Big catch, big grace

jesus fish peterIn Jesus calling of his first disciples, I am continually surprised by Simon Peter’s initial statement to Jesus (Luke 5:8-9):

“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken.”

Depart from me“: Peter tells Jesus to go away because he is a sinful person. Why would he tell Jesus to depart from him?  If you’ve treated someone with nothing but bad behaviour, but they in turn treat you with kindness—how would you feel? You might feel a sense of guilt or shame. Why?  You know you don’t deserve the kindness they’ve shown you.

I remember someone I had not seen for years had come to me to apologize for something they had done many years ago. I had already forgotten about it long ago.  He blessed me more than the blessings I had to offer him.  I did not deserve it.  That’s grace.

Peter knew he had just encountered the holy One of God. The power and grace of God was evident in the huge amount of fish God had just provided.  They fished all evening but had caught nothing, but now, their net was so full of fish it began to tear.  It must have blown his mind. That’s grace.

Peter was overwhelmingly convinced in that encounter with Jesus that God’s grace was sufficient.  Jesus wanted Peter to understand that there is nothing in heaven and earth that could stop the power and love of God from flowing down.  Grace had just poured out to Peter–despite his sinfulness.  This miraculous catch of fish was evidence that Jesus was the Son of God.   He had enough proof.  He left his nets, boat, and followed Jesus.

For I am a sinful man“: Peter was giving Jesus a preliminary warning. “I don’t deserve to be in the presence of your holiness. You are holy; I am not. I would be bad for you and your image.  I’ve stolen, perhaps broken numerous laws, and should not count myself worthy of being in your presence.”

What might a person say to Jesus today? “Jesus, I’ve cheated on my tax return. Claimed more expenses than what’s legal. Or maybe, I’ve broken environmental laws by spilling toxic waste into the water system causing sickness to many. Or maybe, I’ve robbed a bank or defrauded other people our their hard-earned savings or pension. Jesus, I’m not like you. You are good. I’m rotten.  You might not know how bad I am but I do bad things to people. I feel guilty and ashamed. I don’t deserve to be given such a huge gift.”

Or we might also tell Jesus, “No you must have given the blessing to the wrong person. Bless that other guy over there. He does good things for the community. She gives to homeless and volunteers her time to good causes like the marginalized and the sick. But me? If you really knew who I am, and the horrible and illegal things I’ve done, you wouldn’t want to be around me. So Jesus, save your time and just head on over there to the other fishermen who is more deserving of this big gift of fish.  They deserve it.”

But Jesus affirms.  Jesus turns to Peter and says: “No Peter, I’ve got the right person. You are the person I am giving this gift to. And maybe Jesus didn’t even give an explanation about grace. Kept it simple. It’s for you Peter. I really meant to give this to you.

His reaction.  A big surprise. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with emotional and wept in private. He decided that Jesus’ acceptance of him was proof of God’s love for a sinner like him.

jesus calls disciples

Today, God’s mercy is still the same. He accepts you the way you are. His love for you never changed. He is still the same yesterday, today and will be the same tomorrow.

This story of the great catch is about Jesus calling you. Telling you through his miracle of the fish that his acceptance and love for you is great. It is just a small sampling of God’s abundant grace. He says to you. You are mine. You are my son.  You are my daughter.   My love and acceptance for you is bigger than you thought. I have not made a mistake. You are the one I meant to give this to.

If you pray to the Lord: “Jesus, I accept your grace. Your grace is enough for me.”   An appropriate reaction might be to drop your proverbial nets, leave your boats, and follow Jesus today. He is holding his arms to you today and saying, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men, and catchers of people.”

Become a Better Human

Holiday seasons can be a lonely time for some people, but the loneliness I’m talking about is long-term and reside in each of us.   Even at birth, we were separated from God due to original sin, giving birth to our inner loneliness.  We are afraid of it and run from our feelings of insufficiency.  We tend to avoid situations that make us feel incapable because we fear being left by ourselves, separated from others who are around us.  Deep inside, we want to overcome this but are not sure how to.

I’ve been doing a little reading by Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Communities.  He saw loneliness everyday in psychiatric hospitals where it was in many of their eyes.  He said in his book Becoming Human: “I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away.  Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.

