Posts in Category: Sermons

Law and Gospel

Luke 10 and Deuteronomy 30‎

How many of you would attend a Bible study on the law of Moses? How many of you are interested in studying the 613 commandments of the Torah? I believe that very few of you would attend. Christians are not interested in the law because we believe salvation is through Jesus Christ alone. That is very true, but we have a misunderstanding of the law.

 

We overlook the fact that “By nature we are law-oriented creatures because of the Law written on the heart. But the corruption of our nature means that we often will invent laws which we can keep in order to prove our righteousness.”[1] By nature, we know homicide is sin, and by nature, we know stealing is a sin. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). That said, Jesus revered the word of God, and he fulfilled the demands of the law.

 

God gave the gift of the law to Israel not to make their life difficult, but because God loves them and wants them to live a holy life. Observing the law becomes a big issue in Israel. Pharisees added rules to the law calling it the oral law.  They believed that Moses received the Oral Law and Written Law on Mount Sinai. As a result, keeping the law becomes a heavy burden on the Jews. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for breaking the law of God for the sake of their tradition. He says in Matthew 15: 8-9

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

 

According to the evangelist Luke, a teacher of the law wants to engage in scholarly conversation with Jesus regarding the law and eternal life. Jesus asks him to share his understanding of the law. The teacher of the law combines two commandments from the book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to summarize his knowledge of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

 

Leviticus 19:18
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:5

 

Jesus affirms his answer. He also responses to the second question, “who is my neighbor” (v. 25) by giving the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus does not reject the law of Moses; to the contrary, he affirms it and gives it a more profound meaning. His explanation of Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor as yourself,” is very thoughtful and contrary to the stereotype the Jews had of the Samaritans. Through this parable, Jesus blows up this stereotype.

 A neighbor is an individual whom we see not as a stereotype, but as a human being uniquely created according to God’s image.

 

The teacher of the law summarized the 613 commandments into one command: love God and love your neighbor. The purpose of the law is to help us to be in right relationship with God and our neighbor. Jesus requires from the teacher of the law to follow this command, and he shall live (v. 28). Notice that Jesus does not tell the teacher of the law that believing in him is the way to inherit eternal life. For Jesus, believing in him leads to salvation and observing the command to love becomes the fruit of our faith in Jesus.

 

Jesus introduces us to both law and gospel. The law reveals our sin and drives us to repent. It also functions as guidance to show us how to live a sanctified life.

 

 

To say that the Law guides us to a sanctified life doesn’t imply that it has the power to provide the sanctified life. If the Law remains alone, then it has no power to cause us to do what it demands. Only the Gospel provides the power to do with the Law expects us to do.[2]

 

Furthermore, “The Gospel doesn’t eliminate the Law. Jesus isn’t a free pass to sin more in order to get more forgiveness. The Law remains because we still sin.”[3]

 

It is not difficult or impossible to keep the law. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, assures the Israelites that the commandments are not too hard to follow (v. 11). The law is not in heaven or beyond the sea, but the word of God is in your mouth and heart (v. 13-14). “The language of heart can suggest a yearning to do what God has asked. When it is in their heart to keep God’s law, what may have seemed impossible becomes not only possible but desired.”[4]

When you love Jesus of all your heart and mind, the Holy Spirit will give you the desire to follow him and to keep his commandments. The law requires us to love God and our neighbor, and the gospel helps us to do so. We need both law and gospel to have a sincere relationship with God and our neighbor.

 

 

[1] Jacob W Ehrhard, “The Art of Making Distinctions – Three Uses of the Law,” March 29, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church,  
http://www.trinitynewhaven.com/2017/03/three-uses-of-the-law/

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sara Koenig, “Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 Commentary,” Working Preacher, accessed July 13, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1726.

The Feast of Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

The Feast of Pentecost, June 9, 2019.

 

 

Please join me in prayer. Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.

 

The Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks in English started in the evening of Saturday, June 8 and will end in the evening of Monday, June 10. Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. “Shavuot has a double significance. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in Israel (Exodus 34:22), and it commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.”[1] The alternative name for Shavuot is Pentecost in the ancient Greek language. Pentecost is set up a day to seven weeks after Easter. It means 50 because (7×7=49).

 

According to the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:15), the disciples, the Virgin Mary, and other women, along with 120 followers of Jesus gathered to celebrate God’s gift of the Torah and the gift of harvest. They were unaware that another gift was coming. This new gift is the Holy Spirit, which led them to leave their gathering house and go to the world to preach the good news. Pentecost marks the birthday of the church. Today our church becomes more than 2000 years old.

