“Please, please, I can’t breathe.” This desperate plea for help came from 46-year-old George Floyd, a black man, who was dying on the ground for his neck was being held down by a white police officer’s knee. “I can’t breathe.” He repeatedly pleaded for relief, but the brutality didn’t stop until he went unconscious and died. This tragedy has disturbed and wounded us so deeply. I know, many of you might feel your chest tight already as I talk about him again today.
And another tragedy terrified us last week. The Covid-19 death toll passed into six figures last Wednesday. Over a hundred thousand people, who breathed alive even a few months ago, died from this vicious virus. They were mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, spouses and even children. They didn’t all have to die. While some people claimed their freedom to live without restrictions and breathe freely without masks, more than a hundred thousand people died painfully, feeling shortness of breath.
Look at this society we are in. Can you feel the heavy and breathless air? The deeply entrenched racism has been worsened in this toxic political atmosphere. It has only fanned the flame of bigotry and discrimination. So it looks like some people even think it’s okay to shoot down an unarmed man jogging in his town if the man is black; it’s okay to falsely accuse a man and report him to the police if the man is black. And look at the devastating inequality. The structural racism has exacerbated even health disparity. Recent studies show how Covid-19 has disproportionately infected communities of color. Black people, for example, represent only 13% of the US population, but counties with higher black populations accounted for more than half of all Covid-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths as of mid-April. Can you believe this? Can we breathe comfortably in this suffocating atmosphere? Oh Lord, we really need some breathing room today.
And today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us, in the beginning, there was the breath of life. When the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, this wind from God swept over the deep and brought out the creation. This breath is called “Ruach Elohim” in Hebrew, which means, the breath of God. And yes, this is another name of the Holy Spirit. With this breath, God created heaven and earth. And God breathed this breath into Adam’s nostrils and made him a living being. Today is the day we praise this divine breath.
Here, some people may ask me, “How can we just joyfully praise this breath of God today as our society unjustly push people to their last breath? Isn’t it a big irony—we celebrating this breath of life today?” Maybe, it is. But I would rather proclaim, it’s precisely because of the social evil we are facing today, we should commemorate the day that the Holy Spirit came down to transform the followers of Jesus Christ and through them, the world. It’s precisely because of the mounting loss of life happening now, we should call upon the Spirit of the living God to come to us and restore our souls and this sin-sick land.
So I dare ask you today to join me in celebrating the day of Pentecost and opening your heart to the life-giving breath of God in our midst. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples and other followers of Jesus were praying together in a house. And the Holy Spirit came with “the rush of a violent wind” like a tornado. This breath of God also comes with a vision of flames. It’s like the tongues of fire touching and resting on each believer’s head. This breath, like a wind of fire, blows in and suddenly fills the entire house. Then what happen to the disciples and followers?
The Book of Acts testifies, upon receiving the breath of God, they built a bridge over any kind of barriers. The Holy Spirit gifted early Christians the ability to speak fluently in all different languages and the crowds who understood them were amazed. The breath of God enabled them to communicate heart-to-heart the good news of Jesus overcoming all barriers…not just a language barrier, but the barriers that divided them, such as race, nationality, culture, and class. By taking the breath of God, they were able to build a bridge and make a new race as the same offspring of Abraham. In the Roman society where discrimination was taken as normal, the Holy Spirit called Christians to be bridge builders and to proclaim the kingdom of reconciliation in the name of Jesus.
Early Christians not only built a bridge. Upon receiving the breath of God, they also built a community over any kind of differences. When the Holy Spirit came down and inspired these believers, they became one and equal. The Holy Spirit enabled them to communicate with God and also with one another. And there flourished spiritual renewal and anointing; there bloomed compassion and love for one another; there were opening of hearts and sharing of resources; and there emerged a community, the body of Christ, the church! In the society where difference led to bigotry, Christ believers gathered and the Holy Spirit raised the church, a loving community.
Faithful friends in Christ, today, we remember all those people out there and also among us who cry out, “I can’t breathe.” And we remember the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. This Spirit is the breath of life that created all things with God. This Spirit is the breath of justice that inspired the judges and the prophets to bring deliverance and liberation to the people of God. This Spirit is the breath of love and truth that Jesus breathed onto the disciples. And this Spirit is the breath of guidance that still leads all believers to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
When this life-giving breath of God comes upon us and empowers us, we can surely do things that can help people around us breathe in this troubled world. As bridge builders of the Holy Spirit, let us be compassionate and loving above all. Please reach out to those who are in so much pain now, cry with those who are vulnerable to any kind of injustice, share their burdens of grief and despair, anger and fury. And we may offer comfort and peace of Christ with them. And as community builders, let us be righteous and courageous. Let’s stand against social injustice, raise our voice and proclaim justice in any possible ways. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we may partake in ministries that can change our corner of the world into God’s kingdom of peace. And we may transform this society slowly but surely.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come!” Today, we wholeheartedly plead and pray, “Come Holy Spirit come! Come and let us be your church overcoming all kinds of barriers and differences. Come Holy Spirit come! Come and let us breathe the breath of God and let us be your hands and feet to help others breathe and live in your love. Come. Do come!” We pray today in Jesus holy name. Amen.
It’s been already two months since we last met in this sanctuary and worshipped in person together. For the last two months, the landscape of our lives has drastically changed in a way we never imagined before. Death toll has mounted. Economy has failed. And people have suffered… suffered from losing friends and family members, losing jobs and businesses, and losing faith and hope. While we have been sheltered in place for the last two months, the world has become a strange place. And we all wonder if there’s any way-out. We are eager to find out when we would be free from all these miseries. But we know, nobody has the correct answer. Nobody can tell us when the day will finally arrive.
So these days, I frequently find myself daydream. I imagine the day when the COVID-19 vaccine gets distributed and we all get immunized. How joyful it would be! When the day comes fast enough, I would meet you all in the church and worship together in exuberant joy and thanksgiving, and I would give a big hug to every one of you before I leave. When the day comes, I would have a wonderful reunion with my family and friends in South Korea, and I would visit the resting place of my grandmother who recently passed away. I would go out and dine at my favorite restaurants. I would travel here and there.
