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Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

What Difference Does Jesus Make?

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 22 January 2017,  the third Sunday after Epiphany, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Ezekiel 36:2527; 2 Corinthians 5:1421; Luke 15:1124


A few weeks ago, I saw an article in the New York Times that caught my eye. It was about the son of a prominent American evangelical preacher. This son, as it turns out, decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Now there are likely many preachers whose children choose not to follow their parents’ faith. But what intrigued me was that this 48-year-old son, named Bart Campolo, had for many years been a model of Christian discipleship. He had worked tirelessly in inner city missions. He was a dynamic speaker, and often a guest preacher in churches. Then one day, he had a terrible bicycle accident, and nearly died. The recovery in the hospital took over a month, during which he thought a lot about life or more particularly, the afterlife. And what he concluded was that he didn’t believe there was an afterlife…what we have here on earth is it, and we need to make the best of the time we have right now.

In short, Campolo lost his faith in God, and that was OK by him. He said, “I don’t want to live a lie anymore.” But at the same time, he needed a job. He’d always liked talking to people and helping them. So he reinvented himself and his ministry, using the techniques he had learned as a Christian. Only now he wanted to help nonbelievers. Bart Campolo is currently chaplain for the Secular Student Fellowship at the University of Southern California.

To be fair, the article was not an attack on Christians. Nor was it a glorification of atheism, which denies the existence of God. Actually the nonreligious people that Campolo reaches out to might identify themselves as humanists, rather than atheists. That means they’re focused more on joy and living up to our human potential rather than tearing down what others believe. As the article puts it, “Their project is to talk about leading a good life without God.” Or as Bart Campolo himself says, “A church for people who don’t believe in God.”

For someone like me, this of course is unimaginable. I don’t know how to talk about a good life without God in the middle of it, and I don’t know why you’d call it a church unless you do believe in God. But the article did make me think about my faith and our faith as the body of Christ. And the question that came to mind was, “What difference does Jesus make?”

It might surprise you that that’s the same question Christians have had to ask themselves over and over again since the beginning of the faith. You’d think those who walked and talked with Jesus would have the inside story. But remember how many times Jesus had to scold his followers for their lack of understanding? Even when the risen Christ met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, what did he say to them? “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have declared!” 

In the New Testament Church, it was no better. You’d think that those churches started by the apostles would be the strongest ones of all. Yet, over and over again we read of conflicts and controversies that threatened to tear the church apart. And that’s exactly what was happening in Corinth in our epistle reading for today. Paul is writing to a church that he had founded and knew very well. But now some of the members had broken off their relationship with him, and they were following false teachers who had infiltrated the congregation. The Corinthians were convinced that Paul was the false teacher, a loser who was always getting into trouble, in and out of prison, even close to death a few times. What kind of leader was this? How dare he call himself an apostle!

Paul, of course, is deeply hurt by their abandonment. But even more, he’s alarmed that they had missed the very heart of the Gospel. So he writes not only to set them straight about himself but even more to set them straight about their faith. What difference does Jesus make? Paul’s answer: EVERYTHING!

The way Paul sees it, the Corinthians have not just rejected him. They’ve rejected their Lord and Savior. And how does he know this? Because they have judged him according to human standards, not God’s standards. They’ve measured his ministry by worldly success, not the Cross of Christ. Paul says, “Can’t you see that your hostility towards me is actually hostility towards God? Can’t you see that our broken relationship has broken God’s heart? We beg you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God and open wide your hearts to us!”

I think this letter must have been as difficult for Paul to write as it was for the Corinthians to read. Conflict and controversy are hard enough, but reconciliation is even harder. Sometimes we are just tempted to walk away and cut our losses. Or we say, well, it’s their fault, so they’re going to have to make the first move. Or even worse, we say, I really don’t care anymore. They can go to “Hades” as far as I’m concerned.

Can you imagine if God had felt that way towards us? If God had said these humans I’ve created are hopeless. They won’t listen to me. They’re determined to ruin everything I gave them and destroy themselves in the process. I wash my hands of them.

