In today’s Gospel story, Jesus looks like a manager and his disciples like his interns. He groups his disciples in pair and sends them to every town and place where he himself would like to visit. For this field education with hands-on practices, Jesus gives detailed instructions to his disciples. Jesus teaches them what they should do and say, when they visit houses and share the good news. Why does he do that? I believe, he does this to train his disciples and get them ready before he leaves them. In fact, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to go through his final days. So it’s about time for him to conduct a midterm evaluation on his disciples’ performance to see how much they have grown to be the trustworthy messengers of God’s new kingdom.
Yes, it looks like Jesus is fitting well into this picture of an internship manager. It’s quite convincing to me too…until I got to reflect on the following words of Jesus, “Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). Honestly, I hadn’t paid much attention to these words. But here, Jesus doesn’t sound like a manager. Apparently, these words show Jesus’s sincere concern, from the bottom of his heart. And the one who can say such compassionate words to somebody must be more than just a manager, more like a parent who cares for the children.
And it’s so true. As he often describes himself, Jesus is the good shepherd who searches for the lost lambs and even lays down one’s life for them. He sees his disciples not just through the eyes of judgment and evaluation but more through the eyes of love and compassion. Then I realized, I had focused too much on what Jesus asks the disciples to do—the tasks, the things that we are in charge as disciples. But I had never focused on how Jesus would have felt when he sent the disciples away.
So, how would Jesus feel when he had to send the disciples “like lambs into the midst of wolves?” Not just close “to” wolves but “into the midst” of wolves? I don’t have a lamb. But I have a different kind of animal in my house living with me. Yes, Eco, my dog. She is so gentle and affectionate. She never has done any harm to anybody. When she meets other dogs outside, although they are smaller than her, she gets scared, curled up between my legs and sometimes begs me to pick her up. Anyway, I imagined, if I send Eco into the midst of wolves, how would I feel? I wouldn’t be just worried but I would be terrified to death. Think about your children and family members. Imagine that you send them into the midst of such a threat. How would you feel? Even when your children leave home for college, or for even a short-term trip abroad, you must be worried. But sending them into the midst of uncertain dangers? It’s hard to imagine.
Then, how about Jesus? Jesus must be deeply concerned and so much worried as he sends his disciples to the world full of challenges and risks. Later, he says, he even watches “Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” as soon as the disciples hit the road (Luke 10:18). He sees Satan come right away to capture them, tempt them to go astray, and turn their way against God. His heart must be so troubled.
Then, as Jesus sees the dangers loom large, does he give the disciples something to overcome them? Something to depend on? We know, he has power to do so. He may give them some divine warrantee to protect them and provide them with some good supplies to carry out the mission at least without having to worry about what to eat and where to stay. But to our surprise, Jesus orders his disciples something totally unreasonable and absurd. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10:4). Here, Jesus basically asks the disciples to take nothing and to make no relationship with someone who may help them on their way. This sounds quite harsh. If he watches Satan let loose and prey on the disciples like wolves take down lambs, why does Jesus not give anything and do anything for them? Is he truly the good shepherd with the sympathetic heart of a parent? What’s the reason?
As today’s Gospel story concludes, we see the reason. Through the perilous field education, Jesus wants the disciples to learn one thing, only one thing. That is the way to depend on God. Depending only on God—nothing else. The disciples are like lambs. They are weak and unable. They have no worldly power to show off. And their weakness cannot be overcome by some things they bring. But in their weaknesses, paradoxically, they have all the power. As long as they depend on Jesus and the one who sends him, the power of Christ dwells in them. This is why the Apostle Paul says, “for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We are weak but he is strong. We are unable but he is able. So if we depend on and trust in his power, our good shepherd will provide us with all the strength to overcome any hardship and the gifts to make wonderful fruits in the world. That’s the whole point.
After the disciples return from towns, they report on their progress with joy, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17) They now get it. Although they feel powerless and helpless on their way, they finally come to realize that they actually have the true power in the name of Jesus. Likewise, it’s time for us now to get it too. On our life’s journey, we better depend on our good shepherd who loves us. If this Jesus is for us and with us, then who can be against us? Whenever we feel weak and unable in the face of challenges and difficulties, we can always gain power in the name of Jesus. And we shall overcome.
But here’s one thing we should be mindful of. We should depend on “Jesus”—not “ourselves.” Sometime when things are going well with us, we tend to depend on our power trusting in ourselves. And as humans, we naturally crave worldly powers; we want to be stronger and richer, more influential and popular. But if we goes on this way too far, we may not remain as lambs of the good shepherd anymore. We may become like wolves in the world. One of the most important early Christian fathers, John Chrysostom said this, “As long as we are sheep, we overcome and, though surrounded by countless wolves, we emerge victorious; but if we turn into wolves, we are defeated, for we lose the help of our shepherd. He, after all, feeds the sheep not wolves, and will abandon you if you do not let him show his power in you.” This is what we should keep in mind.
Faithful friends in Christ, we are blessed to have the good shepherd in our lives. This is the one who is deeply worried about us with a compassionate heart and who always searches for us and even lays down his life for us. “Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The good shepherd tells us today that our lives, especially as Christians, may not be easy. But he also gives us a promise, “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:19). To us, Jesus has given the authority to win this battle against any power of tribulation in the world. So let us depend not on us, not our power, but on Jesus and his faithfulness.
Is there anything that discourages you and distresses you? Is there an ongoing or upcoming challenge you need to deal with? Is there anything in your life that makes you feel vulnerable and helpless? Let us look up to our good shepherd who is the source of all our power and blessings. There is a power in the name of Jesus. Because of him living in us, we know, although we are unable, we shall overcome. And whenever we are week, we are strong. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sebastião Salgado is a renowned Brazilian photographer who has won nearly every major award in photojournalism. Most of his works are documentaries featuring workers, migrants, and families in harsh conditions such as exploitation, war, genocide, famine, and ecological destruction. He traveled around the world, masterfully captured and revealed the human faces of a world in transition. But his work always led him to dangerous places, and he had to witness so many cruel scenes of human atrocities. And it became too much a burden on him. So in the mid-90s, after documenting a horrible genocide in Rwanda, Salgado lost all desire to shoot photos. He said, “I had never imagined that man could be part of a species capable of such cruelty to its own members and I couldn’t accept it.” He got physically and emotionally sick and drained. He lost his faith in humanity.