 

The feast of Pentecost is one of the ancient feasts in the church. The book of Acts 20:16 records that the apostle Paul celebrated the feast of Pentecost. It also means that Paul wanted to celebrate the feast of Shavuot. In the time of the apostle Paul, the church was part of the Jewish community and celebrated Jewish feasts.

Someone might ask, didn’t Jesus, according to John 20, give the Holy Spirit to his disciples immediately after his resurrection? “21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The answer is yes. But remember that the gospel of John is not interested so much in chronology (when things happen). Instead, he is interested in linking resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost closely together.

Pentecost teaches us that we need one another. Pouring out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost expresses the need to appreciate our neighbor who is different than us. “Pentecost is celebration of unity in diversity,” says Pope Francis.[2] All languages are appreciated. The many languages that the apostles spoke indicate a new era of unity and equality but not sameness. All cultures and ethnicities are equally important and precious in the eyes of God. The barriers and privileges that divided people on a personal and national level have been destroyed. The feast of Pentecost teaches us that the time of Pentecost is the time when war, argument, division and discrimination decrease, and love, and unity, along with diversity increase.

 

 

The apostle Paul teaching on our new identity in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

 

 

As the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples and the 120 followers of Jesus Christ to preach and live the gospel, the same Holy Spirit empowers us to do the same. Each one of you received the Holy Spirit in your baptism. You have the power of the Holy Spirit to do the impossible. Jesus says 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). You can perform these kinds of miracles and even more because you have the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Happy Birthday to the Church of Christ all over the world! Happy birthday to you, who are the body of the Church!

 

 

[1] Wikipedia. “Shavuot.” Accessed June 7, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shavuot.

[2] Pentecost is a celebration of unity in diversity, pope says By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service 6.4.2017 6:06 AM ET. http://www.cbn.com/700club/pentecost_diversity.pdf

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord‎

What does it matter?

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.[1] June 2, 2019

 

 

Peace be with you from God, our father and Jesus Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier.

 

What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? Is it important? There are very significant events in Jesus earthly life. For example, the birth of Jesus is very significant because God became a human being, one of us. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ saved me from sin, and his resurrection saved me from death. How the feast of the ascension effects my faith and life. Today many Christians look at the ascension of our Lord as fiction or unrealistic. We need to uncover the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth to understand the significant meaning of the ascension.

 

Our world today is impacted by ancient Greek philosophy. We tend to believe that heaven and earth are worlds apart. Greek philosophy teaches that the world is a prison, and our body is a prison; our soul is longing to escape this body. Death is a beautiful moment because it liberates the soul from the body. Salvation, according to ancient Greek philosophy, means getting out on this world to heaven. Do not we think in this way?

 

The Jews do not think that way.  The first century Jews understood heaven to be the realm of God and angels, and the earth is the realm of God’s creatures. Heaven and earth are not radically separate, but they are linked. The purpose of salvation, according to the Jewish faith, is not about escaping this sinful world and go to heaven, but rather the transformation of this earth by heaven.

 

For instance, after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him “19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The Lord’s prayer comes out of deeply Jewish sensibility. “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This prayer is about heaven and the earth are coming together. When we pray this prayer, we invite God to reign on earth as God reigns in heaven. Another example is from our Eucharist/Holy Communion liturgy. We sing the heavenly song that is recorded in the book of Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). God does not distance Godself from our world.

 

In terms of Jesus resurrection, the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth are the context of the resurrection. The resurrection is not about Jesus escaping his body. The resurrected body of Jesus is very emphasized in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples that he is not a ghost because he has a body. To prove that he is not a ghost, he asks to eat, and his disciples offer him fish. The purpose of stressing on Jesus resurrected body is to underline that his soul is not in a distant place.  The descriptions of Jesus resurrected body reflect the Jewish sensibility.

 

In terms of Jesus ascension, his ascension is not like NASA rocket trip to space. It does mean the translation of this earthly reality into the heavenly dimension. Furthermore, the ascension of Jesus is collocated with the Pentecost. A something of earth goes up into the heavenly realm, and something from heaven comes down to the earthly realm. It is the meeting of heaven and earth; the transformation of earth by heaven.

 

Let us go back to my first question. What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? The church is the mystical body of Jesus. In our baptism, we are transformed by Christ and his heavenly power. Our calling is to continue his work of bringing heaven and earth together. Jesus gives us his Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20

 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

The ascension of Christ is significant to the church because his ascension commands us to be his witnesses on earth.  Our calling is to go to the world and do what we can to bring heaven and earth together. Our Christian vocation is to help those who live in darkness to taste heaven here on earth. Our calling is to bring heaven down to earth.