Loneliness isn’t so bad if we can harness it for positive change in others and in ourselves.  It can act as a reason that compels us to seek to overcome this inner void of loneliness.  Example: mystics, prophets, poets, artists, do not always fit the normal mold of society.  They’ve found a way to use their gifts to express meaning through creative work in seeking to deepen their spirituality and hearing from God, or expressing creativity through their inner inspiration. We can do the same but using our unique gifts to better the well-being of others around us.  We then have purpose in being together within community.

First, we need to change but change can be hard.  We don’t like change because we prefer to control everything.  The comfort in being able to predict everything comes with a cost.  If we refuse to change, we will stagnate as human beings

Vanier said, “In human beings, there is a constant tension between order and disorder, connectedness and loneliness, evolution and revolution, security and insecurity…. When we refuse to accept that they are the price of change, we close the door on many possibilities for ourselves; our lives become lessened, we are less than fully human.”  I don’t know about you, but as for me, I wish to become a better human being.

Prayer: God, help me be a better human being.  Show me the sacredness in each human being.  Help me to grow in a sense of belongingness with my fellow neighbours, and empower me to make the right choices by seeking truth and meaning together with others.  Amen.

Ref. Jean Vanier, Becoming Human. House of Anansi Press, 2008. (pp. 7-8, 12-13).

Fragrance: a good gift not only for Christmas

Wisemen from the East gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

At Christmas, we think of gift-giving. As a baby, Jesus received fragrant gifts of frankincense and myrrh. These were aromatic resins used for personal, religious and medicinal purposes and for burial.

Near the end of Jesus’ life, he would receive one final and generous gift from a faithful woman.  She would be remembered as giving a generous legacy-gift. It would become a sweet-smelling fragrance that would accompany him to his burial.  In Mark 16, this woman came to Jesus with a jar of perfume to anoint Jesus from head to toe.  Some well-meaning folks around Jesus were concerned that this expensive perfume could have been sold and the money be given to the poor. Jesus’ response them was:

“She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. (Mark 14:6-9, NIV)

a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

What a gutsy thing to say to those who are concerned about the poor!  A couple things here that Jesus knew early on: 1/ The good news would be preached around the world; and 2/  That her generosity would be recorded and be re-told as a legacy.

One, Jesus had already known that the religious leaders were after him and wanted to kill him. He had already made this known to them by clearly drawing an analogy about his perceived death warrant in his telling of the parable of the tenants (i.e., the murder of the vineyard owner’s son).  Jesus would have assumed his pending death would be like a seed being planted, and later, sprout into good news being spread around the world.

Two, Jesus would have expected his death be recorded on paper and/or spread via word-of-mouth. How else would this woman’s generous gift be re-told to future generations?  As the Son of God and the Human One, Jesus is omniscient (all-knowing) as God is all-knowing. He would have known his future would result in a grander legacy than merely a post-generational myth. His own futuristic vision lays a groundwork for a new faith that would reach far beyond a reformed-type ofJudaism.

Faith in Jesus would bring about a radical and worldwide transformation.  Today, Christianity has a worldwide following that is fairly evenly spread throughout all continents. It is not an ethno-centric religion like Buddhism in East Asia, Hinduism in India, or Islam in the Middle East.   Billions of dedicated adherents of every race, ethnicity, culture, and hemisphere, are following Jesus.  Many thousands more each day are coming to trust in the Lord.

Upon the Advent or Coming of Jesus Christ, we will be celebrating a grand birthday around the entire globe including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe (now being the minority).  We have hope in the Expected and Anointed One.

Day 1: Good news: I’m free from sin

Free from sin. I am freer today than before. Not that I sin any less. I am still the same sinner-saved-by-grace that I was before. I’m just now not bound by the guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame is what many Christians struggle with.  For some, it’s everyday.  For others,  it’s when they’re reminded of their past; and others, it’s when their cover has been blown.

I was raised to believe that appearance was very important.  I grew up in a Chinese church.  In many of these East Asian churches, appearance is of utmost importance.  It is important in one’s status and respect.  If one’s cover is suddenly blown, it can be a very tragic situation because one’s respect plummets.  One can get kicked out of the board, responsibilities as a Sunday school teacher removed, etc.  Some of you might know what I mean.  Even if you didn’t grow-up in a Chinese church but was raised in a more fundamentalist/evangelical church, you may identify with this.

Some people I have had heart-to-heart conversations with knew exactly what I was talking about. However, they would tread carefully and never let their guard down.  Failing to maintain their appearance meant losing their social status in the congregation.  This might be true for many Christians out there today.  The result: one ends up leaving the congregation and switching churches due to loss of reputation.

