Since the second Sunday of June, we have explored the stories and theological meanings of our favorite hymns and sung them together as closing each worship service. And today, we are already looking into our last favorite hymn. Beginning with “How Great Thou Art,” we reflected on an African American spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a contemporary praise, “How Great Is Our God,” and the classics, “Blessed Assurance,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Are you enjoying this sermon series so far? Through this journey, I hope those hymns may resonate within our own stories of faith and our own melodies of grace as we continue to make our beautiful polyphony of grace here with the guidance of the Holy Spirit…
If there is one word that every little kid loves to use other than “no,” it would be “why.” They throw countless why-questions at their parents and teachers. “Why can’t we get a puppy?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t I have ice cream right now?” The funniest why-question I’ve ever received when I was a Sunday school teacher was, “Why do you have hair coming out of your nose?” Oops! Judy Arnall, a parenting expert says, the “why stage” of development isn’t about misbehaving or annoying parents. It’s what happens when children’s brains exercise their imagination and creative thinking. So the question of “why” actually shows a significant leap in brain development.
But when children advance from the why stage to the next stage of development, do why-questions ever go away? Perhaps, they would ask less questions, because they have certain answers from their experience and learn how to find answers as their intellect grows. But look at us. As grown-ups, can we say that we are now free from asking why? No, we can’t. It looks like we only have different sets of why-questions. And even worse, questions we ask in our adulthood are more complicated and hard to answer, because they are more about our life and existence. Why do I live? Why do I exist? Why is my life such and such? It’s truly difficult to answer these why-questions especially about the reason for life.
Then, when we have those in-depth why-questions about our life, how do we find answers? In what way? We might get some help from great achievements of human mind like philosophy and science. And we might get some wisdom from our friends and someone we respect and trust. Yes, they may provide us with quite good rationales of life. But even though those rationales are meaningful to us, we know they are not enough to discover life’s purpose behind its reality. Why? It’s simply because we are humans, and the way of human mind has certain limitations. So here, we better come up with a different approach, a different way to find answers. And the other way we have is the way of faith. This way tends to be disregarded and considered archaic in this world of advanced science and technology. However, as a Christian, I am confident that this is the way. This is the only way that assures us of the ultimate reason for life.
Our Christian faith simply affirms that God’s everlasting love for us is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And he is the answer to the why-questions about our life. Through our faith in Jesus, we get to know the truth that we are beloved children of God. With love, God created us in God’s image. And by grace, God saved us even when we were yet sinners. So why do we live? It’s because we are called to live our life in God’s love and abundant blessing. We cannot even measure how much we are loved and how priceless our lives are. Please remember, Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave just for our lives, for our new lives. The first verse of the hymn “Because He Lives” tells us exactly about this reason for life. “God sent his son, They called him Jesus, He came to love, Heal and forgive, He lived and died, To buy my pardon, An empty grave, Is there to prove, My Savior lives.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we are called to God’s love. Each one of us is personally called to the love that gives us new life, new hope, and new purpose and meaning of life.
The authors of the hymn are the two of the longest-lasting performing couples of Christian contemporary music, Gloria and William J. Gaither.
It is said they wrote the hymn based on the answer to their own why-questions of life. It was when they were expecting their third child, they saw many social upheavals in the sixties. Drug traffic, assassinations, racial tensions, and threats of war monopolized the headline news. And Mr. Gaither was very ill and the couple went through a very hard time. Ms. Gaither recalls the time when they asked to themselves, “Why do we give birth to a child into such a world like this?” “Why should we let our child face the uncertain future?” But facing these why-questions, the Gaithers experienced a mysterious moment of divine assurance. Ms. Gaither says, “At a moment, suddenly I felt released from it all… the assurance of the risen Christ blew across our troubled minds like a cooling breeze in the parched desert… Gradually, the fear left and the joy began to return. I knew I could have that baby and face the future with optimism and trust. It was the resurrection affirming itself in our lives once again. It was life conquering death in the regularity of my day.” With this answer, they wrote, “How sweet to hold, A newborn baby, And feel the pride, And joy he gives, But greater still, The calm assurance, This child can face, Uncertain days, Just Because he lives.”
Because he lives, not only because he died on the cross for us, but because he lives for us, we know we can live our new life in Christ, the life that is everlasting. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus assures his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live.” The chorus of the hymn gloriously sings, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, Because he lives, All fear is gone, Because I know, He holds the future, And life is worth the living, Just because he lives.” Yes, because he lives, we know that we will also live. Because he lives, we know that our faith in God will never go in vain. Because he lives, we know that the true love can overcome any suffering and death in this world. Because he lives, we know that God loves us and calls us to love God and love one another. Because he lives, we have unending hope for the future.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus has risen and freed us from our sins and liberate us even from the power of death. He has risen and assured us of the worthiness of our life. So let us never cease praising him who gives us the ultimate reason for life. And let us live our life in all confidence of God’s everlasting love for us. Why? Because he lives, just because he lives. Amen.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The survey of our favorite hymns showed me that this hymn was picked more than others, and I think it is not a surprise at all. No doubt, it’s a great hymn with beautiful praises for God’s steadfast love, care, and guidance in our lives. Hear the heartfelt chorus of the hymn, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!” Singing this hymn, have you ever got curious about the author of this hymn? From the beautiful lyrics we may guess that the author probably had many reasons to be grateful to God. And it seems likely that the author lived a wonderful life, because such praise can’t just come out of someone who didn’t experience God’s abundant blessings. Sure enough.
But against our expectation, this hymn’s author, Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960) lived a rather underprivileged and challenging life.
Born in a log cabin in a small Kentucky town of Franklin, Chisholm was a farm boy who grew up without any formal education. Nevertheless, he tried hard and became a teacher at age sixteen, and the associate editor of his hometown newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. After he converted into Christianity, he pursued to be a pastor and finally got ordained as a Methodist minister ten years later. He started his ordained ministry at a church in Kentucky, but very unfortunately, he had to resign after just one year because of his poor health condition. He struggled with his health issue for many years. Later, he moved to New Jersey but couldn’t go back to ministry. So, for the rest of his life, he worked as a life insurance salesperson.