 

 

[1] This sermon was inspired by

Bishop Robert Barron, “Why the Ascension of the Lord Matters,” Word on Fire, May 27, 2011, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/why-the-ascension-of-the-lord-matters/22310/.

Memorial Day, May 26, 2019‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Memorial Day, May 26, 2019

 

Christians all over the world worship Jesus Christ on Sunday. Sunday is observed as a day of worship and rest to commemorate the day of Christ's resurrection. Most of the Lutheran churches celebrate communion every Sunday. Sunday becomes a memorial day where Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to save us and remember his resurrection. Tomorrow Monday is called Memorial Day. It is designated for remembering and honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

The two celebrations, one specifically Christian and one national, may seem to have little relationship with each other. However, “they are united by the common principle of calling for us to participate with the heroic sacrifices of old, renewed today.”[1]

 

Celebrating the Holy Communion invites us to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the past and his presence with us today. Jesus in the Last Supper commands us to "do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23–25). The Holy Communion is a visible sign of Jesus’ presence in his church. The martyrs and saints are also present with Jesus as we celebrate the Holy Communion.

 

On Memorial Day, we celebrate and remember who laid down their lives to protect the citizens of the United States and the oppressed in the world. Their memory reminds us of our past and helps us to think of our future. Memorial Day is not about a recounting of the past, but in remembering the sacrifice of our dead soldiers, we make them present.

Jesus’ blood and body remind us of his love and of his new commandment to love one another. Remembering his death and resurrection becomes a way of loving our neighbors and proclaiming that the grave is empty. On Sunday, we remember Jesus victory over death. We remember that sin has no longer power over us. Likewise, we remember the sacrifice of our soldiers and their love for the nation and for us. For the dead were witnesses: witnesses to the violent repression caused by war. Their death invites us to review our understanding of war and our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Their sacrifice invites us to reflect on our participation in war and working for peace now and the coming future. Their sacrifice gives us hope that the future would be better.

 

Memorial Day is not the same as Veteran’s Day or a day for supporting our troops. It is a day to remember all those men and women who gave up their lives, so we may live. We remember those who “didn't get the chance to bring up their children or grow old with their spouses or have careers. All they have is their names on the Wall or another memorial like it.”[2] Tomorrow is a day of mourning and self-reflection. Memorial Day should not be treated as an extra day off or a day of kicking off summer activities. It “means something much more profound than a long weekend”[3] or a picnic or shopping. Memorial Day, wrote A historian Conrad Cherry, “is an American sacred ceremony, a religious ritual, a modern cult of the dead… it is a high holy day of the American ceremonial calendar . . . a sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of redemptive sacrifice is extolled and pledges to American ideals are renewed.”[4] In other words, “Memorial Day is a festival of our nation’s civil religion, one of the many “constellations of rituals, ceremonies.”[5] Therefore, my friends, “Christians should first embrace it as a reminder of our commemorative calling and treat it with respect and honor.”[6]

We live in an era where forgetfulness is tempting. We are tempted to focus on the present time and the future. But if we forget the lessons of our past, it will be difficult to direct our future in a much more thoughtful way. Learning from the past to help us to make sense of our present and future is a dominant theme in Scripture. In the New Testament, we are called to remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In the Old Testament, the Lord commands the Israelites to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (Deut. 4:9).

Memorial Day might teach a measured love of country that neither displaces the love of God nor distorts love of (all our) neighbors. Every Holy Communion celebration is a memorial. Partaking in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation unites us with Christ and makes us in communion with the saints and martyrs. We are united with Jesus Christ and saints in resisting sin and death. Similarly, when we remember the sacrifice of our dead soldiers “we sense a call to be united with them in their struggles now and always.”[7] we are united with them in making this world a better place to live.

May their memory be eternal!

 

 

[1] “The Eucharist and Memorial Day,” Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, May 24, 2016, https://ourladyofthevalleyluray.org/reflections/the-eucharist-and-memorial-day/.

 

[2] Minda Zetlin, “Please Stop Honoring Veterans On Memorial Day--a Request from My Veteran Husband,” Inc., May 24, 2018, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/memorial-day-veterans-day-honoring-dead-fallen-soldiers.html.

[3] Bill Morgan, “Memorial Day Is so Much More Than a Long Weekend,” National Veterans Foundation, May 28, 2017, https://nvf.org/memorial-day-is-so-much-more-than-a-long-weekend/.