I had believed a false belief that obeying the law could someone  earn me spiritual merit-points before God.   And if it didn’t then it could some how earn me merit points within the congregation.  At the time, it was good enough motivation for me to act or appear more holy and righteous. However, deep inside, I knew my own thoughts, desires, and hidden things were less than pure in God’s sight.

If one were to admit to these sinful thoughts, it would be too much to disclose to one’s own congregation members.  What would the pastor or elders think?!  It’s easy for me to see this now because I’ve distanced myself from this self-righteous and hypocritical church culture.

This type of self-righteousness is exactly the reason why some people don’t want to go anywhere near a church. They say the church is full of hypocrites… and it’s true.  If “worldly people” were to ever step foot into a church, they would have to change their thoughts and behavior, and have a time-limit to start putting on a show that they are worthy of Christ’s righteousness.  Behavior is a sign of how Christ has changed them (or is it really how they have changed their own behavior or how well they hide their sins?).  Whoops.  I hope the truth doesn’t hurt too much.  Well, if I can’t meet the biblical-standard of that congregation, then I better not even attend church.  That’s how most normal people think anyway.  This is why churches have emptied-out and are full of white-haired elderly people.  Not that this is bad, but truth is, where are the young people and young families in the church?

Over time and in a study of theology, the good news of the truth slowly sunk-in and was revealed to me.  I had blinders on for decades because the church had failed to teach the truth about the gospel.  It knew the gospel but it didn’t really see it clearly. I’m not bashing the church.  Entire denominations can fail to see things from different perspectives because it’s always been their ethos and culture. There is not a hidden agenda–just blinders that keep us from seeing the truth from another angle.

I had finally learned that appearance was not useful in God’s sight.  Keeping an appearance would only make me feel better about myself because I believed that I had succeeded that day without committing a “big sin.”  For “good” Christians out there who can identify with this type of moralism and religiosity–whether Catholic or Evangelical, it can be very hard work. Why so? Because one has to “put on a show” to look good.  In the church, we have a lot of good actors.  We become very good at looking good.  We even try to do good things, good deeds, and appear to walk-the-talk.  We value the respect we receive from other fellow congregation members for not being “big sinners.”

The down-side is: eventually we get worn-down. It’s not easy to put on a false appearance 24-hours a day. Eventually, several things happen. We might just give up, throw in the towel and call it quits with Church, or we become so guilt-ridden that it tears us apart inside and we stop going to church or stop telling people we are Christian or are “religious.”  It’s safer to tell people that we’re not religious.  It leaves us room to still believe inside but not act Christian outwardly.  But is this a victorious Christian life that the Apostle Paul describes? No! Absolutely not. This type of Christianity is merely “Church-ianity”.  It’s fake, a false replica and plastic.  It’s what Jesus taught against and labelled as hypocrisy.   It’s what Paul called the Church on when they tried to use circumcision as a proof of a true believer.

God can set us free from having to fulfill what church-ianity tells us are the mandatory requirements of having to be, and do, good. Doing good can never make a person a “better Christian.”  Being a better Christian can only come through faith.  By believing the blood of Jesus continually cleanses and sanctifies us is the only thing that makes us holy and righteous before God–even though we might fail to appear holy.

God has set me free from sin.  I’m continually being sanctified. This revelation has drawn me closer to God. Truth is, God was, and is always pleased with me–just because I am a child of God, and not because of what I do. I am now ever more convinced that God loves me and it compels me to abide closer to God.  This unconditional love and mercy of God makes me desire to do better and live life worthy of Christ’s calling.

Believing in this good news is what makes a Christian spiritually mature. Spiritual maturity is NOT how holy and righteous a person appears in front of others. It corresponds only with one’s degree of faith in believing this profound truth. Amen?

The post-resurrected Jesus

The-resurrected-Lord-Jesus-appears-to-the-disciples-2
Picture depicts a post-resurrected Jesus with nail scars still on his hand.

When most of us think of Easter, it’s usually a simple one. Jesus rose from the dead, then ascended into heaven.  What we don’t hear much about is what happened just after Jesus resurrected.

Some dismiss or try to explain away the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, saying that he was only a spirit-being (like a ghost).  Jesus rising as a spirit-being does not qualify as a resurrection. That’s a Star Wars myth like what we see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (New Hope) or Luke Skywalker (Last Jedi).  To be resurrected in a physical form is much harder to believe.  A resurrection is a bona fide miracle.