To recover his exhausted mind and body, he returned home to his family land in Brazil. He remembered, the place was once covered in lush tropical rainforest when he was a child. But instead of his childhood paradise, there, he found a barren wilderness—trees cut down and the wildlife gone away. He was devastated once more. He said, “The land was as sick as I was—everything was destroyed.” His soul was deadened by witnessing the power of death in foreign lands and now in his own family land. Despair and resentment overwhelmed him.
So there, what did he do? Just walked away? No, believe it or not, he decided to plant trees. He followed his wife Lélia Salgado who believed that the forest will be restored. It could sound like a reckless adventure to him. But he followed her faith and amazingly, the forest came back little by little. Together, Salgado and his wife founded Instituto Terra. And so far, this small organization has planted 4 million saplings and brought the forest and wildlife back from the dead. Salgado said, “when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn—this was the most important moment.”
Reading this story a week ago, I felt like I was electrified. I thought, it’s more than just another heart-warming story, because I saw a strong connection between what Salgado has done and what we are supposed to do as Christians—practice our faith.
In the world, we often face the powers that deaden our souls. And we have experiences that leave us hopeless and helpless. We sometimes feel like the world is a cruel and evil place where the power of death ruins the land of living at any given moment. And we think our society is not just or safe but it only brings challenges to our faith—our faith in human goodness and reason, our faith in the systems of justice, our faith in community, and our faith in God. Like the devastated forest, our soul, our society we live in, may be sick. But here, in this situation, what shall we do?
I think, many of us may just walk away. We may either admit or ignore the situation out there and just try to be happy for ourselves as much as we can. But we know, this way is not the way that Christians are called to live. Then, what? Yes, we are called to follow Jesus. Here, following Jesus means two things: we are called to keep our faith in himand to put that faith into action. Like Salgado who has kept a simple faith and planted trees following his wife, we are asked to do such things out of our faith and change our lives. Indeed, in face of the deserted world, the ruined God’s vineyard, we shall follow Jesus. We shall follow him by keeping our faith in him. This is the matter of life and death, the matter of salvation. And we shall follow him by putting our faith into action. This is the only way to bring change to our lives.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us how to follow him. In the story, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. On the way, they were not welcomed by the Samaritans in a village. The disciples get mad. And James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? (Luke 9:54)” Who are these violent extremists? Immediately, Jesus rebukes them. Why? There’s no time for despair or resentment. To follow Jesus, they should leave those negative feelings behind. Shake them off and follow him again.
And as they continue to go on the road, someone comes and talks to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” (9:57). Then, Jesus tells him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (9:58). The purpose of this speech? I think, Jesus is warning him. He wants to say, “to follow me, you will have to endure inconvenience and hardship.” Fair enough.
Again on the way, Jesus meets a person and asks him to follow him. But he says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Then, Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60). What does he mean? Here, in his answer, Jesus is clearly saying, “to follow me, you have to do it right now because following me is a life-and-death-matter. Follow me right now and be alive. Or stay for a while and be spiritually dead.” This is an urgent choice to make.
Today, how are we following Jesus? Are we leaving things behind, enduring inconvenience and hardship, and following him urgently and immediately as Jesus teaches us? Do we believe, his love and grace are the true powers that save us and the world from the power of death? Do we firmly believe, we can make changes here by loving God and loving one another, by being kind and forgiving like Jesus? Sometimes our society and circumstances in life, and our very selves may be like the deserted forest ruined by feelings of despair and resentment, powers of death and evil. But right at that moment, let us not forget, that’s the right moment to follow Jesus again. That’s the right moment to keep our faith in him and put our faith into action right away.
I want all of us to try this at least once in this week. At a moment when you feel hopeless and helpless, at a moment when you feel the power of the world is too huge to handle, talk to yourself, this is the right moment to follow Jesus. This is the right moment to trust in his goodness and plant a seed of faith, a sapling of hope, and a tree of love. To make our wilderness green, we don’t need to put grand-scale efforts to turn things upside down at once. And honestly, we can’t. But look at Sebastião Salgado’s example. His humble beginning proves that grand accomplishments are made through even the smallest steps. Likewise, let us take our own small cross and follow Jesus today one step at a time. Again, this is the right moment to trust in the goodness of Jesus and plant a seed of faith, a sapling of hope, and a tree of love. Then, I am sure, the life-giving love of Jesus Christ will help us change the wilderness of our lives into a beautiful forest that revitalizes our soul and nurtures many other lives. Amen.
The Exorcist. Have you ever watched this classic horror movie or heard about it? I think, most of you at least know what it is about. It’s about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism. When it was released in 1973, it was so sensational that people lined up at theaters enduring cold winter weather. And you know what, people literally got sick watching the movie. Many people felt nauseous and vomited. There were reports of heart attacks and miscarriages, believe or not. And a psychiatric journal even coined the term “cinematic neurosis” to describe these symptoms. But if you would watch the movie now, I’m sure you wouldn’t be scared that much. Some of you may just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on.” It’s because all those 70s’ visual effects using puppets and make-ups look poor and unrealistic. It’s not even close to hyper-realistic computer graphics these days.
As such, today’s Gospel reading may sound like another unrealistic story of exorcism to us. It’s not even from the 70s. It’s an ancient story… about the demonic possession of a man in Gerasenes and the exorcism Jesus conducted. The story goes like this. It was near the Sea of Galilee, away from a town. A man lives in the place of the dead and wanders around the wilds wearing no clothes. He is a man possessed by not just one evil spirit but many demons. He probably has multiple personalities and different voices. This man is a threat to the townspeople. So they try many things to capture him and keep him bound with chains and shackles. But driven by strong demons, this man always breaks the bonds, goes back into the wilds, and haunts the town every night. But to him, Jesus approaches one day. This group of demons in his body ask Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss. So Jesus permits them to enter the herd of swine. And the herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and gets drowned.
How does the story sound? Sounds like a supernatural horror movie, like The Exorcist? Yes, it might. But what should we do with this story now? Can we just dismiss this story altogether as an unrealistic story? Can we just scoff at it and say, “Oh…come on?” I guess, we can’t. Let me tell you, there is a big difference between a horror movie and this story in the Gospel, because it’s a story in “the Gospel,” in “the Bible,” my friends! We Christians don’t take the story in the Gospel as a mere ancient fiction, but as the living word of God. We believe, it has power to change our lives and save our souls. Different from watching a movie, whenever we read the Scripture, we think about its meaning to us, about what God wants us to hear from the story. But then, what on earth does this movie-like exorcism story of the demon-possessed man in Gerasenes have to do with us? How can it be the good news for the contemporary people like us? And finally, how can it be “our” story, the story of God’s people?