[4] Chris Gehrz, “Do This in Remembrance,” Christian Today, MAY 29, 2017. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may-web-only/memorial-day-do-this-in-remembrance.html

 

[5] Chris Gehrz, “Do This in Remembrance,” Christian Today, MAY 29, 2017. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may-web-only/memorial-day-do-this-in-remembrance.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The Eucharist and Memorial Day,” Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, May 24, 2016, https://ourladyofthevalleyluray.org/reflections/the-eucharist-and-memorial-day/.

Sermon: May 12, 2019 John 10:22-30, the Good Shepherdess/Good Mother

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Today is the Good Shepherd Sunday. We celebrate Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We live in an urban area far from the countryside where livestock is raised. Most of us lost direct contact with cattle and sheep. Some of you owned or worked on a farm but not anymore. Shepherding is no longer an attractive job. In Jesus time, shepherding was a noble occupation. People made their livings through agriculture and raising livestock. Shepherding was a prevalent occupation in antiquity. A shepherd tends, herds, feeds and protects sheep. Shepherd also plays the flute with sheep to while away the time as he tends his flock.

 

We assume that shepherding is a male-dominated occupation. Scripture tells us stories about shepherdess (a female Shepherd); for example, Rachel as a shepherdess: “Rachel came with her father’s sheep for she was their shepherd” (Gen. 29:6, 9).

 

Scripture introduces us to Zipporah (the wife of Moses) as a shepherdess: “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock” (Exod. 2:16).

 

Shepherding is like mothering. The good Shepherd is like a good mother. Jesus says that “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Good Shepherd is selfless as a good mother is selfless and is willing to lay down her life for her children. Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day. All women have been mothered in some way. Aunt, pastor, godmother, and teacher are mothers. Jesus demonstrates how good shepherd should be or how good mother/good parent should be. Since today is Mother’s Day, I invite you to envision another image of Jesus not only as of the Good Shepherd but also a good mother. Since today is Mother’s Day, I am going to address Jesus as The Good Shepherdess or Good Mother. In the gospel reading today, Jesus gives us four qualifications of Good Mother.

 

Firstly, Jesus saysMy sheep hear my voice.” Jesus the Good Mother spends time with his sheep to the point that sheep recognize his voice. Good mother recognizes her children’s voice. Children can distinguish the voice of their mothers from many voices. I love to video chat with my family. I noticed that my little niece Joelle enjoys playing with my family, but the moment she hears her mother’s voice, she cries until her mom holds her in her arms. Then Joelle stops crying and begins to touch her mom’s face and put her little hand in her mom’s mouth. Joelle turns her tears into joy and laughter.

 

Secondly, Jesus says, I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus teaches us that a good shepherd knows his sheep. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus teaches that “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v.3). The good shepherdess develops a personal relationship with each sheep. Likewise, a good mother knows her children. She knows their habits and characters. She knows what they like and dislike.

 

My niece Joelle was born on May 25, 2018. My sister loves to share Joelle’s pictures with the family. One day, I put Joelle’s picture next to the picture of my older niece Jezel when she was a baby. I made the two photos to look like one picture. I wanted to compare them to one another when they were at the same age. I shared the picture with my parents who assumed that the two girls in the picture are one girl and that is Joelle. Even though my parents have been spending lots of time with Gisele since she was born, they did not remember her picture when she was a baby. I was surprised and decided to show the picture to my sister who immediately noticed the difference. I asked her how she recognized the difference. She was surprised by my question and replied, “These are my daughters. I know my daughters!”

 

Thirdly, Jesus says,I give them eternal life. and they will never perish.” The Lord Jesus, our Good Mother, knows the name and voice of each one of you. Like a good mother, Jesus shepherds us gently and disciplines us. He demonstrates tender love and tough love to transform us to be more like him. He does not want to harm us. He disciplines us because he wants to give us eternal life.

 

Finally, Jesus says,No one will snatch them out of my hand.” The last character of the good shepherd is protector and preserver. Jesus protects his sheep from the wolf. Jesus lays down his life for us, and as a good mother, he will not allow anyone to snatch us out of his hand. If somebody tries to kidnap or snatch your child or grandchild, how you handle this situation. I believe you will fight to keep your child. Good mothers will do anything to protect their children. They will not let anyone snatch their children from their hand. A good mother will fight for her child. She will kick and scream to protect her child from abduction. She will do anything to keep her child safe.

"I know my own and my own know me," says Jesus the Good Mother and Good Shepherdess. Jesus, the one who knows the sound of our voices and knows our names. Jesus, the Good Mother, loves us unconditionally, and out of love and compassion, he disciplines us. Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ henceforth and forevermore.

