May 21, 2017 sermon (Easter 6)
Acts 17:22-31/ John 14:15-21
Community outside Our Boxes
When I was in the theological school, I had a professor from Sri Lanka, a Methodist minister, who worked for the World Council of Churches for 18 years. His job was to promote interfaith dialogues, which was not a huge surprise since he grew up as Christian in a predominantly Hindu culture. In one of his books titled Not Without My Neighbour, he explains how he struggled with the idea that his Hindu neighbours with whom he grew up and lived closely would go to hell just because they didn’t believe in Jesus. His book title means he doesn’t want to go to heaven without his Hindu neighbours. I can understand him because I grew up in a predominantly Buddhist culture. Buddhism has been in Korea for such a long time that it helped form the culture. A lot of Korean Christians condemn Buddhism and call the Buddhists idol worshippers, but my mother who is largely well read in general had some books on Buddhism. They were not books on hard core doctrines but presented Buddhist wisdom in an everyday language. I read some of those books, and the Buddhist wisdom I learned from those books ended up enriching my Christian practices.
My old professor and I were lucky enough to have grown up in cultures where we live among people of other faith traditions, but not everyone lives with that privilege. I can guess that not many of you have lived among people of other faiths. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul, who had not lived among a lot of non-Jewish people, gets to experience non-Jewish people, people of other faiths and cultures through his Gentile missions. In today’s story, he meets the Greeks; and they are a tough crowd! They are the proud people of great minds such as Socrates and Aristotle. For a Jew such as Paul, believing in one god is the norm; now he has to talk to people who believe in more than one god and try to convert them.
To make the long story short, it doesn’t go very well. The Greek audience treats his preaching as one of their usual philosophical debates, and Paul himself shows a condescending attitude towards them. At first glance, it seems like he is showing respect to the Greeks; but it’s just the cleverness of the ancient rhetoric he’s using. In the end, he was able to convert some of them, but not many, like in some of his other Gentile missions. Probably, derision is not the best strategy when you’re trying to convert an intellectually proud people such as the Greeks. It shows how even a great apostle like Paul didn’t always succeed, and also how challenging it is to always discern the voice of the Holy Spirit.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, the Gospel of Luke is about the action of Jesus Christ and the Acts of the Apostles is about the action of the Holy Spirit working through the disciples of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how the Christian Church was born through the works of the disciples. The Christian Church and all its works are the works of the Holy Spirit, working through us. This Holy Spirit was promised to us before Jesus left his disciples. We read the Gospel of John chapter 14 where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to his disciples and explains what the Holy Spirit will do. So what does this Holy Spirit do?
First, Jesus starts by saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” According to the author of John’s gospel, the one and only test of love is obedience. Jesus showed his love for God through his obedience; he requires the same from his followers. If we love someone, we have to show it through our actions; if we love God and Jesus, we have to show it through our actions. Jesus taught us to love one another, and John’s gospel is full of this message. Then the only way to prove our love for him is through loving one another. The problem is, it’s not always easy to love one another. Sometimes we get mad at each other and some people are just very difficult to love. It’s because, as they say, we’re only human. This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.
In the Revised Standard Version we read, Jesus promises to send his disciples “another Advocate”. The Greek word parakletos that we translated as Advocate, is sometimes translated as Helper or Comforter. This Greek word is difficult to translate. But if we examine it in detail, we can find out that it really means “someone who is called in”; as in called in to witness in a court procedure or as a lawyer who makes a plea. In short, this parakletos is someone who is called in to help in times of trouble or need. Sometimes in life, we have difficulty coping or we feel inadequate; the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us cope with life and gently pushes us to achieve difficult tasks, such as obeying Jesus’ teachings.
All the biblical teachings, both from the Jewish law to the gospel teachings, can be boiled down to two commandments; love God, and love your neighbours. The task of loving our neighbours can be quite daunting because there are so many different kinds of people in the world. When we say we should love our neighbours, what kind of neighbours are we talking about? Can we love our Muslim neighbours, Hindu neighbours, or atheist neighbours? Can we love our gay or transgender neighbours? What about our poor, sick, disabled, or mentally troubled neighbours? Can we love our black, white, brown, or Asian neighbours? Jesus said, “love your neighbours” and didn’t specify which neighbours.
We are called to be neighbours to all peoples of the world. I mentioned before that we are called to go out to the world and become neighbours and a community to different people, especially the marginalized. God is not only the God of Christians but the God of all people. Who are our neighbours? We might think small and only consider other Christians, or people of our local community as our neighbours. But God is much bigger than our limited human boxes. The kind of community that God requires us to be for each other is much bigger than our limited human boxes. How can we be the neighbours of people of different faith traditions or ethnic groups? What might that look like? We have heard news of Christians and Jews forming human shields as the persecuted Muslims prayed. We know of churches that share their buildings with other religious groups. When a mosque was attacked in Quebec, people from different religious groups came and showed solidarity. Our United Church of Canada reaches out to the First Nations communities and learns from their wisdom. We can find a lot more examples than these.
Let us remember that we cannot contain God in our limited human boxes. The community God wants us to be to each other is much bigger than we think as humans; our neighbours are much more than our Christian brothers and sisters, or our local neighbours. Let us dream big as the Church and reach out to our neighbours from all around the world and be a community to them. We talked about what a community is about; we share our time, memories, and resources, and look out for each other like family members. This is what we are called to be for our local and global neighbours; this is what we are called to do as members of a broader community than we know, God’s community outside our boxes.
Rev. Sunny Kim