Let us closely look at the story. I know, we may not see such dramatic case like the man in Gerasenes around us. But what about the evil that torments him? Can you confidently say that the power of the evil and its demonic forces are unreal too? Whatever language we use to describe this power and whichever way we define it in a theological, medical, psychological, or sociological way, what we know for sure is that this force harms and destroys the man. It “strips him of agency, sanity, dignity, and community. It keeps him in isolation [in the margins of his society]. It renders him anonymous. It encourages him to mutilate his own body. It deadens his soul and divides his mind. In short, it deprives him of self-control, and propels him towards self-destruction.”
Does any of these sound familiar? Still unfamiliar to you? Do you remember the horrible bombings that happened in Sri Lanka last April? Think about those suicide bombers and terrorists who planned the bombings, who attacked three churches and other locations on Easter Sunday morning and killed 258 people. What about the mass-shootings? In the US, in this year only, so far we have 148 mass shootings reported. And as a consequence, 162 people were killed and 560 injured. Aren’t these too extreme cases for the evil in the world? Then what about the power of evil that shapes our society? “Some of us are imprisoned within systems of injustice that stretch back so many centuries. Some of us experience our skin colors, accents, genders, sexualities, or status as magnets for other people’s hatred.” Some of us were abused as children and victims of bullies. And what about the power of evil that affects our personal life? Some of us are caught in depression, addiction, anxiety, greed, self-loathing and so on. Some of us are slaves to money and lust. Some of us can’t shake off our violent impulses and resentments.
All these strong and week, obvious and insidious influences of demonic forces are more than real then as well as now. Certainly, the story of demon-possessed man in Gerasenes is not just an ancient oddity. It is, in a different way, an everyday story in our days and more or less, our own story. And the evil that haunts us has many faces, many names. They are indeed, “Legion,” like the demons identify themselves before Jesus, which means, a unit of 3,000 to 6,000 men in the Roman army. We are surrounded by a legion of evil forces. And every one of us is vulnerable to such forces that seek to take us over and separate us from Jesus and from one another. We are susceptible to such forces that seek to possess us and control our heart and mind, our emotion and reason, our motivation and choices. Look around and look inside.
Then, what shall we do to be protected and eventually liberated from such evil power? From the Gospel story, what I found as a solution is very simple. “Let Jesus call you and speak to you.” In the story, the healing begins as Jesus talks to him. He asks, “What is your name?” Then after he casts out the demons, he sends the man with a mission,“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Let Jesus call you and speak to you. Then you may not only get better but also become his servant to carry out his mission. It’s not difficult. Just practice listening to him.
Faithful friends in Christ, the power of evil and its demonic and destructive forces are real. They come to us in many faces and try to possess us always. So we should be awake in our prayer every day. Every day, we better check our heart and mind to see whether there is any influence of the evil. Also we should receive the word of God and renew our identity as God’s people as we gather on Sundays and in any other occasions. We better try to stay connected to Jesus and listen to him who calls us and speaks to us. Our Christian journey is a kind of battle. We should keep ourselves from the evil. But here is the good news: in this battle, the victory is already won by Jesus Christ our Lord. And this battle is ultimately not ours to win. Of course, we should do our best to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ on our journey. But it is ultimately Jesus who leads our way. So let him come to you; open your hearts and minds to him in your prayer, in your silent meditation, in your services, in your good works, in your fellowships. He will call you and speak to you. He will heal you and lead you into his mission of sharing the good news of liberation. In him, may we always find our healing and our freedom. Amen.
Debie Thomas, “Legion,” posted 16 June 2019 on www.journeywithjesus.net (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2259).
Two weeks ago, I had such a grateful opportunity to travel Greece with my wife looking around the cities where Paul had visited. We started our journey in Athens. And the closest city, Corinth, was our next stop. Then, from there, we drove up to the far north to visit Thessaloniki and Philippi. On the way, we stayed one night in Delphi which is famous for the great ancient temple. This temple is located deep in the mountains. Arrived at a hotel there, I was so tired after a long drive that I fell asleep early. But because of jet lag, I woke up in the middle of night around 3am. Drinking a cup of water, I thought, I might see some stars. So I walked out to a small balcony. Breathing in fresh and crisp night air, I looked up the sky. And I was just amazed. I could see countless stars. It was the most beautiful night sky I have ever met. Not only that, I also noticed a faint band of shimmering light across the sky. I thought, it could be Milky Way. So I brought out my camera and took some long-exposure photos. And fortunately, I could capture this view.
That night I sat on the balcony for almost three hours. It was such a wonderful time, except the loud snoring sound from the man next room (yes, it was such a small country hotel).
Watching the night sky, I couldn’t help recalling the famous Psalm, which happens to be the Psalm for today, Psalm 8. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1).
I know, we rarely look up the night sky. So we don’t have many chances to be astonished like this Psalmist. But every night, although we cannot see it clearly, we know there’s Milky Way over our head, which is the plane of our Galaxy made up with billions of stars. And we know, out in the universe, there are billons of other Galaxies too. This magnitude of creation always inspires awe and wonder as we imagine it.
In the face of this vast universe, some people may ask how small and how short-lived we are, feeling futility and meaninglessness of life. But when we look at the grand drama of creation, our Christian faith always awakens us to be amazed and to find more meanings of our life and more reasons to be thankful. The Psalmist sings, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:3-5). The Psalmist encourages us. “Yes, we are such humble humans. We are dust. We are small and short-lived. But let us open our eyes and see. God who created this whole universe is mindful of us, comes to us in person, and makes a loving relationship with us. Isn’t this incredible? Isn’t this amazing?”
Today, on this Trinity Sunday, we especially need this sense of amazement filled with heartfelt gratitude more than any other Sundays. We need this inspiration of the Psalmist to truly understand the holy mystery of the Trinity. Why? It’s because the Trinity is not just a mere idea, not just a theological concept, but it ultimately tells us the way that God is mindful of us, the way that God loves us. It’s because the Trinity is all about God’s love that has been revealed to us in three different ways, in three different persons. And the point is, this love doesn’t have to be reasonable or verifiable. This love doesn’t have to be understood by our rational mind, because this love surpasses all our understandings; this love comes to us with awe and wonder beyond our limited knowledge. So we better open our hearts to be amazed, astonished, and inspired.
The Bible tells us stories of this wonderful love, how this love shapes our lives as well as the history of the whole universe. God, the Creator, created us in God’s own image with the sacred worth. God, the Redeemer Jesus Christ, came to live with us in the form of human being, loved us to the end, and died for us for our new life. God, the Holy Spirit, abides in each one of us and inspires us to be true disciples. This triune God has done all this work for no one else but each one of us. Then, do we deserve this love? I don’t think so. God doesn’t have to love us. And we haven’t done anything worthy for this grace. We have no merit to claim it. Nonetheless, God decided to come to us, makes a relationship with us, claims us God’s own, and remain faithful to us…in three different ways. This amazing threefold love, this triple love, is the essence of the Holy Trinity.