Even though his life didn’t start in a favorable circumstance, even though his life didn’t unfold as the way he wanted, Chisholm never ceased praising God through his poems. And by the time of his retirement, he already had more than 1,200 poems. 800 of them were published including the most famous, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Toward the end of his life, Chisholm testified, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years, which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
What a testimony! This powerful testimony of faith resonates right within the first verse of the hymn. “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; There is no shadow of turning with Thee, Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” How could Chisholm keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in his life? How could he keep trusting God no matter what?
The questions run even more deeply as we meditate on the Bible passage that directly inspired Chisholm to write the hymn. That is a passage from the Book of Lamentations. As the title says, the Book of Lamentations is a collection of poetic laments. This book can hardly ever be a favorite reference of hymn writers or pastors, because it is mostly packed with vehement expressions of gut-wrenching grief. In the book, the poets of lamentations cry out for God as they witness the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem (586 BCE), and they hold God accountable for the miseries they are facing as captives. But it is just incredible that even in their deepest desperation, they don’t lose their faith in God. Rather, they reaffirm their faith and even praise God, because they believe that their hope is still in God, and in God only. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). “Great is your faithfulness! Even we are in the middle of unending ordeal and anguish, we believe, great still is your faithfulness.” Yes, they sing! And this authentic praise out of the turbulent depth inspired Chisholm to join their singing.
How could Chisholm and the people of God keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in their lives? How could they keep trusting God no matter what? The rest of the hymn gives us the answers to the questions. It first tells us that when we simply observe the course of nature, we can find God’s care for all creation and believe God’s unchanging faithfulness. Verse 2 goes, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above; Join with all nature in manifold witness, To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” Here the hymn praises our God the Creator who gives us the confidence in God’s faithful care. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus also asks us to see God’s steadfast love, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).
Now the hymn gives us another answer that when we remember what God has done for our new life, we will never lose our faith in God’s faithfulness. Verse 3 goes, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.” Here the hymn praises our God the Redeemer who liberates us from the chain to sin and death, and it also praises our God the Sustainer who is ever present among us and closely guides our journey of faith.
Because of the one who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, because of the faithful work of our triune God among us, because of God’s lifegiving love, saving grace, and everlasting peace for us, we can keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all the challenges in our lives; we can keep trusting God no matter what; and we can sing, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
Sometimes, we face moments of grief and suffering. And sometimes, our reality is too hard to bear. It is never easy to remain faithful when our lives don’t get any better or when we struggle with our own situations. It is never easy to keep our faith when our light of hope flickers in our hearts, yet the winds of despair gust through our lives. In times like these, what shall we do to keep our faith? From the hymn of Thomas Chisholm and the lamentation of the Israelites in exile, we should learn one thing for sure today. In such times like those, we praise God. We praise God witnessing God’s faithful care for all God’s creation. We praise God trusting in God’s faithful work as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And we praise God’s faithfulness no matter what. Then, I believe, God will surely fill our hearts with heavenly joy and confidence. So let us praise God once more and every time, “Great is Thy faithfulness!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-great-is-thy-faithfulness); (http://gaither.com/news/“great-thy-faithfulness”-story-behind-hymn)
Do you remember what happened in this sanctuary exactly on this day six years ago, July 1st, 2012? Can anybody guess? That day was also Sunday… Yes, it was the very first Sunday that I had the worship service and delivered my sermon as a pastor right in this pulpit. That was six years ago already. And it means that today, another year of my ministry has started. How do I feel? I am truly grateful that I can have this worship service with you today and still belong to my loving church family from both congregations. In a way, I feel like I have been through a tough journey with you, a journey with many roadblocks, with many ups and downs. But above all, I am truly grateful that through the journey, I have witnessed how God is working among us to grow and enlarge our circle of blessing.
Looking back on those years, personally, I have many testimonies. But beyond everything else, what I can testify in all confidence is just one simple assurance engraved in my heart. That is, “God never gives up.” God never gives up on us because we are the children of God. And God never gives up on us until God’s will be done in our lives. God never gives up. This is the assurance I have come to hold through my short and humble journey in ministry.
Last week as I was reflecting on the assurance and preparing another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace,” I felt like God reassuring my faith by the beautiful message of the hymn that we are looking into today. This favorite hymn of our choice is “Blessed Assurance.” Yes, what else would it be?
This hymn was written by one of the most famous hymn writers of all time, Fanny Crosby. She became blind at the age of six weeks,but with her extraordinary talent, She began composing hymns at age six and eventually became an author of more than 8,000 gospel hymn texts. And more importantly to us… she was a lifelong Methodist. History tells us about the day in 1873 when Crosby wrote “Blessed Assurance.” On that day, her friend, Phoebe Palmer Knapp, visited her and played a melody to Fanny Crosby and asked, “What does the melody say to you?” Crosby replied that the tune suggested the words, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” And she immediately proceeded to recite the entire first verse of the hymn.
From the story, we can imagine, Crosby must have kept her assurance so faithfully in her heart that it could be immediately crystalized into words as soon as the melody inspired her soul. Then, how does her vivid assurance come to be expressed in a form of hymn? The hymn begins by describing the foundation of Christian assurance, the ground on which we can keep our faith in God. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.” The first verse of the hymn tells us, the foundation of our blessed assurance is Jesus who comes to us and reveals God’s steadfast love for us. True, through Jesus, we are assured that we can experience the “foretaste of glory divine” in our lives. Through Jesus, we are assured that his sacrifice on the cross makes us the “heirs of salvation” “born of His Spirit.” And through Jesus, we are assured that God loves us always and therefore, God never gives up on us. In today’s Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul proclaims that nothing can change God’s love for us, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 8:38-39). Indeed, upon Jesus Christ, who is the firm foundation of our faith, the rock of our salvation, the cornerstone of our church, we can stand assured of God’s everlasting love for us.