And my daydreaming usually doesn’t stop here. I imagine further the day…the day when we finally overcome not only the pandemic but also the things this pandemic has revealed about our society. The deeply entrenched racism. The epidemic of violence and bigotry. The devastating inequality and disparity. And I imagine further the day, the day described in the Bible, the Day of the Lord, when the kingdom of God finally comes in our midst. When the day comes, we shall see justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We shall live in boundless peace and joy. We shall see no more deaths and tears, no more worries and cries. No more unemployment. No more hungers and struggles. These days, I frequently find myself daydream of such day.
Today we are celebrating the day of ascension. The Bible lessons for today tell us that a cloud took Jesus out of the disciples’ sight. And from that day on, the followers of Jesus began to wait for the day of his return, the Day of the Lord. They started to imagine the day when Jesus comes down from his heavenly seat, from the right hand of God. They imagined the day when he comes again to judge the living and the dead as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed.
So is this all about ascension? Jesus Christ is lifted up to heaven and we are to wait for the day of his return? Are we, Christians, supposed to only imagine and long for the new kingdom to come with Jesus Christ some day? I don’t think that’s everything about this Ascension Sunday. There’s more about our Lord’s Ascension. This event doesn’t leave us to be just passive or inattentive. Rather, it leaves us a task and keeps us active. It reminds us of a very critical mission we should carry out while waiting for the day.
In today’s Acts reading, the disciples get confused watching their resurrected Lord and Savior take off heavenward. They want to know where Jesus is going and when he would come back. But Jesus only says, “It is not for you to know, but wait until you receive the Holy Spirit.” And then he’s gone. The disciples are standing there looking up, wishing to see some sign, or to hear some more words of assurance. But instead, the disciples hear 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). Here, the point is: “Don’t just stay there as spectators, but act like the follows of Jesus. He is surely coming.” If I may translate this in more colloquial phrases, it might be like, “Will you stand there forever? I told you, he’s coming back, so get back to your mission.”
The disciples also listen to the voice of Jesus himself at the ascension. Jesus tells his disciples about the task, the final mission. He says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised” (Luke 24:48). “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). Be my witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the task. Be my witnesses—don’t just imagine or long for the day to come, but bear witness to what you have already experienced and what you have come to believe.
As you may know, it’s widely accepted that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. So they are two volumes in one series. The two readings we read this morning are the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Acts. That is, Luke closes Jesus’ story and starts a new story about early Christians’ lives. Between these two stories, Jesus’ ascension comes as a bridge. Yes, Luke writes the same narrative in both books. Why? I think it’s simply because the story is important and especially, the task is crucial. “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). Jesus asks us to go out and tell. Go and be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Faithful friends in Christ, on this Ascension of the Lord Sunday, we have to listen to Jesus calling us into our lifelong vocation as Christians: to be his witness. Then, how can we be his witness? Can we do that even in this pandemic? Of course. We don’t have to think big things. We can just start with small things. Think about practicing small acts of love and kindness. Small acts of care and hospitality. And think about sharing small words of comfort and encouragement. Small words of support and sympathy. These simple words and deeds are a good start witness Jesus. And they will never go in vain. They will be rewarded by God. For sure, it would be great if we can actually go out and bear witness to Jesus Christ to someone who doesn’t know Jesus. But today, let’s start simple.
Would you be a witness of Jesus with me today? On this day we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, we are called to share the good news, share the redeeming love that we have seen, felt, known, and experienced in Jesus Christ and in this community of God. So let’s not just long for the day, but be his witnesses today. Until Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, and we shall joyfully live in everlasting peace and love… until the day, let us earnestly work to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In the power of the Holy Spirit, let us be his witnesses in all we do, and do it all to the glory of God. Amen.
Today’s Gospel passage is a part of the so-called farewell discourse of Jesus. Simply put, these are Jesus’ last words. Continued from the story we read last week, Jesus is now preparing to go through his passion and death on the cross. Jesus already washed the disciples’ feet. With his last words, he hopes to get the disciples ready for his departure. He doesn’t have much time. He makes sure they understand what they should keep on doing after he’s gone. Thereby, it feels like the farewell discourse is not just Jesus’ last words, but it’s like the will of Jesus. And no doubt, it’s important for any followers of Jesus; this part summarizes all messages and signs of Jesus. This is the gist of Jesus’ messages and signs. Then, what’s the core message that Jesus delivers to the anxious disciples and to us?
Here, I believe, Jesus gives us two simple messages. The first message can be encapsulated in one word. Love. If I may put that in a phrase, it would be like, keep the commandment of love. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and “they who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me” (John 14:15). And these commandments are what he just told them at the table. “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 13:34-34). He asks the disciples to keep on doing this thing that he has taught and done on the earth. Love. Nothing else.
Keep on loving. This new commandment is what builds the kingdom of God here and now. This new commandment is the best weapon to fight against evil and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in this world. This new commandment is the only path to the promised new life in Christ. So love God and love one another no matter what. Jesus once more asks the disciples to keep on loving. And he promises, “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:21)
Then, what is the second message? The second message is this. Let the Holy Spirit help and guide you. As you keep on loving God and loving one another, you may find difficulties, you may be disheartened and wounded. Then, get help from the Holy Spirit whom I send on your way. This Spirit of God will be with you and dwell in your heart always. And this Spirit of truth will do the same work that I have done for you, and will continue my presence in your lives forever…Jesus assures the disciples and comforts their troubled hearts.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “another Advocate.” He says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (14:16). (3) The Advocate’s original Latin word is the Paraclete, which is a composition of “para (alongside) + kletos (to be called).” So, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, means the one who is called alongside us to help us. This “another” Advocate is the helper, comforter, intercessor, and guide, just like Jesus, the first Advocate. Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because [the world] neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (14:17). So ask for help. Ask your?? way. Seek consolation. Request guidance. The Holy Spirit will empower you to move on whenever it is hard to keep the commandment of love.
Keep on loving. This is what Jesus asks us to do in his last words. And how can we do that? First, by keeping the new commandment. And second, by getting help from the Holy Spirit. This is the will of Jesus our Lord. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as the will we know—a legal document containing instructions as to what should be done with one’s fortune after one’s death. But if I may point out one clear similarity between a secular will and Jesus’ farewell speech, that is, they are not recommendations, not proposals. They don’t give us a choice. There’s no room to consider whether we would like to keep it or not. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He says, “This is my commandment.” This is something you should carry out. Although people call Jesus’ last words “the farewell discourse,” I believe, the content in that discourse is not actually a matter of discussion, not a matter of personal preference. Rather, it’s a matter of obedience. Obedience to Jesus. Obedience to the one we call, our “Lord.”