In this vast universe, in this world filled with sense of futility and meaninglessness of life, our faith looks up to the Lord in whom we find true meanings and to whom we anchor our humble selves. Then God will surely open our eyes and hearts towards the love we have received and God’s unfathomable work of grace for us and fill us with gratitude. And we may finally sing from the bottom of our hearts, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1) “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:4)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this Trinity Sunday, I want you to remember once again, the Trinity is all about God’s life-giving love that has been revealed to us in three different ways, in three different persons. Because of this threefold love, we have a new life. And because of this triple love, our lives become meaningful. Today, let us go and share this love with others and share the story of everlasting love. Tell them, God has come to us not once, not even twice, but three times to show God’s love. Today, let us also share this triple love through our practices. If you have someone hard to love, don’t just try once and give up. Try twice. Try three times asking help from the Holy Spirit.
Today, as we reflect on the Trinity, I hope and pray that God the Creator may amaze us again with the grace that created us in God’s image. God the Redeemer may astonish us again with the love that renews our life. And God the Holy Spirit may inspire us again with the guidance that leads us always into love and service for one another. May our triune God’s threefold love be with all of us in our lives always. Amen.
On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in the upper room experienced the most incredible event in their lives. It’s a wild experience. It’s beyond their imagination. There was a stormy sound, like “the rush of a violent wind,” like a tornado. It came down suddenly from heaven and filled the entire house. There was a strange vision. Flames of fire, like tongues, touched the heads of the people. There was an unfathomable wonder. The believers were gifted with the ability to speak fluently in a new language. In the presence of this Spirit of God, there was communication over any human barriers and unity within people’s diversity and differences. This event truly surpassed any human understanding. So the onlookers “were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” And they sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”
For sure, this first day of Pentecost was full of wonder and divine mystery. And today, we are celebrating another day of Pentecost with all Christians in the world. We praise together the coming of the Holy Spirit who gave birth to the church. But we know, today we may not have the same dramatic event. We don’t expect the Spirit to descend on us like the strong wind of fire and embolden us to preach the gospel to anyone we meet. We don’t expect that, do we? Yes, we better admit, we wouldn’t have such drama today.
Nonetheless, I believe, there’s at least one thing we can surely do even today. What is it? I think, that is, to be open-minded to the new possibilities of God. We may open ourselves to the unexpected visit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And we may open our hearts to fresh changes and new experiences. We’ll never know what is going to happen in our lives in the presence of the Spirit. God may do something totally new, something radically unimaginable here and now with us. Yes,why not?
But I know, it’s very hard to be open-minded. It’s truly easier said than done. Think about our human nature and our ego. We are naturally inclined to avoid any sudden surprises. We don’t like any unexpected events and changes in life. It’s because we want control over our life. We always feel like our life is in the way it should be when we can plan on it and manage it.
And in this light, we can understand the onlookers of the Pentecost event. They were just the same as us, just usual humans. They were so surprised when they witnessed the unforeseen work of the Spirit. In such strange situation, they tried not to lose themselves and not to lose control. So they came up with some words to grasp and delimit this event. And they finally figured the closest possible description. That was, drunkenness. They define the experience of the believers as mere drunkenness, saying “Look at them. They are acting like being filled with new wine. Yes, they are.”
This was how those onlookers close off themselves from the astonishing work of the Spirit. And how about us? Don’t we sometimes do the same? How much and how often are we open to the new possibilities of God? On this new day of Pentecost, I believe the Holy Spirit inspires us to honestly look into our hearts. Are we like those earliest believers on the upper room? Do we joyfully open our hearts to the Spirit and yield our control for the amazing presence of the Spirit within us? Or, are we more like those onlookers? Do we just follow our will and delimit the work of the Spirit on our own terms, saying, “been there and done that”? And are we willing for the Spirit to grasp us and use us in a way out of our expectation? Or, are we willing for our ego to hold initiative of our life and lead us in our own preferred ways?
The temptation to close off ourselves from the unexpected work of the Spirit is strong, very strong. But today’s Acts reading testifies to a certain truth and promise for us. If we truly open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and give way to her, the Spirit will get ahold of us and have her way with us. If we surrender our will to control and give room to the Spirit, she will dwell in us and mold us to be more like Jesus. And this is what we call “the way of sanctification,” “the way of holy living.” We know this work of the Spirit can happen in our lives if we truly believe.
Faithful friends in Christ, the great ancestors of faith, spirituals, and theologians in the whole history of Christianity basically teach us this truth, this promise of our salvation, our new life. Our journey of new life is the journey of opening ourselves more and more to God by emptying ourselves. And the more we are open to God, the more the Spirit abides in us, and the more we become sanctified and Christ-like. In the presence of the Holy Spirit, this journey may not go as we expected. The direction of this journey may be suddenly changed. Our planned itinerary may be turned upside down. But isn’t our goal of Christian life to follow Jesus and be more like him anyway? Then, why not? Why not give way, give room to the Holy Spirit? Why not let go of our way, our plan, our control, our will?
Today, let us truly open ourselves to the new and unexpected possibilities of the Holy Spirit. Then, only then, we may experience true Pentecost among us. As the believers of Jesus Christ our Lord, we all have received the Holy Spirit and we are living our lives in the presence of this Spirit of Jesus. This is what Jesus promises in today’s Gospel reading. Thus, for our journey of sanctification, all we need to do is to open our hearts to this ever-present Spirit. In your time of prayer and reflection, ask this Spirit to awaken you and lead your way. Why not? Ask this Spirit to dwell in you and inspire you to keep up the good work of faith. Ask this Spirit to surprise you sometimes and turn you upside down to remain truthful and faithful to Jesus only. And ask this Spirit to come and set you on fire of love that you can love others as yourselves. Open your heart. Give way and give room to the Holy Spirit today. Why not?