Yet, the Bible tells us that God did exactly the opposite. Instead of waiting for us to make the first move, God took the initiative. Instead of giving up on the relationship, God gave us His only Son. Instead of letting us go to “Hades”, God welcomed us to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Let us never forget how much love and sacrifice it took for God to bring us back home.

As I read Paul’s magnificent words on reconciliation in 2 Corinthians, I realize though all this love and sacrifice was not just for our personal benefit. As he says in v. 19, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. In other words, in Christ, being reconciled and being a reconciler always go together.

So what does a ministry of reconciliation look like? I can tell you what it doesn’t look like. There’s a story that took place on one New Year’s Eve at a club in London. A   playwright named Frederick Lonsdale was asked by his friend to reconcile with a fellow member. The two had quarreled in the past and had never restored their friendship. “You must do this,” he told the Lonsdale. “It’s very unkind to be unfriendly at such at time. Go over now and wish him a Happy New Year.” So Frederick Lonsdale crossed the room and spoke to his enemy. “I wish you a happy New Year,” he said, “but only one.”

We laugh, but reconciliation can be a scary word. As one Christian said, “It’s simple, yet complicated meaning can be difficult to talk about, especially when we are talking about the church. Simply put, reconciliation is the intersection between forgiveness and justice. It is the act of unconditional love colliding with the desire to make life better for the world. It requires us to listen intentionally for God’s voice in the stories of our neighbors.”[1]

Last year when I was in the US, I had some firsthand experience listening intentionally for God’s voice. On November 8th, the day of the Presidential election, I was in NYC with friends preparing to celebrate the first woman President of the United States. So when Mr. Donald Trump won, I was more than surprised, more than disappointed. I was probably in shock. The next day I was near the famous Riverside Church on the upper West Side of Manhattan so I went in to pray. Riverside Church is a Protestant church but it’s modeled after a 13th century gothic cathedral in France. The sanctuary is huge and awe-inspiring but somehow I just couldn’t pray. So as I was leaving the sanctuary, I noticed there was tiny room to the side called the Gethsemane Chapel. I walked in, sat on the bench, and gazed up at a large painting of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Within seconds, I burst into tears. And I was crying not only for a deeply polarized nation that I had seen close up for four months. I was weeping also for a deeply divided church in America and the broken relationships that had made Christians strangers and enemies to one another. Like Paul, I knew I must be a minister of reconciliation, but I couldn’t find the way forward on my own.

So it was very helpful to hear what church leaders around the United States had to say in the days following the election. One of the most meaningful to me was written by the Bishop of the Episcopal or Anglican Church of New York. Let me read you Bishop’s Andrew’s pastoral letter of November 11th posted on a website called ‘Living Reconciliation’.

“My Brothers and Sisters,
For many Americans, of both political parties, the results of the presidential election… were a surprise. It was not what was expected, or at least not what we were led to expect. We discover now the depth and the breadth of the rift that divides and separates [us] one from another in ways that have not been revealed by other elections. These differences, this divide, cannot and must not be simply smoothed over in false hope of an easy reconciliation. Rather, the much harder task now lies before [us], to really listen to one another, to hear one another’s pain and fear, to understand one another, and by God’s grace to find together the deeper hopes and dreams which all human beings share …. This task may be our most urgent work now as a church.
Despair or gloating are unfaithful responses to this election for Christians. So is the hatred of those who differ from us. But … it must not be forgotten that a substantial amount of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign was racist and misogynist, brutal and violent, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and sexually offensive…. 
That rhetoric has occasioned extraordinary alarm. We pray that the heated language of the campaign will not follow him into his presidency or inform his governance, but we also insist: it may not.
Last Saturday at our diocesan convention, I suggested some basic principles of the Christian faith….They are not partisan; they favor no particular candidate or political party. They are of the very fabric of the Christian faith, and I repeat them here:
1.                   The equality and dignity of all persons of every race and gender and sexual orientation…
2.                   The welcome of the stranger…
3.                   Compassion and relief for the poor, and economic justice…
4.                   A commitment to non-violence, and to peace…and
5.                   The gracious stewardship of creation…”