 

Sermon: May 5, 2019 John 21 - Martyrdom

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Martyrdom is a big part of Christians identity. Christian Martyrdom is ongoing and not limited to the early centuries of Christianity. Christians have endured persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be a martyr? The word martyr comes from the Greek word, μάρτυς, mártys, "witness." A martyr is the Christian who bears witness to Christ.

“The reason why this word became synonymous with dying for one’s religious beliefs is that the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted and/or killed for their witness.”[1]

All of us are martyrs when we bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ and bear the fruit of faith. Let me talk about the martyrdom that leads to death.

 

The early church was built on the blood of the first martyr Jesus Christ and the early martyrs. The Christian martyrs accepted death for the sake of their faith. Since the beginning of the Christian movement until this present day, Christians have been slaughtered.

 

Our Lord Jesus in John chapter 21 predicts the martyrdom of the apostle Peter (vs. 18-19), and then he asks Peter to “Follow him.” In July 19, 64 AD, the great fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed Christians and ordered to destroy them. He also ordered to execute the apostle Peter. The early Christian historian, Jerome, wrote that Peter was crucified with his head down and his feet up because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same form and manner as the Lord.[2] The apostle Peter knew that he would suffer for the sake of Jesus; however, he followed him to the end. Nero tortured Christians brutally. “During gladiator matches, he would feed Christians to lions, and he often lit his garden parties with the burning carcasses of Christian human torches.[3]

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued an edict demanding all of the citizens of the Roman empire to offer sacrifices to the gods and to pray for the well-being of the Emperor.” The sacrifices had to be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and a signed and witnessed certificate be issued to that effect.”[4] Christians refused to offer sacrifices. It is like refusing to pledge allegiance to the state. In this case, you become a potential traitor. Christians accepted to be sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs rather than to deny Christ. Some Christians accepted to be burned alive. This persecution increased the devotion and commitment of Christians to the lord Jesus Christ.

 

In 1915 AD a group called The Young Turks persecuted Armenians by deporting them from the Ottoman Empire and let them die of thirst and hunger.

The Young Turks also crucified Armenian women. They exterminated 1.5 million Armenian Christian martyrs, who decided to follow Christ no matter what. Finally, you know about ISIS killing 21 Egyptian Christian Coptic men in Libya on February 12, 2015. Those Christians followed Christ and laid down their lives for him

 

Those Christian martyrs could live and enjoy privileges if they had renounced their faith in the risen Lord. Some Christians were like the apostle Peter. They denied Christ, and after the persecution was over, they came back to their faith. Some Christians accepted martyrdom rather than to worship false gods. Our martyrs accepted martyrdom because they were confident that Christ rose from the dead and they would rise, too. They believed that Jesus is worth to lose everything they had, even their life. They joined the choir of angels and creatures in heaven singing:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

 

You might find yourself in circumstances where your faith in Jesus Christ is tested. You might accept martyrdom rather than denying him. Alternatively, you might become a refugee like my big sister and her husband who escaped Christian persecution in Gaza, Palestine and went to Belgium. They accepted to live in a foreign land and to learn a new language and to stay in refugees center for three years to keep their faith. They considered Jesus worthy of their suffering. You might deny Jesus Christ to avoid persecution as Peter did. However, later you repent and jump off the boat naked and swim fast to meet him and to profess your love. Jesus forgives those who deny him but pay attention that Peter accepted to lay down his life for Jesus rather than denying him again.

Pray to Jesus to give you the strength to keep your faith. Teach your children and grandchildren that Christ is worthy of our suffering and struggle. Teach them that Christ is more valuable than their life. He is the most valuable pearl among many pearls that a merchant sold everything he had and bought it.

 

[2] Foxe John 1516-1587, Fox's Book Of Martyrs: Or, A History Of The Lives, Sufferings, And Triumphant Deaths Of Many Of The Primitive As Well As Protestant Martyrs Hardcover (Andesite Press, 2005), 5.

[4]

Sermon: Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

In the middle of the 20th century, Cyprus revolted against British military occupation. Every Eastern Orthodox priest was considered a nationalist politician and churches became a place where freedom fighters gathered. On one of the Sundays, a priest started his sermon saying “this evening, my people, we have come to proclaim the revolution! Long live the revolution!” He said it two or three times. All the worshipers were clapping and shouting. The police came forward with orders to arrest the priest. As they got close, the priest added: “we have come to proclaim the revolution against sin.”[1] Then the police froze. They stopped and withdrew, and the priest continued to preach against sin.

Easter Sunday is the beginning of the Christians revolution because Christ won the victory over sin and death. Jesus’ resurrection was not a happy ending, but the glorious beginning of a revolution in the name of Christ who defeated sin and death and offered amnesty to all the prisoners of sin.