Following the foundation of our blessed assurance, the hymn moves on to teach us the way of Christian assurance, the way we can remain assured of God’s loving presence. How can we always feel blessed, beloved, joyful, redeemed, and esteemed on the ground of our faith? One thing for sure is that we cannot stay assured by our own will, by our own power and effort. Even though we have the assurance of God’s love, we are still humans whose faith easily gets weakened by our fears, doubts, and despairs. And we are still humans who seek other grounds of assurance than Jesus Christ because we crave some short-term guarantees of evanescent happiness, and we strive to fulfill instinctive human needs of security, power, and affection.
Then, what is the way we can permanently live on the ground of our true assurance? The hymn tells us the way in two words, “Perfect submission.” “Perfect submission, perfect delight! Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above, Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Yes, the way that we can be always assured of God’s love and joyfully abide in that love is perfect submission of our will. When we surrender our stubborn will and let God take the steering wheel, we will be able to find the glimpse of “perfect delight.” When we deny our strong ego that blinds our eyes and deafens our ears, we will be able to see the “visions of [joy]… burst on [our] sight,” and hear the “echoes of mercy” and “whispers of love.” So let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done through us. Let us submit our ego and let only Christ live in us, let our Good Shepherd find us the way to green pastures. This is the way, the only way, we can always have the “foretaste of glory divine” and live in the assurance of new life, of new hope, of the new heaven and the new earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today we are standing on the foundation of our assurance, that is, God’s steadfast love for us in Jesus Christ. With this divine love, we surely become confident that God never gives up on us, the beloved children of God. Delivering this sermon on the day that marks a new start of ministry here, I can certainly say to you that this is my story and this is my song. God has never given up on us, and I know, God never will. So I praise my savior, all the day long. On our way of assurance, let us remain assured in Christ; let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done in our lives. Through the blessed assurance and the perfect submission, I hope and pray that we can find a true joy of salvation and a true hope for the kingdom to come always. Amen.
Today I’m delivering another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace.” When designing this sermon series and doing a survey of our favorite hymns, I really hoped to have at least one African-American spiritual and one contemporary Christian music among the favorites. And guess what, thankfully enough, it worked out as I wanted! So last Sunday, with our gospel choir, Voices of Praise, we could sing one touching spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and praise our God of freedom. And today, with our contemporary band, LIFT, we’re going to sing “How Great Is Our God” as our closing song.
I believe it’s truly a great blessing that we can enjoy different kinds of music in our worship services and make the true polyphony of grace in our midst. As you already know, in our church, we worship with various music styles—traditional hymns, classical music, Taizé songs, gospels, African-American spirituals, and contemporary praise songs and so on. Even though each of us has a personal preference when it comes to worship music, we still fully try and accept other forms of praise in our worship services with our open hearts and open ears. And this is a wonderful thing.
You’d hear quite frequently about conflicts regarding music in some churches. There have been tensions and disputes between the people who prefer traditional music and the people who prefer contemporary music. But this conflict is nothing new; it’s actually a centuries-old conflict that, I think, will last as long as the church exists. You’ll find this interesting: there was a time when one of the most traditional hymns to us, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by Martin Luther, was regarded unholy because he used a folk tune of his days. Also, there was a time when the beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” was treated as ungodly and even banned from some churches because of its cheerful mood. And not too long ago, I myself remember the days when people debated on whether to include guitars and drums in worship services.
Yes, because we are humans, we may prefer certain kinds of music over others and feel uncomfortable with particular rhythms, tunes, and instruments. And we can’t change the way we are as individuals. But I believe, as a church, as the people who are called and saved by God’s grace, if we put first the reason that we praise and worship God before anything else, the controversies on styles of music would mean nothing. I believe, it is much more important for all of us to be clear on “why” we should praise God before “how” we should praise God.
So why should we praise God? We praise God because God’s grace for us is ever admirable and praiseworthy. We praise God because God has done the great work of salvation among us as the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. This work of grace is so unfathomable that no single way of praise can fully describe it. It cannot be glorified fully even with a thousand tongues to sing and even with a thousand music to play. The greatness of God shall be acclaimed in many different forms of music and many different tunes from generation to generation. And before this absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise can become relative and secondary.
“How Great Is Our God,” which is picked as our favorite contemporary song, bountifully reveals our reasons for praise. Inspired by the words of the Psalms (96;104), the first verse sings the greatness of God the Creator, the one who is transcendent and has the power and dominion over all creations: “The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty, let all the earth rejoice…He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide and trembles at His voice…How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.” The song goes on to touch upon other reasons for praise like the work of God in the Trinity, especially God’s immanent presence in the person of Jesus Christ. “Age to age He stands and time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. The Godhead Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb. How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.”
Why should we praise God? The song gives us clear answers. We praise God for God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness, but even more we praise God because God is immanent and present among us walking closely with us. We praise God for God’s splendor and majesty, but even more we praise God because God’s splendor and majesty are clothed with humility and meekness in Jesus Christ. We praise God for God’s dominion over the creation, but even more we praise God because in Jesus Christ, we see how God’s power was humbled and emptied for the sake of our reconciliation with God. We praise God for God’s Son who came to the world as the lion, as the mighty king who builds the kingdom of God on earth, but even more we praise God because this lion became the lamb of salvation obediently sacrificed on the cross to declare God’s everlasting love for us (John 1:29-34). We praise God for these amazing reasons.
So now, how should we praise God? Do we have to choose one type of music over others to express our faith in God? Do we have to argue about a better way to express our heart full of wonder, gratitude, and joy? Again, before the absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise becomes relative and secondary. And it is rather unnecessary to decide legitimate forms of music as far as a music reveals the unchanging reasons that we praise God and inspires us to keep our faith in God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter how we praise our God, let us remember that our God, who has the name above all names, is always worthy of our praise. So let us sing and praise the greatness of our God in every way that we can take and continue to make the beautiful polyphony of grace in our gathering. Amen.
