Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, April 15, 2013


The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York. April 14, 2013. Easter III.Text: John 21: 1-19

What would you do and how would you feel if you get invited to have breakfast with Jesus?

In 2008, I was privileged to go to Israel to study a course called “Palestine of Jesus.”  For three weeks, we stayed at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem and traveled to Bethlehem, to the river Jordan, to the Dead See and to the Sea of Galilee. I tell you, it was like a dream come true. It was so heartwarming to see where Jesus was born, to walk where Jesus walked and to preach where Jesus preached.  Early in the morning, my classmates and I would bathe in the cool, fresh waters of Galilee. We would sing hymns and spiritual songs and we would imagine Jesus walking on the water and the apostles fishing for what is now called “Peter’s fish” or tilapia.

In the place called Tabgha inTiberias, there are two churches named after two miracles. The first one is called the Church of Multiplication, for that is the site where Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. The other one is called the Church of the Primacy of Peter, for that is the site where Peter was restored and forgiven by Jesus. I was chosen from among my classmates to preach and celebrate the mass in that church. 

As I was reading the Gospel of John 21, there was a moment that I could hardly speak. I felt that there was a lump in my throat, I was choking with emotion and that my heart was so filled with gratitude for the amazing, awesome and extraordinary grace of God.  For in that place in Tabgha, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? And Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” As I was reading that Scripture text, I felt that I was there---and Jesus was addressing those words to me---right after that breakfast where Jesus invited us to be.

POWER BREAKFAST                                                                                                                                                                                     
 I call this "power breakfast" as a demonstration of God’s divine initiative in Christ: first point is forgiveness, second point is love and third point is mission. Jesus calls us to forgive, he commands us to love, and he gives us a mission. (Do you still remember  the reasons why I am a "three points preacher"?)

First, the power of forgiveness.   
The ability for forgive is not a sign of weakness but a sign of power. Jesus empowered Peter by giving him the gift of forgiveness. The apostles were fishing all night but they caught nothing. This is a message that “without God, we can do nothing.” Without God, in the words of the Ecclesiastes, all our works and our achievements are “vanity and a striving after the wind.”  We need God for because there is a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.  Peter was empty that morning. His stomach was empty because he was hungry. His net was empty because there was no fish. His heart was empty because a week ago, he had denied Jesus. 

Out of his emptiness and depression, came an invitation from Jesus. “Come had breakfast with me. Oh by the way, cast your nets on the right side and you will find fish.” They cast their nets on the right side and there was a huge haul of fish---the nets were almost breaking. My friends, when you have breakfast with Jesus---your plate will be full!

Then Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” And Peter was grieved for he was asked by the Lord three times. But it did not take long for him to realize that the reason why Jesus was asking him three times was because he had denied the Lord three times. In other words, just as he had sinned three times, he was being forgiven three times as well. That power of forgiveness has fully restored Peter to what was to be his destiny. Like the prodigal Son who returned to the Father, Jesus was giving him back the golden ring. He was a son again. Forgiveness washed away his guilt and shame. He was restored,  reconciled, healed. 

The power of forgiveness is the power of healing. There was a woman who had cervical cancer. The doctor gave her a grim prognosis: the cancer metastasized. It had spread to her intestines, liver and kidney. She might die in three months. After the initial shock, denial and anger that terminally-ill persons often go through, she decided to accept her fate and to prepare for her funeral. Then she remembered that throughout her life, she had made some friends but also some enemies. She had been hurt by other people and she had also hurt other people. So she decided that since she had but a short time to live, she would spend the rest of her life forgiving those who hurt her and seeking forgiveness to those she had hurt. She called, emailed and wrote to them one by one. And every time she had forgiven someone or had received forgiveness from someone, some cancer cells were being removed.  The process went on and on until she was completely healed. There is power in forgiveness!

The power of love                                                                                                                                                            "Do you love me?" Peter and the apostles of Jesus had learned love from the source and author of Love Himself. The bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosever would believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Por que de tal manera amo Dios al mundo, que ha dado a su Hijo unigenito, para que todo aquel que en el cree, no se pierda , mas tenga vida eterna.  Sapagkat minahal ng Diyos and mundo kaya niya ibinigay ang kanyang bugtong na anak, upang ang nanampalatay sa kanya ay hindi mamamatay bagkus magkaroon ng buhay na walang hanggan”  (John 3:16). I wish I could say it in many more  languages, but I tell you, LOVE is a universal language. Even in unspoken words, love is clear and understandable.

Someone once said that there are three things which husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers , must learn to say in order for their relationships to last for a lifetime. These three words are: “I love you; I am sorry; please forgive me.”  My wife and I have been married for 35 years now. We have no children. What keeps us together these many years? Maybe not so much in words, but in action, we might have spoken these three words to each other, for a thousand times. Because we are all human, we are imperfect. I like the prayer of Alexander Pope, “If I am right thy grace impart, still in the right to stay. If I am wrong, O teach my heart to find that better way.” And the more excellent way is love (1 Corinthians 13).

The power of mission
From the power of forgiveness and love, Jesus proceeded to tell  Peter of his mission. “If you really love me, then feed my sheep. “ I feel that that is my mission too in this church, St. James Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, New York.  I want to see this church experience a revival,  I want to see this church grow and re-establish its rightful mission in this community. We are a historic church finding our place in the 21st century. 

The origin of St. James dates back from 1704 when America was still a colony of Great Britain. Our charter was signed by no less than King George III.  St. James Church saw the fight for American Independence both politically and ecclesiastically. The first bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury was one of our earliest rectors. Dr. Benjamin Moore, the first president of Columbia University was one of our earliest lay leaders. At some point, Elmhurst was called the “New Amsterdam”  because this was a Dutch neighborhood. 

But fast forward to the 21st century.  Elmhurst  is no longer the New Amsterdam or even the Old Amsterdam.  It has become a global village in Queens, New York one of the most diverse communities in the world.  Here is a rapidly growing Chinatown and clusters of ethnic communities:  Latinos, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, South Asians, West Indians, Caribbean in addition to Black and white.  How do we position ourselves  as the new St. James in the context of our time? 

 “If you love me, feed my sheep.” I believe the Church grows when the people are fed but not when they are fed up.  Let us feed God’s people with the uniting Word of God and not by divisive politics of man. Let us be one in sharing the Body and Blood of Christ as well as one in sharing a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, or a bowl of soup. 

“And I have other sheep that are not yet of this fold”( John 10:16).  St. James Church is surrounded by people from other cultures and ethnicities who are hungry for the Word of God, hungry for the bread of life, hungry for community. They too are hungry for forgiveness, for love and for mission.  
Many years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, issued a dream. “I have a dream that one day, black boys and white boys will walk hand in hand.” As he dreamt the dream of integration and unity, Martin Luther King, Jr.  also prophesied against the American Church of segregation. He called the 11 o’clock on Sunday as the most “segregated time in America” because the Blacks and the Whites were holding purely Black and lilly White worship services. 

Today, here in Elmhurst, the dream of MLK will have a new significance: we dream not only that Black and White but Brown and Yellow and Red and Green, Mulato and mestizo----and  all colors of the rainbow will be welcomed in this Episcopal Church.  Let us heed MLK’s prophesy by radically welcoming ALL PEOPLE  to our Healing Service at 10:30 A.M. and removing every trace of segregation in our 11:00 A.M. Eucharist. “Though we are many, we are one Body because we all share in one Bread.” By his dying on the cross, Jesus Christ has broken down every wall of hostility and opened for us a new and living way. Let us open this Church to the whole community of Elmhurst and let St. James Church be a forgiving, loving and serving Church in the 21st century. Amen!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


From Billiard Balls to Salad Bowl: Towards an Intercultural Church
By Winfred B. Vergara 
I would like to address the issue of ethnic churches and the vision of an inclusive, intercultural church. A number of people are still asking the question, “Why do we need to have ethnic churches? Why can't we all be together?”

In his 2003 report to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Frank Griswold, the TEC ‘s Presiding Bishop said, “We have come to this place with regards to ethnic ministries. In a church that is free of the sin of racism and other ‘isms,' there would be no need for a focus upon particular ethnic groups and identities because the church, in all its variations, would reflect the fullness of Christ and the face of Christ, and be transformed by the multiplicity of languages, races, and cultural particularities incarnate in the members of Christ's risen body. But we have not yet become who we are called to be. Given that, it has become clear that our best energies in seeking to serve ethnic communities need to be focused on congregational development and clergy recruitment. This is in line with the vision of 20/20, the mission energies around the church and the demographics of our nation . . . and the focus of our energies shall be the African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American ministries.” 

Asian, Black, Latino, Indigenous Americans – these four ethnic groupings are what I would call the “four aces” of the Episcopal Church. Together, they represent a new force for change. Not in an adversarial but in complementary relationship with the Caucasian (or Anglo-European) peoples, they constitute an emerging majority that is neither simple nor simplistic. What are the characteristics of these four ethnic groupings? 

First, in their differences. Even in and among themselves, these “four Aces” are already very diverse – culturally, linguistically and historically. I still hear some Caucasians say to my Filipino face, “You Vietnamese look alike.”  Thank you, but no thank you, Sir. Asians do not necessarily  look alike.

Asian Americans come from countries whose geography, history and culture set them apart from each other. From India to China, from Laos to Australasia, from Japan to the Philippines, from Korea to Vietnam, from Malaysia to Taiwan, etc., our colors and facial features are not the same. Many Asian countries have histories of colonialism but there are some whose cultures remained untouched, untainted or uncorrupted by western civilization. Asian languages are so different from each other even within our sub-ethnic groupings. The Philippines has 7,100 islands with as many as 700 dialects and 80 distinct languages. China has even more languages, and so does India. With regards to skin color, the people from North India are fairer in complexion than the ones in South India. And the people from Cashmere are as white as the Europeans.

The intra-ethnic differences are also true with Latino-Hispanic Americans. Having lived in San Jose, California (the home of farm worker Cesar Chavez) for fifteen years, where Latinos now constitute around 35% of the population, I was amazed to discover the big differences in outlook and culture that exist between the Salvadoran and the Guatemalans, the Puerto Ricans and the Belizeans and between the “Mexicans in California and the Californian Mexicans!” 

Facial and cultural differences are also true with the African-American community. Not only are they different from their countries of origin and in complexion (I hesitate to call African Americans as blacks because there are some who are brown or mulatto), but also in the degree of their historical experience of slavery and colonial oppression. 

I was also amazed to learn from a Native-American leader who said that the tribal differences among them continue even today. She told me a story of the crabs placed by a man in a basket. These crabs were all struggling to climb up the basket and the man was nonchalant about it. Someone said, “Why don't you do something about those crabs, they might climb up so high and get out of the basket.” The man replied, “Oh don't worry, they'll not succeed in doing that because they're ‘Indian crabs' – as soon as one of them climbs up high, the others will pull him down.” I was amazed by that story for two reasons: one, because it is the same story as the “Filipino crab mentality;” and two, because most ethnic groups have the same penchant for self-deprecating humor. 

This brings us to the similarity among the “four aces.” First, there is a similarity in their Western colonial experience. Most of the four ethnic groupings have a history of being conquered, oppressed, divided and ruled by Western colonialism and white racism. Second, there is a similarity in the way they responded to Western colonialism, i.e., they turn the Western symbols of oppression to their own advantage. For instance, Spain and Portugal colonized the Americas, but instead of rejecting the Spanish or Portuguese language as symbols of oppression, the new Latinos used them as their own medium of unification, communication and solidarity. When Filipinos revolted against Spanish colonization from 1896-1898, the Castillan rulers imposed a rule that the natives wear a very thin and transparent dress made from pineapple fiber (so that the guardia civil could see if the Filipinos were concealing weapons.) How did the Filipinos respond? They adopted this Barong Tagalog as their national costume! And how did the Japanese turn their humiliating defeat from the Americans into victory? They copied American technology (that which invented the atom bomb) to build superiority in the electronics and car industry.

The ability to turn their “mourning into dancing” is true with other ethnic groupings. When African slaves were imposed the back-breaking work of harvesting cotton by their English taskmasters, how did they respond? They sang the Lord's song in beautiful African melodies, songs and music being the fine arts of their slave masters. And what do we say about the Native Americans? They were stripped of their lands and placed into reservations. Now they are fiercely competing with the American business and raking huge profits in the operation of Indian casinos all over the United States. I once attended a meeting of First Nations about the casino in Tacoma. One of the tribal leaders confirmed that the were able to buy back the lands that once were taken away from them.

Western civilization – which ironically, was used to subjugate Third World countries – has now become the dynamic force in the rapid developments in the Third World. Kosuke Koyama, a noted Asian (Japanese) theologian, speaking to the 5th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1975, said: ”If (Western civilization) were simply demonic, then we need to launch a   ‘Program to Combat Western Civilization.' But it is not a simple monster; it is an ambiguous monster! Western civilization has a ‘wounding and healing' effect on other civilizations.” 

So instead of totally rejecting Western civilization, Third World countries adopt, baptize and marry it to their own cultures. From Borneo to Timbukto, the picture of the “beauty-saloon, blue-eyed Jesus,” adorned the electronics stores and car interiors along with nativistic and cultural handicrafts.
One of my tasks in Asian American Ministries is to lead in the advocacy of Asians and other ethnic groups so they move from their marginalized status into the mainstream of the American church. These new American Christians are no longer content in standing by the periphery or eavesdropping from the outside and waiting to be invited. They see that the mainline Anglo culture is fatigued, tired and worn out and apparently needing help. The Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Indigenous American Christians want to get involved in the American church at all levels of its life and in all aspects of its activities. What is remarkable is if we could work together now, we can ensure that the church of the future will not only survive, but prevail. We need to see an intercultural vision of the church in the 21 st century and that vision can be realized in these United States. 

The United States is not one monolithic population but a marvelous mosaic of races, ethnicity, cultures and ideologies. The American global villages, like New York City or Los Angeles or San Jose or Seattle, mirror the planet earth. We are a pluralistic, diverse, multicultural and multilingual peoples. Yet despite our diversity, we know that God loves us and cares for us individually. Caucasians are no more precious in the Lord's eyes than Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Latinos, Arabs, Africans, Russians or Iraqis. According to the Bible, we are all God's children, and Jesus died not for some special racial-ethnic groups but for all humankind. 

How does interculturalism operate in the context of American Christian ministry? In 1995, as chair of the Intercultural Task Force of the Diocese of El Camino Real, I defined the vision and development of an intercultural diocese as the following:
  • Cross-cultural is when a member of a dominant culture crosses over his boundary, immerses himself with a native culture in order to convert it. This is the missionary strategy of the colonial era when Western missionaries crossed over their Anglo-European boundaries and went to Africa, Asia or Latin America and operated parallel to Western socio-political colonization.This is sort of Kevin Costner in the movie "Dancing with the Wolves."
In cross-cultural development, the missionary learns the local culture, which he perceives to be inferior and then superimposes his own missionary culture. This strategy is perceived by the local culture as either paternalism or racism. The image of “melting pot” comes to mind except that the local culture is “melted” into the missionary's culture. In the context of America, cross-cultural is when an Anglo-European clergy or congregation evangelizes an individual from an ethnic minority group and then molds him into some one who will think like them and talk like them. This process often sets the convert apart from his community. He will be embraced by the dominant culture as one of them but he will be frowned upon or alienated by the community where he comes from. He would be labeled by his peers as an “Oreo Christian” if he is black or a “coconut Christian” if he is brown.
  • Multicultural is when mono-cultural and ethnic-specific congregations are allowed equal and separate existence but with neither intention nor vision for interaction. The image of “billiard balls spread on the table” comes to mind. In that pluralistic and multicultural setting, various racial-ethnic peoples exist independent of each other and having no desire for a larger community bonding – unless you hit one ball to strike another. There is a high level of tolerance for pockets of specific community organizations (i.e.. Filipino associations, Greek organizations, Kenyan associations, etc.) and even local villages (e.g. Koreatown, Chinatown, Mexican barrio, Kosher village, etc.) but there is no movement for a greater circle of friendship. The silent but accepted rules are “mind your own business,”   “live and let live,” and “don't ask, don't tell.”
In the context of a church, this image is true with a diocese (or presbytery, district or adjudicatory) where there are many ethnic congregations (including Anglo ethnic churches) but with no inter-church relationship. Every congregation is its own domain; there is no active reaching out to one another, no opportunity for communication exchange; no common activities where members can get to know one another. St. Paul said that the church is a Body with many parts so “when one member suffers, all suffer together; when one member rejoices, all rejoice together.” In a multicultural diocese, the church is not one body with many parts but a “Body with many bodies.” When one member suffers, he suffers alone; when one member rejoices, he rejoices alone.
  • Intercultural is when racial-ethnic, cultural, language and generational congregations (parishes and missions) do intentional “unity in diversity” in the context of a diocese (or presbytery, district or adjudicatory) which considers itself as the basic missionary unit of the church. The image of “salad bowl” comes to mind. In this image, there is a mixing up or a gathering of various and diverse cultures (colors) each retaining its own color and striving for unity and harmony like a rainbow in the sky. This is the ideal vision of a Christian church in a multicultural society, an avant garde of “a community of communities” where the values of equality, fairness, justice and solidarity are actualized by the people in the life they live and in the relationship that they create.
In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic or intercultural congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations. They do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives. 

An “intercultural church” is a diocese where love and justice reign and where ethnic parishes and missions share common experience of pain and a common vision of hope. In an intercultural diocese, no one congregation claims sole ownership of a parish building (because every congregation is a mission outreach of the diocese). In an intercultural diocese, parishes develop “missionary partnerships” to plant a new ethnic or intercultural congregation and assist in the growth and development of smaller congregations. They do not consider their financial assistance to struggling congregations as a “dole out” or an “outreach” because they feel ownership of every congregation that declines or thrives. Indeed, “when one congregation suffers, they suffer with it” and “when one congregation thrives, they rejoice in it.” 

The bishop of an intercultural diocese is a healing (reconciling) bishop who has subordinated his peculiar love for his ethnic origin in order to become a bishop for all of God's people. Like the Greek concept of diakonia (someone who is sandwiched between the dust), he is in between God and God's peoples. What breaks his heart is racism in all its protean forms and what warms his heart is unconditional love being embraced by all. 

The bishop of an intercultural diocese is an arbiter of truth and a dispenser of justice. She speaks the truth in love and struggles to harmonize the various opposites or at least get them (like yin and yang ) to complement each other. She learns and teaches new vocabulary like gotong-royong (Indonesian for “pulling heavy loads together”) and a luta continua (Zaire/Portuguese for “continue the struggle”) when she rallies the clergy and faithful towards the intercultural vision. 

The success of an “intercultural vision” is measured by the “ease” with which people from diverse cultures interact with each other in the spirit of mutual respect, integrity, mutual responsibility and interdependence. You do not have to qualify your comment about another group with “with great respect to. . .” because they already know you have great respect for them. You do not have to be condescending nor apologetic because they knew you and having known you, loved you. The closest vision to the kingdom of God is an “intercultural diocese” where the “lion dwells with the lambs, the child plays with the asp . . . for they neither hurt nor kill in this holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6, 9).

(Note: This article first appeared in Witness Magazine in 2004. It was also the subject of my recent interview from Voice of America. WBV)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

LEAP OF FAITH: The Journey of the 'Doubting Thomas' and Ours

LEAP OF FAITH: The Journey of the 'Doubting Thomas' and Ours

 The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, St. James Elmhurst, NY 4/7/13*

Scripture: John 20:19-31: The doubting Thomas, upon seeing the risen Christ, exclaimed “My Lord and my God.”

Leap of Faith
“My Lord and my God!”  What leap of faith and what a journey of life for the apostle Thomas.  A moment ago, he did not believe. Now he believes.  A moment ago, he was not ready to follow Jesus. Now he is ready to go where He leads him to go. At the death of Jesus, his faith drooped; at the rising of Jesus, his faith was revived. 

After the resurrection, Thomas and the revived apostles proclaimed the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the world. Thomas became an apostle to India, where he introduced Christianity and planted churches until he was martyred in Madras (now Chennai). Today, Mar Thoma Church is one of the churches in India, who claim their origin from the missionary work of  the once "doubtingThomas."

The faith-journey of Thomas mirrors our own. At some point, we climb the heights of faith; at other times, we backslide. By the grace of God, when our dreams fade and our hopes droop, we begin to see a new revelation that makes us want to move on. At the death of Jesus, the apostles when back fishing, the job they were accustomed to doing. At the rising of Jesus, they renewed their commitment to be “fishers of men” again, the ministry that they were trained to be. 

Levels of Knowing Jesus                                                                                                              
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the father of “existentialism,” wrote that there are three levels of knowing Jesus: the aesthetic level, the ethical level and the spiritual level.  At what level of faith are you on? Will you be willing to take a leap of faith and move on?

By the way, since this is my first sermon in this congregation, I must say to you, at the outset, that I am a three-point preacher. No matter what scriptures, I read, I always find three points. One time, a youth member of my former parish asked “Father Fred, why do you always have three points? “ and I replied, three reasons: one, I am a Trinitarian; two I am the third child in my family; and three, survey said that the most that people can remember in a sermon is three points. And I told the young man, “When you grow old like me, there are three things you will lose. First is your hair, second is your memory, the third, I could not remember.”

The best three point sermon was done by John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded the Methodist Church. It was a sermon on money. Wesley said, “First point, we must earn as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans said, “Amen!”  Second point, Wesley said, “we must save as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans said, “Amen!” Third point, Wesley said, “we must give as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans prayed, “Lord, have mercy.”

Aesthetic Level
Aesthetic means cosmetics or the external beauty. If you want to have a facial, you go for cosmetology. If you want to change your face and make your lips look like Angelina Jolie’s, you go to cosmetic surgery. External beauty is called aesthetics.

To know Jesus in the aesthetic level is to see him as the image of God. Colossians 1:15 says, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God; the first born of all creation.” This is the most elementary way of knowing Jesus. Jesus is the image, the icon, the representation of God.

In India, the predominant religion is Hinduism. There are over 33 million gods in the Hindu religion. When you walk in Calcutta, most likely you would bump into a god. Jesus is one of their gods, one of their avatars, one of the icons of God. He can be placed alongside a monkey god and no one will notice his uniqueness. He could just be one of the 33 million models of God.

I was once wondering why fashion designers often choose slim, thin or emaciated ladies to model their designs. Later I learned from one couturier that the reason why he chose thin ladies was this: “models do not express themselves; they express the clothes I design. In other words, they have to be thin because they serve as hangers.”

The problem in knowing Jesus simply as a hanger or a model of God is that models change. Take for example the model of courtship. During my father’s time, the men were expressive of their love. They sang songs like
My love is deep as the sea that flows forever                                                                           
You ask me when will it end? I tell you never. 

During my time, we were subdued, but nevertheless poetic. And we sang songs like
No, I never meant to love you;No I never meant to care.                            
But I guess you never notice just how often I was there?

Today, the model of courtship has changed. It’s like “gangnam style.” The young people simply sing,
Baby, baby, baby O; Like baby, baby, baby Oh!

The Ethical Level
The second level of knowing Jesus is the ethical level. This means knowing Jesus not only as a model of God but the reality of God. Being co-equal with the Father-God and the Spirit-God is the uniqueness of Jesus, the Son-God. Models may change but the reality does not. Jesus as God is the same “yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Knowing Jesus in the ethical level leads to commitment.  Thomas learned that the power within him was greater than that of the world. But it was only head knowledge. His behavior did not change. Faced with pressures in life, he rationalizes. This is called paralysis of analysis. But when he saw Jesus going through the closed door and heard him speak, he made a leap of faith. Then he decided to obey Him even unto death.  

In 1517, the German monk named Martin Luther, nailed down a piece of paper on the door of the church in Wittenberg. The paper contained 95 theses or reasons condemning the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his time. These theses set of the Protestant Reformation. When he was excommunicated and condemned by the papacy of his time, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

I’m sorry that I could not remember those 95 theses of Luther. Had he broken them down to only three theses, I might have remembered, but that’s another story. The point I am driving at, is that ethics (behavior) and faith intersect. You should practice what you preach. Worship and work must be one. When you know that Jesus is not just one model of 33 million gods but the one, unique, solitary God, then your ethics should change. You make a decision. Like Luther, you make a stand. Someone said that if you don’t stand on something, you will fall for anything. 

The Spiritual Level
This is the highest level of faith, the faith that surpasses human understanding, the lot of the mystics. The spiritual level means knowing Jesus not only as the aesthetic model of God, not only as the reality of God but as the experience of God. Jesus told his apostles prior to his departure, “Those who believe in me will do the works that I do and will even do greater deeds, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).

Are you able to believe that you will experience the power that Jesus had given the apostles? Will there be signs and wonders when you proclaim the message of God? Will there be healing of the sick, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for captives, liberation of the oppressed and hope for the poor? Will you, like St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost, be able to preach one sermon and convert 3,000 people or the other way around, that is, preach 3,000 sermons and convert yourself? Will you, like St. Paul be able to establish churches by way of writing epistles?

When Jesus died, the apostles went back fishing. This is called “backsliding.” From being “fishers of men” that Jesus called them to be, they returned to being fishermen. Do you know the difference between fishermen and fishers of men? The fishermen catch fish alive and put them down dead. The fishers of men catch men dead and put them down alive. In mission and evangelism, we proclaim Jesus who came that you may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The spiritual level of knowing Jesus makes us experience the faith of Jesus to move mountains.

The Questions
This is my first sermon here as your new priest.  I was appointed by the bishop last April 1, 2013 with the implied mandate of reviving the church. April 1 is also known as“All Fools Day.” Through this week, as I go through transition, I meditate on what it means to be a “fool for Christ” and asking myself these foolish questions: “Are you he who is to come or shall they wait for another?” “What makes you different from the other priests before you?” “Are you able to turn this church around?” “Are you able to revive this church?”

My answer is, “No, I am not a messiah.  I cannot revive this church; I cannot turn this church around. But I will help the people of God at St. James Church to know Jesus more and more. So that knowing Him, they may love Him; and by loving Him, they may serve Him.  By knowing Jesus, by loving Jesus and by serving Jesus, the Holy Spirit will empower us to turn this Church around.”

Like St. Thomas and St. James and all the apostles, we shall know Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. He is the Christ who cannot be buried below the ground. He is the Christ who got out of the tomb. He is the Christ who rose on high and ascended to the Father. He is the Christ who spoke peace and said, “Fear not.”

I will help you to know Jesus as the image of God, the reality of God and the experience of God and together we shall see the fruits of our faith. We shall put our faith in Jesus who can meet our deepest needs, mend our broken hearts, wipe the tears from our eyes and lead us to life abundant. Today, at St. James Church, a new journey begins. Because He lives, we shall face tomorrow! Amen.

(Note the first service had doubled in attendance compared to the previous Sundays and the offertory has tripled than the past, truly an encouraging sign. St. James Church at 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, New York is  a historical church founded in 1704. Among its earliest rectors were the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, Jr. who became the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Moore who became the first president of Columbia University.  Once a Dutch neighborhood, Elmhurst is now multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. There is a rapidly-growing Chinatown and Southeast Asian enclaves along with Latino-Hispanic, Caribean, West Indian and Italian clusters of communities.)