During my vacation, I spent a good time with my family and friends in South Korea. I also had a lot of good Korean food. Among them, there were some authentic folk dishes. And I guess, they may be quite strange to you. How does pufferfish soup sound? How about soy sauce marinated raw crab? They may sound strange because they are unfamiliar to you. Other dishes, however, wouldn’t just sound strange, but they would also look and smell repulsive to you. Even many Koreans including Jee Hei don’t eat them at all. One of them is silkworm pupae soup. I know, they are insects basically. But what I can tell you is that it tastes alright and has high protein. And the last one I am going to tell you today is fermented raw skate, which is always ranked in top ten smelliest foods in the world. The New York Times even named it, “A Delicate Mix of Outhouse and Ammonia.” And that’s so true. Whenever I eat it, I get to squeeze my eyes shut because of the stench of ammonia fume coming out of my nose. Yes, I’ve eaten them all. But believe me, it was not me who ordered those dishes.
As you saw those images of strange Korean foods this morning, in todays’ Acts reading, Peter also sees a vision of strange foods from heaven. They are “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.” Peter has never had them before. And they are something strange and even repulsive to him. As a Jew, Peter knows it clearly that the Jewish dietary law, which we know as the Kosher law, defines such food items “unclean.” But in his vision, he sees a large blanket coming down from heaven, delivering them directly to him. And as he looks closely at them, he even hears God’s voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Out of surprise, he replies right away, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” Then, the voice answers back from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:5-9). The scripture says, this happens to Peter three times.
From our own perspective, we may feel like Peter is overreacting to God’s voice. These days, we are quite used to trying different cuisines and exotic foods. And we sometimes try them for a new experience. Let’s say, I bring some of those strange Korean foods to the church. Although they seem unappealing to you, I know some of you may give it a try just for fun. Right? You may take a little bite of silkworm pupa. No, never? Anyway, for us, trying some folk dishes from different cultures can be just a matter of fun, a matter of new adventure. But for Peter, for a Jew in Jesus’ days, eating unclean food is a crucial matter of life. It’s a matter of keeping his religious and ethnic identity, a matter of keeping the boundary of God’s chosen people in the world. In short, food is not simply food for Peter.
Through centuries of captivity in a foreign land, centuries of persecution by the powerful empires, centuries of dispersion from the homeland…Jewish people like Peter tried so hard to survive as a scattered and marginalized group of people. And they knew, this survival could be accomplished only through the faithful honoring of the boundaries between Jews and others called “gentiles.” To remain as sacred people of God, they made a careful distinction between those who were part of God’s covenant to Israel and those who were not. They did as such by the law including detailed dietary restrictions.
Then, why on earth does Peter see that vision from heaven and is now being asked to break that law? In today’s Acts reading, Peter is actually standing in front of the Jewish Christians who thought that the good news of Jesus was primarily for the Jews. They are in the middle of accusing Peter of baptizing gentile people. “We heard that you are with them in Caesarea and ate their food with them! You had the nerve to even baptize them? How dare you violate the boundary established by the scripture?” Peter’s defense? He recounts the vision of the large blanket with the unclean food items. Peter tells them that the vision was not about unclean food, but it was actually about unclean people, the gentiles they have discriminated. Peter continues, he heard the Holy Spirit ask him to go to them. And he witnessed the Holy Spirit fall upon them when they were baptized. The meaning of all these? It’s simple; it is no one else but God who breaks down the boundary. The grace of God is now going beyond human barriers. And now everyone can be part of the promise of God, can be part of God’s beloved children!
After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Peter and other Jewish Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit being unleased in the world. This power transforms everything. And one of the powerful works of the Holy Spirit is to leap over any humanly imposed boundaries and widen the scope of God’s love and grace. This Holy Spirit now awakens Peter who still holds the old boundary as a norm and a mandate. The Spirit opens his eyes to serve God’s continued boundary-breaking mission on earth. Hear what Spirit-filled Peter says today, “If then God gave [the gentiles] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)
Today, I am sure that the same Spirit, who gave that vision to Peter, is at work within us. I am sure that the same Spirit who broke the boundary between Jews and gentiles, is within us. This Spirit is the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us a new commandment. Jesus taught the disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Do you believe this Spirit of breaking boundaries, the Spirit of boundless love, is at work in us and in our church today? Yes, we should be awakened to this work of the Spirit calling us and empowering us to continue God’s mission of love and grace in this world. The Holy Spirit wants us to turn our justified discrimination into loving acceptance, replace our barriers of separation into doorways of relation, and change our self-righteous exclusion into self-emptying inclusion.
Faithful friends in Jesus Christ, is there anyone you discriminate wittingly or unwittingly? Are you somehow biased towards a certain individual or group of people based on their differences? Do you regard some people as they are out of God’s grace and forgiveness? Do you regard some people are not gifted enough to do God’s holy work in the church? Here, I want all of us to do this. Whoever they are, from now on, let us try hard to accept them and love them as the children of God. I know it must be difficult for us to love those who are different from us, who are strange to us. But whenever it’s hard, let us remember the blanket of God coming down to Peter. And let us remember the voice of God from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 11:5-9). By the Spirit of love, by the Spirit that breaks down barriers among us, let us show the world how we love one another, how we love beyond any humanly imposed boundaries with the radical love of Jesus Christ. Then, people will know that we are disciples of God and we are the church of Christ. Let the love and grace flourish among us, and let them flow from us to all the people over any threshold of the world, over any barriers of our differences. Amen.
A long time ago, I saw this woodcut print in one of my college text books. I guess, the book was about modern art. The book said, this German artist Käthe Kollwitz made the woodcut and titled it The Mothers(Die Mütter). The image was so impressive and has been engraved on my mind ever since. Two years ago, I had a chance to visit Berlin. And I found there is the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. I was so excited to visit the museum. And guess what, there I could see The Mother sin person, and I could even purchase a copy of it. Here I brought it today. At the museum, I also got to know the story behind this work. This is a part of Kollwitz’s woodcut series called War (Krieg). She began carving it in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I. During the war, she lost her younger son Peter who joined the army and lost his life in a battle. Out of grief, she created this series as her artistic response to the pain and suffering she had to endure.
Indeed, The Mothers conveys quite heavy emotions and messages. If you look at this image, you can see the mothers basically huddling together. Their arms are bound around themselves and their bodies linked. They’re doing it to keep their children safe in their embrace. But these mothers look neither strong nor heroic. Look at their watchful eyes full of fear. You can feel their anxiety and tension. And they look quite different from the ideal image of the mother in classic paintings like the Madonna and Child. But their tough hands and protective bodily gestures do represent something special.
During the war, nations with power send people to battlefields to kill their enemies and conquer their lands. But mothers, out of their compassionate love, make safe space within themselves to keep one another. And they patiently nurture life and endure the turbulent days. After the war, people came to realize that these seemingly helpless mothers are the ones who actually grow hopes for the future from the ruins of war and give life back into the war-torn world. It is the compassionate love that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the world.This image of The Motherstells me this simple truth whenever I look at it.