As the followers of Jesus Christ, how much do we try to keep on loving others in our lives? How much do we keep the new commandment? Have you ever tried to love the unlovable persons around you? How many times a week do you try to hear the Holy Spirit abiding in you? How many times a week do you ask the Advocate to guide you and comfort you? I believe, these questions are what we always ask to ourselves in this Eastertide and beyond.
Faithful friends in Christ, we are commanded to love. Let us keep the new commandment that Jesus Christ gives us today. And find help and guidance from the Holy Spirit when it’s hard to keep it. That’s the way we obey his will. In this turbulent world, our God discloses through Jesus Christ the love that forgives and saves sinners, the love that transforms the world with justice and peace, the love that overcome the power of death. Whenever we lose the direction, when we lose the meaning of life, I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, may enkindle the light of this love in our hearts and enable us to keep on… keep on following Jesus and keep on walking on the journey of faith even through the wilderness.
 Debie Thomas, “Love and Obedience,” at Journey with Jesus.net
As many of you already know, my grandmother passed away last Tuesday. She was 95 years old, but without any illness or trouble, she just peacefully went back to God’s embrace. Thanks be to God and thank you for sending me your thoughts and prayers.
Last week, I took time and reflected on my grandmother’s life and legacy weaving the pieces of my memories of her and her stories I’ve heard. Like most Koreans in her generation, my grandmother lived a life inseparably intertwined with the turbulent modern history of Korea. I heard that during the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was forcibly taken to a coal mine. It was life-threatening. So many people like him died there in harsh conditions of forced-labor camps. Luckily, my grandfather returned to the family, but soon the Korean War separated them again. Although he survived again, he was not like before with traumas and inner wounds.
Meanwhile, with no special skills, my grandmother made a living by doing anything. I heard how much she struggled to live. She had to travel by foot village to village to sell some small goods carrying her baby on her back. She helplessly lost her two children during the war. And she had to feed her family by working day and night in a small farmland. In my memory, she always toils away in a field; her back is badly hunched for intensive labor, her rough hands and feet are deformed, and the tips of her fingernails are always black with the dirt stuck there. At a single glance, anyone can tell, life hasn’t been that nice to her.
True, people may see my grandmother’s life as an uneasy life with tragic events, with no special achievements. But no matter how they see it, I’m sure that her life was a great life, an abundant life, because she lived a life of genuine faith, lived as a faithful follower of Jesus. How am I sure about this? I’m so sure just for one simple reason, for she prayed every day. She’s a woman of prayer. In her room, there were a small prayer table and a sitting mat where she could kneel down. On the table, she kept her Bible, reading glasses, a cross, and some pictures. And there was a picture of me and Jee Hei taken in our church. I know, she prayed every day at that table. I know, she also prayed for me and Jee Hei, and for our church looking at the picture. And I know, it was in her prayers that she found a way to hear the voice of her good shepherd who comforted her even through the darkest valleys of life. It was in her prayers that she found a way to have contentment in poverty, to bare hope in trouble, and to cultivate joy in suffering.
Today is the so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples about this good shepherd and his sheep. We know how good this shepherd is. For example, Jesus tells us, this good shepherd is “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:9). What does it mean? In Jesus’ days, a shepherd used a temporary sheepfold in the wilderness to keep the sheep safe at night. But this shabby enclosure usually provided walls only. So, at its entrance, there’s no gate, no door as such. So the shepherd had to sit down in the doorway and made himself a gate—a human door.
But no matter how good this shepherd is, there’s one thing the sheep should do always to follow this good shepherd and stay guarded by him. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus repeatedly tells us this one thing. He says, when the shepherd calls his own sheep by name, the sheep “hear his voice” (John 10:3). The sheep knows his voice and listens to his call. Yes, the shepherd is good; he always calls the sheep by name in his merciful voice. But the sheep should carefully listen to him to travel with him. The sheep should recognize the shepherd’s voice and discern his voice from any other voices, like a voice of a thief or a bandit, not to be lost and killed but to “have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). Keep on listening to the voice of the shepherd…this is indeed the key to the shepherd-and-sheep relationship.
Then, here’s a question for you. How can we listen to the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd, in our life? I believe, there can be many other ways, but there’s one time-tested way that our ancestors of faith affirm in many parts of the Bible. Yes, that is, prayer. In our prayers, we listen to the call of our good shepherd. In our prayers, we hear the still small voice of the Spirit that heals and comforts us, empowers and uplifts us. In our prayers, we discern the voice of truth from a voice of a thief or a bandit who climbs in and sneak in our hearts. In times like this, a thief of fear evokes our sense of anxiety and a bandit of despair drags us into a pit of depression. But in our prayers, we realize again, it is our good shepherd whom we should listen to and follow.
Life is hard. Out beyond the village, there are roaming predators, wolves, and bandits. In this time of COVID-19 crisis, we feel like we are the sheep that trudge through the rocky hills searching for a patch of grass. We are the sheep that wander through the wilderness to find water. Yet, Jesus assures us: with the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, with this good shepherd who carefully watches over us at the closest distance, our life is always abundant, and our life is on the way of grace to green pastures and still waters. So, the only thing we should surely do here and now is keep on listening to his voice no matter what.
My father told me that last Tuesday, right before the moment of my grandmother’s passing, he prayed for her and she replied with amen even in a very small voice. And that was her last word. How wonderful one’s life is to depart from this world listening to family’s farewell prayer. And how blessed one’s life is to finish life with the word, “amen.” I thought this, “amen” encapsulates her whole life. Throughout her journey of life, she faithfully listened to the voice of her good shepherd. In any moment of hardships, with amen, she followed him wherever he led her. And with amen, she went after him to her everlasting home. “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done,” I imagine her last amen might mean something like this.
Faithful friends in Christ, what is the most important thing in our lives? What does it really matter? Our achievements, honors, fames, financial portfolios, good salary? Not at all. When we stand before death, none of them really matters. And we know, the most well-lived life is the life of faith, the life guided by our good shepherd until the end. With him, life is abundant even in the darkest valleys, even in trials. To live this abundant life, I tell you again, there’s one thing, one simple thing, we should do. We should recognize and listen to the voice of our good shepherd in our prayers.
