A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30 August 2009 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 15and Mark 7: 1-23.
In the narrative of Gospel Mark 7:1-23, Jesus criticized the hypocritical attitude and dishonesty, and in teaching about the Jewish laws of purity and cleaning, he emphasized the importance of heart over human tradition and behavior. It is the vile words that come out and not the unclean food that is taken in, that defiles people because the words reflect the evil intention of the heart.
To the Jews in the old days, abiding the Israelite laws and traditions were regarded as holy, being God’s people and being righteous. Jesus’ way to defend his disciples eating without washing their hands was radically subversive. It was very radical because observing the laws and traditions were part of their life in their time. The critique was obviously unacceptable to the religious leaders and even ordinary people in the Jewish community.
Jesus was incredible in terms of challenging the authorities in his days. The Pharisees and the scribes were obviously the authority figures in terms of interpreting the laws in the Israelite community, the traditions and cultural norms per se. According to the description in Matthew 15:12, the Pharisees and the scribes were shocked. The disciples who followed Jesus did not understand either. They questioned their Rabi Jesus why did he say so.
Jesus pointed to the heart of the problem of those who did not have integrity. He was critical of people who honor God with lip service but their hearts were far from God. Jesus kept on using the example of the commandment of honoring the father and mother to accuse these leaders of their fine way to reject God’s commandment.
I would like to share a story about a brother in Christ in my home church. His name is Ah Ming. Ah Ming’s father died soon after he was born. His mother became a widow, and worked very hard to take care of him. Ah Ming was raised in a village of Lantau Island. There is close relationship tie in their village. The community is relatively conservative and traditional. The village people, including Ming’s mother, believe in local popular religion and they do not accept Christianity. Ming’s mother was unhappy when she first knew that Ming became a Christian. Her rejection was due to her misunderstanding and impression that Christians do not abide by Chinese customs and rituals to pay respect to ancestors such as to burn incense to their ancestor. She was afraid that when she dies, her only son who is being a Christian will not adopt the traditional Chinese ritual to let her rest in peace. Ming on the other was also worried, confused and constantly lived with tension being a Christian living with his mother and village relatives who adopt a lot of traditional rituals that he found in contradiction to his Christian faith. He found that there was a big gap between his Christian faith and the traditional practice in terms of religious rituals in his family and clan.
Ming shared with me his struggles in church. On the one hand I felt sorry for him and his mother. On the other hand, I was upset to hear this kind of tensions and separations for Christians from their non Christian parents, due to misunderstanding of the Christian doctrines and God’s commandment, and mixing up Christian values and doctrines, religious and cultural practices.
Since the time of evangelism, there are missionaries who regard burning the incense to ancestors and bowing before their plaques as idol worshipping. In their understanding, it is against God’s commandment. Therefore there are Chinese who wish to become Christians and they would encounter great struggles and often end up having great tensions with their families because they are requested by some evangelists to give up all these cultural practice and religious rituals. The negative understanding of Chinese cultures in this respect has upset many non Christian Chinese. It also created much unnecessary tension between converted Chinese Christians and their families. I have heard real stories of converted Christians who were rejected by their families because of their conversion to Christianity. This was very sad indeed. I found that this rigid understanding of the law from Christian faith of no worship to idols is doing more harm than good. First of all, culture and religious practice of other ethic groups and nationalities should be first of all fully understood and respected. Secondly, we have to critically examine any doctrine and/or religious commandment that contributed to the break up of family relationship and human relationship. Any assertion of faith rule and tradition that brings forth division rather than unity, peace and love, we have to watch out and be careful to regard it as God’s commandment.
I shared with Ming that traditions and interpretation of the scripture matter to him and his mother and families. And yet, it is his heart and the spirit of the commandment that counts more. In the Ten Commandments, we are instructed to honor our mothers and fathers. It is a demonstration of loving and life giving relationship between parents and children. In addition, I shared with him that we have to be aware of the close relationship between religious practice and culture. Therefore, those traditional Chinese rituals that are taken as religious practice which are deeply built into its culture in that particular community should be respect. Moreover, if the religious ritual was taken as a cultural practice of demonstrating a respect to ancestors and senior members of the family, there is no harm in doing it. It should not be taken as sin against God. In addition, as he is committed to his faith in Christ and his heart is towards God, even though he participates in the religious and cultural rituals conducted by his family and community out of love and respect, he did not commit any sin against God. God values his heart more than anything. Ah Ming was relieved and more relaxed after hearing this perspective in interpreting the words of God.
