7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday
‘CHOOSING GOD’S WAY’
1 John 5:9-13
In a scene of one of the best sci-fi movies Hollywood has ever made, the Matrix, the main character of the movie, Neo, is offered with a difficult choice. He is to choose between two different pills, blue and red. The blue one will take him back to where he was before. If he takes it, he will wake up and feel as if nothing significant has ever happened; everything will be back to normal. The read one, however, will take him further down into the mysterious world that he finds himself in. If the takes it, nothing will ever come back to normal. He will get deeper into the wonderland, but he will see the truth; and that truth will eventually set him free.
In the Bible, there are passages that offer choices that, on the surface, seem similarly simplistic. Choose to follow this or that rule and your life will be prosperous. Choose to ignore this or that rule and your life will be in ruin. Indeed, the covenant that Moses made with the people of Israel in the wilderness based on the very same premise: choose God’s commandment and you will stay alive; ignore it and you will die (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
Again, on the surface, Psalm 1 may be one of those readings from the Old Testament that seems to offer such choices. “Those who don’t follow the advice of the wicked; those who don’t walk on sinful path; those who don’t make evil person their friend will life a happy life,” said the psalmist. “The wicked, on the other hand, will perish,” he concluded.
But life, some of you may say, is not black and white; there are many grey areas. Indeed, I find it hard to understand the psalm after the death of the Australian drug-convict Andrew Chan and his friend, Myuran Sukumaran. If following God means life, then how come they still died a violent death even after they turned their life around?
This kind of bewilderment was reflected in the speech given by Febyanti Herewila-Chan, Andrew Chan’s widow during his funeral. “There is a lot of questions in my mind and my heart,” she said. “Why so many people prayed and we didn’t see miracle?” “Why so many people prayed and it seemed that nothing happened?” “Everyday I prayed with Andrew and we claimed all God’s promises, but they seemed to disappear,” she said.
Now some may argue that Andrew Chan perished because of his own mistake; he broke the law and he had to pay the price of his action; he reaped what he sowed. But aren’t we, Christians, supposed to believe in redemption? Yes, he had been convicted of drug smuggling; a heinous crime. Yes, millions of live have suffered and even lost because of people like him. But he had turned his life around. Why did God not spare his life?
I think the same question must have lingered in the mind of the Christian community to which John wrote his Gospel for. They knew that they belonged to Jesus and not to the world, but why did they still have to suffer in the world?
John gave the answer to the question through the prayer that Jesus prayed before he died. Jesus prayed to God not to take his followers away from the world, but to sanctify them. Now sanctification means setting apart; when we are sanctified, we are set apart as God’s own and for God’s purpose. So the Christians in John’s community were asked not to leave the world; they were asked to stay in the world, but to live a life set apart for God.
God’s sanctification was the true protection that God would give to them (John 17:15-19). Yes, they would still suffer in the world, but their life should not be corrupted by evil (John 17:15-17). Using the imagery in Psalm 1, their life should be like trees that were planted next to streams of living water; they should produce fruit no matter what happened to them or around them.
So the kind of happiness that Psalm 1 promises is not the same with the kind of happiness that the world offers. In the Declaration of Independence of the USA, the pursuit of happiness is one of the three inherent and inalienable rights that God has endowed each person with (the other two are the preservation of life and the preservation of liberty). Indeed, there is a movie titled the Pursuit of Happiness, whose main character is played by my favourite actor, Will Smith. The movie is based on a book about a real-life African American man who has transformed himself from a homeless man to a multi-millionaire.
Indeed, in many people’s mind, pursuing happiness is the same with attaining great wealth. For many, being happy is the same with being rich. But true happiness, according to Jesus and generations of Christians, has nothing to do with wealth.
That’s why, in John’s Gospel, Jesus had a different name for the kind of happiness that he promised: he called it life, life in its fullness (John 10:10). According to the first letter of John, we attain this life when we have Jesus, the Son of God, in our life (1 John 5:11-12). Indeed, we will have the kind of life that Jesus promised when we attach ourselves to him, just like branches will find life and bear fruit when they attach themselves to the vine (John 15:1-5). This image, in John’s Gospel, of Jesus as the true vine and we as his branches is similar to the image of trees planted next to streams of water in our reading in Psalm. Indeed, we will have life when God is the source of our life.
In verse 13 of our reading today from the Gospel of John, Jesus promised those who followed him joy, his joy. This joy is similar to the peace, his peace, which Jesus promised to his disciples (John 14:27). Just like his peace, the joy that Jesus promised is not the same with the joy that the world offers. It is a joy that depends not on the material things what we have or do not have; it is a joy that we have regardless of what happens to us or around us.
So following Jesus on his path does not mean that we will be forever protected from harm. Choosing the righteous path will not provide us with a kind of amulet that will protect us from all kinds of danger. Choosing the right path means that one would find true happiness, true joy that the world cannot give. Choosing the path of God means living a life that is filled with dignity and integrity until the end.
Feby Chan, Andrew Chan’s widow, gave a powerful testimony during his funeral. He told the crowd, who gathered in the church, that in his last moment, Andrew prayed the same prayer that Jesus prayed on the cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).”
Andrew was the first in the row of prisoners condemned to death. As they walked to the field where they were going to be shot, they sang the contemporary hymn, Mighty to Save; and when their voices faltered, Andrew told the other prisoners, “Come on boys, we can sing better than this!” Andrew and the other prisoners sang two more hymns in the killing field: Amazing Grace and 10.000 Reasons.
“He ended well,” said Feby. “We have decided that whatever we do or whatever we say, we have to bring glory to God.” “Our relationship started with God and we have to end it with God,” she said. Indeed, Feby was the one who asked Andrew to keep singing as they led him to his death.
She then read one of the last letters that Andrew wrote to her. In his letter, Andrew asked her to continue with the vision for the people in the island of Bali where he was kept in the prison for almost ten years. “I have found love for them through you,” he wrote. Andrew asked her to continue to fight for their rights and to fight against injustice. She told then told the crowd that, as Andrew and the other prisoners were walking to the shooting field, they said, “Bless Indonesia. Bless Indonesia. Bless Indonesia.”
Andrew Chan had indeed become a tree that is planted next to a stream of living water. No matter what happened to him and around him, he still produced fruit and his leaves did not wither.
Let me take you back to that scene from the movie, the Matrix. Neo finally chooses the red pill. There is not turning back for him. He will no longer return to his quiet old life. But he makes the choice because he wants to know the truth; he wants to be set free form the thing that has kept him in bondage all of his life.
But choosing the right pill is not the end of his journey; it is the very beginning of it. What come next is a long struggle to finally find the truth, his true self, and real freedom.
Choosing the way of God is also not the end; it is the beginning of a life-long journey with our God. But Psalm 1 promises that as we do so, we will be like trees, planted by streams of living water, producing fruit no mater what happens to us or around us.