbours. My wife and I live in the top floor of a village house in Sai Kung. Not too longer ago, the floor below us decided to do rather thorough renovation. I was quite upset because in those five weeks the noise, the dust, the wastes they produced really bothered me since I work at home to prepare lectures and sermons. It was even more irritating to me because the people downstairs claimed that they are environmentalists.
At the present moment, it is the turn for the ground floor to do the renovation. They knocked down every inside wall and window as well as the flooring. It has taken them four months and the completion date is not in sight. How can I love my neighbours? It’s very difficult, isn’t it?
Traditionists believe people have to do something good to remit their sins which they have committed either willfully or inadvertently. So in the medieval times, believers spent money in their churches to purchase “indulgencies”. Because they believe their sins would invariably lead to some kind of punishment. That explains why even Jesus’ disciples had to ask this question, “Rabbi, teacher, who sinned, this blind person or his parents?” (Jn 9:2).
Does sin really lead to condemnation? If this is affirmative, the God we have faith in is not the God Almighty, Just and full of Love. Yes, as a Righteous God, God will judge. But as God is the God of love, so even in His judgment, His intention was to “save” us. In other words, God’s judgment and God’s mercy go side by side. The four Fall stories in Genesis 3-11 suffice to illustrate this. When Adam and Eve violated God’s commandment by eating the forbidden fruits in the middle of the Garden of Eden, God had to punish them by expelling them from the garden and made them toil in the land. Yet God sustained them in His own way. (Gen.3).
In the story of Cain and Abel, after Cain had killed his brother Abel, Cain became a wanderer. Yet God protected him so that he would not be killed (Gen.4). Or in the story of the Flood, God promised that “never again will all living beings be destroyed by a flood; never again will a flood destroy the earth.” (Gen 9:11). And finally in the story of the Tower of Babel, God did mix up the language of all people, and from there God scattered them all over the world,” yet it was God’s will for people to learn about the origins of the state of humans beings. (Gen.11).
“Where sin increased, God’s Grace increased much more” this was what Paul experienced and believed. This is what we can experience as well. Grace circumvents sin because sin is human; and Grace is from God. If sin is alienation from God; estrangement with nature and with people who include your loved ones; if sin is not accepting yourself, then Grace overcomes all these separations. Grace is life reunited with life.
We find it difficult to experience God’s grace because we are very materialistic. We tend to chase after whichever is tangible and immediate. Money and numbers satisfy these criteria. Listed companies are not content with their profits unless compared with the previous year it shows a double-digit increase.
This is the dream of an ordinary teenager in Hong Kong: He wants to marry a beautiful wife; have 2 lovely children; a 3-room apartment; a four-wheeled car; at least a five-figure monthly salary; and no less than six-figured in his savings account. Further, they believe God’s Grace would help him to reach those numbers! That’s why a great many people in Hong Kong decided to join the Church.
But Grace is not about numbers. Grace is not about the number of gifts you will receive. It is about relationships. God’s Grace was fully manifested when His only son Jesus Christ was being hung on a cross and the Temple curtains which separated God from human beings was torn into two, from top to bottom (Mk 15:38; Mt 27:51; Lk 23:45).
Sin is a common human attitude. When people take the attitude that my life is miserable, so I must make your life miserable as well. This is sin. When a person lives by Grace, he or she will say yes, my life is difficult, but let me make the life of other people easier.
Once, a school friend of mine brought me to visit his uncle who was terminally ill. He was suffering from liver cancer and was constantly in pain. When we were there, he was busy telling us jokes and make us laugh all the time. He said if he could make the people he encountered laugh for a few moments, that would make his day. My friend told me that he had his funeral all arranged. The music he chose was the Spring in Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This was the person who lived in God’s Grace, and through him I experienced the same.
Many people think that Sin is the fact that people do not believe in Jesus. Grace is belief in God. But the fact is a great many Christians claim that they do believe in God and are still separated from God and from God’s gift of life.
One time, I visited an elderly parishioner. She told me she put the Bible under her pillow. She believed in this way God’s grace will remain with her through the night.
My wife told me another story. Years ago, when she and another high school principal went to Edinburgh for a visit. They stayed in the same hotel room. One night she had a bad dream. So she prayed the Lord’s Prayer aloud. My wife asked her why did she pray in English. She replied seriously, “we are in Scotland!”
Grace does not change our situation. We do not suddenly become better people (although it may be the consequence). But Grace does change our attitude. It gives us a new perspective to look at things.
When I was at Yale, I have a classmate named Joanne who was a six feet three blond (I am six-two). Because of her height, she would keep her long hair down and always wore a turtleneck. Then when she walked she always stooped. All these were attempts to hide her height.
One time, a group of friends gathered, chit-chatting. One of them suddenly said, “Joanne, you know what’s your problem. You do not want to face the fact that you are tall”. Joanne was very upset and left. Only days later, when I met her, her hair was cut. She no longer stooped when she walked. It turned out that she really was a very beautiful blonde.
Grace enables you to accept the realities of life rather than fighting them all life long.
Grace transforms your life. It turns your guilt into confidence and courage.
Before his conversion Apostles Paul was named Saul. He was a first century Jew who was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. When he encountered the resurrected Christ near the city of Damascus, his life was completely transformed. Not only did he become an ardent follower of Christ and for Christ’s sake he was persecuted by both the Jews and the Roman authorities. He even became the greatest Christian missionary of all times. Grace has changed Paul’s fate into meaningful destiny.
After the conversion, Paul’s life was dedicated completely to Christ. This is what he said, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who live in me. This life I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me.” (Gal 2:20). Since then Paul’s life was full of difficulties and tribulations. But in the midst of all this, Paul experienced God’s Grace was enough for him (II Cor 12:9).
Next time when you feel exceptionally lonely, rejected and fed up with your situation, Grace may and will strike you. When that happens do not ask any question; just accept the fact that you are accepted – accepted by God. For God’s Grace always overcomes even the seemingly impossible situations – even the deepest chasms and divisions.
May God’s Grace abound in you. Amen.