After Jesus had resurrected from the dead, left the tomb, he walked and talked with people in a physical form as a real human being. A week after Jesus had resurrected, we know the bible says he was still around before his ascension.  The resurrected Jesus walked around, made himself known to a lot of people, and he showed himself to people.  He was not hiding himself.

Furthermore, he wasn’t just a spirit-being floating around in ethereal space somewhere.  He actually had life in physical form. It was not the same physical body that we have today but it was a resurrected body.

In the bible, the word used for “spirit” is pneuma, but in 1 Cor. 15:44, Paul used the words: soma pneuma (“σωμα πνευματικον”) which means “spiritual body”.  This is the type of body that we, as believers in Jesus, will also be raised with.

Here are some places in the bible where the post-resurrected Jesus showed himself to his disciples in that “spiritual body”:

John 20:19-23  Enters locked room
John 20:24-29  Doubting Thomas
John 21:1-14  Another big catch
Luke 24:13-35  Road to Emmaus
Matthew 28; Mark 16:9   Women
1 Cor. 15:6    500 followers
1 Cor. 15:8    Apostle Paul

Think about it.  First Corinithians 15:6 said that Jesus appeared to over 500 of his followers!  Jesus became a legendary figure.    Witnesses testified they had been with the real live walking-and-talking Jesus.  Their testimonies would have been very hard to dispute.  No wonder the church grew.

Jesus fulfills prophecy eight centuries after Isaiah

After 1261. Pinacoteca Civica, San Gimignano.

Back in the day, capital punishment by crucifixion was actually a common method.  Roman society saw this as justice for committing capital crimes.  Today, it might a simple lethal injection, or the electric chair.  Many criminals worthy of punishment died on the Road to Delarosa.  Along this road were numerous crosses and on them hung crucified criminals.  It was a way to deter criminals from committing capital crimes such as murder and treason against the Roman Empire.

From Spartacus

What makes Jesus’ crucifixion special was that he overcame death by rising from death the third day after he died. His resurrection from death was a miracle that was unseen in the history of humankind. His resurrection from death means that our sins, and our eternal death, have been also defeated.

Isaiah 53:5-6, 11-12, is from the passage on the suffering servant. For the Jewish faithful, it speaks of Isaiah as the suffering servant; but for us as Christian believers, Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.  He is our holy and anointed Messiah who came to save us from our sin.  It was prophesied eight centuries before Jesus was born.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all….

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Isaiah said of God’s servant that he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors. When Jesus came eight centuries later, he came to carry our sins to his unjust death on a cross.  The resurrection fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s righteous servant who justifies many people.  Our faith in this miraculous resurrection is why we are cleansed of our sins and transgressions.

The new hope and promise for all humankind is that whoever will place their trust in Jesus and in his resurrection, will also receive God’s blessing of being made right with God.  Our sins, evil and death in the eternal realm has been defeated.

God’s supernatural love poured out for us

In my previous post, I revealed that I find myself falling short of being able to love my enemies and those I don’t like. But there is hope because God has provided us an answer to this problem of anger, bitterness, and hatred toward those we might find to be unlikable.

I want to talk more about what scripture calls agape love.  Agape is used in the original written language in scripture.  Our English translation for love in the bible doesn’t express the depth of the original meaning of Greek.

Agape love has a much deeper meaning.  It is more than “being nice,” which is from human effort or power.  We might tell our kids to “play nice.” We might put on a happy face when we are feeling angry inside and try to be nice.  This is not agape love.  First John 4:16 says:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

The words “God is love” goes far deeper in meaning than what we might see on the surface.   It cannot be contrived or manufactured. That’s the stuff of romance dramas, movies, or pop songs.  God’s agape love doesn’t come from us but it’s a “God thing.”  It originates from God alone.  It is what we need from God in order to love our enemies and those we find hard to love.

In my discovery of my own short-comings, I’ve realized that I need God’s agape love working in my life everyday to be able to love the unlikable.  God’s agape love is a supernatural love that’s given to us if we openly receive it from God first.  John taught us that we can love others because God has poured out his own supernatural love upon us first.  1 John 4 18-21 continues saying,

The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Personally, when I find people making it hard for me to like to like them, I need God’s agape love to make up for what I lack.  I need to remind myself that God wants to shower his tender grace and mercy upon me (and you too), and pour out his love upon me (and you) to love the unlovable.  All things are possible with God.

