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 36:25–27; 2 Corinthians 5:14–21; Luke 15:11–24
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.
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.”
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
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!
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!
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!”
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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:
The equality and dignity of all
persons of every race and gender and sexual orientation…
The welcome of the stranger…
Compassion and relief for the
poor, and economic justice…
A commitment to non-violence,
and to peace…and
The gracious stewardship of
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.”
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
difference does Jesus make? Everything. A divided church and an unbelieving
world stand waiting for you and me to show them how. Amen.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!”
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.
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,
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,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
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: 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.