We learned since we were children that Jesus died on the cross so that who believes in him will go to heaven. Evangelism becomes a mission to save people’s souls from hell. We grew up thinking that the purpose of the cross and resurrection is to keep our eyes fixed on heaven and discount this world. We learned since Sunday school days to wait for the second coming of Christ to destroy this sinful world and to start a new one.

Early Christians understood cross and resurrection differently. They related them to the coming of the kingdom of God. They believed that the purpose of the cross and resurrection is to destroy sin that deprived the poor of access to food and dehumanized the marginalized. The early Christians understood Jesus crucifixion and resurrection as the beginning of the revolution against the imperial powers of their time.

Rome imperial power thrived on practicing injustice and oppression. The early church recognized the cross and resurrection as the beginning of replacing the imperial power with the kingdom of God on earth. They understood their true vocation to be “image-bearers,” reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.”[2]

The church fathers like John Chrysostom, Clement of Rome and Origen of Alexandria believed that the cross and resurrection made them citizens of heaven, but they have work to do on earth. Their mission was revolutionary because they focused on implementing the victory of Jesus Christ here and now.

The early church understood its vocation to be Christ's voice in this world. They believed that the victory of Jesus over sin and death is the beginning of a new life, “new way of being human in the world and for the world.”[3] Consequently, the church became a refuge for the poor, oppressed and marginalized.

What does the resurrection mean to you? Is your hope to reserve a place for you in heaven? Joining Jesus’ revolution against sin and death means understanding your vocation in this world. Your vocation is to be Christ’s voice in every place. Christ already won the victory and granted you forgiveness. All you need to do is to implement this victory on earth.[4] Implementing Jesus’ cross and resurrection entails speaking up against economic inequality and the war industry. Joining Christ revolution means to speak truth to power, to advocate for peace, to feed the hungry, to release the unjustly convicted prisoners and to rescue our children and women from sex trafficking. In other words, we are called to transform this world and make it a better place. Christians are standing between heaven and earth.[5] We are citizens of heaven and Christ’s ambassadors on Earth. Our vocation is to help the disadvantaged to foretaste the kingdom of God on earth. We have work to do here on earth. Jesus offered you forgiveness. Enjoy Jesus' forgiveness but remember you are called to carry your cross and follow him every single day.

Do you know that you joined Christ’ revolution in your baptism? Do you know that every time you partake in his body and blood, you affirm your membership in his movement to transform the world? Jesus calls each one of us for a particular vocation, but all of us share one vocation that this “to embody the story of Jesus death and resurrection in this world.”[6]

The Anglican Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright Invites us to “Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.”[7] I have already joined this revolution. How about you?

 

[2] Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began (p. 357). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid., 362.

[4] Ibid., IV.

[5] Ibid.,

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began (p. 416). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon: Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019, John 13:1-17, 31-35

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

This is the night of love and betrayal.

This is the night of a new commandment.

This is the night of humility and of service.

This is the night of water, bread, and wine.

The apostle John does not mention the institution of the Holy Communion. Instead, he is the only one who narrates the feet-washing story. John ties it with Jesus suffering on the cross and his ultimate love to his disciples. Jesus sets an example before his disciples on how to love and serve one another.

My mother suffers from continuous swollen feet. She can’t walk for a long distance. I always imagine myself bringing a basin with warm water and soaking her feet in a combination of lavender and Epsom salt and massaging them. Taking care of my mother’s feet is a sign of love and care. Jesus loved his disciples to the point of acting as a slave by washing their feet. In antiquity, women or slaves washed the feet of the guests, but never the host.

Jesus washed all his disciples’ feet. It is highly possible that women attended the Last Supper and Jesus washed the feet of his female disciples. But the most interesting point is that Jesus washed Judas Iscariot’s feet.

Jesus knew that Judas was planning to betray him. Despite Judas’ unfaithfulness, Jesus washed his feet. Jesus loves the unlovable, and he does not exclude anyone of his love.

Jesus accepted and loved Judas, who betrayed him, and gave him another chance. Jesus loved Judas and washed his feet even though he referred to him as an unclean person.

Imagine Jesus bending down and doing the dirty work. Imagine he comes closer to Judas and touches his feet. Give yourself a minute to imagine how they look into each other’s eyes. Imagine what they were thinking of at that moment. Jesus’ eyes were full of love, but Judas’ eyes were full of betrayal. It takes a perfect love to wash the feet of a person like Judas. Jesus is love incarnate.

