Sunday, January 17, 2010

Imperfect people, imperfect church

Theme: Imperfect people, imperfect church

While I was in a conversation with my old friend in Singapore, and we have known each other for twenty years, he asked me what I am studying at Boston. When I told him divinity, he said that this subject must be very sacred, and only meant for those holy people, and the church is also meant for holy people. I immediately corrected him that the church is not for holy people, but for people with problems. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I believe that the church is only meant for people with problems. I had once asked people coming to church for reasons why they are coming. The responses I gathered are scattered, some said that they came here to find life partner. Some said that they came here because there is free lunch. Some came here because they want to worship God. There are plenty of reasons. Saint Augustine of Hippo once said that church is the hospital for sinners and this is in accord with Matthew 9:12-13 where Jesus replied to the Pharisees saying “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…I have come to call not the righteous but the sinner.” Let us turn to passages in the Scripture where this theme is more evident.

Jesus Chooses the Twelve Apostles
Lk 6:12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Now, Jesus has to choose from among his followers who responded to his teachings, twelve who will be sent out for his missions. He has to choose carefully, and he spends a whole night in prayer. But why does Jesus need to spend the whole night in prayer? What would he be praying for?

Let’s take a look at each apostle. Peter was the first one in the group and to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, but would also disown Jesus three times during Jesus’ trial. Peter’s brother Andrew was a fisherman and he accepted John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus. He was the one who told Peter about Jesus. May we be like Andrew. James and his brother John asked Jesus for places of honor in his kingdom, and wanted to call fire down to destroy a Samaritan village. That is why James and John were called Sons of Thunder. Philip questioned Jesus how he would feed the five thousand. Bartholomew also known as Nathanael initially rejected Jesus because Jesus was from Nazareth. Matthew also known as the tax collector was despised among the Jews and was considered a sinner. Thomas refused to believe in Jesus resurrection till he could touch and see Jesus. James son of Alpaeus is relatively unknown. Simon the Zealot was a party member who used violence to justify their political means. Judas son of James once asked Jesus why he would reveal himself to his followers and not to the world. Judas Iscariot eventually betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

Now as you look at the twelve apostles, would you like anyone of them to be your closest friend, or your leader? I don’t think so, yet, Jesus chose these twelve, and almost all have flaws in their character that we would not consider them appropriate for leadership role. So why did Jesus choose these twelve people? My most immediate response is that these twelve apostles represent us. Our flaws can be found among the twelve. In times of intense pressure, we may forfeit biblical principles for immediate benefits just like Peter did. In times of frustration, we may wish the death of our antagonist just like James and John did. In times of surmounting doubts, we may ask God to manifest Godself before us so that we could believe, just like Thomas did. When confronted with almost impossible task, we may question God how it could be done, just like Philip did. I could easily identify myself with the flaws of the twelve apostles. I think that would be why Jesus spent such a long time praying on a mountain. Jesus knows the flaws of his chosen apostles, yet he trusts that these flaws do not spell the end of his mission. He entrusted his life mission to these twelve after he died and resurrected. He has chosen to love these twelve, made himself vulnerable, and despite their weaknesses, he continued to love them till the end of his life. However, this is not an easy task. I do not know the amount of pain, frustrations, and fear that Jesus might go through before choosing the twelve, but I know that Jesus spent a long time in prayer with God before he emerged with a firm trust in God’s will. I also know that this is the way God works with us. God calls us into relationship with Him, God redeems us from our bondage to sins, God works with imperfect people like us, and God made Godself vulnerable by choosing fallible people like us. Church is made up of people called by God, and also people with plenty of flaws. Church is a hospital for sinners not for saints. This is true even for the early churches during the time of the apostles. We will take a look at an infamous church, the Corinthian church. Corinth was a capital of Achaia (present-day Greece), a busy sea port, and converging point for trade routes. It was a prosperous city that was also home to more than a dozen pagan temples. Apostle Paul had built a church in Corinth and the Corinthian letters gave us good insight to the problems in the church.

Divisions in the Church
1Co. 1:10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul addresses the Corinth Christians as being called to be sanctified in Christ Jesus. After affirming his relationship with the Corinth Christians, he immediately jumps into the issue of divisions among them. Though they have been baptized in Christ, they are split over the authority of Paul, Apollos- an Alexandrian Jew (Acts 18:24), and Cephas- i.e. Peter. In their culture,

the pupils or ‘disciples’ of a secular teacher had to give exclusive loyalty to him. Traditionally they would engage in quarrels with rival pupils over the merits of their mentors who were also by tradition jealous of each other. Corinthians who were converted and baptized through the ministry of Paul, Apollos and Peter also perceived themselves in this secular way as their exclusive followers and likewise engaged in quarrels over the merits of Christian teachers. (D.A. Carson and Donald Guthrie, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, electronic ed. of the 4th ed., 1 Co 1:10)

Paul declares such loyalty as idolatrous. The rhetorical questions Paul asked are meant to be an emphatic “NO!” Paul is appealing the Corinthians to follow the Messiah and not his servants. Idolizing teachers or ‘charismatic’ speakers who seek the loyalty of ‘their’ members has always been divisive and disastrous for the Christian community. This appeal is based on the Christ Jesus whom they invoked for salvation (1:2). This appeal applies to all of us today.

