Old Testament: Exodus 1:8–2:10
Epistle: Romans 12:1–8
Gospel: Matthew 16:13–20
God of life and of love, may the meditations of my heart, of my mind and of my spirit be acceptable and pleasing to you, and may they faithfully express the wisdom you have given to each one of us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.
In our Gospel reading in Matthew this morning, Jesus asks his disciples a number of questions, among which is, Who do people believe is the Son of Man? They reply with a variety of answers that some people say it’s John the Baptist, Elijah and other prophets.
Then Jesus asks them the most significant question in today’s scripture readings: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter responds that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s reply is based on his experience of being part of Jesus’ ministry and Peter’s relationship with God, for it was because of Peter’s relationship with God that he recognized the Divine in Jesus.
“But who do you say that I am?” is an important question for us today as well. Because we’ve come to church on a regular basis and have most likely grown up in the church and attended Sunday school since our childhood, etc., our response would probably echo that of Peter. However, we have not had the privilege of physically being with Jesus and of experiencing him and his life and his teachings. For us, the New Testament, our relationship with God, our spiritual life, become “our experience” of Jesus and our understanding of God.
Perhaps other fundamental questions for us today as a people who are removed by more than 2,000 years from the life of Christ are, What does God call us to be and to do today, and how will others know that we are Christians?
A story I heard when I worked at the Christian Conference of Asia many years ago offers perhaps a response to this last question. In this story, a Christian woman in a rural village in Thailand was always helping others because of her sense of compassion and kindness. One day a Buddhist woman in the village wanted to change her faith and become a Christian.
Why? someone asked her.
Because of this woman, she said, pointing to her Christian neighbor. If this is what being a Christian is about, then I want to be one too.
Thus, our behavior is one way that others know, or should know, that we are Christians.
What, however, does God call us to be and to do today, especially in our chaotic world?
In our epistle reading today, Paul provides an answer for us. In the first two verses of chapter 12, Paul writes to the Romans:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Paul is telling the Romans, and us, that our being, our actions, our words, are our spiritual worship to God, like the Christian woman in the rural village in Thailand. We are told not to conform ourselves to this world but to be transformed and, if we are transformed, to express to others what is God’s will, to exhibit what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.
In verses three to six of our reading from Romans today, Paul also asks us to live our lives with humility, and he notes that everyone has different skills and how our different abilities complement each other:
“For by the grace given to me, I bid every one among you not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned to them. For as in one body, we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”
Our Old Testament reading in the first chapter of Exodus today also shares insights as to what God calls us to be and to do. In this story about the oppression of the people of Israel, the king of Egypt is concerned that the population of the Israelites is growing rapidly, but the more he oppresses the Israelites, the more their population increases. Thus, the king orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all of the male Jewish babies, but they disobey, and their actions eventually lead to the birth of Moses.
In verses 17 to 19 of this story, we can see how clever the Hebrew women were and how disobedient:
“But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.
“So the king of Egypt called the midwives, and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and let the male children live?’
“The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them.’ ”
This story for me indicates that in times of oppression, in times of war, of human rights violations, of corruption, etc., we as Christians today are called to be clever and perhaps even disobedient as well. The challenge for us is to discern when is the time to cleverly be disobedient. In the current context of Hong Kong in which we seem to face a dead end in our democratic development and all avenues for greater political reform seem to encounter numerous roadblocks, we have to ask whether this is such a time for us on the other side of the world. We may also want to pose the same question about the present state of life in the United States as well. The answer, of course, is a personal one, but the invitation today is to take the time to reflect and discern and then, if so moved, to act.
I want to return now to the passage from Romans and to emphasize once again that we are called not to conform to this world but to be transformed and then, I would add, to transform others and our society. Thus, the call and the challenge is to change, but not change for the sake of change. No, the change that we seek is rooted in reflecting the will of God. It’s naturally not easy to know what is the will of God, but I believe if our words and actions reaffirm the values of our Christian faith as taught to us through the life and teachings of Jesus, such as unconditional love for others, compassion, a reverence for life, peace grounded in justice, etc., then we are on the right path.
I also want to draw our attention to another portion of the message in Romans today, that is, that God has given each of us different abilities and different skills. The question is, How do we use them?
In our society, and in many societies around the world, we often use our different abilities and skills to compete against one another. Competition, consciously or unconsciously, has become a bedrock of our society. We compete for places in schools, we compete for jobs, we compete for promotions and higher salaries, etc. We may also compete sometimes in even less evident ways: who is the most beautiful? who is the most handsome? who is the tallest, smartest, fastest, strongest? and so on. Competition in our lives, it seems, is endless, and it appears as if competition is a natural part of our life cycle. We must also acknowledge that competition is entrenched in our ego, not in the humility that allows us to grow closer to God and to better discern God’s presence in our lives. Although competition often pushes us to excel and therefore can result in improving society, I would like to suggest today, however, that God calls us to cooperate more and compete less.
To illustrate the point I want to make, I’d like to share with you the story of a Swedish woman, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who lived among the Ladakhi people in northern India. She arrived in Ladakh in 1975; and over the course of 20 years, she watched the transformation of the people and their society through so-called development.
When she first arrived, she describes the community coming together every night to sing and dance; but after “development” arrived, the people, she said, only wanted to watch the “experts”—perhaps Michael Jackson—sing and dance on TV.
She recounts another story from her experience:
“In one of my first years in Ladakh, I was in this incredibly beautiful village. All the houses were three stories high and painted white. And I was just amazed. So out of curiosity, I asked a young man from that village to show me the poorest house. He thought for a bit, and then he said, ‘We don’t have any poor houses.’ The same person I heard eight years later saying to a tourist, ‘Oh, if you could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor!’ ”
From these stories, I want to highlight two points. First, are we called to be spectators in life or participants? It’s perhaps easier to be spectators, but is it as much fun as participating? More importantly, if we choose to remain as spectators instead of participants in decisions that affect our lives, then others will decide the outcome of many decisions that impact us, such as those, for instance, related to housing, health care, education, employment, etc. Part of the quest in Hong Kong for democracy, I believe, is a desire to be participants in the decision-making process.
The second point I’d like to share from these stories about Ladakh is how consumer goods came to define the worth of a person. People became valued for what they owned, not for who they were. Tension and conflicts even arose in the community as a result.
I believe that if we’re going to transform ourselves and to eventually work toward transforming our world we need to recognize the power and role of competition in our lives. An unwritten goal in our lives today is to make as much money as possible and to perhaps get rich if we’re fortunate. Those who successfully accumulate money receive praise and status within society—people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Li Ka-shing in Hong Kong and Jack Ma in China, for example.
What though if the unwritten aim in society was to distribute more money instead of make more money? What if those who acquired great wealth were considered social outcastes instead of economic heroes? The difference in perception is based on what is considered acceptable by society or even what is the social and economic objectives of one’s life—the norms of society.
If we want to transform our world today, we need to alter some of the norms at the foundation of our world. By embracing cooperation and curtailing the importance of competition, we can use the different skills and abilities with which we’ve been blessed by God to contribute to the common good, to work together to address today’s problems, to build relationships and our communities instead of destroying them. In this process, our being, our actions, our words, become our spiritual worship to God, and hopefully, people will come to know that we are Christians. Amen.
Bruce Van Voorhis serves the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.