August 14, 2016

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 12:49-56

Hebrews 11:29-12:2


A study published by American Medical Association says that those who regularly attend religious services, like church service, live longer than those who don’t. The study surveyed more than 76.000 females over a 20-year span. It found that those who attended religious services more than once a week were 33 percent less likely to die than those who never attended. Those who attended services once a week and less then weekly were respectively 26 percent and 13 percent less likely to die than those who never attended.[1]

Here you go. If you have been slack recently and haven’t been to church for a while, think again. And, by the way, we can even make the conclusion that Ministers must be the longest living people on planet because we attend the church more than once a week!

Friends, this kind of study can be useful, but if we go to church or have faith in God only so that we can have a longer life, then we are missing the whole point. But, we live in a materialistic world where everything, including our faith, is often measured only by its cost-benefit analysis. “What can we achieve with our faith?” we may ask ourselves. “What can we get back? What’s in it for me?” But, having faith is more than about what we can get from it.

Now, our reading today from the letter to the Hebrews does not deny the ‘benefits’ of having faith. The letter talks about different people in the past who indeed had overcome obstacles, even done great things, through their faith.

But the letter doesn’t stop there. It also talks about others who suffered because of their faith. To this second group of people, having faith in God did not bring worldly benefits. On the contrary, they did not only feel like aliens, strangers in the world because of their faith; they suffered because of it.

Indeed, the letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians living under persecution. Some of them must have contemplated about abandoning their faith altogether so that they could regain their ‘normal’ life. Others must have wondered why had God not delivered them from their suffering, just like God delivered people of faith in the past from their enemies?

So, on one hand, the letter doesn’t ignore the witnesses of people in the past who had achieved victories through their faith. But, on the other hand, the letter reminds its readers that it was not the full picture. There were also people in the past who suffered terribly, even lost their life, because of their faith. But, these people didn’t abandon their faith. Their goal in life was not to be comfortable, but to be faithful; to live a life fully dedicated to their Lord.

Indeed, Jesus himself warned about the cost that people must be prepared to pay if they choose to follow him. Following him will not make our life comfortable. On the contrary, following him may take us to situations that we may not want to be in the first place. No, having faith in him would not give us short-cuts in life. The consequence of faith in Jesus can mean more adversaries, more troubles or divisions, even persecutions.

Indeed, in our reading today in Luke, Jesus used two different images to warn those who listened to him. The first image was fire. Now, Jesus didn’t come to the world to burn the earth to the ground. Fire was a symbol of judgment. Precious metal, like gold or silver, was refined by melting them in fire to get rid of wastes and impurities.

So, just like fire, Jesus came to burn impurities in the world. And those who dared to follow him must be ready to be put in a process similar to a refinery process of a precious metal. They must be ready to be put into the test so that they would be cleansed of any impurity.

The second image that he used was baptism. Nowadays, when we think of baptism, we think of babies. Indeed, we tend to think of baptism today as infant baptism and we would immediately relate the event with joy.

But, baptism is about death. Baptism is the symbol that we have died with Christ so that we can be resurrected also with him in a new life. Indeed, when we are be baptized we are to put to death all the things in our life that are no longer suitable to our new life in Christ.

And, don’t forget: Christ’s death on the cross was not a peaceful death; it was a violent death. To be baptized in Christ, therefore, means that we must also be ready to suffer like Jesus.

So, by using these two images, fire and baptism, Jesus warned that following him would not make our life comfortable. On the contrary, following him could make us feel like we are being refined with fire and sacrifice things that we value in life.

Indeed, Jesus did not come to bring peace. Now, here he didn’t mean peace as shalom: God’s peace and justice here on earth as it is in heaven. No. Jesus talked about a false sense of peace; the kind of peace that is created only to mask rottenness within. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace or harmony at the cost of human values being trampled upon.

The Roman Empire had created what they called as Pax Romana, which means Roman Peace in Latin. Through multiple military campaigns, they had created a mighty empire that put many independent nations/kingdoms under their control. The Roman Empire controlled a vast area around the Mediterranean sea, including most of European continent and Asia Minor and North Africa. They claimed that they had brought peace into the region that allowed people under their control to travel safely and trade freely and prosper.

But, such peace was created under the subjugation, and often humiliation, of the previously free nations and kingdoms that were now under the Roman rule. The Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist. They crushed their oppositions ruthlessly and brutally to create fear amongst those under their control.

Peace that is created through violent means like this is not peace at all. And Jesus didn’t come to bring or preserve the kind of peace that the Romans created. Jesus came to reveal the truth; and the truth would destroy that kind of false sense of peace.

Indeed, any institution, whether an empire or a single-family unit that exists to protect a false sense peace created at the expense of human values must be challenged. When family members hide abusive behaviors and immoralities within their family, a Christian must dare to challenge it, even if her action would disrupt her family’s unity. A Christian must dare to speak the truth and challenge evil wherever he or she finds it. That is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires.

Indeed, Jesus challenges us to open our eyes. But, we often choose to close our eyes to evil and unjust practices around us so that we don’t disrupt a false sense of harmony in our community. We often choose a false sense of security and safety instead of challenging what is evil and unjust around us. When we do this, we will become just like what Jesus said: hypocrites! We have the knowledge to develop technology to predict weather with great accuracy, yet we plead ignorance when it comes to the issue of injustice.

So, friends, having faith in Christ is not about what we can get out of it. There are things that will be demanded of us when we choose to follow Jesus. But, it will lead us to the Truth; and the Truth will lead us to real peace, God’s shalom, where all people will be valued and God’s justice reigns for all time.

And, indeed, we are not alone in the struggle. We have a ‘cloud of witnesses’: those people before us who had done the race and persevered. Those who were ready for their world to be turned upside down for the sake of their faith. Those for which the world and its promises were nothing compared to the promise of living in the presence of God, and they were prepared to pay a hefty price for it.

These people is the guide that we need as we run our own race to be more and more like Jesus in what we say and do. Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Julie Zauzmer, Another Possible Benefit of Going to Church: A 33 Percent Chance of Living Long, on (May 16, 2016)