Today’s Psalm and Gospel readings give us one of the most distinctive images of God—yes, God as the good shepherd. And let me tell you this today: this image reveals us God’s maternal side. Like the mothers who endure hardships for their children, shepherds face dangers and challenges with sheep at the closest distance. In Jesus’ days, “Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter what the weather. They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.” And they had to trudge through the rocky hills and wilderness with the sheep in search of a patch of grass. The real life of a shepherd was never like the ideal images of the good shepherd portrayed in some church paintings and stained glasses. And the Bible tells us, like a good shepherd, our God of love cares for us, sacrifices for us, gives life to us, and nurture us. In short, as the good shepherd, God is mothering us.
I think we can clearly see this motherhood of God in Jesus Christ. While Jesus was in the world, people didn’t understand who Jesus truly was. Their main concern was about whether he was the Messiah who can defeat their enemies and restore their glorious days with his mighty divine power. In today’s Gospel story, the Jews gather around him and ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). But Jesus answers them, “You may want me to change the world upside down into an ideal place once and for all. But that’s not my job. I’m the good shepherd. I’m here to mother my sheep, give them eternal life and keep them safe so that no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). After Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross and resurrected, people came to realize that the humble Jesus is the one who actually overcomes the world with love and grows life with grace even out of death. It is his compassionate love that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the world. Jesus’ cross and empty tomb tell us this simple truth whenever we reflect on them.
Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day, and also, the Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Mothers and in Jesus Christ, our good shepherd, we see God at work our midst. The mothering God always keeps us safe in God’s embrace and huddles together with us against any harms in the world. And God as the good shepherd always walks besides us and guides us even through the darkest valley of life. This motherhood of God is very special. It tells us, God’s way of giving new life and renewing this broken world is not a way of power and control. But it is a way of compassionate love. This way of motherhood seems weak and humble, but we know, it is the only way, the true way to flourish life in this world and build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Faithful friends in Christ, as disciples of Jesus Christ, today I hope we commit ourselves to expanding God’s motherhood in this world. How? I think we all can be the channels of God’s compassionate love and find our ways to grow and nurture life. Out of God’s compassionate love within us, we may take care of the brokenhearted and the wounded. We may huddle together with the least and embrace the lost. We may help one another to grow hope even in the valley of despair. We may accept one another unconditionally to make this church a place of healing and renewal. We may encourage one another to cultivate our kind spirit in us. We may serve one another to ground a kingdom of heaven among us. And above all, we may hold one another to be faithful in Jesus, the good shepherd. In doing so, I surely believe, we will know once again, it is only God’s compassionate love working in our hearts that paves the way of life, the true way of changing the broken world. Amen.
American Bible Society, “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” (http://bibleresources.americanbible.org).
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops by Lazarus’s house in the town of Bethany. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are overjoyed to have him in their house, because Jesus is so special to them. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus literally owes his life to Jesus. A nicely prepared dinner is served for Jesus and his disciples. And it is during all the festivities that Mary breaks open a jar and anoints Jesus with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and wipes his feet with her hair. Then, the Gospel says, the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3).
This got me curious, what is nard? And what does nard smell like? A quick Wikipedia search tells me, the full name of nard is actually “spikenard.” It’s an amber-colored essential oil extracted from a flowering plant of the Valerian family, which usually smells like lavender. I also checked Amazon to see if I could purchase it. And I was so happy when I finally found the pure spikenard essential oil among many other fake ones. Yes, I had to read a lot of reviews. Anyway, when you entered this sanctuary, did you smell any fragrance? I dropped a few drops of oil on this diffuser. If not, no worries. Please take one of these test strips. You can definitely smell pure nard from it. What does it smell like? To me, it smells like a mixture of lavender, peppermint, natural wood with some earthy scent. I find it quite soothing and comforting. Now, think about it. What did it actually smell like in Lazarus’ house that night, when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard? Even a few drops of pure nard on this diffuser and on the test strips spread fragrance in the air around us. Then, imagine, what would it be like, if it were a pound of it, almost 95 bottles amount of this little bottle I have here? No doubt, the house must be truly full of fragrance.
And you also have to know, this nard oil was not a cheap perfume at all in Jesus’ days. It was very expensive because the spikenard plant grew only in the Himalayas of Nepal and India—not in Palestine. It’s a completely imported good, something that couldn’t be used like Mary does in such a generous way. Even today, this little bottle cost 25 dollars on Amazon. Then it’s not very surprising to see Judas Iscariot who has a problem with her and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:4-5) Some explain three hundred denarii of gold was worth a year’s wages. Yes, it’s a lot of money.
Then, why does Mary use such a generous amount of extravagant oil to anoint Jesus? I think, Mary does it because she felt Jesus being resolute and determined to do something groundbreaking, something final, as soon as she heard about his way to Jerusalem. Jesus once told, Jerusalem is the ultimate destination of his ministry where he will undergo passion and death. Out of love for Jesus, Mary wants to anoint him in a best way she can. She wants to bless his arduous journey to the cross and deeply thank him for his grace. Although she understands, Jesus is the only one who must bear such burden, she wants to do at least something to help him and support him. So she willingly sacrifices the valuable nard oil without any reservation.
That night in Lazarus’ house, a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, with excellent fragrance and prime value, is being dedicated to Jesus, to his anointing. For Judas, it seems such a great loss, such a great waste of expensive perfume, because he mainly focuses on the cash-value of the nard oil. But for Mary, it’s great gain, a great opportunity to bless Jesus for his unending love and grace. Why? It’s because Mary focuses primarily on the meaning of Jesus to her and to others. For Mary, the cash-value of the oilis no match for the surpassing value of Jesus. And the cost of oilis no match for the costliness of graceshe has experienced through Jesus. She’s confident that, Jesus is going to be the savior of all as he already has been to her brother.
With this sincere heart, Mary anoints Jesus. Then the house gets filled not only with the fragrance of nard but also, I believe, with the aroma of love. Jesus senses this and talks to Judas, “Leave her alone. I know, she bought the nard oil to keep it for the day of my burial. But instead, she chose to anoint me with it today, because I now go to Jerusalem and die. Like her, please know that you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me here” (John 12:7-8). By her sacrifice and dedication that night, Mary has been remembered until now as a woman who anointed Jesus for his work of salvation.