Though apostles Paul, Peter and Apollos are not with us today, and we do not encounter the split over which of them is more authoritative, but we do have contemporary issues such as which translated version of the Bible is the purest, whether women can be ordained as minister, which worship language should be used, etc. which are causing churches to quarrel and split. The question I want to ask all of us to think about is this “Do we possess the truth?” I ask again “Do we possess the truth?” I am going to answer with an emphatic “NO!” I say that again “NO, we do not possess the truth.” It is TRUTH that possesses us. Let me repeat “It is TRUTH that possesses us, not us who possess the truth.” Do you see the difference here? To claim that we possess the truth is a form of idolatry. God is the embodiment of truth and cannot be possessed. God lays claim on us, God possesses us, and we are in the process of knowing more about God within the community, through God’s Word, and by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We are finite creatures in the process of trying to comprehend the infinite mystery that has been partially revealed to us, thus our doctrines are fallible, or in the process of being reformed. When you substitute your doctrine in place of God and claim infallibility, that is idolatry.

Despite the fact that we are imperfect people and our knowledge about God is fallible, we know for sure that we are redeemed through the same blood of Christ Jesus, we are reconciled back to the same God through Christ Jesus, and we are filled with the same Holy Spirit, and we have experienced the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. These would be sufficient ground to embark our journey as pilgrims together. God is with us, and God has been revealed in stages. Since the day of the Pentecost, God’s Spirit has been poured out upon us.

The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Ac 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The outpouring of God’s Spirit among God’s people is a continuation of the story that God has for us. The Spirit that enabled the early believers to speak in the tongues of other non-believers who came to Jerusalem for Passover is within us. Apart Jesus Christ who has reconciled us, the working of the Holy Spirit warms our heart to respond to God’s calling, the same Spirit enables us to recognize the voices of God in the Scripture, and the image of God in each other. The same Spirit is also at work among us to help us transcend our differences, and molds us for different functions in the church so that we could build the one body of Christ together.

Precisely because we are fallible and imperfect, we continue to exercise trust in God’s faithfulness, we continue to trust that God is with us, God is working among us through God’s Spirit. Look at Peter, though he denied Jesus three times, he repented, became one of the church’s pillars and eventually martyred for the sake of the gospel. James, son of Zebedee, asked to drink the cup that Jesus drank and became a martyr for Christ. John, also son of Zebedee, became of a church leader, took care of Jesus’ mother after Jesus’ death and wrote the Gospel of John and few other books in the Christian Scripture. Andrew went on to become a fisher of people for Christ. Philip eventually saw the Father through Christ. The doubting Thomas was reputed to carry the gospel to India, and founded the tradition of Mar Thomas Church which remains in India today. Paul the apostle who wrote the most number of books in the Christian Scripture called himself the worst of sinners in his epistle to Timothy (1 Tim 1:15-16).

Precisely because we are fallible and imperfect, we trust that God will work within us and through us when we continue to be open to God’s calling and leading. When we continue to be faithful to God’s calling, we will be able to testify as one body of Christ. In 1933, when Germany created their national church, they asked all German Christians to recognize the limit of the spiritual domain and to fully cooperate with their chancellor, i.e. Adolf Hitler. A group of German Christians retaliated. This group established the Constitutional Evangelical Church of Germany and insisted that “their unity could only come from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit.” (Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions, Louisville. KY: Westminster John Knox Press: 1985, 1991. p. 188). They drafted the Barmen Declaration in 1934 that denounces illegitimate tyranny and proclaims the lordship of Jesus Christ. They recognize only reliance on the lordship of Jesus Christ that gives them strength to be faithful to the Word of God. Fallible people? Yes. Imperfect church? Yes. But together as one community of people called by God, and through God’s Spirit and Word, we can choose to be faithful in our calling, and stand together as one body of Christ.

Final exhortation
Precisely because we are fallible and imperfect, we continue to hold on to God’s promise. We share our joys and tears, gifts and fellowship together, believing this is how we ought to share lives together. Whether we are elders, deacons, preachers, Bible study leaders, choir members, ushers, people in-charge of preparing fellowship lunch, or worshipers not holding any responsibilities on Sunday, we are all called into one body of Christ. Let us pursue our calling together. It is by sharing our lives together that we can continue to testify the work of God among us; that we can continue to find the moral strength to stand against any form of idolatry; that we can continue to be a voice for God in the world torn by strife, violence, and injustice; that we can continue to bear faithful testimony in family and in our working place. May we worship God in truth and in spirit, may the Word of God be faithfully preached and heard, and may the Holy Communion continue to remind us of God’s grace and faithfulness. Amen.

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