The good shepherd, who died and has risen for you, is waiting for you at the door today. He is calling you that you may hear his voice and travel with him in this Eastertide. So, now is the time for you to start praying, start listening to him. Block out a time in your schedule, designate a prayer spot in your house, and make prayer one of your most important daily routines. We need prayer in this time of crisis. It is never more needed than before. May the grace of our good shepherd be always with us and lead our ways. And may we also reply to him in our daily prayers and in our last prayer on earth, “Amen, so be it, my shepherd. Your will be done.”
A few years ago, in France, an interesting idea contest drew people’s attention. This contest asked people just one question: What is the most effective way to go fast through heavy traffic? Many nonsensical ideas were shared. “Call a helicopter.” “Leave your car and just run.” “Wear your Ironman suit.” “Stay home until the traffic jam disappears.” But the idea that won the first prize in this contest was this. “Go with someone you love.”
What do you think about this idea? I thought it’s quite French, it’s no surprise that the answer is so romantic, isn’t it? Anyway, the idea does make sense. When you are on your way to a destination with someone you love, you don’t recognize how fast time goes by. You feel like even the distance gets magically shortened. Stress and worries disappear when you enjoy small moments of chitchatting, sharing lives, and even singing.
And you know what? This simple idea works so well not just when we go through heavy traffic, but also when we go through turbulent times in our lives. With someone we love…and if I may add one more qualification…with someone we trust, we can carry on and get over our hardships better. Going with someone we love, following someone we trust…no doubt, this must be the best way to go through the wildernesses in our lives.
In today’s Gospel story, we find two disciples of Jesus walking down the road to Emmaus from Jerusalem. It’s not heavy traffic that they experience on the road, but it’s their heavy hearts. The seven-mile road to Emmaus seems so long because three days ago, they lost Jesus—their friend and teacher they so dearly loved. His disgraceful death as a criminal was too shocking to them. Although they heard in the morning from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was resurrected, they couldn’t get it. And still they can’t believe it. It’s so confusing, and they need some time away from everything. So they decide to go out and walk away from Jerusalem, from the place of tragedy.
On the road to Emmaus, however, the two disciples encounter once again the sad reality that they have to admit from now on: the absence of Jesus. For the last three years, they traveled with Jesus. But now they are walking the road without Jesus. And this is their new normal. Their journey with Jesus was never easy, but the journey was joyful and fruitful because they followed him. On the journey, they found the meaning and purpose of life and their gifts; they witnessed miracles and wonders of God’s kingdom; they were in full of hope for new life. But now, Jesus is no longer with them. The farther they walk on the road, the deeper they feel the absence of Jesus in their lives. They might weep bitter tears. Their heads might be down. They might shuffle and kick some dusts and stones.
But at that moment, a strange person approaches the two disciples and begins to walk with them. The disciples feel that their footsteps get lighter and their travel gets easier as they listen to this wise person explaining why Jesus had to die and now lives again. So when they get to Emmaus, they grab him to stay with them a little longer. At the dinner table, this person takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. Then their eyes are opened and recognize the person who is actually Jesus. But Jesus suddenly vanishes from their sight. The disciples say to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”(Luke 24:32)
It’s a moment of grace in their turbulent time, in the first Eastertide. The resurrected Jesus personally comes to the disciples and gives them the confidence that even death cannot take away the faithful company of Jesus from them. Now, they are deeply aware of the enduring presence of Jesus in their lives until the end of their journey. Now, they are deeply aware that they can still follow Jesus from there. And now, the road to Emmaus, this road of brokenness turns into a road of healing and nourishment. The road of bewilderment turns into a road of revelation and understanding. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples once mumbled in hopeless voice, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But now they return to Jerusalem, find other disciples, and shout with joy, “The Lord has risen indeed” (Luke 24:21;34).
In our lives, what kind of roads have you gone through? A road with heavy traffic and accidents? A stony and rocky wilderness road? Or an easy breezy and nicely paved road? Then, what kind of road are you walking now? I know, some of us feel desperate walking on a desert road. And some of us feel unsafe walking on a treacherous cliff-side road. And how about our future? We don’t know what kind of untrodden road, what kind of new normal will unfold in our lives. We cannot predict anything.
However, in today’s Gospel story, I hope you find one everlasting truth. The one who walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus is walking with us today. The resurrected Jesus is closely walking beside us today, so whatever road we take, we can keep following him. On any way of our lives, he will be there with us and remind us that he defeated the power of death and despair. He will be there with us and make our hearts burning with his Spirit and with his light of resurrection. He will be there with us and assure us of the promise of new life and turn our despair into hope, our new normal into new wonder. Truly, this Risen Lord is the one we can trust and we must follow! He is the most intimate travel companion on our ways of life. And this is what we believe.
Faithful friends in Christ, do you love Jesus? Look into your heart. With confidence, take a look around and find Jesus inside and beside you. The one, who died on the cross and has risen, is surely with you today. The one, who walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is walking with you today. I am so sure that he is more than happy to travel with you, suffer with you, encourage you, and share burdens and joys with you on the road. What is the best way to go through heavy traffic and any wilderness in our lives? We may go with someone we love, and follow someone we trust. In this Eastertide, let us not just go for a walk with Jesus but go on a journey of lifetime with him. Let us keep on trusting in Jesus and following him through whatever road we take. May the Risen Christ closely walk with you and graciously reveal his enduring presence to you. May Christ be always the light on your path and make your heart strangely warm and burning with his life-giving love and care. Amen.
With the Risen Christ
– Eastertide Sermon Series –
From Easter to Pentecost, this 50-day period of time is called Eastertide in our liturgical calendar. Eastertide, which simply means the season of Easter, was traditionally a time of learning, especially for the newly baptized members of the church; they learned about their new identity as members of the Body of Christ. And for other members, it was a time to deepen their understanding of Christian faith and discipleship as the followers of the Risen Christ. So, during this Eastertide of great fifty days, I would like to invite all of you to continue this good tradition of the church and think about the way we faithfully live as the resurrection people. After Easter, what should we do, what should we keep on doing with the Risen Christ here and now? In this Eastertide sermon series, Keep On, I would like to share some of my reflections with you. So please stay tuned, and you are more than welcome to share your own reflections with me and other members.