The Commandments from God and all traditions derived from them should be liberating and a demonstration of God’s love and care to people. Our Lord is God of liberation and God of peace. I believe that our God will not create a law or tradition that enslaves us and keeps people apart.
Ah Ming loved his mother very much. He did not want to upset his mother. In return his mother loved him too. As time passed by, Ming’s mother gradually adjusted herself and did not demand her son to participate in the traditional rituals which she thought Ming did not like due to his faith. In return Ming did not want his mother to suppress her needs. He once said that he will honor his mother’s needs and expectations according to her tradition and culture at the risk of sinning against God. When he said this I could feel his dilemma and struggles at heart. Mystically, I felt God’s divine presence in him when his heart was full of love and respect to his mother.
A few months ago, Ming’s mother was diagnosed to suffer from cancer at the terminal stage. It was in her sickness when she was embraced by God’s gracious love and powerful healing. She experienced great peace in Jesus Christ when she was in the struggle of life and death at the hospital. She was converted and baptized after an operation.
His mother’s conversion to the Christian faith and her heart being close to Christ has brought to Ming great comfort. Although he worried about his mother’s health, he had joy at heart for he saw peace and happiness on her face. It is the loving heart that has set him and his mother free. A heart to love others is very liberating. A heart to love for others with sincerity is a delight to God. A heart to love can make the impossible possible.
Two weeks ago, Ming’s mother passed away. She rested in peace. Ming and his family members accompanied her until her last breath.
In Ming and his mother’s experience, it reveals to us that when people focus their heart to love one another and willing to adjust for others’ benefit, they are set free from doctrines, religious rules and traditions that have once kept them separated. In addition, when they love each other, God is with them. To love people with our hearts is to love God, it is like two sides of a coin.
Although Jesus was critical of laws and traditions, don’t take Jesus wrong by thinking that he is against laws and tradition. Not at all, what Jesus rejected was that people put aside God’s commandment to observe human tradition. More importantly what Jesus opposed against was legalistic rules and hypocrisy. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said to the crowd in the Beatitude, “don’t think that I have come to abolish the law, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” As reiterated by Apostle Paul, ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Roman 13:10); ‘the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.’ (1 Timothy 1:5)
Therefore when Jesus instructed the crowd to listen to him and understand the distinction between clean and unclean, and about what are the things that defile, he made it clear that it was not the things that defiled people, it was the heart that mattered.
To God, it is the heart that matters. A heart close to God is what our Lord wants. Sisters and brothers, loving God and others is a command from God. But this command is definitely more than a command that requires our deliberate efforts to take actions. What do these actions involve? Let’s read again the word “Heart”, there are two little words within this word heart --- hear and ear. Use our ear to hear is important and necessary. We deceive ourselves if we say we love but without active listening to the voices of God and others. If we have a heart to love God and serve others, we need to use our ear to listen. (Mark 7:16 – those who has ears for listening should listen.)
I have several experiences in my life that demonstrate once again the importance and power of hearing or listening. I received a card from a student when I taught social work at Polytechnic University. The student shared with me that my listening ears had helped her. Very often, simply listening without any judgment is very therapeutic and helpful to a person who needs someone to talk to.
My son is another example. Every time when I listened to him patiently, our relationship will be restored after a conflict or quarrel. The power of listening comes from the fact that we try not to focus in to ourselves but to the one who speak to us. It is this “not focusing in” to our own self that makes loving others real.
Loving God and others include hearing and listening. Only when we listen are we able to understand God’s will and peoples’ problems and needs.
Jesus has made an explicit request from the crowd by saying to them, “listen to me, all of you, and understand” (Mark 7: 14) To take our heart close to God, we have to listen and to understand. If we hear without listening (paraphrasing a line from the song ‘Sound of Silence’ – people hearing without listening) we do not understand at all for we are not using our heart to hear.
Jesus’ teaching was powerful because of his radical approach and courage to challenge the authorities. Jesus was radical and revolutionary in his time. He was courageous to challenge the authorities whose hearts strayed away from God under the disguise of traditions. Jesus wanted his disciples to lead a life with integrity. When we read that Jesus criticized the Pharisees and scribes in his days, we should also self examine ourselves if we have done everything very much like them.