Bishop Andrew then closes with these powerful words: “Our call as Christians is always to hold ourselves to the standard of these principles, and as Christian citizens to hold our elected officials to the same standard… we pray that God grace [Mr. Trump] with the wisdom and courage to rise to the high calling of his office, as we will also pray that he be imbued with compassion for and understanding of every single person in [our nation] …Our president, our elected officials, one another, and we ourselves will be held accountable for this. On this too much depends.”[2]

This message to the church in America could also be a message for many others outside the country. That includes us in Hong Kong. We too know what it means to live in a deeply polarized society. We too don’t hold false hope for an easy reconciliation. But we also know, as the Bible says, for our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

What difference does Jesus make? Everything. A divided church and an unbelieving world stand waiting for you and me to show them how. Amen.



[1] http://ridgleachristian.org/what-is-reconciliation/
[2] http://living-reconciliation.org/2016/11/the-morning-after/

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, January 22, 2017

 

Epiphany

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 8 January 2017 by Paul Cooper. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12.


Today, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany means revelation, unfolding and manifestation. It usually has overtones of surprise and mysticism as well. And Epiphanies happen all the time in small ways! Calli and I were privileged to become grandparents on November 26, when my elder daughter, Rosemary, bore a little boy called Harry. When Rosemary and Harry came home from hospital a few days later, of course I went to see my new grandson! But it was in the evening, and it just happened that a bright star – probably Venus – was ahead of me as I drove towards Rosemary’s home. I immediately thought of the star that the Wise Men followed to see a newborn child. That experience, so close to Christmas, was a real Epiphany, giving me some understanding of how the Wise Men felt when they followed a star to see the Messiah.

During the season of Epiphany we consider the revelation of Jesus in many ways. We see Jesus revealed to the Magi, to John the Baptist through His baptism, to the disciples as He called them, to Peter, James and John at the transfiguration. In all these events, Jesus was revealed in different ways to different groups of people. But a point worth making is that Epiphany never ends. Jesus is still revealing Himself in the world today, every time a person opens himself or herself to the power of the Spirit.

Today, we consider the very first people from outside Judaism to whom Jesus was revealed.

The three kings are a part of every nativity play, bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus. They are an important part of our picture of Christmas - the custom of giving gifts can be traced to them. Novels such as Ben Hur use the Magi as pivotal characters, and T.S Eliot commemorated them in the poem “The Journey of the Magi”. But almost every depiction of them contains an important mistake. Nearly every Nativity scene shows the Magi worshipping at the manger in the stable. But the scriptures tell us that the magi weren’t at the manger. They arrived sometime later, when the holy family had found somewhere more settled than the manger that saw Christ’s birth.

The wise men are mystery characters, only mentioned in Matthew’s gospel - what do we really know about them?

They appear from the East, probably from Persia or Arabia. They weren’t Kings; Matthew uses the word “Magi” to refer to them, and that probably means they were astrologers and magicians - perhaps priests of the Persian religion, possibly courtiers. They were certainly serious students of the stars. Astrology and magic are despised in the rest of the Bible - this is pretty much the only positive reference to them.

Whatever else they were, they were people open to hear and obey God’s word. Following the star was probably prompted by their own beliefs, but they obeyed the angel’s message not to return to Herod. They followed God’s commands both through their own beliefs and through the special message that God gave them.

From our point of view, perhaps the most important bit is that they weren’t Jews! We know that because they come from a far-off land and do not know the scriptures - the passage from the prophet Micah that Herod’s advisers quoted was well known, and any Jew would have known it, especially as messianic prophecy was popular at the time. But of course, the importance of this is that the coming of the Magi shows that Christ came for all the world, not only the children of Israel. KUC is a pretty good example of the breadth of what that means! We have people here representing every continent, including Antarctica in me!

They arrived some time after the birth of Jesus. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are living in a house, not a stable and Jesus is a child, not an infant. Herod killed every male child under 2 years old, so the Magi hadn’t been expecting a new-born baby.