 

Impossible task to love my neighbor

Think of a person you dislike or love to hate… either in your workplace, office, your ex-, family member, or whomever or wherever.  Maybe they’ve done something against you and you just hate them for it, or you can’t get along due to unresolvable personality conflicts.  Whatever it may be causing you to dislike or hate each other so much that you cannot say to him/her face, “My dear friend, how are you really doing today?  I really do care and would like to hear how you are doing?”

We may try to pretend to like them, but deep inside, you know you can’t.  As good Christ-followers with honest-to-God intentions, we end up feeling like failures because we cannot pull ourselves together to love them.  Yes, even the best of us Christ-followers may try to love but when it comes down to it, we eventually fail when we are face-to-face with our arch-enemy.   I’m sure all of us reading this blog-post might honestly admit that when faced with our enemy, we will find it impossible to love our enemy.

This is why some people would prefer to walk across the street just to avoid them, or to hide somewhere where we will never see our nemesis. Out-of-sight…out-of-mind, right?  After realizing how truly difficult it is to swallow the pill of being unable to love those who are unlikable, we might admit and confess to the Lord God that “I have failed to love my neighbor as I would like others to love me.”

1 John 4 is John’s love chapter.  First John 4:7-9 says:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” 

When I look at Christ’s command to love, I am confronted with my own weakness and failure.  I might think to myself, either, I am not Christlike enough, or have failed to obey his command to love.  Shall I be fatalistic and say that: I can never totally love like only Christ can love?  Or shall I fall down before God and confess that this is truly an impossible task to love my neighbor? And that I don’t know God as I ought to know him.

Today, I can honestly answer: “Yes, yes, and yes,” to all the above, and I freely confess: “I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent…”

Enduring hardship through faith

Living in caves can be modern experience; it can also be a hard life.  It makes me think of a time when the early saints had to endure an amazing amount of cruel and hardship in the pre-church era. Hebrews 11:37-38 (ESV) says:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

This verse indicates that faithful people of God in the Old Testament had been forced to live underground, in deserts, and hid in dens and caves (as were prophets in 1 Kings 18-19). They were a shunned and disparaged because of their faith. They were not just typical Jewish followers but were despised for their deep faith and conviction within broader Judaism. They were living amongst Jews but were still shunned and seen as an abhorrent sect within Judaism.

In the Church today, there is also sectarianism, as in many other major/established religions. Parts of the Christian church also face disparagement and shunning because of their deep faith and conviction. They are not only persecuted by people of different or opposing religions, but from followers of the same religion.

I’m glad we don’t are not as separated by denominationalism as we formerly were. There are still subtle differences but we have come a long way in being respectful of our religious and spiritual differences. I appreciate that it’s our differences that make us unique and special.

I have brothers and sisters in the Lord who went from borderline fence-walkers to devoted Christian believers. I also some dear friends who went the opposite direction and/or stopped attending church. Our society is multi-faceted. Some of us want more devotion and deeper spirituality. Some of us want less or nothing of the sort for various personal reasons. Despite our personal convictions, God is still sovereign and in control, so who are we to judge others for their deep faith or lack of it?!

May we who are faithful, endure, hold-on, and remain thankful for the sacrifice of our spiritual and religious ancestors who paved the way for us. It made our path of devotion and service to the Lord a little easier to walk. God gives each of us strength to follow him; and faith is given to each generation–even this generation, from Baby Boomers to Millennials to generation Z.  God is forever faithful to us.

Oaks of righteousness

The prophet of Isaiah uses some powerful images of God’s strength in our lives.  One such image in Isaiah 61:3, the prophet says his people will be called “trees (or oaks) of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory.” God’s righteousness is compared to oak trees. Oak trees are big and strong. They withstand strong winds and still remain rooted and unmoved.

Throughout our lives, we will face many challenges. Sometimes, the pressures we might face can be insurmountable. It feels like we are going to fall. We might feel like giving up. If you’ve had some ethical dilemmas where you had to make tough choices, sometimes, we might make some wrong choices in life, and there is guilt and shame.

As people who need forgiveness and redemption, we don’t want these pressures, our sin, guilt and shame to take us down. In these times, God can give us strength to stand up under the pressures. It’s not in our own power or might, but it’s under God’s righteousness. God’s strength and righteousness can hold you up and be your source of strength.

We can rely on God’s righteousness, confess our sins and trust that God forgives.  Then, like a strongly rooted tree we are under the attentive care of the strong and mighty arm of the Lord Almighty.