If we say we are God’s people, loving God and others, but if we see people suffer and being treated unjustly and keep silence, we may be hypocrites like the Pharisees and the scribes. It is because we worship and praise God by mouth, by paying lip-service. We are hesitant to pay the cost.
We as Christ’s disciples and form the community of Christ called church, do we have this courage to speak the truth from our heart, and to lead a life with integrity and engage in mission with all our heart and strength?
Jesus as the son of God, he was close to God and understand the will of God. Therefore by hearing Jesus’ words and following his footstep, we will make a difference. By taking our heart close to God, to commit ourselves to love our Lord and serve others, we will be given courage like Jesus to challenge the authorities of wrong doings and unrighteousness. Secondly, we will be given the wisdom like Jesus to discern the truth of God. Thirdly, we will be given the compassion to love by taking others’ needs as priority and more important than ours.
Jesus was teaching a great value to us to strengthen our faith in our daily life. May God’s living words continue to guard us in the right track that is close to God’s will. May God continue to lead us and guide us to lead a life with a pure heart of love. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 02 August 2009 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 16:2-4; 9-15 and John 6:24-35.
Prayer: God of life, we ask for your divine presence. Open our heart and mind to hear your words. May the Holy Spirit inspires us to understand the truth and the mystery of life in Christ.
Eternal life is an important theme addressed by the author in John’s Gospel in the New Testament. In the gospel account we read this morning, Jesus had taught the crowd about life by using bread as a symbol.
In the narrative accounts, we have read interesting dialogues between Jesus and the crowd. In the conversation, Jesus had shared with us significant messages that are relevant to believers of today.
When the crowd discussed with Jesus about life, they asked Jesus two important questions.
1 What must we do to perform the works of God?
2 What sign are you going to give us, so that we may see it and believe in you?
Jesus answered the crowd, in a way that was to change their paradigm of thinking.
The crowd referred to their Israelite tradition when they asked Jesus the questions. Obviously, the Israelites referred to God’s signs and works of what they knew: that was, God provided their ancestors manna through Moses. Jesus, in answering them, pointed out it is the source of power and provision that matters. Jesus said this was not Moses, the leader on earth that gave them food. But it was the Father from heaven that gave to the people. Jesus stressed that the true bread that gave life was from heaven.
The crowds were ordinary human beings, they understood life as they see it, and understood it by their previous experience and cultural traditions. Jesus however directed the people who believe in him to see something beyond human understanding, beyond what we see and the norms of society.
Jesus had directed the people, that included each one of us here to know the source of this universe and the source of life is God. When Israelites complained to Moses of the lack of food when they were in the wilderness, God listened to them and give them manna. God is “our parents” who created us, God will take care of us and provide us with everything we need.
Therefore the believe in Jesus implied that people should have entrusted in God, that our spiritual parent will not let us suffer from inadequacy.
Come to look at our world today, we live in an extremely competitive world. Profits making and economic growth are the golden rule in a capitalist society. Our society becomes more and more instrumental. People are marked with a price according to their market value.
One day, I heard a man who is fifty two said he is old and cannot speak good Cantonese in HK. Therefore he cannot get a job. I see disappointment on his face. It is very true that age discrimination exist in our society in HK. Our society is very instrumental and treats people as non-person. What I mean by non-person is that people are judged by their level of salary, amount of profits they can make for their company, their qualification, their social position etc. (these are kinds of external things). In many circumstances especially in the commercial world, people’s intrinsic value as a human being is no longer regarded as important. If the persons do not have any market value, they would be taken away from the job market. Such a scenario looks horrible.
Jesus talked to the crowd in his teaching that it was the Father in heaven that provides bread and gives life to the world. This is the good news to all people especially those who are looked down upon by society and not treated well by society. Bread from heaven is a free gift from God and everybody is entitled to it. The bread from heaven gives life to the world, to all humanity, disregarding their social status and qualification, age and gender, race and nationalities.
Therefore for those who are lacking in different ways in life, let’s uphold the belief that our Lord God, parent of all lives, will provide and protect. At the same time, we as people of God should be ready to share with others of what we have and what we are.
Another teaching by Jesus was, “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
HK is an affluent city. At the same time, many people pay great cost for they work very long hours even at the expense of their health and family relationship. Many of them may enjoy pretty good material life and yet, their spiritual life could be very deprived and poor. They may not be happy and contented.