Last week, we celebrated Easter. We sang with joy, “Christ the Lord has risen today” and “Up from the grave, he arose.” Yes, the Season of Lent, the season of penitence is gone. Our wilderness journey came to its end. Yes, the tomb is empty. Death has been defeated. The way of new life is wide open. Yes, now we have finally marched on from Lent to Eastertide, death to life, sorrow to joy. Glory to God, hallelujah!
And yet. Why does this transition feel so hard this year? Is it just me? Why do we feel like we are still in sorrow? Why does death appear to be still in charge in this time of resurrection? Yes. That’s right. We are still going through this crisis, this overwhelming reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. So even after Easter, we can’t just live happily ever after. Honestly, I feel quite confused. How can we handle this gap between the truth of resurrection and the ongoing reality of death? How can we live in the light of resurrection in this dark days of crisis?
This Eastertide is weird, we may say. But interestingly, in today’s Gospel story, I find, the first Eastertide the disciples of Jesus experienced was quite similar to the Eastertide we are experiencing now. The Gospel of John describes in detail what the disciples were doing on the day of Easter and the following days. And it’s clear that they were not in a mood for celebration at all. For them, their days were full of fear and doubt, uncertainty and confusion.
Jesus died on the cross, and the disciples locked themselves in a house. The Gospel says that they did it “for the fear of the Jews.” They had to do this, because they were the disciples of Jesus the crucified, the enemy of the state. It means that they were also suspected of complicity in the attempt to stir up the crowd and overthrow the current religious and political orders. I have no idea whose house it was or where the house was. But for sure, they gathered together in that house, shut the door tightly, and perhaps sealed the windows too. They didn’t want to be noticed by anyone around. They were on lockdown in the house.
To them, there came incredible news. Mary Magdalene testifies, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). But they couldn’t believe it. To be precise, they couldn’t accept and process it. Think about this. They were the ones who betrayed Jesus, their friend, their Lord. They left him alone and couldn’t stand up for him or do something for him. Whenever they thought about what had happened to Jesus on Friday and his horrible death, they were weighed down by the intense emotions of remorse and sadness. They knew they would never be free from these heavy feelings haunting them.
So the disciples locked themselves in the house—not just their bodies but also their souls. And into this very house, into their time of fear and confusion, Jesus came. He came in even through the locked door. And he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). As if nothing serious had happened, he greeted them, “shalom.” Then, Jesus showed his wounds to the disciples. And their hearts were finally filled with joy and hope. Jesus breathed his breath of life, the Holy Spirit, into their hearts. And their hearts were unlocked by the wave of the Easter joy.
Today’s Gospel story tells us that a week after, when the disciples were gathered in the house again, Jesus visited them again. This time, he came for Thomas who did not believe in his resurrection yet. Even after hearing the witness of other disciples, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). So Jesus came to Thomas, showed his wounds, and said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Then Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:27-28).
This is what happened in the first Eastertide. Fear and doubt locked down the house of the disciples. Uncertainty and confusion made them shut the doors of the house and of their hearts. Reading this story again and again, I thought, this first Eastertide was quite similar to the Eastertide we are going through now. We hunker down in our houses. The veil of fear and doubt still covers our hearts. Uncertainty and fear prevail. The light of resurrection is dim and flickering. The overwhelming reality of the Covid-19 pandemic and its brutal impact confuse us, make us doubt. It’s hard to remain in the Easter joy and stay hopeful.
But my faithful friends in Christ, in times like this, let us remember Jesus, our Jesus who found the disciples in the house and came to them when they needed him most. Let us remember, even the locked door, even the closed hearts couldn’t stop Jesus from coming in. He came through the locked door, through those closed hearts, and showed how much he loves his disciples; he showed his scars of self-giving love and marks of self-denying sacrifice. He came in and healed the wounds of the disciples and revived faith in their doubting hearts. And he breathed the Holy Spirit into them to make them whole. Jesus, resurrected from death, continues to save the disciples with his love and raise them up with a new assurance of faith and fresh vision.
In this time of despair and sorrow, just like the disciples did, we might think that Jesus is not here with us anymore so lock ourselves in our own places of silence and darkness. But I truly believe that in this time and into this place, Jesus is coming. He is surely coming, no matter how tightly we lock the door. He is coming with the light of Easter, and this light will unlock our hearts. He is coming with his Spirit of life, and this Spirit of the living God will revive us and heal us. My friends, do you believe this?
Therefore, Easter people, keep on believing. Keep on believing in the power of resurrection and in the life-giving love that conquered death. Keep on believing in Jesus Christ our Lord who always comes to us and liberates us from the shadows of fear and doubt, uncertainty and confusion. Keep on believing that nothing can stop him from coming to us, and nothing can separate us from his love. May the Spirit of our Risen Christ always guide you and revive your faith through this Eastertide. Amen.
We have seen the death; the coronavirus death toll surpassed 10,000-mark last week. And now it has surpassed 20,000-mark. It’s not easy to fathom this surreal number. But what’s more tragic is that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg because there are so many unidentified deaths and misclassified deaths in the absence of available testing.
We have seen the death; the coronavirus related death of our friends, coworkers, their family members, and our family members, our neighbors. The pain of loss and grief breaks us down and leaves empty holes in our hearts. And there come fear and sorrow, fill us with the dark and bitter foretaste of death.
We have seen the death; the economic death. Numerous people have been laid off, closed their businesses, worked reduced hours, lost their new job opportunities. They suffer from financial crisis. And it’s frustrating that we don’t know how long this tragedy will last. This can possibly make many people’s lives a little less than dead.
We have seen the death; the spiritual death. Social distancing and self-quarantine increase anxiety and feelings of loneliness and isolation. Many people suffer from weariness of heart, depression, a sinking feeling that everything is falling apart. These mental effects can drag anyone to the edge of graveside and give them a walk-through of death.
Death is close to us than ever before. And in this time of hopelessness, we are fearful and helpless behind closed doors.
According to today’s Gospel story, they have also seen death. The disciples saw the death of Jesus…then, the death of their hope, their faith, and their spirit. Jesus’ death was not normal at all. It was the most painful and humiliating death imaginable. Jesus was crucified as a criminal, as an enemy of the state. And it means that the disciples are also in grave danger—danger of being accused of complicity in the attempt to stir up the crowd and overthrow the current religious and political orders.
Death is close to them than ever before. And in this time of hopelessness, they are fearful and helpless behind closed doors.