Looking at Judas and Mary, today, a simple question comes before us. What can we dedicate to Jesus? In this season of Lent, what can we sacrifice to bless Jesus’ name, to thank his grace, and to support the continued mission of the church, the body of Christ? I know it’s so hard for us to give up things that seems valuable to us. I know it’s so hard for us to sacrifice our time of pleasure for more time of prayer and meditation. It’s so hard for us to dedicate our treasure to others and to our works of mercy. It’s hard, because the sacrifice and dedication we make sometimes seem like a loss to us, just as Judas sees it.
But here, Paul gives us an assurance from his lifetime experience: whatever sacrifice and dedication we make for Jesus, it truly is gain. It may look like a loss, but it truly is gain. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul says, for Jesus, he gave up his reason to be confident in flesh—his status and pride as a legitimate Jew. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; …as to righteousness under the law, blameless(Philippians 3:4-6). However, Paul says, he can let it all go away because he may gain, what he calls, “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For Paul, anything in the world is no match for this surpassing value, no match for the costliness of his grace.
Look at this diffuser spreading the fragrance of nard oil now. The candle gives up its wax to warm up the oil, and the oil gives up its fragrance to spread it out. In the same way, without sacrifice, without dedication, we can’t spread the aroma of Christ, the aroma of love to fill this church and fill our lives. Jesus gave up his life on the cross to share his abundant love and grace with us. By his sacrifice, we’ve become God’s children. We’ve earned our new life—the life in communion with God and in loving fellowship with one another. The cross of Jesus, his death, looks like a loss but it truly is gain, indeed, the ultimate gain of everlasting life.
So today, what can we sacrifice for Jesus? What can we dedicate to his kingdom on earth? Today Jesus is calling us to think about the things that we can give up for him in our daily lives. And he is calling us to learn how to focus on the surpassing value of following him and the costliness of his grace over all the other material values in the world. Let us offer ourselves to Jesus and his ministry so that our life may diffuse the fragrance of faith. And let us offer our lives to one another so that the people around us may smell the aroma of Jesus Christ, the deep aroma of love and grace, from us always. Amen.
The Way of Salvation: Home – lost and found (Joshua 5:9-12) (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Everyone here probably knows John Denver’s timeless song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Its famous refrain goes, “Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong. West Virginia, Mountain momma, take me home, country roads…” Yes, this song is so familiar to us. But have you ever pondered over its lyrics? Actually, it sounds quite vague and implicit. We hear about some images of West Virginia, and there are some implications of a love story, but the song doesn’t tell any clear narrative, any story. Nonetheless, so many people still love this old song. Why? I think it’s because the song sings about home; it beautifully captures our common emotion and nostalgic memories related to home. Home sweet home, the place we belong… what does home mean to you? It must be hard to summarize, but for sure, it means something special.
In today’s Gospel story, there comes a special home where we meet one father and his two sons. This home looks like a good place filled with the father’s love and generosity. But unfortunately, his two sons don’t feel that way about their home.
The younger one feels like his home is not a place for him anymore. He thinks, as a grown-up, he should be out there, exploring the world. So he asks his father to give him the property he will inhere. This request can be heartbroken to the father, because in a way, it means, I wish you would be dead. Anyway, he receives his portion and travels to “a distant country,” and there, he wastes all his fortune on wild living. A severe famine hits that country. He is now desperate and hungry. So he even eats the food for pigs. At that moment, he finally sees who he has become and realizes who he truly is. “Right, I am not meant for this. I have home and father.” Now, he returns to home and asks his father to forgive him. And this gracious father not just forgives him but fully accepts him again. And out of his exuberant joy, the father even throws a big party for him. The father says, “Oh my son, you were once dead but now has come to life; you were once lost but now has been found.”
Now the older son has an issue with his father. He’s not happy with the return of his sinful younger brother. And he becomes resentful as soon as he finds his father bringing his brother back without asking him any responsibility. His discontent boils to the surface, and he bursts out complaining, “Over all these years I have worked like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you. Yet you have never rewarded me. But now you are throwing a party for my sinful brother who has squandered your money? I can’t believe this!” Then, the gracious father reminds him of how blessed and beloved he still is, saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The younger son lost himself in a distant country, away from home, in pleasure-seeking and self-indulgent life that eventually led him into misery. Whereas, the older son lost himself at home, in hatred and in judgmental self-righteousness. Whether going away from home or staying right at home, both of them got lost and forgot who they truly are—the beloved sons of the gracious father. So both of them need to come back home, to their father and reconcile with him.
Today, I think, Jesus gives us this parable in order that we may find ourselves in both of them. In their weakness and brokenness, we may see ourselves. Take a look at this classic painting of Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The younger son is in his father’s embrace. The worn-out shoes with the torn heel and his bare left foot with the crusted skin show the hardships he had to endure. His cloth looks dirty and his back looks weakened by hunger. In contrast, there is the elder son on the right side. He is wearing a red robe like his father and looking good and rich. But he stands still and never goes closer to his brother or offers a hug. Grabbing a stick tightly, he looks down upon the reunion with judgmental eyes under the furrowed brow.
Sometimes we are like the younger son. We just follow our desire. We just let it drive us. We squander our time and money for morepleasure and let loose on excessive self-indulgence. Then, we realize our fault, get down on our knees and repent. And other times, we are like the older son. We behave like seemingly faithful Christians. But we find it so challenging when we have to forgive and accept others with God’s love. We often hate and judge others, losing ourselves in self-righteousness. We don’t see any need for forgiveness because we don’t even recognize these as our sins.
Yes, we, sinners, either like the younger son or like the older one, also have to go back home. But the good news for us is that the home is not far from us. This home is not somewhere in West Virginia, where country roads take us. Rather, this home is anywhere God dwells, anywhere God’s love and grace is deeply experienced. So I believe this home can be now within us, right here in our gathering. Even though we are weak and broken as humans, I believe, today God joyfully embraces us in this spiritual home. And God feeds us with love, dresses us with grace, and celebrates our return.
“Habitat for Humanity” is devoted to building simple and affordable housing all over the world for the people in need. You may know this group too. And they asked, to Habitat homeowners, volunteers, and staff, “What does home mean to you?” And here are some of their favorite responses. “Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone. A place to live with our families… A place to build memories… A place where we can truly just be ourselves. And whether our houses are big, small, fancy or modest, they are our shelters and our sanctuaries (Linda).” “Home means a future. Once we had a stable home, we could think beyond where we were going to live from week to week… Home is the base where everything begins (Kelly).” “I think that home is simply wherever you’re surrounded by people who love you (Mary Kate).” So true, home is the sanctuary where we find safety and comfort, love and support. Home is the base where we belong and where everything starts for a hopeful future.