By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus set to them an example of love and humility. Jesus teaches his disciples to love one another and to be humble. He says in v.15 “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus did not say, “you also should think or should believe as I have done to you.” No, he said, “you should do.” We should love our neighbor as Jesus loves us. He wasn’t talking about having warm fuzzy feelings. Instead, Jesus is talking about Agape love, the divine love. Agape means whatever you do will have your best interests in mind toward your neighbor. “Jesus is showing us that we are not to be selective with our love. We have received in abundance the boundless love of God, and so we are to shower that love on others. Regardless of what a person says or does we are to love them, never to hold back.”[1]

On this night, Jesus gives us an example on how to live as Christians and how leaders should lead. Jesus calls us to love and to be humble. Jesus’ love moved him to humble himself and serve his enemy, Judas. Each one of us is potentially a Judas. We deceive Christ in our lives one way or another. We allow our passion to control us. We allow our passion to develop from a passion to betrayal. Jesus knows your heart. Jesus knows that you are sinner, but righteous at the same time. Jesus wants to wash your feet to cleanse you from all impurity. Jesus loves the repentant. Jesus wants to be close to you and touch your hands and feet. He wants to be very close to you. He wants to touch you and feel you because you are precious in his eyes and he loves you.

Tonight, Jesus also teaches us that even our enemies are deserving of Jesus’ love and your love. Jesus sets an example for us to love our enemy, not through words but through our actions. Jesus shows us how to love one another, and he commands us to “go and do likewise.”

 

Sermon Luke 13:1-9: March 24, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

I have been meditating on the book of Job since the beginning of Lenten season. This book focuses on the theme of retribution, which states that the good person will receive blessings and the evil person will receive evil. It is about punishment and reward. Job considered himself as an upright and righteous man. Despite his righteousness, God inflicted him with disease and the death of his children. Job accused God of being unjust and not operating the world according to the doctrine of retribution. God supposed to make Job happy ever after because he was a righteous man. Job’s wife and friends believe that Job's sin caused his suffering. God is just in punishing a sinner like Job. Job kept defending himself and spoke to God directly asking for an explanation about his suffering. Finally, God spoke to Job, but without answering his questions. God assures Job that God was in control and God alone knew the reason behind Job’s suffering. God taught Job that: It is better to know God than to know all the answers. Job repented, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42: 5-6). God rewarded Job because he repented. The relationship between God and Job was restored.

Lent is a season of preparation and repentance. ELCA gospel readings for Sundays during Lent center on repentance. Repentance is a strong theme in the gospel of Luke. John the Baptist called people to repent. Jesus ministry also invited people to live a life of repentance. Jesus emphasizes that repentance is a necessary step to enter the kingdom of God. According to Luke 13, Jesus teaches that the end of time is coming, and his followers need to be prepared through living a life of repentance. In the previous chapter, Jesus exhorts his disciples that through repentance they can be ready for the apocalypse.

“Jesus uses the example of settling a legal case before the case gets to court to encourage the disciples to take actions necessary to be part of the Realm [the kingdom of God]. If they do not, they will pay the apocalyptic price (12:57-59).”[1] In chapter 13, the evangelist Luke narrates that “at that very time there was some present” referred to Jesus the massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem (v.1). Scholar Ronald J. Allen explains their question:

Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm [kingdom of God] in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straight forward answer: ‘No.’ They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans. But Jesus uses the deaths of the Galileans to make a point. To expand slightly: Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did when the apocalypse occurs.[2]

Those who asked Jesus about the violent death of Galileans believed in the doctrine of retribution: God punishes the sinners and rewards the righteous. Jesus did not discuss the principle of retribution. It was not something necessary for Jesus. Repentance is more important than retribution. Jesus gives them another example of those who died at Siloam. The purpose of these two is examples “is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm [the kingdom of God].”[3]

Let me give you a more contemporary example. Imagine that Jesus is teaching on repentance as a way to prepare for the kingdom of God and one of you asks him about those who were killed in shootings at two mosques in New Zealand. And Jesus responds, do you think that because these Muslims suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other New Zealanders? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

Jesus elaborates his teaching through the parable of the fig tree. Jesus’ parable implies that “ A cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (an image of repentance, according to Luke 3:8), the result will be its just and swift destruction.”[4]

God is patient with sinners, and will give them an opportunity to repent. God forgives those who sincerely repent.