But in this real presence of death, something strange happens. It’s on the third day after Jesus died. Mary Magdalene visits the tomb of Jesus. And she finds the tomb open and Jesus’ body is not there. Receiving this striking news, Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb and get in there one after the other. There, they only see the linen wrappings and cloth that once covered Jesus’ body. They can’t figure out what’s going on. So they just return home.
But Mary still lingers there weeping outside the tomb. And before leaving the place, she bends over and looks into the tomb one more time. Then, she sees the angels. They ask her why she’s sad and weeping, and Mary answers, because Jesus is taken away. In a wonder, she turns around to leave the tomb. But right there, she encounters the resurrected Jesus. With exuberant joy, Mary immediately goes to the disciples and announces the amazing good news, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18)
“I have seen the Lord!” In the aftermath of the horrendous death of her good Lord and friend Jesus, Mary has deeply suffered a loss. But at the tomb, at the dark domain of death, where her hopes and dreams were buried with Jesus, she meets the Lord, the resurrected Jesus. At the tomb, Jesus comes to her, calls her, and opens her eyes to recognize him. The radiance of new life shines out of death. The way of new beginning unfolds beyond the dead-end of life.
“I have seen the Lord!” On this Easter morning, even if you might join this worship service with a heavy heart, mumbling, “I have seen death,” now may the good news of Mary be yours, “I have seen the Lord!” On this Easter morning, even if you might feel death is close to you than ever before, now may our Lord come much closer to you than death and dwell in your heart with his Spirit of life, with his light of resurrection.
On this Easter morning, when every one of us is simply facing the matter of life and death, I have no sophisticated message or words of wisdom to deliver. What I can only testify is the simple testimony of Mary, “I have seen the Lord!” I have seen the risen Lord, because he still is in my heart and because he still is in your heart. And because he lives, we know, even the worst things this crisis can throw at us are no match for the love of God that sustains us through each step of our lives now and the ones to come. Because he lives, we know, nothing—neither grief, nor fear, nor sickness, nor unemployment, nor social distancing, nor even this pandemic—can separate us from the life-giving love of Christ that overcomes the power of death.
Faithful friends in Jesus Christ, who are Christians? We Christians are the resurrection people, the people who believe in the ever-springing new life surging even from within the real presence of death. We are the resurrection people who believe that by the power of Jesus Christ, even the tomb, the dark domain of death, can always turn into the place of resurrection. With this resurrection faith, we can discover a possibility of something new even in the tomb, even in our deepest despair and suffering. And we can bounce back, always bounce back from ruins and wounds, into fresh spirit and joy.
The resurrection people, with the Risen Lord, can take courage to turn our dead-ends in life into new beginnings. The resurrection people, with the Risen Lord, can change this death-stricken world into a place of life, love, and wonder.
So today, let us live out our resurrection faith. Let us be the living proof of resurrection, the living proof of life-giving love here and now. “Here,” in this world, where the surge of death engulfs life, and “now,” at this very moment, when the surge of despair buries hope, let us be the resurrection people who bring forth the re-surge of life, the re-surge of hope, the re-surge of joy in the name of Jesus. Today the stone-shut tomb is wide open and the tomb becomes the site of resurrection. Death is not the final word for us anymore, but life is, because up from the grave, he arose. So today, let Mary’s testimony truly be ours. At the tomb, when and where death is close to me than ever before, “I have seen the Lord!” Christ the Lord is risen to day. Hallelujah. Amen.
Three years ago, Jee Hei and I had a chance to travel to Berlin, Germany, for about three days. We enjoyed the trip so much visiting many museums and historic places. And among all those places we visited, one place still remains deeply in my heart. It is the Chapel of Reconciliation located right on the street where the famous Berlin Wall once stood. What captured my heart in this chapel was neither its mesmerizing architecture, nor its modern sanctuary. It was this altar piece hanging on the wall of the sanctuary. Look at the picture.
The wooden altar piece shows the famous scene of the Last Supper. But as you can see, the face of Jesus is badly broken off. We can tell that’s Jesus only because we already know how the Last Supper usually looks. Then, how come this strange, even grotesque, altar piece is kept in this chapel?
This altar piece was from the Church of Reconciliation, the original church that stood from 1894 to 1985 right at the site of this current chapel. Then, what happened to that church? It was during the time of the Cold War. Western Germany and Eastern Germany began to build the Berlin Wall. They both constructed their own barriers on their side at the same time. So, what we call the Berlin Wall was not just a single wall, but actually two walls running paralleled to each other. So between those two walls, there was an open ground, a buffer zone. Sadly enough, the church got trapped exactly within that space between the walls. No one could access the building except the border guards who used the church tower as an observation post. In 1985, the East German government decided to blow up the church building for security purposes. But the altar piece miraculously survived the demolition and could be rededicated to the current chapel later, even though the face of Jesus was totally broken off.
As soon as I saw the broken faced Jesus, I couldn’t move my feet. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the face of Jesus. To be honest with you, it was a little uncomfortable at first. I thought, people could get a replacement, a decent one with a complete face of Jesus. But that impression went away as I felt like I heard the voice of Jesus telling me something though his disfigured face. “Right here, I suffered with my church, with my people when they went through the coldest days of the Cold War. I was broken with them in the darkness and never left them alone.” The words hit my heart so deep. Jesus was broken because he was there in the midst of human brokenness, in the midst of the violence and division caused by worldly powers. There, I realized once more, the true meaning of our Lord’s passion and death. It was encapsulated right in that broken face of Jesus.
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A large crowd gathers to see Jesus’ holy face. As Jesus enters, they praise his name and shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9) The crowd is excited and so sure that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the mighty leader who can immediately turn their unjust world upside down—take the kingdom back from the Romans, liberate them from the oppression, and restore their glorious days in a new kingdom.
From his face, the hopeful crowd is eager to find assurance. They look for a shimmering light of divine glory, a royal majesty of a king, and an unmistakable gleam of triumph…from his face. But in reality, Jesus’ entry is not exactly triumphal. It’s quite far from the so-called “Roman Triumph,” a spectacular public ceremony for a victorious military commander. Rather, his entry is just a small town parade. Jesus doesn’t wear a purple robe. He is just in his humble cloths worn out through his long and rough journey. He is not on a four-horse chariot but only on a poor donkey. Jesus doesn’t have a royal entourage or army to display his power. He only has his disciples, a disorderly bunch including a rebel, a tax collector, and some Galilean fishermen.