“Let freedom ring!” At the end of his historic speech, “I Have a Dream,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shouted. “Let freedom ring!” The speech sparked a light of justice in numerous people’s hearts and led them to a fight for freedom from long-standing segregation and discrimination. From that day, our society has walked a long way to keep everyone’s unalienable right of freedom. But today, in this so-called land of liberty, are we actually free? Are we truly free?
We are not free from the powers of the world that delimit our freedom. We are not free from the powers that aggravate discrimination and bigotry in our society. We are not free from the powers that tear immigrant families apart by federal raids, indefinite detentions, and deportations. We are not free from the powers of biased media that control our perspectives. We are not free from the powers that retain basic necessaries of human life like food, medical service, and education, from being more accessible and affordable. We are not free from the irresponsible powers that don’t care about lurking danger of gun violence and environmental crisis. We are not free from the powers that gain benefits from putting crushing weight of financial burdens on people’s back. How are we actually free from this inescapable web of the worldly powers? I don’t think we are free enough to live the way God created us to be. And it looks like we still need to walk another long way to seek true freedom as it is endowed by God.
But to us, although we are bound up in the web, here comes the good news of God. The Bible clearly testifies that God is the giver of freedom. Indeed, the work of God’s grace, at its core, is to set God’s people free from all the powers of the world. God is the God of Exoduswho raised Moses and led God’s people out of the slavery in Egypt. The Song of Moses in the book of Exodus praises the God who saved God’s people by leading them through the Red Sea, and defeated the Pharaoh’s chariots and army by exercising a great miracle. Moses sings, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:1-2).
The psalmist acclaims God as the God of liberationwho delivered the captives from the oppressive rules of the Empire. The psalmist praises God on the historic day when the Israelites finally returned to their homeland from the long exile: (3) “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:1-2).
Jesus also reveals that God is the God of deliverancewho breaks the bondages to evil powers, the powers of sin and death. Jesus, at the very beginning of his mission in this world, proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The God of Exodus, the God of liberation, and the God of deliverance… the Bible affirms that our God is the Chain Breaker who gives us freedom, the freedom from all worldly powers that try to bind us. Do you believe this?
Through history, Christians firmly upheld this truth and courageously strived for their freedom with their faith. And the stories of freedom in the Bible became their own testimonies in their lived experiences. Today, we want to remember especially those who fought for freedom on this American soil even before the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They are African-American slaves. Their songs, which we call spirituals, are the direct testimonies to their strong faith in God, the God who is the giver of freedom.
Our Voices of Praise choir beautifully sang two spirituals already, “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water.” And as our closing hymn, we’re going to sing “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” one of the songs that enrich our polyphony of grace. Historians find the origin of these three spirituals from the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret routes and safe houses for runaway African-American slaves. It was established in the early to mid-19th century, and used by fugitive slaves as a way to escape into free states in the North and Canada with the aid of abolitionists.
New Jersey was also an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad and proudly, many Methodist churches served as important stations on the trail.
On this treacherous road to freedom, the slaves faithfully remembered the stories in Exodus, identified their experience with that of the Hebrew slaves, and on this railroad, they sang, “Go Down Moses,” and “Wade in the Water.” It is known that one of the renowned abolitionists, Harriet Tubman, used these songs like some secrete codes. For example, she sang “Wade in the Water” when she needed to notice the escaping slaves to get off the trail and walk into the water to make sure that the dogs of slavecatchers lose their trail. On their perilous pilgrimage to the promised land, they asked Jesus to walk with them. “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” In face of life-threatening moments, they yearned for God’s care and protection from the bottom of their heart. “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; in my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” And in the middle of troubles and gut-wrenching sorrows, in the middle of doubts and fears, the slaves kept moving on and sang, “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” To freedom, taking one step at a time, they made their honest and faithful plea for deliverance to the God of the Hebrew slaves, to the God of the captives, and to the God of the oppressed.
Today, we are also walking our own ways to freedom. For sure, our path may not be as life-threating or desperate as African-American slaves’ Underground Railroad. But as we sing these spirituals, don’t we feel the melodies and lyrics still touching our souls? Don’t we feel the faith that they expressed still resonating deeply in our hearts? Why? It’s because we are not also free from the worldly powers that always try to seize us. It’s because our battle for freedom still continues in different forms. It’s because we still have different burdens to carry, yokes to bear, and fears to encounter. It’s because our ways can turn into stony trails and rocky railroads at any given moment. Yes, it’s because we are the ones who need to keep the faith in our God of Exodus, our God of liberation, and our God of deliverance all along our pilgrim journeys. Yes, we are the ones who seriously need Jesus to walk with us in our trials and in our troubles.
Who is our God? The Bible testifies clearly that our God is the Chain Breaker. The grace of our God always sets us free from all the bondages to the spiritual forces of wickedness and to the evil powers of this world. Let us accept this gift of freedom through our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us to be unbound, to walk with us through our homebound journey of faith. So let us walk with Jesus Christ our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and carrying one another’s burden as he did on the cross, until we may “join hands and sing in the words of the old African-American spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Amen.
I did a survey of our favorite hymns for last two Sundays. I think almost all of us named three favorite hymns of our choice. And I ended up having a lot of hymn titles. Guess what, I got 41 hymns in total! And among those 41 hymns, I selected 6 most voted hymns, and you will hear me preach on each of those hymns starting from today. Thank you again for your participation.
I named the title of this sermon series as the “Polyphony of Grace.” As you might know, polyphony is a way of singing. When a group of people, like a choir, sing several parts at the same time, we hear the individual melody of each part get along with one another and make a harmony. And that’s what we call polyphony. Like this polyphony, each one of us, as an individual, experiences God’s grace in our lives; each one of us has a story of faith about God’s grace in Christian faith and in the church. It can be simple or dramatic; anyhow, we have our own stories, our own melodies of grace. And in the church, the array of melodies comes together and makes a beautiful harmony as we share our lives in one faith in Jesus Christ, as we love and serve each other, and as the Holy Spirit moves us, inspires us, and motivates us to follow Jesus and build God’s kingdom on earth together. Here, in this church, we are creating the polyphony of grace, a divine harmony of faith. For this, we give our thanks and praises to our God.