Finally, we don’t even know how many there were! Traditionally we think of three, because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the Gospel doesn’t say. The names you might hear for them - Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar - are very late inventions, and the Eastern Church uses different names.

The star is a complete mystery! Planetaria often have a Christmas performance that show various possibilities - the heavens seem to have been full of candidates for the star of Bethlehem in the last years BC. Efforts have been made to use the star to get the date of Jesus’ birth, but such attempts seem doomed to failure - there is no certainty about the relationship between the appearance of the star and Jesus’ birth. People have suggested that it might have been a comet, planets coming close to each other in the sky, a Nova or Supernova or a meteor shower. Most have the problem of explaining how the star moved, and showed the location of the house where Jesus and Mary were. It probably doesn’t really matter. The main thing about the star, no matter what it was, is that it was God’s means of communicating with these men. They could have been the only ones to see it!

After their brief appearance, the wise men disappear. We hear no more of them, not even in tradition, although Lew Wallace made them the basis of the novel Ben Hur, which we all know from the film starring Charlton Heston.

What do we make of this? Do we dismiss it as a pretty story which Matthew used to show that Jesus was sent to both Jew and Gentile? Even as it stands we can see the visit of the Magi as the fulfilment of the prophecy in the first lesson - that the promised one would come to be a light to the nations, to bring God’s salvation to Earth’s furthest bounds. The Magi were the first fruits of Jesus’ redemption of the whole world, as the shepherds were the first fruits of His mission to his own people, the Jews.

But, does it have more to tell us? Let us think about what the Magi did.

First of all, they searched for Jesus. Their search was expensive - they travelled a long way, and there were no cheap airlines in those days! Travelling was a hard, costly and dangerous business – Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that bandits were a real hazard, even on a relatively short journey. But God helped their search, giving them signs in a form they could understand - the star and dreams.

Second, the Magi rejoiced when they found Jesus. This wasn’t just an academic search, to satisfy their curiosity, but something that involved them deeply. All along they knew that they weren’t just on a physical journey, but on a spiritual one.

Third, the Magi worshipped Jesus. They believed that the signs they had been given indeed showed that this was the King of the Jews - a baby, born to a humble family. And that isn’t what they expected - they called at the palace first, showing that as they followed the star, their understanding of God’s purposes developed and widened.

Finally, they brought gifts to Him. Precious gifts, which were also symbolic – gold for a king, frankincense for God and myrrh for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Well, we are not kings, nor are we wise people from far away! But what they did for Jesus, we also can do. We search for Jesus, and seek Him in everything we do. I read a lot of Science Fiction, as Calli will tell you! But I often see Jesus in even this most worldly form of literature; messages that the author didn’t mean, or directions of thinking that open up new ways to God. Most of all, we seek Jesus in the Scriptures, and it is in the light of scripture that we interpret other sources of inspiration. And sometimes the search for Jesus is costly – not necessarily in worldly ways, but by forcing us to think again about our understanding of God.

When we find Jesus, we rejoice! And that is what church is all about – rejoicing at the gift of salvation that Jesus brings. We don’t come here to be gloomy; we come to church to share our joy with other Christians. And our joy should be visible to others, and why not? The gift God gave at Christmas was the best possible Christmas present ever.

When we find Jesus, we react with worship. Jesus came into the world to bring us back to God. And as John’s Gospel put it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That baby in the manger, the wandering teacher in Galilee and Judea, that victim on the cross was indeed God, and his resurrection on the third day is the sign and seal of that great truth. Once we have found Jesus, we respond to Him with worship, for as Revelations says, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Finally, we bring gifts to Jesus. Not, perhaps, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but we give the gifts that God has given us back to His service. And we all have different gifts; every one of us can bring something to God. Of course we give money at the offering time, but that is only a small part of our giving. We should give everything that we are to Jesus’ service – our understanding, our skills, our time and our energy. And this is a good time of the year to dedicate ourselves and all that we have and all that we are once again to the child in the manger, the Lord God who humbled himself to a lowly stable.

Amen



The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, January 08, 2017

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