Watching this lowly entry, watching the meek and mild face of the gentle Jesus, the crowd feels frustrated. Still they are somehow cheering and keeping their expectation because they heard about so many miracles and great things that Jesus did. But it doesn’t take too long for them to turn their back from Jesus completely. As soon as the crowd realizes that Jesus will not satisfy their needs, as soon as they find that Jesus will not be that kind of leader they have wanted and waited for, some of them just return to their ordinary lives, but some of them get infuriated and shout before Pilate, “Crucify him!” They mock him and spit on his face.
And we all know the rest of the story, how he suffered and died on the cross. On the cross, his face was covered with blood coming down under the crown of thorns on his head. From his broken face, the crowd only saw disgrace and shame. However, for those who believe in him, his face is the holy countenance of God. His broken face is the face of divine compassion, the face of unconditional love. From that sacred face, we find the assurance that he always suffers with us in the midst of our crisis and walks with us through our mundane struggles.
Standing before the altar piece in the Chapel of Reconciliation…looking at the broken-faced Jesus, I remembered the prophet Isaiah’s words on the suffering servant: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2-5).
Faithful friends in Christ, we Christians don’t believe in an otherworldly, apathetic god who just looks down upon us from heaven above. But we believe in Jesus who loves us so much that although he “was in the form of God…emptied and humbled himself, took the form of a slave, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-9). This Lord we trust and follow is with us always in our suffering and endures our pain on our side even in the darkness.
Today, we are facing a crisis we don’t know when it will end; the number of confirmed cases, the death tall, the unemployment rate go up day by day. We hide ourselves and live in fear and despair. But even in the midst of this grave crisis, let us never lose our trust in Jesus and in his cross, never lose our faith in his compassionate love that comforts us, empowers us, and saves us. May the broken-faced Jesus visit you today and dwell in your heart. And may he firmly assure you once again that he loves you, and he is with you no matter what. Amen.
“After having heard that Lazarus was ill, [Jesus] stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6). Two. Days. longer. The Gospel of John tells us that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, sent an urgent message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). Upon hearing this medical emergency of the friend he dearly loved—not just an acquaintance, Jesus didn’t rush over, didn’t even leave quickly, but he only said, “He’s not going to die,” and waited for two more days. Excuse me? Is this person the Jesus that we know? Why did he do that? According to Jesus, “It’s all for God’s glory.”
Meanwhile in Bethany, Mary and Martha was going through a miserable time. Initially, they might have had a great hope for Jesus as they sent a message to him. “Yes, he loves Lazarus. He will definitely run over here and heal my brother!” But instead, what actually happened to them? They had to watch Lazarus die helplessly. There was no response from Jesus for two days. And while they were desperately waiting for Jesus, they lost their hope and lost themselves in sadness. Then, they lost their faith. “Lazarus is dead. It’s done. There’s no more chance.” They buried their brother in a cave-like tomb, and they buried their hopes there with him. Bitterness and despair took over the hearts of Mary and Martha.
Living our life, how many days are like those two dark days that Mary and Martha experienced? I mean, the days when we pray and send desperate messages to God, “Dear Lord, help me,” but receive only deep silence in return. I mean, the days when distress and sorrow beat us down to our knees, but we can’t muster up courage anymore and can’t find the peace of Christ inside. I mean, the days when we feel empty and lost, but we can’t feel the presence of God in our lives. When was the last time you were in these dark days? Or, are you going through such days right now? Yes, in these days we feel helpless and vulnerable amid the rapidly spreading virus and mounting death toll. Yet, there’s no clear sign of hope on the horizon. We just stay at home, burrowed like hermit crabs, shut the doors of our houses and…perhaps, shut the doors of our hearts as well.
Undergoing dark days, to whatever degree we may go through them, it is so easy for us to bury our hope, bury our peace, and bury a bright and positive part of ourselves in a deep cave, in a tomb of despair. Truly, it is hard to hold on to our faith. Look at Mary and Martha in the Gospel story. Through those two days, they changed so much. Listen to them accusing Jesus who finally arrived, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). This implies, “Jesus, why did it take so long? Why?” Like Mary and Martha, it’s quite inevitable for us to lose a great deal of faith and begin to deny the possibilities in God as we go through our dark days.
Then, is there any way we can revive our faith, or at least maintain our faith in these days? Is there any way we can bring our lost selves from the cave back to the light of Christ again? Here’s the good news for us today. There is a certain solution that is tailored to meet our needs. And even better, this solution has been testified by our faithful ancestors in the Bible and in Christian history. So I can confidently introduce this fail-proof solution to you. And that is…waiting. Yes, the solution is to wait, to learn how to wait for the Lord. I know, it can be a frustrating answer to you. But I don’t know how to put it other ways. So again, faithful friends in Christ, waiting is our solution.
Mary and Martha, they had to wait for Jesus. They waited unwillingly because they couldn’t find any other alternatives. But they should’ve known, Jesus was also waiting. He was waiting for the right and mature time of God, which they couldn’t discern. Yes, there’s no tardiness in God’s grace. Our God “neither slumbers nor sleeps” to keep us (Psalm 121:4). But at the same time, we have to admit that it is indeed God who chooses the time—not us. And we live on God’s timeline—not ours. Our lives are not totally under our control. Bishop William Willimon says, even if we are in grave needs for God’s help, we have to wait for “God to be God in God’s own good time.” “And it’s utterly dependent on God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And it happens not as soon as we might like.” Yes, Mary and Martha should have known that Jesus, with his compassionate love, was also waiting for the opportune moment of God during that dark days.
After the days, Jesus finally arrived and brought Lazarus back to life. In this act of God’s grace, Jesus reveals an enduring hope for Mary and Martha and for us today. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). Going through our dark days, we wait, yet we don’t wait aimlessly. Our waiting is not of hopelessness. Our waiting is not a helpless drift through the passage of time. Instead, we wait for the coming Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading we also meet a person who is desperately waiting for God to act. But unlike Mary and Martha, he couldn’t witness how God acts upon the promise. Most of his lifetime was filled with dark days until the end. He is Ezekiel, and this prophet lived one of the most turbulent times in the history of Israel. During his ministry, Jerusalem was fallen by the powerful Babylonians. And he was taken to the city of Babylonia. All hopes were lost for him. Nevertheless, he waited. In exile, he waited. He waited for God’s time to come.