Among many ways to express our polyphony of grace, there is the most common and traditional way that Christians used almost from the beginning of church history. That is to sing songs of praise—such as hymns, chants, and praise songs. These kinds of church music have been created not just to make us feel good. Actually, they have played a significant role like concise theological booklets where people poetically and rhythmically express Christian beliefs. So if we carefully meditate on the lyrics while singing, we can always learn more about the truth of God.
The hymn for us today is “How Great Thou Art.” How great you are! If you read through the stanzas of the hymn, you may see that the amazement of the author emerges from knowing who God is. For sure, knowing who God is brought so much wonder and awe that the author couldn’t stop singing, “How great you are!” Then, the question is, how did the author know of God? And in what way how do “we” know of God?
In Christian theology, it is always the God who makes Godself known to us first. In the Bible we see many events, in which God discloses who God is to the people of God. And we call those events, “revelations.” In Christian tradition, there are two kinds of revelation. The first one is called natural or general revelation. What does it mean? As the name says, it’s about getting to know God in natural ways—through nature around us or through our natural mind or conscience. The Psalms we read today describe this naturally gained knowledge about God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge”(Psalm 19:1-2). And Paul even claims that because God has shown Godself to everyone in this way, it is natural that people search for God and try to live by God’s will. He says, “Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:20).
And in today’s hymn, the first two stanzas precisely express the moment of this natural revelation. The author realizes God’s existence and greatness through his experience of nature. “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!” We can feel the vivid experience that the author had with the nature. The author of this hymn is Pastor Carl Boberg, who was a sailor and a member of the Swedish Parliament before he was called to ministry.
Pastor Boberg said, “It was in 1885, and in the time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and wherever they could find a perch. On a particular afternoon, some friends and I had been to Kronobäck where we had participated in an afternoon service. As we were returning, a thunderstorm began to appear on the horizon. We hurried to shelter. There were loud claps of thunder, and the lighting flashed across the sky. Strong winds swept over the meadows and billowing fields of grain. However, the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared with a beautiful rainbow.” “After reaching my home, I opened my window toward the sea. The church bells were playing the tune of a hymn. That same evening I wrote a poem which I titled, ‘O Store Gud,’ (which was translated in English as ‘How Great Thou Art’).”
Pastor Boberg felt the magnitude of God in that awe-inspiring experience. He knew that it must be God who created this world with such marvels of nature. It was his moment of natural revelation. So he praised God in his astonishment…. But here comes a question. Just imagine that we are not Christians now. Then, even if we sense the presence of God in nature, beyond just some general and vague supernatural knowledge about God, can we possibly know the God in the Bible, the God incarnated in Jesus Christ? No, we can’t. So here we should understand the second and more important kind of revelation, which is called special revelation. And this special revelation is nothing but Jesus Christ through whom we clearly know who God is.
I believe Pastor Boberg clearly understood these two kinds of revelation when he wrote the hymn. Indeed, the third and the fourth stanzas of the hymn exactly tell us about the special revelation. In those two stanzas, his focus now moves from the greatness of God who is the Creator as revealed in nature, to the greatness of God who is the Savior revealed in Jesus Christ, through his act of salvation on the cross. The hymn goes, “And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin. Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!” Now, the hymn completes singing both revelations of God. God has made Godself known to us. God’s greatness in creation and in Jesus Christ has been revealed to us. Because God is the Creator who created our life in the universe, and also because God sent God’s only Son Jesus Christ to give us new life, we have our permanent reason to praise God.
In our lives, there are times when we cannot find any reason to praise God’s greatness. When our hearts are filled with grief and despair, when our situations are complicated and desperate, when our ways are lost, it’s really hard to find any great wonder in our lives. But even at those moment, I hope and pray that we can sing this hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” We can sing and see nature; we can look up and gaze at the stars in the night sky; we can see the trees and mountains. Then, we shall realize something beyond our life; something higher and greater than the world; something transcendent, something divine. Also, we can sing this hymn and look at Jesus on the cross. We can feel his love afresh and find his grace that saves us and gives us a new hope for the future always. In the name of the one who reveals oneself to us with love, may we make our polyphony of grace here and now, in any circumstances, and may we all sing, “My God, how great thou art!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘How Great Thou Art’” (General Board of Discipleship, the United Methodist Church: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-how-great-thou-art)
The Pharisees! In today’s Gospel reading, we see this particular group of people who had some issues with Jesus and try to argue with him. Who are they? There are a number of stories about them in the Gospels; mostly, they are known for conflicts they had with John the Baptist and with Jesus. In those stories, the Pharisees appear to be really obsessed with keeping certain rules and rituals—especially concerning purity. Also, they act like self-righteous hypocrites placing the letter of the law above its spirit. In other words, they value the word-by-word observance of the law of Moses more than the actual practice of love for God and for neighbor. It is not a coincident that Jesus rejects their ideas and denounces them all the time. No doubt, they are the bad guys! Right?
But, wait a minute… is it really fair to judge them just like that? Isn’t it quite harsh to simply write them off as wrongdoers? Perhaps, those Pharisees, who got involved in unpleasant episodes with Jesus, would be some hardliners, some radicals among them. Perhaps, not all Pharisees would be such arrogant and close-minded hypocrites. In fact, historically, the Pharisees were known as good people. Josephus, who was a first-century historian, tells us that the Pharisees were fully supported by common people for their good deeds, in contrast to the more elite and upper-class religious group called Sadducees, who also appear in the Gospels. Most of the Pharisees were well-intended people who tried hard to keep their faith in God in a turbulent time. Their ideal was to pursue everyday sanctification by the law, against the dominant cultural and religious influence of the Romans. And surprisingly to us, they had little political power, so it was unlikely for them to play a major role in Jesus’ death. No doubt, we can’t just singlehandedly say that all of them were bad guys.
The Pharisees… more or less, they look like any other groups of believers… even just like us here today. In this group, there must be amicable people, serious people, passionate people, liberal people, conservative people and so on. Just like us; we are different from one another, but we gather together in our common faith. The Pharisees wanted to keep their traditions and practices that they thought were right. Just like us; we cherish our own favorite styles of worship and spiritual disciplines, and want to do good through our ministries. Still, the Pharisees surely made some mistakes; they were sometimes stuck with their rules and customs and they couldn’t discern what’s really important. This also seems just like us who sometimes refuse to see beyond our own ways of believing God and serving the church, even when those ways become obsolete and lifeless. Do the Pharisees somehow look just like us?
Now, having that said about the Pharisees, can we read the stories of the Pharisees in the Gospels differently? One thing for sure is that we can’t simply criticize and blame the Pharisees while staying safely on Jesus’ side—the good guy’s side. That must be an easy way out for us. Condemning the Pharisees’ wrongdoings on the side of Jesus, we may feel good about ourselves. But is there any other way to read the living Word of God in a way that it is truly meaningful and lifegiving to us? Today, I believe, the Gospel of Mark invites us to stand on the Pharisees’ side. It takes us to the place of the Pharisees, and on that side, we encounter Jesus who sees us… who sees us through our minds and our hearts. Standing on the Pharisees’ side in the story, we may ask to ourselves, “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?”
In today’s Gospel story, there comes a two-part confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. In part one, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. When they get hungry, the disciples pluck a few heads of grain to munch on. But Jesus doesn’t stop them. So the Pharisees challenge Jesus, asking why he’s allowing his followers to do such a unlawful thing on the Sabbath, the day people shouldn’t harvest. Then Jesus answers, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). (4) In part two, Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand. Knowing that the Pharisees are watching him, Jesus asks them whether it’s lawful to “do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill” (Mark 3:4). The Pharisees are silent. Angered and grieved by the hardness of their hearts, Jesus heals the man’s withered hand.
In both parts, what does Jesus see? I believe, Jesus sees the things that the Pharisees are clinging to other than God. Jesus sees that the Pharisees hold on to the laws of righteousness and the rules of holiness more than to God; they cannot seek God who is the compassionate and lifegiving love and also God’s kingdom where the hungry are fed and the broken made whole. Jesus clearly sees the Pharisees cling to other things, not to God. Today, as we put ourselves in the Pharisees’ position, what would Jesus see in us? Certainly, Jesus would see the things that we are clinging to other than God. What do we hold on to that is not God? Our pride, reason, ability, and experience? What mortal things have we prioritized over God’s compassionate love? Our plans, benefits, rules, and preferences? What kind of barriers have we built in our minds and hearts? Our judgment, hatred, complacency, and indifference? With all these, we sometimes lose the sight of God’s grace working in and through us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, to be mature Christians, even if it is quite difficult, we need to see ourselves as Jesus sees. Of course, Jesus sees us through his eyes of everlasting love. But at the same time Jesus sees us through his eyes of justice and righteousness. And I think Jesus wouldn’t mind saying some words of admonishment to us today. Let us try to see as Jesus sees. We may find our own blindness that hinders the power of God’s love from perpetrating in our lives and ministry. We may find our own rigid hearts that make us adhere to what is not God and what is not for God’s kingdom. “How would Jesus see us?” “To the eyes of Jesus, how would we look like?” As we find our answers to the questions, may the Spirit of the Lord be with us and awaken us to our shortcomings, liberate us from what we are falsely clinging to, and lead us to seek God and God’s kingdom first always. Amen.
Josephus, Antiquities, 18:12-15; 13:297-298.
Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdamans 1985), 1246-1251.
The Wizard of Oz, this great old movie came out in 1939. And ever since, it has become many people’s all-time favorite until now. The movie begins with Dorothytrying to get her aunt and uncle, and other farmhands to share her story about an incident related to her dog, Toto. But all of them are too busy to listen to her, so her aunt says, “Find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” So Dorothy walks off by herself, musing to Toto, “Some place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain...” Right there, watching the sky, she begins singing the greatest song of all time, “Somewhere over the rainbow way up high…” And the song describes the place where “skies are blue,” where “dreams really do come true,” and where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” This song, just like the movie, is just unforgettable not just for its beautiful melody but also for its message that deeply evokes human emotion of longing and dreaming for a perfect place beyond our troublesome ordinary life. No wonder, this song is ranked number one on the “Songs of the Century” list.
It’s true that sometimes we wish to go somewhere beyond here… somewhere beyond our hectic life full of duties and burdens, and somewhere always joyous and worry-free. We Christians know that there certainly is such a place promised to the people of faith. We may call it the heaven or the coming Kingdom of God where we can live in perfect peace and eternal rest, where we have boundless joy and no mundane struggles. Yes, that would be the place that Christians would imagine while singing, “Over the rainbow.”
Today we are celebrating the ascension of Jesus Christ. We read the Scriptures testifying that a cloud takes him out of the disciples’ sight. And the Apostles’ Creed affirms that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God until he will come again to judge the living and the dead. What does it mean to us that Jesus ascended to heaven? Does it mean that we only imagine and yearn for the perfect place in heaven to where the resurrected Jesus is lifted up? That we only dream of the new kingdom to come with Jesus some day? I don’t think that’s everything about this Ascension Sunday. Rather, the Lord’s Ascension reminds us of the task we are responsible for, the task that Jesus leaves to us so we must earnestly take while we await Jesus’ coming again. Yes, we are here not just waiting for somewhere like Oz, over the rainbow. So today, we better listen to two voices in the Scriptures guiding us during this in-between time.
The First voice we better listen to is the voice of two mysterious persons in white robes standing by the disciples at Jesus’ ascension. Watching their resurrected Lord and Savior take off heavenward, the disciples are confused. They want to know where Jesus is going and when he would come back and restore the kingdom to Israel. But Jesus says, “It is not for you to know, but wait until you receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he is gone. The disciples are standing there looking up, staring at the sky, wishing to see some sign, or to hear some more words of assurance, or to find at least a glimpse of the kingdom of God in heaven. Instead, the disciples heard an awakening voice from two persons in white robes, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). I think what they were saying was: “Don’t just be the spectators, but be the disciples to follow Jesus and prepare the way of coming Christ. Don’t just look up, but look around and do your work of faith as Jesus taught you.”
The second voice we must listen to is the voice of Jesus. As you may know, it is widely accepted that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. So they are two volumes in one series. The readings for today show us that Luke concludes Jesus’ story at the end of his Gospel and starts a new story about early Christians’ lives that we see in Acts. Between these two stories, Jesus’ ascension is like a bridge. Luke writes the same narrative in both books, because it’s important and because at the moment of ascension, Jesus leaves us his very final commandments. What are the commandments? Let us read them together. “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Here, if we put together the common thread in those two versions of Jesus’s final words, it’d be like this, “Be my witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Be my witnesses—don’t just passively wait and long for somewhere to come, but bear witness to what you already saw and what you have come to believe.Jesus is asking, be my witness and tell others, “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:46-48). So go and be my witnesses till the ends of the earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this Ascension of the Lord Sunday, we have to listen to these voices, the voices that call us into our Christian vocation: to be his witness and to bring heavenly joy and peace here and now. If heaven is the place where we dwell with Jesus, and if the kingdom of heaven is where Jesus reigns, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can bring that heavenly place on earth from within our gathering. So stop looking up somewhere above the chimney tops and somewhere over the rainbow. Jesus is right here with us in his Spirit always and we are here to follow him. Until Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, and we shall be lifted up to somewhere beyond…until then, let us earnestly work to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In the power of the Holy Spirit, be my witness in all you do, and do it all to the glory of God… Jesus commands us today.
As the Gospel reading for last Sunday did, the reading for today takes us to the upper room in the night when Jesus was betrayed. There, something so significant, so unforgettable, happens. Prior to his departure, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and shows them how to serve one another with the self-emptying love. Then, Jesus sits with the disciples, shares bread and wine with them, and teaches them how to be one with God and with one another in his self-giving love. And the night grows late. The time of Jesus’ suffering and death is coming very close. Now Jesus delivers his last words to his disciples. What does he say in his last words, in the so-called “farewell speech”? The center of his message is again, love. In the night, Jesus literally pours out his love upon his disciples by washing their feet, by sharing bread and wine, and by delivering the last words. How wonderful it is that someone’s last words and deeds are just about love!
Truly, Jesus is the love incarnate, the living embodiment of divine love. And thus, for the followers of Jesus, there is nothing more important than to understand this love of Jesus, and to practice it in the way that we are called to do. Last week, we reflected on the farewell speech and learned that this love that Jesus is teaching is neither a fuzzy emotion nor an abstract idea. But this love has three key features; Jesus’ love is just love, self-giving love, and fruitful love. And today, as we are looking at the later part of the speech, we find another aspect of love. That is…for those who follow Jesus, love is not simply a valuable or beautiful thing that we choose to do in our lives. But love sometimes is a commandment, actually, the foremost commandment for us to obeyand to abide by.
I believe Jesus really means it, when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10). And the First Letter of John emphasizes this as it writes,“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3). But I know…when we hear the words “commandment” and especially, “obedience,” we feel a little tight and uncomfortable. We think that love is something we better do from our heart and at our free will—not by obeying a certain commandment. And we somehow agree that mature love fully comes true only when we are free and independent. Freedom and independence…these virtues seem quite far from the virtue of obedience.
Yes, I understand… Jesus seems quite authoritative about love here. And we, as reasonable and autonomous human beings, have our rights to doubt and raise questions on him now. Right? But here, listen carefully. We should remember… following Jesus is to do more than just the things that make perfect sense to us. Sometimes, following Jesus includes to obey his commandment even when it looks absurd and difficult to us, even when there is no clear reason to do so, and even when it goes against our desire and will. Yes, this obedient way of following Jesus, keeping his commandment of love, is easier said than done.
One day I heard somebody sharing his parenthood experiences. He talked about the most challenging time in raising his kid. At that moment, I immediately thought it would be the time when his child was just born. You know I see my friends with a newborn baby, and lack of sleep is just their life. And newborns are so weak and small that parents always need to give extra care to them. Right? But his answer was different from mine. In retrospect, he said, the hardest time was when his child finally began to say “no” to everything and ask “why” on everything. Do you agree?
Today, I feel like we do the same to Jesus. Sometimes we say so many no-s to Jesus’ call to follow him and ask so many why-s to Jesus’ simple command to love, even though our heavenly parent never leads us to anything harmful or wrong. We refuse and hesitate to take just one step closer to Jesus until we have understandable reasons to do so. We ask Jesus to convince us first before we obey his commandment of love against our desire, against our will. In so doing, we might be giving Jesus the hardest time. But I also understand…we can get easily skeptical about following Jesus when it’s really difficult to just obey his commandment of love. Certainly, some people around us are too bad and evil to love; some situations are too insulting and hurtful to us to show any kind of love. Yes, how can we obey Jesus every time? How can we stop saying “no” and asking “why” every time? What would Jesus say?
Let us find some advice from our Lord Jesus. Today, after the upper room gathering, we see Jesus go into the garden of Gethsemane to pray.
As a true human, Jesus deeply grieves in face of his time of trial and death. The Gospels tell us, in his anguish, Jesus throws himself on the ground and prays earnestly until his sweat becomes like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38). True, Jesus himself also finds it very difficult to obey God’s will, so he struggles and says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). But that was not the end. Jesus keeps praying hard instead of saying, “No, I do not want to take up the cross for those sinful humans who never change their ways and turn back to you.” Jesus keeps praying hard, instead of asking, “Why do I have to die for those ungrateful humans who never deserve your grace?” Then, in his prayer, Jesus takes his obedient heart again, “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Sisters and brothers in Christ, following Jesus is hard. And obeying his commandment of love is even harder. But whenever we find it difficult to love and embrace someone, whenever we find a situation that is almost impossible for us to overcome with love, instead of saying no, why don’t we pray first even just briefly? Then, I am sure that in our prayer, we will see Jesus who gives us an obedient and loving heart again. And whenever our hearts filled with doubts and confusions, instead of just asking why, let us pray first. Then, I am sure that in our prayer, we will find Jesus who encourages us to set aside our reasonable and logical mind for a while and to be faithful in obeying his words single-mindedly. And in our moments of obedience, I am so sure that we will experience this mystery of faith: the more obedient we are to Jesus, the freer we become in his truth; the more obedient we are to his commandment of love, the better we understand the mind of Christ.
On the night in which he gives himself up for us, Jesus calls us to be love-abiding Christians. Jesus simply commands his disciples to obey him, to love him by living as he teaches them. So in remembrance of him who was obedient to the point of death for our new life, let us obey his commandment of love even when we think we cannot. Simply obey…that is the way, perhaps the only way, to grow our faith. May the Holy Spirit be with us as we follow Jesus every moment to be love-abiding Christians. Amen.
The Gospel reading for today takes us to the night of Jesus’ betrayal when Jesus delivered his so-called “Farewell Speech” or “Upper Room Discourse.” This speech is extended from Chapter 13 to 17 in John’s Gospel. In this message, Jesus now prepares his way of his passion and death. And at the same time, he helps the disciples be ready as he reminds themselves of his teachings and tells them how to live their life without his physical presence. So, in a certain way, this message is a kind of Jesus’ will prior to his death. Nobody writes unimportant things in the will. When someone writes a will, he/she would take a silent time, reflect deeply on what to include, and try to deliver the most significant things from the bottom of heart. In this sense, Jesus’ farewell speech essentially includes the things that Jesus truly wants us to know and do. This is a lengthy farewell speech, and we may assume that Jesus would convey many lessons in detail, but actually most of his teachings simply revolve around one word, one core word. What is the word? Yes, it is love.
As the believers of Jesus, we firmly believe that Jesus is the love incarnate, the embodiment of the divine love, and our religion and faith is all about love. We are gathered here today because of that love. Right? Even in John’s First Letter, we see that love is not only the center of Christian life but also who God is. In the letter, John simply affirms, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It doesn’t say, God loves, but God “is” love. Clearly, it tells us that love is not just one of many things that God does. But God is Love. Love indeed is what God is, what Jesus embodies and teaches, and therefore, what we should do in this world. Of course, there should be no doubt about the truth that love is the supreme value to those who follow Jesus.
But here comes one question. Then, “what kind” of love is the love we are talking about? We can say that this love is not just a fuzzy feeling or an abstract idea. But what kind of love is God’s love, the Christ-like love, that we should carry out in our lives? As Methodists, we believe that we are on our journey to reach our goal of faith, Christian perfection. This Christian perfection means the state of our heart that is habitually filled with the love for God and for neighbors. But how can we reach such perfection in love if we are not clear about what kind of love we should live out?
The inspiring voice of John in today’s scripture readings guides us to the answers and to draw a concrete picture of the divine love. What kind of love is God’s love? From today’s readings, we can find three features of God’s love. First, the Gospel reading says that God’s love is just love. God is love, and God is the God of justice. For God, we are sinners; there are times when we are not in good communion with God; we are evil enough to be judged. So although God loves us, God does judge us by the justice of God. And the judgment must be followed by due punishment. In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower” (John 15:1). And Jesus says that we are the branches of the vine, and it means that we are connected to Jesus and thus one Body of Christ. But it doesn’t mean that we are now immune to God’s judgment. Rather, according to Jesus, God, the vine grower, is the one who “removes” every branch that bears no fruit and “prunes” every branch to make it bear more fruit (John 15:2). Even though Jesus, the true vine, takes us in as his own branches, we are always under God’s judgement, the vine grower’s cutting and pruning. Indeed, God, who is love, is just.
But wait a moment here. Doesn’t it sound a little weird? On the one hand, God, who is love, dearly cares for us and saves us. On the other hand, God, who is justice, solemnly judges us and punishes us. It seems like God has two sides, two very contradictory sides in Godself. How can God be love and justice at the same? How can redemption and punishment work at the same time? To love us justly, God doesn’t just wait until we repent and become totally pure and sinless, which is impossible. To love us justly, God has justified us, changed us, the sinful, into the justified through Jesus who suffered in our place. God, in Jesus Christ, has taken our sins to the cross and died for our sake. So here, we can see the second character of God’s love: God’s love is self-giving love. Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross liberates us from our bondage to sin and death and thus, if we believe in him, we can be justified and free. Each one of us is a receiver of this enormous grace. In his letter, John tells us, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). And he continues to say, if we abide in God’s love, “we may have boldness on the day of judgment,” because love casts out our fear for punishment (1 John 4:17-18).
Now, the self-giving love of Jesus has opened a way of grace for us to be in a restored relationship with God, to live in God. As the branches on the vine, we are connected to Christ and nurtured in faith, in love. We abide in Christ. Then, what? Do we just abide in Jesus and do nothing? No. We are called to abide in Jesus in order to bear fruits of love. We Methodists believe, once we are justified by God’s grace we are called to the journey of sanctification until we reach Christian perfection. Once we are loved and so abide in Christ, we are also called to love others as Jesus loves us. The vine branches should bear fruits of love—joy, hope, faith, endurance, courage, self-denial, and many others. Then, lastly, we can say, God’s love is fruitful love.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I hope you to remember that when we say God is love, we say just love, self-giving love, and fruitful love. With this love God loved us first. And today God is asking us, with this just, self-giving, and fruitful love, we should love one another. It is so true, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). So we may love justly. As we love one another, let us address any inequities or sins to our common attention so that we may repent and receive God’s forgiveness. We may love in a self-giving way. As we love one another, let us love unconditionally, forgive and embrace, serve others first, empty ourselves. Also, we may love fruitfully. As we love one another, let us abide in Jesus, live in the presence of the Lord together, yield fruits of faith, hope, and more love. Let us love as he first loved us. Let us love as we abide in God’s love that is just, self-giving, and fruitful. Amen.