Today I suggest we also add our response to the question, “What does home mean to you?” “For us, believers of Jesus Christ, home is where God the father always waits for us—his children. At home with God, we experience the grace that always forgives and the love that unconditionally accepts us. At home with God, we are always found with our sacred worth and beloved-ness no matter who we have become, no matter what we have done for good or for ill.”
Today, I invite you to make yourself at home here in this place with your sisters and brothers in God. I want you to come as you are, as weak or broken, feel God’s grace and love here, and be renewed and revitalized in joy and thanksgiving. Then, I invite you to make sure that this home is also available to those who are out there. I want you to open doors to everyone, to all God’s children. Make God’s loving and graceful family with true forgiveness and radical acceptance. With the heart and mind of Jesus Christ, I want you to embrace all the sinners just like us, welcome all the younger sons and all the older sons around us, give them the best spiritual food, and celebrate with them our beloved-ness, our kinship in our heavenly father. In this way, we may grow in faith and become more like our father day by day. And we may grow in love and make this place a sanctuary, a base for many people to truly belong. Home sweet home…may the Holy Spirit be here with us always. Amen.
Every season of Lent, I try to come up with a theme, a theme that flows through the Bible readings for the entire six weeks in Lent. What is the theme for the current season of Lent? Look at the altar. The draping purple cloth and the six candles are not just there to make our sanctuary beautiful. Yes, they do symbolize the theme, “the Way of Salvation.” It tells us, our way goes along with the way of Jesus to the cross. And through worship, we have been reflecting on the things we experience as we journey through the way of salvation. On Ash Wednesday, we meditated on our beginning and end, our dust-ness and mortality. On the first Sunday in Lent, we thought about Jesus in the wilderness and the three temptations of human desire, will, and fear. On the second Sunday, we reflected on our way of being the church, being the community of the saved in this secular, skeptical, and individualistic age. And today, we are looking into a rather uncomfortable and yet essential topic of Lent: repentance and forgiveness.
I know, these days, repentance is not a popular subject of any sermon. Who would want to hear that you are a sinner or there’s something seriously wrong with you? And I also know, these days, preachers have been reluctant to present Jesus as the one who fiercely fought the evil in the world. He was not just a gentle guy, meek and mild, not a buddy, a therapist, or a life-coach. Jesus got very upset with people. He criticized evildoers and cursed hypocrites. He frequently admonished his disciples. And he even overturned the tables of money-changers and wielded the whip of cords in front of the temple. For sure, Jesus unconditionally loved the people around him, but at the same time, he was just and righteous to their sin. This is why he demanded them to truly repent.
The season of Lent is called the season of repentance—forty days of honest reflection on our identity as sinners. We know, by God’s grace through our faith, we, though sinners, are saved by Jesus from sin and its consequence—death. Jesus opens us the way of salvation. However, please remember, our journey on this way can begin only when we repent. Yes, we should repent first, to be redeemed and to walk the way with Jesus. Some people say, Lent is only a penultimate journey; Easter, resurrection, the victory over death, is our ultimate destination. But before reaching that point, today we better pray honestly and solemnly looking into our spiritual status quo. And we better strike at the root of our complacency and comfort, and get down on our knees to repent.
You may ask, what does it mean to repent? The word, “repentance,” originated from the Greek word, “metanoia,” which simply means, turning around, the change of direction. Let’s say we all are driving down to south. We would usually take either the Garden State Parkway or I-95. But some of you might take some other local routes too. It’s totally up to you. And let’s say that these roads and routes represent our ways of life we choose. Then here, repentance is not a matter of choosing between the Garden State Parkway and I-95. Repentance is a matter of changing direction from south to north. It’s about turning back from death to life, turning back from self to God, turning back from sin to Jesus Christ on the cross.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is telling us about this repentance. In the days of Jesus, there were two tragic news that everybody knew. Pilate, the Roman governor, massacred the Galilean pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices with no clear reason. And there followed a unfortunate accident at Siloam where eighteen people died by a fallen tower. To comprehend such tragedies, people thought, the dead were worse sinners than the alive, and their sin caused the wrath of God. So the crowd asks Jesus what he thinks about their reasoning. Jesus answers them, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”(Luke 13:3; 5). What does this mean? First, Jesus denies their reasoning, “No, God is not the God of wrath.” Second, Jesus moves their focus to a more pressing issue, the issue of repentance, “Sooner or later, you will all die too, so when you still have time, you should repent. And this is much more important than finding reasons for those tragedies.”
According to Jesus, we can’t figure out why good things or bad things happen in our lives. They are out of our control anyway. Some may choose the Garden State Parkway and unfortunately have all the roadside constructions and lane closures. Others may take I-95 with some traffics but somehow go along rather smoothly. That’s life. Be that as it may. But one thing is clear: unless we change our direction, we will go down and perish. No matter how lucky or unlucky we are on our ways of life, if we don’t change our direction, we will go down and perish. So Jesus is telling us today, repent and change the direction. And this is something we can surely do today, and every day.
Now some of you might wonder, “I confess my sins personally and in every worship service. I got baptized and have faith in Jesus. Doesn’t it mean that I am saved and I already changed my direction of life?” Yes, it does. By God’s grace through our faith, we are saved. Our sins are forgiven and now our direction of life is towards the new life in Christ. But at the same time, we should be keenly aware that we can very easily move backward. Although we changed the direction to north but we can still move backward to south. Yes, we can still relapse. This is what we Methodists call backsliding.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus also tells us about this backsliding through the parable of the fig tree. In the parable, a man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard and it bears no fruit. So he asks his gardener to cut it down. Then the gardener replies, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9). We know for sure that our God is the God of grace who gives us a certain time to repent and move forward. Yet it is also clear that our God is the God of justice who will surely judge our sin at the end. So in our limited time on earth, we need to intentionally walk on the right track, and like the John the Baptist says, we need to bear fruits worthy of repentance on our way of salvation.
Faithful companions in Christ, I know, today, I am talking much about a topic that is not just good to hear. But please remember, from time to time it’s really necessary to be aware of who we are and what we ought to do. We still have time, although it is yet limited, and we still have one another who journey together in the right direction. In this season of Lent, let us do something to bear good fruits in life. Let us keep staying in the loving relationship with God and with people around us, keep growing in faith and holiness by joining the works of piety and works of mercy in our church, and keep repenting when we fall back, and keep submitting ourselves to God to be redirected. May God be with all of us with the grace that abundantly pardons. May we drink the living water from our rock of salvation, Jesus Christ, and wash our sins away. And may the Holy Spirit be with us and empower us to step always forward to the new and everlasting life. Amen.