To him, God gave a marvelous vision. In the vision, the Spirit of the Lord sets him down in the middle of a valley full of bones. Then, God says to him, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 37:11-12). Then he witnesses how God revives and raises the whole house of Israel from the dry bones.
Even though Ezekiel died before the release of the captive Israelites and their return to Jerusalem, he faithfully waited for God’s time with this hopeful vision in his heart. Like Ezekiel, going through our dark days, we wait, yet we don’t wait aimlessly. Our waiting is not of hopelessness. Our waiting is not a helpless drift through the passage of time. But we wait for our God, who has a power, to open our graves and bring us up to the new life. God promises Ezekiel and us today, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord (Ezekiel 37:14).
Faithful friends in Christ, our Lord is “the resurrection and the life,” who sets Lazarus free from the tomb of death. Our God is the God of new creation, who revives a vast multitude out of the valley full of dry bones. Walking through our darkest days, let us humbly wait for this God. Our waiting never goes in vain, because we know who our God is and what God is capable of, because we know that our God is also waiting for God’s own good time to work for us. And our waiting is never passive. Rather it’s an active action, because we reaffirm our faith in the promise of God while waiting, because we sow the tenacious and audacious hope that sprouts even from the darkness, even from the wilderness.
Therefore, from today, let us never lose our confidence and faith in our Lord although our days are still dark. And let us wait for God’s time to come with patience and penitence, in our prayers and meditations. In our humble waiting, may the Spirit of the Lord, who brought Lazarus out of the grave, call you out of despair and darkness. May the Spirit of the Lord, who revived the whole house of Israel from the dry bones, empower you and lift you up. And as the Apostle Paul proclaims in his Letter to the Romans today, may the Spirit of the Lord who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you and give life and everlasting hope to you always (Romans 8:11). Amen.
Spring is here, yet it hasn’t truly arrived at our hearts. The coronavirus pandemic shuts down our social activities, paralyzes local and global economies, and makes us hunker down and distance ourselves from one another. Postponed and cancelled, closed and banned… these disheartening words buzz our ears every day. On my way to the church this past week, I saw Montclair and Verona’s downtown almost empty. Many local businesses were closed. Restaurants, barber shops, nail salons, bakeries, coffee shops. And I heard stories of the most vulnerable neighbors around us. The stories of uninsured and undocumented people who cannot even see the doctors, stories of people who just got laid off…their lives are at great danger amid this crisis.
One day, in my prayer, I asked God, “Why? Why Lord? For how long?” I’m sure, I was not the only one who asked God such questions recently. In the face of a crisis, we Christians often raise questions and try to understand our situation from a theological point of view. Regarding the coronavirus crisis, I know, some Christians point out the stories of plague in the Bible and say, “This crisis might happen because of our sins. God might teach us to be faithful again.” And others find some similar events described in the Book of Revelation and say, “Look. This is the sign of end time. Jesus is coming soon. God’s judgment has just begun.” Well…what do you think? Would it be right? Wrong?
Whether right or wrong, I understand, it’s natural for us to try to make some sense out of this overwhelming experience. As humans, we try to use our reason and apply some logic to figure out what’s going on around us. But before we jump to our own answers and conclusions, I believe, we should be honest with ourselves first. I mean, we should honestly accept the fact that there’s no way that our theological answers can be clear enough or right enough to explain all things about the crisis. Whatever answers we find, the bottom line is clear. Human reason is too limited, and our faith is too dim to fully grasp the way God works in our lives. And for sure, we don’t have any authority to claim our answers in the name of God.
Then, what’s the point? Now, let us look into today’s Gospel story and see how Jesus responds to this subject matter. In the story, the disciples meet a man who was born blind. Looking at this man’s misery, they try to find out a theological reason for that. Soon, the disciples come up with a fairly good answer. They assume that his blindness is the punishment for sin. So they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9:3). Jesus simply denies, it’s not because of anyone’s sin, and God didn’t cause his pain.
Let’s take a look at how Jesus answers: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (9:3).” At this point, we should be very careful. Here, Jesus in no way means that God intentionally made the man born blind in order to give Jesus a good chance to heal him and show off his power. By no means. To know what he truly means, we should read the following words too. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’” (9:4-5). Here, Jesus’ point is this. The man is blind. That’s a reality. But the fact that he is blind…is not something for you to theologically comprehend. It’s not your work to figure it out. But he’s there, for you to work the works of God for him. Find ways to help him and heal him with God’s compassionate love. Then, you may see how God’s works are revealed in him.
After saying these, Jesus opens the blind man’s eyes. He shows how the work of God can be actually revealed through this man and how he himself can be the light of the world. Later in the Gospel story, like the disciples, the Pharisees also try to figure something out about this man. They also think that the man was born blind because of sin. And for the Pharisees, it’s impossible for Jesus, who is a sinner, did such a work of God. So they scrutinize the man. But what can he say? He just answers, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). Reasoning and sense-making on their own did not make the blind man’s situation any better. But it was the graceful work of God, it was the compassionate love of Jesus Christ that saved the blind man from his lifelong pain and gave him a new life.
Today, this Gospel story gives us a great lesson. In fact, the crisis, the time of suffering is upon us. We see many people in need. And we feel vulnerable too. This is a reality, a painful reality. But it’s not our job to prove a theological rationale behind this crisis. It’s not our work to ask unanswerable questions. Rather, as Jesus said to his disciples, we must work the works of God in this crisis, so that God’s work of grace and love can be revealed in many people’s lives, even in this grave situation.
Then, what is this work of God? We already know all too well. This work is to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. This work is to overcome our fear with our faith in God. This work is to hold onto the promise of new life no matter what. This work is to trust in Jesus and find new ways to extend his love across our distance. This work is to take care of the vulnerable, help them and pray for them. Yes, this work basically is to bring the light of Christ to others in this time of darkness.
Why? Why Lord? For how long? Whenever we ask, Jesus calls us. He tells us: don’t get stuck in your worries about the crisis, don’t get bogged down in your questions, but do God’s work as children of light. The Epistle reading for today tells us, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). So let us find again this light inside us, and reveal the light during this challenging time. Now is the time for us to leave behind all depressing thoughts but focus on doing God’s work. Now is the time for us to be the church, be one Body of Christ, in new and creative ways. And now is the time for us to trust the Lord, our Good Shepherd, who is with us always even in the valley of the shadow of death. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim