Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, April 27, 2014


The Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara. St. James Church. 4.27.2014

Is there a place for doubt in the understanding of faith?

A tight rope walker set out to walk above the Niagara Falls. He called out to the crowd that gathered. “Do you believe I can walk on this tightrope and cross the border of USA and Canada?” (As you know, one bank of the Niagara is in New York and the other in Ontario.) The crowd said, “Yes, we believe!” So he walked successfully to the cheers of the crowd. He asked the second time “Do you believe I can carry a chair while walking on tightrope from one end of the Falls to the other?” the crowd again said, “Yes, we believe!” So he did so successfully, to the cheers of the crowd. So he asked the third time, “Do you believe I can carry a person on my shoulders while walking on tightrope from one end to the other?” The crowd again said, “Yes, we believe!” At this point, the tight rope walker said, “Now who wants to volunteer?” There was complete silence.

The Gospel this morning seeks to address this question: Is there a place for doubt in the understanding of faith? Or is faith a blind faith? Is it alright for a Christian to express doubt or skepticism?  

The context of this gospel of John 20  is the evening of that day of Jesus’ resurrection. The apostles were meeting in a room and the doors were locked for fear of the Jews. Suddenly Jesus stood among them and said, “Shalom, peace be with you.” He showed them his hands with nail marks and his side spear marks, breathed on them the Holy Spirit and empowered them to forgive.

Now it so happened on that evening that Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, were not with them. Please note that at this time, there were only 11 disciples left, because Judas already hanged himself. So when Thomas rejoined them a week later, his comrades were excited to tell him, “We saw the Lord.” The reaction of Thomas? “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, let me remind you at the outset, that in the company of the apostles, it is not only Thomas who had expressed doubt about Jesus.  There was Philip who said, “Lord, showed us the Father and we shall be satisfied,” and to which Jesus said, “How long have I been with you, Philip that you don’t know me? How can you say “show us the Father?” If you have known me, you have seen the Father.” There was Peter who doubted Jesus when he was walking on water; and there were the rest of the apostles who doubted whether Jesus can feed five thousand people, with only five loaves and two fish.

Some years ago, I heard the testimony of the late Rev. Alan Watson of the Church of England. He suffered from terminal cancer and went through the “stages of dying” such as described by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. When he was on the “anger stage” he wrestled with the question, “is it alright to be angry with God?” His answer was written in a book he wrote before he died, “Fear No Evil.” In short, his answer basically said that “it is alright to be angry with God---because God can take it.” His wife could not take his anger, his children could not take his anger, but his God can!

In like manner, Jesus understands our questioning and so he indulged Thomas. He appeared out of the closed door and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And what was the reaction of Thomas? He made a remarkable confession, a “leap of faith!” Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

From the starting point of doubt, Thomas would lay the foundation of the Christian faith. “My Lord and my God” is an ontological, Christological and soteriological confession. Jesus is not only the messiah of God; Jesus is not only the Son of God. Jesus is God! 

The confession of Thomas would become the foundation stone of this eternal mystery, this extraordinary theology that is God is One in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I have therefore three things to say about the place of doubt in the faith of Thomas:

First, It is alright to doubt if it leads to a deeper knowledge of God. St. Anselm of Canterbury said, “faith seeks understanding.” Our faith is not blind faith. Our faith is anchored on the pillars of  "scripture, tradition and in reason," the three-legged stool of Anglicanism. To paraphrase St. Paul: If Christ had not risen from the dead, we are of all people to be pitied. But the truth of the matter is that Christ rose from the dead. His tomb was empty; his skeleton was not there; his ashes were nowhere to be found.” If one day, Jesus’ DNA will be found through the advances of science and technology, we will remember Jesus only as a great prophet--but not God who is co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Second, it is alright to doubt if leads you to good works.  Between St. Paul and St. James, there is an interesting discussion about faith and works. St. Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans that we are saved by faith alone (Romans 3:28, 5:1) and in  Ephesians 2:8, he wrote “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." St. James on the other hand, wrote that “faith without works is dead.” So if your doubt leads you into “working your salvation with fear and trembling,” then it is alright to express doubt.

It is alright to doubt if it ultimately leads to mission. Thomas’ doubt turned to genuine faith and ultimately led him to mission. Driven by this sense of mission, Thomas moved “from Jerusalem, to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the world.” He traveled as far as India to proclaim the risen Christ and planted churches, until he was martyred in Madras in 53 A.D. Today, the age-old churches in India, such as the Mar Thoma Church, stand as a legacy of the doubting Thomas who was so convinced of the faith that Jesus is "both Lord and God.”

May your own questioning lead you towards a deeper knowledge of God, towards doing good works in Christ and towards fulfilling your mission of reconciliation. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


 (The Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY 11373. 04.20.2014)

“Alleluia. The Lord is risen!” Response: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
"Who rolled the stone away?"
The Christian faith always has an element of unpredictability about it. As Forest Gump of the movie once says, “life is like a box of chocolate; you’ll never know what you’re gonna get, until you open it.” 

Early on that first Easter Sunday morning, at dawn, the three Mary’s: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Mary Salome came to the tomb where Jesus was laid. Jesus died on the cross on Calvary. He was laid in the tomb owned by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea.  

In life, Jesus said that the Son of man had nowhere to lay his head. So now he rested on a borrowed tomb. It was a gesture of generosity that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhendrin---and a secret follower of Jesus---offered his own grave for free!  The tomb was carved out from the rock. A huge circular stone covered the tomb. Was it of the Holy Spirit that he knew it was a tomb on temporary loan?

It has been three days since Jesus died. The body might be smelling bad by now, so the women brought with them an alabaster flask of ointment to anoint the body of Jesus. On the road, they worried among themselves. “Who will roll the stone away?  How can we roll that stone away, the stone door that covers the tomb?” 

But what a surprise!  The tomb was empty and when they look inside, Jesus was not there. And the angel of the Lord asked them, “Who are you looking for? Jesus of Nazareth?  He is not here; for He has risen!” 

I believe the miracle of the empty tomb is the greatest miracle on earth---and this is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. What is the significance of the “empty tomb” in our life as believers of Jesus Christ?  I offer today three meanings of the empty tomb: one, it established the uniqueness of our faith; two, it provides a final answer to the problem of death; three, it gives us a mission in life.

The empty tomb is the hallmark of the Christian faith. Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is our mantra. The empty tomb established that of all religions in the world, we alone can claim that Jesus rose again and opened for us the entrance to eternal life.

The uniqueness of the Christian faith, to claim that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is, to use the words of St. Paul, “a folly to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles, but to us who are being saved, it is wisdom of God and the power of God.”

 Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and all major religions in the world believe in God---but only Christianity claims that God was in Christ, who came down from heaven, lived among us, was crucified, died, buried, and on the third day, rose from the dead.

I admire Mohammad, whose followers of Islam number some 2.6 billion people and considered the fastest growing religion in the world today.  Mohammad was a bold prophet, a great religious reformer, a brilliant political leader. He triumphed against the atheism of his time and united the diverse and conflicting tribes of Arabia into one single Arab community. But Mohammad died and his body was buried in Medina in Saudi Arabia. Millions of Muslims do a pilgrimage to Mecca every year and hoping to get a glimpse of the green dome of the mausoleum in Medina, the Al-Masjid-an Nabawi, where his relics are located. 

I admire Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, whose Buddhist followers number over a billion people and whose philosophical, cultural and religious influence continue to dominate many parts of the world, especially in Asia. I like the Buddhist concepts of human suffering (dukkha), self-denial (anatta, shunyata), ethics, karma, rebirth and enlightenment and Nirvana---and some of them correspond with basic Christian concepts of faith, hope and love. But the Buddha, the Enlightened One, died and did not rise again. His ashes and relics are to be found in Uttar Pradesh in India.

One of my heroes, the great Mahatma Gandhi, admired Christ but did not become a Christian because as a Hindu, Gandhi believed in many gods. Gandhi studied the Bible and was greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa) was greatly influenced by Christian values. He loved Christianity (though he has problems with some Christians) but he could not reconcile one thing “to put Jesus on a solitary throne.”

But that "solitary throne" is precisely the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Only Jesus rose again. Mohammad, Buddha, Zoroaster ---all prophets and martyrs, philosophers and holy people. They all died but did not rise again. The solitary throne of God-incarnate belongs to Jesus because He alone died and rose again!

Our faith is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Alleluia! Jesus alone is Savior and Lord.

There was a little girl who was seriously drawing a figure. She had all the crayons and pencils and the drawing pad. Her father asked, “Honey, what are you trying to do?” Then little girl said, “Dad, I am trying to draw the picture of God.” “But honey, no one has seen the face of God,” the father said. The little girl replied, “Dad, they will see; once I am finished drawing it.” 

Prior to the coming of Jesus, the problem of death was unanswerable. What happens when we die? Is there a soul? Will our spirit separate from our body? Where will our spirit go somewhere? Or will it be reborn in another form? 

So death is either to be feared or be conquered as the last enemy.  Every fear known to man ultimately leads to the fear of death. Why do we eat? To live. Why do we work? To survive. Why do we keep our body in good health? To live longer. We are afraid to die because we don’t know what lies ahead. The mystery of the unknown drives us to fear adventure, to fear death.

But the resurrection of Jesus provided the final answer to this question of life. St. Paul explains it in 1st Corinthians 15:51-55

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed---in a moment,  in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothe with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: death is swallowed up in victory. “Where O death, is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”

After the resurrection, there will be a new body, a spiritual body, a glorious body, to rise up and dwell with God in the heavens. The lost Paradise has been regained. The resurrection of Jesus opened to us, who believe, access to eternal life. Jesus said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled…In My Father’s House there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you; and when I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you with me so that where I am, there you maybe also.” 

The Book of Revelation speaks of that new life in heaven: “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…but life everlasting.” 

The empty tomb of Jesus is the assurance of this promise of everlasting life. Jesus is the first fruit of this promise and we who live and believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

When Jesus was arrested, tortured and crucified, his apostles were filled with fear, with shame and with guilt. Judas who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver was overcome with guilt that he went and hanged himself. Peter, who denied Jesus three times, was sulking in depression and shame. Only John, the youngest of the apostles and Mary Magdalene and Mary, his mother were there beneath the cross of Jesus. 

Later on, Peter and the other apostles would go back fishing. That was what they did when they first met Jesus. They were rugged fishermen of Galilee and Jesus called them and transformed them from being fishermen to being "fishers of men." 

Do you know the difference between the fishermen and the 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. Jesus taught them to proclaim new life and called them for a mission to heal the sick, the cure the lepers, to drive out demons, to save the lost. But when Jesus died, they also lost their passion for mission.

When you tried and failed, you tend to go back to doing what you did before. Mission is like a lifeblood that gives you energy and strength and meaning to your existence. With the death of Jesus, they felt they lost their sense of mission and decided to go back to their former comfort zones.

Once I read a testimony in “The Upper Room Magazine” written by one Stephen Bishop of North Carolina. He said that as a boy he had mastered the art of catching crickets which they used as bait for fly fishing. First he had to find a patch of tall grass. Then he would walk systematically through the grass, with one foot sweeping forward in a slow and dance-like motion. Scared crickets would leap, at which point, he would crouch, cup one hand and sweep up the crickets. 

But somewhere along the line, in his adult life, Stephen lost the passion of catching crickets—and on a larger scale, “the art of trying and mastering new things.” After experiencing failures, rejections and disappointments, he retreated into his comfort zone, scared to try new things. He lived “more like a cricket than a person, hiding and leaping in fear.”

Brothers and sisters, do you sometimes feel like a cricket cowering in fear and unable to move on from your failures and disappointments? Remember that success is failure turned upside down. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. In life, there is adventure in keeping the balance: “take care and take risks.” You do not want to live the rest of your life with “what ifs?” For me, the greater sin is in not trying, and in not living life to the full. And we can only live our life to the full if we have a sense of mission.To the Christian, life is full of surprises!

Mission is our reason for being. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori said, “the heartbeat of the Church is mission, mission, mission.”  The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church of South Africa asserted, “We are missionaries or we are nothing.” 

Brothers and Sisters, do you have a mission? What is your mission? To know Jesus and make Him known? To know the power of His resurrection? To live, love, learn and leave a lasting legacy? 

The resurrection of Jesus was the spark that re-ignited the apostolic mission. The empty tomb opened the hearts of the apostles to the excitement of proclaiming the risen Lord and turning the world upside down. No other faith can compare to the uniqueness of Christ as the Son of the living God. They moved out from their comfort zones and proclaimed the Gospel with power--- from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria to the ends of the world.  The  empty tomb opened their hearts to the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s universe and the desire of their Master that all people will be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.  The empty tomb emptied their hearts from the fears of the unknown and empowered them to face even death with such courage, dignity and honor.

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone;                             Because I know, He holds the future. My life is worth the living just because He lives!

May this Easter Day, re-ignite your mission, infuse new energy and empower you to live the life worthy of the risen Christ. Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Canon Bruce Woodcock,Canon Peter Ng, Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan and just me.

I am not preaching this Sunday; I am in Asia for bridge building meetings. So I penned what would have been my sermon this Palm Sunday.  – Fred Vergara.04.10.2014. Antipolo, Rizal, Philippines

Every Holy Week, we are reminded of Jesus’ words: “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The last time I preached about “taking up your cross,” I saw a lady lifting up her husband!

What is the cross? The cross to me is anyone or anything that crosses your path. It may be your family, your friend, your enemy. It may be your mission, your challenge, your purpose in life.
Oftentimes the cross is a problem to be solved or a burden to bear. To some, it is a health issue such as a debilitating disease; to others, it is a weight issue, such as obesity or anorexia.  To some, it is an economic issue like loss of a job or abject poverty; to others it is a life and death issue, like losing someone you love or being called for an IRS audit.

The cross is also a symbol of commitment and responsibility.