Jesus teaches that life is short and full of suffering. Life is unpredictable, and death might come unexpectedly. Accordingly, we always need to be ready to meet the Lord. Many Christians confess their sins, but very few repent. Repentance does not mean to feel bad over your behavior for a short period of time and then return to your sinful manner. Repentance means shifting your thinking, behavior, and heart toward God. Repentance might be a long process. Sometimes this process is painful, but it will lead to forgiveness and peace. Jesus’ teaching on repentance and judgment make many of us uncomfortable. We prefer to hear about God’s forgiveness and love but not about God’s judgment. But God’s judgment is real. Christ’s grace is not cheap grace. It cost him his life.

In this Lenten season, remind yourself that your life is a gift and fragile. Remind yourself of your vulnerability as a human being living in a broken world. You need Christ’s grace and mercy every single moment in your life. You might suffer or die unexpectedly because bad things happen to the righteous. So, live a life of repentance. I want to share with you a hymn chanted during the Great Lent in Eastern Orthodox. Let us read this hymn together in the spirit of confession.

Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-giver,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of Thy mercy.
Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Have mercy on me O God, according to Thy great mercy,
and according to the multitude of Thy compassions,
blot out my transgressions.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.
But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.

 

[1] Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary On Luke 13: 1-9,” Working Preacher, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3991.

[2] Ibid,.

[3] Ibid,.

[4] Matt Skinner, “Commentary On Luke 13: 1-9,” Working Preacher, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=530.

Sermon: Luke 13: 31-35 - March 17, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

 

 

My parents love animals. They raised ducks, hens, roosters, cats, dogs, goats, and one donkey. It was hard for them to keep the ducks, hens, and roosters safe. They tried their best to keep the coop secure. But foxes found a way to attack the hens at the throat. My parents fed up with the foxes and decided not to continue raising poultry. In Middle Eastern culture, the fox is perceived as cunning, devious, and intelligent. No wonder, foxes made my parents stop raising poultry.

That Fox! Jesus called Herod. Some Pharisees told Jesus he had better hide, Herod was after him. Herod who wants to kill Jesus is called Herod Antipas. He is the same Herod who killed John the Baptist. Herod thought that John the Baptist came back from the dead. ‎ Luke tells us in chapter 9 that "Herod said, “John, I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he tried to see him [Jesus]. In chapter 13, Luke tells us that Herod wants to kill Jesus.

In response to Herod threat, Jesus gives two metaphors of animals—a fox and a hen. Our Lord calls Herod “that fox.” This statement is harsh and implies that he is a cunning and devious person. Jesus was attacking Herod verbally. Jesus determines to continue his ministry despite Herod threat.   He states that he will work “today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I [he] finish my [his] work” (v. 32).  Jesus was referring to his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Because Jesus’ ministry is part of God's plan, Herod cannot kill him. Jesus also emphasizes the impossibility for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.

We can conclude that the purpose of Jesus calling Herod “that fox” is to tell him that he is like a fox who lacks great status and thus cannot carry out his threat.[1] Jesus enjoys greater status than Herod who represents the imperial power of Rome.

After Jesus called Herod “that fox”, he turned his face to Jerusalem and mourns the city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! (v.34).” Jesus, like a mother, laments Jerusalem and its inhabitants. He does not mourn himself, but he laments over the tragedy of a lost opportunity in accepting him as the Messiah. Jesus’ lamentation indicates that he is fulfilling his destiny as a prophet. He will be killed in Jerusalem. In killing Jesus, Jerusalem, the holy city of God, turns against God’s mission. 

Jesus continues speaking for God, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (v. 34).”  Jesus relates himself to a mother hen who wants to protect her chicks under her wings, but her chicks reject their mother’s protection. Jesus draws upon the feminine image of a hen to reveal his motherly love. This metaphor implies that Jesus as a mother is willing to give his own life to save his children.

While Jesus refers to Herod as a fox, he refers to himself as a hen, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has captured the way Jesus felt when he mourned Jerusalem:

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread, breast exposed.[2]

After 2000 years, Jesus prophetic message still speaks to the church today. The church needs to choose between the fox and the hen. The church needs to decide whether to continue Christ mission or to fear the rules of this world. In other words, are we going to follow Christ to the cross? A fox will always threaten the church that accepts to be a hen. The church history proves that the church of Jesus has encountered many foxes. But Jesus assures us that mother hen is not afraid of the fox; to the contrary, she is willing to fight for her children. This is the ultimate love of Jesus Christ. When we refuse to come under his protection, he will never give us up. Jesus Christ accepted his death on the cross even though Jerusalem rejected him. This story is important for us as we are walking on our Lenten journey. Jesus is determined to love you. No matter what you will face in your life, you are under Jesus’ maternal wings.

 

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997), 536.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood,” The Christian Century, February 25, 1998, page 201.