Jesus taught the people to take food that endures for eternal life. He continued to say to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. How can it be if we come to Jesus we will never be hungry and if we believe in him will never be thirsty. How is that possible? The way Jesus shared about the bread of life is something beyond the physical world and biological body. Jesus’ message in here emphasized the close connection between his people and himself, between God and God’s people.
Jesus claims himself to be the bread of life, he was sent by God to reconnect people’s relationship with God (2 Cor 5:19), and to give people life, a life in full (John10:10). Jesus Christ welcomes all people, to come to him and take the bread of life from him, disregarding their background and social status. In reality, many people are not only hungry for bread/food, but hungry and thirsty for love. Because of sins of alienation amongst people, there are separation and hatred in different kinds of relationship. It has created a lot of wounds awaiting for healing. Jesus Christ is a great healer and full of mercy. If people come to Jesus for healing, God’s unconditional love and acceptance will touch their hearts and heal their trauma.
Jesus as the Bread of Life, another important aspect is his nature of life giving. Bread is one of the major staple food to nourish people’s life. Only when it is broken and eaten, will it nourish life. A piece of bread if not consumed cannot bring life, but bring bacteria and mould.
As a result, bread of life conveys a meaning of life sharing, giving and sacrificing.
Bread of life : break it and share with others
Jesus has used bread as a symbol to represent his body and life. He has broken the bread that represented his great intention and love to share his life with others.
On first Sunday of every month we celebrate Holy Communion in our congregation at Kowloon Union Church. The bread in the Communion symbolizes the body of Christ that is broken for his disciples and all people on earth. All Christians who belong to the community of faith in Christ should do the same as Jesus in our own life and for our contemporary world.
When we are able to share the bread/our lives with others, that means we are not in a state of inadequacy. Only when we have are we then able to share with others. Therefore the more we share indicates the more we have.
I had heard a touching story from Mrs Heung. In the 60’s when Hong Kong was in general very poor. Many families had large number of children but without adequate means to support lives. Mrs Hueng was one of those poor families in that decade. She was a widow taking care of several children then. One day when she noticed that two children lived next to her were starving, without hesitation nor worry if tomorrow her own family has adequate to eat, she gave a cup of rice to her neighbours.
From Mrs Heung, we can see that richness in life is not a matter of how much you have, but of how much you want to share.
Jesus Christ is definitely a giver. He has even given his life to others out of love and compassion. When we are able to come to Jesus, and learn from him to give and share with others, we will be blessed. The joy that we are able to help others is beyond word of expression.
Life is not only for survival. When there is love in life, life becomes more fulfilling and joyful.
Mrs Heung told me her life story when she was in hospital awaiting for an operation. I was so impressed by her optimistic and happy outlook. Mrs Heung is a very devoted Christian. She has demonstrated being a good witness as Jesus’ disciples to share her bread with others so as to bring life and hope to others. I trust that her faith in God and commitment to Jesus Christ has led her to live a life in full. I feel strongly of Mrs Hueng’s joy and happiness in Jesus’ love and grace.
Dear friends, are you hungry for something that is important to your physical life and thirsty for love right now? Do you know any of your friends face similar life situation?
Today, Jesus had promised those who come to him and believe in him, that their needs will be fulfilled. They will be given the bread of life. In Christ, they will never be hungry nor thirsty.
The mystery of this bread of life is that, our God is the source of life and love. Through Jesus Christ, all who believe in Christ will be given this eternal life of love and hope.
For all who have committed to Christ, they will be given the power of love and life through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of life is giving. The more we give to others, the more we have, and we are able to lead a life of abundance. A life of giving, serving and believing is the essence of eternity.
After the crowd heard Jesus’ teaching, they said to Jesus, in John 6:33 “Sir, give us this bread always”. Today is the Communion Sunday, every month we celebrate Holy Communion in church. The bread in the Communion symbolizes the body of Christ that is broken for his disciples and all people on earth. We need to do it in the remembrance of Jesus. Friends, are you prepared to ask God for this bread of life and take it and to follow Jesus as his faithful disciples?
God of Divine, may the bread of life gives your people faith that enables them to face hardship in life.
May the bread of life gives your people hope and peacethat take away all their fears and self-doubts.
May the bread of life gives your people love and joy that they follow Christ’s deeds to lead a life of giving. To the glory of your name. Amen.