The cross of Jesus is the epitome of all crosses. Jesus was sent by the Father to take up the cross as a ransom for the sins of the whole world. It was a commitment hard to bear and a terrifying responsibility. Jesus as fully human agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, take this cup away from me.” And as he prayed, tears and blood came out from his flesh. As fully divine, he resolved to obey the Father: “nevertheless, not my will but thy will done.” The rest is history. Our sins were washed away by the blood of Jesus. We are cleansed, forgiven, redeemed. We are given entrance to everlasting life.

The Good News about the Cross is that it is temporary. You do not carry the cross forever. There is a time when problems are solved; burdens are lifted and challenges are won. After crucifixion comes resurrection. Crying turns into laughter, sorrows turn into joy, and mourning and sighing flee away. Even the mountains and the hills break forth in singing and the trees of the fields clap their hands. The cross becomes a crown!

I believe the Church today is bearing the weight of the cross. In fact, not just one cross but three crosses. If we are able to carry these crosses the way Jesus carried His own cross, the Church will have a great future of a new resurrection:

The first cross of the Church is a crisis of faith. The Church is supposed to be a repository of faith once delivered to the saints, but ironically, there is so much lack of faith among many Christians. Oftentimes, they turn into skepticism, fear or unbelief. And what happens when there is lack of faith? Nothing happens!

We know the story of the Apostle Peter. He saw Jesus walking on water and he got excited. “Master, let me walk on water like you.”  And Jesus said, “Come.” Peter stepped on water in faith but when he saw the waves; he got frightened and began to sink.  And Jesus said, “O man of little faith!”

Christianity is not about fear. It is about faith. It is not about feeling secure, about taking precautions. It is about taking risks and engaging in adventure. Christianity is an adventure, an act of faith. Our parents Abraham and Sarah taught us about adventure. They obeyed God and traveled unknown lands looking for the city whose builder and maker is God--and God did not disappoint them. I left home at age 15 to escape rural poverty and since then my adventure in faith has led me to places beyond my childhood dreams.

The Church must venture into obedience to where God is leading anew. The old institutions which have outlived their usefulness must give way to the new explorations and new ways of understanding mission. In Christ there is newness and fullness of life.

The second cross of the Church is a crisis of hope. John Wesley said, “If you lose money, you lose nothing; if you lose your health, you lose something. But if you lose hope, you lose everything.” Hope is the virtue that makes a person stands up after every fall. A person of hope is one who does not get discouraged when things do not turn out successfully. The person of hope believes that success is a failure turned upside down. A hopeful person is one who continually hopes even when hope seems gone. He believes that the same sun that sets in the west will rise again on the east.
One of my colleagues said that when she attended a course in church leadership, many of the clergy in the class were talking “the church is dying, the church is dying, the church is dying.” She could not bear it any longer so she said, “if the Church is dying, then let it die!”

Yes, if the church has lost hope, let it die. A church with no hope is of no use for Christ. The Church which Christ blesses is the one that always hopes, always perseveres, always expects.

We, the Church are a people of hope; we preach hope; we live with hope, and even if we die, we shall die with hope. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”---that is Trisagion of the Church. The crucified Lord has risen. The Church of the Risen Lord is filled with hope.

The third and final Cross of the Church is a crisis of love. The world has a love deficit. It is not money that makes the world go round. It is not fame that makes the world go round. It is not power that makes the world go round. It is love that makes the world go round. If God removes His love from the world, its foundations will crumble. The reason why we are still standing is that God’s love is steadfast, enduring and immovable. .

During our recent Tour to Italy, we visited the ruins of Pompeii.  We learned that Pompeii was once a great and prosperous city in the first century A.D. In their prosperity and success, their love for God had grown cold. Their hedonistic values, selfish ambitions and utter disregard for the welfare of others made them lukewarm and cold for God. The city that lives for itself will die by itself. The volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and the whole city was covered with six meters of lava. It was completely destroyed and lost from view for 1700 years. Today, its ruins tell the story of a generation who lost their love for God and for one another.

Today, as we prepare to enter the Holy Week, we must be reminded of the Cross of Christ. But the remembrance of this Cross will be meaningless until we learn to take up our own crosses---and deal with the crises of our faith, hope and love.

Let me end with the prayer of confession from the Sinfonia Oecumenic and adapted by the Episcopal Church in the Philippines’ Book of Common Prayer:
Confession: (Lord, we confess): We have committed ourselves to be one people in the Spirit of Christ---and we are still divided. We have committed ourselves to be a fellowship of pilgrims---but often we have refused to move and change. We have committed ourselves to be servants to the world---but we have turned away into our concerns and closed our eyes to the pain of others. Forgive us, O God, and help us to renew our commitment to love and to live out the hope to which we are called.
Assurance of Pardon: In Christ our hope is new every day and there is no condemnation. Rise up and live as free People of God! Amen.